Disney, Sisters, and Wise Trolls (thank goodness!): A Review of Frozen

8448479486_14f7e416b0I’m a sucker for a love story. And a musical. And a Disney movie. And something I can see with my kids and my husband and my father-in-law and my sister and her family on the day before Thanksgiving.  Frozen, Disney’s new feature length animated film, was, needless to say, a big hit with us.

Frozen is a princess story, though I was pretty sure that Disney announced a few years back that they were taking a break from princess movies.  A cynic might point out that it’s actually worse than a princess movie: there are two royal protagonists (one for each of my daughters to emulate!), sisters named Anna and Elsa, voiced by Kristin Bell and Idina Menzel.  The merchandising possibilities boggle the mind.

But I am not a cynic, and I will tell you that I loved it. The animation is incredible; the music is catchy, though I did (okay, cynically) wonder if Idina Menzel insisted on the power ballad the composing team clearly wrote just for her. But beyond the amazing ice sculptures and aurora borealis, the amusing sidekicks and the love triangle (hooray for PG-rated love triangles! All long glances and accidental touches and crossed signals.  And songs!), Frozen is a fairy tale about sisters.

Anna and Elsa are said sisters: Anna is the younger, Elsa is the titular Snow Queen of Hans Chrstian Anderson’s source material.  The girls are inseparable and imaginative, using Elsa’s magical gift to make snowmen in the palace ballroom, until an accident changes everything.  Elsa lives in isolation and fear rather than risk endangering her sister. But, ultimately, she cannot contain who she is, and a frosty apocalypse breaks out.

The adventure that leads to their reconciliation involves handsome princes, and trolls, and several wonderful musical numbers, as you’d expect.  The humor works on a couple levels, so my kids enjoyed the slapstick, my father in law enjoyed the puns, and my husband and I enjoyed the unexpected asides; but on all levels the jokes are sweet, neither raunchy nor mean.

What makes this story different from those that have come before it, however, at least in the Disney princess line, is that all the relationships in the story seem multi-faceted, particularly that of the sisters. Frozen passes the Bechdel test, even though it’s a romance and a musical. Its female characters have names, goals, motivations unrelated to men. And the salvific sacrificial action taken at the film’s climax counters expectations.

For girls, then, Frozen offers something great. But for adults, and preachers, there’s even more.   The catchy, troll-sung ditty “Fixer-Upper” might as well be a paraphrase of one of the historic catechisms: we all need a little work, but there’s nothing love can’t fix.  We make lousy choices when we’re afraid or alone… we need grace.

There’s no real villain in Frozen, at least not a traditional one. Anna can’t understand why her sister keeps shutting her out, and her bewilderment will be sadly familiar to many; but Elsa suffers for her isolation too. She is afraid of hurting others, afraid of being her authentic self. But the wise trolls (hooray for wise trolls!) remind her and us, that most powerful things can bring both great beauty and great risk.  Life is full of ambiguity, we need love to cast open the doors.  We need freedom to be ourselves, and grace to be ourselves in community and relationship.

Our family didn’t see Frozen in 3-D, but it’s apparently worth the extra money; still, the beauty of the work, and the beauty of the story, is obvious even in the cheap(er) seats.  On second listen, I haven’t loved the songs as much as I’ve loved others in Disney movies; the Broadway roots of its creators are obvious, and none of the songs seem to have a proper lead-in.  This is nit-picky stuff, however. Frozen is worth seeing. We’ll probably be back before Christmas.

Thinking Twice About My Mac

Alter of the iPhoneLast week, my husband and I watched a documentary on the history of advertisement (yes, nerd alert. We know it). It was actually more fascinating than I expected, and somewhat surprising in its main point. The argument was that by the late 50’s, “information based” advertising had pretty much run its course– commercials boasting “get the whitest teeth ever!” or “have the cleanest carpet money can buy!” became trite and, frankly, impossible to prove. So marketers switched strategies and instead of informing potential clients as to the actual product, commercials began to sell something else entirely.

The experts learned that what people are really after, what they fundamentally want, is not just whiter teeth or a cleaner carpet: what drives the consumer is a desire for transcendence– a way to understand their lives as having meaning– and a desire to belong to a community. So ads slowly began to adjust accordingly. No longer do beer commercials, for example, tout their great taste or caloric make-up; rather, they show the beer-drinker surrounded by beautiful people living “the good life.” No longer do Chevy commercials ramble on about the specs and perks of having a pick-up truck; now, they depict a father and son finding themselves in the great outdoors, rediscovering the meaning of life together. The idea is if you want that kind of life, you need their product.

Thinking about this phenomenon in advertising, I was a bit shocked at how little to do with actual products this strategy employs, and a bit impressed at how effective it is. I mean, I’ll admit it– I wanted an Apple because it was cool– because I wanted to be part of the community! And yet, one of the interviewees on the documentary shared the ironic reality behind such strategies of branding: “We are selling transcendence and community, and obviously the products we sell can’t really provide that. So people keep shopping.” (Then he laughed.)

As a Christian, the marketing experts’ observations make sense to me: as God’s image bearers, we are created not to live as animals, roaming around just looking for the next meal, but to want to make sense of our lives; to crave transcendence, to find meaning in something bigger than ourselves. And what’s more, as God’s image bearers, created things can’t fill that space. As much as I loved my shiny new iPhone, it is not quite transcendent enough to quiet the longing in my heart. Neither is a beer, or an engagement ring, or the best kitchen HGTV can design. So this documentary affirmed that those longings are real and true and valid– not to be stuffed, ignored, or shamed– but that they can only be found in the One who created me, the Transcendent One, who gives my life meaning and invites me into the community that has been shaped by His love and redemption.

And I hope it will help me to think twice the next time I feel the “need” to shop.

Hannah King is a student at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX. An intern at her church, Hannah plans to enter the ordination process with the Anglican Church upon graduation. She blogs at hannahmillerking.blogspot.com

Review of Amy Fetterman and Teri Peterson’s “Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation”

picWhos got time cover-1 copySunday, September 29th To Do:

  • Hit snooze button.
  • Shower, make coffee, struggle with zipper on clergy dress.
  • Confront sea of baked goods for annual appreciation breakfast at church.
  • Slice and display said sea of baked goods while lamenting gluten intolerance and pondering how much of pastoral leadership is actually event planning.
  • Church.
  • Appreciation breakfast.
  • Wardrobe change and 30 minute commute to 2nd job.
  • Work with volunteers to create activity for youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Peel stickers and glitter glue from hands and ponder how much working in community outreach is a lot like event planning.
  • Grocery shop.
  • Cook dinner.
  • Finish reading Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation.
  • Write this book review.
  • Prepare for week.
  • Sleep.

While the details of my to-do list may be unique to me and my work they are not unique to our generation.  Our to-do lists from our multiple jobs, family roles, volunteer responsibilities, and other commitments are endless.  I would love prayer to play a more central part in my life and as a pastor I know it should.  I often wonder what my ministry would look like if prayer could find a place of priority on my to-do list.  But at the end of the day, I don’t want prayer to be another item on my list, I want something more – something that refreshes and relieves me, something that give me peace, and strength to live out my to-do list in love.

As I drive home at the “end” of my day on Sunday, I run through all the frustrating moments – an annoying conversation I felt ill-equipped to deal with at church, a frightening fight on the street that stopped traffic during my commute to work, failing to be as attentive as I’d like to the volunteers I coordinate…the list goes on.  My mind drifts to Amy Fetterman and Teri Peterson’s new book, Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, they encourage me to pay attention to those frustrating moments and look for the movement of the Spirit.  My breathing slows, the setting of the sun on the autumn evening strikes me, and I feel Her movement blanketing my overwhelming life and the car where so much of my life is played out.

In their book, Fetterman and Peterson set out to address the ravenous spiritual hunger of today’s generation, the particular challenges we face (including never-ending to-do lists and unheard of economic instability), and while doing so, offer creative, life-giving spiritual practices to experiment with and adapt for our own unique spiritual hunger and challenges in life.

Each chapter of their book can stand alone or be read as a whole.  As I ate up their book I excitedly planned how I will take it to both my congregation and friends.  I am astounded by the breadth of ideas Fetterman and Peterson offer in a way that is engaging, hilarious, and rooted in current research, contemporary culture, and ancient spiritual traditions.  I don’t believe there is another book out their that draws on the hokey pokey, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Samuel ‘mother-bleeping’ L. Jackson,” Mumford & Sons, midrash, lectio divina, more than one Buffy the Vampire Slayer quote, and John Wesley that leaves you both laughing out loud and silently pondering God’s loving presence.

From creative engagements of Scripture to outlining ancient spiritual practices like prayer beads and the examen, to yoga and boxing, to chanting the psalms and defending the shower as “one of the most holy, creative spaces left in our wired world,” Fetterman and Peterson bring the Spirit into our to-do lists, our loves, and our frustrations and ask us to creatively and unabashedly experiment with how we might engage Her there.

At the real end of my Sunday, I stood at the threshold of my bedroom door in darkened silence.  I asked God to be with me as I crossed that threshold, I asked that I might find the peace, relaxation, and the deep breath necessary to face the following day.  I asked that I might let go of my to-do list and find some holy rest.  But before my foot could cross the threshold my mind darted, “Where did I put my car keys!?”  Suddenly my mind raced back to the day, creating new lists while playing out old and anticipated conversations.  I turned the lights back on, walked to where I knew my keys would be and placed my hand on them, I prayed that I might let my worries sit on the kitchen table with my keys for the night, knowing full well they’d be there for me in the morning.   I turned the lights off again, stood at my bedroom door, breathed, “Peace,” crossed the threshold and slept more soundly than I have in weeks.

Perhaps what’s best about Who’s Got Time? is that it is not a how-to book.  Fetterman and Peterson state, “We’re not here to tell you what to do, we’re here to spark conversation and ideas in your own community.”  Praying at the threshold of my bedroom door or resting my hand on my car keys are not ideas from their book. Instead, Fetterman and Peterson’s creativity, joy, and awareness of the deep spiritual hunger within us all challenged me to listen to my own hunger and create prayer that relieved, centered, and attuned me to the God dwelling in my to-do list, my anxiety, and my tired, bare feet crossing the bedroom threshold.

Whether you work with Gen X or Gen Y (or whatever we are currently being labeled), are one of us, or are of any age hungering and seeking the Spirit in your daily life I’d encourage you to visit http://www.chalicepress.com/Whos-Got-Time-P1280.aspx to purchase the book.  There will also soon be a website to accompany the book at spiritualityforbusypeople.com.

Rev. Corein Brown serves at Spirit of Hope Catholic Community in the Twin Cities and is the editor of Jesus Review.  When she’s not sharing bread or playing with glitter at church or her day job you can usually find her biking, baking (gluten-free), laughing with friends, and looking for God in this beautiful, messy world.


Breaking Bread with Bashar


Lately I’ve felt a little paralyzed in my preaching. All of the news out of Egypt and Syria has, for some reason, left me feeling rather empty and powerless when I step into the pulpit. I’d like to blame Karl Barth for this particular feeling of existential angst, but I’ve recently learned that it may not be (entirely) his fault.

Like many good seminary students, I was thoroughly steeped in the idea that one should preach with “the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.” For a while (confession: until this past week, so my entire preaching career…) I thought this idea implied that I should exegete current events to my congregation with the same competency and care that I apply to scripture. I thought Barth was telling me I needed to be both a scholar of the scriptures and a policy wonk, as devoted to The Economist as I am to my Hebrew lexicon.

For a while, I was able to sustain this in my preaching. Through a tricky combination of picking the right current event, the right Bible story, and ending every sermon with “Jesus says love everyone. So, love one another,” I was able to make this work. For a time. A lot of current events can be safely responded to with a little bit of “Jesus loves you! And you! And you! And you!” It’s almost Oprah-ish: “Everybody gets a car! You get a car! You get a car! And you, you get a car!” Guns in schools? Easy. Jesus loves people, don’t shoot them. Divisive election? Simple. Jesus loves all of us, no matter how we vote. It’s not deep, but it works. Kind of.

And then this week I came up short. Syria, it turns out, is a little too complicated for my simple equation. Sure, Jesus loves everyone. But what does that mean? What does that mean when we’re talking about a country with a dictator actively slaughtering his own people? What does it mean when ousting the leader might lead to the full-scale genocide of his supporters? What does it mean when chemical weapons are in play? Against children? What does it mean when there are over two million (million!) refuges, and they’re only the “officially reported” refuges? What does it mean when the US is considering targeted attacks, but France is the only other international ally in support? What does it mean when Christians support Bashar al Assad? What does it mean to say Jesus loves everyone?

I was coming up short, and so I did what any good, reformation-brewed Protestant would do. I went back to the sources. I used the Google machine to search out where good, old Karl had said we should preach with a newspaper and a Bible. Because I wanted to know what he really meant, in context. And you know what? Something funny happened. According to the Barth Studies Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, Barth never said this exact quote. He danced around this idea on a number of occasions, but he never actually said it. I thought that was interesting, and it started to make me think, maybe I had gotten something wrong in my desire to be both a preacher and a politico. So, I did a little digging. And what I found, well, it challenged me.

Although I couldn’t find the original quote, I did find something else Barth once said, in the 1963 cover article from Time magazine:

Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Newspapers, he says, are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”

In all of my frantic desire to preach the “right” message about current events, to say something substantive about Syria or Egypt or whatever, to be both preacher and politician, I had glossed over a very important message. Christ came for all people. Christ sat at a table and broke bread with women and men, children and the elderly, prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees, and fishermen. Christ sits at a table today with my congregation, spread with our Green paraments and pale blue pottery. Christ sits at a table with the refugees, spread with their rationed bread and black market wine. Christ sits at a table with Bashar, spread with I don’t know what, but Christ is there.

It calms this preacher’s heart to look back at my dear, thoughtful Karl and realize he was never asking me to be an expert on both Syria and the Sacraments. Karl was reminding himself and each of us to stay connected to this world we are in, because in the end, we need to know the stories of our context, but our job is not to offer solutions. Our job is to proclaim. It’s not my job (praise the Lord!) to solve the civil war in Syria. It is my job to stand up and proclaim. Proclaim the peace of God, peace on earth, the “Christmas Message” that God has come to us in the form of a tiny, humble baby. A baby who was a refugee in Egypt, a poor carpenter in Nazareth, an itinerant teacher throughout Judea, a friend of dirty sinners and uncouth workers. A man who was executed for political crimes, a God who triumphed over death, a friend who sits at the table with us, still.

So, yes. This week, I think I will keep my Bible in one hand and my newspaper (laptop) in the other. But I think I’ll hold the two, not because I feel called to answer all the questions, but because I feel called to remind my people (and myself) that we believe in a God of peace. A God of reconciliation. A God who resurrects life out of the darkest and most hopeless corners of our world. Because that resurrection is a message I need to hear. Again and again and again.

God, Grace, and Breaking Bad


In preparation for the debut of the sixth and final season of Breaking Bad on AMC on August 11th,I have been imagesengaging in a marathon of previous seasons. I held myself back from watching the show for a number of years. The subject matter seemed depressing, and I tend towards more positive escapism. However, I was reminded as I watched the first few seasons again of the divine drama that sucked me into this gritty show in the first place.

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Majority rules

Image originally at: http://clclt.com/theclog/archives/2013/06/26/struck-down-doma-a-big-ol-license-to-hate

Image originally here

The day the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in its failure to offer all people equal protection under the law, I did something I’d never really thought I would do.  I celebrated a simple communion service with my boss, a couple of parishioners and their best friends, in honor of the pair’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I never anticipated an event like this for several reasons: one, I’m a Methodist, and in my experience Methodist laity are far more likely to think we “do” communion too often (and that the liturgy takes too long) than to ever request what amounts to a private mass.  Secondly, though, I’d assumed that my status as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church, and as such, as someone largely bound to uphold our Discipline, precluded me from getting to care for parishioners like Dan and Allan in this way.  I never thought I’d be the only straight person at a post-communion lunch, the only one at the table whose marriage has been legal for years and years and years, in every state of this union, even though I’m not yet 34 and they were all in their sixties. (How ridiculously unfair is that?) I did not anticipate this because I thought my denomination, to whom I have pledged, in this arena reluctantly, to be loyal, would mean that I didn’t get the privilege of marrying my gay parishioners.

Now, technically, I have not married my gay parishioners. I didn’t even celebrate the Eucharist last Wednesday. But I led some prayers, and I typed up the bulletin, and I celebrated the coincidence of their event falling on the auspicious day that it did.  Perhaps more importantly, if the opportunity arose for me to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and not just hang out reaffirming commitments, I have pledged before my annual conference that I would do so (along with several hundred of my colleagues committed to marriage equality and full inclusion).

I feel afraid typing those words, or rather posting them on the internet for all God’s children and all the trolls alike to see. I feel afraid telling this story. I feel afraid of zealots in my denomination, who think the Good News of Jesus Christ is, well, not the same as I think it is, and who would love to bring me and my comrades up on heresy charges which would challenge our standing and our ability to serve. And then I feel ashamed of my fear, for I am truly among the most privileged in any number of categories, and what I stand to lose is so inconsequential – and unlikely — compared to what so many LGBT folks have already lost and suffered daily and throughout the years.

As we got in the car to drive to lunch that day, my boss and I chatted about the ruling of the court, and I vented some of my frustration with my denomination, and how our last church-wide discussion of the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion went down.  (It was ugly. If you missed it, rest assured that it was not like the UCC joy-filled denominational affirmation of gay marriage this weekend.) She noted that the times are a’changing (she didn’t say that; she’s British and would never say that), and that soon the denominations will see what the masses see, and will come around to know what the majority of Americans know: that people are born gay, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, that this is the same love (S/o Macklemore!) poets and the faithful have extolled for years.

When she said this, I nodded. But I confess (as I blundered to her), that I am not sure what to make of a theology that is staked entirely on shifting majority opinion. That’s not really what she meant, of course, but in conversations with unchurched friends, I have heard similar sentiments. The church is off base (surely), how can they not see? Similar sentiments are echoed in the Barna Group’s work, published in Unchristian. Young people are staying away from the church in droves, because they perceive the church to be homophobic or, if not afraid, simply exclusionary and hate-filled toward their gay friends and family members. But — and I do so love cultural wisdom and popular culture — surely the church has to have better justifications for changed understanding then “well, if we want to popular with the post-college set…”

After the Supreme Court announced their decision in this case, Ralph Reed appeared on Meet the Press and suggested that the next step for Christian conservatives was to take this issue back to the states, and to work hard to turn out the evangelical vote to pass statewide measures to limit same-sex marriage. Rachel Maddow offered a response that suggested that Reed and his cohort had turned out the evangelical vote, and had yet lost. In increasing numbers of states, and in the hearts and minds of public opinion.  The culture is shifting. And what is interesting now is that a whole host of Americans – and the vast majority of my facebook feed – rejoiced when the Court finally saw fit to get with the cultural program, to see what we had already seen – that DOMA was wrong-headed in 1000 different ways.

But this feels new, for the Court to be behind the culture, at least in the most obvious of analogous cases. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a good chunk of the people affected were not in favor of desegregating the schools. It was not a popular decision, and it was one fought tooth and nail by some state and community governments; we have the pictures to prove it. The Civil Rights movement was mobilized in response to a dominant popular culture rejecting the “elitist” decision of the Court. The Civil Rights movement helped bring the court’s decision to life and give it broader authority and legs.

In the United Methodist Church, the formulas which produce our representation in our democratically structured legislative body have left us in a place, still, where the majority can’t agree that living as a non-celibate gay person is not a sin. We can’t even agree that we read and interpret the Bible differently. After General Conference last year, I dreamed of a more authoritative body, a Supreme Court, to tell us that our homophobic disciplinary language had to be thrown out. But there is no such structure. We only have the majority, and for now, the majority of the church looks nothing like the majority of Americans.

In thinking this through with friends this week, I was offered two brilliant thoughts. The first is an experiment; imagine this:

What if you were a liberal Methodist preacher in North Carolina in 1954 when Brown came down? You might be with nine justices, half or more of the yankees, and  approximately none of your neighbors. That’s probably a good example of a time when the church was more liberal than some of its laity. How would you speak? How would you act? Can the pastoral clergy person challenge their congregants so directly?

The second expands on the first: Methodists (following H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology) like to view ourselves as working through Christ in transforming this world…but with LGBT inclusion, we (and others in a host of churches) find ourselves in a situation where we want the world to transform the church, at least to some degree.
This all goes to say that this week, I’m celebrating, and delighting in this huge milestone for so many people I love (and the accountants who will help them navigate the implications of this great news on their tax status). But I continue to want the church I love to find more and better ways to speak theologically about why same-gender love, sex, and marriage are holy and fraught, wondrous and difficult (just like they are for straight folks). I remain a Methodist for a host of reasons, and one of them is the conviction that the Spirit can speak through the democracy of the church, can speak through a majority. But I read J.S. Mills and the other Niebuhr, and I know the majority can be a tyrannical one as well; I heard about the decision around the Voting Rights Act last week, and knew the same could be said of a group of highly elite, appointed judges.
I celebrated with Dan and Allan, then I missed Pride. I didn’t actually marry them, but I did baptize the twin babies of a nice young lesbian couple a few days later. The opportunities we have for bearing witness are manifold, and I can’t help thinking that Christians have got to seek them out. But we also have work to do, to think about what it means to be a part of a cultural majority and a theological minority, and how we can best welcome all God’s children to the table and to full inclusion in our society and in our churches. Maybe the most important realization for me, though I love my theology and politics to be closely linked, is that society and our churches are not one and the same, and that might be to the good.


Bankstown Hospital Emergency RoomThe first copy of the soundtrack I owned was a cassette tape that contained most of the major songs from the musical. I wore it out. I handed it to the MRI technician every time I had to have a scan because the powerful beat of its music was almost as loud as that of the MRI machine. I played it in my walkman as I lay in my hospital bed on the bad days of my chemotherapy treatments – too tired and nauseous to do anything else. But then I graduated to the fully symphonic recording of Les Miserables. Three compact discs – the whole entire musical. Not a single word or note missing. It was magical. Partly because I loved the musical and partly because that CD set had been a gift from the cast and crew of the Broadway theater. As a part of my “wish” granted by the Make-A-Wish foundation (an organization that grants wishes to children with life threatening illnesses), I got to see Les Miserables, live, on stage in New York. And I got to go backstage, where I met the cast and crew and was given a number of production souvenirs, including the symphonic recording.

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Death and Resurrection

512px-Boston_à_lheure_bleue_(4769294947)It has been just over two weeks since we all heard the terrible news of explosions in Boston. In a timeline that seems too familiar these days, a few panicked reports of an explosion, then two, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon bloomed across the internet and television news channels into cellphone video of the destruction, clouds of debris billowing and screams of terror, then an increasing number of images of the injured being rushed to medical tents, first responders running bravely toward the chaos still unfolding around the blast sites, numbers of suspected dead. As the hours passed the news coverage was all-pervasive, every channel showing the same clips, the same still photos, as on camera reporters did the journalistic equivalent of treading water with the limited facts available, grabbing at anything that seemed like it might give some insight into what was happening, something that might even start to break open the question of why.

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A Review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”


One of the most indelible memories Sesame Street has left in my mind is that of the letter and number of the day.  I loved, “Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter Q and the number 12.”  As a child I always longed for the day the episode would be brought to you by the letter K.  As I sat down to read and review “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, this memory of Sesame Street came to mind.  I felt like I should begin this piece with the bold and italicized statement: “This Review brought to you by my husband, John!”  In fact, I feel like most all of my sermons and ministry should carry this pronouncement.  Boldly.  Front and center.  We are the pastors and people we are because of the love and support of those around us: our spouses, children, coworkers, friends, parents, and family.  I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Sandberg’s book was simply because she is aware of the fact that none of us is an island.  We can work together to promote our collective best; we can lean in to create change.

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Hope the Second Time Around

capitol“Washington is the problem and no good can come from politics.”  As someone whose career is in political issue advocacy, this is a sentiment I hear with some frequency.  In many ways the greatest obstruction we face in our national politics isn’t a party, or a philosophy, or even apathy, but our own overwhelming sense of disillusionment in the ability of our leaders to accomplish anything.  The most recent failure to avoid a self-inflicted penalty of massive, economy-suppressing cuts to the federal budget (known in DC as the sequester), serves as a prime example of our political dysfunction.

Without question our politics needs fixing, but there remains another question worth asking:  How much of our disillusionment is self-inflicted?  Are there times when we are victims of our own ideals?

Here is what I mean.  Just a few months ago, President Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and delivered his second inaugural address, a stirring speech that many viewed as Obama returning to the ideals of his 2008 campaign.  Obama, perhaps more than any other politician in recent time, has risen to the level of a symbol, and inspired hope for who we want to be as a nation.  To many, Obama is a type of prophet.  And it’s not just the President to whom we affix these expectations.  We want our political leaders to be better than ourselves, to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, to be the courtyard prophet speaking words of truth, justice, and compassion.  And then, when they make compromises, when they play the political games, and bow to the constraints we would see them overthrow, the disillusionment envelops us.  We grow cynical towards government and despairing of the power of our political voice.

Politicians are not prophets.  How much of our disappointment could we avoid if we viewed that simple truth with sober eyes and honest judgment?  Politicians do not run to overturn the tables on Capitol Hill.  And while that’s exactly what many of us may want them to do in our heart of hearts, holding on to that hope ignores the political realities and constraints placed on those who hold public office and fails to understand the primary motivations of politics and politicians.  I repeat, politicians are not prophets.

The role of the prophet is to call us back to who we are meant to be – individually and as a society.  At times politicians can assume this role, casting a prophetic vision that appeals to our nation’s better angles.  But prophetic vision is just one tool in the politician’s toolbox and not the soul of his identity.  The role of the prophet is different.  The prophet must ever stand apart from power structures, from the people, from everything and everyone but God.  That’s not to say that a prophet never finds herself in favor with the political structures or the people; she can be.  But she can also just as easily be unwelcome anywhere, including her hometown.  And so the prophet must establish an identity that is not dependent on anyone’s favor or disfavor but God.

The job of the politician, however, is wholly dependent on the favorability of the people and the power structures at play.  A politician can buck them, certainly.  He can make a moral stand for one reason or another, but there’s always a political calculus involved about whether that stand will ultimately harm or benefit his chances of staying in office.  A politician’s primary motive is staying in office.

Before we take too cynical a view of that, consider that this can in fact be a noble motive for many.  There are good people in office, public servants who sacrifice any number of other paths in order to serve their country and make a positive difference in people’s lives.  But the only way to do that is by getting elected, and all that that involves.  Call it moral relativism, the reality of sin, or the simple fact that our leaders are constantly negotiating competing claims for how to promote the common good, very little in politics is black and white.  At best, the goal any politician can have when elected is to do the most good as possible for the people who sent him there.  And that means doing what is necessary to continue to serve.

But the reflection doesn’t end there.  Instead, it puts the onus back on us to have realistic expectations about what can and cannot be accomplished through our system of government.  Government can be a powerful agent of good in our world.  Through it, we can achieve noble goals and construct a society that appeals to our better angles and promotes the common good.  Government cannot bring about the Kingdom of God.  It is not flawless.  In fact, part of the genius of the Framers was that they understood all too well the nature of sin and the power of power to corrupt.  So they set up a system that assumes humans are a complex mixture of sinner and saint.  They put in safe guards to protect us from our baser selves while allowing  our capacity for justice, mercy and compassion to flourish.

In many ways our system of government is a theological statement on the nature of sin (and a bit on redemption too).  Politicians operate from self interest – sometimes a self interest driven by a thirst for power, sometimes a self interest in preserving an office that enables them to try to do some good.  In the face of this reality, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  We have to be honest about human nature, our limitations, our mixed motivations, as well as our capacity to aspire toward justice, compassion, and love of the Kingdom of God.  We must be wise enough to understand that in a world mired in sin, we are subject to systems of power and self-interest beyond our control.  And we must be innocent enough to believe that despite sin, despite the disillusionment we can experience at the hands of our leaders, love and justice will prevail.