Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

When I turned 30, I gave myself two gifts: a colorful 1940s era vintage dress handmade in Paris, and finding my childhood pediatrician.

Dr. Dunn was my doctor from the time I was born until we moved to a different city when I was 8. I was prone to ear infections, so he saw me around ten times a year on average. We lost a lot of the men in my life through those years – my daddy, grandpa, and great-grandpa, and my “adopted” Grandpa Duggins, among others. Dr. Dunn was one of the few men who was reliably there through all of those losses.

And he was a wonderful man. A gifted pediatrician, Dr. Dunn was also a Shakespearean actor, collector of African violets, and a musician in a local, old time style band playing the hammered dulcimer. He had a full white beard and twinkling eyes. He was unfailingly kind to me, and I always looked forward to going to the doctor.

More than twenty years later, back in the city I was born in, I tracked him down. When I called and explained who I was, he was delighted I’d found him and invited my mother and I to visit him and his wife in their home. It was a lovely time catching up, and before we left they invited me to join their family at a fiddlers’ festival in the Carolina mountains later that summer.

I took them up on that offer, and spent a wonderful weekend camping with their large family and enjoying the old time music of the region. (Old time is traditional mountain music similar to bluegrass, but while in bluegrass different instruments take turns with the melody, in old time, the fiddle always leads).

It was a beautiful weekend, but it was a conversation at a picnic table one night that shifted something in me.

I was sitting with Dr. Dunn and a couple of his grown sons as they talked. It was 2002, not even a full year after 9/11, and the war on terrorism was never far from anyone’s mind.

“If we want to end this,“ Dr. Dunn said passionately, “Every time a suicide bomber blows himself up, we will bomb their entire family.”

I was stunned. “But what about the children?” I asked. “They’re innocent!”

“Their children don’t matter if they are threatening my grandchildren!” he declared.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man I had only known as kind and gentle, who had made it his life’s work to care for other people’s children, was ready to destroy children for his own grandchildren’s sake.

My head and heart were spinning, and for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe there could be something good in not having children of my own.

I always wanted children – at least one. I love kids. Nieces and nephews, my cousins’ children (one of their girls is the only child I’ve ever waited for in the hospital as she was born), the friends’ children who I’ve known and loved from birth, the neighbors’ kids playing on the beach a few blocks from my apartment.

None of the children I love are mine. And as I have come to terms with age and circumstances, I have accepted the reality that the children I love will always be other people’s children.

That’s something I’ve grieved, but there’s also a gift in it – it means that I can want for all of those children everything I would want for my own. There’s nothing I have to protect, nothing I have to lose, in doing so. Rather than having my maternal instincts captured by this one particular child of my own, every child calls out to the mother in me.

When I heard those words come out of my beloved doctor’s mouth, something shifted for me. Something opened up in the way I look at the world. I saw how the love of “our” children can become twisted into something that is toxic to “their” children.

And the world is full of endless “us and thems.” Once we begin, we will see the threat of “them” everywhere, and it is so easy to harden our hearts. It’s how we destroy each other – kill in spirit and then in flesh.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” must also mean “love your neighbor’s children as your own.”

The children of my friends and family. The children of the stranger. The children of parents who, like Mary and Joseph, brought their children far from home to a country where they could be safe to grow and thrive. The children of my enemies, even.

That day began a change in me – a change in how I look at the world, in how I understand and live out my faith, in my relationships, in my politics, in everything.

I don’t live and work to give a better life to my own children. I live and work to help give a better life and world to other people’s children. To children of every shade and nationality and religion. Children full of hopes and dreams and questions. Children I know, and children I will never meet.

But each of them is equally precious, all of these children who belong to other people.

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Getting Through

Getting Through

Life is so hard.

I have friends facing so much right now. Friends with cancer diagnoses. Friends facing seemingly unending obstacles in their life’s work. Friends reading words of condemnation and rejection from former mentors and colleagues. Friends struggling with depression and despair. Friends wading through flood waters of many kinds, including the literal.

Friends facing so much that is discouraging, demeaning, and overwhelming.

All my life I’ve tried to fix problems. My brain sees puzzles everywhere and looks for solutions instinctively. Sometimes that’s helpful, but I’ve slowly (too slowly) learned that the things that really matter aren’t puzzles to solve or problems to fix. They are just life. Messy, painful, sometimes beautiful life.

And life is not meant to be fixed or solved. Life is meant to be lived.

I’m beginning to learn.

I used to feel so helpless and useless in the face of pain and problems I could do nothing to resolve. But I’m beginning to understand that even when I can’t fix a thing, I’m not helpless. I still have agency. There’s still something I can do.

I can choose life.

I can choose to sit with pain and confusion and still love in the midst of it. I can name what is wrong and refuse to redefine it as okay. I can have faith for and in friends. I can believe there’s always something more, that nothing has to go the worst way it could. That love is never wasted.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish I had a magic wand to make everything better. And in its absence, I will still do what I can to heal the wounds of this world and intervene in the violence that creates them. But whatever else I can (or can’t) do, I can be present. Present to this world in all its chaotic pain and beauty. Present to my friends and neighbors as they wrestle with what life has presented them with. Present to each moment I am given.

And one moment at a time, we will get through.

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

“But what if you’re wrong?”

It’s the question that characterized the religious context I lived most of my life in more than maybe any other. It has its corollary in, “Are you sure you’re right?” and both questions brought into focus what was most important to that community, and by extension to God: we dare not risk being wrong. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Countless preachers urged us not to trust them, but to “search the Scriptures” for ourselves. It wasn’t a responsibility to be passed on to anyone else.

We wanted to be faithful – to love God and obey him and stay as far from sin as possible. The constant questioning of ourselves, of our motives and our thinking, was meant to keep us safe.

More often it kept me frozen – “But what if you’re wrong?”

That question was never more present or profound to me as it was in the days and months when I began to intentionally explore the “issue” of LGBTQ+ Christians.

It was actually the very question that drove me to ask more – “But what if I’m wrong?” I’d been raised by folk for whom that subject was settled absolutely. The Bible was “clear,” and sex was created for marriage between a man and a woman. Period. And they didn’t just believe that, they argued for it loudly and publicly, vehemently attacking the “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.”

And while the methods often felt misguided to me, I shared the underlying conviction and straightforward sexual ethic.

But…what if we were wrong? What if, as much as we were seeking to be faithful, there was something we were missing?

I’d been in churches that welcomed those who “struggled with same-sex attraction” in non-coercive ways that were full of grace and patience and hope (and I’d received much healing in various areas of my own life in those communities), but what if there was more? What if we were still missing something?

So when I was introduced to a community of people who were working to build bridges between the LGBTQ+ community and conservative evangelical churches, I got involved. I asked lots of questions of pastors who’d had a change of heart and mind, and I listened to scores of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Some of those stories were told publicly, and some of them were entrusted to me privately. They all changed me.

I realized something was very much missing – we were not loving real people, with their real lives that don’t neatly fit our “biblical” prescriptions. It wasn’t an “issue” for me anymore, it was people. I heard too many stories of rejection by families, condemnation by church communities, and suicide attempted. (The stories of successful suicides are all second hand.)

I was introduced to a very different reality than I’d seen before: the ugly, deeply rotten fruit of traditional church teachings on sexuality. And when the fruit is persistently bad, something is terribly wrong with the tree. Something needs to be reconsidered or even thrown out altogether.

But…what if I was wrong? I’d studied the biblical texts – original languages and contexts. I knew that there were good arguments that those texts decrying same-sex sexual activities shouldn’t be read in the traditional ways. But those arguments weren’t water-tight. They raised questions, but didn’t seem conclusive.

My mind and heart had shifted, but these different possibilities in the text felt shaky to stand on. I could never be sure I was right about them.

I found a mentor in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was deeply committed to non-violence and yet entered into a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed a few weeks before Nazi regime collapsed.

In his vast writings on Christian ethics, Bonhoeffer observes that there are times when what is required to keep your conscience clear and what is required to love your neighbor contradict. In that contradiction, it is better to bear guilt yourself in order to love your neighbor.

As I looked at the lives of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who had found acceptance and affirmation of all of who they are in affirming churches (and more importantly, in their own hearts before God), I saw the fruit of their lives blossoming – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. 

Looking at the life of Jesus, I realized that maybe we’d been missing the point. Jesus was far more concerned with loving people than with getting it “right” – or even with them getting it right. The Samaritan woman at the well who was concerned about the right way to worship God. Hungry disciples on a Sabbath walk through a wheat field. A woman condemned by the religious leaders for adultery. Outsiders casting out demons in his name.

Even if I was wrong, if I was missing something, I was no longer willing to risk their lives on the altar of being right, whatever the cost to me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. And as time has passed, I have only become more convinced that God’s heart for his LGBTQ+ children is love and complete affirmation and inclusion in the community of his followers. He has called them “clean” and we are in defiance of his Spirit when we insist otherwise.

I don’t believe I’m wrong. But if I am? LGBTQ+ folk are being invited into the embrace of the love of God, and his Spirit is quite capable of guiding them into any change he desires, regardless of their sexuality and/or orientation. If I am wrong? LGBTQ+ youth in our churches will know they can live, loved as they are by God and his people.

If I am wrong? Their lives are worth it.

The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come

We said it in church this morning – that last line of the Nicene Creed. The one that reads, “We look for…the life of the world to come.”

For years that meant the life after death to me, and it held deep personal significance. In “the life of the world to come,” I’d see my daddy again. But it was more than that.

When my grandmother was in the last few years of her life, missing the friends and family who were gone, never quite happy, always wanting more of her only grandchild and unable to enjoy me for who I was, I learned to love her beyond what chafed and hurt by believing that in the life to come, she would finally be everything she was meant to be, full of joy and understanding. When I met her then our relationship would be everything it could be, everything it was meant to be.

That same hope got me through several break ups and many bouts of unrequited love. And as I began to realize that so many of the mentors and teachers who have given me the most cannot understand or approve of where their gifts have taken me, I have hoped that in that “life to come,” they will see their way clear to be proud of who I am.

But alongside the comfort, there was also a kind of stuckness. Hope was out there, not here. The great reconciliation, true healing, and abundant life were all beyond the scope of this world.

And sometimes they are.

That’s the first line of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s important, that bit. The whole prayer is named for it, after all.

But that’s pretty much where it stopped for me. God was sovereign, in control of all things and working them all together for good. What could I possibly do in light of that other than show my trust in him by waiting as faithfully as I knew how?

But there’s more to the prayer than serenity. There’s courage. And wisdom. And when it comes to it, serenity isn’t worth much without her sisters.

In the past year, I’ve also learned to hear those words in the Creed another way.

The “life of the world to come” starts tomorrow. And tomorrow is what we are making it today.

This life to come is the second part of the prayer – “the courage to change the things I can.” To change the things we can.

“We look for the life of the world to come.”

If the “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” it does so through us. Because we bend it that way. Because the life of the world to come is not yesterday, and tomorrow does not need to use the road maps of the past.

We look for the life of the world to come because we know there is more than this. More than death, yes. But also more than this, more than today. More than what we find ourselves with. There can be more, we can do more. We can make changes. We can take a step in the direction of justice, in the direction of Love.

And it’s never wasted. That’s what the concept of karma is really about. It’s not just that what you put out there will come back to you. It’s that what you put out there contributes to something greater than you. We are shaping the “arc of the universe” every day. We are making “the life of the world to come” – a life and world we will share.

So I have begun to look for life in this life. I look for life in each step, in each choice I make: what will bring life in the world to come? What will bring life to the world tomorrow?

And there’s always something. Something that in the midst of all the things I can’t change, that I can. It is wisdom that helps me do what I can rather than camp out at the door of all I can’t.

I lived there too long. It’s time to begin moving into the life of the world to come. Today.

The Life We Choose

The Life We Choose

Life is a funny thing. In so many ways, it chooses us. When we live, the family and communities we are born into, and where. The traditions we know, the language we learn.

We choose none of them and yet they form the foundation of who we are and how we see the world.

And for most people through most of history, that was it. Those parameters defined their lives, the choices available to them prescribed already.

But even the most constrained, I think, had to choose to live, choose to be awake to life. To seek beauty and goodness and faithfulness with each breath.

Born in this time, to my parents, in a place called the United States, I’ve had the privilege of more choices than most. The privilege to make choices for myself that matter. To choose where I live and how, to know that there is more to learn, and that what I believe need not be the same thing my parents believed.

In so many ways, a field of options has been opened before me.

But in all of those choices, I must still choose to live.

Near the beginning of the movie The Way, Martin Sheen’s character tells his son, “My life here might not seem like much to you, but it’s the life I choose.” His son replies, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

They are both right, of course. We make choices that shape our lives – our homes, families, work, education, worship, beliefs – but we must still choose to live them.
And choosing to live our lives goes far beyond those other choices we make.

There’s an embroidered sampler that hangs in my kitchen. It is the Serenity Prayer.

God, 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.

There is so much I cannot change.

The faith I was given as an infant, its names and symbols and stories. They are with me – embraced or abandoned, I must wrestle them. But I can choose the shape of my belief and how I live it out. I cannot choose what that faith has done in the world – done to the world – for good or ill, but I can choose what it will do in the world through me.

For the most part, I’ve had no choice in the people I meet. But I can choose who I seek to know, whose lives I invite to shape my own, who I choose to partner in the project of humanity with. And I can choose to put myself in places to meet new people, to learn new stories, to allow my vision of humanity to be expanded and changed.

I cannot choose who will accept or reject me, but I can choose who I accept or reject. I cannot choose who will love me, but I can choose who I will love.

I cannot choose the days that will be given me to live, but I can choose to live them, all of them. The ones filled with the choices I have made, and the ones filled with the choices others made for me, and the ones filled with things no one chose or we all chose in some amalgamated impossible way.

The ancient text presents a choice to the people: “Today I have placed before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Now choose life.”

It is the one choice we have every day, with every breath. Today. Whatever it brings to us or we bring to it, we can choose to live it, to the depth of our lungs and the tips of our fingers and the reaches of imagination and hope.

Now choose life. This life. Your life.

Whatever you do. Live.

Holding the Door

Holding the Door

Driving to work this morning I heard a story about Nashville artist Jason Isbell. Isbell is from rural north Alabama near the Tennessee state line (a couple of hours west of where I grew up). He’s a thoughtful and curious songwriter whose songs are full of the nuances of humanity and real life, and he feels the tensions of the history-haunted south.

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her momma knew better

…I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten

…I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation
I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation
I still have faith, but I don’t know why
Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes

(from “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell)

Isbell has found an audience beyond country music, and that audience is growing. “Doors are open to me and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna walk through ’em,” he says. “But I’m also gonna try to hold ’em for somebody else before they slam in their face. And at the very least, at the very least, discuss it with people.”

It’s a good image: holding the door open for somebody else. He sees what’s happening for him, and he recognizes others aren’t getting the same opportunity.

When I was in college, I took a class in Apologetics. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist university, and that class was part of the theology program. It was a large class, and I was one of only a few women. Apologetics is about how Christians answer hard questions, and I had lots of questions (that had something to do with why I took the class!). But I could sit forever with my hand in the air and never get called on by the (generally good natured) professor. He was never rude or unkind to me, but it was like my hand was invisible. After a few weeks of this, the student who sat behind me, Nate, started raising his hand if mine had been up a while. When the prof called on him, he’d act confused and defer to me to ask my question first.

He held the door open.

Later, in my first real job, I worked as the one-woman office staff for my pastor’s speaking ministry. I had a great relationship with both my pastor and my boss and a good relationship with the other men on the ministry’s board. When they decided to launch a national radio ministry, we began to work with an agency that produced and distributed many of the most well-known evangelical radio ministries. Things were still in development when the president of the agency, Jon, and I met at a conference, and we hit it off. He began to informally mentor me, and when it was time for him to fly in for his first meeting with the board, he asked if I would be in the meeting. I’d never been in a board meeting before, but it was clear Jon expected me to be there. My boss decided I could sit in a chair in the corner of the room and take notes.

Jon arrived, and after the introductions and greetings had gone around the room, he spoke up and said, “Before we get started, can we find another chair? I’d like to make room for Jennifer here at the table.” He shifted things around and held a chair for me right beside him.

He literally and figuratively made a place for me (the only woman in the room) at the table and was intentional about including me in the ensuing discussion.

When it was time for our people to fly out to California to meet with the agency production and distribution teams, Jon told them, “Don’t bother to come if you don’t bring Jennifer!” So off I flew. I learned a lot on that trip, and future board meetings included me. Jon saw I had something important to contribute, and the men started to listen when I spoke up.

Jon held the door open for me.

Doors don’t open the same for everyone. For some of us, generations of access to education and systems that were designed for our benefit turn a lot of doors into the kind that see us coming and slide open with a whoosh of anticipation. We hardly even know a door was there. But those doors don’t recognize everyone, and others of us have to exert a lot of effort to push and pry them open. Sometimes it just requires more than we have. And sometimes the doors are locked to us.

If I can pay attention and recognize the doors, if I can notice when those doors that open for me aren’t opening for someone else, that’s when I can hold the door for them.

And maybe if enough of us notice, we can get the doors re-programmed, or just take them out altogether.

Proud.

Proud.

The first weekend in June my friend Lauren was in town and we connected for dinner. It was the second time this spring we’ve had the chance to connect, and I’ve been so grateful for these opportunities. We were friends and fellow students in seminary over ten years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other since.

A lot has happened in those ten years. My own faith has come alive in new ways as I have sought to follow Jesus outside the lines and delve deeper into the Love that is the Life of all things.

And Lauren…when we were in school together, Lauren was a “he.” She transitioned a few years ago and I am so glad I have the opportunity to know the beautiful woman she is today.

While we were good friends in seminary, I had no idea Lauren was trans. What I did know was that my friend didn’t fit the masculine ideals our conservative evangelical school had for ministers. (Of course, I hardly fit those ideals either, but since they hadn’t quite figured out the same kind of ideals for women in ministry, I never encountered the same kind of pressure to conform.)

The school nearly refused to grant Lauren’s degree, though in the end, Lauren managed.

As she put it to me, she “zipped up her man-suit every morning,” but it was killing her.

There’s no way I can know what that must feel like. I can barely imagine.

What I do know is that there is life and peace in her now that wasn’t there before. She is at home in her own skin in a way she never was in seminary, and it is beautiful to see.

In that sense, Lauren’s story is much like that of other trans folk I know. They fight to live with honesty in the world with courage that takes my breath away. They have been willing to lose the whole world to gain their own soul. I am beyond grateful for all I have learned from them.

That is true to some degree of every LGBTQ+ person I know, and I am proud of them. Proud to know them, and proud to stand beside them.

June is Pride month, and in a couple of weeks I will be at Chicago’s Pride parade, standing for Love between the parade and the “Christian” protesters who proclaim something else entirely. Cheering on the friends and strangers marching, encouraging them to “Make Love Louder” than the hate.

Because there’s more than one kind of pride. There’s the pride of vanity and privilege and self-aggrandizement. And then there’s the pride that stands tall in the face of all that would demean and dehumanize. The pride that refuses to bow to shame and fear. The pride that won’t hide inside that zipped up suit that isn’t who they are. The pride of those who know Who loves them.

That pride is hard-won, and I am so proud of those who have won it.

Happy Pride, y’all!