Word of the Week

Do you have the courage to show up to hard conversations?

It's no secret that courage is in high demand in these times we're living in.

In our polarized everything culture right now, it's so easy to un-follow our social media "friends" who don't believe as we do. It's easy to worship, work and play only with those in our thought camp. It's easy to turn off the news or ignore today's headlines so to forget the reality.

But, last Thursday night, I witnessed two brave public leaders with courage to face each other. They took the harder way showing up a very public arena. They sat on a stage before 2,500 persons in the pews of The Riverside Church in New York City. With what intent? Direct words about race, vulnerability, trauma and politics. And to meet each other face to face for the first time after a twitter conversation in August 2016 that began with these words by DeRay McKesson, a popular young black lives matter activist and curator of the podcast, Pod Save the People.

"Some people live to see other people fail and that's sad. I've noticed that some people #onhere are just so negative. Find some joy folks."

New York Times best-selling author, University of Houston researcher and middle-aged white woman, Brene Brown tweeted back this: "That’s painfully true. I guess joy just takes more vulnerability than cruelty."

The conversation sparked so much interest and attention that The Riverside Church-- a place known for birthing words that matter-- facilitated the meet-up. 

I found myself on the third row for the 90 minute event that became a 2 hour one (that could have kept going). Brene pushed back the latest findings in sociological research. DeRay pushed back on white privilege.

I'm still thinking about lots of things they said (as any good conversation invites you to do) but for today I'm wondering . . .  to forge a new path of engaging folks we wouldn't normally talk to, what must we have?

First, willingness to come to the table

There's a sign outside my gym that says, "Showing up is half the battle" and I couldn't believe it more. Isn't getting to the gym so hard sometimes? Things that bring discomfort aren't usually our favorite activities.

Yet, in spite of the expected discomfort, Brene and Deray opened themselves up to this hard work. Let's remember, they didn't have engage in a twitter conversation. They didn't have to show up at the event. But they did. And they kept talking on the stage long after the public conversation ended. It wasn't a staged photo-op for either of them but something very real.

Good work begins here.

Also, ears to hear hard truths

One of my favorite moments of the night was when DeRay spoke of how combatting privilege means being aware of how much space white folks take up in conversations (like Brene was taking up in this one unaware).  White people, DeRay said are used to being heard. It's a new starting place to enter a room as a white person aware of those who aren't.

DeRay went on to challenge church folks with this zinger: "Whiteness can be so strong in many congregations that it overcomes belief in God. Whiteness wins over God."

DeRay was brave to tell it like he saw it. Brene was brave to stay in the chair.

And Silence 

Another gift of this event was how Brene modeled the gift silent pauses. A dear friend of mine and I joke all the time about our love of "the phone pause."

It's a practice to not rush to the next thing. It's space in conversations to think intentionally. It's the intention of valuing words for the healing or hurt they can cause.

Throughout the event, it was as if you could see the words falling between the two conversation partners as they talked and paused. The words found home deeper into them. The words opened up doors to new beginnings. The words brought life.

I want more life-giving exchanges of words in my life. Don't you? The question I can't get off my mind is this week is: how am I going to start a courageous conversation?


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Want break up a conversation in a room? Say the word shame. Everyone stops talking. 

I know this first hand from the experiences I've had this spring promoting Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility. One word has risen to define so many of the talks I've given is SHAME.

You can't speak about infertility without talking about shame couples feel when it shatters their dreams. One person voiced to me recently, "Infertility can make you feel like a second class citizen." So true! And while it's an uncontrollable medical condition, a infertile woman (and sometimes the man) believes it's her/ his fault! And so why would we talk about that? (Much less write a book about it!)

But by time I reached the publication date of Birthed, grace found me on the healing journey. As Nadia Bolz Webber is known to say, "it had become a scar, not a wound."

So now, as I'm on the road talking about Birthed, it has been baffling to me how many people have tried to shame me for telling my story. 

Saying things like, "I can't believe you wrote that . . ."

Or, "I didn't know you were such a drunk . . ."

Or, "I would have stopped reading the book half way through if I didn't know you. You write too personally about things."

As easy as it would be to accept the shame others want me to feel about writing such a vulnerable memoir, I refuse!

I want to say to my critics, "Why can't you tell the truth about your life too?" 

This I know for sure: we have so much work to do in un-shaming not only infertility but divorce, mental illness, affairs, abortion, suicide, job loss. You name it, we love to shame it especially in faith communities.

I know I'm not the first one to say that we, as humans, love hiding our pain. We love appearing more put together than we really are. We love sitting in the pews during religious services allowing our real lives to stay hidden. And often for good reasons. Words that enemies and friends alike throw our way can make us feel terrible!

But, in the Christian tradition we live by another narrative. It is for freedom that Christ set us free!

I'm so thankful for the voices of truth-telling who've come alongside me in this journey, who've held my hands when I've felt discouraged and beaten down. Friends who've bought my book and even wrote a review on Amazon! 

I'm especially grateful for those who participated in my Lenten blog series this spring. Each writer told a story of how a potentially shameful part of their lives birthed something beautiful. If you followed it, you know folks shared some great stories!

Today, I not only want to thank each of them publicly for their courage. But, I want to point to their posts again as resources for you and your communities of faith. I'm proud to be in their vulnerable tribe and believe the world needs more storytellers like them. Because this is the only way the tide of shame is going to change.

Alice shared her story going through a divorce.

Mary Kate un-silenced anxiety and depression.

Amy wrote about the unexpected loss of a job.

Dena talked about the ongoing suffering of chronic pain.

Anne wrote about her son's diagnose of autism.

Dolly wrote about she was formed by her father's death, a stillborn child and her divorce.

Master teacher Brene Brown encourages us all here saying: "Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.  Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light."  Amen to that!

P.S. I'm always interested in accepting guest posts. If Preacher on the Plaza can be a place for you to share, a story, I'd love that. Send me an email. 

11391363_10153393605444168_6532329329838814145_nThis week, I attended the inaugural writing workshop of the Frederick Buechner Center at Princeton University. I was excited to re-connect with pastoral colleagues and hear one of my preaching sheros, Barbara Brown Taylor talk about writing.

During the Q&A time of Taylor’s last morning lecture on telling the truth in writing (great topic, right?), she responded to a question from the audience.

She talked about how nervous this speaking engagement made her: “Really the first Buechner lectures? No pressure, really? . . . Well, I did it. And, now and I’m so glad it’s over.”

You should have seen the huge grins that filled the faces in the pews.

We knew she didn’t have to say this. She was Barbara Brown Taylor after all! We hung on her eloquent sentences and well-coordinated hand gestures.

But, BBT felt anxiety about speaking at Princeton?

Maybe she wasn’t super human? And it was a great reminder that we didn’t have to be either.

But, you and I live in a world of gaps where super human labels are the norm.

Teacher, student.

Mentor, mentee.

Parent, child.

We get stuck in these places, these roles.

We allow ravines to divide us and fill the gap with expectations, convention and keeping everything nicely polished on LinkedIn.

We fill the gap with tears wiped away too soon while proclaiming, “I wouldn’t want to scare her.”

We fill the gap with reliance on being “all-knowing” so that our grown-up card isn’t suddenly yanked.

And we let our shiniest parts be known.

Our degrees.

Our clean houses.

Our biggest accomplishments at work.

We put away our insecurities, our fears and our deepest complexities in the attic, next to that Christmas decoration box we only get down once a year.

But, I’ve come to believe that talking about what makes us uncomfortable IS the best gift we can give one another.


(And leaping the into the vulnerability ravine).

On Wednesday at lunch, I sat with a pastoral colleague, woman who was becoming a new friend. Our stories of child loss rose to the surface. We both knew a God who did not heal, who made us angry, and whose “perfect plans” felt unfair at the deepest levels.

We both cried for the gut-wrenching loss that feels so invisible to most and what it means to live in a world that doesn’t acknowledge our way of mothering.

Later, my friend said, “Thank you for sharing your pain with me. You don’t know how good it was to know someone who has felt all of those things too.”

I took a deep breath in thanksgiving of how the gap closed so quickly from a stranger to a friend. Our willingness to risk talking about our “ugly” brought us this gift.

Not everyone has ears to hear the ugly. Not every audience is open enough to receive our fears.

But what gaps can be closed among us when we don’t try to be so perfect!