Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace. Read more

Lessons We Can Learn from Wakanda

The author

My flight has safely landed back into town after visiting Wakanda – the mythical and majestic homeland revealed in the film Black Panther – a journey that left me mesmerized. I was immediately pulled into the world of Wakanda, with its technological advancements, beautiful African fashions, futuristic architecture, and tribal rituals so intense that, when my visit came to a close, I did not want to leave. I truly enjoyed getting to know the king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister and Wakanda’s key inventor, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the fierce Dora Milaje, all-female warriors who protect the king. During my journey, I witnessed T’Challa fight for his honor and birthright to rule Wakanda after his father King T’Chaka’s sudden death, all the while struggling to keep his country safe and of one accord during the transition of power.

My self-pride as a Black woman was immensely heightened by the bold presence and uniquely authoritative femininity of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spy and love interest of T’Challa. Equally impactful was this same powerful femininity in Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda security and General of the Dora Milaje. Certainly, my trip would not have been complete without the dramatic and complex encounters between T’Challa and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Killmonger’s partner in crime Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). The story unfolds with heightened drama for T’Challa when diplomacy becomes even more complicated by a would-be chance meeting with CIA Agent Andy Ross (Martin Freeman), the man with whom he became acquainted in Captain America: Civil War. Each complex character navigates their intertwined narratives and conflicting interests, leading to the seminal purpose of saving the world, or destroying it.

My Black Panther journey was made possible by the creators of that character: writer and artist Jack Kirby, and writer and editor Stan Lee, who also makes a cameo in every Marvel movie. Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. While the Black Panther character has been confused with the Black Panther Party (which was formed in October of 1966 in Oakland, California), the two are not synonymous. Black Panther first joined the Marvel cinematic world in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. T’Challa will make another Marvel movie appearance in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film (debuting in April 2018) where he will fight – and hopefully save the world – alongside Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and others.

What made my trip to Wakanda even more special was that I shared this momentous occasion with millions of people in the world, particularly people of the African diaspora. Many of my friends and associates had already seen Black Panther twice by the time I saw it on the Sunday night of its opening weekend. I have never felt such an energy of love for Blackness blended with an anxiousness to see any movie in my life. Who knew that a fictitious movie would cause people nationwide to come together in one accord with Black pride, wearing Dashikis, African attire, or dressing in all Black, and taking selfies in front of countless Black Panther posters? Read more

Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. Read more

Geeks in the Pews: A Review of The Ultimate Quest

One of the fun parts of my ordination process was a summer parish internship. I served at a little church, where I stayed in their apartment and could walk down to the farmers market on Sundays after services. Now that I’ve been ordained for a while and preached more, I’ve become increasingly thankful for that church. They kindly listened to some sermons I would preach very differently now. Along with their homiletical patience, and an inside peek at day-to-day church life and power differentials, they also taught me something very important about who sits in our pews: Geeks.

I had preached a sermon that mentioned my deep love of speculative fiction (SF—often called science fiction and fantasy). While I don’t remember the details of the sermon, I do remember that for the rest of the morning people would approach me, always when it would be just the two of us, and confess their love for Star Trek. We were all, I learned that morning, Star Trek geeks.

This memory surfaces when I’m afraid I’m about to get too geeky for people. It’s a balm against the cultural norm that asks us geeks to stay in the basement with our dice, books, and scale models. It helps me remember that, even when the rest of the world seems a little too normal, I have a place in the pews with all the other geeks.

Jordan Haynie Ware’s book The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church, tackles the topic of the Church and geeks, establishing her as a wise and witty writer. Jordan and I are friends and colleagues – we have known each other for a long time via Twitter, were once in the same room at General Convention 2012, and we will soon be in the same diocese.

Far more effectively than The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ware guides readers through the basics of Christian faith, with special attention to Episcopal pomp and circumstance. Read more

Faithful Families: An Interview with Traci Marie Smith

Faithful Families has new material, expanding on Seamless Faith. Which faith practice were you most excited to add?

Though it is a sad practice, I was grateful to write a practice for pregnancy loss. It’s something that was requested in more than one workshop and small group discussion. Losing a child before birth is heart wrenching and awful and it’s hard to know how to talk about with other children. Also, the church hasn’t done a great job of opening up opportunities for families to grieve and remember together. ​I was also excited to add a practice on tolerance and the golden rule for families that are interested in raising children to be kind and knowledgable about religions other than their own. ​

As you’ve shared your books with parents, churches, pastors, and Christian educators, what has surprised you? What stories have you heard of how faith practices have helped children and families to learn and grow? Read more

I Need a Hero: A Review of Wonder Woman

The author and fellow YCW The Rev. MaryCat Young, post-Wonder Woman.

After seeing Wonder Woman, I nearly got a tattoo. I imagined a WW, the size of a postage stamp, on my left shoulder. But I had an infant to feed, a babysitter to pay, and no time for the tattoo parlor. I left that theater, though, a changed woman – tattoo or not. If you read no further: go see Wonder Woman. Here’s why.

I never realized I needed a hero. Or, rather, this kind of hero. I have Elizabeth Warren, my grandma the WWII nurse, and Jo March. I’ve never felt that my vision for myself was restricted by all of the Batmen and Supermen out there. (Michael Keaton was my first Batman, which may explain my heretofore complete lack of interest in superheroes.)

More to the point, as a Christian, I never realized I needed a hero, because I have Jesus. In dozens of children’s sermons, I have lifted Jesus up as the superhero-par-excellence, emphasizing miracle stories and Jesus’ secret weapon (spoiler alert: it’s LOVE, guys). I have encouraged boys and girls alike to direct their admiration to the hero of the Gospels.

And yet, my thirty-four-year-old self wept in awe in a dark theater in Manhattan as I watched Wonder Woman, and saw myself in her.

I saw myself in the little girl, Diana (Wonder Girl?), watching the Amazonian women train for battle. These women were FIERCE, their thighs the size of fire hydrants. These women were LOUD – no meek sexy-cries for these ladies. They sounded like athletes. They WERE athletes. And, they were dressed appropriately! I almost walked out of a theater a couple of years ago when I saw the newest Jurassic Park, where some director made poor Bryce Dallas Howard – ostensibly a research scientist – run in high heels from ferocious mutant dinosaurs for two hours. No. Just no.

Wonder Woman wears appropriate footwear. We watch as she grows up on the island of Themyscira, training with her mother and aunts. We also learn the backstory of the Amazons: that they were placed on the island by Zeus to prepare for a future time of war brought about by Ares, when the Amazons would be called upon to destroy Ares and restore peace to the world.

War, in the form of handsome pilot Steve Trevor, crash-lands near the island. Diana hauls Steve out of the ocean, in a scene that nicely reverses some childhood imagery from The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, he is followed by the Germans, whom the Amazons engage in fierce battle on the beach. Read more

Not What You Meant: The Bible and the Gospel in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.

When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.

I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.

After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more