For The Someday Book

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Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.

Carry On WarriorI have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.

I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.

Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.

Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.

I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)

Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.

Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.

The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)

She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.

Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)

With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.

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Practicing FamiliesI want to invite everyone to check out a new blog project that I am a part of called Practicing Families. It’s a resource for families of all shapes and sizes who are seeking to engage spiritual practices and nurture faith in Christ at home. You’ll find ideas for weekly liturgies you can do at home, reflections on parenting and thoughts on experiencing God in the midst of family life, mess and all. I hope you’ll go and check it out!

The homepage is here, and you can follow us on Facebook. My first contribution is called “Family of Faith–and No Faith,” about our family life with a Christian pastor and atheist philosopher.

Come on over and check it out!

Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.

Ringo

To Ringo, My Little Lion

July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011

You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.

That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.

J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.

When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.

When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.

Ringo sporting a battle scar on his ear from one of his fights, and demonstrating his aggressive desire for affection.

When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.

You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.

Ringo and B together

When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.

Ringo and Lilith

But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.

We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.

Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.

I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.

Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.

Ringo & Me

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)

Photo by revjmk. Columbus, IN

I used to think passage evoked the worst image of a vengeful God. Not the fact that God is jealous and possessive, demanding our absolute faithfulness–that seems a reasonable request for relationship given God’s devotion to us. But a God who would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” seems to know nothing of forgiveness and grace.

This promise that a father’s (or mother’s) sins would bear out in punishment upon their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is repeated as often as the commandment, also appearing in Numbers 14:8, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9. In good biblical fashion, it is also directly contradicted in several other places. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This standard of justice, which accords far more with our own understandings, is reaffirmed in the Hebrew Bible in Ezekiel 18:19-20, and in the Gospels in John 9, the story of the man born blind.

Yet the commandment stands: the sins of the father will haunt the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The more I come to understand human relationships, the less I believe this is the sign of a vengeful God, and the more I come to know that this is simply the truth of human relationships and earthly life. Our actions, especially our sins, have consequences that last for generations. The things we do in this world, in this lifetime, will shape the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for good or for ill.

The evidence is most dramatic in families with a legacy of sexual abuse or addiction. One parent who acts as an abuser will distort the sexual lives of his children, whose brokenness is repeated in their children, who pass it along to their children. An alcoholic family member warps the interactions of the rest of the family members. Even those children who do not follow the pattern of addiction live with shriveled expectations and wilted relationships, unable to teach trust and intimacy to third and fourth generation. To consider it even more broadly, in this consumerist, energy-hog world, our pollution, decomposing trash and environmental catastrophes will haunt our future children for hundreds of years.

The pattern persists even with less cruel and dramatic patterns of sin and brokenness. Every generation of mothers and fathers tries to do better than their parents did. My grandparents talk about the ways they tried to raise their children to be stronger and more compassionate than their parents. My parents still carried wounds and longings from their childhoods, which they tried valiantly to fight off as they raised my sister and I. They did their best, and yet the same wounds and longings that they carried are still alive inside of me. As I start to raise my son, I can already see what I cannot give him. I will try to do a better job than my parents, just like they did for me, but B will still carry my inherited brokenness forward. As a family, even across generations, we have not the knowledge or power to break out of the damaged patterns, even if we try.

Photo by revjmk. Taken in Columbus, IN.

They may not have called it family systems theory, but the writers of the Torah understood the pattern of human relationships. We are locked in systems of relationships where we live out circular roles and behaviors again and again. We can alter our actions to try to change the system, but one generation is not sufficient to break its hold on us. We pass on our human failings to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the same way we pass along our genes for curly hair, or freckles, or nearsightedness.

As I come to appraise this reality, the message of that commandment seems less vengeful and more hopeful. “Follow me,” says God, “and your brokenness will not last forever.” There is no curse applied to the thousandth generation—only three or four. While we cannot fully escape the bitterness and behavior of our parents and grandparents, nor can we avoid passing our own lack and longing on to our children and grandchildren, nothing will last for all time. If we follow God’s command to serve and follow the Holy, these curses will not go on and on. Each generation can take a step to leave behind the problems of their predecessors. Our false idols of ourselves, of what is good, of what is bad, of who we are and what we can become—these will fade away, albeit slowly, if we keep trying to orient ourselves toward God. By the fifth generation, perhaps they will be gone altogether. It may take generations, but grace prevails.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, by Michael Perry, Harper Perennial, 2002, 234 pp.

This was not at all the book I thought it was. I thought it was a novel when I bought it (I was in a hurry). I was anticipating a story of colorful small town characters with lots of laugh lines and quirky plot twists. Instead, Population: 485 turned out to be a poignant, sparse account of life on a volunteer fire department. Had I known what it was, I never would have read it, much less bought it. But since I bought it, I felt compelled to give it a try, and once I started it I could not justify putting it down.

I have no interest in learning or reading about accident scenes, firefighting techniques or gruesome calls. It all calls to mind a little too easily an ex-boyfriend who was a volunteer EMT, and seemed to talk about nothing else. For the first several chapters, I carried on this conversation with myself:

“Why am I reading this?”

“Because I paid for it. It’s not a bad book.”

“Still, I don’t care about the topic. I have all these other books I do care about.”

“I know, but it’s well-written. And you paid for it.”

“Next time, I’ll be more careful. Besides, it’s edifying to read something outside your normal choices.”

In the end, that’s where I am: it was edifying to read something I would not normally choose to read. Perry’s writing was solid and beautiful. He wove together the information about calls and firefighting techniques to tell the story of small-town life and the meaning of belonging. Population: 485 tells it all truthfully, with humor and interest, but without the slightest romance about the realities of New Auburn, WI. The whole book is artful without being contrived, and Perry feels no compulsion to paint a romantic picture of the beauty of small towns. Instead, the beauty is in the thing itself, the way neighbors and brothers come together and drift apart again, the way life and death go on unabated, the way one can be both an insider and outsider, neighbor and stranger.

What Perry gives us in Population: 485 is a sense of wholeness—the town, its people and his experience of it seem complete, full, satisfied. Those are rare attributes in our consumer-driven culture where we always seems to need more, better, newer, nicer. The book left me with the same feeling—satisfaction.

I’ve only seen two episodes, but I am already hooked on the new NBC show Parenthood. At first it was just my love of Lauren Graham and Peter Krause, but now it’s bigger than that.

I realized in the first five minutes that I was exactly the target demographic for the show—an educated, thirty-something parent passionately concerned about my child’s future, filled with anxiety about my ability to balance my work and family life, wanting my child to have the best of everything and fearful of my ability to offer it. The show is even set in Berkeley, where I went to seminary. It’s like someone took an idealized version of what I might like my life to be and turned it into a show.

Except it’s not completely idealized. The writers and actors manage to capture on the screen the anxiety and competitiveness and floundering of contemporary parenting, along with the heart-wrenching love we all feel for our children. Most of the television I watch is an escape from my life. Parenthood hooks me because it draws me toward my life, in all its angst and foolishness and ego and even the beauty and honesty I yearn for.

I watched tonight after a long and exhausting day. Throughout the episode, I felt my tension rise with the tension of the show. Will the child get into the right school? Oh no, she’s having a bad mom moment in public! How can even the best-intentioned parents still blow it sometimes? After a few minutes I considered turning it off, because I feared it would keep me awake and tense about my own life. When a particularly tense and poignant moment broke into a commercial, I expected the show to be over until the next week. It was an ideal cliffhanger—relationships strained, events incomplete, tension intact to hook the viewer for the next episode. But I looked at my watch and there were eight minutes left.

Then I realized what was coming. The same thing as the week before. I thought it was just something for the pilot, but now I see it will likely be a weekly trope. A closing scene with the whole extended family together, enjoying each other’s company, playing or eating or laughing or working together as though their problems have all resolved, or at least been set aside for a temporary reprieve. Showing us, the audience at home, that everything is okay as long as we love each other, no matter how many mistakes we make or how impossibly imperfect life is.

And I cried. Just like I did last week. I cried because I felt all the tension of the show, of my day and of my own family wash away. I cried because it gave me just what I wanted—a camera shot of the whole mess of family and relationships with a wide enough angle to see the big picture of love, and music that makes everything beautiful and whole again.

It’s easy to make those moments happen in the last eight minutes of a television episode. Sometimes those vicarious, created moments can wash over into feelings of peace and contentment in our own lives. It’s much harder to find those moments in real life, but they do happen. The lighting is not perfect, the houses are not designer, the people are not slim and fantastic, but the beauty is even more amazing, and the warmth and laughter and love are real.

And on the days when the real-life moments seem impossible, I’ll take eight minutes of television to remind me.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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