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Old news: church has a bad rap in the western world. According to Gallup, Americans now have more confidence in the military than we do in the peace-making, justice-seeking, Sabbath-keeping community of Jesus followers. We might expect this of a country who in the last three years saw an estimated 7.5 million people join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. What gets me these days, though, is how our declining faith in “the body of Christ” is often propagated by the very people who belong to it.

Earlier this month, I was a part of the most creative and spirited gathering of Christian women leaders I’ve ever experienced. We met outside of Portland at a property that was best described as “a Magical Kingdom for adults.” Amidst banquet tables and art installations and glasses of wine, we reflected on the leadership story we’ve lived and the one we’re living into. It was disheartening how many tales included times the church had made these women feel small. There were fewer stories of how the church helped them get grown. Maybe I wasn’t really listening. Or maybe these are the stories we’re not really telling.

Why do we do this? Why do we often complain and criticize and commiserate over instances of bad church more than we praise and profess and pass along examples of the good? Why do we use the term “recovering evangelicals” like the Gospel is a disease to ward off and without any hope of health? Why when I tweet out “What’s happening in your church that would compel people to stay?” does the question compel no one?

The answer is largely psychological. In her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, professor Christena Cleveland points out how we boost our sense of self-worth by disassociating with those we perceive to be “losers.” Social identity theorist C.R. Snyder calls this “cutting off reflected failure.” If the church is failing, at least according to public opinion polls, we use tales of its woe to assure people we aren’t failures, too, at least not unsuspecting ones. To be a fool in America is the worst kind of sin.

Oh, I’m part of the problem, too, you know. When I first began dating Rush, I complained about him all the time to friends, so much so that when he was on the precipice of proposing, one counseled me to break up with him. I was less worried about my tenuous reputation than the tenuous sense of self I was building around being unloved. Would I lose my edge if I found love? Will I lose my edge if I love church? There was a certain self-righteousness in not belonging, as if I wasn’t like all the rest, as if I couldn’t be wooed.

Many of us stand outside religious institutions more comfortably now than we do at the center. Doubt is more popular than belief these days. In the last few years, I’ve come across a handful of books exploring the freedom it has brought to writers’ acceptance of self and expression of God. I’ve often wondered if it’s a symptom of growing up Catholic that I didn’t doubt God for the church’s mistakes; there were too many to ignore—from the Crusades to birth control bans, the Spanish Inquisition to the pedophile cover-ups, the French Revolution to the crackdowns on American nuns. Surely these are reasons enough for anyone to find the church an inhospitable place, toxic to real human flourishing.

 Still, we find ways, weed-like, to grow out of its cracked foundation.

That’s why I’m excited to launch the #OneGoodChurch series starting on this blog in April. You’ll get to read posts by contributors from the anthology, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, answering the question, “What’s one good thing you learned in church?” I know a lot of us grew up in churches that were indeed toxic places – and some grew up with no church at all. I also know there are good things we learn by gathering together, things like enough-ness and forgiveness, thinks like agency and interdependency.

To be clear, the Bible privileges stories of pain over any other, people feeling it and people causing it. “Pain,” theologian Walter Brueggemann says is, “the primary language of human possibility.” To tell stories of hope and perseverance and possibility in the church is not to diminish the pain it has caused but to point to pain’s logical end in the body of Christ. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that the community gathered under God is like a “a city on a hill that can’t be hid” (Matt. 5:14). We are meant to illuminate the dark, not add to it.

Will you keep the light on for me?

Your Body is a Seed

Flickr Creative Commons: Zack Dowell

When I was younger, I used to practice giving interviews in front of the mirror. To prepare, I’d swipe my finger across rows of lipstick, eyeshadow, and rouge that sat potbound in one of those makeup palettes purchased for pennies; it all looked like the color of whoopee cushion by the time it reached my face. Then, I’d hop onto the bathroom counter, close the door, and practice my winningest answers (and smile) to questions like, “How does it feel to be the youngest girl ever to win an Oscar?” or “What’s it like being married to a part-time nurse with three kids and a career on Wall Street?” I was interviewer, interviewee, and even commercial spokeswoman between segments. I was in love with the experiment of becoming me.

Last month, I got to listen in on a media training workshop from the inimitable Macky Alston. The training was part of a Courage & Renewal retreat I helped lead for the Beatitudes Society, a nonprofit whose mission is to equip young progressive Christian clergy in becoming public theologians and agents of change. (Interested in nominating someone for next year’s fellowship? Click here.) Macky was a masterful teacher, helping us to be ourselves in front of the camera, to peddle in stories and not just points, to say it fast and say it often. But more than that, he was a damn near motivational speaker. I swear to you he melted everyone in the room when he said, “I could make an award-winning documentary on any one of you.” We had the stuff of legends within us simply because we were made by one.

I remind myself of this when I do real interviews now with people like Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service or Shane Blackshear at Seminary Dropout. Sometimes I get word that a drive time show in Decatur wants to talk to me for twenty minutes. Other times it’s a print journalist on a deadline and could I be available tomorrow or – better yet – later today? Sometimes it all happens so fast I forget to have fun. I forget there’s another legendary human on the line. I forget I’ve got what I need within me (and, thanks to Macky, my core message in front of me).

I do still remember to put lipstick on, yes, even for radio.

I love talking, writing, breathing the new book whether on the phone or in my sleep. I’ve never loved any work more. But as the days grow longer and warmer, I find myself unable to keep pace, unable to keep away from the sun and soil and sidewalks. It struck me reading Scripture this week that our bodies are like seeds.”The earth produces of itself,” Jesus says (Mk 4:28). Our only job is to rest in the ground beneath us. And stretch toward our nutrients when needed.

The seed is in love with the experiment of becoming grown.

If the lesson of winter was “making friends with the dark,” the lesson of spring is “allowing myself to be a seed.” This means napping in the sun when the book stuff feels too urgent. This means going outside when my body is done at the desk. This means pouring a glass of wine when the dog puts her paws on my thighs and says, “Enough.” Some days this happens embarrassingly early, like 2:30 early, and I just let it.

I let myself grow. 

My body is not a machine.

It’s a seed.

Lament for a Bad Friend

I’ve had my heart broken three times in five years by girlfriends.
Theirs is a subtler rupture than the romantic kind. Because you can have more than one friend at a time, the need to “break up” so that you can “move on” isn’t there. You just stop calling. You return her texts slower. You don’t include her on group e-mails. One day, someone asks about how “so and so” is doing and you cock your head, look left, and say in a kind of dreamy way, “Huh. I guess I don’t really know anymore.” It’s a leaky kind of loss, and one we don’t often lament.

The Christian season of Lent is a ripe time for lament. During the forty days before Easter (not including Sundays) we harvest our grief, our longings, our questions wrestled in dust, our dust. No spec of human experience is too small to rub between our folded hands.

The psalmists knew as much. Although the title for the Psalms in Hebrew, Tehillim, means “songs of praise,” scholar Hermann Gunkel identified two of the five major kinds of psalms as lament, one group being individual laments and the other being communal ones. The message is that we need to go public with our collective heartbreak. But so too are there private heartbreaks that may be too bitter, too unformed to share. There are heartbreaks no one else can hold for us.

This week I was invited to offer a mini-sermon inspired by the individual lament of Psalm 41. It was verse 9 that grabbed me in the litany of complaints:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” 

The individual laments of the psalmists are frequently about verbal assaults from others, about the kind of words that wound honor and pick at shame. I know something about this pain. Sometimes when the name of one of those fallen friends comes to mind, my stomach turns a little, first toward anger, then toward the small voice of wonder, “I wonder if I gave up too soon. I wonder if I wasn’t a bad friend too.” If not to her, then surely to someone else. Surely to God. 

And so we lament the subtle ways our hearts have been broken, yes, but we lament the ones we broke too, through inattention or over-attention, through selfishness or cloying-selflessness, on purpose or without thought. We dust off our history of human error.

We thank God that those who need the most forgiveness are the ones able to receive the most love.  

You can listen along with my 30-second piece above, by clicking the title below, or over at where each day of Lent the brilliant Jim Kast-Keat is curating a new sermon based on more psalms of lament.

Lament for a Bad Friend

A close friend, someone I trusted, who shared my bread (and cupcakes too), has stomped my spirit into the ground.

This is a lament for bad friends everywhere.

For the one who makes us feel small.

And the one who doesn’t call.

For the one who’s always busy,

And the one who’s frickin’ needy.

For the one who asks bad questions

And the one who hardly listens.

“Could you,” Jesus asks, “not stay awake with me one hour?”


Oh, Lord, I want better for you too.

The Family Who “Trays” Together

Flickr Creative Commons: Lauren Baker

Flickr Creative Commons: Lauren Baker

“From time to time, some well-meaning adult at church or on the news would preach the value of sitting down at mealtime to talk. But I thought that only applied to families who weren’t talking to one another all the time.”

When fellow blogger Cara Meredith at Be, Mama. Be invited me to write a guest post on an ordinary, everyday life, over and over again ritual of mine that tells a profound story, I immediately thought of tray tables. The mismatched ones we ate on growing up. The steely one Rush and I eat on now.

What at first glance might seem like a ritual for the conversationally inept is actually what keeps my family in tune.

I invite you to read the story here. 

And consider following it up with Andrea Palpant Dilley’s “Slacking Off and the Call to the Sabbath.”

Want to meet up this week? You can find me reading at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC on Tuesday, March 3rd at 7:00 p.m. (*Note the new, new date) or The Book Parlor in Spokane, WA on Thursday, March 5th at 7:00 p.m. 

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: