The next round of edits for Improvising with Godis due on Friday, so I’ve got just a few to share this week in lightning-quick fashion:
1. This quote from George Saunders, shared by my friend Sharon Core on Facebook last week:
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
2. This image posted by Rachel Hackenberg on Instagram:
Ana will talk to liberals and conservatives, religious leaders, writers, activists, and people you should know for a show that’s about listening instead of arguing. And this isn’t just about figuring out why some dude in Michigan voted for Trump. Though that’s part of it. We should figure that out. It’s about actually exploring division instead of putting it in side-by-side boxes on television, whether it’s a conversation about politics or religion, race or gender, or belief itself. Ana has accrued a bunch of unlikely friends in politics, and she has strong disagreements with those friends, like this one guy whose name rhymes with “whoa far borough” for example.
The first episode is with a Wisconsin pastor who talks about how his community voted for Obama… before voting for Trump. Now doesn’t that sound interesting? And maybe even a little healing to listen to?
A little Lone Star braggin’, but this entry relates to the previous one, actually. Consider #5:
5. When New Hope’s mayor, Jess Herbst, came out as transgender and the extremely conservative town of 600 was like *shrug*.
I heard Ana Marie Cox interviewed about her new podcast, and she talked about the disconnect between how mean we can be to one another online v. how much we take care of one another in our physical communities, even across political divides. Certainly there are exceptions to this, but I’ve found it to be generally true. She said, if we were as nasty to one another face to face as we were online, maybe there’d be no hope for us. But we’re not. So there is hope.
Teen suicide attempts in the U.S. declined after same-sex marriage became legal and the biggest impact was among gay, lesbian and bisexual kids, a study found.
The research found declines in states that passed laws allowing gays to marry before the Supreme Court made it legal nationwide. The results don’t prove there’s a connection, but researchers said policymakers should be aware of the measures’ potential benefits for youth mental health.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for all U.S. teens. Suicidal behavior is much more common among gay, lesbian and bisexual kids and adults; about 29 percent of these teens in the study reported attempting suicide, compared with just 6 percent of straight teens.
“What improv really does is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice, where mistakes really don’t matter,” says Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University.
Ansaldo runs Camp Yes And, an improv summer camp for teens with autism. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are rare — he knows of about a half dozen — but their number is growing.
He refers to improv as a technology for human connection and communication.
And Janna Graf, Shaw’s mom, says she has seen how it has helped her son.
She says he can ramble, but recently she saw him introduce himself at a church group: “He said, ‘My name’s Shaw; I’m 8-years-old,’ and then he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person,” Graf says. “He’s learning to wait.”
We like to call Baxter and Rey “God’s Perfect Killing Machines.” Of course our cats are inside cats, so the most they’re killing are catnip toys, dustbunnies and laser pointers. But I maintain that you can tell if someone’s a cat person based on whether they see this quality as a feature or a bug:
7. Alan H. Green sings “Nobody’s Listening.”
I’m sinfully proud of my friend Alan Green, Broadway actor. (We were in a show together in college and he graciously calls me his “first leading lady,” but we all pretty much basked in his incredible talent.) Here he is singing a song from a show amusingly called “How to Steal an Election.” Start around 3:00 to get right to the song.
8. Cookies! I continue to bake my way through Dorie Greenspan’s Cookies cookbook, which is delicious fun. But I’m also keeping track of what I bake each week and for whom–which has been a great way of marking the weeks of this year. Our latest was Two Bite One Chip Cookies, which are fun to make with kids.
9. Building a Park: Tons of us love Humans of New York on Facebook and Instagram. This one from Brazil touched me especially.
10. Superheroes! Japanese photographer Hotkenobi has put together some whimsical shots using action figures. Many more at the link, but here’s my favorite:
5. This Dictionary Keeps Subtweeting Trump and Here’s the Full Story. This is about way more than the Trump administration’s creative (some would say sinister) use of language, and how Merriam-Webster is handling it. It’s about creating a social media presence that’s sharp and authentic. The descriptivist stuff at the end is interesting too.
As anyone who studied linguistics in college may remember, most modern dictionaries embrace what is known as a descriptivist view of language. Rather than insisting on the so-called proper usage of a word or phrase (an approach known as prescriptivism), today most lexicographers (i.e., people who work at dictionaries) study the way words are actually being used and make note accordingly. That’s how you end up with, for example, dictionary entries for “they” in the third-person singular form or “heart” as a verb.
Inherent in this descriptivist approach, then, is the notion that a dictionary is a rather passive creature, monitoring the public conversation but not injecting itself into it.
That, of course, is being somewhat challenged by Merriam-Webster having a Twitter account with such a forceful public voice.
Our culture is drowning in listicles and fad approaches to nutrition. The truth is, we know what constitutes a healthy life, and the rest is commentary (and maybe even clickbaity propaganda).
In an email, Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, told me that we overcomplicate everything when it comes to health. He then pointed me to an obituary in the New York Times of Lester Breslow, a researcher who, the Times reported, “gave mathematical proof to the notion that people can live longer and healthier by changing habits like smoking, diet and sleep.” Breslow identified seven key factors to living a healthy life:
Do not smoke; drink in moderation; sleep seven to eight hours; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a moderate weight; eat breakfast.
I’m still making my way through this beautifully-written essay about books, blackness, femaleness, and hiking. But I feel confident recommending it because it was recommended by Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour and she’s never steered me wrong.
For many, the Appalachian Trail is a footpath of numbers. There are miles to Maine. The daily chance of precipitation. Distance to the next campsite with a reliable water source. Here, people cut the handles off of toothbrushes to save grams. Eat cold meals in the summer months to shave weight by going stoveless. They whittle medicine kits down to bottles of ibuprofen. Carry two pairs of socks. One pair of underwear.
…Few nonessentials are carried on this trail, and when they are — an enormous childhood teddy bear, a father’s bulky camera — it means one thing: The weight of this item is worth considerably more than the weight of its absence.
Everyone had something out here. The love I carried was books. Exceptional books. Books by black authors, their photos often the only black faces I would talk to for weeks. These were writers who had endured more than I’d ever been asked to, whose strength gave me strength in turn.
Behold, the only version of #MAGA I’m on board with. Excerpt:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
This month I enter my third year as a pastor without a congregation.
For my first twelve years of ministry, I served two congregations, following one of the traditional paths of a seminary graduate: associate at a medium-sized church, then a solo pastorate. It was a joy, a challenge, a growth experience, and a chapter I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
The “typical” next step is to become a head of staff somewhere, right? I certainly thought about it. But sometime during those twelve years, a new element got introduced into my ministry that led my path to diverge from what’s typical. I will never know what the decisive element was. Maybe it was when I got asked to write a monthly Bible column, or keynote a conference. Maybe it was the book. Of course, lots of parish pastors write and lead conferences as an adjunct to serving a congregation. But somewhere along the way, those activities became not an add-on to my ministry, but the heart of my ministry. So two years ago this month, I left the solo position at the lovely small church, and struck out on my own as a writer, speaker, and conference leader. Now I write books and articles, I do a little freelance writing for non-profits, and I speak to some eighteen to twenty-four groups a year.
As I pause and take stock of that decision, I think about what has been gained and lost in terms of my pastoral identity.
What I’ve gained:
Freedom. I never fully glimpsed how much pastors sacrificed until I was no longer doing it. Evenings, weekends, even vacations can be compromised by the needs of the congregation. It’s a call that most of us find to be worth the sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice nonetheless.
Our family hasn’t settled on a church home yet—we’re taking our time. In the midst of our exploring though, I can now run an occasional race on Sunday morning without taking a vacation day, or attend the 24-hour Best Picture marathon with my mother, which we’ll do in a few weeks. (Nine movies shown back to back. It’s a bleary-eyed blast.) I also have freedom to attend and lead worship in a variety of settings. I recently preached and presided at table in a Lutheran congregation; breaking bread at another denomination’s table will put you in touch very quickly with what you take for granted in the Eucharist!
Appreciation. With that freedom comes great appreciation for the work of local church pastors. As a writer, I hope my work reaches as wide an audience as possible. At the same time, over these last two years I have come to see my vocation more and more as that of supporting church leaders. When I preach or lead an event in a congregation, I’m not just sharing what I’m passionate about. I’m serving as a “relief preacher” for church professionals who may be feeling tired or stuck, or who may just need a fresh arm to take over for a while. I pray for my colleagues and check in with them more than I did when I was in the trenches myself.
A new “parish.” Pastors like to joke about the fibs we tell when people ask us on airplanes, “So what do you do?” As an introvert, and one whose job it was to provide spiritual counsel for so many years, I often demurred on such questions, rationalizing, “I gave at the office.” I no longer shy from claiming my identity, though our Presbyterian terminology trips me up. “Pastors” are tied to congregations, and I am not; “teaching elder” is meaningless to people outside the PC(USA) as well as many people inside it. I’ve gone with “minister” or “pastor” because it’s understandable to most people.
I love my quirky unofficial parish. I’ve been called upon to pastor people in a whole range of settings: walking the kids home from school with a gaggle of parents, via Facebook message, and even while running—trying to explain the Reformation while running a hilly eleven-miler was a special challenge.
A highlight in this new free-range ministry was leading a service of dedication of a memorial bench for a friend whose baby died after three days of life. I was called upon to acknowledge the mother’s Christian identity while also being expansive in my language to welcome the wide variety of faith traditions of the people present. It’s a muscle we all must exercise from time to time in the church, but one we’d do well to strengthen as our culture becomes more and more diverse.
I rejoice at all of these gains!
What I’ve lost:
Income. Free-range ministry is a constant hustle, and I’ve taken a pay cut moving to a “fee for service” model (to say nothing of the lack of benefits and pension). I am constantly trying to balance asking for honoraria that I feel I am worth, while understanding that most congregations aren’t exactly flush with cash.
I also have to name that I can do the work I do because our household expenses are not wholly dependent on steady income from me. I have a spouse whose vocation is one that our culture happens to compensate well. Facebook memories just reminded me of this article, “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. I wrote at the time how I cringed when people said how “brave” I was to strike out on my own. I am in a privileged position, and I never want to sugar-coat that.
As NEXT Church considers transformation in the church, including alternate forms of ministry, we must always keep this economic piece at the forefront. How can we support people doing good work for the church whose spouses don’t work in computer security, for example? Or who don’t have a spouse?
Focus. With the flexibility of my new vocation comes a major need for focus. This need plays out in many ways, from deciding which articles I write to what kind of speaking engagements to take. Writers don’t make much money from books—the income mainly comes from speaking. Yet books are the engines that fuel the speaking opportunities. So it’s a balance.
Going to the women’s march, January 21, 2017
Further, as we settle into a new presidency, many of us have come face-to-face with the reality that democracy is an active enterprise. We must all do our part to make our values and aspirations known, so that our government may reflect those values and aspirations. I could spend all day, every day on activism if I let myself. I miss having a regular community to provide structure to my work in the world. A church is a ready-made place for such accountability and focus. In lieu of that, I’ve shepherded the formation of some groups that provide a place for support and common action for the greater good. It’s interesting to do so as a pastor. Our gatherings aren’t explicitly religious, nor do we want them to be. But there’s a general sense of something deeper undergirding our work—even if I’m the only one perceiving things on that level.
Patience. At the same time, the moments when I do dip back into church work I find I have less tolerance for much of the nitty-gritty that consumes the time of a average pastor. Every institution has its necessary maintenance tasks—there’s no denying that—but we spend an awful lot of time on items that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about.
After twelve years of ministry, I was thoroughly sold on why the church matters. I remain sold, but I understand much better why many people see little need for it. It’s not just the endless committees or the busyness. It’s not even the judgmentalism and hate that seem to dominate the headlines. It’s also the fact that community, and the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways, can be found in so many different places now. (I wrote about this on my own blog last year.)
I don’t know how long this chapter of my life will last. Like the aspiring improviser that I am, I’m taking things one step at a time, without needing to know what’s coming down the road.
The question that led to More than Enough started to fester a few years later. I found myself feeling so grateful for my life — healthy kids, good job, happy marriage, safe place to live, plenty to eat – but I was also so aware that such an abundant life wasn’t enjoyed by or even available to many people in my community and in the world. Plus, I began to realize that lots of the choices that made my life so good and full were actually having negative impacts on my global neighbors. What was I supposed to do with that dilemma?
I can’t say I totally answered that question, but writing the book helped me wrestle with all this, and come to a place where I can both delight and give thanks for my life and also strive to live more responsibly and faithfully.
What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
I hope that this book simultaneously makes people feel better and also squirm a little bit. When we were tossing around possible titles for the book, one of the suggestions for a subtitle included the word “contentment.” I vetoed that (I worked with a great editor and publisher who really listened to me), because I actually didn’t want people to feel content. Most of us have too much, spend too much, eat too much, and I want my readers — even as they are feeling gratitude for all they have — to also take a hard look at the choices they make in their everyday lives. The reality of living in the world means that we are always living in the tension between reality and the ideal.
One thing I hope sets my book apart from other books about simple living – it’s really not a book about simple living, but it gets described that way a lot – is that I talk about the resources that the Christian tradition bring to the conversation. It’s one thing to decide to buy local food or to give money to the homeless shelter. It’s another to think about all that through the lens of confession, lament, delight, or hope.
Share one idea, quote, or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
In one chapter, I talk about the role of advocacy, and how important it is to pay attention to the systems that contribute to the inequalities on our society. We can’t think about feeding the hungry without also thinking about why, in a country where there is more than enough food to feed everybody, there are hungry people in the first place. In that chapter, I talk about going with my family to a couple of Moral Monday rallies in our state capital. I’d never thought of myself as a bumper-sticker touting, sign-carrying activist, but I’ve come to see that engaging in our democracy is as important as being generous with our resources. This is even more true now, given the current political situation in our country, then it was when I was writing the book, and I’m glad I have that framework for thinking about how activism and advocacy fit into a well-lived life.
What has been the biggest surprise about getting a book written and published? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
It’s always a delight when I hear from readers that my book has been helpful to them. I’m still a little surprised (intimidated?) that people outside my immediate family are reading what I write.
My advice to aspiring authors – and I’m certainly not the first person to give this advice – is to write something you really care about and something you can’t find the answer to anywhere else. In other words, write for yourself. Write through the big questions you have about life. I think it’s Anne Lamott who said something like, “Nobody else cares if you write, so you have to.” I have that written on a post-it note stuck on the wall above my desk, and it’s gotten me back to the keyboard many times.
Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book covered?
But I actually think this book works best as a grassroots kind of thing. It’s not a book for everybody — I’m too liberal for some readers (and probably not liberal enough for others). Plus, not everybody’s in a place where they have the luxury of contemplating these questions. What makes me happy is to hear about churches and reading groups who are using the book to start conversations in their small groups or Sunday school classes. If my book gets even a few people to think more intentionally about how they live, I’ll be satisfied.
That said, I’d fall out of my chair with church-nerd giddiness if Walter Brueggemann read my book. His work on abundance and scarcity has been about as influential on my life and my writing than any other single writer.
Thank you Lee. I was fortunate to read and endorse Lee’s book and I hope you will check it out as well.