Category Archives: Books

Civil Rights: History, But Not Yet Past

This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here’s my contribution–cross-posted here. Check out the whole series!

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.

Simplicity That’s Not So Simple: A Q&A with Lee Hull Moses

I mentioned Lee Hull Moses’s book More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess a couple months ago. We finally got our schedules together to do a Q&A. Thank you Lee for your book and for your thoughtful answers! (And look, church leaders–there’s a discussion guide and worship planning resource as well!)

What led you to write this book?

more than enough coverMost of my writing starts with a question about my own life that I can’t quite get a handle on. My first book, Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired Anxious People, which I wrote with my friend Bromleigh McCleneghan, began shortly after she and I had our first babies and we were trying to make sense of what the heck had just happened to our lives.

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.

Lee Hull MosesWhat 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?

I was pleased that More than Enough made it into the Christian Century’s list of Christmas picks back in December, and well, who wouldn’t want Krista Tippet to talk about their book?

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.

My Friends Write Stuff–For Readers on Your Gift List

One of the reasons I’m so happy to be done with the manuscript for Improvising with God is the chance to consume art, and read books, and generally get the tank filled up after expending so much energy writing. I also realize I’ve had my head down so much I haven’t had a chance to promote the really great work that’s already out there, written by friends and colleagues.

In no particular order, here are some recent books you should know about:

birthedMy friend Elizabeth Hagan’s memoir Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility dropped last month! You got to meet her here at the Blue Room in her Q&A, but check out her book, which is not just for people struggling with infertility–the story is much broader than that and resists easy answers.

51pdlkkoutl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Elizabeth was a member of my Writing Revs group, as was Ruth Everhart, whose memoir Ruined is her harrowing account of a sexual assault that took place in college and the healing that occurred in the long aftermath of that trauma. I got to read both of these books in earlier stages of the process, and it is heartening to see them both loose in the world.

cuv_6emwyaamu92I had the chance to read Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess and is a great companion for anyone who’s tried to live more lightly on the earth, only to discover that simplicity is anything but simple. Lee is a trustworthy companion on this journey, offering just the right blend of deep wisdom and disarming authenticity. 

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Bromleigh McCleneghan is stoking the fires of controversy with her faithful and provocative book Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option-And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. I’ve started this one and it’s accessible and honest. A friend of mine likes to say that you know you’re doing good work when you have all the right people mad at you, and judging from the nature of the one-star reviews on Amazon, Bromleigh is shaking things up in just the right way.

verymarried_cover_final-1On the topic of love and relationships, I haven’t picked up Katherine Willis Pershey’s book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity, but it’s also making a big splash. Eugene Peterson has called it the best book on marriage he’s ever read. Holy endorsements, Batman!

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And finally, looking ahead, Carol Howard Merritt is another Writing Rev who has gone on to do prolific work for the church. Her book Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church will be out next year. Have you pre-ordered your copy yet?

Now, who did I miss?

“Live through the Pain”: A Q&A with Elizabeth Hagan

birthedI have a lot of friends who’ve written books recently, and I hope to highlight many of them over the coming weeks.

To get us started, here’s my good friend Elizabeth Hagan, who wrote the book Birthed: Finding Grace through Infertility. I read parts of this book in various stages of development, and am grateful for Elizabeth’s honesty and nuance on this topic. We’ve all heard infertility stories with a nice pat ending–the treatments worked, or the couple got pregnant when they “relaxed and stopped trying so hard” (ugh). Elizabeth cuts through the treacle and gets to the heart of things, without the predictable ending to the journey.

What led you to write this book? 

I am among the 1 in 8 women in US who are infertile. When this unthinkable thing happened to my husband, Kevin, and me, I felt overwhelmed in my grief. I didn’t know how to make it in a world where friends seemed to be announcing their pregnancies on social media almost every day. I didn’t know how to process my own shame. I didn’t know how to keep pastoring especially during joyful seasons like Advent and Christmas. 

One of my coping tools was Amazon. I ordered all the books on infertility that I could find. I desperately wanted someone to give voice to our deep sense of grief, loss, and frustration with God, our bodies, and our community.  I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t crazy for wanting to be a mother so badly. I wanted a spiritual guide to tell me not to just “pray harder.” But most of the time with these books I was disappointed. Many times I did not find the author making progress in their journey. I did not read of a how infertility could be connected to a spiritual journey. Most of all I did not find what I needed. So one day almost 6 years ago, I knew I needed to start writing. I needed to write that book I was always searching for and never found. Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility was slowly born.

What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

To my knowledge, I am the first pastor who has shared their infertility story ever! How fun to be the first! But there are so many take-aways I believe readers will find (no matter if they’ve lived through infertility or not) such as:

  • When life doesn’t go as you plan, something greater might be emerging beneath the surface. Live through the pain and you will get there!
  • It is ok to live into the mystery — the mystery of not knowing how your dreams will come to fruition, when or if at all
  • A long season of grief doesn’t have to destroy your marriage or friendships. It can in fact bring you closer. 
  • Hope springs eternal even when the worse case scenario happens and happens again. 

Share one idea, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

So much of this story is about friendship and how grief can be transformed with loyal people by your side. Here’s one part of my story that I am so glad that happened while on a retreat with a friend in Arizona: 

With really wet cheeks by this point, God and I had a moment. With Meredith’s gift of secure presence by my side, courage came to go there—to a very deep place of self-reflective honesty. This is what I knew: I wasn’t just a little afraid; I was deathly afraid. I was afraid to love. I was afraid that who I was made to be was not acceptable. I was afraid to use my voice to say what I wanted to say. Instead, my life game plan consisted of becoming the best imitation of me that could be deemed socially acceptable. I did not send emails I wanted to send. I did not kiss dear ones goodbye on the check. I did not call people when I thought of them. I feared my love was too much. I feared I wasn’t good enough at being me. But, what if? What if, like the therapist said, I held back no more?  I was dying inside and had been for a long time. But, instead of continuing to carry the grief, hope came over me. I stared ahead to the canyons, keeping close to the therapist’s truth-telling words. I knew I was in love. I was in love with the idea of life without the gates I’d built around my heart to keep me safe. I was in love with how much joy might be rising up to meet me. I was in love with a future I couldn’t control, even with dreams of motherhood set aside for a moment. In this love, I wanted to be a woman who didn’t fear telling people how much she loved them. I wanted to be a woman who didn’t fear getting close to those who seemed to love her most. I wanted to be a woman who could confidently claim that her voice was powerful, even in the midst of trouble in baby-making land that rendered her powerless in that aspect of her life. In all these things, visions of joy I did not yet know sprung from me. Maybe, just maybe, the world was missing out on some of the greatest contributions I could offer? Maybe there was light in my voice? Maybe others needed to hear what I had to say as much as I needed to speak it? 

What has been the biggest surprise about getting a book written and published? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

You are really your best advocate. And with the right fit of a publisher, you’ll have a lot of say in the direction your book takes. Just hang on for the ride! 

I would tell other aspiring authors, never give up on your dream of publication. Keep writing. Keep re-writing. And believe in who you are as a writer. Your day will come. I started drafting this book in 2010 and never would have thought it would have taken me to 2016 to reach publication. Yet, I learned so much along the way and I am so glad I’m here now. 

Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? 

I would love to sit down for a chat with Krista Tippett on On Being. It’s my favorite podcast that I listen to every week.

Elizabeth Hagan is an ordained American Baptist minister who serves churches through short-term interims in the Washington DC area. You can order her book Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility over at Chalice Press today.

Book Two in Process!

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I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.

I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.

Here’s a bit of the proposal:

In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.

The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.

From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.

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This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.

It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.

It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.

It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.

It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.

But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?

This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.

When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”

That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.

~

Image is a photo of an improv quilt by Eli Leon, photographed by Sherri Lynn Wood and used under a creative commons license. For more about Eli’s work, click here.