Invited into ‘Between the World and Me’

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
152 pp. Spiegel & Grau.

TNC book coverWhen my son Moses was baptized I wrote him a letter about what baptism means for me. It was very much a letter from a pastor-mom to her son, touching on both the personal and theological, each in their turn. I read the letter that morning in lieu of a sermon, inviting the congregation to “eavesdrop” on my conversation with Moses, my baptism gift to him.

As I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I was reminded of my baptism letter. Coates wrote this book as a letter to his son, and the book is an invitation to eavesdrop on that father-son conversation. That invitation is a tremendous gift to anyone who picks up this small, but powerful, memoir. Coates invites the reader into his experiences as a black man in America, and offers a perspective I was stretched in experiencing. Coates is well known in the journalistic community for taking strong and often controversial positions on issues of race. Several days later, I’m still mulling over this book, and wondering what changes it may have wrought in me.

Coates’ writing hovers somewhere in the vague, liminal space between poetry and prose, Read more

Speaking from Experience

CrossroadsI knew my marriage was deeply and catastrophically unhealthy when I would daydream about how much easier life would be if my ex-husband was killed in a car accident or had a sudden heart attack. During those morbid ruminations, the crux of the relief rested on how “acceptable” it would be for me to move on, to have a new life. That kind of unexpected, un-asked for tragedy would free me from the painful marriage I was in without me having to “end” it with a divorce.

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Keeping Track of it All: Calendars for the Young Clergywoman

15573899782_f8142c8525_mA good calendar is the best friend of any busy professional, and for clergy, the art of scheduling has a few unique dimensions: weekends are busier (and therefore require more space); hours are unusual; there must be a balance of blocks of time alone for writing and planning, at the same time that there are blocks of time when one must be available to people and scheduled appointments.

Some of us work with an administrator who assists with our scheduling, but many of us manage, all on our own, schedules that would make a corporate executive’s head swim. We often work with an assortment of staff and volunteers with their own crazy schedules. So what’s the best way to stay on task and keep track of everything? Fidelia asked three young clergywomen to tell us about the method that works best for them: Mindi Welton-Mitchell on using Google Calendar, Kristen Wall-Love on using a denominational calendar, and Lauren Evans on using a designer paper planner.

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What’s News? Young Clergy Women Share Their News Sources

Coffee and the News

Coffee and the News

A favorite line of shop talk among preachers is that we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (This quote is frequently attributed to 20th-century theologian Karl Barth, although trustworthy sources, like Princeton Seminary’s Barth Center, say there’s no proof of this exact quote, just similar statements by Barth.) TYCWP asked young clergy women what sources they use for news.

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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Breaking the Mold of Community

An afternoon of watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

An afternoon of watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Being a young clergy woman sometimes feels like being a perpetual outsider. We find ourselves new to our congregations, new to our neighborhoods, and unlike most of the people in our clergy gatherings. Even after we’ve had the privilege of serving a congregation for a long time, we may know and love our people, but we are never fully one of the people. We are always slightly disoriented, trying to figure out who we are in our new circumstances, and searching for friends who can understand us and let us be ourselves.

Maybe that is why so many young clergy women seem so taken by The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, creators of 30 Rock.

Unbreakable centers on Kimmy, a sunny mid-westerner played to perfection by Ellie Kemper. Kimmy was one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” kidnapped and held in a bunker for fifteen years. After her rescue, she is interviewed on The Today Show in New York City, and decides to stay in New York instead of traveling back home to Indiana, where her identity is defined by her kidnapping. In New York, she can start fresh and build a life on her terms.

Kimmy is an outsider, not only of place, but of time. Her clothes and cultural references are firmly rooted in the late nineties. In fact, the show is populated with outsiders. Tituss Burgess plays Titus, Kimmy’s roommate, an actor who never quite gets a break. The great Karol Kane is their loopy, paranoid landlady. Kimmy takes a job as the personal assistant to Jane Krakowski’s trophy wife, Jacqueline Voorhees, who experiences both the shallowness and the grief of an isolated wealthy woman. Kimmy starts to form bonds with these characters, and together they become unlikely friends. The strength of this hodgepodge community helps Kimmy face her past, transform the relationships she has with the other Mole Women, and finally face her captor in court.

The cast is fairly diverse, or at least the characters are supposed to be. (Jane Krakowski is not the most believable Native American ever portrayed on screen.) This emphasizes themes of outsiders figuring out how to belong, but not everyone has been comfortable with either the Native American story line or the story line about Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who is a potential love interest for Kimmy. Does his fear of the INS and job at a Chinese restaurant reinforce stereotypes or play with stereotypes we already have? (Kat Chow of NPR has a fascinating reflection on this.)

Of course, because this is a Carlock and Fey production, all of this intensity is leavened by joke after joke. Titus (a black man) finds New Yorkers treat him more generously when he is dressed as a terrifying werewolf than when he dresses like himself. Jacqueline’s dog is a breed that has had the poop literally bred out of them. Even Kimmy’s experience of being held in a bunker becomes the source of comedy. She ends up finding some of the coping skills she learned in captivity helpful to process ordinary life. (I may be guilty of testing out her method of jumping up and down and shouting “I’m not here! I’m not here!” as one way to cope with unpleasantness.) Kimmy is optimistic, but not stupid. She is naïve, but canny. We root for her, as do the writers of the show.

And through Kimmy’s optimism and stubbornness, even her outsider friends start to think more deeply about their own identities and take courageous steps. Titus auditions for more roles; Jacqueline divorces her unfaithful husband; Dong and Kimmy both work toward earning their GED.

Kimmy shows us fellow outsiders how to begin to be connected to those around us, even if we don’t belong, even if we will never fully belong. No one except her fellow former captives will ever fully relate to Kimmy, but she does not let that stop her from reaching out and creating a place for herself in her community. Maybe her courage and enthusiasm will encourage us to actually turn off Netflix and go out and make a life for ourselves wherever God has led us.

 

#Baltimore: Reflections from a White, Feminist, Queer Freedom Fighter

Protesters in Baltimore

Protesters in Baltimore

I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I would join my co-pastors and other folks from the Slate Project* in marching for justice for Freddie Gray. It was Saturday April 25th. People had been peacefully marching in protest throughout Baltimore all week. I was glad to have this opportunity to join them, to finally show up and move my feet and stand in solidarity with a movement that I believe in.

Social justice activism has been an important part of my faith since I was first introduced to liberation theology in college. In seminary, when I studied the social gospel and the civil rights movement, my theology became even more firmly rooted in the notion that Jesus came to set all people free from all forms of oppression. This is what I preach from the pulpit. This is what I teach in my parishes. But the experience of picking up a sign and marching with hundreds of other people to embody this gospel message would be a way to show what I believe with my life.

I considered my role in this movement to be an “ally.” I have been involved in the movement for equal civil rights for the LGBTQ community, but I am a part of that community. I am not a member of the black community. The experience of marching in Baltimore felt different and posed different challenges. Marching together with many different groups – each with its own agenda, ideology, and purpose in being there – was complicated. Sure, everyone would say, “At the end of the day we are all here for the same reason,” and then something about justice for Freddie Gray and an end to the systematic oppression of black people (if not in so many words). It felt good to be united together under those goals. But as we moved together down the streets of Baltimore, there were times I could not bring myself to join the voice of the crowd. “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!” I thought to myself, “Will I? Will I fight for Freddie Gray?” “All night, all day, we will nonviolently resist for Freddie Gray!” just does not have the same ring to it. I began to wonder about how it would actually play out, to have all these different groups coming together. Could we unite around a common mission? Could we put aside our differences and stand together as one, while still authentically being who we were and not giving up our identities?

I wondered about my role in this struggle. On Monday night, as reports came in that police were facing off with protesters at Penn & North, I had several thoughts. “I should go,” I thought. “I should see if any of my pastor friends want to go and try to diffuse the escalation.” But I wondered if my presence—a young, white woman in a collar—would actually have that effect. The clergy who showed up and stood between the police and protesters were African American men. They were able to walk into that space and immediately receive the needed respect, authority, and assumption of shared experience to be accepted by the protestors, most of whom were also African American men, and by the predominantly male police force.

It became painfully obvious that I did not have already established relationships with the people or the clergy in the African American communities that were on the ground in this movement. I went to meetings. In some, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of sexism, particularly in the attitudes of the male clergy. I showed up to partner in the fight against oppression based on race. I did not expect those leading the fight to turn around and then discriminate against another group of people based on gender.

Later in the week, I went to meetings held by the newly formed Baltimore United and led by folks from Fellowship of Reconciliation. These meetings were smaller and much more diverse. The folks running these meetings did not hold up one or two particular leaders. They did not name men as the only “warriors” fit to be on the “front lines.” These meetings were run by men, women, queer, cis, young and old. At these meetings, it was clear we were all in this together. These were my people.

At one of these meetings, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that they don’t need white folks to show up and be allies. Allies can duck in and out of the movement, because this is not their struggle. He said, “We don’t need allies. We need freedom fighters.” That is when I decided to stop considering myself an ally. This fight must be my fight. These children must be our children. This struggle must be our struggle. We must be one people, fighting for all our freedom.

We do not have the luxury to focus on one kind of oppression at a time. Sexism; heterosexism; racism; ageism; discrimination based on socioeconomic status, education, background, or criminal history – they are all interrelated. God calls us all to work for the liberation of all God’s people. Each of us has a role to play. I know that because of who I am, there are roles I can play in this movement and roles I cannot play. This is true for all of us. And this is the beauty of the diversity that God has created. We are not meant to play all the same roles; we are not meant to do all the same things. We are meant to discover our callings in relationship with one another and then help each other become the people God has created us to be.

We also must celebrate and lift up each role and not overly exalt any one person or group, nor denigrate any one person or group. This movement in Baltimore is made up of networks of hundreds of leaders and many, many people, who all are doing important and necessary work. We must discern together what our roles are and then play them boldly and with courage. For as we already know, God can and will use us all to transform the world.

 

Coattail Justice

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

My early morning running buddy and I, both of us committed Democrats, have an ongoing dialogue about Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate: she is adamant that Hillary is the best choice for the Democrats in 2016. I’ve always countered with, “I don’t know. There’s something dynastic about it: it feels un-American to me for a family to have two shots at the White House.” We’ve been able to get a good half-mile out of this conversation several times in the past couple of years.

So, when Hillary Clinton finally announced her candidacy in April, I was surprised by my reaction to the news: I really want Hillary to win this one. The fact that my daughters will grow up regularly seeing women (me and others as well) as religious leaders brings tears to my eyes. I’m ready to feel that way about a woman president, even if she may have gotten a boost from a small dynasty, because sometimes justice begins with factors that level the playing field.

I was among the first 25 women ordained to ministry in the small Reformed denomination I grew up in. I graduated from seminary with a class of 55 M.Div students, only five of whom were female. We were still healing from three decades of fighting over women’s ordination. Occasionally, we were still fighting. Most of my professors and classmates were supportive. But there were times when it was a very hard place to be a woman. And through the whole process of education and call and ordination, my female colleagues and I had to take our advantages where we could find them.

Many of us were given scholarships by a group that had been pushing for women’s ordination. We often came back from weekend preaching assignments to report to each other that we had been the first female to step into the pulpit in a particular congregation. And when we were ready to look for church calls, we had to read between the lines to figure out which few congregations were truly open to considering women.

A good number of us were pastor’s daughters. I kept my maiden name when I got married a few months before I started seminary for a number of reasons, one of them professional. If I kept my last name, I would be the third “Rev. Schemper” in the denomination. And while my father is among the more liberal ministers in his generation, my grandfather was widely respected in more conservative circles. I figured it couldn’t hurt, if I was ever in a sticky church-polity match up between liberals and conservatives, to have the name as a reminder that “Reverend Schemper” was my grandfather.

The church where I did my first internship received grant money on the condition that they accept a female intern. There were several of us who spent a summer pastoring this tiny church that could never have afforded an intern, but the fact that the church was granted money was kept quiet because it looked unseemly.

A few of my friends were able to ease into a first call because their also-clergy-husband took a co-pastoring position with them, and it was perhaps just a little easier for a church to call its first woman-pastor when they were also calling her husband.

Sometimes I wondered if it was unseemly to take these advantages. Shouldn’t I just be breaking ground on my own merits? But there were plenty of obstacles, and to be honest, I was perfectly willing to grasp onto a few coattails if it meant an easier ride into the call to ministry. However, if anyone had suggested to me that any of my female classmates were making it through the ordination process only by working these so-called advantages, I would absolutely bristle. They were strong preachers, had wonderful pastoral care skills, could mediate their way through difficult conversations, and were so certain of their sense of call (you wouldn’t put yourself through this if you weren’t). I couldn’t be prouder to be part of such an amazing cohort of strong women.

And this is what I’m coming to understand about HIllary Clinton. It would be dishonest to claim that she doesn’t gain advantages from having been first lady. But even with that boost, whether you agree with her politics or not, there’s no doubt that she has qualifications and accomplishments that are all her own.

Sometimes, as women who are breaking ground, we do ride a few coattails. But it shouldn’t diminish who we are and the validity of what we are called to do. I’ve extended that grace to myself when I think about my own path to ministry, and I’m ready to extend it to Hillary as well.

What’s in Your Earbuds? Podcasts for Pastors

Listening to podcasts

Listening to podcasts

Ministry is a profession with an odd combination of hours spent alone, intense one-on-one time with a few people, and at least one day a week of full-on engagement with a crowd. When we deal with the crowd, it might consist of research scientists, plumbers, some college professors, stay-at-home parents, and a few artists.

Given those unusual parameters, it’s no surprise that clergy people are often great lovers of the podcast. A podcast can be more than just noise in the background during that time alone; it can also be a way to hone our skills as preachers and story-tellers and to feed our curiosity and add to our knowledge about the world around us.

Fidelia’s Sisters asked young clergywomen what podcasts (besides the ever popular Serial) they are listening to. The answers went well beyond preaching and religion podcasts. Many are, of course, radio episodes re-packaged as podcasts, but we’re counting them in. So, from our ears to yours, a few recommendations.

The podcast is a great format for storytelling.

This American Life: the mother of all modern long-form storytelling reporting programs. Weaving together a few thematically related pieces, some episodes make you cry, others make you laugh, and many do both.

The Moth: real people telling their real stories in front of a live audience.

StoryCorps: collected stories recorded in special “booths” around the country, usually one real-life person interviewing another.

Selected Shorts: famous actors reading the best stories out there.

The Writer’s Almanac: a daily reminder of the best parts of your college literature course, with a poem in each short daily episode.

Snap Judgement: a weekly program with a theme, told by a more diverse array of voices and perspectives than many other story-telling format podcasts.

Welcome to Night Vale: broadcasts from a fictional radio station, in a small town where odd things happen.

 

Sometimes what you need most is a hearty laugh. And sometimes, it’s the comedians in our culture who say things that are just this side of prophetic.

WTF Podcast: comedian Mark Maron interviews other actors, comedians, and musicians. Not always safe for the office, but often quite honest conversation.

WireTap: each episode is an adventure through the brain of its host, Jonathan Goldstein. Hard to explain, but sort of a version of This American Life, hopped up on existentialism, and with a recurring cast of characters.

The Bugle: a news review starring comics John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, covering world news with a satirical twist.

Comedy Bang Bang: an eclectic assortment of comedian guests, hosted by Scott Auckerman.

 

And then, there are podcasts that provide context and commentary on current events and the world around us.

On the Media: a weekly radio show on, well, the media. It deals not just with the news, but how the news is covered.

Tavis Smiley: weekly longer format interviews with great perspective on racial issues in American culture.

Double X Gabfest : female reporters from the online magazine Slate chat about a topic in the news.

BackStory: a group of historians take current events items and explain the historical context (going back centuries if necessary).

Planet Money: NPR’s long-form coverage of financial news, which assumes that the listener is intelligent, but perhaps not trained as an economist.

Film Spotting: a weekly, hour-long, public radio movie review show. (One of the two co-hosts, Josh Larsen, is also the editor of an online magazine about Christianity and culture: it’s fun to listen for his faith perspective to inobtrusively sneak into the film reviews.)

More Than One Lesson:  Movie reviews from a more obvious Christian perspective.

Women’s Hour: Daily hour of news coverage from the BBC highlighting women’s issues.

 

Some podcasts just help us get our minds out beyond the doors of the church.

RadioLab: delves into a scientific topic (everything from biology to sociology to physics) and does so with story-telling and a sense of wonder.

Freakonomics: researches questions in the same vein as the best-selling book of the same name.

Lexicon Valley: a podcast from Slate that explores the origins of words.

A History of the World in 100 Objects: review world history with this series in which each episode uses an important artifact as a teaching tool.

99% Invisible: a podcast that tells the stories behind the designs we encounter in everyday life, it covers everything from architecture to pinball machines, to shipping containers and fonts and lightbulbs.

The Longest Shortest Time: stories and commentary about a variety of parenting topics, particularly focused on the early months and years.

Criminal: stories about crime and things done wrong from a variety of perspectives.

Stuff Mom Never Told You: an offshoot of the How Stuff Works podcast, but about women’s issues.

Dear Sugar: an advice column podcast hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond.

Death Sex and Money: a show about the things that are left out of polite conversation (which, it turns out, we clergywomen often have to talk about with people).

Help us add to this list. What are the podcasts that think every clergy person should check out?

 

The Jesus Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Young Clergy Woman

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. –Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Opening Credits

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

At first glance, the life of a the Slayer is pretty different from the life of a young clergy woman. The Slayer is in high school, for one thing, while we have graduate degrees. She fights vampires and demons, we lead Bible studies, write sermons, visit shut-ins and attend committee meetings. And while the cross is central to Buffy’s life and to ours, the cross she wears on a silver chain around her neck serves purely as a talisman; it has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with its function as a weapon against vampires and their ilk.

There’s something about Buffy and her –verse, though, that rings true to this calling as a young clergy woman. There’s some reason (beyond simple escapism) that I keep coming back to this story and these characters. When I feel helpless and ineffectual, overwhelmed and heartbroken by the needs I can’t meet and the problems I can’t solve, I find strength and comfort in Buffy. When I am frustrated and enervated by lengthy meetings that have accomplished nothing in particular, when I am filled with despair that the institution through which I intend to serve God is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch, I find inspiration in Buffy. When I feel the loneliness of holding in confidence the heavy burdens others have shared with me, when I can speak to no one of the holy moments that have left me teary and trembling, I find companionship in Buffy.

Buffy taught me about what it means to have a calling. In the opening episodes of the series, we see Buffy resisting her call. The television series begins with Buffy relocating to a new town and starting a new school, hoping to turn over a new leaf and escape the supernatural happenings that plagued her previous life. As soon as she enters the school library, she is greeted with a dusty volume of demon lore and a new Watcher (mentor) eager to hone her evil-fighting skills. Like the reluctant prophet Jonah, Buffy longs to escape an inescapable call. Her Slayer identity can’t be escaped; she cannot remove it, flee from it, or ignore it. Like many young clergy women, she wishes she could choose an easier and more normal life. Like many of us, she finds that her calling has chosen her, but that she can choose how best to live into that calling.

As Buffy embraces her identity as the Slayer, we see that a calling by itself is powerful, but not always sufficient. As the Slayer, Buffy has natural gifts and abilities, but she becomes more capable as she hones her skills through study, training, practice, and mentorship. So it is with a calling to ministry: we hear the call, we find in ourselves the natural gifts that will help us to serve the church, but that isn’t the end. We have to steward those gifts carefully, building them up through ongoing education and collegial relationships, nurturing them through prayer and self-reflection.

As Buffy grows into her calling, it changes her in ways we young clergy women might recognize. We see how saving the world every week builds her confidence. We see how constantly confronting evil, death, and pain burdens her with more than her share of sorrow. We see her growing hubris as she discovers the power and the responsibility of her calling as “one girl in all the world” who can do what she can do.

But she can’t do it alone, despite what she might sometimes think. For all its rhetoric about “only one Slayer,” it is telling that Buffy is an ensemble show. Buffy’s calling is unique, certainly, but she needs all kinds of support in her work as the Slayer. She turns to her friends and mentors for research and logistical support, for encouragement and advice, for comfort and for laughter, and to check her ego. Her calling is unique, but that doesn’t mean she’s called to be a “lone wolf.” She—like of all of us—needs a community in order to do her work well and faithfully.

I first encountered Buffy as I was discerning my call to ministry and preparing to apply to seminary. I count it as God’s grace that this story found me at that moment, offering images of another young woman finding her way on an unusual path. As Buffy resisted and accepted her call, grew into her role, learned to be both Slayer and daughter, sister, friend, she modeled for me how I might start to live into the call I felt in my own life. She, too, walked a path that the world thought was not appropriate for a young woman, and she walked it for some of the reasons that I did, and with some of the same wonder and trepidation. We have our differences, of course: Buffy’s job is to save the world; I believe that the world has been saved, and not by me. But ever since those early days of discernment, Buffy has been one of my companions on this sometimes-lonely road. This story has continued to nourish me, to teach me about vocation, about sin and evil, about repentance and reconciliation, about grief, and so much more.

The first time I watched the series ending, I was less than impressed. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] In that final episode, Buffy finds a way to share her power, to stop being “one girl in all the world,” and to instead become one Slayer among a great multitude of Slayers. I was initially disappointed at Buffy’s loss of uniqueness. Her calling seemed somehow diminished because it was no longer hers alone. But as I’ve grown into my vocation, refining my own understanding of what it means to be an ordained minister, my perspective has shifted. Now, when I watch that last episode, I see echoes of the verse that has become my own mission statement as a pastor:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” -Ephesians 4:12-13

So, Santa and John Calvin Walk into a Bar…

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Kinda looks like Santa, no?

It’s the time of year again, when we try to figure out what to do with Santa around here. And this year, I’ve reached some new clarity on the issue, with the help of Zora’s continually astute questions and a little assist from my dear John Calvin.

To review, we never really told Zora about Santa. She caught on when she got to preschool. Now in her third year of formal schooling, she asks if Santa is real. My stock answer is, “Well, what do you think?” (Good, huh? Feel free to steal that line. It’s definitely one of my finer parenting techniques.) I’m with my good friend Martha on this (well, truth be told I’m not quite as freaked out by the whole thing as she is, but I like her thoughts about gratitude.)

Around here, we do stockings. We also do shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas and give the kids one early toy (instead of a bunch of candy or crap they don’t need). We read the Demi book, The Legend of St. Nicholas. I recommended it to my friend John a couple years ago. And while he enjoyed it, he did point out that the stories about Nicholas from ancient Christian tradition are much much stranger and freakier than the creepy old guy who invades your house by chimney.

There are things, though, that bug me about the Santa tradition that I haven’t always been able to articulate.

But Zora, perceptive little being, helped me identify my  biggest issue with Santa this week. We were walking home from school and she was describing the class “trip” to Holland that day. (Her class is “travelling” to different countries to learn about holiday traditions this week.) Now, I don’t know exactly what was said in class, but, while there was no direct discussion of Zwarte Piet (aka Black Peter), there seems to have been some kid who brought up some version of the idea that someone travels with Sinterklaas and punishes the bad kids (curiously, it was also a different version than David Sedaris’s treatment of the subject in his hilarious description of Dutch holiday tradition).

So this gets Zora into discussing “the naughty list”.

And it hits me. I hate the naughty list. First off, it’s an empty threat. I mean what modern, with-it parent is going to actually act on the naughty list threat? This is basic parenting, folks. Don’t propose a consequence you have no intention of following through on.

But, I don’t believe in the naughty list.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: I don’t think kids should have “Santa” as their main model for how God is. But, at its best, the Santa tradition does embody something of the truth about God. Demi puts it well:

Throughout the world today, whether he goes by the name of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, or Santa Claus, this figure who shows enormous generosity, a love of children, deep care for the poor and needy, and a completely selfless nature is considered to embody the spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of the Lord.

And I don’t completely agree with the argument that a kid whose parents lie about Santa will make the leap to an idea that the parents are lying about Jesus.

But, I do think that we get some of our image of what a benevolent higher power is like from the cultural version of Santa.

And I would prefer not to have a God who keeps a naughty list. We’re accountable, of course, for the awful stuff we do. But the naughty list comes without a hint of grace.

We don’t get gifts (or “graces”) because we’re good. We get gifts because we are loved.

These thoughts all coalesce in my brain in about a half block of walking. I have 2 blocks left before we get home. And I have to figure out how to explain it to Zora.

So, here’s what I say:

Me: “You know, Z, I don’t like the naughty list. I think that’s just something parents tell their kids to try to get them to be good.”

Zora: “So, is Santa real?”

Me: “What do you think?”

Zora: distracted by water in the gutter…water is a novelty here in California

Me: “And, here’s the thing: I think you should be good not to get on a list, or because you’ll get presents. You should do good things because you’re glad that there are people who love you.”

And that, friends, is Calvin’s Third Use of the Law (*see brief theological explanation below), right there, boiled down to first grade level (yes, it is more complicated than first grade level, but we have to start somewhere).

God doesn’t keep a naughty list that determines whether or not you are graced (gifted) with the presence of Jesus. God just loves you.

And being good isn’t about getting on the right list: you’re already on. You’re good because God loves you, and you’re thankful.

And that’s my biggest gripe about Santa. The naughty list. I can keep hedging a little on whether Santa is real or not, mostly for the sake of Zora’s classmates, because she doesn’t need to disillusion them quite yet. But there’s no way I’ll be propagating the myth of the naughty list. I just like the idea of grace way too much.

* Here’s an oversimplified tutorial just to get you up to speed theologically:

John Calvin, sixteenth century theologian who is one of my intellectual ancestors, had a way of thinking about the purpose of “the Law” (i.e. the stuff the Bible says we should or should not do) that has come to be called “Calvin’s Third Use of the Law”. Luther (who came before Calvin) said that the Law’s function was mainly two things: to remind us that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing; and to keep us from doing even worse. Calvin added an additional use: it’s a guide for living thankfully because of what God has done for us. Different Protestant traditions used to fight about this a whole lot, but in my household (Presbyterian pastor married to a guy who was raised Lutheran; family currently attending the Lutheran church down the block) we mostly joke around about it. Because we are nerds about theology.