My Unpublished Chapter: Skin in the Game

One of the chapters in my memoir manuscript was pulled before publication because it mentions the “hot topic” of abortion. I was upset that the chapter was cut because it relates an important part of my story —  the moment I decided to leave the church of my upbringing.

But eventually I understood that the publisher wanted to give my work its best chance. They knew their readers would be likely to boycott anything that was open to the possibility of abortion, even in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Now that my memoir has been out in the world for almost a year — wearing a sticker that says it won an award from the evangelical flagship, Christianity Today — it’s time to circle back to that missing chapter.

Sojourners, which is a Christian magazine from the progressive side of things (because there are many ways to be Christian), published the chapter as a stand-alone essay in their August issue. It’s titled “Skin in the Game.” Read it here.

Influence: Do you have it? Do you want it?

"Influencers," the writing vocation, and a tipi

The radiating lines of the tipi remind me of ripples in a pond, a way to picture “influence.” My photo, taken at an exhibit about the Blackfeet nation near Glacier NP.

Perhaps you’ve run across this unlikely noun: Influencer.

I heard it often during my last book launch. My publisher asked me to create a list of people who were in a position to influence others to read my book — writers, bloggers, pastors, and Good-readers. At first it was excruciating. I hated the idea of asking others to use their influence on my behalf. But I also understood why I needed to ask. Social media makes it possible for well-positioned people to influence buying behavior.

The word Influencer still feels non-grammatical to me, but I’ve come to see that my problems with the word are not purely grammatical. My discomfort goes straight to the heart of my vocation as a writer — and whether my work deserves to be supported.

Asking for a boost may be outside my comfort zone, but is it an unreasonable thing to do? I have often been zealous about utilizing some program or resource that I understood to be a form of ministry. I have been happy to advance the gospel, or build the church.

Yet I know that my books have been helpful to many, spiritually speaking. So why does the idea of seeking Influence give me the urge to shudder? Pardon me while I clutch my shawl around my Puritan shoulders. Prithee, I am not self-serving!

I have had to press myself to think more deeply about this matter of influence. If my vocation is one of words in the service of the Word, is the divide between various forms of writing really so neat? I write because God gave me the desire to write. Sometimes the words I produce are sermons, but — increasingly — the writing takes other forms. Don’t those words still have value and deserve support? Don’t they have the potential to be good news about the Good News? As a product of my calling, are they a form of ministry?

One of the reasons I wrote my first book was because my congregation encouraged me to seek a wider audience. One of my elders said: “We love you, but there are only 57 of us, and more people should hear what you have to say.” Those words ring in my memory as the most affirming words I have ever heard.

At the time my church was podcasting sermons — we were early adapters. But that change felt like a tiny beginning. The questions were both deeply personal to me — vocational — but also societal. The ways people come to belief, and live out their beliefs, is undergoing a reformation. Just as the invention of the Gutenberg press changed the religious landscape 500 years ago, the internet is changing everything and the church is too slow in response.

Living in this new world — living out my particular vocation — raises certain questions for me. Maybe you share some of them:

  • Who do I intend/desire to influence?
  • Who has God set in my path — perhaps people to whom I am a bit blind?
  • What word or message is the burden on my heart and who might need to hear it?
  • Who would I seek to influence if I weren’t afraid?

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A Few Pics from Our Trip to Glacier NP

what a privilege to travel with my husband & my mother!

Mom, in her tiny sleeper car on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder”

Myself, my husband, and my mother at a windy Amtrak stop in Havre, MT.

An accessible hike to Running Eagle Falls in Glacier NP.

A strenuous hike to Iceberg Lake, in Glacier NP.

The “Weeping Wall” on Going-to-the-Sun Road which opened our last day in the park!

Mom and I are twins with our matching “Glacier NP” tees.

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In the Dental Hygienist Chair

body memories of grief

Do you sometimes have body memories — that is, memories triggered by bodily experiences?

Today I sat down in a dentist chair, opened my mouth for Abby, my dental hygienist, and was pierced by grief and a sense of doom.

My body seemed to recall — more clearly than my mind — a teeth cleaning exactly one year previous. I had just gotten word that my father’s health was declining rapidly — in fact, he skipped church, saying he didn’t feel up to it. When I heard he skipped church I knew things were serious.

At the time, I was already planning to drive to Michigan in about ten days, but I had decided not to wait. Since I had the dental appointment early on Monday morning, I decided to take care of it, then get in the car and drive the 650 miles. Before I left, I even had the presence of mind to arrange for a friend to cover a pulpit supply appointment for the following Sunday. I suspected I would be gone for some time. And I was.

What strikes me now is that I forgot that whole sequence of events — until the moment I sat down in the chair and Abby clipped the bib around my neck. Then it all came rushing back. It was especially odd because I had a teeth cleaning in between, at six months, without a reaction. But the combination of the anniversary and the dentist chair triggered my emotions, especially my grief.

I said to Abby: “Do you remember my appointment a year ago, when I cried because I thought my dad might be dying?”

She said, “I surely do. Tears ran down your face while I worked on you. And you had a lot more bleeding points than usual.”

The body exposes its pain in unexpected ways.

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Sometimes Topics Choose Us. Period.

bleeding women & menstrual hygiene

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. I just never imagined I would write about rape. Instead, I imagined traveling the world to research “The 25 Most Adventurous Vacations,” or maybe I’d create a brightly colored board book about baby hippos who wear polkadot tutus. I thought writing would be full of excitement, fun and whimsy!

But sometimes our life’s journey makes other choices for us. Choosing to be happy means choosing to embrace the unchosen topics that come our way. So here’s another unchosen topic that has grabbed ahold of me recently: menstrual hygiene in Africa.

My involvement came about because of my memoir. One of the biblical texts that helped me recover from rape was the story of Jesus healing the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:21-43). I wrote a devotional about this passage for Christianity Today in April. Then, a couple of weeks ago I preached on this text at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY. During the sermon I mentioned that bleeding women (i.e. menstruating women) still suffer stigma in many parts of the world, especially Africa. This is the reason girls so often quit school at puberty. It’s not just that they can’t attend class the five or so days of their flow — the fear of bleeding, and lack of products to manage the bleeding, creates intense shame.

Yes, I have developed a sensitive Shame thermometer! But I want to be more than a thermometer, measuring the temperature that our culture sets for women. I want to become a thermostat. I want to lower the temperature of Shame.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations working to make a difference in Africa. Most often they help villagers sew reusable menstrual products. They often involve the whole community, including the men, which greatly reduces the shame and stigma of menstruation. This is important work.

Here are two organizations I am becoming acquainted with:

The MoonCatcher Project based in Schenectady, NY. This organization makes and teachers others to make MoonCatchers — reusable, durable menstrual pads with highly absorbent inserts. The Project delivers the pads to poor communities throughout the world, often along with health and hygiene classes.

Days for Girls I love their slogan: “Every Girl. Everywhere. Period.?” They are working around the globe to provide sustainable feminine hygiene solutions and health education, because when girls and women have health, education, and opportunity,
communities and our world are stronger.

Have you been involved with these projects or others? The women at Westminster in Albany NY are extending their web through Presbyterian Women. This is exactly how women change the world!

I would love to hear from you. Let’s network.

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“Raped Perfectly”

the response to victims complicates matters, even from the church

We live at a time when sexual violence is commonplace and even sanctioned in subtle ways. The downfall of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — followed immediately by his receiving a $25 million severance and new podcast — shows how slick and impenetrable a powerful man can be. Perhaps certain parts of a woman really are up for grabs in America. At the very least, her skin is much more vulnerable than the Teflon suit a high-profile abuser wears.

How does religion fit in? People of faith might hope that churches would respond to victims with compassion, but that is often not the case. Religious leaders tend to focus on the issue of purity — especially sexual purity. Their questions add pain to an already traumatized victim. What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Did you know him? Did you fight him? The underlying message is this: You were in some way culpable.

“People want you to have been raped perfectly.” That’s how Amy Schumer summed it up last summer while she was on book tour with her memoir, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.” She told Howard Stern: “I think it’s important to talk about because it’s made me feel less alone when other women have come forward about being sexually assaulted. And also because it’s not this perfect rape. People want you to be a perfect victim.”

I was grateful that a high-profile woman was speaking openly about sexual assault. Like Amy, I published a memoir about rape last summer, but here’s the difference between us (OK, beside the fact that she’s a best-selling comic speaking to sold-out audiences): I was raped perfectly. And it was still horrific.

The crime could have been ripped from urban folklore: I lived in a house with college roommates. Two strangers broke into our home in the dead of night. They wore ski masks and carried guns. They held us hostage, threatened our lives, robbed us, and raped us. The fact that we victims were white, and the rapists were African-American, simply pushed the story further into the land of cultural myth.

But while I was a perfectly innocent victim (wearing a flannel nightgown, asleep in my own bed on a Sunday night after attending church) the story is not a fable. And it turns out that being a “perfect victim” does not protect a person from shame, guilt, and recrimination. Not only was I consumed by shame, but I was also furious at God, who allowed this to happen. The church heaped on coals, assuring me that everything happened according to God’s will.

I was largely alone on the spiritual journey that followed. It was my faith in God, not my connection to a church, that helped me find my voice and discover my sense of agency. Eventually God was not only the place I lodged my fury, but also where I found my comfort. I came to realize that we are all more than what happens to us.

Sexual violence happens too often, and is too often treated with complacence. It is time for the church to change its response and to be of real help to victims.

I wrote this essay for “Voices of Faith” column in the Albany Times Union on May 19, 2017.

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This 2 minute video introduces the pilgrimage, March 5-16, 2018.

It’s filling up but we still have a couple open slots. Are you the person we’re looking for?

Contact me and I’ll send the registration form which has more detailed information.

When Grief Sucks Us Dry

how to rehydrate creativity

My little church experienced two unexpected deaths in two weeks — fatal heart attacks of otherwise healthy persons. During that same period, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a month.

I did all the things a pastor does. I visited hospitals and put together funeral services and preached the resurrection. But I surely felt the toll of all that emotion, both my own grief and the grief of others. I felt sad and shriveled up.

I wondered how — and even if — I could replenish my well of creativity. I stumbled across one answer unexpectedly. Months ago I purchased tickets for the whole family to see a musical, “Fun Home.” It was to be an early Mothers Day celebration. Our daughters were excited about the show and that was enough for me. I like to experience a show with a blank slate, so I was glad I didn’t know much about it — only that it was a memoir set to music, and much of it takes place in a Funeral Home.

As life would have it, my friend’s memorial service was set to take place at noon on the Saturday of the show, in downtown DC. The matinee began at 2:00, just a few blocks away. I wondered if it would be better to sell the tickets and book something for another day. I worried that we might all experience emotional whiplash, going from a real funeral to a staged one.

In the end we decided to do both. The show was near the end of its run and rescheduling would be impossible. Besides, my friend who died, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Krehbiel, had been the type to live large. He would smile to know of our plans. So we attended the memorial service all together, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The sanctuary is gorgeous and historic and the service was a beautiful testimony to a life well-lived. We listened to every word, shed tears, sang the hymns, greeted a few people (far too few because of our rush), then got ourselves to the theater.

(more…)

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