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Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Holy Bipolar Week

It's such an obvious connection that it's hardly worth writing about, but the highs and lows of Holy Week provide plenty of resonances for the bipolar believer.

A week that starts with "Palm / Passion Sunday," a liturgy designed to take the gathered faithful (who, the church seems to suspect, are not quite faithful enough to show up to the rest of the week's activities in droves, and therefore might miss out on the suffering) from the peak of celebration to the valley of betrayal and death, cannot help but have a manic depressive tinge to it.

And so we swing wildly about.

But for me, this year, it isn't the mirroring of my own experience that catches my attention, nor, necessarily, this little "Lithium for Lent" project that I've pondered over the past few weeks. This year, it's the "hosannas" that draw me in.

"Hosanna," which the gathered disciples shout as Jesus enters Jerusalem, is not a synonym of "Hallelujah," and so the oft-repeated trope that we should not skip over the rest of the week, from the "hosannas" to the "hallelujahs," is, while not wrong, perhaps a bit over drawn.

"Hosanna" means "save us," or "God save us." And so it is not so much that the "hosannas" fade over this week, as the tone of them changes, and that, by the end of the week but before the beginning of the next, they have become quieter, more muttered, more like whispered prayer than shouted acclamation.

"Save us" -- this week, and this month, and this year, give us plenty to shout "save us" about.

I have kept meaning to write something, anything, about this or that horror, this or that atrocity, that has been projected on the global screen these past weeks. I can't keep up. Save us, God, from sarin gas and murderous dictators who don't hesitate to use it; from long-range missiles and trigger-happy demagogues who don't hesitate to use them; and from all of our refusals to learn the ways of peace. Save us, God, from the blood shed when profits are more important than people; from the murderous rage directed against those made vulnerable by their difference; from callousness and evil at the highest levels and antipathy and nihilism at the lowest. Save us, save us, save us, God, anybody, save us, for it surely seems that we have no idea what we are doing.

Or perhaps we do know. And if so, even more, save us.

"Save us." Shouted in the streets or muttered, desperately, under our breaths -- it is the same prayer, and yet different.

And as I write those words, I realize, again, the deep resonance, so obvious as to barely be worth writing about.

In bipolar, in life, in the world -- in seeming high or shattering low --

It is the same prayer, and yet different.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Semicolons and commas

I was so very sad to hear about the death of Amy Bleul, founder of Project Semicolon. Project Semicolon arose out of her own struggles and her desire to honor her father, who she lost to suicide. Amy popularized the symbol of the semicolon for survivors of self-harm and suicidal ideation. The semicolon, Amy explained, represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose to continue. The message: life goes on. The story goes on.

Amy's social media post that inspired Project Semicolon
I did not know Amy personally. I know her presence will be missed by so many people. And I know, in the spirit of Project Semicolon, that her story, her care, her love, will go on, and continue to influence and help many people.

Strange as it sounds, I have been thinking about semicolons this past week. At Leigh's hospital chaplaincy, her cohort watched the film version of the play Wit by Margaret Edson. It just so happens I was involved in a staging of Wit while I was in college -- it's a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece of art.

The cast and crew of Wit at Washington College in 2004 --
that's baby-faced me on the bottom left
The play revolves around Vivian Bearing, a scholar and professor with a particular interest in the poetry of John Donne and little time for nonsense. Bearing is dying of cancer, and we see her final days in part through the lens of the Donne poem "Death Be Not Proud." In particular, Bearing remembers her own mentor, E.M., addressing the issue of how to punctuate the final lines of the poem:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Some editors place a semicolon, rather than a comma, between "be no more" and "Death," a decision which E.M. considers a grave offense:
Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
So. A comma - a bare breath - between life and death. Or a semi-colon - a sentence that could have ended, but didn't, that hovers somewhere between an end and a continuation.

Some days, I want to write a semi-colon on my arm.

Some days, it feels like a comma would be more accurate.

But then, another punctuation association slips, unbidden, into my head. For awhile now, the United Church of Christ has used a comma as a symbol for their "God is Still Speaking" campaign. Granted, it's church PR, which always  has a bit of potential for cheesiness, but still. I like it. I like that comma:

I mean, it beats "ReThink Church"
God is still speaking, the comma says. Another version of the slogan is: "Never put a period where God put a comma." The story continues.

The story continues.

I didn't know Amy, personally. But her story continues. Our story continues.

Love without end; amen, amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A sermon, a devotion, and a few scattered thoughts

Hello blog-reading-type-friends,

Wanted to share a few things with you:

I had a short reflection published in Georgetown University's daily Lent devotional, which you can read by clicking here.

I also preached this past Sunday at Dumbarton United Methodist Church, as part of their "Unpacking Church Words" Lenten series. My "church word" was grace. You can listen to the sermon here; the texts were Exodus 32:9-14, Ephesians 2:4-10, and this comic strip:


So check all that out if you're interested.

As far as "Lithium for Lent" is going: I'm at the part of my book-writing project right now where I'm doing some reflection on medication and meaning. Here's a short excerpt from one of my favorite books on the topic, John Swinton's Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems, with references to sociologist David Karp:
The act of taking medication for mental health problems is a clear affirmation that the person has a stigmatized emotional disorder, and as such, requires a dramatic redefinition of his or her concept of "self." .... One of Karp's interviewees puts it thus: "I didn't want to be told that I had something that was going to affect the rest of my life, and that could only be solved by taking pills. It was sort of definitive. I had a label, and it was a label that I thought was pejorative." Thus, even if medication does reduce symptoms and allow a person to achieve a better quality of life, this does not necessarily mean that the person will perceive the medication in a favorable way. In my experience this deeper meaning ot the process of taking medication, highlighted by Karp, is highly significant with regard to the care of people with mental health problems (pg 73-74). 
So, that's a brief synopsis of the problem that I'm supposed to be reflecting on and addressing. I've done some writing on it before, like this post called "Lithium and a Prayer." 

But I'm having a bit of trouble concentrating on it, for several reasons, one of which is this:

Questions of meaning aside, my medication makes me feel kind of crappy all the time.

Don't get me wrong. "Crappy" is better than "breakdown." "Crappy" is better than "hospitalization."

But it's still...just...crappy.

I don't want to whine about it too much. It isn't the worst or most awful thing. It just is what it is -- a a stomach ache, a wee bit of nausea, a sort of steady low energy. Just...crappy.

So here I am, trying to be really articulate and reflective about medication and meaning and spirituality and all these themes I'm trying to weave together in this book I'm writing, while trying to scrape together the various part-time jobs and commitments I have, and feeling, overall, just a bit crappy.

And so maybe that will be the chapter title for the book:

"Just a Bit Crappy."

Which is a better way to feel, anyway, than nothing at all.

So maybe, if you get a chance, just say a quick prayer for me. Oh, and I'm almost to the point where I'll be sharing book excerpts on my Patreon site, so if you haven't already visit over there and maybe become a patron. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lithium for Lent

Hi folks,

As you probably know if we're friends on Facebook, last month I had a bit of a rough time, mental health wise. One of the effects of that was that I stopped updating the podcast, so I wanted to do a quick recording and share it with folks who follow the podcast, just explaining what was going on and talking a bit about my plans for the podcast. If you're interested in that, check out this short episode of Fooling with Scripture:
  Here's the gist of what's been going on with me:

I lost track of the basics.

By "the basics" I mean, I wasn't sleeping right, I wasn't eating regularly, and because I wasn't eating regularly, I stopped taking my medication regularly. I wasn't doing the Mental Illness 101 stuff that I know I need to do to keep myself healthy and on my feet.

And so I crashed. And it sucked. And it meant canceling things, and backing out of commitments, and not being able to help Leigh out with things, and every time something like this happens, I worry that I will lose friends, or colleagues, or jobs, or trust. And to some extent, some of those things might be true. And the anxiety that comes with that makes the mental health issues I struggle with even worse.

(It is, by the way, entirely appropriate for you to point out the irony that the post before this one on my blog is about self-care.)

I've gotten back on my feet, and things are getting better. I'm back to the basics. And what I've decided to do for Lent is to focus on my mental health, not as a selfish thing, but as a way to contribute to the health of my community and to keep myself in a space where I can hopefully do some work for the common good.

I'm calling this effort "Lithium for Lent," because who doesn't love a good alliteration? I'm going to be focusing on the basics. I'm also going to start going to a support group, something I haven't done in a long time. And I'm going to be using Monica Coleman's book Not Alone as a daily devotional.

I'm also going to be sharing some blog reflections about mental health and mental illness. Not every day. I'm not going to force it. Some of these might even be previews of my book, or at least things I'm working out for my book. But I will share what reflections come up in this time, if any.

So that's where I am right now. Today is Ash Wednesday. In the Ash Wednesday service, while people are receiving ashes, we usually say something like: "Remember from dust you've come, and to dust you'll return. Repent and believe the gospel."

Which is sort of like saying;

"Remember you are human, mortal, limited. You've come from dirt and you'll return there, so return to that, and believe the good news."

The good news here isn't, "You're more than human." It's "You're human. You're limited. That's exactly where God's grace meets you, in your mortality and your flesh and your dustiness and your limits."

So I'm entering a season of remembering my limits, remembering my humanity, my mortality. Honoring my limits. Re-seeing them as holy, as exactly the place where God's grace meets me.

If I have let you down or disappointed you or strained your trust over the past month, I pray you will forgive me. But more than that, I am praying for the remembrance of dust, and limits, and good, good news.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Self-Care-in-Context: A Brief Systems-Perspective Guide for the Overwhelmed


So yesterday I wrote a post on Facebook with some thoughts about this present social/political moment in light of something called "systems theory." Several people expressed an interest in more information, particularly in relation to feeling overwhelmed, so here's a longer post with some thoughts. Some of this will be a re-iteration of the FB post, with some added detail, so you don't need to have read the post to understand this blog.

Before I start: anything I know about systems theory I learned from Dr. Cedric Johnson at Wesley Seminary, first as a student in his class "PC-111: Pastoral Care and Counseling in Contexts," and then as his TA for two semesters. So this really isn't my original thinking at all. I'll put a little mini-bibliography at the end of this piece, which will include Dr. Johnson's book. Also, while he's not mentioned by name, this article about seminary courses and #BlackLivesMatter references Dr. J's "Pastoral Care Post-Ferguson" class at Wesley.

In this post, I'm going to do 3 things:

I'm going to flesh out my original FB post a bit.

Then I'm going to add a few more thoughts on systems theory.

And then I'm going to share a few thoughts on taking care of ourselves and each other, with particular attention to that feeling of being overwhelmed that I see many of my friends sharing.

But first...

A Note on Personal Context

As I write this, I'm simultaneously mindful of two things. One is that I bring a lot of privilege to this conversation. I'm white, so I can "take a break" from paying attention to race in a way that people of color can't. I'm a cisgender male (that means I think of myself as male and also that, at birth, I was assigned the gender of male), so I can stop thinking about gender in a way that women and trans folk don't have the luxury of doing. So if I'm not careful, I can write about things like "self-care" in a way that's too glib and too dependent on personal privilege. (Though we should also be careful tp not discount the powerful resiliency and modes of care that exist in marginalized communities.)

The second thing is that I'm someone with a mental illness, someone who's experienced the truly shattering effects of going from "overwhelmed" to "complete breakdown." So this stuff is really important for me, and if I'm not careful, I can do real damage to myself and others. I've written about that in more detail on this blog, if you're interested.

These two things inform and affect each other. They aren't independent of each other. Which, come to think of it, is a great segue to talk about systems....

A Brief Overview of Systems Theory in this Present Moment:

So, to re-iterate what I said yesterday on FB, but fleshed out a bit more:

I've seen a bunch of social media posts recently which, roughly summarized, fall into three categories:
(1) "I feel overwhelmed and depressed by everything that's happening. There's nothing I can do. I give up."
(2) "If I see you at X march/protest/action, then I better also see you at Y march/protest/action."
(3) "While you were distracted by X, this thing Y that you should *really* be worried about happened. Pay attention!" 


Just to be clear, this piece isn't meant to shame or call out anyone who has said or thought any of these things. I've said or thought all three.

But all these posts did get me thinking about Dr. Johnson's class because in it, we talk a lot about systems theory.

Here's a few relevant tidbits about systems theory:

(a) Everything happens in the context of systems -- family systems, congregational systems, macro-systems. Something that happens in one part of a system affects other parts of the system. None of us are atomized units. For better and for worse, we are inextricably connected to our families, our contexts, our communities.

(b) At the same time, while everything happens in systems, no individual is completely identifiable with a particular system. I am deeply affected by my family, by my community, by my participation in systems of race and gender. But at the same time, I am not my family. I am not my gender. I am a complex person in a complex context. Being able to remember that "I am me" in the midst of all the systems that effect me is referred to as "self-differentiation."

(c) The system affects individuals within it, but conversely, individuals within a system can affect the system. If my family system is in chaos, that affects me. Conversely, my actions and level of anxiety can amplify or absorb some of the chaos of the system.

(d) Because of (c), intervention in one part or level of a system affects other parts of the system. This means that, when we are thinking about an intervention -- be it a counseling session, an educational program, an organizing strategy -- we need to do two things simultaneously:

1. Keep the whole system in mind 
 ... AND ALSO ...
2.  Don't allow the complexity of the system to paralyze us into inactivity
Take, for example, an individual who asks for counseling. Many traditional counseling approaches would have focused entirely on that individual, and in particular on any pathology shown by that individual, rather than taking into account their family system or the effects of macro-systems like race, class, or economics. This isn't particularly effective. At the same time, no single counseling session, or even series of counseling sessions, can move every single part of every single system affecting the individual. So you have to pick a place to start given your understanding of the context in which the individual is operating

A Bit More Theory

I want to say a few more things about systems theory, but if you're reading this and thinking, "Wait, this is overwhelming! I came here to be less whelmed, not more whelmed!," then skip this and go to the next section.

The language of systems theory largely originates from a guy named Dr. Murray Bowen -- you can read more about him and his theory here. Bowen was interested in family systems, in the way that we all become emotionally interlocked with other members of our family and in the generational patterns that tend to occur in families. But systems theory has been applied to all sorts of other areas. One guy, named Edwin Friedman, applied the theory to leadership -- here's a neat-o little video about that:


The key concept from Friedman's work is "self-differentiation," which I mentioned in (b) above. The idea is that the best thing I can do for a system is to self-differentiate: to have good boundaries, to avoid being sucked into other people's anxiety, and maintain a  non-anxious presence.

A few caveats are worth mentioning. One is that self-differentiation is different than individualism. Self-differentiation assumes a systems perspective. That is, the assumption is that we are all in systems, all interdependent, and that's the context in which self-differentiation is important.

A second related point is that self-differentiation is not the opposite of empathy. It's an ability to hold the tension between the necessity of empathy and connection and the temptation to get wholly pulled in to the anxiety of my family/workplace/congregation/society. Good boundaries and good empathy are actually mutually reinforcing, not contradictory to each other. Dr. Brene Brown's work is a good place to learn more about that -- I'll reference in the bibliography, below.

A third point is that "non-anxious" and "self-differentiated" doesn't always mean "calm, cool, and collected." Sometimes, leadership and organizing means turning up the level of anxiety to make change happen. Non-anxious presence is about being able to handle/manage the anxiety that is always present in systems.

Why is all this important?

Because one of the best things we can do to positively affect systems is to take good care of ourselves!

On Feeling Whelmed, Over and Otherwise

Let me say it again: one of the best things we can do to positively affect systems is to take good care of ourselves!

If you're feeling overwhelmed in this present moment, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people are feeling like this.

Also, it's not an accident. Oppressive systems are designed to make people feel overwhelmed, and the current administration is doing everything in its power to exacerbate this. So avoiding being overwhelmed -- or at least, as I'll talk about in a second, being able to "ride the whelming wave" -- is really important right now.

So here's a few ways that a systems approach, I think, helps us not be overwhelmed right now:

1) You're not wrong. It is overwhelming. But you're not alone.
Systems theory reminds us that there are big systems that impact us, and that those systems are tough, though not impossible, to change. So it's not just you. This is hard work, and it takes developing a certain resilience for the long haul. But that resilience happens in community, with others also doing work and also feeling overwhelmed. It's not just you.

2) You don't have to do everything.
No one person -- or even one community -- can do everything. But that's ok. Because remember -- as long as we keep an eye on the systems at play, an intervention at one level of the system can effect the whole system. So you can acknowledge the systems at play while also picking one thing to focus on and push on.

3) Self-care positively affects the system.
By caring for yourself and your health and well-being, you help make the system healthier. This doesn't mean, of course, that I can just care for yourself and forget about the rest of the system; rather, it means that self-care is a deeply contextual act, which leads me to...

4) Self-care doesn't have to be individualistic.
Self-care isn't yet another individualistic goal to be achieved. In systems theory, self-care happens in context. Self-care includes checking on on each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other, loving each other. Call it "self-care-in-context," or "self-care-in-community"

5) Internal work and external work go hand-in-hand. Self-care does not equal isolation.
Internal work -- "self-differentiation" in systems theory language, but we can also talk about prayer, meditation, counseling, contemplation -- makes our external work more effective. External work -- marching, educating, organizing, writing, caring for others -- can reinforce our internal work rather than "taking away" from it, and vice versa. "Self-care" isn't an excuse to isolate or give up. It's part of our overall work, just as caring for each other is part of how we care for ourselves. 

6) Anxiety can't be eliminated, but it can be borne.
Systems theory uses the terminology of "anxiety" to refer to the tension or disturbances within a system. Anxiety never goes away; what systems theory points to is learning to manage, handle, or ride out anxiety. In dialectical behavior therapy, there's a technique called "riding the wave" that I've found really helpful. When you're feeling overwhelmed -- a word that literally refers to engulfed or submerged, as by a wave -- you don't necessarily have to fight or eliminate that feeling. Acknowledge that it's there, and that it might bowl you over for a bit. But also know that this particular wave will subside, and you'll be able to right yourself and keep moving. Another wave will come, and it will hit you hard too, but you can learn to ride each wave instead of feeling drowned by each wave.

Why Does This Matter Now?

So, in our current social and political crisis, it's important to keep in mind that whole systems need to change. This means that no one thing is going to be the one thing that does it. It's important to acknowledge this, and try not to get defensive about it. The one or three things that I can focus on today, the protest I can attend, the rep I can call, whatever it is, isn't going to fix everything. AND ALSO, we can't all move everything at once. Care for yourself and for others, knowing that this struggle is both urgent but also long-term. Pick a place you think you can intervene. Do it, knowing that your actions are part of a larger system as well. 

To change whole systems, lots of different loci of resistance are needed.

I love the term loci of resistance. I got that from Dr. Johnson. And I'll end with a quote from him, one of my favorites, something I heard him say each semester:

"I still believe the gospel is the most powerful loci of resistance there is."

A Brief (and briefly annotated) Bibliography

Want to learn more about systems theory? Check out these resources:

-- The Bowen Family for the Study of the Family is a good place to learn about family systems: www.thebowencenter.org

-- Cedric C. Johnson's book, Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) is a great overview with particular application to race and class in our current era. It's a bit pricey, but hopefully will be available in paperback soon.

-- Ronald W. Richardson has two books in the Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series from Fortress Press that are particularly helpful to pastors and church leaders but offer good overviews of systems theory as well. One is called Becoming a Healthier Pastor (Augsburg Fortress, 2005) and the other is Creating a Healthier Church (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

-- Peter Scazzaro has a series aimed for more of a lay audience with titles like The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, 2015).

-- Christie Neuger's Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Fortress, 2001) is a great example of the implications of a particular macro-system -- gender -- on counseling. Neuger also has an edited volume, with James Newton Poling, called The Care of Men (Abingdon, 1997), though it's starting to show it's age a bit.

-- John Swinton's book Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Abingdon, 2000) is one of my favorite books, and it's a great example of a systems perspective applied, in this case, to mental health and mental illness.

-- For more on the inter-relation between setting good boundaries and developing empathy and compassion, Brene Brown is the rockstar. Get a copy of Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012), flip to the index and look up "Boundaries," and then read the whole book. Or, if you ain't got the time, check out this short video:

-- There's a lot of sources out there about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), but here's a quick summary of the "Riding the Wave" skill.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rhetoric of Unity and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Over the summer, I wrote a series of posts about unity -- what unity means from a Christian theological perspective, and the difference between that and the rhetoric of unity in the institutional church. Recently, I've been hearing a lot of unity rhetoric from more secular sources, and I'm once again pondering the uses that rhetoric of unity is put too. What's going on in the name of unity?

Just a quick summary of my earlier posts about unity: I contrasted the mystical, self-emptying love of unity in Christ with the monolithic, institutional unity that has more to do with Babel than with Pentecost.



The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
Just a photo of some other tower
"Babel" seeks unity through monolithic sameness, through the building of a fortress, a tall tower. You are in, or you are out.

"Pentecost" receives unity as a gracious gift, which facilitates mutual understanding among people who are, and who will remain, very different, but can nonetheless enter into a space of deep sharing.

"Unity," in other words, is a word that can be put to different uses. It can indicate sharing, interconnection, and inclusion. It can also be a remarkably exclusive word, one that shames or ejects anyone who won't toe the party line or commit themselves to the upholding of the institution above all else.

I have become increasingly suspicious of the rhetoric of unity, both in church and in society. It's a word that too easily means Babel, and too rarely is talking about Pentecost. Pentecost is challenging. It's risky. It's vulnerable. It's a bit scary. Babel emphasizes security. Peace through strength. Certainty.

Babel is, I think, the more natural, or the more instinctive, human impulse. At least that seems to be the case in our current mode of being as a society.

Pentecost is an in-breaking, an accessing of a deeper and truer level of unity.

So when I hear people saying things like, "We just need to come together and unite now so we can move forward" -- I hear Babel, not Pentecost.

Or when I hear people say, "Don't critique x march/action/group, we have to come together and unify against y," I often wonder, "Is that Pentecost speaking? Or Babel?"

The term "the hermeneutics of suspicion" was brought to bear on the Christian tradition by feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She argued that, when reading biblical texts, people who are concerned for justice cannot simply accept the text at face value or assume that the text is a good, benevolent, and truthful thing. Instead, we have to read with a lens of suspicion, paying attention to who is silenced or hurt or left out by the text.

It's not that the text is inherently bad. It's just that the text emerges from, and is interpreted in, contexts that have power dynamics at play. And it pays to be aware of those often-hidden dynamics.

So, when you hear the rhetoric of unity being used, it pays to be a bit suspicious. Whose purposes is this unity serving? Is the the unity of Babel? Or is it the unity of Pentecost?

--

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Apocalypse Already, Pt. 1 (Fooling with Scripture podcast)

Hi folks -- here's a new episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast! As promised last episode, I'm starting a new series on revelation and Revelation -- that is, on the Book of Revelation, and also on the concept of revelation, which is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis. 

You've probably heard the words "apocalyptic" and "apocalypse" before, in reference to something like "the end of the world." But check out the podcast to find out more about what the word actually means, and why I think right now is a good time to be talking about it:



I mention Brian Blount's book, which I'll be referring to throughout this series: Can I Get a Witness?: Reading Revelation through African American Culture (Westminster John Knox, 2005). The quote "Revelation obscures" is literally on page 1.

The other commentary I mention is Christopher C. Rowland's in Volume XII of The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Abingdon, 1998). Rowland's point about de-mythologizing readings, the rise of the Nazis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer is on page 507-508. And on pg. 556 is the longer quote I read:
In situations where [the Book of Revelation's] imagery is allowed to work, however, it can disturb the convention maintained by the commonsensical. Like metaphors, whose function is to lay bare the realities of experience by the abrupt and jarring impact of their linguistic juxtapositions, apocalypse seeks to stop us in our tracks and get us to view things differently. 
I also find M. Eugene Boring's (tee hee hee) introduction to Revelation in The New Interpreter's Study Bible (Abingdon, 2003), to be a helpful overview -- it's on pages 2211-13.

Finally, I paraphrased a letter/social media post by activist ShiShi Rose -- you can read the full quote and get some good context here. Here's an excerpt:
In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March on Washington, Brooklyn-based activist ShiShi Rose penned a moving letter to “white allies” planning to attend. Rose wrote that while many have viewed the nation through a different lens since President-elect Donald Trump's election, “For the rest of us, this is how it has always looked." Rose continued, "I want to remind you that no ally ever got very far, in any movement, without acknowledgement of their own privilege daily. ... You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too. I was born scared."
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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Walls I've Seen

There is a photo of me, taken while I was living in Jerusalem almost a decade ago now, which I sometimes find myself thinking about. I am praying at a wall -- not the wall that many people pray at in Jerusalem. A different wall. A wall, built by the state of Israel, which digs deep into the occupied Palestinian territories, separating farmers from their land, neighbors from neighbors, dividing communities.

This particular picture shows this wall as it snakes through a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. It's hard to tell from the photo, but here the wall is actually right in the middle of the street. People on one side used to be able to just walk across the street.

Now, there's a wall.

In my relatively short life, I've seen a wall or two.

Another photograph. Another memory. This from a few years later. The picture, taken by a good friend, is of me in front of another wall. This one is in the city of Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. This wall, just like the first one, divides communities. It cuts relatives off from one another. On the side of the wall I'm sitting on, a local artist has created an installation, The figures in the installation represent a stream of migrants, sojourners, travelers. They carry their possessions on their backs. They carry the body of a fallen comrade.

They carry the weight of the wall.

These walls already exist. They already divide. And they were already built -- with purpose, with intention. They were built by people working for governments and private corporations -- Israeli corporations in both cases, as well as U.S.

They existed, and were funded and maintained, with U.S. taxpayer dollars, during the previous administration. And I just think we need to remember that.

Building walls is not a new, scandalous idea. It is what we have been doing in the world, with our money, our bulldozers, our weapons and security cameras protecting the sites of construction and destruction.

The controversial "Muslim registry" that the next president has been talking about -- which well-meaning friends and colleagues have pledged to protest by registering themselves, as well we all should -- is not new, either. It's based on a law that was in fact in place, starting shortly after September 11, 2001 but continuing to be utilized well until 2011. It remained on the books until just a few weeks ago. How many of got ourselves registered before then?

The targeting and punishing and killing of the families of those we deem "terrorists." The targeted deportations. The state violence against marginalized communities. The gutting of programs designed to protect the most vulnerable, the most hurting in our society. These are not new things. They did not spring into being with a particular demagogic individual. They are business as usual for the U.S.

This is what we do.

Do not hear me saying that these things are normal. They are not normal. They are horrific. But they are normalized. And they highlight the dangers of what happens when we allow -- when I allow -- such things to be normalized.

Walls that divide become normalized. The destruction of households, the targeting of civilians, the demonizing of migrants and refugees -- they become normalized, hidden behind the distant bureaucratic operations of the state. We can safely stop paying attention to them -- well, we few, we very very very few, can safely stop paying attention to them, all the while thinking we are normal, we are the majority, our experience is usual.

It is not. People live in fear of the normalized mechanisms of state violence, all the time.

The incoming administration represents an unveiling of this. Their rhetoric is more blatant. Their talk of walls and destruction and deportation louder, more vitriolic.

But the normalization of all of this?

That's on us.

These are some of the walls I've seen. And they are not new. And they are not normal.

But we have let them become normalized.

Of this, may we repent.


---

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

A New Year of Fooling with Scripture!

It's 2017, and I'm ready for a new year of fooling with scripture!

In this episode, I talk a bit about some upcoming projects, including a new series on the book of Revelation.

I also look back over the past few months of the podcast and ask the question, what does it mean to fool with scripture?

A few different themes come to mind -- when it comes to fooling with scripture, we're interested in:

1) Surprising, not Spectacular
2) Authoring, not Authority
3) Conversation, not Coercion
4) Text, not Textbook
5) Foolish, not Foolproof

Want to hear more? Check out the podcast:



I mention the "Roadmap to Biblical Interpretation" that we learned at Wesley Seminary -- if that's of interest to you, you can check out the book by my professor Dr. Sharon Ringe (you might remember her from the John series). In brief, the Roadmap is an approach to biblical interpretation that starts with the assumption that readers and texts both originate in contexts and that no one interpretation can take precedence over others. With this in mind, the Roadmap consists of 5 steps: (1) "Starting at Home" with the readers context (2) Encountering the text (3) A closer reading of the text (4) Expanding our inquiry to the context out of which the text emerges and (5) Engaging with other readers, including a broader community of voices we might tend to forget.

Also, I want to give a shout out to my friend Morgan Guyton -- his book How Jesus Saves the World from Us inspired the rhythm of my "five not exactly principles." Morgan's a campus minister at Loyola and Tulane University in Louisiana -- learn more about what they're up to here.

And as always, if you like this podcast, consider becoming a Patron -- you'll also get sneak previews of my new book!


Monday, January 2, 2017

I may not be doing enough, and also I am enough, and other tangled-up thoughts I'm having

No new 'Fooling with Scripture' podcast this week, because (a) I've been traveling, (b) I lost my voice, and (c) I want to focus on book-writing this week, as well as posting some blog reflections I've been messing around with. If you'd like to see me post more often, you can help by becoming a Patron! The generous support from Patrons helps me take the time to create new stuff.

A little while ago, I posted a reflection about repentance based on a really old story. At the end of that reflection, I wrote: "But those two things -- the internal work of repentance, and the external actions of repentance -- don't happen in isolation from each other....They go hand-in-hand. And when we're hand-in-hand...well, it's a lot harder to hold on to violence, isn't it?"

And I wanted to share a bit about that internal work I've been doing, or at least, the landscape in which that eternal work is taking place. Which for me, comes down to a bit of a conundrum I have, which I suspect many of you have as well:

How do I confront the sense that I'm not doing enough, without falling into the trap of thinking that I'm not enough?

For anyone just arriving on the scene: there is a simple fact about my emotional life, and my mental health, that is important for me to keep in view. When I don't keep it in view, bad things happen. Breakdown things. Hospital things. Avoiding those things, and all the practices and habits that avoidance entails -- including visits with my counselor and my psychiatrist -- is a big priority for me.

And the thing I need to keep in view is the simple emotional fact that "I'm just not doing enough" can become a really toxic message for me.

By "toxic," I don't mean, "bums me out." I mean, "sends me into harmful spirals of self-hate and potentially even self-harm." I mean, "is bad not only for the intangible contours of my emotional, mental, spiritual health but for my concrete physical health."

It could be argued that such a consideration is a privilege, and indeed, as with many aspects of my life, privilege plays a role. But I would argue that ignoring such things is a privilege in and of itself; that it is only within the remarkable privilege of the post-industrial "West" that the insistence that "doing more" is always the best way forward coheres; that it is the privileged few rather than the oppressed many that tend toward "functional atheism," a term defined by Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer as

...the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen -- a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God. 
Oppression and violence are, of course, also bad for the health -- physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual -- of their victims, and need to be opposed for this among many other reasons.

But as, at the beginning of this new year, as I reflect on myself and on those things I need to turn from and toward, I am conscious of living in a tension between the very real sense that I am not doing enough -- enough to confront racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or violence, or mendacity, or oppression -- and the reality that this sense can be quite harmful, not only to myself but to those around me.

Tension is a word I use often, and it's one whose meaning is easy to lose sight of. Think of a rubber band, which only does its work by holding tension between two poles. If the band is pulled too much, it might break; but if it is not being pulled at all, it serves no function, no purpose. The purpose is in the tension.


And so here is the relevant tension, the two poles that must be pulled against each other if any work is to be done, if anything is to be held together:

It is true that I am not doing enough. This is true because of the simple fact that, short of the eschaton (a topic I'm going to take up in a series of podcasts this month, by the way), there will never be a time when enough has been done, when the work is finished, the struggle won.

It is also true that I am enough. This is true because I am, and you are, made in the divine image, breathed into by the Spirit, loved madly and wildly by a God who creates in and through love.

If I only look to "I am not doing enough," then more than burnout happens to me. Personal collapse happens to me. And my actions and activity come from a frenetic, desperate place of trying to prove to myself and others that I am, finally, doing enough. Which is often ineffective and sometimes very harmful.

But if I settle down into the interior space of "I am enough," then not only may I actually accomplish more, but I am less likely to cut others with the jagged edges of my ego that I am trying desperately to force on the world in the guise of "doing more."

Brene Brown, in a passage I share often because it is worth sharing, writes:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It's going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn't change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. 
So here is the landscape of my internal work, here at the start of a year that is going to be marked, I think, with a lot of struggle and a lot of rolling-up-of-sleeves:

I am turning, again, to the practices of "enough-ness." Not to indulge myself. Not as part of some sort of feel-good escapism plan. But because it's by sinking downward into that enough-ness, rather than climbing up to the peaks of "doing more," that the real work gets done.

The work, not only of my own repentance, but of the transformation of the world into a true reflection of God's justice, compassion, and peace.

I may not ever be "doing enough."

But I take a deep breath and remember: I am enough. And that is where we begin.

---

The Parker Palmer quote is from Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pg. 88.

The Brene Brown quote is from
Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012), pg. 10.

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