To Belong

To Belong

The spaces that belong to you are not always the spaces where you belong.

The green carpeted floor underneath the ash pews in the church I was born in. That space belongs to me. Full of “aunts” and “uncles” and friends like Patty and Garrett (the first boy who ever proposed to me – we were maybe five), a community  I’d never known life without. People who knew my father before his illness and death, who knew my parents before their marriage.

That space is mine in the way only the place you were born can be. It accepted you for no reason beyond your existence.

The university campus I grew up on, a kid running more or less wild after the 3:00 school bell, playing games of tag with my brother and his friend that ranged through the several city blocks of interconnected campus buildings. Exploring roofs and nooks and crannies forgotten by all but the cleaning crew. There are few places on earth I will ever know so well, from the inside out.

Full of people who watched me grow up, who surrounded our family from its initial blending when my mother’s remarriage brought me a new step-father and two brothers, through my stepfather’s cancer and death, and then Mom’s second remarriage. People who saw and didn’t see.

This space is mine in the way places you grew up are, especially when that growing up was such a profound suffering.

But even then, there were signs I didn’t belong. Growing up I found my home in the stacks of the campus library and, as early as junior high, with the theater majors – the most classic of misfits. (The fact that I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors may explain a lot.)

It wasn’t until my early thirties, when I moved back to the small Bible college campus where my parents had met and I’d spent my earliest years that it came clear.

My office was my mother’s old dorm room, and my apartment was in the same building where my aunt and uncle had started married life. I was working with family and people who’d know my parents, and in hallways and classrooms where as a kindergartner I’d made friends of faculty and students and watched weekly missionary slideshows from all over the world.

These were spaces that belonged to me, but I didn’t fit. Over the four years I lived and worked there it became increasingly plain that I didn’t belong. No one told me, or did anything to make me feel that way – just the opposite, in fact. I was embraced and loved. But there was no place there for the questions I was asking. I was trying to grow, but the light wasn’t right there, and the soil.

I didn’t fit.

In retrospect, I never really had.

Where do you go when the spaces that belong to you, that you know, are not where you belong?

I went exploring. Not randomly, but in directions that seemed hopeful, through spaces that, while they weren’t where I belonged either, took me to more possibilities. I learned to follow Jesus beyond what I could see and to trust him with all I could not understand.

I left the land of my birth (there is no story without leaving home) to go to a land he would show me. Had I known twenty years ago where the journey would take me, I would have rejected it. If it led there, it could not be from God. But I learned to trust each step more than where I thought they might lead. I learned to listen beyond my assumptions and assertions. I learned to trust the questions I did not have answers to.

Every family and tribe has its own culture, and every time we leave home, we have a choice. We can carry the whole turtle shell with us, or we can learn to live in other people’s spaces, with other people’s cultures, languages, ways.

Perhaps the challenge of love is to let yourself belong somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. In a place you weren’t born into, that was not the space that shaped your growing up.

I live in those spaces now. I worship in those spaces. I learn in those spaces. I listen in those spaces. I share myself in those spaces.

Some of them, like my Episcopal Church family, are full of traditions and ways I will never fully understand. There are ways I don’t fit (Baptist edges don’t all quite wear down), but I belong. Others of them, like the LGBTQ+ community, are chosen spaces – created out of the needs of those who in certain ways didn’t fit the families and communities and churches that belong to them by right of birth. They have traditions, but they are younger traditions, still growing and expanding (not always gracefully). There are ways I don’t fit (my straight orientation and cisgender are not things I get to choose), but I belong.

These are not my spaces and never should be. I have no right to try to shape them to fit me. But they have shaped me, and I have found that I belong.

The spaces where you belong are not always spaces that belong to you. And maybe that can be a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.

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Promises Better Broken

Promises Better Broken

There was a man, the story went, who wanted to be a leader of his people. He was from a humble background and had known much rejection, but now he had an opportunity. If he could pull off a victory, he would be praised and appointed to lead. He made a promise about what he would do if he was successful, and when he won, he kept his promise.

That promise was to sacrifice the first thing or person to meet him when he arrived home safely and victorious as a burnt offering to God, and the first to run out to meet him was his daughter, his only child.

The man’s name was Jephthah, and the story is in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars debate what the text means and whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill his vow, or instead dedicated her to serve God and never marry or have children, much like a nun. But I was taught a “plain reading” of the text, and according to that reading, Jephthah – heartbroken – kept his vow and killed his child as a sacrifice to God.

That way of reading the text is consistent within the book of Judges. One generation removed from their own slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have conquered the land God led them to and began using the former inhabitants as their own slaves.

As the generation who won those victories die off, the people forget. They go back to old ways and worshiping other gods, straying from the God who was teaching them that child sacrifice and the burdens of divine bargains were not what he was about. Raiders terrorize the people, and they are desperate to protect themselves and their own.

The “judges,” leaders who periodically appear throughout this time to defeat the raiders, are all flawed according to the understanding of the time. Some, like Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, are morally flawed, and some bear flaws or curses of nature: Deborah is a woman, and Ehud is left-handed.

The moral of Jephthah’s story as I was taught it was to be careful what you promise God (and others), because such promises must be kept.

That’s not a bad lesson – avoiding rash promises is a good thing to do in any context. But the idea that bad promises to God or anyone else must be kept, regardless of the cost? That is a horrible lesson. I always found it deeply troubling that the same God who stopped Israel’s patriarch Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, would consider it more important that Jephthah keep his promise even if it cost his daughter’s life.

I don’t believe that understanding does reflect who God is. I believe it reflects just how much his people miss or forget who God really is. The God of Israel is not a God who values the keeping of bad promises – to himself or anyone else. As Jesus shows us, the God of Israel is one who is willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of loving others.

I’ve remembered this story a lot as I’ve listened to Republican lawmakers talk about why they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” For so many, it just comes down to “because we promised we would.” Keeping that promise is more important than the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. The principle trumps real people.

And I’ve realized, that’s just what I was taught (alongside many other voters), through Jephthah’s story and in so many other ways. We got God so deeply, tragically wrong. We believed in loving our neighbors, but we believed certain principles must guide and define that love regardless of the consequences to that neighbor (or ourselves). We were willing to die for those principles, but like Jephthah, we were also too willing to let others die for them. We just want that promise kept, regardless of the consequences.

Like Israel, those descendants of Isaac whose very existence was predicated on God refusing a child sacrifice, we so readily respond to fear and chaos and evil by embracing leaders who will make those sacrifices for the sake of principle. Principles are so much more straightforward than the messiness of loving people, of considering the needs of the most vulnerable before our own.

Some promises are better broken. Rash promises, surely. But even promises made thoughtfully and with the best of intentions can end up having devastating, unforeseen consequences. Those promises are best abandoned, but sometimes we want to cling to the principle we are convinced will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.

A wise and very humane person once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” The principles that work in theory can betray us in practice, and it’s what happens in practice that really matters. Following God, loving others, is always harder and messier than following principles. Than just keeping promises.

For the Ones Who Keep Going

For the Ones Who Keep Going

This weekend I ran twenty-two miles.

That’s a lot. That’s actually crazy. It’s the farthest I’ll run until the Chicago Marathon on October 8, which I’m running with the ALS Association in memory of my father, Karen’s sister, George’s uncle, and so many others who’ve suffered from that terrible disease.

Training for the marathon has been a lot of work. I’d never run farther than thirteen miles before this summer, and the second thirteen miles is a lot harder than the first thirteen.

I don’t enjoy running. I love the being-outside part, the seeing-the-Lake part, and the long-term-benefits-to-my-mental-and-physical-health part, but the running itself? It never really feels good. It’s just hard, sometimes miserably so. The best part is the hot shower at the end.

This weekend, when I finished the twenty-two miles (in 90 degree weather!), a friend told me how proud of me they were. That it’s no small thing to take on one’s first marathon, particularly at 45, and that they are really proud of me.

Hearing that meant a lot.

It also made me think about who I’m proud of for doing hard stuff.

I have a friend who is really struggling with life right now. Lots of things have gone wrong in the past few years, and he’s dealing with deep discouragement and depression. He’s struggling to get life to work for him and fighting to remember the reasons he has to stay alive. His kids, his mother, his girl, the friends who love him. They help, but it’s still so hard every single day.

And I’m so proud of him for every single day he stays alive and keeps going. Because when I run, yes, it’s hard, but I know where it ends, and you can get through most anything if you know when it will end.

But my friend doesn’t know where it ends – when it gets better, and he keeps going anyway. He keeps fighting for every day.

I learned a long time ago that I don’t live well without hope. But I also learned that hope can be so painful. When hope doesn’t come to fruition, it can break your heart and drain the life right out. That kind of pain is hard to live through, and unrelieved pain deadens us. I’ve known seasons of numbness, and I hate them. I’d rather hurt than have that kind of safety. You can’t be open to joy and life and love unless you’re also open to pain and loss.

That’s part of why I run – to help me believe that I can keep going. That I can endure the unthinkable. And that when the pain of disappointed hope is breaking my heart, I can send it down my legs and through my feet into block after block of pavement. And I can lift up my head to feel the sun, and know the relief of being done when I reach the finish line.

A marathon, 26.2 miles, is no small thing, but it takes so much more to keep going when you don’t know how far there is to go. And I am so proud of the ones who just keep going.

The Children We Owned

The Children We Owned

When I was growing up, one of the things I loved about visiting my grandmother in West Virginia was when she would go to a cabinet in the front room and pull out a box. She’d open the box and very carefully take out a handmade, handwritten cloth-bound book. It was about thirteen inches tall, maybe eight inches wide, around two inches thick, and inside it’s cover, in penmanship that looked like it came off the Declaration of Independence, was the name of my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Fields.

James was a Virginian, a tobacco farmer and the son of a tobacco farmer. The book is a collection of math lessons. It’s full of tables and measures and problems, including:

30 Days hath September
April June and November
All the rest hath 31
Except February hath 28 alone
But when of Leap year it doth combine
the time when February hath 29
for February its fourth year doth Come
Does gain a day from the Traveling Sun

It was the back pages of the book that always fascinated me most. They include poems that were transcribed (poet unknown). Both are filled with Christian imagery and implore the reader to be faithful to Jesus. One stanza reads:

Sweet rivers of salvation
Through Canaan’s land doth role
Bright darling berms of glory
Illuminates my soul
As ponderous Crowns of glory
All set with diamonds bright
And there my smiling Jesus reigns
Who is my heart’s delight

The back pages also include a record of the births (and sometimes deaths) of James and his wife Elizabeth’s children. Beginning in 1815, they had eight children, with the last born in 1834.

Alongside the births of his own children, James also records the births of “black children” – slaves.

George born September 3rd 1826
Malinda born August 12th 1828
Ann born January 9th 1830
Mary born June 15th 1832
Stephen born September 20th 1834

Five additional children are listed as born to Malinda:

Charlotte Elliot born March 5th 1846
Berry Frank born July 29th 1848
Julias Gilpin born May 17th 1851
Sarah Ann born May 27th 1860
Robert Lee born January 14th 1864

That last name gets to me most. Little Robert Lee, born just over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation and fifteen months before his namesake’s surrender at Appomattox.

When I was younger, those names were not much more than a curiosity to me – few slave owners bothered to record slave births by name. I was captured much more by the reality that James Fields had created these pages with his own thoughts and hands, and that they had been preserved and passed down parent to child until they had reached me. It was like a string across nearly 200 years of history connecting me with my ancestor in a way that the abstraction of genetics never could.

The mythology of the South was what I knew – states’ rights, Northern aggression, the prevalence of a benign slavery, freedom from federal government interference, the high moral character of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

And like everything involving real people, the realities of the country, the war, and slavery are incredibly complicated.

But that mythology? It’s just that – myth. Slavery is always inherently violent, the South fought the war to defend it, and southern generals led that violent conflict. That strand that connects me through 200 years to my ancestors is a thread of violence woven through our whole history.

My family owned slaves – children – to the end, and they fought for Virginia and the Confederacy to defend their “right” to own those human beings.

I’m glad I know. Many people with southern roots don’t. I’ll not be ashamed of my family history – I’ll not hide it. I mourn what my relatives did, and what they believed that allowed them to record slaves births and celebrations of their faith in Christ on the same page. I am not proud.

It’s a heritage I’ve seen so clearly at work throughout my lifetime and especially today – that ability to hold tightly to a “Christian” faith and to the way things are at the same time.

I understand it because I lived it myself for so long, and no doubt there are tentacles of that belief still entwined in my life. Those tentacles are woven throughout America – North and South – as well, and too many are blind to them. But I will root them out and repent of them, every one I find, both in my own life and in this world.

Because if there’s a Jesus worth following, his work is to proclaim good news to all of us who still live in poverty of many kinds because of racism and the generational impacts of slavery and its successors. If there’s a Jesus worth following, he proclaims liberty to all of us who are held captive by the normativity of whiteness, and the recovery of sight for all who are blind to the air of white supremacy we breathe every day. And he sets free those whose lives are marked by the oppression of suspicion and violence because of the darkness of their skin.

I come from people who claimed ownership of other human beings to support their way of life, who fought to defend that practice, and who named an enslaved child after a general defending slavery. They were willing to die for it.

What am I willing to die for?

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.

Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

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.