Author: Bekah McNeel

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.

Affirming is an Action Word

As my faith shifted and changed, I found myself in what I could call the borderlands. I vacillated between conservative evangelicalism and affirmation of queer identity, egalitarianism, and solidarity with my BIPOC neighbors in a way that runs counter to capitalism and nationalism in many ways. I’d always leaned toward acceptance in relationships, but when pressed, I’d hold the conservative, Christian, patriarchal line.

That started to change as I met more and more people outside my conservative, Christian, patriarchal bubble, and as more people—people I loved—left it. I got very, very uncomfortable with those old arguments.

But a lot of us were there, weren’t we? In churches trying to stay relevant in a changing culture. With complementarian leaders trying not to look like relics of the Stone Age. Trying to figure out what to say to our LGBTQ friends and family. With the line between nation and kingdom suddenly causing problems.

All but the most stringent and certain had to find a place that at least looked and sounded more loving. But I’m worried that’s where many stopped: at looking and sounding.

If that’s where we end, holding on to our former theologies, but reasoning that “Jesus hung out with sinners,” we aren’t all the way there. We’re living as renters in a borderland, and if we aren’t honest about where our mortgage is, we’re going to hurt people. Being cool, non-confrontational, and avoidant will only delay the pain to our neighbors who start to trust us.

While we are in the borderlands we need to be honest. We need to tell the truth if we still hold a mortgage in the patriarchy, even if we’re thinking about moving, or actively looking for a home on the other side. If you’re not there, you’re not there (to be fair, if you’ve moved your address to the progressive side, it’s fair to share that with anyone who might be invested in your doctrinal position as well).

But that doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers before you change your address.

You can commit to being queer affirming or egalitarian or anti-racist before you’ve got every Bible verse reconciled.

You can vote.

You can advocate.

You can put a woman in the pulpit.

You can perform that wedding.

You can use the right pronouns.

You can march.

You can step aside to let a person of color speak.

In fact, what you do to be affirming might be far more important, far more outward focused, than a handful of doubts or arguments still rattling around in your brain. As long as you are committed, and not going to pull the rug out from under anyone.

That’s where I ended up. Somewhere around 2018, my brain was too crowded to read all the books I needed to read or listen to every podcast on the subject. I had two tiny kids, had started freelancing, and was in many ways feeling very alone. My desire to have things tied up in a neat little bow wasn’t going to be met. But in the chaos the Spirit spoke up, and said, “it’s time to commit.”

So I committed. I started living an affirming life. I claimed my new address. It took some time to move all the furniture in, in some ways I still am. But that furniture—the specific beliefs and nuances—have somewhere to live, a spiritual home built on affirmation, saying “yes” to loving my neighbors.

Your Kids are Privilege Shelters

When you have kids, you want to give them the world. It’s biology, it’s social, it’s personal. It’s love.

When Moira was born, I immediately began doing all the things to give her the best start science could manufacture. All the books, stimulation, language exposure, you name it. There were little things we could do at home, and then there were things we could *invest* in. Following the science was one thing, but there are other advantages money can buy. We weren’t in a place, financially, at that point to upgrade to the Cadillac brain development model, thankfully.

I say thankfully, because while I was running the Moira Show, I was also learning more about public education. I was learning that “good schools” come with a price tag, and the desire to give your kids “the best” comes at a cost, not just to your bank account, but to those who can’t afford to keep up with your spending.

This is a hard truth: inequality is preserved through the resources we pour into the next generation.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be giving your kids all the love, health, curiosity, calm, confidence, and support you can. I am saying we need to bravely look at a system where so many advantages are available for purchase, or require significant parental resources to secure. We have to look at how the market drives life outcomes because “best” (best here being defined only as “most situated for financial and social advantage”) is only available to a few.

The same is true for the insistence on specific “patriotic” or nationalistic narratives. If we raise another generation to believe that whiteness is the central hero in the American story, we raise another generation where whiteness is an advantage.

White parents, if this bothers you, if today’s power imbalances and inequalities disquiet your soul and you find yourself wondering what you can do, the uncomfortable answer is to look at your kids. Where are you trying to make sure they are comfortable and advantaged, rather than secure and fulfilled?

Wealthy parents, where are we trying to buy a spot in line for our kids? Are you reinforcing unjust systems in the name of doing what’s best for them?

All parents, where are we believing total-life-capitalism’s lie that the “best for our kids” is having a competitive advantage over the other people with whom they share the quickly depleting resources of this planet?

Go to hell…jk, please don’t…jk, there’s no hell…jk jk jk patriarchy, ugh.

In the faith system I came from, not wanting sinners (i.e. Democrats) to burn in hell was a sign of weakness. It was mushy.

You know what else was weak? Girls. That’s why we couldn’t be pastors.

So what do you do if you’re a girl who wants to be seen as strong, logical, rational, totally-able-to-lead? You get real cool with hell.

Gandhi? Hell. Unreached peoples? Hell. Sweet old ladies who supported a woman’s right to choose? Hell, for sure.

I could condemn you to hell without flinching, and that was my way of proving that I wasn’t weak like the other girls. I could hear all your arguments about innocence and intentions and mercy and shrug. My God was a man’s man and I was a man’s girl.

This, my friends, is what you get in a patriarchal religion. Girls trying to prove they are man enough to be trusted by condemning people to hell. And the therapy has been pphhhheeeewww pricey.

Because the logical arguments for hell are pretty weak. The Biblical arguments are inconclusive (please don’t leave your favorite proof text in the comments, we don’t do that here). The ethical arguments are sort of disturbing.

And you know what? That part of you that cringes at the thought of sending people to hell? That part of you that was afraid of hell? God made that part too. Emotions are not inferior to logic! Feelings are a way of knowing! Those feelings are there to clue you in to something real: that compassion and fear are opposing forces in this world, polar destinies for every moment. One we call heaven and one we call hell.

Words of Life

We’ve really not done right by the Bible, y’all.

Here’s this book, a collection of poetry, stories, national histories written for peoples in exile, allegories, visions, contextual letters—all of it collected and written by people who were experiencing God.

And we’ve turned it into a checklist. A series of criteria to judge whether you are in or out. In or out of this doctrinal club or that denomination. We debate, debate, debate the right interpretation or the literal meaning and then we have to reconcile that with science and history and the rest of the Bible.

Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, Angela Parker, Rachel Held Evans…these scholars are begging us to take a more life-affirming approach to the Bible for the sake of the souls it is meant to nourish. Reading their work made me so excited to look back at old passages, to rethink the ones that had hung over my head like the sword of Damocles for so long. When a rigid insider vs. outsider reading of the Bible made me weary and burdened, an ever expanding experience of belonging filled me with life.

This isn’t a new idea, nor is it an “outsider” or heretical impulse. Augustine lived in the 4th century AD and he wrote this in On Christian Doctrine: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love ofGod and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

I love giving my kids tools to weather the slings and arrows of growing up. I love equipping them with language to describe their feelings and our commitments to them. I love watching them live their identity. The Bible, when we don’t interpret the life out of it, is a wellspring of those very things.

The poetry of the Old Testament plumb the soul in all its unruliness. The law and the epistles are full of reminders of God’s commitment to be near and guide us. The prophets and gospels are an invitation to a justice-loving, death-conquering identity.

I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to retrain my mind out of using the Bible to argue, even against itself. But as I do, as I learn to use the hermeneutic of love, I’m growing more free.

Authority vs. Knowledge

When I was a kid, I thought that my parents knew how to get from place to place because they knew how to drive. Like once you had a driver’s license, all the maps of all the roads in the city magically downloaded into your head. Or maybe there was a secret to the way directions worked, like a formula you applied.

I thought that being authorized to operate a vehicle made you all knowing on matters of transportation.

Turns out, we just lived in the city where they’d grown up.

I was terrified when I realized I would be authorized to drive before knowing every single road in San Antonio. Two years later I moved to Los Angeles, and was even more terrified. Four years later I moved to London, where I knew I had no business even trying to drive. When I ultimately returned to San Antonio, and my car-dependent lifestyle, I was pleased to find that soon I could drive through the city with the same confidence I’d observed in my parents.

My authority to operate a car had nothing to do with my knowing how to get from point A to point B. In every new place I had to learn directions, street names, and landmarks anew.

After my church meltdown in 2012, I had to learn how to do a lot of things.

I had to learn how to pick a church, for one. I had to learn how to meet friends. How to describe my religious affiliation. Lots of new skills in this new world.

But the biggest challenge was just to make decisions. For all of my 28 years up until then, I’d run most major decisions up a flag pole, not of advisors, mentors, or friends, but authority figures. They didn’t offer advice or insight. They offered answers.

Just like I’d assumed the authority to drive imparted knowledge of directions, I assumed that authority figures had the right answers on all matters. Oh, they’ll tell you I had my own ideas, because I did. But having the ideas and trusting the spirit are two very different things.

The idea that the Spirit of God only spoke through authority left little use for my spirit. It could not sense unseen realities moving between me and the rest of the world. The spirit could not make sense of my desires or my ambitions. Because I believed it could not understand God, it left little for me.

So I was 28 when I finally had to learn how to listen to God for myself. How to let my spirit play a role in the decision making, not just my logical assent to the opinions of authority around me. I was 28 with the decision making skills of a child, and soon I would have children.

It would get very complicated. And I would write a book about it.

Sounds like not-a-me-problem

When I was younger, in my certainty-loving, ultra-controlled churches, there was a right way to hurt and a wrong way. Comfort and compassion were for those who had done no wrong, who had been brave, who had managed to save a few people on their way out of the burning building. Comfort and compassion waited to see how you would handle your grief.

Asking questions or pointing out flaws, especially of those in authority, turned into a me-problem. My tone. My disrespect. My ingratitude.

Prophets are told their anxiety disqualifies them. Anxiety is the thing that tells you something is off, friends. Of course prophets have anxiety. Maybe not chronically, but also, maybe chronically.

Helpers are told to withhold grace. They must choose between quenching the spirit and obeying authority while everybody waits for the hurting person to say the magic words.

I believe we can do better, but we have to get rid of some things first. We have to get rid of certainty and hierarchy. We have to welcome back the prophets, and embrace mystery and belonging.

Tolerance of question-askers and mess-makers is not the goal. Those are the prophets, the new day welcomers. They are essential. They should be celebrated.