Naming God for Who God Is

Naming God for Who God Is

“…and you enjoy being loved by God.”

They were passing words from a pastor who was counseling me — not even his point. But something in my mind got caught in them and stayed there while we finished the session. Something inside me that said quietly and without the least drama, “But I don’t.”

Oh.

God loved me. That was as basic a fact in my world as my mama and daddy’s love for me. It wasn’t something it had ever occurred to me to question.

But somehow, in thirty years of life and being loved by God, it had also never occurred to me that I should be enjoying it.

Being loved by the Creator of the universe, the God without whom nothing was, the God who was sovereign over everything that happened (including daddies dying, injustice, abuse, bullying, starving, war,…), the God who gave and took away, the God who made all things work for the good of those who love him?

That was something to be enjoyed?

I trusted God with everything in me I knew to trust with, but something inside me still braced.

You can make yourself do a lot of things, but one thing you cannot make yourself do is enjoy. And I knew the reality that I didn’t enjoy being loved by God meant something was seriously messed up.

I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t know how to fix it.

But I knew there was a problem somewhere in what I believed, consciously or unconsciously or both, and I became willing to put everything I thought I knew on the table.

I didn’t do it all at once. It was a step at a time. Years in which momentum slowly grew in ways I didn’t really understand. But it started with recognizing that as I had grown up in the church, I had learned to redefine a lot of things — things like love, joy, and peace. These were all things we experience when we know Jesus. I knew Jesus, my (mostly) unconscious mind reasoned, therefore love, joy, and peace must be what it was I was experiencing.

Depression and anxiety got suppressed, redefined, and ultimately, when they were undeniable, blamed on purely physical factors. “I know a peace I don’t feel.” I’d actually said those words and meant them.

It had to be better than this, I decided, or it was just a farce. “It” being life with God, following Jesus, being a Christian.

And over the years, as I let go of a lot and looked for love, goodness, and beauty, it did get better. I wrestled through some really hard stuff and came through it with a relationship with God that was deeper than ever. Something in me relaxed, and I wasn’t bracing any more.

And then a year or so ago, for no apparent reason, the prayers and creeds and words in church started to trigger bracing in me — the instinct to draw back and distance myself. The same words of the liturgy that had been so healing for me for so many years became painful.

It was the word “God” that was doing it. “God,” “Father,” “Christ.” Most any word that referred to deity except “Jesus” triggered in me a reaction to a God I no longer believe in — a God who demands death, a God who turns his back, a God who cuts some people off, a God who is willing to sacrifice a child for the sake of his plan.

Not the God of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Not the God who

is love.

It hurt. I missed the presence I’d found in those words. I also realized I wasn’t just going to be able to get them back. I had to move through this, not back away from it.

So I started replacing the word “God” in the prayers and affirmations of the liturgy with the word, “Love.”

It was a revelation. I hadn’t realized how much my mind and heart still held of a god who isn’t Love.

I did the same thing with hymns, and the first time I sang Patrick’s Breastplate the new way, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I bind unto myself today

the power of Love to hold and lead,

Love’s eye to watch, Love’s might to stay,

Love’s ear to hearken to my need,

the wisdom of my Love to teach,

Love’s hand to guide, Love’s shield to ward,

the word of Love to give me speech,

Love’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Love be with me, Love within me,

Love behind me, Love before me,

Love beside me, Love to win me,

Love to comfort and restore me.

Love beneath me, Love above me,

Love in quiet, Love in danger,

Love in hearts of all that know me,

Love in mouth of friend and stranger.”

There is no perfect way to approach the holy, the divine. But, love, we have been told, comes closest.

“Beloved, let us love one another.

For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knowers God.

He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.

Beloved, let us love one another!”

(1 John 4:7-8)

So I’m still learning to know God, to grasp what is at the heart of the universe.

And to enjoy being loved.

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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.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

“Ah! Here.  And…you’re here.”

-“I am. You sound surprised, yet not.”

“Well…the dry sauna at the athletic club?”

-“Don’t you read the Psalms?”

“The Psalms?…

Oh! ‘If I make my bed in hell.…’ Very funny.”

-“I thought you’d be amused.”

“But, …seriously?”

-“Seriously, it’s the quietest place I know.”

“Really? What about churches and chapels?”

-“They’re loud with expectation and desperation.”

“Oh. I can see that. And here…

well, it may be the only place that even my mind is quiet.”

-“Exactly. Everything is remarkable still in here.”

“There’s something about the heat.”

-“Yes. It brings your mind and body together to be present with each other.”

<pause>

“That’s not always a comfortable place for me.”

-“I know.”

“There’s a lot I don’t want to feel that directly.”

-“Yes.”

“I’ve lost my dreams.”

-“Lost?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know where they went, but they’re gone.”

-“Yes, sometimes people walk away with our dreams whether they intended to or not.”

“I just know I went to find them last week and there was nothing there.”

-“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you….

I’d ask why you didn’t stop them, but I’m long past thinking that you push people around like that.”

-“There’s no love under compulsion or manipulation.”

“Right.”

<pause>

“You know, I never know where these conversations are going to go when they start.”

-“Neither do I.”

“Really?”

-“Yes. They’re something we create together.”

“I like that.”

-“I’m glad.”

<pause>

“So what do I do about the dreams?”

-“What do you think?”

“Well, they didn’t die – then I could bury them or burn them. They just…left.”

-“Do you think they’re coming back?”

“I want to a lot of the time. But I think that’s clinging to something that’s gone, and even if they did come back, they wouldn’t quite be the same.”

-“That makes sense. Nothing that’s alive ever stays the same.”

“I don’t know what to do with the space they left.”

-“What do you want to do with it?”

“Not lose it.”

-“Why not?”

“Because…it’s part of the shape of who I am now, and I like who I am now.”

-“I like who you are now, too.”

“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to lose that.”

-“So you feel stuck between new dreams and losing who you are?”

“Maybe?…

There aren’t really any new dreams taking root. I have plenty of wishes flying around, but new dreams – not so much.”

-“And the wishes?”

“Most of them are connected with the dreams that are gone. Some of them still mean something on their own, and that’s good, but they aren’t the sorts of things that turn into dreams.”

-“Ah. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

-“I see you.”

“You do?”

-“I do.”

<pause>

“Maybe that’s enough for the moment. I don’t know….

Can that be enough for the moment?”

-“It’s why I’m here. If you make your bed in hell…”

“You’re here.”

-“Yes.”

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 Living Saturday

Lent and Living Saturday

Lent isn’t pretty. It challenges us to look at the life we face each day, to look and really see. It calls us to be uncomfortable—to face sin, all that is wrong in us and our world, without looking away, acknowledge the hold it has us entangled in, and repent.

Lent is about death. Or at least it should be. Not just the physical death that awaits us all, or even that one death on a Roman cross two thousand years ago (though we’ll get to that), but the death that invades our lives every day. The death that sin—messing up and hurting each other—brings, both our own sin and the sin of others.

In our own lives, in the lives of people we pass, people we work with, people we sit beside in class, we are surrounded by invisible deaths every day. Dreams have died, relationships have died, hopes have died. Death is in our own failures and in the failures of those around us, the failures we have to live with whether they are ours or not.

But we are not made for death, and we can’t just sit and bear it without hope.

Most often, I try to find that hope myself. I try to find the problem I can fix or the reason that will let me understand how it will all turn out to be okay. I want the death to actually be an illusion: it only looks like death. And the more I turn from death, the more each death become invisible. Death is a denial of meaning, and I will insist on meaning. In my demand for answers, I want the hope first, even though it’s last in the list: suffering, endurance, character, and then, at the end, hope (Romans 5:3-4).

I don’t like that verse. Everything in me resists living in Holy Saturday.

Friday. The most horrific wrong. The most unjust death of all. On Friday it’s devastatingly clear: this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And on Saturday we have to live with that, with all the dissonance of what we don’t—can’t—understand. Sunday does come, not so much with answers as with life and hope. Sunday holds victory out before us, calls us to persevere. There is more, and that more is certain and sure.

But today is Saturday. We have to wait for Sunday, for that life that is surely ours but not yet.

I put a lot of effort into getting out of Friday and into Sunday. Lent tells me, stop. It’s Saturday. Face the dissonance. Weep. Get desperate. Live with the wrongness of injustice and death and this dying world.

Only then can I really hear the hope for all it’s worth.

Lent also tells me there’s an end to death. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and this is not how it finally will be. We live in Saturday, yes, but we’ve been shown the fullness of Sunday, and it is coming! Grace witnesses to that hope every day. Even as we begin to let ourselves see the invisible deaths, there is the grace of ordinary resurrections.

Ordinary resurrections: seeds of hope that come in this world. Death surrounds us, but so does life. And so I wait—trying to listen to Lent, to see both death and life—in Saturday.

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 Loving Outsiders

Lent and Loving Outsiders

Poverty looks like a lot of different things.

Don’t get me wrong, none of those things should overshadow the most obvious meaning: not having stuff. Basic stuff. Ability-to-live stuff. A roof over your head, food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink that won’t make you sick stuff.

Never forget that is poverty, and far too many around the world and in our “rich” country live it every day.

Traditionally, Lent has been a time to focus on giving “alms” the poor. The first time I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the Catholic Church in my neighborhood, I received the ashes on my forehead and was promptly handed a small, flattened cardboard box that I was intended to pop open and fill with my Lenten contributions for the poor.

I love how hand-in-hand that was. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I was told. And then I was handed something that also told me, remember we are all dust and need to help each other along the way.

Lent is about self-denial to most of us, but self-denial is not the goal of Lent. “Fasting without praying,” a friend of mine once said, “is like plowing without planting.” Self-denial is pointless unless that space we create with it is filled and planted with something that will take root, and grow to bear the kind of fruit that changes us and changes the world.

The church mothers and fathers knew that seeing the poor is one of those things. And not just seeing in an observational way – though it is all too easy for the poor to become invisible to us. But seeing to identify with, to develop compassion for and empathy with.

That’s challenging. Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s exhausting. And it often hides.

It hides behind jobs that don’t pay a living wage. It hides behind rising housing costs that eat up grocery budgets. It set up camp in the underbrush of that lovely, tree filled nature grove in the park. It hides in cars where someone discreetly sleeps. It hides in open-hearted generosity. It hides in the family judgement and rejection that obliterate a safety net. It hides in discriminatory lending policies that prevent families from investing in homes and businesses to build that safety net. It hides in that job you could lose the moment they find out who you are and who you love. It hides behind court fees that keep people in jail or deprived of their license because they can’t pay them.

Poverty pushes people to the edges and makes them outsiders – people who live along the borders of expectation and what is legal and what life is “supposed” to look like.

Lent asks us to do a lot more than toss money or food at them over there at the edges of our lives (though that’s better than ignoring them altogether).

Lent asks us to go to the edges with them, to turn things upside down and inside out.

It doesn’t just ask us to keep bandaging up the wounds of those the system chews up and spits out (though for God’s sake, we should certainly be doing that!).

It asks us to take on that system. Bring the outsiders in, not by changing them to fit “inside,” but by changing “inside” (us) to include them – become uncomfortable to make a space they can breathe and rest and live in.

Love doesn’t just give to the poor. Love doesn’t even just go out to be with the poor. In a multitude of ways, Love makes a home with the poor.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” With those people.