How to Brush Your Teeth


The most recent lessons in our writing curriculum involved having the student read a short narrative explaining how to do something, then having them summarize the steps verbally back to me. This has proven to be a challenge, because my kids don’t see why it matters if you skip a step or list something out of order. And my kids don’t like to put effort into something they don’t find important or interesting.

I know, I know. It’s a super-unique problem to have and you must be wondering how I deal.

Last week they presented me with those bored you’ve-got-to-be-kidding expressions when I tried to explain the importance of both following and giving instructions. So I gave them a new assignment. I told them they had to write down step-by-step instructions on how to brush your teeth, and I would follow them exactly. They were to use numbered instructions that didn’t have to be in complete sentences, and spelling didn’t matter. I emphasized that they had to list EVERYTHING involved; if they didn’t specifically tell me to do it, then I wouldn’t. I would also write instructions for them to follow. Whoever’s instructions resulted in the successful brushing of teeth would have a treat after supper that night. If all three of us wrote successful instructions, then all three of us would have a treat.

Minecraft Steve was finished in less than five minutes and went to have ‘recess’ in the playroom while Princess Playtime and I finished. He got nervous when he came upstairs twenty minutes later and found us both still writing. We had each used up the front and back of one piece of paper and were both on our second. He decided to take another look at his and expand it a bit. A few minutes later we were all finished. Minecraft Steve had about a page and a half of instructions. Princess Playtime had almost four, and I had six.

We all went into the bathroom where I stood in front of the sink, toothbrush and toothpaste on the counter next to the basin, and I told Minecraft Steve to read me his instructions.

We stalled when he told me to put my toothbrush under the faucet, and I held it vertically under the dry tap. He never told me to turn on the water or which part of the toothbrush to wet.

Minecraft Steve is a perfectionist who doesn’t take failure very well, and I decided to add a three-strike rule. I counted both omissions as a single strike, and was relieved that Princess Playtime, a.k.a the Queen of Fairness, didn’t notice.

He got his second strike when he failed to instruct me to remove the cap from the toothpaste.

He got his third strike when he told me to put my toothbrush in my mouth but didn’t specify where or what I was to do with it once it was there. I couldn’t give him any more passes, and I had to tell him that his instructions did not result in the successful brushing of my teeth.

I rinsed off my brush and reset so I could follow Princess Playtime’s instructions. She remembered to specify which part of the brush should go under the faucet, but she too forgot about turning on the water. Strike one. She also forgot about taking the cap off the toothpaste. Strike two. After that she gave fairly detailed instructions on which teeth to brush when, including that I should move the brush from side to side.

But she forgot to tell me to spit. Strike three.

Then it was their turn to follow my instructions. They both hoped that I would strike out as well.

I almost did.

I got through their first two strikes without a hitch, even specifying that they were to remove the toothpaste cap by twisting it. But then I noted that people don’t usually hold the toothpaste cap in their hand while brushing, so my first strike was not telling them to put the cap back down on the counter.

Several times they began to do something automatically before I instructed it, and I pointed that out whenever it happened. They had to follow my instructions exactly, and not do anything I didn’t specifically tell them to do.

When we were at the point where I instructed them to put the cap back on the toothpaste, Princess Playtime noticed that I neglected to tell them to twist it. I argued briefly that I had already told them how to operate the cap when they took it off, but she reminded me that I hadn’t specifically told them to twist it back on (using my own words against me), and I conceded. Strike two.

Fortunately I didn’t get a third strike, despite their careful observation, and they had to agree that I had written successful instructions.

Minecraft Steve grumped that it wasn’t fair because I had a big Mama-brain, and they didn’t.

We sat down to talk about the assignment. They were both pretty upset, and that’s when the teaching moment happened. Princess Playtime asked if I had expected them to write successful instructions, and I admitted that I hadn’t. Following instructions is hard, and writing them is even harder. I reminded Minecraft Steve that even with my big Mama-brain, I still got two strikes.

Then I told them they were getting treats after supper anyway. I’d made my point, and there was no reason to prolong the disappointment. I certainly wasn’t going to eat a treat in front of them, and they both would have squawked if I skipped it entirely. They’re pretty consistent with their sense of justice.

They argued with me a bit, saying they hadn’t earned the treats, but accepted my decision when I told them the treats had nothing to do with the assignment.

That day just happened to be a treat day.

Unfortunate Common Ground

When people voted for Trump, they didn’t do it because it was the best thing for America. They did it because they’ve got problems, and now they’ve made their problems everyone’s problems. They’re racists. They’re homophobes. They’re misogynists. And some, I assume, are good people.

This is the general tenor of the comments I’ve seen on Facebook. Not surprisingly, this offends people who did vote for Trump. I know some of them, and they are good people.

But they should be offended.

Because if being slandered with broad generalizations offends them, then maybe they can begin to understand what many Americans have experienced by their candidate and many of his supporters.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [sic] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Donald Trump, June 16, 2015.

“I think Islam hates us.” He went on to talk about the “tremendous hatred” that partly defines the religion. March 10, 2016.

During the first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, Trump stated that “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell. You walk down the street and you get shot.” He went on to warn about “gangs roaming the streets.” While crime in the inner cities is certainly a problem, it’s a gross exaggeration to imply that inner city violence is the lived reality of all African Americans and Latinos. Yet that’s what Trump did with his sweeping generalization.

These are only a few examples. Donald Trump has consistently labeled and dismissed entire groups of people based on stereotypes. For the people who bear those labels, it’s insulting, demoralizing, and offensive.

Maybe now you know how it feels.

There is a disturbing lack of common ground in politics these days. It’s unfortunate that the shared experience of prejudice may be the only common ground we have to build upon, but if that’s the way it is, then let’s start there.

There are reasons why so many people voted for Trump, and some of them have nothing to do with racism, homophobia, or misogyny. Millions of people in this country have felt the way liberals feel now: that their representative government doesn’t represent them. They have spoken, and we need to listen. Assigning a hate-filled motive to everyone who voted for Trump is just another form of prejudice, and it’s not going to get us anywhere.

That said, some of Trump’s supporters were motivated–in part or in whole–by hate. That’s being borne out now, with numerous acts of violence and verbal abuse towards those groups Trump labeled, insulted, and dismissed during his campaign. This is the lived reality of millions of American’s now, and it’s just not right.

If you are one of those Trump supporters who is presumably “a good person,” then prove it by speaking out against these acts of violence, standing up to protect those who are being marginalized, and holding President-elect Trump accountable for his rhetoric. His words are not harmless. It’s not just “locker-room talk” when women are sexually harassed and assaulted by those who feel their new president gave them permission. It’s not just hyperbole when acts of violence are committed against minorities in the name of Trump’s declared policy positions. You can support his trade policies, his economic policies, and his plan to end corruption in Washington without endangering the lives of American citizens and residents who don’t happen to be Christians of northern European descent.

But if you remain silent in the face of these atrocities, you lose the right to call yourself a good person. And if you defend or excuse these atrocities, then you need to own the labels we’re giving you, because you define yourself with your action or inaction.

I don’t want to start with prejudice being our common ground. I’d like to think better of us. But I don’t see a whole lot right now that gives me hope. So let’s start with prejudice. Let’s start by acknowledging it in all its forms, and let’s work to stop it.

We have to begin somewhere.

Homeschool or Public School?

This is not a screed about the evils of public school and the salvific qualities of home education. I believe that some children learn best in public or private schools and others learn best at home. It all depends on the child.

And this post is about my child.

My daughter, Princess Playtime, wants more than anything to go to school. She’s experienced a classroom environment at a homeschool co-op we’ve attended in the past, as well as in a Lego engineering program we enroll in whenever it’s offered. But it’s not enough for her. She wants to be in a classroom learning with other kids all the time. Sitting at the dining room table with her brother Minecraft Steve doesn’t quite cut it.

Princess Playtime is about to turn seven, but I’ve taught her to speak up and advocate for herself. She’s learned that lesson well, and we went twenty rounds the other day about her going to school. Her argument was convincing. She’s experienced homeschool, and now she wants to experience public school so she can make an informed decision. Those were her exact words.

And that’s the problem.

My daughter has the vocabulary of someone twice her age. She’s reading at the middle school level, and is acing the third grade math curriculum I’m using. Her grammar and writing skills are also well beyond her years. But because of when her birthday falls, our local district would insist on putting her in first grade.

I know this because I’ve called them. I know she’s not emotionally ready for third grade, but I thought maybe a second grade teacher would be able to accommodate her. But the school allows absolutely no exceptions to their policy on age entrance. Princess Playtime misses the cut-off for second grade by less than a week, but that’s enough to put her into a first grade class. If I had known this was going to be such a problem, I would have scheduled a C-section so she could have an October birthday.

I want her to know that she has a say in her education, so I was tempted to send her to school anyway. But at what cost?

On Monday night we went trick-or-treating with a neighborhood kid and his father. Neighborhood Boy goes to the public school my kids would go to, and he’s in the second grade class I was trying to get Princess Playtime into. His father told me Neighborhood Boy reads at the sixth grade level and has an understanding of math comparable to Princess Playtime’s. And he hates school because he’s bored stiff. There is no gifted and talented program in our district, and his teacher doesn’t have the resources to keep him challenged and engaged. Furthermore, with their new “Standards-Based Grading System,” students are graded according to how well they’re progressing towards end-of-year goals for that grade. The highest grade a child can receive is “M,” which means the child meets end-of-year goals. There is no mechanism in place for a teacher to note that a student exceeds that grade’s end-of-year goals other than writing a comment on the report card, but even if they take the time to do that, there are no resources available to help that student progress beyond their assigned grade.

My daughter would be a year behind Neighborhood Boy. Her end-of-year goals include learning to match letters to sounds, do addition and subtraction up to ten, and understand what the symbols +, -, and = mean. Earlier today she was reading Harry Potter, and she routinely adds and subtracts 3-digit numbers in her head. She’s also learning multiplication.

I want her to have a say in her education, but I can’t justify the lost time. I can’t justify the major shift in routine sending her to school would require for the rest of the family. I can’t justify her not seeing her father except on weekends, because with his work schedule he’d get up after she left for school, and get home after she went to bed. As homeschoolers, we can accommodate his schedule and still have family time.

It’s heartbreaking to see my daughter so disappointed. But while she does have a say in her education, I’m her parent, and ultimately it’s up to me to decide what’s best for her. And what’s best for her right now is to continue homeschooling. There is a charter school for grades 6-12 in our city that is academically rigorous enough to keep her engaged, and I’m willing to consider that for her when the time comes.

But for now, for better or worse, she’s stuck with me.

I’m Not That Mom

I tried to track down the original source of this meme and couldn’t. I copied it from this site instead.

This meme has been making its way around Facebook lately. I get what it’s trying to say. One of the great things about homeschooling is the ability to make a lesson out of anything, and to follow tangents down delightful rabbit holes rich with fascinating information. This meme celebrates one of the best parts of homeschooling.

And if this is the measure of a homeschooling family, then I’m a failure.

I had to change a lightbulb just the other day. I pulled the stand-lamp down to where I could reach it, unscrewed the burnt-out bulb, and threw it out. I went to the closet where we keep spare lightbulbs, found the one with the correct wattage, took it out of the box, and screwed it into the fixture. I never bothered to call my kids and make it into a learning experience. Honestly, that never even occurred to me, despite the fact that I’d seen this meme twice in the previous week.

I just changed the lightbulb while my kids were playing Monopoly in the other room.

We do follow tangents sometimes, and we’ve had some great discussions because of it, but most of the time my kids get bored when I try to do something like this meme describes. I can just imagine my daughter saying, “Mom, if we need to buy a lightbulb, then why are we in the library?” My son would respond with, “How long can we play on the iPads here?”

And that’s fine. That’s us. I’m not that mom. I don’t plan out dozens of unit studies integrating drama, art, music, math, history, and fiction and non-fiction literature. And my kids aren’t the kids who would be into all that. We’re more of the no-frills, just the facts, readin-ritin-rithmatic kind of homeschoolers. We spend a little time most mornings doing ‘together’ school, and they have a list of assignments they need to do independently each week. Other than that and a few regularly scheduled outings, we each do our own thing.

Sometimes my kids play Minecraft. Sometimes they play Monopoly. A few weeks ago when my son was sick and taking a nap, I asked my daughter what she was going to do. She answered, “I’m just going to lie down on my bed and daydream for a while.” (I was envious.) They plan puppet shows and concerts and have written a book with their babysitter. They’re incredibly curious and creative children who shut down the moment they sense I’m trying to turn something into a ‘learning experience.’ They don’t want school to interfere with their fun.

A lot of homeschooling philosophy focuses on erasing the line between learning and fun, but I’ve found that my kids prefer to categorize things in that way. I just don’t tell them that it all counts as education. Some things are part of ‘doing school.’ Other things are ‘fun.’ And still other things are ‘stuff we need to know,’ which is different from school. Changing a lightbulb is in this third category. If I’d been thinking, I would have called them in to watch me change the bulb so they could try and do it the next time one burned out. And later on, when we get to Thomas Edison in our history class, we’ll read a biography on his life and my kids will be excited to connect his invention with the lighbulb they changed.

But we’ll skip the skit and models. According to my kids, that sort of thing is just silly.

From Pastor Karen to Karen Goltz, Writer

My last post was the transcript of the last sermon I preached as an ELCA pastor. I ended that sermon stating that I didn’t know what my life would look like in three months. I didn’t plan on this, but it’s been just over three months since I preached/wrote that.

And this is the first time I’ve been on this blog since.

My life doesn’t look all that different than it did last spring. I’m still homeschooling my kids, I’m still working on my novel (editing and revising my first draft), and I’m still doing all the things I need to do as a stay-at-home wife and mother.

But things are different, too. I’m not a pastor anymore, and I’m still getting used to that fact. It hasn’t been easy.

The worst part is that the pastor of my home congregation retired just before I got dropped from the roster. The synod did not assign an interim and the congregation depends on pulpit supply for worship leadership. I’ve done a lot of pulpit supply there over the years, which I loved, and I was always well received by the other members. So it kills me to go there now and know that I can’t help out with worship leadership during this transition. Technically I can still preach–lay preachers have preached there before–but I would have to restrict myself to the pulpit and not preside at the altar. I’d be stripped of my clerical collar, my stole, and my title. I’d have to stand where I’ve stood many times before, only this time I’d have to stand there and pretend I’m not a pastor.

Maybe it’s pride, but I just can’t do that.

I haven’t worshiped at my home congregation very often in the last three months.

At first I was nervous about attending worship as a non-pastor. I was afraid I’d see the pulpit and the altar and be reminded that I can’t do that anymore. Fortunately I was traveling my first Sunday, which was a great excuse to not attend church. The next Sunday was the Day of Recollection at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA. I’m in the process of becoming an oblate there, so I had to attend that service.

It was the best place I could have been.

Glastonbury Abbey is a Benedictine community of monks, and they conducted a Catholic Mass. I’m not Catholic. I wasn’t reminded of my loss because I’ve never preached in that pulpit. I’ve never presided at that altar. And I was never going to. Some of the monks know of my career in ministry, but they’ve never related to me clergy-to-clergy. I’m in their oblate program. I’m a regular retreat guest. I’m the weird retreat guest who comes there not to rest, but to work. I’m the writer.

The monks know me as a writer.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve been trying to re-imagine myself as a writer. More than two years ago I published a post entitled Pick Up Your Pen and Write, in which I wrote about this very thing. In that post of August 26, 2014, I stated, “In the next year or two I’ll be removed from the roster and cease my pulpit supply. I’ll be writing until that happens, and I’ll continue writing after that happens.”

I did, and I am.

I used to be a pastor who wrote. Now I’m just a writer. Church is still difficult for me, and it’s going to be until the congregation calls a new pastor, but I’m attending again. And I’m continuing in the oblate program at Glastonbury Abbey, where I was never known as Pastor Karen.

Seventeen years is a long time to cultivate a pastoral identity, and it’s going to take more than three months to cultivate a new, non-pastoral identity. But Karen Goltz, Writer has been in the background all along, and I’m trying to give her a little more attention.

I don’t think it’ll be another three months before I post here again.

My Final Sermon as an ELCA Pastor

[This is what I preached this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Amherst, NH, where I’ve been covering a sabbatical throughout the month of June. I’m grateful to the people of Messiah for being so welcoming and accepting of me these past few weeks, and for bearing with me today as I broke down in the pulpit. I’m also grateful to the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Chelmsford, MA, who trekked all the way up to New Hampshire to share this last Sunday with me.

Today’s texts were 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and Luke 9:51-62.]

Several years ago, when we lived in New York State, my husband and I began to have a regular date night. Every week we ate at one of four or five different restaurants, then walked laps around the local mall until it closed, then sat in the café at Barnes and Noble until it closed. Every single week without exception. We believed we did it because there wasn’t much else to do in that part of New York State, and we couldn’t wait to get back to the Boston area where we’d have more options.

And eventually we did get back to the Boston area, and we did have more options. And now every date night, we eat at one of five or six different restaurants, walk laps around whichever one of three malls is closest to that evening’s restaurant of choice, and then sit in the café at whichever Barnes and Noble is closest to that mall.

Only now we have to change things up a bit, because all three Barnes and Nobles changed their hours to close an hour earlier, and we have no idea what we’re going to do now in that hour between the mall closing and the babysitter expecting us home.

See, I hate change. I like routine and predictability, and I go out of my way to cultivate those things in my life.

Unfortunately there’s a great deal in my life that’s beyond my control, and I have to deal with changes I don’t want and don’t like regardless of how I feel about them.

Seventeen years ago I worked in government finance at Hanscom Air Force base, until I ran afoul of some politics and ended up unexpectedly out of a job. Three days later I had a chance meeting with the Dean of Admissions at Boston University School of Theology, who, after talking with me for ten minutes, offered me a full merit scholarship plus a small stipend for attending their MDiv program. I certainly hadn’t been looking for that kind of change, I certainly didn’t want that kind of change, but there it was.

I guess I felt a little like Elisha must have felt in today’s first reading. Elisha’s just doing his work, minding his own business, when out of nowhere this prophet shows up, throws his mantle on him, and keeps walking, expecting Elisha to follow. Elisha does follow, asking for permission to go home and say farewell to his parents before his leaves. Elijah grants him that permission, perhaps realizing what he was demanding and saying—I like to think with a twinge of guilt—“What have I done to you?”

We don’t know anything about Elijah’s life before he became a prophet. We first meet him at the beginning of First Kings chapter seventeen, and there he’s already a prophet, telling Ahab some bad news and then running for his life. This sort of thing was normal for Elijah, but not for Elisha. Elisha was probably from a fairly wealthy family, considering he had twelve yoke of oxen to work with. Given what he was used to, it’s pretty remarkable that he didn’t hesitate to give it all up and serve Elijah, except to ask to say goodbye to all that was familiar to him. I can’t say I accepted my call as easily. I came up with a thousand reasons why I couldn’t possibly accept that scholarship and go into ministry, but God cut through every one of them and I ended up going anyway, pretty much against my will.

Over time I learned to accept all the changes that seminary and ministry brought. I learned to accept my new normal, and I acclimated to it. This was clearly what God wanted me to be doing, so I figured I may as well do it as best I could.

Except it never really worked out. My first call was a disaster, working with a senior pastor who neither liked nor respected me. (To be honest, the feeling was mutual.) I left after a little less than two years. After that I had a pretty good experience as a transitional pastor, which would have turned into a regular call were it not for the fact that I got engaged while serving there, and the geography just wouldn’t work out with my husband’s job. From there I had an excellent experience serving as interim pastor, and I was sorry when they called a new pastor because I really wanted to stay. But that’s not the way it works.

My next call—let’s just say that one went worse than my first. And I was convinced that I had been wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be in ministry after all.

Except I couldn’t leave. Even though I didn’t want to serve anymore, I kept getting asked to do pulpit supply, or cover sabbaticals or family leaves. I kept getting asked to be chaplain at various retreats at Calumet, and I kept getting positive feedback for what I was doing. And I thought, OK, maybe I have found my calling. Maybe I’m not cut out for sustained parish ministry, but I am called to do short-term respite ministry. There’s certainly a need for that kind of thing, and maybe I’m called to fulfill that need.

And over time—a long time—several years—I finally embraced that as my pastoral identity.

Except respite ministry is not a recognized call in the ELCA, and I’ve overstayed my welcome.

I got pulled into ministry against my will, and now I’m leaving ministry against my will. June 27th, 2010, was the last day of my last call. On June 27th, 2016, tomorrow, I will have exhausted the time I can remain on the roster without a call, and I will be removed. Beginning next Sunday, I will no longer be eligible to stand up here and do what I’m doing today.

I’m not preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians today because I stand convicted by it. I’m a little short on things like joy, peace, and patience right now, but I’ve got plenty of strife, anger, quarrels, and dissention. And I’m hesitant to preach on the gospel because I kind of feel for James and John. They wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume those who would not accept the ministry they’d abandoned everything to support. I get that. I really, really get that.

But God’s Word is there to convict, to instruct, and to console.

There were a couple of articles in the June 8th issue of The Christian Century that really helped bring things home for me. One of them was a reflection on today’s gospel lesson, and the author talked about how sometimes what we perceive as rejection is really a path being cleared to the purposed destination. She states, “There is wisdom in knowing when your mission in a place is over, when it’s time to move on.” She acknowledges that life circumstances can bring us out of focus and off our purpose, just as James and John forgot that Jesus had sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick, not call down fire from heaven to consume villages. And we have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is our direction in line with God’s purpose for our lives, our assignment for these times? How can we recalibrate, get back on course? Where is God calling us to set our faces?”

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions right now, but there was another article in that issue that gives me a little help. That article was called, “Why I Left the Ordination Process.” The author wrote about her experience being called to the Episcopal priesthood, only to discover partway through the process that she actually wasn’t. At first she ignored her doubts and stubbornly doubled-down, but God made it clear to her that he was not calling her to set her face toward ordained ministry. While she was drawn to the mysteries priests proclaim and to the realities of priestly ministry, she knew that her husband hated the idea of being married to a priest, with all the moving and uncertainty that would entail. She knew that the hours and stress involved in her job as a lay minister were negatively impacting her health and her relationship with her children. She knew that some of the priests she encountered had been wonderful public leaders but were barely functioning in their private lives. She eventually realized that Jesus says, “Follow me,” not “Follow me into one specific overarching vocational destiny,” and she dropped out of the process.

I don’t know if I ignored such warnings during my process, or if I was just called to ministry for a time and now it’s time to move on to something else. I think it’s the latter. I hope it’s the latter. That’s what I’m going with, anyway. Because the thing about cultivating routine and predictability in your life is, the rest of the world doesn’t care about your routine and expectations. The world changes, whether we like it or not. The political process in this country has changed significantly in the past fifty years, to the point that the rules of engagement and public discourse have changed beyond recognition. The United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union, and world politics and economies are changing in response, even though no one knows what this is going to look like or what they should be changing into. Every time we acclimate to what’s going on in our world and in our lives and set our course, something in our world and in our lives changes, and we have to recalibrate and get back on course.

After Jesus rebukes James and John, someone comes up to Jesus and tells him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds by saying, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I always thought that was a warning. But now I see it as a promise. Fox holes can be filled. Nests can be destroyed. Foxes and birds can be displaced. But the Son of Man is not dependent on worldly circumstances. No matter what changes in the world or in our lives, God in Christ will remain, inviting us into his grace and mercy. My life is not what it was ten years ago or seventeen years ago or thirty-five years ago. This country is not what it was fifty years ago or a hundred and fifty years ago or three hundred years ago. Jerusalem is not what it was five hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. If we’re on the wrong path he’ll guide us to the right one, and he’ll guide us again when that path changes, because at some point, you can be sure it will change.

Everywhere I look I see problems. I don’t know what the world’s going to look like next year, and I don’t know what my life is going to look like in three months, and I don’t know how to respond to any of that. But there is one problem I can solve. I can figure out what my husband and I are going to do after the mall closes, now that Barnes and Noble is no longer an option.


Teaching Consent to Children

If you’re reading this blog then you spend some time online, which means you must know about the outrage over the “sentencing” of convicted rapist Brock Turner. Just to sum it up, Brock Turner was caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. At his trial, a jury of his peers convicted him of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object, all three classified as felonies. The maximum possible sentence was fourteen years, and the prosecutor recommended six years. The judge sentenced Turner to just six months in prison, of which he will actually serve three.

I’m not going to write about how outrageously ridiculous and insensitive that sentence is–there are more than enough blogs that are doing that already, like this one by the Rev. Erin Wathen. What I am going to write has to do with something Rev. Wathen named in the title of her post: rape culture.

This verdict and sentencing has sparked a much needed national conversation on rape culture. The ways in which Brock Turner’s defenders have been trivializing the crime and blaming the victim for being drunk and vulnerable are examples of rape culture. Turner’s own father trivialized the assault in a letter he wrote to the judge by calling it “20 minutes of action” and claiming that his son had “never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of January 17th, 2015.” His other name for the assault was to call it an “event.” The only mention of the victim was a brief statement at the beginning of his letter stating that “[Brock] is truly sorry for what occurred that night and for all the pain and suffering that it has caused for all of those involved and impacted by that night.”

That’s where I need to stop. I get that parents want to protect their children, but you don’t do it by disregarding the fact that your son was thrice convicted of sexual assault and equating it to casual sex (20 minutes of action–really? Really?). And you don’t do it by telling a woman who woke up on a hospital gurney with various abrasions on her body and dried blood and bandages on the backs of her hands and elbows that she hadn’t actually experienced any violence.

The sad thing is, parental protection aside, I suspect Turner’s father actually believes everything he wrote. And he raised Brock to believe it, which is part of the reason why this whole thing happened. Stripping a woman who drank herself to unconsciousness and violating her with your fingers is natural, right? What else is a healthy young man supposed to do? She wouldn’t have let herself get into that situation if she hadn’t wanted it, right? And Brock himself was a victim of the alcohol consumption and partying culture that permeates college campuses everywhere. He was drunk, too, so he shouldn’t be held responsible for a little misunderstanding between two people who drank too much, right?

This needs to stop, and parents need to stop telling their children that boys will be boys and good girls wait until marriage. That’s how rape culture begins. We need to teach our children to recognize the humanity of other people–all people, and not think of some people as objects for others’ use or entertainment. We need to teach them that the world isn’t there to serve their needs or make them feel good, and that other people have needs and feelings too. We need to teach them how to put themselves in another person’s place and think about how they would feel if someone were treating them like that.

And we need to teach them consent.

I have a son and a daughter. They’re both very young, and they don’t know about Brock Turner. They don’t know about rape. They know about sex, but only the basic mechanics of how it can make babies. They’re not aware of any other reasons why people would want to have sex, though I think my son is beginning to suspect that those people on TV really aren’t just hugging, which is what I’ve told him when he’s walked into the living room during a steamy scene in The Good Wife. At some point I’ll explain how sex isn’t just for making babies, how it also has pleasurable aspects, because that’s a part of it too and I don’t want them thinking that they can only trust their friends to tell them “the good stuff.” And I’ll talk to them about consent.

But that won’t be the first conversation we have about consent.

In fact, we’ve already talked about consent, though we haven’t used that word and it hasn’t been in relation to sex. See, my kids are typical siblings who get along great with each other except when they don’t, and I usually let them work it out on their own.

But if I hear one of them say ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I listen carefully. And if it’s followed up by a second ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I get involved. Ignoring the other person’s objections or attempts to leave a game that has gone sour is not allowed, and the offender gets a time-out. This goes for both my son and my daughter. When someone says ‘no,’ the answer is no. When someone says ‘stop,’ you stop. I’ve told them both that if the person you’re playing with isn’t having fun anymore, stop playing that game and do something else you will both enjoy.

This is all in relation to childish games, but you can see how it will translate into future, not-so-childish activities. And if, say, a 20 year old man is with a woman who is bleeding and motionless on the ground, he should be able to figure out that she’s probably not having fun, and he should stop playing.

Rape culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and consent isn’t only applicable to sex. Teach your children now how to recognize signs of resistance (this game is no fun, I’m not playing anymore), and teach them to consider how their actions impact other people. They’re never too young to learn that.

Also, we parents have to remember that our precious snowflakes actually can do wrong, they can make bad decisions, and those decisions will have consequences that they will have to face. No more protecting them from disappointment. No more making excuses for their behavior. Recognize that they are not perfect, and let them know that. It’s OK not to be perfect. Let them know that, too. And please let them know that they can’t always get what they want. A child who never hears ‘no’ from his parents is unlikely to understand what it means as an adult. A child who discovers that when his parents say ‘no’ all he has to do is keep pushing and that ‘no’ will turn into a ‘yes’ will apply that same behavior later in life, because it’s always worked before. When you say ‘no’ to your children, make it stick.

But ultimately, people make their own decisions. Brock Turner’s father, even if he did teach his son all these toxic things, isn’t responsible for the rape. Brock Turner chose to rape that young woman, and now he should have to face the consequences.

There is no formula that guarantees our kids will turn out right. It’s possible that Brock Turner’s parents actually taught him everything I’ve listed above, and their son still chose to rape. But it’s still a good place to start.

The victim made a mistake by drinking too much. There are consequences for that, too. But those consequences should have been a hangover and a headache. That’s it. And Brock made a mistake by drinking too much, but the alcohol was not responsible for his actions. The victim herself explained it well in her moving and eloquent statement to the court, which I strongly recommend you read in its entirety: “Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.”

Rape culture needs to end, and one thing that will contribute to that goal is teaching our children consent, respect, empathy, and humility. They’re really not to young to learn those lessons, and they will carry them for the rest of their lives.

Where Do I Begin?

Who Am I to Write this Blog?

That’s easy. I’m no one. Let’s get one thing straight right away: I’m not an expert on vegetarianism. In fact, I’m about as far from being an expert as you can get. At the time I’m writing this post, I’ve been a vegetarian for a grand total of three days, and in that time I made and ate some chicken soup, with plans to finish eating that batch in the next couple of days. So I’m not writing this blog because I’ve got all the answers. I’m writing this blog to help me figure out some of the answers that work best for me, and hopefully help a few other newbies along the way.

How I Got Here

First please let me explain the chicken soup before you write me off as a complete idiot. I didn’t plan on becoming a vegetarian three days ago. It’s something that I’ve always admired, but what can I say? I love meat. Whenever I go out for dinner with friends and they ask what I’m in the mood for, I invariably answer, “Under-cooked dead cow.” Yeah, that’s me. But I have been moving toward a healthier, whole foods diet in the past few years, and I’ve been increasingly disturbed and grossed out by factory farming. I try to buy as much meat as I can from local, organic, free-range, old-school farms (and I’m fortunate that I live reasonably close to several), but that gets expensive, and I’ve had to supplement with regular “organic” meat from Costco. Yes, I’m aware that the “organic” label doesn’t mean much.

Anyway, three mornings ago I was skimming through news items on and read something about veganism. That led me to another article on the health benefits of a plant-based diet (which didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know), and just like that I decided I was going to do it. Starting that moment. No planning, nothing.

But it felt like the right decision, both from a health and from an ethical standpoint.

However, since I didn’t do any planning or preparation, my kitchen wasn’t ready to support my new diet. I had a single chicken breast sitting in the refrigerator waiting to go into soup. I had a big container of chicken broth in the cabinet. Neither my husband nor my children like chicken soup, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with a single, small piece of chicken breast.

I don’t believe in wasting food, so I made my soup. Also, my husband and I are celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary later this week by going out to our usual ‘special’ restaurant, which has but a single vegetarian option as an entree (unless I  get just a salad, which is a total waste of this restaurant). I’ve already given myself permission to have meat that night. After that, I’ll do my best.


Yes, that’s chicken in my “vegetarian” soup.

What Kind of Vegetarian Am I?

Not a very good one, so far. I like the idea of being a vegan, but I know I’m not ready for that kind of an adjustment. I’d also fail on the ethics part, because I’m married to an omnivore and have two children who are omnivores. None of them have any interest in becoming vegetarian, and they’re all waiting to see how long my new eating habits will last. (They’re giving it a few weeks at most. I hope to prove them wrong.) I cook supper for them nearly every night, so I need to keep cooking meat. What kind of vegan buys and prepares meat and dairy products?

After this week’s transition, I plan to be a vegetarian who doesn’t eat any meat including fish, and who consumes eggs and dairy sparingly. (Vegetarian Nation calls that a lacto-ovo vegetarian, although ‘sparingly’ is my choice, and not part of the definition.) On those rare occasions when I don’t have any control over my menu I’ll accept the hospitality provided, taking only the smallest portions of meat courtesy dictates (skipping it altogether and loading up on side dishes if I can get away with it). I guess that technically makes me a flexitarian, but I anticipate having to do this only one week each year. Does one week per year make me a flexitarian or just a back-sliding vegetarian? I’m not interested in being a purist, though I do want to be careful not to muddy the waters regarding the definition of ‘vegetarian.’

Why Am I Doing This?

As I said earlier, this is mostly a health decision. Plant-based whole foods diets are demonstrably better for you than any other. Even the Paleo devotees agree on that (though they include unprocessed meat as a whole food). But for all that I’ve tried increasing my vegetable intake, I find that I usually choose something else, and I don’t emphasize veggies nearly enough in dinners. I hope removing meat as a choice will encourage me to put more effort into plant-based foods.

It’s also an ethical and, consequently, a financial decision. I’m opposed to factory farming, and would prefer to source all my meat from a local sustainable farm. But I just can’t afford to do that if meat is the focus of all our meals. My husband doesn’t mind if we scale back on the family meat and share more vegetarian dishes at supper, as long as meat does still make an appearance a few times a week. I’ll prepare something else for me on those nights. By reducing our overall meat consumption, we may be able to shop at our local farms exclusively.

So that’s it. This is my blog. I hope you subscribe and keep reading!

What It Means to Be a Pastor

The official end to my career is bearing down on me. As of the end of June, I will fall off the roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and no longer be a pastor. The reason for this, according to the ELCA, is that I haven’t been a pastor for six years. I disagree. Rather, I believe the ELCA needs to rethink what it means to be a pastor.

It’s true that I haven’t served as a called pastor to a specific congregation in six years. However, over that time I have accepted 65 invitations by seven different congregations to preach and preside at their services, with another four scheduled before the end of June. Due to scheduling conflicts, I’ve had to turn down several other invitations, including from two additional congregations. I’ve been the chaplain at two weekend retreats at Camp Calumet, a Lutheran camp in Freedom, New Hampshire. The Groton School, a prestigious boarding school affiliated with the Episcopal Church, had me as their guest preacher on two different occasions. The Salvation Army invited me to be the keynote speaker at their ecumenical Day of Unity, and I’ve written and taught a five-session adult bible study at the congregation I’ve been attending since 2011, when I returned to New England. For several months I maintained a daily devotional blog, which had a respectable following, and which (I’m told) has been missed since I had to stop updating it. I’ve been an ambassador for Christianity at a science fiction convention, and I address a variety of spiritual, theological, and biblical themes on this blog, often resulting in thoughtful dialogue with a variety of people in the comments either on this blog or on my Facebook page.

But I haven’t been a pastor in six years.

What does it mean to be a pastor?

According to the ELCA website, “[o]rdained ministers, or pastors, serve with active, courageous faith to offer the hope of the sacraments and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in congregations and other ministry settings.” Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for the last six years?

According to their policies, however, a rostered minister may be on leave from call only for a period of three years. An additional three years may be granted for approved family leave or graduate study (I was granted a family leave extension to care for my children). If the rostered minister has not accepted a formal call by the end of that time, he or she is to be removed from the roster. There are provisions for the synodical bishop to request a further two-year extension, to be approved by the Conference of Bishops, and my current synodical bishop (Bishop Rodger Prois of the Western Iowa Synod) has requested that extension on my behalf. However, the status of that request is unknown, and I’m beginning to lose hope that it will be approved before my ‘expiration date.’ The procedure for being reinstated to the roster is far more complex, and, again, dependent upon a formal call.

Why the disconnect? Why must a formal call be a requirement to continue as a pastor?

Recently Bishop Jim Hazelwood of the New England Synod sent out a letter to the congregations of his synod highlighting the dearth of rostered leaders, not only in New England but throughout the ELCA. He provided a chart showing the decline of seminary enrollment over the past twelve years, from 1252 in the 2004-2005 academic year to 735 in 2015-2016. He also pointed out that the majority of pastors currently serving congregations are between the ages of 55 and 65 (with the largest number of pastors being 61), and indicated that the New England Synod at least is beginning to see a trend of retirements. He also stated that his staff will be working with congregations to “evaluate creative ways forward.”

I agree that congregations need to be creative about their leadership. I also believe that the ELCA needs to be creative about what constitutes a leader.

I am not the only rostered leader who is unable, for a variety of reasons, to serve in a narrowly defined call. But that doesn’t mean we’re unable to serve at all. Part of a liturgy commonly used in ELCA congregations includes the statement that we pray “not as we ought, but as we are able,” echoing Romans 8:26. Right now I serve not as I ought, but as I am able.

At this time in my life I cannot make the kind of commitment a formal call requires. I need more flexibility than most congregations are willing to give (or bishops are willing to approve). But if there truly is a pastor shortage and congregations must consider creative ways forward, why can’t a less rigid definition of pastor be one of those creative ways?

I call upon the pastors, bishops, and other leaders of the ELCA to rethink what it means to be a pastor. Because even though I’ve been on leave from call, I have been an actively serving pastor for the last six years. I don’t want to have to stop doing that in two months just because my service doesn’t meet a narrow definition of call.

The world is changing. The church is changing. Congregations are adapting to this new reality (or, if they’re not adapting, they’re dying). What it means to be a pastor must also change.

Drug Addiction: Facts, Myths, and Anecdotes

Twice in the last six months a friend has posted a link on Facebook to a Huffington Post article called “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” The article was written by Johann Hari, who excerpted parts of it from his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. The Huffington Post first ran the article in January 2015 when the hardcover edition was published, and then updated and reprinted it a year later when the paperback was released.

The article troubled me both times I read it. I questioned some of the claims the author makes, and I was offended by his overly simplistic suggestion that drug addiction is merely a case of people substituting drugs for the close human connections they are missing in their lives.

But rather than go off on a Huffington Post article, I borrowed the book itself from the library and read it cover to cover. I wanted to see if the book actually claimed what the HuffPo article suggested it claimed.

At first, I loved the book. Hari began by describing the birth of the modern war on drugs a hundred years ago, and the tale he weaves of personal vendetta, ambition, obsession, and political maneuvering is both fascinating and believable. He then goes on to document the war’s global escalation and the resulting rise of a criminal underworld intent on controlling and profiting from the war. Next he describes the brutal consequences of the total criminalization of drug addiction through the eyes of several poignant witnesses and participants. I appreciated all of this.

But then Hari began looking for alternatives, and here things got a little shaky.

Hari’s first big mistake is when he cites a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (which he mistakenly calls the United Nations Office on Drug Control) to support his claim that 90 percent of people who use drugs are not addicts. I looked up the document in question, and though the link he provided in the footnotes didn’t work, I did find the UNODC’s 2015 World Drug Report Executive Summary, which states on the very first page, “The magnitude of the world drug problem becomes more apparent when considering that more than 1 out of 10 drug users is a problem drug user, suffering from drug use disorders or drug dependence.” That statistic is foundational to Hari’s assertion that drugs are not dangerous to anyone but a small minority of the population.

However, Hari must have neglected to read the methodology UNODC used to arrive at that statistic, because there they acknowledge the limitations of their data. “Assessing the extent of drug use (the prevalence and estimates of the number of drug users) is a particularly difficult undertaking because it involves in most settings measuring the size of a ‘hidden’ population.” They go on to state that their numbers come primarily from what the governments can estimate from police reports, hospitals, rehab facilities, and surveys. Users and addicts who are never arrested or treated medically for an ailment resulting from drugs, or who choose not to disclose their drug use on a survey, are not counted. Because drug users and abusers are by definition a hidden population, accurate measurements quantifying their addiction are impossible. This truth is never acknowledged in Hari’s book, yet he repeatedly trots out that 90 percent claim.

The HuffPo article does reflect Hari’s ultimate conclusion accurately. Drug addiction is not caused by chemical hooks, but by traumatic or unsupportive environments. Changing the environment to one that is positive and nurturing will help enable addicts to shed their addictions. Towards the very end of his book he writes, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection…If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.”

I call bullshit.

I’m an addict, and my experience of addiction and recovery does not adhere to this pronouncement. My life as an addict bears very little resemblance to the people interviewed in Hari’s book. My experience is no more important than theirs, but it’s no less important, either.

First off, I should point out that I’m an alcoholic, not a drug addict. However since Hari repeatedly made the point that alcohol is far more damaging and dangerous than heroin or cocaine, I believe I’m qualified to speak on this subject.

I’m the only child of alcoholics. It was part of my life growing up, though I didn’t realize it until I was in my teens. While my childhood wasn’t great, it wasn’t traumatic, either. I was never physically abused or molested. I didn’t grow up in abject poverty. My response to recognizing my parents’ alcoholism was to vow I’d never go down that road myself. I did very little experimenting with booze in my teens, and in my early twenties I rarely drank. I’d have one or two when I was out with my friends sometimes, but that was it.

But sometime in my mid-twenties, something changed. I had a job that I liked, I was respected by my coworkers, and I was on my way up. It was challenging, but it didn’t cause me high levels of stress. I owned my own home, had friends, and was active in a faith community. I had a stable, supportive environment. And that’s when I let my guard down.

I didn’t start drinking to escape the pain of my life–my life wasn’t particularly painful. I started drinking because I liked the taste of wine. And then I drank because I liked the way a few glasses of wine made me feel. It felt great! Life was good but this made life better. Why wouldn’t I want to feel like that more often?

A year or so later my career went up in flames and I ended up in seminary. Now the stress began to affect me. My family wasn’t supportive of my new vocation, I’d had to sell my condo, and I was going into debt. Church politics necessitated that I transfer from Boston University School of Theology (where I had a full tuition scholarship and a small stipend for books and fees) to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where I didn’t know anyone and the financial aid wasn’t nearly as good. But there I became part of the most supportive community I’ve ever experienced, before or since. Life had its painful parts, and it had its wonderful parts. Alcohol helped to dull the pain, and it enhanced the wonder. Alcohol could make bad experiences manageable, and it could make good experiences even better. (I also discovered that alcohol greatly improved my ability to make sense of systematic theology!)

It was sometime during seminary that I went from ‘problem drinker’ to ‘alcoholic.’ During my last year of school my mother died of alcoholic liver disease. I spent the summer after graduation leaving my community in Iowa, sorting through and disposing of my mother’s possessions in Massachusetts, and beginning my new job as Associate Pastor at a large church in Maryland, where I knew no one. I fell into a deep depression.

By then there was no wonder in my life, but there was a lot of pain I needed to dull. I never went to work drunk, and I never missed work because I was drunk or too hungover. I paid my bills on time, attended all my appointments, performed my job duties to the best of my ability, and was, in general, a productive and contributing member of society. But when I wasn’t tending to my real life duties, I was drinking. I felt a lot better about my life when I was drunk, but there was a little part of me that knew this wasn’t good. And then one night I realized the truth: I’d broken the vow I’d made when I was a teenager. I was just like my mother. And my mother was dead because she’d allowed alcohol to kill her. Seven months after her death, three months after beginning this new job in this new career field in this new place, I acknowledged my alcoholism and decided to get sober.

I tried going to some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and I hated them. No help for me there. I had no friends or family in the area. There were a few supportive co-workers, but the inescapable power dynamics of Pastor ensured a certain distance. I couldn’t depend on them, not really. I was alone, and I felt extremely unloved. None of my friends from seminary were close by, and they were all busy building their own new lives anyway. My depression got worse. My relationship with my senior pastor was toxic. I felt miserable. Nobody should have to feel the way I felt.

And I knew I didn’t have to feel that way. I could just go out and get a bottle of wine, and I’d be back in my happy place where life is manageable. It would be so easy. It was so stupid for me to suffer needlessly instead.

But I continued to choose needless suffering over salvation in a bottle. I pushed through. My toxic relationship with my senior pastor resulted in the spectacular implosion of my ministry career, and a year and a half after getting sober, I was homeless*, jobless, and directionless.

I tried doing volunteer work in Mississippi, but my depression prevented me from being much of an asset to the organization. I ended up in a friend’s spare room in Massachusetts, practically catatonic. I just felt so wrong all the time. Is this what sobriety feels like for everyone? How do you stand it? I could barely function, but I didn’t drink.

A month later I had my own place (my friend wanted her couch back–I barely left it during the time I stayed with her) and was starting to think about what to do next. In an attempt to get out of the house sometimes, I set up a profile on, not really expecting much. At summer’s end I was dating a delightful computer geek named Tom, and in early fall I began serving another congregation in a temporary capacity, with the possibility of it becoming permanent. Things were looking up. Especially when Tom and I became engaged at the end of that October (yes, after only eight weeks of dating) and married the following spring. The congregation wanted to convert my position to permanent, but the geography just didn’t work with Tom’s job. We parted on good terms.

Slowly my depression dissipated and I began to grow accustomed to sober life. That doesn’t mean I liked it. I still knew that these good times would be even better in my happy place, and my occasional forays into the sinkholes of misery would be more easily endured with a nice Merlot.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve watched the ministry career I tried so hard to rebuild go up in flames again, but I got through it, and I’m reconciling myself to the fact that very soon I’m not going to be a pastor anymore, even though I still have over fourteen thousand dollars in student loan debt from seminary I have to pay off. I’m still happily married to a man who loves and accepts me as I am and who supports me in the things I want to do. We have two wonderful children who are the delight of my life. I haven’t had a drink since that last one in Maryland eleven and a half years ago.

And oh, man, do I want one.

Sobriety still feels wrong. Some days are better than others, and other days…aren’t. I love my husband and my children more than I ever though possible, but even they can’t fill the hole alcohol left in my life.

I was happy and connected when I started drinking. I was alone when I escaped addiction, and, now that I’m loved, I still want a damn drink. That’s why I get so offended by books like Hari’s that suggest that all we need is love. We do need love. Absolutely we do. And we do need to end this drug war; I’m with him on that. And we do need to get addicts treatment instead of punishment.

But getting addicts connected to the world doesn’t mean they can just leave their addictions behind. We also need to recognize that addiction is a complex thing, and we cannot reduce it down to simple answers we believe we can solve. Childhood trauma plays a part for some, but not all. Having a loving and supportive network walking with you as you figure out this sobriety thing is helpful, but it’s not a cure.

The opposite of addiction is sobriety. The opposite of connection is disconnection. We can let those two concepts work together, but let’s not confuse the two.


* I was homeless in the sense that from early-April 2006 to July 1, 2006 I had no legal address of my own. Housing was provided for volunteers in Mississippi, and then I stayed with a friend in Massachusetts for a month. I was not living on the streets, and I did have money enough to get my own apartment before I began working again.