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.

The Worst Resolution

The Worst Resolution

“Never change. Never, never change.”

I heard it all the time growing up from my pastor, a respected leader who preached the same message – if a different sermon – three times a week, and wore a navy blue, double-breasted suit every single day for decades.

He was resolved, and it was the worst resolution.

It seemed to suit his personality not to change, as it suited his theology and philosophy. For Dr. R., truth was an objective absolute, a straightforward proposition. Once you found it, that was that. It was settled. So find it, base your life on it, and “never change.”

If you grant the premise, it makes all the sense in the world. It would be the safest way to live well if reality worked that way.

But it never made much sense to me.

There’s no learning, no growth, no life without change. Change defines healthy life in every context. And when change stops…well, that’s death.

The turn of the year, 2017 to 2018, has me remembering his words. I had lunch on New Year’s Eve with old friends who knew him as well, and the question came up, “What happened? What went wrong in the mega church and extensive ministry he built and led?” It’s all gone now.

“Never change.”

Change isn’t always good. “Change for change’s sake” is not a good idea (except when it is). But to reject change for its own sake is a path to certain stagnation and death.

Changing one’s mind is rarely easy. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of beliefs and assumptions that have defined the world for you. The things that have given us the bearings we need to make good decisions with confidence, to live and feel secure about our lives. Those beliefs are often entwined with so much of our lives and pulling them is messy work that can leave us feeling unmoored and unsure of what our new reality will be grounded in.

But learning requires changing our minds, and learning also requires an openness to change. It nearly always involves being able to let go of something I believed, something I imagined to be true, in order to embrace newly discovered truth.

And that’s a moving target. Because if there is something, anything, that could in any way be accurately described as absolute and unchanging truth, it is so unknowably vast that our meanderings through it will feel ever changing. We can’t grasp the whole, and so we’re always unlearning and learning. Always learning to see anew. Always changing in response to what we’ve seen.

The “immutability” (unchangeableness) of God never made a lot of sense to me either. It’s an idea of perfection from Greek philosophy that was imported into and imposed upon the Jewish thinking of the biblical writers. The Bible shows us a God fully engaged, arguing with his people and changing his mind. A Jesus who learned and grew. That God engages people in real ways, relates as a person who thinks and feels and whose thoughts and feelings change. The God who “does not change” in the Bible has a consistent character that does not change but is progressively revealed and understood more clearly.

We’re still at that – understanding the character of God more clearly. It has the power to transform our lives and our hearts if we are open to it – the change that each new year, each new day holds out. Ever learning and growing and expanding our hearts.

Ever changing.

A Dream Denied

A Dream Denied

There is a particular pain in chances never given – a grief for the untried. For some of us, it can be harder than the pain of failure or the grief of loss.

“I never even got to try.”

It’s particularly galling when you deserved the the opportunity, but it was others less deserving who got the chance. Life, it turns out, rarely metes out opportunities based on the wherewithal to do something with them. It just doesn’t work that way.

And so the chance you long for is denied, and you never even get to try, to see if what you’re capable of doing can live up to all you know you can do deep in your heart.

The thing you’re made for passes by without stopping for you.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps different sorts of dreams may do all of these things. Maybe some more than one.

A chance never given, this is what’s hardest for me. It clings to me. It will not let me go.

My question is different from Langston Hughes’: what do you do with a dream deferred? With the chance never given? The one that clings like a pleading child to my legs, hungry with persistent passion for this thing that every fiber of my being recognizes. And I have no power to give it to her.

What do you do with a dream denied? The one that will not stop speaking, singing to me from behind that door which is closed and barred to me? (Such a beautiful song. Such a painful song.)

What do you do with a dream denied?

Unmake it? Unmask?
Dissect
and from component parts
piece together another creature?
Will it live again?
Breathe? Move?
What about the beating heart?
Can it be another thing?
Itself take another shape?

Or will it die
and part of me with 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.