Day 14: Facing Nineveh

When I hung up my clergy robes nearly five years ago, I had clarity that it was a door closing. I emptied out my library and gave away my clergy vestments. I sent official correspondence requesting a change in status (the correspondence was lost, but that’s a different story). So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I prepare to preach for the first time (again) tomorrow morning.

As I emerged from a season of reflection last spring, I felt clarity about my call to live in service. Clear also was that a call to gathering and leading community in real time is not mine; no to starting a church, no to dusting off my profile. Pondering how to faithfully share the myriad of lessons learned and windows opened in these recent years, I felt (and feel) clarity about continued writing. Check.

And several weeks later came one additional piece, that of offering to step in, for just one Sunday at a time, and offer pulpit supply (guest sermon).

In theory it’s no big deal. Preaching was one of my favorite parts of ministry, I know the lectionary passages inside out, and I have a pile of new stories from which to draw. And while I won’t know the members of the congregation, that should actually make it easier. Slip in, share the good (if challenging) news, slip out. In terms of navigating relationships, this is about as easy as it gets. Right?

Yet as I prepare for my first gig tomorrow, I confess to feeling a bit like Jonah resisting the call to Nineveh. Smallish and whitish churches spread across the heartland that might have need of pulpit supply are exactly where I do NOT feel safe and welcome anymore, and haven’t for some time. In fairness it is also true that I, like Jonah, have more than a wee bit of judgment about Nineveh. Unlike Jonah, I have actually spent time in Nineveh. I have called Nineveh home, delighting in the potlucks, the ladies guild, the trappings. But somewhere along the line I lost my enthusiasm. Perhaps that too is a story for another day.

Because tomorrow I am headed out to a far St. Louis suburb to share the gospel in the light of lessons learned post 8/9/2014.

And like Jonah, my emotions are complicated. What if they don’t listen? Or worse, what if they do? What if I say exactly the wrong thing? Will I know when to sit and stand? Should I have a children’s story ready to go? And (let’s face it, this is the real question) because I’m a woman who gave away her clergy vestments (I had stopped wearing them on principle long before I gave them away anyway, but still…), what will I even wear??? Sigh.

I think I might follow Jonah out onto the beach tonight. But e’en if I do, I know how the story ends. I’ll still have to face Nineveh in the morning.

So it is that tomorrow I am preaching my first sermon. Again.

#55andCounting
#whitefolkwork

ps: Please know that in the biblical narrative, Nineveh were (despite Jonah’s reluctance), actually great folk much beloved by God.

pps: I’ll post the sermon tomorrow when it’s too late to back out. 🙂

Day 13: Closing Doors, Opening Windows

Facebook was poignant this morning. One entry held moving van pictures that told the story of one of my mentors’ retirement from ministry and pending trek across the country.  Another held last night’s testimony of a local friend in defense of their right to marry on the eve of their wedding; while it’s just love, most of us sacrifice at least some portion of our families in order to live true to our not-hetero loves. With every hello comes a goodbye.

This goodbye is the stuff at which I really suck. I mean really. Bad.

Logically I understand it. If my fist is clench holding onto my baby’s hand, I cannot see the beauty of the adult one. If my day is filled with the rhythm and routine of parish ministry, I cannot feel the expansive spirit on this unstructured summer day. If I insist on familial blessing, I will be forever constrained to the limitations of the prior generation’s vision.  If I’m clinging to the past, will never be ready for what lies ahead and I will miss the wonder of now.

I feel the tension in the posts of people that I love. I hear the hope and wonder, and too the sadness and loss. One of the travesties of our American mythology is the suggestion that emotions are singular or in the least dichotomous. The truth is that when life is lived most fully, cacophony is often the order of the day. When we dare to allow our minds and hearts to sing our most authentic song, paths will converge and diverge in unexpected and emotionally rich ways. Our attempts to synthesize the experience will succeed only to dull our senses.

Early in July, my own senses race with wonder and dread and hope and skepticism. Summer races and school is in the offing, my comfortable life continues with alarming regularity as society’s nets are shredding all around me. Increasingly I feel as though I exist on an island, certain only that what lies ahead is not. And yet, in this moment, the abundance of the earth is palpable… exquisitely hopeful. I’ll take it.

As we live into these terrifying times, all the more we must let go the dross and tend the nest, ready to take flight as the window opens.

Today is what we have.
Bittersweet.
And, oh, so very very good.

#55andCounting

 

Day 11: Forgotten Pieces and New Songs

Recently a matriarch in the St. Louis United Church of Christ (UCC) church died and seeing her picture sent my mind back in a pool of forgotten memories.

Gloria McNamara was an active member of the UCC Minister’s Wives group that met at the church where I was then serving. This group of women began meeting back when their husbands pastored UCC churches throughout the St. Louis community, most were now retired and many widows. Educated and wise, I was privileged to chat with them before and after their book studies and I learned much under their tutelage. Some of the messages were explicit, some not so much, always a significant source for my understanding of the strange ground that is (or was) UCC in St. Louis. Hailing from the north (seminary in the Twin Cities, first churches in Michigan), I was completely lost in the Eden-German-ethnic ethos in which I found myself in St. Louis’ iteration of the UCC. These women were a lifeline.

Remembering these women, I found myself re-remembering where they went. The group folded up several years before I left church work. Several had died, others became too frail to gather, and few new members came. The story of this group was a piece of larger story. As I began to remember, I found myself looking at another piece of why I left the church and when. Short story: the church is dying. And it was grievously painful to bear witness on the daily.

The UCC, where I am still on the rolls, was 2+ million members strong when I was born in 1962. By the time I was ordained in 1989, membership had slipped to 1.6+ million. When I came to St. Louis in 1996 there were 1.45+ million, but the number dipped >1 million by the time I retired in 2013. Today there are less than 880,000 members. As important as the numbers is the trend. While the church was losing about 14,000 members a year in my childhood, the number jumped to 28,000 a year during the 23 years while I was in ministry and continues to climb (now more than 30,000 a year). At current rates there will be 0 members in just 29 years. Already there are important talks about not only restructuring (read: continual downsizing) but also strategic alliances (read: mergers). Importantly there are bold new prophetic initiatives that will help many local communities, but historically these initiatives have not had been able to quell the exodus.

While the UCC may be a leader in this demographic shift, it is important to note that church numbers of all kinds is waning in this country. While a relatively small slice of highly churched Americans have taken over every branch of our government (and we should be very wary, very), the people of this nation are walking away from active participation in almost every flavor of organized religion. Importantly the verbose “christian” politicians have kept the most inflammatory of church rhetoric but even they are rarely actively engaged in the day to day life of making church happen.

For the last several years of my work in church I unwittingly chose to remain fairly cloistered in the local church. Toward the end, when the writing was on the wall denominationally and the local church was in need of significant capital investment, I found myself soul searching and in deep prayer about next steps for the church that I loved. Actively working on marketing (called everything but), I was increasingly convinced that whatever lay ahead for all that we treasured in church, it would not be held in institutions. What is a sacred and worthy must be identified and lifted as a light on the hill, allowed to be seen and celebrated without benefit of liturgical language or institutional blessing. While some of this work was welcome in the local church, much was not. This tension was a key piece of what I experienced as I felt pushed from the nest.

Last week the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness for the UCC and local pastor, offered this on Facebook:

Perhaps. The question that begs our attention is not: Why is the church, as we know it, dying?
But rather: What is the Spirit birthing in it’s place?

In the days and weeks (that have become months and now years) since I left the institution, this question has continued to beckon. What is the spirit birthing in it’s place? Importantly Traci invited myself and countless other St. Louisans to pray with our feet in Ferguson and beyond. Face to face with the evil that courses just beneath the surface in our American dream (or nightmare, depending on where you sit), the gospel takes on urgency that I never felt in the safety of the pews. Feet firmly planted, breathing prayer, I bore witness. And I was forever changed.

Today I continue to look for the pieces that we need to save and treasure for the difficult days that lie ahead. For my own self, the stories are precious. I find myself telling the ancient stories with my students, with my friends at dinner, as I sit at the keyboard. The stories gathered in the book we call sacred were in their birthing liberation stories and deserve to be shared as such. But I find that I give myself permission to pick and choose these days, pretty liberally.

In candor, believing Jesus about God, I find myself turning for wisdom to songs that I did not learn in church. I watch for the lessons in the earth, in life’s longing for itself, and am learning to trust this unscripted (and non colonized) voice above the rest. For long after when we humans have gone from this earth, this voice of life’s longing will continue to sing. This song. This song above all songs.

And it is very good.
#55andCounting

Day 9: Chapters

Today’s lesson… life has chapters. Each one unique, some extra sweet, but none go on forever. Clinging to the last one means that you miss cues (and beauty) in this one.

Did I ever think that by 55 I’d be married to my dear one, with grown and happy offspring (near and far), living in a wonderful city neighborhood, and free to type whatever my heart renders? Nope.

Did I ever think that church would be a source of nostalgia? Nope. But here we are. Poignant as my Facebook feed fills with news of the wider church and I feel the tug.

The question is simple: carpe diem or wallow. We can’t have it both ways.

Day 8: Intention

As I began my 56th trek around the sun, I was aware of a need to make a conscious shift in practice. Immersed in street prayer and up close with a bevy of evil, these past few years have left my soul tender. The soil is rich and the weeds are plentiful. Challenging is the work of both finding and then tending the seedlings that are worthy. Moving through this next year of life, I would like to daily reflect on where I see these seedlings, the sacred in action.

My writing habit has been to reflect on the news of the day and still I find this worthy. In the throes of a neo-facsist regime, however, the daily accounting is grim and my anxiety grows. Here in this space, one day at time, I want to discover ways to be honest about the world while looking for and lifting that which is worthy.

Yesterday I detoured and shared a rant about the Cardinals, Pride, and the duplicity of the church. I wrote it as a challenge, an invitation, a plea. But it is an example of a weed. Perhaps compelling in the moment but without the sustenance for the journey. Nothing wrong with it, but not what I’m seeking to share in this space.

Perhaps my intention is shown by the image chosen for this project, a bowl of Pysanky eggs showing the intricate designs and too the broken pieces. We who dare to live our humanity are both. This is, for me, the lure of the eggs, the simultaneity of their beauty and imperfection. Their fragility seems a natural extension.

The broken egg in the bottom left was my first brown egg of the season and one that felt right. The line flowed smoothly, the geometry worked, and I love the simplicity of black dye on brown eggs. When finished I was excited to see the beauty beneath the layers of wax. Carefully I placed it in the warm oven and waited for the magical reveal. A few minutes later I heard a “pop”.  I looked into the oven and discovered broken pieces and revealed beauty, together.

The more willing I am to come face to face with the broken places and the fragility, the more richly I experience this thing called life. As I become more willing to offer a fledging attempt, the more my capacity grows. On this trek around the sun, I choose to embrace the broken whole, to see the ravages of evil alongside unparalleled beauty, to sit in the ashes bearing witness to the phoenix’ rise.

This is my intention. Imperfect, sincere.

#55andCounting

 

Day 7: Cardinals, Cacophony and Clarity

Pride month (and the ubiquitous Facebook Pride flag) ended yesterday. Today is my wedding anniversary, a wedding that had to be held in exile, a wedding that was both celebrated by my church community and yet defined the first step out.  A wedding for a marriage that is gift beyond imagining, true love, life shared. The confluence of emotions is pretty overwhelming this week.

As I consider what might be a helpful foci for our community this month, I’m struck that for St. Louis peeps there is very practical work to be done. Our beloved Cardinals have stepped into the culture wars suggested that one can be either Christian (which, based on their planned celebration, is anti-LGBTQIA) *or* one can have Pride (embracing LGBTQIA); not both and not together. In an attempt to appease the Cardinal’s have announced separate nights for each, exactly one month apart. Really.

To the most obvious point, neutrality: it doesn’t exist. Neutrality is passivity in the face of conflict with implied loyalty to the victor; it is silent acquiescence with the oppressor. If you’re struggling for breath, neutrality is never your ally.

The more troubling issue, for me, is the bifurcation. Sure, the liberals will come one night and the conservatives another (these labels are just so wrong on so many levels). But where does it leave any of us who are unabashedly queer but still dare to believe Jesus about god? Once more we assured that our only rightful place is outside of church.

I’ve read several folks, many hetero, celebrate the announced Pride night at the Cardinals. Please don’t. While a clear victory for the gay-hating Christians, this “pride” night is not a win for any of us who are queer. This is a bone thrown to keep us quiet and away from the precious Christian folk who will gather on July 30 and hear Lance Baker spew hate.

Make no mistake, the Cardinals version of Christianity leaves all of us who are LGBTQIA remembering why we are not in pews this weekend. Church folk who might be following (are there any hetero STL church peeps reading?),  I am hoping that you will respond. The Cardinal’s are defining Christianity as anti-queer. Is this what you believe? And if not, what are you doing to set the record straight? Your hetero silence or (worse) celebration of the bone (Pride night) only confirms our worst fears.

For today, drinking a second cup of coffee on this 7th day of being 55, I’m struck that there are things that I can let go. The Cardinals for one. The church for another; not my faith, but (with a few claw marks) the institution and (with a few more claw marks) even the ritual. But what I won’t relinquish is my right to marry the one whom I love; to share life, passion, and resources with the spouse of my choosing.  Profoundly grateful for the gift of my wife, our marriage, and the life we share together, I recognize the rest as dross.

In the midst of the cacophony, I hear the voice of my beloved.
And it is very good.

#55andCounting
#NotMyPride
#CardinalFail
#HappyAnniversary

Day 6: One Conversation at a Time

As I was waking this morning I read an article which challenged the notion of the Democrats failure in reaching the white Christians. The author pointed to the particularity of fundamentalist thinking and posited that no amount of rational information could likely break the silo effect. (link to article) Having been in this world, I know this is true.
 
Perhaps this is why I feel as though I am tilting at windmills as I plea for white folks to wake up already. White supremacy, like fundamentalism, is an irrational system of beliefs that creates a silo effect. Much as in religious fundamentalism, voices from the outside are automatically suspect. Voices from within the circle are given authority not on veracity but rather position. Where the two intersect, across the heartland that swept in this new regime (states which, not coincidentally, mostly refused Medicaid Expansion), the walls are virtually impenetrable.
And yet. And yet the author made their break, and I made mine. And so have countless others.
 
 
As I think about my own journey out of fundamentalism, and eventually away from even the church, there is not a single voice that broke the reverie. There is no one moment or compelling argument. There is, as water on a stone, a gradual wearing away and a dawning awareness. Slow and almost imperceptible.
 
My journey from fundamentalism was in the late 80s, concurrent with the rise of the Moral Majority. I wanted to believe and belong, I also cherished intellectual inquiry. I’ll always count my years at Calvin College to be a gift in that there I met wise professors and dear friends who taught me that faith and intellect can (and ought) coexist. But these voices were neither first nor last nor even loudest. They were lifelines when I was reaching.
 
As I consider my responsibility from this side of the culture wars, the one without benefit of clergy or doctrine, I remember the infinity of apparently insignificant encounters that brought me to this journey of awakening. Remembering, I am mindful that the task of offering lifelines is repetitive and monotonous and thankless and seemingly insignificant. Until the cocoon breaks and the butterfly is free. And rarely are we present to witness.
 
My cousins (literal and figurative) are in the intersections of white supremacy and fundamentalism. The stakes are high as our nation state devolves and I feel urgency that fuels anxiety. And all I can do … turns out to be the most important thing. Offer one loving and rational conversation at a time. Is it enough? Of course not. But my conversation will join yours and countless others. For those siloed, this cumulative effect is perhaps the only way. 

Equally important to note is how these conversations affect our spirits. No longer tilting at windmills, slowed down and breathing rational air, we rediscover the ground of our being and strength for another day. We become the change that we wish to see in the world. Which is not a bad bonus to discover on this trip around the sun.

#55andCounting
#OneConversationataTime

Day 5: Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

When you interrupted your phone call yesterday and motioned the reporter out of the line, I felt it viscerally. I know that summons.  As the reporter stepped forward, she offered the requisite nervous laugh and you predictably let your eyes undress her as we all watched … 

Stop.

I don’t want to write to the president about this patriarchal bullshit. I don’t want to talk to men at all. I’m tired of trying to teach those who don’t want to learn.

On this, the 5th day after my 55th birthday, I want to write to myself and every other woman who has ever felt the unwelcome undressing gaze of man (which I’m guessing is pretty much all of us). I want to wonder aloud how we might helpfully move in the face of this predictable and utterly despicable pattern.

In the parlance of the tables, we might be wise to do a 4th step. After naming the resentment and describing the event (as specifically as we can), we are asked to reflect on how it made us feel, where it hooked us, how we were (and are) affected. This piece is key and lays the foundation for the next piece: what then is mine? Here we look at our own culpability and responsibility.

As I reflect on situations where I’ve been objectified by men, a place where I get hooked is my need for external validation. The little girl in me who is forever looking for daddy’s affirmation, I pause in the face of male attention. This is the hook. This is where I can and must work.

To be clear, I’m down with holding the men accountable. This is NOT in lieu of but rather preparatory work. I’m coming to believe that to be most effective we need to first find and disarm the hooks. Hooks that pull us towards the menace instead of running far and fast.

I imagine a time when that feeling of deference isn’t my instinct when a man starts the predictable pattern; I imagine how I might respond if unhooked, how I might name the objectification in real time, how I might speak with clarity in the moment. With mind and tongue freed from my own internalized sexism, I would be able to stand taller, own the space, and hold *him* accountable.

This is what I wish for myself.  For all of us.

Standing strong, together and unbound, we will be a mighty force.

Day 4: Polite Patriarchy, or No

The apparent innocence is key. He is an older white man, closer to my father’s age than mine, approaching my wife and I in the power tools aisle of Menards yesterday afternoon.  My wife was examining a gas powered tool when he inserted himself and offered, “Would you like some unsolicited advice?”

Her response was monosyllabic. “No.”

His face went from congenial to apoplectic in 2 seconds flat.

Equally important to note was my distress. My wife had broken a code, she had been impolite, woe to us. And I noticed that it was fear that I felt as I reached out to the wounded animal with my eyes, giving permission for his unsolicited (and unwanted) advice. His face softened.

“In my experience, these battery powered options…” was all he got a chance to say.

“Yeah… no.” The voice of my wife was firm as she returned her attention to the gas powered tool she was holding.

The fury returned to his face and I realized that I felt fear for my physical safety. He sputtered finally, turned around, and left.

While there was much humor as we later dissected the scene, I found myself spending the rest of the day sorting through a most illuminating pile of patriarchy and (more importantly) my role in it.

One important piece for me was tending the sense of fear that had filled my being when my wife broke script and offered the initial no. Why fear? What would cause me to feel dread? What I could articulate was that her no was rude, but even that is somewhat confusing. He asked a yes or no question, and in responding her tone was pleasant and her words (or word as it were) within the offered parameters. What then was rude?  Sitting with the dissonance, I realize that the refusal of the hand extended was the offense; that part of what I understand to be polite (read: my role in patriarchy) is acceptance of a deferential position in need of (male) support. As women standing in the power tools aisle, looking at gas powered ones no less, we were clearly (in patriarchal terms) outside of our knowledge zone. The man’s duty (again, in patriarchal terms) was to offer assistance. He was playing his part. But my dear one, not so much.

Enter the fear.

At stake was not one older white man in the aisle of Menards. I did not rationally think he was going to do physical damage (though his face did suggest the possibility).  My instinctive awareness was that my wife’s behavior was clearly outside of the patriarchal schema and that I was in a position to chose. And quickly.

The system of privileges dispensed and denied according to compliance with patriarchy is immense. While walking away from hetero marriage was my big FU to the patriarchy, the truth is that I play along daily in big and small ways. I’m keenly aware of my deference when white men are working in our home, I feel it all the more acutely because it is no longer my daily reality in this safe space. But I know that the quality of the work will be directly related to my willingness to play, and I do so without the slightest consciousness. This is simply the water in which I swim.

Standing in the aisle, I realize how tangled my continued involvement and (more importantly) why. Fundamentally this is an identity issue, identity at the level of security in the wider social order. Simply put, it is knowing (or no longer knowing) my place in the order of things.

And at what cost. The apparently innocent man was asserting his superiority AND trying to guide us to the less powerful (battery operated) version of the tool. When we find our protection in systems that demand our power in trade, we are never going to be safe much less free.

Drinking my second cup of coffee (or is it third?) on this 4th morning of this trek around the sun, I do so in a home filled with women. It’s really a delicious life, and so different on an organic level. Admittedly I was thrown by my wife’s steadiness in her self knowledge yesterday, but even more I am grateful for both her witness and for the life we have together created that is full and complete… without the patriarchy.

Bottom line: we have choices which grow as we find the courage to explore them.

#55andCounting
#FuckThePatriarchy

 

Day 3: Old Friends, or One Time Acquaintances

As coffee takes hold on day 3 of my 55th journey around the sun, I’m curious about a photo that appeared as a sponsored ad in my Facebook feed. The image is of a famous person that I knew as a child, a child in my congregation.

I am mesmerized by the what ifs and might have beens as roads twisted and turned. By all accounts the now adult person is not only successful but also charitable, and I read on. The connections with other rich and famous folk, oh my. Meanwhile my life took a very different turn and I sit with my curiosity. A brush with one destined to be in the 1% while my life unfolds with those facing the other extreme in our land, I can’t help but be sucked into pondering this one.

I find myself remembering a fork in the road way back when I was a young pastor pushing back when a faction of the church wanted to hire a less qualified but apparently hetero musician. I remember the furor when I shared a children’s story that featured diverse family configurations. And I remember one angry member showing up on a Sunday with a hand lettered “I’m a white male American” sticker; he told me that I consistently addressed only two issues, race and homosexuality (sic). I remember church members leaving. Always more coming, but so many leaving. Honestly even now, decades later, it hurts. I wouldn’t have changed who I am or what I preached, but I’d be lying if I said the partings didn’t each one take a piece of my soul. So I look at the picture of the child now famous and remember the years of peelings and turnings and choices made in her life and in mine.

Marshata says that whiteness (with all of its baggage) is in our DNA as white folk and I know that she is right. While every point of divestment has been true and heartfelt, so too I have felt (and feel) the cling. What if … is the entrance to the rabbit hole but also the place to discover the confession that beckons. I remember courageous stands, and also cowardly dodges. My song is genuine but impure.

The bird is singing on the wire, a little too loudly for my taste. But the song is clear and strong, a call to our truest selves, to humility that enables greater empathy. Pushing against the DNA, letting go of nostalgia’s lure and resentment’s bait, I find a path breathing the simple rhythm of life’s longing for itself. Watching the bird sing where it is, I know that this too is my call. To sing my song as it is where I am. Changing, evolving, halting, imperfect.

One day at a time.
#55andCounting