On Making the First Move

photo (58)I was eighteen when I made the first move on my would-be-man. It was a tortured decision, borne out of the fear of rejection and the fear of John Eldredge. But there was no other way to meet the crooked-tooth hippie I’d been seeing around campus. For days, I palpitated and planned and even penned an e-mail that began, “You don’t know me, but I’m strangely attracted to you.” And it was strange, strange that the little man with the tan hands had my heart so sure.

I never sent the e-mail, thanks to the counsel of a guy friend who told me the note was, well, “stalker-esque.”  I had done enough stalking to know that the stranger’s name was Rush, and Rush could be found on Thursday nights in the chapel. There he led an ecumenical worship service with equally sensitive musicians, artists, and students looking to meet God. And as it goes when you are looking to meet God, you show up where others say God is found. So it was with Rush.

It was a start, putting my body in the same room as his. But I was hardly in my body at all. Somewhere above the swooping melodies and diving rhythms, I hovered. Frantic prayers for peace and clarity and the right words to woo carried me until the last note was sung. And then I waited. I waited for his friends to part and for the musicians to pack and for him to be alone. I imagined this was what it was like when people waited for their moment with Jesus. From the stories I had read, it seemed you had to be fierce to get his attention. You have to go after what you want.

When the crowds left, I walked up to the altar where he was winding up the mic stand. My pick-up line? “I see Jesus in you.” As laughable as that now sounds to me, I know it was the most honest  thing I could have said. We talked for a few minutes about the music, how it sounded like the kind my Vineyard Church played, how he had attended a Vineyard Church when he was abroad. I looked down at my shoes a few times before getting the gall to say, “I could use a friend like you around here.” Then, I asked him to coffee.

I’m convinced that God loves a good first move. God is, after all, according to philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas, the first mover. And we, men and women alike, are made in the image of agency. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus affirms this agency as a sign of faith again and again as wanting-people come to him. He doesn’t use telepathic powers to discern who is the most wanting – or the even the most deserving. (“Oh, I’m getting a word that there’s a woman with a long term illness in the crowd. Wait! Now I’m seeing blood and the number 10, no 12!”) Who Jesus heals appears more to do with who asks than anything else.

Often when I recount the story of how Rush and I met, friends marvel, “You made the first move? I could never do/want/support that.” Some are still sure-sure that this is a man’s strength. Any man who says he likes being pursued is lying or, worse, passive. Any woman who says she likes the chase is controlling or, worse, desperate. The truth is we can’t peddle Scripture as biology. We need to go deeper into our own souls to explore how God makes each one of us tick and chime. I’m wired to make the first move. I get a blood-rush from making the first move. I prefer to make the first move. The thing is, I tell friends, making the first move wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was waiting for him to make the second.

I don’t doubt that for some of us making the first move toward God in prayer, partners in romance, or friendships in conflict is a bit overwhelming, maybe even paralyzing. For you, the challenge may be to get after it already. Name the unbidden desires. Speak the aching wants. Pray for the ridiculous request. But for those of us who like taking the initiative, our challenge may be different. Wait for the unbidden response. Listen to the aching silence. Pray for a ridiculous word.

Why did I wait for my would-be-man to make the second move? I needed to know I was going to have an equal in love. Without my pick-up line, we may never have met. There was no reason we would have without divine intervention. Sometimes we are the divine intervention. But without his bid to go “off campus” after six weeks of friendship, we may never have lasted. My strength would have caused me resentment. (A friend of mine calls this one-sided initiative “over-functioning.”) More importantly, I would have missed the playfulness of asking God to move and the out-of-the-blue awe that came when Rush and I began moving together.

Faithful Rebel: Anderson Campbell on Shedding Our Father Baggage

ISFM-5-Final-CoverHave you ever been encouraged to heal your “father wounds” so you could receive the love of your heavenly father? I have. More than once. The first time it happened I was a high school sophomore, and I remember thinking, (a) Is my here-on-earth father really some gatekeeper for my relationship with God? and (b) Is my relationship with my mother really so inconsequential to my faith?

In Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith (White Cloud Press, Oct 2014), author and editor Anderson Campbell aims to liberates people from a narrow understanding of what we mean when we say God is father and proposes that parents and non-parents alike, men and not-men too, can teach us something about this heavenly title. Father Factor is the latest anthology in the I Speak for Myself series (of which Talking Taboo is a part) and is comprised of forty personal essays from Christian men under 40 exploring the affirming and unsettling connections. 

I admitted to Anderson in our 15-minute interview that a book on fatherhood and faith made me a little, well, nervous. “This idea of God as Father, that particular metaphor or way of framing our understanding of God is one that we inherit, and it’s one that carries a lot of baggage,” he admits. “I was hoping that the book would be able to shed some of that baggage, and we would have some new ways of reframing or recapturing better that idea of God.” Essays from Lawrence Garcia (“God the Father is Like Jesus the Christ”) and Brian Bantum (“To Be a Father Like My Mother”) assured me the book wasn’t reinforcing the notion of biological fathers as more God-like. Ultimately, Anderson says, he hopes we’ll let God the Father shape our notion of what it means to be human. *For more reflection on how God the Father shouldn’t be conflated with human masculinity, I recommend Janet Soskice’s The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language.

As Christian Piatt notes in the foreword, this is a bewildering time for the post-modern father. Father Factor doesn’t just seek to unpack our father baggage but assemble a new, more holistic and hopeful, way to carry the image of a God called Abba.

Father Factor officially comes out October 14. To buy the book at a 35%, visit http://www.fatherfactorbook.com/

Where Gone Girl Goes Wrong

SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals key plot twists in the recently-released film Gone Girl directed by David Fincher. The bottom line? I want my money back, and my dignity too.

photo (56)Call me too Christian, too feminist,  too prude but last night’s screening of Gone Girl left me feeling hollow, my humanity scooped right out. What I hoped would be a psychological thrill ride turned into a descent into sexism, stereotypes, and unsettling answers. Under the light of the full moon, I walked to my car in the parking lot and wondered, “Is our imagination so small?”

The premise of the film, based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn, was enough to entice me: a wife gone missing, a husband accused. Maybe I expected the trope of the missing woman to have a twist. Or maybe I, along with the rest of the country, privilege stories about pretty, white girls gone lost. (Note to self: stop calling women over 18 girls; ask others to behave likewise.)

You might have thought I was enjoying myself for the first half of the film: my feet propped on the back of the seat in front of me, a flask of white wine resting in the crook of my arm, my sit muscles not entirely asleep yet. At one point I leaned over to Rush and gleefully asked, “Can I tell you what I think happened?” to which he answered, “Absolutely not.” My smugness distracted me as I anticipated the plot: The disappearance was a hoax to frame her husband. And then it hit me.

Oh, shit, I just accused the woman of crying wolf.

In a ‘culture of disbelief‘ where women are charged with overreacting to abuse, faking pregnancies, and generally manipulating men in ways both small and large, the last thing I want to see is a movie about a woman who cried wolf, least of all one who does it with such perverse pleasure. Stereotypical portrayals of women are not only boring but irresponsible as they tempt us to conflate one story for the whole story. (Note to self: it is never, ever, ever okay to audibly speculate someone’s pain is unfounded or exaggerated; defend the hurt to the point of foolishness.)

The shining light in the film is the brief, but central, reflection on the way women go missing by choice, not in some elaborate scheme of abduction but in the daily decision to be someone’s idea of us rather than the real deal. The most moving scenes from the film were when Amy was first on the run. No longer under the pressure to be some guy’s “cool girl,”  high-society Amy dyes her hair the color of moss, moves into a campground, and consumes a comical amount of Cheetos and Slim Jims. She is no longer her husband’s wife or a character in her parents’ book franchise. The violence she commits is not because she’s callous but because she’s unable to cope with her suffering.

Art at its finest is one way we cope with our suffering, as we transcend reality as we know it and imagine new possibilities for our life and world. Gone Girl didn’t do that for me. Instead, my imagination was limited to a post-feminist world in which we are “free” to be political incorrect and it’s somehow okay for movie goers to laugh when a woman claims rape. (Yes, this happened.) The whole experience made me feel like I conspired in my own diminishment.

Note to self: Stop paying filmmakers to paint your world small; watch The Voice instead.

Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality
which is the majority opinion.

– Walter Brueggeman

Creating Live Encounters

347 - AThe story begins with Khing. He is a woodcarver, a master really, so masterful that his work is deemed to be the result of magic. “What is your secret?” the Prince wonders. But Khing is emphatic, “I have no secret.” Khing is not a magician but a workman, and any good worker knows that the best things in life are crafted at the intersection of discipline and potential. This is true not only of artists but ministers, too.

Chuang Tzu’s story of the woodcarver is a favorite among my Courage & Renewal colleagues. At the first retreat I ever attended, we worked the story like a farmer works a field; weaving in and out of each row, holding its fruit in our hands, wondering how it would ripen in our hearts. To be honest, the intense time of reflection made my head hurt. (Even now, after two years spent preparing to be a Courage & Renewal facilitator, I still get “reflection fatigue.”) Introspection is the hard work of tilling the soul. Prayer is the irrigation. It is the only way we can hope to grow others.

Khing knows that to create – a work of art, a work of worship – begins by killing the pest of distraction. And so Khing “guards his spirit” from trifles not to the point: gain and success, praise and criticism, even food and bodily wants. (I cringe to think the only thing my church taught me to guard my spirit from was boys.) It’s not that such things are inherently bad but that they keep us from things that are better. Author Francis Chan reminds us, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Distractions keep us from the work for which we were commissioned.

Last week, I co-facilitated a workshop for ministers, ordained and lay, on how to live with integrity and wholeness. For some, the reflective exercises were old hat. For others, they were long overdue. It’s no secret, but no less ironic, that those called to tend the life of the soul experience some of the most death-dealing conditions of any professionals. According to J.R. Briggs’s Fail:

  • 80% of pastors (and 84% of their spouses) are discouraged in their role as pastors;
  • 70%  of pastors say they do not have a single close friend; and
  • 70%  of pastors say they have  lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.

With cries that parts of the church are losing people, money, and influence, self-care can seem like a trifle ministers don’t have time for; there are program budgets, hospital visits, and sermon preparations that require near-constant attention. But by neglecting the care of our own souls, we sacrifice that which is worthy for that which is pressing. One can’t strike off the discipline of holy listening like an item on a to-do list. It is the hand that pens the list.

It’s no secret how Khing does the work for which he was commissioned. It takes discipline to focus with singularity on his purpose but so too must he learn to heed the potential gifts of the world around him. Will-power alone is not enough to get the job done. In his case, the idea to carve a bell stand only comes to fruition when he ventures into the forest and imagines its outline in a tree. “What happened?” Khing asks. “My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; from this live encounter came the work…”  Alone in the woods, free of his own distractions and other people’s expectations, he is able to evoke the gift of the “other” and co-create a vision more brilliant than the one with which he began.

Whether we are artists or ministers, we learn that the work before the work creates the conditions for growth. It’s true that introspection for the sake of itself is crazy-making, like tilling our soil with no intent to plant. But introspection for the sake of tending our calling and growing the gifts of others? From this live encounter comes our art.

image-1This November 6-7, my colleague Nathan Kirkpatrick and I are leading a two-day, non-residential retreat in Chapel Hill called, Creating Live Encounters. (Registration is available here; don’t hesitate to apply for financial aid.) It’s open to clergy and people of faith who want to learn what it means to show up in our lives and work as ourselves – undistracted and undeterred – and how we can create space for those we serve to do likewise.

Writer’s Envy: Creating with God

photo (55)I’ve come up with a handful of one-liners to the curious question of why, after eight years of marriage, I still don’t have kids. “Because I don’t want kids” is a blunt, if not incomplete, response. “Because I want to be available to other people’s kids,” is true, if not pietistic. Of all the one-liners I’ve tried, the one that feels most honest is often hardest to defend: “I’ve just never thought pregnancy was one of life’s must-have experiences.” Especially when shared with someone who has chosen to procreate, the answer is hard to give. The answer means I don’t want what you want.

It wasn’t until I read Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy that I not only felt the ping of writer’s envy, but also the first ping of pregnancy envy. I had never considered the morning sickness, constant constipation, and boundary-breaking belly touching of pregnancy to be anything more than speed bumps on the road toward reward. When I learned that our bodies experience an effect akin to smoking weed during labor so as to forget the intense pain and remember it fondly enough to do it again, my point was confirmed. Anything that required a high to endure wasn’t worth the effort.

Jobe turned it all around for me. In what is one of the best pieces of biblical feminist scholarship I’ve read on the subject to date, she proposes that pregnancy is not just an act of housing God but rather becoming like God. Women are not empty vessels by which God implants his holy seed but instead are co-creators in the divine mystery of making something out of nothing. In the Judeo-Christian creation story, Eve exclaims, “I have made a man with God!” (Genesis 4:1). Jobe explains, “Eve says nothing of having God’s ‘help’ in the matter. She uses a short proposition that very plainly means ‘with.’ She doesn’t create with God’s help. She created with God.” The claim, Jobe says, is startling.

So is the rest of Jobe’s book as she expertly weaves scriptural exegesis with personal storytelling that is both charming and candid. It’s her matter-of-fact tone – no doubt an asset in her work as a pastor, prison chaplain, and doula – that prevents the smack of sentimentality that so often turns me off from all things mother-to-be. Instead, she writes about the goodness of guttural groaning (Romans 8:26), the gift of people wanting to touch you (Luke 8:42-46), and the privilege of bearing pain for a purpose (Galatians 3:17). Pregnant women image not only Christ but also the church in as much as they create a dwelling place for both God and her children to abide (John 15:4).

The genius of Jobe’s book is that she valorizes pregnancy without making it the singular mark of womanhood. There’s a final note at the end in which she explores how the unsettling notion that women will be saved through their childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15) is true in as much as salvation means learning to receive God’s love and extending that love to others. What’s not true is that childbearing is the only way – even the primary way – women can experience the good, full life Jesus offered. Jobe writes, “For me , the mind-blowing good news of this book is not that pregnancy is the only way to get to know God, but that pregnancy is a way of knowing God at all.”

While pregnancy enthralls me, it does not excite me.  When friends talk about it, I nod my head like they are talking about a trip to China I will never book. I don’t have enough time or energy to see every square inch of this world called experience. Choices must be made. There are other countries that have my heart. Even if they are less traveled, the possibility of meeting God in their landscapes is no less real.

Maybe I want what you want after all.

On the Ministry of Availabilty

photo (53)I get paid to work sixteen hours a week. I spend another sixteen on underpaid projects not fit for making a living. The rest of an average work day is set aside for what I call the “ministry of availability.” Included in such ministry is responding to texts from friends (no more than one social outing per day), responding to creaks in my body (no more than three days without a long walk), and responding to the sound of God that comes on as unpredictably as the engine light in my truck.

One morning, the light came on in the parking lot of Whole Foods. The day was overcast and I was optimistic; the world tends to require less of me when the mood is bleak. I had just bent over to buckle my groceries when a thought flickered in my mind: “Ask her if she needs a ride.” She, I gathered, was the old black woman at the nearby bus stop. And from what I could tell by her curved posture, she didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Then again neither was I.

The problem was “Ask her if she needs a ride” is the kind of God thing my mother hears. “Ask her if she needs a ride” could have been an article in the catechism of my faith. Every trip to the grocery store was an opportunity to hear God’s voice if we could only quiet the rickety wheel of the shopping cart long enough to listen. I don’t remember ever feeling too busy to spare an extra twenty minutes to take a stranger home. Spontaneity was among the great gifts of childhood.

I yielded to the idea of becoming like my mother and shouted out the window, “Hey! Can I give you a ride?” The old woman’s neck turned slowly toward me, and I was sure she was going to say no but at least I would have asked.  The satisfaction of obedience would be my reward. But just as gently as she was standing on the sidewalk, she began walking toward my car, stopping at the safe distance of two arm lengths to inspect me.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Well, I’m going home, but where are you going?”

“I’m going home, too.”

“Where’s home for you?”

“Downtown.”

“Oh, that’s not far.”

“If you say so.”

And that settled it.

We spent our first five minutes together trying to decide in which direction to start driving since she didn’t exactly know how to get home without the bus route to guide her. She knew how to get there from the dry cleaner so perhaps we could go to the dry cleaner first. Where’s the dry cleaner? That she didn’t know either but she had a claim ticket that if I could just give her a minute more, she’d surely find. Her name was Cecelia Jackson but I was to call her Mrs. Jackson because from what she could tell I looked suspiciously young.

After we took the long way to the dry cleaner and I waited in the car for her to get her items and then apologized that her newly steamed coat would be dusted in dog hair, we found her apartment. This was a relief to me as I was beginning to imagine a Silver Alert with my licence plate attached. When we pulled up in the semi-circle in front of her building, the air let out of my lungs. “Why Mrs. Jackson! Do you know how many people my age would love to live in a building like this?” She beamed. It was an old, brick hosiery mill turned into assisted living for seniors. Did I want to come in and see it?

The thing with the ministry of availability is once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

I parked the car and met her at the front door of the building. “109,” she said and pointed to the numbers on the buzzer. “Remember that if you ever want to see me again.” She introduced me to a few folks sitting in the lobby, and not with any great sense of pride, before she led me down the blue-felt path to her door. What the apartment lacked in size it made up for in light; floor to ceiling windows the shape of fat Popsicle sticks butted up against one another. “Oh, Mrs. Jackson,” I melted. The city felt larger than it had moments before.

I didn’t stay long. The time I’d scheduled for being unscheduled was beginning to wane, and even though I could see the irony in this, it was an irony I accepted. She wasn’t overly grateful saying goodbye, and this prevented any sort of smugness as I drove home knowing very well I would make no effort to see her again.

It’s not that I’m too busy; I am decidedly not and hold firmly to the belief that saying “no” is a spiritual practice. It’s that there’s enough in my life that’s already mapped out, and it’s never as thrilling as what happens when the light comes on.

Obedience is not subjection to divine authority, but the act of keeping ourselves open to the Spiritual Presence which has already grasped and opened us. – Paul Tillich

Deep Cleaning My Marriage

photo (52)The summer trips are over. Sand still dusts the bottoms of suitcases, and where the crease of canvas gathers – lint from dirty toes. Walking down the heart pine hallway, I loosen the tufts of Amelia-hair from the floor boards, a reminder of promises not kept (to always vacuum when he mows) and schedules not followed (to do both weekly, cheerfully). We have forgotten our filth long enough, turned a blind eye from the clay-colored toilet bowl and the web-covered dining chairs and now our home’s in need of a reckoning.

It’s time for our annual deep clean.

We begin on the outside. This is the part of us people can see, and we figure if others look upon us with some sense of kindness, we can do the same for ourselves. He starts in the yard, I in the screened porch. This is what feminists call the division of labor, and until I was in the business of dividing my labor with a man, I thought myself hardy enough to work the whole lot. I am wiser now. I know how the pink of my skin rises with mosquito bites when exposed to the summer air. He knows how his knees give when he’s spent too long scrubbing the one spot. Although we are divided by fault lines, we work in each other’s sight lines. We work together.

We’re to start in the kitchen next, the dirtiest room in the house, but we’ve been playing ping pong in a rainstorm and will have to return later for our soaking bikes. When we get home, we’re too tired to make another mess, so we microwave canned soup and since it says it’s organic we feel alright. We know our limits now. “Are you ready to do this?” he asks, and I say with mischief in my voice, “Nope.” He laughs. I’m serious. “We’re adults, man! Who says we have to do this tonight? We can do whatever we want. This is our house.” We pour another glass of wine and yield to the rhythm that’s ours.

We’ve worked our way through nearly the whole house by the time we get to the kitchen two weeks later. Everything has been touched. Everything has been brought out into the light and inspected and had to pass the, “Do we still want this?” test. We are changing, always changing, and the answer to last year’s question of the brown-woven place mats could be different this year. It’s worth asking again. “Do we still want this?”

Do we still want this board game?

This table?

This house?

This life?

We are in the kitchen now. It has taken us five hours, but we don’t care. We have a job to do, with our bodies. I like this work, this list of rooms and checklists and doneness. There is a sort of deviant control to this deep clean, a belief that if I’m wide awake to my life, there will be no careless mistakes. “There’s a grease spot on the side of the toaster,” he says. I cleaned the toaster so I don’t say anything, not until we’re on the floor with blackened rags.  “You know, I cleaned the toaster.” “I know,” he says. “So if you don’t like the way I did it, just do it yourself.” He says, “Okay.”And we are okay. There is still carelessness, but we are okay.

For another week – a month, if we’re lucky – I’ll be able to pad around the house and feel the sticky-clean floor under my feet. The shower mat will be white as store-bought cotton balls and the microwave won’t smell like our past. I can see the surface of things again and am no longer afraid to open darkened drawers. There is enough darkness to be afraid of.

My house will have no part in it.

“Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”
- Hebrews 3:6