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 BBC.com 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.

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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 Match.com, 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.

Words Matter

I’m taking a short break from commenting on specific political events in order to regroup and try to figure out what it is I’m trying to accomplish here. This blog has been so many things over the years, from my personal journal to an attempt to establish my ‘brand’ as a writer to a place for me to rant about whatever strikes me at any given time. I’ve consistently broken the most important rule of running a successful blog: keep your writing focused. When you come to this page there’s no telling what you’ll find, and unless you know me personally, you probably don’t care about many of the things I say. I’m not reliably a source of information or insight on any given topic. I have no unifying theme.

And I do think that’s a problem.

Maybe someday I’ll be a successful author and people will flock to my site just to learn more about the person behind the books. But this is not that day.

I’ve tried running a religious publishing house, but found the daily publication schedule for my free devotions to be too much. Writing those devotions took all my time and energy, and I wasn’t able to produce content for sale or work on other projects (like my fiction) that I also enjoyed. I’ve tried launching a sister blog about homeschooling, which I gave up when I realized I didn’t know enough. I’ve tried launching a sister blog about parenting in general, and then I gave that up when it, too, was taking too much time away from my other writing endeavors. Recently I began planning yet another homeschooling blog with the specific aim of monetizing it with Amazon affiliate links and, eventually, e-books of my own, but I’ve already abandoned that idea. When I think about what kind of writer I want to be, ‘homeschooling guru’ isn’t very high up on the list.

I homeschool my kids, but my identity is not as a homeschooler. I’m a parent, but my identity is not as a mother.

I want to write about religion. I want to write about politics. I want to write about the prevailing culture. I want to write about economics. I want to write about how faith intersects with all those things. And I want to write about writing. How can I possibly limit myself to a single theme?

And then I realized that I’ve already found my unifying thread. Not all of my blog posts have had it, and many have only subtly suggested it, but it’s been there for years.

Words matter.

This blog was born on Blogspot under the name “Karen’s Take On Life, the Universe, and Everything.” After a while I moved to WordPress, but kept my Douglas Adams reference. A couple of years ago I dropped that and went with my current tagline: Words matter.

Words matter. Words are often the bridge between our thoughts and our actions. And more often that not, words reveal that our thoughts and our actions don’t always link together the way we think they do. This is especially true in matters of religion and faith, and that’s been a common theme on this blog. It’s also true about politics and America’s national cultural identity. I tend to write more on those issues during election years, and this year’s rhetoric seems particularly needful of exploration. Sometimes our words reveal our thoughts and sometimes our words betray our thoughts, but either way, words matter.

I’ll still write about religion, politics, culture, economics, faith, and writing, but I’ll include more of a focus on how words reveal truth or assumptions about those issues, so that we might begin to think more clearly about what we as a nation or we as people of the Christian faith really believe based on our words and our actions.

Do we walk the walk as well as talk the talk? Do our actions match our stated beliefs? Exploring those connections can help us all to be more honest about ourselves and clarify our priorities. Without that clarity and honesty, our attempts to interact with each other and with other peoples of the world will be muddled and incoherent. And I think we’ve had enough of that already.

Words matter.

A Sermon on Politics and Religion

Yes, I went there. On the Sunday before Super Tuesday I preached a sermon on politics and religion in a Massachusetts congregation.

As a pastor I’ve always felt it more important to walk with people of all political persuasions than to try and get my congregation to think a certain way. Healthy Christianity requires members to wrestle with what they believe, why they believe it, and how they should implement those beliefs in their own lives. Different people are going to come to different conclusions, and I think the diversity is a positive thing.

That said, there are certain lines that should not be crossed, and in this election, candidates are crossing them all the time. That’s why I preached this sermon. The assigned verses from the Narrative Lectionary are Psalm 86:8-13 and Mark 12:13-17. I supplemented those with Isaiah 44:6-20. Oremus Bible Browser can give you the NRSV translations that I used.

And now, a sermon on politics and religion.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s election season. This church is less than ten miles from the New Hampshire border, which was crawling with candidates up until two and a half weeks ago, when they all mysteriously disappeared. Several of them have visited various places in Massachusetts, because I think they might want you to do something for them this week. But even if they’re not here personally, their ads are all over the place, along with their campaign slogans.

Have you ever taken a good look at some of these slogans? Among others, right now we’ve got “Heal-Inspire-Revive.” “Reigniting the Promise of America.” “A Future to Believe In.” And of course, “Make America Great Again.” Earlier in the season we had, “Restore the American Dream for Hardworking Families.” “Defeat the Washington Machine; Unleash the American Dream.” “Rebuild the American Dream.” And “From Hope to Higher Ground.” In 2008 Barak Obama ran on “Change We Can Believe In” and then four years later Mitt Romney challenged that with “Believe in America.”

This is not an exhaustive list, but I’m highlighting these ones because they share a common theme: faith. Some of them are pretty overt about this with the language they use. “Believe in America.” “Change We Can Believe In.” “From Hope to Higher Ground.” The others manage to imply in a just few words that America has fallen from its former glory and that this candidate is the one who can restore, rebuild, revive, reignite, or return America back to greatness. The America in question, of course, is more than a just country; it’s an ideology, worthy of religious devotion. And these candidates are depending on you to believe in its redemptive power, believe in its need for a savior, and believe in them as that savior.

I think some candidates truly believe all this, and this isn’t a new thing. Remember the campaign slogan of Richard Nixon in 1968? “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” Politics as the all-encompassing source of identity, liberty, and salvation. The world’s got problems? Vote this way, and those problems will be solved. If you’re brave enough to read political articles, blogs, or—worse yet—the comments on those articles and blogs, you’ll see a disturbing number of people who seem to accept and practice this religion of America, and they’re not afraid to call out unpatriotic apostates who dare to question this narrative.

But how about this for a campaign slogan? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In the Judea of Jesus’ day, Judeans were under Roman rule. Oppressive Roman rule. While Judea was technically a client kingdom with a modicum of independence, the truth was that the client king was an agent of Rome. While most Judeans didn’t usually encounter actual Romans on a day to day basis, every aspect of their lives was controlled by Roman rule. This offended every part of their understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. God had established them as an independent nation, the greatest nation on earth, a light to the other nations, yet they were subjects of this pagan Roman emperor. The local Roman officials were corrupt, and justice was often perverted. There were huge economic disparities between rich and poor, with a shrinking middle class, and Roman policies were making it worse. The Jews were desperately looking for a savior.

And then the Savior came.

But despite the terrible political situation, Jesus was not a political savior. Could he have been? Absolutely! I have no doubt that if the Son of God had chosen to overthrow the entire Roman Empire and establish a political kingdom of heaven on Earth, he could have done that handily.

But he didn’t.

The King of the Jews wasn’t that kind of king.

The kingdom of heaven was never about establishing a political system that would legislate and enforce discipleship. If that’s what God had wanted, then he would have done it with Jesus. The conditions were certainly ripe for it two thousand years ago. But the answer to the world’s problems can’t be found in politics or political leaders. We can’t cast a vote and engage in representative discipleship. To do that is an abdication of our own calls to discipleship. And to trust in a political leader or even an idealized version of a nation to bring salvation is to practice idolatry.

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus called his followers to be disciples in the midst of corrupt and pagan Roman rule, but their discipleship wasn’t tied to overthrowing that rule. The civil government served a purpose, and years later, the apostle Paul recognized that better than anyone. The Romans had built the roads he used to travel all over the known world, spreading the message of Jesus. Roman soldiers patrolled those roads and kept them safe for travelers like Paul. He took advantage of the protection and access his Roman citizenship provided him when his proselytizing got him into trouble. But Paul never conflated his Roman citizenship with his discipleship. As a learned and respected Pharisee, he enjoyed many privileges as a Roman citizen, even while acknowledging numerous problems inherent in the Roman world, and several ways in which Roman culture was diametrically opposed to Christian discipleship. Yet he never tried to incite a political revolution. Paul called people to be disciples in their own individual contexts.

A few months ago I got up here and attempted to recite the entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews from memory. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but it did open my eyes to some of the things that chapter had to say. In regards to earthly citizenship it talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16 NRSV)

Modern-day America is not ancient Rome, though I will admit that there are an uncomfortable number of similarities. One of the benefits we have in this country is a participatory government. We get to participate in our own self-rule by choosing the people who will represent us and holding them accountable for their actions. The ancient Judeans were never able to do that. That is a benefit we can and should use. But I remember seeing a bumper sticker on Pastor Dave’s car that read: “God is not a Republican…Or a Democrat.” Neither party can claim ultimate truth. None of the presidential candidates is the correct one for bringing about America’s salvation, and America itself is not salvific. America is a country, but as Christians, we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. The kingdom of God, that we hear so much about on Sunday mornings. No political leader can give us that. No political system can give us that. Vote for the person you think would best execute the duties of the President of the United States. It might be a good idea to remind yourself what those duties are and are not; pretty much all of the candidates have made promises beyond what the President can actually do. Article II, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the United States can help you with that. And then, after you’ve voted, continue to live out your own discipleship, following Jesus, our true Savior, who is sincere, and who teaches the way of God in accordance with truth.

Go ahead. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. And then give to God the things that are God’s.

Amen.

Questioning Another Person’s Faith

Yesterday’s big news: Pope Francis questioned Donald Trump’s faith. While flying home to the Vatican after a trip to Mexico, a reporter asked the Pope, “Can a good Catholic vote for [Donald Trump]?” Pope Francis answered, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

Trump responded with a big word salad about the evils of Mexico, and also made this statement: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

Let’s stop to think about that for a minute. Religious leaders have no business questioning another person’s faith. Really? What would that look like?

Sadly, I know exactly what that looks like. It’s our current reality. It looks like the loudest, shrillest people holding up a toxic caricature of religious faith and calling it truth. It results in Christians being viewed as angry, hateful hypocrites who condemn everyone who doesn’t believe and practice exactly like they do. Mahatma Ghandi is widely quoted as having said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Whether or not Ghandi actually said that is disputed, however no one can deny that the idea this quote expresses resonates for a lot of people. In response to a question about how to naturalize Christianity into India, Ghandi did (indisputably) reply, “I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”*

Christians not acting like followers of Christ is not a new problem in Christianity. Why are so many Christians so unlike our Christ? Could it have something to do with the fact that we’re so invested in the idea of a personal faith that no one is willing to ‘speak the truth in love’ as it were?

I realize this is dangerous territory, because no one, including Pope Francis (whom I respect tremendously), is authorized to be the final word on who is a Christian and who is not. To be fair, Pope Francis didn’t try to be that final authority. He was humble in his response, allowing for the possibility that he may not know all the facts or that he may misunderstand what he has heard. What he did was to point out that Trump’s statements about building walls and demonizing segments of the population are contrary to the gospel. Those whose words and actions are contrary to the gospel of Christ by definition are not Christian. And not only do I think it was appropriate for the Pope to respond in this way, I think it would have been a dereliction of duty for him not to.

All Christians, not only Christian leaders, need to keep the gospel central to their lives. And when someone who claims to be Christian is doing or saying something inherently unchristian, we have a responsibility to point that out. Anonymous people doing or saying things that are unchristian should not be included in this, because they’re not claiming to represent the Christian faith or be a living witness. But Donald Trump claims to be Christian, is proud of his Christianity, and has vowed to defend Christianity if he is elected President. Given that, it is more than appropriate to look at his words and actions, and see if the Christianity he represents and is going to defend shares anything in common with the principles and teachings of Christ.

Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian. Words matter–that’s my blog’s tagline, for crying out loud–but where faith is concerned, words are not enough.

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. That’s only geography, and it has nothing to do with how your live your life. Rachel Held Evans wrote an insightful piece on what happened when Donald Trump–who claims to be Presbyterian–actually attended worship at a Presbyterian church in Iowa last month. In many ways she’s saying the same thing the Pope said, and as a well-known Christian writer and speaker, she’s doing the responsible thing.

Being pious and moral doesn’t make you a Christian. Piety for piety’s sake is works-righteousness and possibly idolatry, depending on how far you take it. And it’s quite possible to be highly moral and ethical without being a Christian. I know several atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths who have proven this time and time again.

Aligning with a certain political party or choosing a single issue as a litmus test for a candidate doesn’t make you a Christian. The February 3, 2016 issue of The Christian Century included a blurb in its ‘Century News – People’ section about the passing of Ed Dobson, a noted conservative Christian who helped to build the Moral Majority and was once an aide to Jerry Falwell. What The Christian Century found most intriguing about him, however, was the year he spent “living like Jesus” and how that changed him. He realized that despite disagreeing with him on abortion, Barak Obama “was closer to the essence of Jesus’ teachings–compassion for the poor and the oppressed, being a peacemaker, loving your enemies, and other issues.” For one of the architects of the religious right, this was huge. I strongly recommend watching this brief interview with Dobson in 2009, where he explains what it was like for this faithful former pastor to engage in intentional gospel living for a year.

A lot of people claim to follow Christ, and with that claim they represent him and the religion that is centered on him to the rest of the world. Such a claim deserves to be questioned, begs to be questioned, and anyone who makes that claim should welcome such a questioning. That goes for Donald Trump, Pope Francis, me, and anyone else who applies the label Christian to themselves.

 

* Jones, E. S. (1925). Christ of the Indian Road. India: Hodder and Stoughton.

Middle-Aged and Frumpy

If you’ve read my last two posts, then you know I’m on a mission to lose weight. I’m motivated primarily by a concern for my health, with a desire to look good being merely a happy consequence. That’s why my goal weight is nowhere near my ‘ideal’ weight—I don’t need a bikini body, and I don’t particularly want one, either.

The last time I embarked on an adventure like this, I was 21, and my motives had a lot more to do with vanity than health. Back then I did want the bikini body (though I never achieved it). I followed a diet—Richard Simmons’ ‘Deal-A-Meal’ to be exact— and went to the gym three times a week. I lost 20 pounds in no time at all, and even when I quit the gym and stopped paying close attention to what I ate, I still maintained a relatively healthy weight throughout my twenties. By my early thirties I’d put that 20 pounds back on again, and then quickly added another 30 before I hit the midpoint of that decade. I managed to shed 20 pounds before my wedding at age 34, then I had two kids and gained those pounds back by the time I turned 40.

I’m 43 now, and let me just say for the record that it’s a hell of a lot harder to lose weight now than it was 20+ years ago. Several people had told me it would be, and I’d nodded in a vertical plane, but I hadn’t really understood.

Now I do.

I lost DietBet.

I was physically unable to meet my January step goal.

I can’t do what I used to do. I understand that now.

And I’m OK with it.

43 is not 21. I get it. And to be honest, I like 43 a lot more than I liked 21. In my twenties I was spending a lot of time and energy trying to be in my early twenties. I was supposed to be beautiful and interesting. I was supposed to be sociable and exciting. I was supposed to do certain things, go certain places, have certain interests. Never mind that I hated trendy clothes and despised being in crowds. Never mind that I could think of a lot of other things I’d rather be doing than fussing with my hair and make-up. Never mind that I preferred a quiet, boring life to that of a social butterfly. Never mind that I didn’t have much in common with the people I hung out with. In my early twenties, I still cared what people thought about me, and I let that dictate a lot of my actions and decisions.

In my forties, I don’t give a shit. And I get a lot less flack for that now than I did when I tried it half a lifetime ago.

I realize that I’ve always been middle-aged and frumpy. And now I’m finally old enough to embrace it.

I arrange my family life and my social life in such a way that I’m able to avoid crowds. As a homeschooler, I take my kids to kid-friendly environments in the middle of the school day, when the worst thing I might encounter is a school field trip (although those can be pretty bad). My husband and I schedule our date nights for weeknights, so we don’t have to deal with the weekend crowds. I don’t follow sports. I watch very little TV (no sitcoms, and I’m usually a few weeks or seasons behind on my crime dramas because I’m overly dependent on my DVR). I haven’t listened to ‘new’ or ‘popular’ music since the early 1990’s, have only seen about a dozen and a half movies in the last 25 years, and I have no idea who all these people are in the ‘Entertainment’ section of my news app. I wear clothes that I like and that are comfortable. I wear shoes that are practical. My hair gets trimmed twice a year and hasn’t encountered hairspray in about a decade, and I only wear make up four or five times a year. When I’m not doing something with or for my family, my idea of a good time is an empty house and a good book. This is who I am. This is how I want to live. I like what I like, and I’m finally confident enough to own it. So it’s harder to lose weight in my forties, but the benefits of middle age definitely outweigh the challenges.

I missed my DietBet target by two pounds, but I still lost five pounds in January. I’ve lost 10 pounds since my daughter’s birthday party, when I committed to this endeavor. I’ll take it. The pounds are coming off slowly, but they are coming off.

So I might not be able to exercise as often as I planned. When I was 21 I worked full-time and took one or two college courses at night, but it was just me. I could schedule three workouts a week without a problem. I don’t work outside the home anymore, but I homeschool my two children, manage the family finances, manage my husband’s business finances, do the laundry, do the grocery shopping, cook the meals, and am a general purpose wife and mother. I’m also writing a book. I’m not exactly sitting on my ass eating bonbons all day, and my schedule is not entirely my own. Exercise is good—it’s an important component of a healthy lifestyle—but it plays at best a minor role in weight loss. Diet is far more important, and I’m keeping to that most days. With the kids’ activities and planning meals for the whole family, I might exceed my calorie goal some days. It happens. As long as those days are the exception and not the rule, I’ll be fine.

I’m not perfect, and I’m not going to try to be. I am middle-aged and frumpy, and that works for me. I’m making some changes to enhance my overall health, but even when I reach my goal of 130 pounds, I’ll still be middle-aged and frumpy. And I won’t stop being middle-aged and frumpy until I graduate to ‘cantankerous senior citizen.’

There’s a little part of me that’s really looking forward to that.

Early Setbacks and Frustrations

Getting old sucks.

Yeah, yeah, I know. It beats the alternative. But it still sucks.

I got a lot of encouragement and support after I published my last post about my weight loss goals, which I really appreciated. It was especially helpful, because I’d been so afraid about ‘going public’ with my issues (as though if I didn’t mention the fact that I’m overweight, nobody would notice). But no one teased me or gave me a hard time, and that encouragement helped me to make a strong showing my first full week. I kept to my 1000-per-day calorie deficit and averaged 15,239 steps per day. (I need to average 13,871 per day to meet my 430,000 January goal.) When I weighed-in on Monday, January 4, I’d lost 2.5 pounds since the previous week.

I managed to keep up that pace for another few days.

And then I could barely walk.

I injured my knees last spring when I first began a running program, and I was very careful to not do that again this time, but I forgot about my history of plantar fasciitis. In keeping up with my step goals, I destroyed my feet.

And without meeting those step goals, I can’t keep up the 1000-per-day calorie deficit.

By Monday, January 11, I’d only lost another .6 pounds. And that was with meeting my goals for the first half of the week.

I’m not looking forward to this Monday’s weigh-in, because I haven’t been meeting my goals at all this week. So far my daily calorie deficit has averaged around 361. In my experience, that means the scale’s going to go up. (I’m sorry, but calorie-in-calorie-out is bullsh*t.)

I’m trying not to get too discouraged, but it’s hard. I’m still 4.9 pounds away from my DietBet goal (assuming I don’t go up on Monday) with only 14 days left before my final weigh-in. I can walk enough now to do my normal activities, and even a few extra laps around the mall or the Y’s indoor track, but I only averaged 6,639 steps per day during the second week of January, and my 430,000 goal for the month is out the window.

And I don’t look much different from those pictures my husband took at my daughter’s birthday party in November.

Obviously enthusiasm alone isn’t going to get me very far. I have to take the long view, and I have to adjust for the fact that I am 43 years old with a body that has never been accustomed to high levels of physical activity.

With my feet, I can’t have an ambitious daily step goal. My brand new Fitbit Charge HR is going to be more useful to me as a silent alarm clock (I love that feature!) than a pedometer. The heart rate monitor may prove useful, and I’ll continue to observe how much I’m not sleeping at night. But I’m lowering my step goal to 7,500 per day, which is the best I can manage on a regular basis without causing further damage to my feet.

Instead I’ll aim to either swim or ride the stationary bike 3-4 times per week, which unfortunately limits my exercising to days that I can spend an hour or so at the Y. I’m considering trying the rowing machine as well, but the tendinitis that plagues both my wrists may prevent that from being a viable activity for me. (Seriously, getting old really sucks!) I’ll also try to do my old Denise Austin Pilates video 2-3 times each week, which is something I can do at home, although I’m a little embarrassed to do it when other people might walk by and see me (I’m not very graceful, and I have terrible balance.)

With all that, I’m unlikely to burn enough calories to maintain a 1000-per-day calorie deficit and still eat enough. I need a minimum of 1200-1300 calories per day to not be a raving maniac, and even that’s a challenge, but it takes a lot of work to burn 2200-2300 calories each day. I managed it that first week when I was walking (or running) over 15,000 steps each day, but Pilates, swimming, and bicycling all burn a lot fewer calories. I’m hoping a 750-per-day calorie deficit will still allow for a slower-but-steady weight loss.

So that’s it. I’m not giving up, but I’ll probably lose my $25 on DietBet. Goals that are realistic for me are not sufficient for the 1.8 pounds-per-week average I need to achieve to be a contender in that. I may join a different, longer-term DietBet challenge, but I honestly don’t know if that would help with my accountability.

All I know is that I’m in this for the long haul, and I’m doing what I can to live a healthy life.

New Year, New Me

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve always struggled with my weight. My mother (who was morbidly obese for most of her adult life) claimed I still had my baby fat until I was about ten, at which point she transitioned over to saying I was ‘chubby.’ Looking back now I can see that at times in elementary school I was slightly rounder than average, but overall I looked pretty healthy. I remember wearing size 7 jeans in middle school (back when it was still called Junior High), and being disgusted when the scale read 127 pounds in tenth grade.

Oh, if only I’d had a better understanding of ‘healthy weight’ back when I was a healthy weight!

Needless to say, my days of size 7 pants and total weight in the 120s are long gone.

The scale has been creeping up over the years, and I conditioned myself to not see it in the mirror. I convinced myself that I wasn’t really that big, even though it’s been a while since I could go into a regular clothing store and buy something off the racks. And I avoided being in front of the camera whenever possible. Because while I can see what I want to see in the mirror, the camera always seems to emphasize what I try so hard to ignore.

And then my daughter had a birthday right after my husband got a new camera, and the pictures he took at her party horrified me. I could see rolls of fat bulging under my shirt. I could see a chin that hangs down and covers my entire neck. I could see what I was always afraid I would become: I could see my mother.

I resolved right then that I was going to change (this was during the second week of November). I began exercising more and counting my calories using MyFitnessPal. I paid attention to the step goals I set for myself on my FitBit. The first week I gained 0.7 pounds. The second week I lost 2.2. The third week I lost 1.2. Then I lost 0.5. Then my weight didn’t budge for my next two weekly weigh-ins. Finally at the beginning of this week I dropped another 0.3 pounds, for a total of 3.5 pounds lost in seven weeks.

Not good enough.

I figure I’m probably underestimating how much I’m eating despite my best efforts to measure my portions, so I’ve decided to take drastic action. I am committing to having a 1000 calorie deficit every day between what I eat and what I burn. I’ve been doing this since Monday, and I’ve already lost another 0.7 pounds. I know this because I had to do my initial weigh-in for DietBet on Wednesday, even though I’d just weighed-in for my own tracking on Monday.

DietBet is one of the things I’m doing in January. If you haven’t heard of it, the basic premise is that you bet on yourself to lose weight. The challenge I’m in is that I have to lose 4% of my body weight by January 28th. That equates (for me) to 7.2 pounds. Clearly I’ll have to do better than I’ve been doing since the second week of November. I bet $25 that I could do it. If I don’t, I lose the $25. If I do, then I split the pot with everyone else who entered this challenge and met that 4% goal. Right now there are 482 players with a total pot of $12,050.

Another thing I’m doing in January is getting crazy with my FitBit step count. Later this month I’ll turn 43. Apparently it’s a pretty popular thing among serious FitBitters to multiply their age by 1000 and walk that many steps on their birthday. I’d like to do that, but there’s a problem. I have a January birthday, and I live in New Hampshire. We just had our first snowfall, and the temperatures over the next few weeks are guaranteed to make the ground icy and treacherous. Walking outside is out of the question, and no mall or indoor track is interesting enough to walk 43,000 steps around (that equates to approximately 17.2 miles–about 155 laps at the indoor track at my local Y). Instead, I’m going to try to walk 430,000 steps during the month of January. That breaks out to 13,871 steps every day. It’s ambitious–especially since my current daily goal is 7,000 steps–but it is possible. I can do a couple dozen laps around the Y track or the mall (which is bigger but I can’t run), plus do things like walk small laps in my living room / dining room while my coffee is brewing or supper is cooking. I’ve even been known to run in place, which does count.

Whatever it takes, I’m going to do it, because I cannot accept what my body has become. I want to be healthy and look good. In order to do that, I need to lose 50 pounds. That would still put me between 10 and 25 pounds above my “ideal” weight (depending on which formula you use) and a mere 2-7 pounds south of the upper limit of the “healthy” weight range for my height. At 43 years old, I feel no need to have an ideal body, and considering the fact that I’ve never seen 130 in my adult life, I think it’s a pretty ambitious goal while still being realistic. In my early twenties I went on a diet and exercise craze, and I managed to get from 150 down to 132. At 132 I looked pretty damn good and was comfortably wearing a size 8. I’ll take it!

So that’s what 2016 is going to be for me: the year that I take back my health and my life. What are your plans for the year?

*The DietBet Challenge has officially begun, with the final numbers being 646 participants and a $16,100 pot.

The Blog About Nothing

So on my September 30 blog post I confessed that I’d been caught off guard by my self-imposed deadline and was going to give myself a vacation week.

Two and a half months later, I’m just getting back.

Let’s face it. Blogging really isn’t my thing.

I’ve tried to have this blog be a launching point for my various writing projects. I’ve tried to have it promote my ‘brand’ as a writer and theologian. I’ve tried to comment on current events, provide information on homeschooling and juggling a busy family life, and just talk about things that are going on with me.

None of it seems to work.

I’m not giving up, because I think it is important to keep this blog going (just don’t ask me why it’s important–I have no idea). I’m just not going to worry too much about keeping it focused on a single purpose. I am going to try to keep to a regular publication schedule, though weekly is definitely too much. Twice a month, on the first and the fifteenth, seems like a reasonable goal. And the posts will be on whatever I feel like writing about.

So that’s that. Vacation’s over, I’m ignoring the SEO rankings, and I’m going to embrace the fact that I have a blog about nothing.

It worked for Seinfeld, so why not me?