S-Town's Limited Understanding of Empathy [sharing at Think Christian today]


“John B McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.”

So read the subject line of the email that first caught the attention of This American Life producer Brian Reed and would become the seed for the podcast S-Town. Upon further engaging with McLemore, chief malcontent of Woodstock, Ala., Reed found himself navigating a maze of complicated characters, rumors of corruption, unrequited love, and a downward spiral of plot twists. For Christians, the podcast also functions as a complicated consideration of how to best love our neighbors.

The plot of S-Town is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. Yet Brian Reed is not Shakespeare, and his role in telling us the heartbreaking life story of a gifted but unhappy man encompasses more than theatricality. Through Reed’s ability to offer an empathetic ear to everyone he meets, we have the privilege of discovering unexpected beauty among the citizens and landscapes of a backwater community in the Bible Belt. Yet as Reed gets spun into the story as a character invested in the lives of the people he encounters, his empathy morphs into a voyeuristic pity, one that fails to intervene for the truest good of those he’s encountered.

A warning: spoilers lie ahead, including discussion of difficult details.

read the entire article at Think Christian

A little rambling about my struggle with words lately: 

There were moments listening to the 7 episodes of the new podcast S-Town that I could hardly stand to listen any longer. I’m still not sure I should have kept listening, but I’d made the mistake of motivating myself to go to the gym by saving my “binge-listening” for the treadmill and so I felt committed. Make no mistake: the producers of groundbreaking podcasts This American Life and Serial crafted yet another brilliant vehicle for irresistible storytelling, led this time by narrator Brian Reed. In the nature of much true crime genre, most threads of the account are left unresolved at the end. It wasn't really the unresolved threads that bothered me, but the conclusions reached from what I considered a truncated understanding of empathy.
The other reason I completed the podcast was because earlier in the episodes I was caught up in the unexpected beauty of the world that Brian Reed was painting for our imaginations. I could actually imagine the series as a Terrence Malick film. While I was feeling enthused about the overall arc of the storytelling, I told Josh, the editor I work with at Think Christian (who is a truly generous and skillful editor) that I'd write the piece. I only had one more episode/one more trip to the gym to hear the conclusion, and then I'd write something right away!
 The problem came when I listened to the final episode, and it was far darker than I'd expected and really got me into a head space of disturbing thoughts and feelings that took me a while to process. Time and lots and lots of words - first in my journal, and then in several written drafts before the piece could actually be appropriate for public viewing.
In short: I got triggered. I got triggered by difficult themes, but even more so by what felt to me like some glaring miscalculations by the podcast host and producers. I got tipped over by my own negative responses, and couldn't quite get upright again.
It's not that I'm incapable of watching/listening/reading/discussing difficult topics. It's actually been part of my healing process to be able to enter into my own experiences of trauma by entering into other painful stories (both true and fictional). I came to the conclusion that S-Town took me past my comfort zone not because of its themes, but because of the places I perceived it was not telling the truth. Mixed messages and double standards in drawing conclusions really, really irks me.
And I mean, really.
In an earlier draft of the critique, I managed to weave in some of my animosity of current political rhetoric. Something about the way abusers create euphemisms to justify the ways they hurt other people. So, add euphemisms to doubles standards, mixed messages, and covering up for predatory behavior with any sort of language that makes excuses for violating other people to the list of things that really set me off. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. I don't know all the reasons for this, although I have some pretty good hunches.
I was reminded, in my processing S-Town, that triggers don't have to become the kind of despair that weighs me down without relief, particularly if I am able to process the feelings with people I trust. In this case, I needed Brian (who'd listened to the podcast with me) and Josh (who helped me sort through my onslaught of words to get to the redemptive critique I most wanted to offer). I also needed time to process in quiet with my own self.  For someone who enjoys quiet moments of contemplation, I can really kick against it when my heart is feeling afraid and angry.
On Saturday night, two days before my final deadline to submit the piece (a deadline that had been graciously extended a couple of times because of my general struggle with the topic), Brian took me to Manhattan to hear a favorite band. It's the kind of band I need to hear live approximately once a year just to maintain my soul's well-being. Their songs are that beautiful. And Saturday night, they sounded as beautiful as ever (if not more so). The difference I experienced, though, was in the words they spoke. One band member, in particular, seemed especially weary. She referenced the current political climate in our nation, which was not a surprise, and something I completely understood. It felt though, like she was so frustrated by recent events that she could no longer offer any sort of eloquent response. The words she used were intended to sound warm, open, and encouraging, but came across to me as cynical, defensive and exhausted. I think she was trying to express empathy, but what it sounded like was weary apathy.
Another band member chose to offer his feelings through very few words, and all of them pointing us to the lyrics of the songs. He'd say "Everything I want to say I wrote into this song." And all of the songs were beautiful and powerfully true, even when they said hard things about hard themes.
I think we all get to have times, like my favorite band member, when we run out of words and just throw our hands up in the air and sputter. We need to hold each other up in those times, certainly. But the greater option, whenever we can muster it, is to offer something good, true, and beautiful. When we're in the angry, sputtering place we need to stand as close as possible to the  beauty-cultivators, and let them speak the words for all of us.
Thanks for listening to my little stream of consciousness ramble about triggers and anger and beauty. As always, I'd love to hear any of your own thoughts on the subject. Drop me a note when you're able.
Truth, goodness and beauty, friends,

Mary Oliver poem. %22I Worried%22.png

Easter Thursday: Resurrection of the morning

Easter Sunday kicks off a week in the liturgical calendar known as the Easter Octave and a seven-week festival called Eastertide. Stay tuned for a variety of celebratory posts here on the blog!

Nichols Canyon  by David Hockney ( source )

Nichols Canyon by David Hockney (source)

The resurrection of the morning.
The mystery of the night.
The hummingbird’s wings.
The excitement of thunder.
The rainbow in the waterfall.
Wild mustard, that rough blaze of the fields.
— Mary Oliver, "A Thousand Mornings"

Sabbath Daybook: favorite children's book illustrations & other happy autumn things

Since 2006, I've been scratching away at this and that on the blog.  It's an incubator of ideas and a place to draft words.  For almost the entire ten years, I've posted weekly a list of links to things I find good, true and beautiful.  Recently I've been including one of my favorite quotations from the German poet, Goethe, encouraging us in the value of daily habits of enjoying art in all its forms.  This week I'm reminding myself (and you, too) of one of the poems that inspired this whole venture in the first place.  

The title for this weekly post has enjoyed several iterations. The most recent version -- Sabbath Daybook  -- becauseI keep growing in my understanding of this gift of rest that is also a command.  I've talked before about it here and here.

The dictionary definition: Sabbath [sab-uh th] noun

1. the seventh day of the week, Saturday, as the day of rest and religious observance among Jews and some Christians. Ex. 20:8–11.

2. the first day of the week, Sunday, similarly observed by most Christians in commemoration of te Resurrection of Christ.

3. any special day of prayer or rest resembling the Sabbath: e.g., Friday is the Muslim Sabbath.

4. (sometimes lowercase) a period of rest.

Enjoy a few bits of goodness and beauty for your time of rest this weekend.  May your hearts and minds and bodies be refreshed to know truth, peace and joy.  

Peace, friends.

Here's some of my favorite illustrators for autumn (mostly, but not all, for children's books)

Why not visit an independent bookseller or library this weekend? Indie Bookstore Finder

 Maybe even try out a story hour, if you have littles at home.  I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  I do not have littles at home any longer, but I visit the children's section of the library every time I go, and regularly enjoy curling up with a beautiful picture book.  

Here's the Spotify playlist I made for autumn:  Best Autumn.

Brian and I listened to it from start to finish driving from a visit with friends in Vermont back home to Connecticut this past weekend. The scenery and the soundtrack were a perfect match.  I napped through about half of it, which means the music was especially perfect, if you ask me.

If you must read the internet, may I suggest the following?

Walking While Black |  Our former rector, Cliff Warner at Christ Church of Austin, recommended this essay a couple of weeks ago.  The piece is extraordinarily well-written and important. via Literary Hub

Fetters & Freedom: On Thomas Merton’s vision of transcendence through faith | Brian and I have been reading a lot from Merton lately, and I found this brief biography helpful in understanding the man's conversion and value to 20th-century Christianity. via The New Criterion

Curbed pocket guide to NYC: fall 2016 | 26 places to visit this autumn.  We've got a whole bunch of company visiting in the next couple of weeks!  via Curbed

Clay-pot-truths from a minister who's also a parent | My brother wrote an excellent post that applies to ministers and parents alike.  I'd share it with you even if he didn't quote me (which he did).  via Rooted

from the archives: 

Alex is baptized! (2011) | October is the month for the annual parish retreat at our former church in Austin.  Our son Alex was baptized the first year we lived in Austin, and it was a profound occasion for our whole family.  Also, the pictures show you how bad Texas looked during the drought of that horribly hot year - our first.  

Parenting is not a covenantal relationship. Marriage is.  (2014) | Some background to the article I wrote for Think Christian a couple of years ago.  I'll tell you what: As Brian and I enter this season of "empty nest", I am so, so thankful we understood the difference between parenting promises and marriage vows.  Like thankful times a billion.  It's totally worth it, friends.

I'll leave you with a favorite stanza from Mary Oliver.  

from "Sometimes" in  Red Bird: poems  by Mary Oliver

from "Sometimes" in Red Bird: poems by Mary Oliver

Be astonished by the good, true and beautiful today, friends.  

And, please, drop me a line to tell me all about it.

Weekend Daybook post. beginnings and endings edition


As we head toward fall, I'm trying to get the blogging gears moving again with a weekly catchall post. I've posted this particular series in various iterations over the years, but all of them started as a discipline to counter the anxiety I often feel headed into a weekend of social interactions. Even though I love people, and I love meaningful conversations with people, as a 45-year-old introvert I still struggle with social anxiety. So this post is an attempt for me to collect beautiful, true, and good bits and pieces from the internet and from my own ordinary life in one place as a contemplative practice. I share them to help me remember, and with the hope that it might be helpful for some of you, too.

Please let me know what you've been reading, making, doing, listening and enjoying this week. I love the ideas you share here! (and if we happen to see each other in real life this week, by all means I want to talk about it all with you!)

a little song (or 20)

Roots & Wings Playlist

I made this playlist to comfort us on our trip home from taking our youngest daughter, Natalie, to her freshman year of college.  I've been saying this since we took our oldest son to his first day of elementary school about 20 years ago: There's nothing in the world more counterintuitive than to take your child to a place they've never been and leave them there. It feels kind of like shock, actually.  

We are so excited for her opportunity to attend the school she's been dreaming about in the program she's been dreaming about for a long time.  We're so thankful to live only three hours north on the efficient I-95.  We're even looking forward to this new "empty nest" season.  AND we are also sad.  It's just the end of an era, and deserves a bit of boo-hooing, in my opinion.  

When you take a child to college for the first time, you have all these ideas of taking beautiful photos. Usually you walk away with something like this.  

When you take a child to college for the first time, you have all these ideas of taking beautiful photos. Usually you walk away with something like this.  

If you're in the mood for something more cheery, here's my ongoing Summer playlist on Spotify. By the calendar we still have a couple of weeks left, friends.  This playlist kept me company during a pretty refreshing Saturday breakfast-making, herb-replanting and kitchen-cleaning session this morning.  Enjoy!

My Summer Playlist

Kendra at Captain's Cove marina, Bridgeport

Kendra at Captain's Cove marina, Bridgeport

a good poem

a fine picture

Swimmin , Rhona Garvin -  source

Swimmin, Rhona Garvin - source

My brother and nephew swimming in the Long Island Sound off Jennings Beach.

My brother and nephew swimming in the Long Island Sound off Jennings Beach.

make & do

We've been given some beautiful fresh produce by neighborly gardeners.  Last night, to celebrate one of Kendra's last nights home, Brian grilled some delicious steaks.  I quick searched a recipe to use the zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes we had on hand, and made this delicious vegetable side:  Roasted Garlic-Parmesan Zucchini, Squash and Tomatoes. (perfect, right?)  The veggies were so yummy, Brian and I ate them with scrambled eggs this morning and Kendra finished them up with pasta and a bit of leftover tomato sauce for lunch.  One dish for three meals - is this what Empty Nest will be like?

a few reasonable words

Patterns of Home, Importance of Homeyness |  I have a little side hobby of studying urban planning and keep learning so much from this organization.  via Strong Towns blog

Retreat for Ministers to Artists: Kathleen Norris, Artists & the Vocation to Prayer | If you love artists, churches, or Kathleen Norris, you need to read this announcement.  If you love all three, you just need to register for the retreat already.  via Diary of an Arts Pastor blog

Joe Henry - The Mystery and Adventure of Life and Songwriting | Such an excellent interview between two intelligent, creative and seasoned adults.  Listen asap.  via On Being with Krista Tippett podcast

from the archives:

What I Wish My Son Would Say About Me On His 22nd Birthday | In honor of Andrew's 25th birthday this week!

My Top 4 Parenting Epiphanies, or My Child Is Not My Property but My Guest | I seem to re-learn this lesson every single September.  Read if you are a parent or you know a parent.  It's pretty important stuff.

We had a great time with 3 of our kids here in August!

We had a great time with 3 of our kids here in August!

a conversation prompt

Remember, friends: Only you can prevent small talk! Hopefully, I've given you a few things to contemplate and share in your conversations this week.  If all else fails, here's a great question to ask everyone you meet. 

What makes a teacher great? Tell me about one of your all-time favorite teachers.

I'd love to hear your answer to this question, so leave me a comment below!  

May your week be filled with truth, goodness and beauty, friends.


a few [incomplete] thoughts on the sacred practice of Sabbath

“The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees--
to learn something of being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention”
-- Mary Oliver, “Entering the Kingdom”

via Death to the Stock Photo

Get us to the place 
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines -- they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. 
Richard Foster , Celebration of Discipline
via the daily asterisk* 

I've been saying for many months here that I can't write because I'm too busy.  And that's mostly true.  Maybe even truer if I said it this way:
"I'm choosing not to write so that I can make space to follow God in other things He's asking me to do right now."  
Probably the most true way to say it is this:
"I'm choosing not to write because on some days I'm trying to obey God and make space for other things He's asking me to do.  On other days I'm just plain pissed about the things God's asking me to do and not writing is my way of getting even." 
Truth is, God gave us these amazing gifts of four children and a move to Austin to pursue Brian's ordination and relationship in a vibrant, healthy worship community, and an introduction to creamy jalapeno sauce.  Growing up requires me to recognize that good gifts come with responsibility.  My having to work full time, or lose sleep over my kids being flung hither and yon into adulthood, or deal with anxiety related to becoming a priest's wife, or roll up my sleeves to invest in this healthy worship community, or start eating more vegetables and fewer tacos are all decisions grown up people make in order to steward the abundance of good gifts that come down like lights from the Father.

Only a child wants it both ways:  good gifts with no responsibility.

My hope is to remain like a child with a simple faith and pleasure in my good Father while also becoming a grown-up in the way I respond to the things I don't like. I go back to the place of sowing to the Spirit in the act of spiritual disciplines, get into the ground where God can do the work of transformation in me.

This fall Brian and I and a couple of friends are co-leading a new small group in our neighborhood.  We'll focus on one spiritual discipline each month, starting -- appropriately -- with the practice of Sabbath. I realize that many of my ways to grasp for "rest" are not at all the same thing as Sabbath rest.  

Sabbath - We desire to set apart one day a week for rest and worship of God.

Our month to focus on Sabbath practices is over but I'm not letting go.  I need rest.  Deep down in my soul. I need to be at peace with myself in the midst of real or perceived chaos.  

I think the Buddhists call this Zen.  I choose to believe there is a way of Christian rest.  I believe the Christ who naps in capsizing boats follows the footsteps of his Father who takes days off even though the spinning universe depends on His attention.  

“Sabbath is the time set aside to do nothing so that we can receive everything, to set aside our anxious attempts to make ourselves useful, to set aside our tense restlessness, to set aside our media-satiated boredom. Sabbath is the time to receive silence and let it deepen into gratitude, to receive quiet into which forgotten faces and voices unobtrusively make themselves present, to receive the days of the just completed week and absorb the wonder and miracle still reverberating from each one, to receive our Lord's amazing grace.” ― Eugene H. Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers

A few possible exercises our small group discussed on the practice Sabbath (source: Spiritual Disciplines Handbook) :

1.  Plan a twenty-four-hour sabbath you can enter with anticipation. The night before your sabbath, remind your body how long it has to luxuriate and rest in God.
  • Consider the things that would nourish you: worship, music, a nap, making art, walking, reading, playing with children, afternoon tea.  Plan them spaciously into the day.

2.  Begin your Sabbath gently on the evening before.  Light a candle.
  • Invite the presence of Christ to guide you through your sabbath.
  • Eat with friends and family.
  • Go to bed early, speaking peace to one another.
  • Pray for Christ to give you deep, refreshing sleep. Rest in his arms. Commit your dreams to the Lord

3.  Prepare a “sabbath box or basket.”  Choose a basket or cover a grocery-size box with gift wrap. Each week on the evening before Sabbath, gather as a family or group of friends to put all the things you don’t need to take with you into Sabbath day. Drop cell phones, credit cards, laptops into the box. Put work projects and homework in the box.
  • Tell one another what you are looking forward to as you enter Sabbath.
  • Pray together to receive the gift of Sabbath.

4.  The night before your sabbath day, enter into sleep as a spiritual act of worship. Consciously let go of your compulsion to be indispensable. Drop all that brings you anxiety into the arms of your heavenly Father. Lay your head on the pillow imagining that you are putting your head into the lap of God. Commit your body and dreams to him. Relax in God and rest.

5.  Awake gently to your sabbath day. If it is possible, don’t set an alarm. Let your body wake naturally. As you come to consciousness, take several deep breaths and open your body wide to God for the new day. Stretch out and feel the full length of of yourself. Thank God that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Thank him for the gift of the day before you.

  • Is God speaking to you in any way? Listen and respond.
  • Get up slowly and attend to your desire to encounter God today.

Resources on Sabbath

A few Scripture passages to meditate:

  • Hebrews 4:1, 9-11
  • Mark 2:27
  • Exodus 20:8-10
  • so many Psalms

My playlist of Songs for Rest

In what ways do you practice Sabbath?   
What art speaks to you of rest -- in general or in a particular work?   
It would mean so much to me to hear from you.