A funny thing happened on the way to NaNoWriMo…

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was going to do NaNoWriMo… National Novel Writing Month… a program by which participants are challenged to write 50,000 words in a months. time. I thought it would stretch me. I thought it would give me a regular writing discipline. I thought it would improve my writing to do something outside of my normal genre… whatever that is. I thought I had a story inside that needed to be told.

So, I started writing. I actually started a story that I like. I think it’s interesting. I think it could develop into something. You know… if I could ever get around to writing it.

I’m good at writing short form, blog posts, articles. I write episodically. Sustaining the energy it takes to keep a story going is something that I truly long to do, but I’m not sure I have it in me right now.

But here’s the really funny thing… I’ve procrastinated on working on my novel by writing other things. I had been in a little bit of dry spell in terms of my other writing, but starting the novel loosened something up for me. If nothing else, NaNoWriMo got me writing again, and for that I’m thankful.

Writing is a part of my therapy, anyone who has read what I’ve posted since the beginning of last year has picked up on that. I use this space to process. I also now have a private blog where I don’t publish what I write, but this act of creating and sharing what I create has been incredibly cathartic in this chaotic season of life.

I’ve been incredibly grateful to write “Recovering Reverend”, my ongoing spot on the Presbyterians Today Magazine blog. It has allowed me to keep some of my practical theology muscles in shape and it’s helped remind me that ultimately where I want to be, whether in a congregation or otherwise, is in service to the church. Somehow writing has brought me home to that realization and refocused me on my goals.

I like my novel. The main character is interesting… well, he’s basically a more resourceful version of me. The world I’m setting up intrigues me. I’m totally sure where things are going, but I’m having fun dreaming about it. One of the things that has slowed me has been the realization that I don’t read much fiction. I read tons of articles and blog posts and so it is easy to write those. I’ve never been big into fiction writing. I prefer my fiction on a screen. That said, world-building, myth-making is tantalizing stuff. I don’t think I’ll let go of this endeavor. I love writing and I want to be able to do all kinds of it. I want to stretch and push myself. I want to grow and get better. I want to take full advantage of the ways that words can heal;  from being inspirational, to creating laughter, to expressing grief.

I am friends with many great writers. It is a gift and a curse. I often feel like I shouldn’t be writing because someone else has already said what I want to say but in a far more eloquent way. I feel like an amateur, which I guess technically I am. I write how I speak. I am a preacher, after all. He won’t admit it, but I think my style gives the editor at Presbyterians Today fits! There are times when I have to overcome all of my insecurities in the process of writing and just write. On my more depressed days, that’s not so easy. I often feel like a fraud.

I listened to Amy Poehler’s book “Yes, Please” on my trip to and from Pittsburgh this weekend. I love her dissection of her writing process. “Writing is hard”. It’s stressful and pressure-filled and you have to free yourself from responses of others and be true to yourself in the process. It’s not glamorous. It’s not romantic. It’s messy and technical and I often feel completely exhausted afterwards. Still, I love writing. It is my passion. It is my therapy. It is my challenge. I’m grateful for the gift of words that allows me to build a bridge to others. I’m glad that I can be raw in this space even when I don’t know how to be vulnerable in other arenas. I’m grateful that sometimes people read what I write and it touches them. That’s a gift.

I hope and pray that one day I’ll have the luxury of extended writing time, instead of the 15-20 minutes that I carve out throughout the week. I’d love to really concentrate on a project. I’d love to live with a thought for awhile, play with it like a kitten with a ball of yarn, and bat it around til I’m ready to move on to the next thing. Some day, I hope. Maybe then I’ll get back to my novel. Or a dissertation. Or a screenplay. Who knows? Maybe I’ll just do this forever. That’s fine too. I just love to write.

What I would preach this morning – birthpangs

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

I’ve heard a lot of female friends’ birthing stories. It immediately elevates them to “hero” status in my eyes. Both of kids were planned C-sections. My ex is no less heroic, as I I had a front row seat to her insides becoming her outsides for a moment, but our story lacks the drama of water breaking, pushing, and dilation. We did have a pretty harrowing experience on my 30th birthday. It involved a Thai restaurant and false contractions brought on by their lack specificity with how spicy a “3” on a scale of 1-9 might be. That was crazy! Still, I here the stories of women who have gone through the birthing process and I am in awe. I’m also dumbfounded that so many of my friends chose to go through that process a second time. What could be worth the pain? As I look at my two kids, the answer here is clear: new life is worth it all.

This is a problematic passage as apocalyptic passages always are to 21st century minds. We have to remember that the gospel writer is doing the difficult work of meaning-making around the destruction of the temple that happened in 70CE. Mark justifies the violence of his world with “Jesus predicted this would happen”.

I look at this week: 129 dead in Paris, 37 dead in Beirut, 67 dead in Baghdad, countless in Syria, 300 for the year in Baltimore, unrest on college campuses, earthquakes, school shootings, rampant violence in the name of God… “Jesus predicted this would happen” doesn’t take the sting out of these present day happenings, nor do I think it was meant to in Mark’s time. Stories of apocalypse are not to deflect from the pain of the present. They highlight the pains, give them, context, and attempt to infuse them with meaning. They are meant to be words of hope.

Please don’t hear me skipping over the grieving. For folks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Japan, Baltimore… the wounds might be far too fresh. Friday was only a few days ago… but then again, I’m part of a tradition that grieves death on Friday and celebrates new life on Sunday. Forgive me for being hopeful.

“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”

I take hope in the interconnectedness of this world. I take hope that within hours we were all connected to the Parisian tragedy as if it were our own. I take hope in hearing the voices of those who would not let us forget the victims of other tragedies while we honored the fallen. I take hope in the critical analysis that takes place that says we can’t ignore the lives of black and brown people while remembering those of white Europeans. I take hope in the Parisians who would not let their recently welcomed refugees take the blame for this tragedy and marched against Islamophobes in their country and spoke out against those in ours. I take hope in college students gathering around the country to speak against the inherent racism of educational institutions built off of histories of privilege. I take hope in conversations on institutional racism being brought to the public consciousness in a way it never was before. I take hope in the men of Baltimore who patrol the streets, making peace. I take hope in those who are working to build up economic and educational opportunities in those communities that have long been neglected.

The unrest and dis-ease we feel in our world is coming from two different sides. It comes from those who see a new world coming and long for its day to dawn and it comes from those who have benefitted so greatly from the old world that they don’t see the beauty in the new. Both sides recognize the truth. The new day is here. There is a world of equality longing to be born. There is a world of dignity longing to be born. There is a world of world of opportunity longing to be born. There is a world of peace longing to be born. There is a world of love longing to be born. The new world longs to be born and our role, the role of people of peace, love, and justice, is to midwife this new world’s existence.

Yes, the world is violent. Keep pushing! Yes there is inequality. Keep pushing! Yes, there is corruption and greed, keep pushing! Yes, it feels like we’re sliding backwards at times, keep pushing! Yes, those who choose division often seem to speak the loudest, keep pushing! Yes, it is often hard to see the way forward through all the tears… keep pushing!

I grieve with brothers and sisters around the world. I’m tired of this shit. I don’t want to keep turning on my computer and seeing these things scroll across my timeline. I get depressed. I feel powerless. I feel hopeless. But something inside of me tells me to keep on. It tells me that what is happening now is crowning. It tells me that we can’t give up not now, not ever. I can see the pain, I can hear the cries and all I can say is new life is coming.

Keep pushing.

My Misogyny

Yesterday, my friend Mihee posted an article she wrote. If you would, please, take a moment to read it here. In it, she talks about the fairly muted controversy over Bloomingdale’s new ad. What caught my attention was her sharing her own harrowing tale of sexual assault:

Even now. Even at this very moment, when I think back to the summer of 2000, and that night, though I don’t have evidence of it, I know 100% in my flesh and blood that I did not drink enough to black out, and that one of the young men in the house hosting the party slipped something into my drink, but I still feel responsible, I still feel like it was my fault, I still feel like I deserved to wake up the next morning completely naked next to someone who was basically a stranger, confused and disoriented, ashamed and lost. Maybe I encouraged him. NO. I clearly remember at least that part, saying, NO, and trying to leave his room, and he shut the door and stood in front of it, and I said, No, No, No, and then the world went dark”

Mihee and I have  have been online friends for awhile. I have crazy respect for her writing and she was a great guest on an episode of God Complex. We’ve never actually met in real life, but reading her words was like reading the words of my sister. My stomach sank. This was part of her story I didn’t know. I was sickened and saddened to read it. I don’t want to live in a world where this shit happens to my friends, even if it happened a dozen years before I met them. Even if I haven’t met them “in real life” (whatever that means).

In the last several years, I have intimate friendships with women who have been sexually assaulted. It always hurts to hear the stories. I know they trust me with their stories because they feel safe with me. I can pat myself on the back knowing that I would not do what their attackers have done to them. I’m one of the good guys. That’s what I’ve allowed myself to believe.

But “not a rapist” is a really low bar. The fact that I clear it brings less and less comfort as I look at the world in which I will raise my daughter. It doesn’t excuse times when “consent” came with an imbalance of power. It doesn’t excuse the times when consent came with false pretenses. It doesn’t excuse leering or objectification nor does it excuse assumptions about competence or artistry based on gender. I’m much more comfortable talking about issues of race where I get to play the victim card, but much in the same ways that I ask my white friends to own their part in white supremacy, I have to own that I have been bathed in misogyny and steeped in patriarchy. I have to own that I have hurt women in significant ways, not the least of which was the woman to whom I pledged my life.

Like racism, I don’t think misogyny is inherent. I believe that it is learned. I was raised by a strong woman, spent a great deal of my childhood with my grandmother (a certified badass) and my aunts. My sisters were a huge part of my growing up life. I learned to sexualize women in a dehumanizing way from other men, some in my family. I learned it from the media and a culture that told me at a young age that “bitches ain’t shit” and “we don’t love them hoes”. I learned it from pornography, most of which is predicated on the idea that women exist for men’s pleasure. I learn it from a culture that continues to pay women less for equal work reinforcing their lesser value.

There are lots of places where I cannot undo the damage my misogyny has caused. This hurts me to my core. But I’m helping to raise a little girl and I want her to be a fighter. I want her to know her worth. I want her to be safe. I want her to know that what happens with her body is her decision and her’s alone.

But that’s not enough. I exist in this world as a six foot, 200 lb (fine, 210 lb!) black man. My presence alone can make women in certain situations feel unsafe. I have to be mindful of that. I have to be mindful of the places in which I have power to sway and influence and I have to honor the commitments I have made to create safe and compassionate space. I have to do better in honoring my colleagues and co-workers. I have to do better in honoring the female leadership in my life and making space for women to lead in places where their voices aren’t being heard.

And I have to do better in having this conversation with other men. “Not a rapist” is not enough. It never was. Men have to do better in holding safe space for the women in our lives and calling out other men when we feel that safety is at risk of being violated.

Even now, I fear I am saying something wrong. I fear that I am not totally learning the lesson I’m supposed to learn. But I’m committed to changing. I’m committed to doing and being better. I’m committed to listening to the voices of my sisters and being the best male ally I know how to be. I’m shaken to my core. I want this world to be better. I know that for it to be so, I have to start with me…

Stupid body

This morning I went for a run before work. I was at a good pace, considering I just started back up and have been somewhat inconsistent. About a minute in, I started to feel some pain in my shins. I didn’t think much of it. After five minutes, still going at a nice pace, the pain started to increase. At about a mile in (just under 11 minutes if you must know…), the pain was bad enough that I needed to stop running. I walked for a bit, but briskly. I started up the jog again… more pain. Worse pain. Grrrr… I started walking again only now it was hurting while I was walking. Super grrrrr…. I imagined my face being the one that athletes make when they get hurt in games, that look of utter betrayal that your body had just turned against you. I repeated to myself what has become a common refrain as of late… I hate my body!

I’ve gained about thirty pounds since moving to Baltimore. There’s several factors involved in that. For one, I wasn’t eating very well in 2014. Secondly, I tend to be a social eater. While I lived with my friends last year, my schedule was wildly inconsistent and, yes, there were times I would forget to eat or eat very little. Now I have people to eat with when I get home which is pretty nice. So on one hand, the weight gain is a nice thing. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that eating is a great way to numb feelings and numbing feelings is my specialty. I’ve been eating my sadness, eating my guilt and shame, eating my anger. Oh, and drinking them too, but mostly eating them.

I’ve been thin most of my life. There are fat baby Derrick pictures out there, but from the time that memories began to develop, I was always on the skinny side. In high school, I grew up not out. I quit football because I couldn’t put on weight. My ex took pride in the fact that she fattened me up a bit. Then, for both of her pregnancies, I gained sympathy weight. I started running and I lost it pretty quickly both times. (A stomach bug in Haiti helped the first time!) The funny thing about this is that I never really liked being thin either. I felt like “thin” = “weak” and God knows my male ego can’t handle that. The irony is that now I’m much stronger, but I have a gut and a butt that seem to not want to quit. The truth is, I’ve always hated my body.

I think about the words of John 1, “The Word became flesh and lived among us”. The Divine presence imbues human bodies with meaning, purpose, and value. God saw the corporeal experience as important enough to have Her own experience. That gives me pause. Simply put, my body is important.

In my mindfulness meditation, one of the things we do to ground ourselves in the present moment is to do a body scan. We take note of the feelings of comfort and discomfort in our bodies. We reconnect with our senses. Our bodies are the only vehicles we have for awareness in the present moment. The importance of our bodies in the daily practice of developing awareness cannot be overstated.

But our bodies can also be a crucial component to helping us to develop compassion. Though not nearly as serious, my shin pain made me think of the pain that other runners go through and other athletes. It made me think of friends who have been sidelined with injuries recently and gave enough pause to offer up a short prayer for their well being. The sweat dripping from my brow reminds me of those who sweat in forced labor or those who sweat without the prospect of clean water. My pains can connect me with the pains of the world. They don’t always mind you. More times than not, I am selfish and can only think of the ways that I am inconvenienced, but in those rare moments when my pain opens the door to compassion for others, I am thankful for my stupid body.

I’m trying to exercise more. I’ve been running and doing yoga. I’m off alcohol for a bit. I’m trying to be mindful enough to push the plate away when I’m full. I’m still a little grossed out when I look in the mirror, but I think it’s getting better. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says the Psalmist. Whatever. I’m stuck with this body of mine.

Retiring “slave Leia”

Trigger warning: sexual assault

A rumor was began this week that Disney was working on removing the iconic slave Leia costume from future marketing. The rumor was based off of comments made by a Marvel comics artist claiming that Daisy Ridley (“Rey” in The Force Awakens) “won’t have to fight anything. Disney is well on its way to wiping out the ‘slave’ outfit from future products period”. Many fanboys responded in immediate anger. There were cries that this was a result of Disney’s family-friendly reputation and the desire to avoid a racy image. There’s probably a lot of truth in that, but to be honest, slave Leia isn’t wearing any less clothing than Ariel or Pocahontas. Some wilkl argue that we’re becoming increasingly PC, but I think there’s more to it than that.

There’s a famous “Friends” episode where Russ, Chandler, and Joey discuss the Princess Leia fantasy that they and all guys of their generation share. Though half a generation behind the guys at Central Perk, I do have pretty strong memories of that scene in “Return of the Jedi”. It was probably my earliest sexualized media consumed, or at least that I can remember. That Leia was scantily clad may be part of the problem, but I think the real issue, as we have increased sensitivities developing in our culture, is the context of the scene in which the outfit was worn.

I’ll say this explicitly, Leia was sexually assaulted.

This is not my doing a revisionist history thing. It’s almost impossible to not see it once you’re looking for it. It’s established early in the first third of the film. As Jabba and his cohort are celebrating… whatever it is they were celebrating, Jabba begins making a leering look at his dancing slave. He begins to pull her near to him. She resists. She’s terrified. He’s making advances toward her. She’s clearly been through this before. She fights him. He gets frustrated with her refusal, opens a trap door and feeds her to the rancor. Fast forward, Leia frees Han, their joy is short lived, as Jabba and his crew interrupt their reunion. Han is dragged off and Jabba orders that Leia be brought to him.

“You’re going to regret this,” she says to him.

“I’m sure,” he snarls back then begins to lick her. C-3PO standing by turns away. “I can’t bear to watch”. He’s seen this before in his short time in Jabba’s employ. The next time we see Leia, she has been stripped of her clothes and is in the infamous slave outfit. At the very least, Jabba has touched her in an unwanted way and stripped her for the amusement of his crowd. Imagination leaves us to believe that more has happened.

I think it’s also important to look at Jabba’s death. It wasn’t enough for Leia to try to escape in the commotion. She furiously strangled Jabba. It is revenge, a fairly cold-blooded murder, justified in our minds by the heinousness of Jabba’s actions.

I think it is wise for Disney to begin phasing out slave Leia merchandise considering this context. It’s slightly disturbing to think that one of my earliest experiences of a sexualized woman’s body was in the form of an assault. Maybe I’m overstating this, but I wonder how much this image has shaped the sexuality of a generation of men. We can justify it as being off screen, but that didn’t seem to matter with Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. We can say “it’s just sci-fi” but many real life issues are dealt with in science fiction. Even within the story, it is problematic that Leia has to be assaulted so that Han can be freed.

I don’t think a ban on “Return of the Jedi” is necessary. I think the first third of “Jedi” has some of the strongest moments of the whole series. But it is inappropriate to play with an action figure of an assault victim. So despite the dismay that millions of fan boys might feel, I think Disney is making the right move.


“Anger is just sad’s bodyguard” – Liz Palmer

I’m really trying to tend to my emotions right now. I’m cutting back on the things that I use to numb myself and trying to sit with some uncomfortable things. For the last couple of years in therapy I have been dealing with anger as my default emotion. One of the more helpful definitions of “depression” is angered toward inward. Still, in juggling my emotions, I feel like there has been something missing, something right below the surface that’s been holding me back. Then I came upon the above quote and it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m sad.

In both “Daring Greatly” and “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown talks a great deal about men’s emotions. Anger is a default for us because it keeps us from looking weak, our ultimate fear. Even when being depressed, I get to be angry at someone (me), and that feels somewhat strong. But sadness… sadness feels inherently feminine and inherently weak. I know that seems like a horribly misogynistic thing to say, but that is the way the male mind works at time. I’m happy to sit with my female friends as they wrestle with sadness. I’m even comfortable with my son’s sadness. “It’s okay to be sad, buddy. Everybody feels sad sometimes” You know, except for daddy.

Sadness is so different from depression and I think it is the difference that is begging for my attention. Depression draws me inward. Sadness can as well, but it tends to have an external focus. Yes, I’m angry at myself (depressed) about the way that my marriage ended, but I’m also really sad that about it. I’m about the ending of a thing, a thing I was a part of but that wasn’t all about me. I get depressed thinking about what kind of father I might be, but ultimately, I’m sad that I don’t get to see my kids daily. I can be depressed that I’m so awful with money or I can be sad about my financial situation. That feels like splitting hairs, but they are fundamentally different. One is judgment, the other a reaction to a circumstance. One feels permanent, the other feels fleeting.

And that’s the real irony here; by not owning my sadness and facing it head on, I’m allowing it to linger. And when it lingers, I get scared and call for its bodyguard, anger. Anger then decides whether it will lash out at others or just start kicking my ass. Depression then becomes my state of being. Sadness, though, isn’t a permanent state. Don’t get me wrong, it can last a long time. But to be sad, to be really sad, to grieve, to cry, to hurt at the way the world is, that is healthy. Sadness does it’s job, it cleanses and sanitizes, then makes room for the next thought or feeling to move into a clean(er) space.

My truth right now is that I am really fucking sad. Sad about my relationships, sad about my career, sad about my finances, sad about the state of the world, sad by how hard it is to be black, saddened by the presidential candidates…  sad that the Bengals are undefeated. And all of these things about which I am experiencing sadness will pass. But now, in this moment, in this space… I. Am. Sad.