Author: Bekah McNeel

Dr. Banner and the Dragon

A psychedelic installment in the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series

If this is the first post you’re seeing in this series, welcome. You might want to go to the homepage and read one or two others first, because this is the part where I start to sound like I’ve left town.

At the end of the last post, I was in a full embrace of the God who precedes, transcends, and gives grace to religion. I was considering the idea that all our explorations, whether scientific or spiritual, are a dialogue with God that is part revelation and part co-creation. This is the most excited and enamored I have been in a long time—at least when it comes to spiritual things.

As I mentioned, the fruit of exploration in my life was everywhere. It has been a rich season of growth in our family, I have been able to hold space for people who are struggling with church hurt, and my relationship to work has been almost placid. But I’m me, so there had to be one little hitch. And his name is Bruce Banner.

A brief interlude to explain IFS via Mike Birbiglia’s podcast

I’ve mentioned internal family systems on this blog, the psychological framework that addresses our “exiles” “protectors” and “firefighters” (if you don’t know about it, I recommend stopping here and reading this or listening to episode #197 here). Exiles are the parts of ourselves that, at some point, we perceived as unacceptable, or a threat to our place in the tribe. We blamed them for bad stuff that happened to us. Protectors are the parts of us that keep the exiles from interacting with the world—we might think of them as coping mechanisms, compensators, or managers. For example, on his Working it Out podcast, Mike Birbiglia talks to a lot of comedians about what made them funny. He’s essentially asking them whether their humor is a protector. As a non-comedian who makes jokes to ease tension or to distract from my own intensity, I’ve always appreciated hearing comedians explore this.

Some protectors are obvious—usually the less pleasant ones that come off as critical, withholding, assholey, etc—others are so blended with our personality that we don’t think of them as protectors of anything. They are just…us. That’s why I like Birbiglia’s questions, because they get past “he’s just a funny guy” and ask, but why is he funny? Not to pathologize being funny or high achieving or organized, but to acknowledge the roles we ask those parts to play for us. We also have firefighters, the ones who rush in when the protector is not getting it done, when the exile is about to be exposed. Firefighters can be alcohol, explosive anger, compulsive behaviors, a lot of the things we think of as problems. Again to Birbiglia’s podcast, there’s a connection between the joke-telling protectors and the drug-using firefighters. When the jokes don’t get the job done, the drugs do. Except that they also addict your body, ruin your relationships, and eventually kill you.

It’s important to remember that, as Richard Schwartz, the originator of IFS, says, there are no “bad” parts. Even the firefighter is not a drug addict. The firefighter is just trying to prevent something worse: the big “never again” that created the exile. Everyone in there is working really hard to keep the threats at bay, and get ahold of what we need to sustain life. When we do new things, seek to heal, or forge new territory our protectors can get nervous. They are already so tired, and they are usually the ones who shaped our lives thus far, negotiating relationships and setting goals.

And here I was, rocking the boat.

Dr. Banner, the Hulk, and what this has to do with the mystical journey

At a certain point in my mysticism journey I noticed a lot of action from one of my favorite protectors. I have this protector who looks a lot like Marvel’s Dr. Bruce Banner sitting in the lab at Avengers headquarters, scrolling through code and probably quantum realm stuff. Maybe specs for new suits. Dr. Banner is rational, soft-spoken, and vigilantly scanning for threats at all times. I rarely interfere with him, because he generally makes me more likable and trusted. People love someone who can be reasoned with, who is flexible and accommodating, and who avoids conflict. I would have, to this point, described a lot of Dr. Banner’s behaviors as aspects of my personality.

Of course, obviously, when Dr. Banner can’t get the job done, there’s a familiar firefighter ready to rush in: the Hulk. The Hulk is my black-out anger that sweeps in to end a situation. As tension builds for Dr. Banner—conflict, confrontation, disrespect—I can feel the Hulk stirring at the base of my neck, disturbingly ready to come on to the scene at inopportune moments. The Hulk isn’t the only firefighter who rushes in when Dr. Banner is losing control—there’s also the Groveler and the Ghost. (If you are recognizing fight, flight, and fawn, you’re onto something.)

But as I moved from Banner-like exploration and analysis of mysticism to a more invested embrace, Dr. Banner started making himself known. As I leaned into some of this stuff as “true,” that part of me started worrying more about what others would think about it. I would play imaginary arguments in my head. I would imagine ways I was going to blow up my life…or something. Whenever I had the impulse to share this journey, to talk to others about it, to build on it, Dr. Banner would produce a “but, what if…” scenario to keep me quiet. Whenever I was driving or working or somehow engaging my achievement-focused brain, Dr. Banner’s favorite place for me to be, he would whisper, “that mystical stuff is all fake and stupid and you need to stop.” Or occasionally “you’re going to get your whole family demon-possessed if you don’t get back to safety.”

One of the mysteries of Dr. Banner has been the exile he’s protecting. He is helpful to several other systems, but I’d never really gotten a handle on what exactly he was trying to keep from the world. What was his “never again” that he was trying to prevent?

Healing work in IFS takes place in the presence of what is called Self—our connection to a higher power that has all of the resources of the universe at its disposal and can alleviate the burdens various parts have taken on. The problem for me was that Dr. Banner didn’t trust my Self. I mentioned in the post The Robot and the Self that authoritarian faith made it very difficult to identify big-S-Self because it was so explicitly hostile to little-s-self. Dr. Banner still had some code on his screen from my fundamentalist days. Self, self-confidence, trusting self, knowing self, believing in self, all were, as the kids say, sus.

Weirdly, what this felt like, as I discussed in the Robot and the Self, was a mounting pressure to self-abnegate. To reach ego death, or what I thought people meant when they said ego death. If I wanted to keep the Hulk at bay, to quiet Banner’s fretting, I needed Self to dissolve into the universe, and to simply forget that I was a separate or individual entity. And I needed it to happen fast.

Over the course of the summer I have been undergoing ketamine therapy, the only psychedelic therapy that is legal in Texas. I chose this route for multiple reasons, mostly to try to get to the deep stuff therapy has helped me manage but not heal. I assumed this would happen through ego death. But instead of simply dissolving Self into the universe and transcending the need for protectors and firefighters altogether, I’ve had a radical encounter with Self. And Dr. Banner has been on a ride.

The Dragon

I went to ketamine hoping that I would look inside, discover that I was just particles of universal soul, and no longer be plagued by worries about legitimacy, affection, comfort or any of the other desires. I still didn’t know exactly what Dr. Banner’s goal was, but I felt that if I no longer had emotional or social needs, then he could just relax. If this was the guy was exhausted from running all the scripts of how to gain respect, then maybe I just needed to not care about respect.

Ketamine is not like plant-based psychedelics, which often lead to a sense of connection with the universal spirit. Ketamine is a man-made anesthetic. In psychedelic dosing, it puts you under, but leaves you turned-on enough to explore an internal world and awareness unencumbered by the sensory processing we usually do to determine “real” vs. “imagined.” It’s lets you see your soul, in my opinion.

You wear a sleep mask and noise canceling headphones with curated music to facilitate internal exploration, while a guide uses whatever energetic tools are needed (sound bowls, reiki, aroma therapy, etc) to help you realize your intention for the trip. There’s some surrender required. You don’t always get the trip you want, you get the trip you need, as they say.

That proved true for me. In my first two trips, I wanted to learn to differentiate the voice of God from the voice of my programming, my ego, all the things that distract. It seemed like a nice step toward total dissolution. What I got instead was constant affirmation of the value of my individuality, a Divine nod, if you will, to the very Self and ego I was trying to transcend. I got the respect and affection and legitimacy I was trying not to crave. Instead of transcending the need for those things—which, it turns out are part of the human experience—I felt what it meant to have access to them internally, and to let them drive my connection to others, rather that be derived from my connection with others.

I saw the people who mean the most to me clothed in jewels and magic woven from my love for them. I saw shipwrecks rising from the bottom of the sea, and fortresses crumbling. I saw a representation of God holding the universe in order and saying to me “you are my child, but this is not your responsibility.”

It was magnificent, but a little voice would pipe up: isn’t it suspicious that it’s all be so lovely? Can you really trust it if it doesn’t beat you up a little? Isn’t it just you, telling yourself what you secretly want to hear, that you’re super awesome special? (This wasn’t Dr. Banner, btw, this was a different part for a different post.)

The staff therapist—with whom I check in after every session—suggested that strengthening of the ego might be essential for any goals of spiritual transcendence I have. I need to disentangle my desire to not deal with myself anymore from my desire to live in loving connection with others and the world. If I wanted to be fully beneficial to others, I had to stop thinking of myself as all liability, all weakness, all sin.

Dr. Banner was not thrilled, and I wasn’t sure why. Why was he so determined to hold onto these scripts about being submissive, rational, and detached? Especially when those scripts make it so difficult to handle negative emotions when they come up. Anger, in the irony of ironies, makes Banner panic.

In the fourth of six sessions, my intention was to be able to find peace in anger—a direct shot at Dr. Banner’s hyper control of my emotions, and the Hulk who is the personification of my fraught relationship with my own angry feelings. The trip itself was like a puzzle. I saw ancestors and childhood memories. Then I saw a giant robot, my robot, floating away. Immediately after I appeared as an enormous black dragon fully capable of both anger and grace. I saw the dragon soaring through jungles and using the anger to transform sand into glass and wood into something fire resistant. Then she was serenely floating up a river, sheltering a baby dragon under her wings. She was cool, confident, and fully authoritative over herself.

Listen, I know. I KNOW. A dragon. I don’t know what to tell you. No one wants to be a fantasy fiction cliche, but that’s what was in there. So whatever eye roll just happened for you, I invite that protector to join all my protectors in a collective “oh for fuck sake.” I get it. Why couldn’t I have been an owl? Or a python? Or a llama? Something quirky and low key and, NOT EMBLAZONED ALL OVER NERD CULTURE. No such luck. It was a dragon.

After this trip, I met with the therapist and we discussed the whole system. He’s trained in IFS, so we spoke in terms of my protectors and exiles. We traced the activities of the Dr. Banner protector, and how that protector responded to the various images and memories from the trip. There was something about the dragon telling the protector it was okay to stand down a bit.

“What is the protector afraid will happen if he just stops doing his job?”

The answer came suddenly. “Shame. People will use shame to control me.”

And then I cried really hard.

Later, talking to Lewis, the protector’s job clarified even further. Dr. Banner’s job was to keep me from being bullied. He read the power dynamics in every situation, and figured out the best script to keep me from flaring up the bullies in any given room. That’s why he doesn’t like all this woo woo—because it invites orthodoxy and rationalist bullies to discredit me. It’s why he doesn’t want me to come on too strong, voice ambition, or present as angry—because those things are like the duck call for a bully to need to put you in your place. Dr. Banner had been driving my pursuit of ego death, because if I could just cease to care about me, then the bullies would have nothing to do. The firefighters would never need to rush in. And then I understood something else: Dr. Banner’s exile is a little child who, at some point with her strength or her spirit, triggered a bully, who then put the whole system in panic. Banner’s been hard at work ever sense, trying to keep that from happening again in a world surrounded by pastors, editors, authority figures, and assholes. And here I was, doing all the things he’d learned never to do.

But, I reassured him, I’m not that little child anymore, dependent on authority for safety, or access to heaven, or love, or affirmation.

I am the dragon.

What Is Symphony, What Is Noise, What is Silence

A harmonious installment of the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series

So here I was, mid-January, opened up to the idea that there could be more spiritual activity in the world than I’d previously perceived. That’s a fair assumption for anyone, can we agree? But it’s uncomfortable when people start taking you up on it. The kind of intellectual “humility” I’m used to goes something like: God is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. God is beyond our imagination and understanding. But God is definitely not THAT. Or that. Or that, or that, or that. There’s zero chance that the mystery of God could include multiple religious truths, the pull of the moon, revelation through nature, or any interpretation of the Bible even slightly different from this interpretation. But other than that, there’s SO much we don’t know.

Also, the intellectually humble pastor would add, of course when we get to heaven we will find out that we were wrong about some things. But if you disagree with me on this, this, this, or this, you’re going to hell.

I’ve never met a pastor or professor who would claim to know everything…or be potentially wrong about anything, specifically.

But more and more people around me were expressing interests in things like astrology and crystals and once I’d recovered from the eyestrain of rolling my eyes so hard, I decided to ask, “why? Why do people put so much stock in this stuff?”

So I just started to learn about the history and mechanics of astrology. I got a workbook and decided to “yes, and,” the ancient mystic arts. The wise men were astrologers, right? Follow a star to another country in search of a king? You’re in deep.

I listened to the podcast Skyline Drive and worked through Astrology for Yourself, and I’ll admit…I was surprised by how often the stars were spot on. Maybe the interpretations were vague and general enough to be true of anyone, but if nothing else, by seeing the semi-general guidance in myself and my life, I was looking deeper in and asking myself the kinds of questions that lead to revelation, transformation, and gratitude. Does Saturn, the great limit-setter, really show up most in my relationship to my children? Am I born to be a cycle-breaker as my chart’s placements of Pluto, Uranus and Part of Fortune would suggest? Is Cancer rising really the reason people think I’m nicer than I am? I don’t know, but all those things are true about me and so relating to them in an open and instructive way has made a huge difference.

Later, Moira got really into gems and Asa got really into runes. Same process. Skepticism gives way to curiosity, which gives way to exploration, which ends in learning. I don’t know about reading the future, but I’m sure learning to use what psychologist Lisa Miller would call my “awakened brain” that looks for connection, meaning, and spiritual value in the world.

Not long after I started tinkering around with astrology, Reza Aslan came to town. I’d always wanted to read his book Zealot, and this was the perfect opportunity. Fast forward three days, and the next phase of my intellectual deconstruction is in full swing. Suddenly I don’t know anything. I started reading more, looking for answers. Turns out, we know VERY little about historical Jesus of Nazareth, and have relied heavily on the story telling of ancient writers decades and decades after the Jesus events, most of whom were trying to build a new religion. These were people in conversation with Greek philosophy, various strands of Judaism, a growing awareness of various mythologies. They had merchants and traders among them, political groups, and religious factions. There was a lot going into the creation of Christianity besides whatever Jesus of Nazareth said and did. I don’t think this discredits Christianity at all, but it ought to let the air out of the dogma a little.

So I started digging around looking for the ways an awareness of God and the religious or spiritual impulse has played out in human history. And that, my friends, has led to my largest pile of books yet. At one point I told Lewis I would have to go back to school. This is important, because that desire came from a protective part of myself that if afraid of losing whatever shred of credibility I have from being a very rational journalist, dealing in facts. If I was going to depart from the Christian Things We Know ™ then I needed to find another Things We Know ™ to replace it. No making shit up.

“But Bekah,” you say, “you’ve been deconstructing for years! You’ve already come out as a looser ‘inspired but not inerrant’ Bible person, and someone who is comfortable with the answer ‘I don’t know, but love compels me.'”

Yeah, yeah, you’re right. But that was about Biblical interpretation and social ethics. Two out of many components of Christianity, albeit, huge ones. I was, if you’ll remember from an earlier post, a frequent guest at the “the Bible can authoritatively support progressive social positions” cafeteria table, and a passport-holding resident of the table that’s trying not to piss anybody off. That is very, very different from saying all religions are equally valid, or God may very well work through the push and pull of the stars.

I’d gone down the Richard Rohr Universal Christ path a long time ago, thinking of HISTORICAL Jesus as a savior of all, and the Bible as best read with a happy ending for all in mind. It was still Christianity, it was just Christianity for everybody. This new thing was the search for the root of it all. I was (am?) on the hunt for the wellspring that gave us Christianity and so much more. But it gets even more destabilizing: if God is truly in all things, does there have to be exclusivity between natural explanations and spiritual ones? Can the coincidences of astrological accuracy be explained away by genetics and other factors? Or can they be two expressions of a coherent God in nature?

As I read, I started to see spiritual life like a spool of yard in a river. If you drop the whole spool in the river of time, trying to keep it as a cohesive whole, it will slowly unravel and change shape, tangling and snagging, but it will only really be connected to one part of the river at a time. It’s shape will be more “of the moment” than it wants to admit. If, however, we tie one end of the yarn to something, a rock or an overhanging branch, the yarn will unravel quickly, and it will be connected to many parts of the river at once. It will take the shape of the whole river as it unwinds. Spirituality wrapped up in a rigid certainty and ritual is like the whole spool. It’s being changed by the river, but it won’t admit it, and the changes are treated as aberrant. Spirituality rooted in a fundamental desire to connect to God and God’s world has one fixed point, and isn’t afraid to be shaped by the river. You can’t tie yourself to the fixed point if you’re committed to keeping your shape.

This new thing, this search for the core pursuit that unites all faiths, was something new and terrifying. But the fact that it happened during my year of mysticism was, I now realize, no accident. If I wanted to be open to a bigger, more mysterious and profound experience of God, I had be open to a bigger, more mysterious and profound vision of God. If I wanted to feel connected to Spirit, I had to stop setting my limits before we’d even jumped in. It was like getting in a race car and saying, “I want to see how fast this car can go, and I only want to go 80 miles per hour.”

We had to take the governor—my use of Christianity as the plumbline for all other religions and experiences of God—off.

Of course, my protector parts were absolutely flipping their m-fing lids. Where they come from, leaving orthodoxy—and now we were REALLY leaving it—is how you become exiled. But there was a stronger voice, and it was growing. And growing. It was irresistible. I can’t explain how this happened, because my protector parts are strong, authoritative, and they do not slack. As the months rolled by and the world religions reading and chart observing went on, the guidance of the Spirit became impossible to ignore. I saw changes in myself, that spilled over into changes in my family for the better. More love. More joy. More peace. More patience. More kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Bible verses that had been turning my stomach for a decade suddenly blossomed with life-giving truth as I saw their counterparts in Zoroastrianism, Doaism, Mohism, and Buddhism.

Jesus’s death and resurrection to free humankind from sin? The big “well whatabout” that sets Christianity apart. The thing you have to confess and believe if you want to be a Christian. I’d given up penal substitution a long time ago, in favor of the historical Christus victor doctrine. Now the event itself was beginning to occupy a different category of truth—I still trust it as breaking the bonds of death, the triumph of God. But I have no choice but to put it in a different historical category from, say, the birth of my children, which I saw with my own eyes. Or even the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which, while probably shrouded in some of its own myths, is still verifiable enough for most of us who accept space-time as it is perceived, because the thing is hanging in a museum. What does it do to move the foundation of your faith into an actual category of faith and not fact?

It puts the spool of yarn into the river.

Sorting through the overlap and departure in various religions was a workout for my cognitive brain. They couldn’t all be correct, not in the way it is correct to say that our bodies are made of cells. But the followers of other Ways have just as much faith and fidelity as I have ever had in Jesus’s Way. I’ve always known that, but now I was seeing just how similar (and different) these Ways were to my faith in a dying and rising Christ who defeats evil and enlightens us to the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we can do unto others as we would have done unto us. It was a lot.

In the middle of this, a friend confessed that they were open to astrology, mediumship, anything they could try to get some guidance in a tricky situation. They asked if my exploration had turned up anything useful. This is a super rational person, brilliant and scientifically minded, and they admitted that they felt a little desperate or silly. Was it ridiculous to search for meaning in the stars?

I was deep in meditation one evening, listening for patterns in a rain storm, which seemed to be making a sort of song. Was I hearing that right? Was the rain making a symphony with the frogs and the wind? But then there would be off-croaks, and irregular drips from the gutter, and the wind never stayed on beat. Was I hearing a symphony, or just noise? Was it ridiculous to search for meaning in the stars? Are all religions just desperate attempts to fill a silence where we want God to be?

The answer to my friend’s question, and mine, came clearly, in articulate words, while I was deep in conversation with God, surrounded by nature going full force: God is calling. Religion is our attempt to answer. We have the Creator’s Spirit. We decide what is symphony. What is noise. What is silence.

Awake at Night: the journey into mystery begins

A magical installment in the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series

So far in the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series, I’ve been laying the groundwork to explain the journey I’ve been on as we cross the six-month mark in my “year of mysticism.” I’ve tried to paint a picture of the season I was coming out of: rigorously ethical but spiritually dry, seeing the limits of where reason could take me, confused about the difference between healing and wound-management. I wanted to transcend myself, but I didn’t have a strong enough sense of Self to know how to do that.

Confession: I’m aware of the compulsion to explain to you reader, that these blog posts are all about the personal side of this journey, largely because I worry about it all sounding like whiny navel gazing. There is an outward facing part of the journey—implications for living in the world, service to others, and the Golden Rule. Most of those writings have become books or reported pieces. Those are, what might be called “first fruits.” They are my most well-developed and hopefully most valuable findings, derived from work and spiritual quest. These blog posts are about the inner journey, and I share them for those who might be needing someone to skip some stones across the water so that they may use them as stepping stones as well.

I think this is where a lot of exvangelicals are. Whatever spiritual connection we had has been damaged. If we felt transcendent connection in worship, that memory might be tarnished by the toxic culture created by the worship leader or pastor. If we felt held by God in prayer, we might no longer know how to find the language, because the people who used that language with us turned out to be hypocrites. No one separated a relationship with God from right belief about God, and so we feel that to doubt one is to doubt the other.

Convinced by the work of Dr. Lisa Miller that spirituality was an innate and beneficial component of humanity, I decided to explore mysticism and spirituality in whatever way people are exploring it these days. People seem to be really into astrology. What was that about? Meditation has proven to have huge benefits for the brain. Could that restore a felt connection to God? More and more studies were coming out about the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics—could that be a way to break out of the robot that had me so trapped?

So I started lighting more candles, paying more attention to the signals I was sending and receiving, and opened myself up to the guidance of Spirit. I’m going to try to write about what’s happened so far, but a linear telling might lead to less clarity. So I am going to go theme by theme, rather than month by month.

The first theme came in the form of a Christmas present from Asa. Our kids are in charge of their own Christmas shopping, and he got me a journal with prompts all about night magic. It was about opening up our senses to night time, noticing its unique power and energy.

“I think he just liked the cover,” Lewis said, looking at the celestial art on the cover of the journal.

But I don’t know. The more I’ve come to understand Asa, the more I see him as a guide on this journey. Not always a knowing, or even a particularly cooperative guide, but his innate spirituality has come into play more than once since then.

As I started to notice the night, what first grabbed my attention was the way boundaries are hard to discern at night. It is light that allows us to tell where one thing begins and another ends. In the dark, the edges are blurry.

I’ve always loved the moon. In college when I was overwhelmed I would find some scenic California road and go look at the moon. I like how the moon draws us to look up. You can’t (or shouldn’t ) look up at the sun, but you can look up at the moon. I love stars and constellations. I love the night sky in the way I love dark empty cathedrals, and caves filled with fresh water. It’s an inviting mystery that asks us to notice, to look up from our busy lives and to think about the hidden things, the revealed things, the sacred things.

Typically, night and the moon as associated with femininity, while day and sunlight are more masculine. I thought about the need for feminine energy in our competitive, advantage-obsessed world. The need we have to be held and nurtured not by people with uteruses necessarily, but by the feminine side of all life. Fathers who hold us in comfort, institutions that recognize humanity, work that feeds our souls. That’s feminine energy, and I feel it when the day-toil ceases and we are invited to blend with one another, to blur our edges into each other in support, connection, and communion.

I’ve been afraid of the dark most of my life, because I rely heavily on sight as my primary scanning sense, like most people. I’m learning not to assume that what I cannot see, explain, or define doesn’t have to be bad. Sometimes the hidden things are the things that are too wonderful to be seen, explained, and defined. To trust that this might be possible requires other ways of knowing, it requires us to activate other perceptive mechanisms that we all innately have, but we have pushed aside or underdeveloped in favor of what we think of as “certain” and “objective.” Of course, the more we learn about the brain and how the physics of perception work, the more we are invited to doubt that objectivity and certainty were never as reliable as we thought. In fact, they privileged certain ways of knowing and people who could build hierarchies on those ways of knowing, creating gates and boundaries around who is allowed to “know” a thing. One of the things I am most grateful for in the social justice upheavals of the last decade is the exposure of the myth of objectivity. Myth as in not absolutely true. Myth as in a concept used to explain the unexplainable, in this case the answer to “but how do we know?” and “who put you in charge?” Certainty, based in something that is supposedly objective, has allowed us to build things that have to come down now, but we can only do that if we find something more beneficial to replace them.

Opening up to the night time was not just about appreciating the hours where our back was to the sun, but more about thinking of night as a way of being, and femininity as a way of knowing and connecting to things. About letting the borders soften, and considering mysteries as invitations to explore and wonder, not problem-solve. Lisa Miller’s work introduced me to the different brain circuitry associated with achievement awareness and awakened awareness. I can’t repeat all the brain biology, but we have one pattern of thinking that puts us in the mode to get shit done, plow ahead, troubleshoot, and get what we want. We have another one that helps us see the connections between things, move with compassion and find meaning in our one-ness with the universe. It’s where spirituality lives in the brain, and it doesn’t trick us into being spiritual, the way materialist brain science has suggested for so long, it allows us to perceive a real that *is.* Our perception and the existence of spirit are mutually creative, we co-create spiritual meaning, connection, and reality. We send and receive.

And that my friends, is where the journey becomes the quest. With openness.

The Robot and the Self

An installment of the series Heterodox and Fine, I Guess

This year I have gotten really serious about seeking spiritual healing. I’d gotten really good at managing my various mental health challenges, and really refined my ethical stance, but a voice inside kept asking: BUT ARE YOU HEALED? I’m writing about this journey because maybe you need to be healed too.

I’d heard about the power of ego death, and my evangelical imagination resonated with that. Maybe, I thought, to truly be healed, I just needed to get free of myself. Maybe all my hurt was rooted in what I’d grown up thinking of as the black hole of need that was my prideful, selfish, gluttonous ego.

Growing up, whenever I experienced emotional distress, there was one reliable answer. If I was feeling insecure, overlooked, depressed, or anxious, the problem was my sinful pride.

Only it wasn’t really pride. It was the sin of being self-led. The sin of not letting authority tell you who you are, and instead wanting to determine that for yourself. It was having an ego—not in the sense of egoism or arrogance, but a sense of Self, an ability to differentiate between myself and the things put upon me by others. What Jungian psychologists would call ego-strength, we called sin. What a psychologist might call ego-weakness, we called Christlikeness. This is why the idea of ego death sounded amenable. (In a future post we will sort out what ego death actually is and what’s been required in pursuit.)

In the patriarchal evangelicalism I grew up in, confidence, curiosity, and creativity were threats to authority. Compassion and connectedness were a threat to our us/them worldview. We were really taking a bite out of the “8 C’s” identified by Dr. Richard Schwartz, as the markers of someone led by their Self—their internal connection to a higher power. In my case, God.

Looking back at my childhood and teenage self, I see a child with a deep spiritual sensitivity, and a strong connection to God. This regularly manifested in things that the spiritual leaders around me felt like they had to squash. Being a young person still learning the difference between, say, confidence and arrogance, I know I was a handful. I know there were things that set off alarms. Instead of being developed and nurtured, though, that Self was constantly undermined and questioned with Bible verses like “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked” and the doctrine of total depravity, which taught me that everything I did was so corrupted by sin that I could not even correctly see myself. My innate and unruly spirituality was locked away, and Self was ignored whenever possible.

Somewhere around high school, I became convinced that I was truly disgusting, and needed to work extra extra hard to be not disgusting. This manifested in a lot of extroverted leadership roles and what appeared to be self-confidence (my high school classmates would be shocked to hear me describe myself as an introvert with low self-esteem, and I had a pastor who flat-out told me I’d lied to myself on my Myers-Briggs). I— camp counselor, class president and cheerleader— looked like this:

And as long as people were affirming that I was doing everything right, I could see it too. But the second anything went wrong, if I received any negative feedback, I immediately saw myself as this:

To keep me from the pain of feeling like that oozing monster I built a robot according to the specification of others’ expectations. A persona crafted by feedback. If boys asked me out, then I must be pretty. If the pastor affirmed by goodness, then I was good. If I got good grades, then I was smart. Totally external, run by code and protocol placed there by others, not by God via Self.

The strongest of these codes was the Christlikeness code. In the evangelicalism I grew up with, personality was suspect. It was never explicitly condemned, but the problems posed by individuality came up in those late night conversations where we would follow the trail of “and therefore…” to logical conclusions. If sin is at the root of everything (and, reader, my tradition really hammered that point), and our goal was to put off sin and be like Jesus, a lot of what was human development and personality was either directly due to sin (like the questing soul being framed as rebellious), or was somehow a comorbidity of sin (like the introvert who is perceived as aloof and cold). We eschewed any talk of self-esteem or self discovery, and pointed to all the debauched Hollywood types whose self-assertion led to immorality and obnoxious egoism. All Self is selfish would have been the tagline.

We were not supposed to be like ourselves. We were supposed to be like Jesus.

But what was Jesus the Christ like? If you were a woman or a child, Jesus was meek, obedient to the Father, endlessly patient, sacrificial. Above all, Jesus was sinless. The sins we cared about most in those days were sexual, followed by rebelliousness, and then another class of sins I’ll just call annoying-thy-authorities. Anything parents, pastors, teachers found distasteful could be framed as sin. When I got to evangelical college and we were told to be on the lookout for our dormmates’ sins, I was confronted by peers for being too sarcastic, too eager to answer, too charming, and too cavalier about the sins of others.

Obviously the rules were different for men, but that’s for another day. To keep women in supporting roles, it was essential to fill their heads with the ethics of self-abnegation. I went through my journal from my time working for the Presbyterian Church in America, where gender roles mimic the 1950s and my bosses regularly said dismissive, demeaning things with no consequence. The work was fruitful. Mentoring young women at Trinity University was wonderful. Working with little kids was incredibly important. But there was also plenty for a young woman with a Masters degree and a soul to feel restless about—making $16,000 per year for a while, no advancement opportunities, emotionally incompetent bosses — and when that restlessness would surface, I would castigate it as sin. On October 21, 2008 I wrote: “Basically my Self is not going down easy…I’m 24 looking ahead at a life of disregard, loneliness, and insignificance. My head knows this is what is best, but my heart is freaking out.”

Self wanted to steer me out of a bad gig. My family wanted me to take a better gig. People who loved me wanted me to take a better gig. But the robot was being told by trusted authorities that taking a lesser role, making the men around me look like good leaders was Christlike.

Were there unhelpful desires for more praise and recognition? Absolutely. But those didn’t stem from the moral transgression of pride. They stemmed from an entire lifetime of having my direct connection to God questioned and undermined. Honestly, when you’re told that God wouldn’t even be able to look at you if his son hadn’t died in your place, that’s a sludgy source of identity. Saying “I’m valuable because I’m hidden in Christ” is to say that everything about me is actually bad (yes, this tracks) and the best I can hope for is to be allowed to exist, unpunished.

Oh the way we got off on that worm theology!

Unlike ambition and achievement, personality and individuality were rarely such explicit targets of sin-eradication, but it showed up in the way we were disciplined and discipled. Ask anyone who was part of it. Being different, wanting to be different, was labeled pride. Ironically, you could still stand out, not by being unique or healthy, but by being MORE CHRISTLIKE. So more submissive, more patient. More serious about the mortification of sin. Wormier. You were better if you kept your faith through more suffering, courted instead of dated, saved your first high-five for marriage, raised financial support so that a 20-something year old bro with a “calling” could tell you how to live your life and take credit for your work. Whatever it was, the way to stand out was to be more of what the authorities wanted. If you expressed pride about that, you’d be hip-checked pretty hard, but as long as you were quiet and serving the goals of the institutions and authority figures of the church, you could have as much pride as you wanted. Your robot, loaded with code placed there by pastors and parents, could be a better robot.

Which brings us back to the opening: pride — the belief that you are BETTER than everyone else — does lead to all sorts of harm. But we were in a system that squashed the prophetic voices—those with Self directly connected to God—that could point that out. Better robots could have authority over worse robots, but Self, which would fry all the robot motherboards, was exiled.

And that, my friends, is why when I left evangelicalism, I was looking for a new code for my robot. I was looking for a new external criteria to give me value, to call me good. Without these inputs, my robot could not operate. Which is why I was melting down, as per my last most.

And if a healing visit to a prayer center gave me a glimpse at what God had been up to, it was my quest for ego death that showed me the role the Self would play in that new life.

What God was Up to Behind the Scenes

An installment of the occasional series, Heterodox and Fine, I Guess

When my mental health bottomed out some time around 2019, I went for intercessory prayer at the ministry now known as One, formerly the Christ Healing Center. I was seeing a counselor too, but not yet ready to commit to something more intensive (that was all yet to come). Intercessory prayer was a frantic grasp at what I hoped was a life preserver.

I’d been alienated from most white evangelical social ethics—which I would describe as sorting the world into “us” and “them” based on a rigid interpretation of the Bible—for about seven years. For most of that seven years, I’d been grounding my spiritual life in social justice. The relevance and infallibility of the Bible was important to me. I was very interested in finding a version of Christianity that could still be orthodox, but also socially progressive and inclusive.

God’s heart is for the poor! God cares more about justice than piety! I still believe this, but in the seven years between leaving the Presbyterian Church in America and finding myself at One, I was shouting it in the desert. I was trying to make the ethic of my heart and the Christianity of my mind fit together nice and tidy, like it had when I was fully bought into the fundamentalist ethic.

When leaving a tradition that believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, a seven day creation, male authority, and other things that fly in the face of modern scholarship and sensibility, I and many exvangelicals quickly fled in the direction of academically-sanctioned reason and social consensus. We traded a rigid, certainty-based system being suffocated by its own authority-worship, for a spot on the progressive spectrum between Jesus-was-a-socialist and full blown atheistic materialism.

I do believe that Christianity can lead to a more socially just public ethic. I believe that the morality of the Christian Bible does lean heavier on justice than personal piety. But making a moral-ethical-social position the entirety of my religion was just as draining as when I had been doing that as a fundamentalist. But the heart of fundamentalism isn’t just its ethics and morality. There’s a spiritual component as well.

As a fundamentalist I had been hungry for spirituality, but shooed away from it by people who were scared of any authority that could not be placed in the Book of Church order. The idea that God could directly lead or speak to someone in a way that might lead them in a different direction than the elders and deacons was just too chaotic for the Frozen Chosen. In my evangelical college I remember saying to my friends, “We don’t believe in the Holy Spirit here, do we? We think the code of conduct is where conviction comes from. We talk instead of listening.”

Others from charismatic backgrounds had seen spirituality abused—people claiming revelation or “second blessing” as a source of authority over others. That’s a real problem, and I never knew how to address it. So there was safety in the idea that God only spoke through the intellectual consensus of a chosen few. A note here: intellectual consensus reaffirmation is what I would call the primary academic and philosophical endeavor of the evangelical movement. To “love God with your mind” as we were often encouraged to do, was to continue to rehash and more deeply commit to the same truths over and over and over again. Curiosity not included. Interrogation not included. Inquiry not included.

As an exvangelical hungry for respectability, I felt like I had to once again tie my faith to an intellectual framework, something that made sense. I had found the ethic that rang true to me, but thought that I needed to now reconcile Christianity to it. So, like many who lean into the spear of justice, who are moved by the suffering of others, I found theologians and pastors who could interpret the Bible that way. But where I was thirsty for spiritual life, I again only gave myself morality.

And that’s a dry place to be. The fight going on right now to define what the “real” Christianity is, to rescue it from either Trumpism or liberalism, is draining. It trades the nurturing of the spirit for a fight no one can win. There is no one who, in the end, is going to declare, with authority we all agree on, “this is the true ethic of Christianity, and the proper interpretation of the Bible.” I’m not even talking about the denominational fights over specific doctrines or social positions. I’m talking about the broad discourse—the Twitter spats, at this point— whereby two groups are fighting to say that the Bible inerrantly and infallibly supports their ethic.

In that dryness, I was also on year three of the postpartum revelation that I was on year 30-something of some pretty intense anxiety and scrupulosity. And so I wondered if opening myself up to something that seemed intellectually silly might help. And so I let two women about 15-20 years older than me lay hands on me and walk me through a series of meditative questions for God, and I waited for answers.

From this prayer came the imagery that inspired the structure and cover art of my first book, Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down. The icy mountain pass, where I was white-knuckling the steering wheel, trying to keep my family from careening off a cliff.

But there was another image, one I allude to in the book, but here I’m going to go into detail.

At one point, we were discussing a fear, a sort of doubt I had about God. I shared how I had always gotten a lot of protection from my mind, my reasoning. I reasoned myself back from doubts about the existence of God. I used convoluted hermeneutics to explain Bible passages that seemed to contradict my ethics both as a fundamentalist and a progressive. I thought my brain was my special gift from God. I was afraid that if I started letting woo woo spirituality in that I would loose both the respectability and the comfort of being a reasonable, rational person. I’d lose even more certainty.

Then the women asked what God had to stay in response. In my mind I saw a stage, and I was performing on it. I was showing off my brilliant reasoning, delivering something between a magic show and an academic lecture ( I guess I was preaching). I thought I was seeing my purpose. But then, behind me, a backdrop curtain lifted and there was a giant human heart. I heard a voice clearly say, “You’ve been working on you mind. I’ve been working on your heart.” The heart was moving to center stage, and God clearly said, “It’s time for this now.”

My mind had been protecting me, holding space for the Spirit to grow a healthy (and apparently massive) heart. My mind has wounds. It has bends that might never unbend. I’m so thankful for my busy, battered mind. My reasoning mind had been keeping me safe in a system that would have destroyed my heart. I think that’s why it was compassion and love for other people that led me away from evangelicalism in the first place. The heart was taking its place.

As my mind heals, it rushes to catch up with my heart. I’ve moved into a new relationship to my faith—I’m less worried about whether it is *the* Christianity. I’m gulping in spirituality in a way that is freaking out my protective mind a little bit—making me nervous about looking silly, or being written off as just another make-it-up-as-you-go person. And there are real concerns there: how do you make sure you’re not just making it all up? What is the relationship between authority and spirituality?

I’m going to explore those still-pressing questions soon, in future posts. But every time these and tougher questions come up for me, so does that image of a giant heart on center stage, and I know that I am seeing what God’s been up to all along.

Heterodox and Fine, I Guess (an occasional series on my changing faith)

People tell me they’re glad I “stayed in the church.” What does that mean, and why are they glad?

For exactly eleven years now, almost to the day, I’ve been an outspoken critic of the way the white evangelical church does religion. I think it is obsessed with authority—having it and looking for it and evaluating it. In many ways I’d put myself among the Exvangelical crowd, but in a very particular way—a way that’s been giving me a little grief lately.

If the Exvangelicals were together in a cafeteria, they’d sit at different tables. Note: I love ALL of these tables, and visit them frequently. You’d have the classic punk/burnout table with a grunge 90s vibe. Podcasters and YouTubers, they believe a host of different things, but what binds them is schadenfreude and absolute glee in discussing kinks. They would be spray painting memes on the lockers after lunch.

The next table would be the New Fundamentalists. These are the people who have become fundamentalist progressives. They all wear shirts explaining their admirable stance on every issue, and have whistles they blow to call attention to anyone who fails to be as antiracist/affirming/sex positive/body positive/gender neutral as they are. They believe Jesus was absolutely a socialist, and can tell you nine different ways that the main point of the Bible is to care for the poor. They are making protest signs. They’ve cut ties with anyone who voted for a Republican in the last two elections. (Note: I love to hang out here whenever they’ll let me, but this table also makes me super anxious, if I’m being honest. As I went to therapy, I realized how much of my delight in getting to hang out at this table had to do with my perfectionism and wanting to be called “good.”)

Not in the cafeteria at all, but instead having off campus lunch, are the happily unaffiliated. They don’t worry much about defining where they are now religiously, as much as they want to live a beautiful life and be true to themselves. They’re cool, we all like them, and they can get surprisingly vulnerable sometimes during study group or on the bus on the way to an away game. They walked away from organized religion to find peace, and usually found their people elsewhere. If they give a thought to the Bible, they might say the main point is nonjudgment.

The next table are the contemplatives. They are meditating, reading Richard Rohr, and I’m pretty sure one of them is having a psychedelic experience. Everyone wants to sit at this table, but no one has the self-discipline. They describe their faith with more of a vibe than an “ism” and believe that one-ness is the main message of the Bible.

Then there are the nerds. These folks are handling their deconstruction by going back to school somehow. They are completely reprogramming their understanding of the bible through uncovering obscure doctrines of the early church, getting super into science, or some other academic subject that they will use to either hone or continue to deconstruct their religion. Some are atheists. Some are Palagians. Some are religious naturalists. They don’t believe the Bible has a main message because textual criticism.

And then there’s the goody-two-shoes table. This is my table. I have friends at all the other tables. I go to their parties and events. I read their books and blogs. I even sit with them in the cafeteria on occasion. But just like my actual middle school experience, I retreat back to a table with my quirky, straight-A, non-controversial friends when it’s time to sort people into “groups.” We only throw shade when the whole cafeteria is in agreement. We love words like “nuance” and talk a lot about “love” being the main message of the Bible. We still call ourselves Christians. Just plain Christians, and hope that the evangelicals who raised us don’t look too closely at what we mean by that. We haven’t changed much about our lives during deconstruction, because we don’t want *everyone* to know how much we’ve changed.

Staying at that table has kept me safe. It’s allowed me to move quickly past my personal deconstruction as a topic of conversation with anyone who might be concerned. I go to church often enough to tell people I go to church, so that they won’t invite me to church. Mostly, I’m able to constantly reassure people that I’m still a Christian. Nothing has been irreparably lost by an official change in status—as though there were a Bureau of Religious Affiliation we need to file with. So as long as I am not renouncing Christianity, it’s fine that I’ve got notes for the Church—who doesn’t these days, right?

My first book belongs at this table, though it certainly draws amply from the New Fundamentalist table and the nerd table. It includes interviews with people from every table (and a few off campus). But at the end, I added this epilogue about how we did baptize my kids and why we do still want to be somehow part of a church. I stand by every word. That chapter was and is 100 percent true of me and my family. But I don’t think I was prepared for the way that chapter would—more than any other chapter in the book—inform how people relate to me.

My book, Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down, is full of critique and heterodoxy. But at the end of the day, people tell me that they love that I didn’t walk away from Christianity. I’ve learned which podcasts hosts want me to lead with that assurance, and which ones want me to hang out at their cafeteria table and talk a little shit. I love doing both, and there’s always a fun little pas de deux we do as we try to figure out what I’m there to do: critique or encourage. Again, thrilled to do both, but it’s a stark difference.

As I’ve continued to learn and grow and spend time at each of the cafeteria tables, I’ve continued to change my understanding of God and ultimate reality and the person of Christ. If I was still seeking some kind of endorsement or leadership in a church, my doctrinal positions would not pass muster. I am, in many ways, outside the version of Christianity I grew up in. As I’ve said many times, “I still consider myself a Christian, but the number of people who agree with me is probably shrinking.” But so far no one has taken me up on the offer—instead they are reassured to hear me use the word “Christian.”

Some of this desire to hear me profess a faith has to do with my eternal soul. But saying “I’m part of the Christian faith” is not the same as saying you believe all the things certain sects of Christianity preach as necessary for salvation. In fact, learning how heterodox Christianity has been historically, if part of why I still identify with the tradition.

But I believe things that are anathema to the sect I grew up in. I do not agree with them on fundamental doctrines, like the inerrancy of Scripture or the existence of hell. Everyone around me would have gone to the mats for that when I was growing up. Now people just sort of nod and don’t press any further when I suggest that the Bible is a contextually bound expression of people’s understanding of an infinite and ineffable spiritual reality, reflecting several iterations of how this was manifested in community life. That’s heresy, per the doctrines I grew up with. And while it’s tempting to conclude that people just don’t care as much as I think they do…y’all I spent teenage HOURS debating whether humans play any role in their own salvation. I was nearly re-baptized in college because my friends told me my infant baptism didn’t count. I have lived my life majoring on the minors, and now that I’ve scrapped the majors everyone is just like, “It’s great you’re still here.”

Where? Where am I?

In community. In fellowship. In love.

After years of being told our strength was in numbers—numbers of children, numbers of congregants, numbers of worldwide adherents—people who are still in the church have a lot of anxiety about people leaving it. We were raised to see whoever wasn’t with us to be against us. And, frankly, a lot of us who are wounded by Christians do strike back. Every cafeteria table has their stories, and every one of us has gone on the offensive once or twice. But we have not all identified ourselves as enemies. In fact the harshest critics of the church, in many cases love it the most. I really have found that to be true.

The less agonistic parts of the American church are longing to hear those harsh critics say, “it’s not bad enough to burn it down.” Christians really dislike hearing that the beloved institution is corrupt to its core, and surely if the harsh critic is going to a church then she believes the church isn’t all bad…right? But listen, there is nothing less severe about my critique of the institutional church just because I still identify with the same religion. I didn’t stay because I think the current form of the American institutional church is redeemable—I don’t. I’ll never be a member of another church, and I sure as hell am never giving my spiritual authority over myself to another person, especially not a pastor. There are plenty like me, and that’s what’s got folks worried.

Some of this anxious need to hear me call myself a Christian is probably still a numbers game. Reassurance that the church isn’t bleeding out as critically as it is, and a desperate hope that there’s some grey area on holy ground where the angry, disillusioned, and burnt out can stop before they reject a faith that is still very core to the identity of their family and friends.

But my challenge to my fellow Christians is this: The loving desire to stay bound together and in communion with God is the holiest impulse we have. Orthodoxy and religious distinction and doctrine have their place, but their place should not be determining who are our friends and who are our enemies. There has to be room for other understandings of the Mystery. Whether I call me a Christian, or you call me a Christian, or whether one day that designation no longer fits for either of us, we don’t have to be enemies. I still consider myself part of the Church because of the bond of love to God and others, and that won’t change no matter how heterodox I’ve become. I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me.

A Delayed Advent Post that is Also A New Year Post About Joy

As you will have noticed, this post did NOT coincide with the last week of advent as planned. I decided that rather than write about joy, I would let myself live in it. Specifically, I decided to have a marvelous time in Minnesota with my family and my friends-who-are-family, and not worry about getting a newsletter to you two days before Christmas.

The next week was just total chaos, so there was no newsletter then either. Not because I was being present with my rambunctious kids, or attentive to my adoring husband, but because I was showing myself some grace and having extremely low expectations for my productivity. Try it. It’s amazing.

But now the kids are back at school, I’m ensconced in my little attic office, and 2023 is five days old. Ready to write.

Oddly enough, I still want to write about joy, both as a delayed advent practice and a year-in-review. Specifically, the joy of friendship. I’ve written a little bit about rediscovering friendship over the last year. For years I had mistaken respect, mutual usefulness, and aligned mission as friendship. I’d lost my deep relationships in 2012 when I left ministry and the church where I’d worshipped for almost a decade—but it wasn’t like a healthy person walked away from that explosion, ready to trust and build life with people. Like most wounded people, I was in social survival mode, and a little feral.

Having kids didn’t help me get back to the sweet spot of friend-making. Now my schedule was as chaotic as my soul. Plus, people keep moving away. And then the pandemic. So many of my friendships in life up til 2012 had been built on proximity, on “doing life together.” Every time I tried to build friendship that way, it didn’t work, because life kept changing. Reality kept interfering. There’s a lot of value in the place-based, physical presence, and I’ll get to it in a future post, but there’s also a hearty dose of nostalgia and “please keep coming to church” built into the discourse as well. There’s a lot of bemoaning what we’ve lost in the globalized, career-centric, mobile and mobilized world, but not a lot of good advice for what we can have when we don’t have the luxury of settling down on a cul-de-sac with five other families who will be our community, raise our children, hold our hands, and share our table until we die.

Some of us have to find friendship on the highway. It’s probably not ideal, it’s probably not “what we were created for,” but I refuse to believe the Spirit is completely stymied by modernity. There’s a way.

Friendship wasn’t growing in physical proximity, but something else was. I was continually pulled into various agendas, ideas, and activities, living in Busy Town, but without the cute worms driving cars. I thought that by being useful, I was earning love. I was not. I was earning more busyness. And that kept me confused about human relationships for a while. I wrote about that back in my spring crisis.

Those relationships change too, as agendas and projects shift, and when they all started falling away in 2021 because of the pandemic, something miraculous happened. I was able to talk more frequently with my oldest, dearest friends, who have not lived near enough to touch since we were all in college. Then a group of friends formed, almost by accident, on a text thread at the end of 2021. In 2022 it became a life line, that became getaways, road trips, teary phone calls, camp fires, and lots of cocktails. Also in 2021, a favorite friend moved back home and brought a new favorite friend with him. In 2022, that friendship that had persisted through a lot of distance became a holiday-sharing, family vacationing, tradition-making friendship.

With one exception, none of these friends are closer than 30 minutes from my house. None of us have a natural place to see each other every week, or every month. We have to be deliberate, we have to set aside time. We have to think about each other, interrupt each other, and prioritize each other. We get nothing from each other except belonging, support, compassion, cheering on, and shared joy. I’m not saying that real friendship can’t or shouldn’t share economics, work, biology, or mission. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing when you can build something with friends. But there’s an element to friendship that transcends mutual benefit, which is why building things together can be risky for friendships. Because friendship is what you have when you *cost* someone something, and they hang in there with you anyway. When your suffering spills over into their day and they don’t run away. When they make the trek, read the book, pry their eyes open, and watch the movie they would not have chosen, because being together—in spirit if not physically—is where the joy comes from.

What you will find in these newsletter-style blog posts:

Brain kindling to start your mind fire

Spirit kindling to start your heart fire

Conversation kindling to gather people to your fire

Giggle kindling to warm you up.

Brain Kindling

Had a great time talking about 1) how the church needs to own the damage it does, and 2) parachuting with babies on your back on these two pods!

Just before Thanksgiving, a very brave woman called me from Uvalde. She wanted to share her story, and had been told I could be trusted. I’m bragging. That’s the highest praise I can receive as a journalist. Awards be damned.

This is her story. It is wild. It is gut wrenching. It also ran in the Texas Tribune alongside an investigation into the overall bungled emergency response that may have kept some lives from being saved at Robb Elementary.

Uvalde Hero: Amid the Chaos at Robb Elementary, the Bus Driver Who Saved Lives

Here’s the Trib story:

Spirit Kindling

I’ve shared this before, but it’s very relevant this week.

Shared joy is double joy; Shared sorrow is half a sorrow. – Swedish Proverb

Conversation Kindling

Top Five Books I Read in 2022

  1. Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  2. all about love – bell hooks
  3. The ENTIRE Gamache series – Louise Penny
  4. Breakfast With Seneca – David Fideler
  5. Beyond Welcome- Karen González

Giggle Kindling

Advent Week 3: Admin Season when You’re Bad at Admin

My kids are super into advent things, calendars, candles, traditions. Asa calls his 24-days-of-chocolate calendar his “Admin” or, more recently “Admint.” It’s adorable, but yesterday, as I balanced the buying, packing, wrapping, enrolling, filing, attending, editing, feeding, and “just circling back on that cancelled subscription that still keeps showing up on my credit card statements” I realized that Asa is right. It’s admin season. It’s trying to do “special” when “ordinary” is already so. damn. much.

Y’all. I am SO BAD at admin. I’m actually great at finding deeper meaning, at focusing in on the sacred, at making things special. I’m TERRIBLE at the ordinary. I spent most of 5th grade in the front office calling my mom to bring the homework I’d forgotten. I have to have a tracking device on my keys. When my routine is thrown off, I will lose all the things. For someone like me, adding tasks and to-do lists and “please send your child with one (1) personal snack item, one (1) wrapped secret Santa, two (2) group snacks, all the library books they’ve lost, and four (4) permission slips for various Christmas activities” is disruptive to routine in the worst way. Admin Season feels like a collision between who I need to be and who I am.

I’m tough on myself, because I think it’s my brain—which can either hyper focus on one thing, or militantly obsess about every tiny thing with seemingly no in between—failing me. But reading the rest of y’all’s posts and from the here-and-there chats I’ve picked up on…very few of us feel like the excesses of the holidays are sources of love, joy, peace, and hope. Two things are true: we were not made for this, and this was not made for us.

I feel that way about so much right now in the world, and Admin season seems to be bringing it all up, emphasizing how unsustainable it all is, how relentless the demand for “more,” how crooked are the paths twisted by greed and violence.

All week I’ve been meditating on peace, and what it means to have peace in Admin Season when you’re tired and over-administrated and under-nourished because all of your friends are also being stretched to their limits. What does it mean to be present when you’re surrounded by to-do lists? Can forgiveness make the world feel less hostile? Can we have peace in a violent world?

Yesterday I attended an event put on by a joint coalition of Catholic and Jewish leadership in San Antonio. It was a beautiful hour of songs and ceremony, focused especially on the common practice of candle lighting. Candle lighting has been, in many traditions an act of defiance against scarcity, suppression, and isolation. And yet candlelight is also so peaceful. It is gentle light, not a flood light or a blaze. It is a little assertion that we are simply here, and that is enough. We have not been snuffed out, but we are not in conquering mode right now. We are simply here. A little light. A little warmth. Doing what we can where we are, holding onto Advent, not Admin to sustain us.

What you will find in these newsletter-style blog posts:

Brain kindling to start your mind fire

Spirit kindling to start your heart fire

Conversation kindling to gather people to your fire

Giggle kindling to warm you up.

Brain Kindling

I wrote this devotional for Unsettling Advent about the prophets call for us to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Talking with Amy Julia Becker is a delight, and her podcast is balm for the soul.

Spirit Kindling

Conversation Kindling

Best Christmas Hymns (Probably my lease controversial/most basic opinions)

  1. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
  2. O Holy Night
  3. O Come O Come Emmanuel
  4. Joy to the World
  5. O Little Town of Bethlehem

Giggle Kindling

Advent Week Two: Coming to getcha

The traditional week two of advent is peace, but we had a week all about love, so we went with it.

I actually think love should follow hope. Love is the response to hope. That help that my kids were waiting for? The promised help that gave them the strength to keep going? That’s love. Love is moving toward us, to help. To seek, to find, to know.

In our wedding vows, Lewis and I made this promise: “in difficulty I will run toward you.” (My first draft read “when it gets hard I will run toward you,” but Lewis immediately refused to say that in front of 350 of our family and friends.) And we finished with the statement, “I am for you.” Double entendre aside, those two components, moving toward someone and being committed to their wellbeing make up the bulk of what love is. When we think of the common wedding reading from I Corinthians, adjectives like “patient,” “kind,” and actions like “keeps no record of wrongs” describe what it means to be for the wellbeing of someone else. But there’s an active component in there, a pursuit, as well.

We see that love in the character of God, an ever-pursuing love that goes beyond death, and cannot be thwarted. We are the people of God who can give that kind of love to each other. When we are always looking for ways to love, we offer help, and others have hope.

What you will find in these newsletter-style blog posts:

Brain kindling to start your mind fire

Spirit kindling to start your heart fire

Conversation kindling to gather people to your fire

Giggle kindling to warm you up.

Brain Kindling

I really loved this post from Christians for Social Action. It’s a great advent thought.

And this episode of Quitters Podcast was as delightful as Buster Bluth standing up to his mom.

Spirit Kindling

I first heard this song when Justin Vernon sang it at Unplugged. Since then I’ve listened to just about every version, and this one is my favorite. I could have saved it for Peace week next week, but I’m letting my inner chaos muppet breathe a little.

Conversation Kindling

Five Ways I Like to Show Love

  1. Finding things we both enjoy
  2. Hugging
  3. Surprises, large and small
  4. Listening to the directors cut of whatever story you feel like telling
  5. Keeping my opinion to myself

Giggle Kindling

Advent, Week One: Send Help

Greetings! Week one of advent is here! Which means I’ve been half-meditating on hope and half-meditating on what my kids need to have in order to participate in their school’s 12 Days of Christmas celebration in which every school day between now and December 16 is a DRESS UP DAY.

I’m not going to do some magical turn of phrase to connect those two things. You know as well as I do that not every aspect of Capitalist Christmas has a Jesus-tie in. Some of it is just chaos. But here we are in our gingerbread onesies and our drum major hats, doing Christmas, and if I’m being honest, actually feeling hopeful.

When I asked the kids what hope meant to them, they told me that hope was when something is really difficult, but you keep going, because you know someone is going to help you. I love that. I love the weight and the waiting inherent in their hope. They made room for struggle and agency and relationships. Theologically we know that hope is God. God is that help that is never far off. But how does God work? Does God buy my books? Does God pick up the kids from school? No. God works, damnit, through people.

I fought for a long time to not have to depend on anyone. It was very uncomfortable to me not to be able to meet all my own needs, or even my own wants. When I set a goal, I don’t like needing other people to determine whether or not I reach it. And I got there, in a lot of ways. But the most independent years of my life—the years when I was hustling hard and trying not to owe anybody anything— have also felt the most hopeless.

I was doing it! Nobody owned me!

And all I had to look forward to was more hustle, more strategizing, more work. I didn’t want to ask for help, because I wasn’t sure what I could offer in return. I didn’t want to take any risks, because I had staked my reputation on being able to do it all. The only reason people sought me out, I told myself, was for my competence. So, by my kids definition of hope, I had the struggle, I had the perseverance, but I didn’t feel that hope-energy, because help was not on the way. I had told hope to leave me alone.

Instead of hopeful, I had dread. Every little hiccup was terrifying. I dreaded school pickup and backpacks full of new-effort-required. I dreaded edits. I dreaded phone calls. It would be people wanting things, criticizing things, exposing the fact that I actually wasn’t doing well enough on my own. For years, I have been a study in how to have it all and somehow not enjoy it.

This year has been different. This year, I owned my limits and invested in friendships. With less of me hustling there was room for friends. I invested some key friendships, with people I trust. With friends in my corner I felt better taking risks. Work risks and emotional risks. I also owned my limits in my marriage, and risked asking for more help with the domestic things that were dragging me under. And I finally don’t feel anxious and afraid every time our kids have a bad day, or the school decides to have 12 DRESS UP DAYS IN DECEMBER.

All that limit setting and space making and people trusting has paid off in that last, critical piece of hope: God became flesh, and that’s still how God sends help. Help is on the way.

What you will find in these newsletter-style blog posts:

Brain kindling to start your mind fire

Spirit kindling to start your heart fire

Conversation kindling to gather people to your fire

Giggle kindling to warm you up.

Brain Kindling

First, I commend to you this very challenging Unsettling Advent guide from Word & Way.

Then, as Hope-themed chaser:

Spirit Kindling

Conversation Kindling

Top 5 Advent Season Traditions I Actually Enjoy (there used to be none, because I

  1. The annual Love Actually viewing with eggnog
  2. Hot chocolate neighborhood lights walk
  3. Sending the kids to the Christmas Craft Extravaganza with my mother in law
  4. Drinking eggnog while not viewing love actually
  5. Advent wreaths

Giggle Kindling