bertram_mackennal_-_grief  Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
    that was inflicted on me?

Today, I don’t have any words of my own. I have Felicia Sanders’ words; her heartrending account of witnessing the murder of her son, the murder of her aunt, and the murder of seven other friends at Mother Emanuel in Charleston

“I watched my son come into this world, and I watched my son leave this world.”

The hearts of the people
    cry out to the Lord.
You walls of Daughter Zion,
    let your tears flow like a river
    day and night;
give yourself no relief,
    your eyes no rest.

Weak Thought and the Mystery

Earlier this week, Rachel Held Evans commented on the response writer and activist Glennon Doyle Melton got when she revealed that she is now dating a woman:

This is what a sexist double standard looks like…Christians all scandalized over ‘s girlfriend while shrugging off Trump’s unrepentant adultery, sexual assault, misogyny….Former is described as threat to virtuous womanhood; latter is “just how guys talk.”

There’s a ton to unpack here: The hypocrisy of the religious right getting behind Trump. The sexism that often goes hand in hand with elevating sexual morality above all other kinds of morality. Evans has talked a lot about those things on her Twitter feed and in her work. But what’s been on my mind this week is not about any of those, it’s about the tenor of the “scandal” that people like Melton and Evans–among many, many others–get from rank and file evangelicals when they say things unpopular with the religious right.

I’m not even talking about the critique from those who have some sort of official voice–other bloggers, writers, etc. The interesting stuff is from a subset of their fans–people who follow them on Facebook or Twitter. In many of those responses, you see an undercurrent of bewildered betrayal. They seem to say, I thought you were one of us! Play by the rules! How can you say you are a person of faith and not believe exactly the same things in exactly the way I’ve been led to believe you must? You’re breaking the rules! For many, when someone is breaking the rules–particularly someone influential–the whole game is threatened. (Never mind that Melton says she “didn’t even ask to play.”)

This insistence on “the rules” made me think about the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. Well, first I thought about the 90s self-help book on snagging a husband, THEN I thought of Vattimo. I first read Vattimo when working on my dissertation, and his ideas have been coming back to me this year. As I understand it, Vattimo is known for regarding the history of Being as a history of weakening.

13606783_1099123000155360_2958006802321059215_nWeakening sounds bad. “Ma’am, I’m afraid your house’s foundation has cracked and is weakening.” Or, “His muscles have weakened from confinement–it’ll take lots of therapy for him to walk again.” But Vattimo’s weakening isn’t necessarily bad; he sees weakening as moving away from what has typically been considered “strong”–namely structures associated with violence. Put another way: we started with really tough, hard, punishing concepts of authority–The Rules, if you will–and throughout history, we have become less attached to those concepts; their hold on us has been weakening.

This applies to religious thought, too. Vattimo wrote a whole book about it (Belief, 1999) where he more or less argues that everybody should stop freaking out about secularization. Understood through the lens of weakening, the secular is not necessarily a movement away from religious thought, but a continuation of religious thought.

He maps the weakening trend over the history of Christianity and argues that “secularization—the progressive dissolution of the natural sacred—is the very essence of Christianity.

Say what? Vattimo sees the New Testament as a surprising countermeasure against the violent and authoritarian history of the sacred.

I love this.  It’s confusing, but it also somehow comes close to describing the central mystery of faith to me.

You’ve got this strong, almighty, powerful God who smites and floods and destroys and has six-hundred-odd laws you’re supposed to be working on. The Rules are strong with this one. This strong God of The Rules sees humans forever breaking The Rules and does not kick them out of the game. Instead, this God appears in human form, weakening itself in service to God’s self and to humanity. That’s the beauty of incarnation. That’s the good news of the gospel. Weakening.

If the incarnation alone weren’t enough, on top of that, Jesus spends most of his time on Earth verbally dismantling authoritarian strength, “winners,” and the very religious people most obsessed with The Rules. Jesus must have seemed awfully secular. Jesus must have seemed weak. He definitely seemed like a rule breaker. 

If we follow Vattimo’s line a little further, we can perhaps imagine a different response to a whole bunch of stuff that often causes various religious folks to freak out today: Declining church membership and the rise of the “nones.” Glennon Doyle Melton’s girlfriend. If you’re at my sort of traditional mainline church, the very notion of a screen with hymn lyrics projected on it.

All this rule breaking, all this weakening is not to be seen as the absence of God or faith, but rather the continued, corrective weakening of The Rules into simple truth: Love God and love each other. To put it more complexly, as we can count on philosophers to do, Vattimo says:

…the dissolution of the sacral structures of Christian society, the transition to an ethics of autonomy, to a lay state, to a more flexible literalism in the interpretation of dogmas and precepts, should be understood not as the failure of or departure from Christianity, but as a fuller realization of its truth.

Translation: Chill out. Weaken. Love.

So why do we have The Rules in the first place? Why are some people loath to weaken or to allow others to do so? Well, one reason is obviously because this makes no sense! It’s crazy talk! And yet, I think it’s true. More soon.



Here’s the plan.

Every year at Thanksgiving, when we gather with my husband’s parents and sisters and their families, we have a group of 8 kids between us. Now they’re getting pretty self-sufficient, but most years, at some point they’d be restless, and I’d eventually gather them in the living room with an agenda for the afternoon: “Here’s the plan.

Now, the plan was something I’d made up on the spot: we are going to do puzzles for half an hour, then the dads are going to take you across the street to the playground, and then–and only then–will it be time for another snack. Or: I’m going to play Simon Says with you, and then you are all going to watch a movie and if you can’t agree on which one then I am picking, and then you will help granny set the table for dinner.

The magic of the plan was that it didn’t matter what the plan was–just that they heard that I had one. The kids would more or less follow my itinerary, and before you knew it, we’d made it to 5 pm–ready for a glass of wine and that much closer to bedtime. I provided structure; I created the narrative and brought order to chaos. The plan let the kids know what to expect, even if they didn’t like all of it.

In many areas of my life, I am the one with the plan. People seem to find it reassuring. Continue reading “Here’s the plan.”


On Monday we took my dad to the emergency room by ambulance. He’s been in intensive care all week; he has pneumonia and between that and his chronic conditions, we are unsure of the prognosis. I am crying constantly. I have so much emotion in me that it needs to come out, and that’s happening through my eyeballs. I started by assuming I was feeling sad, or feeling grief. But I realized this morning that’s not it—it is just love overwhelming me.

Love for a job that gives me the flexibility to work when I can and stay home when I must, and for colleagues who prayed for me in the middle of the emergency.

Love for my friends, who brought us dinner this week, who answered my questions about what the heck a “hospitalist” does, who drove kids to practice and back so I could be at the hospital.

Love for my church who let me cry through services this morning and didn’t make me feel like I had to stop. I was held up by those around me as they sang “Look to God; do not be afraid. Lift up your voices; the Lord is near!” I couldn’t sing today but they brought me a box of tissues and sang for me.

Love for each of my sisters and brothers, Tanya, Martyn, Tracy, Nick and Ian, who are so much a part of me and I a part of them that I am always a “we.” And “we” are only ever as well as the worst off of us.

Love for my husband who takes care of me even when I hate being taken care of, reminding me to go to bed when I’m too tired to remember. Who knows that the best way to help me is to take care of as much day-to-day as possible so I am freed from all the doing; freed to sit and just be with those who most need my presence.

Love for my mother, who always does what needs to be done, even if it is hard and unpleasant, and even if people don’t always like it.

Love for my father, who has been the quiet, steady foundation of my life; the model of faithfulness to family, of industriousness and persistence, of humble good nature. Even in this hospital bed, he doesn’t really care to be the center of attention—he is happy just to be still and to hear his family together.

It’s hard to be truly sad when you have this much love in your life. It’s hard to be anything but grateful and overwhelmed by the grace happening all around you.