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Enough with “Enough”: A Review of Seculosity by David Zahl

“Do you remember the days when the Sunday school was full and everyone went to church on Sunday?”

“It’s such a shame that stores are open and there’s soccer practice on Sunday mornings…”

You don’t have to be around a 21st-century church very long before you start to hear questions and comments like these. They reflect an ongoing narrative that recalls mid-20th century glory days of the church in which Christians enjoyed power and esteem ( glorious as long as you were straight and white and male, and as long as you did everything the right way…).

The specter of this bygone era of the church has the ability to consume modern faith communities, to push them into a mentality of scarcity over all-we-once-had-and-why-can’t-we-just-have-those-things-again.

Anxieties rise. New programs launch to make the church exciting and relevant once more. Maybe this time we’ll turn the tide.

Why don’t people seem to want religion anymore?

In a new book out this month, David Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries takes this question head-on, with a perspective that offers the possibility of a way forward.  The book is called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.  In it, Zahl explores the possibility that our culture is not becoming less religious at all, but rather we are becoming religious about more and more things.

He uses the neologism ‘seculosity’ to describe the many activities and identities to which modern Americans devote a zeal that can be described as nothing so accurately as religious. From leisure activities (SoulCyle or CrossFit?) to parenting style (attachment or Babywise?) to political identity and work, from Zahl’s perspective, these are more than activities, they become part of people’s identities. These seculosities offer not just community, but a justifying story of their lives, a frame through which to see the world, a mechanism by which they can establish a sense of “enoughness.” They offer identity, community, meaning, purpose in ways that religion once did in wider society.

The problem arises, he argues, when we realize that no matter how much we devote ourselves to these pursuits, there is always more we could be doing or accomplishing or achieving. We could find our soulmate and get started on happily ever after. Our kids could win more awards. We could work harder, advance faster, earn more. But the focus on all of this makes the fact that the achievement of the goals we create for ourselves is an ever-vanishing horizon. Read more

rainbow flag blowing in the wind

Speaking For Me

rainbow flag blowing in the wind“The issue.” That’s how we are often talked about by conservatives and progressives alike. To those who would like to purge The United Methodist Church of all of us queer folks, we are discussed not as real people in the church but as “the issue of homosexuality.” Then there are allies who are quick to point out that human sexuality is just the “presenting issue” as our denomination grapples with how we understand scripture, where the locus of power should rest, and the complex realities of a global church. While there is truth in that argument, that truth fails to dull the sting of dehumanization. Either way we are talked about as if we weren’t right here.

The United Methodist Church has been fighting about LGBTQIA+ inclusion/exclusion since 1972 when language was inserted into our book of polity that declared homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and then in 1984 that barred “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being clergy. This antiquated language enacts not just exclusion but also erasure as those of us who identify as BTQIA+ but not as homosexual are left unclear whether we are even being talked about to begin with. I have heard allies defend themselves for only speaking out for gay and lesbian rights because our book of discipline only discriminates against homosexuality. And yet, United Methodist polity has reduced identity to action—sexual orientation to sex acts. Being bisexual will not protect me from charges filed if I decide to marry a woman nor will it protect me from the much more complete purge the so-called traditionalists would like to enact.

And now, as our denomination gathers for a special called General Conference (Feb 23-26) in St. Louis to vote on a way forward for our denomination, the “issue” will be fought over as though it were just the future of our denomination and not real lives that are at stake. Our lives. My life. In the fall of 2018, I made the complicated decision as a young United Methodist clergywoman to come out as bisexual. I began claiming my own queer voice just as my beloved denomination has disintegrated into a shouting match—speaking sometimes against, sometimes for, but always over me. Rarely with me.

When I was deciding how, when and if I would come out to my congregation, a queer friend and mentor asked me to consider if I wanted to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights “as an ally” or if I wanted to fight for our rights as a queer woman. I looked at her funny. I know who I am. I can’t do anything as anyone other than who I already am. “That’s your answer,” she told me matter-of-factly.  Read more

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outside

That Awkward Moment: Making Small Talk as a YCW

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outsideWe don’t know each other well, but we’ve been chatting for awhile, maybe at a party, or at a playdate for our kids.

The subject of what we do for a living hasn’t come up yet, and we’re talking easily about other things. But then the time comes when we would normally talk about what we do for work and I don’t bring it up. You might wonder if it’s because I don’t work, whether I’m a stay at home mom or unemployed, so you think maybe you shouldn’t bring it up. But I can tell you want to tell me what you do for work and so I ask.

My hesitation is not because I don’t want to know what you do for work—I really do—but because I don’t want to answer it back. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s just that once I tell you that I’m a priest, everything about our conversation is going to change.

The first thing you’ll do is apologize for swearing.
(It’s ok! I have actually heard those words before. In fact, I’ve even said them!)

You start scanning my face to see whether I’m judging everything you do.
(I’m not.)

Then you worry you’re offending me with things you say.
(You’re not.)

You start to wonder if you can ask me all the questions you suddenly have. And sometimes you ask. And I try to answer them honestly, usually refraining from the snarky ways I’d actually like to answer:

Do women priests even exist?
(Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually a hologram?)

Are you allowed to have sex?
(No. My three children sprung from my head like the children of Zeus!)

You might feel awkward talking about what I do for living at all and so you ask quickly what my husband does for a living. You learn he’s a teacher, and suddenly we have lots of things to talk about. Everyone likes talking about teachers. The conversation flows on from there.

But then, sometimes….

You ask me about God.  Read more

Acting Womanish, Being Womanist, Living Womanism.

The author

Understanding your own identity is an ongoing process. Family ideals and traditions typically shape much of your childhood identity. As you grow into young adulthood, there are defining moments that continue to form you, and you begin to become more of who you desire to be. The stages of life redefine us, until we settle into a comfortable core identity that we will hold fast to and defend at all cost. For me, my identity was first defined as a young, Black girl growing up in Houston, Texas. It was many years later that I discovered the vocabulary to understand and explain the core components of who I was, who I am, and who I will continue to be as an adult.

Acting Womanish

Any young Black girl who has ever dared to talk back to an elder, or question a directive she was given, has probably been told she was “acting womanish.” Acting womanish means having the bold audacity to speak up in the face of injustice. It means daring to have her own opinions and thoughts, and rejecting the “go-along-to-get-along” expected mentality. Acting womanish means trying to “be grown” before your time. I remember my mother telling me to “stay in a child’s place” and “you actin’ womanish” in response to my speaking up too much and too often about things with which I disagreed. I also remember being told to save my arguments and disagreements for conversations with my friends; it was not the place of a child to correct their elders. It was a rather strange and delicate dance to navigate: be smart, be great, be the best you that you desire to be, but do it from within certain constraints. Don’t act womanish.

As children do when given such constraints, I learned to be quiet and contemplative. I learned to take mental notes of my disagreements with parental directives, and save my well-developed arguments for the privacy of journals and diaries. Rather than face possible consequences for “acting womanish,” I would wait until I became a woman to speak my piece, and speak it I did.

Being Womanist

August, 2005, was the beginning of my true development and understanding of myself as a grown woman. It was then I started my first year at Brite Divinity School on the campus of Texas Christian University. Concentrating on Black Church Studies, I had the honor and pleasure of taking classes with a Womanist Christian social ethicist who helped me discover my Womanist voice: Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas. Most pivotal were her words to me in that first year: “Dwalunda, you are Womanist to your core.” Read more

Looking Over My Shoulder

DrMartens

When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

small girl covering her eyes

Coming out of the Clergy Closet

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?” Read more

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more