Thankfully, we don’t have much of a “town square” where I live in downtown Atlanta; and, besides, in the gritty, adjacent neighborhood of East Atlanta, where I do much of my writing hunkered over bottomless mugs of Joe’s coffee, running naked through the streets is probably not as unheard-of as it might be elsewhere. I’ve seen some pretty scantily clad individuals shuffle past the window on any given Saturday morning as I type away.
Still, the analogy resonates.
The more I behold the prospect of sharing my spiritual journey with the world, and doing so in print, the more vulnerable and self-conscious I feel. The more I feel inclined to look for fig leaves. Maybe you can relate. When we write, we leave ourselves open to being criticized for what we say and do not say. I’ve discovered this already at least to a degree when I meet you here at this intersection between life and God. (Take, for example, the article I wrote on Facebook’s “Disappearing Mothers.”)
Nowhere is this vulnerability more evident to me than in the act of reading and reviewing books. Just the other day I wrote a pretty critical review of Sandy Ralya’s recently released book, The Beautiful Wife. Before reading the book, I wanted to write a stellar review- precisely because as an aspiring writer I’m discovering how much love, sweat and tears (not to mention rough drafts) go into writing a book.
In the end, I wrote a review that unintentionally took a bit of a mean-spirited tone- and for this I apologize. Sometimes humor has its limits, and this was an example. I began my review with an analogy to preparing to fly through turbulence, and in hindsight, took the metaphor of needing a sick bag too far; in actuality, the “flight” Ralya directs is often interesting and enjoyable, even if it leaves me feeling very uneasy in places.
So much of the time, the how of a project is as important as its aim. In the interest of full disclosure, and having read Ralya’s book from cover to cover, I wanted my readers to know where I take issue with her approach. It is beautifully ironic (and beautifully humbling) that I learned something about the limits of my own approach in the process.
My own best learning these days, when it comes to giving and receiving constructive criticism, has come in the classroom. Listening to seminary students preach some of their very first sermons is a lesson in giving feedback that goes beyond the garden-variety exclamations that we preachers typically hear in the receiving line after Sunday morning worship.
“Thank you for your sermon.”
“You have a gift.”
These sorts of comments may build up our egos, but they’re not ultimately going to further our preaching.
In actuality, some of the best feedback I’ve heard is the kind that causes me to rethink my approach in such a way that I am better able to hit my mark. In the land of preaching, we call this mark our “focus and function.” What do we, hopefully inspired by the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, aim to say, and what do we want our hearers to do as a result of our words? These are the questions I ask when I prayerfully approach the writing of a sermon.
Maybe the same could be asked not just in the world of preaching, but in writing, too- maybe it could be asked of life itself.
For Christians, broadly speaking, our focus and function point back to God’s initiating love for us. Our chief aim is to love God and love our neighbor. To the degree that my review of Ralya’s book may have fallen short of this mark, I am genuinely sorry. To the degree that it offered some helpful constructive criticism, I hope it can encourage Ralya in strengthening her approach to the worthy cause of repairing broken marriages.
On this note, I’m off to go bare my naked soul in the town square, in hopes that one day others will read and critique my finished product. Until we meet again, have a great weekend, all!
NPR’s Teri Gross recently interviewed the comedian, Chris Rock, on “Fresh Air.” A friend and fellow T.A. in Intro to Homiletics with Tom Long mentioned the exchange yesterday for its application to preaching (we preacher types are interested in these sorts of things): apparently Rock credits old-time preachers, from his grandfather to contemporaries Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, for influencing how he approaches stand-up comedy.
You can read the transcript of this portion of the interview here. I also stumbled upon some further, related reflections by American religion and culture scholar Dan Silliman, who teaches at the University of Heidelberg. (Silliman is currently finishing a dissertation on how secularity as a construct and condition is imagined and represented in evangelical fiction, and I’m intrigued!)
Rock seems simultaneously both to scorn and admire the act of preaching. (In this way, maybe he is like a lot of us.) He can tell, he says, when he sees a preacher has “lost” his audience and needs to pull a “trick” out of his bag for the sake of performance. Still, he credits his preacher grandfather and his grandfather’s bullet-point brainstorming in the car for how he, as a comedian, now approaches an act.
If you missed it, here was Chris Rock earlier this year on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” promoting Madagascar 3.
Reading the book, The Beautiful Wife, by author and speaker Sandy Ralya, whose agenda to save so-called “biblical marriage” seems a bit dubious from the start, feels like the times I’ve been asked to buckle up during a spate of turbulence on airplanes and find myself absent-mindedly checking for the barf bag in the seat in front of me (just in case I’ll need it). For a funny lampoon of “biblical marriage,” see the article I co-wrote with John Spalding here.) In some places, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the ride and even enjoying the views; at other junctures, my stomach turns a bit and I reach for the sick sack.
Ralya directs the marriage mentoring ministry, “Beautiful Womanhood,” which seeks in ten years’ time to halve the divorce rate in our churches. The goal is both commendable and ambitious- in places like the South, where I live, nearly one in two marriages fails (both in the church and out) with tragic ripple effects on the fabric of the society at large- and Ralya’s effort seems to be making an impact. Churches are responding. Marriages are healing.
Not surprisingly, in the same way that Ralya’s ministry focuses on women and what women can do to heal their marriages, Ralya’s book and its accompanying study guide and prayer journal are also geared for wives. The implication can in turn be that we women, as wives and mothers, bear much of the brunt for our own marital success (and, conversely, our marital failure). True to a degree, maybe, but also a bit of a canard.
Ralya at the outset rightfully acknowledges that there can be no one-size-fits-all recipe for marital satisfaction, even as she sets out her own loose rubric of sorts for how to inventory one’s marital health. Chapters organized around topics like sex, romance, self-care and, my favorite, the “professionalization” of the job of wife and mother, offer some helpful, new insights. They also survey some familiar terrain.
In certain places, Ralya’s coverage of well-glossed submission passages in Scripture leaves me pleasantly surprised. Paul’s admonition to women in his letter to Titus to “be submissive to their husbands” does not elicit an accompanying order by Ralya. Ralya takes Paul to mean here, among other things, that married women must “understand your role.” Ralya goes on to elucidate her belief in later pages that this role is a four-fold one, that of “equal partner, friend, helper and prayer warrior.”
In other places, only a little reading between the lines has me wondering if Ralya maybe secretly harbors nostalgia for the bygone era of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” encapsulated wifely perfection in her beautifully coiffed, unruffled domesticity. In a section on sex, for example, Ralya, in affirming six “God-designed” purposes (“creation of life, oneness, knowledge, pleasure, defense against temptation and comfort”), offers some indigestible views around the meaning of God’s call in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.” She appeals both to our fears and to our evangelistic sympathies with the following statistic released by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life- that by 2030, the Muslim population will grow twice as fast as the non-Muslim population.
“These are staggering statistics!,” Ralya writes. Maybe we should take God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number more seriously.” Ralya goes on: “As a follower of Jesus Christ, I love Muslims and want them to come to a full knowledge of Him. But who will show them the way if the Christian population dwindles by comparison?”
In other words, a growing Muslim world in which women are largely oppressed and have no voice, precisely because their only role is one of bearing children and catering to men’s every whim, becomes the basis for a challenge to Christians to have more children! This kind of reasoning is backwards in more than one sense of the term. Here the turbulence becomes a bit unbearable, and I find myself grabbing the sick bag.
In short, Ralya’s crusade to save marriages is a noble one. I applaud it. I wonder, though, if the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is not at least a bit apropos here. As a mother to two children, and as a wife to a man with whom I am an equal partner, and as a woman in what is traditionally a man’s world (ordained ministry) I often find myself exclaiming at the messiness of our familial life these days; but I wouldn’t trade this in for six kids, a pristine house and a life confined to domesticity any day- even if it meant more “orderliness” and a world with more Christians than Muslims in it. Women should of course be free to make the latter decision, too, and be supported in their choice. But to prescribe this sort of thing, I fear, does the very thing that Ralya abjures- offer a recipe; and, it is a recipe that, if followed to the tee, will take us back to another age, one that I don’t want to live in.
“This nation is the hope of the earth,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in passionate closing remarks at last night’s third and final presidential debate.
The statement for a moment filled me with great pride, and maybe I’m not alone. I suspect most voters like to hear that the country they love really is the greatest on earth.
We Americans have much to be proud of when it comes to our achievements as a nation and the values and principles we strive to uphold. Regardless of who we vote for and regardless of our views, most of us can agree that we want the very best for our country and are genuinely grateful to be Americans. Most of us, I imagine, might even agree that there are a range of issues in this election pertaining to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” both here and around the world that, regardless of whether we vote Democrat or Republican, are important to us, not just as Americans but, more fundamentally, as people of faith.
But this morning, with Romney’s remark still trilling in my ears, I awoke maybe not so coincidentally to read from the Old Testament book of Lamentations (Lamentations 3:13-26) that God is my only real hope.
I suppose any time we begin to mistaken our own selves as the “hope of the earth,” be we Americans, or people of faith, or both, we are in danger of committing a dangerous form of idolatry.
This sort of “Manifest Destiny” understanding of ourselves as Americans runs deep in our blood- maybe almost as deep as original sin.
But this long-standing relationship with our own self-righteousness doesn’t make this sort of thing okay, or par for the course, or acceptable political sound byte material.
The other day at a friend’s birthday party, my son and I got to ride a mechanical bull. That bucking bronco was hard to ride and an act in humility- not to mention a discovery in hip ligaments I didn’t know were there. At the end of the fun, our hostess gave us one forewarning: “in a few minutes, we’re putting an end to the bull,” she called.
When politicians, regardless of their party, make insidious and even ugly appeals to our American savior complexes in the place of the one true God who can save us and our world, it seems to me that we, too, as Christians and people of faith, need to be calling for an end to the bull.
The little girl has her popsicle.
She won’t share.
Can’t I have a taste?, Mommy whines;
her wallet is now empty.
A young man is selling hot dogs.
They’ve never met, but he has noticed:
Hey, go and tell Brianna that this King of Pops is on me.
He puts out his hand.
My name is James.
She feels a bit surprised-
then undeserving and suspicious.
Is anything in this world ever free?
But a frozen piece of pumpkin pie has her name on it,
and now it’s for the taking.
She comes back to show him.
Thanks so much, James!,
is her exclamation of gratitude,
and next week she’ll be back.
She may even buy a hot dog.
Grace is irresistible like that.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way…but then again, nothing worth doing usually ever is. Today longtime Catholic nun Diane Dougherty is being ordained just miles from my home in Atlanta’s First Metropolitan Community Church. Doughterty’s ordination will not be recognized by the male authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, but for Doughterty, today’s commissioning for ministry is both a challenge to the existing hierarchy and a validation of her call to ministry as a shepherd of God’s people.
Once ordained, Dougherty will continue her service to First Metropolitan Community Church, as well as developing ecumenical “Intentional Faith Communities” (for both Catholics and non-Catholics) in Newnan and throughout the Atlanta area, empowering women to lead within the church and advocating for women’s ordination.
It’s about time.
All I can say, with great aplomb and admiration, is “You go, girl!,” and, “God speed.”
Yesterday Christians for Biblical Equality produced a list of various ways that churches can proactively address the problem of domestic violence both within congregations and the greater community.
Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, who is rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Maryland, and in 2008 authored the book, Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence, a guide for clergy, congregations and church leaders, offered some helpful guidelines for making churches “Safe Houses.”
Weatherholt’s first line of instruction caught my eye: Always assume that there are persons in your church who have experienced or are experiencing abuse. Be aware of subtle messages in your church that promote the assumption that “everyone here is okay and every marriage and relationship is healthy.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as Cleo LaRue reminds me, in I Believe I’ll Testify, has said the same thing a bit more poetically: all houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted houses.
For those of us whose lives have been touched by various forms of abuse, whether physical, sexual, emotional, or, maybe even spiritual- and the statistics would suggest there are many of us- I can think of nothing more liberating than a space in which to tell the truth about ourselves, that we’re often not “okay” and our relationships bear the strain.
I venture to guess that all of us, regardless of whether or not our own story has been touched by abuse, need a “safe house” of sorts.
Most of us find our safe houses outside of church.
Maybe this is because many of us have been in churches that don’t tell the truth about themselves. They pretend that everything is hunky dory, or that only certain people with a particular set of characteristics, be they, for example, gay, mentally ill, or, in some cases, simply women called to ministry, are not “okay.”
This sort of thing is nothing more than false advertising, because we’re all screw-ups in some way or another.
These days my son, like the rest of his class of kindergartners, is learning that when he is hurt and becomes angry, he can go to his safe place.
Where do we go in our churches?
Every so often I become afraid that what I am doing with my life is totally irrelevant.
It happened yesterday. I had shown up on the doorstep of the home of a hospice patient for a previously scheduled appointment. Only two days earlier we had agreed on that day and that time, and so there I was, ringing the doorbell to an empty house.
It was the second time in only two weeks that this chaplain had found herself stood up.
I called the patient’s caregiver who of course apologized profusely and asked if we could reschedule. They were off having lunch somewhere and had just forgotten, nothing more. And they did feel terrible and I, of course, was quick to reassure them that they had a lot on their minds and not to worry in the least. (They did have a lot on their minds after all.)
When I walked back to my car and turned the key in the ignition, I thought, “Does what I do make any difference in people’s lives? Is it relevant?”
I didn’t answer the question for fear of what the answer might be.
But maybe the truth is that God doesn’t ask us to be “relevant.” Maybe God only asks us to be faithful- true, that is, to who God calls us to be wherever we’re planted.
For every moment that I’ve been stood up as a chaplain, there have been those times when someone has reached out with great appreciation, or remembered a kind deed, or shared something deep within them that they’ve never shared before. In those times, it wasn’t my own inherent “relevance” that made the difference- it was the synergy of God’s timing and my positioning that made all the difference.
Maybe the issue of relevance is really an irrelevant one.
Yesterday we took our new puppy, Roosevelt, to be neutered. (Now, with both a Carter and a Roosevelt for pets, we have a truly bipartisan household.)
Our five-year-old son, after hearing our attempt at an explanation for why Roosevelt had to be neutered, said, “Mommy, why do only the dogs who don’t get their balls chopped off get to be married?”
When we arrived at the vet, we soon discovered that Roosevelt was showing some signs of premonition. His instincts were probably telling him that this would be his last chance to sire a brood of pups. He began to bare his teeth and growl viciously whenever one of the veterinary staff came around to open his cage- (how can you blame him, really?)- so much so that I was asked to stay around a bit longer to help the tech administer a tranquilizing injection.
As I coaxed an over-anxious dog out of his cage and negotiated a muzzle over his mouth, the tech and I struck up a conversation.
“I work with both animals and people,” he said.
“Really?,” I asked. “Which category do you find harder to work with?”
“Animals are pretty par for the course. Humans are…harder.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“They lie a lot.”
“When I have to get information about their medical history, they’ll often not fess up and tell the truth about the medicines or drugs they’re taking.”