No need to slap anyone in the face, I promise

I wrote a review of my friend Jason Micheli’s fantastic book and it’s up today at The Presbyterian Outlook. Especially if you’re the type of person who thinks you don’t like cancer books and you just might smack someone in the face if you have to read a “Christian cancer book,” I recommend you give it a try. No cliché’s, just honest theology in real circumstances. Thanks for clicking over to read the review – I hope it will convince you to read this beautiful, hard, life-filled book.

Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.


The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.








Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Belief’s back side

Ruined book cover_everhart_aug 2016

It was when I lived in the heart of Appalachia for three years between college and seminary, that I started to cringe whenever I heard sweet, well-meaning folks say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I knew what they meant, these generous volunteers from around the US who spent vacation weeks to help repair and build homes for low-income people. For some of them, it was a huge step to get to the place of uttering this phrase. It meant they could see how similar they were to the people they had come to help. When people said this, they meant it was hitting them fresh in the face that a paycheck or an illness or birth into a different family would have put them in the same position of poverty and need.

My cringe response developed because of what was not said. If – except for the bounty of God’s grace – you might be in the same situation as that person over there, does that mean God’s grace ran out for that person? If the only thing separating you from that person over there is the grace of God, does that mean God does not bestow grace upon him?

Ruth Everhart calls it the “back side” of our theology, these second-thought obvious questions and holes exposed by our first-thought confident statements of faith. It’s a helpful term, focusing on what’s behind/beside/beneath what we say. Everhart’s new memoir, Ruined, explores the experience she and her college housemates had of being sexually assaulted in their home, and how her life, love, and faith unfolded in the years that followed. As she and her housemates attempted to make sense of what had happened to them, the language and theology they used to do so betrayed the differences in their experience and theology.

One housemate, Cheryl, had not been raped. Everhart overhears Cheryl saying to another friend, “I just kept reciting the Twenty-third Psalm over and over, and I guess God heard me.” Everhart continues, “Didn’t she know that we’d all been saying that psalm while our heads were smashed into the nap of the carpet? I kept my distance from Cheryl after that. She’d had her own experience of the crime and her own reaction. Her belief that God had intentionally spared her obviously gave her comfort. Who knows? Perhaps in her shoes, I would have felt the same. But Cheryl seemed unaware of the back side of her belief about being spared. What did that mean for the rest of us, who had not been spared?” (Ruined, p. 79).

Everhart, who was raised in the Dutch Calvinist tradition and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister, frames her story with stark markers of “back side belief.” She begins the book with this sentence: “It happened on a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning” (p. 3). In the epilogue, she reflects on the moment, decades later, when one of her young daughters first learns about the assault on her mother. Her daughter finds an old news clipping Everhart saved: “’Rapist-robber? Oh, Mom’ – your face twisted up – ‘you mean you weren’t a virgin when you married Dad! Poor you!’ It was a shock to realize that your understanding of sexual violence was being filtered through the language of sexual purity” (p. 317). It was shocking to me, as a reader and a Christian, to consider her daughter’s reaction. How odd to have compassion (“Poor you!”) so misplaced (“you weren’t a virgin”). How strange and twisted a “Christian” belief whose back side is worry over purity/virginity rather than over a violent attack.

What we profess is important. But if we have not examined the back side of those beliefs, we don’t know what we are saying – or what we really believe.

There is so much to recommend Everhart’s book, beginning with her writing, that manages to be both incisive and humorous in exactly the right places. Everhart is not an untouchable hero in this story, making all the “right” choices about her life, but she is deeply relatable, even if your own experience of sex, violence, and faith have been different than hers. I admired the intentional way she attempts to overcome her fear of black men after the attack. Everhart is white, from an overwhelmingly white community and church, and had very few interactions with black people before the black attackers broke into her home. As she describes her post-attack encounters with black men, she is honest about her unflattering knee-jerk reactions while also being kind with her still-terrified younger self. Her later church shopping struck me as genuine and wise, when she trusts God’s “Spirit to do something important in this hour every week, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was” (p. 275).

This is an honest and important book – especially for the church, where we so often have trouble discussing sex and sexual violence and where the unexamined back side of our belief heaps harm upon violation, for those in the pews and for our neighbors.

If you have read a blurb about Ruth Everhart’s memoir and were pretty sure it wasn’t going to make your reading list, I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and read it anyway. Despite the title, this is not a story of ruin, but of profound and inviting redemption. If you’re brave enough to accompany Ruth as she so beautifully describes her life and faith, you realize the only thing ruined was the theology that claimed that word.



Full Disclosure: I received a free advance reader copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Photo credit: Ruined book cover. Used with the permission of Ruth Everhart.



I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.


Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota


I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.


photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

We like short-shorts


During a writing workshop at Collegeville a couple of years ago, our marvelous instructor Marge Barrett encouraged us to write “short-shorts,” snapshot pieces of 250 words or fewer. It’s an interesting exercise, to see what stories this form suits and to impose word count limits where the story wants to seep out past its arbitrary edges. It’s also good practice in self-editing, whittling away here and there, gently carving off what absolutely doesn’t have to remain.

This summer Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Communitas journal published two of my short-shorts in the “Love Hurts” issue (“Pull” was published under the title “Love Hurts”). As I continue to work my way through a much longer piece, going very short was a great stretching of the opposite muscles. If you’re the curious type, about to use the word count tool, I’ll save you the trouble: I came in with one word to spare in “Pull” and was over by eight in “Neighbor.” But here they are.



Not yet in school, my little brother waited for me after school each day, pestering my mother so he’d know when it was time to walk up to the corner and keep a lookout. I can’t remember all the days he must have done this or what we talked about on the way home. I only remember the day he stopped.

I was with two friends and spotted him from blocks away. David had climbed onto the fire hydrant at the corner of our street to get a better view of my approach. He was waving his arms and hollering, “Deborah! Deborah!”

The girls I was walking with were both big sisters, too, and one of them had seven siblings. Still, somehow my first grade self became suddenly invested in “cool” and decided this wasn’t it. When we reached the corner, I stepped close to him and whispered fiercely, “Don’t ever wait for me again.”

He never did.

He knows I tear up when I remember this. He knows if I could take it back I would. He tells me it doesn’t have the hold on him that it does on me.

David lives four states away now and I see him once a year. It’s not enough. But on the phone last month when I worried our lives might go too far off in different directions, he cut me off and said, as if it’s obvious, “A lot of things come and go but siblings are like gravity.”


Love Your Neighbor

The golf pro is getting work done at Starbucks. It’s been raining for three days in this southern resort town known for temperate winters. Today it’s 45 degrees. Eyes bracketed by crow’s feet, set wide in his winter-sunburned face, squint at his laptop between calls rescheduling three days’ worth of cancelled lessons.

The sloppy twentysomethings sharing the long table with center electrical outlets have doughy faces, new laptops, and Vitamin water. Occasionally one speaks gibberish about list views, headers, and tap events, and one of the others yanks out his earbuds. It’s mostly the curly-haired boy and he’s loud, like he’s trying to get all three to take out their earbuds, like he wants to impress anyone who can hear.

The golf pro has old-school Sony earphones, bigger than a Kindle, the kind you can’t stuff in your pocket.

I didn’t bring mine. I relish the relative silence, waiting for my friend.

We’re in town for a conference. Coffee and conversation before the long day, campus ministers without nametags.

So it’s not like we’re wearing signs or anything, but five minutes into our conversation, the pierced boy sipping Frappuccino at the next table suddenly starts talking, wants to explain his single earpiece to us.

“I’m deaf in the other ear. That’s what happens when you fall asleep next to an amp. There was a bunch of feedback when they cranked it up. The doctor said if it’d started full blast I’d have 100% loss in that ear. But it’s 85%. Some stupid number like that.”

So we listen.


photo credit: “Studying in Starbucks,” © 2013 by Nicola Sapiens De Mitri, CC BY-SA 2.0

Traveling Companions: Hair, hair bands, and driving with the windows down

old car radio

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way. This is the fourth in the series; other posts are here, here and here.]

This was not part of the plan when I started this series. I mean, Jackson freakin’ Browne is still waiting his turn. Or I could go Van Morrison next, or Sara Bareilles. But last Friday a totally un-August-in-Virginia day befell us – upper 70s and not a lick of humidity. I cannot stress enough how unlikely this was.

I had an errand to run down the road in our county and my hair was still wet from the morning’s swim. The day was so gorgeous, just driving through it wasn’t enough, so I opened the windows and let the wind do its worst, tangles be damned.  I found the local classic rock station, the same one whose station promo, back when I was in college, was “lock it in and rip the knob off.”

It’s been a while since my hair was long enough to whip in the wind. As soon as I picked up speed on the curvy road I felt like the students moving into their dorms this week – young, free, invincible, like the road was opening up before me into possibility and promise.  Not just the road.  The Road.  It’s the way I’ve always felt when the air kisses my skin just so and the wind whips my hair and the radio’s up loud enough to hear over that noise.

I wondered as the feeling washed over me if this is the way I’d always feel, in a car with the windows open and good tunes on the radio.  When I’m 85 will those sensations still combine to fool me into a carefree younger-than-I-am moment?  When I used to look over at my white-haired, arthritic, sun-spotted grandmother, driving the truck to town with the windows down when we’d visit in the summers, is this how she felt?  When I saw a comfortable, soft, old woman was she feeling The Road and existing as a young girl in her own mind?

This is really the kind of thing my mind does.

Anyway, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” came on in the car last Friday. I can still remember the black and white grainy MTV video and the intense longing the song, the band, and the sight of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair brought out of me at a certain point in life. For a while, I had a picture of Jon, cut from a magazine and taped to the visor in my car, so I’d see it any time the sun was in my eyes.  My friend Katie and I would flip it down even on rainy days, because sometimes you just need to see something beautiful.  Eventually I became embarrassed about my visor and my interest in Bon Jovi and started listening to other things, but last week in the car I let my Bon Jovi freak flag fly unapologetically, singing along at full volume.

Like my own personal “this is your life” tour of college days, the next tune up was “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes. Every time I hear it I’m transported to a certain stretch of Interstate 64, heading east from Richmond, the place where we were when my friend Molly called it the “Sahanahanaha” song, which, you have to admit, is exactly how it sounds when they sing it.  (Go on, listen and you’ll hear it.)

I almost waited until I could get it together to write about Jackson Browne.  I mean, I don’t even own any Black Crowes or Bon Jovi anymore.

But this summer I’ve been writing about Traveling Companions and the best of them are the ones who, despite the odds, are still accompanying you, even when you no longer have their albums…even when you see each other more on Facebook than in real life.  The best traveling companions are the ones who awake in you someone you thought you’d let go of but who, you realize, you miss sometimes.  Maybe they can even still see your younger self when your grey hair is flying about in the wind.


photo credit: © 2014, Feddacheenee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traveling Companions: Susan Werner and “Barbed Wire Boys”

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way.  This is the third in the series; other posts are here and here.]

I used to drive a stretch of I75 in Kentucky, from Berea to Lexington.  Listening to the radio on one of these drives, I heard a new voice singing, “Here I come, banging my broken drum…there will be no more standing in my own way.”  I knew something about getting in my own way, blocking my own steps forward.  The song and the singer’s strong, clear voice resonated.  By the end of the track I was singing along, like it was my own manifesto.  The radio station must have done a “twofer” because the next tune was the same gorgeous mystery voice, telling the humorous and heartfelt tale of waiting around on the next train to show up (“Time Between Trains”).  With descriptions of boredom captured in the image of counting the ceiling tiles of the train station, the song is a metaphor for time in between loves, waiting on the next person to show up and feeling ready long before s/he comes around the bend.

Susan Werner outdoor concert PA

If you have the opportunity to hear Werner play live, take it! She’s a superb performer and she plays great spots, like this (free!) outdoor summer concert in King of Prussia, PA. At the concert we attended this summer, she sang “La Vie en Rose” in flawless French.

I have been an evangelist for Susan Werner ever since.  I haven’t yet introduced her to anyone who couldn’t appreciate her talent or didn’t like her and I’ve nurtured several fans almost as ardent as I am.  (So beware, reader, of your iTunes behavior after reading this.)  That first song I heard, ”Standing in My Own Way,” was written by Dana Cooper, but other than a few covers and her cover-concept album (Classics, which showcases her perceptive arranging talents), she falls squarely in the singer-songwriter camp.  By that I mean she mostly writes her own music, though the style ranges from singer-songwriter/folk to Americana to pop to jazz standards to gospel to torch songs.  She plays and composes on both guitar and piano, thought at one time she’d be an opera singer, and earned a master’s in voice from Temple University.  The woman’s got range.

The same album – sometimes the same song – can go from hilariously irreverent to beautifully poignant.  Her most recent album, Hayseed, includes “City Kids,” the revenge fantasy for farm kids who grew up jealous of the kids who lived in town, alongside her affectionate and cheeky tribute to her home state in “Iowa,” and the lovely and reflective words of advice to other young Iowans dreaming of pulling up stakes for the big city in “Something to be Said,” the chorus of which ends with “There’s something to be said for blooming where you are planted,” with “planted” landing in her lowest register, like a seed being pushed deep into the earth.  An older album, New Non-Fiction, boasts another fine use of extended metaphor in the darkly funny and sweetly hopeful “Misery & Happiness,” in which lounge lizard womanizing Misery, “sings at the Hilton…sways his hips and smooths his hair back, winks at you and gets you thinking/ He’s handsome from a certain angle.”  Misery “woos you when his show is over, buys you drinks and keeps you laughing while he’s looking down your shirt.”  Over in the corner, good guy Happiness is keeping a watchful eye while he “doodles on a cocktail napkin and waits for you to figure out that you should really lose this loser,” saying, “call me when you want to come back home.”

Piano, guitar…it’s all excellent.

To pick a favorite Susan Werner song would be an enterprise in frustration and never-ending “but then there’s…” so I won’t name just one.  I will say “Barbed Wire Boys” (New Non-Fiction) is pretty near the perfect song.   If I were teaching either a writing or songwriting workshop, we would start by listening to and looking at this song. It’s a tribute to and portrait of the men in the rural Iowa she “knew when [she] was coming up,” and though I’ve never been to Iowa and only fleetingly lived in rural communities as an outsider on an extended stay, one listen and I know who she means.  “Barbed Wire Boys” is a complete short story in three minutes and twenty seconds.

Like any great writer, Werner’s language is precise and revealing, as she describes the men who “were sober as coffee in a Styrofoam cup” who “sat at the head of the table and prayed before meals/ Prayed an Our Father and that was enough/ Pray more than that and you couldn’t stay tough/ Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands/ They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.”  It’s a full moment, presiding at the head of the table, nodding to the depth of faith and family – but just a nod, no tears, no extraneous words.  It’s a portrait of working class life, summed up in the detail of the “gold plate” worn off the wedding ring by hard, continuous, feed-his-family work.

Looking back on a childhood surrounded by barbed wire boys, the adult Werner wonders about the dreams these men may have had for life and considers their unexpressed deepest hopes “beat[ing] like bird’s wings in the cage of their chest.”  It’s a love song at heart, for a place and a people and a way of life she took for granted as a child and sees differently now.  It’s an ode of deep appreciation and hero worship for the overlooked men who “[held] up the sky” and made way for dreamers and artists like Werner:

And now one by one they’re departing this earth

And it’s clear to me now ‘xactly what they’re worth

Oh they were just like Atlas holding up the sky

You never heard him speak, you never saw him cry

But where do the tears go, that you never shed

Where do the words go, that you never said

Well there’s a blink of the eye, there’s a catch in the voice

That is the unsung song

Of the barbed wire boys

If you haven’t heard it yet, you can listen here to a live version that’s a bit more slowly and reflectively paced than the recorded version on the album.  At first I preferred the tighter, faster recorded version but each has its merits and the song itself is so utterly perfect it shines through each arrangement.

I hope you enjoy it and the unfolding journey of getting to know Susan Werner’s music.  She’s worth the trip.


[A note on the text, or, How I Wrote Something and Then Completely Disregarded It:  Yes, my previous post was about how I was going to forge ahead into the one space world and try to curb my many-decades worth of two-spaced typing after sentences.  I’m still trying to change that but, after a nice break from writing and work, traveling to see family and Susan Werner, I completely forgot about that goal until this very moment as I had it all uploaded and ready to publish.  So, I won’t go back and painstakingly take out the extra spaces.  I’m a work in progress.]

New Tricks. One Space.

It was hard for me to write that title. I had to back up and take out a space after the first period. I had to do it again after the first sentence in this paragraph. (And again, just there.) You see, I learned to type in high school in the 1980s, on a typewriter. I took this as an actual class in school and at the time it seemed both very old (like secretarial typing pools) and at the vanguard of technology (the typewriters were “self-erasing”!). In what has become a keyboard-oriented world, typing class has come in handy, though lately I’ve realized my typing may say more about me than I knew.

I read an internet-incendiary article a few months ago about how “old” you seem when you use two spaces rather than one. The author proclaimed she could tell if writers are over 40 by the amount of space left at the end of sentences. I wondered who’s going around counting spaces. And I knew she was right: it was drilled into us in that high school typing class that there are two spaces after the end of a sentence.

When I talk to design-oriented folks they definitely notice the spacing and, I suspect, they would have thought my typing class was behind the times even in the 80s. According to at least one article this whole thing was decided in the 1960s. There are explanations about font types and spacing explaining why it used to be two spaces and why it’s now unnecessary (and incorrect) to use two. I’m not really interested in internet wars about what “everyone” is doing, and I’m not pretending to be younger than I am.

But I am trying to learn a not-so-new trick. I am trying to release over 30 years of two-space practice. Strangely, at a time when I’m hoping for more space and less crowding in the rest of life, I am aiming for a slightly slimmer margin between thoughts on the page. I will have to employ the find-and-replace tool at the end of writing this because this feels like trying to sign my name left-handed – I keep looking back to see two-spaced sentences scattered like want-to-sprout seeds throughout these paragraphs. (Did it again just then). I will have to go back and pull them up like weeds, even though yesterday I planted them purposely.

What once served a purpose is no longer needed. And if we’re writing to try to get through to one another, we should care how we come across – out of touch, outdated, unstylish, stuck in our ways, or worse. I want to be part of a common conversation, so I work on changing my habit.

Things change. It usually feels weird at first, even when we long for the change. Blind resistance for the sake of tradition and comfort is an understandable knee-jerk reaction, but it’s a crappy way to live in the long term. We can all learn new tricks, no matter how hard or how late in the game – look at South Carolina today. Here’s to the one space world.


Photo credit: “Typewriter Letters,” © 2007 Laineys Repertoire, CC By 2.0

On President Obama, this extraordinary week, and the holy breast pumps of grace


I spent most of last week on retreat with my writing group, half of whom are nursing mothers with babies in tow.  When I made it home late yesterday, my husband and I went straight to the computer to watch President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney.  Perhaps if I hadn’t just been witness to a week of breastfeeding, I would have heard it differently, but I hung up on his repeated phrase “we express God’s grace.”

He couldn’t have done a better job speaking Methodist, with his sustained emphasis on the undeserved, unearned, unmerited grace of God we all receive.  (And I was proud to see the United Methodist Church sitting in solidarity with our AME sisters and brothers, represented by South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston on the front row on stage – yes, geeks like me can spot the cross and flame logo and the bishops’ insignia on a stole in the background of a video shot.)  As President Obama spoke, circling back around to God’s grace in our lives, I heard something I haven’t before.

I usually think of God’s grace flowing – gushing – continually into the world and into each of our lives.  Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don’t.  Either way, it’s always there and we can actively participate in it or resist it or halfway notice it, or not.  What I never thought about before hearing the President preach-speak is how we might be able to participate more directly and persuasively than I’ve considered in the past.  We might be able to squeeze out another ounce of grace when it seems to be running dry, like a mother pumping breast milk for her newborn.

When President Obama first used the phrase, he said, “by taking down [the Confederate] flag we express God’s grace.  But I don’t think God wants us to stop there.”  I heard “we express God’s grace” as We are exhibiting God’s grace, demonstrating its existence and power.  Which surely we are….But as he repeated it I heard it differently.  A little later he said, “The vast majority of Americans – the majority of gun owners – want to do something about [the epidemic of gun violence].  We see that now.  And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”

As he repeated, “we express God’s grace,” I began to hear the verb “express” differently.  I started to think about breastfeeding and how the milk doesn’t just gush on its own, especially when a mother is trying to express (literally, press out) milk into a bottle for her child to drink some other time.  A breastfeeding mother who expresses milk needs to spend time and give attention to getting her milk from breast to bottle.  She has to push, pull, suck, and squeeze to help it flow from her to where it’s needed.  From what I understand, sometimes even with a breast pump, a mother has to wait through several minutes of sucking-pumping for the milk to start flowing.

What if, in some times, places, and circumstances, God’s grace is like this?  What if it’s not just gushing all the time like an open fire hydrant?  What if it’s ready to do that but needs some active participation from us?

I am not saying God is completely stymied without the likes of us.  That open fire hydrant of gushing grace is an image that still works for me.  But I have known places and people where, even though I witnessed God’s gushing grace drenching us all from head to toe, someone in the crowd didn’t seem wet or sensible to their drenched state.  Surely God’s grace was flooding that Wednesday night Bible study last week when a group of the faithful welcomed a stranger and invited him in.  Obviously the grace of God flowed through the families of those who were killed, as they offered forgiveness in the midst of their deep pain and loss.  But it’s not obvious to everyone.

There are times and places and people who seem to need more than the ocean we’re already swimming in.  Those times and places and people need us, to point to and live out and express every last drop of God’s grace – not just to witness to it and live gracefully and graciously, but to squeeze, prod, suck, and push until every single drop of grace lets down into the situation at hand.  Like mothers who want to be sure every ounce of precious milk gets to their hungry helpless babies, God enlists us to help express grace into the world and the lives around us so it gets to every hungry helpless child of God.  We are the holy breast pumps of grace.  It’s not a sexy job and not as beautiful as the babe at the breast, but it still gets the milk to the sucking puckered mouth.  It gets the job done.  And sometimes, when the baby’s sleeping or not hungry right then or the mother needs to be somewhere else at feeding time, expressing milk is the difference between feeding and not feeding, between flow and drying up.

I love to hear Barack Obama sing and his rendition of “Amazing Grace” was stirring and soulful, but to my ears, what he said about grace was even better.  We are witnesses but we are also tools to help get the job done, the breast pumps expressing (pressing out into the world) the grace of God.  We are expressing God’s grace when we answer hate with love and forgiveness, when we recognize how the past is killing the future, when a group of United Methodists in Virginia votes for a new way forward, when we choose to care for everyone’s health and safety as a basic human need and right, when we recognize love looks just the same on everyone and rejoice in everyone’s right to marry

For a breast-feeding mother, every day brings a hungry baby, so even though this week has been extraordinary, every week brings opportunities to express what God gives.  Keep it up.  Keep pressing out every bit of grace you know, into a world in desperate need of knowing it, too.  Keep pumping.


photo credit:  By Beukbeuk (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Five: Spring Renewal

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.



Every Friday the RevGals post a play-along Friday Five.  (Have I mentioned we wrote a book?)  This week’s is wide open:  “share with us five experiences of renewal that you have recently enjoyed, or would like to launch this Easter season.”

Happy May Day, everyone, and here are my five…


  1. Hiking.  We hiked Crabtree Falls with company in town a couple weeks ago, as the forest was just waking up again and trillium were blooming.  My calves were so tight afterwards I had to use a rolling pin on them to get them to relax – which means we should be doing this one again and often.
  2. Crêpe fest.  A few years ago for my husband’s May birthday I declared it “Crêpe fest” and we made both savory (gruyere and mushroom) and sweet (Nutella, honey and cinnamon, lemon and sugar) crêpes.  It’s time for the festival to return.
  3. Visit my grandparents’ house.  My dad owns it now but I will always think of it as theirs.  I’ve been working on a longer piece about home and being southern.  It centers on this little spot on the map in the flat red-clay tobacco country of Virginia and how I’m connected to family and traditions and people there.
  4. Enjoy a real, decadent brunch.  Atlanta is the brunchingest town I’ve ever lived in and I have missed this in every other place I’ve lived.  To find a good restaurant that does both Saturday and Sunday brunch is a treasure (and a necessity for those of us with Sunday obligations).  I love lingering over a third cup of coffee and the sprawling feeling of morning merging into afternoon, in both time and cuisine.
  5. Writing retreat.  I had one planned for the exact week we got ten inches of snow in February.  The kind proprietors of the cabin I booked allowed me to reschedule and it’s coming up soon.  I’m looking forward to being offline, out of touch, and deeply absorbed.

Late to the party and invited to dance: Delight and the new RevGals book

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

I’m a relative newcomer to the RevGals and to blogging.  When I started Snow Day two years ago and announced it to a former-student-turned-colleague she replied, “How 2002 of you.”  Yeah, yeah, I know I’m late to the party.

In 2005 when RevGals began officially, many of the Gals were keeping their blogs anonymous.  As editor and contributor Martha Spong remembers in her There’s a Woman in the Pulpit essay, “The Worst Communion Ever,” many only knew one another by blog names.  In 2013 when I participated in a summer writing workshop at Collegeville there were two other RevGals in our twelve-person workshop that week.  Each of them had been part of the group and reading along on the blog for years.  One had gone on the first continuing education cruise.  They talked about the other women in the RevGals group like they knew them.  At the time, fresh to blogging and to the group, I was surprised by this.

By last year when I made a trip to the Festival of Faith and Writing, I had met a few RevGals through Facebook and chimed in on the posts asking who’d be going to the Festival and might want to meet up while there.  It still surprised me when, trying to leave early and discreetly from a Festival lunchtime chat hosted by RevGal Ruth Everhart, she spied my nametag, stopped mid-sentence in her presentation, and blurted out, “You’re Deborah Lewis!” Since I was at a writing festival, I wondered how many people in that room were thinking I must be someone they should know, the Deborah Lewis, famous writer.

I’m pretty sure no one did.  But versions of that moment are part of the fabric of the RevGals community.  Seeing one another for who we are – pastor, writer, mother, sister, queer, straight, at wits’ end, thriving, faithful, revolutionary – seeing one another for more of who we are than we can often share in our day-to-day ministry is at the heart of this community.  In long-held traditions like our weekly “Ask the Matriarch” column on the website and in less formal Facebook group posts and prayers, we can plop down in a comfy chair with a cup of something good and ask anything.  We can listen when someone’s had a horrible encounter and we can offer a word of compassion.  We can pour it out without worrying too much about sounding pastoral or professional.  We can be our whole, wonderful, wise, working-for-Jesus, womanly selves.

My essay, in print. Damn, that looks good.

Of course this is exactly the kind of group that would put together an excellent book full of reverent and funny reflections, encouragement and honesty, about this calling we share.  Ruth Everhart’s wonderful essay, “Swinging,” opens the book with the faithful family call and response of “stupid-heads” during a languid front porch afternoon.  Stacey Simpson Duke’s “I Rise Before the Sun” quietly affirms the beauty and necessity of engaging some place other than our ministries, as she realizes, “Knitting is a valuable practice on its own terms, which reminds me that I am a valuable person on my own terms, and not just because I do valuable things.”  (Full disclosure:  Stacey is a dear friend and my former seminary housemate but I would love her piece even if our friendship didn’t pre-date our RevGals connection.)  Jan Edmiston contemplates “What They Will Remember,” urging pastors to consider our own need for full lives and healthy practices, for ourselves and for the pastors who come after us.  Katie Mulligan claims to have been “reluctant” to write her poetic and inspired “Queer,” so I can only give thanks that she let it out in all its biting, funny, compassionate, injured, healed, prophetic glory.  When she writes “I am called to dance by the one who delights in me” it’s an invitation to join in.

I am delighted with this book.  I gobbled up There’s a Woman in the Pulpit as soon as it was available on Kindle.  I immediately went to my own essay (“The Weight of Ash”) and snapped an Instagram picture.  I marveled at seeing my words on the screen and, the next week, I breathed in that wonderful new book smell when the paperback arrived in the mail (and snapped some more pics).  But I already knew what I had written.  What kept me up late into the night were the words of my sisters, the RevGals.  I recognized some and was introduced to others, but through a long night of dive-in reading, I recognized in every one a kindred spirit, a sister and a colleague, another writer trying to put together a few words to reflect the mystery of God and the strangeness and the many blessings of the call we all try to follow.



Disclaimer: I have written one of the essays in this book and I received one free copy as my contributor’s compensation.   Other than that – and some pride and excitement – I have not received any other compensation for this blog post and review of the book.

Get your book!  There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor is available from Skylight Paths or at Amazon via the RevGalBlogPals site.