Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Letter Between Two Solitudes, One Flesh

photo (11)I’ve bought all the love cards I care to at Parker & Otis. I hope you don’t mind I found this one in the best-friends-for-life section. I also hope you don’t mind it will date me in less than a year but then again I suppose that’s the point of anniversaries, to date us. Today, we celebrate twelve years of dating each other.

In many ways we are “totes samesies.” We fancy ourselves the adventuresome, spontaneous types but on a night when we’ve “scheduled for the unscheduled” we go for sushi and a Redbox. (On the way to sushi, I remind you that we have free booze back at home, and you remind me that this is being neither adventuresome nor spontaneous.) We share the same unabashed taste in pop culture, turning to one another during car rides to wonder aloud, “Don’t you love how Taylor Swift is just killing it right now?” We agree that the one regret of our time together is that we didn’t adopt Amelia’s sister pup when we had the chance, although she had a snarltooth we’re not sure we could have looked past.

We may be more alike than different but it’s the differences that have kept us growing. When people ask what’s been the hardest part of this love, I blame the whole “two become one flesh” thing. I’m convinced it’s a metaphor with holes like any other. After all, it seems those ancient writers were using it primarily to point to God. And within the tradition of a trinitarian God, the one source is still uniquely three persons: a diversified unity, they say, a reconciled diversity. No one ever taught me how a Christian woman is supposed to become one without losing her person.

I told you this year I prefer Rilke’s definition of love: “that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” You meet your needs. I’ll meet mine. If ever the two shall overlap, it is happy accident but not requirement. I’d rather have a side-by-side companion than be working in tandem. You say this is not what you want. But when we become one, I find my oneness eclipsing yours; like when you say you want to decide together what we’ll eat for dinner and I say okay and then you say, “So what are you thinking?” and then I decide for the both of us. I say this is not what I want. I do not want to be one if one means I am the primary one.

When we married, we agreed to take turns when it came to decision making. We followed your career for the first two years, after which we chased mine west for another two. I got a bonus turn when we moved back east for my graduate school program but there was a job waiting for you too. When I was ready to move again, I considered that I was always ready a little earlier than you. Maybe you might like to stay this time. And so we have. I’ve begun to recognize how there’s always something for me where you go and always something for you where I am. I’ve come to think God sees us as one, even when I can’t.

And so, today, as we celebrate twelve years of love, I want to celebrate twelve years of two solitudes, one flesh. May we never have to choose between being ourselves and being in love. May we always know how to give ourselves away without giving up who we are. And may we trust that being one makes us a better two and being two makes us a better one.

May we be mirrors of God.

The Spirituality of Being Called

photoWhat does it mean to be called? In the words of author Ryan Pemberton it was “leaving behind a job where I wrote marketing campaigns and press releases so that I might string together words like Cheerios on fishing line.” Put another way: to be called is the costly decision to offer our true selves to the world. It is the risk of incarnation.

Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again is Ryan’s memoir of how he came to discover himself – and ultimately God – when the security of success, love, and belonging got ground into pieces. His story is not for the faint of faith. He leaves a stable job in the U.S. to get another (yes, another) B.A., this one in theology from Oxford. He lives oceans apart from a pregnant wife in order to follow his dream, while friends follow in judgment. He shows up with his new family seeking food stamps when a return home means a rocky start. His story looks suspiciously like a man walking to his death, only it’s the death of illusions and the beginning of life resurrected.

In some ways, Ryan’s story is much like mine. We met, in fact, at a reading I did at Duke Divinity School when he was a student and I was testing my calling as editor of and midwife to Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. I remember him standing in the back of room: tall, white, warm, and noticeably male. We talked afterward about writing and theology and how we both longed to be back in the Pacific Northwest. Later, when he asked me about swapping reviews for our new books, I told him I was game. There was just one thing. As a Catholic and feminist, I was suspicious of C.S. Lewis love. Too often I’d seen Protestant pastor men use Lewis as a default in sermons, instead of doing the hard work of lifting up theologians of color, women, queers, and the unschooled. Instead of doing the hard work of putting theology in their own words, too.

RP Author Shot 2

In Called, Ryan is quick to say that none of us is meant to imitate the greats, or use their words as shorthand for the voice we alone can give. Even so, C.S. Lewis’s ability to translate theological truths for a popular audience is what gave Ryan the imagination for his own calling. An encounter with Lauren Winner did the same for me in college. When I asked her after a campus event whether I should be a Christian in the feminist world or a feminist in the Christian world, she said bluntly, “The church needs you more.”

I never did fall in love with C.S. Lewis. But on a five-hour flight between Raleigh and San Francisco, I developed a kinship with Ryan. The parts where he describes trying to find a publisher for his work and affirmation from his mentors was especially heartening for this writer who’s always wondering, “Is this as hard for you as it is for me?” I didn’t know until I read his kind and skillful words how much doubt about the writing life still gnaws me; why do I do this? this self-directed schedule? this vicious vulnerability? this back bowed over static screens when I’d rather be among the trees?

“Because I can.”

It’s a simple answer to the question of why we do what we do, and a blessedly un-spiritualized one. It’s an answer that reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s “Because I’m good at it.” It’s an answer that Ryan receives from an unlikely source. He writes,

“I think that’s what we’re all meant to do, all we can do, with the gifts we have been given, be they experiences or talents. Those gifts are waiting to be used to touch others’ lives, as we patiently listen for and obediently follow the direction to which God is calling us. Because that’s what you do with gifts, you give them away.”

You give yourself away, too. 

Not because you have to.

Or because you should.

But like love come down to a waiting world, because you can.

You can find more of Ryan’s writing (and his review of my new book, Lessons in Belonging) at And if you’re in Durham, NC, you can find me reading at The Regulator Bookshop Thursday, February 26th at 7:00 p.m.! (*Note the new date)

Ask Me to Stay, and I’ll Try

photo (7)No one was more surprised than I was to find myself in a new member class after less than a year at my local church. Perhaps it was a result of growing up Catholic that the idea of membership held little appeal; the only benefits appeared to be (1) eligibility for church governing committees and (2) getting to vote for leaders of said governing committees.

It’s not that I didn’t consider myself a member of the body of Christ. It was that I didn’t get why this membership needed to be made official beyond baptism or confirmation. Worse yet was the thought of transferring membership among any number of congregations over the course of my life like some serial monogamist. What was the function of a class or a covenant or a pledge to make known a membership that seemed to change so very little?

This is the last of five posts in the “Trust Me” series in which I’ve been lifting up the small ways church leaders can make a big difference in building trust with Millennials. By now you’ve probably figured out that these “micro-resolutions” aren’t rocket science. Nor are they all that different from how trust is built with anyone else. It’s as simple and as hard as being real and living real: being real means our church knows who we are, what we’re about, and where we need help seeing ourselves rightly; living real means our church knows who’s in our neighborhood, what they’re going through, and why we need them in order to thrive. In sum, membership in a local church is the process by which we recognize our shared need for one another.

To finish reading this article, join me with your comments, questions, and other trust-building suggestions at Patheos:

Making Peace with Church

Like all good anthropologists, I started my research for Lessons in Belonging with a list of questions, not answers. Why is it so hard to belong to a local church? How do we know when we’ve found the one, and if there is no “one,” how do we make do with one that’s good enough? Can we really share flesh in Christ and not get eaten alive by one another? And when does a church go from being an imperfect one to a toxic one? Will we ever be able to make peace with a church that’s not a place of peace for all?

On Tuesday, February 3rd at noon PST, I’ll be raising these questions and taking yours as part of a live, hour-long panel discussion on “Making Peace with Church: Finding Grace and Authenticity in an Age of Skepticism.” Hosted by Regent College, the panel includes author Scot McKnight, pastor Darrell Johnson, and scholar Hans Boersma, along with myself and moderator Katelyn Beaty. Sign-up to get a reminder about the event and then join us to catch wind of the longing for Christ-centered community in this cultural moment. We need all kinds of kinds in listening for the echoes.

After two years of cobbling answers, I’ve come to see that the question I care most about when talking about belonging is not whether you belong to a local church but if you even want to. Do you want to make peace with church? And if the answer is yes, what in God’s name are we willing to risk to make peace together?

For more on how making peace is a countercultural move in a community rife with culture clash, join me over at Patheos for the latest post in the “Trust Me” series:

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:

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:  

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: