You Are In the Making

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This is how I work at Sbux on a Sunday afternoon.

You are not finished yet. You are ‘in the making.’ You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change, and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, constrict, and lose your way. Which road will you take?

 

This is the opening paragraph to Brian D. McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, a book that takes the reader on a year-long quest of spiritual formation that, together with my neighbor, I have begun working on this week. The question seems simple at first. Of course I will take the road that allows me to learn, mature, think, change, and grow. Who wants to stagnate, regress, constrict, or lose one’s way? No one. This is the central question, not just of our faith journeys, but of life, itself.

It is easy to become complacent. If things are going well and we’re comfortable with our belief system, happy with our family life, satisfied with our health, and mostly fulfilled in our career, then what’s left upon which to improve? For the record, I know very few people for whom all of these things are “perfect,” and so I would make the bold claim that there is, for all of us, room for growth, maturation, thought, and learning. Our bodies are in a constant state of change–as is the world around us, all of nature, humanity, and civilization–so it makes sense that our minds and spirits are also.

I have already discussed my growing interest in spiritual formation that has hit me in a way that I have not felt since my first semester at seminary. As any seminary plans are on hold for the present time, the only responsible course of action is to learn, study, engage in conversation, write, and work to mature my spiritual perspective. To think about the greater metaphysical concerns that run through my mind and discuss them with people with varying and similar perspectives is a noble pursuit.

In reading McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, many new questions have been brought to my attention and I have been given the opportunity to explore some old ones. The question of the inerrancy of the biblical texts is one that floats around in my mind every time I read a biblical passage. Am I to take the stories contained in the books as literal history? For example, is the Creation story in Genesis the literal way in which God brought about the universe or is it a more poetic, simplified version of events put into a story-form easily understood by the people to whom it was directly addressed in the context of the times it was recorded (before humans had made advances in scientific theory and study)? Is the Bible the literal word of God? Or is God’s Word actually the living Christ, as John’s gospel asserts from its first verses? Is it both, perhaps?

I don’t intend to provide answers here, but one possible response to this question would be, as McLaren suggests, to look at the Bible less as a legal constitution (“quoting testaments, books, chapters, and verses” to win our case) and more as an “inspired library” that is “intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries”. Thus framing God’s Word less as something that means to provide “us easy answers and shortcuts to confidence and authority, but rather to reduce us, again and again, to a posture of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown.”

According to McLaren, we frequently confuse, “‘The Bible says’ with ‘I say the Bible says,’ which we can then equate with ‘God says.'” He mentions a friend of his who remarked, “The average religious leader begins by humbly speaking with God; then he speaks humbly of God; then he speaks proudly for God; and finally he speaks arrogantly as if he were God.” This, I believe, is how Christ’s message has been splintered into numerous religious denominations leading so many of us to “miss the point.”

When we frame the biblical texts as a legal constitution rather than as an inspired library, we pull verses and quotes out of context to defend our position which may or may not be in keeping with the point or message in those texts. I’m certainly guilty of pulling quotes and verses out of their original context, perhaps even confusing a universal truth with one meant specifically for the people to whom it was addressed. Do not get me wrong, there are plenty of universal truths in the Bible, but people need to take care not to use scripture as a weapon. Extremists on all ends of the religious spectrum bend their religious texts to suit their ends resulting in the destruction of lives and souls, relationships between people and cultures, and entire civilizations.

As I said, I have no answers for you today–and maybe I never will–but McLaren’s approach certainly resonates with me. I would certainly be open to hearing other perspectives in the comments section should you feel moved to do so.

Regardless, I wish you grace and peace on this Sunday afternoon.

On Kindness, Compassion, and Political Correctness

The past few days, I have been pondering kindness and compassion. Actually, that’s not true. Kindness, love, compassion, gratitude, Jesus, God, heaven, religion, “the” bible, philosophy, various psychological topics–all of these swirl around in my head daily and make for a mishmash of thought, reflection, and anxiety that either serves to paralyze me or, on good days, pushes me into putting my thoughts down on paper (or computer screen, whichever is most handy). My meandering thoughts on kindness and compassion have brought me around to the topic of political correctness and its necessity in a civil society.

For most of my life, I have felt marginalized for various reasons. There is really no one to blame this on, so I cannot say I have ever felt victimized nor have I ever thought of myself as a victim. I have been picked on and stared at, but that’s just a part of life, sadly. I was a very sensitive child (and have grown into a sensitive adult) and then spent my adolescence in a state of chronic illness the likes of which few of my peers could understand. It would be very easy for me to get up-in-arms over someone calling me handicapped when I need to use crutches or a cane. That’s not the politically correct term. Yet, that didn’t bother me… usually. I was raised a strong, conservative girl and mostly thought political correctness was for the Democratic pundits and politicians to cry about. I figured it was a concept with little practical purpose. Real people aren’t offended by every word spoken to them. I think I was fighting back against my feelings and trying to show that I had outgrown my sensitive tendencies. Whenever something was said that offended me, I reminded myself that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It’s a cliché from childhood, so it must be true, right? Words are just words. Right? And who likes walking on eggshells, watching every word they say? No one, that’s who.

Then I went out and worked in the world around people who were genuinely hurt by words, names, and attitudes. I attended a liberal university and then a liberal seminary. I saw the impact of words on individuals, but still, my head wanted to fight against these sensitivities. Just DEAL with it, people. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” so suck it up, Buttercup!

In the age of the 24-hour press cycle, cable news, and constant access to the internet and social media, it is impossible to miss the stories that flood the public sphere. Words can hurt. Words hurt people all the time. Words can wound people to the core and force them into isolation. They can break a fragile ego or push a person struggling with mental illness to end his life. It doesn’t matter if the offended is a grown-up or not: words have meaning. That meaning and its implications can deeply wound. I am a person who hopes to make her living using words, so I cannot deny that words do matter.

When my oldest son was diagnosed with autism, my sensitivity to words returned with a vengeance. The R-word was on my radar in a way it never had been in the past. The bullying stories in the media suddenly became personal. I worried, not just for his physical and neurological well-being, but also for his emotional and psychological health. He doesn’t understand these things yet, of course but he is a very sensitive child. That’s one of the first words (after happy) that people use to describe his personality. Right now, the things that hurt him are tones more than the words, themselves, but when he really understands their meaning, my heart aches to think of how they, too, might wound him.

In the autism community, I have learned that saying “normal” and “abnormal” is not politically correct. Your child is neuro-typical (typical) or neurologically unique. My son is neurologically unique. He is not abnormal, he is just different from most “typical” people. Different, not less. Yet, I know that most people who use the word “normal” to describe other kids who are “typical,” do not mean to imply that my son is abnormal. I am able to dismiss a few harmless mentions, but if I hear the R-word or someone who knows better pointedly calls my son “abnormal,” well, then I think I would take issue with that. Politically correct or no–kindness is what matters. Sensitivity to what others are experiencing is a good thing, a noble attribute, and not a very difficult attitude to cultivate.

Empathy and, where that isn’t possible, sympathy (not pity) are welcome and, to my mind, the duty of citizens of this world who do know better. This is not to say that common phraseology is easily forgotten, but rather to imply that political correctness has, at its core, a heart for kindness, compassion, and mindfulness. It is not inherently a bad thing. Do not worry about how your words might sound to the pundits or people who would otherwise twist them, just think about how they might affect actual people. No one is perfect (speaking of clichés), but it makes sense to use a less harmful word or phrase if possible. Maintaining the status quo simply because it is the status quo seems like a thoughtless way to go about it. If words, meanings, circumstances, and attitudes never changed, what a sad, sorry state this world would be in.

All this to say: think before you speak and, in those moments when you do not or cannot, own up to it or remind yourself to choose a kinder word next time. No one will be upset if you try and approach others from a place of love or compassion. People will only get angry if you refuse to acknowledge the power of your words, your voice, and your attitude. To change the world for superheroes like my son, we have to change hearts one at a time.

Jessica’s Favorite Television Shows of the 2013-14 Season

I am going to shift a bit from my focus lately, and turn to one of my greatest obsessions: the realm of entertainment. Since I am not up-to-date on the latest books or music released in any given year (unless it has come from Aimee Mann or The Shins), my primary subject for “favorite” lists is television and film. I am not yet caught up on ALL the films from 2013 that I wish to see, but television is much easier to stay up-to-date with, thus, I’ll begin there.

I never make a “best of” list because I am not qualified to judge all television in any given year (as I have not seen ALL of it) and I cannot justify behaving under a false pretension that I am some sort of entertainment critic (though I have often dreamed of such a job). No, I merely watch what interests or is recommended to me and decide my “favorites” based on various factors, not the least among which is a mysterious quality of any given work of art to keep me returning to it. And, not to make this seem ridiculously late (it is), I’m going to go ahead and discuss shows that aired in their entirety in 2013 or overlapped into 2014. Shows and ran their seasons solely in 2014, will not be listed (so when I speak of House of Cards, I am referring only to Season 1) And so I bring you, in a very loose and perhaps even fluid order, Jessica’s Favorite Television Shows of the 2013-2014 Season:

10. Revenge – This show has traditionally taken a higher spot on the list and should this season. Its place on the list this year is not meant to indicate a downturn in its quality (in fact it improved leaps and bounds over season 2 and I was on the edge of my seat watching week after week), but is rather a testament to the supremely high quality of television put out by so many this year. Emily Thorne’s story got no less gripping or heartbreaking. By the end of the season, I didn’t know who I was shipping anymore and I honestly didn’t care. The story, itself–the characters, themselves–hold enough fascination that I don’t feel the loss of a sustainable love story in any way. Bravo.

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9. The Blacklist – There really aren’t any bad shows on this list, so to put this at number 9 should NOT dissuade you from believing that I feel like this show is a revelation and my favorite new network show of 2013-14. Spader wins me over time and time again. Megan Boone is incredibly good in the role of Elizabeth Keen. I didn’t realize people took issue with her hair at the beginning of the season, but it didn’t distract me from enjoying how her story unfolded and weaved with Red’s. I am intrigued to find out if the revelation at the end of the finale was, in fact, what it seemed. Is anything?

8. House of Cards – Yes, this should probably be higher on the list. It’s a brilliant, flawless work of art. Spacey is a revelation. He is the worst of the worst type of antihero who we absolutely cannot help but root for. It at once pains and brings a perverse kind of joy to follow him and listen to his horribly reasoned rationalizations for bad, vile behavior.

7. Veep – What is it with me and political shows? Julia Louis-Dreyfus and cast are utterly masterful at portraying these characters who are at once a vile, yet loveable, devious, yet clueless, heartless, yet hilarious band of DC insiders. Well done on all fronts.

6. Parks and Recreation – Anything I may have said about this show in the past remains true. I’d vote for Knope again and again.

5. Orange is the New Black – I mean. I just have no words for how ridiculously good this show is. The acting. The writing. The flow of this story that can contain moments that make you cringe and then follow them with a gripping and emotionally complex backstory that forces you to rethink how you judged this character or that. To take prisoners, some of whom have committed horrible atrocities either inside or outside of the prison (which may or may not have any effect on their sentence) and make you genuinely care for them as you would the sweetest protagonist on another show in a more innocent setting, well, it takes a supremely talented creator and band of writers and actors. Thank God for our Netflix subscription.

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4. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – It’s Whedon. It’s Marvel. It’s Mo and Jed (Whedon–the showrunners). It’s Coulson, Fitz-Simmons, May and the crew. It’s the way it began with a bang, fell apart a little and then came together in the most wonderful of ways. It’s the character development. It’s Bill Paxton’s delicious turn. It’s the betrayal of a trusted character who was just beginning to grow on me. It’s the whirlwind of emotions, intrigue, creativity, and wit that only a Whedon show can provide. It’s the way I really wasn’t sure about Skye and some others and then grew to really love every single character on the show. It’s the way they took a show that most thought would be ridiculous and too grandiose an idea for TV and fleshed out these human beings with no super powers and made us love them in this bizarrely Superheroish universe. I can’t get enough of this ragtag gang of loveable heroes and I am so very thankful that it will be returning for season two.

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3. Dexter – I know there will be a wide body of disagreement from fans who felt the show really went downhill in its final seasons and/or hated how it ended. I cannot say I agree on either point, but there are some compelling arguments that I respect in both cases. To the idea that the show went downhill with the [SPOILER ALERT] death of Rita or introduction of any number of other characters (none perhaps more polarizing than Yvonne Strahovski’s Hannah McKay), I would just say that a cold-hearted, completely devoid of empathy and weakness Dexter isn’t compelling TV for the long haul, so he inevitably had to develop emotions and attachments beyond his bond with Deborah. I enjoyed that this imbued both Dexter the man and Dexter the show with layers that went beyond serial killer with a moral code. That a kinder, gentler Hannah returned in season 8 is perplexing, but did not ruin the show for me. As is so eloquently put it in Joss Whedon’s masterpiece Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Love makes you do the wacky.” On the other hand, despite all of the added complexity these emotions and people gave Dexter (and Dexter), there was simply no way for it to have ended differently. Both Deb’s and Dexter’s endings were impossibly heartbreaking (I can’t even talk about Deb… so let’s not). It was perfect in the most broken, Dexter-like of ways. I’m still holding out for a Hannah McKay spin-off, but what can I say? I’m a bit of a Yvonne Strahovski fan-girl (Sarah Walker fans unite!). 

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2. The Walking Dead – The shake up at the mid-season finale and ensuing impact on the characters through the second half of season four was a stunning reinvention of a series that already existed in the realm of unparallelled creative, character-driven accomplishments. Splitting the group into smaller (and some highly unlikely) groupings made for an unbearably and irrepressibly intense build to the climax of the season. I was outraged with Carol’s behavior in the first half of the season and completely relieved at her return. Broken to see Lizzie’s awful sociopathic attitude toward humans and completely bizarre perspective on Walkers. My heart tore in two to see Maggie and Glenn separated only to be cautiously patched back up, bursting with joy at their reunion. But come on… Terminous sounded like a terrible idea to everyone else, too, right?

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1. The Good Wife – This, for me, is a no brainer. Not only has the show maintained my interest over the course of 5 seasons, but that interest has grown exponentially. It is the first show I make a point never to miss and the one that consistently delivers week after week. The whirlwind of emotions I felt watching the events of this season unfold left me devastated, cheering, crying, wrecked, angry, and even joyful and laughing. That this show manages to maintain both a formulaic case-of-the-episode structure while never feeling stale or trite is a testament both to the writers and to the character development by the entire cast and crew. Most shows of this nature end up feeling less “arc-y” and so formulaic as to become a chore (to me, anyway), but not this one. It’s got it all. It may not be genre (as my tastes tend to trend), but it’s a gloriously well-made hour of television each week.

And Honorable Mentions go to: Game of Thrones (I need more Danerys), Homeland (I am woefully behind), Parenthood (Enjoyable, but I’m behind), Nurse Jackie (could she maybe not make such AWFUL decisions all the time?), and The Vampire Diaries (fix the Damon thing… NOW). I watch a lot of other shows, too, but this is getting stupidly long and making me look like a ridiculously lazy couch-potato.

You’re welcome, Jordan.