We Belong.

We Belong.

There’s a song we sing at one of the churches I’m a part of — the one that meets in a bar every Sunday evening to tell true stories that change lives. It’s unintentionally become something of a theme song for us. It closes out our our Easter service (party) every year, and it’s become an Advent/Christmas standard for us, as well.

I’m sure you’ve heard it, though probably not at church.

Many times I tried to tell you
Many times I cried alone
Always I’m surprised how well you cut my feelings to the bone
Don’t want to leave you really
I’ve invested too much time to give you up that easy
To the doubts that complicate your mind

The first time we sang it, it felt personal. The most significant relationship of the last decade for me has been complicated to say the least, and this song captures so much of how that’s felt. Of course, that’s what love songs are meant to do. But this isn’t your typical love song. It’s more ambivalent than that, at least at first. Then there’s that chorus…

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

That chorus, the bedrock of the song, it’s defiant. Insistent. Conflict is still there — light and thunder are very different things with very different impacts, both life-giving and destructive. Those “words we’ve both fallen under”? They aren’t necessarily the same words for each of us. And we certainly aren’t always denying and embracing the same things — “for worse or for better.”

All of the best things about the relationship — the things that have lit me up and dared me to grow into myself — they can also be some of the hardest things.

Maybe it’s a sign of weakness when I don’t know what to say
Maybe I just wouldn’t know what to do with my strength anyway
Have we become a habit? Do we distort the facts?
Now there’s no looking forward
Now there’s no turning back
When you say…

The more I’ve sung the song with this particular quirky group of people who call ourselves a church, the more I’ve also started hearing my own relationship with the Church in it. I mean, anyone who knows me knows there’s rarely a time when I don’t know what to say! But actually, there is.

Both in an intense personal relationship and in a relationship with the Church that has been intensely personal, there are times I truly don’t know what to say. Times when there’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. Times when I’m at a loss. Times when I know whatever I say will be heard with ears already bent on hearing what they’ve already decided to hear.

Church has been maybe the most persistent habit of my life — one I’ve stepped away from in different times and in different ways to try to re-find meaning in it. And those times have helped show me how much we do distort the facts — sometimes knowingly and intentionally, but mostly because of what life has taught us we need to do and believe to survive, to be okay. So much gets warped, and yet…

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

We belong. It defies reason and emotion and denial and sometimes what feels like our best interests, but still, we belong. Together. 

Close your eyes and try to sleep now
Close your eyes and try to dream
Clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean
We can’t begin to know it, how much we really care
I hear your voice inside me, I see your face everywhere
Still you say…

The deepest expression the song has come to have for me is as a conversation (diatribe?) with God or the Universe or whatever you or I currently call that something-that-is-bigger-than-me.

The deeper my relationship with God has gone, the more complicated and ambivalent and sometimes overwhelming and sometimes distant and always more real it has gotten. 

The circles I used to do church and life in like to roll their eyes at the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs, and while their critiques aren’t always wrong, I think they also miss something. No, relating to God isn’t always like relating to a romantic partner, but sometimes — often, even — it’s more like that than anything else. It’s also like relating to a parent, and to a friend. Unless relating to God is going to remain (or go) to the level of an abstract fantasy, the closest we come to words about it are those real, most intimate relationships we know.

And somehow, I can hear Jacob singing “We belong…” defiantly on the banks of the Jabbok River a lot more easily than most any “praise and worship” song I know.

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

And I think I still believe it. After everything. In a relationship that’s been blown up and remade multiple times; with the church in all sorts of complicated ways; with a particular group of people who’ve both given me hope and deeply disappointed me; and somehow, after everything, even with God. I still believe it.

We belong. Together.

Love Really is Love is Love

Love Really is Love is Love

A few weeks ago I stood under a tree at a church cookout and listened for more than an hour as a young, black pastor poured out his reasons against fully accepting and affirming the LGBTQ community. No one else was in ear shot. He wasn’t trying to argue with me – he knows where I stand. And so I did not try to answer his reasons even when he wound down and asked if I wanted to respond. He was pouring out the commitments and convictions of his heart, his concerns and the conclusions they brought him to. I told him I wanted to sit with what he’d said and reflect on it. I wanted him to know I was working to hear him and not just react.

I don’t know if that was the best response or not; I do know it felt appropriate to the moment and the relationship and the context. I can be all too good at the ready argument and answer. He and his context deserve more consideration (something I hope I am growing in recognizing).

One thing he said is something I can easily imagine myself saying not so many years ago. I’d be surprised if I didn’t say something very like it at some point.

“Stop saying this is about love. It’s about sex, and they aren’t the same thing.”

He’s not entirely wrong – sex and love are not the same thing. But he’s not right either. It is very much about love.

I spent most of my life believing that sexual orientation was just about sex. That’s easy for someone whose attractions fit the traditional man-woman scripts to believe. We’ve never had to ask questions about our orientation and its impact on our whole lives. It’s not so hard for us to make a “straightforward” distinction between sex and love.

But that doesn’t mean we understand ourselves or the relationship between our sexual orientation and how we love.

Getting to know LGBTQ folks was an incredible gift to me (one I didn’t even know to look for) in part because they have had to ask those questions, and their answers made me look at myself and my own life and sexuality in new ways.

Sexual orientation impacts our whole selves and how we engage everyone in our lives. It’s part of how we relate to ourselves as well as to God, whether we recognize it or not. Sexual orientation shades how we interact with everyone — not just potential sexual partners, but our parents, siblings, and children, as well as coworkers, friends, and aquaintances.

That can make straight people uncomfortable, like we are sexualizing relationships where sex doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come in the picture. And so we can miss the ways our sexuality shapes our lives and relationships when having sex isn’t part of those lives and relationships.

I relate to men and women differently. I always have. As an infant in church, the story goes, I was uninterested in all the women trying to make me smile, but would perk up as soon as a man walked up. I was a daddy’s girl and my favorite family members were boys and men, not because I wanted to be like them, but because I liked and was drawn to them.

It wasn’t about sex, but it is intertwined with my own sexual orientation as a straight woman.

That doesn’t mean that my experiences will be just like those of other straight women. We are all different – gay, straight, bi, and all the ranges in between. We experience ourselves, each other, and the world differently.

But our world has been set up to assume certain norms about sexuality, and those norms are ones that fit a particular range of straight people. If our attractions fit those norms, a lot may remain invisible to us. We don’t even notice. We feel like that’s just the way things are, and even that it’s good that way.

And when those norms are challenged by someone who doesn’t fit them, it can be confusing and even scary for us. We often try to understand others based on how we ourselves function in the world, and we can miss so much.

Sexual orientation isn’t just about the way we have sex and who we have it with. It’s very much about how we love. It’s about how we love romantic partners, yes, but it’s also about how we love everyone else – and maybe most importantly, how we love ourselves.

Love is messy and sprawls across every part of our lives. It confuses clear cut rules and remakes the order we thought was unshakable. Because love is always bigger than principle.

Love always looks at the particular. Love always allows for nuance and incompleteness. Love looks for what is good, and celebrates and builds on that.

It’s a much harder path. It’s so much easier when we can just apply the principle, the rule that tells us how things are supposed to be, what is best and safest for us. But love calls for greater discernment, for deeper listening to the other and even ourselves. Love is open to something different, a new and better way.

Love really is stronger than death.

Love really is love is love.

The Scandal of the (White American) Cross

The Scandal of the (White American) Cross

I was raised at the cross. It stood atop steeples high in the sky and marked the front of every church I attended — the only symbol allowed in our iconoclastic faith. We sang about it and talked about it, preached about it in every sermon and invited people to come to it at every altar call. We cherished the cross, embraced the cross, and “took up our cross” every day. 

The instrument of the worst torture the Roman Empire could devise, the cross,  had been transformed into the symbol of a life devoted to God.

And I was taught that cross was a scandal — offensive to all those who wouldn’t believe and didn’t belong. A scandal to liberals who were “squeamish” about blood. A scandal to secular minds and hearts that didn’t like the idea of personal sin and guilt. A scandal to the self-satisfied who didn’t think they needed forgiveness. A scandal to anyone who couldn’t accept that Jesus bore their sin and shame and failure as he hung on it.

I’ve been thinking about the cross lately, and the scandal and offense of the body that hung on it.

Jesus told us what matters is where we see him and what we do about it (Matthew 25:31-45). Do we see him in the hungry and thirsty? In the homeless stranger? In the prisoner?

Do we see him in a black body hung on a tree?

Or do we see ourselves in a white Jesus, unfairly persecuted and undeservedly crucified?

White American Christianity has taught us to see a white Jesus hanging on the cross, and in him to see our white selves. And so it has crucified our ability to see black and non-white people as our true equals (or betters), and to have empathy for their suffering at our hands. 

American Christianity has taught us to honor our own struggle for freedom from royalist overlords (also white Christians) whose oppression consisted of the imposition of a single tax. It has taught us to hear oppression in “Happy Holidays” and persecution in an insistence on the full dignity and humanity of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It has taught us that following Jesus means being persecuted, and thus when we are criticized and our values questioned or rejected, it is only because we are the persecuted ones.

And American Christianity has taught us to demonize the struggle of black people for freedom from white Christian overlords who starved, beat, raped, enslaved and murdered them, and continue to deny their full humanity through systems designed to benefit white Americans at their expense.

American Christianity has given us a white Jesus to prove our white innocence.

The scandal of the American cross is not, as I was taught, its offense to “liberal sensibilities” that do not like blood and guilt and punishment. The scandal of the American cross is that we have made ourselves its white Jesus while we remain deaf to the cries of the crucified.

Even for those of us who may cringe at the portraits of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus, images of a black Jesus — or any Jesus with skin darker than the tan a white man might have who spent his days walking the countryside — are “thought-provoking” or challenging or even convicting. What they are not is normative. “Everyone needs to be able to identify with Jesus,” I heard, meaning, those images are for the people who look like them, not for me.

But instead of identifying with Jesus, we have identified Jesus with us. That would be one thing if we were members of a dark-skinned people conquered by and subjected to the whims of the most powerful empire on earth. (Hint: not us.)

What happens when it’s the richest and most powerful who see Jesus in themselves? (“The first shall be last and the last first.”)

We can’t even hear His warnings. (“He that has ears, let him hear.”)

Our identification with a white Jesus is deeply ingrained, even for those of us who squirm at the idea. Because it’s not just my Fundamentalist and Evangelical kin who have made a scandal of the cross.

White Jesus has given American liberal Protestants a savior complex — the conviction that it’s our responsibility to lift up the disadvantaged and give them the benefit of our wisdom and judgement, the benefit of our theology and study, the benefit of our help which they must need. It’s barely a step removed from outright colonialist Christianity, bent on “civilizing the savages.”

We continue to live the (white) Jesus we worship into the world, whether with a persecution complex or a savior complex, because we cannot seem to take ourselves down off the cross and see who is really there.

Others see it and name it as white-centering, erasure, white-privilege, and white supremacy, and that offends us. (“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”)

White Jesus persists because we cannot seem to de-center ourselves — from the public square, cultural hegemony, or religion; from our personal faith and its collective practice. (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”)

White Jesus persists because we continue to refuse people of color full humanity, we continue to refuse to “esteem others as better than ourselves.” We continue to refuse to see Jesus as other than ourselves.

Maybe if we can stop preaching from the cross we’ll finally be able to hear the voice of the one crucified. The voices of all those crucified. Because it is only in hearing them that we have any hope of hearing Him.

Finding Justice in Voting

Finding Justice in Voting

I don’t think we have a vision for what racial justice in America would actually look like. At least, I haven’t, and I’m sure I’m far from the only one.

I always believed racial justice looked like each person accepted and judged for who they are and what they’ve done regardless of the color of their skin. And maybe that particular vision would reflect justice more accurately if it’s where we’d started from – if that’s how it had always been.

But it’s not. And that vision of justice tries to erase history, as if each day and each person starts with a clear slate rather than one filled with the scribblings and scratchings and scriptures of those who have gone before.

The history that’s gone before – the good, the bad, the biased, and the bigoted – is part of each of us. We bring it with us into community, faith, politics, family. And because we’ve always carried it, we can’t see it clearly – or sometimes at all. But it still shapes (determines, even) what our ideas about justice and fairness look like.

As I was taught is true of the Bible, “Context is king” for justice as well. I’ve been asking myself what would a context of justice in America look like?

We would need black and Native American and Asian and Latinx voices and decisions in the foundations – in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Black and native men and women would have been shaping education, finance, industry, religion – all the structures of society. But instead, they were silenced, and what we have was shaped and prescribed almost exclusively by centuries of white male voices and decisions.

That foundation matters. Inviting people of color and women to participate in white male systems isn’t justice. The rules are already set, and they were designed for white men to flourish. Everyone else starts the game at a disadvantage. If it were Monopoly, white men would already own all the property on the board before anyone else even started to play. They set the terms for admission, they wrote the rules, they decided how the game is won.

Where’s the possibility of justice in that?

The rules of the game have to change, and the way it’s played. New voices need to write new rules, and new players need a real way to catch up. The board has to change if there’s going to be a chance for justice to take hold.

And some of us are going to need to step back, shut our mouth, sit on our opinions, and listen to those who have been silenced if we’re ever going to cleanse the windows of our souls enough to even see justice for what it should be, much less contribute to it.

Maybe if, for the next fifty years, no white people could vote. And then white women could vote, but white men would need to wait another hundred years. Maybe then we’d have a shot at an America that would be truly just. An America actually shaped by all her people.

Can you see it? I’m trying to, but it’s not easy. It flies in the face of everything I was taught to value about my voice, my vote, and how important that is – critical, even.

But I can’t get past the need to at least see – to have a vision for what actual justice in America would look like. It’s not a utopian vision. It’s not Dr. King’s dream, as beautiful as that vision is. It’s not all about achieving a particular outcome. It’s about the justice of the journey. It’s about giving those who had no choice in what they were forced to build for others a chance to rebuild for themselves, for all of us.

And it’s not going to happen. I know that. White men and women are not going to give up their votes en masse for generations. And in light of that, the best thing I know to do is to give my vote to a person of color – to vote the way they direct me even, especially, if it makes me uncomfortable.

The highest thing I can do with my vote as a white woman is to use it to represent the voice of someone other than myself, someone whose voice has historically been silenced, discredited, devalued.

So I’m listening to native people, and Asian and Latinx and black people – especially to the women. I’m listening to particular people, some I know personally and some I do not, and I’m voting for their concerns and interests as they themselves understand them. I’m supporting the candidates they are supporting, with my money and voice as well as my vote.

It’s what I can do.

It’s what you can do, too. It’s not easy, though. It’s not easy to let go of something we were taught is sacred. But I think perhaps my vote may only become sacred if I can loosen the grasp my own interests have on it and let it truly serve justice.