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 ( 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'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