When do you learn that “normal” doesn’t include lots of yelling, lots of sleep, lots of beating? In Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church, Sarah Griffith Lund looks back at her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, and the helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother and cousin endure mental illness as well. With a small group study guide and “Ten Steps for Developing a Mental Health Ministry in Your Congregation, ”Blessed Are the Crazy” is more than a memoir—it’s a resource for churches and other faith-based groups to provide healing and comfort.
And book trailer. Wow:
I met Angela Alaimo O’Donnell at Collegeville this summer when I was there for a writing retreat. She is an elegant person and writer—I gobbled up her poetry collection, Waking My Mother, in a single sitting one morning at C’ville.
In this lyrical adieu to her mother, renowned Catholic essayist, poet, and professor Angela O’Donnell explores how the mundane tasks of caregiving during her mother’s final days—bathing, feeding, taking her for a walk in her wheelchair—became rituals or ordinary sacraments that revealed traces of the divine.
With Joan Didion’s grasp of grief, the spiritual playfulness of Mary Karr, and the poetic agility of Kathleen Norris, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell narrates the events that followed her mother’s fall and the broken hip that led to surgery. As O’Donnell and her sisters cared for their mother’s failing body during the last days of her life, they unconsciously observed rituals that began to take on a deeper importance.
Bathing her each morning was a kind of baptism, the nightly feeding of pie took on a Eucharistic significance, trimming and polishing nails became a kind of anointing. Beyond the seven there are the myriad sacraments they made up: the sacrament of community via cell phone, the sacrament of wheelchair pilgrimage around the nursing home, and the sacrament of humor and laughter. Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell is a deeply human portrait of loss balanced by the surprising grace found in letting go; it will resonate with any spiritual reader but especially caregivers and those currently in grief.
What are you reading and/or making these days? I’ve been taking a break from writing lately in favor of knitting and baking muffins. Yes, I’m ready for fall.
John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.
The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.
How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.
Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.
(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)
That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)
Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)
So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.
He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.
Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible?
He takes young people seriously and learns from them.The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.
Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.
Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person? Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom, but so we can all grow together?
He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)
Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”
DFTBA is very big with this tribe.
And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.
How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?) And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?
He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:
Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?
He employs humor with substance. From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.'”
As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?
He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”
Which leads to my final question for the church: When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves?
1. What led you to write this book?
As a Director of Youth Ministries, first, and then a Pastor, I have met many parents and caregivers who want their children to grow up with an understanding of faith and spirituality, but didn’t feel equipped. They worry that they don’t have enough time, or that they’re “doing it wrong” or that they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible or Theology. I wanted to write a very practical resource to empower and encourage parents. It also helped that my boys, Clayton and Samuel were both under two years old as I was writing this book. It inspired me to imagine the things we could do together as a family. In a very real sense, this book is for my family as much as any family.
2. What will people gain from this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
I think of this book as a type of “recipe book” for a faith-filled home. The book carefully lays out practices that any family can incorporate into daily life. Just like a recipe, each practice lists the ages that its suited for, along with materials, step-by-step instructions and variations. There are many wonderful books about children and family spirituality out there, but none is laid out in quite this same “pick it up and run with it” way of Seamless Faith. It’s incredibly user-friendly.
3. Share one idea, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
One of the chapters is called Ceremonies for Difficult Times and it features practices that are suitable for hard times such as divorce, death, illness and anxiety. It’s a very special chapter to me, because I think we need to remember that every day isn’t a trip to the zoo or a picture perfect moment. We need resources for the hard times too. Writing practices that parents could turn to in a time of grief or crisis was an honor, and it is a great joy to have them out in the world for families to use.
4. How have you changed your own parenting as a result of your work on this book?
One of the things I’ve felt as a mother in the few short years I’ve been one (my oldest isn’t yet three) is that there’s a whole lot of pressure. There are endless blogs and books and resources with advice and tips, and it can be dizzying to keep track of it all. Writing down my ideas about how to incorporate faith into family life reminded me that each parent and caregiver puts his or her own stamp on parenting. It’s not “Dr. So and So’s” way or “Expert Fancypants’s” way, it’s “my way.” This is one of the things that most excites me about the book — each practice offers many ways for parents and caregivers to make it their own, no matter how old their children are, no matter what their family’s style is.
5. As an author, I know that the book keeps “working on you” even after the manuscript is done and turned in. Are there ideas you’ve begun to think about differently, or new content you wish you’d included? Another way of asking the question: what will be included in the sequel?
Along the lines of the previous question, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how parents need large doses of encouragement and respite. I think the sequel might include a lot of prayers and practices for parents who need to recharge and recenter in their busy lives. Then again… that’s what Sabbath is for, and there’s already a great resource about that!
Aww, thanks Traci!
All right folks, let’s give Traci the Blue Room bump! Seamless Faith is available at Chalice Press, Amazon, etc. What a good resource for churches to share with families. What a perfect gift for a friend who’s a new parent. What a great thing to have on your own bookshelf. Thank you for the fine book, Traci.
I reviewed the book Mindful Parenting recently, and today I’m delighted to share a Q&A with Kristen Race, the author of the book. Thank you for your time and expertise, Dr. Race!
1. What first led you to research stress responses in the brain, and especially its effect on children and teens?
When I was working in schools I became increasingly concerned by the high level of stress that students were experiencing. I knew that this stress was influencing their attention, their mood, their behavior and their ability to learn. I want to learn more about how stress and these other symptoms were linked. When I first learned about the stress response in the brain it was like an “Ah ha” moment for me. I started sharing this information with students and it was as if I could see a weight being lifted off of their shoulders. They suddenly had an explanation for how they were feeling!
2. Your book is written primarily for individual parents to use in their own families. But I was intrigued by your “Hang Up and Hang Out” initiative that partnered with local schools to encourage parents to put away the cell phones and just focus on their kids. Are there other models or practices that you’d like see implemented throughout entire communities, rather than just household by household? (I see lots of potential in churches and other religious communities, for example.)
Absolutely. Hang Up & Hang Out is tailor-made for those organizations that you mentioned. During the Hang Up & Hang Out week we hosted a family fun night at one of the elementary schools. The theme of the night was “Ways to Engage without Technology.” We had a family yoga station, a dinner games station, a station where families decorated boxes that they would use to hold devices during family time, and we had a dance party station in the gym. We were blown away when we had 480 people attend the event! It was a blast!
3. My favorite chapter of the book is “A Guide to Creating a Mindful Family,” which has tons of activities and practices that parents and children can do together. I can’t wait to try the Praise Pancake! Is there a particular practice that’s your personal favorite, either for your kids or yourself?
We love Rose Bud Thorn in our house. We play it around the dinner table, and every person gets a turn to share their Rose (something good that they experienced over the course of their day), their Thorn (a mistake that they learned from today), and their Bud (an act of kindness that they witnessed or initiated.) It is a great conversation starter, and there are tons of elements to this activity that benefit brain development, including teaching kids that struggles are ok.
4. In my work around Sabbath-keeping, I’ve found that it’s easier for parents of young children to envision making changes in their family’s behavior, whereas parents of teens feel like it’s too late, that the patterns are already set. What advice or encouragement would you give specifically to parents of teens who want to take your message to heart?
I am asked all the time, “Is it too late to start?” The beauty of practicing mindfulness, informally or formally, is that it benefits the brain for a 2 year old as well as the brain of a 92 year old. MRI scans demonstrate this. We need look no further than the Google campus, and the waiting lists for mindfulness classes that their company is offering, to see the demand for these types of support by adults. My single piece of advice for parents of teens is to start small, with one or two activities. Starting a ritual of a family adventure can be a great place to start with teens. And remember, modeling still matters when you have a teen! Think about how you manage your stress (do you go for a run or run for the liquor cabinet?), your teen is watching.
5. How have you changed your own parenting as a result of your research, and what aspects of mindful parenting do you still struggle with?
I have become much more compassionate towards myself as a result of my research. I am a recovering perfectionist:) I now realize that I AM going to make mistakes as a parent, that I can learn from those mistakes, and that modeling that mistakes provide opportunities for growth is incredibly important for my children!
So thankful to Dr. Race for her thoughts. Folks, do check out her book, it’s worthwhile.
Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can’t be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn’t something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.
After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they’re already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it’s an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it’s good, it’s good, it’s good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.
That doesn’t mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn’t we be doing “holy” things on that day? Isn’t Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?
What about watching football on TV?
I’m never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I’m not the Sabbath police.
For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I’m more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.
But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?
[If you're not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn't she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren't thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]
Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the “football on Sabbath” question when she talks about numbing. She writes:
I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion.
There aren’t any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection… Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?
For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I’m standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.
This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don’t know; I don’t have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their “fearfully and wonderfully made” bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring… and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we’re not really there.
What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there’s no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I’m a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I’m a chatty FBer. I’ve also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that’s good for me. So I’ve put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it’s using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).
What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?