So I’m sitting here at camp and I should be working on the workshop I’ll be delivering in a couple of days at the Comfort & Hope Conference. I’ll be speaking on the suffering of loneliness and the tension between intimacy and fidelity in finding our way to staying alive to hopefulness. But instead, my mind is churning away (as it often does).
I’m in the place, which shows up from time to time, when I just want to run away, to escape. Having allowed God’s Spirit to lead me into uncharted territory over the last few years has been both exhilarating and exhausting, exciting and terrifying. It is challenging to engage such a process when you hold a somewhat public role as I do with New Direction. Part of the challenge is to be obedient and faithful to what God is doing within me personally while at the same time seeking to exercise wisdom, discernment and responsibility in my leadership role with New Direction. And while the two clearly intersect with lots of grey areas where the boundaries blur – they are not one and the same. This blog is probably one of the places where the lines are most murky between my personal reflections and the speaking I do on behalf of the ministry.
This week as I’ve been here at the Christian camp that my family has attended for nearly ten years with a group of old friends, I have really felt like a misfit. Is it safe to really talk about the journey God has me on? Will I be judged? Will I be understood? Will I be rejected?
As I’ve listened to the messages in morning chapel they have seemed oh so certain, so clear, so clean, dare I say so milky ….. and the world I live in is chaotic, uncertain, messy, complex. The world I live in will not tolerate the luxury of the theoretical where the Bible gives the principle and you just need to follow. The world I live in demands that you think and rethink and question and yes, even doubt. The world I live in rages in the face of sanitized faith and challenges foundational paradigms that used to lull me through the inevitable paradoxes of life. The world I live in has erased the lines drawn between sacred and secular, saved and lost, sinner & saint. The world I live in is composing a magnus opus to the heart-stopping, outrageously unbelievable unconditional love and acceptance of God that crushes and demolishes the vestiges of self-righteous “us & them”. It’s a scary world sometimes. It is a wild and risky place. It is a place that invites, yes even insists, on a free-fall into the mercy of God where there are no favorites, where the slackers get the same wage as the keeners, where dignified fathers hike up their robes and haul ass off the porch to meet pig-shit slimed losers …. with no “but” in sight. And it makes us nervous …. because it seems too good to be true. We somehow want God to be wrathful – because that makes sense to us. We somehow want to hear the boundaries on what makes a “real Christian” because that allows us some tangible security.
And we want to know who is “in” and who is “out”. We want to know who is “right” and who is “wrong”. We want to know, “Are you on our team? Or aren’t you?”
And I feel like I’m walking the precipice with no safety net saying, “Those are the wrong questions.”
To me, the questions are, “How are you loving people?” “How are you serving people?” “How are you trusting God to do his work in people’s hearts, in his time, in his way?”
But, what do you really believe?
But, what do you think the Bible says about homosexuality?
But, what do you think the wages of sin are?
But, how can I trust you if I don’t know if you agree with me or not?
New Direction is taking a new direction. It has been a long time in the works. It was not an easy journey to get there. I even wondered, at times, if I might get fired along the way.
Jean Vanier says, “The process of searching for truth demands an openness; it demands an evolution of thought, for individuals and entire societies, as the whole world changes and we discover new intimations of what IS. There are unchanging principles, such as the call to be people of love and not of hate, which govern our lives. We need to integrate our experiences into these principles and let these principles enlighten our experience. Such an evolution in thought can mean searching and groping in the dark, sometimes in anguish, thinking through old ideas, formulating them in new words and new ways. We must not try to return to the past, but instead launch out into the future – to understand each other and what it means to be human, to understand what is happening in the world – in order to become more fully human and to work for peace and unity. It is only as we begin to integrate such a sense of reality more fully into our being, as we thirst for that which gives meaning to our lives, that we discover the fundamental meaning of loneliness: a cry, often a painful cry of anguish, for more respect and love of others, to be even more enfolded in truth, held in God. Such a cry could bring a new wholeness to humanity.”
At New Direction, we want to inhabit and promote generous space where diversity among followers of Jesus on the subject of homosexuality is acknowledged so that the individual outside the heterosexual mainstream can find and experience a safe and spacious place to explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. This space isn’t about right and wrong, us and them, left and right. It intentionally seeks to dismantle the polarity that typifies the debates around the issue of homosexuality. It calls us to the higher and deeper (and messier and more chaotic and frankly much, much more difficult) task of loving and serving one another in the midst of our differences. To me, that is the bridge we’re trying to build. Wherever there is difference, we want to be nurturing language, values, tools, modeling and serving to facilitate people really seeing one another across the gaps, really caring for one another, really experiencing shalom together.
I know all too well how hard this is and how much reality strays from such ideals. None-the-less, this is what we want to embody and help to foster. I also know all too well that this isn’t the whole response to the many questions that this subject raises. But it is the piece that we feel called to address. Local churches need to wrestle with doctrinal and policy statements. And individual Christians need to wrestle with scripture and the Spirit to know where they land (or alternatively to keep their eyes fixed on Christ during the season they don’t know where to land). Our hope is to serve the Body of Christ in HOW we relate and respond to people in the midst of the different journeys and perspectives within the community.
But the pressure is there to position ourselves. And sometimes the accusations are there too.
My personal perspectives seep through in some of my writings, but my personal position / belief is not the point of this blog and certainly not of the work of New Direction. It is understandable that people would want to know what I believe (often what they’re really saying is, “Do you think homosexuality is a sin?”). I suppose some people want to know the answer to that question to know whether or not they should keep reading this blog (ie. If she believes “this” then I’m outta here.). I can't help but feel sometimes that the questions come with the same undercurrent as those the religious leaders confronted Jesus with when they were trying to trap him. It is certainly your choice to not read this blog. But the blog isn't meant to simply affirm what you already think - or to necessarily change what you currently think. The blog is intended to provoke engagement – not simply spoon-feed answers.
And we hope that in the process you will think - whether that brings change or not.
Perhaps some people want to know what I believe to help them decide what they believe. Friends, there are much smarter people than I – don’t look to me to decide what you believe (and frankly, don’t really look to other smart people either ….. you really need to own this journey for yourself – yes informed by others in the Body of Christ – but ultimately as the Holy Spirit is leading you.).
My focus, and I hope yours as well, is to encounter people where they’re at. To look and listen for where God is present in that individual’s life and to try to be a source of encouragement and care in that place. For those who interact with me who are not believers – same deal. I respect them where they’re at – and want to be an encouragement and a caring person in their life. I serve a big God – who sent his Son because he loved the whole world. I don’t have to be anxious. God loves my friends, no matter what their system of belief, so much more than I ever could. I can rest in that. My job, so-to-speak, is to walk in step with the Spirit and obey to the best of my ability his prompting, to say what he asks me to say, to do what he asks me to do. The rest, I really can leave up to him.
So I’ve been in this camp all week. And there are lots of things that have been said in chapel or conversation that just aren’t where I’m at or that I flat out disagree with. For example, hearing male dominated language all week and the exclusion of any acknowledgement of women in ministry has sucked for me. Hearing Scripture being squeezed into rulebook fashion based on a poetry passage makes me want to pull my hair out. Yet, these folks are my brothers and sisters – we share a common humanity, we share being image-bearers of God. So, I’ve tried to guard my heart this week and to posture myself in a place of humility and grace. To speak when prompted to speak and to listen and be still otherwise. It hasn’t been easy at times. Yet, I’ve been grateful for the fruits of the Spirit that kick in with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control.
As I’ve been reflecting this week and talking with my husband, I’ve really been struggling with sustaining my energy for my work with New Direction. It is tiring to feel scrutinized, to be confronted with orthodoxy tests, to have an inbox full of high-need messages, to juggle so many different responsibilities and now that I am the only program staff member, to try to maintain a high-level of self-motivation. I hope I don’t sound like too much of a whiner or complainer. In many ways, I’m so very grateful for the work I get to do. But as many of you know, this isn’t an easy topic to engage day in and day out. It’s hard to feel like a misfit – feeling like at any moment someone on some side of this topic is going to reject me. It’s hard sometimes to not personally internalize some of the crap that gets thrown my way.
“Too much security and the refusal to evolve, to embrace change, leads to a kind of death. Too much insecurity, however, can also mean death. To be human is to create sufficient order so that we can move on into insecurity and seeming disorder. In this way, we discover the new. Those who have the eyes to see this new order, as it arises, will often be considered too revolutionary, too modern, too liberal….. Those who see the coming new order will frequently be alone, persecuted.” (Vanier, Becoming Human)
Straddling so many differences, being confronted on so many levels, facing diverse demands ….. sometimes I want to escape. Sticking to my guns in the face of other expectations isn’t always easy.
For those of you who resonate with this blog and find its plodding work valuable, please pray for me. And for those of you so inclined, no matter who you are or what position you take – let’s link arms and continue to work towards nurturing a diverse community in which love and respect and relationship really do take priority. Because when we do, I believe we will be the change we long to see. And along the way, we can help one another to persevere and to endure - for there is much work to be done.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
While I was in California, an old friend of mine died suddenly. He was 42 years old with a beautiful young wife and four lovely children. I hadn’t had a conversation with him in several years – but he always held a special place in my heart. At one point in my life I had hoped that we would marry. My life would have been very different had that happened – my own three great kids wouldn’t exist and I very likely wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, God had different but good plans for me. His wife and children have come to my mind and heart a lot since hearing the news. As I pray, I feel what I hope is consistent with what Jesus felt at the tomb of Lazarus recorded in John 11:33: “When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The Greek word that is translated "deeply moved in spirit" in this verse is "embrimaomai," which is a combination of two words, "en" meaning "in" and "brime" meaning "strength" (Vine's Expository Dictionary). The Greek word used for "troubled" in this verse is "tarasso," and it means "to stir or agitate" (Strong's Concordance). It’s important to clarify that Jesus wasn’t troubled in the sense that he was worried or perplexed; he had a holy rage toward death and its devastation. Jesus, of course, knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead – but none-the-less – raged against the reality of death … “This isn’t how it was meant to be, this isn’t how it is supposed to be.” And when I think of my friend’s wife and young children left behind – something in my spirit rages. I have had an odd relationship with death through my life. I’ve shared before in this forum of my mother’s death when I was 18 months old. I’ve not known a day of my life when her death was not part of my reality. She was 25 years old when she died. So, when my older sister turned 25 I found myself holding my breath. And when I turned 25 I think I finally exhaled. Having turned the milestone 40 this year, it does not escape me that I have lived 15 years more than she did. In that sense, every day is a gift. I live with the awareness that death could happen at any time to anyone. (My mother died of an aggressive cancer that took her within three months of diagnosis.) My relationship with death isn’t particularly morbid …. But I did think about it probably more than most kids. It wasn’t a foreign concept, not something that just happened to people out there somewhere …. But it was something that was close to home, part of my everyday reality. The deaths that I have experienced during my life have caused a deep sense of loss. At the same time, having lived my life with the confident hope that someday I will meet and get to know the person my mother was, I want to laugh in the face of death and say, “Where is your sting?” I want to …. But sometimes I can’t. When I think of four young children without a father, I can’t. Instead, I’m angry. I’m angry at the senseless loss. I’m angry at the invasion of death. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. Why you might be asking, is she writing this on “Bridging the Gap”? I was sitting with friends this morning over coffee at the Christian family camp we’re at for the week. One mom was telling another friend about her daughter’s experience in Uganda this past year. This university student went on a co-op for her science program and worked with our denomination’s relief and development organization. (As an aside, I had contacted her when she was over there to speak to leaders about the anti-homosexuality bill. She reported to me later that some of the pastors she tried to speak with actually warned her to not pursue the discussion because, “nice white girls can disappear here”.) When she came back, one of the things that struck her about development in that nation is that many of their systems seem broken and often corrupt such that long-term improvements can be difficult. Part of this whole complex reality seemed to be a cultural ethos related to death. A story she shared was of a night when grasshoppers came to the town where she was. We’re talking raining grasshoppers. The locals eat these grasshoppers – so when they come down like this – a big party ensues and people collect grasshoppers into the night. Because it is dark and children are largely unsupervised, every year one or more children die as they chase a grasshopper and get hit on the roads or meet some other tragic accident. This year was no exception, and several deaths occurred in the region. My friend was just astounded at how pragmatic the local people seemed to be about these deaths. Death is at their doorstep all the time – whether from disease, war, poverty etc. So the combination of culture and reality result in what seemed to my friend to be an almost cavalier approach to death. I was reflecting on this story walking back to our trailer and asked my son how his time in program had been. He said that the leader had talked about the concubine from the book of Judges. (If you recall this story is about gang rape and murder.) As you might imagine, I was like “Whaaaat?” Apparently, this youth pastor had talked about sin through the course of the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve but especially focusing on Sodom and Gomorrah and the Judges concubine account. He then talked about how wrong he thought homosexuality was. My son was quite upset and confused by it all – not sure what point the pastor was trying to make. I asked my son how he thought a gay boy or girl might feel if they’d been there – and he said, “I think they would have walked out.” (Unfortunately, I think they would have stayed and internalized the tragic negative message.) As I pondered what recourse I should take given the clear lack of pastoral concern for any kids who may be questioning or dealing with the reality of same-sex attraction, the two stories seemed to intersect in my mind. (Weird I know – but hey it is about 100 degrees with really high humidity – so I don’t think my brain is actually working all that well.) I thought about the kind of theoretical Christian teaching that is so black and white, so certain, so lacking in any awareness of the complex realities people navigate in their real lives …. The kind of teaching that seems driven more by fear than confidence in the unconditional love of God …. The kind of teaching that gets hi-jacked with superstition, stereotype, and exaggeration to fuel profound systemic hatred….. The kind of teaching that creates, promotes and defends legislation like the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda ….. combined with potential desensitization to the devastation of death ….. and in a moment I was overwhelmed in my spirit to pray for a revival of "embrimaomai" and “tarasso” in the hearts of Ugandan pastors. When death is so common – does it become easy to think about putting people to death? Death has played a big part in my life’s story. But I never want to lose touch with the ebrimaomai and tarasso in my spirit in confronting the reality of death. I have not been to Uganda. I do not know their culture. I do not understand how Christian pastors can promote the death penalty for anyone. I don't want to make too many assumptions on the basis of the stories and impressions of another Westerner who lived there a few months. But what I do know is that each life is precious to God. Each life matters. Each life taken by death should be met with outrage and holy distress – even when there is confidence and comfort in God’s economy. I’m afraid that if ebrimaomai and tarasso are lost, we lose our very humanity. Update: So I met with the youth pastor who spoke in my son's chapel this morning. Poor guy he was nervous as heck when he heard who wanted to speak to him. What can I say, a fairly typical fundamentalist kind of Christian guy from a holiness tradition who's sense of the Christian faith is quite different than my own. He meant well basically. He wanted to encourage the kids to pursue holiness. But I talked to him about the twelve year old kid who might be sitting there questioning his own sexuality (with his frontal lobe not fully developed) with whom he has no relationship or ongoing contact who internalizes a message that says, "I've got to fear God, I've got to be holy, or I'm going to hell." This kid who may struggle for years to know that God loves him as he is. This kid who may feel disqualified from pursuing intimate relationship with God. I talked to him about that 12 year old kid who might be sitting there who is homophobic and walks away feeling justified in his attitudes because "clearly those people don't fear God". I talked to him about that student sitting there who has gay friends who now feels torn and confused about whether loving their friends would make God angry. I talked to him about the inappropriateness of using Sodom and Gomorrah and the concubine story in Judges 19 as examples of homosexuality given that they tell stories of violence and violation of strangers. And when he told me that he thought the core of the gospel was holiness ..... I told him that I thought the core of the gospel was God's unconditional love and welcome to all people ..... and that unless people know they are loved they can never pursue holiness from any other place than fear. And then I told him that I would make myself available anytime for conversation with any students who had further questions about this topic. This camp doesn't allow women to speak .... so I don't know if they'll make that announcement to the students or not .... but I pray they do ..... and if there is a kid who is fearful and confused, I pray that they will come and talk with me so that I can share God's outrageous and lavish love with them.