Naming God for Who God Is

Naming God for Who God Is

“…and you enjoy being loved by God.”

They were passing words from a pastor who was counseling me — not even his point. But something in my mind got caught in them and stayed there while we finished the session. Something inside me that said quietly and without the least drama, “But I don’t.”

Oh.

God loved me. That was as basic a fact in my world as my mama and daddy’s love for me. It wasn’t something it had ever occurred to me to question.

But somehow, in thirty years of life and being loved by God, it had also never occurred to me that I should be enjoying it.

Being loved by the Creator of the universe, the God without whom nothing was, the God who was sovereign over everything that happened (including daddies dying, injustice, abuse, bullying, starving, war,…), the God who gave and took away, the God who made all things work for the good of those who love him?

That was something to be enjoyed?

I trusted God with everything in me I knew to trust with, but something inside me still braced.

You can make yourself do a lot of things, but one thing you cannot make yourself do is enjoy. And I knew the reality that I didn’t enjoy being loved by God meant something was seriously messed up.

I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t know how to fix it.

But I knew there was a problem somewhere in what I believed, consciously or unconsciously or both, and I became willing to put everything I thought I knew on the table.

I didn’t do it all at once. It was a step at a time. Years in which momentum slowly grew in ways I didn’t really understand. But it started with recognizing that as I had grown up in the church, I had learned to redefine a lot of things — things like love, joy, and peace. These were all things we experience when we know Jesus. I knew Jesus, my (mostly) unconscious mind reasoned, therefore love, joy, and peace must be what it was I was experiencing.

Depression and anxiety got suppressed, redefined, and ultimately, when they were undeniable, blamed on purely physical factors. “I know a peace I don’t feel.” I’d actually said those words and meant them.

It had to be better than this, I decided, or it was just a farce. “It” being life with God, following Jesus, being a Christian.

And over the years, as I let go of a lot and looked for love, goodness, and beauty, it did get better. I wrestled through some really hard stuff and came through it with a relationship with God that was deeper than ever. Something in me relaxed, and I wasn’t bracing any more.

And then a year or so ago, for no apparent reason, the prayers and creeds and words in church started to trigger bracing in me — the instinct to draw back and distance myself. The same words of the liturgy that had been so healing for me for so many years became painful.

It was the word “God” that was doing it. “God,” “Father,” “Christ.” Most any word that referred to deity except “Jesus” triggered in me a reaction to a God I no longer believe in — a God who demands death, a God who turns his back, a God who cuts some people off, a God who is willing to sacrifice a child for the sake of his plan.

Not the God of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Not the God who

is love.

It hurt. I missed the presence I’d found in those words. I also realized I wasn’t just going to be able to get them back. I had to move through this, not back away from it.

So I started replacing the word “God” in the prayers and affirmations of the liturgy with the word, “Love.”

It was a revelation. I hadn’t realized how much my mind and heart still held of a god who isn’t Love.

I did the same thing with hymns, and the first time I sang Patrick’s Breastplate the new way, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I bind unto myself today

the power of Love to hold and lead,

Love’s eye to watch, Love’s might to stay,

Love’s ear to hearken to my need,

the wisdom of my Love to teach,

Love’s hand to guide, Love’s shield to ward,

the word of Love to give me speech,

Love’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Love be with me, Love within me,

Love behind me, Love before me,

Love beside me, Love to win me,

Love to comfort and restore me.

Love beneath me, Love above me,

Love in quiet, Love in danger,

Love in hearts of all that know me,

Love in mouth of friend and stranger.”

There is no perfect way to approach the holy, the divine. But, love, we have been told, comes closest.

“Beloved, let us love one another.

For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knowers God.

He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.

Beloved, let us love one another!”

(1 John 4:7-8)

So I’m still learning to know God, to grasp what is at the heart of the universe.

And to enjoy being loved.

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Shower Curtains and Happy Yellow Cars

Shower Curtains and Happy Yellow Cars

There are two kinds of people in the world: those for whom stuff is, ultimately, just stuff, and those for whom stuff has an existential connection to who we are and the emotional world we inhabit.

I know there’s really a range, but the difference is real. When I was young, maybe four or five, a traveling exhibit of Lincoln memorabilia came to our local mall. I remember they had a plaster cast of his hands (which were huge). But what I couldn’t get over, what I kept coming back to for hours, was one of his hats and a pair of his glasses. These things he’d worn, touched, lived with, gave me literal chills. I couldn’t get over the reality that he’d slipped those glasses off before going to sleep at night. It felt so intimate to me, like these items were a kind of tesseract – a wrinkle in time – bringing Abraham Lincoln and me together across all those years.

To other (many other? most other?) people, those items were interesting artifacts, valuable curiosities. But for me, they had power.

It isn’t just about history. It’s in daily life, too.

A good friend and neighbor of mine once bought a new shower curtain. This is a thing we do on occasion, and not a particularly big thing. But her son, who was three or four at the time, cried brokenheartedly for the old one. He couldn’t remember their bathroom without it, and that shower curtain was part of what made life feel safe and known for him. She finally dug it back out of the trash and found a way for them to work through the transition (she’s an awesome mom).

Maybe there’s something of childhood to those kinds of connections – the favorite bear or perennial “security blanket” (I had both a super soft, threadbare blankie that went everywhere with me and an equally beloved, threadbare pink elephant named “Ellie”).

We grow out of those connections eventually, though maybe some of us more so – or differently – than others.

I’ve been wondering if some of those differences might be about an aspect of being an extrovert or an introvert – that aspect that relates less to our social proclivities and more to the way we process things.

My introverted friends process internally. They go inside themselves to think and feel before they’re ready to speak or write and engage the world. As an extrovert, I process externally. I often don’t know I knew something until the words come out. I engage the world, not because it tells me what to think, but so that I can discover what I think or feel.

Maybe that difference in processing things affects how we relate to the stuff around us, as well. Sometimes I feel like I live my life turned inside out – with the people and things around me shaping and being shaped by the cacophony that’s in my head. That feels like the opposite of how my introverted friends talk about experiencing the world, and I’m wondering if it may evoke or even require a different relationship with stuff.

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, my happy, yellow Toyota was rear-ended by an impatient Tesla and totaled (thankfully, no one was injured!). When I bought her three years ago, she was the first new car I’d ever had. She named herself “Lucy,” and I loved that car. No matter how gray and dreary the morning, she was sunshine. And I need sunshine!

As I’ve navigated the whirlwind of insurance logistics and finding a new car (a new crimson Kia Niro hybrid is the one, it turned out), I’ve been missing Lucy. Beyond the needless loss of a good car, I miss her sunshine. She was both an expression of a big part of who I am, and something I could count on to brighten my day more consistently than the weather.

It’s never been easy for me to let go of stuff, though I’ve been learning. Losing my father at such an early age gave every thing I associated with him relational value, but I’ve been learning to invest that value differently. Like everything good, it can trap me – tangling me up and weighing my life down with the fear that every time I lose one of those things, I lose another bit of my father.

It’s easy for me to feel that way, but it’s not true.

In the past few years, I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Books, clothes, clutter, even keepsakes (who, indeed, am I keeping them for the sake of?). My life has more room to breathe, and it is still full of things that matter to me – things that both express who I am and shape who I am growing to be.

Happy, yellow Lucy is gone, but I know the part of me she expressed better now, and that’s not going anywhere. And I’ll learn the new car’s name (and pronouns) and what it was in me that made it feel like the right choice, and I’ll grow into that part of myself a little more.

The world changes, whether I want it to or not. And as much as learning and discovery is a part of who I am, the changes that come rearrange my life in ways I don’t always I like. But I think maybe I’m learning how to navigate those changes as myself, releasing what I don’t need to absorb and growing into aspects of who I am in fuller ways.

The stuff really is just stuff. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. For some of us, maybe that just means that, coming or going, it matter more.

Astray

Astray

I recently spent some time with an old friend who has come to believe that God blesses same-sex relationships. They are navigating what that means for their work and ministry in evangelicalism, and that’s not an easy path. I know that all too well.

Shortly after I became publically outspoken in my own advocacy for LGBTQ+ folk, I was challenged by a close family member. “I have to hold you accountable to the truth,” they said. “You are endangering not only your own life, but also the lives of others.” It wasn’t a novel thought. It’s something I was taught in church from a young age: we are to some degree responsible for the choices of those around us.

It’s why we had “accountability groups” and mentors at church. In some cases, it was a big part of the reason we had church. And like many parts of religion, it got something wrong and something right at the same time.

The something right? “No man is an island.” Our lives and choices affect those around us. And we can be blind to our own issues. It’s wise to be in community and to open our lives up to trusted friends.

The something wrong? We tended to create a culture in which we treat each other more like children of the communal parent than adults. Our individual identities can be surrendered to a group identity that cannot be questioned, and our well-being can become dependent on the lives and choices of others. We can see ourselves as having something not unlike a parental responsibility for others.

Many people have influenced me throughout my life, from my parents and other family members to pastors, teachers, authors, and friends. For most of my life that was primarily fundamentalists, and they gave me foundations and tools that are still a valuable part of my life today. Increasingly, I’ve learned from folks outside fundamentalism, people who invited me to listen and think and learn. And no matter how much I cannot imagine being where I am today without them, they are not responsible for the choices I have made.

For all they have given me, I’m the one who had to choose what to keep and what to leave, and what to build with what I’ve received.

In the years since my own convictions about gender, sexuality, and marriage shifted, I’ve had several friends make a similar journey. Some of them have had a front row seat to my own life. My story has become a part of their journey, and that has never failed to bring those words about accountability and responsibility to my mind.

If anything good in my life has influenced others, I’m humbled and grateful, but I honor the choices we each have to make for ourselves. One person’s faithfulness does not always look like another’s. If everyone’s story looked like mine, something would be very wrong.

The responsibility we have in community is to share our lives and at the same time give each other the freedom to live our own unique stories. It’s not unlike being adults functioning well in a family together. We can be invested in each other’s lives without needing those lives to look a certain way. That’s not always easy – when you see someone you love making decisions you are convinced are wrong, you want to stop them. Maybe you’re right (we tend to think we are), or maybe not, but your life is not my story to write even if you choose to share it with me.

Love is not control or manipulation or relational blackmail. Love looks more like Jesus than that.

There are people who love me who are desperately convinced I have gone astray. In a sense, they’re right – I have certainly “strayed” from the particular path they are sure of. But I hope I’ve strayed in the steps of Jesus and only closer to the love of God. And the love of God has many paths, and the footsteps of Jesus venture into all kinds of unlikely places.

Losing Sight

Losing Sight

It’s so easy to lose sight of each other. To see only what we expect or want to see instead of what’s really there. To see one particular sliver of someone and stop looking for anything else.

We do it without even noticing – that’s the problem. We don’t notice what we’re not noticing.

It doesn’t matter enough to us. We do fine with what we do see, it’s sufficient to get us through the day and so we become okay with erasing each other. With caricatures that hide people.

It’s the other way we use masks – not just to hide or protect ourselves, but passing them around to those we encounter, hiding the real people and simplifying the world for ourselves.

The professor. The black man. The boss. The uniform. The head scarf. The pretty face. The old woman. The clerk. The suit.

I see them every day. But I don’t see them. I only see the idea, the caricature I’ve been content to see. And they are more.

They are each a person with a life as full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd as mine.

But I can’t handle that.

I’m too caught up in the full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd life that is mine, and I don’t have room for them.

Except…

I get tired of going around in the circles of my own life. I keep at it like it’s my job, my obligation. And in at least one sense, it is. But it’s only my job in so much as I can get enough of a hold on my own life to yank it out of the way. To be able to look beyond myself and really see everyone else as so much more than a supporting cast of character roles in my life, my story.

Because the truth is I don’t have a story, not one that is just mine, at least.

We have a story. A full and complicated and delightful and tragic and absurd story that we all make together. Turning each other into villains and heroes (usually turning ourselves into the heroes) as we try to make it smaller and more manageable and easier to tell ourselves as we fall asleep each night.

But that story is a lie, or at least as much lie as the truth. Because the story is always bigger and messier and more delightful and tragic and absurd than we are ready for.

So tell me your version, please. And maybe – hopefully – it will help break me out of mine and shape it and change it beyond what I know. Maybe we can figure out how to tell a bigger story together so we can stop losing sight of each other.

Dancing Reality In

Dancing Reality In

It’s so easy to walk around reality like it’s full of things, like I am an object in a universe of objects. Bouncing off some, rearranging others. Things change – flowers bloom, the trees turn green and then the leaves turn and are gone, I change my mind – but things change. That’s how I think of it.

I’m learning it’s closer to reality to say things are change.

Physicist Carlo Rovelli says the world consists not so much of things, like stones, as of happenings, like kisses. (He has a marvelous interview at On Being.) By high school I’d learned that matter mostly consists of space, no matter how solid it may seem. And reality continues to astound me – there is a sense in which electrons only exist when they interact.

I remember first encountering physics in the “children’s” fiction of Madeleine L’Engle. Later, my college English Lit professor started class with a devotion on chaos theory. Physics has always felt a lot like spirituality to me. And maybe that’s exactly what it is.

I’m not a spirit with a body; I am both body and spirit. Both are me.

And I am at every moment a happening. A laugh, a meeting, a passion, an argument, a grief, a conversation, a dance, a race, a rest, a longing, a kiss.

So are you.

And I confess I don’t always see you that way. I spent too long in books, and it’s too easy for me to see you as a character, already written and bound by what is there.

It’s too easy to see everything as an unfolding story, pushed ahead by what’s already been told.

But the story starts today. Every day. The story is what we make it as we happen to the world. As the world happens to us. As we happen to each other.

And we happen to each other a lot, for good and for ill. For blessing and for cursing. For life and for death.

That’s what reality is.

I’m sorry when I forget, when I start trying to write your story, or think I know how it ends. I don’t.

I hope I can keep hoping, though, for the good endings. I hope we can collaborate – I think we do, even when we’re trying to ignore each other. But I’d like to do it with joy, and with gratitude.

I’d like you and I to dance our way into reality.

Not What I Ordered

Not What I Ordered

One of the greatest challenges in life is what to do when what you got ain’t what you ordered.

It happens in so many ways, large and small. The party you plan doesn’t turn out like you wanted it to. Your job takes an unexpected turn. The person you love chooses something different. An election goes haywire. It rains on your beach party. Something arrives you never saw coming.

What do we do when life serves us up something that’s not what we ordered – not what we wanted?

Most of my life the church taught me that what I got was what God meant for me to have, and he knew what I really needed better than I did. While I can believe that God might know me better than I know myself, that does not mean everything that comes to me is something he ordered. When life brings you evil and death, you can be sure those are not from God.

We live with the consequences of evil in the world, and we suffer because of other people’s choices – some of them long gone. We construct systems that are bent in ways that hurt people, sometimes intentionally, often blindly. We make choices to hurt each other, to lash out in frustration, pain anger, hatred. And sometimes we hurt people because of ghosts from our pasts we’ve never dealt with.

Everything that comes my way was not sent by God. Everything that comes is not in some way “good for me” or anywhere near what I need, much less want. And sometimes what comes is just different – not what I had in mind.

So what do we do? As much as I’ve learned since those days when I thought the only faithful thing to do was accept it all as from God, I still struggle to figure it out.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I go back to that prayer over and over again to remember both the agency I have and its limits.

Sometimes I can say no and refuse to accept something in my life. I can create boundaries, and recognize what is healthy and what is not.

Sometimes I can choose to try it and be open to being surprised. To accept the gift that’s given, even if it’s not the one I was asking for.

Sometimes I can choose to wait and see if things will change. People do change sometimes, and how I feel can change, too.

And sometimes I can choose not to wait.

Sometimes I can choose to get moving, to change myself, my mind, or my circumstances. To do my best to move towards goodness, love, beauty, peace, joy.

And sometimes I can step back, look at all the pieces, and choose to tell a different story with them than the one I was given.

That’s hard. The stories we live and believe shape the way we see the world and the way we understand ourselves. The stories we see ourselves in produce the choices we recognize. Letting go of the stories that made me who I am is scary. I can’t know what the new story will look like or what it will create in me.

But sometimes, it’s time. If I could just be sure when.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

“Ah! Here.  And…you’re here.”

-“I am. You sound surprised, yet not.”

“Well…the dry sauna at the athletic club?”

-“Don’t you read the Psalms?”

“The Psalms?…

Oh! ‘If I make my bed in hell.…’ Very funny.”

-“I thought you’d be amused.”

“But, …seriously?”

-“Seriously, it’s the quietest place I know.”

“Really? What about churches and chapels?”

-“They’re loud with expectation and desperation.”

“Oh. I can see that. And here…

well, it may be the only place that even my mind is quiet.”

-“Exactly. Everything is remarkable still in here.”

“There’s something about the heat.”

-“Yes. It brings your mind and body together to be present with each other.”

<pause>

“That’s not always a comfortable place for me.”

-“I know.”

“There’s a lot I don’t want to feel that directly.”

-“Yes.”

“I’ve lost my dreams.”

-“Lost?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know where they went, but they’re gone.”

-“Yes, sometimes people walk away with our dreams whether they intended to or not.”

“I just know I went to find them last week and there was nothing there.”

-“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you….

I’d ask why you didn’t stop them, but I’m long past thinking that you push people around like that.”

-“There’s no love under compulsion or manipulation.”

“Right.”

<pause>

“You know, I never know where these conversations are going to go when they start.”

-“Neither do I.”

“Really?”

-“Yes. They’re something we create together.”

“I like that.”

-“I’m glad.”

<pause>

“So what do I do about the dreams?”

-“What do you think?”

“Well, they didn’t die – then I could bury them or burn them. They just…left.”

-“Do you think they’re coming back?”

“I want to a lot of the time. But I think that’s clinging to something that’s gone, and even if they did come back, they wouldn’t quite be the same.”

-“That makes sense. Nothing that’s alive ever stays the same.”

“I don’t know what to do with the space they left.”

-“What do you want to do with it?”

“Not lose it.”

-“Why not?”

“Because…it’s part of the shape of who I am now, and I like who I am now.”

-“I like who you are now, too.”

“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to lose that.”

-“So you feel stuck between new dreams and losing who you are?”

“Maybe?…

There aren’t really any new dreams taking root. I have plenty of wishes flying around, but new dreams – not so much.”

-“And the wishes?”

“Most of them are connected with the dreams that are gone. Some of them still mean something on their own, and that’s good, but they aren’t the sorts of things that turn into dreams.”

-“Ah. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

-“I see you.”

“You do?”

-“I do.”

<pause>

“Maybe that’s enough for the moment. I don’t know….

Can that be enough for the moment?”

-“It’s why I’m here. If you make your bed in hell…”

“You’re here.”

-“Yes.”