Sane Holidays

I wrote this yesterday on my Facebook Page and it got a lot of “shares,” so I’m posting it here, too:

Now is the time to strategize the holidays so that you don’t get suckered into doing things or going places or spending time with people who make you miserable. Make a plan! Don’t feel weird skipping the traditional things if that’s not what you need right now. There are many reasons — emotional, financial, health — to bow out of customary obligations and make alternate plans, even just to stay quiet at home. Put things on your calendar that give you something you can look forward to: “day at the library” or “cook lunch for friend.” Call in support: ask now for someone to help you get through a particularly trying day or help you decompress after a stressful event that you can’t get out of. Communicate your plans clearly, honestly and firmly and let grown-ups have their own reaction. As long as you’re not unkind about any of this, everyone will survive your decisions. If they can’t deal, then isn’t it a good thing you’ve never taken sacred vows to please them all your life long?

When I first started being a minister, I didn’t realize yet that Christmas was forever shot to hell because of my vocational commitments. It probably isn’t really respectful to the Baby Jesus to say “shot to hell,” but I’m sure he’ll get over it.

I was in a parish internship in 1995 and my supervisor casually mentioned something in mid-October about planning the Christmas Eve service. My first reaction was to think, “Oh, right. I guess ministers have to work on Christmas Eve but not ME, LADY, because I’m not a minister yet and no thank you! You can have that one to yourself! I am going home and sipping cocoa in my jammies and looking at the tree and listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing! And in the morning I will open my stocking and have presents and eat fondue in the evening with my family!”

But I realized in a quiet moment of doom that I should not say that. I realized with a lump in my throat that I should nod and make a note in my calendar that I would be at church on Christmas Eve, way too far away from my mom’s to drive there the next morning in any reasonable time to share Christmas with my family, so I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided to make alternative plans. I wanted to do something dramatically different that would signal to my head and heart for all time that Christmas was never again going to be the way it had been. My life was different now. I was a minister now.

I had learned after my father died that to try to carry on old traditions under new and painful circumstances was a certain road to hurt and regret. And now I had this new career path/vocational commitment to factor in. So what I did was to call the closest monastery I could find that was taking reservations for Christmas retreatants, and I made a reservation for Christmas Eve. I certainly had never spent Christmas with nuns before.

It just so happened that the monastery I chose was operated by a silent order, the Cistercians. So there would be no chatty companionship on the way to prayers, in passing in the halls (if indeed I would be passing anyone in the halls) or at meals. The internet was barely newborn then and we didn’t have cell phones, so I was totally cut off. No one would even be able to phone to wish me a merry Christmas. It would just be me and God, silent meals, a long walk in crisp, cold air and a lot of Q & A with Jesus while sitting in the chapel.

What I learned during that retreat is that Jesus does not do Q & A with me. What he does is Q & Q. I still have my journal where I recorded our conversations, where I ask Jesus something and he responds with his own question for me.

Jesus is frustrating but it was still a really good thing to spend his birthday with him, and now I do that every year.

My silent Christmas retreat was emotionally and spiritually challenging but also lovely and memorable, and it bore lasting fruit in my life in the form of giving me the confidence to rip up old scripts as necessary in order to have meaningful and healthy holidays. It also gave me a Jesus-focused Christmas, which seems like a pretty fine thing for a minister to get to have.

Rip up a script. Make a plan. Let me know what you do and how it feels.



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“St. Vincent” Is Quietly Revolutionary For Hollywood: A PeaceBang Review

[Warning: there will be mild spoilers in this essay, so don't read it if you want to see the movie. - PB]

The movie “St. Vincent” is lifted out of cute cliché territory by the great Bill Murray in the title role as Vincent McKenna, a cranky Vietnam vet with a heart of gold. Supporting Murray are three terrific co-stars: Melissa McCarthy as a struggling single mom, young Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Vin babysits, and Naomi Watts as Daka, the pregnant, Russian “lady of the night” who keeps company and does business with Vinnie.

The movie is mildly remarkable for two reasons that so far have been uncommented on by the mainstream media, which is where I like to step in!

Melissa McCarthy is the first fat leading lady of a movie I can remember whose weight is never mentioned, and whose body size is not the impetus for any physical comedy, sight gags or plot conflict. This is a huge breakthrough for Hollywood, whose aversion to overweight performers is obvious to anyone who watches television or movies on a regular basis. Fat women, particularly, are almost non-existent in Hollywood’s universe except as comic sidekicks or expendable bit players. Melissa McCarthy’s character in “St. Vincent” never mentions her own size or weight, is never shown comically stuffing her face (a typical Hollywood trope), and is never bullied or harassed for her weight. She looks beautiful, she wears nice clothes, and she is treated as a human being worthy of dignity and respect. High five me, writer-director Theodore Melfi and casting person! Can we see more of this, please?

Also quietly notable is Naomi Watts’ depiction of a sex worker, a character names Daka who slyly evades the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché by twice insisting on being paid her full fee by her strapped broke client (Bill Murray). In one of the first scenes in the movie, we hear her berate Vin in no uncertain terms, telling him in a heavy Russian accent that she’s not a charity.

As the movie progresses, Daka becomes drawn more intimately into Vin’s life, but contrary to what at least a dozen movie reviewers I have read have written, she is not Vin’s girlfriend. He is a client of hers, and a friend. There is a difference. Daka is pregnant and vulnerable, and Vin is broke, in poor health, and also vulnerable. The two characters join forces in the end in a way that will be familiar to many financially vulnerable, working-class American — working out a shared housing and food in exchange for household help and emotional support. Daka is not in love with Vin, nor he with her. They share not romantic feelings but mutual affection and compatible needs. I am not surprised that mainstream American movie reviewers missed the multiple references to Daka’s expectation that she will be paid for her sexual or domestic services rendered, but I am disappointed. Daka is an independent working woman; one of the rare Hollywood depictions of a sex worker that manages to be funny and fair, that doesn’t romanticize her life (“Pretty Woman,” I’m looking at you) or end with a chalk outline of her body surrounded by detectives.

I hope we will continue to see more such realistic depictions of the complicated relationships and alliances forged by human beings in community. Storytelling is so much more interesting when it breaks from outworn conventions.



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Reflections On Andover-Newton Theological School, Or Why I Will Not Be At the Inauguration

One of my alma maters, Andover-Newton Theological School, is in crisis even as it is preparing to inaugurate the Rev. Martin Copenhaver as its president tomorrow, October 5, 2014.

The community learned this past week through a letter from Martin Copenhaver and one from the Board of Trustees (both arrived together) that Mr. Copenhaver had an affair, that he repents of his mistakes and the pain he has caused his family and wider community, and hopes the community will forgive him. The Board of Trustees expresses its support of the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver and desires to move forward “in grace,” choosing, as I read the letter, to use this occasion of repentance and forgiveness as a model for how healthy Christian communities behave.

I, and many other Andover-Newton graduates and students, are shocked and dismayed. We do not agree with the board’s decision, although there is no general consensus about what action would be best.

I am interested in public theology, social media, sexual ethics and clergy image and personae, all of which at play in this situation. Aside from my intellectual interest in this story, I have emotional loyalty to Andover-Newton Theological School, having earned my Doctor of Ministry degree there in 2011 and writing my doctoral dissertation on covenant and covenanting. And I am spiritually loyal to the body of Christ and the “beloved community” which includes non-Christian and non-Theistic Unitarian Universalists who are preparing for the ministry at Andover-Newton.

So I will say a word about all of these subjects in the interest of being helpful to the larger conversation, and as a way of offering a bit of pastoral ministry to those who are currently embroiled in the topic behind the semi-closed doors of Facebook and e-mail. There is no shame in being an institution dealing with human failing. Those of us who work in the church do it all day long and ourselves fail all day long. So I start from a theology of grace and a personal commitment to humor and intentional lightness of being: This has happened before. We are not players in a unique tragedy here. This is common human messiness.

I am first and foremost personally concerned about covenantal relationships –marriage being the most important one in this situation. It concerns me that my alma mater’s president should have violated the covenant of marriage for a long period of time, and that he and the board of trustees ask our forgiveness for that violation.

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Posted in Mind of the Minister, Theological Reflection | 37 Comments