Obscene Generosity

Obscene Generosity

God loves with obscene generosity.

The lengths God is willing to go to, the depths God is willing to stoop to – time and time again it baffles, even offends, those who think they know God. Ninevites are loved, prostitutes, pagans, drunkards, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, terrorists. The wrong people. The wrong kind of people.

Whatever else they are or were, they are other. Outsiders to whatever inside we’ve laid claim to. Normal; perverted. Legal; criminal. White; black. Civilized; uncivilized. Smart; foolish. Spiritual; worldly. Clean; dirty. Legitimate; illegitimate. We’re right; they’re wrong.

Yet God forgives them and blesses them and talks to them and hangs out with them. God likes them.

And it kills us. Because we want to believe we’re special.

And we are.

But so are they. They aren’t like us and they are special. Those other people who missed the boat, who get it all wrong, who mess up and hurt other people and make bad choices. (Or just choices that aren’t the ones we’d make.) Who are for whatever reason just the wrong people.

We want a “but…” on that. But…they repented. But…they changed. But…it wasn’t their fault. But…they were deceived. But…they learned. Maybe they did or do or will or were, but that’s not the point of why and how God loves.

If there were ever a foolish lover, it’s God. Loving those who turn their back again and again and again. Loving those who don’t get it, who assume they are just that lovable. Loving the selfish, in it for what they get. Loving the hurt and angry, who lash out when you get too close. Loving the ones who push away. Loving the ones who don’t care, who don’t want your love. Loving the ones who are too busy. And loving them all beyond reason or what is reasonable. This is no measured love – it’s impetuous and inappropriate.

It’s just too much!

It crosses all kinds of lines, how God loves. It’s not reasonable. The priorities are all over the place. It’s indiscriminate, wasteful, disorderly, prodigal. It even crosses the lines we understood God drew!

It makes us so uncomfortable. Maybe not in theory, where, after all, we can readily affirm that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” But in practice?

Yogi Bera is quoted as saying, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” And it’s so deeply true. Theory stays safely abstract – love stays safely abstract. But when we actually see the obscenely generous love of God at work, in practice?

It disgusts us.

“That’s just the easy way.” “Shameless!” “Oh come on, you’re smarter than that!” “I can’t believe you’d even consider it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that disgust. I even remember feeling it myself at times, that profound disapproval of others who I believed were foolish at best, defiant at worst.

We don’t want something that’s so easily given. Its “cheap,” we say, “You’re too easy.”

As if God could do anything that isn’t priceless. Some things are of such immeasurable value that they can only ever be gifts.

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The Light of Clarity

The Light of Clarity

You’d think in this atmosphere thick with division and the tendency to head to our respective corners of extremism, that we’d have no issues with clarity – with being upfront with our values and convictions.

You’d be wrong.

The pro-life movement recently celebrated a win in a Supreme Court case contesting a California law which would, in part, require pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to post signs stating that the state provides free or low-cost access to birth control and abortion services. Pro-life centers argued that this violated their free speech rights.

I agree. I don’t think pro-life crisis pregnancy centers should be required to in any way advertise the availability of abortion.

But I do believe they should be clear about who they are and what they do provide – that was the purported aim of the law. Clinics that do not offer licensed medical care had to say so, and clinics that offered licensed reproductive care only within the restrictions of their anti-abortion convictions had to say where a full range of services could be found.

You’d think that Christians who are adamant and proud of their pro-life convictions would have no issue with most of that, but you’d be wrong.

While all may not use the tactic, pro-life crisis pregnancy centers and hotlines are notoriously deceptive in their signage and advertising. They hope that vulnerable women who are pregnant and frightened will seek them out so they will have the opportunity to steer those women away from seeking an abortion. They believe that the longer they can delay a potential abortion, the less likely it will happen, so they rarely hesitate to use a kind of “bait and switch” strategy with these women.

That kind of deceit is deeply disrespectful of women and the pro-life cause.

While I’m sympathetic to the pro-life argument that they should not be compelled to disseminate information about the availability of abortion services, I have no sympathy with the deceptive practices. Pro-life clinics should proudly post signs stating they are just that: pro-life. “We are a pro-life clinic. We will do everything in our power to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy, support and good options as you choose whether to keep your baby or give it up for adoption with a loving family.”

Clarity. Honesty. Respecting all lives, including those of frightened, vulnerable pregnant women.

For people who follow the one they call “The Way, the Truth, and the Light,” that should be a given. But it’s not the only area Christians have a hard time being clear in.

If you are an LGBTQ Christian with a same-sex partner (or the hope for one) who is looking for a church, you’ll have a hard time figuring out where might find a spiritual home.

When you’re looking at an evangelical church’s website in particular, it will usually be difficult to ascertain whether you will be fully welcome and free to share your gifts with the church. A Master of Divinity degree and a lifetime of navigating the in and outs of evangelical positions and affiliations may help, but even with those you’ll have some guess work to do.

Hint: the vast majority of evangelical churches will not perform or affirm a same-sex marriage.

But how would a visitor know that?

Many churches don’t want to make a straightforward declaration of their policy. Some pastors don’t want to clarify something they know members have differing assumptions about. Others want to “contextualize” their position and explain it on a more individual basis – they want the. Hence to make their case and explain themselves. Some just want to avoid controversy. Still others insist they can take a “take-no-position” position and are in denial about the tenuous place that puts their LGBTQ+ attendees.

Whatever the reason, they resist clarity.

Clarity is the beginning of trust, and what kind of a church will you have without trust?

Even affirming and inclusive mainline churches can struggle with this. Church leaders confused by the array of orientations and gender identities want to “just welcome everyone” without realizing that those who find themselves rejected in most places need to know that means them, too, in their particulars.

A generic “everybody is welcome” means nothing to them. Thee are assumptions embedded in our “everybody,” and they are used to being excluded where “everybody is welcome.” It takes something different to truly welcome some people, whether that’s accessible facilities or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Whatever the position, clarity is vital.

(Churchclarity.org works to encourage churches to be clear about their policies regarding women and LGBTQ+ folks on the primary websites. They don’t rate churches based on what their policies are, rather they rate them based on their clarity about those policies. It’s only reasonable, and you can submit a church for scoring at https://www.churchclarity.org/crowdsource.)

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.

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.

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

When I first met *Schuylar, they were between pronouns. Not quite “she” and not quite “he,” Schuylar was a young person trying to figure a lot out. I wanted to be kind and understanding – I wanted to really understand – but I’d never known someone live and in person for whom gender was such a struggle. I was confused. Their experience baffled me. It didn’t fit the way I understood the Bible, myself, or anyone else. I didn’t know what “right” or “healthy” or “good” meant in this context, and I didn’t have a clue what their experience meant for the community we shared, though I realized it was no small thing.

A friend of mine, a respected Christian leader, recently noted that he sees “transgender issues” as the next big cultural hot button. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate man, so though he tends to have a more traditional perspective on sexuality, I know he is genuine in his desire to listen well, understand more, and respond with love.

I know a lot of folks much like him – much like me where I was several years ago. People who at their best are baffled and confused about the idea of someone being transgender, and who at their worst feel only fear or anger.

The fear and anger hurt everybody. I’m grateful for those who helped me find a way past it.

Several trans friends have shared their lives and journeys with me, and taught me much about myself as both an individual and as a woman. But when I met Schuylar, I hadn’t begun that journey.

One thing Schuylar talked about a lot was their discomfort with gender norms. The toys and clothes they wanted, the things they wanted to do – they understood those were somehow wrong. And yet the things they were given and were supposed to like? Those were the things that felt all wrong. As Schuylar talked about it, this seemed like a big part of what made their gender confusing for them.

And I could relate to a point. Growing up, gender norms had never neatly fit me. Much as I wanted my hair to be long, I got very stubborn when one grandma wanted me to have a girlier hair style. I didn’t like dolls very much; I preferred stuffed animals of all genders. I gravitated towards playing with boys more than girls, and once school started, the girls baffled me. I crashed the boys’ game of kickball at recess when they would let me, and when they wouldn’t, largely played by myself. As I got older, the way I thought and related was a closer fit to male stereotypes, and females as a whole continued to confuse me.

But as early as I can remember, those things never made me question my gender. I was a girl, and if someone thought girls didn’t do something that I did, that was clearly nonsense, since I was a girl and I did! I liked being a girl (and as I grew, a woman). I didn’t always like how people treated me because I was a girl (or woman), but that wasn’t a problem with me and my femaleness. That was a problem with them.

It never occurred to me to question my gender, and that made Schuylar’s experience confusing for me. Was Schuylar’s struggle just a different, more extreme reaction to social gender norms that didn’t fit? Or was something more going on?

As I’ve gotten to know more trans friends, I’ve learned their stories can be significantly different. So many different things impact how they’ve understood themselves throughout their lives, and some of their stories helped me grasp just how different their experience of their bodies is from mine.

One friend says that as early as she can remember, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a boy, I just knew I wasn’t one.” A friend from seminary who has since transitioned told me how exhausting, depressing, and even traumatizing it had been for her all those decades to get up every morning and “zip on my man-suit.”

That struck me. The masculine characteristics of her body had always been foreign to her. As familiar with them as she was – she’d never known life without them after all – they nonetheless always remained other. And beyond the personal difficulty of dealing with a body that did not match who she is, that body also brought with it a host of social norms and expectations that also didn’t fit who she is.

The idea of “zipping into a suit” every morning, it’s a vivid picture. It’s a suit that covers everything, hiding a person completely. Trapping and suffocating them. Knowing her now that she is free to be the beautiful woman she is, the effects of that suit on the friend I knew in seminary is obvious.

It’s a given for most of us that – love them or hate them – how we feel about our bodies isn’t what determines our gender. For us, the idea of looking for a newborn’s genitals and proclaiming, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” only reflects the most obvious facts in the world. It’s not complicated – it’s always worked for us. Our bodies are ours, and whether we feel good about what we see in the mirror or not, we recognize them at a deep level.

But in reality, it’s far more complicated than it may seem. And it is those for whom it doesn’t work who pierce the assumptions life has allowed the rest of us to live so easily with.

The assumptions life allowed me to live so easily with before I met people who couldn’t live with them.

*not their real name

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time

“People need time to adjust.”

Time to change. Time to learn. Time to get used to new ideas, new things.

I’ve heard it over and over again, especially in the church, and especially from people who are concerned with community – with the connections we have across difference and disagreement.

I’ve heard it when we talk about trans folks having the freedom to use the bathroom that best fits their identity (instead of being harassed or attacked if they try to use the one that matches their birth certificate). I’ve heard it when we talk about gay marriage. I’ve heard it when we talk about white privilege and the systemic discrimination people of color face in churches and society.

And it’s true. Change does take time. None of us leapfrog to new things. We get there one step at a time.

The problem is that when we appeal for time for people to adjust to something new, we’re privileging those for whom the status quo is not a problem. People who didn’t (don’t) see the need for change on their own are already privileged, even if they rarely recognize that reality. Those of us with power and privilege can rarely see what they we have. It feels normal to us, and we naturally assume that what is normal to us is also normal for others. It’s just “how the world works.”

But the world may work radically different for someone else, and it is radically different for people who are different from me.

I began to realize that in my late twenties when I lived in North Carolina. It was a time of dramatic change as North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Immigrants from Mexico were flowing into the state, and some smaller communities were reeling as their Spanish-speaking population increased from near zero to 20% or more in only a few years. That’s radical change.

In the area where I lived, the impacts were focused in a few neighborhoods, one of them already the most struggling neighborhood in town. It had quickly shifted to being roughly a third Hispanic, a third black, and a third white (mostly aging folks in homes they’d owned for decades). Friends of mine from church bought a home in there and enrolled their daughter in the local school. Several of us met in their home weekly and started to get involved in the community and the schools there.

It didn’t take long at all for my illusions about equality of opportunity and access to get blown out of the water. Black and Hispanic neighbors both, for somewhat different reasons, faced discrimination and barriers beyond what I’d imagined. I knew poverty – our family had struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up. But this was beyond poverty. These folks’ lives were so very different than mine.

The change they are waiting for is us.

The world works pretty well for us already, and we don’t want that to change. So we’re content for it not too until they can convince us there’s a problem, and that it’s not a problem of their own making, to the standards of our assumptions about how things are.

Because we can afford to take the time.

Even if they can’t.

Learning takes time. Changing takes time. Journeys happen one step at a time. I took the time; I walked – and sometimes ran – each step; and I’m still learning.

But when we make our learning and our comfort the criteria for change desperately needed by those who are vulnerable? That is the epitome of perpetuating and protecting our privilege.

A friend of mine who is a pastor recently related the words of a parent whose teenager had come out to them: “I suppose I should have cared enough when it was other people’s children.”

When we take our time, it always costs someone who can’t afford it.

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.