Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Non-Readers for Justice #1: Podcasts

Hey everybody! What time is it?
Time! To! Rise! Up!

How do we rise up?
Two ways: Make friends with people who are different from us, and spend time with groups who share our goals. 

Yes! You got it.

What if I live in a homogeneous area? Let's say everyone is white. Should I make friends with the one black family in town? 

Yes, make friends, but don't burden them with making it a racial friendship. Just be friends. It's not their job to educate you or assuage your guilt.

OK, what else can I do in a homogeneous or isolated area? 

Read, read, read! This and this are among the most widely-circulated syllabi.

Buuuuuut, I don't like to read. It's hard, it hurts my eyes, and it reminds me too much of school.

Friend, do not worry! There's a lot you can do without reading. Most of it is fun.

Non-Readers for Justice #1: Podcasts

With the right hardware like a smartphone, you can educate and entertain yourself while you are doing dishes, driving, or going for a walk. If you don't have a smartphone, these are available on computers too, which is less portable but still very useful. Here are some I like that would expose a straight white Christian person to other points of view.

(When Aaron Sorkin included the F-word in a letter he wrote this month, he said, "There's a time for this kind of language and it's now." I tend to agree, so I struggled with whether to note the use of language in these podcasts. People can use whatever words they want, and as a person with some privilege I don't want to tell other people to settle down. So, I include the Grandmother Factor, not to shake my finger at language, but because some people who read my blog will want to know, and I'd rather them not be surprised.)

     Still Processing, from the New York Times

  • Hosts: Wesley Morris, a black man, and Jenna Wortham, a black woman
  • Tone: Fun, conversational, feels like sitting at a coffee shop or in a living room with two friends. 
  • Topics: Various. See description below.
  • Grandmother Factor: I'd have no problem listening to this with her.
  • From their description: "They're talking every week...about culture in the broadest sense. That means television, film, books, music--but also the culture of work, dating, the internet and how those all fit together." 

    Politically Re-Active
  • Hosts: W. Kamau Bell, a black man, and Hari Kondabolu, an American man of Indian descent
  • Tone: Hilarious, banter-y, angry. Both hosts are stand-up comics (and public intellectuals!), which infuses the show. You can tell they care about each other and the guests and listeners.
  • Topics: Mostly politics. Many episodes deal directly with the 2016 election, but not all, and they're still good listening. 
  • Grandmother Factor: I would not choose to listen to this with her nearby. 
  • From their description: "With the political circus of the 2016 presidential election heating up, you can laugh or you can cry. Choose to laugh. Comedians and longtime friends W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu have a shared curiosity about politics and our constantly changing electoral landscape. Whether it's an interest in exposing the unjust or the absurd, you can count on Hari and Kamau to ask the important 'why?'"

  • Hosts: Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed, an American Muslim woman of South Asian descent, and Zahra Noorbakhsh, an Iranian-American Muslim woman
  • Tone: Funny, cool, fed up, conversational
  • Topics: Various. Anything that affects the hosts' and Muslims' lives that week.
  • Grandmother Factor: Most episodes would be fine.
  • From their description: "about the good and the bad of the American Muslim female experience. But you know, satirically & disturbingly hilarious."

     2 Dope Queens
This is a live stand-up comedy show with three performers per episode and two hosts who do stuff in between. It is not political or addressing sexism or racism per se, but I include it here because many of the comedians are queer and/or not white.
  • Hosts: Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, black women
  • Tone: Hilarious, inviting, fun
  • Topics: Mostly comedy, though a variety of things come up 
  • Grandmother Factor: NOPE! Language and also sex.
  • From their description: "stories about sex, romance, race, hair journeys, living in New York, and Billy Joel. Plus a whole bunch of other s**t." 

     Code Switch
Grew out of a blog that's part of NPR. Addresses all things racial.
  • Hosts: Gene Demby, a black man, and Shereen Marisol Meraji, "a native Californian with family roots in Puerto Rico and Iran" (from her bio)
  • Tone: Journalistic, conversational, professional, warm
  • Topics: Politics, some pop culture--they had a whole episode on Tupac
  • Grandmother Factor: Not a problem at all. 
  • From their description: "We're all journalists of color, and this isn't just the work we do. It's the lives we lead. Sometimes, we'll make you laugh. Other times, you'll get uncomfortable. But we'll always be unflinchingly honest and empathetic. Come mix it up with us." 

     Stuff Mom Never Told You
Each episode is like having two fun librarians do all the research for you and tell you the good parts in an interesting way.
  • Hosts: Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, white women
  • Tone: Conversational, fun, informative, researched
  • Topics: The whole gamut
  • Grandmother Factor: almost always fine.
  • From their description: "gets down to the business of being women from every imaginable angle."

This is actually two podcasts, both from Bitch Media. "Popaganda is a 45-minute in-depth exploration of themes ranging from stand-up comedy to sex work," usually interviews and people reading their essays and articles from Bitch magazine. "Backtalk is our quick, fun conversation about the week in pop culture." You get both by searching for Popaganda on iTunes.
  • Hosts: Sarah Mirk, a white woman, and Amy Lam, an Asian-American woman
  • Tone for Popaganda: Thoughtful, produced, informative. Tone for Backtalk: Relaxed, excited, informative
  • Topics: Most everything related to women, especially women and media. I have learned of a lot of good shows and books through this podcast.
  • Grandmother Factor: OK maybe half the time.

     The Broad Experience
  • Host: Ashley Milne-Tyte, a white woman
  • Tone: Professional, produced
  • Topics: Anything related to work and women.
  • Grandmother Factor: 100% fine.
  • From their description: "tackles some of the big issues facing women in the workplace today--things we think about, but don't always talk about. We explore everything from race to communication styles, being a professional woman without kids to sexual harrassment. That's just a sampling of the topics we've covered through storytelling and intelligent discussions with smart, influential guests." 

     The Bible
The Bible guides many people to an understanding of empathy, justice, and love that helps undergird all of these difficult conversations and important learning. There are several versions of the Bible available on podcasts, often one chapter per episode. Simply search for "Bible" and scroll through the choices. You may need to try a few to get a translation and reader voice you like.
  • Host: God
  • Tone: Loving, challenging
  • Topics: Race, gender, politics, nationality, sexuality, religion, peace
  • Grandmother Factor: There are uncomfortable moments. But it's the Bible, so.

Stay tuned for more options for non-readers who want to educate themselves and grow. These will include TV shows, music, food, and self-care. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

#TBT and What Church Can Be

At the church where I work, I found some old photo directories the other day. I had seen the 2010 one, but I didn't know that 2000, 2002, and 2006 were just a few feet from my desk this whole time! Lots of people have heard about it by now, either through my excited FB post or in person. It was, as always, fun to see old-school hairdos and style changes, but these old pictures brought me more than entertainment. They gave me a deep sense of joy and gratitude.

I saw a lot of changes; a few people migrated from one family picture to another, or they were single in one edition and married in the next. Some people lost spouses. Children were born and grew up. Some of the children moved away, and others moved to their own separate pictures as adults and even had kids of their own.

These many changes, major and minor, expected and unforeseen, are basically...life. Even someone whose pictures have not changed appreciably over the years--long married, long single, no kids, etc.--is changing, sometimes at an astonishing rate. And you know what I saw in the directories? The church is there for all of it. The church is a container for all that change, and ideally it welcomes and embraces us in all those stages. It lifts my heart to see pictures of a lot of different kinds of families and remember that they are the church, we are the church together. No matter who else is in your picture, and no matter what your hair looks like.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What We Can Learn from Church Choirs

I have been thinking a lot about choir recently. Church choirs. I have always loved singing—from car, shower, and kitchen to community theater, high school show choir, and eventually church choirs. When I was growing up, the church choir was all “old people,” and I didn’t want to hang out with them. (What a mistake.) I sang in a few community theater musicals in 6th grade through high school (mostly chorus—don’t be too impressed), and in 9th and 10th grade I was in the school’s choral ensemble for course credit. Then there was a lull. I kept my singing casual and private during college and for years afterward.

Then I started seminary. You could get a quarter credit for singing in the choir! Sounded like a good deal to me. I also joined the A Capella group, which we named Tonal Depravity (Total Depravity being one of the oh-so-invitingly-worded tenets of our Calvinist foundations). As if overnight, my life was full of singing. I loved it. I didn’t know how I had gone so long without organized singing. I loved the friends I met in choir and cut up with. I loved how the director could do so much in just one hour of practice a week. I loved that we were working hard and having so much fun, irreverent and worshipful in the same breath.

When it was time to do a summer internship at a conference center, I asked if I could join the summer singers. I had some other responsibilities during worship, so at first they said no, but it turned out I could practice with them and not always sing in worship. Again, I was amazed at what happened in just an hour—musically and relationally. Also we got paid in meal tickets.

The next year, on the first Sunday of my church internship, I was practically yanked into the choir room with a hasty and hearty “We heard you like to sing!” For nine months, I spent my Wednesday evenings not only singing but sharing prayers, catching up, and hoping someone had a birthday that week because if so, we got cake. The director was gifted at asking for our best and being gracious about our worst. Come to think of it, that’s a gift of all the choir directors I know. I hope I will learn someday to inspire excellence but not demand it.

Now, I’m an ordained pastor, and because of my experiences with choirs in recent years, I asked if I could sing with the choir here. Again, I can almost never sing in worship, but Wednesday nights are a joyful time of shared thanks, grief, pain, and praise. We sing, we strive to sound great, but also we share ourselves. The hard parts, even. The cancer and the recovery and the ways our loved ones break our hearts. We remember the people who are usually with us and aren’t because of such things. Also, on occasion, birthday cake. The people in the choir are more committed than most people are to their churches or Sunday School or small groups. They show up consistently, they make it a priority, and in many cases they make it known when they will be gone, which means the default is to be present. This is what I mean when I say I’ve thought a lot about choir lately. I would love it if everyone was so consistent, so committed, if we could all count on each other that way.

So what makes it happen? Why are these choirs inspiring such commitment? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but I have a few ideas.

-Committed, qualified leadership. The choir directors I know are paid professionals. They are trained and educated in music and music leadership. They continue to educate themselves by attending conferences, retreats, and workshops when possible. In short, they know what they are doing. What this means is that at least one person in the room is on top of things, somewhat organized, and thinking beyond the walls of this one congregation. She knows what some other churches are doing, and she remembers what this church has done in the past. This work is his job, and it shows because he is prepared and knowledgeable.

-Committed, qualified volunteers. Every choir I know has someone besides the director who helps file sheet music, assign robes, accompany the group on the piano, or some other form of “side work.” This may not be indispensable for every church, especially smaller or newer ones, but above a certain tipping point (which I don’t know what it is), we do need folks who can stay on top of details and keep systems running smoothly. This might be an assigned formal role, or people might spontaneously take turns.

-Joyful atmosphere. It’s pretty hard to be sad while singing, for me at least, so this one doesn’t need a lot of intention, it just happens. But it can be helped along by…

-Celebration of each person’s ability and participation. Some people get all the solos. Some people never sang a solo in their life, even though they have been in the choir for decades. Some are in between. Either way, the choir and its leadership have to honor and thank each person for their part. Every singer is important, and every singer glorifies God. In a good choir, you feel that consistently.

-Accountability. When you’re going to be gone, you say so. If you don’t say so, you’re expected to be there. They’re not mean about it, and it’s fine to take a week off now and then, but you will get asked where you were. This shows that it matters whether you show up or not. That’s because of the above: your part is important, and you make a valuable contribution to the whole.  

-A place for everyone. Some choirs do this one better than others, but folders and robes are an amazing measure of true welcome. If you come the first time and you have to share music with your neighbor, or every song brings a mad rush to find another copy for you, that’s uncomfortable. It singles out new people, it wastes time, and it’s just not welcoming. If that is still happening the second or third time you practice, forget it. On the other hand, if the choir keeps a couple extra folders up to date and a few shortish robes handy, it makes the transition simple for a new person. The choir I’m in now is phenomenal with folders. I have been absent for weeks at a stretch and come back to find my folder, #35, ready to go. Someone has gone through each week to take out the music we won’t need for a while and add what we are currently working on. It is so worth the time and effort to make newcomers feel like they are not a burden.

-Time set aside for prayer. Only two out of the four choirs I know have done this, but it is very powerful. Think of how rarely people pray together outside the context of planned worship. Taking a few moments to ask about the joy and pain in people’s lives is a special way to bring the group together, make people feel safe, and remind us all of why we need each other.

-A mix of familiar and new. Many choirs thrive on singing the same thing every year, or even every week. This has some sweetness to it. Repetition is comforting to a lot of people. But if you have nothing new ever, that’s a recipe for staleness and irrelevance. Most choirs have learned over the years to strike a sound balance between the annual crowd-pleasers and new things to expand their repertoire, challenge their musical abilities, and keep worship fresh.

-In the end, God is glorified. A good choir knows that someday (or every day) there will be a wrong note, a false start, a broken voice. Our music will not always be perfect. And thank God for that! When we mess up, we still worship. When we offer God our best, we get to pat ourselves on the back. When we offer God our mistakes, we learn who God is. A great choir knows that it is all an offering, no matter what.

All of these have some bearing on other activities we do. What if every leader took their role as seriously as a choir director does? What if I took a few moments of Sunday School to ask for prayer requests and pray? What if we kept the folder principle in mind while preparing for any group event? Maybe we would celebrate the voices of the people around us as parts of an amazing whole, and let ourselves love tradition and comfort but look for opportunities to grow through newness, and not worry constantly about doing it just right but let our lives be an offering, the soaring high notes and the somber low notes and everything in between.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday

I found this wonderful list of literary readings for Lent. The first, perhaps predictably, was T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." As a big-time Eliot fan, I had read it before, but it had been a while. And boy, what a poem. I would like to read that thing every day, and maybe I will.

Part of my job is putting together the liturgy for a contemporary-type worship service. It's awesome. Few tasks would better combine an M.Div. and an MFA in Creative Writing. Sometimes I take the text from a book of liturgies or prayers and change very little, but sometimes I get cray with it. And this week, I decided I would like to use Eliot's words. It's a bit clunky at times, and I changed some wording, and at least one part doesn't line up theologically with what I would normally include. It will be a stretch for the worshippers. But I'm gonna do an explanation at the beginning so they know it's different. I'm pretty happy about it, so here it is in case you are also an Eliot-loving Lent-observer. The benediction is actually from Prufrock, but the rest is from Ash Wednesday. I may include some snippets in the long prayers, but I haven't worked on those yet. Enjoy!

Call to Worship
            Spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,          
Teach us to care and not to care.
            Spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Teach us to sit still, our peace in your will.
            Let us not be separated,
And let our cry come unto thee.

Prayer of Confession

Lord, we are not worthy. We mock ourselves with falsehood. We struggle with the devil of the stairs who wears the deceitful face of hope and despair. We pray to forget these matters that we discuss with ourselves and explain too much. We do not wish to wish these things. We cannot hope to turn again toward you without your grace. God, have mercy, and may your judgment not be too heavy upon us. In the name of the Word unspoken and unheard, amen.

Assurance of Pardon
God restores the years. God restores with a new verse the ancient rhyme. God redeems the time, redeems the dream, redeems the unread vision. God makes strong the fountains and makes fresh the springs.  
God’s nature is to renew, redeem, and restore. 
            Friends, believe the Good News!
In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

            Let us go, then, you and I.
May God lead us to overwhelming questions.
            May we dare to disturb the universe.
Let us never cease from exploration, and let us return to this place renewed.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Fictive Kinship and Deep Structures

One of the coolest things I learned in New Testament 1 last fall was the concept of structuralism, which says that all stories can be mapped onto a handful of deep structures, basic storylines that have existed pretty much since stories have been told. For example, Tolstoy said, "All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." That is a structuralist thing to say.

Fast forward a few months. I'm thinking about my final paper for Introduction to Christian Ethics. We can do pretty much whatever we want as long as we clear it with the professor. I think I want to write a paper about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This book was one that affected me the most as a child, one of the first to make me feel real rage at the injustice of how the characters were treated. It came up twice in conversation within a week recently, so I decided to re-read it for the first time in a couple decades. Reading it as an adult is revealing. I realize part of why it upset me when I was younger. The book is about a young woman who doesn't fit in, who doesn't know how to fit in. She's from Barbados and lives in Puritan New England. She doesn't know the codes, she keeps breaking rules without meaning to, being more and more rejected by the people around her. This more than rings a bell. I didn't experience anything truly hateful or harmful when I was young (or since), but I never felt like I fit in, and sometimes I had no idea how to try.

I start thinking of other ideas for my paper in case the professor doesn't go for it. After all, some academics don't believe in the power of chapter books. So I come up with the movie Saved! and the movie-and-book Chocolat. Only after weeks of pondering does it occur to me that these are basically three versions of the same story: a woman doesn't fit in (orphan, stranger, pregnant teenager). Her locale is pretty strict and doesn't allow for a lot of easy fitting in (Puritan New England, close-knit small town, conservative Christian school). She struggles and hurts, but she finds a few other outsiders who help remind her of some important truths. Life isn't about fitting in. She becomes more comfortable with herself, due in large part to this new subgroup.

Fictive kinship is another concept from Bible classes, I think from Old Testament. It's basically what it sounds like: kinship, as in people who belong to each other. Fictive, as in not by blood or on paper. So I've called this deep structure the Fictive Kinship narrative.

Around the same time, I went to a conference and one of the presentations was about positive deviance. Everyone lives on the bell curve somewhere, with the majority of folks in the middle, just going along living their lives. One one end, you have negative deviance. People who don't fit in because they commit crimes or lack some abilities or don't relate well to others. Anyone whom a dystopian society would kick out. But then there's the other end. Also people who don't fit in, but it's because they are more creative, more thoughtful, more innovative and forward-thinking, perhaps more selfless and generous than is typical. These people might also be kicked out by a dystopian society, or at least silenced at times. The conference was about church, so in that context the presenters said we ought to seek out positive deviance in our communities and congregations, acknowledge it and applaud it, listen to the people and let them lead us. They also said everyone is positively deviant at some times, it's not like an elite subset of geniuses only. The protagonists in my cherished stories are positive deviants, thinking differently, feeling silenced or shunned for it, often trying to downplay the difference until something happens to make them feel more free.

I became a little obsessed with this deep structure, this positive deviance. Once I noticed it, I found it everywhere. Not every story fit so neatly, but the basics were there in almost all my favorites: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, the book of Ruth, Jesus and his friends, the early church, The Hunger Games, The Giver and its follow-ups. Mary Poppins and Office Space to some extent. Obviously there's something there for me, something these stories have to tell me. Many of them already have, but the meaning of a story is not easily exhausted. I have some ideas, none of them very developed:

-A pastor is typically someone who is slightly outside the culture and society she lives in, whose outsider status gives her special insight into that culture.
-I'm about to go and be a pastor (most likely, inshallah), in a place where I will certainly be a stranger for a while just by being new.
-We don't need to be surrounded by people who are just like us, and we don't need to be just like the people who surround us. But we do usually need a few, just a few, individuals who appreciate us and whom we appreciate the way they are. This fictive kinship is an important part of survival for anyone, especially those who do find themselves on the margins in some way.
-These stories are extremely popular. If a story about someone who doesn't fit in has so much success, doesn't that mean that a lot of people identify with it? A lot of people feel like they don't fit in either? I have a hunch that we all feel that way sometimes, that the few people who don't (or wouldn't ever acknowledge it) are the few with the most power. Maybe it's time to stop pretending we all fit in.

That's what I have at the moment, and I would love to hear your thoughts. Can you think of other stories with this structure or something like it? Does this resonate with you?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lenten community blog

Hey, this is just a link to a post I wrote on another blog, the one my seminary is doing for Lent.



Monday, March 17, 2014

Nuns Wearing Tutus

Not really, I just thought that might get your attention. I've been thinking about "the nones." Sometime in the last couple years, polls started showing an increase in people who marked "none" under religion. Here's a pretty good rundown of it. People who mark other things under religion flipped and freaked. OMG! SOME PEOPLE AREN'T CHRISTIAN! SOME PEOPLE AREN'T EVEN RELIGIOUS! HOW CAN THIS BE AND WHAT ARE WE TO DO?!

I don't mean to make fun of people who are concerned about this information, but I am a little confused about why it came as such a huge shock to Christians and other religious people. The nones went up from about 15 to about 20 percent over 6 years. I don't see that as an alarming spike, just an indicator of a natural movement, though maybe that does count as alarming. Among young people, it was more like 30%. That actually seems low to me. So I am concerned as well, not that there are so many nones, but that the church people didn't realize it. Who have they been hanging out with? Are church people spending so much time with other church people that they seriously didn't know a minority of people do not consider themselves religious?

The next question, of course, is why and what now. The why seems somewhat easy to me too, which brings us to the tutu part. I read a quote from Desmond Tutu a few weeks ago, and I've been turning it over in my head ever since. He's talking about the experience of Africans being visited by Christian missionaries, with "he" being African people in a collective sense.
    "...he was being redeemed from sins he did not believe he had committed; he was being given answers, and often quite splendid answers, to questions he had not asked."
     That describes a lot of people's experience. You definitely don't have to be African to feel like certain expressions of religion are irrelevant, just meaningless to your life. Even I have felt that way sometimes, and I'm in ministry! I had never quite thought of it the way he put it: answering questions that aren't being asked. I wager that's at the root of what many of those unaffiliated people would say. They're into serving their communities, donating time and money, and often meditating or discussing sacred texts. They feel like they can do those things without church, and they're absolutely right. They can. They are getting the answers to some of their questions in these places. How can I connect meaningfully with other people? How can I enrich my own and others' experience of life? How can I slow down and find peace? The churches that thrive and draw these people are the ones that pay attention and offer responses to these questions. The churches that are "dying"? Those are the ones whose answers don't line up with people's real questions. Heaven and hell, right and wrong, who's in and who's out...in my experience, people don't worry too much about these things, at least not as much as living a rewarding, compassionate life.

I'm not saying the church should abandon its agenda and start playing to the crowds. I'm saying the church's interests are really quite well-aligned with most people's interests: relationships, wholeness, sustainability, big questions about selflessness and sacrifice and what love looks like in any given moment. Those binary questions like right and wrong, if they come up at all, can easily be addressed within these compelling frameworks. And it's not a hide-the-pill-in-the-peanut-butter thing either, like we're giving people something attractive in order to slip in something difficult. No, it's more like when I was teaching Creative Writing to college students. I knew I wanted to teach David Sedaris (fangirl moment OMG he's the best!). My first semester, I chose the shortest essay in the one book of his I had at the time, Me Talk Pretty One Day. I chose it only for its length, thinking anything by him would get the job done and of course students like to read fewer pages.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is divided into two parts, one about growing up in North Carolina and one about living in France. This essay came from the France part, and I thought it was hilarious because I had majored in French. The humor had to do mostly with the language. It didn't occur to me that other people might not be as amused as me, but the students, of course, just found it strange.

The following semester, I taught another essay from the same book, from the North Carolina part, chosen on advice from more-experienced TA's. The students loved the essay. Every semester, they loved it. No one ever said it wasn't funny or wasn't good. It was longer by a few pages, but they were more than willing to go there. It also had a lot of cusses, which didn't hurt.

What I mean is, sometimes a certain thing makes sense on paper. It's shorter, seems easier, in some situations it's just right. I can't tell you how much I loved that first essay. And we might think people want easy teachings about what's right and wrong, what to do and not to do. But context is everything. If there's no point of contact in someone's reality, if they don't know the language, forget it.

This college where I taught was in North Carolina. Most of the students were from North Carolina. The second essay took place in North Carolina and had to do with some cultural things about North Carolina. That was available to me the whole time, but because I assumed they wanted something shorter, I first chose the essay that was rather alien to most of them. That was a mistake in several ways. If the topics arise from what is already on their minds, if they are drawn in by what they recognize, the difficulty level is not a problem. People will do so much more work when it matters to them. They will read the extra pages, they will take all the time necessary, they will pay attention, because they are being taken into account and addressed directly. Someone has been listening to them, and they notice that feeling. In that state, people are more than willing to do the difficult work of exploring non-binary, ambiguous questions.

It was really hard for me to hear that my students didn't like the first essay. It was hard to let go of teaching it. I cared about it, and I wanted so badly for everyone else to care too. But you know what? I couldn't tell you a thing about it now. The second one, though, I know intimately, years later. If you and I are ever at a cocktail party, don't bring it up unless you want me to corner you all night talking about this essay. Every time I think about it, I remember my students and the time we spent together. I am so glad I paid attention to what they cared about, because it turns out I care about it too. When I set aside the first essay and picked up the second, I lost nothing but my pride. If I had insisted that we keep reading the first one just because it was meaningful to me, I wouldn't have been a very good teacher. When we insist on doing church a certain way just because it is meaningful to us, without a thought for people who might be interested if we made some changes, we are not being very good friends or neighbors.

And here's some profoundly good news for those of us who feel a sense of loss when we let go of our preferences. Some of my students have almost certainly picked up the book and read the first essay along with all the others. They probably liked it, even though it wasn't appealing as an introduction to Sedaris. Because the second essay worked for them, they were interested in reading more. When we offer compelling introductions, people pick up from there and eagerly pursue the topic with an excitement that surprises everyone. Those texts that once seemed irrelevant and distant become the site of fruitful discussion and lush growth. The church traditions that come off as dated might be renewed and enlivened with the right interpretation. No essay is too hard to read, no question too hard to ask. It just requires the right introduction, the questions lining up. Answers not guaranteed.