Category Archives: Church

Biblical Values: Welcome the immigrant

As I listened to conversations around the election, I hear da lot of talk of Biblical values, usually invoked to keep LGBTQ people from having equal rights or using the bathrooms that assign to their gender, or when talking about abortion restrictions.

There are, of course, many other issues to consider when engaging in politics and being a public theologian: economics, immigration, gun rights/gun violence, the environment, racism, legalization of drugs, voting rights, and a whole bunch of other stuff. One of these conversations seems to consistently rise above the rest: immigration. And, more often than not, this conversation around immigration is coupled with fear. Fear of the possibility of violence brought by immigrants, fear of immigrants stealing jobs, fear that, as Donald Trump has said of Mexico “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

There also seems to be a large percentage of people who are afraid that a) we are allowing unvetted immigrants into the united states and b) these immigrants could be terrorists, preparing the next terrorist attack.

Or, as Donald Trump Jr. puts it:

trump-skittles

 

The solution that has been proposed to alleviate these fears is to end immigration from middle eastern countries, from Muslim countries, to some how label Muslims or people from the middle east, to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

Oddly enough, Biblical values never seem to enter into this conversation. I imagine this is because Biblical values do not seem to fit into the narrative being created by those who would like our anxiety to be put upon immigrants. As Christians we are called to not be afraid. To love our neighbor AND our enemy. AND we are called again and again and again to welcome the stranger.

If we as Christians are willing to cling so strongly to the relatively few verses that support our views in other matters, why are we not willing to cling to those verses as they apply to those who are different from us, when scripture makes clear over and over again that our call is to care for the orphan, protect the widow and welcome the stranger? To love our neighbor as ourselves?

In Exodus, God says to Moses, “Do not mistreat a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” – twice in but a few verses God says that. Again in Leviticus, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land do not mistreat them,” “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born, Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt, I am the lord your God.” In Deuteronomy, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.”

Job uses his care of the foreigner, his feeding and sheltering of them as a sign of his righteousness and love for God.

God speaks through Jeremiah and says, “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong of violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, do not shed innocent blood in this place.” God sends a smiliar message through Ezekial, Isaiah and Malachai.

In his parable to describe what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus uses care for the stranger as one example of loving your neighbor, ending with that which you did not do to the least of these you did not do to me.”

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Jesus consistently shocks his listeners by using outsiders as emissaries of grace, such as the single man who comes back to thank Jesus for his healing in Luke 17 or the many times Samaritans – dirty, suspicious, unclean outsiders, are the people who do the Godly thing. Jesus repeatedly crosses all kind of barriers to welcome people to him, in demonstration of how we should live in order to welcome people to God.

For crying out loud, Mary and Joseph were strangers in a strange land when they had jesus and they were refugees when Herod killed all of the children in the land. What if there had been a no refugee policy in Egypt?!

Again and again and again, scripture calls us to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. And yet this Biblical value seems to be completely absent from the discussion on immigration – it is like the polar opposite of our discussion on same sex marriage and Transgender rights, where the Bible is all over the place in spite of the relatively few verses that can be used to support this topic and Jesus’ silence on the issue. Over and over and over again, the triune God asks us to welcome the stranger and to not be afraid, and yet we seem to be committed to living in fear and building walls so that the stranger we are called to welcome can be kept out. Not for nothing, many of these foreigners are also widows and orphans – two groups of people pretty much every book of the Bible says we are called to protect.

Why are we leaving these scriptures out? Because it does not serve the narrative. It does not advance the policies of those who want to keep us afraid because our fear feeds their policies and puts money in the pockets of politicians who benefit from our fear. Politicians who promise to keep us “safe.”

Which brings me to another thing – Christians are not called upon to be safe.

Safety is not a Christian virtue.

We are called upon to sacrifice ourselves for the good news of Jesus Christ — the news that God came down and became human to know us, to love us, to set the oppressed free, to break the yoke of slavery, and to proclaim good news to the poor as he proclaims when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his first moment of public ministry.

Christians are called to sacrifice. We are called to pick up our cross and follow God. We are called to give up what we have and follow – safety, security, shelter, clothing – we are called to give those things away. We are called to leave our families for God, to separate ourselves from all we know and all we have, to go out into the world and trust Jesus. We are told again and again that following Jesus is dangerous. And it is. For centuries, people have been killed because of their call to follow God. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.

Many will take this to mean that we should be willing to be killed for our faith, as in if someone is holding a gun to our head, we should be willing to say that we are a Christian and let the chips fall where they may.

That’s cheap grace, it’s pumpkin spice latte Christianity. It’s basic.

Losing our lives for Jesus and the sake of the gospel is losing our lives to live as Jesus lived and to follow Jesus’ call to give up what we have and follow him, to give up our cloak, to turn the other cheek, to be willing to give up what we have so that others may have as well. We are called to be willing to give up our lives for the sake of love, for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. To eat all of the damn skittles.

Those are Biblical Values.

 


Defining Greatness

 

greatnessA sermon on Mark 10:32-45

When I was growing up, I went to church camp every year. As soon as I graduated High School (actually, a few weeks before I actually graduated), I headed off to camp to work for the summer. It was here that I not only learned the Christian Values I hold on to today, but I also had the opportunity to live them.

Carved in the stone by the waterfall was the phrase, “God is love.” The community I experienced there was the closest I have ever been to loving one another as yourself. It was the rare place where, as I grew up, I could be genuinely myself (even as I was still figuring out who I was).

It was also the place that thought me that I could question the church, that I could hate hymns (and that was okay), the place where I learned about the non-canonical gospels and the place where I heard my call to ministry and, try as I might, I could not unhear it.

Last month, I went back for the camp’s 75th anniversary. We had a picnic and everybody lined up. As though we were kids again (or really because some things don’t change no matter who old you get), some people rushed for the front of the line. I opted for the middle. The middle, at camp, was the safest place to be. Because you never knew when the staff would decide it was a “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” meal. It was a total crapshoot as to whether rushing to the front would actually get you served first or quickly land you at the back of the line. While I am generally not one to play it safe, I like to eat, so the middle always made the most sense to me.

Now this verse from Matthew, and the corresponding idea that is evidenced in both Mark (which we have here) and Luke, are tattooed in my memory, and this scripture regularly competes with what I have been taught by the world.

It started when I was young – my grandfather always told me to look out for number one. My father was in a pretty consistent battle to keep up with the Jonses (which, oddly, was most obvious in his weird desire to have the best lawn, but I digress). Awards went to the people who finished first, the kids who were fastest always got picked first, the kids who cut and pushed their way to the front of the line usually got it (and unless we were at church camp, that was just how it was). And on and on it goes. We are often rewarded when we fight to be at the front of the line or the top of the heap, no matter who we push aside or who gets stepped on.

More often than not, those who are at the front of the line or the top of the pile lord it over the ones below, often totally unaware of the real struggles those not at the front of the line have.

This is one of the biggest problems with being at the front of the line – you lose your ability to see those behind you. Even if you do decide to turn around, you can only see those just a bit behind you. You can’t see the back of the line.

When one surrounds oneself with privilege, it is so easy to forget the have-not’s. I grew up fairly well off, but I thought I was middle class because, for a long time, most of what I experienced was people richer than me. People who had houses on the lake with elevators down tot heir private beach, kids whose parents had multiple luxury cars – these things made my large 3 bedroom house and my parent’s buicks look positively poor. To my parent’s credit, they tried to show me, they tried to tell me, but it wasn’t until I went off on my own and made friends in other places that I got to see how truly wealthy I was. I couldn’t see the rest of the line from where I was standing, in large part because I was so concerned with who was in front of me, I rarely thought to look back.

We hear a lot of talk today about greatness. But rarely do we hear about what that word means to those who recite it over and over again. I suspect, however, that greatness means power and authority. I suspect that, in that context, greatness is a power, privilege, and position that allows certain groups to lord such things over others.

To those of us who follow Christ, a lot of the world’s paradigms are inverted. The way the world sees greatness is diametrically opposed to the way Christ sees greatness. We are James and John, asking to have a position that we don’t understand.

I mean, how entitled and blind are James and John to even ask this question? Seriously, they are asking the Son of God if he will give them whatever they want. What?! Who does that?! This requests makes me think these two have rarely heard no in their lives. It makes me think that they have, generally speaking, been at the front of many lines. It also shows clearly that they still don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, what Jesus is going to do. They just saw the transfiguration, and were likely thinking that they want that. They want to be all glowy and heavenly with Jesus and Abraham and Elijah. They still don’t get that the path to that place involves deep sacrifice, involves pain, involves death.

They want to be great, but they are thinking in the world’s terms, not in Jesus’ terms.

In the world, greatness is having your name on the top of buildings, it is wealth, it is the ability to cut to the front of the line and climb to the top of the heap by any means necessary, no matter who you slander, insult, or otherwise hurt along the way. Greatness is the ability to say whatever you want and not face consequences. It is to have enough power, authority and influence that the masses will not question you; everything you say is truth, even when your words are lies that hurt people. Greatness, in our current discourse, is being able to do whatever you want and not only not paying the price, but leaving the vulnerable to pay the price for you. It is backing out of promises and leaving those depending on you high and dry.

Greatness, in our current national conversation, means keeping to ourselves, protecting those who look like us, those who are “deserving”

For those who follow Jesus, greatness is defined differently. Greatness is going to the back of the line, it is moving to the back of the bus and offering our place to someone who was forced to be in the back. It is handing the microphone to those who rarely get to speak. It is giving up what we have: our power, our privilege, our money, or our voice so that others might have a share in those things too. Greatness is serving. It is giving up our very lives so that we might serve those who have been pushed to the bottom of the heap. To be great, those of us who claim Christ and have power, privilege and/or wealth are called to give that up and serve those who have less.

Greatness gets mocked and spit on. Greatness gets crucified. Greatness dies discredited. Greatness does all of these things so that we might live. Greatness does this to show God’s beloved children that there is another way, that there is strength in weakness, there is winning in losing, there is salvation in death.

Those around this kind of greatness do not understand – they see power the way the world sees power. They focus on Christ as victor and king and deny his status as a crucified victim of an unjust system, as a man who got caught, as a brown skinned man from the middle east, as a loser. Strength shows no weakness, power no vulnerability. They cannot understand the necessity of the crucifixion, they move ahead to the resurrection to the ascension, to asking for a share in the power they do not even begin to understand.

But Christ shows us the power in weakness, the strength in vulnerability. Christ shows us that to move to the bottom of the power structure is to be at the top, that greatness isn’t about winning wars, dropping bombs, forcing others to bend to your will or making them do or be as you think they should. Greatness is not having your name at the top of a building; it is having your name atop a cross upon which you have been crucified.

Greatness is found in serving. Greatness is found in love. Greatness is found in giving up so that others might have. Greatness is found in the cross. Greatness is found in Christ.

Amen

 

As a part of this sermon, I read the poem Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes. Everyone should know it. Read it ASAP. 


If churches want to be more diverse — maybe we should start with worship

I was just listening to a fascinating episode of Radiolab that took a look at race and racism in the world of debate. In short, they talked to black debaters about the ways the language and norms of the debate world excluded black people. The main subject of the show shared a story of walking into a national debate competition in high school and having everyone in a large cafeteria stop talking and stare at the black students who just walked into the room. Then he participated in a debate with a partner who instead of arguing the topic at hand, she argued that the debate itself did not allow for black voices, black culture, black ways of being and speaking. She argued that the basic setup of debate set up a ton of obstacles that kept black students from not only winning, but participating. It’s a fascinating episode and you should check it out.

This got me thinking about how we in the mainline protestant church, particularly in my home denomination, the ELCA, tells people of color, women, people with disabilities and the LGBT community (among others) that they do not belong in our pews through the norms of our worship. As we worry about how to become a more diverse denomination, we cling to what might be the main thing that keeps us inaccessible to people from so many other places on the margins. Our worship norms, our language, our music — our frozen chosen style — may create so many barriers to entry it is no wonder we are so damned white (96%, if you are wondering). The way we worship and the way we react to different styles of worship, music changes, etc (either protesting or tokenizing) reinforce white supremacy and keep people who are not a part of the dominant culture (or who don’t speak/have an affinity for the language of the dominant culture) away.

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Most of our ELCA churches still look like this, only the clothes are way less cool.  (1902 Confirmation photo, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Fremont, OH)

 

This is not new information to me. But I had mostly looked at it from the point of view of including other white people — white women, white people with disabilities, white members of the LGBT community. I hadn’t thought enough about how the very language we use may be a reason that people of color stay away.

For example: When I go to churches that have a ton of Father God talk, I get tense. I get annoyed. When I see a large amount of masculine language included in prayers, I get irritated. I want to see myself in worship; I want to hear that my LGBTQ community is included and that those who don’t identify with male or female gendered language have a space in worship. But I don’t consider how the worship might be exclusive to those for whom our the language of the dominant culture doesn’t make sense. I use music in worship that is accessible to people who like predominantly-white hipster music, but I don’t work to include much music that might be accessible to non-white people (which is some ways is because I don’t have those skills). I mean, I use some of the stuff from This Far by Faith, my denominations African-American liturgy, but that’s as far as it goes (also, I would highly doubt that anyone would have any idea that was what I was doing. In fact, I actually quit the gospel choir in my seminary because of the constant drone of masculine language in gospel hymns, preferring my comfort over the comfort of others who experience far more oppression than I do as a white woman.

The language, music and style of our worship services are, in general, that of the dominant culture. With the exception of the non-white Lutheran congregations out there, we all do the same thing in the same way (to one degree or another). Even when we are doing something “different” we are using the language of the dominant culture whether we know it (admit it) or not.  When we tell people of color that their songs aren’t Lutheran enough, when we exclude the possibility of including non-hymn music in worship, when we stick to the script, we reenforce whiteness on a grand scale. Some people in oppressed groups like our theology and our community enough to stick with it, but most will just walk away.

Last week, the ELCA clergy Facebook group did an experiment. All white clergy were asked to step back and listen to provide space for voices that are generally marginalized on the page. While there were many postings that caught my eye and tugged at my heart and my social justice bones, there was one I saw that pertained to this writing. One woman pastor of color posted a gospel hymn with the words, “It’s nice to post a non-Lutheran song here without worrying that it will be completely dissected for its non-Lutheran message. We can simply enjoy the song and singer. Also, realize that this is typical of the music that many of those not in church listen to and which inspires them.” This is what we white pastors have a horrible tendency to do: we explain away all of the reasons something doesn’t fit into our culture when it is incredibly meaningful for someone and make assumptions about whether the person who loves the songs understand the theology behind it. This is a shining example of how we, in the church, reinforce white supremacy and keep other cultures out of our pews and our lives, whether we mean to or not. We whites plain to others (or straightsplain or mansplain) why their language does not belong, and by doing so, we claim the space as “ours.” We tell other people that they do not belong, that they do not matter, and that our cultural preferences win. Every. Time.

There are exceptions to our (Lutheran) tendency to adhere to the cultural norms that are rooted in our European heritage, and I believe that whenever possible we (rostered and lay people) should get outside of our comfort zones and experience the worship of communities different from our own. When I was a student at LSTC, I attended a predominantly black church in Harvey, IL. What I experienced there blew my mind. I cannot express how uncomfortable I was at first. People would (gasp!) speak during worship, uttering “Amen” and “Praise the Lord!” during sermons, prayers, etc. Everyone would hug during the passing of the peace. There was a hip-hop liturgical dance troop, and the music was far more along the lines of Kirk Franklin than Martin Luther. But the members of that community went out of their way to make me feel at home. Every week I would try to escape before the passing of the peace, avoiding the barrage of hugs (I grew up in a shake hands with the people in front of and behind you church). One week, this little old woman stood in front of me as I moved to leave. I told her I had to go to the bathroom. She said to me, “No you don’t. I see you every week. you’re passing the peace today!” Then she hugged me. In that hug, she shattered 24 years of frozen chosen-ness inside of me. I began to enjoy that people were so into worship that they would vocally respond to things that resonated with them, to look forward to the gospel songs (I always liked the hip-hop liturgical dance troop and think that should happen everywhere). I had to make a cultural commute to be there, but the people helped me along. Making it easier was that the words for the liturgy were, by and large, the words I knew in my heart, so we were really meeting each other halfway. What can we do in our predominantly white spaces that meet people who aren’t of European descent halfway? How can we open up our spaces so that there is something for everyone?

Yes, we have an African-American liturgy and a Latino Liturgy, but for the most part they stand alone or are only included for theme times like Black History Month (and, honestly, I am probably just being hopeful here about what we do) or Pentecost. Pentecost — the one Sunday a year when we all welcome other languages to be spoken in our space. What would it look like if we used pieces of these liturgies every week? If we intentionally brought the languages (liturgical style, music, structure, tone, etc) communities that we don’t think of as “traditionally Lutheran” into our spaces. What if we examined our norms to think about the kinds of barriers they might put in the way of people seeking community in Christ? What if we occasionally used our bell choirs for a little hip-hop or meringue, or we got in the habit of using a more call and response style of liturgy? Or if we taught our congregations that it is okay to speak when the spirit moves you (there is no side eye like the side eye given to someone who Amen’s through a sermon at a predominantly white church). How can we remove barriers to not only white women and white queer folk, but to errybody? What would an intersectional* worship look like?

I don’t know if this would have a huge effect on our abysmal diversity statistics. But It seems like a really good place to focus some attention.

Friends who are not of the dominant culture: what do you think? How can we as a church become intersectional in worship? Would it matter?

 

BTW, I am not remotely saying that there aren’t people of all races who enjoy hymns or that classical music is a white thing. But I am saying that these are things that our white culture is most comfortable with and it might behoove us to look at the ways these things might be creating barriers for people who aren’t Scandinavian/German Lutherans.

 

*Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. So, by intersectional worship, I mean a worship that allows people to see their whole selves, all of their identities, reflected in the worship service. This definition is from Wikipedia 😉


30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.


What it means to be bisexual in the world and in the church (and what LGBTQ equality means to me)

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives  LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ.

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ. Also, I have yet to go to hell.

I remember the first time I really noticed women. I was 11 or 12 and traveling in London with my parents. There were these risqué postcards of late 80’s one-hit-wonder Samantha Fox all over the underground that piqued a little more than my curiosity. So it would go over the years, slowly realizing that I was not only interested in boys, I was interested in girls too. I remember driving around at 17 talking to one of my best friends and  coming out to one another as bisexual. Then we didn’t speak of it again until we were in college and both were dating women. It wasn’t a safe thing to talk about. At that time, in the mid 90’s, it wasn’t cool to be bi, girls weren’t passing around Polaroids (the 1990’s version of Instagram) of themselves kissing another girl for the reaction/titillation of the boys around them. It was considered gross (I actually heard a conversation between classmates that expressed nothing but revulsion at the idea of being bisexual, much less gay). In a world in which one of my high school desks had “Eat meat, drink beers, beat queers” carved into it, I knew that my best choice was to remain silent until I was in a place where I was safe — if that time/place ever presented itself.

I have been out in most of my relationships for some time now. My students know. My family knows. To some of you this might be news, for many of you this is in no way surprising, because you have met me. I have been thinking about writing this for some time now and, well, I guess I am ready. If the above paragraph wasn’t clear, I am bisexual. But this is only in part about me. It’s also about the LGBTQ community, the church, and society. It’s about us.

Travel with me, if you will, to the fall of 1999. I’m out watching a meteor shower with one of my best friends in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains. This friend is a woman with whom I shared a tight bond because of our faith. We were both Christian in an environment where that was, shall we say, unpopular. We had both been raised at church camp. Her dad was a pastor, her mom worked for the church, and I wanted to be a pastor. As we lay there on the hood of my car talking about our futures, our desires, what we wanted out of a relationship, and watching the meteors fly overhead, we came to a realization. This was more than a friendship. We began to fall in love.

We prayed together, went to church together, led Bible study on our campus together. Until recently, I considered this woman the love of my life, the one who I foolishly let get away. It wasn’t lust (at least that wasn’t all it was), it wasn’t confusion, it was a deep and abiding friendship, a romance, a relationship of mutual respect, support and caring, unlike almost every other relationship (with men) I have had — before or since.

And yet this relationship, this relationship that was the ONLY relationship in which I have prayed with my partner, the ONLY relationship in which I attended church, studied scripture and talked theology with my partner was also the ONLY one I ever had to hide. It was the only relationship in which I had to be careful where and how we expressed affection (even/especially in church), the only one I couldn’t talk about in my church circles (and with some friends as well), the only relationship for which I was told I was going to hell. My marriage to an atheist man was far more acceptable in my church world than it was for me to be in love with a faithful woman.

In the fall of 2001, I entered seminary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA was still years away from deciding it was okay for LGBTQ folk to become ordained or to be married in the church. It was still studying it (as Lutherans, we study things a lot). I was the object of study, but not the object of acceptance or unconditional love. Like some monkey in a lab, I was the subject of curious interest: kind of human, but not fully human. I could not tell anyone about my relationship for fear it would get around to my candidacy committee or someone else who thought that, in spite of hearing my call to ministry in the 8th grade and working towards it ever since, because of my sexual orientation I should not be allowed to lead a congregation, to preach and teach and administer the sacrament (never mind our theology that states that the person administering the sacrament played no role in its efficacy). I lived in fear of people finding out, of accidentally mentioning my girlfriend. When I did tell a small group I was in about my sexual identity, I then fielded a dozen really gross and intrusive questions from a classmate that would never have been asked of a straight person.

My girlfriend came to visit me on campus, and we had to keep a calculated distance from one another, emotionally  and physically, while in public spaces (which we had kind of gotten used to while living in the South — the calculating the safe spaces, never being too sure if we might get the shit kicked out of us for being in love — and it never stopped sucking). No one could suspect my secret. For this (and a few other reasons like distance and me being an idiot), we determined our relationship could not continue. There I was, in a relationship with someone I loved deeply, someone I respected and had a ton in common with, someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, to have children with, to grow old and grey and cranky with, but it had to end because it wasn’t going to work this way. We couldn’t have a relationship we would have to hide until the church and the world came to a different understanding of who we were and decided to let us fully take part (and holy shit am I overjoyed that we are coming to a place where this is becoming a real possibility).

In my first year of classes, one of my professors (whom I greatly admire) started talking about LGBTQ issues in our Old Testament class. He said, “You know, I get being gay. That makes sense to me. But I don’t get being Bi. We are only supposed to have one partner, not to have sex with many people at once. I believe in monogamy.”

I was flummoxed. What the hell? That’s not what being bisexual means, I thought. But to correct him meant possibly outing myself. So I sat there and listening to a few more minutes of wrong thinking about what it means to be bisexual.

There were people in seminary braver than I was, but they paid for their bravery. One of my classmates got outed by a supposedly “safe” internship site that interviewed her. They asked for her to be put up on heresy charges. Other colleagues left the ELCA for the Episcopal church, as they were quicker to decide to include LGBTQ folk on their ordained roster. To be gay in the church meant for many, and still means for far too many still, to have to hide who you are for fear of marginalization (at best) and/or outright hate and harassment.

I have watched as friends of mine who identify as LGBTQ get kicked out of their families. I have watched my ex girlfriend fret over her father’s desire to marry her and her partner of over ten years because she didn’t want him to pay a price for love (but they’re married now and I am so happy for them!).  I have watched people I love dearly get excluded from the one place that is theoretically all about love and grace. I have lost two people I care about dearly to suicide because they internalized the message that they not only didn’t fit in the church, but that God didn’t love them.

We have watched as the national spotlight has shone on the agonizing rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth, yet so many in the Christian community insist on continuing with the message that these people must change who they are in order to earn God’s love. This, in spite of the apostle Paul’s writing in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God, in spite of the knowledge that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to redeem the world (Jn 3:17), in spite of my church’s focus on grace and love. Out of fear, we focus on hate and exclusion instead of the sanctifying love of God. We continue to drive people away from the church, away from that which is (in theory) the body of Christ, continue to push people who have SO MUCH to offer away from Christian community. While we worship a God who went out of his way to welcome outsiders (the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, most of the disciples), we instead create outsiders. We push people out of our doors.

Conversely, I have wept in joy at knowing my friends are finally able to marry their long time loves. I have seen those friends weeping as their love is publicly, legally, and sometimes religiously recognized. I have had young people willing to re-enter the doors of the church because of the good Christian folk they met working for LGBTQ rights. I have heard some of the most amazing sermons from colleagues who are members of the LGBTQ community, and know that their inclusion is a gift to us. I have been blessed to be the leader of a community in which many strong, young queer kids are able to find space for themselves and know that they are loved by others and by God.

I am a mixed up ball of angst and joy watching the conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in society and the church. Some of it is so beautiful, some so amazingly vile, fear-based and hate-filled. While I am hopeful about the future for the LGBTQ community, I’m also aware that publishing this could jeopardize my ability to get calls in certain places, but if they don’t want a minister who is a member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t want to be there anyway (aka, mom, don’t worry about me doing this. Yes, I did think it through).

One of the best ways to overcome fear is relationship (I recently heard Walter Bruggemann talk about how he no longer argues theologically for LGBTQ inclusion, because he knows that people’s issues are about fear not theology), but another can be knowledge. With that in mind, I wanted to use this as space to explain a little about what it means to be bisexual (at least for me, but I feel like most of these are pretty good generalizations) as well as to advocate for inclusiveness in the church. So, with that, here are a few things (in addition, here’s a great blog post on bisexuality, bi-phobia, bi-erasure, etc):

Being bisexual isn’t a phase, it doesn’t mean I am into flings or that I am just gay and can’t admit it. While it is true that many gay folk first come out as bisexual because either they are still figuring it out or because it’s just easier to ease one’s way into coming out as gay by first becoming bi, it is equally true that some people are just bisexual. End of story.

Bisexual people are attracted to/ interested in people regardless of gender. It’s just not a factor I consider. Like, were I to fill out a profile for Tinder, I would be open to both men and women and then find folk of either gender whom I find attractive with whom I share interests.

Bisexual does not mean polyamorous, nor does it mean a bisexual person will just sleep with anyone and everyone. Yes, there are bisexual people who are into open relationships, are in committed polyamorous relationships, or who just like to have a lot of sex. There are also straight people, gay people, and trans people who are into these things as well. Conversely, there are people of all orientations for whom monogamy is a chosen way of life. How many people one is in a relationship with at one time is in no way related to or limited by one’s sexual orientation.

Just because I am bisexual does not mean I am into you. Check your ego.

No I will not show you pictures. But now that you have asked, I know that you are not a person I want to be friends with, much less be in a romantic relationship with. Seriously, don’t ever ask this. I am not here for your entertainment, my life is not a porn movie, and I am not bisexual for your titillation. One of the reasons I started dating my now ex-husband was that he was the first person in a really long time to NOT ask me something along these lines.

Being bisexual (this goes for all members of the LGBTQ community) doesn’t make a person a pedophile or sexual deviant. One of the most terrifying things about publishing this is the fear that those for whom I have been a youth director or camp counselor will suddenly think I may have had untoward thoughts towards kids. This is not a fear straight youth workers (or people) have to live with (while we all have a sort of low-grade awareness that we have to be careful, it is very different when one is not straight). Kids are just that, kids. They are not sexual objects. Pedophiles are mentally ill and the psychology for pedophilia is very, very different from the biology of being LGBTQ. If you want some facts on the lack of relationship between sexual orientation and child molestation/pedophelia, check this out.

There is a privilege that comes along with being bisexual that the rest of the LGBTQ community does not have: I can live my life as straight and find partners with whom I can have a fulfilling relationship. I have largely done this for a wide variety of reasons. Make no mistake that one of the reasons is that my life is a hell of a lot easier when I date men, both in my career and in the world. Since publishing this, I have heard from bisexual people for whom not dating women would be a heartbreaking choice and would deny them the love of their lives (or of this time period anyway). I hear this. But I still think it is an easier closet to live in than the closet one lives in as gay, lesbian or transgender. That, however, is just my opinion from my experience. 

We are a church built on Jesus Christ, built on the idea that God came to earth as a human to love us deeply and to overcome hate with love, even to death. Our God looked out at the people torturing him and loved us anyway, forgave us anyway, and asked us to do the same to our brothers and sisters. We worship a God who time and time again crossed boundaries of gender, race, nationality, religion, status and more in order to love others. It’s about time we start doing the same. All the time. Everywhere.


On (white) progressive fragility

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Black folk have been targets of violence in the United States since the inception of our nation. There have been times were the bursts of violence are significant enough for national attention, mass killings, lynchings, church burnings, police violence and more have exploded in ways that interrupt the national (white) consciousness only to fade as we move on to the next (less disruptive to our lives as privileged folk) moment of national attention. But the black community never gets to stop thinking about it. The black community never gets to stop being afraid, never gets to let fear entirely leave their consciousness. The white community’s ability to forget, to not mention, to not think about racism is our privilege. It is our reward for simply being born with lighter skin.

I cannot imagine what it would be like if I knew that there were groups or individuals focused entirely on killing, say, white women named Elizabeth, or Lutheran pastors, or any other group of which I am a part. While, as a woman, I experience a low-grade fear when walking alone, it is nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters of color face every day. While I know what it is like to be talked down to because I am a woman and because I am young (at least in my career field), I don’t know what it is like to know that much of the society in which I live and the culture in which I work values me less because of the color of my skin.

These past few months have once again brought violence against people of color, primarily black Americans to the forefront. We have  been having some necessary conversations about race and privilege in our world and in our church. Yet even with the media attention focusing on killing of African-Americans, even with my church body being intimately touched by the killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, we have the privilege to forget. That is privilege. And when that privilege allows a gathering of people for religious purposes to remain silent during a worship service of theoretically progressive allies, that is structural racism.

We can make excuses for our silence. We can say that it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the purpose of our gathering, but if when we gather as a group to worship we reamain silent (as happened this past week at a gathering of my colleagues), we are perpetuating structural racism. Here is how one black woman described her experience of the event. 

This is hard to face. As progressive religious professionals, we want to believe we are good allies. When presented with the pain and anger of members of a community reeling in grief and anger, when confronted about our willful blindness to the pain in our midst, we get uncomfortable. We want it to not be about us, about our behavior, about our privilege. But it is.

When we, as allies, are called out for forgetting, we are called to pause. To think. To consider what it might be like in the shoes of those who are in pain, who are being terrorized, who are straight up pissed off about something that looks and feels like being ignored. Again.

As I write this, I am nervous because I want the approval of my colleagues. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to hurt anyone by putting this out there. But I also have to say it. Because I was disturbed by our silence. I was disturbed my some of the conversations I was a part of. The longer I think of it, the more it bothers me, & the more my heart hurts. And to not say anything because I want people to like me and because none of this directly affects me is just another way I engage in white privilege.

As privileged people, we have the power. Because of our power, we are called to slow down instead of react. We are called to love, to listen, to put our pride and our own concerns aside to hear the grief and pain in the voices and lives of those who are suffering.

We shouldn’t wait to be confronted to act. We need to always be remembering the marginalized in our world and constantly asking ourselves if we are working to perpetuate or dismantle the system. If a member of our community comes to us and says dudes, you missed that, we have not done our job. 

We should never ask that someone aplogise for expressing that they are angry or hurt at being ignored or having something close to their hearts met with silence instead of prayer, lament and action. 

When we ask those suffering to calm down, to wait, to find a more appropriate time or medium to express their feelings, we diminish their grief. We tell them that they are not important enough to be heard, that their pain is not important enough for us to listen to this minute, that they must wait. That’s the pastoral equivalent of having a student show up in our office reeling in pain and fear and telling them to hold on a sec, we have a bulletin to finish editing first.
Now is the time. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to be intentional about observing the grief and pain and fear of the marginalized. Now is always the time.

Now is the time to measure our words carefully, to examine our systems and structures and ask who we are leaving out. Not later, not when it is convenient or appropriate. Now.

When talking to a colleague about events this past week, events in my church body at a conference I attended, I used the phrase progressive fragility. I don’t know if that is a phrase, but it definitely is a thing. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who want to believe that we are allies and/or accomplices get really, really hurt when called out on our -isms. More often than not, we react to these moments defensively, either attacking or deflecting so that we don’t have to look at the fact that we might have just been not-so-progressive. We don’t want to admit we have failed in our ally-ship. When we react, we diminish and silence. When we react we use our implicit power to perpetuate the system. I have seen this when I have called out men who claim the title feminist yet mansplain things to me, or when people expect me to be less competent because of my age and/or gender. I have felt my face burn when a friend has pointed out to me that I just asked all the guys in the room to lift the heavy thing and when my brain points out to me that I’m being racist. But for true structural change to occur, we have to put down the defenses and listen. Really, truly, deeply listen.

When confronted with the hurt of a (marginalized) member of the community, especially a hurt that was either directly or indirectly caused by you or your organization ask yourself:

1)  Did you stop.

2) Did you breathe.

3) Are you listening?

4) Are you practicing grace, love, empathy and understanding. Be the Good Samaritan. Be Jesus encountering the woman at the well. Be the mother hen gathering in her children.

5) Instead of thinking about what the person telling you of their hurt could have done differently, can think about what you could have done differently?

6) Have you thought about how you might be able to act differently in the future, how you can use your voice to disrupt the system, and how you can tear down the structures that perpetuate racism.

7) will you continue engaging in conversation.

I love my church. This past week I engaged in and overheard some great learning and important conversations about structural evil. I know the people with whom I was gathered want to do better, want to be allies, want to fight racism. I also participated in some really disheartening conversations and observed structural evil at work. I know many people were hurt by conversations, by social media, by snide comments and by silence. We can do better, my friends. We have to. It is our call as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Christians, and as humans moving in this world.

Everything is sacred.


And the light breaks through the darkness… Christmas Eve 2013

For Christmas Eve this year, I was privileged to preach at my home congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Ohio. The people of Trinity were some of my main teachers in the faith (alongside family and the staff at Camp Mowana in Mansfield, Ohio). I am both proud and blessed to have been raised in that community. They are shining Christ’s light into the darkness.

Tonight’s reading from Isaiah speaks of light and darkness.  Image

Darkness and light.

Darkness and light. We are a people of the light, yet we spend so much of our lives wandering in the darkness.

This is the human condition. Some of us experience more of one than the other, some of us are better at seeing the light in the darkness, some of us are not so good at finding the light.  But still, we search. We grope. We cry out for the light. Like the generations before us, we crave light.

Sometimes, the darkness is our own doing – we become focused too much on our own needs, break relationships, indulge our desires to the point of illness that we cannot escape. We close out the light. Sometimes the darkness is something in us we cannot control, at least not without difficulty – mental illness, a physical illness, a darkness we fight with all our might but still seem to have difficulty finding the light. Other times, the darkness is imposed on us on a personal or structural level – abuse, relationships broken by the other party (or parties), loved ones who are ill, a government or society that doesn’t view us as a full person, life in a land ravaged by war, famine, a system that keeps people poor no matter how hard they try to move up.  Often these conditions are the result of others who are living in their own darkness; people who don’t realize they can’t see the light.

Wherever you are, however much darkness you may be in, the light of Christ is with you.

Tonight is the night we celebrate the central miracle of the Christian faith: God came to earth to be with us, to understand us, to feel pain and joy just like us, and, most of all, to be a light that would banish our darkness and lead us home to God, to everlasting life.

The God in whom we place our hope is not a God who stands far above us, judging us, moving us around like little pieces on a chess board. Our God is a God who plunged himself into our deepest darkness, plunged himself into death, only to return in light and glory and to leave us with light to follow until he comes again.

Our God is a God who walks with us in our pain because God has been here. In Jesus’ time on earth, he lost loved ones, experienced betrayal, felt death breathing down his neck, experienced physical and emotional pain, cried out to God that he he felt forsaken. God forsaken by God. He was fully human and fully divine. He gets it. In Christ we are never alone. God is always there to walk us through. Even when we can’t feel it, even when we are so lost in our own darkness that we can’t see the lanterns on our path. God is there.

God came to us as a child, breaking into human history, breaking into time and lived among us. Christ ascended into heaven but left the Holy Spirit and remains present with us in the gospels, in creation and in community.

God is here. Christ is here. Right here, in this place. The bright light shining in the darkness, lighting our way home.

Christ lives in this community, holding you up as you hold up each other.

That’s the only possible explanation for how you, dear members of Trinity, are still here.

My dad would come home from council meetings in the 80’s stressed out about the future of Trinity. The finances were ugly, he would say. There isn’t enough money. The building is falling down around us.

Twenty-five years later you are still here.

This is because Christ‘s light lives in your midst.

For those of you who might be visiting tonight, I want you to know this is an amazing community. It is a place where Christ’s light truly shines. Trinity folk, for 35 years, from near and far, I have watched you, dear Trinity friends, walk with one another through the joys and pains of life, watched you lift each other up, share each other’s triumphs and failures. You not only do this for members of this direct community, you reach outside of these crumbling walls to feed, clothe and assist those who come to you needing help in any way you can.

Christ lives among you and within you.

And yet, my father’s worries of the 80’s are coming to pass. This building is falling apart. It hurts my heart to think about this building going away.; to think that I could come home for another Christmas and not worship in this space This building is where my faith was nurtured, where I learned women could be pastors, where I would sit to listen to my father’s wonderful bass voice float down out of the choir loft, where I first preached and where I was admonished to take prayer more seriously. This community held my family as my father fought and lost a battle with cancer, and has prayed with and for me as I took a windy, weird journey to ordained ministry. I love this place. I misted up a little on Sunday when I wandered down to the fellowship hall and admired the walls we painted (with the Robar’s wonderful direction) so many years ago. It is painful to think about this community leaving this place.

But how much of what I just said was about this building? The painting downstairs  is a result of the community, no the building. My father’s voice couldn’t have floated down from the choir loft were it not for the encouragement of a caring choir director who saw a gift in my father and worked with him to uncover it. Trinity is not this building. We were as much Trinity when we worshiped in Lakewood park for the steak fry as we are when we worship in these walls. Christ is with you, Christ lives in you, your work is evidence of Christ’s continued presence on earth. Be confident in that.

The miracle that we celebrate this night is not just that God broke into our world in a material, historical, time bound way, it is that Christ continues to be with us at all times and in all places. Christ is with us in the Gospel, in this community, and, in the most solid, material way, Christ comes to us in the eucharist. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are crossing the bounds of time and space to experience Christ’s love and light in a tangible, real way. How? I don’t know (I disagree, you’re a damn good pastor and Christian, you know how Christ appears-here’s your opportunity to name it in concrete terms). Christ’s presence in these things is a mystery to me, but it is there.

Christ is here.

Overcome with joy this night? Christ‘s light is with you. Feeling content in your life? Christ is with you.

If you are hurting this night, the light of Christ shines for you. If you are alone this night, Christ is with you. If you are ill, Christ is with you. Jobless, Christ is there. Losing hope? Christ is there. Christ is with you now and always.

If you can’t feel it, if you can’t find the light, ask someone to help you. Reach out. This is why we gather in community as Christians. If you can’t find the light, if you can’t find your faith, someone will walk with you until you can see the light on the path.

On this night, we remember God coming to earth to know us, we remember a scared young woman giving birth to a hope that had been promised for generations, a hope that lives with us still. Let that hope, that light, live in you. Nurture it with prayer, with song, with presence in a community that believes in God, in God’s presence in this messy, broken world and insists on acting in the name of God to spread love, justice and hope to all.

If you have found the light, if you can see the light, it is up to you to shine the light so that others may follow. When we keep the light to ourselves, it goes out. When we claim the light as our own or place rules and boundaries around the light, we diminish it to the point of the faint glow of embers, the fire that once was. Christ’s light is for all regardless of who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. Christ is for everyone. No boundaries. No fences. No in or out.

When we shine with Christ’s light , when we hold the light of Christ’s love for all creation up high for all to see, we become partners in Christ’s work. God’s work, our hands, as the saying goes. We are called to be “God with some skin on.” To be the light for those who can’t find their way and to shine our light brightly on the places where the light is dim – to the places where injustice rules, where the voices of the poor, those who are considered minorities, the different, and those on the margins are silenced, to the places where I is more important than we. We are called to shine the light on the false gospels that tell people that god rewards the faithful with material possessions, that with faith comes power, might and freedom from pain and illness. We are called to take our light into the depths of poverty, despair, hunger, addiction, abuse and to shine it. We are called to speak truth to power so that all may walk in the light in this world as well as whatever comes after this life. We are called to let Christ’s light shine from every mountaintop into every dark corner of this world.

If you can’t see the light, let someone know.

If you see the light, follow it and let it fill you.

If you are filled with the light, let it overflow into the world around you.

The light is with you. Christ is with you. Forever and always.

Amen.