Author: Bekah McNeel

March to May, Part 3: Grief Cake

I.

Last April I was swatting at a mosquito, and my hand went through the single-pane glass window. The glass cut a jagged “v” into the flesh below my right thumb, deep enough for me to see the bone. 

My stitches were a work of art. The scar is tidy, perfectly contoured to the laceration, with just the tiniest suture marks. It finally stopped being unbearably sensitive after about six months. But I still can’t feel the top of my thumb. It’s numb, all the way to the nail bed. 

My spring pattern has three parts: restlessness, anxiety, grief. It’s time to write about the last one, and it is the toughest one of all. 

Restlessness can be calmed with gratitude and curiosity. Reminding myself of the goodness here, and finding little ways to bring new life, everyday adventures. 

Anxiety can be quieted by abiding in the love around me, rooting deeper into the places where I do belong, where things are right, and working toward more alignment from there. 

Grief, though. Grief is a permanent mark. A scar. A digit that, while fully functional, is half-numb. Or weirdly tingly. And sometimes, for some reason deep in the dermal layering, blindingly, electrically painful.

II.

Essentially, grief is the soul’s response to loss, but calling something “grief” almost seems like you’re entering it into a competition, applying for a designation. Of course events like Uvalde and 9/11 qualify? But does grief apply to lesser losses? Can we grieve the loss of a pet? A celebrity? Time? Is it grief if I can still get out of bed? If I never cry? 

Well, I’m not the administrator of the grief designation. I’m not a psychologist. I’m just going to tell you what my therapist told me: whatever you’ve lost, whether it’s a parent or a dream, you will likely need to grieve. You don’t have to say your grief is deeper or more important than anyone else’s. You don’t have to put your life on hold. You don’t have to interrogate it, or shame your soul for needing it. 

But you do need to admit there’s been a loss, a possibly permanent gap between wanting and having. There’s a hole. You have to humble yourself to not being able to fix this one. Grief is admitting we don’t control everything, because if we could, we certainly would control this. 

Obviously I have to reference Wanda Maximoff. Obviously I have to point out that her desire to control the hole of grief in her heart led her to create and destroy in marvelous, cinematic, universal proportions. But to go into detail would spoil five movies and television series, so I won’t go any further. If you know, you know.

Hopefully we keep our losses in perspective.  Hopefully we know the difference between an elementary school massacre and a lost job.

What I’m about to talk about does not rise to the level of injustice or death. It’s not rooted in trauma. It’s rooted in choices. 

III.

A few weeks ago on this very blog, I wrote about purity culture—the sex-obsessed anti-sex teachings, jargon, traditions, and accoutrements originating from a culture war era need to keep the kids from defiling their marriage beds.

In that post, I alluded to a 9,000-word document detailing my ridiculous and hurtful encounters with several college idiots during the 2003-2004 school year. I had not been abused or assaulted, and I had not had sex, so my obsession with this season of my life, and with the role of purity culture in it, was something of a mystery, even to me. 

I shared that purity culture didn’t just want to control our bodies, but our narratives. “Waiting until marriage,” for me was not so much about sex as it was about conformity. Conforming to a narrative defined first by waiting, and then by marriage. 

A woman’s life before marriage was supposed to be like a perfectly iced cake. Smoothed, decorated, and untasted. Marriage was the entire cake. The meaning, the reward, the source, the delight, the culmination of life. The cake was a wedding cake.

It wasn’t that I needed to lick the icing off the cake before I married (i.e. have sex). I just wanted cake to be more than marriage. I wanted the cake to be inquiry and achievement and exploration and purpose and adventure. And yes, love and marriage too—not just because the patriarchy told me so, and not just because I needed the validation, but also I had a real, deep, understandable desire to love and be loved. Those were essential ingredients in my cake, but not the cake itself. 

I don’t fully understand what was so threatening, why wanting to cook with my own recipe was such a red flag. But it wasn’t just my fondness for making out and drinking beer. It was my different view of eschatology (the college’s doctrine was premillennial, mine was amillennial at the time for the nerds out there). It was sarcasm and arguing and innuendo and thoughts about something other than wedding cake. I was enamored of the beauty and the appeal of dangerous things outside the evangelical bubble. I was, at age 20, curious, confident, and creative…none of those things fair well in rigid systems. 

What I lacked was security. If I didn’t conform, I believed, I would never be loved. I would have to choose. I could not conceive of a love outside the wedding cakes around me, and I certainly didn’t believe I was compelling and magnetic enough to attract such an iconoclastic love if it existed. 

So as my mind was awakening in the halls of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the pages of Zora Neale Hurston and Leo Tolstoy, my fear was pulling it back, telling it not to risk the tried and true recipe for happiness. 

And then, in spring of 2004, I met a young man, in the middle of his own intellectual awakening. We talked about a future full of books and writing and watching the world go by. Parallel dreams and stimulating discussion. Over time we started to imagine a shared future. He was attracted to my unconventionalism, and I was attracted to his curiosity, and for the first time thought I might be able to bake this peculiar cake.

But we should not have been talking about a future at all, because he was engaged to someone else when we met, because that’s what you do in your last semester at evangelical college as you transition into the real world on the legs of a newborn deer. You make lifetime commitments…and he was suddenly having second thoughts. 

He was having second thoughts and telling me about them. Twenty years later, I recognize this as an attempt to get me to make the decision for him, and that’s why it split my heart in two. Half of me, the rule follower, believing I would only find love within the lines, would tell him to go away and get himself sorted. “Talk to your pastor,” I would say. The other half was breathless as he kept coming back, scaling the walls of propriety for just one more late night phone call. One more lunch. One more conversation in my Jeep overlooking the lights of Los Angeles County, while my little sister, visiting from Texas, shivered in his Jeep and while Eddie Vedder sang the same 12 songs five times in a row.

The details of what happened from March to May of 2004 are between me and him, and always will be. Well, me, him, and the distressed professor who saw it unfolding in his essay writing class and tried to shake some sense into me. And the roommate who found the letter and had no idea what to do, because, dammit, these sorts of messes don’t happen when good boys and girls are following God’s plan. And the sweet, sweet, a/v guy who had to watch us flirt while we produced a promotional video for the spring banquet, and no doubt felt like he’d witnessed a crime. 

So yes, the five of us. Me, my roommate, my favorite professor, this hapless young man, and the a/v guy. 

In March, we both started to wonder if my version of the cake could be made. In May, he told me it couldn’t. He was going with wedding cake. 

The responsible half of my heart— which had never asked him to leave her, and had dutifully pushed away for months—won. The half that was in love, the one that answered the phone at 2 am and lingered at lunch, the unruly half, lost. 

That’s when I decided messing with the recipe wasn’t adventurous, it was dangerous. If I didn’t figure out how to conform, how to make a wedding cake, I was going to end up alone. 

IV. 

I’ve seen that 22-year-old boy as a villain for 18 years, and yes, he did some asinine things. Yes, he put all the pressure on me to keep real trouble at bay, which is boorish and cliche (and the foundation of so much else wrong with purity culture). But my more compassionate 38 year old self knows he was just a dude in a system, and I wish him all the best. According to social media he’s blissfully happy, and I think that is truly, truly wonderful. 

Of course, dear reader, you know I am blissfully happy as well. You know I married a man who put all the other men to shame. I found a sophisticated, creative, brilliant man with fascinating dreams I could happily inhabit. I found ways to work and play and explore within his boundaries, and then within the boundaries of our hilarious, dazzling children. I found a way to sneak some extra ingredients—work, travel, egalitarianism— into my own multi-tiered wedding cake, more delicious than I have any right for it to be. 

It all sounds so good, right? So mature. Mature is the word we use as we let the stability-seeking half of your heart takes over, and wrestles the novelty-seeking half into submission. 

Mature is the word we use for someone who has learned how to sacrifice. 

I do not regret the sacrifices I made for my amazing people one bit. Some sacrifices are so necessary they are barely even choices. We have forsaken all others in order to be faithful. The children were incubated and birthed in the same body-ransacking way other mammals are.  I’m also thankful for the sacrifices I did not have to make, because of who they are and how we have built our life, and the privileges we have. 

But there is a difference between the sacrifices we make in order to give love and the sacrifices we make in order to be loved. 

I spent the rest of 2004 and a couple years longer grieving the boy who got married to not-me. But I have not yet grieved the things I threw away because I thought if he wouldn’t love them, no one would. 

V.

I have struggled as a mother. I have struggled as a wife. I have struggled with my wedding cake because everything I did, I did to earn love and keep it safe. Anything endangering the wedding cake had to go: Curiosity about what potentialities are left, expansion in who and how to love, adventures with unknown outcomes, the half of my heart that refuses to conform. 

Curiosity, expansion, adventures, and openness invigorate and magnetize relationships. They animate me. I miss half my heart. And without it I am so very tired.  

I love my family and our life so incredibly deeply, the exhaustion seems like sacrilege. It seems profane to let the delight and desire go dim on so much beauty. But the desire to win and keep love by sticking to the recipe handicapped my ability to love them in a way only I can. At times I have been hesitant or even unwilling to sacrifice for the people I love— to be still, say “no” and let little adventures pass in favor of abiding presence— because I have not really grieved the sacrifices I thought I had to make to be loved.  So I’m going to take a while to properly grieve the recipe I crumpled up and threw away in May 2004. 

I’m incredibly lucky, because Lewis, in his endless patience and generosity, is ready to dream up new recipes with me. He’s ready to get out the bowls and spoons and see what’s possible. 

We can’t make my 2004 cake with the ingredients we have now. Ingredients like mortgages and children and deadlines. But we can take this lovely, sturdy, perfectly executed wedding cake recipe and tinker with it. When the grieving is done, the world will still be full of ingredients—bitters and sours and salts and herbs—and we will feast. 

Who Gets to be Happy?

As I was sitting at the award ceremony for our second grader yesterday, I felt something not new, but clarified. The grinning, gap-toothed kiddos were walking across the stage, and parents were clapping as usual. I don’t know about other parents, but typically at these events, applauding 70 times gets a little tedious. You loose momentum.

Not this time.

Every single face was a miracle. Every single grin was a treasure. It was my profound joy to celebrate not just their As and Bs but their existence. I would smack my hands together for eternity if it would keep them goofy and giggling and grinning until they are old, grey, and their lives have been full of joy.

I still have one blog left in my March to May series, but I’m still not ready to post it. Because it’s still not time. It’s about a shade of grief, a shadowy contour of a happy life. It’s about my struggle to understand the co-existence of grief and contentment, of loss and love, of blistering happiness and bruised spots.

Before I zoom into the more minor contours of that ambivalence, there’s some other things that need to be said. The horror in Uvalde put certain things into light, and, as most things, they are not unrelated.

Living in a country where this kind of tragedy is not a fluke, but actually relatively common (compared to, oh, the rest of the world) has made it impossible to go to a school ceremony, a movie, church, the grocery store, concerts, restaurants, or anywhere with other people —a key component of most celebrations—and not have a tinge of worry or preoccupation about our safety. Physical safety is too fundamental a need to brush aside. It’s absence, or the ever-present threat of its absence, can’t co-exist with the kind of single-minded happiness I often long for.

When I become aware of loss, fragility, or threats to things I love, I experience anxiety. The joy goes away.

So I have to confront the question: Can I ever be purely happy in this country? Can you? Can anyone?

I had two conversations that helped me answer that question. First with my husband, and then with a friend, a first generation immigrant whose life has been dedicated, along with his parents, to needs along the Texas border with Mexico.

My husband and I were simply feeling sad and frustrated that we are raising kids under constant existential anxiety. Climate change. Guns. All that. At the same time, my husband pointed out, our babies don’t die from colds and pox. We don’t have to be afraid of Viking raiders showing up out of nowhere. We’re safer at home than we’ve ever been, with one exception: the two generations preceding us.

Of course, that got me thinking about the trajectory of culture of the 20th century, the peaks of innovation, domination and excess. Space races, arms races, wars on drugs, wars on communist countries, culture wars. Every “industrial complex” ballooning. We didn’t limit our innovation to ways to improve humanity. Limits are intolerable to us. We instead doubled down on man’s desire to enrich himself, and celebrated when something good, like super glue or malaria vaccines, happened along the way. We accepted the crumbs of advancement made possible by the feast of greed and domination.

I thought about how much I hate waiting. How much I hate to hear “no.” And it’s not just an internet generation thing. The pursuit of a wide open view, a “good” school, deregulation. Our generation didn’t make that up. We inherited that. We have been, in so many ways, baptized into it by a spiritual tradition that has encouraged it. That has taken the beatitudes and God’s heart for the poor and turned them into ways to reinforce the authority of those at the top. Churches that ignore the connection between our social and spiritual hollowness.

Our churches do not, despite Jesus’s example, acquaint us with suffering or grief. Not our own, not others. Especially not the grief created by our desire to hear only “more.” So we push grief to the margins. We insulate, or flee to suburbs. We blame the poverty we created for the ills we run from. When singular tragedies—car accidents, cancer, etc—come along, those who grieve become different from “us” the happy unbothered. We hope they’ll join us again.

But they are not so singular anymore, these grieving ones. The quest for unencumbered happiness and zero suffering has brought anxiety and grief to the masses, including the ones who would do anything to avoid it. A generation of mostly-white middle class capitalists—who grew up carefully removed from systemic suffering, who were told not to let personal grief ruin anyone else’s day—is consumed with anxiety. Domination has come home to roost, and we do not have the tools to confront it.

Which leads me to the second conversation I had yesterday before I the second grade award ceremony.

I was talking to my friend, and I shared some of these observations about how I don’t know how to find joy when I’m this anxious, when suffering is always swirling around in the mix. I take my joy neat, and if it’s not neat, I try to bend the world to make it so.

But that’s not the world my friend grew up in. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, deliberately sought out those who were hurting, and lived remarkably inconvenienced lives, even after his father died as result, literally giving his life in pursuit of those on the margins (there’s a Christianity Today story forthcoming on this). My friend and his siblings all went to college. Some have masters degrees. But they are choosing to follow their parents example. They are serving, choosing to live their lives in view of suffering, and amazingly, they are celebrating plenty in the middle of it. Graduations. Baby showers. Dinners together.

They resisted the lures of the insulated, excessive pursuit of happiness…but they have joy anyway.

His parents were and are exceptionally generous and near to the brokenhearted, but my friend and I are not unique, we noted. We are part of our racial and economic and spiritual systems.

People of color have been bearing the cost of domination and empire for millennia. Poor people have been the grist for the mills of progress. And yet, collectively and privately, they have found joy—and even frame it as a way to resist those who want them to suffer. They love their children and delight in them. They dance at weddings and sing at birthdays. Even though their happiness never has a blank check or absolute security. Even though the world has never bent to their desires.

My friend and his family prove that it is possible to both grieve and delight, to thrive without dominating.

Anyone can taste the poisoned fruit of domination—power imbalance is not unique to racism and colonialism. But the more you have access to it, the more you eat it, the tougher we fear it will be to live without it, and that’s where I think me and my race/class peers are stuck in this bed we made. But giving it up is the only way out. It’s the only way to stop hurting our neighbors, and the only way I can think of to ease this anxiety we all have to live with now. I also think, coincidentally, it is the Way, like the one Jesus talked about.

If there is a way forward, out of this miasma, for me and my folks, we have to change, to step out of a quest for domination and into solidarity. If we want fewer guns, we will have to acknowledge the rights we don’t have. If we want a stable climate with enough food, we have to accept limits on our consumption. We have to look at the way we police, the way we invest, the way we educate. To relieve the grief of many, we have to suffer our share. For all to feast, we have to stop stuffing our faces.

I am convinced that for people with power to be willing to do that, to embrace limits and suffering and solidarity, they have to re-learn what it means to have joy and what it means to sit with grief. We need a joy that can exist within limits. We need to acknowledge that the cost of avoiding grief can be too high.

The ability to hold both joy and grief, one unstolen the other unexiled, is resistance. It fuels the sober hopefulness we have to carry if we are going to change these systems, if we are going to build something new. It lets us see limits and suffering and sacrifice as part of wholeness, for ourselves and others.

As I talked to my friend, we discussed the need for spiritual leadership by the people who know how to commune with suffering. People who have suffered themselves, who carry a grief that they do not feel entitled to avenge. We need to bring the suffering to the center and dwell with it, to share the suffering and then to share the feast.

March to May, Pt 2 – Hostile Waters

I.

In part one we learned about my desire to flee San Antonio every spring, and my old soul memory of being exiled in place.

Of course, we know that simply relocating would not be the end of these turbulent springs. Restlessness, anxiety, and grief would chase me if I ran.

I have to address the the habits I formed in my restlessness, the lies I believed in my anxiety, the knots of grief I never untangled. Setting things right won’t make the old sad memories less sad. It won’t magically take me back to those blissfully ignorant days of cohesive, immersive community and internal certainty. I don’t want it to. The unraveling and exile has shown me things I needed to see, and I have no desire to re-blind myself. I can see the truth and commit to the work and show up for all of it in health. In fact, that’s better for us all.

Also I would like to relocate one day, for a lot of constructive, practical reasons as well. And if and when that happens, I don’t want to be running away. I want to me moving on.

So while I’m here— it’s still May, I’m still in Texas—I’m going to see what healing I can find. Back we go to the ghosts of springtime past.

II.

Last year, roughly around this time I went to go vote in a local election (which I will do again this year, and you should too). But before I got to the poles I found myself sobbing uncontrollably in my car. I didn’t want to go home and upset my children, nor did I want to make anyone peanut butter and jelly or jump on the trampoline or look for a lost Spider-Man figurine. Fortunately, my friends Jake and Sydney were home, their kids were otherwise occupied, and they let me move my waterworks to their living room. 

As I sobbed, I told them the world felt hostile. Like critics and naysayers were lying in wait, and I hadn’t earned the compassion I so desperately needed. Like at any moment someone would step in, tell me how I’d failed, and take everything. And I would have no just cause to ask for it back. 

This is a recurrent spring-theme: the world feels hostile.

One response, a distinctly Calvinistic one, is to tell me “the world isn’t hostile toward you, it doesn’t even think about you. No one is thinking about you. Stop being such a narcissist.”

You know what else is Calvinistic? Self-loathing. Perfectionism. Anxiety. The Calvinists are always aiming for humility, holiness, and fear of God; and I don’t know what else to tell them but that they’re missing it by a mile. The miss is predictable though, because you know what else is Calvinistic? A hostile God. A God who demands a blood sacrifice or else he’ll banish you to eternal conscious torment. A hostile God who holds the world in his hands is bound to generate a hostile world.

I know people think they are being helpful when they tell me that no one is thinking about me at all, that they are too busy thinking about themselves, or that I’m being self-important by thinking anyone would ever even bother to come after me. I know they are trying to set me free from my own ego, which admittedly, is sizable.

But I’ve got receipts for this anxiety, and so do others who spend formative years in this white, evangelical, Calvinist or Calvinist-adjacent world. At times I have let my guard down, stopped frantically trying to please people, admitted I cannot do all the mutually exclusive right things simultaneously. At times I’ve let myself drop a ball or two out of sheer exhaustion. We’re not talking major infractions here, just a missed meeting or a rogue bit of sarcasm. Flirting with the wrong person or not acting happy enough. There’s almost always some Calvinist waiting in the wings to tell me how the ball I’d dropped was actually *the* ball you *cannot* drop. I’d unwittingly violated an unspoken rule so complex and specific it felt like it had been made just for me. The choice I’d made was not the lesser of two evils, but the litmus test for true goodness, and I had failed, and there would be consequences. Maybe meted out by an institution. Maybe just social shame or a moral tongue lashing. But usually some kind of divine “discipline” that sounded just a bit petty for someone supposedly holding the cosmos in place. A bit petty and a bit convenient for whatever human I’d disappointed.

I’ve got a trail of reprimands and retribution in the forms of “coffees” and “lunches” and spankings and angry emails and one derailed career and many lost friendships and several heartbreaks that are just a little bit louder than the Calvinists’ attempts to soothe my anxiety through “humility.”

Thankfully Jake, ever the pastor, did not try to tell me how little I registered on anyone’s radar. He didn’t try to tell me that my anxiety was a sign of my over-inflated ego. Instead he said, “does the phrase ‘lion’s den’ sound right?”

Lion’s den sounded about right. Dark and sinister. Like if a sliver of light were to creep in, it would only glint off the bared teeth.

The lion’s den analogy felt familiar, not because I was Daniel the prophet, persecuted for faithfulness, but rather because the world had felt hostile to me before. 

III.

In the middle of the 2012 church meltdown, I had a series of unusually vivid, visceral dreams. In one, I was on a raft in a river, attempting to get across while at the same time drifting quickly downstream toward rapids. But up ahead, on my target bank, a bloat of hippos was wading in. Hippos, you know, are deadly

As I steered away from them, I realized two glassy eyes were yards away from the back of my raft. A reptilian snout peaked out over submerged rows of lethal teeth.

The dream continued as I navigated down the river, danger at every turn. None of it actively striking, as long as I forded the river just so. 

My safety was contingent upon my performance. 

My belonging depended on sticking to the rules.

No one was actively rooting for or against me, my anxiety told me. They were not antagonistic, they were agnostic. I wasn’t doomed, as long as I could stay on the raft.

Belonging was conditional. Not just a little conditional either. Not like “okay, but don’t kill anyone.” It was conditional upon minutiae of theology, acceptance of rigid gender roles, participation in rampant classism, and most importantly: not rocking the raft. Not using a prophetic voice ever. At least not in regard to the pastor’s agenda. 

As soon as I no longer contributed to their goals, as soon as I was difficult, I would disappear into the opaque water, maybe eaten, maybe just…gone.

I’d left that particular river long ago—nine years at the time of the sob-fest—but I’d never stopped trying to earn my safety. By being a good mom. By being a truth-teller and nuance-writer. By being on the “right side of history.” Trying to be good enough to belong somewhere at this point in history. 

That’s why the Calvinists’ attempts at comfort-through-humility, if that’s what they were, fall so woefully short. My anxiety doesn’t come from assuming everyone is thinking about me all the time. My anxiety comes from being reduced to a human debt.

IV.

Then Jake asked another question: “If we hadn’t been home when you called, where would you have gone?” 

I answered truthfully, “I would be sitting in my car at the polling location.” 

“Would you have called anyone?” he asked. 

I shook my head. I hadn’t chosen Jake and Sydney because they are my friends, though they are. I’d chosen them because they are both in vocational ministry, and on some level, signed up to have people bawling in their arm chair on occasion. 

But a little internal debt-minder reminded me: you’ve used up your one freebie here. If you do this again, they’ll resent you. 

They wouldn’t have. Jake and Sydney are wonderful, and full of love for humans. But along this Calvinist way, a part of me got the idea that compassion is not the character of God, so the tolerance of God’s people is something you earn by being useful. 

The debt-minder suggested I send flowers, or cookies, or flower cookies. Because I primarily see the world as a series of transactions, and I wondered how to pay them for their time. (They pre-empted this by telling me they would be insulted if I tried to “pay them back.”)

If I’m ever going to have a different kind of spring, I’m going to have to write a new rulebook for that debt-minder. 

Rule One: I can’t only look at the trail of punishment and debt-collection behind me, because I’ve also received tons of compassion.

People have been gracious and kind and generous with me every day of my life. When March rolls around I probably need to start making some kind of altar so I don’t forget.  An alter to kindnesses received. I used to keep a little alter book of times when I had seen God’s faithfulness, and it was full of things like comforting Bible verses, or things that had “miraculously” worked out.

I need to make a new alter or alter book, but instead of being filled with times things worked out my way, or I found comfort in ancient words, it should be filled with evidence that God is love, and that love is active in the world. Not accomplishments and “wins” but moments of compassion and connection and grace and generosity. We tend to see what we’re looking for, and we tend to re-create it, reflect it back.

Rule Two: I need to re-evaluate where I find my worth.

If it’s true that I’ve received love and compassion and grace and all of that, why have I not found my identity there? Why am I even on the raft in the first place? Usually it’s because I’ve confused respect and love.

Some relationships are based on shared goals and even temporarily aligned agendas. And that’s not always bad, but it’s always fragile. It’s not a where you put your identity, invest your soul. I have to be clear about what I’m getting and what I’m giving, because if neither are love, that’s not sturdy enough to call home. Again, not every relationships needs to be formed by deep, soul-growing love. It’s okay to have co-laborers, co-conspirators, like-minds, and business partners who are just that, nothing more. It’s even great to offer those people a love along the way, to infuse the partnership with generosity, forgiveness, and kindness. But relationships based on work, however noble, cannot replace relationships based on love.

It’s a bad habit of mine to invest more in enhancing the work we can do together than in the deep wells of real love. That’s actually where my big ego comes in. Not in the anxiety, but in the desire to optimize every relationship by making it essential to my life’s work. To bind people to me through shared mission, rather than shared souls.

There’s a place for work and solidarity. But even that will benefit if the love wells are full. If the person marching, writing, reporting, and reasoning is not also trying to get something—belonging or a cancelled debt—in return. 

This is an important aside for white folks, who, coincidentally built this Calvinist, perfectionist system we now find ourself in. (Oh yeah, I’m not the only one on this wild river.) In some sense, white people, we do have a debt. We owe a repair. We do need to consider the immense damage done in creating the systems we disproportionately benefit from. We do need to look at the cost to our neighbors and to the earth we share. But having a debt is not the same as being a debt, and I really do think our confusion about the two increases our fragility and makes us toxic influences in the pursuit of collective justice. There’s a lot more to say about that, and I probably will at some point.

Rule Three: Re-learn God. At its root, this problem is theological. So I need to immerse myself in a better theology of belonging. Less John Piper, more bell hooks. Fewer Calvinists, more contemplatives, more womanists, more wisdom. I need belonging based not on what God is bound to do, because God is just, and therefore cannot abandon me, because of some legal loophole Jesus found. No, I need to really dig in and ingest all I can about a God who is love. Who breathes love into creation, who bends us toward love, and looses our grip on power and ego. A God who would never let any of us disappear beneath opaque waters, because this God would never set us on a raft in a raging river in the first place.

March to May, Pt 1

Places and Patterns

Here I was again, wanting to run away. At first I thought it was the impending dog’s mouth of summer.

It wasn’t. Okay, maybe that’s part of it. The prolonged, belligerent heat of South Texas is so alienating to me. But I am a grown ass woman with an air conditioner so I like to think I can get beyond the wool coat drenched in chicken broth climate.

But sure as the Earth’s orbit, March to May never feels right, and some part of me comes roaring forward looking for a way out. Something about place. Something about belonging.

Place and belonging have always mattered to me, but for some reason I have not, up to now, taken them into consideration when spring after spring my spirit came unmoored and wandered the map like a ghost looking for a haunt. In fact I barely noticed the regularity as spring after spring I grew fitful and anxious. Spring after spring home became hurt and I ached to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Just not here.

Perennial longings and predictable complaints crop up every year. It seems worth figuring out, here in the air conditioning. Indulgent, I know, and I’ll try to at least make it entertaining. But, also, you know, this is my blog, no one’s paying me for it. So if you’re annoyed, at least you’re not out a monthly subscription fee. I do hope observing self-inquiry helps get readers thinking about their own journeys, I mean the social media pros would tell me to end with a question. Here it is: Do YOU have a time of year that’s particularly hard for you?

Still, if it’s not helpful, or you find this kind of introspection obnoxious…feel free to click away. Because I’m devoting most of my independent writing this month (newsletters and blog posts) to that mysterious pattern.

Pattern: a series of things repeated.

My repeated spring things are restlessness, grievance, and anxiety.

Repetition is time, staking a claim. Time has claimed the spring for me, and it makes home feel all wrong. And there’s a part of me keeping that time, rolling out the discordant emotions right on schedule. Restless because life feels too long. Grieving the ways it is too short. And anxiously trying to keep moving so this place does not become permanent.

Mapping backward, asking this timekeeper, “what happened? Why do you ruin every spring?” I followed a series of stepping-stones in the form of memories where the feelings didn’t match the reality.

Here’s what I found first:

I found the entire process of pitching my book in March 2021 and wrestling with rejection letters through April, getting the contract signed in May, and as I crossed the threshold of this monumental life goal, like the thing I’d been dreaming would make me really, truly, finally happy…immediately feeling anxious it would somehow vanish.

I found the pandemic arriving on March 13, 2020, and my irrational response to scramble quickly to work harder as the world slowed to an eerie halt. I signed a contract in May for more rigorous and regular work than I’d had in two years.

I found April 2018, when I made my first successful pitch as a national freelance writer with very little confidence this career would continue.

I found becoming a mother on March 28, 2014, and being all at once overwhelmed with love and ashamed of how I grieved the loss of my autonomy, and the complication of my identity.

I found voluntary work trips when I should have stayed home. I found crippling grief after months of really productive therapy. I found close calls on bad decisions and lots and lots of empty bottles.

And then I found the first answer that might also be an explanation. A break big enough to set a soul to wander. It might not be the origin of everything, but it certainly originated something.

Ten years ago this spring, my home places stopped being home places. In March 2012 I was called into the church office where I worked to kick off my slow and reluctant divestment of religious burdens. I mean, they thought they were firing me, but the Spirit was waiting in the wings with some business to commence. And as thankful as I am for the spiritual freedom, the pain of cutting loose was real. I lost most of the things that made home feel like home: my job, my community, my religious tradition.

They told me I would stay on until May, so as not to signal a premature exit. Bi-weekly check ins to make sure I was sticking to the story, lying to the people around me about whose decisions were whose. And in the middle of that uncertainty, there was a pregnancy. And on the last day of May 2012, that pregnancy ended, spontaneously, on the same day my job ended. On the day I drove away from the community that felt like home, the tradition I’d been born into.

But I didn’t drive far. We briefly considered a move, but we stayed. I didn’t find a new home or a happier place. Emotionally maybe, or figuratively. I changed my patterns a little and my routes a little more. I got a new job, and then another and another. We added babies and a new house.

But if place matters, if belonging matters, I went nowhere. And for ten years I have been trying to redeem this place for myself, to belong here again. I don’t know if “here” is San Antonio, Texas, or Christianity, but I’m still here in all of them, but still not home in any of them. I tried to replicate what I had with necessary modifications (like being Anglican instead of Presbyterian), or to build something new on those same foundations (like being a journalist who writes about Texas). I have been a booster and an advocate, gotten as close as I can to the beating heart of this truly warm and wonderful city. I have been trying to find home among the familiar, but every spring the dissonance, the restlessness reminds me that I haven’t found it yet.

In Order to Stay In, I have to Go Out

When Asa was a baby, he was a crier. He was one of those generally fussy, frustrated babies who always seemed to want something just out of reach. I was rarely able to give him what he wanted for as long as he wanted it.

For instance, once I tried to see how long he would flip the light switch. I committed to hold him up at the switch for as long as it took him to tire of it. When my arms started to shake, I had to prop my leg up on a chair so he could stand on my knee to reach the switch. For 15 straight minutes Asa flipped the switch on and off. That’s the kind of baby he was.

Until we stepped outside. Outside, my persnickety infant became observant, docile, and content. Outside he would lie in my arms and gaze at the trees, the sky, the bigness around him.

I know how he feels. I don’t know what was making infant Asa so fussy, but I know what fussy feels like, and I know how much outside can help.

My internal life is a never-ending tilt-o-whorl of internal chaos. My brain scans constantly, looking for things to worry about. I fixate, obsess, and then have to ritually assure myself that all is not lost. Improbable scenarios of doom burst into my happiest moments. I rehearse conversations endlessly, and then replay them in perpetuity on one of the many displays in the Times Square inside my head.

Life on the computer does not help. We know this. But it is also a reality.

Life in a city does not help, with the sirens and rude neighbors and car alarms and close proximity to so many past hurts. There are days when driving around San Antonio feels like flipping through a scrap book after a breakup. Even though I’m happy now, I can so easily be taken back to some really sad, anxious, or angry times, which, coincidentally, are also replaying on the screens of my personal Times Square.

And honestly, sometimes people don’t help. Sometimes the power and force of the tilt-o-whorl is too much, and throws us all into the kind of spin that just makes everybody nauseated. Nauseating the people around you, and knowing it, just makes the tilt-o-whorl tilt harder and whorl faster.

The carnival ride in my brain needs more than one thing. It needs prayer and meditation to slow it. It needs therapy to train it. I have a whole tool box of practices to keep it on the track, to keep it fun instead of terrifying. Sometimes they work, sometimes I have to try other things. But one reliable antidote to those two exacerbating factors—life on the computer and life in the city—is being outside. Even if that outside is in the city, if I get to be still and within sight of trees and water and grass and birds I can co-regulate with nature, which only ever does what it was born to do. It is not steered and twisted by “should” and shame and fear. It carries on in the face of so much uncertainty, just doing what it cannot help but do. Most of all: nature doesn’t mind if I’m fussy or chaotic or messy, so the spiral stops.

Sometimes I need to be in the Big Outside. I need nothing but nature for miles, so that I can’t reach the buzz of all that ails me.

Sometimes I can do with the Little Outside. Just a moment to breathe in sun’s energy or moon’s generosity instead of an electrical current.

I’m committed to the work I do on the computer and the life I live in the city. I’m committed to my family and the lives they want to live. But if I want to stay in it, stay well, stay present for all of that, I know I need to go outside sometimes. To sit by a river and let it remind me how much life is change, and that means that present worries can roll away as well. To lean against a tree and let it reassure me that even amid all that change, there are steady places, not all that is good will be taken away.

Where Justice, Religion, and Education Collide

I’ve been writing about education policy for coming up on a decade, and it never ceases to amaze me.

In so many ways, I will be the first to admit I’m over-saturated on certain (still very important!) storylines. Charter v. district. Teachers v. admin. Parents v. admin. Test scores. Hear me clearly. These topics are important, and I’m not walking away from them. But ten years is a long time on a beat that doesn’t change much, because the biggest scandals and controversies in public education are decades and decades old. In some ways I have felt myself drifting into historians’ lane.

And then there are days, like today, when I’m reminded that as long as schools have our kids—shaping them, teaching them, steering them—there will always be incredibly important stories there, and those stories merit stamina. Religion, immigration, ability, race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and poverty all show up at school. Understanding a little about policy/funding and a lot about people can help us see the story behind the story.

Context, so often, makes the story.

In some ways, it was the oldest scandal in the book, segregation, that got me committed to education reporting. The ripple effects of Plessy vs. Ferguson convinced me education was a justice beat. And then there was the Texas Legislature, which convinced me education was a political beat. And then one day, working on a pretty mundane story about social and emotional learning, I realized there was a religion corner of this beat as well.

Today two pieces ran: In The 74 Million I wrote about San Antonio ISD’s new superintendent Jaime Aquino. He is a lifelong educator, immigrant from the Dominican Republic, English-learner, and gay man. In a state where each of those pieces of his identity will inevitably intersect with some agenda from the Texas GOP, he’s also greeted by a long line of parents whose children are entitled to special education services but have been constantly underserved.

Then, for the first time ever, Baylor University granted a charter to and LGBTQ student group, and the nuances and tensions in that charter speak to conversations happening well beyond the campus. Greater shifts within Christianity—both polarizing and centripetal—are manifest in the new group, Prism, and echoed through the campus conversations in which the decision was made. I got to write about all these intersecting tensions for Texas Monthly.

Education reporting can be exhausting to me, when I feel that I am squeezing stories out of slow, if even existent, change. But in context, it is a steady lens through which to understand so many facets of society, how we construct our villages, what we place upon our kiddos. Having done the basic work of understanding how school systems function, I often use them as a magnifying glass for the many ways our world functions. And that never gets old.

Which Purity Culture Character Are You?

I love catching up with friends from college.

But every I do, it takes me about a week to remember that I’m 38. I’m married to the man of my dreams. My children are hilarious. My job kicks all the ass.

Just like going home makes you revert to being a kid who bickers with her siblings; being around friends from college makes me revert to a sobbing 20 year old who had completely lost control of her story. But I’m pretty sure the me I see is not the actual me. Unless the actual me was a formless monster, swirling up from the ground in sound and fury with just a yawning mouth in eternal scream. (We’re in a Marvel phase around here, okay?)

I’ve finally, thanks to some independent exercises with Internal Family Systems meditation, come closer to understanding the shapeless monster that haunts me any time I think about college.

I should be clear for those who don’t know: I went to a very conservative evangelical college. The Master’s College, now University. So when you say college you might think intellectual awakening, sexual awakening, misadventures, frolicking, and, if you are my husband or my father, streaking.

That’s not what happens at evangelical colleges.

I tell my friends who did not go to evangelical college: when I say “in college” you need to functionally translate that to “when Bekah was in a cult.”

At evangelical college the only intoxication you risk is an overdose of the purity culture you ingested at youth group in smaller sips. The only debates you have will be theological. The only identities you might explore are the various characters in the patriarchy, and for women, there are two options: Madonna and whore. I didn’t make that up, it’s pretty well documented.

So, with that context, let me tell you more about the sand monster.

If you’ve seen Spider-Man: Far From Home, you’ll remember the various elemental monsters first popping up around the globe, and then following our hero around Europe. They swirled up out of water, fire, or dirt with a vaguely human form. It was impossible to make out detailed features, because the stuff of the form was disintegrated. It was not solid.

That’s what my college monster looks like. She’s a disintegrated storm of memories and contradictions, places where I was fighting for some narratives and against others.

THERE IS A SPOILER COMING.

THIS IS THE SPOILER: You ultimately learn about the monsters in Spider-Man are projections from thousands of drones. Each drone is responsible for a piece of the projection, but it’s all part of a grand design. And that makes my analogy even more thorough, but I don’t want to base my analogy on a spoiler, so that’s the last you’ll hear of it. THE SPOILER IS OVER.

THE SPOILER IS OVER. YOU CAN KEEP READING.

I have a lot of issues related to the sin-obsessed, intellectually rigid, hyper critical life I lived in college. But the monster is particularly related to the way purity culture and patriarchy worked together there. Like a Marvel villain in a lab that makes other villains.

I completely spun out in my last semester. So much so that after I graduated in December—three semesters early—I headed off to Europe to wander around for a few months and, as my mom would tell people, “see what condition my condition was in.”

The condition was not good.

Graduating allowed me to move past the bad semester without having to pick up any pieces. Once the first few weddings were over, and I was fully exiled from my friend group (that sucked, by the way. It was not fun at the time), I could go about the business of moving on.

And dear reader I have moved on. If I could go back to November 2004 Bekah, or Bekita as she was called back then, and show her a highlight real of the next 18 years, she’d have left The Master’s College with two middle fingers in the air and a skip in her step. I am telling this story partially as evidence that you can be both wildly happy and satisfied with your life, and still have some embarrassing, painful things you gotta work through from your past. We all do.

Because moving on and healing aren’t always the same. I ultimately had to go back and speak to that pile of girl-pieces (formerly known as Bekita) I left behind in California. A pile that keeps swirling into a monster whenever I think about college.

Here’s what DIDN’T happen in that last semester: I didn’t have sex. I was not assaulted. I was and am straight. If any of those facts were different, this would all be a much more traumatic story. And those stories do exist, and they should be heard. But the fact that I could pass through straight, “pure,” and physically unharmed, but still disintegrated raises a curious point: control over bodies is one part of how purity culture works, but the more insidious aim is to tell us who we are allowed to be. What roles we are allowed to play.

The goal of purity culture is patriarchal: it’s to get us to take our pile of parts to the nearest male authority and ask him to tell us who we are. Who God says we are, because men speak for God.

But I wanted—then and now—to have authority over my own story, and to hear God for myself. I wanted a lot of other things too, including love and a little making out, but I did not want to play my assigned role.

It wasn’t until I realized that the shame and conflict I endured in college was not about sex but about sexuality, not about purity but about playing along, and not about self-control but about agency, did I understand how I became so disintegrated. Purity culture isn’t just about behaviors, it’s about playing a role, and if you don’t play that role, the battle to define who you are in the context of purity culture, to settle which version of the madonna/whore dichotomy you are—good girl, bad girl, man-eater, temptress, victim, wife, rebel, saint, desperate, frigid, dangerous, over-dramatic, the list goes on—will slowly dissect you into pieces, because none of those roles offer wholeness to people of any gender or sexuality whose identity is more than a relationship to men.

In an effort to take back my narrative I wrote down the story of my last three semesters of college. Fall 2003, Spring 2004, and Fall 2004. I wrote it down to give shape the woman inside the monster, to stop this exhausting hunt for “who was I?” and “what happened?”

Can I tell you it was tempting to ask someone from college, someone “objective” to read it and ask them if I got it right? I was still tempted to ask someone, someone with access to the men’s opinions, to sign off on the story I allowed myself to believe.

But I didn’t. It is my story. And if you have a sand monster, you should consider writing it down too, to give it shape. It’s not a legal document, you aren’t going to use it to prosecute anyone. It’s just a narrative to give some shape to the storm.

So I didn’t share it with anyone “objective”…but I am a writer. I’m tempted to share the stories, because that’s what I do. I write in public.

And the writing is good. The stories are relatable, but also a massively cringy. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to share with the world. But there are some secrets in there. There are some things some men did not tell their girlfriends at the time…and those girlfriends are now their wives. And I’m left wondering, is my obligation to keep that secret for them (these are benign secrets anywhere outside purity culture, btw, no one’s getting divorced or fired here, it would be an eyeroll at worst, maybe a “ugh. Why were you like that?”) part of how patriarchy works? Because my conscious is clear, and those stories are mine.

But does telling them make me look petty and juvenile? Maybe that’s what I’m more worried about. I STILL after all these years, don’t want to rile up the patriarchy, and have them call me uncool. They’ve still got me there.

In the end, though, I don’t need to share the stories so that people will “hear my side.” No one is asking. I don’t need anyone to confirm my suspicions about who I was in the context of The Masters College in 2004. Seeing myself through other people’s eyes is how this got so messy in the first place. And until there’s an audience who would benefit from the stories, sharing them would be, most likely, vanity.

So for now, those stories are safely tucked away.

As I wrote the stories—three separate encounters with three asinine Yahoos and dozens of Aunts (a la Handmaid’s Tale) who upheld their narratives—my compassion for Bekita grew, and my power grew with it. My communion with the Spirit grew. A young woman took shape, and I love her as dearly as I love those good friends from college. Laid side by side, the events of that year paint a clear and complex picture, and I don’t need anyone to sign off on it.

I’ve got 9,000 words that may never see the light of day, but they are written, they are real, and they are mine.

Performance Reviews My Children Give Me

One of the most frustrating parts of being a kid is all the uneven feedback. Adults gets to grade, punish, and reprimand you, and you don’t get to weigh in on their behavior at all. Even though we all know other adults, and we know our behavior definitely merits occasional, *clears throat*, feedback.

So we’ve tried to open our house to more feedback. It seems only fair that if we can tell them yelling is not how you get what you want, rolling eyes is the same as telling someone they are dumb, or that bossing their siblings is no way to garner cooperation—then we, the adults, should not yell to get what we want, roll our eyes at their negotiations, or bark orders.

We tell them when we are disappointed. They tell us when they are disappointed. We tell them when we are frustrated. They tell us when they are frustrated. Even if they are disappointed or frustrated with us. The blue and red emotions are on limits at the McNeel household, and no one gets a pass.

Now, I will say that not all of their criticisms are valid. Nor are they rooted in values. Some of their critiques and anger are simply that we are trying to keep them alive. This is apparently infuriating.

They really resent their cavity-free teeth and tangle-free hair. We are irrational tyrants using soap and water to interfere with their efficient fecal-oral transmission of E.coli. Moira used to regularly tell me that she’d checked and her body “doesn’t need sleep like other bodies.” She was offended that I tried to overrule her obvious expertise.

So when you have two critics whose primary complaint is that they are not in the hospital, it can be difficult to take the feedback of “you’re being mean” seriously. I know I’m not being mean. I’m just shouting “get in the car!” because I need us to get to school on time. So they can learn. Go to college. Get the jobs they dream of. Be happy.

But how we relate in the moment is vital to future happiness. At least as vital as adherence to the almighty schedule. Just like each floret of broccoli is an investment in health, so is each kind word and encouragement. So if yelling lands as meanness (which it does, and every adult knows it), then we might as well be feeding their hearts and brains Snickers and Doritos. This is my paraphrase of a lot of quality parenting books that I highly recommend.

Letting our kids tell us how our words make them feel is good information, good feedback when can use as we calibrate their emotional diet. That’s not the only feedback though. They also weigh in on our choices and actions, to genuinely tell us “that was wrong” or, as my son Asa so delicately put it: “That was NOT good parenting, Mom.”

I used to defend myself. I’m an Enneagram One—I like to be blameless. But I know better, really. Even when my ends are wholesome—and they usually are, I’m usually trying to keep them alive, remember?—I know I’m a sarcastic, short-tempered, punchy little pill sometimes. Just like them. Their feedback isn’t usually telling me something I don’t know. I am the adult with the fully mature brain and a 30 year head start on life experience, which isn’t nothing. But they do demand I live according to what I say I believe. They get to hold me accountable, and ask that I behave according to our agreed upon values.

And this is how we practice divesting oneself of power at home. Not all the power, but the power to measure right and wrong with my own measuring stick.

We also let them make decisions about clothes and room decor, snacks within limits, and anything else that doesn’t lead them down to the path to diabetes or the emergency room. Some of their choices do not make me look like the mom who has it all together. Their sartorial decisions don’t always reflect well on me, and some of their hobbies are not the kind you brag about to your competitive friends.

But my kids aren’t here to make me look good.

Too often I’m tempted to equate me looking like a good parent and me being a good parent. I have to give up some control of the former to actually be the latter.

And I also need to be really honest and say that some days I just can. not. take. one. more. criticism. There are days when I am desperate for a win, and my kids will not give it to me. It’s tempting then to feel like they want to see me fail. Like they are hoping for it. But that’s actually not true of our kids. They aren’t frenemies or mean girls or competitors. They envision a world where we can both thrive (and it usually involves me leaving the room so they can continue to paint the bookshelves, toilets, and/or themselves). I usually find what they withhold in unmerited praise, they give in compassion. As tiny Moira said, into the depths of my postpartum anxiety after Asa was born: “You’re my mommy, and you’re doing the best you can.”

Not the five star feedback I like to hear. But definitely the acknowledgement I needed.

Is Church Worth Crying Over?

A lot of churches are struggling right now. In addition to the people leaving for reasons unrelated, the pandemic got many of us out of the rhythm of weekly attendance. But what’s more, when we fell out of the rhythm, we realized that we felt something else. We felt relieved.

Some have told me they feel happy not to have to put on a holy show when they have not felt close to God in years.

Others feel relieved not to have to avoid the harmful and offensive things said casually by people who have found church to be a safe place to air their racist, sexist laundry.

A few feel relieved to not fear being found out for a lifestyle the church condemns.

My own relief was related to severe social anxiety, particularly around people judging my kids. Nevertheless, two years in, I’m missing community. It’s important to be together, and I need to see myself in the context of the family of God. But after two years off, and eight years of struggle before that, I’ve got some suspicions.

Suspicion #1: I don’t think calling yourself a church makes you any more likely to operate as the body of Christ than a PTA or a Country Club.

Church as we know it is not inevitable. It’s not the only way to do this, and it looks radically different than it has in the past. But we seem so married to the WAY we do things, assuming the format was ordained, and seem to be on the hunt for the corrupting influence. I’m reading and hearing a lot of hand-wringing over the church’s fumbles and stumbles, and how they have contributed to the present anemia. Blame the Trump era. Blame the 1980s. Blame the culture. Blame social media. Blame CRT. Blame women. Blame millennials. Blame sex scandals.

A lot of folks are saying we need different leaders, more humble leaders. The problem, they assess, is with the type of person attracted to the pulpit and celebrated there. We’re picking arrogant, rough people to do holy work.

But what if the work of church-the-institution makes humility nearly impossible. What if it makes holiness obsolete, because it is inherently embedded in a hierarchical power structure that will either corrupt or devour you? Have we created a power center instead of a body?

If we start there, then, yeah, I agree we should take a look at who feels called to this work.

Suspicion #2: Power-hungry pastors are inevitable in the current model

Could it be that this “calling” so many feel is actually the call of the One Ring? Is it possible that the desire to tell others how to live, how to worship, how they may access God is a desire we should be more careful with? Should we be more suspicious of those who desire to speak for God?

I’m open to being wrong here, but I spent 10 years surrounded by people who were “called to ministry” (myself included) and I didn’t see a lot of people delighting in the lowly things. Like real service to messy folks. I saw a lot of aspiring executives, creatives, and moguls. A lot of folks who didn’t know how to be in a relationship where they didn’t have some kind of authority.

I also saw a lot of people delighting in the “me and my bros against the world” vibe so many seminaries cultivate. So few admitting that authority over how people related to God counted as real power. These fools believed they were the margins when they were, like the elves or dwarves, keepers of rings themselves.

Here’s the thing: I heard the call of the One Ring in my own dark nights, and I saw its glint in the hungry eyes around me.

Years later, after I left, I got the affirmation I was after. Not from ministry, but from other places.

I heard the thunderous applause.

I saw the audience numbers, in the form of clicks and views.

Oh this, I realized, this is all I was after all along.

My soul is tarnished, friends, just like everyone who desires a public platform or a position of leadership. It’s a desire for power, and if I indulge it, if I stop trying to appeal to people and start trying to exercise authority over them…you should run. I have no authority. Don’t let me pretend I do. Only your spirit can determine what is true or right or lovely in my words.

And I’ve seen the so-called discernment processes governing “calling” in the churches we know. Governed by men who do not admit their own biases. Continuously elevating men who agree with them, who smoke cigars with them, who look like them. I’ve seen the training process, the boot camp teaching the “called” to fight off bad ideas instead of how to divest oneself of power as regularly and constantly as possible.

Power doesn’t just tempt you to abuse it. It doesn’t just become a problem when you steal, harass or berate. Those are end-stage symptoms. Power has to be accounted for in every interaction. It’s not something you use or don’t use. It’s always working, and you have to adjust accordingly.

Suspicion 3: We will be churchless for a while

The last church we attended did not survive the pandemic. Its last day was March 6. So my habitual return to the place I first and last met God is now a bigger question mark than ever. Do we find a new church? Do we keep holding onto the glimpses and glimmers in spite of the broken record of power and corruption? Or do we get serious about building something new.

Where would we even begin?

Jesus’s whole thing was this “upside down kingdom”… this impossible scenario where whoever desires to save their life must lose it. We have no idea how to do that, friends. The early church was making it up as they went, and things only went further off the rails after that. Cathedrals. Popes. Wars. Empires.

I want there to be a “church.” I want us to gather together, to support and love each other, to place ourselves in the context of belonging. Together we can support those in need. We can be the light that beckons weary travelers. I know there are places and communities and networks who do this. People have told me how they find it in recovery groups, specific churches like House for All Saints and Sinners, or religious networks like Evolving Faith. I know there are ways to intentionally gather, but the hard work seems to be figuring out how to separate leadership and power.

There’s no radical model around me. I’m not within a stone’s throw of some new kind of institution. So the best I can hope for is to either find God embodied between just two or more, or, if I ever return to the institution, to find one where the corrosive effect of power is taken seriously, not as something to which certain personalities or governance structures are just immune. But for today, just being real, I’m not sure I have the energy to look.

Yummy vs Yucky is not the same as Good vs Bad

As I’ve talked to other parents going through various kinds of faith shifts or deconstructions or just changes in perspective, we often muse on how our kids are not okay with this murky grey. Kids like a good answer. They want to know whether something is real or fake. True or false. Good or bad. Yummy or yucky.

But as more things venture in to yummy vs. yucky territory (and out of true vs. false), it’s difficult to give them satisfying answers. The more times I have to answer, “I don’t know,” the more I’m worried they will think I don’t know ANYTHING and lose trust in me.

Adults who grew up without certainty, or whose parents didn’t give them clean easy answers, confirm that it can be frustrating, but that ultimately it didn’t make their parents feel less trustworthy. Honest was a worthy substitute for authoritative. Some would probably argue that honesty is always preferable to authority, or that honesty is prerequisite for authority. That may very well be, but kids do thrive with boundaries and competency where we can give it. Where we can give them something it’s good to give them something.

So when I can’t give my kids the kind of answer they want, the binary yes or no kind of answer, I still give them an answer. I give them a grey uncertainty or a yucky vs yummy answer attached to the certainty of my love for them, of God’s love for them.

I don’t know if Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish, but God absolutely loved him and wanted him to fulfill his purpose.

I don’t know why God let COVID happen, but I do know that we are not alone, and God is not going to leave us when we are sick or afraid.

For ourselves and our kids, we’ve started to recognize that shifting and evolving means finding answers without holding onto them too tightly. The possibility of evolving tomorrow doesn’t negate where we are today. We’ve found that answers can be seasonal, or transformative moving us along.