Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Every Sunday night I go to a church in a bar filled with people with stories, all kinds of stories. Stories we believe are “the word of God for the people of God,” because God is still speaking in and through our lives. This month we’ve been talking about adult friendships – finding them, keeping them, losing them, and starting all over again. In a world full of lonely people, we don’t talk about friendship enough, or even make room for it in all the things competing for our attention and priorities. And as adults? We often are at a loss when it comes to making the kinds of friendships we want. (The Nancy podcast has done some great stuff recently on how queers can find a “gaggle” of friends, but I think we all need that help.)

This is the story I had the opportunity to tell this week. It’s one that’s still going…

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It was Easter Sunday 2014. We’d had the sunrise vigil, and the Easter breakfast, and I’d just finished leading the liturgy I wrote for our Easter service. I was walking with my friend Angela to our cars in the parking lot, and I remember telling her, “I think maybe this should be my last service. Everything is good, but if I want my life to be different – and I do – nothing’s very likely to change if I don’t change something.”

I was 41 and tired of being tired of being single. I hadn’t had a date in seven years, and I wasn’t meeting possibilities. Something needed to change and church seemed like the most doable thing.

And that was scary to say, because church meant more than the place I went on Sundays. Church meant six years of friendships, of lives lived together with a group of families and a few singles who lived in my neighborhood. We had dinner together every week. I’d known most of their kids since they were born. When I was sick, they brought me extra plates of dinner and DVDs. When there was a birthday, we threw a party. Some of their children were the only kids I’ve ever felt move and kick and squirm in their mama’s belly.

I spent the years after seminary building my life around these relationships, and now I was going to change that, and I didn’t know what would happen. What all that would mean.

So I started visiting churches.

At the first one, I met a pastor – another single woman – who came from a conservative background not too different from mine. We had lunch and met for coffee and started sharing our stories (she didn’t tell me then about her dream of starting a church where people could share good food and tell true stories and make beautiful worship together!).

At the second one, when I told a work acquaintance and his wife why I was trying to make changes in my life, Judy – a woman who is five feet (maybe) of major general, cheerleader, and CEO all rolled up together – gave me marching orders: “I’m proud of you! And I want you to go home and sign up with a dating site online! You need to go where the men are, and that’s where they are! And I mean today! Report back to me with a text this evening.” And like I imagine everyone in her life, I obeyed. (And had ten first dates in the next three weeks!)

At the third church, I found a community of gay couples who also knew what it meant to be a deep disappointment to a conservative family, as well as how to be a chosen family who could keep me afloat through that storm. I ended up landing in that church, and they gave me the support I needed as I started dating, then moved into the city, changed jobs, and even as I got involved in the queer, quirky new church in a bar my pastor friend was starting.

And when my last birthday came around, I looked across the table at the improv club where we were laughing and celebrating. There was my first friend from my new job, a beautiful friend from that new church, and two of my closest friends in the city – both of them men I met dating. And one of them came with his girlfriend of the past year, who I’d enjoyed hanging out with on many other occasions.

Those friends from my old neighborhood in the suburbs? They weren’t in the city celebrating with me that night, but they cheered me on through it all. I still go up north for the breakfast we all have together one Saturday a month. And I’m still a part of their kids’ lives. And this summer, they all loaded their kids up one Saturday morning (no small feat!) and hauled them into the city to have breakfast at my place.

One of the hardest thing I’ve had to do, the thing that never seems to get easier, is knowing how to keep friends in my life as a single person when life is changing for everybody. It turns out that sometimes that means letting go.

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Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater Majors. It’s not like being raised by wolves, but in that context….

People usually either laugh or look confused or bemused when I tell them. But it’s true.

After being largely rejected by my peers through elementary, the beginning of seventh grade was no improvement. I attended a private Christian school, an elementary and high school that was owned by our church and shared a campus with the large Baptist university it also owned. Seventh grade was the first year of junior high, and we shared a building on campus with the high school.

Seventh grade began for me with the same survival strategy that had gotten me through elementary: reading through lunch and pretty much everything else. But after a few months, I found myself sharing a table with another lunch-reader, a junior named Lisa. She was new to the school, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing book recommendations and her dad’s amazing oatmeal cookies.

Lisa’s older sister was a theater minor at the university, and their family lived only a couple of blocks from campus. By eighth grade I was part of the family, and Lisa and I were hanging out with her sister’s music and theater friends. When Lisa graduated and enrolled in the university, my entire social life moved with her.

I spent four years of high school (and then most of college) in the world of those theater kids (young adults, really), and to an awkward teenager, they were talented, glamorous, confident – everything I wasn’t. But more importantly, they were kind.

It was a season of years when the university’s theater program was thriving with an excellent faculty and some amazingly talented students. I saw musicals, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Chekhov, among others. I learned every note of the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. I loved it all, absorbing other lives in other worlds.

But even more important than the escape of the plays and the songs, those theater students welcomed me as one of their own and gave me a space to begin to figure out who I was.

I’ve thought about them a lot over the past few years. As I’ve sung the songs I learned with them at Show Tunes night at Sidetrack in Boystown, and as I’ve walked alongside Christian gay friends and their wives as they unpacked their faith and undone their marriages to recreate their lives and families.

I’ve thought of all the stories they were trying to pour into those plays. All the things they had to keep in. How much we learned to hide. So many of them were gay. Not that they told me then, and I chose not to speculate – I saw the damage that could do. But as we’ve reconnected on Facebook, and I’ve seen many of them out, finally living out loud, I haven’t been surprised. I’ve been glad, and grateful.

And in retrospect, the journey my own life has taken over the past several years shouldn’t have been so surprising. Thirty years ago, I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors – gay and straight, creating a family that welcomed outcasts and gave them (me) a place to grow up, a place to be ourselves that was probably as safe as we could make it in our context.

They lived in inherent tension – all of the contradictions are there in the description: fundamentalist Baptist theater majors. And I learned to be at home in that space – however ironically, to feel safe there in a way I imagine many of them never could. But they gave that gift to a “kid sister” who showed up one day in need of a family.

I grew up with preacher boys and theater kids, sometimes one and the same, and when I look around at Gilead on Sunday evenings, I see the same kinds of folks. Only now no one needs to hide a thing.

Radical Welcome

Radical Welcome

Welcome others as you have been welcomed. That’s right up there with “Love others as you have been loved.” (John 13:34, my paraphrase)

It’s a bit harder though when you haven’t been welcomed yourself first. I’ve always wondered and struggled with that. I was so definitively not welcomed by classmates and peers growing up, and it was agonizing years of unrelenting rejection. By nature, I’m almost a pure extrovert, but I was so isolated for so long, I spent years functioning as an introvert to survive. It was an experience that taught me to assume I’m not really welcome, which can make it hard to realize I am.

You’d think that, knowing how it is to be on the outside, I’d be all the more welcoming of others as a result, but it hasn’t always worked that way.

Sometimes my natural extroversion exerts itself and I welcome all comers with a more-the-merrier enthusiasm. But other times I fight an instinct to raise the drawbridge behind me and repeat the pattern of exclusion that kept me on the outs for so many years. And far too often, I struggle to feel like I have the right to welcome others – like I’m still a guest and only have probationary status at best. It’s not always easy to find the space inside of me that knows how to welcome others.

It’s hard to move yourself from outsider status to belonging. It’s something we need help from others with.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

Late each Sunday afternoon I head the two blocks east to a neighborhood bar where Gilead Chicago meets, a quirky bar church where we tell each other our stories, sing pop anthems like hymns, and welcome all sorts (including a surprising – or maybe not – number of former seminarians who weren’t sure they could ever feel really good about church again).

It’s a place where I’m learning more about welcome, but it’s not the only one. Most of the places that have taught me the most about welcome have been queer spaces to one degree or another. The LGBTQ storytelling night I go to each month. The classic Episcopal church in my old neighborhood where the gay families came around me as my own family began to reject my faith and life. Gilead.

There’s a common experience of being outsiders that is shared in those spaces, and with it, a radical welcome. Conservatives (including me when I was one) often complain that they aren’t welcome or tolerated in these spaces, and thus dismiss them as hypocritical. It feels clever, like playing a trump card, but I’ve come to realize it’s an exercise in missing the point.

Every community gathers around something, and these communities gather around a radical welcome. If you are unwilling to extend that radical welcome as well, you have excluded yourself.

It’s like a baseball enthusiast wanting to join a soccer league in order to play with baseball’s rules, and then complaining that no one will play ball with them.

It’s disingenuous at best, gross presumption at worst.

Radical welcome excludes no one, but it also doesn’t include everyone, because it leaves room for some to exclude themselves. It wouldn’t be very radical otherwise.

Ironically, it was fundamentalist separatists who first taught me that, with their insistence that God’s love welcomes all, but that those who persist in false beliefs exclude themselves. They removed themselves from all who held and acted on such beliefs –hence the identification as “separatists.”

That’s something Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t walk away from anybody, turned no one away – even the ones with good reputations who would only come secretly at night (John 3). And the one outsider he tried to turn away? She called him on it and he changed his tune (Matthew 15). Everyone was welcome with Jesus – including the scandalous, but many walked away.

It broke his heart, but he let them.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

So many people still need that radical welcome of Jesus, and the only way they’ll ever know a welcome like that is if it comes from you and me. “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” as the poem says.* I’m grateful for those who’ve given me such welcome. They continue to challenge me to broaden my own welcome of others.

And I ache for the day when no one any longer feels the misguided need to exclude themselves.

 

*Usually misattributed to Teresa of Avila, the poem is actually the cumulative work of a Methodist minister and young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s.

Surviving Home

Surviving Home

Through the years, as I’ve listened to various friends talk about growing up in abusive homes, often with alcoholics or addicts, I’ve heard several themes emerge.

As young children, these folks adapted to their environments with hyper-vigilance. They observed every nuance of home life and walked painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that would set their parent off. In a context where they were supposed to feel safe and nurtured, they were instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

They paid attention to every detail, internally charting patterns of response. Avoiding every known trigger of violence.

The thing is, you could never know them all.

No matter how diligently they watched the signs, how quietly they whispered, how carefully they tiptoed around the landmines, there was always something they didn’t see. The explosions still happened.

No home is perfect, but the childhood security that many of us took for granted was never theirs.

As I’ve listened to various black friends talk about their lives in America, it sounds remarkably similar.

Somewhere along the way, they learned to adapt to white America with hyper-vigilance. They observe every nuance of white behavior and walk painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that will set us off. In a context where they should feel free to go about the business of their lives in peace, they are instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

It doesn’t matter much that I, a white woman, would never call the police because a black teen is hanging out across the street and I don’t think they belong there. They never know what white person will make that call. It doesn’t matter much that my friend who is a police officer works hard to understand the community, counter his implicit bias, and deescalate confrontations. They never know what police officer will pull their gun. Will shoot. Each white person is a mood, a moment, of the whole, and how can you trust the kindness when you never know when the blows will come? And the blows never fail to come. The system ensures it if the individuals don’t.

Like those children in abusive homes who learned to observe their parents closely in order to survive, these black friends know us (white America) and the systems we have built in ways better than we know ourselves. They’ve had to see what we haven’t – their survival depends on it. Ours doesn’t.

Theirs shouldn’t have to.

And like too many abusive relationships, there is no satisfying white America. “If only you wouldn’t misbehave, then we could hear your message as valid!” “But you’re doing so well! What could possibly be wrong?!?!? Don’t be ridiculous!” “It’s all in your head.” “Take responsibility for yourselves!”

A riot is the self-defense of the systemically and systematically abused. The breaking open of those who have been told in so many ways again and again that what they experience is not real, not oppressive, not killing them.

With every police shooting of a black man who is running away, every report of a white person calling in someone who looks “suspicious,” my respect for black Americans grows alongside my grief. The patience they give that we do not deserve. The strength that endures in the face of our ignorance and denial.

We have a lot to learn from people who are under no obligation to teach us.

But first we have to be willing to see ourselves, not as we want to be, but as we are.

Kids in abusive contexts respond in different ways – some hide, some escape, some try to please, some fight back. All ways to try to survive until your old enough to get out (which doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop trying to survive and using the same ways to do it).

Black Americans don’t have that kind of hope. The hope they can have is a hope that things can and will change, and that they can survive until they do.

May God help them. May God help us all.

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and non-violence.

They’re not the same thing.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about “civility.” In the midst of extreme political differences and polarizing public policy, calls for “civility” have rung out from both ends of the spectrum.

How to engage polarizing discussions is something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past couple of years – well before Trump’s election. My faith has led me to such different convictions than my family and many friends (themselves people of deep faith and convictions) that I’ve had to wrestle with it.

With some, it’s easier. They may not be where I am, but they wrestle with many of the same questions and can at least accept the possibility that the conclusions I’ve come to might be reasonable or valid. For others, the directions I’ve moved directly contradict some of their most foundational paradigms, and their convictions obligate them to defend what they believe to be true. It can create deeply painful interactions.

I want to stay connected and engaged with them, but it’s hard. I’ve learned to discern how to interact based on the relationship – close family are different from close friends who are different from colleagues and acquaintances. And since most of our interactions are on social media, there can be a mix of friends and strangers in any given conversation. It’s complicated.

About a year ago, in a difficult exchange with a member of my extended family, something clicked for me. I remembered the movie, Selma. When King and the leaders of the movement were planning their march for voting rights, they chose Selma, Alabama because they knew the sheriff there was likely to respond violently. They knew that, however peaceful, they were going to be provocative, and they knew they were going to have to prepare if they were going to respond non-violently.

That’s not easy work. Non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance.

It requires knowing yourself, learning deep self-control and even a different way of seeing. It requires deep confidence – in both who you are and what you are standing up for. It requires the humility and faith to endure unmerited suffering, and trust that it can be redemptive.

It requires something very different from civility.

Civility, in the way we use it, means politeness and courtesy. That’s about social deference, both to individuals and within societal norms. Civility doesn’t work when what you are doing is refusing to defer.

Non-violence does, though.

With non-violence we can refuse to defer, refuse to back down, refuse to go away or be quiet, refuse to be convenient or cooperative, even to the point of persecution or abuse.

Civility itself doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t even stand for the dignity and value of every human life – great evil has been done with great politeness and courtesy.

Civility doesn’t stand for anything but keeping the rules, spoken and unspoken. And if what needs to change, what needs to be resisted and protested, are those very rules, civility is impotent. Worse, it can be complicit.

Reformation offends the rules. That’s its point. It can’t be done without deconstruction (and sometimes destruction), but it can be done non-violently.

And that’s hard work – hard work to do, and hard work to figure out how to do and prepare for.

Next week at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, I’m excited to be on a panel with Brian McLaren, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Xavier Ramey about what it looks like to do that work. The session is called Taking to the Social Streets: Non-Violent Engagement on Social Media, and I’m looking forward from learning with these amazing human beings and everyone who joins us for the discussion. We’d love to have you be part of that conversation – Saturday at 2:00 in the Greater Things Tent.

The roots of the word “civility” are in something much deeper than courtesy and politeness. The Latin civilas means ‘relating to citizens.’ It’s about citizenship, and citizenship is about where the power and privilege in a society lies. Citizenship is at the heart of what divides us today – the legal technicalities of citizenship, yes, but also the full privileges of citizenship – both formal and informal. We disagree on who should have that standing, and we disagree on what it means to be a good citizen of America. In this deeper sense of ‘civility,’ it is about what constitutes civility itself that we disagree.

Those who seek to challenge us to live up to the highest of American ideals are actually the most truly civil – even, especially, when their tactics break the social rules of politeness and courtesy. When they make us uncomfortable with our failure and with our denial of that failure.

A man sitting at a lunch counter where he is neither wanted nor allowed is impolite, but he is civil.

Marchers taking up space on a sidewalk or street are discourteous, but they are civil.

A person naming the realities of systemic racism is not polite, but they are civil.

Servers refusing to wait on a customer who has publicly dismissed and demeaned them are discourteous, but they are civil.

Protestors chanting their protest in front of a public official who defends morally repugnant policy are not polite, but they are civil.

But that’s not the kind of “civility” so many people are calling for. They want the politeness and courtesy that keeps them from feeling too uncomfortable – that keeps issues safely in the abstract and theoretical and doesn’t push too hard for costly change. Or they want the façade that politeness and courtesy can give to anger and pain and suffering and oppression.

That civility is killing us. May we find the non-violent response that will help us truly live.

The Power of Pride

The Power of Pride

Pride means different things to different people.

To some it means a colorful festival of diversity, love, and self-acceptance.

To others, it means a celebration of white, cis-gender male gayness that doesn’t feel welcoming to them.

To some, it means a protest against societal norms that have rejected them.

To others, it means a hedonistic display of debauchery.

Like a lot of things, it’s simple and complicated at the same time.

When I was growing up, long before I knew about capital-P Pride, I learned that “pride is the root of all evil.” At its simplest, this understanding of pride is about the centering of self, the elevating of oneself above others. At its healthiest, a warning against pride is a call to self-awareness, humility, and generosity of spirit.

But too often we get that kind of pride and humility mixed up with things like self-respect and shame.

It’s easy for those of us who have felt accepted and affirmed throughout our lives by family, friends, church, and society to miss the struggles of those who are different. We read our own experiences onto their lives and turn empathy inside out, blind to the very different world they’ve had to navigate. It can be hard to imagine that what is inherent and obvious to us isn’t the same for everyone else.

It’s not.

More people than we imagine have lived their lives absorbing a message that they are less. That who they are is inherently flawed, deficient, or unwanted. Sometimes that’s a message we’re told right out, and sometimes it comes indirectly, through silence and a series of persistent no’s. Some of the most painful of those messages come from family and church, which both give us our most basic understanding of how God sees us. When those messages are drenched in shame, it effects everything.

It’s hard to know how to love others if you don’t know how to love yourself.

That’s when pride is something different: the denouncing of shame. The refusal to hide – to just sit down and shut up. The elevation of oneself to the level of others. The adamant love and respect of oneself and others.

That is a pride worth embracing and celebrating! It’s a pride that brings life rather than poisoning it, that makes love grow rather than stifling it. That raises up the lowly and downcast. That proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.

I refuse to be ashamed of the people I love, or who they love. I refuse to be ashamed of the good news that Jesus isn’t ashamed of them either. I refuse to be ashamed of any shade of the human race or color of the rainbow.

There’s power in that refusal – the power of pride.