Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of the books Natural Saints (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012) and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015).
Posts By This Author
Can I Take a Trump Sabbath for Just One Day?
As a teacher of environmental education, I need to stay informed. But as a mother and writer, I need to stay grounded so I can advocate for justice for my children over the long haul. If my father could give up talking about George W. Bush for 40 days, could I take a Trump Sabbath and fast from the headlines for 24 hours?
Fast for Families: Fasting and Waiting for Immigration Reform in Advent
On the first day of Advent, I began to fast for immigration reform.
I’m not a recent immigrant or a political activist. But I’m a mother, a teacher, and a Christian living in Asheville, N.C., a community affected by our broken immigration system. And I was raised in a faith that tells me that this country should not have an invisible class of people or a justice system that tears apart families. That’s not justice to me.
So Dec. 1-3, I joined the National Days to Act, Fast, and Pray in solidarity with those who have been fasting for three weeks in a tent on the National Mall. Their goal is to urge the House GOP, specifically U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to call for a vote on immigration reform.
Why I Cry in Church
Skeptics might say that as a perimenopausal woman with a teenage daughter, I’m apt to cry at the slightest provocation, which may be true. But I believe something different happens when we expose our vulnerabilities in a community of faith.
A close friend told me her theory that we are being “seasoned” in church each week, preparing to be broken open in ways we cannot anticipate. So we pray the liturgy, sing the hymns, go through the motions. Yet this seasoning of our spirits prepares us to be tender-hearted, open to prayer working on us.
This makes sense to me. There are so few places where we can bring our raw emotions without a self-conscious need to explain or escape to the nearest bathroom, which happens when we get teary-eyed at work or in line at Home Depot. Perhaps church is one of those last safe havens, where we can cry in public for no reason.
Secrets of the Spiritual Paparazzi
Some people follow pop-star celebrities. I follow spiritual writers.
Rather than tracking news about Lady Gaga or Beyonce, I’m a fangirl of writers like Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
The obsession is borderline embarrassing. Just last month, I announced at a party that writer Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, friended me on Facebook. (In truth, I was bragging about an imaginary friend.)
After Nora accepted my friend request, I was bold enough to send her the link to an op-ed I had written about making my teenager go to church. Within 48 hours, Nora wrote back that she liked the title of my piece. So I was convinced she would like me too.
My love of spiritual memoirs has reached the point that my book club, The Literary Ladies, issues a collective groan when it’s my turn to suggest book titles. Many believe that memoirs about faith are slightly self-indulgent. In contrast, I view such writing as the deepest expression of sacred meaning in the chaos of our daily lives.
Why I Made My Teenager Go to Church
Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.
“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.
My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.
For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).
When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.
When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.
Feeding our Imagination
Fiction with a climate change theme.
After Giving up Alcohol, I’m Addicted to Lent
This spring, I gave up alcohol for Lent, the forty days of penitence between Ash Wednesday and Easter. And now almost one week after the Alleluias and Easter baskets, I may be addicted to Lent.
On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began, my thirteen-year daughter Maya explained alcohol to her seven-year old sister in the backseat of our car: “See, sometimes adults just like having a drink after a long day of work. It helps them relax.” That same week, one of my friends said, “You aren’t a heavy drinker, but you are a consistent drinker.”
It was time to take a break, even if I knew that one glass of red wine at night wasn’t the end of the world. I needed to give it up because I wasn’t sure if I could.
Why I Return to Bikram Yoga, and the Church
As I waited in the room heated to 105 degrees, my friend Molly looked for a sliver of floor space for her yoga mat. “I probably need a more relaxing type of yoga,” I whispered, almost apologizing for bringing my type-A body to the crowded Bikram class, known for its intense heat and addictive practitioners.
At exactly 10 a.m., the yoga teacher entered the room: I stood in unison with the other students, much like I rise for the procession at my church on Sundays. Surprisingly, much of what draws me to Bikram yoga also brings me back each week to the Episcopal church.
A Little Climate Change Pleasure Reading
This winter, fiction revealed truth about climate change.
As a teacher, I relish the escape provided by pleasure reading before I return to the classroom for the next semester at Warren Wilson College, where I teach environmental education.
In December, without reading reviews or making a list, I visited my independent bookstore, Malaprop’s and purchased two books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). I’m a long-time Kingsolver fan and bought her book as a gift, with the goal of reading it before wrapping it. And the cover of Arcadia, with its teal VW bus and field of sunflowers, drew me into purchasing what I thought was my second random choice for recreational reading.
Both books, it turns out, integrated climate change into the plotline, weaving scientific truths about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. And just as compelling, both works of fiction featured spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.
Of note, critics have bemoaned the lack of fiction centered on climate change, a paucity that seemed to mirror our public denial of this scientific reality. In a 2010 blog on openDemocracy, professor and author Andrew Dobson even outlined the components of a “climate-change novel” that include a grim future, characters who explore ethical choices around global warming, and (no surprise here) extreme weather events. He ended his piece with this challenge: “So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?”
A Christian With Conjunctions
For most of my life, I have been a “Christian with conjunctions.”
So I’m a Christian BUT… I’m not like that street preacher who yells about hell and damnation on the downtown corner.
I’m a Christian BUT I’m different from the televangelist who raises his fist in the air and screams about salvation.
My own priest, the Rev. Thomas Murphy, first described himself as a Christian with conjunctions in a sermon the morning before our Episcopal congregation took to the streets during a festival in downtown Asheville, N.C. Across the street from a karaoke booth, we handed out cold water to festivalgoers and offered a simple ministry with no judgment or obligation.
For most of us, it was the first time we had prayed the Eucharist in public, with our colleagues, students, and neighbors walking past. The white banner above us proclaimed: “God loves you. No exceptions.”
I have realized that the ubiquitous street preacher has something to teach me: there is virtue in being bold about my faith. Through my research on congregations and climate change, this public witness to God’s love has become easier for me as my church life now reflects my deep value of God’s good earth.
The stakes of silence are high. If we don’t speak out and act on our moral mandate to reconcile with creation, we risk destroying God’s very creation.
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