Flash Fiction by Donal Mahoney: “Big Thanksgiving Snow”

The first snow of the winter is blanketing our Western Massachusetts region today, the day before Thanksgiving, which makes this a perfect time to post this short-short story by Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney. Enjoy, and drive safely.

Big Thanksgiving Snow

by Donal Mahoney

 

“Sometimes Jesus walked around with a big staff, just like me,” Mrs. Day says to herself as she looks at the frayed picture on her kitchen wall just above the little kitchen table. She cut that picture out of a magazine 50 years ago when she subscribed to Life and Look and Colliers magazines.

“Jesus doesn’t need that staff,” Mrs. Day tells herself. “It was a sunny day in Jericho, the article said. I’ll bet He used that staff to go up in the hills to pray. The Bible says He often left the apostles behind to go away and pray. I’d have kept an eye on Him if I was there.”

At 80 Mrs. Day is legally blind with one good leg. She has a staff of her own to help her walk to stores and then back to her little house. The staff is at least a foot taller than she is. It was a gift from a dead neighbor who was handy with tools and liked to carve and whittle. Mrs. Day needs that staff this Thanksgiving Day as she makes her way through drifts of snow, an unusual amount for this first big winter holiday.

With nothing in the fridge except old bread and prunes, Mrs. Day hopes to find a diner open. Even Jack in the Box is closed for Thanksgiving so there will be no coffee with a Breakfast Jack to go but Mrs. Day has time today to find a place that is open. And she knows that place will probably be Vijay’s Diner, where she’s a customer on days when every other place is closed.

Vijay came to the United States long ago when Mumbai was still Bombay. He cooks for everyone every day of the year, whatever God they worship or ignore. He makes fine Indian dishes for customers who emigrated from India as he did. And he makes fine American cuisine for people from the neighborhood, most of whom have yet to adjust to Indian dishes and their redolent spices.

“I have a nice turkey leg, Mrs. Day, if you’d like that,” he says, but all she wants is coffee, two sugars and a muffin to go.

“I’m on a diet,” she tells him.

Vijay puts her items in a small brown bag and adds a free candy bar, a Baby Ruth bar, a big one, for later tonight. Mrs. Day will be angry when she gets home and finds it but that’s okay. She can’t come out at night to look for something to eat. It’s tough enough for her to get around in sunlight.

Vijay waits for Mrs. Day to dig in her big purse and put all of her change on the counter. Then they count aloud together each coin that he picks up one at a time. Finally they agree he has the right amount even though Mrs. Day has trouble seeing the coins. Usually she can tell which are which by the feel of them. Now Vijay smiles at Mrs. Day, his customer on the holidays only.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Day,” he says. “I hope you’ll come again. We’ll have leg of lamb on Christmas. And ham and yams on New Year’s Eve. I’ll make you a nice big sandwich. I know you’ll like it. You can skip the diet for one day.”

30 Poems in November: Your Turkey Day Reminder

Are you thankful that you can read this? Give the gift of literacy to new immigrants, and sponsor me in my 30 Poems in November fundraiser.

Here is today’s poem for your enjoyment. Have a tasty holiday!

Ode to Butternut Squash

Butternut squash, you are the War and Peace of vegetables.
So heavy, traditional, symbolic of grand ambitions unfulfilled.
Delusional, even, like Napoleon’s drive to conquer Russia,
which is what I assume Tolstoy’s classic is about,
though like most Americans tucking into their giblets this holiday,
I’ve never cracked the book on display in my living room.
Butternut squash, is this your destiny too?
Like the little Corsican exiled on Elba,
will you shrivel and sag in my refrigerator,
Thanksgiving come and gone, nothing to hope for
except that this time I’ll mean it when I glimpse you
behind the milk and say to myself,
“I really should cook that before it goes bad”?
Butternut squash, my knife shrinks from sawing into your rind,
your brute firmness, flesh pink and unmarked,
sized to give Anna Karenina the shivers.
I do not have the conquering spirit.
Because I am afraid, butternut squash,
that even if I can cut you in half without losing a finger,
and you yield your virgin territory
to be encrusted with sugared pecans like a Fabergé egg,
and I find the patience to bake you at 350 degrees
for longer than it takes to say “Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky”,
my guests, who have never starved in the siege of Moscow,
will not be grateful for your sacrifice
and fill up on pie instead.

Poetry by Robert McDowell: “The Promise of Hunter’s Moon”

Poet, activist, and spiritual workshop leader Robert McDowell sent out this powerful poem in his e-newsletter to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Women (Nov. 25). McDowell’s work focuses on actualizing the sacred feminine to bring about gender equality and reconciliation. He has kindly allowed me to reprint it below.

The Promise of Hunter’s Moon
by Robert McDowell

At some point we’re all coming back as birds.
We’ll begin in the muck, unrecognizable, stinking,
Until creatures with hands or tools for hands
Scoop us up and start squeezing and pulling.
Suddenly there we are, unmistakably beaked,
Straining against thin leather thongs that someone
Had the good sense to tie around rocks and our twiggy legs.
It’s a good thing, this confinement, because free
We’d rip and tear apart anything we could reach.
The things with hands, or tools like hands, feed us
A mixture of water and the blood of the beheaded,
And with this inside of us we develop fast,
Looking more like giant birds you’d recognize
By the minute. Our feathers grow black and glossy,
And the thicker they become the meaner we feel.
When they just can’t grow anymore they fall out.
Our featherless bodies are disgusting to touch,
Hideous to behold. Where once we were murderous,
We grow timid under the mirror-hot sun. Then
More feathers appear, small, white feathers,
Beautiful, snowy plumes that dazzle in moonlight.
When we’re ready she comes. Out of the sea and sky,
Out of the barren ground she comes. Astonishing
Is her loveliness, perfected is her power.
She rises and walks among us as we bow,
Obedient, peaceful, and so in love.

New Poem by Conway: “Smell”

My prison pen pal Conway reports that the hearing on his petition for early release has been delayed until December, crushing his hope of being reunited with his family for Christmas. It’s been over two years since California voters passed Proposition 36, which was supposed to roll back the harsh sentences imposed on nonviolent offenders under the three-strikes law. This Nov. 14 L.A. Times article suggests the state is dragging its feet on releasing prisoners because the Department of Corrections benefits from their underpaid labor:

Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.

The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

“The record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so ‘promptly,'” the judges wrote in Friday’s order.

Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the agency would comply with the order.

But the federal judicial panel did not take action on other steps it had ordered California to take last February. Those include increasing the sentence reductions minimum-custody inmates can earn for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation and education programs.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Meanwhile, my friend Conway keeps his soul alive through creative writing. In addition to poetry, he is working on an autobiographical novel about growing up with his brothers and sisters in a gang-ridden neighborhood. I think he could be the next S.E. Hinton! I was struck by this poem’s taut rhythm and rapid-fire rhymes and wordplay.

Smell

This is the smell of a cell…
This is the smell of rust and dust, and sometimes lust.
Plus it’s the smell of double bar-locks, block and blocks, of towers
and useless clocks. If you don’t know what time it is, oh well!

Could it be the smell of a dirty-ass sock, or worn-out useless
fruitless talk? But still, it’s a voice you feel you might trust.
Not that, oh no!
This is the smell of nothing good. No pleasure, no sound,
nobody around to be found, nowhere to go.
Nothing to show, for all the shit you now know.

This is the smell of a place where no one belongs, but still
we’re stuck here. Because the court insists we’ve done something wrong.
This is that place where they’ll put you away, to serve
day after day. And you’ll rust in the smell of the dust and decay.

This is the smell you will always smell, unless
they tell you “your smelling is finally done.”
In this smelly assed life, that’s good for no-one.
This is the smell of no place to be, this is the smell I see.
This is the smell of just one prisoner’s tale.
This is the smell of that living hell.
This is the smell that I smell.
This is the smell of jail…

The Lion Under My Skin

Three weeks ago I made another one of my longtime fashion dreams come true.  I got my first tattoo.

lion_tattoo_2014

This lion who now lives on my left ankle represents Aslan, the Christ-figure in the Narnia books, as well as the courage of my male spiritual side. The original artwork by Nycci Traynor at InkWell Studio in Bristol, CT is based on our first Winning Writers logo. (Now that’s corporate loyalty.)

inkwell_tattoo_parlor

Oct. 30, 2014, 1 PM: I prepare to meet my fate.

I promised myself a tattoo when I finished the latest revision of The Endless Novel, back in August. As the appointment date approached, though, I was getting cold feet. I wasn’t anxious about the pain so much as the commitment. My beliefs, priorities, and personal style have gone through major changes several times already. What if the image I chose no longer represented me in a few years? I asked my oldest friend for advice. He said he was also contemplating a tattoo with a symbol that would remind him that God was always there for him. So that’s how I made my choice.

I’m glad he got me thinking about tattoos as a spiritual practice. Ink can be a beautiful, unique, and (after the first couple of weeks) zero-maintenance form of adornment. But beyond that, for me it’s a way of taking ownership of my body. Creative control, if you will. I can go beyond the limits of what I was given, and turn my body into a visible record of my inner journey.

In some indigenous cultures, tattoos and other forms of body modification play a role in rites of passage. They mark a permanent transition to adulthood and demonstrate the bearer’s physical endurance and bravery. This aspect of tattooing also became important to me when I was under the needle.

So how painful was it? It was pretty much what you’d expect from having needles stuck in your leg for two hours. In other words, equivalent to about five minutes on the phone with my childhood abuser. (This is the universal standard of measurement in our household.) And unlike such conversations, the emotional aftereffects of being inked were nothing but positive.

I didn’t enjoy the pain per se, but it turned out I enjoyed how tough it made me feel. As it was happening, I compared it to other types of pain I’ve experienced, and reassured myself that I could handle this. I gained a clearer perspective on the boundaries between pain, suffering, and abuse.

Buddhists distinguish between pain, the unpleasant sensation itself, and suffering, the way we compound our pain by proliferating fearful or angry thoughts about it. There was no suffering involved in my tattoo because it was purposeful, consensual, time-limited, applied by someone I trusted, and chosen from a position of self-affirmation. Compare, for example, the facial hair electrolysis I had in my 20s, which was the closest equivalent to the physical sensation, but was much more of a downer because I was doing it to fix something I felt was wrong with me, not to make my awesome self more awesome.

In the Endless Novel and my notes for the sequel, I’ve been struggling with how to interpret, and whether to judge, my characters’ risky sexual practices. I have less than zero erotic interest in pain in the bedroom, but one of my main characters has made it clear that he’s a kinkster and doesn’t want to be “cured” through trauma therapy. Meanwhile, at Winning Writers, I’ve just finished judging the Sports Fiction & Essay Contest, reading about athletes who subject their bodies to extreme hardships and sometimes permanent injuries, in pursuit of–what? Winning an arbitrary game, feeling tough, being admired, defying age and mortality? What does society consider a legitimate reason to override the animal instinct for self-preservation? What is the difference between BDSM and roller derby?

Last month, Sarah Bessey at Jesus Feminist put up a post saying that Christians should not engage in consensual sexual practices involving domination and pain. She argued that such fantasies trivialized the societal problem of abuse, and ran counter to the Christian ethic of nonviolent love.

Without any experience to contradict Bessey, I was inclined to agree with her, but two of the Christian feminists I most respect, Sarah Moon and Samantha Field, offered cogent rebuttals that opened my mind. From Field’s post:

What I love about kink is how it exposes us as a couple. It puts the amount of love we have for each other and how deeply we trust each other fully on display in a way that more vanilla sex just doesn’t. For me, when I’m subbing, there’s an unbelievable amount of anticipation that is almost joyful. I don’t know what he’s about to do, or where this is about to go, but I know that I’m going to love it.

The best part is that I have complete and total control over what happens. As a rape victim, I cannot overstate how much that means to me. When Handsome and I are in a scene, I know that if he attempts something that makes me uncomfortable I can put an instant stop to it–but that hasn’t even happened yet. While we’re playing, we’re attentive to each other in a way that we don’t quite attain when we’re having a missionary quickie. Whoever is on top is watching every single breath and twitch, and we’re communicating with each other more than any other time we have sex. And because I know he is watching me incredibly carefully, I’m free to let go; he’s pushed me in ways I didn’t think was possible, and that’s happened because I trust him and I know he loves me…

…[P]ain is not the same thing as violence, and causing pain is certainly not the same thing as abuse. That’s not even an argument that makes sense–everything in our daily lives belies that. It’s non-consensual pain (emotional or physical) that is an intrinsic violation and is always wrong, full stop.

To me, BDSM is about communication, and respect, and trust, and love, and commitment, and honoring each other. It’s about exploring, finding, and then keeping boundaries.

The anonymous guest writer at Moon’s blog shared similar thoughts about the satisfaction of pushing one’s limits in a consensual, trust-filled environment:

They tell me that my experience is less “true” than the narrative that BDSM critics try to impose. That the way I feel isn’t real, can’t be trusted. (You know this is gaslighting, right?)

Here is what it feels like for me, as a submissive who is otherwise a perfectionist, to be in the hands of a trusted partner: relaxation. Gratitude. Is it okay for me to be this lazy and still feel this good? No need to think, to stress. Just receive.

Here is what it feels like for me, a dominant who was raised in a culture where women aren’t really supposed to want power, let alone claim it: awe. Look at what I can do. Look what he wants from me, what he trusts me with. Look how wonderful he looks…

…Sex is fraught with connotations, with connections hidden in the subconscious. Power dynamics are also fraught. Examine everything. In fact, I will be prescriptive here: the more closely an action mimics oppressive power structures, the more closely you should examine it before acting on it or making it a deliberate part of your fantasy life.

And if an action seems to replicate those power structures too closely for your comfort, that is a good reason for you to refrain from an act. In fact, I think it’s a fantastic reason. Society does program us all in certain ways, and it is our duty and responsibility to be on the lookout for that.

But “too close for comfort” for you does not mean that other people can’t navigate it safely.

And assuming that one can draw a line in the sand where the actions on one side are “good” and the actions on the other side are “bad” is a practice that Christianity has engaged in for too long.

Because of how I felt while getting inked, these arguments resonate with me, in a way that might not have been possible before. Tattoos are more mainstream than they used to be, but a lot of people still judge tattooed women as rebellious, self-destructive, not respectable, etc. That’s why I placed mine on my ankle, where I could easily hide it with clothing when I need to look “professional”. (A demand that’s fortunately rare in the life of a poet.) Intent and effects matter more than some list of approved and un-approved actions tagged with pre-fab psychological explanations.

Is my painful body modification partly a response to my trauma history? Maybe so…but my response is…

ROAR!!

Sponsor Me: Fall Fundraisers for Literacy and Domestic Violence Services

Two opportunities are coming up for blog readers to sponsor me for a good cause.

First, I’ll be writing a poem a day in November to raise money for the Center for New Americans. CNA is a community-based, nonprofit adult education center that provides the under-served immigrant, refugee and migrant communities of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley with education and resources to learn English, become involved community members and obtain tools necessary to maintain economic independence and stability.

When I did CNA’s 30 Poems in November fundraiser in 2010 and 2011, it helped me recapture a sense of fun in my poetry and push myself to find fresh subject matter. The poem-a-day challenge generated prizewinning poems such as “After October Snow” and “Depression Is My Happy Place“, and other slightly less substantial works, like “The Ballad of Trader Joe’s Dimidiated Turkey”. The project wraps up with a group reading and celebration at Smith College in early December. Please join us if you’re in the area, and sponsor me at Razoo: Jendi Reiter’s 30 Poems in November

Second, our family-of-choice, a/k/a Freedom Team, will be walking in Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage on Sunday, December 7. This 5K run and 3K walk supports Hampshire County’s domestic violence shelter and advocacy organization. Please sponsor my page or Shane’s page at PledgeReg!

Now, for your delectation, the official poem for November 17, 2010:

The Ballad of Trader Joe’s Dimidiated Turkey

When only half a turkey will do,
When only half a turkey will do,
When there’s an empty place at table and you’ve eaten all you’re able,
Baby, I’m the better half for you.

You been stirring up that pot of beans ‘n rice,
You been stirring up that pot that smells so nice,
Cook that dinner year on year, while he sits ‘n drinks his beer,
Baby, you won’t have to heat me twice.

Grandma’s boyfriend took her on a cruise,
You sit and watch the blizzard on the news,
When your daughter calls collect, ’cause her flight did not connect,
Baby, I got just one wing and it’s for you.

You been rollin’ out that cherry pie,
You been rollin’ out sweet cherry pie,
He’s lost in halftime doze, dripping gravy on his clothes,
C’mon baby, lemme show you some thigh.

That tender meat is fallin’ off the bone,
You can share it with your friends or eat alone.
Serve me hot with sausage stuffin’, and I won’t let on you’re bluffin’
When you smile and say you made it all at home.

Poetry by R.T. Castleberry: “Leaving Alexandria”

R.T. Castleberry’s chapbook Arriving at the Riverside (Finishing Line Press, 2010) sings the ballads of a wandering man, that uniquely American character who is by turns a prophet, a drifter, a lover, and a wounded warrior. As he writes in “An Arrangement of Necessities”: “Tomorrow I travel,/see my headlights on the car ahead, lay my pallet in the dust ruts by the road…Leaving is easy.”

Yet, although he may journey from Memphis to Santa Fe to Canberra with little more than a classic book and a brandy bottle, the speaker of these poems also carries the burden of wartime memories, the unwelcome knowledge of how we destroy ourselves. “A morning sun slices leaf-flooded lanes,/curves choked with sites/of church grounds, schoolyard, first house…I watch high-striking jets dissect the compass rose.” (“The Traveler at a Loss”)

In a time when free verse has become weakened by talky informality, Castleberry restores the muscular rhythms of poetry informed by what T.S. Eliot called “the ghost of meter”. The poems’ strong forward motion is balanced by a meditative attention to the landscape’s sights and sounds.

Castleberry kindly shares this poem from the book, which he says was inspired by the Michael Caine movie “Alfie“.

LEAVING ALEXANDRIA

From a balcony above the Eastern Harbor
I treat the scene as photographs for a file:
horizon’s passive line of curving bay, anchored ship,
bathers splashing in the early surf,
a seaplane’s banking turn from the water.
I take Tom Stoppard’s plays, a Fodor’s guide, a map case
and place them beside the pistol in my pack.
Open on the bed is a letter.
“Tell me what was said,” is the only line.

I have wandered my history, to no good purpose—
every mistake I’ve made crowds me in my sleep.
I recall every grievance, each discourtesy,
rooms I’ve entered to win or wound someone softer.
I’ve loved 3 women
all married, and lonely in the world.
I never meet the children. I sometimes know their friends.
I enjoy their confidence, my detachment,
the skilled and hungry sex, a little drama.

There is a seasonal pleasure in waking with a lover—
the sleepy tangle of bedclothes and bodies,
a bath and brunch, a kiss to set another date.
There are other, private times I prefer
the challenge of a married woman’s mind.
A wife who’s known
the comforts and discomforts of a child,
long years, lingering moods beside her husband.
I lean to listen
for wise advice on healthcare and clothes,
business manners, the public polish.
I know the taste of her,
the rise of her mouth to mine.

As we walk the Montazah Palace Gardens
she tells me some snoop,
some over-eager officer has seen us at an inconvenient hour.
“My husband’s home. He’ll want to see you.
He’ll be cool. Calmer still, as you talk. Don’t trust it.
I don’t imagine that will happen. Can you handle him
when I leave for Lisbon later in the week?”

The serial life has stripped me. It poisons as it protects.
I bear no malice, as I can bear no bitterness.
A steamer leaves for Tunis in an hour.
When I land, I’ll make a choice for Marseilles or Montreal.
On my desk the jumble of a Cairo newspaper reads:
“Attempted Murder/Officer’s Suicide.”
The photo spread shows a body beside a car,
another wounded behind the wheel.
I have no faith in explanations, in truth told to pain.
Strangers before, we are strangers from now on.

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again”

This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review decisions from three federal appeals courts that had overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. By letting these decisions stand, the high court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in these states, and put it on track to be legalized in the other states under the jurisdiction of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal. Marriage bans in Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming will probably be invalidated by the Circuit Court rulings. This story from the Pew Research Center lays out the implications.

This news was on our longtime contributor Donal Mahoney’s mind when he shared the following poem with me.

Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again

Many years later when I meet her again
on my way out of the Russian Tea Room
I notice how beautiful she is dining with him,
a man more attentive than I was back then.

But I see chaos dancing in her eyes
and I wonder if she has told him.
I doubt she has since she needed
ten years to tell me.

I accept the offer to join them for dessert,
and when she goes to the powder room,
I have a nice chat with her newest suitor.
He’s as decent as the others have been.

On her return, he leaves to use his cell phone
and that’s when, struggling for words, I say
“If you meet the right one, you can get married
in many states and more are likely to come.”

Christian Blog Roundup: Incarnational Boundaries, Rethinking Outreach, and More

I read Christian blogs and Twitter feeds nearly every day, and periodically email myself the standout articles that give me ideas to write about. Time pressures being what they are, a lot of these ideas hang about in my inbox for months, never quite finding the right occasion for a full post. So here is a links roundup, loosely connected around themes of Christian psychology and the balance between self-care and service.

Maybe We Should Stop ‘Doing Outreach’“: The Rev. Cathie Camaino, an Episcopal priest who blogs as Father Cathie (read her wonderful explanation here), proposes that churches should stop thinking of “service” as organized programs for helping outsiders, and face our fears of sharing our own needs with our fellow members.

“Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry…Engaging with our faith such that it stirs up our compassion, generosity, and courage to be vulnerable is certainly the work of the church. How this happens may not be. It seems that in our congregational life, at least as much energy is put towards the organization and scheduling of ‘outreach’ programs, the recruitment of volunteers, and the promotion of service, than is actually spent doing the work to which we have been called. Maybe the church is not the place to create the programs (which are often duplicated, in much better ways, by other organizations) but the place to ground ourselves in our Christian faith such that we feel the call to serve.”

Incarnational Boundaries“: Progressive evangelical writer Zach J. Hoag contends that our churches would be emotionally healthier if we took Christ’s embodiment more seriously. We become lost in theories and systems, and don’t pay attention to the ways that abusers exploit our simplistic moralism.

“I see Jesus affirming the embodied human experience of that which is emotionally healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. In fact, I see Jesus practicing healthy boundaries in his work with people that reveals the often manipulative, abusive, and harmful ways that people treat each other (which often causes so much emotional and psychological pain and damage). And this Way of Jesus confronts our ideological, neo-gnostic ways as evangelicals.

See, we are very good at creating unsafe environments where harmful and abusive behaviors are explained away using flat theological categories like sin, pride, faith, prayer, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership, headship, submission, etc. Thus,we don’t respond to these behaviors appropriately nor protect those victimized or potentially affected by them. And, these behaviors are often coming from leaders who are protected as those endorsed by God. Further, we often force the value of ‘community’ onto relationships in the church in such a way that puts people in unsafe or even violating situations.

When we interpret Jesus’s words through his Way, however, we see a different picture. Instead of mandated ‘reconciliation’, we see that there can be no grace, and thus no real reconciliation, without the truth. And, though we always pursue and remain passionate about reconciliation, the reality is that the truth just might bring division, not reconnection. (Forgiveness is another matter, as it requires only one party engaging in a process of releasing bitterness toward the offender.) Matthew 18:15-20 describes a process of truth-telling that may result in the offender not hearing – and thereby being deemed unsafe.

If we mandate things simply by looking at the words of Jesus or the Apostles and drawing out ideological categories, then we may very well continue to produce communities of obligation racked with unhealthy dynamics rather than safe, healthy churches. And if the gospel is bringing us to greater wholeness, showing us what it means to be truly human in the Messiah, then an incarnational church will preach and practice the healthy boundaries that Jesus himself embodied.

Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting“: When psychology professor and theologian Richard Beck shared the stage with a trauma expert at a Fuller Theological Seminary lecture series, they explored how the Christian ideal of self-emptying (kenosis) must have a different interpretation for the abused and oppressed, i.e. people whose selves have already been crushed or never allowed to form. Beck proposes:

“…what is being emptied is the hero system–the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The ‘emptying’ of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system…

The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this.  That is experienced as a ‘descent’ of sorts.

But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you ‘deserve’ to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.

It’s a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it’s still the hero system. It’s just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.

So an emptying has to occur. The hero system–that internalized filth and shit–has to be poured out. Vomited out.

Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons–destructive psychological/spiritual darkness–are being cast out, emptied out.

White Men, Submission, and the Kingdom of God“: And on a related note, Christian author and blogger Dan J. Brennan expands on a comment by Christian feminist writer Julie Clawson about how the language of “dying to self” can reinforce patriarchy:

“Which man or woman, dealing with self-contempt, dealing with chronic self-contempt, wants a steady diet within their church pulpit and church social media, ‘You must die to self, you must submit your voice to others because we’re all guilty of self-exaltation’?  I myself, deeply wrestled with chronic self-contempt for years and sermonic appeals to trust God, etc. did not help. For years I did not wrestle with Niebuhrian pride. I wrestled with self-contempt, wrestling with shame wondering how God could love me.

Because of my history, I cringe when I see white male leaders so tightly knit death to self with submission in their ecclesiology and spirituality without a healthy understanding that in the 21st century Niebuhrian pride is not all there is to self-understanding. Niebuhrian pride is not a universal experience for all people. It’s probably not even at the heart of most postmoderns. It’s certainly not at the heart of many women and minorities. White male leaders like this can keep good Christian (and nonChristian) therapists with an unending list of clients wrestling with self-contempt.

They can also promote systemic sin as Julie noted.

It’s challenging and heartbreaking when you see good white men with good hearts come to grips with their genuine Niebuhrian pride and then they want to universalize it for everyone else in their sermons, tweets, and social media.

Read Brennan’s follow-up post here.

The Priesthood of All Survivors

I’m having doubts about my place in the church.

As I overcome trauma-induced beliefs that made me fear direct communication with God, I have less need for a giant mediating structure to serve as a lightning rod. As I gain confidence in my own perceptions, and in the availability of forgiveness for my faults, I have less need for sermons saying how everyone “should” feel and act.

I still long for a community centered on Christ. I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer.

However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Such a community doesn’t form spontaneously in every group of people that calls itself a parish. It either has to be steered in that direction by an insightful pastor who is willing to yield power to the laypeople, or assembled outside church walls by the individuals who need it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the local parish, precisely because of its randomness, teaches the spiritual discipline of learning to share fellowship with people for whom you feel no natural affinity. This is an important practice, but I think he was wrong that a person’s hand-picked circle of spiritual friends is more likely to be a group of yes-men than the traditional church. Intentional communities can be diverse if they make a commitment to be so. (See, for example, the Freedom Circles at the Becoming Church program that I visited this spring.) Plus, there is a difference between the fruitful discomfort of listening to people outside your own race, social class, etc., and the pain of being a survivor in a church that doesn’t prioritize relational safety.

What about the sacraments? My mystical, physical union with Jesus in the Eucharist is my strongest reason for choosing church attendance over quiet reflection with Morning Prayer on my iPhone. When I see my fellow parishioners approach the altar rail, our relationship becomes solemnized, revealing a dimension of interconnection beyond ordinary acquaintance. I sense the possibility of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something I can access in solitude.

Surely the official church still has a monopoly on this power…or does it?

Feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote the following in her book Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

The residue of clericalism gives even liberal Protestants the impression that the administration of the sacraments is a function that most especially must be exercised by persons set aside in specialized ministry. But, in fact, representation of the community in rites of baptism, forgiveness, or Eucharist depends very little on specialized skills of learning. It is significant that the New Testament contains many words for special charisms and skills, but that they are not identified with special offices responsible for the sacraments of baptism or Eucharist…

…[As] people become empowered to make their contribution to shaping the worship life of the community… leadership does not disappear but assumes its true functionality when it is liberated from clerical monopoly over ministry, word, and sacrament. Leadership is called forth from within the community rather than imposed on it in a way that deprives the community of its own self-articulation. (pgs. 209-10)

This radically Protestant idea had never occurred to me. I set it aside as a memorable curiosity for several years, until now, when I realize I need a healthier reason to stay than “Where else can I go?”

Codependence taints the American church’s strategies for retaining members. A quote popped up in my Twitter feed from a progressive evangelical blogger. On the Internet, I’ve seen it variously attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Chuck Swindell, and Chuck Colson. “The church is a lot like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside.

As a relationship move, this is like telling your wife, “Go ahead and try to leave. You couldn’t make it on your own.” It’s a counsel of despair, casting would-be reformers within the church as whiny children who won’t accept that life isn’t perfect. Actual children, to survive, have to convince themselves that the “stink” of their dysfunctional families is better on balance than the “storm” of an outside world where they’re not yet capable of living independently. But we’re adults now. “The world” is us. A church held together by fear and shame can never help its members recognize toxic interpersonal patterns in their own lives.

When I first became a Christian, I was a young woman fighting for the right to marry and leave my abusive home. I resonated with the church’s self-presentation as a tiny raft of stability adrift in an ocean of danger. When Christianity told me that human beings were helpless and sinful, I was relieved, because that was how I felt all the time. It was validating to be able to admit my imperfections to a supportive community, not like my home where any flaw would be pounced upon. Like my mother, the traditional church faced the fact that the world is full of bullies, sexual predators, and plagues of locusts–which is true, up to a point. The church promised safety without isolation, a huge step up from my life before.

So my disillusionment with church makes me feel very guilty and sad. I feel like I’m abandoning the institution that helped me reach escape velocity from my biological family. But this, too, is part of growing up. In Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt’s essay “Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound“, he speaks of initiation as the fourth and final stage that good parent figures must complete, to release their protégés into adulthood with a blessing.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Jack-in-the-Box“, where a paranoid mother creates an elaborate ruse to convince her son that their house is, in fact, the entire world. When a crisis forces him to venture outside, he at first thinks that he must be dead:

Everything before him was new. Odors filled his nostrils, colors, odd shapes, incredible sizes filled his eyes.

If I run beyond the trees I’ll die, he thought, for that’s what Mother said. You’ll die, you’ll die.

But what’s dying? Another room? A blue room, a green room, far larger than all the rooms that ever were! But where’s the key? There, far ahead, a great half-open iron door, a wrought-iron gate. Beyond a room as large as the sky, all colored green with trees and grass! Oh, Mother, Teacher…

The story ends with a policeman bemusedly describing the strange kid who just ran past him.

“…He was laughing and crying, crying and laughing, both. He was jumping up and down and touching things. Things like lampposts, the telephone poles, fire hydrants, dogs, people. Things like sidewalks, fences, gates, cars, plateglass windows, barber poles. Hell, he even grabbed hold and looked at me, and looked at the sky, you should have seen the tears, and all the time he kept yelling and yelling something funny.”

“What did he yell?” asked the pedestrian.

“He kept yelling, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!'” The policeman scratched his chin slowly. “One of them new kid games, I guess.”

He who loses his life will find it…