When a Commitment Phobe Goes to a Tattoo Parlor

photo (62)“I could see the irony of it: a commitment phobe at a tattoo parlor.”

So begins my guest post at  Little Did She Know, a blog run by the talented Cara Strickland on singleness, friendship, and the de(tales) of our faith.

Now, for the first time in public, I’m sharing the tale of my tattoo, inspired by the new book Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them. It’s one of heartbreak and homesickness and learning to belong wherever you are.

I invite you to read the story here.

The Sweet Reward of Prayer

photo (61)I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Matthew for the past few weeks. I was in Numbers for a good long while before that, a wilderness unto itself as far as biblical books go, until I realized I had forgotten all about Jesus. Yes, I had forgotten Jesus. In place of the Gospel, I had invented a sort of spirituality of comfort in which God wanted nothing more for me than my own emotional well-being. I also sensed God wanted me to buy a new light fixture for the dining room.

It sounds ridiculous to me too now, but these things happen when we busy ourselves with the stuff of spirituality and not its source. We forget the kinds of things that come straight from the source’s mouth. This week’s gem? Jesus’s words on prayer: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (NRSV, Matthew 6:6)

How easily we stray from these simple instructions. Hanging out with college students at church last week, I learned that Intagram-ing one’s “quiet time” is an actual thing: open bible, coffee mug, and a verse from Scripture are its hallmarks. (I could be accused of taking a similar photo earlier this month but, in my defense, there was a fairly large cheeseboard involved; see above.) It’s easy for me, too, to live a public faith life in which blogging and babbling serve as substitutes for exploring the secret life of my soul and the God who sustains it. To pray alone is, as Jesus taught, its own satisfaction. Alone, there’s no comparison, no preening, no need to exegete some truth nugget for others to mine. Alone, we may not need words at all. Words may make us too tired for the listening.

That’s another thing about public prayer that’s been troubling me: it can snuff out the listening. I wrote recently about how I made the first move on Rush and then waited and prayed and waited for him to make the second. My risk-loving nature often means I act impulsively, without confirmation from friends or God. This is fine for what I call the chocolate or vanilla questions of life, like should I walk to the Redbox machine or watch another episode of How I Met Your Mother? But for the big questions, like should I take on more work or move across the country?, seeking accord with those closest to me becomes a practice of trust and patience. Because I’m the more verbal one in my closest relationships, I can steamroll people with my prayers for them, for me, for us, before ever giving them space to hear from God themselves.

It’s not that there’s no place for public prayer. It’s the vocation of all God’s people to assemble for public worship, celebration, and lament. But when we keep nothing private, nothing sacred, we cheat God of our attention and cheat ourselves of intimacy. It’s like that friend who never wants to do anything one on one; group hang outs can be shiny and fun and even open pathways for new connections. But there’s less time for the depth that happens when there’s only two. We can busy ourselves with the stuff of friendship rather than listening to the friend herself. What is she longing for these days? What is breaking her heart? What is she noticing in us?

A final reflection: A few years after my parents’ divorce, my mom began praying about whether we should move across states to be closer to my dad. She didn’t want to steamroll my brother and me – adolescents at the time – into the decision and so she waited and prayed and waited until Charlie approached her. He wasn’t happy at his new school; could we think about moving? Only if Erin wants to, she said, and counseled him to wait and pray and wait until one day I approached them. I wasn’t happy with my old friends; could we think about moving? As a parent, she had every right to tell us what she wanted for our family. Instead, with time, she waited and prayed and waited until we came to want the same thing.

In doing so, she taught us to want God, prayer’s sweetest reward of all.

Faithful Rebel: Emma Akpan on Women’s Health and Voting for the Lesser of Evils

560991_10101809071213603_93586176_n (1)As a Christian feminist, one of the thorniest topics to weigh in on is the politics of abortion. (I felt an imaginary ulcer coming on  just  preparing this post.) For starters, it often blows up more bridges than it builds – and exposes the ugliest of trolls. Further, as a pro-life woman who votes pro-choice, I’m sure to alienate someone by putting words to my beliefs. The categories themselves prime us for division.

So, is Christianity categorically incompatible with voting pro-choice? Meet Emma Akpan, a reproductive justice advocate, who sits on the board with me of a local nonprofit called the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. Emma recently appeared in a nationally-sponsored ad campaign by Planned Parenthood that targets “anti-women’s health candidates” for limiting access to affordable birth control, preventative cancer screenings, and safe, legal abortions. As a fellow Duke Divinity graduate and member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, Emma isn’t afraid to let her faith shape her politics, even as she is resolute that “your personal beliefs shouldn’t infiltrate the lives of other women.” In our brief interview, I asked Emma more about this distinction and why sometimes you have to vote for the “candidate that’s not going to do the worst.”

I don’t take it lightly when I vote for pro-choice candidates. But I do so when I believe their comprehensive platform on topics such as women’s health, the environment, military spending, and immigration reform is, in my estimation, more “pro-life” than their opposition. While I shared with Emma my hope that the number of abortions would decrease, I also wondered if it was idealistic to think that reversing Roe v. Wade would make this so. Research is complicated on the matter; a representative for the World Health Organization explained, “What we see is that the law does not influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion. If there’s an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal.” What does matter is decreasing both the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of unsafe abortions through provisions for better access to contraceptives, qualified medical providers, and financial and social resources for women. The catch is such provisions are most often found in countries with more liberal legal protections. As Emma clarified for me after our interview, “If you’re not supporting legal abortion, then you’re definitely supporting unsafe abortion.”

My biggest “aha” moment of our time together came when Emma lifted up the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11) as a provocative example of how Jesus condemns not the actions of the woman but the community leaders who were so quick to judge her. Many women, especially black women, Emma noted off-air, don’t even have access to healthy choices when it comes to health and community services. Individual choices are always informed by the political systems that structure such choices; wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we would do well to consider how Jesus calls to account a broken system (and its leaders) rather than shaming the individual who finds herself a part of it.

*For a more philosophical debate on abortion and legislating “the most pragmatic view of the society we live in” see my friend Jonalyn Fincher’s recent interview with Emily Heist Moss over at Soulation.

Voting in this year’s mid-term elections? Official Election Day is Tuesday, November 4th. Emma offers her advice:

1. Take as many people with you as you can.

2. Look at your judges. (For instance, in North Carolina it was judges who rejected the challenge to the voter I.D. bill and overturned the ban on same sex marriage.)

3. Make sure you vote for somebody.

4. Seek out trusted friends for advice on who to support.

Making Friends with the Dark

IMG_0012I have trouble getting out of bed in winter. It’s dark and cold and my body is stiffer than it was last year. Just this week, I decided to take a bath at 7:00 a.m. to choke the chill out of my bones. A bath. I turned the lights low, pulled the shower curtain taut, and sank into the black water. Carry me home, I prayed.

I have not always been friends with the dark. When I was younger, I had terrible nightmares about what might be lurking in the great unknown – whether the ravine outside my window or the thoughts inside my head. The first blink of morning saved me from myself.

It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Australia that I began longing for the dark. When I first opened the door to my studio apartment in University Village, the stark, white room had a chilling effect on my sanity. Although the sharp, clean angles suggested tranquility, my insides were tangled by homesickness. I spent my days sitting on the toilet, sobbing on the phone, and, most importantly, trying to sleep.

Homesickness begged me to give in and return stateside. After only six weeks, I had lost ten pounds (or four-something kilos) on a diet of  pizza, pasta, and peanut butter sandwiches. A local doctor, whom I had already seen twice since arriving, attributed my nerves to an overactive adrenal gland. As a temporary remedy, she proscribed adrenaline-suppressing pills. As a permanent remedy, she wrote a doctor’s note sanctioning my return to the States for treatment.

At night, I stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and planned my exit – options  included booking the first flight out of Oz or stepping in front of a bus so that my need to leave would be undisputed. But now, now that I finally had permission to leave, I was hesitating. Who or what could possibly be calling me to live in this hell? I had always been told that hell isn’t a pit of fire and brimstone, but rather the emotional state of being separated from God, one’s center, or home. The only thing I felt connected to was my white, hot fear.

One morning, unhinged and unable to sleep in the nascent light, I got out of bed and groped around my desk, looking for answers, voices other than my own to illuminate the way. My fingers brushed the cover of a book that a friend sent – Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. Like a mad woman, I flipped through the cream colored pages, letting my body lead my mind until the words began to rise all by themselves: We have to find the courage to embrace our brokenness, to make our most feared enemy our friend, and to claim it as intimate companion.

I knew then what I had to do.

Surrendering to the dark was my only hope of making peace with the light.

And as it turned out, surrendering to homesickness looked a lot like interior decorating.

Day one, I covered my walls with strips of colored construction paper adorned by scripture verses. Day two, I bought flowers from King Street and arranged them in the only vase I had – an electric water heater jug. Day three: votive candles and a toothbrush holder from Chinatown. Day four: a black and white picture of Aborigine children holding hands from the Glebe flee market. Slowly my white walls became awash with color – images of hope drawing me back to the center of life.

Eight days into my campaign for change, I made one last redecorating attempt: a cheap black sheet and laundry pole from K-Mart. After a few cursed attempts, I wedged the pole between the sides of my window. Next, I picked up the sheet and pulled it outward until it ripped in two.  Breathing hard, I looped the sheet over the laundry pole and pulled it down over the glass until only the edge of light remained. The room was so dark when I finished that I had to feel my way to the bed where finally, blessedly, I collapsed.

Since that time, I’ve relished the reprieve of the dark and the rhythm of surrender it bids me into night after night. How comforting it is to know that life is cyclical, that no season is permanent, that the light will come as sure as God’s mercy. The dark is a kind of mercy, too. We would do well to heed its rhythm as the days grow shorter, and we make friends with our limits. Now is the season of un-doing. Leave your writing un-published. Leave the fields of friendship un-plowed. Leave un-answered the invitation to “good, not great.” Do only what is essential. Plan your strength for spring.

Come Sunday, the dark will come sooner, and I will wake later.

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