Huge Grace…Really?

O God, you have taught me from my earliest childhood, and I constantly tell others about the wonderful things you do. (Psalm 71:17)

I have been challenged more than once in the last couple of weeks to define what “my message” is. Why do I write? What drives me to love church ministry work and to fight for social justice? If I had only one message to give to the world, what would it be? The answer is grace. I’m not famous. People don’t create hashtags about things I do, but I have the platform the Lord has given me. I want the people who I encounter to know they are loved and accepted by the Lord, that they are precious in God’s sight and that no one has to do anything to earn that. This isn’t something I’ve always believed for myself, but when I came to accept that, it was the biggest game changer in my life. I know there are people who don’t feel comfortable in church settings. I know there are people who have heard terrible insults and verbal attacks directed at them that no one should ever experience. I know there are people who were raised and perhaps remain in surroundings that reinforced the idea “I’ll never be enough.” I can’t fix any of those things and I can’t erase those memories for people. I can’t repair the damage that the wrecking ball of hate and criticism has caused people. I wish I could. The Lord can, though, that I know. God is rebuilding me and making me into a new creation. I see “mile markers” along the way that remind me that I’m still on a healing journey, but I’m not where I was earlier in my life. So, grace is the message most dear to my heart. I love feeling comfortable in my own skin. I love my healthy relationships. I love that I’m finding my voice, and that I don’t always have to filter my ideas a thousand times before speaking them for fear of not receiving the approval of my listener. Grace is doing a total makeover of my brokenness.

I grew up with a love for the church and I recognize the value added from the pursuit of the spiritual life and the stability that a church family gives to people of all ages. The best thing I gained from being raised in the church was that I was challenged and equipped to develop a personal relationship with God. I understand how to navigate the Bible. I can grasp the richness of hymns and centuries old traditions. While no congregation or denomination is perfect, I felt like I was provided with many opportunities to develop a strong spiritual foundation. I’m thankful for the many people who invested part of their lives into my life. Grace has been at work for me from my first breath.

One of my biggest struggles, which for decades was a silent struggle, was reconciling my homosexuality with my faith. As many people understand, the Christian church culture, in most settings, isn’t friendly to people who are different. Churches often tout that everyone is welcome but people’s different-ness is quickly recognized and verbal and nonverbal messaging begins to assimilate the person to fall in line, and to act and believe like the rest. When it comes to those who don’t fill the typical church mold, the more they adapt to the church setting and begin to act and speak like the crowd, the more they are applauded and praised. They’re told, “I can really see that the Lord is working in you.” What that actually means is, “You’re behaving in a way that keeps me more comfortable. I’m glad God’s fixing you.” It’s easy to see why so many people keep so many of their different feelings or opposing viewpoints silent. Everyone longs for community; God has wired us to be at our best when we are living life with others. I really had planned to keep my “gayness” quiet. If no one knew there was “a problem” with me, then maybe there wasn’t a problem at all. When you’re gay, blending in is the way you “straighten up” and act like people who are accepted as “normal.”

I didn’t admit to being gay until I was in my late 30s. I really thought, based on the messaging I grew up with, that my attraction to females was just “weird feelings” (that’s what I called those feelings since childhood). I thought for some reason my mind was sick and that if I just got healthy and spiritual enough, I would become like everyone else. (It’s odd to think that God designed so much diversity into creation and yet many of us work ridiculously hard to all be the same.) My young journey that I was navigating to be healthier and holier, so I could be like everyone else, had just the opposite effect. I was chronically depressed and growing to like myself less and less. I’ve struggled with depression to the point of being suicidal since I was 13 years old. So, my best attempt to walk the straight and narrow led me into a lonely pit. I didn’t feel like I could risk telling any of my secrets because being accepted gave me the security I longed for. I noticed that many of us church people had an air about us (for a variety of reasons). We were all commitment and no joy. We kept things going, tried to avoid rocking the boat, and we had an exquisite ability to define the indisputable line between right and wrong. In retrospect, it all seems crazy to me now that I feel at home in my own skin, at home in my spiritual life and at home in a church community. Now I see my journey as lots of commitment, peace and joy. (There are occasions of pain, tears and frustrations, but living in community makes those tough things easier to bear.)

I turned a corner on this after I sought out help from other people of faith who saw things differently than what I had always accepted to be rock solid truth. Along with professional counseling there was a small group of people who challenged me and pointed out the inconsistencies in my belief system. I spent a lot of time in prayer and reading the Bible and actually talking about my fears of rejection and my doubts. I feel like I had developed a firm spiritual foundation but there were a few things about God that I had to relearn and accept as truth. I had always known that God loves everyone but accepting God’s love for me was a discipline that required more than just head knowledge. That truth had to take root in my heart. The Lord healed me of thinking I would never be good enough and that accepting myself as gay was a blessing and not a curse. Earlier in my life my personal prayer times were tortured conversations where I would start out the prayer by giving all these huge apologies for how I had screwed things up and how I was so imperfect. It was like my disclaimer before each prayer – “God please don’t hate me even though I am so messed up.”  Finally, one day I felt like God said to me, “Will you please quit trying to talk me out of loving you?” When I quit trying to disqualify myself from God’s unconditional love, healing happened.

Admitting that I was gay to many of my lifelong friends and family was difficult. After all, I know how people talk about gay people when they think no gay people are around. I was confident that I would continue to be loved, but I also knew that things would forever change with some. Some of the conversations went really well, others were not pleasant at all. It was a hard time, but nothing nearly as bad as the days when I hated myself so bad that I wouldn’t even look in a mirror. “Coming out” was a matter of integrity for me and I made a commitment to never hide myself for the comfort of others. I will not sacrifice my peace for any person on this earth, because I remember how bad it was living without peace. I ended up leaving the church denomination that I attended all my life. I felt like I had been abandoned by the church, there wasn’t a place there for me anymore. Like I said, I would have continued to be loved, but I couldn’t be associated with a group that would relegate me to spectator status when I had always enjoyed participating in ministry. I wasn’t kicked out, but I knew full well the church’s views on the LGBTQ community. I wasn’t going to be the person who needed to be fixed. I wasn’t going to be kept from full participation in a community because of who God created me to be. All of those things would have just reinforced the negative unhealthy mindset that the Lord was healing me out of.

As I was making those changes people would ask me, “How do you skirt around what the Bible says about being gay?” Well- I don’t, and I would hope that anyone who has ever known me knows that I would never sacrifice my relationship with God for a phase or a newly adopted philosophy. First of all, I don’t believe that the Bible speaks against being gay. There are lots of good resources that take a close look at those scriptures that are often used to attack members of the LGBTQ community. Second of all, if the Bible did openly condemn being gay, which it doesn’t, I would like to point out that writers of the Bible spoke against many things that were not accepted during the time when those authors wrote the Bible. Jesus himself doesn’t mention anything against being gay although it was widely a part of the culture long before his birth. When I was growing up people who were divorced were spoken about in hushed tones and whispers. It was so scandalous!! While no one is happy about a failed marriage, the church culture doesn’t widely seem to worry about divorce today.  I will link to some resources at the end if you are interested in exploring the Biblical views on homosexuality. I’m not arguing this issue with anyone ever again. This is not a problem between the Lord and I, and frankly that truth takes priority over my need for anyone’s approval.

I really don’t want to come across as being snarky. I simply want to point out what grace has shown me. Here’s the thing- many of us were raised in a church were very well meaning and sincere humans were doing their best to teach the truth as they understood it. That is something to be thankful for. In life however, you also encounter God who is with you every second, the Creator that you pray to, the Lord you see lived out in people you know  have an authentic relationship with God. The latter is the God that you meet on your knees. Whenever the God that I was taught about by a church comes into conflict with the God that I’ve met on my knees, I’m going to go with the God that I’ve met on my knees every time.

Why do I write? What message do I want those around me to know? I know there are a lot of people who don’t quite fit into places because there’s something different about them. I remember feeling like I would never find a community to worship with who would accept me. I remember feeling like I was so screwed up that I wasn’t really capable of being happy or having joy. I figured I just wasn’t wired that way (like one of the “happy people”) and that was my lot in life. Huge grace gave me things I never thought were possible and replaced things I thought I had lost forever. God’s huge grace fuels my wonderful life, all I had to do was accept it. Everyone was created to live in God’s love. That can’t be invalidated by the actions or words of others. It also can’t be invalidated by the things you say and do to yourself.

There are people who have been disenfranchised from the faith community for many reasons. Heck, there are lots of people that have been marginalized by our country and most of the world. Don’t let whatever makes you different to be used as an excuse to keep you from God’s love. You know how now, in the age of Corona, when you go to the doctor’s office you have to answer a bunch of COVID screening questions before you can be admitted into the treatment area? (“Have you traveled out of the country?” “Have you had a fever or any respiratory symptoms?” …….) Guess what- there are no screening questions when you take a step toward God. Calling out to God is going to lead you to a loving Creator who is anxious to catch up with you, just like a best friend. You are just as loved by God on your best day as you are on your worst day. That my friend is all because of Huge Grace. Continue reading “Huge Grace…Really?”

Crying Out

“What have you done? Listen your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)

For people of faith, the story of Cain and Abel is the first place in biblical history where we see the beginning of the pattern that is tearing our society apart today. This pattern of behavior has replayed over centuries and explicitly demonstrates: “What I want is more important that your life.” This pattern is responsible for the holocaust, genocides, worldwide wars and the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since its precolonial days. It’s quite shocking how little life is valued and how easily we have been accustomed to the slaughter of people as being collateral damage. It is particularly disturbing how this is so widely ignored by persons who consider themselves to be people of faith. Most faith traditions believe that life is a sacred gift, but our actions demonstrate that we don’t believe that at all. Being created in God’s image and being precious in the eyes of the Lord seems to be a concept that we teach children so that they’ll have healthy self-esteems, but we don’t carry that belief far enough to impact our social and economic policies.

Cain and Abel were two of Adam and Eve’s children who lived in the Garden of Eden. Their story unfolds in Genesis 4 as both young men present offerings to God. For some reason Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not accepted. We aren’t given the details as to why Cain’s was not accepted, and it would be an exercise in futility to shift our focus on this unknowable aspect of the story. Suffice it to say, there was something unacceptable about Cain’s offering, it was God’s call, we just need to leave it there. Obviously, Cain was disappointed, maybe embarrassed, and mad. God addresses Cain’s anger and says in essence, “Why are you so distraught and mad? If you do the right thing when present the offering, won’t it be accepted?” (The following words we see recorded are particularly foreshadowing and rings with truth and wisdom even today. “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” v 7). The story proceeds and Cain’s anger leads him to murder his brother Abel. The Lord returns to Cain and asks about Abel, and Cain replies with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9). Of course, the Lord knew what had transpired, I think that the asking Cain the question was a test to see if Cain would own up to his action or deny his guilt. After Cain’s unsuccessful attempt to “pivot” the conversation (didn’t work with God then, and still doesn’t) the Lord says, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!” (v 10). The Lord then confronts Cain with all of the consequences for his actions. Cain’s existence would never be the same. Cain then cries out that he could never bear living with the consequences and that someone would surely kill him because he murdered Abel. Then, the Lord declares that Cain would be able to live out his life and that he would not be murdered as a payback for the killing of his brother.

This story came to me as I was participating in public protest this weekend that was a demonstration against systemic racism and the long history of police brutality against people of color. In fact, as one of the protest leaders was speaking, I actually looked this scripture up and read it because I was feeling so drawn to it in that moment. Let me explain why I think this ancient story is a story that illuminates this current moment.

As I mentioned before, this biblical account is a clear illustration of what happens when we value our interests above the lives of others. Cain presented an inadequate offering to the Lord. The Lord clearly stated, “If you do the right thing your offerings will be accepted.” All Cain had to do was correct whatever the issue was with the offering. He could simply give another offering that was acceptable and receive a blessing from God. Instead of correcting his action, he eliminated someone who made him jealous. I guess Cain thought he would look better if he didn’t have competition, which is absolutely not true. God’s acceptance of an offering has nothing to do with your offering being better than someone else’s offering. God judges our offerings against the spirt in which we present them, other people have nothing to do with it. It seemed that Cain, instead of owning up to whatever his offering lacked, chose anger against his brother instead of confession and repentance to God.

After Cain’s anger led him to murder his brother, Cain was reluctant to own up to his actions. His answer “Am I my brother’s keeper?” seemed like a great way to spin the situation from focusing on the murder that he committed. As humans we love to spin stories, presenting things in such a manner as to divert attention or to present ourselves in the best possible light. This is effective, we see it every day, however, the Lord who always has discerning vision into our hearts doesn’t fall for “spin.” The Lord has been calling out “spin” since before Cain and Able were born. We see the Lord confront Cain about Cain’s actions. “Your brother’s blood is crying out.” Cain was forced to own up to his selfish act that was rooted in the philosophy, “what I want is more valuable than your life.”

Throughout the history of the United States we have been confronted with our self-serving policies that were executed to the detriment of many. It seems like no matter how much evidence is presented there is an unlimited collection of spin to divert the attention from the issues of inequality so that the comfort of the elites (or the “haves”) can be assured. Despite many accounts of the indigenous people helping the settlers, the Europeans killed many, stole land and wealth from the indigenous people and exploited them in the passage of “legislative acts” and “treaties” that were blatantly to the settlers’ benefit. Even worse, the very biased acts and treaties are easily ignored, even to this day, when compliance isn’t financially beneficial or convenient to the country. After the bloody Civil War ended, the reparations promised to the former slaves were quickly reversed after Lincoln’s assassination. The Civil Rights movement which fought to secure legislation to end the economic and social disparities saw this legislation ignored or selectively enforced. And here we are, after another person of color literally had his life squeezed from him, and we, white people, are very uncomfortable. We hope that somewhere we will find the right combination of smoke and mirrors and spin to make this disappear, just like we’ve done for centuries.

To all of us white people of faith- our brothers’ blood is calling out to us and the Lord is saying “What have you done?” While it is very convenient to just get wrapped up and jump on the bandwagon of people who look like us and who say things that we like to believe, we are still confronted by our Creator who in complete love, grace and righteousness is saying, “What have you done?” “What are you doing?” “What are you going to do?” Our preachers, our spouses, our community leaders are not who we answer for, we are being asked about our actions. Dare to research and learn more about the accusations being made by protesters. I recommend resources like the book The New Jim Crow, and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Poor People’s Campaign. Study, pray and ask the Lord for guidance. God didn’t give us a brain capable of understanding and discernment just for us to regurgitate the ideas of our parents or the people in our churches and social circles.

We sit in disbelief at the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Latin America, and other places. We act so taken aback when we hear stories about the murder and hate in the accounts of Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom. I believe that most of us sincerely hope for better circumstances for the people in far away lands. The problem is, we are blind to the pain in our back yard. As an average white person raised in the United States in the 70s and 80s, I wasn’t raised to recognize racism. When things caught my attention there were always pivots and spin to take my attention off the issues. “Blacks are lazy and want to live off the government.” “Mexicans bring drugs into the country and steals our jobs.” I know what white people say when only white people are around. You hear these things spoken usually in hushed tones, but they are still spoken in schools, community settings, churches and of course these ideas are promoted by the media. I’m thankful that I grew up in a family that didn’t speak words of hate against others, but these racial biases were certainly not hard to find. I’m definitely not holding myself up as an example of anything, but my views have changed because I began to learn. I began to be exposed to these issues, and the more I looked the more I saw. There is plenty to see.

One more thing about Cain- let’s talk about the grace at work in this story. It can be argued that Cain “deserved” to die and not enjoy years of life like what he stole from his brother. The Lord didn’t do that, in fact, the Lord made him a promise that he would be protected from murder. Cain really messed up bad, but that didn’t have to be the end of his story. Years later, Jacob really messed up bad, but that wasn’t the end of his story. In the New Testament Peter really messed up bad, but it wasn’t the end of his story. There are usually consequences for our bad actions, but our stories are defined by what we do with the grace we find after our screw ups. What is our answer to the cries of our brothers and sisters whose blood cries out to us from the ground? It’s impossible to wrap our heads around everything at play in this moment of our lives, but I’m sensing that we are stumbling upon a time of grace that is waiting for us just beyond the point when we lift our repentance to the Creator of us all for our apathy.

Because of my faith in God’s grace and power, I know we can do better as a society than we have done. We have a funny relationship with the word repentance. We see repentance as being closely aligned with punishment or manipulation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Repentance is merely “returning to God.” We punish ourselves when we don’t repent because we are willfully keeping ourselves away from the Lord, which is our life-giving power source. This is our moment! Let us repent of our complacency toward social justice. Could it be, just like Queen Ester, that we were created for “such a time as this,”(Esther 4:14)? What a blessing it would be to participate in a time that ushered in a new chapter of understanding for justice and equality for our country, a true season of healing grace. There has been so much pain, so many lives wasted, so much potential never realized, because we were preoccupied by what we wanted instead of the value of human lives. Generations of blood is calling out to us in this moment. May the offering we present to God, our lives, be acceptable. May we not let this moment pass us by.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A1-16&version=NIV

Mary’s Christmas

 

It’s a great journey even thought it doesn’t always feel great. Don’t give up!

Obviously, growing up as a church kid I’m not stranger to the Christmas stories, songs, traditions and over all “holy bling” of the holiday that was established to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I still remember several tunes from “365 Days of Christmas” – a children’s Christmas program that I participated in when my age was in the single digits. It wasn’t until decades later that I really took a real look at Mary, the mother of Jesus. It seems silly now to think that I would focus on a new born baby without giving any thought to the mother that birthed him.

What a fascinating character Mary is. Looking at what she herself says, what is said about her and the fact that she was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus, quite a resume indeed! I heard an excellent sermon in church this week about taking a closer look at Mary and seeing her as more of a “mover and shaker” than we typically think. Of all the things about Mary that I’ve heard, read or thought, my mind comes back to one verse that just challenges me no matter where my life is when I read it.

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1.45 NRSV)

This was spoken of Mary to Mary by Elizabeth. Elizabeth was certainly no slouch either. She was chosen to give birth to and raise the strong willed John the Baptist who would grow to be a force to be reckoned with in his own right. (Can you imagine those bed time battles?) First of all, this is not an impressive statement at first glance. It’s basically saying, “You go girl! The Lord told you something and you believed it.” It’s a simple statement. But like many simple statements, it’s not easy to live out.

  • “Trust God,”
  •  “God will supply all your needs,”
  •  “The Lord will be with you always,”
  •  “Don’t worry, God is going to take care of you.”
  •  “The Lord loves you.”

These are not complex ideas. They’re quite simple to memorize and recite. They are not so simple to believe. Sometimes your brain knows things before your heart believes those things, and vice versa. I’ve had very few times when my heart and brain were on the same page at the same time. I think that’s part of our human struggle as we “work out our salvation.” It’s our daily task and privilege. Some preachers and church people like to throw out those simple spiritual statements to sound holy (in my opinion), without ever wanting to admit to the fact that belief is a struggle for them too. (And if they say that belief is not a struggle for them at least occasionally, I think being self aware and honest most certainly is.) I heard an elderly women once admit that temptation was more of a struggle for her as a senior adult than it had been earlier in her life. (Imagine my disappointment. I had hoped that once you joined the gray haired committee that you would graduate from those spiritual battles.)

It seems like everyday of my life I’m trying to train or nurture my heart to believe a truth that my head knows about God. I have to practice believing those things. That means I have to be honest about where I am emotionally and spiritually, but I need to work and create an environment in my inner world that fosters belief. How do I do that? I make my voice say things like, “God is going to be with me on this hard day,” (even when my insides are all in knots), I need to sing spiritual songs about promises and faithfulness (even when I’m not quite convinced). I need to think about scriptures where people who were struggling saw God fulfill promises. Finally, and sometimes most difficult for me, I have to put myself with and talk with people who are struggling and seeking God, people who want to grow in faith along with me.

Disbelief is not a sin or something to be ashamed of. It’s a part of being human. God is not nearly as uncomfortable with our humanity as we sometimes are. What’s a simple spiritual truth that is on your mind? Do you believe that truth in your heart? If not, admit it, own it, work it out and……………..be blessed! It’s a great journey even thought it doesn’t always feel great. Don’t give up!

An Open Letter to My Pastor

I'll tell you what, when your brain learns and your heart believes that you are loved and accepted by God just as you are, it's a game changer.  

 Many years ago I found myself in a place where a decision was made that would change my life forever. I knew I was committed to the path I was choosing, but just as many people find themselves before marriage or before the birth of a child, I had no idea what I was signing on for. I remember the evening like it was yesterday, I can take you to the exact spot where this conversation happened. I was putting gas into my car and there was a gentleman at the pumps beside me who was clearly distraught. Somehow our eyes met and I inquired about what was upsetting him so. I figured he was going to ask me for money or something. I have learned to expect that at gas stations or parking lots. He began just pouring his heart out to me. Yes, he also needed money for gas. His life was a wreck. He lost someone very dear to him. He was desperate. I think I put $10 worth of gas in his car, by the way. He was elated about the few gallons of gas he received but he still kept pouring his heart out to me. I am very skeptical of people, all people, strangers or not, especially those asking for help. This guys struck me very differently than other situations I’d been in. He was a mess, he was broken and he knew he needed help. As has been my practice for years, I wanted to direct him to a church because “there are people there who will love you and help you.” I believe that. I know from experience the healing power a church family can have on broken people. I’ve been on both sides of it. As I began speaking to him and trying to offer him comfort, I realized that I couldn’t invite him to the church I was attending. He was very honest about being a gay man. This is the same time when I was not quite sure how to let my loved ones know that I was a gay woman. I was trying to come to grips with how to tell that to the people in my life. I looked at him and thought, “I can’t invite you to my church because you will always be treated like you have something wrong with you. You will be loved but never accepted, tolerated but never affirmed.” It sounds like I’m pronouncing judgment on churches but I’m just being real. I grew up in the Evangelical church all my life. I know what is said about gay people by church people who are speaking freely because they don’t think any gay people are around. I’ve heard the, “We’ve got to do something to help those gay people,” conversations by very sincerely concerned but short sighted congregants. So, back to the gay guy at the gas station, I told him about another church in town that I knew he could find help in. It was an open and affirming fellowship and would help him with his difficulties and give him a place to get connected to God’s love.

That night driving home I knew I had to leave that church, my church. It broke my heart. I had committed to live in a Christ like integrity, and that meant that I couldn’t continue to hide this very essential part of me. I don’t think I would have been treated horribly had I stayed, but I knew as I grew in Christian maturity and emotional wellness, that I had to surround myself with people who accepted all parts of me. I’ve got to tell you, I went from being a church “insider” to being a church visitor very quickly and it rocked my world in lots of different ways.

Fast forward many years, many church visits, many days of feeling angry and rejected, many harsh comments from people who thought I was possessed by some evil spirit or had just lost my mind, lots and lots and lots of moments, prayerful and otherwise. It’s Advent 2018 and we’re just days away from Christmas. I was sitting in my current church, a very different congregation from my earlier years. There were instruments and songs, carols and prayers. I just closed my eyes and let it soak into my soul. On Sunday mornings in that sanctuary, there is a gathering of very different people. What I mean is, not only are we very different from each other, our congregation is very different from most congregations. For Example: Earlier in the fall our Pastor invited the transgender people from the congregation to come up front and she prayed a prayer of blessing over them. After that the congregation clapped for them to show them support. My heart was about to explode. I thought to myself as I was driving home, “I can’t believe I get to be a part of a church where a group of people who would be labeled as misfits by other churches, get prayed over, loved and applauded for living out their lives and not hiding who they are.” On Sundays I get glimpses of what the kingdom of God is like. So thanks Pastor Beth and everyone who role models the love and acceptance God has for all of us. I’ll tell you what, when your brain learns and your heart believes that you are loved and accepted by God just as you are, it’s a game changer.