Some Thoughts On Orlando

os-orlando-shooting-pulse-nightclub-20160612

I don’t know how I could’ve handled the Orlando massacre if it hadn’t happened on a Sunday, if I hadn’t been able to go to church. My faith is hardly passable most days. I’m committed to Christ but I skip a lot of sundays, and I have a lot of theology that’s tied up in questions I can’t answer, a brain that is steeped in doubt, a rebellious heart that wanders off, and a smart mouth. But when Orlando happened, I felt like I was going to die. I needed prayer. I needed communion. I needed a hymn. I needed a pastor to speak on this and not bury it, or explain it neatly, or whitewash it, or make it all about gun violence and not about the relentless fury of Christian America’s hatred towards LGBTQ people. Thank God, my brother is a pastor.

 

I stood in the pews and wept as my brother called out the homophobia and racism of our society and our church, and then as he led us in a prayer of repentance. I needed to repent, too. I can be the worst ally to others, and to myself.

 

Following the service, I went to the vigil with friends in Loring Park. Still raw, I watched politicians take the stage and cringed at their grandstanding and the hoorahing they received and instead cast my glance around and saw all the people I knew. All the men and women I had met at clubs and bars, wrapping their arms around each other, crying, clenching their fists, then throwing them up boldly. We lit candles and the gay men’s chorus sang. We held hands, because sometimes that’s the only answer.

 

Pastors and Rabbis and Imams took the stage and my heart leapt. Prophetic passages were read and we were reminded that we all belong together and together we will overcome. In my head, I kept hearing that line of Jesus, “where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” And I opened my eyes and there he was.

 

There has been a lot of conversation about how the Church had a hand in the violence that took place Sunday. I agree with that. When you sow seeds of homophobia and racism, hatred and violence, do not be surprised by the poisoned fruit you reap. When you suddenly care about us only in the aftermath of a massacre, after years of demeaning and ridiculing us, and yet- AND YET STILL feel the need to qualify your statement with a summary of your theological opinion on sexuality and gender, do not expect a thank you. I am admittedly hypersensitive right now, but if I see one more status or tweet about Orlando that doesn’t make mention of the fact that this was gay club that was targeted… I’m going to break my laptop against the wall and I can’t afford another one.

 

Another strand of the conversation I keep hearing that I really hope to hear differently are the straight Christians chastising other straight Christians with variations of an old argument: if straight conservative Christians don’t get their shit together, LGBTQ people might never know the love of God. A whole generation’s attitude towards faith will be tainted. LGBTQ people will leave and it will be all our fault. It is very hard to see why I might be frustrated with this sentiment, written as it is out of love and righteous anger over the very very real damage done by church people.

 

But it is only half the story. And when it’s told this way, it suggests that somehow approval from straight Christians is the only way we get God. It keeps LGBTQ people categorized amongst those that need to be ~reached~, when the truth is, God has been reaching us all along, as he’s always done with the marginalized. It’s the other half of the story that isn’t being told, and the one that turns from the ugliness of oppressive Christians to the faithfulness of God to his people. It’s one in which God is centering LGBTQ people as the leaders of his Church.

 

According to Pew Research, 48% of LGB people identify as Christians. 48%. Forty-Eight Percent. That’s half. That’s major. It’s stunning. It makes zero sense and yet complete sense when you consider what concerns our Lord. And while the rest of the country has slowly moved away from faith, LGB people have been trending towards it. (an aside: I’m unsure why trans folks and others weren’t included in this survey.)

 

And this is what I love about God: The Church has driven out LGBTQ people for centuries, with an especially intense malice over the last several decades, and in response to this, God just says, okay, fine, we’re good out here. Where you chase my people, I will be with them. Where they gather, I will be there. Clubs. Conversations. Protests. In lament and anger and tears and laughter and way too many drinks. I will be with them and make this right for them. I will love them more fiercely for their wounds. I will draw them close. I will know them and they will know me. They will tell you my name.

 

A survivor of the night club saved one of the bartenders. In a statement, he said: “I felt God put me at the club and made me stay behind to help a complete stranger. For whatever reason that may be….I don’t know, but I do know it was hopefully to save his life,”

 

God was at the club, because God lives in clubs. God lives in the homeless shelter and the street corner, the hospital bed and the drag show. God lives in the queer community. His true home has always been with the oppressed.

 

I want to talk about this, because if you’re looking for the faithful to lead the conversation, here we are. If you’re looking for God in all of this, here we are. The LGBTQ movement has the breath of God in its’ sails. The breath of God is in our lungs. God is at home within us. So if you’re trying to sort out where God is in all of this, what God is trying to tell you in your heart, turn to us and find him. We’ll show you.

 

image credit

The Mirror of American Evangelicalism

splash-trump-a1

In May of 2015, Pew Research released their highly-anticipated Religious Landscape Survey and revealed what many already knew to be true: Christianity is on the decline in America. But it also revealed much more: in comparison to other denominations steadily bleeding members, Evangelicalism has remained remarkably stable, identification declining only slightly.

 

For evangelical leaders, there was a vindication in these numbers. The changing culture of the last decade, particularly around sexuality, had moved evangelicalism into sharper contrast with the rest of the country. In a 2007 study from the Barna group, 91% of non-Christians said the first word that came to mind when they thought of Christianity was “antihomosexual”, the second “judgmental”, and everyone, including myself, implored evangelicals to change their theology or prepare for their funeral.

 

And yet, all these years later, the numbers have stayed stable. Evangelicalism survives.

 

Immediately following Pew’s publication, Russell Moore and Joe Carter  took to the internet for a victory lap, penning long lectures about the godlessness of the liberal mainline tradition, about the resiliency of evangelicalism despite an inhospitable climate.

 

Moore had this to say at the time:

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

 

It’s a counter-punch I’ve seen throw a million times this past year whenever evangelicalism has been the subject of  criticism: Our numbers our bigger. Our people are staying, because our faith is deeper, truer, gospel-centered. The world may not like it, but God is with us. God is so clearly with us. Did you see the numbers?

 

Enter Donald J. Trump.

 

The Presidential frontrunner most of us were laughing about months ago now commands the largest share of evangelical support. Half of white evangelicals, according to a recent pew survey, believe Trump would be a “good” or “great” president.

 

This makes no sense, but also, it makes perfect sense.

 

In a normal world, the Donald would be roundly disqualified from the evangelical vote for his long list of crimes: his past support for partial birth abortion. His current support for same-sex marriage (which I agree with, but evangelicals strongly disagree with.) His honest answer that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness because he has nothing to be sorry for, and likewise, he doesn’t forgive anyone else. His inability to cite a single line of scripture. His notable absence from church. His unabashed hatred for women, who he has called “dogs”, “pieces of ass,” and said you have to “treat ‘em like shit.” His mockery of the disabled. His racist rhetoric. When Ben Carson gave him a run for his money, he likened him to a pathological child molester. Whenever he had the opportunity to talk about his daughter, he says he’d date her if she wasn’t his daughter. When some of his supporters were arrested for assaulting a homeless man- urinating on his face and then beating the crap out of him- they said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported” and Donald Trump replied to this by saying these supporters “are passionate… they want this country to be great again.”

 

Trump may not be the evangelical’s final choice of candidate, but at the moment, he is their mirror. He reflects the unabashed bigotry and twisted theology endorsed by a large slice of their lot. A slice that is finally saying how they really feel about minorities and women and immigrants and the disabled- political correctness be damned. A slice that finds no offense in Trump’s crude impersonation of their sacred faith, perhaps because his looks a lot like theirs.

 

Now, to be honest, every conservative evangelical I know is opposed to Trump on the basis of faith and good sense. His large support doesn’t reflect the will of most evangelicals.

 

But it opens up a world of revelation inside those numbers from May. 

 

Many evangelicals, including my own dad, have been arguing that these folks are not real evangelicals. Russell Moore and others gatekeepers have been hollering in exasperation, in the pages of the Times and in their Twitter feeds, scrambling for control over their renegade flock. And I keep hearing it over and over again, online and elsewhere: any evangelical that would support Trump’s presidential bid is by definition not an evangelical. Not a true one, at least.

 

But they were in May, when those big, beautiful numbers came out? Got it. Here’s the problem: You can’t count these folks when it is convenient to you, and then write them off not real evangelicals when over a third of them buck your beliefs and fall at the feet of a megalomaniac. It doesn’t work like that.

 

Maybe instead of score-keeping, evangelicals should be analyzing fruit. Maybe it would be wise to consider conducting a theological inventory, and see where this odd crop of Trump Evangelicalism sprung to life. These are not simply carpet-baggers putting on evangelicalism like a top hat, these are people who have paid attention, taken notes, and have walked where these theologies have led them. These people may be more evangelical than you think.

image source

Me Too: A Love Letter by Samantha Bender

155138_10150105334940992_875116_n

Six years ago, I met Sam.

I was living in an apartment in Washington, DC with about eighty other students from Christian colleges around the country, all of us there for a domestic study program. 

These were the days when I wanted to work at a political think tank and develop policies that would promote clean energy. The days when I talked about politics and energy issues until everyone left the room, which I suppose was how I liked it, since these were the days when I was closeted. When I didn’t want people to know me. When I hid myself beneath layers of opinions so no one could see the truth of my soul. 
I don’t remember the exact moment I met Sam, but I feel her in my memory. I hear her voice in the beginnings of things turning well. That semester, I started off in the natural seclusion of an introvert desperately trying to figure out how to make friends, and somewhere in those first few weeks, Sam showed up, and it was like the atmosphere shifted, like I suddenly belonged.

I knew right away I would like her. Her personality was so magnetic, accentuated by a sharp sense of humor and a deep empathy for the world. She was a Christian and so was I. She was a liberal and I was too. And there was something so refreshing in that. Both of us hailed from conservative colleges, places where people often questioned our faith and argued against us with the Bible as if we were had never heard of it before. So, of course, we talked politics nonstop. But we wandered into the other spaces of our lives, too.

Her comedic hero, I learned, was Kristen Wiig (this was big, because at the time, I felt I was the only noticing Wiig.) And her life hero was (is) Sophie Scholl, a German student who fearlessly protested Nazism, fought the darkness that was flooding all around her, and was eventually executed for her courage. And I see that courage in Sam. It makes so much sense that this girl would speak so much to the her heart, because Sam is bold, Sam is strong, Sam speaks up when no one else will.

About me, Sam learned I loved to sketch. Kept a sketchbook in my backpack everywhere I went. And after I showed her some of my favorite work, she asked if I would do her a favor and sketch a picture of Sophie. Of course I said yes.

12227595_10204979344071626_1678598540605305022_n

Then I spent hours carefully putting it together and she cried when I revealed it to her. It was a beautiful moment in our still young friendship.

By the end of the semester, Sam emerged in our friend group as one of the few people I felt I could talk to, and there were even a few times when we were hanging out downtown grabbing lunch or sneaking a prohibited smoke on the roof of our building overlooking the city, that I thought I was going to do it. I thought I was going to come out to her. But then the fear came, as it always did, and folded it back into my heart, and I just smiled, grateful that I could at least be this known with Sam.

A few years ago, Sam messaged me on FB. She had read my blog. I actually figured she had, as I had been receiving messages from other friends from that semester, all well wishes and thank yous, but when I received this message from Sam, I felt a little breathless as I awaited her thoughts, her prayers, her thank yous. Because it was Sam.

 

And then she told me she was gay, too, and I just about fell out my chair.

 

Did God do this? Perhaps yes. When two or more gays gather, surely He is present. That is gospel.

 

162926_10150105335010992_4326749_n-1Never once did I suspect Sam was gay, but I remember the warm presence I felt in her world. I remember the deep current running between us, one that knew of mystery and confusion and pain, one that knew of held back truths. One that prompted us to layer one another in love, because that was what we were desperate for and that was our gift, to give something so precious we weren’t sure we would ever have.  Someone looking deep into your eyes and seeing you. Someone telling you you’re so very loved.

She was a gift to my life then and she continues to be, but being the terrible friend I am, I’ve been sitting on this Love Letter she wrote for a couple months, because if you haven’t noticed, I haven’t had a free minute to write lately (THANKS GRAD SCHOOL) and I wanted to introduce her to you instead of just posting the letter. I wanted you to see our incredible story and feel the rays of God moving through it.

 

Now, pull up a chair, and listen. Sit still and take in these life-giving words from Sam, to you, the still closeted or the out and outcasted, to anyone questioning their worthiness of love and belonging. Listen. Sam wants to tell you something true.

~~~

medium_3002607644

Dear brave one,

I’ve been wanting to write a “love letter” for a long time, I just couldn’t quite muster the strength, or energy, or afford enough wine to get through it. If I’m actually honest, I didn’t want to write this because I would have preferred to just walk away from the fire and focus on my own scars. I needed to run away clinging to the little I still had left instead of jumping back into the flames to find survivors. But I can’t do that anymore, I don’t want to run anymore. All I want to do is shout from the hilltops the anthem that has always kept me going, the only thing I can give to you…

“me too”

———————–

I came out almost 3 years ago. First to myself, then to a few friends over several glasses (See also: bottles) of red wine. It was summer and to say those words, as terrifying as they were, was like taking off a parka in the 90 degree heat and feeling the cool breeze for the first time.

After that summer I returned to finish my last year of grad school at a Christian college. The same Christian college I had graduated from just a few years before. It was home but now, with one foot out of the closet, it was hostile.

But it was just 9 more months, I could do this.

So I rushed to be okay with my sexuality as I sat in chapels, and lectures, and student conversations about “the sin of homosexuality”, how it was pervasive, how those people were separated from God, that they were inherently less then. I rushed to form tough skin. I kept my secret hidden and chided myself for being wounded by the words of others. I drank cheap gin with my roommate instead of dealing with my wounds from staff meetings where we all discussed how to “love gay people” which were rarely loving and often dehumanizing…a subconscious chorus of “good thing we’re holy and straight you guys!”

I leapt for joy alone when my former employer, World Vision, decided that I was human enough to work for them again and took myself to dinner after triumphantly turning in an application for a job I had had my eye on. 30 hours later I sobbed alone when they reversed their decision, when I saw 10,000 sponsorship’s of children dropped because so many would rather let a child starve than admit I had worth as a gay woman. I kept my head down and counted my days because my job, my degree, and my credibility depended on me keeping my mouth shut.

And all that hiding, lying, silence nearly killed me.

———————–

We’re not meant to be alone. That’s not how this works. I’m not referring to romance or friendship even, but a deep guttural need to share our experiences with others. We were created to thrive by the mutual exchange of “me too”. The thrill of a shared joy or a shared sorrow, even from strangers is, in my humble opinion, what makes us human.

I know what it’s like to lay in your bed at night and somehow feel both suffocated in a small locked box while also feeling like you’ve been left out in a wide field alone, vultures circling above. I know what it’s like to feel as though a simple sentence could destroy everything you’ve come to know. I know what it’s like to cry so hard you literally think your chest may break open. And while I can’t fix it, I can remind you “me too”. I’ve felt that way too. I’ve been there too.

It’s easy when you’re in the valley to look up to the mountain top and feel as though you’re the only one who slipped, the only one in the bottom of a pit while everyone else looks down from above. A reverse Who-Ville and Mount Crumpit situation where the songs of celebration feel like symbols on your ears.

It sucks. Plain and simple…but I can promise you that you are not alone in the valley.

I know you’re tired but do yourself a favor crawl around in the dark, dig and claw until you find others. Because we’re down there and you needs us as much as we need you.

Some people you will not be surprised to find, old friends and close family who are not planning on leaving your side. Their love will continue to be constant. And while you will painfully search for some who have vanished, there will be others who you won’t expect to find. Those you thought for sure would climb up that mountain leaving you in the dust but are instead holding your hand in the dark. People will surprise you, let them.

This is not an easy journey, but it’s an incredible one. Trust me when I say there are people in there with you, who will be there when it gets worse, and when it gets better. In the face of the “getting worse”, remember my dear friend that God does not feel this way. When pastors and priests talk about the incarnation and Jesus walking on earth they speak of its beauty not because the bible tells them so, but because the ability for the God of the universe to stand beside you and say “me too, they persecuted me too” is life changing.

There is no rush or timeline to pull yourself from the valley, to feel better, to proudly wave your rainbow flag beneath a shower of glitter and champagne. You are enough as you are and you are not alone. Let every “me too” wrap around you like a warm blanket. Let the shared sacred space give you peace and rest. And trust that one day you will be able to give back the “me too” to someone else and in that moment know that this journey was all worth it.

For me that day is today, in this letter.

“I think I cry because it strikes me as sacred all those people going by. People who decided to simply live their truth even when doing so wasn’t simple. Each and every one of them had the courage to say, this is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it. Just like Jesus did.” – Cheryl Strayed

All my love,

Sam

photo credit: Avery Milo (another dear, dear friend)

Day 15: Sports Psychology

fantasy-fball

I’ve never been into sports. Growing up, my interests were of the weirder variety: I spent my days reading Left Behind books and blowing things up and being alone (with God), preparing for my future of introversion.

But one time, at a hockey game, my super athletic cousin approached me with his super athletic friend and asked me if all I liked to do was sit in my bedroom and read books all day. I replied with rapid breathing and desperate denial. Learning from this catastrophe, along with other similar experiences, I turned to my bedroom. I appraised my bare walls, my small library of books and decided to make some adjustments. I wanted people to walk in and know, without a shadow of doubt, that this was, in fact, a boys room.

I pinned up posters of Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and Terrell Brandon on my walls and I lined my shelves with autographed baseballs, framed baseball cards, a rare trophy. And I think all the make up messed with my mind a bit, because soon after I started losing myself in character. I read the sports page, for fun, and started following the local franchises. The year the timberwolves lost in the playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks, I let out an involuntarily wail of “IT’S NOT FAIR,” and proceeded to crumple up into a ball of the couch, my face beneath my Garnett jersey, my parents watching on, exchanging silent looks of worry.

I played football from 6th to 11th grade. And though I didn’t really ever have a love for the game, I soon realized how irrelevant that was. Amongst my teammates, I found family. I found loyalty and respect and far less Macho culture than I expected. When the captains walked onto the field for the coin toss, they held hands. When the game was over, players from both teams gathered on the fifty-yard line, our arms slung around each other, and we gave thanks to God, prayed for each other, and blessed the night. Nothing ever felt so holy.

 

So, sports hold a special place in my heart, even if they’re not always on my radar.

 

This year, though, my general disinterest in sports has given way to unfettered devotion. In the Summer of 2015, I met with my brothers and their friends and accidentally joined their fantasy football league. All of them have lived in the world of sports all of their lives. One has played professional hockey overseas. A couple of them are high school coaches. Their loyalty to the game is bond deep. Their understanding of it, superior. So I thought of course! why not? Here- here’s fifty bucks.

 

Now every Sunday since the start of the season I am a different person. I end up making deals with myself, promising to only watch for one hour and then move on to homework. Every single Sunday, I fail. I sit in front of the TV in my morning sweats until well after three and I deplete my iPhone battery life easily in an hour from refreshing, refreshing, refreshing of my yahoo fantasy app.  One of my running backs fumbles the ball and I shout profanity language. One of my receivers snags in an uncatchable pass in the end zone and I get misty-eyed. I hold up one hand in the air like I’m waiting for a high-five or having a moment in a hymn; the experience is similar.

 

There’s something just so fun about it, even for me, a relative outsider to this world. It’s a fantasy, so you get to lose yourself a little bit. You get to look at your roster like it’s a list of your best friends. Like you’re the leader they will follow to the end. And you fall in a little deeper and start feeling a real, visceral attachment to them. Every single week someone is trying to trick me into trading away Rob Gronkowski, and in response to my rejection, they always cry why. why. I’m giving you so much more than he’s worth. And my heart whispers: he is priceless to me. He is irreplaceable. He is the heart of this team. 

 

There is plenty of fun psychology happening when one is immersed in fantasy football, not the least of which is illusions of grandeur. Pleasure centers are being activated, competitive feelings are given a healthy channel, a solidarity, however imagined, is being felt. Apart from the gambling issue, it’s a healthy activity ripe with benefits. And for my mind, the most meaningful impact has been the most real one: social connection. 

 

In Fantasy Football, I found a doorway to a world where so many people I know and love live. On Monday night after class, my dad and I stay up late watching games, comparing our teams stats, talking about that current standings of our team, and it’s like we’ve added another language, exclusive to only those involved in The League. On my phone, we have chain text going where I am constantly fake fighting over trade details, demanding fairness, talking trash, and laughing my head off. I consult my brothers about who I should start and who I should sit, if a deal is mutually beneficial or if I’m being bamboozled.

 

And it’s like this single joy is threading through all of us. Like we’re practicing community. As different and disconnected as we may be, this common language restrings us together into something more and reminds us of something deeper: life is always better together.

Day Eleven: Church Psychology

chrch2

image credit

Very rarely do I want to go. I wake up into Sunday morning and the promise I made Saturday night feels suddenly negligible. I tend to feel extremely productive on Sundays. The moment my eyes open, I start listing all the things I need to do, things I’ve ignored all week long: the laundry, the dishes, the homework, the lawn heavy with leaves. I think about how I have a whole big day ahead of me to accomplish it all, and then I see church- standing there in the middle of it like a hurtle that will require all of my strength to leap over. I sink back beneath the covers.

 

It’s not really a struggle to get out bed; my church meets in the evening. And it’s not a problem with the church itself; I have a great pastor, we take communion after every sermon, and sometimes we even sing hymns. The struggle, it seems, is within me. In the slums of my psychology.

 

A Sunday night forecast typically includes lots of small talk, which I’m seemingly incapable of doing. In these little foyer one-on-ones, I tense up, bracing for the potential personal question asked by a sweet sounding stranger, and so I wind up waltzing from person to person, keeping it light, keeping it short. Sometimes, I just sit in my car until ten minutes after.

 

In the service, I know there will be songs sung that sting, but I won’t know why. And inevitably, in the midst of them, someone on the team will break into an impromptu, breathy prayer, and it does less to inspire me than simply remind me of certain people in my past. Their ghosts wreathe around me, and I get critical. I check the clock. I check out.

 

~

 

I’ve been, forever it feels like, trying to quit cynicism. In my recovery from church trauma, I entered into what I felt was a completely appropriate snarky, loud, assholey phase. I picked fights with strangers on twitter and then laughed at how seriously they took it. I sent my brother, a pastor, several profanity-laced texts a day with articles from the Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today, and I ranted on facebook and on my blog and to pretty much anyone that would listen. I was mean and I was extremely raw, a fledgling with a voice, and yet it was still appropriate. I had to spout or implode.

 

It never occurred to me, until recently, that my cynicism might better be understood as a pattern of thought, a habit of mind, an addiction. A trap not too different than the anxiety snares I stumble into. The crux of it was (is) this: all people are hard, but Christians are the hardest.

 

I’ve always trace back much of my own issues with church to the evangelical culture I was born into, a culture that conditioned me towards open-hearted trust and then betrayed me in the worst ways. Afterwards, I learned healthy boundaries. I learned better discernment. But I forgot how to trust and kept my heart caged in.

 

Now, looking back, I try to see it through a neurological lens. The hard hits and the subtle shifting they brought about in my circuitry, the way everything broke all at once and I reassembled my thoughts it in a jaded, darker style. And it makes sense, when you think of it that way, why I can’t just sing the song without the judgment. Why I can’t just listen to the message without getting tripped up on the verbiage. My mind is trained to notice it, and hate it.

 

This is why I got to church: because it’s like an antibiotic. I have to see all the people that are hard, and they bump against my thoughts, like friction, like they’re sanding me down. We talk and we sing badly, I watch them chase my little nephew through the pews, his voice loud with laughter, and all at once I am reminded that people are also soft. I am reminded of the thousand soft moments before that my cynical mind tries to look past.

 

I am reminded when I, of all people, was asked to serve communion. The way when my second nephew was born two months early, the people of God brought my brother and sister-in-law food throughout the week, showed up on Sunday nights with the bread and juice to serve them. The warm faces of strangers that come up to me to tell me they love my blog.

 

I am reminded, most of all, that I am hard and I am soft, that I can hurt as much as I can heal, and I am growing right along with everyone else. I am learning to see them the way I hope they see me. Hard. Soft. Every bit beloved.

Day Ten: Three Ways To Boost Your Brain

                                  image source 

Exercise:

Our brains echo our behavior. An example: When we repeatedly use our phones to save passwords, pictures, and homework reminders, our brain pays attention. It sees how little we need it to for memory, so it starts tuning out instead of snapshotting our most precious moments.

And when we exercise, our brain sees us working hard and follows suit. It opens the floodgates, pouring in chemicals that lift our mood and sharpen our focus. It produces a Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which is a protein that literally make us smarter. And for it’s final set, it hatches millions of new brain cells, strong safeguards defending us from destructive cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Reading:

Reading requires the involvement of many different parts of the brain- the temporal lobe, the frontal lobe, the angular and supramarginal gynus. Do you need to know what these things do? No. What you do need to know is that that reading a good book restrings all these disparate parts together, parts that don’t even know how much they really need each other until they start communicating and collaborating to create new capacities for memory and empathy and critical thinking, stuff they never dreamed they could achieve.

Arts and Crafting:

Draw, paint, sculpt, quilt, knit, weave, collect. Little research has been done to prove theses hobbies hold any cognitive perks; early studies suggest they do, but we still aren’t sure how. But they do. Oh my Lord they do. And I should know. They saved me once.

When I was locked down in the eighth ring of anxiety- I tried to write my way out. This was a mistake. What I had intended was to take the crazy out of my head and into words, onto the page. I would then read them, these wild thoughts, and laugh at them. See them for what they were, which was, irrational. unsubstantiated. ludicrous. But what ended up happening was I made them into echoes. I gave my thoughts ink and became painfully introspective, always always always thinking about my anxiety, thinking about how to get out of it, worrying I never would. 

The visual arts invited me to stop. As I spent hours drawing and painting my pictures, my brain began forging a new channel, redirecting all the energy I had been giving my anxiety towards creativity, instead. I went thoughtless. I went meditative. I learned the silent sound of healing.

A year after I began, I enrolled in a slew of art classes at my university. By my junior year, I was a studio art minor, a finalist in a school wide art competition for a sculpture I had created, and taking the first steps on the other side of my healing. Again, I’ll say it: this saved me.

Image credit: ME. Made this my senior year in one freak accident of a day. Didn’t qualify in the finals, but it remains the painting I’m most proud of.

Day Nine: Alone with Siri

479243-989e9d24-deed-11e3-9096-801fbb4e8d9b

image source

The other night, I was over at my parents’ house and my mom held out her phone to me with a look of apology. “I need help.” She said. “How do I talk to Siri?”

I rolled my eyes, took her phone, walked her through the one-step-process. She lit up; thrilled.

You just hold down the button and there she appears: What can I help you with? She asks, and usually, it’s just logistics: Put down dinner at six with Steve in my calendar. Text Tom hi. Play Wildest Dreams by Taylor Swift. Remind me when I get home to record all of Shonda’s shows, kay?  

But on the rare, lonely, Netflix and chill night, we summon her presence for something more: “Do you love me, Siri?” We ask, and she replies with a sigh. “Well… you’re definitely starting to grow on me.” Her voice makes us feel like we’re not all alone in our house on a Friday night. It sounds nice. So we keep the convo going: “How old are you Siri? Be real now.” And she spits back. “I don’t see why that should matter Benjamin!”

After my mom and Siri talked for a bit, penciling in a lunch later this week, she looked at me with a smirk, then pressed the button once more.

Thank you for all your help, Siri.

Your wish is my command.

/

“We are psychologically programmed to love what we nurture and nurture what we love,”

So writes Sherry Turkle, a faculty chair at MIT and author of two books on human connection in the digital age. For decades now, Turkle has been tackling the hard questions facing us in the rapid rise of the digital world, much of her research centering on the personification of technology and how it has contributed to the decay of human relationships. She believes we’ve now reached something of a tipping point.

Sociable technology, once an exciting accessory, has now evolved into something more. It’s picked up the quirks and warmth and humor of a human being, without all our defects, and naturally, we’ve treated it as such. We’ve gradually given it more responsibility, more autonomy over monitoring everything from our task reminders to our text messages, not so different than a CEO training up a suitable successor.

The virtual world, once a plaything in our hands, has become a viable alternative. We text each other instead of talk. We check out and slip into social media streams when the sermon gets too dull or the movie gets too dull or the funeral gets too dull or when [fill in the blank] gets too dull, because at some point our minds considered all our clicking, all our apps, all our time spent in here, and acquiesced to our behavior. We became intolerant of the mundane. Dependent on distraction. Different than who we once were.

In interviews, Turkle asked people, hypothetically, if they would like to have robots as pets or as friends. As things they could talk to.

One man replied: “I’d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.”

Astonishingly, this man was not an anomaly. He was the rule. Decades of research conducted by Turkle revealed that mankind has moved, from being dismissive of robots to being curious about them, desirous for them. And more and more people want robots. Robots. They want metal parrots that will sing their praises and never ever die. They think this is friendship.

And it’s shocking at first, but not when you really think about. I don’t own a robot, but I know how much I appreciate the flip-switch nature of online relationships, the way I can- just like that- walk away from people until I need them. I get an email and I put it off. Someone tweets me a question and I can see it, but unlike in person, I know I don’t have to respond to it, at least not right away. They can’t see me reading their words, so I can pretend I haven’t. I can avoid the typical obligations of relationship, skirting them at my own convenience.

If the sci-fi like characteristics of our changing don’t disturb you, the selfishness they foster within us should. Selfishness, like all thought patterns, does not stay in one activity. It follows us into our day-to-day, from one person, one decision to the next. Our regular practice of relational negligence has dulled the once sharp knife of betrayal. It’s increased our need for ME. ME. ME.

In her book, Turkle talks about the advent of today’s technology with all it’s seductive benefits. The way it makes life easier, more convenient and quicker. But what’s she’s really trying to reveal is the real, honest reason for why we feel so possessed by our devices, despondent without them: People are hard.

People are hard. They depend on us and devastate us, overwhelm us and bore us, love us and then leave us, by choice or before we’re ready them to go, tatters of our hearts in their hands. Prompted by sociable technology, we’ve started to weight out human connection and found the burden too much, the risk too high. And then we found the answer, flickering in the palm of our hands.

After all, sociable technology stimulates the same areas of the brain that hugs do. The mimicked experience injects us with the same feel-good chemicals, fulfilling our need to escape loneliness without the trouble of heartbreak and blowouts. Without anyone needing to get hurt.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Turkle shuts this notion down.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

I read this a few days ago and thought: This is why we need the church to stay weird. For our own damn sake.

We need it to remain insistent on that shared physical space with its pesky turn off your phone rules and greet your neighbor decency. We need to relearn the beauty of the un-simulated. The turned off. We need to redefine “countercultural” as radical acts of human connection in a world drifting further and further apart.

Give us the damn fill in the blank Bible studies with their risky, predictable arguments; give us the smelly potlucks. Seat us together with strangers and a list of icebreakers, a space to speak. Give us eyes to meet and hands to hold and shoulders to snot into and drinks to clink and encourage us all to stay.

We can’t be Christians by ourselves, this is true. But I’m not sure we can be humans, either.

Day Eight: Why You’re Getting Worse At Reading

what-the-internet-is-doing-to-our-brains

image source

Because I get shy, I’ve stayed mostly silent in my grad school class. I’ve been happily content just watching, learning from my peers, scribbling away in my notebook. But on the night our discussion diverted into a lesson on “the positive uses of technology in the classroom,” my hand flew straight up in the air, surprising even me.

I’m being bit dramatic, but I did in fact speak up. And I was quite surprised with how brave I was being, asserting an unpopular opinion amongst a group that had, only a moment prior, agreed to dismiss it as wrong. 

I just couldn’t hold back on this one, so I raised my hand: I don’t think it’s a good idea to utilize certain technologies in the classroom. 
Technology, for me, has always been somewhat scary. And I’m not talking about the commenters or the pornography or the substitution of online friends for In Real Lofeones. What I’m talking about is the medium. The screen and the clicking. The way our brains have reacted to it, submitted to it. What I’m talking about is the scary mounting evidence that the internet has in fact diminished our ability to think.

“But this is technological age…” I heard one counter, and again, I returned to my argument. The Internet is a gift. It is a wealth of resources and knowledge and creativity. It is a gift. But so is the work of our minds.
 ‘
And we’re losing something here. We’ve been losing something. The damage has been accumulating since the advent of the internet. And it’s only recently that science has stacked up enough evidence to tell us what it is:

The internet is killing our capacity to read.

But I doubt this surprises to you. I’m sure you’ve felt it too, in your own life. Books you once read in big chunks, you now read in pages. Articles you once chose out of interest are now immediately dismissed for being too long. Your mind is exhausted by the hard work of paying attention.

And it’s frustrating, because you want to be a good reader. You love the idea of it, settling in on the couch for a good book, taping favorite quotes to your bathroom mirror, organizing a library of all your favorite. But every time you try to place yourself on that single minded path, your mind zips into the woods, sniffing out renegade thoughts to chew on.

Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows and the conscience of the internet age put it like this:
“Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic… They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.” Source
Put simply, and perhaps grimly, the Internet has taught our brains to become what Carr calls “distraction machines.” Through flickering ads on the sidebars, pop-ups taking us by surprise, and especially the hyperlinks, our attention gets spread to thin. After enough repetition, our brain learns to seek out distraction and becomes resistant to singular focus, and the thought patterns became our new default. Moreover, this new way of thinking follows us into all our daily activities. Have you ever just looked up and noticed? Everyone is looking down. Everyone is connected. Everyone is always somewhere else, looking for something better.
And it’s why I worry about technology in schools. It’s why I worry for us. We’re not reading because we can’t focus, we can’t focus because our brains have shift shaped. And the gravity of this loss is something I think we have yet to fully grasp.
And so, yes, take away the phones for six hours a day. Don’t even try calling the iPad a “tool.” For we who grew up without screen in hand have a responsibility ensure our kids don’t suffer our industrial fallout. They need a set aside environment that doesn’t contain a thousand different voices vying for their attention.
They need space to remember how to think and focus and imagine; they need to remember they are more than capable.
And so do you. So do I

Faith and Disequilibrium

Cognitive-dissonance

Fall is my favorite season, and it’s really late this year. The summer has been long and hot and I’ve been slogging through it, arms wide open, toward the promised dream of fall. The cool mornings inside a world washed in color. The sweaters. The hats. The earthy smells. And it just. Isn’t . Happening.

 

The Pumpkin Spice Lattes are right in hand and real pumpkins and corn are piling up on porches and everybody is hauling out the flannel like they’re Paul Bunyan- but the temperature is still in the seventies.  Everywhere you go, the summer roadwork remains unfinished. Most of the birds are still hanging out on the lake. Even the trees are balking. Along our street, they’re shrouded in green, with tiny little clusters of red. It looks like acne. 

 And the season feels lost in this overlap. The space of magical change corrupted. And my arms are crossed now, because I know winter is going to come on right on time, and the whiplash will be so, very, felt.

~~

 

Noted psychologist Jean Piaget argued that we are born with an unquenchable desire to understand the world. When we’re as young as toddlers, we start to create thought patterns based on repeated visual evidence, which helps us to categorize and interpret the environment we find ourselves in. A dog is furry, has four legs, licks my face, yelps when he’s hungry- Dog. If I get scared and cry out in the middle of the night, my parents will come and hold me- How to be comforted.

 

These are called schemes and they help give children, and all of us, a sense of equilibration. Balance. Control. Schemes are the manual we reference when thinking of the name, of the purpose, of the meaning of the thing that is right in front of us.

 

Two things can and will happen: Assimilation, according to my grad school textbook, “takes place when we try to use our existing schemes to make sense of events in our world… the first time many children see a raccoon, they call it a ‘kitty.’” Accommodation shortly follows this when the child adds a new scheme to her reference of animals. We adjust our thinking. The world around us looks bigger, different than before.

 

But sometimes, these two processes fail.

 

Sometimes the new information requires too much change. And on the flip side, sometimes it’s negligible (ever brought up a complicated, high-minded question and heard a friend reply ‘that’s for the experts to think about. Makes my brain hurt.’) This is called disequilibrium. This is where we learn. 

 

As I was reading this chapter, I came across this line: “the level of disequilibrium must be just right or optimal- too little and we aren’t interested in changing, too much and we may be discouraged or anxious and not change.” And the words fell on me in a heavy way. 

 

I believe in my reflection paper, I actually wrote this line: “I grew up in evangelical Christianity, so yes, I know disequilibrium. I know it very well.”

 

And I do.

 

Christianity is very much the world that was insisted on us first. We memorized all the schemes: God made the world in seven literal days and the earth is ten thousand years old. Jesus came to save you from your sins. In the end, should you still be alive, God will snatch you away from the earth and take you to heaven where you shall live for eternity.

 

We went to public school and learned about science and the horrors of history, met Muslim kids and gay teachers and we felt as if we were being ripped in half. The schemes were inadequate, irrelevant, but could never be altered, because to do so would be to “backslide” straight into hell. 

 

Instead of listening to our questions, pastors were quick to question the godless public education system, and they were insistent about he adequacy of their schemes. Bestselling theologians developed counter-arguments to evolution and sexuality and religious pluralism, grounding all of it in a third-grade reading of a thousand year old texts, and what were we to do but memorize all their arguments? This identity was our deepest root. It was what made us, us.

 

Disequilibrium was the evangelical child’s holding cell.

 

But one day we got brave. We got angry. We got tired. We leapt away. 

 

Different things did it in for us. For me it was a cocktail of issues: Education. Coming out. Learning to listen critically beyond flowery sentiments to the faulty and harmful logic underpinning them.

 

And in the end, we learned it was okay to let go of old schemes, to collect new ones, to adapt our understanding of the world and of God with our experiences of both and our curious thoughts. We found the beauty in this struggle. We chose a God that honored it. A God that created us with an insatiable appetite for life. A God that nudges us in the back, says: “seek and you shall find.”

 

Like a fingerprint

While at work today, Amanda emailed me. Amanda Loucks is a reader, and she only wanted to let me know that she loves the conversation I’m having here about the makings of the mind.

My inbox has been less scary lately and I’ve come to look forward to getting emails these. Most of the time, they are life-giving, positive encouragements. And almost all the time, I am an ass at replying to them. It’s nothing to do with the internet. This really is just an extension of my preexisting struggle to reply to texts and phone calls, say thank you and please. I am terrible at this. One day, I will work on it.

But after reading the first few paragraphs of Amanda’s note, I knew I had to reply. And immediately, too- even though I was in the middle of work at my no-phones-allowed job.  I felt like I had to surrender this space to her story. Because I needed to read this. And I think you do, too. See, for Amanda, the brain isn’t just an interesting subject. It’s deeply symbolic. It’s a stamp on her life. She’s fought battles here, and won them. She’s had her slate wiped clean in a flash of trauma, and found her way back to herself again, a warrior. She writes about it all with incomparable and beauty that makes me teary, makes me hopeful.

Here’s her email.

~~~

fingerprint-heart-vector-graphic_53-9637

I just wanted to let you know that I really love your topic for #Write31.

For a long time I have been praying for God to make me straight. When He didn’t answer that prayer, I thought it was better for everyone if I simply didn’t live anymore. I couldn’t commit suicide myself. I didn’t want my parents to think that they had somehow failed. So December 2013 is when my prayers turned to begging God for a car accident. Everyday.

On August 25, 2014 I finally got the accident I had prayed for. There was a heavy downpour and I hydroplaned in a puddle and my car spun into the oncoming traffic lane. I was hit hard from behind.  I broke my pelvis, my ribs, and my C2 vertebrae (my neck). But I also received a traumatic brain injury.

I spent the next month and half in the hospital.  I was then discharged into a rehabilitation unit for those with brain injuries. I spent a year in that rehab unit. To be honest, I don’t remember the accident. Nor do I remember the two weeks in the ICU department. There was so much swelling in my brain that even though I was physically “present”, the ability to save memories was damaged. I will never be able to remember those events.

Some people learn things from near death experiences…I don’t remember mine.

The thing about traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) is that they can have a thousand different outcomes.  Some people lose the ability to walk, talk, swallow, or see clearly. Some lose the ability to correctly filter their words or maintain social skills. Some people lose the ability to remember the person they were before their accident. Some people remember exactly who they were but don’t know how to be themselves again.  Even though we somehow survived our accidents, a part of us died that day.

Grief is a tricky, heartbreaking part of life that is hard for everyone. But grieving a TBI is different because no one has taught us what to do when you wake up as someone else. Our culture has largely ignored how to deal with the grief of losing a part of yourself.

As for me, I am considered a “high functioning” TBI patient. When my amnesia wore off on September 8th 2014, I felt like me. A slower, more tired me, who wore a halo head brace but me nonetheless.  I remembered who I was. I still possessed social skills. I still had the ability to be independent.  But in the next year, as I talked with doctors, nurses, EMT’s and the sheriff who first responded to my accident, they all said that I should have died. They wanted me to see the miracle of life. They wanted me to be happy I survived.

But I couldn’t have been more pissed. Here God was again….not answering my prayers.

Its hard to be excited for life when you think that you are so fundamentally screwed up that it would be better to be dead. Better for everyone.  Better for God.  I tried the conservative method of changing my orientation. I begged God, I did therapy, I read books. At the time, I could only think of one way to stop “sinning” and it seemed like God took that one away from me too.

So here I was, in the hospital and rehab, with people who had fought extremely hard for me to survive; with people who loved me. So I talked with them. I processed with them about life, love and brain injuries and these are some of the things I have learned that I want to share with you Ben:

I have heard many people who are in awe of fingerprints.  How amazing it is that we all have fingerprints that are uniquely different from any set that ever was, or will be.  But I think that we also forget that brains are similar to fingerprints too. Our brains form neural pathways that allow us to achieve every task. These pathways are formed from a complex, and sometimes unexplainable mix of our experiences, genes, and personalities. No two brains could ever be alike.

This concept intrigues me for several reasons. First, growing up in a conservative Christian atmosphere, I was taught that the world only came in black and white. That there were clear “normal” and “freakish” categories; that the world is easily divided. But upon learning that every brain processes things in a unique way, I realized that for a majority of Christendom we were placing on a pedestal only one brain process; and that was typically an upper-class, white, heterosexual, cis-gender male brain process.

I think that this is detrimental to our faith.  I feel like teaching that only one way to process the world doesn’t give enough credit to God and His beautiful creativity and the worthiness of His creation.

I find it interesting too, that how our brain processes effects our ability to relate to one another. For example, some conservative Christians literally cannot comprehend my experiences because they have never had them.  And, in their experience, any same sex relationship CANNOT be similar to their heterosexual relationships.  So even though we both are trying to explain what we think we aren’t even on the same page but we are reading different books.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to share with you…

The neural pathways that are formed throughout our lives and teach us how to process and function can be destroyed during brain injuries. These pathways cannot be healed. But we can teach our brains to form new pathways in order to get the same tasks done.  This is what speech, occupational, physical, and massage therapy does for patients.  Therapists see that our bodies and minds have formed or are trying to form neural pathways that are harmful and they try to re-teach our brains to form a new pathway that would better benefit our total health.

This is extremely similar to psychological therapy.  Counselors and psychologists, help us to see the neural pathways that our life experiences have formed for us and that are causing us harm. They take time to talk and process with us repeatedly so that we build new neural pathways that form us into healthier people.

We tend to look down on those who see psychologists, and praise people who are taking physical therapy…but the way I see it is they all are, in a way, seeing brain surgeons.  And if this accident taught me anything its that we need to love our brain, love ourselves, and love life.

So maybe with those who disagree with our belief that same sex relationships can be holy and pleasing to God, maybe it just takes them repeatedly seeing thriving gay Christians to change their minds.

Here is to all of us becoming brain surgeons, may we change lives, hearts, and brains.