Jul 082012

By Emilie M. Townes

to be called beloved
is to be called by God
to be called by the shining moments
be called deep within deep
to be called beloved
is more than one plus infinity
more than the million breaths of loving
than the sounds of tomorrow’s horizon
to be called beloved
is the marvelous yes to God’s what if
the radical shifting of growth
mundane agency of active faith
to be called beloved
is to ask the question
what would it mean
what would it look like if we actually believed
that we are washed in God’s grace
to be called beloved
is to answer the question
we are not dipped
we are not sprinkled
we are not immersed
we are washed in the grace of God
to be called beloved
is to listen to the words of Baby Suggs
who offered up to them (us) her great big heart

I read this poem in Emilie Townes’ book In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality As Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 47). The poem references Baby Suggs, a character in Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, and Dr. Townes includes a segment of text immediately following the poem:

“Here,” she said,”in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.  Love it.  Love it hard.  Yonder they do not love your flesh.  They despise it…Love your hands!  Love them.  Raise them up and kiss them.  Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either.  You got to love it, you!…This is flesh I’m talking about here.  Flesh that needs to be loved.  Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you…So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.  And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them.  The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.  More than eyes or feet.
“More than lungs that have yet to draw free air.  More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart.  For this is the prize.”  Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music.  Long held notes until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, 88-89)

I’ve recently started reading Beloved, and I’ve found that it’s the kind of book you carry with you – the kind of story that stays in your mind, even after you’ve put it down for the day.  It is set shortly after the Civil War, and tells the story of characters who, though no longer enslaved, find themselves having to navigate the ghosts of slavery.  (If you have not had the opportunity to read it, I highly recommend it.)  This passage is so powerful because Baby Suggs is encouraging her audience to love the very thing which had been devalued while they were enslaved – the parts which had just years before been sold as chattel, held as property to someone else.  To love one’s neck, one’s back, or feet, or face – was to love the things which had been dehumanized and enslaved, generalized to the point that the notion of an individual identity was lost.

I should confess that when I read the passage in Beloved last week, the first thing that came to mind was General Assembly, and the ways that shame can lead to disembodiment, or self-hatred, and how often that denial or hatred of self can come out sideways (e.g., by saying that homosexuality is a sin deserving of death…).  I say “I should confess” because I think it is vital to recognize the particularities of experience and marginalization as they cross lines of gender, race, sexuality, etc (I elaborate a bit more on this in an earlier post).  Nuanced as the conversation may be, this passage speaks to the power of loving intentionally the very thing society says makes you unlovable, unworthy of God’s love. In her book, Dr. Townes talks about the power of Baby Suggs’s call as a reminder of the individual experience – to recognize that any “other” of which we speak (even if our intention is to get to know or advocate for said “other”) is not a collection of generalized stereotypes, but is a combination of specific experiences, of hopes and fears – a specific body embodied in specific flesh.

To be beloved is to occupy a specific space in one’s gaze, in one’s heart – in one’s hopes and dreams and possibilities.  To say I am God’s beloved is to make the radical claim that the specifics of who I am, and what I have to offer this world, matter.  To recognize that everyone is God’s beloved is to see that the experience of each individual offers us a glimpse into the heart of God.  I cannot generalize the “queer” experience or the “black” experience or the “female” or “male” experience without realize that, in doing so, I am generalizing an individual heartbeat in a world of drumming hearts.  Real transformation is not possible if first, we fail to recognize that we are beloved – that we matter.  Second, it is not possible if we fail to see that others are as well.  Third, it is not possible if we don’t let ourselves get close enough to hear one another’s hearts beating – to intentionally share with and listen to each other’s stories, wishes and fears. As we engage in relation, we begin to see and to know each other as God’s beloveds. It is when we allow ourselves to make room for experiences starkly different from our own without trivializing or romanticizing them – that is when we can begin to advocate responsibly for one another (and for ourselves), to take risks, and to open ourselves to the possibilities grace offers.

Jul 072012

The title of this post comes from a song of the same name, by the Indigo Girls.  It’s been running through my head for the last several days:

I come to you with strange fire, i make an offering of love, the incense of my soil is burned by the fire in my blood. i come with a softer answer to the questions that lie in your path. i want to harbor you from the anger, find a refuge from the wrath.

This is a message of love. love that moves from the inside out, love that never grows tired. i come to you with strange fire.

Mercenaries of the shrine, who are you to speak for god? with haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood. who delivered you the power to interpret calvary? you gamble away our freedom to gain your own authority.

Find another state of mind. grab hold. strange fire burns with the motion of love.

When you learn to love yourself, you will dissolve all the stones that are cast, you will learn to burn the icing sky and to melt the waxen mask. yes, to have the gift of true release, this is a peace that will take you higher. i come to you with my offering. i bring you strange fire.

This is a message of love. love that moves from the inside out, love that never grows tired. i come to you with strange fire.

I’m part of the PC(USA), and am a cradle Presbyterian: I was born, baptized, and learned the fundamentals of faith and developed my own understanding of God in the PC(USA).  It was in the Presbyterian Church that I learned that God’s grace is offered to me even before I am aware of that grace.  Infant baptism functions as a sign of that freely-offered grace.  God loves me, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to separate myself from that love.  The purpose of my life is to live into that grace – to live in a way that recognizes the grace that I’ve been given.  I understand part of that purpose to entail sharing that love with others.  How this love is manifest may change, but that’s the basic premise of how I understand my purpose on this planet – to know that I am loved, and to tell other people that they are, too.

Over the last week, the General Assembly, the largest governing body of the PC(USA), has been gathered for a biennial meeting where they vote on a whole number of things that impact the denomination as a whole.  (I won’t go too deeply into Presbyterian polity here, but I’ll make it short by saying that decisions that are made at GA can have an impact the way individual  congregations function.)  At the beginning of the assembly, the assembly elected a moderator and vice-moderator, the latter of whom is a friend and former supervisor of mine and who, within the last year, officiated the wedding of two women in Washington, DC.  After her election, the negative response was so swift and strong that she, just two days into her term, stepped down.  She showed grace and wisdom, recognizing that the vitriol that was being spewed was not good for the denomination as a whole.  Yesterday, the GA voted by a 30-vote-margin not to recognize marriage as a relationship between “two people,” but to maintain that it is between “a man and a woman.”  The vote in itself is not that surprising: heartbreaking, yes; ironic (considering it is now possible for GLBTQ people to be ordained and, come January 2013, it is possible for the partners of GLBTQ ministers to be on the same health plan), yes; but, it wasn’t really surprising.  If anything, I’m a bit surprised by the close margin of the vote and, though I’m aware that there is still a lot of work to do, I am encouraged by the fact that things are changing.

What was particularly difficult about the debates yesterday was the language that came out in the debates around changing the definition of marriage.  A number of people drew the parallel between homosexuality, bestiality, and pedophilia (an argument which gets really exhausting after a while); someone also argued that such “sins” are deserving of death.  Ooooffff.  Now, I know that some of the people who were arguing against the re-definition argued in the “love the sinner, hate the sin” vein (cf. my post here on the dangers of that approach), but I’m having a hard time finding any sort of love in the call for someone’s death.  That kind of language is just…dangerous.  And remarkably hurtful.  Even though I know that comments like that really have more to do with something the speaker is going through; and, though I don’t even know how I would get myself to a place where I would see comments like that as true, it still hurts to have someone say such things, particularly to do so in the name of God.

In all honesty, in moments like that I find myself struggling to remember that we are all part of the same body; and that even those who claim that, because I am in a relationship with a person of the same sex, I am unworthy of living, are beloved.  I want to shake the dust off my sandals, count my losses, and walk away.  I want to protect myself and my family and wait for the church to get what it deserves – wait for it to just simmer out.

I take it as a gift from the Holy Spirit that the above song has been running through my mind this last week.  The first stanza alone is enough to keep me going: I come to you with strange fire, i make an offering of love, the incense of my soil is burned by the fire in my blood. i come with a softer answer to the questions that lie in your path. i want to harbor you from the anger, find a refuge from the wrath.  There is such power there – such strength and resilience in the idea that the fire in our blood, the things which fire us up most; and hurt the most; and cause us to question the most; to love the most – those are the things we put out into the world – the burning embers move like incense into the world.  What I find particularly helpful and hopeful in this stanza is that those things are not brought forth with force, but with a softness, with an embrace, with something that will offer refuge from the wrath of the world.  I start to think about the community of people within the church who are equally or more hurt by all that’s going on, and who refuse to give up hoping for unity, for respect for all people, who want to live into the church’s call to bring about social righteousness in the world.

I forget sometimes that love can hold its own.  I was reminded this week that I am not alone, and that those of us who are hurt and discouraged and exhausted by this denomination are also fired up.  It is my hope that this fire will send out incense that will purify through love – not the kind of love that is conditionally unconditional – but love that refuses to let us yield to tradition; that risks trusting that God really is as gracious and loving as we claim God to be.  It is hard to give a softer answer to speech that is nothing but vitriolic; but, this love is what shelters us and moves us onward, challenges us and holds us close, brings forth a pentecostal fire from glowing embers.  May we all breathe in that kind of love.

Apr 012012
Palm Sunday. Passion Sunday. Thinking about a lot; much of it goes back to love. Not the frilly, two-dimensional kind of love, but the kind of love that wants only to make room for life – that refuses to conform to expectations, however messianic they may be.

Thomas Merton, “Night Letter V”
Love is not itself
Until it knows it is frail
And can go wrong
It does not run
Like a well-oiled machine
Is nonpolitical
Nobody votes for love
Love wins
Because it is bad business
And loses everything
Love can never really begin
Until both lovers
Are bankrupt
Love runs best
When it seems to break down
When no amount of driving
Can rev it
No amount of gas
Can make it go
Love runs well
When it runs by itself
Without the help of man
Love goes best
When we seem to resist
And then it starts by miracle
And runs on air only
Until the end of the world