This week I had to check my whiteness two times, first at the ONA Coalition National Gathering and then at the UCC General Synod. The lesson was reinforced for me that, even though I have more than one historically marginalized marker with which I identify (gender and sexuality), that does not mean I am enlightened or evolved in relation to other marginalized populations. It is no fun having to face this in real world situations, but it’s crucial to remember. It also teaches me that in discerning for the ministry, I have a lot to learn. It is God saying, “You’re not there yet.”
The first was during a talk given by a candidate on the slate for a UCC national office. Right after the UMC vote, I had been a little indignant about African delegates being the conservative votes that put the resolution against LGBTQ ordination over the top. Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson pointed out that the African delegates had been heavily lobbied and probably manipulated by conservative (probably Southern) delegates. Of course they had; it created the narrative that benefitted U.S. delegates while reinforcing the stereotype that Black bodies and Black churches were by nature “essentially” conservative.
The second instance was personal. I had a roommate for Synod, a gifted African American chaplain I’ll call Susan. One night, we went to a late evening reception for Members in Discernment for ordination. It was late, so there weren’t many people in the large Hilton hotel suite. In the corner, engaged in conversation with a conference delegate, sat Reverend Traci Blackmon, a rock star minister, prophet, activist in the UCC. She came on the national scene in helping people from Ferguson, Missouri, respond to the Michael Brown murder in 2014. Naturally, we were both star struck. While helping ourselves to the snacks and wine, Rev. Blackmon walked over and began heating up her leftovers from Maggiano’s. The three of us struck up a conversation about a contentious topic in the last session. She was very gracious and seemed to me to be in the mood to talk. It seemed like she needed to unwind before calling the very long day a night. So the three of us sat down in the living room area of the spacious suite while she ate. Even though it was late, I was energized. Like those cop shows where they have to keep the caller on the line so they can trace the call, I just wanted her to keep talking. She is a public theological intellectual, and like bell hooks, a treasure.
When we got back our room, I was revved up from the experience. “Traci Blackmon had a conversation with us,” I said. “Well,” said Susan, “she had a conversation with you. I think I may have made one statement.” Screeching halt. She was right. I, in my white academic privilege, had manipulated the conversation so that I could “own” an engagement with this person I admired. I knew how to guide conversation, to interview a subject, and that’s what I had done. My new friend was gracious, and to her great credit, she didn’t excuse or deny it to make me feel better. The irony is that throughout the conversation with Rev. Blackmon I kept telling myself that I was humbled to be in her presence. No I wasn’t; I was proud. Humility is what Susan exhibited, yet I was so blinded by my privilege I did not see it.
I am not suggesting Susan did not have voice–she did, and she could have called me out severely as we debriefed. What I realized was that in this space where justice and covenant were sacred ideals to be put into practice by all Christians, I had performed a microaggression from a place of privilege, so I am glad the space is also one of grace and mercy. Although, like the tools of privilege in my invisible backpack, I do not deserve them.
Today is June 19th, Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier finally reached enslaved persons in Texas. It coincides with the National Gathering of the UCC Open & Affirming National Gathering and a Race and Religion course assignment on whether the Lost Cause still exists in the South today. All things work together, and it is fitting.
When I was a kid my parents took my little brother and me to Shiloh National Military Park. This began and strengthened my fascination with the Civil War. Other Southern writers have written about how prominently Civil War lore figured into their childhoods, how it shape their psyches as Southern men. No major battles took place in Alabama like in Virginia and Tennessee, so my parents—who took exactly one vacation in their lives and it was NOT to the beach—hauled us on a day trip to Shiloh. We saw the exhibits with artifacts from the battlefield: bullets, bayonets, buttons. We saw a film that mapped out the two-day fight from April 6-7, 1862, the bloodiest battle until Antietam five months later. It remains the sixth on the top ten list. We walked around sites so horrific they had been named: Hornets Nest and Bloody Pond, water colored red by soldiers’ blood. At the end of the day, my parents took us to the gift shop, where we were each allowed one souvenir. My brother and I got the same memento—a confederate private’s cap. We did not even consider the Union blue cap of the yankees.
I think perhaps the Lost Cause takes on a different meaning for working class Southerners than it had for the old plantation class that evolved into wealth obtained from industry and later, investment. For us, the Lost Cause equated with the tragic romanticism of the lost war. The South is a contested place; it is a place looked down upon by those outside—and sometimes inside—of it. During the tour, my brother and I cheered for the Shiloh story of Day 1, that went to the confederates. On the second day, Grant’s reinforcements arrived, Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, and the battle went to the Union. The feeling I had then is similar to the physical and emotional drain I feel after the University of Alabama loses a big game to Auburn. It is real disappointment that I feel for the rest of the day. Our land had been invaded and we had lost. That was my lost cause, and its symbols took on religious meanings—the Stars and Bars battle flag, the gallant General Lee upon his steed Traveler (yes, I know the horse’s name), and of course, Dixie, our hymn.
Constructing the Lost Cause narrative so strong that is part of the psyche of Southerners who have no discernable connection to the Old South other than geographic location required a national comprehensive campaign. So the question to consider is, in whose interest was it to create the Lost Cause as an organizing theme? The white plantation class, supported by southern newspapers convinced poor whites that they were whiter than they were poor; thus, they allied with the people who looked like them. We continue to do this today, voting and allying against our economic interests because they are white. Northern and Southern Protestants turned defeated confederates into defeated Christians as the Lost Cause became a vehicle for Southern Redemption—redemption that was religious, social, and political.
Yesterday, I attended a session at the UCC Open and Affirming (ONA) National Gathering in Milwaukee, called Offensive Faith: Queering the Playbook for Religious Engagement. Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, of the National LGBTQ Task Force stressed the intersectionality present in dismantling systems of gender and sexuality oppression. People of color are disproportionately affected by violence in this country; the same is true for gender violence. One of the pictures she shared prompted my reflections here, connecting religion, the Lost Cause, and racial (and gendered) violence. I look at it now and am offended, yes, but I see it and know that the stirrings of nostalgia I also feel seeing the old black and white photo that could have been taken at Littleville Elementary School, where I grew up a confederate child. My nostalgia is a fruit of white privilege, and so too is offensive.
The second photo Rev. Leapheart shared will likely offend Lost Causers—not only them, it will offend many other white people. I think when we as a people can be offended by both images because they stand for a history of racial violence in which religion has been complicit—then we might hope for redemption.
Please also take time to visit the National LGBTQ Task Force web site and read about their All of Me. All the Time campaign for the Equality Act. They have this description:
The National LGBTQ Task Force educates federal policymakers about the need for non-discrimination protections that ensure the whole person is able to advocate for themselves when discriminated against, wherever that discrimination takes place. We work with a wide range of progressive partner organizations across the country both at the state and federal level, like the National Black Justice Coalition. The Task Force shifts the conversation from a political and technical one to a national and inclusive conversation based on morals and values.
for Jenny Nixon
Last weekend, I attended the National Gathering of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with a history of social justice advocacy that dates back to colonial New England. The UCC has always, to my knowledge, ordained women ministers, and it is a space where I feel welcome to offer and develop my gifts of leadership. One evening at dinner, I gravitated to a woman dining alone and asked if I could join her. I didn’t join her because she was alone; I joined her because I had been in a previous session with her and heard some of her story. I remember she had said: I was in Alabama during the Civil Rights years, and the League of Women Voters kept me sane. I wanted to hear more.
Her name is Jenny Nixon, and she is a resident of the Uplands Retirement Community in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, which, if you ask me, is one of the best kept secrets in retirement living. Jenny was hard to miss all weekend because of her booming voice, head of solid gray hair, piercing blue eyes, and the shape her body has decided to take as she got older, which required her to use a walker. Yes, I’d appreciate your company, she told me. I eat more slowly than most people these days. I fetched us a couple of pieces of strawberry short cake for us and sat down.
Jenny was born in Oregon in 1933 but had gone to college in California and lived for some time in Washington State. I’m a Westerner, she told me with a glint in her eye. What attracted me to her was that she had been a women’s rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t too often that I get to meet a feminist–a real feminist–from the “women’s lib” era. But that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to hear more of her story; our stories, as it turns out, had something in common: Alabama. Will you tell me more about your time in Alabama? I asked her. I think it’s important, and I know it’s interesting! That’s all it took. I will recreate her narrative here with only minimal interruptions of my interjections and comments.
My first husband was an aerospace engineer, and “Mr. Boeing” sent him to Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on the rocket that sent us to the moon. It was 1964. Kennedy had been assassinated, but worked progressed on the space program. We lived in South Huntsville. Our kids eventually went to Chaffee Elementary School, White Middle, and Grissom High~~all named after the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Of course, that was my first husband. The only things we had in common were our kids–and bridge. We were an unbeatable bridge team! I am very proud that I always spoke well of him to my children. That was very important to me, that they kept a relationship with him. He was a good father.
In those days, the senior engineers had a choice of moving or not, and most of them chose not to. So there were communities of young families with young children. Before Boeing, before NASA, Huntsville was a cotton town; once we got there, it was a city of 20- and 30-somethings. I had young children, my husband was an engineer, I was college educated. I needed something to do because I couldn’t just stay at home. The League of Women Voters really did keep me sane. My husband didn’t really approve of the amount of time I spent working, but I did it anyway. I was president of the local chapter. In those days I could mimeograph flyers at my house. We met at my house over the years.
I was in Huntsville the year the President signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We worked hard. One of our projects was a weekly bi-racial lunch, where we went to lunch as a group of Black women and white women–together–to a restaurant. In Alabama in the 1960s that was a radical act. You just didn’t do it. My husband’s job was integrated because it was the federal government, so they hired Black engineers. George Wallace was governor during that time, and it was not easy.
I used to tell my friends in the West that not everybody in Alabama was racist, that there were people there who worked for civil rights. I tried to bring my children up that way; of course, sometimes the teachers reported that they were being disrespectful. They didn’t say “ma’am.” But they turned out fine. Eventually, more of the women went to work outside the home, so there were fewer of us who could do volunteer work with the League. When my husband was transferred to Washington State, that was the end of my Alabama years.
By that time, we were finished with our shortcake. I’m keeping you, I said. Yes, I’d just as soon go home now, she replied mater-of-factly, as she asked me to dial her current husband George on my cell phone. George, this is Jenny. You can come and pick me up now in front of the cafeteria. Five minutes, yes. Goodbye. Spoken like a Westerner.
Last month, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the harshest abortion bill in U.S. history. According to the Washington Post, only three women had a voice in the Alabama state senate, where all 25 votes cast in favor of the bill were from white, Republican men. This in a state where although 51% of the population is made up of women, only 15% of the legislature is–one of the worst ratios in the country (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/05/15/typical-male-answer-only-women-had-voice-alabama-senate-men-passed-abortion-ban/?utm_term=.8fd84fe87878).
This morning, an opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my news feed called Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?
The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge. Written by Helen Andrews of the conservative Washington Examiner, a central them was a critique of the “Two Income Trap,” a term coined by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book by the same name. Andrews opines:
Marriage simply no longer offers the financial security it once did. The consumer goods that singles buy have gotten cheaper, but the things that middle-aged parents spend the most money on — houses, education, health care — have gotten more expensive, while wages have stagnated. It has become difficult for a family with one breadwinner to afford a middle-class standard of living. “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class,” Ms. Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap” explained. The mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity.
Look at that last sentence again. It’s important, as Andrews turns her argument for the emergence of conservative women toward women’s desire for marriageable men. She references the now-viral quote by Fox’s Tucker Carlson: “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t.” Andrews expounds:
As it happens, there is an abundance of data on Mr. Carlson’s side. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, and before that she worked at the Pew Research Center, where she co-wrote a report about unmarried Americans. “The number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012” among never-married Americans 25 to 34, her report found. “In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9 percent of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group.”
Poor white men. No one wants to marry them. And why not? Because women have taken their jobs!
Here’s another jewel from Andrews, citing an MIT study: When women’s wages went down relative to men’s, marriage and fertility actually went up. I do not have to paint the phallic imagery here, do I?
So, rather than build an economy built on sustainable infrastructures, living wages, affordable health care and child care, paid leave for parents of all genders, tax payer funded college tuition, and jobs in a 21st century world–Alabama leads the rest of the country in this ignoble approach to economics, which, make no doubt about it, it is. Abortion legislation is not about morality or religion or the salvation of Alabama souls. It is political, for it will keep the good Christian people voting Republican–against their own financial and reproductive interests. And this, friends, will keep the Republican coffers full.
The Alabama bill, along with Andrews’s call for conservative women to take up the call to put women back at home rearing children while their men go off to work, is dangerous. Under the guise of fighting for our “right” to stay home and raise children–and do the majority of domestic labor without pay as part of the contractual obligation to which their marriageable men are entitled–women will be demanding to have our rights revoked. Rights that people like Jenny Nixon worked–from her home, while her children were at school–to make available to us. And, women like Governor Kay Ivey, who have the facade of power, do the bidding of male legislators. If you want to see what the world will look like when this retro-vision is enacted, look no further than the Alabama legislature. Or the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, or the U.S. Senate.
There’s another place you can look. Watch The Handmaids Tale, Seasons 1 & 2. It was not Commander Waterford who was the architect of Gilead. Rather, it was his wife, Serena Joy, who was the power and talent of the movement. In one chilling scene, which I’ve included below, Serena uses her charismatic speaking talent to turn a group of college student protesters to her conservative vision. Keep watching, though, to see how it turns out for her after she cedes her power. See how she lives in Gilead. The cost of equity and equality is high–we continue to pay it. But there is also a cost to maintain our liberty, and part of that cost is vigilance. Margaret Atwood noted in her book the wages of inattentiveness. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
Have you written your story down, recorded it somewhere, I asked Jenny. No, she said. I thought about it but haven’t. I still remember it, though. I pray that we will all remember, before we boil in a bathtub of our own making.
First, I need to acknowledge my white privilege and citizenship in a colonizer nation. Additionally, I am a U.S. Christian in a missionary culture, which has contributed to colonization. That said, I am also a gay female Christian from a rural Fundamentalist denomination, so I also can speak from intersecting places of marginalization.
In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy. This could very well be the issue that splits the UMC; in fact, the fissures started as soon as the vote was counted. The “Traditional Plan” passed with 438 votes in favor and 384 against, 53% to 47%. Yet in 2014, a PEW Research Study reported that 60% of U.S. UMC members believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted. On the eve of the 2018 General Conference, informal guestimates predicted that 66% of U.S. delegates would vote for the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members (https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/groups-are-misusing-survey-results/ and https://religionnews.com/2019/02/25/united-methodist-committee-rejects-one-church-plan-which-would-allow-lgbt-clergy/). So what happened?
The UMC has around 12 million members globally, about half its members. Methodists from outside the U.S. are generally more conservative and favor traditional positions on sexuality, reports Christianity Today. At the General Conference, 41% of the 864 delegates were non-U.S, 30% of those from Africa. I don’t even have to break out my calculator to know that without global delegates in the mix, the Traditional Plan would almost certainly have been defeated. (Take a look at the UMC World Map here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodists-lgbt-vote-umc-general-conference-denomina.html).
There are several issues to eventually unpack, such as how to reconcile the U.S. UMC and whether or not it will lovingly include its LGBT members and clergy within its community. Very briefly, though, I want to consider another ethical dilemma the UMC faces: how to be Christ’s universal church when the majority of half its members oppose changes taking place in U.S. culture. “In this case,” says Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, “culture looks more like the gospel than churches do” (Changing Our Minds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oO81hxbmGM). One delegate from Mozambique said the Traditional Plan “is what God Wants in the church in this world” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodist-lgbt-vote-conference-plan.html). Is it? More important here, is it what U.S. Methodists believe?
Gushee, whose book Changing Our Minds gives his account of changing his mind about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, notes that he is, “convinced this is not a sexual ethics issue, but it’s about human dignity” (YouTube). He goes on to pose three questions for which I propose the UMC hold itself—locally and globally—accountable. Who counts as equal? Who counts as having dignity? And at a level fundamental to the gospel—Who counts as included within the reach of the good news that God loves human beings in Jesus Christ? After all, he reminds us, sexuality is but a “tertiary concern” compared to issues of the sacredness of life and human dignity.
After nearly 250 years, the Methodist Church has accomplished one of the greatest missionary feats in history—preaching Jesus the Christ throughout the world and adding over 6 million souls to its count. Problem is, in many of these areas, it is not even safe to be “out” as a LGBT Christian. And, the UMC usually holds a mainline, moderate stance on most issues in U.S. culture. In February, the conservative global element nudged the church in a direction against itself. At least I hope that is the case—for herein lies its denominational ethical dilemma. What is the Methodist Church today?
I’ll turn once more to Gushee, who argues if we aren’t in solidarity, we’re part of the oppression. He notes profoundly, “this solidarity will be costly” (YouTube). It will indeed. If the UMC—as a microcosm of the greater church—does not actively seek to recover the broader narratives laid out by Gushee—the Kingdom of God, justice, the example of Jesus, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, and compassion for those who suffer—then it admits its own ugly complicity in rejecting human dignity. It will have nearly literally have gained the whole world but forfeited its soul (Mk. 8:36). Now is its chance to do both.
This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know the Wedding Vow: “I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). Schipper didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here—for another time—on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities—personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing and said, “Yeah, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned—used all my skills to persuade her—and myself—that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. For me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, “Good lord, do I have to try them?” “Not necessarily”, she said,” just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.”
My students often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of my simple answer to them). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act—in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
Here’s what you’ll see on my About page now.
When Sam Phillips’ secretary at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, asked Elvis who he sounded like, he replied, “I don’t sound like nobody, ma’am.” Writing can be such an isolating activity, that I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like I don’t write like anybody else does. I sure don’t feel like my writing is a neat fit in most other places. Blog writing feels right. First, it isn’t traditional academic writing like I’m required to do as a professor. I cheat at that usually–it’s such a formulaic, forced disciplinary exercise. When I do it, I write my narrative first and then sprinkle in the theory. Don’t laugh~~it earned me a Ph.D. and tenure. Thing is, the narrative is all I ever want to write.
For the purpose of categorizing it, I’m going to call it personal essay and memoir writing. It’s personal, and it’s narrative.
It’s not exactly essay, if by essay we prescribe more gatekeeping formulas. Same with memoir. It’s not storytelling exactly either, not like fiction. It is storying, though. For example, here’s a true one. Back in around 2003, Miss Dorothy Allison came to LSU while I was working on a doctorate in education. I just love Dorothy Allison, especially her Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature. I was lucky enough to participate in a writing workshop one evening, lucky because most of the spots were taken by English majors.
One of the exercises was to free write for a few minutes. She asked for volunteers to share, and I, having a huge student crush, shot my hand up. I truly think my writing is not half bad, and have been told as much. So I shared. Did I mention that almost every other participant was an English major? English majors take their critiques of writing very seriously. The most scathing was from a very serious woman who accused me of attempting to replicate Miss Allison’s style, which honest to God, had never crossed my mind. You know how crushing it is to the soul when someone looks at you–and you recognize the look as one of pity? Miss Dorothy Allison looked at me like that.
Still, it’s–this–is the kind of writing I want to do. The kind that, try as I might, is what comes out. I still don’t think it’s half bad. That’s why I’m putting it out here. If not another soul reads it–or if English majors do and snicker like the Prufrockian Eternal Footman–I like seeing it here.
My Spiritual Formation this week is from What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon by Renita Weems. She takes takes the “ten lessons” from the Shulammite woman’s fearless living and loving in the Song. Interestingly, I’ve heard the Song of Solomon called “The Porn Book of the Bible,” which reinforces masculine patriarchal dominance of Scripture. Weems allows the Shulammite woman to claim her identity through characteristics of liberation. Three quotations from this week’s reading on Choice stood out to me. Here they are with my reflections:
The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman (Kindle, p. 80).
Societal rules are powerful, so powerful that we internalize them and regulate ourselves. Growing up, I wanted to be a CIA agent or a lawyer. It was inconceivable to me, my parents, my friends—everyone who knew me—that I would not go to college on a scholarship straight out of high school. But gender role norms are deeply embedded in how we think and act and move about in the world. By my junior year I was “engaged,” in a relationship just like the other girls. I was married at age 18 and had a baby when I was 19. I look at those numbers and shudder—so young! I gave up my own bigger life.
Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? (p. 83).
Before age 35, I had never lived outside of Alabama. That year, I got divorced, came out to myself, got a job at the Louisiana Department of Education, enrolled in a doctoral program at LSU, and moved to Louisiana. After escaping with my identity—which I had fought for 16 years to hold onto—I did not once ask myself these questions. Like the Shulammite, I was living fearlessly. However, and this is important, my communing with God was a one-way conversation. Although God was ever-present with me, I continued to press through under the delusion that I was accomplishing these things by myself. I give thanks now in retrospect.
But what if the path you’re about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? (p. 87).
On the day I moved to Louisiana, my mother was seeing me off. It was a poignant moment. Two women whose love for one another most often went unspoken, said goodbye. “Mother,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s hard. I just…” trailing off, not knowing how to speak the things that were in my heart about my life, about her, about all the years I felt I had lost. She thought for a minute, trying hard to blink back tears so that I would not see them—something I learned years later she had often done. “You go ahead. I know you need to. We always knew you’d leave one day.” The beaten path, my parents knew, was not for me, no matter how hard they had tried—through church, modeling, instructing, shaping—to guide me along it. That day, when the strongest women I have ever known blinked back tears and let me leave, was the day I began to live without a net, yes, but in vivid color.
Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.
Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.
I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.
The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.
Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.
This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.
Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”
As I write this, another heinous mass shooting has taken place by white supremacists, this time in New Zealand. Almost 50 of our Muslim neighbors were murdered and 20 seriously injured, killed while they were praying. This attack is on my mind and heart as I contemplate this week’s Core Forum on prayer. As one public figure tweeted this morning, “Whether it is antisemitism in Pittsburgh, racism in Charlottesville, or the xenophobia and Islamophobia to day, violent hate is on the march at home and abroad….Silence is complicity.” I include this because the connection is made to multiple groups that are targeted for no other reason than hatred of any particular difference. The city where this atrocity occurred is called, ironically or not, Christchurch.
I have a chaplet that has inspired my prayer this week. If any of you are like I was and do not know what a chaplet is, it is a kind of small rosary–a prayer object–that usually has a saint medallion/object attached to the beads. Mine has two medallions. The first is St. Francis, whose prayer I have always loved, and the other, newer one is Julian of Norwich, whose mystical experiences inspire me. Julian’s words also comfort me like a gentle voice and touch soothes a child: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. I also made this quote my phone wallpaper–a postmodern engagement with the 15th century mystic. Still, when I see the words, I pray them. I’m thinking Fundamentalist Evangelicals do not a rule pray chaplets or contemplate icons in our prayer life. That’s unfortunate because for me it has deepened my prayers. Henri Nouwen says, “Icons…lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God” (p. 61). Whether icons are kinesthetic like mine, or natural, they open us to the Mystery of God’s presence.
The politician’s quote, above, suggests to us that the end to hatred and violence–peace–comes at a great price: our psychological, emotional, and embodied engagement. I am reminded that when the messages of MLK, JFK, and RFK turned from civil rights to peace, their lives were extinguished. The work of peace is a work of justice, and justice is the nature of God. Thoughts and prayers are not acts of peace in the world; prayer is that place of mystery where we might know that all will be well. Prayer is the interior castle (Teresa of Avila) where we are lost with and strengthened by our Beloved. Prayer is not what we do for the oppressed; prayer is what we do for ourselves so that we can have the strength to do the hard work of justice. God waits for us.
Coda: When John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released in 1971, it scared people–Christians who feared the new peaceful, global social order it suggested. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said that Dick Gregory had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book, which inspired the concept behind “Imagine.” A prayer book. He said,
The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true … the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea. (Wikipedia).
They were right to be scared, for it calls for an end of systems of domination, by definition the domain of the dominant culture. I wonder if we are any more willing to pray it today.
The lyrics are below.
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Living for today (ah ah ah)
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Living life in peace
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Sharing all the world
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
Maybe at some point in your life you have been called by God for some purpose. If you have and you realize it, all I can say is wow. How did you know? Did you hear a voice? Did you have a feeling around your heart or stomach area? Was there only circumstantial evidence?
A call is different from a calling. I’ve heard teachers and nurses say that that they felt a calling toward their profession; a calling is a strong urge toward a particular thing, usually a vocation. A call is a divine summons. Let that sink in.
I grew up in a church that did not believe in divine summons or of being led by the Spirit. We were fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible is literal, mostly, unless it isn’t. People who talked about being called by God to the ministry were obviously Jesus freaks, most likely Baptists. And then, again, God laughs. Yeah, I was called. I’m not sure if I can stress how hard it is to understand that a call is a call when you don’t believe in calls at all. I think I would compare it to a dog being leashed for a walk for the first time. At first, it’s like, “Hey, wow, what is this I’m feeling?” And then, “Wait a minute….what is this thing?” Next, is pulling back and tugging, followed by flailing around from side to side. Until finally, you’re completely worn out from fighting it. Then you’re ready to walk. This is the first part of a process that is known as discernment.
Have you ever felt like God was just putting things in your way? Not obstacles, more like lit up “Entrance” signs in strange dark rooms. In that situation, what are you going to do but go in? That’s what happened to me. It started when I read the liturgy at church one Sunday morning (nope, I’m not fundamentalist anymore, nor Baptist either). I felt that leash for the first time. I’ll just take a course on Progressive Christianity, I said. I like this course; I’ll see if I can find a really good online program. Then, if the M.A. in Christian Ministry is this rewarding, I want to pursue the twice-the-credit-hours Master of Divinity. What was God putting in the way? Time, opportunity, scholarship support, people who kept saying, “Oh! You’d be so great at ministry!”
So what about the pulling back and flailing around part of this walk? It’s pretty much been ongoing to this point. I mean, I have a job, a doctorate, and an established writing presence in my academic field. I’m at the place where people usually arrive, not where they jump off from. Luckily, the first class you take in seminary is called Spiritual Formation, where you learn that discernment is being still and listening for God. It’s ok not to know what to do, just don’t get tied up in knots over it, which is my default. When I got serious about listening to God, I settled down and started walking.
So here I am: MDiv student at the McAfee School of Theology. I’m still working full-time at a job that is truly not bad. I’ve put academic writing on pause until the next page is revealed to me, no pun intended. That’s the background of it, and I think it’s sufficient for now.