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Where we will not go

unnamedIt’s a question that keeps coming up in interviews. It’s why titling a book is no small thing, why titling ours took over 100 e-mails. What does it mean to be “talking taboo?” And more specifically, how do we as a culture decide where we will not go in polite company or public conversation?

I come from a family who will go almost anywhere. Maybe it’s the Midwestern in us that makes typically tacky subjects commonplace. I remember climbing the steps to my bedroom at Grannie Annie and Grandpa Bob’s house as a young girl and seeing the vandalized “No Parking Zone” sign turned into a “No Farting Zone” with a little bit of gumption and white out. My mother was the first to tell me about the mechanics of sex, and I, in turn, was the first to tell my elementary school friends. When I married Rush, I informed him that he would be coming with me to my gynecological appointments because it was important that he knew “how it all worked.”  My body was his business now.

It’s not surprising that when we “talk taboo” so  much of what we’re talking about has to do with the body. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about how the regulation of the social body always plays out in the regulation of the human body in her classic book, Purity and Danger. It’s no wonder then that the margins of our body, the orifices that are responsible for letting the right things in and keeping the wrong things out, are so hotly contested. The margins of any system are a threat to its stability and thus the most susceptible to being controlled – whether by force or cultural coercion. Even a cursory look into the systematic regulation of black bodies in America – from slavery to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration –  proves as much. (Watch the recent PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

In Talking Taboo, there are many essays that address what happens at the boundaries of our body –  in the form of breast milk and menstrual blood, in the act of masturbation and sex. So, too, though are there essays about what happens at the borders of our social body – in the debate over immigration reform and in the silence on domestic violence victims in prison. Taboo is not just something that is considered off-limits. It’s something so powerful that it must be contained.

In a recent interview for God Complex Radio (click here to listen), I explain that taboo is not something dirty. It’s something sacred. We see this in the purity laws of the Old Testament that carefully laid out rules for protecting the “life-force” of women’s blood or men’s semen. While these rules are often perceived as antiquated or oppressive, they nevertheless show reverence for the body’s ability to create and expend life, a power that is God-like in its mystery . Some things are circumscribed from public conversation not because they are impolite but because they are intimate. Some things are meant for a community no bigger than the trinity.

It is a lesson I am constantly negotiating as a writer. I have had many frank conversations with friends about if I can write about what they said to me, what I thought about that conversation, or where I am challenged. Some have said, no, that was private. Others have said, yes, change my name first. One friend altogether disagrees with my writing publicly about my personal life. Then there is my dad who when I say, “I wish I could write about you getting handcuffed last week,” says “My life is an open book.”

Where I will not go is never just about me. Taboo is never entirely personal. There are always communal constraints – deforming ones, yes, but good ones, too. My body is not my own. Neither is my life. It’s yours, too. Ours. Tend to it.

Writer’s Envy: Strangers at My Door

photo (26)“Every writer needs writer friends. There are no water coolers in the writer’s office,” writes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the acknowledgements of his new book. Yes, even the acknowledgements is quote-worthy. It is enough to make one of his writer friends go mad.

Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests just pubbed this month, and it could hardly be more compelling. A perpetual critic and contrarian, I gush only when feeling particularly dopey or grateful and Jonathan’s book serves up heaping spoonfuls of the latter with none of the former. Jonathan is director of the School for Conversion and a member of the Rutba House, a community in Durham that takes many of its cues from monasticism; out of this context he shares striking stories of hospitality.

It’s hard not to envy the man. He wrote his first book in two weeks. He wakes up in the wee hours of morning before the kids are awake to put thoughts into words, and says, like running, the discipline gives him a high. He’s the kind of guy my also non-gushy friend Juli says she could sit at the feet of for hours. The first time Blair heard him speak at a panhandling forum here in Durham, he said Jonathan’s country accent put him at ease. If the world needs more folks with a “non-anxious presence,” it’s hard to think of a better model.

I met Jonathan through another writer friend named Jason. And because we do what we are told when Jason’s involved, we met up and swapped writing. His is powerful. Sparse on adjectives and adverbs, his stories let the Spirit of God work her way into the reader at her own pace.

It’s a simple enough premise. On the knocker of his front door, the words of Jesus read: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. We know the words to be true, we know the gift of strangers, how they douse us with surprise in a world dripping with boredom. But we also know how we deceive ourselves when we are hearers of others’ conviction rather than doers of our own. Jonathan writes in the book,

“I have often found myself sorely disappointed, both by my own easy answers and by my fellow Christians, as I’ve tried to wrestle with the unspeakable reality that so many homeless friends face. This book is a confession that, at precisely the places where we should have been, people of faith have often been absent. What’s more, many homeless friends who have struggled in the darkness, lonely and losing hope, have prayed, “Who’s there?”- only to hear silence. These stories seek to honor their struggle with faith.”

Perhaps that’s the best thing I know how to do these days: tell stories. Stories are the way we speak about what matters to us in detail, rather than dogma. Nonprofit consultant Andy Goodman says, “If you don’t have the kinds of stories that people want to tell and retell, you haven’t gotten the most basic skill.”

It’s how I know Strangers at My Door is worth reading. I found myself wanting to tell Jonathan’s stories over and over again like they were my own. It’s the kind of book you read aloud to someone else while sitting shotgun. It’s the kind of book you don’t lend out, instead grunting, “Get your own,” followed by an apologetic laugh. It’s the kind of book that could give you writer’s envy if you let it, but it doesn’t.

Because strangely, you recognize yourself as the stranger, too, knocking on the door of belonging and waiting, hopping from one foot to the next, for it to open wide enough for us all.

Want a free copy of Strangers at My Door? I’m buying. Enter to win by answering the following question in the comments section: When were you the stranger who was welcomed? I’ll choose a winner on Monday, November 25th. 

Women who go to women’s retreats

photo (24)

Two weeks ago, I went to my first women’s retreat. “Pray for me,” I laughed to anyone who would listen.

Two friends from church picked me up in a sedan on Friday afternoon, the sun high and the air dry. “Do you want the front seat?” one of them asked. “Ah, the pressure!” I cried. The front seat is for the shotgun messenger, the one with words that are as numerous  as the miles. I settled in for a few minutes before rummaging around the glove compartment for an iPod cable to deflect attention. Soon, though, I found myself turning the volume down a little, then a little further, then yanking the cable out altogether. We were telling stories, tumbling stories. How we met our husbands. What kind of parents we thought we’d be. Why the three of us were driving up into the mountains now.

I recently attended the North Carolina Women’s Preaching Festival here in Durham. Jeanette Stokes, founder of the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South, gave the keynote speech and in it reflected on her feminist “conversion.” She remembered it vividly. At the time she was an undergraduate student at Smith College but living and taking classes at nearby Amherst for the year. She relished being around all those young men. Young men in the classroom and the cafeteria and everywhere on campus. Until she wondered why she cared so much about all those young men. Why being around all those young men made her feel so special. (She was only one of 24 women living on campus at the time.) It was then she decided that men garnered enough of our culture’s praise and attention. It was women who she would devote her life to, to listen to them and to value them.

There were eighty women nestled into the hillside in Valle Crucis. Old women, young women, black women, white women, baby-bearing women and lipstick-wearing women. Our speaker was a woman. Our worship leader was a woman. Regis Philbin was a woman (see pic above), or so he was for the purpose of the skit team. Funny thing is, I reflected later, it didn’t feel overly “womanish.”

I admit that “womanish” often scares me. Seminars, studies, books, and pink-felted bibles geared toward women can make me feel like a market segment rather than a whole person. When I heard about the IF Gathering, a women’s conference taking place in Texas next year, my first thought was, “Oh, cool” and then “Oh, no” as I imagined mingling with 1,200 of my kind. I didn’t know if it was the introvert in me or the feminist that cringed, thinking, wouldn’t this all be more enjoyable if we stopped segregating the sexes?

For many of us under 40, it was our first women’s retreat. Others were skeptical, too, beforehand. And surprised when they got there. “What did you expect?” I asked one young woman. “For it to be cliquish,” she said. But it wasn’t, we marveled. There was a group hike to a hermitage, community yoga in the farmhouse, and a few rousing games of table tennis in which I was equally matched. On the care ride home, we laughed over first periods and first trips to the gyno. The womanish shoe fit at times, and when it didn’t, there was space to talk about it.

We had our Talking Taboo launch party last weekend and the Holy Spirit was fierce as five of our contributors read aloud their essays. I dare say my cup ranneth over with the ruah of women. I felt like I belonged to a tribe of peace-makers, wielding anger and mercy with equal finesse and fortitude. In my comments to the crowd, I likened myself to a spiritual midwife, helping to birth these courageous contributions into the anthology, and now the world.

Women-only books, conferences, and retreats can seem counterproductive to kingdom work. At the same time, I’m aware of a cultural history in which women overvalue the presence of men because it’s validating to have “people of power” at the table. I find myself doing this not infrequently; in fact, if I’m being honest, I did it when I first put a man on the launch party flyer for Talking Taboo because I was worried that men wouldn’t come to the event. Silly me. They came anyway. And still we were enough. Women are enough.

There’s something to be gleaned from women-only spaces, even if they do make me nervous sometimes. It feels important that I learn to love them because I think this has something to do with learning to love myself.That being said, I may never love 1,200 of us in the same room.

Pray for me.

Not having kids is a sacrifice, too

IMG950910Our best friends in Durham welcomed their new baby girl a few weeks ago, and I could not get to the hospital fast enough to visit them. Sure, I was pumped to finally bestow the onesie we had picked out months earlier, a gray tee emblazoned with Patrick Swayze’s head and the line from Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts baby in a corner.” But there was a deeper ache that came after all the joy that I couldn’t decipher.

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith officially launches today. It’s been two months since we went to press, four months since our Indiegogo campaign, six months since we got endorsers, ten months since we decided on the cover, one year since Enuma and I finished editing the manuscript, and almost a year a half since the project was conceived by the women behind I Speak For Myself, Inc. And during that time, on and off at odd moments of the day,  the concluding line of my essay in the anthology has circled round my mind: “The survival of the human race depends on sacrifices of many sorts, made for the good of all and the love of God.”

My husband and I are married without children, have been for over seven years now. If you were to believe the media’s coverage of other couples who are “childless by choice,” you would think we were independent, career-oriented, trendy, travelling-fools who would rather spend an evening out on the town than home on the range. You might also think we were selfish.

So reads the headline of a Daily Beast article that ran early this year: “Many of those opting for childlessness have legitimate, if perhaps selfish, reasons for their decision.” The writer interviewed young twenty and thirty somethings in the New York area who cited fears that having kids would take over their entire lives, hamper their mobility, and be a drain on their finances. In another article that ran locally in Durham Magazine this year, not having children, said one woman, freed hers up to do whatever she wanted with her time such as getting biweekly manicures and practicing yoga. “I need a lot of time to take care of myself,” she reasoned.

With the birthrate stagnate or declining in many developed countries, Rush’s and my decision to remain without kids of our own is increasingly not so taboo. What remains taboo in Christian culture is calling our decision a sacrifice instead of one of convenience. (In all likelihood it is both, but I presume the same is true of having biological kids.) After all, my pastor once said that couples who use birth control essentially treat children as hobbies to be picked up or discarded at leisure.

“Are we sure we don’t want to go through all that?” I asked Rush in bed the night we visited our friends in the hospital. “Sure, sure, that we don’t want biological kids? I just felt this impossible loss today that that would never be us.”

Truth be told, I also felt the impossible anxiety that runs rampant in people my age: FOMO or “fear of missing out.”

There is nothing we could do that would get 250 likes on Facebook short of giving birth to our own child.

Nothing we could do that would bring friends out of the woodwork to rally around us or family into town to celebrate for weeks at a time.

Nothing we could do to make church ladies so very happy and young children so very awestruck.

I don’t mean to be petty, just honest, that for most people publishing a book or  travelling to a Russian orphanage will never be as highly anticipated, praised, and supported as biological parenthood.

Yes, by choosing not to have children of our own flesh and blood, Rush and I will miss out on some of the most important rituals of human life. But I dare still call our choice a sacrifice. What the media has missed in all their coverage of the “childless epidemic” is that, for some of us, choosing not to have children of our own doesn’t mean we’re choosing to eschew community. We are sacrificing the (still) cultural norm of the nuclear family to make ourselves available.

To those new friends who had a baby.

To faith communities that need our time.

And to the Holy Spirit who dwells in the portable tent of our lives.

(You can read my full essay, “Married Without Children,” in Talking Taboo, available now through Amazon, White Cloud Press, or your local bookstore such as Flyleaf Books or The Regulator Bookshop where we’ll be reading this week.) 

On publishing and the “female perspective”

bdac053c3a8f11e39f4822000aeb1254_8It’s been nearly impossible to get through a church service these days without the number of male writers, theologians, and gods outweighing those of the female kind. I would say tally for yourself next Sunday but I know that the road to madness is paved with chalk marks. Chalk marks sully the best dressed intentions.

Still a dose of sermonic affirmative action is in order if we are to believe that “the female perspective” is worth hearing. I tread lightly here since I am not entirely sure that something akin to “the female perspective” actually exits. It was something mystery writer Dorothy Sayers argued bitingly against. When asked by the media to provide “the woman’s point of view on things,” Sayers responded, “Go away and don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.” Women are individuals, first, and human ones at that.

Reading Sayers this week, I admit it was tempting for me to say, “Yes, thank you, please, madam, let me take a rest from the plight of the woman.” After all, Sayers points out, men don’t often concern themselves with such things as “The History of the Male” or “Males of the Bible.” While there is such a thing as Men’s Studies departments in some universities (and I applaud these), it is still largely thought that men are the norm and women the theme. A life reading supplementary tomes about oneself is a tiresome one.

What does exist is “the female experience” which comes out of our treatment as second-class citizens in this and many other societies. A man once asked me if my blog was about “women’s issues” and I said I supposed it was in as much as I am a woman and I take issue with a good deal of what happens to me. When I signed with my publisher to write a book for their new line showcasing women authors, I made sure to verify with my editor that there was no “boob quotient” to fulfill, although Rush pointed out I do take to writing about them more often than most.

It would be a disservice to my sex to not acknowledge our shared heritage and continuing plight as something that happens to a whole class of people rather than just individuals in isolation. Here is where my new friend Dorothy and I must disagree. It’s too dangerous a road to chalk up the differences in the male and female perspectives as a result of individual preferences alone. It smacks of the “personal relationship with God” kind of piety that divorces private choices from public structures. If the endorsement from Christianity Today for the 1971 publication of her essays doesn’t convince you that women are fighting against a whole category of stereotypes, I don’t know what will. You get the feeling the reviewer is surprised to find it “a sane, delightful, common-sensical pre-answer to today’s militant feminists.” You get the feeling they expect women as a class to be hysterical, unpleasant, irrational, angry shrews.

What’s on your bookshelf right now? How many authors are women? How many authors are black? What about non-Western writers? I have a far cry to go by all accounts. But what we read – and reference in sermons – matters, as it instructs us and our congregations in whom they should give their attention in the world. If it is the poor we are to serve, then it is the poor we must listen to. If it is the widow we are to care for, then it is the widow we must seek out. Not to glean their perspective like some farmer collecting profit but to sit at the feet of experiences foreign to our own.

Perhaps the road to sanity is paved not with chalk marks but book marks. Book marks make the best read plans.

The art of quick recovery

4732739He met me out on the soggy front porch, asking what he could carry in from the car, and I walked around him and said I’d get it later. Let me cry first.

I don’t cry often. Sometimes I don’t think I cry enough. I don’t cry enough for a woman with a good heart and a blog about feelings. Rush cries when he is angry. I cry when I am stressed. Face clenched. Stomach tight. Tears flood my face like a dam come down, and I’m the one who forced it.

I made a misstep. I knew it was happening as it happened but I hadn’t the wit to stop it. You’re making too much of it, people who were there would say, but I’ve always had a bent toward the dramatic. It’s the bad habit of a writer to make ordinary details  into cautionary tales. Like every good Christian who’s learned to bridle her tongue, I thought later what I might have said but the regret was already burrowing.

At the last Courage & Renewal retreat I attended, I got up in front of the whole lot of clergy and faith leaders and told them about my penchant for dancing, wherever, with whomever, salsa in a Latin restaurant in Raleigh or freestyle on my couch in Durham. A woman with frizzy blond hair the color of snow and straw scurried toward me after the session with eyes as big as a toddler’s and told me she, too, loved to dance. She had just returned from a week at dance camp, she told me, and I cooed jealousy. Not until we returned to the large group did she tell us she was in the advanced class. “It’s not that we had mastered the steps,” she shared, rocking forward on her toes for the punchline. “We were advanced because we’d mastered the art of quick recovery.” She cackled, adding, “If you took time to apologize after a mistake, you were already a step behind.”

I don’t know much about beavers but I’ve read the same is true. Out of the teeth of survival, broken damns are replaced overnight. The work we are given to do goes on.

I did apologize. I took stock of how I might have done it differently, too, even came up with a phrase I could use next time the shock gets caught in my throat. Rush drew me into his lap as I wept and said he’d do the grocery shopping tonight, what sounded good? No, no. I’m coming with you, I said.

It took only an evening of white wine and bedtime prayers.

Review and Rejoice

“You waited over an hour to tell me the good news?” Rush asked over the phone.

“Well, yes,” I admitted.

“You’re a mess.”

“I know.”

logo-transI’ve had to pinch myself awake from a self-protective stupor to celebrate the upcoming release of Talking Taboo. While it’s still a week or two away from the official pub date, it’s growing realer this week with the appearance of our official first review in Publishers Weekly. They even gave us a big old star:

In the fourth volume of the I Speak for Myself series, editors Lane and Okoro (Reluctant Pilgrim) have compiled a bold collection of personal essays from young Christian women. The writers are drawn from numerous denominations (including Baptist, Catholic, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and Unitarian Universalist, and some are even agnostic) and share an even wider range of experiences negotiating the intersection of faith, gender, and identity. All of them speak candidly about historically “taboo” topics such as domestic violence, religious doubt, homosexuality, masturbation, menstruation, and sexism in the church. Their beautifully honest stories disrupt a tradition of silence. Many of the essays shed light on how painful it can be to confront patriarchy within one’s own religious tradition. Although some may be frustrated by the lack of a cohesive structure or the editors’ decision to omit some type of conclusion, many readers will be inspired as these women reclaim their voice. This significant book offers a glimpse of the diverse lived realities of Christian women and encourages the church to accept the full humanity of women. (Oct.)

It might seem funny to have to remind oneself to celebrate. To put a date for dinner at Panciuto on the calendar. To cajole oneself to call her husband to tell him the good news.

But rejoicing in the Lord (and “the full humanity of women”) is a command in the Christian tradition that requires as much discipline as any of the others. With every flex of the muscle, we loose our joy into the world.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
- Mary Oliver

Trust like a woman

Woman Returning Tennis VolleyJust like a woman, I think to myself, when I read the statistics. According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, women tennis players challenge play calls on average 25% fewer times than men. The crazy part? Their rate of getting the challenge right is nearly identical. One could argue that women assess their risk more accurately before acting. But it could also be something more fundamental, something more elemental, something closer to the bone: Women assess their voice less accurately before speaking.

Call it self-deprecation or internalized sexism or fear of confrontation but there is something holding women back – statistically, speaking – from trusting their own perspective. “She doesn’t know how gifted she is, ” one male pastor told me of a candidate he’s overseeing for ordination. Another colleague shared, “She’s getting push back from her committee and is hesitant to move forward.” I reminded both of them, “It might be because she’s a woman.”

It’s not biological, not because we’re the weaker sex, no it’s none of that hackneyed theory that makes me cry “woman.” It’s history. A history that told us our voice should be silent (Religion), our voice was hysterical (Medicine), our voice didn’t count (Politics.) Momentum is against us but the tide has always been turned with small ripples.

At the Center for Courage & Renewal, we have a practice at the end of each retreat of writing a letter to our self that then gets mailed by facilitators some time later. (Read more about it here.) I thought this was a rather curious thing to do at the conclusion of my first retreat, seeing as how I had written plenty, pages and pages of plenty, about what I was discovering about myself and my work in the world. Why the added step of this self-addressed soliloquy? 

The Quaker word for the voice of truth within us is our inner teacher. A lot of Christians I know get the jitters when I tell them we spend days on retreat listening to this voice and hearing it speak in community. Sounds self-indulgent. Sinful even. Untrustworthy.

Except it’s not any of those things because the voice of truth is God’s voice encountering mine, the Spirit breathing into me, the words of Christ made flesh in my flesh. Paul asks the church at Corinth, “Who knows a person’s depth except their own spirit that lives in them?”

Often I turn to everywhere but within when looking for advice to trust. Experts. Colleagues. My mother. Even reading Scripture at times can keep my mind full of words about how God has spoken to others without opening myself to how God is speaking to me now.

Trusting our voice doesn’t necessarily mean we challenge more play calls on the job, although it might mean trying and seeing what happens. It doesn’t mean we stop seeking out other’s perspectives in our personal life, although it might mean going to them after we’ve listened to the voice within. It means that we risk believing that our voice is worthy of an audience and worthy now.

However shrill. However shaky. However strong.

Trust like a woman. 

Undercover compassion

photo (20)We have a rule in our house. It’s a non-verbal rule, a cue really, that when the lights go out, so too does the chatter. This is not the time to ask Rush whether we should post the folding bookshelf on craigslist or what he thinks about the power of paradox. But one gets impatient with rules when she’s a writer and ideas come quicker than sleep.

The lights are still on. I ask, “Do you want to know what I learned?”

I am always learning things, too many things like how Seamus Heaney thought poetry, like Jesus, “takes our eyes away from the obsession of the moment” or how according to Fred Bahnson it’s the outskirts of ecosystems (and communities) where the “greatest exchanges of life take place.” There are so many things that I don’t know where to put them unless I them put in someone’s ear.

Rush is shirtless, leaning up against the dark framed bed. He hasn’t reached for the light yet but the alarm is set and the magazine flipped down. I try to keep this short.

“It’s John O’Donohue, you know that Irish poet, well it’s his book and he’s so philosophical. I can’t write like that. I admire it, not envy it, but I admire it because he can talk and talk and talk and there are no footnotes. Is that plagiarism, you think? No. Anyway, I know, I know, what I learned. It’s that belonging and longing are two sides of the same coin.”

Rush yawns. “Oh yeah?”

He makes me a little mad but I know better. I know the light is turning yellow and I should be slowing down but I’m not. I go even faster.

“Yeah. They’re married, paired. It’s a paradox. It’s everywhere. I haven’t quite figured it out how it fits with my narrative but it makes sense and I will.”

He should have told me then. I told him later he should have told me then that he wasn’t ready to listen. But he disagrees with me about belonging and longing and I should have told him then that I didn’t want his opinion. I wanted to unload so I could unwind.

So I get flustered. Like I’m not explaining it right. I try to explain it using more words but it just gets more worse and I start to think I married someone stupid.

“Turn out the lights. I’m done talking.”

Marriage counselors tell you, Ephesians tell you, not to let the sun go down on your anger. Sometimes, though, the night is the only place I can take my anger to die.

I stew for a minute under the covers. Then it’s God’s turn to put something in my ear. “You’re not frustrated with Rush. It’s you, Erin.”

I’ve learned this before from God, that business about logs in your own eye that need to be addressed before pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s. I’ve also heard that that which most annoys us in others often has something to do with the parts of ourselves we’ve not made peace with. We’d do well to ask ourselves, “What does my reaction toward that person say about what’s going on with me right now?”

I was frustrated over a week of writing that was just ugly. For having thoughts in my head so frenzied only to have them frizzle out on the page. For starting every sentence of my manuscript with I was, I went, I want.

I was fussy.

A good night’s sleep didn’t work any miracles. I dreamed of my writing professor and woke up sad not to have her input anymore. Rush kissed me goodbye and I told him his striped shirt looked nice. He apologized.

And I got out of bed, a little worn, my eye still twitching, but ready to learn at the feet of my new teacher.

Her name is Compassion.

The shape of love

erin+rush (web ready)-218It was 2nd/3rd-century thinker Tertullian who captured how the early Christians were known. It was not for their theological exposition, nor for their creedal consistency or aesthetic discipline. No. It was something entirely more elemental. “Look,” people would say, “how they love one another.”

Look, people would say, because you could see love in action. There were practices of love: welcoming the stranger, breaking bread across social lines, sharing possessions in common. Their love was recognizable. It had a pattern to it that was consistent enough among each individual believer to weave a whole tapestry of truth. And the truth about Christianity was love.

Love. It does not come naturally to me. When I read Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Corinth, I do not know whether they are supposed to be comforting or terrifying: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I wonder if some people read this and think to themselves, “Yes, I may not be able to move mountains but love I can do.” I read it and think, “Anything but love,” and then, “Well, shit.”

Love. The feeling does not come naturally to me. When I hear love preached, I want to know what it looks like so I can follow it’s pattern. I pick up the practice of love from books and movies and glances across the aisle at church or the table at dinner. I am an anthropologist of love, keeping track of the habitats and conditions under which it builds a life.

I’m reading A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken and whatever else happens in the end, I will remember this: how they loved. It’s a marriage of magic between Sheldon and Davy but there’s nothing magic about how love is sustained between them. They had a name for everything: Creeping Separateness was the condition of taking love for granted in marriage characterized by “ceasing to do things together” and “finding separate interests;” the Shining Barrier was the shield by which love would be protected in marriage, buffeted by “the principle of sharing” (if one person liked something there must be something the other could find likable about it as well), “the principle of spontaneity” (if one had an impulse the other had to follow it), and “the principle of the affirmative” (if one arrived at a certain belief the other had to consider that the belief was more worthy than its disbelief); and then there was the Appeal to Love, a meeting of the minds that happened every two weeks between the couple to answer this simple question: “What will be best for our love?”

I wish my church had such clear principles for loving. And loving well. I’ve just returned from a week in Wisconsin through my work with the Center for Courage & Renewal helping clergy and faith leaders develop “habits of the heart.” It was there that I was reminded of the power of a community defined not firstly by its beliefs but by the practices that flow from its beliefs. It felt tricky planning an event for such a diverse group of participants; there were Unitarian Universalists and Quakers, Baptists and Buddhists, Tarot Card readers and Methodists. Where, a few people ventured to ask me, was Jesus in any of this?

Look, I would say, how we love one another. A love defined by ten principles we call our Touchstones ranging from the simple “give and receive welcome” to the more philosophical “when the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” We learn how to respond to one another with a counter-cultural love that doesn’t first seek to comfort (we do not hand tissues to tears or offer pats on the back) or control (we commit to asking each other open questions instead of giving advice.) Something radical happens in a space held so fiercely by a few important principles and a couple of wise facilitators: we find it safe to show up as we are. There is no whitewashing of difference and no effort to agree on some kumbaya theology. There is only the common ground of the love beneath our feet.

Rush and I have found our own patterns of love in marriage. During arguments, Rush wants to be immediately comforted but I often find my heart too calloused to even reach a hand over his knee. So in college we came up with something I could say, we could say, when the emotions weren’t there yet but the will to practice love was strong. “I love you, I love you, I love you. I want to be kind.”

What is best for our love in marriage? What is best for our love in friendships? What is best for our love in the church? Do we dare commit to it in writing, embody it in practice, and hold it with the importance of any creed that went before it?

Love. It doesn’t come easily for me. First, I name it with my partner. Then, we practice it together. Finally, the practice becomes a pattern and the pattern becomes a habit and I have to name it anew when it slips out of consciousness.

Still.

Look, they will say, how She loves us.