Thursday, November 19, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

In the past week I've been stunned at the fearful and xenophobic response of our nation to the plight of Syrian refugees. I've been disappointed at the people I know who support refusing refuge to refugees. Today I saw a map of the US with all the states whose have said they are not accepting refugees highlighted. I was deeply ashamed and disgusted at how many states were marked.

I have a rocky relationship with the Bible. I have read it in its entirety, but I don't read it frequently anymore. That being said, I did grow up hearing Bible stories frequently. I've been a church attender for most of my life. And I can't stop thinking about all the places, both Old and New Testament, where there is mention of welcoming and loving your neighbor. The Mosaic law was specific that the Jews should welcome foreigners as their own and give them the same rights. One of Jesus' most well-known parables was about who our neighbor is (the story of the Good Samaritan). I keep hearing the words, "Love your neighbor as yourself." "And who is my neighbor?" "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one who had mercy on him." "Go and do likewise." (from Luke 10). Not to mention the face that Jesus himself was a refugee who would have been killed by Herod (out of fear) had his family not found safety in Egypt (but of course I AM mentioning it because Advent is almost here).

I see history repeating itself. I think about the Trail of Tears, the refusal to accept Jewish immigrants during WWII, the Japanese internment camps. Absolutely shameful events in America's history. Appalling. My brain cannot comprehend that I am seeing the same attitude now in our country.

I know that this kind of reaction is based on fear. Fear is powerful. I've had to look long and hard at my own fear-based racist prejudices. I've been confessing the sin of racism and praying for a change deep in my heart for months, because I realized that I am part of the problem. I may not be able to change the world, but I can change myself. I can pray for a changed heart. I can actively seek to see the imago dei in every single human being, no matter how different that person may be from me. I am clearly not perfect in this area, but I'm attempting to recognize the blind spots within and open my eyes.

When I see this kind of fear-based reaction in others, it's really easy for me to just get frustrated. Especially if the other person is a Christian. I think, "It's so obvious that we are supposed to welcome and love those in need, and those refugees are in need!" or "It's so obvious that there is a desperate need for reform in the justice system as a devastating number of black people are shot by the police with no consequences for the officers." It is obvious to me, now. I struggle to remember that what may be obvious to me may not be to others, even others who are sincere and otherwise kind. I struggle to remember that I need to call Christians with whom I disagree my neighbor as well. I need to show them mercy and love as well, even when I think they're wrong, even when they think I'm wrong.

Isn't that the foundation of Christianity? Love God, love others. No exceptions. Not love God sort of, be nice to the people you like. Nope. It's love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you. Pray for your enemies. Ugh. It's revolutionary, because my first reaction is to say, nope! I want to holler at and have disdain for the people who are wrong. I want to feel smug and superior in my rejection. I want to elevate myself by pushing others down. It's an awfully good thing God has grace for me, too, because I'm still a messy work in progress. I'm reminding myself today to take a break, breath, and pray for peace in myself and in the world. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Christianity of Boxes

I used to think that there was one right way to be a Christian. In my mind, there was no room for theological differences, or even differences in some preferences. No nuance, no sliding scales, no sometimes or maybes. Simple black and white. My whole childhood was black and white, everything fit into neat, tidy boxes. I remember well the discomfort in high school when I bumped into people with different beliefs; I didn't want any conflict, but they were wrong. I went to a college that was linked with my childhood denomination, and though that school officially agreed with what I had been taught my whole life, I met Christians from different backgrounds. Sure, we agreed on more or less most of the same things, but there was a hint of Christian diversity in my bubble for the first time.

My experience leaving college was messy and painful, and it pretty much destroyed any part of me that was still consciously hanging onto that black and white framework. I had seen too much to believe neat, tidy boxes were the way to sort my faith. As I spent the next years trying to put my life back together and figure out how to navigate as an adult, I found other people of faith who taught me great things. I discovered blogs and books and regular people just doing their best to love Jesus.

I grew up believing that rigidity was the mark of a true Christian. Now I believe that the best posture I can take is one of openness. I know full well that just as I've discarded many things I held onto dearly in the past, one day I may let go of beliefs I hold strongly now. I am more comfortable with uncertainty; I embrace it, in fact. I find great relief in admitting that I don't understand a lot, and there are so many things I don't know.

Sure, there is a part of me that still like rules. I like the tidiness of knowing what's right and what's wrong. But the messy uncertainty of learning to love freely is infinitely more rewarding than checking off boxes for good behavior, even when I know I'm falling short of loving well. The more I discover others who are throwing out checklists in favor of radical love, the less alone I feel, and the more excited I get about the love of Christ. That's when it feels magical, which is the unspiritual way of saying that I think the Holy Spirit likes it when we chase love and share love and revel in love.

Intellectually I have it all sorted out (as much as you can ever sort things out). I know what I feel in my heart, how I want to love and be loved and not feel as if I have to earn love. The reality is that I still have the echos of my childhood rules flitting through my head, so sometimes (OK, a lot of the time), I still feel as if I need to check off all the boxes even though my brain tells me the boxes are no longer helpful for me or even good for me. Often I am able to help block those echos by reading authors whose work speaks to the part of my heat that loves rather than the authors who like lists. Authors like Sarah Bessey and Glennon Doyle Melton make me feel like the only box I need to check is the one that asks if I am trying to love people (including myself). No caveats, no followup questions, not even a perfect response or completion. I like to remind myself that generally everyone is just trying to do the best they can, and that means I need to accept that my best probably doesn't equal perfection, but that's OK because nobody's does.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why Christian?

I've been trying to figure out how to talk about the Why Christian? conference I attended a few weeks ago without sharing every single detail, because the details matter less than the big picture. I chose to attend the conference because I had been greatly impacted by the writing of the hosts of the conference (Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber), plus WX15 was in my backyard (aka Minneapolis), so it was logistically possible to attend.

Big picture: the Holy Spirit was moving in St. Mark's Cathedral. Every woman who stood before the crowd shared her story, shared her love for Jesus. To see strong, female leaders of such diversity was something I had never seen, and it was, quite simply, a thing of beauty. To hear from women of different denominations, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations, different lives all share the one thing they had in common was so powerful. It makes me think of Paul's words in Gal 2:28, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

So often in Christianity it feels like we are talking about how we're different. How we're different from the world, how we're different from those Christians over there who are doing it wrong, how we're not like THOSE people over there. It was so life-giving to celebrate our commonalities instead and have our differences fall to the wayside in light of truth of who Jesus is.

Jesus chose to inhabit a human body. He lived among regular, ordinary people. He was the recipient of judgment, scorn, and violence. And yet he loves us. His love is so much bigger than I can even dare to imagine. One of the most powerful moments of the weekend for me was receiving communion. At my churches we've always had a pass-the-plate or go-get-your-elements-and-then-take-it-to-your-seat-so-we-can-take-it-together sort of approach to communion. Taking communion at St. Mark's was different. I was looked in the eye and told that Jesus broke his body for me, that he shed his blood for me. For ME. It was intimate and personal in a way communion has never been for me, and so different from the shame and guilt that often leaves me not participating in communion at my own church.

I spent so much of day two (Saturday) in tears. Part of that was grieving the loss of my aunt who passed away that morning. Part of it was simply responding to the stirring in my soul. When redemption and grace showed up in the form of Amazing Grace played on the trombone, when I was told I am worth Christ's sacrifice, when my soul yearned for a kingdom where our pain and hurt will be no more and our sorrow is turned to joy, I couldn't help but weep. And let me be clear: I am not a public cryer. I think I've only cried in front of my therapist twice in the six and a half years we've worked together. It's really a testament that I felt safe enough even among strangers to let my heart flow through my eyes.

That weekend was the first time I'd ever heard gay, bi, and trans people share their stories in person from a place of wholeness. My whole life I have been told that first and foremost gay people are sinning. That's always what the emphasis was. At Why Christian? gender and sexual orientation were not the emphasis. Sure, people talked about them as they pertained to their own stories and the church in general, but the emphasis was love and passion for Jesus. How Jesus loves us as we are. How God created us and it was good. It was such a beautiful reminder to see the dignity in every human being, to call out and respect the Imago Dei in each of us. I felt so deeply in my soul the importance of loving others well, especially the people we don't understand, the people on the fringes, the people who are hurting. I felt the importance of loving myself, of recognizing God's love for me even when I feel my sin disqualifies me from being worthy of love.

Love God, love others. This is how I've been describing my faith lately. I just don't know about so many things, but I know that I believe in love. I truly believe that the love that was shown among the conference speakers and attendees was a sliver of a taste of what God's kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven will be like. It was such a sacred, moving, healing experience. I was reminded of why I choose to be a Christian even when I doubt, even when I face unspeakable loss, even when I am in the depths of despair and when my friends let me down. I cling to the hope of love like Christ showed, that he laid down his life for us. Love is powerful. That's what keeps me hanging on for dear life in the depths of my soul even when I feel like I'm drowning. It is an addicting, intoxicating love, and even when I can't feel it or even believe it fully, I have the hope that it's true.

I am so grateful for the stories shared, for the grace extended, for the unity displayed. I was changed at WX15 and so very encouraged. God is love, and love wins.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Hiding Our Humanity

Today I read two posts that connected with my past on a deep level. One was an article talking about trigger warnings in classrooms and how there is a trend towards keeping places safe and free from emotionally fraught material. The other post was a blog written by one of my new favorite authors about her experience speaking at her alma mater.

When I remember my time in college, I have to fight to see the good parts. Because there were good parts. There were friendships and wonderful professors and late night giggles and getting yelled at too many times to count for being too loud during quiet hours. There were fall retreats and Battle of the Floors and singing in choir and loving the city I lived in even though it also scared and intimidated me. But mostly I remember how hellish my final time there was. I remember the crippling depression, the eating disorder, the alcohol abuse, the self-injury, the hospitalizations (yes, plural) because I didn't know if I had the strength to keep living. I remember falling HARD and feeling like there was no one to help.

College was where I first got real help. I had a counselor who made me feel less alone, like my problems weren't who I was, just things I was dealing with. So I will forever be grateful for the help I DID receive, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that help saved my life. But college was also the place where I learned that my problems were too much, too big. I learned that Christian institutions want shiny, happy, healthy students that they can show off to benefactors, alumni, and potential students. They don't want messy imperfection in their walls. I remember living in fear of being honest with how bad things were because I was afraid of being kicked out, afraid of being rejected. Well, that did happen to me, and it was every bit as horrifying as I had feared.

I am super passionate about people feeling supported when they are down. I have been in the black pit of depression too many times, and I live in a constant state of alert waiting for the next cycle of despair to rear up and try to drag me under. I know how isolating it feels when your friends and family seem happy and healthy and you feel alienated from them in every way. I know how HARD it is to have faith when you can't feel love or joy or peace or hope and everyone who tries to make you feel better feels gratingly fake. So when a friend comes to me and wants to talk about how they're REALLY feeling, I do my very best to be a good listener. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning and someone asked if they can use my floatation device, too, but I try to listen anyway because I know they might not find another person to help them float a little until it's too late.

Why don't we talk more about how hard it is to be human? Why don't we talk more about how painful it is to be alive? I'm not saying there aren't AMAZING things about life, but I'm so tired of hearing how amazing things are when they most certainly are NOT in my life. It has been 8 years since I had the courage to go to the counselor's office at my college and say that I didn't know why, but my life was hard and I needed help or I wasn't going to make it. Sometimes I wonder how different my life might be if I had known how to ask for help sooner. Part of the problem was that none of the people around me had any understanding of mental illness. Pretty much my first year of counseling was learning what depression was and how to identify what I was feeling. Because I didn't know how to sit with my emotions long enough to identify them and their roots. All I knew was that I was supposed to be happy, but I wasn't.

I want a culture where we don't hide when life is hard. I want an environment when pastors and church leaders can publicly talk about the hard parts of their lives as they live through them, not once it's all over and resolved. I want people to feel safe talking about their pain so we can learn to empathize and understand each other. The more we understand each other, the better we can love each other. We have to stop crucifying people for failing, because THAT'S WHAT HUMANS DO. We fail. But we learn from our failures, and that's how we grow and mature.

Tomorrow will mark 5 months since my dad died. The first month after the funeral, I was more angry at the lack of support from the people around me than I was sad about my dad being gone. Part of that was because anger is easier to deal with than pain and sadness, but part of it was because I was so furious that even after years and years of trying to build a support system for just such an event, it failed spectacularly. I was furious at every person who tried to high five me and be cheerful in my direction. There was NO room in the culture around me for me to mourn openly. I felt anguish and guilt at how poorly I had supported my three friends who lost parents just months before I lost my dad. Being on the other side, I had so much more insight about how to be a good friend in times of tragedy. If I couldn't figure out how to find a safe place to express my true feelings for a loss that people universally recognize is devastating, how am I supposed to create a safe place for people who have hidden, little understood hurts? Why are we so afraid to drop the smile and cry when we are hurting? I know it's hard. My therapist and I have been working closely together for six and a half years, and I think I've only cried twice in front of him.

I don't have answers. I know it's hard. But if we all made an effort to reach out just a little, I think it would add up to a lot. If we all just texted one or two people each week to say, "Hey, thinking of you. How are you doing today?" I think maybe we would feel less alone and a little safer to share our true selves. I think we wouldn't be so afraid to share the complex parts of our humanity because we would understand that we belong to each other and together we can do hard things (to borrow two sayings from one of my favorite authors Glennon Doyle Melton). Sometimes when I need support the most, I offer support to a friend, and then we discover that we can support each other and make it through.