What's Saving My Life as a Writer: Email. Yes, Really.

16659706488_287aaf102c A long time ago in an Internet that seems far far away, a bunch of us clergywomen types began blogging and following one another's blogs. We would leave long comments for one another, then check back and see the conversation continue. We listed one another on our blogrolls. We formed a network. And of course, we connected with non-clergy readers, and non-religious ones for that matter.

Today, blogging is very different. Certainly more people read this blog today than did back then. And my writing shows up in a lot more places. But while my words are finding a larger audience, it's only a small percentage of people who actually follow the blog week to week. Blog comments are much less frequent than they used to be. And generally, the comments I do get are less personal. (Thank you to all my commenters, regardless of content! Except trolls. Find another bridge please.)

As I continue to transition from pastor/author/speaker to author/speaker/freelance writer, I've realized--I need to reacquaint myself with my readers. What do you wonder about and marvel at? What keeps you up at night? Where does your struggle intersect with mine?

I love the work of Dan Blank, whose company WeGrowMedia helps authors bring book projects to fruition and find readers for them. Dan is a big fan of the email list as a tool for authors to communicate. I resisted this for a long time. I already have a blog to feed, and social networks that I enjoy and participate in. Not to mention, you know, books to write.

And we've all heard the steady drumbeat against email. We get too much. It's crushing our souls. I subscribe from email lists regularly and feel nothing but relief. But there are a handful of email newsletters I keep, because I treasure them.

Plus, as Dan points out, an email list is the one way of reaching readers that the author "owns." Facebook can tweak its algorithms anytime. Twitter can feel like a bunch of noise, and the format is constraining. But an email is a letter from me to a reader who's specifically asked to hear what I have to say. (Humbling.)

After hearing Dan talk and write about this topic for a long time, I finally realized I'd been thinking about the email all wrong. I was seeing it as a tool for book sales. And when I asked people to join, I was very apologetic about it: I won't bug you very often, and you can unsubscribe any time. And then I'd send an email every six months and it felt awkward, because nobody likes being marketed AT, and I didn't like marketing TO!

Instead I want to use it as the beginning of a conversation.

So last month I revived my email list. It's a letter from me to my readers. In it I share what I'm working on, what's inspiring me, what's confounding me, and I ask: what about you?

And people are responding. I can't quite believe it, but they are.

Last week I wrote an email to the newsletter about some foundation repairs we're making on our house. It was a vulnerable message because that process is bringing out all kinds of spiritual struggles. After it went out, I got a handful of unsubscribes, as I always do. But I got three times as many personal responses, from people who shared their own places of pain and "shifting foundations."

It was page after page of holy ground, right there in Gmail.

More and more, I'm hearing from aspiring writers asking me for advice on building a platform. I feel very humbled and vulnerable when they ask because I still consider myself an aspiring writer. I know so little. But I've realized that very few of us know anything. What I do know is this: writing---at least the writing I do---is about coming together around shared questions and mysteries. And these interactions with readers are teaching me which questions resonate with people, which ones merit further exploration in blogs and books and emails. Responses from readers are helping me as a writer. But more important---much more important---they help me realize that I'm not alone in my questions.

So to those of you who receive The Blue Room emails, thank you. If you'd like to join them, I unapologetically invite you to click here.

~

photo credit: Connect via photopin (license)

"Will You Kiss the Leper Clean?" -- On Ebola and Our 'Tribes'

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President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life? Will Bailey: I don't know, sir, but it is.

-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, "Inauguration, Part 1"

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.

McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species---a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world's major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our "tribal paint." Sometimes that's literal identifying marks---gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it's a religious or political doctrine to define who's in and out.

And we band together against common enemies and threats. "When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves," he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called "Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness."

There's evidence that this tribalism is hard-wired. Young children naturally gravitate to people who are like them, racially and socially.

Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It's interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being "without sin," or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?

Sure, it's the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary---because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.

Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed... often followed by the sotto voce comment: "I just hope it doesn't come here."

Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings, "There is no more far away." We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we've not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.

As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it---stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.

Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who's lost 10 members of their family.

One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.

"They tested the baby, and the baby was negative," says Purfield. "But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.

"So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box," she continues.

Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.

"They couldn't just watch a baby sitting alone in a box," Dynes says.

The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called "The Summons" by John Bell. It's been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, "kissed the leper clean." But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did---I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it's not helpful for the good ones to die---we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.

But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.

~

*Why did they cross the road? To get to the "other."

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc

A Guide to Effective Trolling... Or Not

10406565_10152551312852682_1418532912413230439_n So I wrote a thing the other day that provoked some strong reactions.

I've been blogging for more than 10 years and have managed to fly under the radar for much of that time. For many years, I joked that my blog was down the dirt road and past the rusted-out gas station, and I liked it that way. I had a small group of readers, consisting of folks I knew and strangers who were amiable and thoughtful even when they disagreed. It was a great place to try out new ideas. Blogging is ideal for putting stuff out there even when the toothpick doesn't come out clean.

I know people who've been trolled mercilessly, even threatened, on the Internet; and I know it can be harder for women, who often deal with rape threats and other violent or misogynistic comments. We're learning more about the psychology of trolls---these folks are more likely to exhibit behaviors correlating with the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

I've had a pretty great experience online. I still say that, even after spending a good part of the last few days wading through emails and comments that have come in as a result of the TIME.com article and this blog post. It's been an interesting sociological study and occasion for self-reflection. What does vigorous engagement look like? How do we disagree online and in real life? How do we influence and persuade one another? How do we show graciousness when our "side" has prevailed?

Some of this week's emails got quickly deleted, e.g. those that mainly consisted of quoting the Apostle Paul. Trust me, I'm familiar with his work.

Similarly, messages employing all caps, excessive exclamation points, etc. I don't allow people I know to yell at me; do you really think I'm going to let you?

Other responses contained factual inaccuracies about the decision that was made or had a legitimate gripe about what happened. My rule of thumb has always been that those folks deserve one response, so if I have time, I'll respond in good faith. Then it's their move. If they show a genuine effort to engage, I may continue. If they escalate the nastiness, I'm through. Life's too short.

But then there were a few messages that got to me. And upon reflection, it's not the trolls that do it. They are so over the top as to be instantly disregarded.

It's the people who wrote out of their own authentic experience... especially those who were honest in naming their pain.

One person began a note by saying, "I cried when that marriage decision was made too, but for the exact opposite reason that you did."

Hey. I feel the way I do, and the person's email doesn't change that. But how can you not be moved by that?

I keep thinking about James Baldwin's words: I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

This person refused to be a knee-jerk hater, instead responding from a deeper place. The emailer shared an experience of pain, and with a complete stranger, no less. I honor that. It has stuck with me.

Many people are pained by what happened. I don't understand it. I honestly believe that this is a faithful decision biblically, theologically and pastorally. I further believe that gay marriage won't be a cultural cataclysm, just as interracial marriage wasn't. But I appreciate the pain the General Assembly's decision is bringing to people. And part of our action at GA was for the church to put a process in place of engaging with people who are pained.

How do we do that? The church has been arguing about LGBT issues for decades. There's really nothing much left to say. Let's stop trying to convince each other we're right. So what's next? Authenticity is next. Vulnerability is next. Sharing our broken places with one another is next.

(Thank you Brene Brown.)

~

Image: "Troll surrenders to love," by my aunt, artist Chris Bergquist Fulmer.

"But Can I Watch Football on the Sabbath?" With a Nod to Brene Brown's Daring Greatly

medium_3009900665 When I speak to groups about Sabbath, I almost always start at the same place:

Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can't be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn't something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.

After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they're already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it's an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it's good, it's good, it's good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.

That doesn't mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn't we be doing "holy" things on that day? Isn't Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?

What about watching football on TV?

I'm never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I'm not the Sabbath police.

For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I'm more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.

But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?

I'm reading Brené Brown's latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, and she's helped me finally get more concrete with my answer to the football question.

[If you're not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn't she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren't thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]

Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the "football on Sabbath" question when she talks about numbing. She writes:

I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn't mean that we don't numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn't just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can't selectively numb emotion.

There aren't any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection... Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?

For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I'm standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.

This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don't know; I don't have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their "fearfully and wonderfully made" bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring... and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we're not really there.

I think that's why some people see Facebook as such a source of unhappiness. In my opinion, there's nothing inherently numbing about social media. Used in an intentional and mindful way, it's a great source of fun and connection.

What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there's no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I'm a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I'm a chatty FBer. I've also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that's good for me. So I've put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it's using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).

What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?

~

I haven't said this recently: thank you to everyone who has read Sabbath in the Suburbs and recommended it to friends. If you haven't already, I'd be most thankful for an Amazon review.

photo credit: laverrue via photopin cc

Today's Video: "Human"

I've been wanting to write this one down but just haven't had the time... so here's a video. Five minutes. Background: We have Services for Wholeness each quarter. It's a time for people to come and receive prayer for whatever they're dealing with. In December the service is called Blue Christmas.

Further Background: I occasionally do dumb things.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/35585025 w=400&h=300]

Human from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.