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.

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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.

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.

Where’s Sunday?

Where’s Sunday?

The symbols and rituals of Holy Week and Easter have not resonated with me this year the way they used to.

Easter has always been my favorite holiday, ever since I was a little girl perched up on a tombstone in the church graveyard for the Sunrise Service and playing in the mountain cemetery where my father was buried under the shadow of three crosses.

Easter always meant something to me, but it became much more of the celebration I felt it should be when I encountered the Anglican liturgy and traditions of Holy Week. Growing up Baptist, we’d tended to squeeze the cross and resurrection into one service on Easter morning, but once I had the opportunity to walk the journey of Jesus through the week of services designed to do just that, it all became even more deeply meaningful to me.

Part of me misses that, because now they don’t resonate the way they used to. But it’s not because I’m numb to them. It’s that other things – things that are part of life today – resonate more vividly now.

Instead of swords in a garden at night, what resonates now is shots in a grandmother’s backyard.

Instead of the betrayal of a kiss, it’s the legal fiction of equality.

Instead of Pilate washing his hands rather than defy the religious authorities, it’s refusals to prosecute and jury acquittals.

Instead of a cross to terrorize all who would defy the status quo power of empire, now it’s a gun.

There is one ritual – one symbol – that still hits me like a punch in the gut: the stripping and washing of the altar at the close of the Maundy Thursday service.

It’s always felt out of place to me at that point in the week, rather than at the close of the Good Friday service. It so vividly evokes the stripping and washing of Christ’s body. The Pietà. A mother holding the body of her murdered child. Washing the body of her child who should not be dead.

That still resonates. Too many mothers. Too many dead children.

Where’s Sunday?

We’ve put resurrection off for them, left the putting right to a final judgement after this life. But even if that’s what’s out there in the great beyond, it shouldn’t be the answer for today, for here. It doesn’t let us off the hook for all we refuse to see and acknowledge, much less put right.

We’ve turned the “first fruits” of resurrection life into an abstract future, discontinuous from this world, that we aren’t responsible for making with the lives we’ve been given.

I suspect that’s why I’m having trouble connecting with most of the symbols and rituals of Holy Week. Life has disrupted my ability to feel the abstract as deeply, to project the story of Jesus over our heads and into a future that’s out of our hands.

In our hands is exactly where God has entrusted the future, God help us.

God’s intervening through us, or He’s not, because we’re too invested in the status quo to cooperate. God’s making all things new through us, or He’s not, because we don’t like what we don’t know. God has “so much more to say” to us, but He’s not, because we’re convinced He gave us everything He had nearly 2000 years ago.

Where’s Sunday? I’m pretty sure we’ve buried it somewhere where it won’t cause any trouble.

I say, let’s go digging. What have we got to lose?

Lent and Creating Kindness

Lent and Creating Kindness

Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been wondering about kindness a lot. I started being accused of it pretty consistently (which is my way of wrestling with hearing that people see it in me). It caught me off guard at first, and then as it became a pattern, got me to wondering.

If you’d ask me to describe myself, no matter how flattering I was tempted to be, it would’ve never occurred to me to use the word “kind.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the word “unkind” either, but kindness had never stood out to me as something I was notably good at. So I wondered, what is it they’re seeing?

It seems connected to caring, and empathy. And I’ve thought that maybe kindness is one of the ways we understand love when it shows up in action. Love is abstract, and kindness is concrete.

So, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

It’s what love looks like on the ground.

And if people experience kindness from me? Or any of those other things? I’m deeply glad, because I know how very much I fall short of them every day. But I’m still puzzled, because while my background would understand these traits as a kind of automatic “fruit” of God’s presence in my life, I’ve come to doubt it’s ever that straightforward.

If there is kindness in me, how did it get there?

I’m beginning to suspect it gets into us through grief. More particularly, through grieving.

One thing about Lent that we tend not to notice so much anymore is how deeply it is tied to grieving. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting, the colors of black and gray and purple – all the stuff of grieving. And in the days when families practiced a period of mourning after a death, and widows wore their black “full mourning” and then their gray and purple “half mourning,” the practices of Lent would have readily evoked that mourning of a loss.

In a culture today that does so much to wall grief away and avoid it (rather than literally wearing it on our sleeves), Lent would pull us into grief. All of us. Together. Entering into grief with each other.

It’s not just about moving deeper into ourselves in our own personal grief, but remembering our grief and letting it move us towards each other, allowing another’s grief and loss to enter us, to connect to our own, and to connect us to each other.

That has the power to change us, and to plant kindness in us.

There’s a poem by Naomi Shihad Nye called Kindness. Part of it reads:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Whatever kindness there is in me, I can’t tell you how it grew to be there. But I’m pretty sure it was planted by loss and watered with tears. That it grows in the grieving Lent has taught me over the past fifteen years since I started exploring it.

Some years, Lent gives me the space to explore and express griefs I was already struggling with. Other years, it redirects my attention, away from whatever has my life buzzing along, towards grief and loss. I don’t usually like that – I’ve never come easily to sorrow. But over time I’ve learned that until I‘m willing to sit with it, grief will eat away at my life and turn into something that has very little of love or empathy or kindness in it.

There are particular moments when someone showed kindness to me that I remember as far back as my childhood. They are not the sorts of things that those who offered them would ever remember – a few words, a gesture of with-ness in an awkward moment. And those people had no idea of the griefs I was living with at the time. But their kindness was a gift of healing to me, and I remember.

I don’t think I will ever accept grief gracefully, but I hope I can let it grow a space of kindness in me.

Lent and Taking Time

Lent and Taking Time

Throughout my high school and college years, one of our pastors – a kind, cheerful man who I loved dearly – would preach a particular sermon once every year that was awful. It was about time. We all had the same twenty-four hours in each day, he told us, and every minute of every one of those hours needed to be accounted for. They needed to be spent for God – in church, praying, studying the Bible, sharing the gospel with others, supporting others in those things. Staying busy for God.

It was a message designed to motivate with guilt, and it always rang wrong to me. Yes, the things we do with the time we have matter, but much more matters than the doing.

That sermon seemed to buy into a very American, capitalist view of time as a commodity. It also sold us another very American idea – that we are all equal when it comes to time. We all have the same amount every day and the same control over what we have.

But we don’t.

When I was a child, an hour was forever and a summer felt nearly endless. So much more fit into my days then – so many more thoughts and ideas and stories and dreams and adventures. I don’t think that’s an illusion of memory. Our metabolisms are at their fastest when we are young, and the way we experience time reflects that. Even now, when I am fit and exercising regularly and my metabolism is less sluggish, days feel longer and I can do more with each hour.

Life makes time different for each of us.

Circumstances beyond our control determine how our time must be spent. Poverty can make the basics of life much more time-consuming for some. Health issues may slow us down. Some of us require more sleep than others to function. And young children consume their parents’ time voraciously. People often think singles without children have loads of time, but when there is no one to share the tasks of life with, they take more time. And for a single extrovert, a great deal of time can go into building and maintaining interactions and relationships that others go home to at the end of the day.

One of the things I both love and hate about Lent is that it asks us to stop and think about time, and our time in particular. The reality that life is short – even for those with the longest lifetimes. Everything won’t fit. For forty day, Lent ask us to take time. Time to grieve, Time to make space for our vulnerabilities, our longings. Time to know our limitations.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” Lent tells us. Pay attention! Notice it. Everything in between is gift.

Most of the time, I see time as something I’m losing – or have already lost. It can be hard for me to turn that way of being in the world inside out.

Last year during Lent I really noticed for the first time that I am fourteen years older than my father, who died at just 31 from ALS. It made me see this time, these days I’m living, differently. It’s time he did not get, and it began to feel like “bonus years” – a gift.

I still struggle with the feeling I’ve lost time. So much time is gone for me – the time for who I might have been had I lived in a context that viewed women differently, the time for having children, the time for everything I could’ve done has I come to know myself more fully sooner.

But I’m learning to let those things be and turn to accept the gift of time I’m being given each day. Enough for this day.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently retold the story of the “Manna in the Wilderness” in a powerful way (inspired by Dorothy C. Bass). The original story in the book of Exodus recounts the people of Israel’s fear when, after they have been freed from their slavery in Egypt, they do not know how they are going to feed themselves in the wilderness. It’s a story about provision, as is this adaptation…

Each evening, time arrived and covered the ground, and in the morning the desert was wet with it. When the people saw it they wondered asked each other, “What is it?”

Moses told them, “It is the time God has given you. God has said for everyone to gather as much time as is needed for each home—the right amount for each person.”

So the people gathered time—some getting more and some less before the sun of the day melted it away, and there was just enough for everyone. Those who gathered more had nothing left at the end of the day – they exhausted all they took. And those who gathered little had no lack – they found they had enough for what they needed. Each had just enough.

Moses warned them, “Don’t try to make it last overnight.” But of course some of them wouldn’t listen, and tried to stretch it deep into the night; and they were grumpy and irritable in the morning.

So they gathered time morning by morning, each according to their need.

Time to take for each day, as we need it. A gift waiting for us with the sun each morning.

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.