ENOUGH! One Sister’s Thoughts on Orlando

IMG_2457.PNG

In the wake of the horrific terrorist hate crime perpetrated in Orlando last weekend, I have felt overcome, broken, outraged, and sometimes numb. I have been stunned by the silence from some who have failed to acknowledge this massacre for what it is. But I have also been uplifted by the outpouring of love for this community, both from inside its ranks and from outside. Heroes of mine have stood up in recent days, spreading love, promoting inclusion, AND relentlessly calling for change. People like Glennon Doyle Melton, Sen. Cory Booker, Diana Butler Bass, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others have spoken up, not just for gun control, but for LGBTQIA people everywhere who have been violated by the blood that was shed in their place of sanctuary.

As far as I know, I have never met any of the precious lives we lost that night, yet in some ways, I feel almost as heartbroken as if I had. These good human beings were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and family. They were our brothers and sisters through this beautiful, terrible life.
They loved and were loved. They did not deserve this. No one deserves this.

They were killed because they loved differently than some people want to understand. They were killed for the hatred bandied about by so-called faith leaders over the centuries they’ve spent misreading religious texts and spreading exclusion and persecution of the LGBTQIA community.

 They were killed by a society that puts guns before the lives of its citizens. They were killed by a radicalized follower of an extremely hateful sect of an otherwise peaceful religious community.

They were killed in their place of sanctuary–a place this community has relied on as a safe space for a very long time. 

They were killed while celebrating their love and affection for their fellow human beings.

So tell me, America:

How have we gotten so far gone that we fight for the “armed militia” part of the second amendment, but disregard the “well regulated” piece?

How have we gotten to the point where the right to own a weapon outweighs preserving HUMAN lives?

When did we decide that we would fight for the lives of unborn babies, but would do nothing to protect them from mass killings after they’re born?

When did we decide that protecting the right to own a tool of death overrules the right to LIFE?

These questions are rhetorical, of course.

My fifth grade teacher was very clear about the importance of learning COMMON SENSE. She would call you out in front of the entire class for failing to display it. I was called out a few times because my head was in the books instead of in the classroom. She was right to call me out. She was right to instill in us the ability to think critically and show common sense.

So I’m calling out the Congress of the United States of America on their lack of common sense: Get your collective shit together and do something. Ban assault weapons AND/OR stop allowing people suspected of terrorism to buy weapons AND/OR require stringent background checks. DO SOMETHING.

Okay, fine, this is a “heart problem” (whatever that means), but make no mistake: it’s ALSO a gun problem. This is BOTH/AND, not either/or. DO SOMETHING meaningful to help prevent another Pulse, Mother Emmanuel, Sandy Hook, or any of the other hundreds upon hundreds of U.S. based mass shootings in recent years that have stolen precious life from this Earth.

And before you start thumping your bible at me, please recall that Christ loved ALL THE PEOPLE.

Let me repeat that because it is crucial: Jesus Christ loved ALL. THE. PEOPLE. 

Recall that Jesus commanded us above all else to love God and love our neighbors (even if they’re our enemies). He loved his neighbors and enemies so much that he DIED a horrifying death for them.

Recall that Christ reached out to those on the margins of society, consistently going against popular religious wisdom, including scripture.

Recall that one of the last things he told his disciples was to put their weapons away. He reminded them that, “All those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Well, as usual, he’s right, except that now it’s assault riflestools expressly created to killwhich can do a hell of a lot more damage in a fraction of the time.

And while we’re at it: God did not promise you a gun at your conception. That is not one of your rights as a human. It just isn’t. It was a right thought up by a group of white men who had LITERALLY just fought for their lives and independence in a bloody war that took place hundreds of years ago.

If you value your guns more than you value the lives of your fellow human beings, I implore you to do some serious soul searching.

There is nothing more important than our call to love.Literally nothing. Not religion. Not doctrine. Not philosophy. Not race. Not sexual orientation. Not gender. Not class. Not ethnicity. And certainly not guns. Love crosses all boundaries. Love bears all things. Love hopes all things. Love is our highest, noblest call. How will they know that we are Christians? Say it with me: They will know us by our LOVE.

If your brand of love doesn’t extend to all the people, ask yourself why.

Perhaps you disagree. That’s cool. Well-meaning people can disagree. But in the meantime: I’ll just be over here loving all the people–including you–because love wins.

Grace and peace.

And if you want to know what to do, Glennon has covered that very well over here. Go! Join us! Write your elected officials! Get involved in the push to end gun violence. Enough is enough.

Loving with Radical Inclusivity

IMG_1921

Glennon Doyle Melton (heretofore referred to as “G”) had some things to say about that at the event I went to on Thursday. She spoke about resisting the temptation to refer to others as “haters.” It’s unkind and unhelpful because people don’t actually think of themselves as “haters.” G said something to the effect of: If you gathered a group of people in a room and told the haters to go to one side and the lovers to the other–everyone would go to the side of love, right? Who thinks of themselves as a hater? No one, that’s who. Even white supremacists think they’re loving, it’s just that they love white people to the exclusion of other races. That’s not the kind of love G practices, and it isn’t mine, either.

And yet, we do have unkind rhetoric that pops up during heated debates. It’s particularly painful in an election year in which social media has become the mode of communication between friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. What do we do when presented with words from human beings conveying, at best, unkind and unloving messages? How do we respond with love and not engage in what my grandmother calls tit-for-tat? How do we build bridges between people we disagree with rather than putting up walls between us? 

Last week, my Hebrew Bible class at CTS arrived at the books of Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs. As we have every week, these readings were paired with parallel accounts from the Ancient Near East. Focusing on Egyptian love songs from the reign of Ramesses II in 1290-1224 BCE, I talked a bit about how strange and wonderful it is that we’ve been left with these very human stories:

…we often think of love in other times as being in some way different, restrained, or restrictive because it [was] a different time. Yet there is a timeless nature to love, isn’t there? It is the quintessentially human and eternal aspect of love that, when we read about it, bridges the gap between our world and theirs. Looking at the ancient Israeli texts about love [Song of Songs] and now at the Egyptian ones […], it is a reminder that love is love today, tomorrow, and millennia ago. The challenges are perhaps different, but there’s a universality to the feelings that comes through in these texts.

…Even the heartbreak or separation conveyed feels precisely as it does today. These are human beings living lives thousands of years ago for whom the range of emotions is very real and every bit as relevant as it is today. It humanizes these people we think of only as hieroglyphics in museums, ancient tombs, and textbooks. It makes me wonder who else we might be willing to humanize if only we understood that their love and their feelings are just like ours.

All to which brings me back to the current cultural context and what’s happening between loving-people and other loving-people over social issues (such as LGBT rights, refugees, and where we pee). My thoughts on how we should love are simple: we should love with radical inclusivity. Everyone thinks they’re loving someone, but if your brand of love doesn’t include everyone, it’s not the kind of love I practice.

I don’t care about your politics or mine. I really don’t. I love you and I really don’t care what you think about the national debt and school choice. But here’s the thing: I do care about loving people. I care about loving people as Christ loved them (and as G so honestly modeled for us during the event) arms outstretched, hands wide open, loving until it literally killed him. Loving into, through, and past the pain.

As another sister at the event noted: not every issue is political. Social issues become political when open-armed love is removed from the equation. They become a wedge when compassion for humans is replaced with bureaucratic concern over policies. I think more fruitful discussions can occur between people who disagree if we all just begin from a place of love and of honoring our shared humanity. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said,

Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about the things that matter.

So I’ll leave you with this: because I try (imperfectly) to approach everything from a place of love, I cannot keep silent on issues of justice, equality, and inclusion. I can’t. I won’t. So maybe what I say will seem controversial sometimes, it’s just the nature of radical love. Join me, won’t you?

Grace and peace!

In my next post: I’ve been called a “lupus warrior” and a “preacher warrior sister“. Which is weird, because I’m kind of a pacifist. So what does warrior mean?

PS. And thank you to everyone who took the time to read and respond to my last post about anxiety and meeting Glennon. Anxious, sweaty badasses unite!

 

 

I, too, am an Anxious, Sweaty Bad Ass

13082531_10209271508369442_2788758532849295007_n

Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of my theological heroes. Such titans as Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, and Diana Butler Bass have talked with me, signed my books, and even shared a hug. It’s not a competition, of course, but last night, I had the pleasure to meet someone who has impacted me beyond theological concerns–in the realms of mental illness, parenting, marriage, and… life. Last night, sick with anxiety, I met the incomparable Glennon Doyle Melton: truth teller; founder of Momastery and Together Rising; love revolutionary; fellow sweaty, anxious bad ass.

Something you should know about me: I live my life in a near constant state of fear. Along with the lupus (which keeps me in a constant state of pain), I’m a life-long anxious over-thinker. Growing up, I was afraid of almost everything. No one’s fault, it’s just how I’m built. I pushed past it and hid it when I could. Other times, I would just burst into tears seemingly for no reason (elementary school friends may remember this about me). Anxiety runs thick in my veins, it pulses and shoots through me at various inconvenient moments. It’s been manageable and it’s been overwhelming, but it’s always been there.

Anxiety may be the most consistent thing about me.

Fear of social situations is probably the worst of it. I’m almost good meeting with someone one-on-one or with small groups of people I know. I’m okay with going to an event if I have someone to tether me with their presence. I’m semi-comfortable going places I know well (why do you think I’m at Barnes and Noble and Starbucks so much?). And yet, even in these situations, I’m still under a slight haze of anxiety that propels me to, at the very least, pretend to be “normal.” Outside of this, things can get… dicey. From anxiety attacks to all out panic, my fight or flight reflex is usually working overtime when I’m out of the safety of my house.

Such was the situation at Trinity Episcopal Insights series last night. I was sick with worry all week. But Jessie, what’s the WORST that could happen? Well, friends, I. Could. Die. I even tweeted about it Wednesday night, only to get the kindest reply in the history of replies from Glennon, herself. This reply gave me a talking point and allowed me to at least show up, sweaty and scared as I was.

When I got there, my heart was racing and I literally felt like I was going to throw up. This is no exaggeration. Seems overdramatic, maybe, but it’s accurate.

If you want to strike fear into my heart: “reception” or “meet and greet” will suffice. But I did show up. I walked into the room (early, natch) and stood there like the anxious mess I am. A nice man offered to bring me wine (no, thanks) or water (yes, please!). I sat down at an empty table, occasionally glancing up at groups of women, friends who seemed to belong to each other in real life. I was alone, terrified, and intimidated by their effortless ability to exist.

Then Glennon walked in all… Glennon and I just sat there, teary-eyed, terrified, wanting to run the hell out of there, and unable to move. I texted my BFFC–best friend from college (Hi Emma!)–who introduced me to Glennon a few years back. She reassured me as she’s done about a billion times since we met in Psych 100 almost 16 years ago.

I was pretty sure I couldn’t do this. I would just stay at the table. This was too much. I was too scared. I think someone sat down at the table in the meantime. I’m pretty sure she introduced herself. I’m certain I barely got any words out.

Then, a very kind soul from the church approached pitiful looking me and asked, “Are you okay?” (I think that’s what she said, I can’t really remember because: anxious haze).

“I’m just REALLY nervous…”

“Well, would you like to meet her?” Friends, this was mercy. Who was the miraculous angel who saved my life in that moment? I wish I knew. Luckily, the tears had started to dry in my eyes by then. If I’d gone up there teary, I would have bawled. And you guys, I’m an UGLY crier. Seriously. A red-faced, blubbery mess. It’s not pretty.

I don’t remember the walk up to meet Glennon, or even what she first said to me (anxious haze), I just knew I had a talking point: “I’m really nervous. You tweeted me last night. I’m Jessie from Twitter.”

“Are you the girl who was afraid to come tonight?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

Awww. But we’re here! We made it!” she exclaimed. I tried to respond to her exclamation, I don’t know what I said–it was probably words. But then came a hug that made me instantly feel better as hugs tend to do.

Hugs, for me, are grace. I’m a hugger from way back. Hugs comfort and speak volumes in moments when words fail.

We talked like “sisters” do because that is what Glennon does. This is what she does even when she, herself, is anxious. She relates to people. And she did that with everyone in that reception hall. She gave me anxiety advice for these social situations (first, get some food). Then spoke to me about our mutual love for the UCC and my seminary studies (she applied to CTS a year or so ago. My seminary, you guys. I could have had CLASSES with Glennon Doyle Melton. But she can’t go, she’s already doing her important work, obvi). We took a photo together. She signed my book (and the free book I’m giving to my BFFC). The inscription is perfect and reads, “Jessie, Be still, preacher warrior sister…”

Later, when we got to the actual “event” part of the event, Glennon candidly spoke on stage as only she can: with humor, authenticity, wit and wisdom. She told the truths we all know too well about love, life, marriage, parenting, pain, anxiety, Jesus, kindness, and faith. She is exactly who she appears to be online in all her messy, feeling, human-ness. 

I have more to say about the event; it was formative for me in many ways. I want to talk about what she had to say about “hate,” politics, and about how we love, but right now, I just wanted to get the experience out and share some of it with you. Some parts can’t be conveyed in words and I want to keep them for myself.

But here’s today’s take away (tl;dr):

I showed up.

I showed up scared.

I showed up scared and alone

I showed up scared and alone and no one died.

Hi, I’m Jessie, and I’m an “anxious, sweaty bad ass.”

I’m also a preacher warrior sister. Glennon said so, so it must be true.

13102791_10209271517369667_6942612046461699517_n

Thank you, G, for reminding me that I, too, can do hard things.

Grace and peace.

 

The Enoughness Resolution

youareenough

Hey, you there! Yes! You sitting right there reading this post. I see you. I love you. You are enough.

Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favorite people on the planet, recently posted another version of the quote in the above picture* on her Instagram account. It really hit home. I began to think back to all the moments in my life, especially recently, where it felt like nothing I did or said would ever be enough for some folks in this world. No matter how happy my family life, how much I read up on, researched, shared, learned, or spoke out about this issue or that: nothing would ever be good enough. I was frustrated and at an impasse. I would resume study at CTS in February, working to attain a masters level expertise in studies of divinity, knowing that–regardless of my degree of knowledge–it might never be enough. I thought ahead to the future of my career in ministry, knowing that no matter how much I served, helped, and preached, I will may never reach some folks.

I felt, on some level, that I was not enough. I was so not enough. I had a very clear idea how “not enough” I was.

Then I started taking seriously the advice I found from authors like Elizabeth Gilbert, Brené Brown, Glennon Melton, and Pema Chödrön. I began being still and knowing:

Knowing God.

Knowing that I, like everyone on this planet, am a child of God.

Knowing that I am fearfully, beautifully, and wonderfully made.

Knowing that I am made in the image of God.

And knowing that whatever all of that means, it must mean that I am good and that I am enough.

It doesn’t matter if there are pockets of humanity that will never fully notice my enoughness and my goodness. It doesn’t matter because God notices. God sees me.

So here it is, my one and only** “resolution” for this year: take a few minutes a day to meditate on my enoughness. That meditation will take different forms each day. Today, it looks like this: blogging my enoughness. Tomorrow, it may look like two minutes of literal meditation.

Whatever it looks like, I will remind myself, my kids, and my husband that we are–separately and together–enough just as we are.

And this is my prayer for you, friend: That you will remember throughout the year how enough you are. You don’t need to be better or more. You are you. You are loved. You are a child of the Divine. You are enough.

Grace and peace.

 

*Image generated by me using the WordSwag App on my iPhone.

**I’d also like to spend less time on social media, but I’m trying NOT to set myself up for failure. Let’s be realistic, shall we?

 

 

On Frothing, Retribution, and Our Better Nature

MaryOliverThePoetCompares

I like to start each morning and end each day with a spot of wisdom or poetry. I cannot consume massive tomes to ruminate or meditate on all day or night long, so pieces like the poem above are perfect. They impart deep meaning or ask thoughtful questions that leave me appropriately pondering the stuff that matters–even when my answers fall short.

I posted the above poem on Instagram with the following caption: “When will we choose our better nature? Why are we so quick to do craziness, toss havoc, froth, and withhold?”

In the current cultural climate, these are apt questions. Yet, I cannot seem to find satisfactory answers. I am not innocent of these crimes against my better nature. I, too, froth. I, too, do craziness. I, too, have withheld and tossed havoc. I try to be gentle, but I also attempt, at least, not to mince words. What I say may not always be popular, but I genuinely work to use my words–written or spoken–to foster and spread love, kindness, hope, and faith.

Sometimes that means making unpopular appeals or saying the “wrong” thing. If it appears I am tossing havoc or trying to provoke, it may be true, but it comes from a desire to teach. If it seems I seek to “stir it up,” I do not do so in vain. I do it to teach, provoke thought, and appeal to our better nature.

So when I look around at our world and the chaos that has occurred among various populations in these recent months, I wonder. I wonder if the masses are capable of finding their better nature, or if they are so blinded by pain, fear, and hate that they cannot see clear to it.

When one of my children hits his brother, I don’t tell him to hit back.  Jesus of Nazareth specifically admonishes retributive behavior, instructing, rather, that when we are struck on one cheek, we should “turn the other.” If it isn’t appropriate for the disciples and isn’t something we teach our children to do, why then, do we think retribution is appropriate conflict resolution for twenty-first century adults?

It’s strange to see among a certain contingent of American Christians who espouse the virtues of God’s salvation, forgiveness, and grace–who claim to follow Christ with questions of WWJD, who shout about religious freedom even if it denies basic rights to others–a deep-seeded strain of angry rhetoric that overrides common decency and the Biblical commands of love and hospitality. It’s a constant refrain that President Obama is somehow unamerican or that all of Islam is in somehow extremist, terroristic, or incompatible with American values. Yet, if I’m being honest, I can’t think of anything less compatible with the idea of the American “melting-pot” than excluding people solely on the basis of their religious beliefs or ethnicity. We excoriate the horrors committed by those who excluded and then committed genocide against the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and others in WWII, but refuse to acknowledge the genocides and exclusions committed in our own country against Native Americans, Africans, and even Japanese-Americans during the same time in history. Somehow that’s different. Our intentions were good. We had to protect the homeland. It was about national security.

But there’s a reason we don’t talk about these attitudes, behaviors, and injustices: it’s a national embarrassment. It’s a dark stain on our shared history. It’s a shameful memory of time we hope is long past. Textbooks are attempting to white-wash over these stains by leaving them out or painting them with rosier language. But the truth cannot be painted over. In 70 years, when we look back on the national sentiment in 2015, will we be proud or ashamed? If you are called one day before God to account for this time in your life, will your words, attitudes, and behaviors bring God joy or sorrow? 

I said during the gay marriage debate that if my greatest sin is that I loved and accepted too many, I feel comfortable standing before God with that track record. When I read the gospels, the biggest lesson I take away is the unparalleled love and compassion of Christ. Yes, he admonished sin, but he did not withhold mercy based on the worthiness of the person suffering. He helped the poor people of his own ethnic background as freely as he did the foreigner. He told his disciples to put down their swords when the authorities came to arrest and crucify him saying that his kingdom is not of this world.

We are so quick to point out the parts of the scriptures that agree with our worldview, even using it to exclude the other. We are slow to accept the literal words and overarching message of Christ: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

If we’re going to brag about God’s grace, expounding on how freely it has been given to us even though we are “worthless sinners,” then we ought to at least extend that same grace to our fellow human beings whether we see them as “worthy” or not.

Would that we all would pay less attention to the worthiness of others, and more attention to climbing down to the level of “the least of these,” returning grace for grace. Not because it is popular, but because it is just.

If my legacy to my children is one of not just tolerance, but of genuine hospitality and acceptance, then that’s a legacy I can live with. If my faith and ministry is controversial for the wideness of its love and the scope of its mercy, it is one I am grateful to offer in service of God and my fellow human beings. If I can impart even a small percentage of the love of Christ, helping to bring this world a little closer to the kingdom of God, then I will feel I have served some purpose.

Whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Agnostic, American, European, African, Asian, Male, Female, Transgender, Intersex, Conservative, Liberal, Moderate, White, Black, Green, or Purple: I invite you. I love you. Join me, won’t you?

 

 

Is Your God Big Enough?

Buechner speaks to my soul

Be careful who you associate with (2 Cor 6:14). Don’t listen to your itching ears (2 Tim 4:3). Don’t be one who goes against sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:10, among others).

In a nutshell, be careful what you read, who you hang with, and how you approach new ideas. I’ve been warned of this by many a well-meaning brother and sister in Christ.

This mentality has always puzzled me. It has also frustrated and angered me when it is behind attempts to convince new or curious Christians that there is only one way to follow Christ.

Yet, as a parent, I think I understand the inclination–you would want to help protect your children, not just in body, but in mind and spirit. You want to shield them from evil in whatever form it takes. Children are impressionable and their time hanging with the “wrong” crowd can influence them just as much as the time they spend around the “right” crowd. It’s good to know what is going on and who they hang with. I get it.

On the other hand, if my child were already partaking in misadventures with the “wrong” crowd, I’d be thankful to find someone from the more well-behaved end of the spectrum taking an interest in him.

Building relationships with people from a diversity of experiences, both shared and different than our own, makes for a more well-rounded life and a kinder, gentler world. It develops an understanding that it’s okay for people’s experiences, worldviews, and religious beliefs to differ. This understanding helps us to relate others in an increasingly diverse and connected world.

To wit: If spending time around people with varied life experience is important, why wouldn’t I also spend time with people of varied spiritual perspectives? How does my faith grow and deepen if I remain cloistered in the company of like-minds unwilling to engage with others in our increasingly pluralistic world? The idea that one ought to fear new or out-of-the-box thinking is insidious in nature and, I’d argue, a cancer on the church today. It happens outside of religion, too. Challenging the status quo is a difficult, painful idea to put forth, particularly when the very notion that change might be better and necessary is met with derision from some or all sides.

Working toward understanding by getting to know different people, religions, and ideas is a good thing. Asking questions not just of others, but of ourselves and of God is a good thing. Introducing and challenging our faith communities with radical ideas that allow for a more inclusive, accepting, loving church is a good thing.

Where would we be without such challenges to the norm? Well, religiously speaking–we’d be without Christianity. We’d certainly be without Protestantism. We’d be without 41,000 denominations. We’d all be practicing some strange, perhaps paleolithic form of religion, or perhaps we’d have none. And, I have to tell you, without these “new thinkers,” what we think of as “traditional” Christianity and “family values” would not exist. These are ideas that are relatively young in the history of humankind.

In science, we’d still insist the world was flat. We’d be without medicines to heal ourselves, we may all be clustered on one continent. We might even be without language. Without challenging the status quo, women wouldn’t be able to vote; in fact, no one would. We’d stay mired in patriarchal, monarchical societies subject to the whims of powerful rulers who care not for the poor and suffering of society. There would be no America. Enslaving our fellow human beings would still very much be en vogue and we wouldn’t question it. Our world would be left with little semblance of the justice we are called to do, and we would walk around blindly adhering to these injustices (and yes, I realize that even as I type this, in some ways, we still are).

So perhaps instead of chastising the new thinkers and holding court on the same old doctrinal stances–rigid in our inability to accept that God is still speaking, terrified of even considering the idea that God didn’t STOP communicating with humankind after the final book of the Protestant Bible was written (2 Peter, between 120 and 150 AD)–we might engage these new ideas prayerfully and respectfully. We might consider for a moment that the God who created the folks who concocted our “traditional” doctrine is the same God who created those who are now thinking outside of that box. Perhaps instead of approaching church with an us vs. them exclusivity, we might invite everyone to participate fully in the relational process of knowing God and each other through dialogue and ever growing community.

And yes, I mean everyone. Let’s invite the homeless persons in our communities. Let’s invite in our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. Let’s welcome the marginalized people of other faiths and of no faith. Let’s invite in the doubters and questioners. Let’s invite in people whose races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds differ from our own. Let’s invite in those younger than us and those older than us and those just like us. Let’s welcome them all. Let’s display the hospitality we are called to display and let us do so joyfully, with thanksgiving in our hearts and openness in our minds. Let us embrace them fully in the same way we God embraces us. Let us listen and try to relate, accepting that we do not have all the answers, but that a Power greater than us does.

Finally, I ask: what are we so afraid of?

Is it our God who is not big enough for our questions, changes, and diversity, or is it really our doctrine that is too small to embrace people and ideas in the same radical vein of Christ?

A Believer Because of My Doubts

A writer I greatly admire is working on a new book and recently posed an interesting question:

“What is/was your biggest need as you crossed into a new kind of Christianity?”

This is such an important question and one I felt compelled to give considerable thought. Many of you understand that I’m going through a spiritual evolution of sorts. It’s been a bone of concern and dismay with some of my loved ones who feel I’ve strayed too far from my conservative roots. They aren’t wrong. I have, but isn’t this just part of growing up? Isn’t change an inevitable piece of what it means to be human, live, and experience the world? Rest assured, I have not undertaken this evolution lightly and I proceed with caution along it.

Some of those closest to me respond by lovingly proof-texting my assertions and quotes. Some of the most frequently utilized passages are Rom 12:2 (Do not be conformed to this world…), Matt 7:13, 15 (..the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, Beware of false prophets…), and 2 Tim 4:3 (…having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…). I do appreciate that people care enough to try to turn me toward what they believe Christ taught, but I believe that G-D meets us where we are. I’d like not to conform to the things of this world, but I do LIVE in the world. God came to us as Jesus IN this world. We have to continue living in this world until we move on to whatever comes after it. It’s really all we have, isn’t it? All we know with any certainty is that we have to survive and live in this global community until we don’t.

Soul-searching and evaluating our hearts and beliefs is something that all people do at some point. It is integral to living. For some of us, re-evaluation leads us deeper “into the fold.” We lean into or fall back to what we were raised in because, perhaps, it makes the most sense. Others find this a time of leaving behind old ways and moving toward new. If God sees fit to meet us where we are (and I believe God does), then we have to accept the idea that we are all gloriously imperfect beings who are doing our best to grapple with a complex confluence of needs.

This is how I originally answered the writer’s call on his Facebook page:

I think my needs are/were emotional, tangible, and spiritual. I need/needed to find a sense of community, love, and acceptance coupled with compassion from all angles. I need/needed to have some way to articulate what I was feeling and thinking with some foundation in biblical texts in order to “defend” and/or validate those thoughts and feelings. And I need/needed to feel comfortable living in the tension that comes with really wrestling with both the biblical texts and with what it means for humanity and for my very understanding of God.

As I reflected on the question and my response, I realized I had left out a crucial component of the self. Our minds, given to us by our Creator, have needs, too, do they not? I contend it is intellectually dishonest to claim that anyone has a righteous monopoly on scriptural interpretation. Everyone is using human intellect to grasp scriptures that have been interpreted by human beings, translated by man, and originally recorded in a different time (several, actually), under foreign cultural traditions, and directed at specific audiences. It is impossible to strictly read the bible without “outside” influence. We are all subject to our own cultural, historical, and personal biases.

As a life-long student, it is incredibly disheartening to have that love and need to learn called into question and/or identified as a path to spiritual destruction. I know that God is big enough to handle my doubts and questions. I cannot fathom a God too weak to stand up to rigorous intellectual query. I stand in profound disagreement with the idea that the G-D who created me: mind, body, and soul, would require me to turn off my brain before engaging with scripture. I find it offensive that the same Jesus who sat among religious teachers listening to and questioning them as a child (Luke 2:41-50), would ask me to accept scripture at face value, checking my brain at the door of the churches I enter into. If the new Christian litmus test requires me to choose between believing every word of scripture is literally, factually true (inerrant) and throwing it all out the window–well, then I guess I’d have to throw it out the window and find some other way to connect to God. But thankfully, Jesus did not give this ultimatum. I can find truth and solace in God and the scriptures, believing Christ died and rose, without being excluded because of my questions and doubts.

I was once told that the more I spent time in the “Word of God,” the fewer questions I would have. The answers to my questions, the solution to my doubts, the elixir for my troubled soul–all of it–simply required more bible study. I have found the exact opposite is true. Over the last fifteen years, spending increasing amounts of time reading scripture has only posed bigger, more complex questions. I open, read, and prayerfully reflect on scripture now more than ever. I have grown into a person of complex faith, no longer needing to force myself to reconcile with Christian apologists.

For my faith to stay together, this evolution is a necessity. Every single day, this journey leaves me feeling closer to my Creator, my fellow human beings, and the natural world around me. There are days when I get too philosophical and begin questioning my very existence–fully embracing the proverbial existential crisis. And then there are days when I want nothing to do with biblical scriptures, but just want to experience the Divine in the mundane parts of life, in serving others, in nature, or in the smiles and giggles of my children. 

I suppose that most of all, I just want to do right by God, by humanity, and by all that is good in the world. I try to do my best to follow Jesus. I know it is well with my soul if I seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. I do not know all the answers, no person on this Earth does, and that is okay.

Over-Dramatically Controversial: This Straight Christian Gal’s “Coming Out”

Writing has been an itch I haven’t been able to scratch this month, primarily because I haven’t wanted to be over-dramatically controversial in a time when I have a lot of busy-ness happening in my day-to-day. I wanted, however, to write about the conference before I forgot and to address something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time.

During the conference at Open Door Community Church a few weeks ago, several authors and their works were brought to my attention, adding exponentially to my ever-expanding “to read” list. The conference, itself, was refreshing, stimulating, and delightful. I was only able to spend Saturday there, but felt spiritually and emotionally enriched after just one day. Among the memorable moments were hugging and shaking hands with wonderful people, making new friends, hearing incredible lectures, and feeling uplifted by the transcendent musical performances. I hope to go back to Open Door very soon as it is quite a bit closer to our new home than my other church is. I am trying to work out a way where I don’t have to choose between them.

At the conference, I met and spoke with two of my theological heroes (Frank Schaeffer and Brian McLaren), shook the hands of three published authors I knew virtually nothing about (Tim Kurek, Susan Cotrell, and Randy Eddy-McCain–who happens to be the pastor of Open Door), and shared a few moments with one that I had only become familiar with days before (Jay Bakker).

Brian McLaren had received the “Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award” the night before, so some of the conference was deservedly devoted to praise of this genuinely remarkable human being. Before he spoke, I was blessed to spend several minutes speaking with him one-on-one. He wanted to know about me. When I mentioned my seminary journey and the time I have taken off to care for my children, one of which has ASD, he immediately related to me as a person directly impacted by autism. There is much autism in his family and he was very interested to know if our Weston was receiving the support he needed. Thinking back on my first exposure to Brian McLaren seeing the film “Hellbound?” I remember immediately remarking to my neighbor about how I liked the words and appreciated the perspective of “that guy with the kind eyes.” Then I read some of his work and found out my uncle goes to the church McLaren helped establish in Maryland (How small is our world!). The kind eyes that translated on screen are, in Brian’s case, a direct result of genuine kindness that exudes from his entire being.

During his speech, Brian addressed some issues within the church and culture, specifically regarding LGBTQ issues and the encouraging tidal wave of love, compassion, and genuine acceptance of this formerly marginalized group of people. He expanded on the Ghandi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” by adding: “Then you learn to win graciously.” This is such a profoundly important punctuation at the end of that quote and one that so many, in the midst of winning battles (which I assure you, the LGBTQ community is doing in America), forget. Being gracious in victory is a true test of character and a necessary step for those of us who profess that love is the ultimate goal.

After he spoke, we broke out for lunch, but before I ate, I sought out Frank Schaeffer. I locked eyes with him across a group of people chatting, and he asked for them to allow him through so he could speak with me. Frank is one of the most genuine and kind people I have ever met and immediately gave me a hug upon hearing the impact his work has had on my journey. He, too, asked about my seminary studies and was very keen to know if Weston was receiving what he needed to be his very best, unique self. For someone who self-identifies as an “a**hole,” he’s an awfully nice, loving guy. My first exchange with him may have been my favorite moment in the entire conference.

I have never met a personal hero that I was disappointed by. Even in my old conservative days when I met Karl Rove, I found him to be kind and gracious. While I may differ with Republicans more often than not these days, I have a lasting respect for him personally. All this to say that both Brian and Frank surpassed my wildest expectations. When you speak to someone who seems larger than life and they effortlessly connect with you, it’s a special experience. Often, I feel very awkward around large groups of unfamiliar people, and, indeed, I spent much of that Saturday feeling that way. Yet speaking with Brian and Frank was a surprisingly reassuring experience and one that will encourage me to attend similar events during the future of my life-long spiritual journey.

After lunch (during which I sat with the delightful Peggy Campolo), Jay Bakker spent some time addressing the marginalization of the outcast within the church and the need for society to be loving and accepting. Bakker was humorous and charismatic and addressed the issues as, perhaps, only he could. He spent the remainder of his time talking about his relationship with Brian McLaren and his wife. If I had any doubt about the incredible human being McLaren is (I didn’t), Jay’s words would have put all of it to rest. After he spoke, I rushed over to speak to him for just a few moments because I knew I had to get home to do the “mommy thing” before returning for the evening session. Jay was kind when I told him I was only beginning this journey after being somewhat turned-off at Asbury Seminary. He recommended some authors and said he hoped I enjoyed his work.

Perhaps my favorite speaker that day was Frank Schaeffer. At his lecture later that night, he expanded beyond the marginalization of the outcast and said that our problem is bigger than that. The crux of the trouble facing people who honestly strive to follow Jesus is that the mainstream Christian community, who preach against worshiping idols, is inadvertently hypocritical in its own idolatry of the collection of books known as the “Bible.” In these communities (and, it seems, in much of American culture), this literary collection written, translated, and interpreted by man is treated as God. Folks pick and choose which of the sins they find most abhorrent. The “Ten Commandments,” the examples in the scripture, and the Jewish law is seen as much more Godly than following the words and teachings of God (in the form of Jesus Christ). Jesus did not say that heterosexuality was the ideal or that the ten commandments were paramount. In fact, what did Jesus say was the most important commandment multiple times in the gospels? That’s right: loving God with all of your mind, heart, and soul, AND loving your neighbor as yourself.

Rather than love, too many are choosing to marginalize outcasts, while professing to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” They base nearly the entirety of their approach to the world on a misinterpretation of obscure Old Testament stories (such as the reason Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed in Genesis) and Paulian letters rather than on the actual words of Jesus Christ. My favorite quote from Frank Schaeffer (which happens to be in his book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God) is, “Religion is a neurological disorder. Only faith is the cure.” When religion and worship of a book virtually replaces God as exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, we have a serious problem. The church has a serious problem. And, I believe, we shroud God in our own insecurities and fears, projecting our own limitations on God, rather than allowing God to be God.

As I mentioned earlier, this write-up is bound to ruffle some feathers, yet for too long, I have remained silent in my support of equal rights for all, especially in regards to the LGBTQ community. In a sense, I am having my own informal “coming out.” My support of this community unknowingly began with my love of Ellen DeGenerous’s sitcom and comedy. As a kid, I just knew that she was funny and that I enjoyed her presence in my pop-culture world. It didn’t matter to me what orientation she was and it baffled me that her personal life bothered anyone. Then, as a young adult, I met and became friends with more LGBTQ folks and experienced on a very personal level, that there was really no difference between them and me in any way that really mattered. From a legal and constitutional standpoint, the abolition on same-sex marriage in this country makes absolutely no sense. It became very clear to me during this time that, if Christians do not want their religious practice infringed upon, they cannot force their religious views on anyone, either. The freedom to marry should be extended to all consenting adults.

Until a few years ago I was still struggling with what I had been taught regarding the historical and popular Christian biblical interpretations of homosexuality. In that vein, it was my time at Lancaster Theological Seminary that allowed me to experience this community in a spiritual setting and introduced me to other interpretations of those passages in the bible where homosexuality is addressed. As I am still wading through various perspectives on this (and it is beyond the scope of this post), I will address this more in the future. Suffice to say that rape-culture and promiscuity seem to be the real abomination in a biblical (and cultural) sense. I see no biblical reason to abhor or dismiss committed, loving relationships between consenting adults of any orientation, faith, or believe system.

So that’s it. The Fall Conference at Open Door Community Church was a welcome relief and a joyful time of reflection, love, and learning that I will not ever forget. Conservative Christians say that Progressives Christians are cherry picking. Progressives say the same about Conservatives. While I find myself very much identifying as a progressive Christian (leaving political views completely out of this particular post), I would like to think we can find our common ground in love and acceptance, not merely in tolerance. I’ve said before that my son’s diagnosis was an impetus to re-framing my worldview to one where love is my first consideration, the lens through which I see people in the world. I can no longer conceive of a Divine Being who does not do the same.

I’ll leave you with an image of the shirt my friend Brian C. wore to the conference. I think it sums up my stance quite accurately:

Just love.

Perfection and Humility: Thoughts on the Middle East Conflict

Some drawings from my sons this morning. Perfect in their imperfection.

Some drawings from my sons this morning. Perfect in their imperfection.

 

If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.

RICHARD ROHR

It seems all the world is a mess with warring ideas, tribes, philosophies, theologies, and nations. There are those that cast aspersions on others with whom they differ, and others who cast much more literal weapons. I try to watch and read about world events from a variety of sources so that I get a well-rounded view because bias comes from all sides. Living in Germany for two years forced me into this habit, and it is one I have returned to since. As I prepared delicious vegan sandwiches for my husband and me this evening, an interview on CNN stopped me in my tracks. The three stories most heavily covered by that news channel lately are the Israel/Palestinian conflict, the Ebola outbreak, and the plane crash in Ukraine. This interview happened to be about Israel/Palestine. What gave me pause was a discussion of how different generations differ in their perspective on and approach to this conflict. The “older” generations seem to fall in line with a very Israel-centered view. The anchors interviewed three or four undergraduate students (my memory fails me on the precise number) to get the millennial perspective. The students reflected neither a pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian view, in the main. Instead, they discussed a third perspective I have been reflecting on lately. A way of a lasting peace for the people of both Israel and Palestine that may not occur in a win-lose scenario. The students seemed to believe that, on their own, neither group of people are inherently evil or even wrong. For what it is worth, I do not believe that anyone is born evil, but that it is human, worldly influence that sways a soul to gravitate toward evil ideas or actions. The point that the students made was very similar to writings from Brian McLaren on this subject. The U.S. designated Hammas as a terrorist organization, and absent evidence to the contrary, I am inclined to agree, but it is very hard to see what is happening in Gaza and feel like this is the best or only way to handle it.

I do not want to wade into a political or theological argument over who has more “right” to that land or who is acting more or less justly in this recent war. I certainly think the people on both sides deserve to live in peace and that Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming threats, but my heart breaks for these sweet, innocent children and their families who have no safe haven to which they can flee. I do not know if one news network or another is covering things fairly or without bias (though I do resonate with this article–it cannot be easy to be objective while writing about dead children). I will not say that sympathy for the Palestinian people makes you less Christian or less American, but I will say it makes you human. It is an impossible situation and I don’t think any of us who have lived our lives in the West truly understand the conflict and all its roots. As my first seminary professor famously proclaimed, “You can only see from where you stand.”

The above quote from Richard Rohr made me think of this conflict. So many of us freely admit that we are imperfect, but somehow, when it comes to deeply held convictions, we are unwilling to open our minds to the possibility that we may have in the past, or that we might now, be off track–if even slightly. The “Nobody’s perfect,” cliché is only honest in the instances where we believe, accept, and humble ourselves to the certain fact of our imperfection. And if we believe that no one is perfect, we must make room for at least the possibility that our preferred translations and interpretations of our sacred books and those we follow (who are not God) may, in fact, not be the only perspective or the final word on any given subject. I am not advocating some post-modern relativist notion. I firmly believe there is an ultimate truth out there, I just don’t know that I am brazen enough to profess that at 32 (or whatever age you are) I (or you) have found it. The truth lies with the Creator of the heavens “above” and the universe we inhabit. We are not that Supreme Being. I choose to do my best to follow Jesus Christ, but I am not Jesus and therefore, I do not have all the answers. I am at times too presumptuous and feel I have more answers than another. At my best moments, I am humble enough to realize that I don’t and accept that is okay.

For me, I suppose it all comes down to Jesus’ own words in passages like Mark 12:29-31 (NRSV), in which he replied to a scribe’s query regarding which commandment is “first of all:”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

More and more frequently these days, my heart and mind goes back to these commandments, and I look for the perspective of love. I do not have to take sides or proclaim that one is right and one is wrong. If I follow these commands and strive to follow Jesus, knowing I will fail more than I will succeed, I feel like I cannot go too wrong. I just wish more of the world could look to these commands first, rather than continuing down the path of destruction, discord, and death. With so many current generations digging in and mired in sight only from where they currently stand, maybe our hope lies with future generations. Jesus did say, after all, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

Do We Try to Answer or Respond: 9 Questions for Theological Exploration

Image

The rear of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (taken in April 2012), which I have always found more beautiful, spiritual, and wondrous than the front.

As was discussed in my previous post, I am interested in exploring big questions not frequently or adequately “answered” in the Christian faith. I use the term “answered” loosely here because I believe there are many times when questions cannot be answered at all. Too frequently, we endeavor to ask about “big issues” and are unsatisfied, for a variety of reasons, with the “answers” we find. In this life, there are so many questions to which an answer is either not available or so complex that the word “answer” seems a supremely unsuitable descriptor.

Author Brian D. McLaren chooses to approach these queries with a “response” rather than an “answer.” From his book, A New Kind of Christianity, “…question-and-response, rather than question-and-answer times–since many questions aren’t suited for a simple answer.” Too often, I have sat in a room with another person of faith and asked questions only to receive a trite, Christian-ese answer. This has happened both at church, outside-of-church, and at seminary. What if the “answers” are too easy and leave you with more questions than that with which you began? Simply telling someone who is not a Christian, “This is what I believe because it is in the Bible,” is probably not going to win over any converts. Recently, a friend of mine told me that, for her, Christianity and biblical works hold truth because she has found that the wisdom held within its pages and teachings have matched up with her life experiences. This is, perhaps, one of the most sensible and sincere explanations for “faith” that I’ve heard. Yet, I suppose, for many this has not been their experience. Their lives may not have matched up with what they know of the bible or Christianity, and without a compelling reason to put their faith in a deity they cannot see, touch, or otherwise sense, the truth of the gospels is lost on them. Combine their lack of a God-experience with typical Sunday school answers and they are not likely to be convinced that Jesus Christ is the way.

Now, suppose we engaged these friends in conversation rather than set out to convert them with the “same old” answers? Suppose, rather than pipe out the usual Christian-ese, we actually responded, thoughtfully and prayerfully, discussing theological or religious issues with intellectual vigor allowing for growth both in our own hearts, minds, and theologies, and encouraging the same on the part of our friend. What if, rather than shut down well-intentioned and honest inquiry, we sought it out and joined our friend on an unexpected and enriching journey? We should not fear the questions or stifle intellectual examination. We should encourage it and welcome God into the process rather than assume our God is not big enough to handle such brazen exploration. We were given the ability to think, wonder, and question–why not put this wondrous creation to good use?

The point of the above paragraphs is merely to set up an introduction to some questions–many that have been on my mind for years–to which I hope to thoughtfully, prayerfully, and honestly respond in the coming years. I will briefly present them below and expand in a later response as I more fully grasp what it is I am getting at. So here goes:

1. If we accept that there is a loving God and Jesus came to save the world (John 3:17, Luke 19:10), how can we claim that is consistent with the popular Christian notion of Hell?

2. If God is everywhere, we can worship him anywhere, then why do we go to church?

3. If God is so loving, powerful, and knowing, why would God create souls to live on this earth who God knows will perish in eternal torment?

4. Jewish people, God’s “chosen,” do not believe in Christ as the “way, the truth, and the life,” so are they doomed in the afterlife?

5. If the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:39), then why do so many people approach others with anything but love? Do we hate ourselves?

6. If all sin is equal in the sight of God and we believe all people have free-will to make their own decisions, then why are some so invested in limiting the behavior of others based on some human-constructed hierarchy of sin?

7. If the American Constitution provides for freedom of religion and pursuit of happiness (and we agree that Sharia Law as enacted in some countries is wrong), then why do some want the “rules” as laid out by the Christian bible imposed on everyone in America, even non-Christians?

8. Depending on the denomination and the person, the words, “I am a Christian,” can mean a multitude of things. What do we mean when we make this declaration? Which Christ are we following?

9. How did we get from Christ, who railed against the traditional teachings and synagogues of his day, to such a diverse and confusing array of faith traditions, rituals, and Christian denominations? Which one is “right”?

I have many more questions, but these are just some that have been at the forefront my mind lately. I am not proposing these questions in hopes that readers will “answer” them. In fact, I do not want “answers,” but I do welcome responses if you’ve given some thought to any or all of this. I also open up the comments section below to new questions, which you may have been pondering or which sprung to mind as you read mine.