We Belong.

We Belong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We belong. Together.

Love Really is Love is Love

Love Really is Love is Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love really is stronger than death.

Love really is love is love.

Valentine’s Day Massacred

Valentine’s Day Massacred

Valentine’s Day is a mess. Even if I set aside my own history with February 14th, I wouldn’t be a fan. Valentine’s Day has become performative – the day when romantic partners are supposed to pull out all the stops, and the sellers of flowers, chocolates, and anything traditionally designated as “romantic” make a killing. The only Valentine’s celebrations that don’t feel so infected are the ones kindergartners and elementary students get, if they are still anything like they were in my childhood. Chalky candy hearts printed with messages, red hots, and silly little cards from friends still make me smile.

If you’re single and would rather not be, it feels particularly cruel to have expectations of romance everywhere you go. It’s not fun, and when I lived with two other single women, we responded with a house party to watch The Godfather and eat plates of spaghetti and, of course, cannoli.

Even in a romantic relationship, I don’t think I’d want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, at least not in any of the traditional ways. I prefer my romance less scripted by capitalism and more extemporaneous and personal.

But while I’m not yearning for an expensive dinner or box of chocolates today (not that I would ever turn down chocolate!), I would love to redeem February 14 for myself.

It was on Valentine’s Day around twenty years ago that my first boyfriend (if I don’t count Blaine Disher in first grade), the first guy I ever dated, for that matter, showed up for our date and proceeded to dump me instead.

I was blindsided.

I’d been a late bloomer, and in fundamentalist Christianity to boot, so my first date didn’t happen until I was 25. We only dated a few months, but convinced by Joshua Harris and a previous marriage gone wrong on my boyfriend’s part, we “kissed dating goodbye” and were “courting.” This meant hours of processing his first marriage and a long conversation between him and my parents – and that was before our first date! Once we started actually dating, we spent hours talking about our values and kids and finances and all the things you’re supposed to talk about before considering marriage. He sent me red roses at work the day before Valentine’s Day, and when he showed up for our date and asked if we could talk, I honestly thought, “Well, I know we’ve covered all our bases, but it’s really too soon for him to propose!”

Yeah, blindsided.

Around a year later, having processed the worst of the grief, I tried to capture the moment in a poem.

Choke
(or The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre)

He said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
She wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
He said, “It’s just not there for me.”
And it started to sink in, because he wouldn’t look her in the eye.
And she said, “But what about the roses?
You sent them yesterday.”
You idiot, she thought.
“How will I explain them to everyone now?” was what she said.
“I never thought about that,” he mumbled.

And she thought, then what’ve you been doing all this time?
How could it all be meaningless to you?
But she didn’t say that, because she didn’t want to hurt him
and it was hurting him to hurt her;
she wouldn’t make it worse.
That wouldn’t be loving him
and she didn’t know how to not love him yet.
So she didn’t say that.
And she didn’t cry.

Except her voice got shaky
and her hands.
And her eyes for some reason started to water.
Her heart couldn’t understand
what her mind now saw very clearly:
he was leaving lightly
and he wasn’t coming back.

He said, “At least we didn’t let it get all that far.”
And she wondered what life he’d been living in
to say something so stupid,
and what kind of fool he was
to believe it.
And she couldn’t feel a thing
and she couldn’t understand.

He said, “Well, I think this has gone really well…
about as well as such a thing can go.
But then, I didn’t expect any less from you.”
And she supposed he meant it as a compliment
but it stung.
She wasn’t making it hard on him
because that wouldn’t be loving him
and she couldn’t stop as readily as he.

And then he added, “You’ve never tried to pressure me
I always loved that about you.”
And she thought, oh, now you tell me.
But she didn’t say it.
He hugged her bye
and she didn’t shrink
and she didn’t cling.

He drove away
and as she walked back in the house
she hoped he’d choke.

Am I glad we didn’t get married? Most definitely. Despite this incident, he wasn’t a bad guy, and I suspect we could’ve made a decent marriage, but though he would’ve ended up being a more interesting person, I would’ve ended up much more conventional than I am. And I like who I am and am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to be this me.

I still wish he’d handled breaking up with me a good bit differently. Valentine’s Day was an excruciating reminder for years. And while the sting is only a memory now, redeeming February 14 is something I’m still doing.

So, I throw the occasional Godfather party. I try to remember friends who the day may be difficult for with chalky candy hearts and silly cards. And I find ways to be kind to myself. (My favorite local bakery-cafe has a personal gourmet pizza special tonight I just might take advantage of.)

The murder of St. Valentine may be more apt to the celebration of the day than we tend to acknowledge. Few hearts in this world haven’t been broken, and I suspect far more than me long to redeem the day.

(Side note on the poem – I’d spent weeks perfecting a recipe for his favorite treat, blondies, and testing multiple batches on coworkers and family. I’d already given him his carefully wrapped box of blondies before our “talk,” and he drove away with them in the front seat of his car. I clearly remember the first post-shock anger crystallizing around that realization with the thought, “I hope you choke on them!” Hence, the final line of the poem provided a title with a literal meaning alongside others.)

 

 

A Love that Won’t Leave

A Love that Won’t Leave

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Even when you wanted it to. Even if you wanted it to.

On bad days, like a cobweb you can’t get disentangled from. On good days, like sunshine on the top of your head blessing everything with warmth that fills you to your toes.

Love knocks unbidden, but once the door is opened the house may be filled with something you’ll never get out of the carpets or the air. A fragrance that follows you from room to room, leaving nothing untouched, unmarked. Others may come in, but that love is stubborn and stays, blessing or cursing as the the case may be.

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Maybe you take it with you. Breath deeply and hold it in your lungs, accepting everything it can give.

Relax with it. Go with it and it will come with you, keeping you open to so much. A love neither unrequited nor gratified. Making you brave. Daring you to stretch and find more.

Sometimes it will cut open your heart and you will bleed with what is not. But others can enter that wound.

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Let it do it’s work, all it finds to do. And maybe one day you will look up to find that you (we) are somehow done.

Or maybe not. But either way, life is bigger, deeper, more unfinished – both full and wanting. Always wanting more.

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.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

“You’re here.”

      -“I am.”

“In the middle of the night, with the snow falling so softly and steadily.”

     -“Yes.”

“I still haven’t figured that out.”

     -“Don’t worry, you won’t.”

“Really. Do you like playing hard to get?”

     -“It’s actually not about me.”

“It’s not?”

     -“It’s not.”

“But…isn’t everything supposed to be about you?”

     -“Why would you think that?”

“‘All things have been created through him and for him’?”

     -“Who is ‘him’?”

“You, I thought?”

     -“Okay, if that’s the case, who am I?”

“Huh? How am I supposed to be able to answer that???”

      -“I’m not trying to play existential games with you. You know me. So who do you know me to be?”

<pause>

<pause.>

“Love.”

     -“So, ‘All things have been created through Love and for Love.'”

“I like that, but I’m lost.”

     -“Stick with me. I’ll get you there. And what’s love ‘all about’? What does love care about?”

“The one loved.”

     -“Exactly! And I’m Love. It’s all about everything but me.”

“What about your ‘glory’?”

     -“What’s the glory of Love?”

“Ha! I know that one…’You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love!'”

     -“I love your jokes, but close enough. Does Love play hard to get?”

“No. That’s not what love is about.”

     -“So who is ‘playing hard to get’ in this?”

“Oh!…Oh.”

     -“Your words, not mine.”

“Why is it so hard for me?”

     -“Because you make the wrong things all about you. You have a hard time just being loved.”

“I do?”

    -“Yes. And when you stop making the wrong things all about you, you know you have a hard time just being loved.”

“What do you mean?”

     -“You don’t want responsibility for the things that are about you, like loving. And you want to take credit for the things that aren’t about you, like being loved.”

“Ouch.”

     -“I know. Being loved makes you vulnerable.”

“I’ve always thought it’s loving that makes you vulnerable.”

     -“It does, but not as much.”

“Really?”

     -“Loving leaves you in control.” 

“Huh???”

     -“Yes, your love can be rejected or betrayed, but you can still choose to love or not. You can even make yourself a martyr to love. But being loved? There’s nothing you can control about that. Accepting it makes you deeply vulnerable.”

“And that’s why I have such a hard time figuring you out?”

     -“Yes. It’s hard for you to really accept love. It’s hard for you to trust love.”

“Wow. It is, isn’t it.”

     -“And I am Love.”

<awkwardly long pause>

“I’m in pretty bad shape then.”

     -“No. Remember, I am Love. It’s not all about you either.”

“Will I ever get this figured out?”

     -“You’re further along than you think.”

“I am?…How?”

     -“You love.”

“I do. But I’m pretty bad at it a lot of the time.”

     -“You do your best. That’s love. It’s not all about you.”

“Oh! Right. Okay.”

     -“Don’t worry. Stick with me – I’ll get you there.”

“The snow is still coming down.”

     -“It is. Isn’t it beautiful? I love it!”

 

(The Conversations, part 1 and part 2.)

A Doubter’s Creed

A Doubter’s Creed

“We believe in God…”

The Creed is an ancient statement of belief that many Christians around the world recite each week. There are several creeds, and the Nicene version is commonly used. Most every line is the result of an argument – as much an assertion about what beliefs “we” don’t accept as of what “we” do affirm.

That history troubles me. I know too well what drawing those lines in the sand between “us” and the other does, what an insistence about what we know to be true of great mystery can become.

It comforts me that the Creed’s actual language is “I believe” rather than “I know” (though it seems it has been treated much more as a statement of the latter).

But what about when I am not even sure what I believe? Then it comforts me to remember that the Latin credo may be better translated “I trust,” than with our modern, enlightenment understanding of “believe.”

But credo has deeper roots than that. Its original meaning is “to place one’s heart.”

Where does my heart find its place, its rest?

Not always in the carefully constructed words of the Creed, words that sometimes revel in mystery and sometimes seem to wall it in.

There is an early tradition in the Eastern church called apophatic theology that says the only way to think about God, the Divine Good, is by asserting what God is not. Everything that we say God is falls short – incomplete at best and too often misleading altogether.

The best of the apophatic tradition leads not just to an intellectual exercise or sort of mental qualifier footnoting everything we assert about who God is. At its best, it opens us up to approaching God beyond our categories. It expands our ability to trust God beyond our understanding.

If Ultimate Reality is Love, definitions don’t come easily.

Love is messy and confusing and full of pain as well as joy. Too often I have experienced love as qualified and redefined past any recognizability or, in truth, any actual loving.

That is not love. Love is not an intellectual exercise. Love is not rejection, not alienation, not abandonment. It is not self-serving and doesn’t keep score. Love isn’t arrogant or presumptuous. Love doesn’t find satisfaction in being proven right. Love doesn’t look back, doesn’t hold back. Love doesn’t give up on people.

The old Anglo-Saxon word “believe” comes from the same root (lief) as the German belieben, which means “belove.”

When I’m not sure how to say the Creed, not sure what I think or “believe” about these things, it helps to know what and who I love. It helps to know I place my heart, my trust in Love.

And it helps to know that when he was asked what was most important, Jesus didn’t say anything about what we were supposed to believe. He said the most important thing was to love.

And when I don’t know what I believe, I do still know I love.