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?”


“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

The Benefit of Being Bitter

photo (46)“Why is being bitter such a bad thing?” I ask Rush on one of our regular night walks. Amelia strains her neck into a bush of monkey grass while I continue. “I mean, I don’t recommend it for everyone, but is being bitter a sin?”

We’re fresh off the couch from watching The Normal Heart, the Emmy Award winning, HBO movie about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. Written by gay activist Larry Kramer, the largely autobiographical film follows character Ned Weeks as he goes from being a priggish writer to a relentless fighter for what was in 1981 being called “gay cancer.”

It’s Weeks’s fury that lingers with me after the movie ends. First, he’s irate over the medical community’s response (in one scene a gay man has to pay an orderly to help him carry his deceased partner out of the hospital). Then, he lashes out over the  government’s silence (the word “AIDS” wasn’t publicly mentioned by President Reagan until 1985 after the deaths of over 5,000 people in the U.S.). So alienating is Weeks’s anger that the volunteer organization he starts – Gay Men’s Health Crisis – eventually separates itself from him in favor of more bridge-building tactics.

Walking along the crooked sidewalks of our neighbor, I reflect on the fact that his anger looks almost nothing like mine. Mine is slow, self-doubting. It comes in uncertain bursts that die just as soon as they are released, a result of Christian guilt as much as Christian discipline. His anger is extreme, uncompromising. There are countless incidents in which people ask him to soften and he refuses to give up the one thing that sustains him. His own brother pleads, “Isn’t it enough that I love you? Agreeing you were born just the same as I isn’t going to save your dying friends,” to which Weeks responds, “That is exactly what’s going to save my dying friends.” It makes me wonder how often I favor being reasonable over being righteous.

What we do share in common is bitterness, anger’s older sister, the sometimes silent sufferer, the one who can’t help but remember a history of wrongs. Bitterness, I’ve been told, is to be avoided by Christian feminists who must wrest themselves from the reputation of both angry activists and fuming fundamentalists. “But who hasn’t experienced the bitterness of anger long-suffered? Isn’t bitterness just another word for heartache?” I ask Rush as we come up the brick stairs of our home and in from the dark. I hang up Amelia’s leash on the back of the door and we go to bed without more words.

The next morning, it’s the words of Hezekiah that give me my answer. I’m on the back porch, playing Bible roulette. I land in the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah whereupon the life of King Hezekiah is coming to an end. A prophesy from the Lord has sealed his fate and now he prays for a reprieve. In fact, the NRSV version says, he weeps bitterly. The Lord answers him by saying, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.” Hezekiah responds in a psalm of thanksgiving, “Surely, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness.”

I blink once, then twice, stupefied by the plainness of his words. Was it true that “great bitterness” could actually be for my welfare? Elsewhere throughout Scripture, bitterness is described as a curse, something rotten, a plague. The clue to Hezekiah’s bitterness is found in vs. 3 when he reminds God that he has walked in faithfulness with a “whole heart.” His bitterness did not cause his heart to decay but instead gave him the strength he needed to fight. He prayed. He begged. He cried out for more life. And God was moved.

I don’t believe bitterness is always bad, but neither do I believe it’s something to seek out. After all, not everything is worth growing bitter over. My prayer to God these days is “Teach me what matters.” Teach me to be reasonable when the slight is small. Teach me to be righteous when the violence is great. As Ned Weeks shows, one man’s bitterness can benefit more than just himself; it can benefit those who are too weak to fight.

In the end, bitterness may not win friends. But maybe, if held with a whole heart, it wins God.

Faithful Rebel: Author Kelly Bean on How to be a Christian Without Going to Church

Book2I’ll admit it. When earnest, thoughtful, Christ-seeking people tell me they no longer go to church, I have two reactions in the following order: a quick spat of envy, then a chest full of heartsick. How will we find one another in a world of one-size-fits-none religion?

The answer, says community cultivator Kelly Bean, is as much a mental shift as it is a linguistic one. The author of the new book How to be a Christian Without Going to Church (July 2014, Baker Books) doesn’t advocate leaving Christian community altogether. Instead, she encourages believers to make the switch from conceiving church as something we go to – a building, a sermon, a worship service – to something we practice being by modelling Jesus who spoke of the ekklesia as a people set apart (literally “the called out ones”) to gather, heal, and create.

Still, do we have to choose between going and being? I asked her when we chatted over Skype. What if my idea of “being the church” is really just code for being more intentional with friends? What is the role of the stranger in communities not visible on the streets (or searchable on the internet)? And am I the only one that finds the idea of DIY church a little overwhelming?

Despite its provocative title, her book is not a how-to at all but a resource-rich guide to alternative faith communities meant to spark the imagination. For those who do feel the call to become “non-goers,” Bean counsels, “Go gently; go towards something and not away from something.”

To read more about Bean and the community in which she moves, click here to find bonus chapters to the book.

Be Sweet to Me

“Be sweet to me,” you said.
What did you mean?
Had it been so long since I made you feel seen?

But your plea was so real,
eyes lowered and coy,
that I couldn’t but meet your gaze unannoyed.

I let down my face
jaw slackened, lips loose
Releasing the furrow for attention to you

“What shall we do?” I said.
You just waited and preened.
So I took you along wherever I planned to be.

First, to the office.
I typed while you read.
“Am I boring?” I asked, but you shook your head.

To the pool, we went next
Shot full of sunscreen
I flapped on with Katie, while you bathed like a queen.

When the weekend was through
And I was near spent
You said, “One more thing?” and I knew what you meant.

We got in the car
Dials glowing and mute
And drove to your house, in stillness to suit.

Shoulders touching we sat
Mouthed words and a meal
I would not have gone if this weren’t the deal.

“Be sweet to me,” God said.
So I wrote this poor poem.
So even our God sees s/he’s not alone.

photo (45)

But why should I not let my face become
lit before this
when someone I cherish
is near?

- St. Catherine of Siena

For If You Love

1013876_10200895118820105_749938453_nNeed a good reason to hope in the local church – “that human solid place to be active in love”? The following is a guest post from an ardent young woman named Lizzie Apple. (Yes, I think she has the best name in the world, too.) Lizzie is an eighteen-year-old southerner headed off to college who loves reading, writing, playing tennis, and watching British period dramas. She works part-time in a fly fishing store. 

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Matthew 5:46

We have heard it said that active love is a harsh and fearful thing, compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams wants easy things, wants a soft reaching eagerness, and, above all, wants to be watched. This kind of love we all carry.

But there is different love, and love to labor for. Uncomfortable love, love to be borrowed from. Love for the people in each of our corners of the universe not transcended by idea or by the dream to be kind. Love for the human places raking broken past us. Conscious, opened love. Broad, endless person stuffed of all pain and all good. Compassion for the crooked suffering broken things. Compassion in the ragged relationship between unlocked souls, compassion after the misdeeds, and compassion keeping with even our closest guilt.

I want this love, want it not for my good, but despite all fault. I want to be known from that secret, fragile core of me. And with it then, I want to know the world strung out around. I want questions, I want reality, I want God – and I do not want comfort. I want the voice of my own soul, its ghosts and blushes, all the fumbling spirit and kneeled down prayers. I want to cross that threshold like salt: weary, wind-roasted, whole to taste. I want to labor into loving the hard things and people around.

Carried through these lives we are a thousand faces in transit. And each one comes to us offering a chance at the vast consciousness of understanding. My hope for this day is to find good love.

To be vigilant with it.

To see the present beauty and to hold what has been given.

To love in action and to turn from spite.

Especially when that anger wants us.

Especially when we are tired and the roots are dry.

Especially when God feels far and the soul grows deep and crooked.

The word is if, the word is “For if you love…” This is the choice, the going onward and outward in conscious love not only for humanity but for the humans in each of our corners. For the tiresome friends and those begging time from us. For the ones who are hard to love. Slow-speaking, gum-smacking, pen-clicking, human, real, surrounding instruments of holy inherent good.

And so God offers a new world, saying FOR IF YOU LOVE! For if you love, such self-altering things will come.

And this is a promise.

We are here, here a human solid place to be active in love. A place I have been actively loved. And for that I am thankful. And from that we are grown of an early consciousness – steady, muddy, endless wading in our knowledge, wrestling all the night with God.

And from that we are alive to love.

This post was first preached as a sermon on Youth Sunday at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN. 

Why I Missed #FaithFeminisms Week

photo (44)When I was four-years old, I wanted to be a ballerina. I liked the leotard and the tutu and the dancing in a circle with hands-held-loose. I wanted to be a ballerina until Shannon told me she wanted to be a ballerina too. Surely, the world wasn’t big enough for two ballerinas to make it big from the Chicago suburbs, and so I decided I’d find something else to like that was, well, less likable.

I tell you this because I think it has something to do with why I missed #faithfeminisms week.

Last week, the internet was ablaze with a series of blog posts and twitter updates from folks reflecting on “the interplay between feminist praxis and religious faith.” The usual suspects of popular Christian feminism delivered with force. Rachel Held Evans shared a slew of statistics about why we need feminism, punctuated with the conviction that “patriarchy is not God’s dream for the world.” Sarah Bessey was featured in a brief video about how she coined the phrase “Jesus Feminist” to convey that the very reason she’s a feminist is because she loves and follows Jesus. Posts from new friends popped up throughout the week too, from lizzie mcmanus (“No More Equality for Me“) and Jes Kast-Keat (“The Spirit on All Flesh“). All the while I sat in my bouncy chair feeling very proud and a bit surprised that Christian feminism has become more visible than it’s ever been in my lifetime. Surely, the blogosphere didn’t need one more young, white woman adding fuel to the Holy Spirit fire. 

If I had blogged, though, I might have told you about deciding that the first ‘adam (or earthling) was a hermaphrodite after reading Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender in college. In one rabbinical tradition, it’s argued that the split in gender didn’t come until Genesis 2:23 when Adam’s rib was fashioned to make a companion, a split analogous to the simultaneous creation story of male and female in Genesis 1:27. How might this interpretation affirm the inherent worth of women in their own right? What then of Scripture’s authority in verses that proclaimed man was the glory of God and woman the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7)?

If I had blogged, I might have told you about how I didn’t think I had a stake in GLBTQ concerns until graduate school when I could no longer stomach arguing for the original intent of verses that appeared to condemn women’s worth without also wrestling with those that condemned same-sex acts (and, notably, said acts in Scripture are never within the context of what we today would consider a committed, healthy relationship.) I devoured Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior, becoming fascinated by the idea that we might even call Jesus a queer in as much as he fit few of the Jewish expectations for masculinity (or the messiah) prevalent during his life. Queering in this context does not signify Jesus’s sexual identity but rather his strategy of being purposefully ambiguous in order to open new pathways of connection and crossing. If Jesus wasn’t all that concerned with playing it “straight,” then why should it be my concern that others fall neatly into a two-sex model of gender? 

If I had blogged, I might have told you that I don’t like praying to God the Father without also mentioning the Son and Spirit (see Janet Soskice’s The Kindness of God). I don’t like feminizing the Holy Spirit because I think it implies the other two members of the Trinity are obviously male (see Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self). And I don’t believe that Christ and his bride can only be faithfully represented by a man and his wife (see Eugene Rogers’s article on Same-Sex Complementarity.)

I might have also told you that I lost the battle to refer to God as both “he” and “she” in my new book. 

Maybe I didn’t tell you all of this because I thought I didn’t need to. There were others stepping up to the #faithfeminisms plate and hitting it out of the park. Or maybe I didn’t tell you because sometimes I need to practice my beliefs more than I need to defend them. I suspect I also thought I might alienate some of you by coming out so clearly with my wild ideas about a gender-full God. After all, I still consider myself a tradition-loving Catholic – and an evangelical too.

I wouldn’t have made a good ballerina. I never turned out that tall or disciplined and, if you haven’t noticed, I have a tab on this blog called Yes, Cupcakes. But I know now that letting the popularity of a thing stop it from becoming “my thing” is a mentality sized for a four-year old.

It doesn’t matter that your ideas are original,” writing coach once told me,“only that you believe them.” With a Holy Spirit fire afoot, you may even have the stomach to share them.