EssaysThe Open Table Discussion Topics
by Heather Adams
March 21 - Part 2
The world feels fractured. The divisiveness in our country and across the globe is palpable, growing in strength and fury. Rational, civil discourse between two people who disagree on an issue is a rarity, an endangered species. We live in a time where people can engage with only that brand of news and opinion journalism which matches their own ideology, and the remaining forum for interacting with those whose views are opposite your own is online – “discussions” which are often peppered with staccato bursts of mean, vile, inhumane language.
It’s not hard to see why the rhetoric and division escalate when the stakes are so high. It’s not hyperbole to say that the political topics in the headlines today are issues of life and death: children dying in government custody at our southern border, hate speech leading to people of faith gunned down at their place of worship, our LGBT brothers and sisters fighting for their right to remain part of the lifeblood of a church they love. If now is not the time to ratchet up our speech and actions, to match the intensity and virulence on the other side with outrage and indignity of our own, then when?
And yet. We Christians feel it deep to our core that simply matching the viciousness of thought and speech on one side with a similar level of vitriol on the other is not the answer. If Jesus were living in the here and now, it’s hard to imagine him on Fox News or MSNBC, raising his voice and fists, yelling to drown out all the voices of all others. It’s hard to see him spreading his gospel of love by sharing a Facebook post laced with profanity or filled with ugly name-calling.
The Christian writer Ann Lamott shows us a way out:
Lately our pastor has been urging us to act more like Martin Luther King, Jr. I wondered whether I could try to love or forgive my enemies, as Jesus or Dr. King would. I know that Jesus would for example eat lunch with my president, even if he knew that the White House would probably call the Justice Department on him later for his radical positions. He’d do it, because he is available to everyone. His love and mercy fall equally upon us all. This is so deeply not me. I know that the world is loved by God, as are all of its people, but it is much easier to believe that God hates or disapproves of or punishes the same people I do, because these thoughts are what is going on inside of me much of the time.
Unfortunately, change and forgiveness do not come easily for me, but any willingness to let go inevitably comes from pain; and the desire to change changes you, and jiggles the spirit, gets to it somehow, to the deepest, hardest, most ruined parts. And then the Spirit expands, because that is its nature, and it drags along the body, and finally, the mind.
My pastor has said that Christians have a very bad reputation in the world, and we have earned it, with our hate and self- righteousness. We speak in reverent terms of grace, justice, equality, mercy, and then we despise people who are also created in God’s image, who are God’s children too. She said that if the President had been the only person on earth, Jesus would still have loved him so much that he would have come down and died for him. This drives me crazy, that God seems to have no taste, and no standards. Yet on most days, this is what gives some of us hope.
My pastor also says that you don’t have to support people’s political agendas, but you do have to love them, if you want to follow Jesus. She said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they were feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and trying to get everyone medical insurance.
To be honest, I may not ever get anywhere with this President. But Jesus kept harping on forgiveness and loving one’s enemies, so I decide to try. I try to hold on to what I hear from my pastor: that loving your enemies is nonnegotiable. It means trying to respect them, it means identifying with their humanity and weakness. It doesn’t mean unconditional acceptance of their crazy behavior. They are still accountable for the atrocities they perpetuate, as you are accountable for yours. But you work at doing better, at loving them, for the profoundest spiritual reason: you are trying not to make things worse.
It continues to be a struggle. I know that God is in the struggle with us. And that trying to love the people in this White House is the single most subversive position I can take.
(excerpted from Plan B, pages 220 – 227).
This is a very tall order for me, to think about loving and forgiving those in power in this country with whom I so violently disagree. And yet to think of a world where we all follow the example of Jesus – where we give voice to those at the margins, where we use our labors to deliver advantage to the disadvantaged – and where we come at all of this from a place of love in our hearts for all people, no exceptions? Radical. Radical, indeed.
by Shana Hutchings
“Luminaria, luminaria, in the noche, in the noche”
My daughter Emily had been singing this song as she played for weeks, in preparation for her upcoming winter concert at preschool. I knew the song well since she was in the same class last year and her older sister, Helen, had been in the class the two years before that. Helen had been so captivated by luminarias that she incorporated them into her games. She would be narrating a story at her dollhouse and I’d hear her say, “Helen, Lucy, and Sophia Clark took their luminarias and set off on a journey in the dark,” and off the dolls would go into the forest.
When the day of the concert arrived, I sat in the back row, and another parent offered to give me her program. I said with a laugh, “Oh, that’s okay, this is my fourth time here, so I already know all the songs by heart.” She gave me a strange look and turned around to watch the concert, clutching her program.
Her look matched the feeling I had after I uttered the sentence. Somehow in the hustle and bustle of changes in my life, we now belonged to this place. My children had been in this preschool for four winter concerts. This was our home. But it still didn’t feel like it.
“All of us have a lie that we hinge our entire lives on.”
I read this line the same week as my daughter’s concert. My lie came to my mind immediately. I stood in the kitchen and read the passage to my husband and asked him what he thought his lie was. He said he wasn’t sure. “Well,” I said, “I knew mine right way. It’s that I don’t belong.” He looked at me and we stood in silence for a few minutes, not sure what to say.
This lie has been so much a part of my being that I’ve always believed it to be true. Lies are like that. They only really have power if we believe them and they become truth over time.
As a child, I knew that my parents weren’t married when I was born, so when I had a disagreement with my father, I’d convince myself that he wasn’t really my father. My aunt gave birth to my cousin as a teenager, too, and never married his father, so I thought maybe this was the case for my mom, as well. When things didn’t seem quite right, my primary defense was that I didn’t really belong in my family. I even went so far as signing my name with my mother’s maiden name when I was in middle school as a way of asserting my secret identity. I didn’t really think about the fact that any guy who would remain totally absent in my life probably wasn’t any better than my father, I only thought about my need to feel like I belonged. And my family didn’t feel like that place. And the rootlessness permeated my entire life, making me feel chronically homeless.
“And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
In early elementary school, I discovered religion and that became my primary vehicle for belonging. Verses like this one comforted me when I felt alone and the rhythms of prayer and scripture gave meaning to my life. It helped anchor me, but never made me feel like I belonged. Rather, it left me feeling like I was constantly on a pilgrimage to find my home, my place, my people through the lens of faith. It was the catalyst, not the resting place.
As I sat and watched my daughter, several inches taller than her classmates because of her age, ringing her bells to the Ronettes rendition of “Sleigh Ride” I started to cry silently. Most of the parents were either recording the concert with their phones or making faces at their children, coaxing them into participation, but I was lost in sea of memories, remembering Helen, now in first grade, singing the same songs on the same stage. This, I thought, is our home. We belong here.
It occurred to me then that perhaps belonging was something that could happen despite myself. That maybe it wasn’t this magical feeling of connectedness I’d imagined it was. Maybe belonging was simply living life, giving and receiving the good and the bad. I’m still not sure, but I do know that as I watched Emily up on that stage, I knew I belonged in this place at this time. My faith has been like that, too. The moments God has felt most near have been the times I have allowed myself to live life and allow the presence of the holy to find me, usually through the kindness of others.
My hope is that allowing myself to belong to this place will bring about a change in the way I live, that I’ll be more rooted and able to serve others. That I’ll be more open to changes, less sensitive to slights, and an all-around more faithful person. But I know myself too well. It will be a challenge and I’ll fail a lot. I’m holding onto the image, though, of Emily and Helen singing holding their luminarias and singing, “Luminaria, luminaria, in the noche, in the noche” and hoping for that light to keep watch for me as I walk in this place.
My parents bought the house in 1987. It had been built, along with the other houses in the neighborhood, in 1976. The curved street a block from Dimond High School was filled with identical 3-bedroom ranch houses. We bought the house because we could walk to Chinook Elementary School and it was in our price range. It was one of two houses on the street raised by the owners to make it two stories. The basement was unfinished, full of concrete and hollow walls.
The previous owners, my parents told us in hushed tones, had to declare bankruptcy. Their missteps were paraded before us. The house was yellow, but half had been covered in cedar siding. The project had been aborted. The kitchen was full of new golden appliances. The bedrooms were each painted a different shade of blue. The carpets were dark brown shag. Each piece of the house represented a cautionary tale of excess. It was like moving into a tomb.
The house was like the neighborhood. In the middle of one of the streets, the houses just stopped, as if the builder ran out of money. Forests lined the streets, ready with signs and house numbers, but no houses. We ran wild in these woods, fallen birches becoming walls for houses and hills becoming bike jumps. When they finally finished building the neighborhood, when I was in high school, we made protest signs and stapled them on trees.
This was the Anchorage of my childhood. One filled with extremes. New churches, new restaurants, new strip malls popped up in the shadow of the unflinching Chugach mountains. A place where the teacher would ask who had been born in Alaska and only one student would raise a hand. A place where people created a new identity, for better or for worse, and where people left as quickly as they came.
I anchored myself to the unchanging landmarks, spending as much time as I could immersed in them. I’d bike for hours on the Campbell Creek Trail, sometimes sitting with a book on its banks. I’d pull over at the Transfiguration of the Lord Orthodox Church in Ninilchik and look out over Cook Inlet. I’d drive the Old Glenn Highway in the fall on my way out to have coffee at Vagabond Blues. I’d sit by Willow Creek, watching the salmon every summer. I’d watch the sunset, along with Mt Spurr and Mt Redoubt from the beach at Whiskey Gulch. I’d walk the downtown neighborhoods admiring the older homes while my parents played softball on the Park Strip. These place-based rituals grounded me in a land of constant change.
I’ve continued to hold this tension as I’ve moved through life. On the one hand, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve lived in five states since leaving Alaska 20 years ago. I earned the nickname Chameleon in college for changing my hair and major so many times. I’m always game to head out on adventure or try new foods. I married, mothered children, graduated from seminary. I’ve been in a state of perpetual pilgrimage. And I’ve held tight to the traditions of grounding myself to my place.
We bought our first house three years ago and moving into an established home and neighborhood has proven to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve grown used the constant motion that has been my life and I’ve been surrounded by others in constant motion. Moving into a home without thinking about the next destination has paradoxically made me feel more unsettled than ever. Being in graduate communities gave me an energy, a purpose. Now my life is filled with literal and metaphorical housekeeping tasks and sometimes seems to lack any sort of coherent meaning.
The stories of our faith tell of exile and rootlessness again and again. As Christians, we profess a belief that our only true home is with God. And I believe that. But I also feel like where we are and how we live in our places is of great importance. Perhaps this is the challenge of our time. How do we live faithful lives in our neighborhoods, jobs, families? It’s easy to feel like we’re on a pilgrimage when we’re literally on the road. But what about the pilgrimages we make daily in our offices, our homes, our churches where the road is more like a labyrinth? How do we remain faithful doing the messy, mundane activities of life and how do we reach out to our neighbors in these places? These are the questions I’m wrestling with as I start to do the hard work of staying put. It’s been a painful transition and I often feel like I’m flailing, but I do have faith the wrestling is not in vain.
One of my favorite movies is a cheesy Mormon film called God’s Army. I grew up around a lot of Mormon friends and had a quiet obsession with the church for most of my childhood. It seemed like such a close-knit, clean-cut faith where you knew exactly what to expect. That was very appealing to my order-hungry personality. The film came out when I was in college and I saw it in the theatre and then asked for it as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t a blockbuster, so my mom had to special order it from Borders Books and it was fairly expensive. I watched it almost daily for one stretch.
My favorite scene occurs when two of the missionaries are giving their pitch to a blue-collar man, who seems to be fairly interested in what they have to say. In the background, you can hear kids screaming and crying. At one point a woman starts hollering for him and he yells at her that he’s busy. At that point, the missionaries go on to tell him about a central doctrine of Mormon faith, which is that after being sealed to your family in the Temple, you have the assurance that you’ll be with them forever in heaven. At that point, the man confesses that he isn’t interested after all, the screaming and crying behind him almost drowning out his words.
I love this scene because it illustrates how we so often get wrong people’s motivations and because I totally relate to the man in the scene.
One of the primary places I’ve turned to in my quest for belonging has been the church. In fact, after watching this movie nearly a hundred times, I felt led to call up the local missionaries and convert. I only lasted about a month in the church and had to meet with the Bishop to have my name removed from the records. My departure wasn’t over politics or theology, it was because I just couldn’t see myself being a Mormon wife and fitting into that culture. It wasn’t me.
One of the great ironies of my life is that I’ve most longed for belonging in faith communities and those have been the most elusive places for me to find it. It’s been part personal failure, part institutional failure, and mostly just the messiness of being human. But belonging in a church community has really been a challenge for me. And I know I’m not alone.
In God’s Army, the missionaries are offering what they believe to be a central tenet of their faith: the assurance that you won’t be separate from your family, even after death. To the missionaries, this sounds like a message of hope. To the man, it’s the opposite of what he wants in life. He’s looking for something to ease the burden of being in his difficult reality. He knows in that moment that his salvation isn’t going to come from the Mormon church.
The man in the movie decides right then and there that the church isn’t for him. But I haven’t decided that. I keep trying, but I’ve been content to treat church as something to consume and not a family. When I was a child, it was a rigid faith where drinking and smoking and swearing were prohibited. I hated that my parents were addicts and I loved that the adults in my church world weren’t (at least not on Sunday mornings). As I’ve gotten older, it has been the soothing words of beautiful prayers found in the Episcopal prayer book providing me with a weekly grounding in tradition. I’ve been craving a soothing balm.
But faith isn’t like that. Churches aren’t like that. The comfort is only part of it. We have our quirks and our disagreements. We do terrible things alongside great ones. I’ve been trying to change my definition of belonging to include this knowledge.
I like what Jill Briscoe, a longtime pastor’s wife says, “Go where you’re sent. Stay where you’re put. Unpack, as if you’re never going to leave. And give what you’ve got.” This active part of belonging doesn’t come as naturally for me. I like to stay on the edges, to listen, and to critique. Getting my hands dirty alongside other people isn’t a gift of mine. But belonging, truly belonging, requires some work, sometimes hard work. Even if our inclination is to, like the man in the movie, say, “Sorry, I’m not interested.”
I’m not really a tech person. I’ve never used a GPS. I think I have a smart phone, but I haven’t really ever used the smart features. I’ve never used an e-reader or an iPad. I almost failed a Computer-Aided Drafting class in high school because I didn’t understand the computer aspect. I’ve never played a computer game. I gave up TV when I left my parent’s house over 20 years ago. I’m so slow to adopt new technologies that they often disappear before I get around to having an interest, if I do at all.
In 2009, my sister gave me an ultimatum. She wasn’t doing phone calls anymore, so if I wanted to talk to her I had to text or get Facebook. She had been through several difficult life situations and I’d helped her through them, so I felt like I needed adapt and stay in her life. At the time, I didn’t have a cell phone, but I did have a desktop computer (one use of technology I’ve loved has been looking up books and reserving them at the public library), so I told her I’d figure out how to set up Facebook and let her know when I had an account.
As it happened, I had a trip planned for the next week to see my best friend in California for her 30th birthday, so she was able to show me around Facebook and explain how it worked. I remember exclaiming to her as she scrolled through her newsfeed, “This is just a place where loud people can amplify their voices and quiet people get stressed out!” But, in the name of sisterly duty, I set up an account. I started adding college friends, high school friends, and family members. And that was that.
Less than a month later, a new friend asked me if I’d like to be part of a book group she and some recent seminary graduates and spouses were starting. Forgetting that I hate groups of women, I said yes. Now, I have nothing against women per se, but women’s groups have this reputation of being very judgmental and I’ve been around enough to know it’s a well-deserved honor. This particular friend also had more traditional views when it came to Christianity, so I was nervous. But I’d already said yes. And before I knew it, I had several friend requests and had been added to a Facebook group, an online representation of this new group. Scrolling through these women, still strangers, I looked for common ground to help myself feel less nervous about the meeting. One claimed Bif-Style Christianity as her belief system, another claimed Jesus-Follower, and I felt a tiny bit less nervous.
The first meeting was in early May and it was a perfect evening. We met on the large porch of a woman I’d come to be very close with and I loved her immediately. As people trickled in, I was so moved by their warmth and affection for each other and felt a little less nervous. As we went around sharing things about ourselves, I shared the bare minimum, as is my standard, so my new friend volunteered that I was planning to go to seminary. Now, I wasn’t exactly planning, I’d just been thinking about it. But these women responded with such warmth and encouragement, that my dream felt reachable.
In Karen Swallow Prior’s excellent book On Reading Well, she uses literature to discuss virtues such as courage, hope, and faith. Her chapter on kindness gets to the heart of what this group meant to me and how belonging hinges on the presence of kindness. Kindness, rightly understood, “means something radically different from mere agreeableness. Kind comes from the same word kin. Being kind, then, is to treat someone like they are family. To possess the virtue of kindness is to be in the habit of treating all people as if they were family.” She talks about kindness as being the opposite of envy. Envy is the “sorrow for another’s good” and kindness is to “share in the good as if it happened to us.”
This is a radical idea in our world right now. Our entire economic system is built on making us envious of others and curing it through purchasing material goods or experiences. I think we love the word kindness right now because it feels good and I love that! But as Prior notes, kindness isn’t actually just being nice. She uses the author George Saunders as the example in this chapter and quotes his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse University, where he says, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness…those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
My book group continues to be a source of kindness. We encourage and challenge one another from afar now. We all live out our faith in radically different ways and disagree wildly on a great many issues. All of us have left Pittsburgh, the site of that first meeting, but we continue to encourage one another. The very technologies I disdain have been a lifeline for keeping our group in touch and I’m grateful, although still apprehensive! Recently, one of our members lost her husband. We all felt that loss terribly. One member is now a wedding chaplain in Paris and has been wildly successful. One is struggling to make ends meet outside Baltimore. One struggled with infertility and was ready to adopt three siblings after a long time fostering them only to have to say good-bye. She and her husband miraculously conceived a few months later and now have two boys in Idaho. We’ve truly done life together. This group has been like a deep well for me, sustaining me when things get hard, encouraging me to make the world a more inclusive place.
On Thanksgiving weekend 2016, my husband’s grandma died in her sleep. She was in her favorite chair in her living room on the third floor of Wesley Grand right here in Des Moines. Robert and Lauren, my oldest, had spent much of the previous day with her and had noted that there had been an otherworldly quality to her being that day.
Her funeral was at First United Methodist Church downtown. She was nearly 98 when she died and had her funeral planned for years. We sang hymns she had chosen and read her favorite scriptures. After the funeral, we all drove the two hours in the blowing snow to Bloomfield so she could be buried next to her beloved husband and infant daughter surrounded by countless family members.
The thing that struck me most at her funeral was that her official military photo sat framed by her casket alongside a folded American flag. I knew she had served in World War II, but it didn’t come up in conversation terribly often. I wondered how many of my friends would choose to have such an official photograph displayed so prominently alongside the American flag at their funeral.
Grandma Dorothy was largely a product of her time. When I first met her in 2004, Robert and I were traveling around the US in our car. We spent several months crossing the country, camping in National Parks and other wild areas. Grandma insisted we stay with her for Independence Day. I was immediately struck by her love of Wesley Acres, Des Moines, and Iowa. She had a deep pride in her place and her community. She shopped exclusively at Dahl’s and Younkers and took pride in the fact that Wesley didn’t evict residents if they ran out of money. She remained a faithful member of First Church even when she couldn’t stand the minister or didn’t support the capital campaign.
Since her funeral, I’ve thought a lot about what community looks like for my generation. We don’t have anything quite like The Great Depression or World War II to unite us. We’ve been taught to question everything. To poke holes in our institutional history. To cut out toxic people if they aren’t serving our life, even if they’re family members.
Neighborhood ministry is big right now in the Christian publishing world. It seems like a new book is coming out every week encouraging us to see Christ in our places. To love our neighborhoods. To practice a reverse Prayer of Jabez where rather than asking God to increase what we have, we pray, “God, shrink our territories, narrow our boundaries, that we might be a blessing to all.” It’s as if being grounded in one place and talking to our neighbors is a radical act.
To Grandma Dorothy, this was just life. When she moved into Wesley, her entire block moved in with her. I’m not entirely sure how we got to the point where getting to know your neighbors seems to be so countercultural, but it seems that’s the point we’re at in our society.
Obviously we can’t go back to the 1950s (though some wish we could) and we probably don’t want to. What is the right balance, though? How does the church foster a place of community when we’re urged to move on from circumstances that don’t suit us in the name of mental health or personal growth?
I like to think this provides the church and communities with some wonderful opportunities. Maybe people will feel less trapped. Maybe our groups will become more inclusive and fluid. But I also think we haven’t figured out the best way yet. Too many of us are anxious, lonely, and unhappy. I’d love to somehow capture that deep loyalty I saw in Grandma Dorothy and use it to draw people into a place of belonging and service to others. Something old, something new, something beautiful.
February 28 - I Want To Believe
When I was a young girl, I attended a Southern Baptist church with my sister. Every Sunday morning, we’d board a maroon 15-passenger van and head over to a small white church a few neighborhoods away. The other girls in my Sunday school class proudly carried their Precious Moments Bibles to class each week, their names engraved in gold. I wanted one of those Bibles so badly and begged my mom and dad to buy one for me. One day, after a trip to Costco, my parents came to my room and unceremoniously dropped a box on my bed. It was a blue Precious Moments Bible with a small lamb on the bottom right corner. I opened the package and flipped the pages, smelling it with joy. I carefully wrote my name in cursive under the lamb and wrote on the inscription page: “To: Shana From: Mom and Dad, no special day or anything.”
I had learned from a pretty early age to engage the world through reading. Each month, I received Skating, the official magazine of US Figure Skating in the mail. I was a competitive figure skater and spent most of my free time at the rink. I would read it cover to cover and memorize the competition results printed in the purple center pages. At one competition, our coaches obtained a video of a previous national competition and we gathered in a hotel room to watch it. Names flashed on the screen and I had a chance to see the skaters I had read about in the magazines. One skater from Boston came up next and I said, “Oh, I recognize her name. She was second last year at the Easterns.” My coaches looked at me with disbelief. It was the first time it had occurred to me that it wasn’t typical to have such an obsessive relationship with the written word.
As I came in and out of church as a young adult, I finally stayed put in the Episcopal church, largely due to the red Book of Common Prayer and Bible I bought for $8 at the bookstore I worked at in Anchorage, Alaska. I wrote my name, Shana French, and the date, Easter 2003 on the inside front page. I spent several months getting to know the rhythms of the prayer book, reading it at my 1970s white and gold dining room table. I lived in a studio apartment alone and I’d say morning prayer and compline every day. I attended church almost every Sunday, along with a small Wednesday prayer service, open to all, but mostly attended by the church staff. I was always the only person under 50.
About four years ago, following my graduation from seminary, my family moved several times and my prayer book was lost. I wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind, so it’s possible I purposely lost it, I’m not sure. And with it, I feel like I lost my faith. My prayer book had been with my at my wedding, the births of my children, my ordination exams, along with countless ordinary days. I don’t have the anchor I once did. I still haven’t settled into a church home because none of them seem quite right. When I attended the small Episcopal church downtown, I cried the entire time and nobody even said hi to me during coffee hour. The prayers that had once been such comfort to me now seemed painful. Did I even belong in the church anymore?
“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are,” says Brene Brown. Obviously, there are some serious issues with my deep identification with the written word. I know, objectively, that my prayer book isn’t the same as belonging to a faith community. My skating magazines didn’t replace practices or competitions. I likely started losing myself in books at a young age and it has continued to be my greatest hobby. I love books, recognizing that I sometimes lose myself in them while neglecting my larger community. Some years I give up reading as a Lenten practice as a way forcing myself to reach out to others. Books have helped me find my voice and have empowered me to try and use it.
We all have something we turn to, though. We all have barriers to belonging. But we long for it. We need it. For those of us who long to belong in the church, what does that look like? And for those of inside the church, how are we working to create a church that isn’t just a mirror or a club? Are we doing that? I want my church to be like my books. Something that challenges me, teaches me, encourages me, angers me, comforts me, and inspires me. A place where I become who I am in all my messy, human glory. A place where I can invite and encourage others to do the same.