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.

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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.”

Lent and a Fresh Start

Lent and a Fresh Start

Noah’s Ark is a difficult story. Because it has lots of animals, a boat, and a rainbow, we put it on nursery walls and tell it to children. But the real story isn’t cute or happy at all. The real story is hard and confusing.

God looks down at everything he has made, but unlike the goodness he saw at creation, now all he sees is corruption and violence. It’s a mess and God regrets the whole thing. So he decides to scrap it all and start over with just eight people and a handful of animals. He gives Noah instructions for building a giant boat, and once Noah’s family and the collection of animals are on board, God destroys the world with a giant flood. Every animal, every innocent child, every violent man or woman. Everyone dies.

And when Noah and his family and all of the animals finally crawl out of the ark for a fresh start, God promises them all – the animals and the people – that he will never do it again. He puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself of his promise – never again will the rain mean everything dies. That’s not going to be God’s way to make things right.

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Everything is a mess, it’s not working out, and you need to start over from scratch. Just burn it all down, as a friend of mine says.

God knows what that’s like. He understands that feeling, and he’s made a better way than destroying it all.

Because what we see in Noah’s story is that destroying it all didn’t work. Noah and his family brought themselves with them into their fresh start, and they start messing up almost immediately. Noah gets drunk, one of his sons does something obscene, and the whole project spirals from there.

The problem wasn’t in everything around them, it wasn’t all just in the violence and evil in other people’s hearts. They had their own regrets and resentments and fears and defenses. The flood didn’t destroy those, and the fresh start they needed was in themselves – in their own hearts and minds.

So God made a different kind of fresh start. God gave us baptism. Like those flood waters, the waters of baptism provide us with a fresh start, but unlike those flood waters, baptism doesn’t destroy to do it. Instead, baptism calls us to move forward in the world as it is and change the world by changing our own lives – changing how we think and what we do. Baptism is about changing the direction we’re going and what we are moving towards.

As the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer say, we turn away from evil, and towards God.

Away from the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and towards the Creator who nurtures and heals.

We turn away from the desires that keep us from loving and being loved, and turn to live in the grace and love Jesus freely offers to us and to all.

Every time we celebrate a baptism, the whole congregation renews those vows, and the water that has been blessed for baptism is flung out over us with the words, “Remember your baptism!” It’s one of my favorite moments of the liturgy, and it always makes me smile, because it reminds me that I have a fresh start to live those vows. But we don’t have to wait for those moments to remember our baptism! A shower in the morning as we get ready for a new day can remind us of our baptism. The water running over our hands as we wash them through the day can remind us. An unexpected spring rain we get caught in can remind us – especially if it comes with a rainbow.

In the gospel of John, Jesus explains it to Nicodemus as “being born again.” Parts of the church have turned being “born again” into not much more than an abstract idea, sort of a magic wand that changes where we go when we die, but Jesus is using it to describe a fresh start, a new way of living that starts now.

I think sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we can really change and things really can be different – that we can actually have a fresh start. It can be hard to believe for myself, and it can be hard to believe for others. But that is the heart of our faith, and it’s what we are inviting others into when we offer them baptism. If the reality that change really is possible in ourselves and in the world isn’t what the gospel is about, I don’t know what is.

That change doesn’t come all at once, but like all new life, it starts in a moment we may not even recognize, and then grows one breath at a time, one step at a time. It’s a spiritual reality that happens here and now, in ways we can see and hear and feel. In the middle of life that is messy and confusing and full of things beyond our control.

The reality is that fresh starts are often not something we’ve gone looking for. Things fall apart or quit working or just come to an end, and we have to pick up the pieces and start over. There’s a flood. We lose a job. The partner we thought we’d spend the rest of our life with is gone. Children leave home. We just realize we’re not living the life we want, aren’t the person we want to be.

That’s why confession is part of traditional liturgies every week. It’s not just words we say. It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize what’s gone wrong – the things we did that make us wince, the things we didn’t do that make us defensive. Instead of burying them or shrugging them off, we bring them up, look at them squarely, and recognize something in us needs to change. And then we lift our souls up to the Lord, as the Psalmist says, and turn to the love of Jesus to receive his grace and love so that we can offer it to others with our lives. It’s a habit, a discipline, and if we enter into it each week fully and thoughtfully, we will find our lives become oriented to that direction we were pointed to in our baptism. The love of God becomes the true north in the compass of our hearts, always pointing us towards his love, both to receive and to give.

Sometime a fresh start is something we know we need, but we’re not sure what it looks like or how to find it. That’s one of the reasons we fast during Lent – to make space in our hearts and in our daily lives for God to do something new.

The first time I tried fasting for Lent, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still a Baptist, and I was living in North Carolina where even at the Bible college where I worked, few people even knew what Lent was. But I was searching to connect with God in new ways, and thought I’d see what Lent might be like. So I gave up sweets for Lent – desserts, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts my office neighbor brought every Tuesday, the bowl of chocolates in our office. All of them. I put a Post-it note on my computer to remind me, and it wasn’t long at all before I started to realize how quickly I reached for those chocolates when I started to get stressed. I’d never noticed how much I used sweets to cope with life, and now that I wasn’t I had to face that stress, sit with it, and work through it. Over the weeks, I started using a guided prayer website in those moments, and gradually that became my instinct when I felt stressed.

There was space for another bit of God’s love to take root and blossom into something new, something God’s love does again and again and again. As we hear at the Ash Wednesday service, we are dust, and we have a Creator who delights in making good things out of dust.

Like Noah, we bring ourselves into the fresh start God gives us at baptism and every day after, and it is the love of God that can make us into something new, that can give us a new way to live, again and again and again. Baptism is not just a beginning, it’s a way forward. A life of continual conversion and transformation of our hearts and lives into the way of Jesus, the path of the love of God.

That is the fresh start we receive at baptism and every time we come to God in prayer, confession, and the table. It’s the fresh start God has for us every moment of every day.

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

When I first met *Schuylar, they were between pronouns. Not quite “she” and not quite “he,” Schuylar was a young person trying to figure a lot out. I wanted to be kind and understanding – I wanted to really understand – but I’d never known someone live and in person for whom gender was such a struggle. I was confused. Their experience baffled me. It didn’t fit the way I understood the Bible, myself, or anyone else. I didn’t know what “right” or “healthy” or “good” meant in this context, and I didn’t have a clue what their experience meant for the community we shared, though I realized it was no small thing.

A friend of mine, a respected Christian leader, recently noted that he sees “transgender issues” as the next big cultural hot button. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate man, so though he tends to have a more traditional perspective on sexuality, I know he is genuine in his desire to listen well, understand more, and respond with love.

I know a lot of folks much like him – much like me where I was several years ago. People who at their best are baffled and confused about the idea of someone being transgender, and who at their worst feel only fear or anger.

The fear and anger hurt everybody. I’m grateful for those who helped me find a way past it.

Several trans friends have shared their lives and journeys with me, and taught me much about myself as both an individual and as a woman. But when I met Schuylar, I hadn’t begun that journey.

One thing Schuylar talked about a lot was their discomfort with gender norms. The toys and clothes they wanted, the things they wanted to do – they understood those were somehow wrong. And yet the things they were given and were supposed to like? Those were the things that felt all wrong. As Schuylar talked about it, this seemed like a big part of what made their gender confusing for them.

And I could relate to a point. Growing up, gender norms had never neatly fit me. Much as I wanted my hair to be long, I got very stubborn when one grandma wanted me to have a girlier hair style. I didn’t like dolls very much; I preferred stuffed animals of all genders. I gravitated towards playing with boys more than girls, and once school started, the girls baffled me. I crashed the boys’ game of kickball at recess when they would let me, and when they wouldn’t, largely played by myself. As I got older, the way I thought and related was a closer fit to male stereotypes, and females as a whole continued to confuse me.

But as early as I can remember, those things never made me question my gender. I was a girl, and if someone thought girls didn’t do something that I did, that was clearly nonsense, since I was a girl and I did! I liked being a girl (and as I grew, a woman). I didn’t always like how people treated me because I was a girl (or woman), but that wasn’t a problem with me and my femaleness. That was a problem with them.

It never occurred to me to question my gender, and that made Schuylar’s experience confusing for me. Was Schuylar’s struggle just a different, more extreme reaction to social gender norms that didn’t fit? Or was something more going on?

As I’ve gotten to know more trans friends, I’ve learned their stories can be significantly different. So many different things impact how they’ve understood themselves throughout their lives, and some of their stories helped me grasp just how different their experience of their bodies is from mine.

One friend says that as early as she can remember, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a boy, I just knew I wasn’t one.” A friend from seminary who has since transitioned told me how exhausting, depressing, and even traumatizing it had been for her all those decades to get up every morning and “zip on my man-suit.”

That struck me. The masculine characteristics of her body had always been foreign to her. As familiar with them as she was – she’d never known life without them after all – they nonetheless always remained other. And beyond the personal difficulty of dealing with a body that did not match who she is, that body also brought with it a host of social norms and expectations that also didn’t fit who she is.

The idea of “zipping into a suit” every morning, it’s a vivid picture. It’s a suit that covers everything, hiding a person completely. Trapping and suffocating them. Knowing her now that she is free to be the beautiful woman she is, the effects of that suit on the friend I knew in seminary is obvious.

It’s a given for most of us that – love them or hate them – how we feel about our bodies isn’t what determines our gender. For us, the idea of looking for a newborn’s genitals and proclaiming, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” only reflects the most obvious facts in the world. It’s not complicated – it’s always worked for us. Our bodies are ours, and whether we feel good about what we see in the mirror or not, we recognize them at a deep level.

But in reality, it’s far more complicated than it may seem. And it is those for whom it doesn’t work who pierce the assumptions life has allowed the rest of us to live so easily with.

The assumptions life allowed me to live so easily with before I met people who couldn’t live with them.

*not their real name

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time

“People need time to adjust.”

Time to change. Time to learn. Time to get used to new ideas, new things.

I’ve heard it over and over again, especially in the church, and especially from people who are concerned with community – with the connections we have across difference and disagreement.

I’ve heard it when we talk about trans folks having the freedom to use the bathroom that best fits their identity (instead of being harassed or attacked if they try to use the one that matches their birth certificate). I’ve heard it when we talk about gay marriage. I’ve heard it when we talk about white privilege and the systemic discrimination people of color face in churches and society.

And it’s true. Change does take time. None of us leapfrog to new things. We get there one step at a time.

The problem is that when we appeal for time for people to adjust to something new, we’re privileging those for whom the status quo is not a problem. People who didn’t (don’t) see the need for change on their own are already privileged, even if they rarely recognize that reality. Those of us with power and privilege can rarely see what they we have. It feels normal to us, and we naturally assume that what is normal to us is also normal for others. It’s just “how the world works.”

But the world may work radically different for someone else, and it is radically different for people who are different from me.

I began to realize that in my late twenties when I lived in North Carolina. It was a time of dramatic change as North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Immigrants from Mexico were flowing into the state, and some smaller communities were reeling as their Spanish-speaking population increased from near zero to 20% or more in only a few years. That’s radical change.

In the area where I lived, the impacts were focused in a few neighborhoods, one of them already the most struggling neighborhood in town. It had quickly shifted to being roughly a third Hispanic, a third black, and a third white (mostly aging folks in homes they’d owned for decades). Friends of mine from church bought a home in there and enrolled their daughter in the local school. Several of us met in their home weekly and started to get involved in the community and the schools there.

It didn’t take long at all for my illusions about equality of opportunity and access to get blown out of the water. Black and Hispanic neighbors both, for somewhat different reasons, faced discrimination and barriers beyond what I’d imagined. I knew poverty – our family had struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up. But this was beyond poverty. These folks’ lives were so very different than mine.

The change they are waiting for is us.

The world works pretty well for us already, and we don’t want that to change. So we’re content for it not too until they can convince us there’s a problem, and that it’s not a problem of their own making, to the standards of our assumptions about how things are.

Because we can afford to take the time.

Even if they can’t.

Learning takes time. Changing takes time. Journeys happen one step at a time. I took the time; I walked – and sometimes ran – each step; and I’m still learning.

But when we make our learning and our comfort the criteria for change desperately needed by those who are vulnerable? That is the epitome of perpetuating and protecting our privilege.

A friend of mine who is a pastor recently related the words of a parent whose teenager had come out to them: “I suppose I should have cared enough when it was other people’s children.”

When we take our time, it always costs someone who can’t afford it.