christianity

Forgive Me, I am Grieving

christianity, kavanaugh, and grief stylewise-blog.com
When I am helplessly sad, you may not notice.

Because when the anxieties and dramas of life are manageable, believe me, I will tell you. There's a reason one of my nicknames growing up was Leah Whiner.

But when things feel out of control - when I am grieving - I become stoic. You will see me laughing, but you will not see my tears, because I've buried them deep in my chest where they carve a deep gorge.

Eventually I will break.

This week was the breaking point. The tears unloosed, I am ready to speak.

In early August, my Grandma Rosie died suddenly. Three weeks later my Grandma Howell died, too. I barely made it to Grandma Rosie's funeral because the men in the family insisted on rushing things. I couldn't make it to Grandma Howell's funeral because the men in the family ignored the pleas of my mother to delay it. Around the same time, my dad got a job in Florida and my parents began the process of selling their house in Ohio and moving back down. My grandpa, now a widower, moved  in with my parents. That's a lot for one month.

Then the Kavanaugh hearings began.

My brittle and fractured spirit wasn't prepared for the torrent of rage, grief, and fear stirred up as I read hundreds of #whyididn'treport stories, reflected on my first experience of sexual harassment (light assault? What could I have done differently?), relived the grief and trauma of rapes experienced by loved ones, and remembered all the times I had to fight, hard, to prove that I mattered as a woman.

This, while the Christian community I grew up in called Christine Blasey Ford a liar, suggested she was just confused (how patronizing!), or mocked her tears.

As I've spoken about before, I grew up in a politically conservative household influenced by the Religious Right, which attached things like abortion and the free market (?) to our religious education. Despite this, I also learned about a God who used his male privilege not to harm but to lift up the voices of women. A God who was self sacrificial to a fault, who both loved and was himself (Trinitarian theology is weird, ok?) a regular human being who wept over his coming execution and gave himself up to the state anyway. 

This is a radical, counter-cultural, frankly horrifying story, and I was reminded again and again as a young kid and teenager that this person-God Jesus was the one to emulate.

If you follow Jesus, I'm pretty sure you end up dead.

And while I struggle with the severity of the narrative, I have never thought that the Gospel narrative is telling us anything otherwise. Christianity is about humility and sacrifice, it is about seeing the Kingdom of God as an imaginative, wide-open space where everything we thought we knew is just a blip of what is true. It flips everything on its head: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The poor and the orphan and the widow are the heads of the table.

So why are Christians hell-bent on establishing a kingdom of death?

I don't know, though I have theories. But the past few weeks have made it difficult to believe that my time isn't being wasted insisting that the "pharisees" and hypocrites in the wider Christian community just need a little grace.

And I know I have to give it anyway, but I don't want to. So I grieve. I grieve for not being as kind as I want to be. I grieve for the ways my own family members have betrayed the very values they taught me. I grieve for a world that can't and won't believe women, who would sooner give "vulnerable men" body cameras and weapons to defend themselves from "lying women" than find a way to protect women.

I grieve, too, because my Grandma Rosie tried to kill herself once and if you ask her sons and husband about it, they can't tell you anything because they never asked why.

Book Review: Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

book review Inspired by Rachel Held Evans stylewise-blog.com
Just a heads up if you're usually here for ethical fashion content, today I'm sharing a book review for progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans' newest book, Inspired, which will be available for purchase next week. As I continue to work through the discernment process to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, I am consciously trying to bring faith topics into my writing on this blog. I promise to never attempt to convert you.  I received an advance reader copy of Inspired from the publisher. 

Rachel Held Evans and I go way back. I mean, we don't exactly know each other, at least not in real life, but reading her blog during my months and years of spiritual crisis was such a balm to my spirit. As I read her stories of doubt, pain, and exclusion within the context of her conservative, Evangelical church upbringing, I continuously whispered, "me too," sometimes - ok, often - through tears. Her words emboldened me to claim my own experiences of spiritual trauma as legitimate, and to seriously work through my doubt and pain in a way that was productive, and ultimately restored my relationship with God and with the church (though a very different one than the one I grew up in).

I've read all but her very first book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Searching for Sunday, and now, Inspired. And I can trace the ebb and flow of Rachel's own religious life and her orientation toward God and people of faith in her writing. In Inspired, I sense Rachel's newfound comfort in an inclusive and affirming religious community. Whereas before the pain was raw and the path dimly lit, in Inspired you can see that she knows who she is, and that quiet confidence allows grace to flow through her writing in a way I haven't perceived before.
book review Inspired by Rachel Held Evans stylewise-blog.com

Inspired is a book about the Bible.

It is written for both current and recovering biblical literalists - or those who believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the inerrant and factual words of God - and for progressive Christians and spiritual questioners who struggle to understand why they should even read the Bible. That's a hard audience to unify within a single book, but I appreciate Evans' quest to do so because it is in many ways the gap I'm trying to close in my own social circles, between family members who have remained in my former religious tradition and my current church community, who often laugh nervously because they've never even attempted to read the Bible.

What I Love

What I love about Inspired is its balance of research and memoir-style storytelling, authentic appreciation and valid critique. Evans clearly spent a lot of time seeking out voices that both cherish and find room for questioning within the scriptures. She is careful to remind the reader that the Bible is important and worth taking another look at in spite of its inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies, and problematic narratives.

She wants the reader - and the wider church - to appreciate the grand narrative of God's love and to truly understand why each story is told the way it is. And importantly, she doesn't shy away from the glaring ethical issues certain narratives and teachings illuminate. She allows for discomfort, which to my mind is the best if not only way to authentically engage with the scriptures.

I also think Inspired is effective. Despite some of my misgivings about the format or particular arguments, Evans' careful consideration and conversational tone make Inspired the type of book you want to share with your religious community, your mom, your roommate, or your coworker. It is the right tone for study groups and coffee dates, and beyond what it offers immediately, it allows for new, less encumbered conversations about the Bible.

What I Don't Love

For one, I don't think this book is really for me. As a Religious Studies grad who focused on the Hebrew Bible, I had to learn to deconstruct then truly love the Bible without the aid of Evans' book, and frankly, my personal experience helped me reconcile it with my own life - and the way it was used as a weapon against me - more than a book ever could.

That's obviously not Evans' fault, but it is what it is. For me, learning to love the Bible had a lot more to do with learning to love the flawed, eccentric humans who lived, narrated, and wrote about it, and to see something of myself in them. So while historical and cultural context and genre studies contributed to my overall understanding of how to read the texts, it was ultimately the grace of shared humanity with ancient Hebrews and first century Christians that led me back.

I also had to work on developing patience when it came to the "creative writing" chapters, where Evans creatively retells Bible stories in the vein of Jewish Midrash in an attempt to help the reader see ancient stories with fresh eyes. I appreciate why she did it, but I don't know if this is really her forte (Sorry, Rachel!).

Who Should Read It

Get this book if you're skeptical about the Bible, if you're trying to loosen the pull of biblical literalism without losing your faith, or if you're curious about what the Bible may offer beyond what you get at church. Evans has a knack for bringing people in and keeping them in conversation, and I hope that Inspired will give people the freedom and good theology to learn to love the Bible in all its messy, weird, holy chaos.

Inspired will be available at all major book stores in early June.

Preorder on Barnes & Noble here. (Some signed copies available)
Preorder on Amazon here.

If you have any questions or would like other book suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

5 Spiritual Memoirs for the Questioner

5 christian memoirs for spiritual crisis
I couldn't photograph the other books because I've lent them all out!
Contains affiliate links

Like many of you (I'm guessing), I grew up in church.

Got saved at six and baptized at ten or eleven. Attended a million Bible studies, a smattering of youth conventions, and up to three church services a week. When I started college, I learned that you could major in Religious Studies (I was lucky that Florida State had a pretty robust program, too) and I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Religious Ethics, two areas that I felt I'd been undereducated in within the context of church.

I started attending a bordering-on-fundamentalist college ministry my sophomore year simply because my then-boyfriend-now-husband's roommate recommended it. We all went together, so at first I didn't notice the toxicity of the environment. But things started to weigh on me, namely that my education and enthusiasm for taking an "intellectual" view on the church were not welcome when they came from me, a woman. In Bible study discussion pertinent to what I was studying in school, the leader would ask the men for assistance with interpretation. When I chimed in, I was met with awkward silence.

When the church was working to hire a new college minister, they asked the women how we felt about the prospective ministers' wives, not how we felt about them. It just went on from there. It got really, really bad for me, to the point that one day I literally ran out of the service, out the church doors, and kept running until I was almost to the edge of the property. I sat down by a creek bed and cried, the mosquitos glistening in the late morning sun as they hummed around me.

That sunshine was the holiest thing I'd experienced at that church.

After that, I left church. Not just that church, but church in general. I mean, Daniel and I hunted around for another community, but I was working through trauma and unsure of what I believed, so nothing stuck. I spent something like a year and a half coming home from work and just sitting in darkness. Sometimes I would get in bed at 6:00.

I wasn't angry with God, though I'm not sure I believed in God during much of that time. But I was angry that the language and community that made God real in my life had been stripped from me by bigoted men (and their female allies), and by a history of Biblical interpretation that left no room for continuing revelation and true honoring of everyone's gifts.

The turning point was a book. Someone recommended Still by Lauren Winner, a memoir about a woman who loses faith during an identity crisis that stems from an unexpected divorce. That word, Still, felt like chaos to me in my questioning, but her words helped me realize that Stillness could also look like peace, or like expectant waiting. I learned to take God's silence as God's listening, not as abandonment. And I'm so thankful for that, because here I am 6 years later starting the process to become a priest.

It is ok if your path is hard and confusing and weird. And I would understand if you left and don't plan on coming back to this, or any, faith tradition. The pain can be unbearable. But if you're questioning and need someone else's words to bounce your scattered thoughts off of, here are my recommendations...

5 CHRISTIAN MEMOIRS FOR THE QUESTIONER

Mere Christianity

While not truly a memoir, C.S. Lewis' classic explores a lot of the practical and existential questions people have about the life of faith and the nature of God. Lewis' description of predestination versus free will in relation to time is something I come back to again and again when I'm asking the bigger questions, or exploring the nature of suffering.

Learn more here.

Searching for Sunday

Rachel Held Evans is a former Evangelical whose path closely mirrors my own. Searching for Sunday is a vulnerable exploration of what it means to find church again after trauma, and I particularly like the way she organizes her thoughts through the Sacraments. I wrote a full review of Searching for Sunday here.

Learn more here.

Leaving Church

Barbara Brown Taylor got ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church because she wanted to help wounded people. She served at a big city church and a small rural church, but after several years she found herself quietly crying in despair every Sunday. Cultivating Christian community had inadvertently left her feeling more isolated than ever before. I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone, but it was a good way for me to process some of the loose ends, particularly after I'd gotten over the initial hurdles of spiritual crisis.

Learn more here.

Dangerous Territory

Amy Peterson's memoir about being a secret missionary in Southeast Asia inspired an entire blog post, which you can read here. Peterson's naive enthusiasm for the church put her new friends in ongoing danger and deconstructed her spiritual identity, but she was eventually able to throw out the bath water without losing the baby, so to speak.

Learn more here.

Still

Lauren Winner's vulnerable story of not knowing what to believe changed my life. In 2015, I reflected on what I learned from it here, but the gist of that experience was understanding the value of liturgy and habit for sustaining periods of doubt. When you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, you can still know how to keep going. Prayers to pray, conversations to have, and questions to meditate on. I focused on social justice issues to sustain me and I credit my period of doubt for the creation of this blog.

Learn more here.

5 christian memoirs for spiritual crisis

Lent: What I'm Giving Up & How You Can Join Me

what i'm giving up for lent
Lent is here! (Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!)

Last year I gave up makeup and found the experience really helpful. There are several products I never added back into my routine because I realized that I could live happily while wearing less makeup. So many of my grooming habits were/are holdovers from the insecurities and bad advice of my teenage years. It felt nice to take back control.

Traditionally, the purpose of giving something is up is to make more room for God and spiritual practice. Some people choose to take something on - like meditation, prayer, or a gratitude practice - instead of giving something up. But I find that the major "sin" in my life, the thing that gets me off track and makes me feel spiritually unwell, is taking on more than I can or should, which adds a lot of anxiety and self doubt into my life that overcrowds my mental space, making it nearly impossible to feel grateful.

I've been reflecting on this a lot lately, on how adding more and more responsibilities into our limited schedules takes away our capacity to cultivate and nourish meaningful conversations and relationships. Until last weekend, I hadn't called my parents in a month. And I find that when I'm busy I'm less able to listen well to the needs of my friends, coworkers, and customers. Busy-ness is a not a virtue.

Basically what I'm saying is that I really need to give something up, and never look back.

What I'm Giving Up For Lent

This year I've decided to give up checking my phone. Originally, I was going to give up Instagram, but I realized that the main issue is my emotional. habitual attachment to checking my email, twitter, facebook, and Instagram from my smartphone when I'm out and about or sitting on the couch. I plan to delete most of these platforms from my phone and practice self control whenever the urge strikes to run through the list of things to check.

I will be on Instagram sparingly to let people know about new posts, as I've made a few commitments to companies during the season that require social media shares. Plus, I recognize that Instagram provides an easier platform for commenting if you're checking my blog from your phone. That being said, scrolling endlessly and checking for notifications every 20 minutes will not be allowed.

If I'm successful, I think this practice will help me get back a lot of wasted hours, calm my mind, and help me focus better. I want my mind to be less distracted so I can pay attention to all the little things that make up a full life.

How to Participate in Lent

If you're interested in giving something up for Lent, it's simple! Do some soul searching about your everyday vices that make you feel spiritually unwell and commit to making a change. Daniel is giving up meat and gluttony. I know other people who go on shopping fasts.

The important thing is not to frame it around self-improvement but to see what you're doing through the lens of the big picture, whether that's wholeness with God or a better understanding of your role in the big, wide world. Lent is about inward reflection, but it's also about directing what you learn outward. Don't stay in your head.

Historically, Lent lasts for about 40 days and excludes Sundays (because Sundays are considered "mini Easters."). It's up to you if you want to fast on Sundays, as well. I find it easier to maintain the habit if I totally abstain, but you can still make your Sundays celebratory as a reminder of the reconciliation and redemption that awaits us all.

Lent ends, on Good Friday, March 30th.

Are you giving anything up this year?
what i'm giving up for lent

Photo by Ruslan Valeev on Unsplash (There are so many pretty church photos on Unsplash it took my a half hour to choose one)

Conscious Capitalism is a Lie: How It Poisons Missions, Foreign Aid, and Fair Trade

conscious capitalism is a lie - fair trade, foreign aid, and missions

Missions, Aid, and Colonization

I recently finished reading

Dangerous Territory

, a spiritual memoir about Amy Peterson's experience as a short-lived missionary in a closed country in Southeast Asia. I read it hoping to glean some good information about cross-cultural communication and the dangers of Western missionary models and related forms of "development" (

read this post

for more on that).

As a former Evangelical, I am still trying to come to terms with the ways my religious and cultural upbringing impacted my views on poverty, salvation, and purpose, and it was both helpful and re-traumatizing to read a story that at times felt quite similar to my own.

There were several thoughts that hit me right in the gut, but particularly these two pieces:

The way we evaluate our success as missionaries in the corporation model can be highly consumeristic. The gospel is a product we sell, and we chart our sales effectiveness and use it to ask donors for more support. But if we believe growth in numbers is the sole measure of our health, we have lost our way: humans were not created to be efficient organisms, and God has always been more interested in our proximity than in our production (p. 188).

The Protestant missionary movement did little to improve the associations [of mission work with political colonization]. While Catholic missions had been inextricably bound to political expansion, American Protestant missions were born entwined with corporate-style capitalism. The first missionary boards were structured after secular trading societies, and their values were efficiency, production, and numbers-based assessments (p. 234).

Take out the words missions and missionary and replace them with "ethical advocates,"  "fair trade brands," "foreign aid," and other related terms and the words still ring true. Western missions and development models ARE inextricably linked to cultural and political colonization.

They are built upon a capitalist framework where exploitation is not an indicator of something gone awry, but rather of the system functioning

as it's intended to

.

Think about it: the reason why countries like the United States and Great Britain appear to be thriving is that they've already completed the cycle of Industrial Revolution countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are just now undergoing. If you consider the very long game - think 150-200 years - these countries' production systems are likely to stabilize and workers will gain more rights and access to resources; this is happening in China right now. But all that means is that the

invisible hand

has found another, poorer country to strangle.

What This Means:

It's therefore counterproductive to use capitalism as the platform of sustainable development, and yet hundreds of social enterprises insist that they're going to use capitalism as a

force for good

. I would argue that this is impossible, because capitalism distorts our understanding of what "good" actually is - and what it means to be generous - by emphasizing individualism.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Christianity Today's cover story this month,

Blessed Are The Handouts

, discusses some of the sociological research around foreign aid. The article starts out by describing a behavioral study in which both Americans and people from an "impoverished" country in Africa (it's only letting me see the preview now or I would give more detail!) were given money to use as they pleased. Some had to do a minor job to "earn" the money and others were given it with no strings attached. American participants, particularly when they earned the money, were far less likely to give it away to others than international participants, who shared freely whether they earned or simply received the money. The author surmises that this may have something to do with the America's individualistic culture and celebration of earning as a virtue.

The gist of the piece is that, while giving cash to low income people in the US isn't always guaranteed to help people get a long term leg-up, giving cash to people in collectivist cultures is actually far more effective than offering other types of aid.

What This Means:

Instead of buying goats, building wells, and starting companies abroad (particularly when we're creating new industries instead of supporting preexisting ones), we could actually just give cash to people who need it, and watch them use their own agency to improve their lives on their own terms.

Evangelizing Capitalism

If we have built our charity and social development models on a a paternalistic, capitalist framework, we are inadvertently spreading the disease of capitalism and cultural individualism to every country we do business with.

And if this is true, it means that even fair trade models are at risk of destabilizing countries, putting infrastructure at risk, and even changing beneficial collectivist cultures to see profit-minded individualism as a virtue.

As a Christian, I am deeply concerned with cultures that raise up individualism as virtuous. 

As I write this, Shark Tank is humming away in the background (I can hardly stand to watch it anymore, but you've gotta admit it's an entertaining show). We massively overvalue boot-strapping entrepreneurs, and Millennials in particular seem fixated with the disrupters and hustlers of our own generation. Forging our own path is as American as apple pie, but is that really what we want our lives to look like? We make everyone a competitor, we move away from family and community networks, and we sacrifice so much in the name of profit or fame or usefulness.

What This Means:

In the Capitalist model, we are only valued for our labor. Our worth is linked to our productivity. We must earn money, hoard it, get a nice write-up in Forbes if we're lucky. It forces us to objectify ourselves and others, and it tricks us into believing the only way to change the world is through market manipulation. Every interaction becomes transactional. Purchasing becomes patriotic, heroic, even saintly.

American Individualism and Capitalism critique

More Than Products and Producers

In Dangerous Territory, Peterson asks herself this: 

What if God didn't want me to be useful?...Was I willing to be useless for God?

Who told us that we're supposed to be productive? Who told us that we're intended to proselytize capitalism to the masses and turn every person into a consumer?

One problem with contemporary American Evangelicalism is that its fixation on the self - on individual productivity - has led it down the dark, dangerous path of willful ignorance: of turning away neighbors and ridiculing the orphan and seeing every person as a victim of their unique choices and nothing else. "Systemic" doesn't exist in this worldview.

When all faith practice is personal and Jesus has an inspired story just for you, it only takes one step to become a callous, stoic political actor. No one else matters - leave their stories to God.

What's happening in our country right now is proof positive that individualism is a poison that both influences and is influenced by the capitalist framework we're all swimming (and probably drowning) in. I don't want cultural models that honor community, sharing, and co-dependence to be snuffed out by our cultural and religious missions work (you don't have to be religious to be an evangelist for something). Lord knows that American individualism has already done enough to create and exacerbate income inequality and gross human rights violations in our own country.

Global capitalism has ruined everything. And what I'm really saying is: we've ruined everything. 

Until we - you and I right here - admit that, we are at risk of further screwing over ourselves and others.

What To Do?

I don't know what the answer is right now. Certainly people who work in sweatshops and mines and brothels need to justice to be served. I do believe in the virtue of equity. And if we can't (on a pragmatic level) overhaul capitalism, it makes sense to tweak it to serve people just a little bit better.

With increasing frequency, though, I don't know who to support or what to promote, and that freaks me out. My identity and livelihood as of late is dependent on believing that small consumer choices make a difference.

But the fuller truth is that things aren't so clear.

I just know that I'm sick of the system, of that invisible hand placing its death grip over my mouth and the mouths of others who try to speak out, who try to ask for something that extends far beyond "conscious capitalism" and seek to understand what it looks like to build a culture of flourishing for all.

I don't want to keep talking about the marketplace all the time.

But when the market's the only thing that matters, critiquing it becomes a radical act.

Related Reading:

Where Millennials Come From

conscious capitalism is a lie

First Photo by 

Christine Roy

. Second 

Photo by 

Christin Hume

 | on 

Unsplash

On Body Image + Personal Modesty

on christianity, purity culture and personal modesty
I wrote this piece 4 years ago for my friend's blog on womanhood and rediscovered it recently via Facebook Memories. It still holds true, and I think it's pertinent as we look toward another fashion season. 

I was steeped good and long in American evangelical culture, though not one that held too tightly to ideals of traditional gender spheres. As a result, I was both encouraged to join the worship team and participate in co-ed theological discussions and discouraged from flaunting my sexuality (along lines of thought very specific to Protestant Christian tradition).

I was told that the boys in youth group would lust after me and sin in their hearts if I didn’t wear a shirt over my swimsuit on beach excursions. I was told to be mindful of cleavage and short skirts and too much makeup. Obsessed as a child (and still) with ideals of fairness and personal responsibility, this didn’t sit well with me. In my view, the boys were given a free pass to lust. I asked a youth leader once if boys would cover up, too, so as not to cause women to stumble. I was immediately dismissed with a laugh and the subject was never brought up again.



But the notion of blaming the inactive party for the thoughts and behaviors of the aggressor is simply nonsensical. The person to blame is the person who did the thing, whether that thing is something as seemingly innocent as adolescent lust or as devastating as sexual assault.

So I come to the traditional modesty discussion, as an adult, with a fair amount of cynicism and, I hope, with a helpful dose of moderation and practicality. I believe that men and women must take equal ownership over their bodies and their thoughts. If I walk out in public naked, that’s no excuse for rape. On the other hand, I recognize that I live in a society with specific modesty codes that apply not only to sexual expectations but to daily interactions, and that it’s within my best interest as a member of my social system to, say, wear a suit to an interview and save the swimsuit for the beach.

Modesty is inevitably political, and from that broad perspective I think people should dress as they please (within a reasonable distance from their society’s expectations) and not be harassed for it.

But modesty is also personal. For instance, I never worried much about showing too much cleavage because I’m an almost-A cup. When other girls took comfort in the appearance of fuller figured celebrities and lauded Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, I was busy taking solace in the appearance of thin, pale super models, who more closely resembled my body type and weren’t bullied for it. At 16, I was 5’5” and 96 pounds; I ate but couldn’t put on weight. People, my doctor included, thought I was anorexic. My body image issues weren’t talked about because I, apparently, fit the socially accepted standard of beauty (no one told the boys that).

Teen Vogue was a beacon of confidence for me, and I delved happily into the world of high fashion. Twelve years later and I’m still enamored by fashion spreads, new novelty prints, and the season’s best shoes. I didn’t realize at 16 that this thing I clung to for comfort and body acceptance would have such a hold on me.

When I get dressed in the morning, or when I buy a new garment, I can see how I adapted and combined my experiences to suit my needs. I like to cover my shoulders because people tell me they’re bony. I flaunt my clavicles because I think they’re pretty. I won’t wear a skirt higher than mid-thigh because it just feels inappropriate. There are some things you carry for so long they become a part of you. I’d like to feel so comfortable in my body that I can wear anything and feel confident. But I think it’s ok that I’ve reached these compromises with myself and with the modesty/sexuality obsessed culture that exists both within and outside of the church.

Through fashion, and even through the modesty culture I grew up within, I’ve come to appreciate my body both as flesh and blood and as art. When blogging, I like the distance a self portrait can provide, the harsh objectivity. I can look at myself through the lens of a photographer interested in imperfection, angles, and shadows. It’s easier, too, when I know I contribute more than just my appearance to the world – when I can write, hug, listen, laugh, work – and know that these things are acknowledged, that these things make a considerable difference.

But I’d still like to think that God doesn’t just think I have potential on the inside. I’d like to think he thinks I look pretty awesome, too.

---

More than 5 years of fashion blogging has been healing for me, because it's helped me see my body in new ways, to experiment with silhouette and style and to embrace my flaws. This sounds counter intuitive in a niche that can also cultivate unhealthy comparison and competition, but for the most part, I find this space freeing. And the community of thoughtful women (and occasionally men) I've found here has helped me believe in my abilities and challenge my assumptions. I believe I'm better for it. Thank you. 

Advocacy, Mission, and Social Justice Tribalism

Photo via Unsplash

I've considered myself a social justice advocate for a long time, but, unsurprisingly to those who follow me here, my "main cause" for the last 4-5 years has been supply chain ethics in the fashion industry. Exploitation, indentured servitude, rape, exposure to dangerous work environments, and outright slavery occur every single day in the global manufacturing industry. They must be brought to light because they are fundamental human rights issues that cannot be tolerated if we claim to seek justice and peace.

Of course, the question for me and thousands of others living in places like the US is, "What can I actually do?" Physical separation from the point of exploitation, lack of education around global politics and trade, and limited individual power seemingly make us ill suited for this type of advocacy. Do we need to get in there, starting our own NGOs and social enterprises and traveling to crisis points to learn the full story?

I believe anecdotal evidence and personal experience matter. But I don't think it's practical, environmentally friendly, or culturally sensitive to keep sending over a whole bunch of spirit-filled white ladies to Cambodia, Uganda, or Bangladesh. So we do what we can from over here. We're missionaries to the lost souls of fast fashion right where we're planted, hopefully helping people understand connection, complicity, and corruption in a way that is accessible, in a way that helps them consider their consumer choices and political frameworks in order to advocate more effectively for change.


Before I continue, I have to admit that my religious upbringing gently pushed me toward a certain type of advocacy. American Evangelical Christianity is a funny thing, one that often overlooks domestic cracks and fissures in favor of "those poor people over there." Missionary tradition (*cough cough* imperialism) always, without fail, creates an us versus them mentality that sees people in terms of "the saved" and "the lost." American values, the thought goes, are basically good, rooted as they are in our faith tradition, so the people right here have no excuse for not believing the way we do, but those poor, innocent [insert stereotyped "third world" country here] need to hear our message of love and liberty.

Christians are encouraged in the Gospel of Mark to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." American social justice warriors have interpreted this to mean that they need passports to do the Lord's work.

But since Inauguration Day and the Women's March, I've felt an increasing obligation to fight for the rights of women, people of color, the impoverished, LGBTQ folks, and other marginalized groups in my own country. You could easily start a pissing contest over how woke you were before it was cool at this point. I'll readily admit that I wasn't paying that much attention to racial dynamics, police brutality, violence against trans people, or even the ways women continue to be ignored and under-valued in this "free" "melting pot" of a country.

The town I live in is preparing to be assaulted by a Ku Klux Klan rally this Saturday and another "alt-right" rally later in the summer. Injustice and intimidation are, quite literally, close to home in a way I haven't experienced before. I'm not concerned for my own safety (ok, maybe a little), but I'm angry that a known hate group would be allowed to march in to my town with no other goal but to scare the crap out of our African American citizens, other people of color, and City Council members, who voted a few months ago with support from the local community to remove Confederate monuments from the city center.

I don't have enough energy to be everywhere and advocate for everything, and lately I've been wondering what I should be doing. Doesn't it make more sense to promote advocacy work that directly affects my own community than to fight the good fight for people across the world?

I haven't arrived at a confident conclusion, but this is what I know:

I've worked and read and listened and networked in the ethical fashion space for 4 years now. For me, it doesn't make sense to toss that aside in favor of issues that may feel more pressing now, but will still take years - lifetimes even - of committed advocacy to resolve. Instead, I'm taking the long view on ethical fashion advocacy and trying to save my sprinting energy for immediate, local work. When the KKK comes to town, I'm joining up with local groups to make paper cranes for an art installation and praying my heart out for them when I'm not able to attend events. I'm doing what I can to stay out of the way, and to clear a path, for the longterm advocates to do their thing. I'm yelling at everyone I know to vote, and vote well. To stay informed. To know their worth as citizens, and act like they matter. I'm observing social dynamics in my workplace, and learning all I can about the best ways to resolve individual differences and dissolve prejudice before it gets a chokehold around people's hearts.

You and I can't be everything to everyone. We can't be the hero for every cause. But we should, absolutely, take time to consider and recalibrate our priorities. My advocacy for "people over there" does not negate my daily obligation to people right here. My training toward a certain type of social justice work doesn't mean I shouldn't listen to others, or be willing to change my mind.

The hostile, cold hearted parties in power want to distract us from the good. I encourage you to go out and seek the good wherever it can be found. I encourage you to stop with the pissing matches over who's the best social justice warrior, choosing instead to interlock your fingers with anyone else on a path toward mutually assured life and liberty. Your cause matters. My cause matters. Let's share them, learn from each other's triumphs and failures, listen well.

Let's lay down our weapons of self righteousness and get shit done.

Oh yeah, and happy 4th.


Related Reading: American Dreams

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar.

Lent is a 40-day season of fasting, repentance, and inward glancing in preparation for the pinnacle event of the Christian faith: Christ's sacrificial death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.

During last Sunday's sermon, my church's new priest reminded us that Christianity is not just another religion about being good and doing the right thing. In our faith tradition, God literally became human, living for more than 30 years in human flesh without special privileges.

This intimate God-human relationship reminds us, too, that, if we are made in God's image, humans can reveal God to us. We can be overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, we can see Christ suffering again in the eyes of the refugees, we can see glimpses of the human story fully revealed in the faces of the dying who don't fear death.

One year ago, my friend and coworker Margaret passed away. The last time I saw her was Ash Wednesday. And she told me she had asked the nurse what it felt like to die and she wasn't afraid.

In that frail woman strapped to an oxygen tank, I saw courage like I'd never seen before. I saw the face of Christ. And maybe that's why I marvel even while I weep, how a human can become so much like God, overcoming suffering like that.

So, I hold onto this faith - and this tradition - because the answer to suffering is that God suffers, too. If we are children and sisters and partners with God, we will see our pain reflected back in the eyes of God, and those eyes may belong to a child or a stranger, or an old woman who accidentally changed our life.

God with us.

I Was a Climate Change Denier: Why I Changed My Mind

Climate Change and Christianity, Partnership with UNDP
Ice Caves like this one could be gone in 5-10 years due to global warming.
This article is part of a collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ethical Writers Coalition.

In the 12th grade, my Economics teacher, who also happened to be the women's track coach, decided to work on tallying track scores instead of filling us in on the wonders of microeconomics (You will not be surprised to hear that very few of us passed the AP Econ exam that year).

Like all overworked or borderline disinterested instructors, he popped in a movie for us to watch. But this wasn't your run-of-the-mill classroom film.

This was An Inconvenient Truth.


You may be thinking this was the aha moment for me. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. I distinctly remember laughing as the animated polar bear fell off her animated, melting glacier. "Absurd!" I thought, and not just because the anthropomorphized polar bear cartoon was frowning at me as she fell into the icy water. I was so smug in my knowledge that global warming was not happening - and bolstered by the other students at my southern, largely conservative school - that it was easy to overlook the science and find something to ridicule.


Let me give you some background.


I grew up in a Christian community that believed in Young Earth Creationism. In this model of the universe, God literally created the earth and all that is in it about 6,000 years ago, Noah's Ark miraculously held every variety of earth's creatures as it rose above the global flood, and - I kid you not - the Loch Ness Monster was proof positive that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. As a kid, I was fascinated by that last point, and I still have trouble letting go of such a whimsical idea! Doesn't everyone want to ride a dinosaur?

For one to hold the ideas of Young Earth Creationism as true, one must create a partition between some forms of "obvious" practical science, like gravity and the flu, from other forms of science, namely the ones that tell us something about the long game. We were wary of evolution, carbon dating, and climate change (read more about the tenets of Young Earth Creationism here). To us, they represented the ills of secularism, a world that searched in the wrong places for meaning when it could easily just open the Bible and read the "plain truth."

The problem with this, I know now, is that the "plain truth" of the Bible (this reading is called Biblical Literalism) isn't so plain once you've actually read it. When I majored in Religious Studies in college, I learned to apply literary and historical criticism to the Biblical texts. I parsed out genres; learned Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; and compared the religious texts of neighboring civilizations.

Contrary to my parents' fears, I did not lose faith. But it changed dramatically. Over time, the humanity of writers' and Biblical characters became more apparent. And humans, as we all know, are inherently nuanced and often hypocritical. It became clear to me that the Bible, like all texts, required interpretation.

Eventually, I realized that science could be reconciled with religious belief. Climate scientists and evolutionary biologists weren't out to get me after all.

I was finally able to tear down the shoddily built wall between Christianity and Science, and it allowed me to appreciate both in new ways. 


It was a long road, but it was ultimately my Religious Studies program that allowed the world to expand for me, to embrace the work of scientists who work tirelessly toward a better world. Their end goal is not all that different from the broader message of my faith tradition: to be good stewards and to leave the world habitable for future generations.

This is what we know about climate change (also called Global Warming), according to the United Nations Development Programme:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity mainly include carbon dioxide and methane. They form a "shield", which blocks a certain amount of solar radiation and causes global warming. 
  • Human activity has caused the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to increase. 
  • Since 1990 global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by almost 50%. 
  • Fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – that power our cars, heating/air conditioning, cooking and lights are the main cause for greenhouse gas emissions. Each day we spew 110 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 
  • From 1880-2012 the planet's surface temperature has increased an average of 0.85 °C [1.5 °F]. 
  • Global warming itself is accelerating. During the past year, measurements taken across the globe during various periods have reported abnormally high temperatures. The year 2016 is the hottest on record, with average temperatures nudging towards 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 
  • Without action, the world’s average surface temperature is projected to rise and surpass 3°C (and more in some areas of the world) in the 21st century.

Climate change must matter to us because rapidly rising global temperatures wreak havoc on ecosystems and agricultural industries. Melting snow caps cause ocean levels to rise, eroding inhabited land (Miami is already preparing for the worst); erratic weather destroys people and communities; and rising temperatures will soon make growing food impossible in some regions of the world. Additionally, climate change disproportionately impacts the poorest countries, where temperatures tend to be higher and the landscape more difficult to til.

This is more than ecological destruction: this is profound injustice. 


Climate change must matter to me and you, to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, and Secular Humanists alike, because it affects all of us. And if we are people who claim a moral stance, it's high time we consider what we can do to slow the effect of global warming before it's too late. 

The United Nations Development Programme has committed itself to fighting climate change at a global level. It supports countries in their efforts to transition to renewable energy, protect forested land, and prepare for the and future effects of climate change. 


But what can we do?


First and foremost, we can support policies and politicians who make climate change remediation a priority. We can encourage investment in renewable energy sources at the local, state, and household level. 

On a personal scale, we can commit to living low-waste lifestyles, recycling, using public transit when possible (and lobbying for better public transit options), using less water and utilities, and eating less meat

And we can be messengers of the cause in big and small ways to our circles of influence. 


If you come from a background like mine, I encourage you to find ways to engage with your faith community about science in a constructive and positive way. Help people realize that this fight needs all of us, and that there's no reason to fear science, or the intentions of climate scientists who are simply doing their jobs. 

Delaying the effects of climate change will be hard - it will be inconvenient - but I have no doubt that climate change, in an age of alternative facts, is a truth we must defend. Now that I am empowered with that knowledge, I refuse to turn back.

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For tools, news, and resources, visit the UNDP website.

What Minimalists Can Learn from the Ascetics

Minimalism and Asceticism

If you got sucked into watching the Minimalism movie like I did, you might be thinking about casting off your worldly possessions in an attempt to live a life of renewed meaning.

You wouldn't be alone in this. In fact, minimalism has been practiced within world religions for centuries, just under a different name.

But first...

What is Minimalism?


Minimalism is the practice of thoughtfully and intentionally reducing our attachment to things, which includes both reducing our current material possessions and committing to consume less overall, in an effort to reorient ourselves to more meaningful actions, thoughts, and relationships. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters.

Minimalism has been a buzzword in lifestyle blogging circles for a few years now, but it's finally reached the mainstream. Everybody and their neighbor is clutching their household items to their chest, Marie Kondo-style, and determining whether they feel a sacred and mysterious attachment before throwing old scissors, socks, sweaters, scrapbooks and more into the "Donate" pile.

Undoubtedly, a yearning to pare down and focus on the the things that matter - namely relationships, self improvement, and community causes - is a good thing. As founder of Factory45 (a sustainable fashion incubator) Shannon Whitehead points out in Minimalism, trend cycles have accelerated from something like 4 a year to as many as 52. The high ecological, human, and psychological cost of this bombardment of stuff is unsustainable. We're burning out fast, literally and figurately.

And in light of the climate change crisis, it's an important time to take a long, hard look at our priorities and commit to sobering up. Our economic and agricultural systems are on the cusp of imploding. It's not a question of whether we want to do anything about it, it's a question of whether or not we'll turn things around before it's too late.

Minimalism, the film


The Minimalism film, which follows Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, the writers behind the popular The Minimalists blog, puts forth the idea that minimalism is the key to finding purpose in the frantic, purposeless modern world we find ourselves in. Featuring industry experts, practitioners of minimalism, and a scientist (who, outside of the film, also happens to be openly antagonistic toward religious types) speaking over a hopeful musical score, the film's consistent message is that the American Dream as we know it - high paying job, houses, cars, and picket fences - has led us astray and that the antidote to this, the true American Dream, is letting it all go to pursue minimalism.

Now, I'm somewhat on board with this. I've railed against the American Dream before, and think that buying into it (pun intended) tends to make us hyper-focused on accumulation of stuff as status symbol, as proof that we matter.

It should be noted, however, that both Millburn and Nicodemus climbed the corporate ladder and were in cushy, well paying jobs by their early 20s. The bulk of the practitioners of minimalism profiled are similarly well-to-do: NBC anchors, former Wall Street bankers, independently wealthy 20-somethings, entrepreneurs; and many of them are white men.

I mention this because, while the film insists that minimalism is a universal solution to filling the void, the evidence is not representative of a real cross section of Americans, so the jury's still out on whether marginalized groups and people standing on the poverty line can benefit in the same way. On a related note, the secular humanist spiritual overtones of the quest are likely to resonate much more deeply with people in Silicon Valley than the Shenandoah Valley. The context is not universally accessible, and that concerns me.

The other interesting twist, which needs more analysis by someone smarter than me, is that both Millburn and Nicodemus grew up in unstable households with drug addicted mothers. If I were a psychologist, I think I would want to draw a connection between the extreme instability of their childhoods and the extreme order of their minimalist lives. Perhaps not coincidentally, Marie Kondo had a similarly unstable and frenetic childhood. Minimalism in these contexts looks like a direct response to trauma, a (relatively healthy, all things considered) coping mechanism to combat the sadness and regret of unhappy family lives.

I have no doubt that these guys really want the best for people. You could see by their interactions with event attendees that they're true believers, that they've found an authentic joy in practicing minimalism that they want to share with others. But the conclusions drawn were not representative of a broader reality. The Minimalists believe that minimalism is an end in itself, that the pursuit of such a lifestyle will fill the hole in all of our hearts. But within the context of the film's narrative this didn't ring true, not even for the main characters.

In my viewing, it seemed more likely that meaning was gleaned not from minimalism itself, but from the opportunity to commune with other like-minded people and try to make the world a little bit better together. This is something everyone can benefit from, but we need to frame it well.

And that's why I want to talk about historical minimalism, more commonly called asceticism.

What is Asceticism?


Asceticism if a lifestyle characterized by fasting and self-denial, abstaining from worldly and material pleasures in order to reflect on spiritual matters. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters. 

Asceticism is minimalism, with one key difference. Ascetics are almost if not always religious adherents who deny themselves worldly pleasures with the specific intent of becoming "better" or more present practitioners of their faith, whatever that may mean in context.

Asceticism has been and continues to be practiced within many prominent world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Monks, nuns, and priests within a variety of religions abide by some form of asceticism, practicing celibacy, modesty, vegetarianism, fasting, and meditation, and keeping rigid personal and communal schedules in order to more fully commit themselves to lives in service of God and people. Well known adherents to asceticism include St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa.

The ultimate purpose of asceticism is to totally reorient the practitioner's perceptions of what constitutes "the good life." Adherents are meant to find joy in simplicity and fulfillment in frugality. Being able to live more meaningfully with less frees the person to share the bounty, because it turns out that we don't need as much as we think to live well.

If you are taken by modern minimalism's purposeful ideal, you are following in a rich, transformative tradition.

But you must ask the question: what am I making room for?


Minimalism makes room for meaning, but asceticism - through its rich tradition and history - is inherently intertwined with and fixated on a particular meaningful goal. I do not buy the view set forth in the Minimalism film that merely pursuing a life of less will fill whatever emptiness we feel in our hearts and our homes at the end of the day. Minimalism may be a yellow brick road leading us to a place that feels more like home, but ultimately we're still directing our own lives.

What if I get rid of the books and the art and the past-season clothes and all I see are empty shelves, empty walls, and empty closets?

I can put in the work, but if it's not for something, it won't really matter.

Like the ascetics of old, we must become minimalists for a distinct reason. My Christian tradition gives me rich examples of ascetics who lived with little in order to contemplate God's will, and God's mercy. They were able to accomplish more than most because they weren't distracted by stuff.

You don't have to be a Christian to pursue a life of meaning, but I think you do need to know what your end goal is. Is it based in self-fulfillment or service to humanity? Is it based in a frantic need to start over or a quiet calling to embrace imperfection and settle in to the gifts of your life as it is now?

We in the conscious consumer community are fortunate to know what we're working toward: justice for people and planet.

If the pursuit of minimalism can make us better suited to accomplish that goal, then let's go for it. If it's just another way tamp down anxiety, then I think we can do without.

Whatever we choose, I think it's important we don't max out on minimalism. That's missing the point entirely.

Update 3/10/17, Additional ReadingMinimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy

The Wolf Shall Live With the Lamb: A Christian Exploration of Vegetarianism

The Wolf Shall Live With the Lamb: A Christian Exploration of Vegetarianism
Last week, my church put on its annual Lessons & Carols service, an Advent celebration that includes nine Bible readings and nine carols that anticipate the coming of Christ at Christmas. Though a lot of Americans think we're already celebrating Christmas (It's December! Pass the eggnog! Play festive music!) in churches that use the traditional Christian calendar and follow the liturgy, we are in what's often termed a mini-Lent, preparing our hearts and minds for the miraculous incarnation of Jesus.

As such, the lessons in the Lessons & Carols service, and, in fact, all of the Sunday Bible readings throughout Advent, draw heavily upon the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, the ones early Christians used to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah they'd been waiting for.

I was particularly struck by the second half of the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 11: 1–3a; 4a; 6–9 to be exact), because it speaks of an ideal future that includes a totally transformed food chain:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

It is apparent that the writer of Isaiah was moved by the violence of the predator-prey relationship and felt that a restoration of the world would include total abstinence from killing and eating meat. The text stands out, because, while the Bible often talks about eating - Kosher food law, ritual sacrifice, manna in the desert, the Last Supper, Peter's vision of unclean animals, the feeding of the 5,000 - most of those conversations have more to do with God and humans than with the animals themselves. In this text, the animals are vegetarians.

Notably, however, Kosher food law as it pertains to meat does seem to approach a sort of empathy toward the animals' feelings (Deuteronomy 14:21b, Exodus 34:26b, Exodus 23:19b ):

 You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.

But what does this mean? According to chabad.org, there are a few Rabbinic interpretations, but for the sake of brevity, I'll highlight the one that pertains to this discussion:

"...it is cruel to cook a baby in the very milk that was intended to nourish it."

I first learned about this interpretation from a Jewish professor who gave a presentation in my Food Ethics class. It's compelling, because it challenges the widespread idea that the animals we eat don't deserve to be recognized as sentient beings that experience pain and sorrow. Keeping Kosher is no easy feat - it requires extra appliances, extra dinnerware, lots of pre-planning, and careful consideration - all in the name of honoring God, but with the side effect of forcing adherents to understand what they're eating and why. In fact, I know a Jewish couple who decided to keep a vegetarian kitchen because it's much easier to follow Kosher food law if you eliminate meat from your home altogether. The Jewish professor was a pescatarian for similar reasons (fish aren't categorized as "meat" in the Kosher food tradition).

It should also be noted that Adam and Eve were presumably vegetarians before the Fall. They were not required to till the ground or produce their own food until after their eyes were opened to good and evil, and to moral ambiguity. God made clothing of animal skins for them only after they became aware - and ashamed - of their nudity.

The Bible then, seems internally consistent as it pertains to the ideal of a flattening of the predator-prey hierarchy. It is considerably less consistent on any point that specifically talks about what humans should be eating.

Perhaps the most compelling case for meat eating is found in Acts 10:9-16:

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 
 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

This passage seems to completely override Kosher food tradition when read at face value. But it should be noted that the passage has layered meanings. In the early church, converts from Judaism often insisted that converts from other traditions be circumcised before they could fully enter the Christian community. The vision is very likely an attempt to show these Christian Jews that God accepted the uncircumcised into his community - no painful procedure was required for new converts. Adult circumcision would have been a significant barrier to conversion, particularly in a pre-pain killer era, so there are good reasons to read the passage this way.

The Wolf Shall Live With the Lamb: A Christian Exploration of VegetarianismThe other potential context for the vision's commands may have something to do with temple sacrifice. In Jewish tradition, an animal sacrifice was periodically made at the temple and, depending on the type of offering it was, portions of the animal would be eaten by the offerer and his family. Some scholars suggest that meat offered sacrificially would have been the main event for meat consumption in the life of Jewish adherents into the early Common Era (and that, in fact, it was unlawful in early Israelite practice to kill an animal outside of temple sacrifice). If this is true, it means that there wasn't a strong food tradition around meat outside of temple sacrifice and thus, when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, meat consumption dropped off.

Christianity did away with the necessity of animal sacrifice altogether, which means that early Christians may have been largely vegetarians or vegans. The vision gives Christians permission to eat anything, but it doesn't mean they would have had access to much meat, and certainly not on the scale we have today.

So, what does this mean for contemporary Christians? 


Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

According to the above passage (Luke 17:20-21) the Kingdom of God is already here, but it isn't completed yet. I reflect on this passage often, because it reminds Christians that we have a part to play in restoring the earth, in making it good. The Kingdom of God is both present and future, and we can do our part to extend grace, to build bridges, and to love one another so that glimpses of that future Kingdom are apparent. We can offer tangible, everyday hope. The passage reminds us that the work is ongoing.

But what does that mean for the Isaiah passage? If an ideal world means total pacifism, even as it pertains to the animals, what responsibility do we have to usher that in now? We can't turn lions into vegetarians - even domesticated cats need meat - but maybe we have a hard choice to make in our own lives.

Undoubtedly, the world is a violent place, and the daily violence that occurs for the sake of survival is perhaps the hardest to grapple with, because it's built into the natural order. But humans are an anomaly in some ways. Not only are we omnivores, and thus capable of enjoying a more varied diet, we're also incredibly aware of our options.

And in the US and other industrialized nations, we have greater access to food than our predecessors. We can eat anything we want, and we seem to be choosing meat.

So, the big question: should Christians be vegetarians?

Yes, and no.

The fact of the matter is it's not totally clear. What is clear, to me at least, is that we should envision as the ideal a world where no violence occurs, even if it's not yet achievable. That means considerably reducing our meat consumption, ensuring that the meat industry is well regulated and takes animal welfare into account, thinking long and hard about the meat we do choose to eat, and seeing animals as fellow creatures on this complicated planet.

Just because the New Testament does not make it morally wrong, or sinful, to eat meat doesn't mean that God calls it good. The Bible makes a compelling case to moving toward vegetarianism even if we don't fully embrace it.

I don't totally rule out meat consumption because I know that some people, whether due to food access or culture or due to specific nutritional needs, benefit from eating meat. I think we need to be aware of the shortcomings of our bodies as they've evolved in relation to meat consumption, and not shun those who thoughtfully consume meat. But we must come to terms with the fact that animals with feelings, relationships, and individual personalities must die if we want to eat meat.

As in matters of war, child bearing, and end-of-life care, eating meat is a life or death decision that must bear weight. 


From the Isaiah passage, we can also extrapolate a larger calling to pacifism. In order to live out the Kingdom of God, we need to ask hard questions about the death penalty, the prison system, war, and military occupation. We also need to seek to build systems that reduce drug-related and domestic violence, abortion, hate crimes, and suicide. We need to build communities and systems that offer access to care, preventative services, economic empowerment, hope, and restorative justice.

Nothing is cut and dried. We are all going to make moral choices based on a unique combination of life experiences. But I think the Bible, at the very least, calls Christians to serious work toward an all-encompassing peace, and that includes thinking long and hard about our meat consumption.

Food for thought this Holiday season.

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This piece doesn't even get into issues of environmental stewardship or a discussion of the Eucharistic feast. It also doesn't attempt to respond to non-religious ethical arguments about meat consumption. Maybe I'll get into that at a later date.

Fundamentalism is an Ideology Problem, Not a Religion Problem

fundamentalism: christianity, vegans, et al.

I knew this day would come eventually. The day I finally articulated the thing that irks me the most about regular interaction with ethical and conscious living folks. This post has been stewing around in my head in a semi-articulated state for at least a year, but Holly's recent post finally gave me the push I needed.

Background


It will come as no surprise to you if you've been reading my blog for very long that I am a practicing Christian. I like to refer to myself as a progressive Christian lest you think I'm a gun-waving Trump supporter, but at the end of the day, I'm still someone who identifies with a religious tradition that doesn't always get the best rap. It's complicated, but I decided a long time ago that the best thing I could do was not to throw out a belief system that I find to be important, challenging, comforting, and inspiring just because a few thousand loonies make it look bad. To borrow a term from feminism, I'm "reclaiming" Christianity and its terms in order to flip those bad connotations on their head. At least, I hope that's the result.

In any case, you'd think it'd be fairly easy among a bunch of conscientious folks, many with various spiritual practices and rituals of their own, to join in conversations of a more religious sort. But over and over again, I get the sense that I need to tread incredibly lightly so as not to cause a problem.

But my question is: how is it more crazy to believe in a resurrected Jesus than to use healing crystals and read Tarot cards and channel the goddess Isis?

Let's just admit something right now, among ourselves:

We're all crazy. It's okay. 


fundamentalism and ideology

But, I don't want to oversimplify things. I know why rubbing Jade rollers on your face in the name of cosmic healing is more socially acceptable than going to church every Sunday.

The problem is Christianity's association with fundamentalism. 

Christians are mean to gay people. Christians are unkind to women. Christians are legalistic and shortsighted. Christians are against social programs. Christians don't support the rights of trans people. Christians are weird about sex. Christians are authoritarian nationalists. Christians want to build a wall. Christians are racist. Christians are uppity and rude and insular and othering.

Yes. All of those statements can be truthful in context. But to generalize a broad, lengthy, complicated, culturally contextualized, diverse group - 2.2 billion people located all over the world - by the actions and words of a relative few isn't fair. But more than that, it simply isn't accurate.

Fundamentalists have inadvertently become Christianity's spokespeople because they yell the loudest. 


And Gosh darn, do they like to yell.

You know who else likes to yell?

Vegans. Intersectional Feminists. Environmentalists. Neopagans. Survivalists. Homesteaders. Conscious Consumers. Atheists. Etcetera, etcetera.


Let me break this down a bit...

If there's one thing I've learned from being friends with a whole bunch of Religious Studies folks, it's that Religion as a term is mostly unhelpful. What is religion but an ideology, a framework for seeing the world and interpreting stimuli?

We may classify religion in the West as a set of rituals, morals, and supernatural beliefs, often practiced in community, that facilitates our formation and behavior in the world. But there are plenty of world religions that don't have firm supernatural beliefs, and some practice takes place in virtually total isolation. Ask an Evangelical Christian what Christianity is and they'll likely give you a spiel about accepting Jesus into your heart and not even mention a communal or ritual element as mandatory.

The point is that religion is really just a vague grouping of ideologies.

One definition of ideology is:
the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.
Ideology is everywhere. It's a way of organizing the world, creating a sort of shorthand, so we can actually manage the immense chaos of our lives. Capitalism and democracy have accompanying ideologies, like the American Dream, that help us buy into the system.

Ideology is a good thing, or at least it can be. It allows us to rally around a common goal and get things done. It shapes us around set moral and ethical frameworks, making us think before we act in ways that aren't consistent. If done well, it can temper our tendency toward hypocrisy.

Ideology is also powerful. It's no coincidence I waited 'til Election Week here in the U.S. to post this. Politicians create ideological worlds for us to attach ourselves to. They speak to our preexisting values, and once they've done that, they can begin to mold and manipulate them into their own specific take on what's best for us. It's easy to see how easily we become thoughtless sheep, or rats perhaps, following our preferred Pied Piper no matter the costs or the realities. Cheering and jeering. Like Artificial Intelligence bots that haven't yet attained consciousness.

ethical lifestyle fundamentalism

Here lies the rub. 


If you partake in any ideology - and you do - you can fall prey to fundamentalism.

In my experience, a lot of earth loving, sustainability-minded folks grew up with religious practices they've since shed, likely due to concerns over fundamentalism. But because they never pinpointed and dissected their experience, they don't realize that fundamentalism is not exclusive to institutionalized religious belief.

Fundamentalism's most basic definition is:
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline.

When applied to religion, fundamentalism often refers to a strict, literal approach to scripture, or reading the text at "face value" without applying literary criticism or accounting for historical and cultural context. I would argue that this un-nuanced approach to a value system - one that doesn't take into account multi-layered ethical priorities, traditions, and social hierarchies - can and does occur in any ideology.

However, it seems to me that fundamentalism is more likely to crop up in ideologies that inherently require a higher degree of abstinence from the dominant lifestyle.

An example: 
The definition of "conscious consumer" is incredibly flexible and mostly up to the individual to define. I may buy only vegan products. I may buy essentials from fair trade vendors, but still make exceptions for shoes, uniforms, or formal wear. I may start a capsule wardrobe. I may stop wearing clothes. In a similar vein, I can believe in the American Dream without sacrificing an individual interpretation of what that means. If you watched Parks and Rec, think Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope. Total opposites, but both were taken with the romance of the quintessential American narrative and what it could offer them.

The definition of "vegan" isn't as flexible, at least not in its Western iteration. I may call myself a vegan and still eat meat on special occasions, but that doesn't mean that the vegan community recognizes me as vegan. I'm very likely to be called out by my fellow vegans for my willingness to be flexible. Similarly, in many Christian circles, the community dictates who is in and who is out regardless of how the individual may define herself. This exclusivity isn't universal, but it happens frequently enough to cause frequent PR nightmares for Christians everywhere.

To reiterate, that's not to say that all vegans - or all Christians for that matter - are fundamentalists, it's to say that it's easier to be a fundamentalist vegan or a fundamentalist Christian than a fundamentalist conscious consumer or American Dream lover because veganism and Christianity are all-encompassing, long term lifestyle changes while conscious consumerism and the American Dream are still a loose grouping of ideals.

Let me be clear, though: you can be a very dedicated adherent to something and not be a fundamentalist at all. 


Nuns come to mind. Often, the threat of fundamentalism is simply a quirk of the dominant rhetoric that needs to be addressed and re-framed. Conscious people in communities that sometimes have a reputation for bullying need to work particularly hard to change the conversation, even if it's not their fault to begin with. That's just the sucky unfairness of caring about social justice.

On the other side of the spectrum, you can find your way into a fundamentalist frame of mind even if the larger ideological framework you submit to is fairly flexible. To use the same example as before, while the conscious consumer community may be quite diverse, it's easy enough for me to form my own, more rigid ideas of what constitutes an "authentic" conscious consumer and make judgments based on the tiny ideological world I've built for myself. The difference is that there are enough people within the community not being a big meany about everything that I could (thankfully) be drowned out.

And one more small point before I move on: judgment that isolates, alienates, and others can happen a la carte, too. Just because you're normally tolerant doesn't mean you can't go off the rails. As Cari Romm says in a recent article on ethical shoppers, "being good for long stretches of time is exhausting." It's inevitable you'll snap if you're not gracious with yourself.

The Point:


The point is that if you have been burned by Christian fundamentalism either through your interactions with Christians or because of your own religious upbringing, you better make sure that you're not falling prey to your ideology's own brand of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism at its root is objectification and othering.

It's refusing to listen because you HAVE TOO DAMN MUCH TO SAY AND YOU NEED TO SAY IT LOUDLY.

It's getting high on your rants and your shut downs and your cyber bullying, and thinking that counts as "activism."

It's blaming individuals by way of a "call-out culture" that fails to recognize the systems, narratives, and communities that fuel the flames of ignorance.

It's acting as if any of this is easy and obvious.

Nothing about conscious living, or religion for that matter, is easy and obvious. 


If you've convinced yourself it is, you've forgotten how far you've come.

As a Christian raised in churches that sometimes bordered on fundamentalism and often incorporated evangelism strategies that were based in fear and intimidation, I have a pretty good radar for this stuff and I'm determined not to use lazy, deceptive, and psychologically harmful modes of influencing people to build my little congregation. I'm determined not to roll my eyes at people who just "don't get it" or "don't care enough."

That's not the point. This isn't about me. This is about us. So stop with the judging and the generalizations and the sighing and complaining and be the thoughtful, perceptive, gracious person you always wanted to be.

You chose this lifestyle because you want better. Don't forget that.

Fundamentalism will never get you there.


Be firm with yourself, but be generous with others. Call out your friend who swore she'd start eating better, but don't do it to your poor uncle as he enjoys his turkey on Thanksgiving day. Buy sustainably sourced clothing, but give your mom a few recommendations for better, not perfect, options at her favorite stores. Model your values with integrity and consistency, and admit how hard it can be. That's when the payoff will come. That's when people will start to listen. 

Three Prayers for Workers in the Global Supply Chain

ethical fashion and christianity

Tonight I had the opportunity to give a talk on ethical fashion and Christianity for the college group associated with my church. It was a good opportunity to hone my sense of why this type of advocacy matters within a Christian context, and how I can best relate it back to traditional Biblical texts and narratives. 

At the end of the discussion, we broke into three groups and wrote prayers inspired by traditional Anglican prayer forms as a way of engaging more deeply with the reality of our inter-connectedness with workers across the supply chain and to provide a starting point for daily meditations on conscious consumerism. I am really inspired by what they came up with, and I want to share these prayers in case they may be useful to you in your personal meditations and reflections. 

As I mentioned on Instagram earlier today, I think there's an unnecessary divide between the "spiritual" folks (read: hippies) and the "religious" folks (read: fundamentalists) in the ethical living space. Instead of making negative assumptions about how people's beliefs inform their ethical practice, or lack thereof, I'd rather jump right in and help inform interpretation so that all of our actions can be grounded in both compassion-oriented belief and our more tangible experiences of injustice in the world.

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Three Anglican Prayers for Workers in the Global Supply Chain


God of compassion and creation,

Bless the hands who have made
our jeans, shirts, and jackets,

Help us to remember that these
hands and these people are part of
the Body of Christ.

Be with the men, women, and children
who spend more of their lives
making our clothes than we spend
wearing them.

We lament those whose lives have been taken
For the sake of production.

May we be moved to action.
To spread awareness. To be thoughtful
in our purchases. To have compassion
for neighbors no matter how
far away.

Amen.

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God of justice,

You call us to be a neighbor to all,
Help us to acknowledge the toil that
laborers around the world face.

Watch over those who labor in unsafe
working conditions,
Help us remain aware of the realities
facing people who make our clothes
and be conscious of our consumption.

Be with policymakers as they make
decisions that impact these people’s lives.

We ask that you bless the hands that
come into contact with our clothes – production
to possession. Give us courage to
recognize our privilege and make
change in our own lives.

Remind us that we are all made in
your image.

Amen.

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O God,
Creator of all people and things,

Be with your people in the global supply chain,
who you created in your likeness and
whose work contributes to our comfort.

Give us the courage to fight against
systems of oppression,
and help us raise up the voices of
the oppressed, who already have
the right and the power to
speak for themselves.

Keep us ever mindful of
the inextricable link between us.

We ask these things
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
whose first disciples were marginalized
wage workers,

Amen.

On Trauma, and Community Organizing

spiritual abuse and community organizing Post-meltdown refuge

I'm going to tell you a complicated story about the time I went to a community organizing conference and came back a few pounds lighter in tears. I'll do my best to be honest without causing undue harm to the organizations and people involved in very good work around the country. 

In college, I attended a fundamentalist Christian church that neither ordained women ministers nor let women participate in Sunday services in any meaningful way under the pretext that women might accidentally teach men something, a no-no according to a literal interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. It was a strange choice for me - I had grown up in a church denomination where women could be ordained - determined mostly by the people I met and the person I was dating. But I thought I would be able to find my niche regardless of the strict gender dynamics.

The college ministry, in some ways, functioned as an independent entity and we had a fairly progressive academic as our college minister, so I hadn't felt restricted from speaking my mind or joining theological conversations, at least at first. But after about a year, that minister left and was replaced by a stricter adherent to this particular brand of Christianity. Sexism began to permeate every event. I was a Religious Studies major, so I knew more than most people in the room about historical context, the original languages of the Bible (I took Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic), and genre, but I found myself silenced or bulldozed over by men with opinions during weekly Bible Studies. Then church leadership appointed a worship leader that couldn't read music when there was a female musicology student who would have readily volunteered had she been allowed to participate as a leader. Things were boiling in me underneath the surface for weeks, and probably months, but I had tried to keep my mouth shut. 


These were my friends, after all. Weren't they?


Shit hit the fan one day when a woman who had come to our house for a gathering overheard me tell a group of people I was sick of the church and decided her best course of action was to tell our college minister. He called me into his office and told me that I was "making the church look bad" and needed to stop making a scene. You have to understand that by this point I felt I had nothing left to give. I felt abandoned by church leadership (Why didn't he care what I thought about the church? Why did it only matter what other people thought?) and scared that I could be tattle-told on in a context as intimate and familiar as my own home. The rigidity of the hierarchy and its unwillingness to recognize the gifts, intelligence, education, and dedication of the women of the church, let alone respond appropriately to criticism (from a woman? Gasp!) made me feel trapped in a visceral, desperate way. What's worse is that my hysterical response to all this only reinforced church leadership's stereotypes of women. There was nothing I could do to convince anyone that I mattered. And a part of me wondered if maybe I didn't matter, after all. That meeting with the college minister sent me into the most serious spiritual and personal crisis of my life and I spent many afternoons and evenings after work crying in bed. 

Flash forward to July 2016. I had been involved with my local interfaith community organizing group for just under a year and, while I had found many interactions and experiences quite gratifying, I had occasionally run up against behavior and rhetoric I found inappropriate or sort-sighted. 

I was anxious to attend the national conference to get a better sense of the context and underlying ideology of the group, hoping that it would ease my worries. 


Though I believed very strongly in the concept of community building for the purpose of local advocacy, I had increasingly felt agitated by the rigidly structured meetings, lack of transparency from leadership, and the feeling that I was always being guilted into doing and saying things I felt uncomfortable with. I was excited to room with a friend I met through organizing and bounce ideas around with her in the evenings. 

It's hard to explain completely coherently what happened there, but I'll do my best. The first full day of the conference began at 8:15 and ended nearly ten hours later with only a couple 5-10 minute breaks and about a half hour for lunch. The day was comprised of a series of intensive, fast-paced lectures packed with information with no time for open-ended questions or processing. This was fairly terrible for a few reasons: 1. I already knew nearly all of the information presented because local leadership had already provided it throughout the last year, 2. there was no opportunity for participation, so attendees were unable to use their brains, really at all, to connect with information in a new way, 3. it was impossible to question the basic ideology of the organization because lecture leaders were not trained - nor had the time - to respond to complex theological or relational questions. 

One particular instance comes to mind. During one lecture on the importance of engaging our communities based on their self-interest, the leader suggested that the church is actually wrong when it suggests that the Bible teaches us the importance of self sacrifice, instead insisting that we should work to see ourselves as powerful. If you're familiar with Christianity at all, you'll know that, in fact, the entirety of the Christian narrative hinges on the literal self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our salvation. Since this particular brand of organizing seeks to mobilize religious communities, there were several ministers present and, naturally, a few of them had some real concerns about the leader's interpretation of their religious text. One man raised his hand and asked how we could reconcile her reading with the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek...Blessed are the poor in spirit...") and she essentially dismissed it. That triggered another pastor to raise his hand and force her to allow space for the conversation. If you're a religious adherent, countering an unclear and potentially contradictory interpretation of your theology is of grave importance. The leader didn't answer the question. Anxious to complete her monologue, she simply moved on. 

This was intolerable. It's okay to disagree, but you have to allow space for that disagreement to work itself out. 

Here we were at a conference focused on community and dialogue and we were permitted to work toward neither. 


The whole day felt like this. The people in the room wanted so badly to participate in a fruitful way but they were not allowed to. By the evening, I was both bored out of my mind and agitated by the way things had been handled during the lectures. I ranted a bit with my roommate and went to bed, hoping the following day would be better. 

Boy, was I wrong. The next morning continued the lecture series. To make use of my brain, I decided to write down a quick list of improvements to recommend to conference leadership, knowing that there was a designated time for feedback later in the day. When the time came, we were told we had 4 minutes to answer 4-5 short answer questions. The forms were not anonymous, the questions were leading questions intended to obscure real critique ("What was your favorite thing about the conference?"), and the moderator insisted on calling on people to share their responses. I scribbled down the list I'd written earlier that day and then...I just lost it. 

I turned in my form, then starting shaking. I ran out of the conference room and hid in the hall by the bathroom. And the tears started coming and they wouldn't stop. A nice catholic woman came and tried to soothe me, but it was all I could do to go back to the conference room and grab my bag before rushing back to my room. I laid in bed crying, fell asleep from the fatigue. I woke up and felt numb. 

At 2:00 that afternoon, I was supposed to go back to attend more sessions, but I couldn't. I found a tucked-away coffee shop and planted myself there for a couple hours before heading out to a nearby marina to let myself stop thinking for awhile. 

Here's what I think happened: the rigidity of the ideology, lack of opportunity for appropriate critique, real and implied silencing, harmful Biblical literalist approach to religious texts, and tightly controlled hierarchy had thrown me back so hard to that place of utter hopelessness I'd felt at my church 5 years ago that all the wind had been knocked out of me. 

I was dangerously, irrationally afraid that I would get in trouble for criticizing leadership. I was afraid of being abandoned. 


I was afraid of being made to look crazy. I was so afraid the only thing left to do was to cry. I'm starting to cry again as I write this. 

What I experienced back then at church was spiritual abuse. It was trauma. And the conference had triggered that trauma. I was being forced to feel viscerally - in my shaking muscles, in my bones - the injustice - and yes, it was injustice - I'd felt back then. The irony of that. Here I was at a social justice conference feeling silenced and marginalized. All I wanted to do was shut off for awhile. All I wanted to do was to make it go away. 

Fortunately, I was already planning on leaving early the next morning to head to my current church's retreat weekend in the mountains. While there, I was able to talk to people I trusted about my experience, sit and not think for awhile. 

And I was overwhelmingly, giddily grateful for a religious community that does not deal in rigidity and exclusion. 


That welcomes women and gay people and trans people and black people and former Evangelicals and people with doubts and everyone to the table and says, "You belong. We will not leave you." What a gift. What a miracle. 

I don't know what I'm going to do about my involvement with the community organizing group. But I know I am not alone. 

And that's helping me breathe again.


Hope is a Moral Imperative: A Reflection after My First Season of Community Organizing

community organizing

I wrote this piece to present at the seasonal wrap-up of my local community organizing group. Alas, I am very wordy and had to cut some of it for the sake of moving the meeting along, so I decided to share the full text here. 

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Over the last few years, I’ve found that my life has – somewhat unintentionally - started to orient itself around social justice and community service.

First, I started an ethical fashion blog – which basically means I talk about labor rights, pollution, and economic policy through the medium of personal style; I promise it’s more exciting than it sounds. Because most of the people I talk about and advocate for live in other countries and have vastly different lives than my own, I reflect a lot on how I can best cultivate a broader sense of what it means to not just shop ethically, but live ethically.

Secondly, I started managing a local thrift shop that functions as a ministry of a local church. It’s important to me that I always keep that word, ministry, in mind as I work through the tedium of sorting donations, schedule volunteers, and talk with and assist our customers, who come from many different backgrounds, cultures, and places.

It strikes me again and again that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to reaching people, or being present. 


At the thrift shop, I tend to reflect on how I can best cultivate an environment of radical, universal welcome, how I and my volunteers can make each person feel at home.

And then I started working with my local justice ministry. I’d been asking these BIG questions about Ethics and Ministry and it seemed to me that working within an interfaith, multi-demographic, local community organizing group could answer some of these questions for me.

When I first got involved last fall, I thought I would just feel things out, attend a few meetings, and come to the annual events. I didn’t anticipate that I would become a team member, and then give my friend’s testimony [on the difficulty of aging while impoverished] at the fall assembly. And then I joined a strategy committee. And then I made friends, younger, older, from different faiths and different life paths. And things since then have been exasperating and life-affirming, sometimes in the same meeting! And people have rubbed me the wrong way, and the same people have encouraged me in this work.

And I’m coming to realize that I can’t have a pet cause when it comes to justice. 


It’s all or nothing – once you see injustice, you can’t unsee it. And even when the community’s and the world’s problems seem insurmountable, you start to hunger to change things. As author Barbara Kingsolver said recently at a local event: “Hope is a moral imperative.” You hope – and work – for change because you have to. It becomes your calling.

Seeking loving justice in the local, tangible way that this justice ministry does has changed me. It makes me realize how much I don’t know, and it challenges my individual notions of what is best. It has forced me to realize that the important thing is keeping the conversation and the work moving forward.

It grounds the more theoretical work I do in the realities of community and connection. 


And working specifically on the elder care issue has opened me up to the challenges of my largely older volunteer team at work and to my customers young and old who sacrifice much to care for their loved ones.

I believe in justice ministry because I can see change – not just in the communities we seek to aid but in the relationships formed in this space, and in my own life. Admittedly, there were times in the last few months where I felt so overwhelmed I couldn’t think straight. I felt like quitting everything. But we need each other on every scale, on every level.

And understanding that has not only helped me do better work and write better blog posts, it’s helped me orient myself even more toward the humility, compassion, and dedication my faith has called me to. 


Arms Wide Open: a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, by Elaine Thomas

advent candles

I was touched by this sermon by my friend and priest, Elaine Thomas, and wanted to share a portion of it with you all. When you want to see loving justice done, you never get to stop thinking, processing, or doing. And it 's exhausting and disorienting. It can make you feel like you will never be able to do enough. 

During this season of Advent, we're asked to sit with our fatigue and our sorrow, but we're also asked to hope - and to work to make the world better. It's up to us and we won't give up.


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If you came to church this morning, this First Sunday of Advent, looking for happiness and joy and preparing to see the baby Jesus, I imagine you’re getting a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about now.

In fact, you know how all those people think what we really need to do is to put Christ back in Christmas? Well, today, we put the Apocalypse back in Advent. 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. (Luke 21:25-27)

Nope, not a lot of sweet baby Jesus in that, is there?

In truth, Advent can be a confusing time. The world tells us it’s one thing – getting ready for Christmas – while the Church tell us it’s that plus something else. And it’s that something else that we’re about today.

...stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:28)

We are in the in-between time when Christ has come and yet is coming, an ongoing cycle of God being made known in the world in the first advent of incarnation and in the yet-to-be second coming of Christ to redeem the world. This liminal space, this threshold, can be disorienting, because all that we think that we know – Jesus was born, lived, healed, told stories, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again – this is the story we’ve just completed. Some of us have lived this story in the life and liturgy of the church many, many times. And yet here we are, once again.

You might well be asking “why?” Why do we have to repeat this story over and over again?

The answer, it seems to me, is pretty clear: we haven’t gotten it right just yet. If we are participants in the creation of God’s reign on earth, then we only have to look around us to see just how far we still have to go.

The ‘distress among the nations” to which Jesus refers in our gospel could be taken to mean any number of the countries on our globe – Syria, Sudan, Burundi, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria. The list goes on and on.

We are not immune. The latest terror unleashed by the so-called Islamic State hit a bit too close to home when diners and party-goers in Paris were indiscriminately targeted. Also close to home was the not-so-indiscriminate terror at a Planned Parenthood clinic two days ago.

We have witnessed a sharp uptick in the level of fear and anxiety in our country of late, and, as so often happens with fear and anxiety, it manifests itself in destructive ways.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman almost four years ago, racial tensions have been simmering and, in some instances, boiling over. This week, we had reported white supremacists firing on crowds of people protesting the death of yet another black man at the hands of police.

Syrian refugees have so feared for their lives that they have taken their families and boarded rickety boats, willing to risk all that they have – even their very lives – to escape their war-torn country.

The vitriol and judgment and fear of these refugees has been an eye-opening challenge to me as a priest and pastor and human being.

We can sit here and argue until the cows come home over interpretation of certain passages of scripture. We can debate what the bible says about sex and sexuality and the role of women in leadership, and good and faithful people debate these things all the time. What is not open to debate is this – scripture is consistent throughout, Old Testament as well as new, that we are to welcome the stranger.

This frenzy of fear that has so hardened the hearts of so many is contrary to the most fundamental commandment of God: love your neighbor.

From the depth of my being, I would rather die with my arms wide open than live with my fists clenched shut...


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Read or listen to the rest here. 


Justice Conference Part 2: All things go to recreate us

The title's a reference to Sufjan Stevens' Chicago, which is a pretty perfect summary of my Justice Conference experience.



Read Part 1 of my Justice Conference recap here.

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Racial Reconciliation Pre-Conference, afternoon sessions


About a dozen of us were seated in a circle in a small classroom waiting for the first afternoon class in the Racial Reconciliation pre-conference to begin. The panel was comprised of prominent Christian bloggers/twitter enthusiasts of varying backgrounds and ethnicities: Eugene Cho, blogger and pastor of a cool-sounding church in Seattle; Mickey Jones, "creative extremist for love" and Director of Training and Program Development at Transform Network (a ministry devoted to reconciliation); and Benjamin L. Corey, blogger at Formerly Fundie. The topic was "how to have a civil conversation online" and I was pretty excited about it, firstly because Hannah and I were with our people here. We get this world. I've also had a really difficult time navigating my place in discussions about race and privilege as a white woman with mostly white friends, particularly on facebook, so I hoped to get some constructive feedback.

The moderator asked general questions about how to deal with trolls and speak truth online without coming off as arrogant. When he opened up the floor for questions, I timidly raised my hand and asked the question that's been plaguing me for months: "How do I speak for the marginalized without making it about me? Where does my voice fit into the discussion and should it be there at all?" A helpful attendee recommended that I follow leaders within the black activist community on twitter so that I can gain some insight before speaking up. For whatever reason, it hadn't dawned on me that the internet makes it possible to expand my narrow and segregated community to something bigger, and more fruitful. Eugene Cho nuanced the conversation by saying that he thinks everyone has a role to play here and that speaking up in solidarity with those who are already sharing their stories is important because it helps frame the discussion for those you have the direct power to influence (like facebook friends and family members). He told me not to be afraid! And I realized then that it was fear of getting called out for doing activism wrong that kept me from doing anything at all. It was one of those otherwise normal pieces of advice that came at the right time; it stuck with me through the rest of the weekend.

The rest of the afternoon was interesting enough but uneventful. In the spirit of not being afraid of speaking truth, however, I have to tell you that I learned more about trafficking from the Racial Reconciliation track than I did from the Human Trafficking morning sessions. And the reason is simple: when there are diverse voices in the room ready to tell their stories and reconcile their histories, transformation happens. When people are faced with acknowledging "the other" as part of their community, they listen more and talk less. "Those persecuted people over there" aren't powerless or voiceless. We don't need to go to conferences on the other side of the world and speak on their behalf. We need them in the room!




The fun begins...


The Justice Conference started with a bang. In fact, I was so wound up when we got home Friday night I barely slept. The main conference sessions took place in the beautiful Romanesque-meets-Art Nouveau concert hall of Auditorium Theatre. The worship team started us off with a song from my traveling teen worship band days (seriously, though, we went on tour!), which made me incredibly nostalgic for some good contemporary worship music. Then spoken word poet, Malcolm London, performed his piece, A Praise for Black Women (and I was fangirling because I'm obsessed with the Chicago spoken word scene) before welcoming Dr. Cornel West to the stage. 

I've mostly heard West's name in the context of controversy, but I'd never heard him speak, so I was blown away by the eloquence and power behind his words (lots of quotable quotes, too). He said that we can't do justice work without acknowledging suffering head on, without understanding how life is always wrapped up in death: "When you're talking about love, you're talking about death, 'cause love is learning how to die." I'm on a lifelong journey to come to terms with mortality because I'm convinced it must be done if we're to fully appreciate life and serve others. West's talk brought that concept of fear back into my mind. We have to stop fearing death if we're to love fully. On the topic of racial reconciliation, he said: "People always come up to me and ask if they can be an ally. We don't want allies! When you're a follower of Jesus, you don't ask for permission to be a force for good!" 

The night ended with some good ol' David Crowder (I saw him in concert twice as a teenager), a popular worship artist in the early 2000s (and apparently still popular?). He's gotten a little blue-grassy since the last time I saw him and he ended the night with some old timey hymns with banjo and fiddle. It was amazing. 

There is always a cost to justice. This is why Jesus tells us to take up our cross. 

(Eugene Cho)

Ah, Saturday. I knew the trouble would come eventually. Saturday was a long, exhausting day spent cooped up in the theatre. With 21 speakers presenting on Saturday alone, you can imagine it was a lot to take in. Things started off great with Eugene Cho urging us not to "seek justice unjustly" by seeing people as projects and thereby dehumanizing them (Amen!). On the topic of God moving mountains, he said: "You and I, we might be the mountain God wants to move." 

But then we got Bob Goff cheerily talking about executing witch doctors in Uganda and educating "the enemy" with only a Bible and a copy of his Christian memoir (gag! Hannah and I gave each other some looks during this session) and a panel full of women talking about poor people who have no voice and crying and telling us all to be the "Esther Generation" (seriously, though, when's the last time you read Esther?). Admittedly, I was probably looking for things to get upset about during the women's panel. I have a hard time seeing women behaving in traditionally feminine ways within the context of Evangelicalism, because I worry they're just reinforcing harmful stereotypes. I should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Jonathan Merritt (he follows me on twitter!) came up and spoke about nurturing virtues as part of the justice-seeking journey: to seek to understand instead of seeking to be understood, empathy, and diversity as a way of creating a higher consciousness around hard topics. His topic led up to the highlight of the day: The Racial Reconciliation panel comprised of Gabriel Salguero, National Latino Evangelical Coalition President; Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor at North Park Theological Seminary; Dr. Arloa Sutter, founder of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago; Reverend Tracy Blackmon, pastor in Ferguson; and Pastor Michael McBride, national director of the LIVE FREE campaign. 

These guys were hilarious. I think everyone was a bit nervous that the mostly white audience would be a tough crowd, but they did a great job of defining privilege and sharing their stories in a way that was accessible to all. Several important points were made here, I think, from "Segregation is a church problem" to "Privilege is to declare that the God in someone else is less than the God who lives in me." One panelist pointed out that one of the easiest places to see privilege is in what we define as "normal." For instance, theology done by white men is simply called "theology" while theology done by people of color is called "black theology" or "liberation theology." The final point - and one that needed to be said in this crowd in particular - was "Don't say you're going to go save Africans when you don't even know an African American in the United States."


The unexpected lesson


Hannah and I were pretty worn out by mid-afternoon and skipped some of the afternoon sessions. We had met up with Anna, a member of the Ethical Blogger Network, at lunchtime and decided to head to the touristy part of town for a pizza dinner. Well, the pizza took awhile, so Anna headed back to the last session of the night and Hannah asked if we could give some pizza to a homeless person we'd just passed at a street corner. I reluctantly agreed; I'd had a lot of unfavorable and awkward conversations with homeless people in my college town and I was wary of approaching someone at random like this. 

We asked him if he wanted a few slices of our pizza and he told us he was lactose intolerant. His name was Ryan and he was reading a novel about Judaism. The sign propped up in front of him had a list of necessities - like a weekly train pass - and explained that he had grown up in foster care. He couldn't have been older than 19. We ended up sitting down and having a very normal conversation with him for 5 or so minutes. He told us he'd tried to find a job, but no one would give him one since he didn't have an address. He told us it was hard and uncomfortable, especially in the winter. Then we shook hands and left. 

Basically, the miracle in all this is that we just saw each other. We were people being people together and that wasn't nothing. And that theme came back to me again. Fear - irrational fear - had almost kept me from making a normal connection with someone. There would have been no repercussions (outside of some awkwardness), but I was still too afraid to approach. I felt ashamed for myself, but I also got hit in the face with injustice in real time for the first time all weekend. This is why justice work matters. Because kids like Ryan age out of foster care and end up on the street. 

So I'm trying not to be afraid. I started the trip feeling awkward and unlike myself and I ended it the same way. But so much of the story is in its interpretation and I was starting to learn how to live in awkwardness. Seeing people, building communities, trying to meet people's needs, asking for help: it's all awkward! But you know what? There's no sense fearing awkward. The Justice Conference, as it turns out, was meant for me and I think I'm ready now to throw off that terrible, scratchy wool cloak of fear and start running toward a more just world. 

Justice Conference Part 1: It's complicated

justice conference graphic
Image source: Justice Conference Facebook page

A whirlwind Thursday...


I put off writing about my experience at the Justice Conference in Chicago last weekend, at first, because I was physically exhausted and didn't think I could go back over my notes and reflect appropriately without getting overwhelmed. Instead, I went out to the mountains twice in two days and didn't really think about anything.

When I initially took the plunge and purchased tickets to the conference, I assumed I wasn't the target market. After all, the Justice Conference presenters were largely evangelical - largely charismatic or mega-churchy - and I left that world a few years ago because I felt like it was destroying any chance at my finding peace in the Christian faith as an adult. But I think I've done some healing since I left and I wanted to know what these people were doing to enact justice in the world. Like a lot of the presenters said, "we don't have a monopoly on justice." No matter what "we" you are, that statement holds true, and remembering that helps us find ways to "live justice together" (this year's Justice Conference slogan). 

When I got back from the conference late Sunday morning, everything felt fresh and easy - I felt empowered to do the hard work of justice in my community - but by Tuesday evening, I was starting to feel unsure and uncomfortable in my own skin. The discomfort still lingers and I'm trying to interpret it. So let me give a bit of context:

I took a direct flight to Chicago from Charlottesville at 5:00 in the morning on June 4. That left me with an hour once I arrived at the airport to anticipate meeting my virtual "friend," Hannah before setting out to tour fair trade shops for the day (Hannah runs an ethical fashion blog and we'd only spoken via Google Hangout before meeting in real life). I don't buy into the introvert/extrovert scale so much, but I do know myself pretty well, and the thing that's stuck out to me more and more is that I tend to over-process new experiences to such an extent that I go into fight-or-flight and become mute until I can get my bearings again. My inability or subconscious unwillingness to engage "normally" with new people or new surroundings, though it's meant to make me feel more in control, makes me feel self-conscious. I'm fighting with myself to just say something.

When I met Hannah for the first time, it was exciting, but it was also a relief. She's cool, you guys, and really smart. Still, I felt like I didn't have much to say. We spent the rest of the day touring around, meeting wonderful, like-minded people, and I was having a great time somewhere deep down, but there was always the anxiety that I wasn't putting my true self (whatever that means) forward. But, you know, it didn't really matter; I felt safe to be or not be whatever worked best for me because Hannah and our hosts were all very welcoming, and I slept like a baby that night.

Human Trafficking Pre-Conference, morning sessions


The pre-conference started bright and early the next morning. We headed out on the blue line to the conference center and then went our separate ways to learn about human trafficking and racial reconciliation. Having started the trip on insecure footing, I entered the lecture hall where the human trafficking track began with some reservations. Christians interested in anti-sex trafficking efforts are easy to stereotype as young, conservative, and sheltered. I don't think it's unfair to say Evangelicals are tied up in the cause of anti-sex trafficking specifically because it relates so well to their sexual ethic in general. If virginity is a gift to be protected and shared within the very specific, hallowed context of monogamous marriage, then being sold into sex trafficking to do it with hundreds of people a month is the worst kind of degradation. And I don't necessarily disagree, but I think there are all sorts of terrible things we do to people that need to be addressed in tandem with anti-sex trafficking efforts.

Tangent aside, I came into a room of well dressed young women (and a few outliers) full of self protective judgment, thinking all sorts of mean things ranging from the logical, "How can you care about human trafficking and be wearing brand new Skechers and a top from Target (brands that most definitely have exploitative practices somewhere along their supply chain)?" to the weird, "How can you work against the exploitation of young women wearing that much makeup?!" Despite that, I really enjoyed some of the speakers:

Dr. Paul Lee, sociology professor, looked at the number of academic articles being written on human trafficking from 1995 to 2014 and found a dramatic rise after 2005 (not coincidentally around the same time that key trade embargos were lifted in the US that made it easier than ever to use cheap foreign labor to produce goods, leading to a dramatic rise in the popularity and profits of "fast fashion.")

Then Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson, called the "Slumdog Professor" because of his early life spent in New Delhi slums, made the powerful claim that the whole Bible is an extended narrative about human trafficking and violence against women, from Eve being manipulated by a phallic Sumerian serpent god to the Hebrew people enslaved by the Egyptians to the demon possessed slave girl exploited by her owner in Acts. His basic point was that the Bible, unlike concurrent religious narratives of the time, not only sees exploitation but interprets it as the horror story it is. We are asked to live in narratives of injustice so that we can do the work to end it. I'm sure a lot of people have very valid rebuttals to this approach, but I find it useful within a wider conversation about Biblical interpretation.

After a few other speakers presented, we broke for lunch and I decided I'd learned about all I could learn from the human trafficking track (there were about 6 other speakers in the morning that didn't provide the depth of insight I was hoping for). I decided to join Hannah in the Racial Reconciliation track for the afternoon sessions. And that's when the recurring themes for the weekend started to take shape for me...

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darkness and light: how religion shapes my fair trade journey


Style Wise has always been about building a community of people centered around a common goal of buying and living more ethically. Because of that, it's never been a priority to share the more intimate inner workings of my values system. And, more than that, it's kind of terrifying.

My blogger friend, Hoda, recently shared post ideas that helped her blog grow and one of them was sharing more personal stories. I love that she is passionate about fair trade and sustainability issues in the clothing industry, but I really appreciate that she is an American Muslim who isn't afraid to enlighten people to her reality in a clear and compassionate way. 

In that same strain, I thought it could be useful to share my back story. So, here goes. 

I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian tradition called the First Church of God. They're not too different from most Evangelical churches in the US, but they do ordain women to be ministers, which is somewhat unusual. I became a Christian when I was 6, reciting the Sinner's Prayer, and got baptized before middle school. I tell people I could have been the poster child for my high school youth group. I was involved - sometimes it felt like I lived at church - and passionate about living Christianity correctly. I was morality driven thanks to a father who had always been involved in political engagement on issues of abortion, education, and climate change. The family spent many nights at home watching the news and discussing world issues. We also read the Bible together several times a week. It was useful in fostering spiritual discipline and rhetorical confidence, but it wasn't all good.


I convinced my best friend to become a Christian in the fourth grade by telling her she would go to Hell if she didn't. I alienated a friend in need in high school by practicing an attitude of moral superiority in almost everything I undertook. I didn't realize until college that my unwillingness to hear people out continued to affect the people I had unwittingly abandoned in their time of need years ago.

In tandem with that realization, I became quite interested in studying Religious Studies at my state university. I had always wondered why, if half of the Christian Bible was Old Testament, we didn't take more time to understand the context and culture of ancient Hebrews/Israelites/Jews. So, I plunged right in to the program, taking classes on the Hebrew Prophets, David, and Job. I loved this literary and historical approach to the texts I'd grown up with but had always found boring. I discovered the humor and depth of the narratives simply by acknowledging them as art rather than cold, hard fact. This concerned my family, who had always believed in Biblical Literalism. They were afraid I was on my way to false belief or even atheism. For the sake of brevity, I'm understating the emotional devastation this period in my life brought as I began to question my belief system and came to terms with the fact that the hyper-structured Christianity I had grown up with just wasn't cutting it. It wasn't answering enough questions. It wasn't giving enough grace.


I wasn't quite ready to leave Evangelicalism, but in the end, I felt I had little choice. I spiraled to a dark place, feeling unsupported by my church community and unable to speak the language of faith I had been fluent in for most of my life. The tropes and phrases and expressions no longer rang true for me. I left the church for about a year and a half, during which I never stopped struggling to understand what I believed, where I stood before God, and how to move forward. It was an extremely gradual process that carried a lot of uncertainty, anger, and isolation, but things did get better.

I spent about two years wondering if God existed, wondering if a church so opposed to change could actually change the world. During that time, I began to take an interest in fair trade issues. I always knew that my particular perspective could not have arisen without my faith tradition and without my journey through doubt and darkness. Even on days when God didn't seem very useful, the life of Christ impacted me. Jesus demonstrated impartial grace. It's not a love that glosses over problems, but a love that exposes the darkness and works to make it light. 


The way I live is deeply impacted by this narrative, by his model, and it would be ignorant to suggest that I could be who I am now without this religious reference point. This model of "being light" is useful because it means I'm called to cast away my reservations and give joy and hope to others. I'm also called to lighten people's loads by extending grace and working beside them. It's a call to work! Jesus solved people's immediate problems before talking to them about intellectual or spiritual goals. In the same way, I believe the best charity models seek to alleviate pain and need first and foremost. To be like Christ is to do work without expectation of personal payoff. I think the mission of his life speaks for itself and that the best evangelism I can do is love, accept, and welcome all people. That's why I talk about issues without talking about Religion. I don't seek to hide it, but I want the hard work of living ethically and intentionally to get done regardless of my faith tradition and whether or not others share it with me.


Now I belong to a local Episcopal Church (The Episcopal Church Welcomes You - that's their motto) and have found a great deal of support and Christ-like love in my faith community. Living according to a value system is important and having people who can help propel you forward by asking hard questions and lending a hand is vital. 

I hope that this blog can help support you on your journeys to live more ethically and I know that some of you have really helped keep me going on this path. 

Thanks for reading. - Leah