Friday, September 22, 2017

A Palimpsest, My Arm (a post for National Suicide Prevention Week)

Content warning: this post discusses suicidal ideation and self-harm. 

National Suicide Prevention Week is observed in the U.S. through the week following or including September 10th, recognized as World Suicide Prevention Day. I had meant to write this post last week, but I was sick all week, so I guess this is something that needed to percolate.

If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts or feelings, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day: 
1-800-273-8255. The hotline also has an online chat option

You are not alone. Your story isn't over.
---

My new tattoo: "My grace is sufficient for you;"

This summer, I got a tattoo on my left forearm.

I've been thinking about getting it for a long time. People who knew me while I was going through a particularly hard time a few years back might recognize the words. I used to write them on my arm in Sharpie marker, over and over again. For the past five years, by the grace of God, I haven't had to write them. But for those five years, I've thought about getting them tattooed over -- but not fully concealing -- the underlying scars, the criss-crossed white line reminders of hurt.

I put those scars there myself. I had run out of words, or so it seemed to me. So I cut and burned those scars onto myself because somehow, having that pain on my skin seemed better than having it locked up inside of me. Because somehow, if I was going to feel so hurt and jagged and cut-up inside, I wanted the outside of me to show it. I wished those cuts were deep enough to kill. But then I was ashamed, and hid my arms in hoodies in the anvil heat of D.C. summer.

One night, by some intervention of grace, I picked up a Sharpie instead of a blade. What I had intended to write on my arm was more shame, more anger. I intended to write, "You should be over this."And by that same gracious intervention, instead, I wrote a snippet of a Bible verse, a line remembered from a sermon in the hospital, from 2 Corinthians 12, verse 9: "My grace is sufficient for you," the apostle Paul recounts hearing from God, "for power is made perfect in weakness."

I dedicate a chapter in my book to this sufficiency, this enough-ness, in all of the many ways that it has wound its way through my heart and my mind and my soul as I have learned to live with mental illness. And after all these years I still need that reminder. The tattoo was a way to have my body be part of that reminder -- a reminder of enough-ness rather than a reminder of shame.

And now, my arm is a palimpsest.

Definition of "palimpsest" from Merriam-Webster

A palimpsest is parchment that has layers of writing on it, older layers having been erased to make room for new writing. But the erasure is never quite complete -- evidence of the old writing remains.

"My grace is sufficient for you;" my new tattoo reads. (The semicolon is a reference to Project Semicolon, whose founder, Amy Bleul, claimed it as a symbol of a sentence that could have ended but continued. The semicolon represents a story that is not over.)

It's written on my arm permanently, now, in much darker ink than the white scar tissue. But the scars are still there. That is part of the story, too. The new story contains the old story. We cannot erase the past, only write new words, new sentences, over and in and through the older layers of our lives.

My arm is a palimpsest, as is my life, as is our world, layer upon layer of story that cannot ever be completely erased or covered over. Evidence of the old words remain.

But. I couldn't have gotten this tattoo five years ago. I couldn't have done this, safely, if the wounds were still fresh -- certainly not if the wounds were still being inflicted.

And that matters, because as a country, it often feels as if we are not only trying to erase the past, rather than writing a new story over the still-visible scars of the old, but that we are trying to write a new story while still self-inflicting the very repetitive wounds that we are attempt to deny.

Just as one example: this week, here at Georgetown, we (chaplains and other campus voices) have been responding to what the University refers to as a "bias-related incident." Specifically, multiple cases of swastikas, with accompanying writing about violence against women, being painted in a residence hall bathroom right at the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days.

I would like this to be in the past. I would like for the swastika-shaped scars to be faded and white and ready to be permanently written over with new words. But they are fresh, and red, and hurting, and that means a different type of response is needed. The wounds of white supremacism, of racism, of antisemitism, of sexism, keep being re-inflicted. I want to scream at them, "I thought you were over this!" To end them with shame and fierce ridicule. But we are not over this. We are not. And perhaps there is still a different, more honestly and graciously true story to be written of us.

So we respond to the wounds, and we try to take away the weaponry, the blades, and we write tentative new stories, with soft markers, and it all seems like not enough, like such a paltry response to such harsh and repetitive wounding.

"My grace is sufficient for you," I wrote, over and over and over again. Sometimes it was enough to keep me from hurting myself. Sometimes it wasn't.

But it was a breaking-in of something that at the time seemed so foreign to me, so impossible. Some tentative hope. Some mysterious enough-ness that I could only begin to appropriate and internalize.

Some kind of grace.

My arm is a palimpsest now, so that when I look at it, I first read the grace and the enough-ness, before I encounter the old scars.

And encounter I must. They are a part of me, a part of my story. But they are not all of me. They are not all of my story. And they are certainly not the period at the end of my story.

And so we begin, tentatively, uncertainly, armed with markers against the blades:

to write new stories of grace.

--

Thank you for reading about a difficult topic. If you appreciated this post, you might check out my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward, which expands on many of these themes and is now available for pre-order at churchpublishing.org or amazon.com.  And if you're in the DC area, you can come here me read a bit from it and chat about it this coming Wednesday.

Also, here's a helpful recent article from Mental Health First Aid USA about the differences between suicidal ideation and self-injury. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Caring about the world when your brain's a dumpster fire: A Guide for Beginners

Actual photo of the inside of my brain
My level of anxiety has been through the roof this week.

This is super annoying, for two reasons.

One, it's our first week with all the new students moved in to the residence hall, and so I want to be meeting people and remembering names and making a good first impression and all that, and instead, my mind is imploding.

And two, other than that, I really don't have that much going on right now, and so there's no good reason for me to feel so anxious, and it's frustrating as hell to be overwhelmed with anxiety when there is nothing actually to be anxious about.

This is so real. 

There are a lot of people right now who have lots to feel anxious about. There are relief workers and trauma care providers and faith leaders who are in day five or six of responding to drastic human need in Houston and in Southeast Asia. There are folks organizing in places like Charlottesville who are trying to do good work while still having nightmares about stuff they saw earlier this month. There are LGBTQ Christians whose newsfeeds are once again filled with nonsense questioning their holiness, their belovedness, their calls.

And then there's me. I'm anxious because my brain decided to be anxious this week.

This is, like I said, annoying. It's just part of my experience of living with mental illness, and I have lots of supports in place to manage it, and you don't have to worry about me or anything, and also it sucks and that's that.

I was trying to journal out some of the unproductive stuff raging around in my head the other night, and I happened on a favorite passage in one of Paul's letters to the early church in Corinth: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor 12:7). And I scribbled out in my journal:
What do I say to my brain when it tells me I'm a drain on the common good? What does the Spirit say to me when my brain is telling me I'm a drain on the common good?
That's a pretty good summary of what my brain does when it's in one of these anxiety spirals: tells me I'm a drain on the common good. I know it's not true. I know mental illness lies to me. But the messed up part of my brain can be pretty convincing at times.

What I would really love to be able to do is just ignore the voice of anxiety, ignore the voice of depression, ignore the voice of bipolar -- whatever the heck we want to call this stuff. But when I try to just stuff it down and move on and get back to working for the common good, that voice figures out how to infiltrate my efforts and comes back louder and stronger.

So here's a few things I'm working on this week. Maybe they'll be helpful to you. Maybe not. But I'm feeling the need to write some things down, because sometimes that's how I figure out what I think about something and how I can handle something.

Maybe this is a sort of beginner's guide for caring about the world when your brain's a dumpster fire:

1) Shitty First Draft Journaling / The Anxiety Bot

The idea of writing a Shitty First Draft came from Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, and recently Brene Brown drew on it in her book Daring Greatly to talk about owning our personal stories. The SFD approach means journaling out the story you're telling yourself, in all its honesty and rawness and immature glory, so that you can look at it and reflect on it and come to see it for what it is. When it comes to anxiety and depression, I wonder if an SFD can play a similar role as Paul Ford's AnxietyBot program, which was a demonstration of how easily predictable and programmable the voice of anxiety actually is. So I've been writing out all the crap my brain is saying to me so I can take a look at it and say, "Wow. That's a lot of spam."

2) Radical Acceptance

This is something I learned about in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. After I wrote down a bunch of crap my brain was trying to tell me on Monday, I wrote: "This isn't how I wanted to be feeling at the start of a new school year. But I am feeling this way." Meditating on this a bit helps me to acknowledge the reality of what's going on in my brain, and keeps me from going to this place of "You shouldn't feel like this, you have no right to feel like this, you're crap for feeling like this" -- a faux ethical voice that is just anxiety reasserting itself in the guise of good. Instead, radical acceptance says: "You are feeling like this. You don't want to be, but you are. So this is where we are starting from, and it is the only place to be starting from. It is not good or bad. It just is where we are."

3) Victory Column

A trick I started back when I was in and out of the hospital in 2011, the Victory Column is a simple concept. When I'm not doing well, I assign any task I accomplish to the Victory Column. Get out of bed? Point for the Victory Column! Walk the dog? Victory Column! Send an email? Victory Column! Leave the apartment? Victory Column!

There is no Losing Column.

It's just a playful way to remind myself how many little things I do in a day, and how big those seemingly little things really are in the face of mental health challenges.

The Victory Column also helps me build some momentum. For folks struggling with anxiety and depression, there are days where just getting out of bed is a monumental challenge. If getting out of bed is a victory, and taking a shower is a victory, and walking the dog is a victory -- see how that can start to build into being able to do the next thing, and the next? It's not always like that -- and it's ok if it's not -- but sometimes, that does the trick.

4) Solidarity in the Groaning

There's a little book I refer to often called Listening to the Groans: A Spirituality for Ministry and Mission, by Trever Hudson. In it, Hudson, talks about three "groans" that occur in Romans 8 -- the groans of creation, the groans within ourselves, and the too-deep-for-words groans of the Spirit.

I really appreciate Hudson's insight here. These days, after any tragedy, whether caused by humans or nature, there's this weird internet argument that breaks out over the term "thoughts and prayers" and how that isn't enough and people should be doing something instead. Which puts me and I think probably a lot of others in sort of a weird position, because yeah, it's not "enough" to pray about something, but who thinks it is? And also, sometimes there isn't something to be "done" right away -- like, please don't rush to Houston right now to volunteer, it's unsafe and you won't help, you'll hurt, they'll need volunteers months from now, ok? I mean, if you have money, give it, but also there will be a lot of money coming in right now -- give in six months, too, ok?

But as I wrote to my students back when I worked at American University:
In one sense, no — prayer is not enough. Action is needed. But in another sense — yes, prayer is enough. For Christians, the spirituality that we express in prayer is an orientation toward and a communion with Jesus Christ. And this Jesus to whom we pray is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” This Jesus stands in solidarity with all those who are victimized and oppressed, all those who are hurting and mourning, all those who are afflicted and sorely pressed. When we read the story of the Crucifixion, we are reminded that in Christ God stands in solidarity even with those feel forsaken or abandoned by God. When we pray, we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit of Christ, which is always the Spirit of solidarity, of reconciliation, and of love in action. Prayer is an expression of solidarity that leads us into further action; and, conversely, our actions of solidarity and advocacy are expressions of prayer.
All of which I say just to say this: when I am feeling overwhelmed -- actually, underwhelmed might be a better metaphor for it -- by the voice of anxiety, it is very helpful for me to remind myself that taking a bit of time to listen to the groaning going on inside of me is not a distraction from the common good. My soul, too, is part of the common good -- and just as importantly, the voice telling me to ignore my hurt and shut up about it and go and do something about the state of the world isn't actually a healthy voice, and it isn't going to lead to healthy action. Solidarity with the hurt of the world can start exactly by first going deeper into one's own hurt, and finding there the wordless groans of the Spirit in solidarity with the groans of the world.

So it's not only ok, but good for the world, for me to take a little time, and breathe, and pray, and let the anxiety waves settle down some so that the water can get a bit clearer and I can see that the bottom isn't actually that far down. There's solid ground to stand on.

Prayer from Trevor Hudson's Listening to the Groans (Upper Room Books, 2007, pg. 32)

It's objectively true that there's bigger, more harmful stuff going on in the world right now than what's going on in my mind. It's just as true that the only place I have to start working toward the common good is here at home. So I will do that, faithfully, and trust that the Spirit will continue to manifest Herself for the good of all.

Onward we go, one tiny act of courage at a time.

---

Thank you for reading! I always hope my writing on mental health and mental illness is helpful to folks. If it's helpful to you, you might be interested in my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward, which will be available for purchase soon. I'm also happy to speak to your community or organization, and you can email me with questions or comments. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville, Supremacy, and What's In Our Eyes

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" -- Jesus, in Matthew 6:22-23

"Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." -- Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

---

I'm still not sure whether I should write something about Charlottesville.

For one thing, Leigh has already written about our experience of the day, which you can read here. She says powerfully most of what I can think to say about the day, other than the one or two times when we were in separate areas and thus have separate accounts. We were there in response to the call from Congregate Charlottesville -- their website is here, and you can read an article about their organizing here.

For another thing, I've been hesitant to write because I think my voice is about the last one that needs to be centered or amplified at this moment. White, cisgender, male, hetero, Protestant Christian -- all the markers of my identity mean that, at least on the surface, I have much more in common with the armed extremists who descended on Charlottesville last weekend than I do with the communities the marchers' chants and weapons targeted. There's a very good reason that the church where we volunteered that day took extra precautions with me, searching me before marking my hand with a green Sharpie heart: physically, there was little to distinguish me from some of the white nationalists marching that day. I could have disappeared into the crowd.

So we need to be listening to women of color right now, to trans and queer folk, to Jews and Muslims. With that in mind, here are a few voices other than mine that I'd ask you listen to first, before you listen to mine:

-- Interview w/Rev. Traci Blackmon of the UCC, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. Jalane Schmidt, all of whom were in Charlottesville
-- Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza reflects from Charlottesville on what pastoral care looks like after this weekend's violence
-- Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners asks if America is willing to pick up its cross
-- The Center for Inclusivity, co-founded by my friend and colleague Alicia Crosby, shares words for people of color; people with other marginalized identities; and allies and accomplices searching for collective liberations
-- My chaplain colleague here at Georgetown, Rev. Rondesia Jarrett Schell, offers a brief and powerful reflection on her reaction to the events in Charlottesville, and calls us to be midwives for the birth of a better world

If you've done all that, and you still want to read what I've written, that's cool. But first, here's 8 suggestions for action from organizers in Charlottesville that you should check out.

[[UPDATE 8/31: Here's a National Call to Conscience from the group we went to support, Congregate Charlottesville, for you to read and sign]]

So. Here's what I've got.

---
Saturday, August 12
---
I recognize their eyes.

I don't have many details about what happened, at least not yet. A car has driven into a crowd of counter-protestors, we assume deliberately, murderously. Now, people are stumbling into the church where we are volunteering, being helped into the medic station or further along the hallway where mental health and trauma specialists are waiting, only to be quickly overwhelmed by the need.

Later, I will see the video, recognize some of the people we talked to, handed water to, gave rides to, tried in some small way to help.

But at this point, I don't know how close they were to the attack, what exactly they saw.

I don't really need to know, though.

I recognize their eyes.

I don't make the connection consciously, not in the moment. But I've seen eyes like that before. In faces covered in the dust of homes destroyed by an occupying military. Or staring blankly at the halls of the psych ward, concealing brains that, for some reason, have decided to turn against themselves.

I think I've probably had those eyes, before. Its hard to know. There's not usually a mirror on hand, and those eyes aren't much interested in checking in on themselves, anyway.

Those eyes have seen something they shouldn't have had to. Those eyes are not seeing the world as an integrated picture, but as a series of fragments, fragments with sharp edges that can cut you if you're not careful, and often even if you are.

Those eyes are what fresh trauma looks like when its reflected in our ocular system. 

---
Today
---

"The eye is the lamp of the body," Jesus says. The way you see the world illuminates or distorts your bodily reality. The white nationals and fascists and literal Nazis who marched through the streets of Charlottesville, I have to believe, have a distorted view of reality, an angry and fearful view clouded by hatred and tinted with lenses of violence. I looked into some of their eyes on Saturday, and was terrified by what I saw. Not surprised. But terrified. I've seen those eyes before, too. The light in them is darkness.

But I'm not thinking about their eyes right now. I'm thinking about the eyes of the people who limped or jogged into the church. I'm wondering what this attack does to their vision of the world. I'm wondering how we care, not just for people's bodies, but for the lamps of their bodies, and for the souls those lamps seek to illuminate.

How do we care for people who have looked through the fragments of a reality that seems whole, have seen beyond it, to something terrifying, and broken, and hurtful.

There are communities, whole communities, whole generations of communities, who have been staring through those violent fragments for a long, long, time. Look close enough, and their eyes tell the story. Their bodies tell the story. Their bodies reflect the reality they have seen through the shards.

---
Saturday, August 12
---

Leigh and I are driving a chaplain to UVA Hospital to care for people being brought in with physical injuries and psychic trauma. On one corner, a group of white nationalists have gathered. Many have their shirts off so that we can see their swastika tattoos. They are armed with guns and clubs. They are chanting, "White Power! White Power! White Power!"

We are at a stop sign, and I cannot avoid making eye contact with them. In a moment of complete surreality, one of them stares at us, then turns to the street, looks both ways, and waves us out into the intersection, as if to say, "It's safe. Go ahead."

It is not safe to be here, not even close to safe, but of course we are white, and our skin disguises our reason for being there. We drive past the group as they continue waving their flags -- Nazi flags and Confederate flags and American flags, all together. I cannot avert my eyes.

---
Today
---


I've been thinking a lot this week about eyes. About those eyes. And about specks and logs in eyes. To be clear, I don't think white nationalism is a "speck" -- it's a hell of a lot more serious than that. We saw a lot of swastikas and a lot of guns and heard a lot of chants of "White Power" on Saturday, and we weren't even in the thick of things. If that's a speck, it's a doozy of a goddamned speck. I use the profanity advisedly and not, I think, in vain.

But it's easy for me to condemn white nationalism. Not easy for people to put their bodies on the line to resist them, but easy to condemn with my keyboard, here in the nice air conditioned student center next to my apartment at Georgetown. Easy to say, "Nazis are bad."

Harder to look at the white supremacist log in my own eye. Harder to see the ways I benefit from systems that advantage folks with my skin color, or with my gender identity, or with my religious beliefs, over other folks. Harder to look in the face unflinchingly at the way this country was built for me and people like me, on the backs and over the spilled blood of black people and brown people. 

I shared this on Facebook already, but I'll share it again here: one role I have at Georgetown is facilitating bystander intervention trainings. During those trainings we do an activity where students collectively arrange different types of behaviors on a spectrum, from "Low Visibility (i.e. tends not to make the news)/High Occurrence" to "High Visibility/Low Occurrence." The activity gets us thinking and talking about the ways that behaviors that are easy to ignore can create the context for more overt interpersonal violence. Positive bystander intervention means not only waiting until the more overt, high visibility end of the spectrum to intervene, but thinking critically about what intervention looks like at the low visibility end of the spectrum.

This graphic communicates a similar idea re: white supremacy. It's not perfect -- I don't know that "socially acceptable/unacceptable" is exactly the right language, especially since there are plenty of social contexts where, for example, racial slurs are considered socially acceptable. (One of the benefits of the spectrum activity is that students discuss why they put different activities on different parts of the spectrum, which can be very illuminating for the whole group.) But it communicates an important idea that is worthy of your consideration. In Charlottesville, we saw overt, (literally) unmasked white supremacy's dangerous, violent face. But we all participate, albeit often unknowingly, in allowing the less overt contexts -- the silent majority -- that lets the overt stuff continue.

All of which is to say: there are things we white people can do, actions we can take, to remove this white supremacist log from our eye, or at least to whittle it down, piece by piece, speck by speck.

So by all means, let us begin. It's far past time we see clearly.

---
Saturday, August 12
---

We are driving home. A few minutes ago, we gave two women, one black, one white, a ride to their car. They, too, have come from D.C. together. One of them has her knee wrapped in a thick bandage. Later, in the video footage, we would recognize her screaming, screaming, screaming. But we don't know, then.

Well, we know. But we don't know.

Perhaps we still do not.

I am driving. Leigh is in the passenger seat. She is looking out the window, but her question is directed to me.

"Where do you think Jesus would have been today?"

I keep my eyes on the road, rapidly blinking tears out of my eyes.

"I don't know," I say. "I don't know."

---
Today
---

I still don't know, not really. Somewhere surprising, I suspect. But I do have some suspicions about where Christ was that day.

The Body of Christ was there in the clergy who sang as they held the line, against tear gas and pepper spray and clubs and hurled insults and death threats.

The Body of Christ was in the churches who opened their doors to those who needed water and medical assistance and a space that was safe, whether they were white or black or brown or Christians or Jews or Muslims or atheist anarchists who would never step into a church on a Sunday.

And the Body of Christ is in the bodies behind those eyes. I believe that with all of my being. I believe that because I've read a story in my Bible in which Jesus asks why God has abandoned him, and those eyes, whether or not the mouths beneath them are familiar with words about God, are asking that same traumatized question.

It has been strange, this week, trying to put the finishing touches on my book about mental illness when my eyes and my body and my heart have wanted to be in Charlottesville. "Why am I writing about this right now?," I've muttered to myself, several times.

But I've kept writing, because the book at its core isn't about mental illness, not really. Here's a quick excerpt from the introduction:
This book emerges from my journey with mental health struggles, but, ultimately, vulnerability is what this book is about. Sharing my story is an exercise in vulnerability. Just as importantly, the images, reflections, and fragments of thoughts about God and faith and ministry that have stumbled their way out of the labyrinth of my personal story are tied together, not by a particular diagnosis, but by the theme of vulnerability. What my story reveals, if it reveals anything at all, are hints of a more vulnerable understanding of God and faith than much of what has been common in the mainstream Christian discourse of our present age. When I look at the Christian story, I see at its center a vulnerable God, a God in tension with the ways we have classically described the divine, a God far too susceptible to suffering and surprise to fit too comfortably into the clothing of omniscience, omnipotence, or omnibenevolence. The God whom I have met along my journey with mental illness, disguised often in a stranger’s face, a community’s embrace, or the long and lonely darkness of a sleepless night, is a God whose vulnerability creates the conditions for solidarity with those struggling, hurting, and wondering why.
That God, I could add, is the one disguised behind those eyes that stare through the fragments of trauma.

And that God, present in weakness and hurt, is the opposite of the God of supremacy--white supremacy or male supremacy or Christian supremacy or supremacy of any other sort you can muster.

That God has no desire to restore some imaginary greatness to our nation or any nation. That God has no interest in such "greatness," because it always has and always will manifest itself in violence to those deemed not-great.

Those eyes. Those eyes have seen what that "greatness" really looks like.

---
Saturday, August 12
---
We are in the church, after the attack on Water Street.

Someone yells, "He's got a gun!"

People begin to panic.

I try not to bolt, try to remain calm, but move with the crowd. Leigh keeps her cool behind me. For a terrifying moment we are separated. I think to myself, "I can't believe I left her behind."

I look around at the frightened people around me as one of the mental health volunteers speaks in a steady but loud voice: "I need everyone to stay calm. I'm going to need everyone to take a breath and calm down."

I look around, and I look into the eyes around me, and I see the fear I am feeling reflected in their eyes.

In those eyes.

The church is on lockdown, but the immediate aggressor has left. I work my way back to Leigh, feeling nothing but shame. She hugs me and whispers, "Non-anxious presence."

Where is Jesus, right now?

In the Spirit, who is breath. In hands that offer healing. And hidden behind those eyes. 

---

"We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." -- John 1:1-3

Thursday, July 27, 2017

It's ok to get 'distracted' by other people's pain

"Don't get distracted!"

I keep seeing posts with this dire warning popping up in my social media feeds. Whatever you're currently paying attention to, these posts assert, is the wrong thing to be paying attention to. It's a distraction, a carefully planned ploy to cover up some other form of foul play. You need to focus on the *real* issue here, which is...well, whatever the person posting has decided, for that day, is the real issue, I suppose.

Of course, social media being what it is, there is a tendency to get caught up in a sort of "outrage of the moment" mentality, which perhaps doesn't lend itself well to the sort of consistent work that bears justice fruit. On the other hand, humans are, in fact, capable of caring about more than one thing at once.

But what's been bothering me about these posts lately is that they seem to me to essentially be criticisms of empathy. The term "distraction" is used to dismiss a reaction to the pain of others.

And I just think it's ok to get "distracted" by other people's pain.

The post that finally made me roll my (literal) eyes, roll up my (figurative) sleeves, and write this (uh...digital?) blog post was an assertion that people reacting to the Senate continuing debate on health care without an actual health care bill on the table were getting distracted from the "real" issue, which apparently had to do with consumer protections being voted on by the House.

But of course, for me, the Affordable Care Act isn't a "distraction" -- it's the difference between me being able to access care for my mental illness, and me not being able to do so. But if you're not someone who has to rely on the ACA for health insurance, I suppose it's easy to view it as a "distraction" from the "real" issue.

It's easy for cisgender folks to see tweets from the President demonizing and vilifying transgender folks as a "distraction." It's easy for me, who never really fit in as a Cub Scout and never made it past Weeblos, to see some news item about the Boy Scouts as a distraction.

It's easy to dismiss other people's pain. But what I want, what I hope for, what I pray for the grace and strength to work for, is a more empathetic world, more empathetic communities, where we do not so easily dismiss each other's pain.

I once heard the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who serves as Executive Minister of Justice & Wellness Ministries for the United Church of Christ, give a sermon at the Wild Goose Festival. She preached on John 9. I'll never forget one line from her sermon: "Oh, how I wish we could be more like Jesus," she said, "who never debated people's pain in the third person."

What I would like to see is a more empathetic world. A world in which we do not "debate people's pain in the third person." And in that world, it is ok -- in fact, it is required -- to allow ourselves to be distracted by each other's pain.

I very much doubt that we are the victims of some sort of mastermind distraction plot crafted by a band of media savvy goons. Plain old meanness and lack of empathy, in a system already designed to shore up existent power relations, will do nicely as an explanatory framework, I think. And if I'm right about that, then we need not spend our time lambasting the attention paid to the latest meanness, the latest use of violent language to shore up violent power.

In such a system as this, which thrives off of divisions and isolation, it is good and right to allow ourselves to be distracted by people's pain.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Jezebels LIVE at Wild Goose 2017! (Fooling with Scripture podcast)

Last week we had a blast doing a live recording of Fooling with Scripture at the Wild Goose Festival. We talked about the Jezebels in The Handmaid's Tale and the character of Jezebel in scripture, plus harmful adaptation, Lady Macbeth, and violence in proximity to power. Leigh and I were joined by Pat Dupont, whose voice and music skills you know from our opening and closing jingles.

Many thanks to Russ Jennings of Love in a Dangerous Time for organizing the GooseCast tent and for the recording; and to Charles Breton of A Jew and a Gentile Walk into a Bar...Mitzvah and the awesome Mary Button for being our live studio audience. And thanks to you for for listening!



For the story of Jezebel, Ahab, and Elijah, you can start at 1 Kings 16:31, and the story follows from there. The story of Naboth's vineyard is in 1 Kings 21. And we should just generally shout-out Dr. Denise Dombkowski Hopkins at Wesley Theological Seminary, whose presence haunts this entire podcast.

As an aside that I didn't mention in the podcast, Palestinian liberation theologian Naim Ateek looks in-depth at the story of Naboth in his book, Justice and Only Justice.

Another piece we didn't get into in the live podcast is the way that Jezebel shows up in the book of Revelation -- we might have to do a follow-up episode there!

Since we start joking about show notes, we should probably mention that it's Judges 10 where the gods of the Sidonians get the Israelites in trouble.

I owe the idea of Elijah experiencing a let-down after the sacred violence to James Alison's book Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, specifically Chapter 2: "Theology Amidst the Stones and Dust."

For the musical that Pat and his friend wrote about Macbeth...you'll have to ask him.

Liked this podcast? Want to support this and other creative conversations about scripture, spirituality, and mental health? Become a patron on Patreon!

Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you want 'fooled with'? Email us!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Better questions than I have answers (some Wild Goose reflections)

Leigh and I (and Penny Lane) are back home after an amazing four weeks of travel, which included our much-belated honeymoon, officiating the wedding of friends, and the Wild Goose Festival.

Mary and me in the Studio Tent
I had the privilege of giving a few talks at Wild Goose. We did a live version of the Fooling with Scripture podcast, which should be available for your listening pleasure early next week. I chatted about mental illness, horror, and demons with my friend Mary Button, who is an awesome artist and activist. You can check out some of her work here (along with a conversation with theologian Robert Saler, who initially was going to join us at the Goose but had to back out for scheduling reasons). And I also got to give two separate  "Christ on the Psych Ward" talks.

When I talk to groups about mental illness , I try to do a few things. First, I tell a bit of my story. It's a way of "going first" that I hope gives other folks a bit of a sense of safety and comfort in being able to tell their own difficult stories. Then, I like to give a few framing comments about the particular pieces of the broader conversation that have been rattling around in my head recently. This past weekend, I decided to describe three of the tensions I've been pulling at as I've worked on the manuscript for my book, Christ on the Psych Ward:
  1. the tension between communities of faith getting better at caring for those with mental illness, on the one hand; and on the other hand, seeing people with mental illness not solely as objects of care but as subjects in our own right who have good news to share with our faith communities
  2. the tension between destigmatizing medication, on the one hand; and on the other hand, allowing space for the doubts and difficult questions of meaning that people who are diagnosed with mental illness might have in relation to being on medication
  3. the tension between affirming the presence of God in the midst of suffering, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, acknowledging the felt experience of the absence of God
Of course there's way more than these 3 tensions to pull at, and I got to go into way more detail in the book itself, but these seemed like a good starting place. (For more on what I mean by pulling at tensions, here's a blog post from January that a few folks seemed to find helpful).

Finally, I try to allow plenty of space and time for other people to share their own stories, questions, and/or doubts. For me, this time is always beautiful and powerful. It's a gift to witness the courage and vulnerability it takes people to share their often very painful stories. And this time is also very challenging for me. Because people have much better questions than I have answers

As people share their stories, the hurt and fatigue of their experiences is often palpable. Mental health struggles raise deeply challenging questions, both for those experiencing them and also for their family and friends. I hope that I'm able to create a space for conversation and reflection. But much of the time, the best answer I can come up with is an honest "I don't know." So many of the questions we have remain vexing, perhaps even unanswerable. Or, if answers are to be had, they come only after long nights of struggle and are haunted by persistent doubts. Did we do the right thing? Did I share my story with the right people? Could I have done something differently? Is there something I'm missing?

So I find myself praying to the Christ I met on the psych ward. The Christ who holds us together at our most broken places. Praying to this Christ to hold these spaces in wounded, healing hands. Praying to this Christ to be present with all of us when we are far away from these kind of spaces, when we feel isolated in the loneliness of our doubts. Praying to this Christ to hold all of this -- the questions and the half-answers, the stories we're not even sure how to share yet, the feelings of shame and stigma -- just to hold it all, with compassion and loving care.

There are so many questions to be asked. I have so very few answers. So my prayer is that, in asking the questions, and being attentive to each other's stories, we can find a quiet sort of hope: solidarity with each other, and the solidarity of a God whose answer to the questions of all of creation is a deep, silent, "Yes."

I am so grateful to all of you for your courage, your questions, and your stories. Thank you for sharing them with me. 

Checking out the UCC Tent @Wild Goose with Penny Lane

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Eyes Have It -- More Fooling with Scripture in the Handmaid's Tale!

Symbol of "The Eyes of God"
For the past few weeks, Leigh and I have been talking about the uses and abuses of scripture in The Handmaid's Tale, the dystopian sci-fi novel by Margaret Atwood and now a hit series on Hulu.

Since the dystopian future of The Handmaid's Tale is run by a totalitarian theocracy that uses Jewish and Christian scriptures to justify its fascist, misogynistic rule, there's plenty of material for us to work with!

This week, we're talking about eyes: the secret police called the Eyes of God; the not-exactly-biblical greeting/motto "Under His Eye," and plucking out an eye that offends. We're also talking about Christian-ese, Lady Wisdom, hyperbolic language, and accountability in community. Check it out!



Here's a few things we mentioned this week:

If you're interested in coming to hear us at the Wild Goose Festival, here's the deets. We'll be doing a live podcast in the GooseCast tent, Friday, July 14, at 9am. I'll also be doing a number of other talks at the Goose -- keep an eye on my "Come See Me" page for the full schedule. You can get a 25% discount on your tickets to the Goose by using the discount code GOOSECAST17 -- so get your tickets and come hang out with us!

Leigh and I are headed out on our honeymoon (hooray!), so you won't hear from us for a few weeks, but feel free to send an email with any questions, comments, or suggestions and we'll get back to you when we return.

And last but certainly not least, if you enjoyed this podcast and like this blog, please consider becoming a Patron!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Fooling with the Handmaid's Tale -- Martha, Mary, and Meekness (Fooling with Scripture podcast)

In this week's episode of The Fooling with Scripture podcast, Leigh and David talk more about the uses and abuses of scripture in The Handmaid's Tale, the dystopian sci-fi novel by Margaret Atwood that is now a hit series on Hulu.

Up for discussion this week -- Martha and Mary, the definition of meekness, and the myth of the male breadwinner.

And as a bonus feature, this week's episode comes with real live contributions from Penny Lane!


This dog has thoughts.

All this, and much more, on this week's episode of Fooling with Scripture:
Some reading suggestions / things we mention this week:

If you're interested in coming to hear us at the Wild Goose Festival, here's the deets. We'll be doing a live podcast in the GooseCast tent, Friday, July 14, at 9am. I'll also be doing a number of other talks at the Goose -- keep an eye on my "Come See Me" page for the full schedule. You can get a 25% discount on your tickets to the Goose by using the discount code GOOSECAST17 -- so get your tickets and come hang out with us!

Hope you enjoyed the podcast -- If you have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with," you can email us

And if you'd like to support this podcast and other creative work, check out the Patreon page and become a patron!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fooling with the Handmaid's Tale, Episode 1 (Fooling with Scripture podcast)

In the new episode of Fooling with Scripture, David and Leigh take a first look at the uses and abuses of scripture in the dystopian sci-fi novel The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, now a popular TV series on Hulu.

In this episode -- the first in a series -- we look at some of the basics, like where the name "Gilead" comes from and what a handmaid is. We also talk about the difference between descriptive and normative texts and how the texts hint at a God who gives voice to the voiceless.




We hope you'll follow along with this series, either by reading The Handmaid's Tale, watching the show on Hulu, or both!

We mention the spiritual "There is a Balm in Gilead." If you're not familiar with it, here's a beautiful rendition by Mahalia Jackson:



David mentions the reference to Gilead in Jeremiah 8; Leigh refers to a story in Numbers 32 and a passage in Hosea 6. You can find the story of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham in Genesis 16. The passage about Rachel and Leah, which is read to set the stage for the horrific "Ceremony" in The Handmaid's Tale, is in Genesis 30.

If you're interested in reading more about some of the topics we raised in our discussion of the handmaids, we recommend Just a Sister Away by Renita Weems and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

As we mentioned, Leigh and I will be at the Wild Goose Festival in July. We'll be doing a live version of Fooling with Scripture on Friday, July 14 at 9am -- joined by the fabulous Pat Dupont -- and I'll also be giving a talk on mental health and mental illness with an awesome artist and theologian named Mary Button! You can join the fun by being part of our audience. In fact, we can help you out on that. Just go to www.WildGooseFestival.org, and use the code GOOSECAST17 when you buy your tickets and you’ll receive a whopping 25% off!

Want to support this podcast and our other creative projects? Become a Patron!

Have a question, a comment, or a scripture passage you want "fooled" with? Email us!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fooling with the Ascension (Fooling with Scripture Podcast, Season 2, Episode 2)

Check out the second episode of Fooling with Scripture, Season 2, in which we take a look at the surprising messages behind the spectacular story of the Ascension!

You can find the story itself in the first chapter of the Book of Acts.

Like this podcast? Want to support it? Check out my Patreon page! Patrons have access to behind-the-scenes updates and cool bonus content.


Have a question, or a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? You can email me!

Want to hear me speak at Wild Goose Festival this summer? Fooling with Scripture will be in the GooseCast tent at Wild Goose on Friday, July 14th at 9am. You can use the promo code GOOSECAST17 when you buy your tickets for a whopping 25%! And let me know if you need a place to stay, as Leigh and I still have some spaces in our house.

Ok, enough yammering. Here's the new podcast -- stay tuned next week to hear Leigh and I talk about scripture in The Handmaid's Tale!