Mar 202015
 

I’ve started blogging for More Light Presbyterians, and just wrote my first piece, on the recent ratification of a new amendment by the Presbyterian Church (USA), defining marriage as between “two people,” rather than as between a “man and a woman.”

I work with LGBTQ youth so, on the whole, I don’t hear a lot about marriage equality – at least, not at work. It’s not that marriage isn’t important to LGBTQ youth; it’s that marriage isn’t really a topic that’s important to teenagers. Getting a date for prom? Yes, that comes up (just came up today, actually). Being able to use the bathroom without being harassed? Yes, quite frequently. But, marriage? Not so much. It’s just not yet in their direct line of vision.

If marriage does come up, particularly marriage equality, most of the youth recognize that things are changing. There is a general understanding that things are changing – they are (thankfully) able to rest on the fact that, should they desire to marry someone of the same gender one day down the line, they will be able to do so without restrictions from the law.
One topic that does come up frequently, if not directly, is religion. When youth talk about religion, it is often couched in a sentence like: “well, you know, they are religious, so they didn’t really want me around,” or: “you see, my family is really Christian, so they’re not ok with me being gay/trans/queer.” In one of our weekly support groups last week, after hearing sentiments like this from several youth, I paused the discussion to ask if any of the youth have ever had a religious person unconditionally affirm their LGBTQ identity. The confused looks the youth gave me were answer enough. The silence that followed was deafening.

Just as many of the youth assume that they will one day be able to marry a person regardless of their gender identity, many of them still assume that Christians – especially straight Christians – who affirm the identities of LGBTQ people are a bit like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street: though someone may assure them of their existence, most youth still believe them to be imaginary. Though the Church has come a long way with regard to acceptance of LGBTQ people, the experiences many LGBTQ youth have had in faith communities, particularly mainline Christian denomination communities, have been traumatic. I can count on one hand the number of youth I’ve met in the last year-and-a-half who’ve been part of a church that wholeheartedly affirmed their identity.

When I got news of 14-F passing on Tuesday night, I was in the middle of a group meeting. We were on a break and I stepped into my office to quickly check my phone and had texts from people delightfully sharing the news. I excitedly came out of my office and shared that my denomination had just ratified an amendment changing the definition of marriage. Again, I got confused looks – one youth asked if it had been changed to solidify that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” “No,” I said, “It’s been changed to define marriage as between two people! Just people! That means that folks all over the country – churchy folks – voted to recognize that marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman.”

“Wow.” They replied. “That’s pretty cool.”

The passing of 14-F is a really big deal. And not just for people who want to marry someone regardless of gender. It’s a big deal because it is evidence of a large-scale movement toward a new understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ identities. It shows people who’ve been hurt by their experiences in the Church that not all churches are the same. It is a huge affirmation that there are Christians who are open to new understandings of how we can be in relationship; and, by extension, how we can live into being God’s beloved children.

I recently asked a couple of youth how they would feel if I became a pastor.

“Would that mean that you could marry people?” they asked.

“Yes,” I said, “it would.”

“Yeah. That’d be really cool.”

So, maybe they don’t talk about it much, but I like knowing that if they are thinking about it one day, their marriage could happen and would be recognized in a Presbyterian church.

Jun 192014
 

An old piece that seemed relevant for this week.

“The Place Where We Are Right,” by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

I always kind of chuckle when people ask me how my partner and I met.

“We actually grew up in the same church,” I reply, “so we met when we were in pre-school.”

This answer elicits a range of replies – most often rooted in some form of surprise.  Though I have a number of childhood friends who have married people from my hometown, I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Presbyterian youth groups (especially in East Texas) are not usually the place where same-sex partnerships begin.  Though we weren’t really friends in high school (we went to different schools and were a grade apart), and started dating about a decade after we’d moved away from our hometown, our relationship was grounded on a foundation of care for one another that had been laid by the church community that raised us.  In many ways, we learned what it was to be part of a faith community from being part of that faith community.  We learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t our parents, to be challenged and taught to live into our beliefs, because it was shown to us in the lives of the people who took the time to teach us Sunday school, direct us in youth choir or bell choir, take us on trips.  The people in the congregation took the time to listen to us, to ask us tough questions – they showed us what it was to be loved.

When we got married, my partner and I received a number of gifts from some of those people who’d played such a big part in bringing us up.  One of the most treasured of those gifts is a set of wind chimes we got from one of my favorite Sunday school teachers.  They came with a note, that told us that the wind chimes were meant to be a reminder of our love for one another, so that even in the more difficult times we were sure to face we would have something to bring us back to the commitments we made, and the love we share.  As I write this, I can hear the wind chimes on our back porch being played by the cold air that sweeps through every minute or so, and it is with joy that I am reminded of that love.

After the ordination standards of the PC(USA) changed, making it possible for LGBT people to be ordained, 75% of the members of this same church voted to leave the denomination.  Among this 75% was the bulk of people who had been most formative in my faith formation.  The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, have now left the denomination because LGBT people (people like me and my partner) can be ordained.  Because we live several states away, we didn’t have to hear people call us an abomination, unnatural, or unrepentant sinners (that burden has largely fallen on the shoulders of our parents, and on the 25% who’ve remained in the congregation).  We didn’t have to feel directly the vitriol that some of the members displayed at various meetings.  I cannot help but recognize the irony in the fact that the woman who gave us the wind chimes is no longer a member of the church precisely because people like us – LGBT people who feel a sense of call and want to serve as leaders in the church – can be ordained.

A few gusts of air just blew through, causing the chimes to clang with a briefly-heightened intensity.  They remind me not only of my love for my partner, but also of love that was offered to me by the people who raised me in the church, and of the love made possible in a faith community.  I am reminded that the church is a family, at times stunningly beautiful in its potential to make connections, and at other times heartbreaking in its imperfection and messiness.  The chimes tell me that even those who love us an nurture us cannot always travel with us down the road we feel called to travel.  They are a gentle reminder that we still exist in the now, even as we keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the not yet.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church.  There are some days when my heart feels as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God.  I temporarily forget that the church is made up of people; that it is imperfect.  In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, with the inevitable pain that comes when we strive to live authentically with one another.  Yet, in doing so, I am turning my gaze from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the bellies that are filled and the souls that are nourished.  I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love and pray for the community, in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure.

“The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.”  It is the doubts and loves that turn the soil, the places we are broken that allow growth to spring forth.  What might the church look like if we honored the brokenness in one another, if we confessed our fear and our shame and the things we don’t know, rather than trying to convince ourselves that the ground of what we do know is a firm enough foundation to hold us all?  Let us celebrate the unfamiliar, and see it as the opportunity to learn; celebrate our brokenness, and see it as the opportunity to be healed; celebrate our individuality, and see it as the opportunity to be part of something more.  Let us celebrate the silence that comes in the breaking of our hearts, and see it as the opportunity to hear the whisper that tells us we are all worthy to be loved.

 

Aug 052013
 

I had the chance to write for the Next Church blog recently, and wrote about a bit of my experience working with ROSMY. The piece is below.

During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.

I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.

“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you you.”
The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.

I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.

In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”

What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?

Mar 182013
 

My beloved and I are tangentially connected to a documentary film project called “Out of Order,” which “is a feature length documentary following the journey of three queer members of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”  She and I are not in that group of three, but have been trying to help support the Indiegogo campaign they have begun to raise funds for the next phase of filming (we also appear briefly on the trailer for the film).

The hope for the film is that, through the sharing of our stories, we might not only subvert some of the assumptions about lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, but also that we might offer a new paradigm for how to live into one’s call.

Below is a piece my partner wrote for the project. . . If you are so inclined, please consider making a donation so the filming can continue.

 

Some things in life are like ripping off band-aids; you have to rip them quickly, in one breath, before you change your mind. This is how it was for me when I first decided to share my story and a genuine part of myself, with a minister at a church I was attending in Chicago. “IwanttoquitgradschoolIwanttogotoseminaryandIthinkI’malesbian….”

There’s a physical response that comes with facing your biggest fears. Even as I was putting it out there, that moment of sharing me, I could feel myself sucking the air in, like I was being punched in the gut. You see, I was afraid to be myself, afraid that the genuine me was not lovable. I was 24 and on the run from my life. I’d left a job in a church I didn’t trust and moved to a city where I knew no one because I had no idea who I was. I ran away from everything I knew, and all the expectations others had for me, and I spent some time in the wilderness. Ok, maybe Chicago isn’t the wilderness, but it sure is cold, and for a city full of people, it can be painfully lonely.

You can learn a lot about yourself in the wilderness: in three months I realized I was gay, I didn’t want the degree I’d moved to Chicago to attain, and I was pretty sure God was calling me to seminary. Here I was, a girl on the run from her family, from her church, from her friends, yet I was visiting three to four churches a week. I couldn’t not go. I needed to be in the midst of a worshiping community, even if they were strangers. I was anonymous in those sanctuaries, and yet I was seen and accepted as a child of God.

It’s strange, how being accepted by strangers allowed me to accept myself. In accepting myself, I began to accept my call. In sharing myself with the people who loved me, I began to live into my call. In the nine years that have passed since I pulled off the band-aid and shared my story with a pastor I barely knew, I’ve come to see the value of sharing our stories and our genuine selves with one another. In that intake of breath, I was so afraid of the way he might respond. As I stood there, feeling sucker-punched, he smiled, and said, “That’s wonderful!” The way he heard and responded to my story was nothing short of a gift of grace.

This is my story. I had to stop trying to be what I thought the world, the church, my family, and my friends wanted me to be. I had to live into the person God created me to be. Shedding the expectations of others allowed me to listen for the still, small voice of God. It allowed me to see myself as me, for the first time. In embracing my story of being a lesbian alongside my story of being a beloved child of God, I was emboldened to stop running away, to take steps on the path of my calling, and to encourage others to embrace their identity as God’s beloved children.

One of the places where I have found support and care is through a community of LGBTQ individuals, organized by an organization called Presbyterian Welcome, who are pursuing ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). We gather together in an undisclosed location once a year for a retreat, where we share our stories, encourage one another, laugh, weep, and grow together.

One of the co-founders of the retreat, Mieke Vandersall, called before the 2012 retreat and said: “I want you to be a part of this documentary film, Out of Order, that will tell your story and the stories of a few others who love our church and want to serve it. People need to hear your story.” When she called I felt that intake of air, even as I was saying yes. This would be another band-aid moment… being vulnerable, sharing my story to a camera… to all of you.

But sharing my story and listening to the stories of others has changed me. It has opened my heart in ways I didn’t even know it was closed. Hearing the stories of Alex, Jessica, Kate, Mieke, and all of the people I’ve met through the retreat and this film project inspires me to live fully into my own story. I believe the Holy Spirit is at work within and among us when we speak and hear one another’s stories, weaving all of our stories into God’s story, emboldening us to live into our callings, to be the people God created us to be.

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.