lament

My spiritual director wanted me to work on lament this month.  She sent me these wonderfully detailed directions, even.  

I don't want to be that client who won't try anything new, so I gave it a shot.  

I'm not sure it was supposed to turn out like this, but I have Sharpies, and I'm not afraid to use them.

I adapted the basic outline and used a new Sharpie color for each stage of the lament:

Address God (pink)

Make your complaint (purple)

Affirm trust (blue)

Express deepest desires (green)

Receive assurance (yellow)

Express gratitude (orange)

And finally, because I needed to use my red Sharpie to complete the rainbow, and I wanted something to hold it all together, I wrote out my favorite benediction.

As often happens, when I journal, I end up seeing things when I'm done that I don't know are happening when I'm writing.

I look at this now, and I see the great Love at the center of everything, and the darkness that threatens to overcome it:  fear and anger and control and oppression and abandonment, all the things that leave us alone, alone, alone.

And then the comfort and the presence and the assurance, and finally the ability to look outside of our own lament, to see that the rest of the world's lament is so much like our own, and then to consider how we might move from our own pain into the pain of the world, with courage and strength and support and help.

Lament, I think, should connect us.  

Connect us to the reality of our own pain, yes.  But beyond that, connect us to one another, to the lament in each other.

Dear God, Great Love that holds the universe together, give us eyes to see the beauty in one another, ears to the hear the music of our souls, hands to receive the infinite mercy of your Love and to extend it to one another.

Do not leave us alone.

It's Juneteenth today.

On June 19, 1865, union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, carrying news of the end of the Civil War and of freedom for enslaved Texans.

Of course, those people had actually been free for two and half years already, with President Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

With the Philando Castile verdict this last week, it's a bit hard to feel triumphant about Juneteenth.  It's a pretty lamenty kind of time right now.

How much are we, as a nation, still trapped in that dark circle of power, fear, anger, control, oppression and alone alone alone?

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  Nelson Mandela

Go into the world in peace.

Have courage.

Hold onto what is good.

Return no one evil for evil.

Strengthen the faint-hearted.

Support the weak.

Help the suffering.

Honor all persons.

Honor all creation.

Love and serve the Lord,

rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And may the love of God, the light of Christ,

and the power and communion of that Spirit be with you all.

Amen.

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"I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia:" why I won't be stoning the LGBTQ community, no matter what authority tells me

"The price of His love is sometimes high, but it must be paid."  Aunt Lydia, in The Handmaid's Tale, Season 1, Episode 10, Hulu

Arches National Park, photo: me and my cell phone

Arches National Park, photo: me and my cell phone

July, 1961, a basement on the Yale University campus.  

The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman is underway, and psychologist Stanley Milgram begins a series of social psychology experiments, designed to answer the burning question of the day:  

Could Eichman and other Nazis simply have been following orders?  

Would normal human beings really harm other human beings, just because an authority figure told them to do so?

In Milgram's experiment, test subjects were told that they were "teachers" helping a "student" learn a series of word pairs.  When the "student" made a mistake, the "teacher" was ordered to administer an electric shock to the "student."  The shocks would increase in voltage, up to 450 volts--potentially fatal.  

The shocks were not actually administered in the experiment, but the test subjects believed that they were.  The "students" being shocked were placed in another room, where the test subjects could hear them cry out in pain, bang on the wall, complain about their heart condition, and then fall ominously silent.

Milgram found that about 60% of test subjects would continue to administer shocks after the victims fell silent, to the full 450 volt limit of the test.

Milgram's results have been replicated over the years and around the world with similar results.

What the research tells us: the majority of human beings will do harm to another, if ordered by an authority figure to do so.

Source

Zion National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Zion National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Pastor Stan Mitchell shared this story on his Facebook page this week:

Just spent a very stealth & quiet 5 minutes with a Southern Baptist pastor's wife whose husband happens to pastor a large church a few hundred miles from Nashville. Their son who is gay, now lives in our beloved City of Music and, lately, has been visiting GRACEPOINTE. She wept as she explained that of their four children, he was the most beautiful of spirit, the kindest, the most loving (she was obviously troubled by the reality that she simply could not capture his beauty with her hurried and pained words) and yet, and yet, they "destroyed him" with their faith. Destroyed him.

I will never forget and forever will be inspired by her request: "Love him for us. Love him the way he deserves. Love him the way we should have. Tell him what I wanted to and couldn't." My heart broke. I couldn't tell for whom it broke more - mom or son. I told her there was still time and opportunity for her to do this. She looked dubiously around the foyer of the hotel, teeming with her husband's ministerial peers, and said with the saddest of eyes, "Please love him." And she walked away. I have scarcely met a sadder human. Trapped. My chest physically hurt.

The Milgram experiment, in action, at a religious convention this week.  Authority says, "Destroy your child," and a mother obeys.

About a year ago, the Target bathroom brouhaha broke out in social media land.  And when that happened, I thought, "It's too bad that people are being hoodwinked into believing that trans people are a threat.  I'll let people know how trans folk and other LGBTQ people are at risk for abuse and suicide, and I'm sure people won't want to say hurtful things on social media once they understand."

I mean, this is what changed my mind and heart about the LGBTQ community: understanding that the narrative I'd heard was wrong, and that people were being harmed by that wrong narrative.

So when someone posts something homophobic or transphobic, my strategy is to post up some helpful articles from medical, spiritual, and social perspectives that counter the narrative of fear, and show the realities from a respectful, peer-reviewed point of view.  

My posts are most often met with, "the bible clearly says..."  

Then I'll generally say, "LGBTQ youth raised in highly rejecting homes are 8 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE.  No matter what the bible says, we're doing something wrong if CHILDREN want to kill themselves over this."

You know the response I generally get at that point?

Silence.

I have literally never had one single person say, "Oh, wow, I didn't realize that.  I would never want to cause harm to someone who's already hurting."

Sometimes someone will repeat, "But the bible clearly says..."

And Stanley Milgram is proven right all over again: if authority tells us to harm someone, most of us will.

There's hope, though: because Milgram's experiment showed that NOT EVERYBODY WILL HARM ANOTHER.  

Lots of people will.  

But not EVERYONE.

And WE can choose to be the outliers, the ones who break the curve.

Canyonlands National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Canyonlands National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

The Handmaid's Tale wrapped up this past week, its climactic scene one in which the handmaids were ordered to stone to death one of their own who was charged with endangering a child.

The handmaids, rocks in hand, surrounded by machine-gun-totting guards, stand in a blood-red circle around the sinner, while "Aunt Lydia" harangues them about "God's love" and how this "love" requires them to kill their sister.

"The price of His love is sometimes high, but it must be paid!"  Aunt Lydia cries.

**Spoiler alert**

Completely defying the Milgram experiment, the handmaids drop their rocks and walk away, each saying the phrase that might become my first tatoo:

"I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia."

I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I don't care if you want me to harm someone and call it love.

I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I will not judge, condemn, reject, or in any way cause pain to the suffering.

I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I don't care if your authority is six whole verses of the bible, 2,000 years of tradition, and the entire evangelical church in America.

Count me out for this one.

I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia,

but I will not cast the first stone,

or any stone.

I'm walking away.

And then I'm going to find the hurting

and set about helping them heal.

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rainbows and anniversaries

Very often on our anniversary, Andy and I travel to the Wild West (Fort Worth) to avail ourselves of museums, gardens, fountain-filled public spaces, our favorite frozen Bellinis, and free public parking (a thing the city of Dallas, for all its greatness, does not yet comprehend).

This week is our 30th anniversary and, creatures of habit that we are, we found ourselves this past Saturday afternoon, headed west in the usual heavy traffic that makes up I-20, destination: Amon Carter Museum.  

There were a couple of new exhibits that looked interesting on the website, but I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary.  I felt a bit bad that I hadn't been able to find something more meaningful for our anniversary outing, but we're going to Scotland and Ireland in September for the real party.  Fort Worth is nice in the meantime, and the Amon Carter has a bunch of Georgia O'Keefe paintings that I'm happy to visit anytime, so whatevs.

We came through the central hallway, enjoying the new exhibit of Gego prints, then headed into the main atrium to go upstairs to an exhibit of Polaroid photography that looked like fun.  

As I turned into the atrium, I gasped out loud as I caught a glimpse of a rainbow, up in the corner of the room.

This is Plexus no. 34 by Dallas-based artist Gabriel Dawe, heart-blowingly beautiful from a million different angles.

Of course, it's especially heart-blowingly meaningful because June is LGBTQ Pride month, and this week we're observing the one-year anniversary of the Orlando Pulse massacre, where 49 victims lost their lives to internalized homophobic hatred.  50 victims, if we count the shooter.  

I wrote about the rainbow that stood over us during the Pulse vigil last year, and how it comforted me on that day of terrible grief.  

I wasn't expecting a rainbow this year.  Not on a sunny afternoon in my go-to museum in Fort Worth.

But I wandered around under this rainbow with tears in my eyes, marveling at how beauty shows up in the ordinary and in the painful, as if it always exists, even when we can't see it.

Here's another unexpected rainbow moment from the weekend.

Sunday night, we were out at the Equality march in Dallas.  My friend Mark took this picture, only realizing after he posted it to Facebook that he'd caught a cross in the Texas Pride flag.

Of all the things I envisioned for what life would be like around our 30th wedding anniversary, I really never saw us marching in Pride events.  

But Love finds us, wherever we are, no matter how old we are.  

And it seems that at some point, if Love is going to keep growing (everything living must grow; if it stops growing, it's dead) then at some point, Love must escape from the confines of our own little lives and expand into Love for others, both our neighbors and those we may have previously perceived to be our enemies.

Our 30th anniversary this week coincides with the second anniversary of marriage equality for the LGBTQ community, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia SCOTUS decision that abolished laws against interracial marriage.

I like that it's not just about us this week.  

I like that we're celebrating that Love is Love for everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

"I was always being moved toward greated differentiation and larger viewpoints, and simultaneously toward a greater inclusivity in my ideas, a deeper understanding of people, and a more honest sense of justice.  God always became bigger and led me to bigger places."  Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

May the moral arc of the universe continue to bend toward justice.

May every anniversary of love, individual and collective, open us up to greater acceptance, to more understanding, and to an ever-expanding flow of love in us, through us, and beyond us.

May Love grow beyond anything that we can ask, think, or even dare to dream.

This year, every year, 30 years behind us, 30 years more.

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powerlessness and "i hate you"

"Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to."  

Harriet Goldhor Lerner, The Dance of Anger

Zion National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Zion National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

"I hate you!"

Why do kids say this to their parents?

I was pondering over that with some friends this week, and it occured to me that "I hate you" is a way for kids to gain power in situations where they feel powerless.  

Kids are often unable to achieve particular outcomes in situations they face, but if they say, "I hate you," they may gain power over the parents' emotions.  If the parent feels hurt enough, the child knows, they may be willing to renegotiate toward the outcome the child is seeking.

  • Some parents will ignore the signal of anger and punish the child for saying, "I hate you!"
  • Some parents will cave to the pressure of "I hate you!" and give the child whatever they wanted to begin with.
  • Other parents will see past the "I hate you!" and be able to engage with the child in loving, caring connection, even if they can't renegotiate the outcome.

It really all depends on how families think about power in the relationship:

  • I have all the power.
  • You have all the power.
  • Power serves Love.  We will use our mutual power to serve Love.
Bryce Canyon National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Bryce Canyon National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Kids are not the only people who say, "I hate you!"

Adults say "I hate you!" too.  Up until recently, when adults said "I hate you" it was expressed in more socially acceptable ways.  At this point in American political history, the line of "socially acceptable" is in great flux, especially in social media, but I think "I hate you!"--however it's expressed--is still all about that same feeling of powerlessness that children experience.  

People feel powerless, they feel afraid, and they say, "I hate you!" to whoever seems to be holding power over them.  

It seems like the more one side says, "I hate you!" the more the other side needs to one-up with wilder expressions of hatred.

I wonder if we could reframe "I hate you!" as a signal, and listen to it, what would it tell us?

If I see "I hate you!" as an expression of powerlessness, I start to find a way forward.

Instead of blaming someone else for how badly I feel, I can take responsibility for myself.  

No matter how many phone calls I make, I can't control Congress, the President, or the Texas State Legislature.  It's easy to get into "I hate you!" mode.

But if I think of "I hate you!" as a signal of my helplessness, perhaps I can deal with my helplessness in healthier ways: 

  • I can control what I give to my local foodbank.
  • I can control whether I show up at a march to be with the suffering.  
  • I can control what I buy, and whether it's fair to the people who produced it.
  • I can control my presence on social media. 
  • I can speak truth, even when my voice shakes, and make space for others to speak truth as well.

Like Mr. Rogers always said, when bad things happen, look for the people who are helping.

I think BEING the people who are helping can give us a legitimate sense of power in a situation that otherwise feels out of control. 

Again, I think it's all connected to how we look at power in our lives:

  • You have all the power ("I hate you!")
  • I have all the power ("Nanny nanny boo-boo!")
  • Power serves Love, and I will use my power in the service of Love.

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

You heard the cry of our hearts
And You came down
Freely You gave us Your love
Showing us how

Make me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is darkness let me shine light and
May Your love cause us to open up
Cause us to open up our hearts
May Your light cause us to shine so bright
That we bring hope into the dark

All that we do without love
It means nothing
Grant us the courage to give
As You’re calling

Make me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is darkness let me shine light and
May Your love cause us to open up
Cause us to open up our hearts
May Your light cause us to shine so bright
That we bring hope into the dark

Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
(As only You can love, oh God)
May we love, as You love
May we love, as You love

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shift happens to your boundaries

I have a lot of conversations with people around the topic of faith-shifting.  

One of the overarching themes that emerges, over and over and over, is boundaries.

We've identified for ourselves that a particular religious environment is toxic to us, but our family and friends still love it there.  

We don't want our daughter to have that subscription to the new Brio magazine that Aunt Suzie thinks would be great for her 15th birthday.

We actually used that copy of The Strong Willed Child as fire-starter for our first summer bonfire, and now Grandma wonders if we could pass it along to brother Jim.

We've stopped going to church, and every conversation revolves around questions of our eternal security.

Awkward...

I started to write a long blog post detailing the possible ins and outs, and then I deleted it all and just made a 2 minute and 45 second animation instead.

Enjoy! 

Share!

And happy, healthy boundaries to you!

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Lion and the prodigal

"Does that mean," asked Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"

"Not at all," smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

William Paul Young, The Shack

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, photo: Andy Bruner

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, photo: Andy Bruner

This weekend we watched the movie, Lion, on Amazon.

Lion is the based-on-real-life story of a little boy in India who's part of a loving family, gets lost, and can't find his way home.  He ends up on the streets, then in an orphanage, and finally is adopted by a couple in Australia.

As a young adult, he begins to search for his birth family, and with the help of Google Earth (God works in mysterious ways), finds his way home to his mother, still living in the same neighborhood he was lost from years before.

I was so grateful that I waited to watch this on Amazon rather than in theaters. I would not have been adequately prepared to deal with my catastrophic weeping in public.  It was a three-box-of-tissue event.

The young man in the story, when he finds his way home, is the same age as my sons.  My level of adoration for my children is a well-documented fact of life, and as I watched Lion, I was overwhelmed by the thought of losing a child.

And then the joy of finding that child again?

It was just too much to hold inside.

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

This story, though, the story of the lost son who gets found?  

It's been around for thousands of years.  Jesus told this story, and we call it The Prodigal Son.  We've read it, we've heard it.  But I think maybe we stop hearing it after a while.

It seems, I don't know, ordinary, that the Father leaps up and runs to his child.

Somehow Lion made it all so real to me again: the desperate sorrow of a child who's lost, the long search, and the infinite joy of home-coming.

I've been thinking about shame a lot lately, and how shame keeps us from true home-coming, from true healing, from the true abundant life we're meant to have.

In Jesus' story, the prodigal accepts the robe and the shoes and the ring and the party.  

How many of us, instead, refuse the Father's generosity?  

How many of us Yes-BUT the Love of God?

Yes, God loves me, BUT.

There's this sin I have to shake off before I'm really welcome at home.

Yes, God loves me, BUT.

If I don't keep doing everything just right, I've lost fellowship.

In the end, we make our BUT bigger than the Love of God. 

Our own unwillingness to release our shame horribly misjudges Love.

We are so consumed by our shame that we'll live, hungry and cold, in a ditch rather than enter the warmth and welcome of Home.

Maye we've heard the story so often that it doesn't seem possible, doesn't seem real, that Love could really embrace us just as we are.

Maybe we need to look again, and see what human love has to say about God's Love.

Imperfect though we are, we can't imagine turning away a lost child, for any reason.

And if we, in our imperfect love, know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we would go down any road to find our child, how much more would God do for us? (Luke 11:13)

I think we know the answer.

I think we know the truth.

Living in that truth requires that we release our shame and trust in Love instead.

We're not perfect, and Love never lets us go.  

It's as simple, and as complex, as that.

We stop making ourselves and our sin into the most important thing that ever was.

We accept that Love is the whole story: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

No more "yes-BUT."

Just YES.

Just YES, and welcome Home.

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Love is the center

I grew up in a bounded-set religious tradition: 

"A bounded set is where we create a boundary, a theological border, a doctrinal fence, and separate those who are inside the fence from those who are out. It is an “us” versus “them” mentality where everyone on the inside is accepted, loved, and welcomed, while those outside the fence are kept away until they can change their beliefs and behaviors to fit the entry requirements."  (Source)

The essence of my faith-shift has been toward a centered-set orientation:

"In a centered set, there are no boundaries. There are no walls. There is no fence. There is no dividing line between 'us' and 'them,' no rules or guidelines to determine who is 'in' and who is 'out.' Everyone is loved, welcomed, and accepted, no matter what. Everyone automatically 'belongs.'

"But how is this different than just a random mass of people randomly milling around? Because of what is at the center. A centered set has no boundaries to keep people out, but it does have something compelling at the center which pulls people in. There are no gatekeepers turning people away, for everyone is on equal footing, being pulled toward the center."  (Source)

God is Love: that is the Center.

Labyrinth Center, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe NM

Labyrinth Center, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe NM

There's a story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer.  When a student complained that her mind wandered 10,000 times in a 20-minute prayer session, Father Keating said, "How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!" (Source)

The idea of endless welcome, of truly unconditional love, makes people nervous about "cheap grace" and "loving too much."  Just a few days ago, I heard that when someone's done wrong, they need to have a "sufficiently painful" experience so that they won't do it again.

But the thing I've found in my own life is that the welcome of Love is so powerful, so transformative, so unlike anything experienced anywhere else, that when you've had that experience of dropping the shame and receiving the Love, it sparks a magnetic attraction to the Center which allows you keep re-centering, re-aligning, re-turning.

Ten thousand times, turning back to Love.

I remember writing in my journal years and years ago, when we first moved overseas, that all the things that felt safe to lean on were falling away.  

I was terrified.  Literally having nightmares, the fear was so severe.

I realized, and wrote in my journal at the time, that the things I leaned on were the bars of a cage, and I was being set free.

Even though I understood that I was being set free, I still loved the fence.  And watching it fall was terrifying.

If I'd known at the time how free indeed I was going to be, it would have scared me even more.  I probably would have sat inside the ruins of that cage, trying to rebuild it.

Fortunately, the journey is one step at a time, each step at the right time.  

We are always exactly where we're supposed to be, and Love is always with us.

Long ago, I thought the whole thing was about the fence, being safe inside the right fence, and making sure everybody else I cared about was safe inside the right fence, too.

Instead, it turns out, the whole thing is about being invited on a great adventure that unfolds before each of us individually, always turned toward True North, the Center, the Love that is set like eternity in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

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shift happens: a booklist

We've been faith-shifting at our house for a while now.  Three years, give or take.  

From the first scary days of wondering what we were possibly thinking, to the peaceful, grateful present it's been quite a ride.

A year ago at this time, I was having panic attacks in church parking lots, and last week I went to a contemplative prayer service on a Wednesday night.  

Seriously, who is this girl?!

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

I talk to quite a few people these days who are faith-shifting in one way or another, and it's always interesting to hear how it happens.

Many times, there's some kind of painful or difficult event that sets off an eruption of questions that challenge the status quo: the death of a loved one, being the victim of abuse, walking with a friend who's suffering, living in the United States in its current political and religious climate.

The way we process the faith-shift itself varies from person to person.  

I'm a big-picture person, completely satisfied with the bumper-sticker theology I came up with three years ago:

If it's mean and stupid, it ain't Jesus.

To make it sound more legit, let's call it a matter of Occam's Razor, a problem-solving tool used in philosophy: "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."  (Source)

I can carve "not mean, not stupid" even closer, down to one word: LOVE.

Love, and everything else falls into place.

I think I have good Biblical support for slicing it this way: "Love the Lord your God, Love your neighbor as yourself; the whole Law and all the prophets hang from this one golden thread."  (Jesus, in Matthew 22:40)

Andy, on the other hand, requires more information.  And so we've learned that there are many, many smart people exploring many, many questions and coming up with many, many interesting answers.  (They all show that if it's mean and stupid it ain't Jesus, but in more smarter ways than I can tell you.)

If you're having questions about the faith you grew up in, here's an Andy-approved booklist to help answer some of the FAQ's we hear.

What in the world is happening to me, and when will I stop freaking out?

How can I read the Bible without losing my mind?

Can I still love Jesus?

Why is the church acting so crazy right now?

What about hell?

  • Hellbound (documentary film)
  • Love Wins, Rob Bell
  • Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Brad Jerszak
  • Guess what?  It's not what all those scary tracts said.  In fact, anybody who tries to scare you into believing is probably selling something besides the peace that passes understanding.

Can science have anything to do with God?

What about the LGBTQ question?

  • Torn, Justin Lee
  • Unfair, John Shore
  • Perfect love casts out fear. 

Remember:

If angels and demons can't separate us from the love of God (Romans 8), then some questions about faith systems are highly unlikely to have that power, either.

One of the things I hear most often is the intense fear that faith-shifters experience.  It's so common that I've started to realize the fear itself is often part of the old religious system:

  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of hell
  • Fear of God's wrath
  • Fear of abandonment, isolation, excommunication from families and faith communities

Why do religious systems employ fear?

One simple reason:

Fear is the easiest way to control human beings.  

When fear kicks in and the amygdala revs up, the upstairs "thinking brain" goes completely offline, and we're susceptible to the people who will tell us how to control our fear.

While fear generally does its job of keeping us inside religious fences, it also makes us extremely vulnerable to mistreating others in perceived fits of self-defense.  I think this is a terrible consequence that religious fear-mongers routinely rationalize away.  As long as their salaries get paid, they're willing to let immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community suffer.

I'm a person who doesn't like to say "the Bible clearly says"--but when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, and even loving our enemies...well, it's hard for me to read those words any other way.  

If our religious experiences are making us so afraid that we can't Love, if our religious leaders are telling us we must fear and exclude others, I think we have enormous, systemic religious problems, and huge questions that MUST be adequately addressed.  (See booklist!)

In order to get back into using the whole brain, in order to jettison fear and open up space for Love (and actual thinking so we can answer these vital questions):  BREATHE.  

I mean this literally.

BREATHE.

Three minutes of good, mindful breathing is enough to produce positive brain changes, so put on your favorite calming song, close your eyes, and do deep belly-breaths or alternate nostril breathing all the way through.

If you need a mantra to help you, here are some good ones:

There is no fear in Love. I John 4:18

Perfect Love casts out fear.  I John 4:18

God has not given us a spirit of fear.  2 Timothy 1:7

Power, Love, and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7

Nothing separates us from the Love of God.  Romans 8:38

God is Love.  I John 4:8

God is present everywhere, big enough to contain all our journeys.

Don't be afraid.

Explore.

Love.

Receive Love.

Give Love.

Be filled.

Be emptied.

Be filled again, and again, and again.

There is more than enough for us all.

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

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i am successful. Anne Lamott says so. (notes on self-publishing)

The other night, I happened onto Facebook while Anne Lamott was doing a live session, following her brand-new TED Talk.  

If you click on the link to her TED Talk, you'll notice one thing right away: this is how desperate TED was to get Anne Lamott: they let her have a lectern.  

Nobody gets a lectern at TED.  Brene Brown does not get a lectern at TED.  Glennon Doyle Melton does not get a lectern at TED.  Anne Lamott got a lectern at TED. 

I make note of this now, because I want you to realize how important Anne Lamott is.  This will become critical quite soon.

So I'm watching this Live session, and the second or third question, as always these days, is about self-publishing.  Anne says what she always says: that if she were starting out today, she'd probably self-publish.

Then she went on to say something that blew my mind.  (She always reminds us that no amount of books sold will ever fill our souls or make us well and whole, which is something we need to hear over and over and over. Also, she says all authors now have to work on pot farms to make ends meet.  Not true for me, but tempting some days.)

She was talking about how tough it is to sell books, and how we fall into the trap of thinking that if you didn't make the New York Times Bestseller List with a million copies sold, it's just more confirmation that you're not much of a human being.  

Here's what she said:

"If you did GREAT--if you sold like 15,000 copies--it's like, oh well, better luck next time.  Well, 15,000 COPIES OF ANYTHING IS AMAZING."

Guess how many copies of As Soon As I Fell are circulating out in the world?

10,000.

Okay.

Perhaps we haven't hit the "amazing" threshhold just yet.

But SUCCESSFUL, you guys.

SUCCESSFUL.

REALLY SUCCESSFUL.

By Anne Lamott's standards.

Lectern and all.

The average self-publish sells 150 copies, because there are literally millions of books out there and selling lots of books is tough.  

Cat memes are easy.  Books are hard.  

I remember my friend Katrina, my long-suffering editor, asking what my goal number was.  I said, "Well, if it ever sold 1,000 copies that would be awesome."

So I've looked at the numbers and said, "WOW" lots of times.

But until I heard Anne Lamott say, "15,000 is amazing," I didn't quite understand that I've been pretty successful.

I'm a successful writer, y'all.

MIND BLOWN.

Lately I've had a few questions about self-publishing.  Since the lady with the lectern made me feel successful, I think it's okay to say what I know.  (If you have more questions, the comment section is your friend.  I'm happy to chat with you there.)

I need to preface all of this by saying that every good thing in my life has happened by accident.  It's a bumble.  I don't sit down and prepare a business plan and then execute it perfectly.  That's not how things go around here, AT ALL.

I started this blog during my counseling internship, in a fit of frustration, when I couldn't find enough counseling work to keep myself busy.  I'd spent all this time and money on my master's degree, and I felt like I could probably help people, only I couldn't find a place to do that.  So I started blogging.

Pretty soon, the blog drifted away from information and advice (which bores the heck out of me) into personal processing.  I made a few forays into story-telling, got good responses from that, and decided it was finally time to take the bits and pieces I'd had floating around for 20 years, and get my story into a book.

Voila.

I'm now going to give some advice, which I find boring, but people ask these questions. So for anyone who's thinking about dipping their toes into the self-publishing world, here you go.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE PREP WORK.

  • Be an English major. (First time any of us ever heard those words, huh?)
  • Read Anne Lamott's wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.
  • Read it over again.
  • And again.
  • Read a ton of great books in the genre you want to write in.  
  • Start a blog and write regularly.
  • Join a writers' group in your community.  Invite them to critique your work.  Make edits.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE WRITING PROCESS.

  • Anne tells you to write a ton of shitty first drafts.  Do it.
  • Anne tells you to put your butt in the chair and write.  Do it.  
    • I saw clients two days a week and wrote three days a week when I was in the process of putting As Soon As I Fell on paper.  I went to Target for school supplies in August 2013 and didn't go to Target again until it was time for stocking stuffers in December.  I wrote and revised that entire school year, until the kids got out for the summer of 2014.  Andy did all the production work over the summer, and we launched in September 2014.
  • Get a good editor.  
  • Listen to your editor.  
  • Make revisions as your editor tells you.
  • Make more revisions.
  • Make more revisions.
  • Make more revisions.  (At this point you'll hate your life. Sorry. Part of process.)
  • Let your writers' group read it, and take their comments under advisement.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE PRODUCTION PROCESS.

  • Hire someone to create a wonderful cover.  Call us shallow, but this is who we are: we judge books by covers, and a bad cover will kill your good book.
  • Get help on the formatting.  If you use Amazon and Create Space, there are services available.  Order one paperback copy of your book and check to see that everything turned out okay.  Make changes as needed.

GET HELP WITH PUBLICITY

  • Don't listen to any of my advice on publicity.  My advice sucks.  People say "build a platform;" I say, "I need a nap."  Twitter parties, thunderclaps, it's all way too overwhelming to me.  (This is why publishing houses exist and self-published books sell an average of 150 copies.) There are lots of great blogs by people who've built amazing platforms, like Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey.  I think they're probably incredibly helpful for those who don't get panic attacks while reading them (I'm yoga breathing right now).  Google and enjoy.

HOW DID WE GET TO 10,000 COPIES WITH SUCKY PUBLICITY?

I'm not sure.  When in doubt, sing a Disney song.

These things might have helped, though:

  • We gave a bunch of books away before the launch and asked people for an Amazon review.
  • We got connected with the target audience.
    • Once the book was out and people were liking it, I got connected with the initial target audience (missionaries) through two blogs, Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas.  Both these blogs were built by teams who probably listened to Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey.  God bless them.  I used to feel a little bit guilty about using the platforms they built, but I've given away a ton of my writing in those spaces, so I think it's okay that they did what they're good at, and I do what I'm good at.
  • We gave it away a whole bunch of books, and we keep giving books away.
    • After the first year or so, we figured we'd played out the missionary platforms, and book sales were slowing.  When I turned 50 last year, Andy wanted to give the book away for free for my birthday.  I said, "Cool!  I bet we could give away 50 copies for my 50th birthday!"  He said, "NO!  I bet we can give away 500 copies for your birthday!"  Somehow we ended up giving away nearly 5,000 copies in three days.  Like most things with big numbers, it's a mystery to me, although I'm sure Google analytics could help us out.  It got seriously shared someplace, that's all I know.  We did a giveaway again this year for Andy's birthday.  It's fun!
    • A funny thing happens after every giveaway: a sales bump.  It's no longer free, but a bunch of people will buy it anyway.  Go figure.

HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE.

Writing is my jam, I was trained as a writer, and I've been writing in one way or another my whole life.

Everybody worked hard at their tasks.  It's a well-written book, well edited, well formatted, with a very pretty cover.

People liked it.  They shared it.  Here we are.

I think the time had come for a book like As Soon As I Fell, which told stories that have been kept secret in the missionary world.  

I wrote As Soon As I Fell because I needed my book when I was going through hell in 2003, and it didn't exist.  I didn't want anyone else to feel as alone and abandoned as I did.  I'm still getting letters all the time from people who tell me that As Soon As I Fell helps them feel less alone.  Mission accomplished.

I continue to write because I love to write.

This gig is NOT about money.  

For me, self-publishing is about writing a book that needs to be written, and getting it out into the world in a way that doesn't slay my soul in the process.

I remember telling Katrina, "It's fine if this book changes somebody else's life, but I don't want it to change mine.  I love my life just the way it is."

Almost four years later, this is still true.

And that feels like the truest kind of success.

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theology in a time of tornadoes

Once again, it's springtime in Texas, when we are reminded of two things.

One, the earth is merely a frail barrier between us and the fire ants, which are living bits of the molten lava we've been told is in there.  (If you've ever encountered one, you know I'm right.)

Two, it's tornado season.

Saturday, it was about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. The sky was a nasty yellow all day, and the air looked like poisonous fog. 

Sunday, it was gorgeous: 70, sunny, breezy, and clear as a bell.  The perfect spring day.

As those two radically different weather patterns encountered one another, a series of tornadoes tore through Canton, Texas, about 2 hours east of us.  One of the tornadoes was on the ground for something like 35 miles.  Homes and businesses were leveled, dozens of people were injured, and four people died.

Sunday on Facebook, I came across a survivor reporting that right before the tornado had hit, they'd prayed and God had spared their home.  

"God is so good!  He answers prayer!" the survivor said.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Tornado season is a challenging time for theology in Texas.

(It's almost as bad as Wrath of God week, right before Easter.)

Because, what about the neighbors?  

Didn't they pray?  

Didn't God like them as much?  

Or wasn't God as good next door as he was right here?

We have friends who lost their house to a tornado last year, and through a series of debacles and plagues of Job-like proportions, including but not limited to insurance, builders, city codes, ill health, unexpected surgeries:  our friends are still without a home, and their finances are almost totally depleted.  

Someone suggested to my husband that God is "trying to get their attention" with all these misfortunes.  Andy doesn't get mad much, but he came home pretty cheesed off that day.

And let's face it: tornadoes are just the tip of the iceberg on this planet.

What about cancer?

What about infertility and miscarriages?

What about fatal car accidents?

Are we hoping that we'll be able to say just the right prayer in just the right way at just the right time, in order to avert whatever disaster comes our way?

And if we believe that's true, then what happens when the tornado DOES hit, regardless of our prayers?

Speaking from my own experience, I'll just say that it was a long, long drop to the bottom of the canyon when I prayed and what I desperately needed didn't happen.  I didn't even realize how deeply I believed in my own ability to control disaster by prayer and righteous living, until it didn't work.

Of course there are better, more reasonable ways to think about this topic, besides magical thinking about prayer and our own holiness.

I think Jessica Kelley's book, Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God's Role in My Child's Death is a great exploration of these questions.

We may be able to make reasonable theological arguments for ourselves.

When we aren't in the middle of trauma.

Once the trauma hits, though, the good arguments rarely matter.

When trauma hits, our brains go into survival mode, which essentially takes our thinking brain offline.  It takes time, safety from the trauma, more time, rest, lots of yoga, and maybe medication, to get back to a place where our brain chemistry can deal with "rational" thinking again.

In the chemical shitstorm of the moment, what we need is SAFETY, CARE, AND COMFORT. 

Later on, when we're ready, we can try to work out what we think about what just happened.

I was talking about this recently with a friend of mine who's had some pretty sad stuff happen.

Repeatedly. 

Repeatedly.

Repeatedly.

She's super-smart and knows The Right Answers.

But The Right Answers aren't helping at all.  Like they never do when you're traumatized.

She told me that she couldn't believe that God is love anymore.

And that makes sense to me.

How can a loving God stand by our pain and do nothing?

Is God really just playing video games in the sky?  

Joy-sticking tornadoes across East Texas, and steering around the people who remember to pray the right way while the freight train bears down?

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

The sermon series at church right now is about the miracles of Jesus.  

I had my doubts about this series, I'll be honest.  But so far, this miracles series hasn't sent me screaming into the parking lot, and that's a big improvement over where we were last year at this point.  This may be a minor miracle in and of itself.  It definitely helps to be listening to a progressive speaker, I know that much.

Here's what stuck with me from Sunday's sermon: "YOU are the miracle."

This what we're here for: to be the miracle that other people need.

WE are here together with each other.  WE see the needs of the world.  

WE have the cup of cold water, WE have the time to visit the sick and suffering, WE have the resources to feed the hungry, WE can reach out to embrace the widow and orphan.

WE CAN BE THE MIRACLE.

And isn't that how the Vine and the Branches should be?  

No separation between us, One Love flowing through us all?

Maybe we're not sure about God's love right now, but I think we can be 100% convinced about the Love we experience from one another.

Most of that consists of just showing up for each other, and trying not to say anything too stupid.  

LIFE HACK:  any theological explanation is likely to be too stupid at this point.  

Remember: SAFETY, CARE, COMFORT.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

When my friend is in pain, and doesn't know if God is good or loving, that's okay.

BECAUSE I CAN BE GOOD AND LOVING.

And while I've never seen my love and care solve any problems like the wave of a magic wand (let's be real, I haven't seen God do that either), I have seen Love flowing out of me to grow hope and light and peace and joy in places where only sorrow and darkness and anxiety used to live.

I know for sure that Love is making miracles out in Canton this Monday morning, cutting through storm debris with a chain saw.  Passing out bottled water.  Loading up trash bags.  Listening to the stories, weeping with those who weep.  Because that's what Love does, every single time.

Love is the miracle.

I am the miracle.

YOU are the miracle.

Love in US,

the Vine, the Branches:

that is the miracle.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

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