Saving Up

FeaturedSaving Up

Tonight it hit me squarely for the first time – how many years have I spent saving my living up for later?

I was raised in a wonderfully loving and deeply conservative family and community. There are tensions in that combination that can be hard to hold together, but when it’s all you know, you don’t notice them. They taught me to hold on to what’s good, but I also learned to avoid what might be risky. The good things had to be protected from any possible taint. It was a “purity culture” that went well beyond sex. Every choice – even among things that weren’t “bad” – had ramifications for the rest of my life (and eternity), so I had to avoid anything that might compromise my future marriage, vocation, calling, or ministry. If I spent a choice on a date, or piercing my ears, or even my college and major, it might limit the good God could use me to do. So I saved up. I made safe choices.

I began choosing to stop that savings plan in a big way a few years ago, somewhere in the fallout of turning 40. Half my life (if I’m lucky) is gone, and I wanted – needed – something to change. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I’ve never found other words to express the reality I was experiencing: I was slowly dying. Getting smaller. Fading out. There was just…less of me.

And I didn’t – wouldn’t – believe that was all God had for me in this life. I began to think maybe he wasn’t actually waiting for my faith to mature enough, or for “his perfect timing.” Maybe, while I was “waiting on him” as faithfully as I knew how, trying my best not to make a step that might endanger his will for my life, maybe God wasn’t waiting at all.

Maybe God was doing his thing in the world – giving love, creating beauty, and making peace, as my friend Frank Schaeffer would say – and what I needed to do was get out there and find his stuff and dig into all the messy goodness of it.

It didn’t happen overnight – not quite – but it did happen fast enough to leave the heads of a lot of people spinning. It left my head spinning (ten first dates in three weeks can do that!). But every new place I found myself turned out to be grounded in years of lessons gleaned, painful pruning, and hard-won trust. In the unfamiliar I kept seeing Jesus. I had never felt more disoriented in my life, and at the same time, I had never felt more grounded, more connected with who I was made to be.

Sometimes life gives us choices that change everything. They may be as small as picking up a book or choosing to accept that invitation to tag along with a friend to dinner and meet new people, or as big as walking away from a church and community of people you’ve sunk roots in with.

I’ve spent the past few years making those choices without knowing where they might take me. The journey is far from over, but they’ve already taken me to some amazing places and alongside some amazing people who’ve changed me. They’ve cracked my world open, and colors I never imagined have flooded in. Bracing winds and warming sunlight have both found deep places in my heart, and I’ve felt those places bloom open in response.

I plowed through the fear, and its echoes are fading. I’ve preached. I’ve danced. I’ve dated. I’ve leaned out an open door 99 floors up with nothing between me and the world but the wind.

I’ve stopped saving up my living and have found that as I spend it, there always seems to be more than I started with – more than I even knew was possible.

I know there are some who may read this and feel the resonance, like the tone of a bell.

Some may read this and think I’m deceived or deluded. That’s okay. You could be right. I might be missing the Kingdom of God altogether. But according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is going to look at least a bit absurd and messy with grace to us, full of all sorts of questionable characters. I’ll be grateful if I find myself among them, and in the meantime, I intend to love indiscriminately, run towards every glimpse of beauty, and seek shalom with everything in me.

And I’m going to do my best to exhaust those stockpiles of living I’ve been saving up.

-JEO

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To Belong

To Belong

The spaces that belong to you are not always the spaces where you belong.

The green carpeted floor underneath the ash pews in the church I was born in. That space belongs to me. Full of “aunts” and “uncles” and friends like Patty and Garrett (the first boy who ever proposed to me – we were maybe five), a community  I’d never known life without. People who knew my father before his illness and death, who knew my parents before their marriage.

That space is mine in the way only the place you were born can be. It accepted you for no reason beyond your existence.

The university campus I grew up on, a kid running more or less wild after the 3:00 school bell, playing games of tag with my brother and his friend that ranged through the several city blocks of interconnected campus buildings. Exploring roofs and nooks and crannies forgotten by all but the cleaning crew. There are few places on earth I will ever know so well, from the inside out.

Full of people who watched me grow up, who surrounded our family from its initial blending when my mother’s remarriage brought me a new step-father and two brothers, through my stepfather’s cancer and death, and then Mom’s second remarriage. People who saw and didn’t see.

This space is mine in the way places you grew up are, especially when that growing up was such a profound suffering.

But even then, there were signs I didn’t belong. Growing up I found my home in the stacks of the campus library and, as early as junior high, with the theater majors – the most classic of misfits. (The fact that I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors may explain a lot.)

It wasn’t until my early thirties, when I moved back to the small Bible college campus where my parents had met and I’d spent my earliest years that it came clear.

My office was my mother’s old dorm room, and my apartment was in the same building where my aunt and uncle had started married life. I was working with family and people who’d know my parents, and in hallways and classrooms where as a kindergartner I’d made friends of faculty and students and watched weekly missionary slideshows from all over the world.

These were spaces that belonged to me, but I didn’t fit. Over the four years I lived and worked there it became increasingly plain that I didn’t belong. No one told me, or did anything to make me feel that way – just the opposite, in fact. I was embraced and loved. But there was no place there for the questions I was asking. I was trying to grow, but the light wasn’t right there, and the soil.

I didn’t fit.

In retrospect, I never really had.

Where do you go when the spaces that belong to you, that you know, are not where you belong?

I went exploring. Not randomly, but in directions that seemed hopeful, through spaces that, while they weren’t where I belonged either, took me to more possibilities. I learned to follow Jesus beyond what I could see and to trust him with all I could not understand.

I left the land of my birth (there is no story without leaving home) to go to a land he would show me. Had I known twenty years ago where the journey would take me, I would have rejected it. If it led there, it could not be from God. But I learned to trust each step more than where I thought they might lead. I learned to listen beyond my assumptions and assertions. I learned to trust the questions I did not have answers to.

Every family and tribe has its own culture, and every time we leave home, we have a choice. We can carry the whole turtle shell with us, or we can learn to live in other people’s spaces, with other people’s cultures, languages, ways.

Perhaps the challenge of love is to let yourself belong somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. In a place you weren’t born into, that was not the space that shaped your growing up.

I live in those spaces now. I worship in those spaces. I learn in those spaces. I listen in those spaces. I share myself in those spaces.

Some of them, like my Episcopal Church family, are full of traditions and ways I will never fully understand. There are ways I don’t fit (Baptist edges don’t all quite wear down), but I belong. Others of them, like the LGBTQ+ community, are chosen spaces – created out of the needs of those who in certain ways didn’t fit the families and communities and churches that belong to them by right of birth. They have traditions, but they are younger traditions, still growing and expanding (not always gracefully). There are ways I don’t fit (my straight orientation and cisgender are not things I get to choose), but I belong.

These are not my spaces and never should be. I have no right to try to shape them to fit me. But they have shaped me, and I have found that I belong.

The spaces where you belong are not always spaces that belong to you. And maybe that can be a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.

Speaking Out

Speaking Out

Last night I sang my first karaoke song ever. At church. (Another story!)

For me, it was something that, if I was ever going to do it, I just had to do it – sort of like jumping off the end of a diving board into cold water. At some point you have to stop thinking about it and thinking about how scary it is and just hit go.

The song I picked is one I know inside out – it got me through Junior High! Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through the Rain.”

We dreamers have our ways

Of facing rainy days

And somehow we survive

We keep the feelings warm

Protect them from the storm

Until our time arrives

Then one day the sun appears

And we come shining through those lonely years

I made it through the rain

I kept my world protected

I made it thought the rain

I kept my point of view

I made it through the rain

And found myself respected

By the others who

Got rained on too

And made it through

As I sang those lyrics, I realized how true it’s become of my life.

Last Tuesday evening was significant for me. I was right where I’ve been every first Tuesday for going on three years now – attending OUTspoken at Sidetrack, Chicago’s monthly LGBTQ storytelling night in Boystown. Chicago has a vibrant storytelling scene (think The Moth – true stories told live), but in the midst of all the amazing storytelling events every month, OUTspoken stands out. Members of the LGBTQ community share their stories. Sometime those stories are from fifty years ago and sometimes they’re from yesterday. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re painful and sometimes they’re both and sometimes they’re really hard to listen to and sometimes they’re full of joy.

They are always beautiful.

They’re stories of lives that have been ignored and attacked and demonized and condemned and have found a way to live anyway, from voices that have been shamed and dismissed and silenced and yet still speak out. OUTspoken is a powerful, sacred space where those lives are celebrated and those voices honored.

I have always felt honored and humbled to hear those stories. They are gifts of courage and they have shown me how to be more deeply human and often given me wisdom to navigate my own life.

But last Tuesday, I was on the other side of the mic.

The invitation to tell my own story in that space was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been given. It was only the second time OUTspoken has had a night of “ally” storytellers, and it would have been an amazing evening had I only been sitting in the audience. My fellow storytellers told remarkable, beautiful stories. But to share some of my own journey….

It wasn’t easy. I spent months thinking about it and working on the words I wanted to offer in this space that doesn’t belong to me and yet nonetheless is so special to me. Storytelling is about so much more than telling a story; it’s about sharing our lives and ourselves. When I tell a story, I’m offering my own sliver of the human experience, and those who receive it offer kinship. The recognition that, yes! in all our individual peculiarities we really do belong to each other.

Storytelling is creating (or finding) a kind of chosen family – something the LGBTQ community has had to do by cruel necessity, but which is deeply valuable far beyond that necessity. Kinship destroys the illusion of us and them while honoring the difference of me and you. We don’t have to be alike to belong to each other, to recognize each other. To recognize and respect the others who got rained on too and made it through.

I told my story, and I received so much more than I could give. A beautiful introduction that said, “You belong here!” The attentiveness of folks who wanted to know what brought me there. The warm laughter of connection. More hugs than I could count. And the generosity of thank-yous I don’t deserve from the very people who taught me how to be brave enough to speak out.

All the Saints

All the Saints

Last week I was part of three different services commemorating All Saints Day, the day in the Christian year when we remember those who’ve gone before us, who’ve inspired us, who’ve taught us, and are no longer with us.

Each year, there are more that I remember. Some are historic and named by tradition, but others are more personal.

Paul of Tarsus, that passionate and sometimes abrasive religious zealot who it had once made complete sense to that God wanted him to torture and kill those who had a different understanding of what God wanted.

Teresa of Avila, who said “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”

Her young friend, John of the Cross, who taught us of “the dark night of the soul” – the spiritual crisis that we may experience in our journey to know the unknowable God.

Teresa of Calcutta whose compassion for those suffering and dying persisted through decades of painful spiritual drought.

Fred Rogers, the patron saint of kindness and patience who became “as a child” and became an example of what it looks like to welcome to children.

Johnny Cash, whose raw humanity was never hidden. Who visited the prisoner and wore black in solidarity with all who suffer injustice.

Gene Ould, who found his calling confined by disease to a chair in the living room and spoke the love of Jesus to all he encountered from that chair.

Madelaine L’Engle, who first showed me Jesus beyond the boundaries I knew (she was an Episcopalian! Gasp!).

Martin Luther King, Jr. whose sins we’ve ignored for the sake of his profound sacrifice.

Oscar Schindler, a philandering businessman who loved luxury and saved so many lives.

C.S. Lewis. James Baldwin. John Campbell. Sylvia Rivera. Alexander Hamilton. Rich Mullins. Leonard Allred. Harvey Milk. Wayne Barber. So many more.

Some of those names you may know. Some you almost certainly do not. But they are all saints, and all so very human. But we make symbols out of saints and deny them their full personhood, and in doing so, deny our kinship with them as well. Their stories – if we really listen to them – tell us it’s in our deepest, weakest, flawed, mistake-prone, too-often-selfish humanity that goodness also exists. And it’s in our kinship across all boundaries that righteousness is found.

Saints are human beings, and humans are neither angels nor monsters, though we are capable of beautiful and horrible things. Great good and deep evil both. All of us. All the saints.

 

(The icon of the Dancing Saints is from St. Gregory’s Church.)

Accumulating a Life

Accumulating a Life

I read an interview recently about how small, seemingly inconsequential biases can accumulate to create larger inequalities. Each time a man repeats and gets credit for a woman’s ideas in a meeting because we hear men differently. Each time a black child’s behavior is reprimanded more harshly than a white child’s because we see black children differently without even realizing it. Each time a job applicant is not pursued because of an ethnic name and our preference for the familiar. Small individual acts (“micro-aggressions”) add up to big impacts on both individuals and organizations.

Systems of wealth and credit, education, and the legal system all collect both privileges and discriminations, however small, into cumulative effects. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the impacts cross generations.

It’s a theory that helps us understand how racism and sexism function long after those explicit attitudes may have fallen out of fashion and faded. But it also helps explain much that that is beautiful and good.

Life itself, after all, is an “accumulation mechanism.” Each day builds on those that have gone before it. Each choice, for better or worse, wears the grooves of habit into our character and personality. Evil and hate and fear grow because of what we add to them. Love and kindness and beauty intervene because we do.

Our lives and our world become what we make them because of two things: what we add to them, and what we accumulate with.

So many decisions, acts, and words make up our lives – from what time I get up in the morning to how I great my neighbor on the sidewalk. What I spend, what I eat, whether I take the elevator or the stairs. What I choose to be intentional about and what goes on autopilot – and what kind of habits I’ve loaded into that autopilot. But things I have no control over make up my life as well – from what time the sun rises to how my neighbor greets me.

And there were things given to me before I even knew it that make up my life today. The genes and words of my parents, and their parents. The choices of teachers and friends and strangers, both living and long gone.

So many things come to me whether I chose them or not. But what I can begin to choose along the way is how I receive those things – how I sort them into meaning and significance, and whether I hold onto them or release them.

Consciously and unconsciously, we choose what to collect both of our own actions and the actions of others’. We sift words and acts, holding onto some and releasing others to oblivion. Much of this is unconscious. Early in life, the voices of family and authority – tempered by personality – teach us what to keep and what to ignore, and those filters function with a strong confirmation bias throughout our lives.

But life itself also gives us opportunities to flush out some systems and accumulate differently. Each day is new. Forgiveness and release can transform what has collected. Meaning can be reassessed and rewritten. And while we may never truly start from scratch again, we can change what we are accumulating.

That’s true for each of us as individuals, and it’s also true for us as a society. But that’s harder.

Because the filters that let some of us keep good things make others lose them. And the systems that give some of us room to make mistakes and grow don’t give others those same opportunities. Too many of us are only concerned with how the mechanisms for accumulation work for us, and we insist they must be working the same way for everyone else.

Principles can be deceiving. In theory, they work the same for everyone. But while in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice, there is. Principles have to be judged by their real impact across the board, on a broad range of individuals and an array of different situations.

Too often, in our lives and in our society, the most vulnerable are sacrificed – the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. And too often, we don’t even want to know it’s happening, so we let the accumulation mechanisms keep running without asking if we really want what they are collecting. If what it’s building are really our best selves and our best world.

Our best selves and our best world are worth building, if we can find the courage to try.

Doing the Impossible

Doing the Impossible

I am not a runner.

When I was growing up, the southern humidity made me sound like I had asthma when I tried to run, and I had doctors’ notes to get me out of PE running requirements through college.

Seriously. I’m not a runner.

It took my seminary boyfriend (who’d finished the Chicago Marathon himself) surprising me with a visit to a running store and an adamant, “We’re not leaving until you buy running shoes!” to get me to give it another try. And if I was going to spend that much money on a pair of shoes, I was at least going to try.

I was in my mid-thirties. It was January in Chicago. And a few blocks at a time, it worked.

At first, I really couldn’t run more than those few blocks, but he would run backwards in front of me while I walked and caught my breath, and then coax me into a few more blocks. In the freezing air, I felt like I could breath, and slowly but surely I built up to a whole mile, then two.

I still wasn’t a runner.

When he broke up with me (taking my post-graduation plans with him), running helped me survive him. In the gym or on the pavement, I could funnel the energy of hurt and anger and frustration through my feet until I was exhausted. And I began to realize that running regularly – five or six days a week – was giving me an ability to handle stress I’d never had before. I could stay focused on work and studies, and things that felt impossible to handle weren’t overwhelming me.

I wasn’t a runner, but I kept running.

A few years into two or three mile morning runs, a friend, Josh, who was new in town overwhelmed me with his enthusiasm and I agreed to register for a half marathon. That’s 13.1 miles, and the race was the third week of July in Chicago.

It was clearly impossible, ridiculously unthinkable. An absurd decision.

But I’d paid the registration fee (races are expensive!), and Josh kept telling me I could do it. Keep running three miles each morning before work, and start adding one mile at a time each weekend. And if I was going to spend that much money on a race, I was at least going to try.

And one week at a time, I did.

By the time I was up to seven miles, it felt impossible. It was getting warmer out, and I knew I couldn’t make it. But…maybe I could run to that tree up ahead? And then to another one… And then to the cross street… And then… I’d run seven miles. It wasn’t possible, but I had!

And then it was eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Every week I was doing what felt impossible, and by the time I ran that half marathon with my friends, I’d started wondering what other impossible things I could do. I joined a dating service and went on first dates with strangers. Found a new church. Met remarkable people doing amazing things to change the world. Eventually changed jobs. Moved into the City. Adopted a grumpy old man of a cat.

And kept running, even though I’m not a runner.

I never enjoy running. I enjoy the being outside part – the sun, the breezes, the Lake, the people and dogs. But I don’t enjoy the running part. It never feels good, sometimes it just feels less bad than other times. But life always feels better when I’m running regularly. Even when it’s hard and I don’t know what to do, I can go for a run and know I can do the impossible.

Running isn’t about running for me, it’s about living.

This past Sunday I ran the Chicago Marathon – all 26.2 miles of it. I did it in memory of my father, because I’m living years he didn’t get. I did it for friends who’ve lost people they love to ALS, the same disease that took his life when he was just 31. I did it because I love this City, and running through its neighborhoods with the sun and the breezes and the Lake and the architecture and the people felt like a celebration of that love. (Chicago was showing off Sunday!)

And I did it for me. Because it was time to do something else impossible – gloriously, ridiculously impossible! And now I’ll see what other impossible things I can do.

I’m not a runner, but I run because it’s taught me not to be afraid of impossible things. And I run because there are more impossible things to do.

Promises Better Broken

Promises Better Broken

There was a man, the story went, who wanted to be a leader of his people. He was from a humble background and had known much rejection, but now he had an opportunity. If he could pull off a victory, he would be praised and appointed to lead. He made a promise about what he would do if he was successful, and when he won, he kept his promise.

That promise was to sacrifice the first thing or person to meet him when he arrived home safely and victorious as a burnt offering to God, and the first to run out to meet him was his daughter, his only child.

The man’s name was Jephthah, and the story is in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars debate what the text means and whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill his vow, or instead dedicated her to serve God and never marry or have children, much like a nun. But I was taught a “plain reading” of the text, and according to that reading, Jephthah – heartbroken – kept his vow and killed his child as a sacrifice to God.

That way of reading the text is consistent within the book of Judges. One generation removed from their own slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have conquered the land God led them to and began using the former inhabitants as their own slaves.

As the generation who won those victories die off, the people forget. They go back to old ways and worshiping other gods, straying from the God who was teaching them that child sacrifice and the burdens of divine bargains were not what he was about. Raiders terrorize the people, and they are desperate to protect themselves and their own.

The “judges,” leaders who periodically appear throughout this time to defeat the raiders, are all flawed according to the understanding of the time. Some, like Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, are morally flawed, and some bear flaws or curses of nature: Deborah is a woman, and Ehud is left-handed.

The moral of Jephthah’s story as I was taught it was to be careful what you promise God (and others), because such promises must be kept.

That’s not a bad lesson – avoiding rash promises is a good thing to do in any context. But the idea that bad promises to God or anyone else must be kept, regardless of the cost? That is a horrible lesson. I always found it deeply troubling that the same God who stopped Israel’s patriarch Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, would consider it more important that Jephthah keep his promise even if it cost his daughter’s life.

I don’t believe that understanding does reflect who God is. I believe it reflects just how much his people miss or forget who God really is. The God of Israel is not a God who values the keeping of bad promises – to himself or anyone else. As Jesus shows us, the God of Israel is one who is willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of loving others.

I’ve remembered this story a lot as I’ve listened to Republican lawmakers talk about why they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” For so many, it just comes down to “because we promised we would.” Keeping that promise is more important than the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. The principle trumps real people.

And I’ve realized, that’s just what I was taught (alongside many other voters), through Jephthah’s story and in so many other ways. We got God so deeply, tragically wrong. We believed in loving our neighbors, but we believed certain principles must guide and define that love regardless of the consequences to that neighbor (or ourselves). We were willing to die for those principles, but like Jephthah, we were also too willing to let others die for them. We just want that promise kept, regardless of the consequences.

Like Israel, those descendants of Isaac whose very existence was predicated on God refusing a child sacrifice, we so readily respond to fear and chaos and evil by embracing leaders who will make those sacrifices for the sake of principle. Principles are so much more straightforward than the messiness of loving people, of considering the needs of the most vulnerable before our own.

Some promises are better broken. Rash promises, surely. But even promises made thoughtfully and with the best of intentions can end up having devastating, unforeseen consequences. Those promises are best abandoned, but sometimes we want to cling to the principle we are convinced will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.

A wise and very humane person once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” The principles that work in theory can betray us in practice, and it’s what happens in practice that really matters. Following God, loving others, is always harder and messier than following principles. Than just keeping promises.

For the Ones Who Keep Going

For the Ones Who Keep Going

This weekend I ran twenty-two miles.

That’s a lot. That’s actually crazy. It’s the farthest I’ll run until the Chicago Marathon on October 8, which I’m running with the ALS Association in memory of my father, Karen’s sister, George’s uncle, and so many others who’ve suffered from that terrible disease.

Training for the marathon has been a lot of work. I’d never run farther than thirteen miles before this summer, and the second thirteen miles is a lot harder than the first thirteen.

I don’t enjoy running. I love the being-outside part, the seeing-the-Lake part, and the long-term-benefits-to-my-mental-and-physical-health part, but the running itself? It never really feels good. It’s just hard, sometimes miserably so. The best part is the hot shower at the end.

This weekend, when I finished the twenty-two miles (in 90 degree weather!), a friend told me how proud of me they were. That it’s no small thing to take on one’s first marathon, particularly at 45, and that they are really proud of me.

Hearing that meant a lot.

It also made me think about who I’m proud of for doing hard stuff.

I have a friend who is really struggling with life right now. Lots of things have gone wrong in the past few years, and he’s dealing with deep discouragement and depression. He’s struggling to get life to work for him and fighting to remember the reasons he has to stay alive. His kids, his mother, his girl, the friends who love him. They help, but it’s still so hard every single day.

And I’m so proud of him for every single day he stays alive and keeps going. Because when I run, yes, it’s hard, but I know where it ends, and you can get through most anything if you know when it will end.

But my friend doesn’t know where it ends – when it gets better, and he keeps going anyway. He keeps fighting for every day.

I learned a long time ago that I don’t live well without hope. But I also learned that hope can be so painful. When hope doesn’t come to fruition, it can break your heart and drain the life right out. That kind of pain is hard to live through, and unrelieved pain deadens us. I’ve known seasons of numbness, and I hate them. I’d rather hurt than have that kind of safety. You can’t be open to joy and life and love unless you’re also open to pain and loss.

That’s part of why I run – to help me believe that I can keep going. That I can endure the unthinkable. And that when the pain of disappointed hope is breaking my heart, I can send it down my legs and through my feet into block after block of pavement. And I can lift up my head to feel the sun, and know the relief of being done when I reach the finish line.

A marathon, 26.2 miles, is no small thing, but it takes so much more to keep going when you don’t know how far there is to go. And I am so proud of the ones who just keep going.