Living in This World

The Good Place

We’ve had the date on the calendar for weeks. Tonight is the season premiere of the first show I’ve considered appointment television in many years. My family was late to “The Good Place,” but caught up about midway through last season. The show began its first episode with Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) opening her eyes and learning she has died and is in The Good Place, but we quickly learn that she knows very well she doesn’t belong there.

The basis for this exploration of the afterlife is not religion. As Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of Bell’s Good Place neighborhood, tells her, no religion got it all right, but “every religion guessed about 5%.” Instead, the show explores moral philosophy – yes, it’s a comedy, but with content – and how some scholars have explained what makes our actions good or bad.

The show’s creator, Mike Schur, imagined a point system while stuck in Los Angeles traffic…

A screenshot from Michael’s explanation of the points system.

…and from there he built the concept of the show. (Don’t use “Facebook” as a verb, for instance; it’s -5.55.) The point system mostly revolves around the things we do in relationship to other people; it’s about consideration, respect, and awareness.

Or as Jesus put it,

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.“ (Matthew 7:12, NRSV)

Eleanor is pretty terrible, selfish and defensive and crass and injured and broken. Would she have been different with even so much as a nudge toward goodness?

I hope I’m aware when I get a nudge, but most of the time I fear I am even more aware of the people I think could use a nudge. I wonder why they don’t pay attention to guidance that seems so obvious to me. I resent that many of those people call themselves Christian while committing what I perceive as acts of destruction. And it’s just not satisfying to think they might end up with a negative score. I want something to happen now.

How do we avoid despair? Humor helps, I believe, and knowing there are some people who think it matters how we treat each other, and how we treat the world. Still, we could use some help.

Jesus, be a nudge.

Originally written for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Living in This World, Politics, Privilege, The Inner Landscape

Ferocious Humility

I note that the Left is, as we have come to expect, engaged in self-destructive internal wrangling, complete with name-calling and finger-pointing. We are not “on message” because that is not part of our DNA. We disparage the people who offer support to each other on the Right; their lockstep smacks of collusion.

Some voices say that we cannot afford to be so hard on each other in a time when there are forces we must resist, but I would amend that.

We cannot afford to forget each other in a time when there are forces we must resist. We must remember that there are life experiences and points of view different from our own, open conversation instead of assuming it will arise, invite relationship instead of taking it for granted.

The responsibility to act – to remember, to open, to invite – always lies with those of us who benefit from privilege, whether it derives from our race, our level of education, our economic advantage, our orientation, our gender identity, our ability, or our religious identification.

ferocious-humilityWhere can you open a conversation? It’s harder when, admittedly, we’re not all the same. We need to take the time to listen more closely, to ask and answer questions that may seem obvious but (maybe) are not, to be humble rather than defensive when we get things wrong, to commit to inviting new relationships, to be ferocious in our commitment to the greater good.

We all need to cultivate ferocious humility. 


America, Living in This World

Keep taking risks

Yesterday I saw a boy climbing a tree in the neighboring yard behind MPC’s Youth Center. He settled against the slender trunk of what is no more than a sapling, and he began to stare at Teddy and me.

He was holding a gun.

He held it up and pointed at something, not us, but to say it was disconcerting is an understatement.

He looked about 12. I reminded myself that I am an adult, that not everyone grows up in the kind of gun-free household that has been my experience, even that there has been a hawk in the neighborhood.

Teddy stood holding a ball in his mouth, staring back at the boy, silent and still.

“What are you planning to shoot at?” I asked.


“What are you planning to shoot at?”

“I’m not planning to shoot anyone.”

(Please note the rhetorical shift.)

“What kind of gun is that?”

“It’s an ‘airsoft.’ It’s harmless.”

Approximate representation

He continued to watch us, and to adjust his “harmless” weapon, while I Googled “airsoft” and tried to remember what an air gun can do.

This one was shaped like an automatic weapon.

He climbed down about the same time Kathryn arrived to meet us, and a few minutes later he returned to the backyard with his mom. He climbed back up; she passed something to him.

This one was the size and shape of a handgun.

As I said, I first thought the boy might be watching for the neighborhood hawk. I tried to take a picture of it last week, perched on the branch of a tree in the side yard of the Youth Center. When we walked Teddy in the afternoon earlier this week, the same hawk flew out of a tree close to our heads, carrying a squirrel off across the street, still hanging low as it flew over the church parking lot and beyond.

The next months and years will be full of such moments writ large, I think. The people in positions of power will sit in their trees, displaying their own threatening weapons: legislation, social influence, private funding, and an amoral lack of care for those deemed less than. And the very few who are most clever at finding an advantage for themselves will fly off like the hawk.

The rest of us will, I hope, react to stimuli, pull back and evaluate, determine actual danger, then figure out how to respond and resist. It may be tempting for those who can pass as part of the power structure to go about their business, to smile and pretend no actual bad things are happening.

Do not give in to the urge. Keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. Keep taking risks.

Living in This World, Political Theology, Politics

Feel the Burn

The grown-ups at my house don’t watch a lot of TV outside of baseball season, but this being a presidential election year, I have been drawn into watching some cable news coverage. I’m undecided most days; my spouse is not (sorry, I won’t tell you more); our voting age children #FeeltheBern.

When I turn on the foolishly big television intended to make us feel like we’re sitting at the ballpark, and I punch in the channel for the latest debate, press conference or expert analysis, I often find myself watching and listening to distressing behavior at what feels like an unsafe distance. It’s up too close, the red-faced hostility, the fallacious allegations, and the self-aggrandizing claims.

I wonder what the world is coming to, how we will avoid destroying ourselves, and things that matter to us. I feel some mixture of frustration, apathy, and despair. I exercise my privilege, therefore, to press the mute button, or I change the channel to see what’s on HGTV, or I turn the darn thing off and go to bed.

Daddy, Tommy and me – Monumental Methodist Church, 1966

It’s the truth that I grew up starry-eyed about politics because the politician I knew best was my daddy. We practiced our own civic religion; our polling place was at the Methodist church where he learned about faith. I remember vividly walking there from our house and going into the booth with him before I was old enough to read the names on the ballot. I associate goodness with the sound of that lever being pulled to register his vote and open the curtain that revealed us again to the world. Everything about his speech was thoughtful, careful, strong, but gentle.

I wonder how I would have felt if I had been in the Temple courtyard that day Jesus came in and started turning over the tables, knocking over the cages and freeing the birds intended for sacrifice, shouting that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of thieves? Did he not raise his voice? Did he not cause a disturbance? Did he not protest the way things were?

How do we discern the difference between righteous indignation and attention-seeking tirades?

We ask ourselves, what is the underlying intention of the person raising his or her voice? What is the agenda of the person causing the disturbance? What is the desire of the person protesting the status quo?

If we’re people of faith, we ask ourselves, do these loud voice do more than invoke God? Do they align with the values Jesus lived and died to teach us? And, perhaps even more importantly, do they express our Resurrection hope?

I’m not looking for a savior among political candidates, nor do I think that only certain varieties of church-going Christians can express that hope. I am looking for an affirmation of what matters to me, which will allow me to be faithful as I mark a ballot. I hope I’ll feel that burn.

Grrrls, Learned From My Mother, Living in This World, Orientation

The value of this girl

Since I posed the questions about the value of girls, or the way girls perceive their value, it seemed like I ought to answer them myself. And really, if you haven’t, I encourage you to go read the comments, all 95 of them. They are breath-taking, and I am grateful to all who shared their stories.

What was your socio-economic and geographic setting when you were growing up?

I grew up in the oldest, whitest neighborhood in a Southern city with a half-black, half-white population, give or take.  In my pseudonymous blogging days, I called it Jane Austen’s Village, because it was the last place in the world where people lived on their so many pounds a year.

My father was from an old family that didn’t have a lot of money (not property owners); he grew up in a multi-generational household that moved from rented house to rented house, probably to make room for one more cousin or uncle.

My mom did not grow up there, but her mother did, and that family owned a fair amount of land, so they were better off. One of my grandparents (maternal grandfather) graduated from college, after which he had a career in the Marine Corps. My mother was the first woman on either side to graduate from college; my father left college to enlist in the Army Air Corps in WWII, then went straight to law school after the war.

What were the expectations for you?

I think my dad hoped I would find something meaningful to do with my life, but I may be reading back the pride he felt when I started seminary at age 33. When I was younger he hoped I would get a liberal arts education, but what was to come after that felt very vague. The expectations my mother had were unvoiced. I never had a sense that she looked ahead in my life, only a feeling of being critiqued for whatever I was doing in the present.

I used to assume we were disconnected, my mother and I, because I was adopted, but the more I listen to other women’s stories, the less weight I give that factor generally. It is true that when I became engaged, my mother told me my future husband was “noble” for being willing to marry me without knowing my background.

At the Senior Prom, 1978, with the boy who kissed me by the lockers.

Who told you what value and success might look like for a woman?

My mother told me that a woman’s value derived from marriage to a man who should have enough success for both.

And even though I loved my dad, who was a great guy and a success in plenty of ways, I hate it for her if that was her personal definition of value and success.

Was that success wrapped up in attention from men?

Therefore, yes.

Were there definitions of what kind of attention was appropriate?

Absolutely. I was to be attractive enough to get a man interested in marrying me, but without sleeping with him, and I was to remain attractive enough to keep him from sleeping with anyone else.

The number of ways in which I failed at fulfilling this rubric is astonishing to calculate, even though I did follow the rule about waiting until the marriage she seemed surprised I managed to have.

Was there cognitive dissonance? (In other words, did you hear one thing and see another?)

The real conflict was between what my mother taught and what my dad seemed to value. He liked bright women and women who pursued their interests. He liked it that I was smart. He was frustrated during the periods of time when I couldn’t get it together academically. He was dubious about my marriage for reasons different from my mother’s and often said things to me about how a woman should be able to support herself.

Was there an a-ha moment suggesting there was something wrong with the whole social construction?

No, I bought into it completely until my 30s, when my marriage ended. Although it wasn’t working well, I just kept figuring that if I could do better at the rubric, things would improve.

And since I’m reading “The Purity Myth,” did virginity form part of the definition of your value?

Lord, yes. And I was Judge-y McJudge-erson about other girls and their virtue, I’m ashamed to say.

And how about marriage?

I’ve addressed that above, but I also want to say that marriage was one thing, but having the wedding was the focus for me. And I understand that to be just as immature as it sounds. I had no idea what lay on the other side.

Do your past and/or current understandings of sexual orientation (yours and others) form part of the subtext of this conversation?

Sure. I learned that men could be gay at 11 (in 7th grade), when I watched “That Certain Summer” with my mom. It was a Movie-of-the-Week. “Can that really happen,” I asked? She was surprisingly matter-of-fact about the reality of homosexuality…in MEN.

I was in college before I knew women could be other than straight, and the first references I heard to lesbians were cruel and derisive. Perhaps because of that negativity and certainly because my notion of value derived from the philosophy obtained from my mother–and really the subtext was that she might value me if the right man did–it never crossed my mind to be anything other than straight.

I choose those words carefully. It never crossed my mind. It didn’t occur to me until much, much later that my heart mattered. I persisted in my attempts to fit into a paradigm that I thought would win my mother’s love. I kept trying, even long after she died. It seemed like the one way I might be able to please her, finally.

So I didn’t so much reject the possibility of being other than straight myself as never even consider it, because I was more concerned with the approval of the one person who never gave it to me. And even after she was gone, when it first crossed my mind that my heart might be tuned differently, I still wanted to live up to her definition of success. (Thus my second marriage, but that’s another story.)

What’s your basis for valuing yourself now?

I am a beloved child of God, and that ought to be enough for anyone, but I fear I put too much emphasis on my professional identity–you know, being fierce and fabulous for Jesus, in a very particular way–and not enough on being valuable simply for being.


Thank you again to all who commented on last week’s post. The comments are open here for more discussion, if you like.

Grrrls, Living in This World, Orientation, When I was a little girl

The value of girls

I’ve been writing vignettes about my past, and there are more to come, as I try to reach a deeper understanding of myself and how I got to be the age I am without figuring out sooner that I’m not straight  (in case, gentle reader, you hadn’t caught on to that part, on which there is more to come.) I thought I was pretty much the last girl raised with the post-Victorian genteel Southern attitudes I like to blame for my late epiphany, but I’m discovering that women considerably younger than I am and raised in very different social settings internalized the same ideas about how their value derived from the attention of men.

My friend,Lia, said it would be good to have a discussion about it, in longer phrases than the 140 character limit allowed by Twitter, so here we are.

Living the dream: yours truly as a bride, dancing with her father, 10/8/83.

Some questions to get us started:

  • What was your socio-economic and geographic setting when you were growing up?
  • What were the expectations for you?
  • Who told you what value and success might look like for a woman?
  • Was that success wrapped up in attention from men?
  • Were there definitions of what kind of attention was appropriate?
  • Was there cognitive dissonance? (In other words, did you hear one thing and see another?)
  • Was there an a-ha moment suggesting there was something wrong with the whole social construction?
  • And since I’m reading “The Purity Myth,” did virginity form part of the definition of your value?
  • And how about marriage?
  • Do your past and/or current understandings of sexual orientation (yours and others) form part of the subtext of this conversation?
  • What’s your basis for valuing yourself now?

I look forward to your thoughts and stories and hope you’ll share them here.

LGBT, Living in This World, Love


"But the word of God is not chained." (2 Timothy 2:9b) 

Devil_mythic_thumb4 Not too long ago I had my hands on the Devil card from a Tarot deck based on the Greek Myths. Pan gambols, if statically, holding the chains of an unhappy-looking, naked couple. The key to the image is that the man and the woman are actually quite free to walk away. Interpretively it's a card about addictions or habits or ways of being we feel have us trapped, imprisoned, held in chains, and although it's sort of a shocking card to turn over and hold in your hand, it holds the promise of freedom.

I looked it up, because before I was a pastor, and even before I was a seminarian, I was a library reference assistant, and I always look things up. 

Sometimes the chains we let bind us are on the inside, and sometimes they are held by other people, but as the card suggests, usually — usually — we're letting them. 

But, not always.

Either way, it's hard to get out of the chained-up position. It's the hardest kind of work to admit your situation and to look at what needs to happen to extricate yourself and to take the first step in that direction, and then another, and then another. 

Sometimes all you can do is breathe, and then breathe again, looking vaguely in the direction of your goal.

Even though the epistle tells us the word of God is not chained, I'm afraid there are people who use that same word to chain others, or try to, to create a prison of words of shame and derision and hate, all in the name of God. People, in the name of Jesus, hurt others who are different just because they can. And that's the Devil card, a part of our human nature to take power over others just to make ourselves feel more secure. It's a despicable part of our human nature, especially when it leads to the kind of bullying that drove Tyler Clementi to kill himself. 

The Devil card reminds me of the line in the Apostle's Creed that I like the least, the one that tells us Jesus descended into Hell. 

I live in a house where 15-year-olds ask questions such as, "Is it okay for me to be confirmed when I have such a low Christology?" Our view of Jesus, his humanity and his divinity, is a not infrequent topic of conversation. That descent into Hell supports LP's low Christology, doesn't it? It's a human thing to do, to go down into the darkest places, to the cave where the chains bind us, the chains of disappointment and low expectations and past suffering and even other people's authentic cruelty. Even Jesus, according to our faith ancestors, had to go there, for a full human experience. 

But the Word of God is not chained. It is not. And I believe that Word is Love. So even though I'm having a hard day — a very hard day — and even though I hurt — I really do — I do not despair. The chains are temporal and temporary, mine. And out in the world, the chains that can hurt people are removable, if people who understand God's Word to be Love will say it out loud.