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

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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.

So. Here's what I've got.

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Saturday, August 12
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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
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"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
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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
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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.

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Saturday, August 12
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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
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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.

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Saturday, August 12
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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!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fooling with Scripture is back!

Thanks to Leigh for the new logo design!
Hey all! The Fooling with Scripture Podcast is back for...hey, let's call it Season 2, why not.

You might remember I posted back in March about a bit of a mental health break I was taking, which included not doing new episodes of the podcast for awhile.

Now we're back in action, so check out this new episode of Fooling with Scripture for updates and some thoughts on waiting on the Spirit!



And just to share some info and links about things I mention in the podcast:

-- I've completed a first draft of my book, Christ on the Psych Ward! The book will be available in Spring 2018 from Church Publishing Group. If you want to stay up to date on the book, check out my Patreon site -- and become a Patron to get sneak peaks and special offers!

-- Leigh and I will be at the Wild Goose Festival in July. I'll be doing a live version of Fooling with Scripture on Friday, July 14 at 10am, and I'll be giving a talk on mental health and mental illness with an awesome artist and theologian named Mary Button! And 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!

-- And stay tuned for the next few episodes of Fooling with Scripture, in which Leigh and I will be looking at the various ways scripture is used and misused in the terrifying dystopian future depicted in the new Hulu adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid's Tale!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Grace is a Preexisting Condition

I don't want to write about Congress.

I don't to write about this latest horror show of a bill, a bill I won't call a "healthcare bill" because it is whatever the opposite of that is, a bill about not caring about people's health.

I don't want to write about the group of white men who just blithely voted to threaten my health coverage, while making sure to keep their own (taxpayer-funded, government-provided) coverage.

I don't want to write about the stunning hypocrisy -- frankly, that's too generous of a word, as hypocrisy requires some sort of consistently expressed set of values to violate -- of a party that's run on the image of "traditional family values," yet is just fine with defining sexual assault and domestic violence and postpartum depression as "preexisting conditions."

I don't want to write about any of that. It makes me sick, and other, more politically savvy people have already put out plenty of analysis.

What I want to write about is grace.

In 2011, when a doctor first told me that the awful experience I was having might be a mental illness, the diagnosis came as a relief. I am a person of words, a person whose purpose, whose vocation, has always been caught up in a love of words. I write stories, I sing songs, I preach sermons, I love theology -- theo logos, words about God. To hurt without words was, is, terrifying for me. Some people hate the label of a mental illness diagnosis, and I understand the resistance to a simple, narrow label. But me, I was relieved to have words.

There was, I know now, a naivete to my relief. I didn't know, then, that bipolar disorder constituted a "preexisting condition" which would allow insurance companies to categorically deny my applications for coverage. Over and over again.

Or don't, I'm getting bored with it. 

Of course, my prior indifference to this reality was privilege, plain and simple. The maladies considered to be "preexisting conditions" were -- and are again -- Legion, and innumerable are those possessed of them. I was shielded from this particular thorn in the side until my mid-twenties; most Americans are not so lucky.

I had a brief respite from this under the Affordable Care Act -- which, simultaneously, expanded Medicaid enough so that I was eligible for coverage under it while still a student -- but Congressional Republicans, apparently lacking any real guiding set of values, any real compassion, and secure in their own tax-payer funded, government-provided health care coverage, could not let such a thing stand.

But I don't want to write about that.

I want to write about grace.

Grace is the welcoming, the reconciling, the transforming love of God.

Grace is a preexisting condition.

Grace is prior to what we do and what we say.

Before bipolar disorder. Before words -- words about politics, words about mental illness, words about me. Before me. Grace is.

Grace creates us, grace forms us, grace breathes life into us. Grace is the original intention, the creative and unitive force, that goes before...everything.

We are breathed, formed, by grace. Nothing to be done about that. But what we can do, what we are in fact quite stunningly capable of doing, is getting in the way of grace, restricting and blocking the channels by which divine love flows in and through us.

Here's some ways to do that:

We can refuse to listen to people who are sick and suffering, people struggling with cancer and with mental illness and with diabetes. That is a way to block grace.

We can refuse to listen to the stories of those who have been sexually assaulted, raped, abused. That is a way to block grace.

We can shut down our inherent capacity for empathy and connection, can see people as problems to be solved, sickness as personal failure, suffering as moral inferiority. That is a way to block grace.

But people are not problems. Sickness is not failure. Suffering is not immorality.

When we cut off grace -- when we purposely block the preexisting rhythms of creation and compassion -- that is a problem. That is a failure. That is immorality.

That is sin.

Grace is a preexisting condition. Choosing to hurt people, to reject people's story, to refuse care for people -- that's a choice. That's us. We do that.

But we don't have to. We could make different choices. We were made for love, for empathy, for connection, for the sharing of stories. That's what we were intended for.

Because grace came first.

Perhaps Congress should remember that. Perhaps they should remember that their actions will be weighed on a cosmic scale. But my faith isn't in Congress, that is for damn sure.

In the beginning, before words, there was the Word, and the Word was Love. Grace is a preexisting condition.


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If you found this post to be helpful, or inspiring, or interesting, then you might want to know that I'm working on a book that touches on a lot of these themes. It's called Christ on the Psych Ward, and you can find out more about it and support my creative work by visiting my Patreon page

Monday, May 1, 2017

A naked preview of my book in honor of May Day

Ah, the ol' alma mater

May Day means different things to different people. For some, it's an international day of strikes and worker solidarity. For other's, it's a pagan celebration of spring. And for graduates of a little liberal arts college on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the day will forever be associated with a whole lot of nudity.

Wikipedia's understated "May Day (Washington College)" page


(It should be stated that this was not what beloved professor Bennett Lamond had in mind.)

So I figured, in honor of this May Day, that I would offer a preview of one of the chapters I'm working on for my book, Christ on the Psych Ward. The chapter is entitled "Who Told Us We Were Naked?" It explores what a really old story about nudity, and shame, and vulnerability might have to say to those of us with mental health struggles.

I first started messing with these ideas in a sermon I gave at American University a while back -- with direct reference to the nudity-infused May Day celebrations at my alma mater, Washington College. Later on, I picked up on some of the same themes in one of my seminary classes, which led to both an academic paper and a song. That academic paper, in turn, served as the basis for this chapter in my book -- I'm still working on smoothing some of the seminary-ese out of this thing and making it a bit more readable and accessible.

This chapter is definitely a work in progress, so I'd be interested in your thoughts! And so, without further ado, an excerpt from a draft chapter of Christ on the Psych Ward:

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          For centuries, Christian thought on the topic of sin has relied on a story that, despite its prominent place in theology and popular culture, is really rather odd. It involves a snake, and some fruit, and a God who is apparently in the habit of taking evening strolls. I am speaking, of course, of Genesis 3, of the man and the woman who eat the fruit that God told them not to. Biblical scholar Susan Niditch notes that it is difficult to present fresh readings of this text: “All too often readers come to Genesis weighed down by Augustine’s or Milton’s interpretation of the story.”[1] Yet it’s exactly a fresh reading of this text that is helpful in untying the threads of sin, shame, and suffering, and which can perhaps lay the groundwork for a destigmatizing theological understanding of mental health struggles.
In short, what if we were to read this strange little story, not as a story about “Original Sin” or “The Fall,” but rather as a story about the harmful effects of shame on our human need for connection and belonging?
As it turns out, none of the Hebrew words that are usually translated into English as “sin,” “transgression,” or “iniquity” appear in the Genesis 3 account.[2] In other words, the text in its original form, or as close to its original form as we can get, is oddly devoid of the concept of “sin.”  The interrelated themes of nakedness and shame, on the other hand, play a central role in the narrative.
“The man and his wife were both naked,” we are told, “and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). The stage is set for us with a depiction of two humans, innocent, unashamed, and most decidedly unclothed.
Then things get weird, and it all starts with a pun.
The Hebrew connection between the last verse of Genesis 2 and the first verse of Genesis 3 is obscured by most English translations. [3] The Inclusive Bible attempts to capture the segue:  “Now, the woman and the man were both naked, though they were not ashamed. But the snake was even more naked: the most cunning of all the animals that YHWH had made.”[4] The nudity of the humans is correlated to their lack of shame. The snake, on the other hand, is “even more naked.” Literally, the humans are “smooth,” but the snake is “smoother.”
Pretty smooth, right?
            By setting the story up this way, the ancient narrators center nakedness as a key component of the story. Whatever is about to happen next, it’s going to have something to do with nudity and shame. In fact, this story establishes shame as an early, repeated motif in the Hebrew Bible.[5]
As previously mentioned, BrenĂ© Brown’s definition of shame is an intense fear of disconnection, “the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection….Shame is the intensely personal feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[6] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins and Michael Koppel echo this definition when they note that “Shame can be…negative in that it makes us feel deficient, flawed, and inferior – in short, not ‘good enough.’”[7] They also state that shame “can be positive by helping us to maintain boundaries for appropriate behavior.”[8] To differentiate these positive and negative aspects, Brown employs different terminology, using the term “guilt” to refer to the positive, behavior-influencing aspect and “shame” to refer to the negative, deficiency aspect.[9] Guilt, according to Brown, means I did something bad; shame means I am bad.[10]
If the nakedness of the woman and the man is linked to their being without shame, and we understand shame not as the feeling that I have done something wrong but rather that I am somehow deficient or fundamentally flawed, then the character of the “even more naked” snake takes on a different dimension. Rather than the tempter of traditional interpretation, the snake is the voice of shame which points out deficiency: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v.5). Once naked and unashamed, the woman now has a sense of lacking in something, something that could be gained by eating the fruit of the tree. Brown calls this the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.”[11] Interestingly, she notes that when humans experience shame, “we are almost always hijacked by the limbic system…that primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”[12] The snake, then, stands in as an expression of the “reptilian brain” that tends to dominate our responses to shame.[13]
             Once the man and the woman have eaten from the fruit of the tree, the first thing they notice is their own nakedness, and their first act is to cover themselves (v.7).  No longer oblivious to their nakedness, the human beings are also no longer unashamed. When they hear God taking a daily stroll through the garden, they hide. At which point, of course, God finds them and condemns them for their disobedience.
Right?
Well…not exactly.
God’s first words to the humans are not a condemnation, but a question: “Where are you?” (v.9). This open question gives the humans the ability to take responsibility for their actions or to share their feelings. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, humans have a particular response to being addressed by God. The word hineini, which means, “Here I am,” is uttered by priests, prophets, and patriarchs when God speaks their name. Responding with hineini can indicate “the ability to be present for and receptive to the other (Gen. 27:18), the readiness to act on behalf of another (Gen. 27:1), or the willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher (Gen. 37:13).”[14] But the man in the garden does not say “Hineini.”[15] Instead, his answer centers around the realization of nudity and fear – a newfound sense of what Brown calls “excruciating vulnerability.”[16]
If the motif of nudity-shame is central to the story, than God’s next question – “Who told you that you were naked?” – takes on an importance that is often eclipsed, in more traditional readings, by the question that follows (v.11). We can reimagine this encounter, not as one between an angry father and disobedient children, but with the voice of God’s heartbreak over the damage shame causes. “Who told you,” God’s voice shakes, “that you were anything but beautiful and good?” The question, “Who told us that we were naked?” is of vital importance. What are the voices that tell us that we are lacking, that we are deficient, or that we should be ashamed and afraid?
Jan Richardson, pastor, theologian, and artist, tells a story which to me perfectly sums up the primordial voice which whispers to us of our nakedness:
In one of my earliest memories, I am perhaps five years old. I am standing in my parents’ bedroom with a stack of my artwork. Drawings in pencil and crayon, paintings in tempera and watercolor and finger paint: these are the pieces that my mother has gathered up and saved. The entire collection. And I am systematically tearing up each one. The most vivid part of the memory is when my mother walks in. I have made it nearly to the bottom of the stack by this point. Horrified to see the pile of shredded paper, she asks me why I have done this. “Because they weren’t any good!” I tell her, amazed that she can’t see this for herself. I don’t know where I got this idea; it didn’t originate at home, where my family valued and supported creativity. Call it a precocious inner critic.[17]
“A precocious inner critic,” is what Richardson calls this voice, which by she says did not come from critical parents or teachers. There is a primal tendency we inherit as humans that predisposes us toward this “They weren’t any good.” It’s the whisper of the snake – though the snake in the story is clever, smooth, naked enough to disguise the message, selling it as “You could be like God.” Why settle, then, for just being loved?
Of course, our lives are full of external forces that amplify this voice, from advertisements, to hierarchical power structures, to concrete experiences of shame. BrenĂ© Brown reports that in 85% of the interviews she conducted in her research for Daring Greatly “the men and women we interviewed…could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves as learners.”[18] These early experiences of shame are particularly detrimental in the arena of creativity: “[In] approximately half of those recollections….research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or something creative.”[19]  
We are now getting closer to a deep, rather than a shallow, view of the tangled connections between sin, shame, separation, and mental illness. Mental illness is not a sin. It is not the result of bad behavior or a lack of faith. But mental illness is one of many things that can amplify or conduct the voice of the snake, that primal voice of shame that whispers, “You are naked. You are not truly loved. You are lacking in something. You are not enough.” This is a shared human experience, but it is exacerbated, broken open, by the pain of mental illness. If sin, at a deep level, is about alienation rather than simple wrongdoing, then the suffering of mental illness can bring a person face to face with the deep reality of sin in the world.




[1] Susan Niditch, “Genesis,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon Hi. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 31.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), 47-49. The three root words that Taylor explores are chatah, avah, and pasha: “But nowhere in this [Genesis 3] story is the word “sin” mentioned, much less the phrase “original sin.”
[3] Rober Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), 10-11.
[4] The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, The Quixote Center Collective (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2007), 6. Emphasis added.
[5] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins and Michael S. Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word: The Old Testament and Pastoral Care Practices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 42.
[6] Brown, Daring Greatly, 68-69.
[7] Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word,  41.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Brown, Daring Greatly, 71.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Brown, Daring Greatly, 22.
[12] Ibid., 76.
[13] Rachel Ternes, one of the students I worked with at American University, informed me when I first presented this idea that a, would like me to point out that the “reptilian brain” is not actually synonymous with the limbic system, which is more accurately paleomammalian; however, she has granted me absolution and the permission to continue with my metaphorical wanderings.
[14] Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word, 46; with reference to Norman J. Cohen, Hineini in Our Lives: Learning How to Respond to Others through Fourteen Biblical Texts and Personal Stories (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).
[15] Interestingly enough, while up until this point the woman has been the protagonist, it is now the man who answers God. The introduction of shame into the story almost completely silences the woman, except for her later participation in the “blame game”; and the later consequences of v.16ff reinforce this patriarchal norm.
[16] Brown, Daring Greatly, 5.
[17] Jan Richardson, “In the Presence of Angels,” 5 Sept 2010, available online: http://paintedprayerbook.com/author/janrichardson/page/22/
[18] Brown, Daring Greatly, 189.
[19] Ibid., 190.