Category Archives: Politics and Culture

Controversy is Baked Right In: On Marriage, the Middle East, and the Presbyterian Church

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Those rainbow colors had us all a-muddled last week…

1. I was not elected vice moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.

2. I’m home, and very glad to be so.

3. We made some people mad last week.

…Those are in reverse order of importance.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made decisions about marriage and the Middle East that left some of us celebrating, and others of lamenting or downright furious. You can read my take on the marriage decision at TIME.

Temperamentally speaking, Presbyterians are not firebrand folk. We joke about being the Frozen Chosen and doing things “decently and in order.” (That’s from the Bible, by the way.) So it’s a bit uncomfortable for us to be in the news, even if we agree with the decisions made last week.

But as my friend Jan Edmiston reminds us, Faithfulness is Disruptive.  And last week, after hours of deliberation, conversation, prayer and discernment, a majority of commissioners decided that the faithful thing was to give pastors and churches the discretion to perform same-sex marriages where they are legal, and to divest from three companies who are profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in the Palestinian territories, in keeping with a long-standing policy of socially-responsible investing.

Some people wonder why we wade into controversial issues at all. Churches will leave the denomination, they say. Our long-standing partnerships with Jewish congregations are in serious jeopardy.

Yes, and yes. Here’s the hard thing though, for big-tent, good-natured Presbyterians: that doesn’t make the decisions wrong.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook yesterday–a snippet from last week’s Feasting on the Word:

If Jesus were really the affirming nice guy we often insist on imagining, should he not have been able to stay out of trouble? What incited people to call him such appalling names? Why would following him wreck families? How did he end up on a cross? The answer is not that his opponents had strange and unsettling ideas, but that he did. Contrary to popular opinion and bestselling books, not everything the follower of Jesus needs to know can be learned in kindergarten. Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness.

Not every controversial action is of the gospel, of course. We may have gotten it wrong last week. But the potential for controversy is not a reason to do nothing.

When you’re talking about Jesus, subversiveness is baked right in.

That said, conventional kindness is a welcome overlay to all this. So be kind, folks; everyone is fighting a great battle.

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photo credit: incurable_hippie via photopin cc

Our Online Habits—Survey Results

Our Online Habits

As I work on my next book (working title Spirituality in the Smartphone Age), I’ve gotten curious about the online/social media habits of different Enneagram types, and put together a survey to that effect. (Survey is now closed.)

The Enneagram stuff won’t be in the book—I’m thinking a free PDF in advance of the book—but here are some preliminary findings.

(Today’s post is general and will not delve into the Enneagram at all, but if you want to learn more about what it and figure out your type, here is a place to begin.)

Disclaimers:

  • This was not a scientific study. I did not apply any statistical jiujitsu to this work, because I have none. For example, although Enneagram 6s supposedly make up half the world’s population, they comprised the smallest number of respondents. That’s going to skew things. Nothing to be done about that.
  • For this reason, although I will be making some guesses and drawing some conclusions, they should all be taken with a grain of salt. My guesses are based on the data I collected, nothing more. So if I report that Facebook is the most popular social media site, you should hear an unspoken “among respondents” after that claim. (Though that’s a bad example because Facebook IS the most popular social media site by most metrics.)

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General Online Habits:
50% of respondents report spending 1-3 hours a day online, whether engaged in social media or reading and writing blogs or other sites. 28% spend 3-5 hours online. 15% spend more than 5 hours per day.

Reasons for Using Social Media:
People could check multiple options here. The top responses by far were “my friends and family are there” and “it’s entertaining/informative”; each commanding almost 70%.

“A sense of habit” was at the bottom of the list, but it was still chosen by more than a third of respondents. That seems significant to me. Habits aren’t necessarily bad—brushing one’s teeth twice a day would poll pretty high, eh? But I talk to more and more folks who find it hard to unplug from online activities, and who find that fact concerning.

Preferred/Favorite Social Media Sites:
Upon reflection, I essentially threw these questions out as useless. Facebook and Twitter were the big winners, which seems plausible, but people were coming to the survey from those sites, so that’s going to skew the result. I did note that reading and writing blogs performed very favorably—better than Twitter, actually—and Pinterest was the most beloved site among what I’d call second-tier sites such as Goodreads, Google+ or Instagram. (I know that Instagram and Tumblr are big among millenials. That’s another caveat to my survey, which was advertised through my friends and friends-of-friends: I’m sure it skewed older.)

Engagement with Social Media:
These questions had to do with how people use social media and other sites.

Reading v. posting: A clear majority of people felt they read and posted in a more or less balanced way. The second most popular response, with 42%, was “I mainly read and only occasionally post or comment.” So the vast majority of us are actively engaging, as opposed to lurking, or posting without reading others’ posts (1% each). This is a question where we saw interesting variation among the different Enneagram types. That’ll be in my next post.

Content: As for what people post, a majority selected “I carefully consider what I post, thinking about how I portray myself on social media” (53%).

Only a third of respondents chose “I post what I’m thinking or feeling. I value authenticity and want my online and ‘real-life’ personas to be congruent.” This was followed closely by “I mainly post informational stuff, such as links to news articles or political content, and not as much stuff about me personally.” Only 14% of respondents reported using lists or filters to control who sees what. This is another question that had some interesting variations depending on Enneagram type.

Comments: More than half of respondents will occasionally read comments on news articles or other sites, depending on the site. But a third responded, “When/If I read the comments, I’m always sorry afterwards and feel like I need a shower.” (I feel ya!)

In the comment portion of this question, people clarified their answers. For example, some folks will always read comments if it’s an online community they feel a part of (e.g. RevGalBlogPals), as opposed to say, USA Today. Other comments were almost confessional in nature. One respondent said, “I often read articles, like about Michael Sam’s coming out, and think ‘I definitely don’t want to know what the commenters are saying about this’…and then I look, because I can’t stop the rubbernecking…and then I am immediately sorry.” Again: I feel ya.

What We Would Change:
The final question asked what we would like to change about our online/social media habits. This is really the heart of what I’m interested in, and were I to do this again, I’d focus more questions on it, but I have emails from numerous kind people who are willing to talk further.

A few people (mostly of a certain type—tune in next time) questioned why all of of the choices were phrased negatively: Social media is a positive in my life! I want more! one person commented. I had to laugh—I guess the choices reveal where I am, or where I was when I wrote the question! I get overwhelmed sometimes.

Anyway, here are the results. People could choose more than one:

51% I’m on these sites more than I should be or would like to be. I find it hard to disengage.

33% I feel like these new technologies have negatively affected my attention span.

24% I would like to do more on social media but lack time, expertise, etc.

13% Other people’s postings can leave me feeling down or dissatisfied with my own life. [I find it interesting that it’s so law. It’s become conventional wisdom that other people’s bragbooking and ‘perfectly curated’ personas lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. Thirteen percent isn’t nothing, but this result suggests the problem isn’t at all widespread.

11% I feel overwhelmed having to keep up with so many people’s lives.

9% I feel burdened by the desire to present a “persona” online that doesn’t always match me.

9% I get embroiled in conflict/comment wars online that I find it hard to extricate from (including emotionally).

What do you see in these results? What do you wonder about further?

In my next post, I’ll share a few tidbits about each of the nine Enneagram type.

Ten Lessons on Stepping into Leadership… from Jimmy Fallon

I haven’t seen The Tonight Show in years, and my main late-night indulgences are Colbert and Stewart. So I haven’t watched much Jimmy Fallon. Except for “Barack Obama Slow-Jams the News,” which still cracks me up two years later. (The Prezi of the United Stezi!)

But I did catch Jimmy’s inaugural monologue on The Tonight Show this week, which led me to seek out several other clips. Here’s the monologue:

Jimmy Fallon is succeeding a giant of late-night television, and he’s entering a crowded field. At 39 years old, he’s taking a leap onto a larger stage and needs to prove himself in some ways. As I watched, I was struck by the smart stuff that was going on under the surface, whether calculated or not, and I started to relate Jimmy’s debut to other situations leaders find themselves in.  (What can I say? It’s what I do.)

Leaders sometimes find themselves following beloved leaders, some of whom are older, more experienced, and firmly entrenched in the culture. Or we may find ourselves having to step into a new role thanks to a promotion or other circumstance. How can these transitions succeed?

Here are just a few things that came to mind as I watched Jimmy take the helm. Might some of these relate to you as a leader, or in other roles you play? Some of these would apply not just to leadership, but any new creative endeavor:

jimmy-fallon-tonight-show-hed-20141. Locate yourself in history. Fallon made explicit mention of every Tonight Show host (and turned it into a joke by listing “Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno.”). This was a reverent nod to the folks who’d occupied the chair before him, but also a clear statement: my name belongs on that list now.

2. Make the role your own, but don’t go overboard. The set and format were very similar to the previous incarnation of the show, but with several small tweaks, and a few big ones. For example, Jimmy Fallon brought the show back to New York after many decades in L.A. (Carson started out there but moved the show to California ten years into his tenure.) You’ve got to find the right balance between continuity and novelty.

3. Mix self-deprecation with really knowing your stuff. As a young woman pastor wanting to be taken seriously, this was always my approach. It would do me no good to demand respect and get strident when I didn’t get it. So my approach was to be completely disarming, even self-deprecating, while still projecting extreme competence. The former takes the wind out of the sails of your detractors; the latter ensures they don’t write you off. Fallon achieved this balance with his characteristic aw-shucks modesty, coupled with running the show very well and taking his role seriously.

4. Make your family visible. This doesn’t apply to every situation, but it was sweet the way Fallon mentioned his wife and daughter and cut to his parents in the audience. Many leaders I meet (especially younger ones) don’t want a brick wall of separation between work and family. We want to be integrated. Having your family visible humanizes you. Also, knowing more about you makes people want to root for you.

5. Call in every favor you can. The sheer number of guests and cameos on the first show was dizzying! Check this out:

This isn’t just great TV, it’s great strategy. Don’t go it alone. Calling in favors builds excitement and makes you feel more comfortable too.

6. Spend it all right away. This relates a bit to the previous point. Don’t keep good ideas in reserve. Use them immediately, trusting that other ideas will come to take their place. I’m sure there will be other surprises for the rest of this week, and beyond. But taking the previous clip as an example, isn’t there something so abundant about the way that parade of celebrities came on stage, one after another? Too fun.

Speaking of which:

7. Don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Fallon sure looked like he was having a blast, didn’t he? I watched the episode mainly for curiosity, but now I want to tune in just to see what he’ll do next. (It’s one reason why I prefer Colbert to Stewart these days. Nobody looks more tickled to be doing his job than Stephen Colbert.)

8. Keep your goals modest. As leaders, we sometimes have an overinflated sense of what we can accomplish. We have to remember that we’re stepping into a system that existed before us and, we hope, will outlast us. Jimmy Fallon made his goals clear: to “take care of this show for a while” and to make his viewers laugh, to send them off to bed with a smile on their faces.

9. Be gracious with your “competition.” I put this in quotes because not every leadership role involves competition. But you will notice that Stephen Colbert made an appearance in the clip above. Fallon and Colbert are slotted opposite one another. But having them together is a statement that there is room for both of them.

10. When in doubt, bring on U2. Enough said:

Did you watch The Tonight Show? What did you think of Jimmy’s debut?

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Ron is Perfect for Hermione. Here’s Why.

Harry Potter fans got some unexpected news this week when J.K Rowling admitted in an interview with Emma Watson (the actor who played Hermione) that putting Ron and Hermione together was a mistake:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she adds. “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.”

And Emma Watson agreed:

“I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy,” Watson says in the interview.

I haven’t read a ton of reaction, but what I’ve seen is running about 2/3 for the series as written (Ron and Hermione) and 1/3 in support of Rowling’s “on second thought” (Harry and Hermione). There are some other reactions sprinkled in there, like what about Ron and Luna? Or Harry and Ron, for that matter? (I don’t see that, and it has nothing to do with that being a gay relationship.)

Then there’s this view:

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Which I SO get.

I’m in the 2/3. I agree with many of the reasons other people cited:
-Pairing up the chief male protagonist with the chief female protagonist would have been SO cliche. I’d rather nobody end up together than that.
-Ron makes Hermione laugh. That’s big.
-Opposites do attract, and those relationships can thrive if there’s a foundation of respect for one another, which I believe Ron and Hermione had. Ron helps ground Hermione.

Also, I must admit to liking The Trio all ending up in the Weasley family. (For those who don’t know, Harry marries Ginny Weasley.)

But here’s the #1 reason why I like the pairing:
Ron would have supported Hermione’s success.

A woman’s choice of life partner is one of the most important career decisions she can make. Sheryl Sandberg said that first, but I can’t agree more strongly on this point. It matters whether your spouse is going to support your career or merely tolerate it. It matters whether he’s going to feel secretly threatened by your success. It matters whether he’s going to give lip service to you having a life apart from home and husband while still secretly expecting you to do all of the child-rearing and household management.

Hermione, it was said again and again, was the smartest witch of her age. She was brilliant. She was ambitious (in a good way, not the Slytherin way). Ron was never her intellectual equal, but he doesn’t need to be. Yes, intellectual compatibility has its place. And Ron was intelligent enough to get her. But she’s the kind of person who will be stimulated by her work: by learning, contributing, excelling at what she does.

And here’s the thing about Ron. Yes, he had some jealousy issues. But they mainly centered around jealousy over what he perceived to be a deeper bond between Harry and Hermione. (He was also 17. Come on, people.)

I don’t remember a lot of deep jealousy over Hermione’s genius and hard work. He seemed happy to be what I perceived to be a solid B student.

But he was completely awed by Hermione—her mind, her wit, and yes, her drive.

So Ron is perfect for Hermione. Ron will be the stay-at-home dad while Hermione works at the Ministry of Magic. Certainly Ron will get up in the middle of the night to change diapers and rock a fussy baby.

Rowling has suggested this about Hermione’s career:

Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures where she was instrumental in greatly improving life for house-elves and their ilk. She then moved (despite her jibe to Scrimgeour) to the Deptartment of Magical Law Enforcement where she was a progressive voice who ensured the eradication of oppressive, pro-pureblood laws.”

Those are big ambitious plans. Changing the world is exhausting. But in Ron, Hermione will have a cheerleader and a sounding board. Remember, loyalty is Ron’s greatest strength. He will agree with her principles 100%, yet not feel the same passion to make them his life’s work. This will give her perspective.

And he will make sure she gets away on holiday every now and then.

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Philomena, The Church, and Our Problems with S-E-X

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This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.

It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:

The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.

Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.

I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.

But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.

But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…

Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!

We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad. But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)

We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.

Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.

But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myself didn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.

An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.

How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…

What about a young person’s coming out?

And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?

Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)

I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.

No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.

Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.

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Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.