The Words I Could Never Understand Then, That Could Only Be Understood Now

ImageI binged on 90s music last week and rediscovered some of my favorite gems. Among them, Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Primitive Radio God’s “Standing Outside a Broken Phonebooth,” and The Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” I sung them freely around the house, delighting in the early evening spring sun shining through opened blinds, grateful to be in the present moment, yet overcome with nostalgia and wisdom from time’s past.
I think that’s one of the gifts music provides. That no matter your musical history, the words and melodies will find a way to speak to your heart. My small brush with musical talent began in first grade when I got to play the glockenspiels for three years in a row in the winter concert. The best part of all— my music teacher would let me come practice in the music room during lunch time. I figured out what mallet to hit based on sound and never learned how to read music. FACE, Every Good Boy Does Fine— that was a foriegn language I could never understand. In fact, I only made it through high school chorus by knowing that when the music notes flipped upsidedown, that was my part to sing, being a soprano. Needless to say, it’s a talent I never possessed but appreciate like no other.

Music’s gotten me through training practices, heartache, amplified my best days, and softened my worst days. It’s provided me clues of my past and offered wisdom for the future. So as I was singing the familiar harmonies of “Closer to Fine,” I was struck by all the things I missed while singing those words back in the 90s. Things I could never understand until my heart developed into a melded mess from beating fast, and being held after brokenness. Things I could never understand until my memories included those of pain, uncertainty, doubt, big decisions, hard breaks, tough calls, and the freedom of the open road and hostels. Experiences, in other words, that my young heart was too naive to understand until it went through the hard process of growing up and maturing.

I think much like music, pictures or stories speak to us in different ways throughout our life span. As a kid, The Giving Tree was an awesome book about a boy and a tree that fell in love with each other, and now -call me jaded, but- it feels like a story of a selfish little boy who manipulated a codependent tree. I’m still a sucker for Oh The Places You’ll Go, though, and will forever wonder what a zizzer-zazzer-zuzz is in Dr. Seuss’ ABC.

Similarly, much like pictures and stories, parents and friends speak to us in different ways throughout our life span. I learned the joy of what it feels like once you finally see your parents outside of an authoritative role and into the role of an old friend, finally understanding the sacrifices they made to bring your little life into existence. I learned the great sadness it feels to see a parent sick in the hospital, as you question their mortality, and yours as well.

And much like parents and friends, faith/God/a Maker/Creator, can speak to us in different ways throughout our lifespan. That’s one of the things The Indigo Girls reminded me of last week. While I relate to the Indigo Girl’s description of what it feels like to take life less seriously and to search for the things that will fill our heart with peace, perhaps what sticks out most to me is the refrain, “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” And how true is that of life, or faith, or getting older and “growing up?” Why does it feel like my human nature to tighten my fists, muscling through things the way think they should go, when perhaps it really would be easier to turn my gripped fists into open palms? Why do I look at paper applications and beg for certainty that everything in my life will all turn out ok, and then lay on my front porch, stare up at the stars, and suddenly don’t care anymore? Don’t care about career. Don’t care about when to get married, if/when to have kids. Don’t care about my sh*tty salary. Don’t care how I’m perceived. Don’t care if I’m understood. And, most freeing of all, don’t care about certainty anymore. And the less I beg of God for answers to life’s questions, the less I feel like I need to explain or defend why I don’t really go to Church anymore because of the way I experience Church when I ride my bike, when my sister smiles, when I feed the chickens, and when I sing old 90s songs alone in my room that feel less like pop culture and more like hymns. 

I’ll stop asking for certainty.
And trust that the God that got us this far can get us the rest of the way.
I’ll linger under stars.
Stand up on my bike pedals when going downhill.
Do headstands in the grass.
Get fresh Earthen dirt under my nails.
Learn from the birds, the bees, and the beats of 90s rock. 

Because I’m closer to fine than ever before
And we’re all gonna be ok. 

 

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The Gayest Valentine’s Day Ever!! Literally.

Originally posted on The Button Chronicles…:
It would be safe to say that my sister, Stacey, is my Hero… ——————————————————————————– Dear Whitney,  I wanted to send you an email to wish you Happy Birthday. Your D told me that I…

Finding My Voice (and a little pep talk for the young girls out there)

keep the earth below my feetI had a professor in college who taught us about the “principle of leaving and entering,” i.e. one cannot move forward to the next [life stage, opportunity, job, city, destination, you fill in the blank] without making peace with what you’re leaving behind [be it college, your hometown, you get the idea]. At the time, I was dreaming about volunteering abroad after college, and ready to leave behind the America I knew. But what I didn’t realize at 22 is that the next stage of life would be just as much about putting things behind as it would be about pursuing new things.
A couple years after college, I burnt out.
I. simply. Couldn’t. keep. Up.
I lost myself and become bitter and cynical towards much of what I saw around me.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I realized just how many voices of the past were still lingering in my head, like flies in desperate need of a fly swatter. Voices of a spiritual community that said women were to be submissive, to “let their husbands lead.” Churches that said males were to be “pastor, provider, and protector” of his wife. Voices that said being a female pastor was a sin. Voices that made sure everybody knew what Christianity stood against, but left the world puzzled as to what we actually stood for. Voices that tried to rescue souls from hell, while ignoring the literal hells and Gehennas in the world going on right now. Sexual slavery. HIV/AIDS. Extreme poverty. Orphans without homes. Should I keep going?

In 2012, I began a journey towards freedom- freedom of religion, of dogma, of other people’s demands, of paved paradises- into a personal journey of development and enrichment. It’s looked like lots of open spaces, lots of gathering ’round the table over wine and sweets and savories, lots of finding and losing myself on bicycles. In this freedom, it’s as though God took me by the hand to lovingly, but firmly, (because the lesson was too important to miss out on) teach me that the thing about the past is just that. It’s in the past. It cannot hurt you again. It cannot continue to hurt you or frustrate you unless you let those voices zap your energy from the present moment.
For far too long, this woman’s listened to voices of the past that were squelching life, joy, zest for the moment. Alas, I looked myself in the mirror, a good ol’ stare yourself down, straight-up-talk, with a little bit o’ lovin’, and a lot of bit of firmness. I looked in the mirror, and noticed a cynic. Ugh. I hate that word. To me, it’s synonymous with a passive, complaining, do-nothing-to-change-anything kind of persona. So I asked God to silence those voices, the ones that were slowly, painfully, hauntingly taking away my joy, my peace, my resolve, and silence them one and for all, to free me from the people and places and noises that were no longer helping me become the person I want to become. I asked God to change me from cynicism into activism. Hurt into compassion. Bitter to better.

Somewhere in the process, I learned that I don’t need to fight anymore.. not against those voices, at least. A little whisper breathed into my heart,
You’ve been freed.
Let your load feel lighter, your burdens from heavy rocks to little pieces of shiny yellow sand.
Put the boxing gloves down.
Breathe.
You no longer have to defend, nor strive, nor try to make yourself understood.”

I thought it would feel easier. But then I realized that that’s not quite the way it works. The moment you stand for something, there is something you are implicitly standing against. The more and more you become the person you want to be, the voice that isn’t God’s will try to steer you off course. When you become YOU, not someone else’s version of you, you will disappoint people. But let me tell you something, you will become the person you were made to be. The more you will realize that the very people still standing beside you are there because they really do love you, they really do care, and they really do desire God’s peace and love and blessings upon you, not out of pity, nor spite, but out of a selfless kind of love that has found its way through the broken chains of redemption, giving voice and beauty to the very fact that you and I are both humans, composed of flesh and blood, and you and I have both been created in the womb.
I am freed now from what’s been zapping precious energy, and I can’t wait to learn, and love, and do, and grow, and experience with this new found freedom what God can finally place in my life in the thoughts and corners and crevices of my heart that were once holding onto hurt, bitterness, and a seemingly endless desire to be understood. I am free. I can only imagine what will go in those pockets of my heart now. I can love without mountains of expectations or fears of being hurt.
I can express bona fide joy—my smiles will no longer be a veil, hiding a voice that’s afraid of being mistaken as impolite, too afraid to speak up.
I can operate out of a place that points to the horizon and feel alive in my soul, and my bones, and my eyes; to live the story, full and raw, not dependent upon things be one way or another, but ever confident that this risk of living a better story is so much better than living in the choking weight of others’ voices that try to drown out the one true voice of who you want to become.

Go point to your horizon.

MOVE.
You don’t have time to respond to your critics.
You simply don’t have time.
Be you, the REAL you, ALL of you… that’s what the world needs.
Go seek.
Go ask.
Because what I hope that the girls of new generations come  to realize is this: that if ever there was a time for women to rise up and unite, the time is now. Oh yes, I’m thankful for my sisters who gave me the ability to vote. For women who went to college and challenged typical professions. But there is so much work we still must do.

Advocate.
Preach.
Lobby.
Dream. Louder.

May you listen to that one constant in your heart.
May you give voice and flow to all that longs to leap inside of you.
May your songs be peace, may your dance be love, and may your love bring freedom.

Because you have a voice that’s no one else’s.
We’re ready to hear it.

Born of the (Un)Virgin Mary? (Questioning the Virgin Birth but Loving Jesus All the Same)

abstinenceLike many Christians, I was taught the Bible through instruction, stories, skits, and songs. My teachers and leaders did a great job in trying to help us learn more about God, Jesus, and faith, but questions weren’t encouraged, especially questions with no easy answers. Then, I graduated college, left a college ministry, began going to more progressive churches, then the kind of Church that doesn’t meet in a building, but in open fields or with friends gathered around a table in community. It’s been here in these outlets that I’ve taken a more critical look at the Bible.

I still remember sitting down at my friend’s kitchen table two years ago, sharing that, “I don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve anymore.” Whew. It felt so good to say. I felt like I was getting a dirty secret off my chest. I felt invigorated. He smiled. “I haven’t believed that for a long time,” he replied. I talked about my other frustrations with the Bible, like how could a loving God wipe the Earth clean from people because S/He was sick of them? He pointed out that almost every major religion- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for some examples- has a flood story. 

One reason why some people are afraid to question is that often, one question leads to many. And when you get to challenging all that you’ve been taught, for some people that brings up feelings of disloyalty or shame.

I’ve moved on from shame and have now fallen in love with questions. Questions give way to freedom. Questions help me wrestle, scramble, muse, fall deep into the enclaves of wonder, reminding me I will never, ever have it all figured out. Well-known pastor Rob Bell shared in his book Velvet Elvis, “Questions aren’t scary. What’s scary is when people don’t have any.” I can’t agree more. 

So naturally, I’ve found myself questioning again. I was taught to believe that Jesus was born from virgins: Mary and Joseph. And like many Christians, I didn’t question it. That is, until recently. A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a dear friend about my frustration over a verse in the Bible that stated because a woman from a long, long time ago ate a piece of fruit, God punished women with excruciating birth pains. Apparently, this painful birthing predicament is also the same act that will save women. The more we talked, the more I grew to believe that the Bible was indeed written by men (literally, men, since women did not receive the education men did) and that if I lived some thousands of years ago, and didn’t understand how humans were made, maybe I would try to explain why women give birth through some story like that too.

And then my friend said it, said the thought that got me questioning all I’ve been taught to believe, all over again. She laughed, “Yeah, it’s just like Jesus being born of a virgin.”

Wait, what?

Her point was that people living in that timeframe didn’t have reproductive education, therefore if a couple accidentally became pregnant, and sex before marriage was disdainful, then maybe that’s where the fable of Jesus’ virgin birth came about.

So if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, would that make a difference?

Would it make a difference in the lives Jesus touched? The outcasts that Jesus dined with? The poor in spirit that Jesus comforted?

Might it make the Bible not so volatile as to personally be freed from having to believe every bit of it tit-for-tat, line-by-(sometimes angering) line?

Might it put less emphasis on shaming “purity culture” and instead shed light on that, while perhaps not ideal, God can redeem all things, including the stigma of children born out of wed-lock? (For an excellent post in this, see Melanie Springer’s “I Wasn’t Planned, But Am Loved“)

Was the point that Jesus was born of a virgin, or was the point that Jesus’ life would change the world as we know it?

Arguing over whether or not a sexual encounter led to Jesus’ birth is not the point I’m trying to make.

All I’m saying is, isn’t there more than one way to read sacred text when we consider the time frame and potential biases in which this text was written?

Perhaps not everything is literal.

We can think about the context in which passages were written and ask ourselves, “What knowledge did people have at the time?” “If I were a first century Christian, how would I understand this?” (For more on this, check out “Questions for Exegesis“)

If you come away with different beliefs than what was taught to you, that’s ok. Because if “the word became flesh,” isn’t it more important to show the love of Jesus with our actions than nailing down the “right” verbiage?

It words and doctrine bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away.
All that matters is if you are finding God in this journey.

That you discover wrestling and questioning are holy acts of necessity.

That Jesus redeems all brokenness, even “taboo” out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Because wouldn’t that be so like Jesus, to stand in the periphery of all the religious dogma, and show with his actions that all things can be redeemed and made beautiful?

The Stories Our Pictures Tell Us, Or, What I Learned from Sitting Alone for Two Hours in a Closet

                                                                                                 
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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Philadelphia with my family. I always tell people from out of town that though I grieve summer’s end, the best time to visit PA is in the fall, where the gold, crimson red, and yellow trees will call you into attention, causing you to notice every little thing around you that you’d normally overlook. This weekend was no different. The sun shone all weekend, tall trees telling tales in goldenrod and setting sun orange.

It was a good weekend. One of those weekends that make you look deep inside of yourself and feel absolute gratitude for getting to experience it, all of it. I spent the majority of the weekend at Villanova University where hundreds of students put on the world’s largest student-run event for Special Olympics.  Cheering loudly, I’ll never forget the way they lined the walkway back to our cars, and high fived each athlete, as though we were married couples walking out to a procession line. When I told them thank you for their abounding energy, they just smiled, and replied, “We love this. It’s our favorite weekend all school year.”

I woke up the next morning and got to run with Special Olympics athletes in a 5k, delighting in the sun meeting my bare legs. November 2nd is far too into fall to be able to wear shorts, but today is different. The sweet 70 degree sun smiled at our legs. We danced the night away in the gym at the annual dance the students run, there we did the Cha Cha Slide, the Cotton Eye Joe, and The Wobble, whose choreography and lyrics I still don’t understand.

I watched my sister play soccer Sunday. For far too long in our relationship, she was the one watching me, and now I was thrilled to give back that time and attention to her. It was, perhaps, a moment of reconciliation, as if to make up for lost time.

As Sunday evening approached, the sun sunk at 4:58 PM thanks to daylight savings time. An extra hour of sleep? No thank you, I’d take an extra hour of daylight over extra sleep anyday. After sunset, I went upstairs and noticed a journal peeking out from my closet. Curious, I decided to take a look. Inside lie four boxes filled with letters, greeting cards, old swimming times, old swimming workouts, high school and graduation pictures, and friends’ wedding programs. There were printouts of old AIM conversations with boys I had crushes on. My polka dot scrunchie I wore way after scrunchies stopped being cool. I’m always a good 3-5 years behind the latest fashions.

A strange, but wonderful sense of nostalgia warmed me up like chamomile tea on a snowy day. I’m re-reading a wrinkled letter from one of my good guy friends from high school. One of my best friends created a senior project where students were asked to anonymously submit essays describing their experiences of love in order to “purge their feelings and maybe come to some resolution.” I don’t think it was until my binge in the closet that I fully appreciated the magnitude of her endeavor. Guys and girls alike anonymously poured out the most vulnerable parts of themselves on paper. I can’t believe he even gave me his letter, so personal. So visceral. I felt like I was reading a journal entry from a 35 year old who’s looking back on the thing or two that he’s learned from the journey he’s been on since he said “I Do” at an altar.

Their were greeting cards marking birthdays, apologies, thank you-s, and just-because’s. There was that note that my neighbors wrote me right before we all thought I’d be leaving for Peace Corps. Though I’ve made peace with my decision, it still stings a little bit each time I come across that name, or see a piece of paper of something I signed in the copious amounts of paperwork that the process entails. It hurts a little when dreams die. It hurts a little when you remember a part of yourself that was so filled with life, pulsating, passionate life. If I’m honest, there’s a part of myself that I never fully regained when I said no to my dream. Even though I’m most grateful for the ways in which I’ve healed since that time, looking back on ourselves and our lives can be hard, can’t it?

There’s my grandfather’s passport. I never got to meet the man, but from what I hear of him, he was the most amazing person. I’ve only ever seen pictures of him with the family or alone in solitude in his church robes. He was a pastor, a thinker, and I’d love nothing more than to pick his brain. He died at all-too-soon age of 53 from a heart attack in the middle of his kitchen. It hurts, doesn’t it, when you don’t get to meet the people that you want to meet? When lives are interrupted without your permission? Now, all that’s left in my hands are a picture of him at this last church service in Illinois before he and the family moved to PA and his old passport. I began prodding my dad for passport explanations. Why did he go to Russia, and South America, and who did he go with, and how long was he there for? Half of the stamps we couldn’t decipher, after all it was an expired passport from 1971.

There’s cards from my grandmother that all looked pretty standard: Hallmark cards signed in small, shaky cursive- “with love, Grandma.” I loved her; I know I did. It’s just that she had an aneurysm in 1985, just a few years before I was born. My only memories of her are of when she was in a walker. She and my aunt would come over for every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas you name it. We would blow up whoopie cushions, put them under her seat, and after we heard the fart sound, we’d erupt in laughter while she proceeded to ask us to stop it. We would just keep laughing. And we never stopped it. I loved her presence; it felt like home whenever she was in our house. I just doubt that as a kid, I fully appreciated her. And she’s gone now. I still remember that dreaded phone call at my friend’s graduation party in June 2003. When the phone rang on my friend’s house line- I didn’t own a cell phone at the time- it was my mom on the other line. “I need you to come home now. It’s about Grandma.” And so, as soon as I got home, we went to Artman Nursing Home, where I saw a dead body for the first time. It was weird. And I didn’t like it. So I cried. We left, not talking much, and a week later I went to my first funeral. Our neighbors were there, as they have always been for every major life event. I still remember Mrs. Beerley giving me a big hug, as she looked me in eye and said, “It’s ok.” I hope Grandma knew how much I loved her, even when I didn’t express full interest in her life. I know she’s chock full of stories, like her husband (my grandfather), whom I also didn’t get to meet because life was cut short.

There were newspaper clippings from our local newspaper. I grew up in a neighborhood in which teachers came to school early to provide homework help. It felt safe. One time, the crime section read: “Three flags stolen from Flourtown Country Club golf course.” Really, I’m not making this stuff up. There’s also that time, because our town was so small, that I got in this same crime section for careless driving. It was an early morning, a long day and even longer night on July 2nd, 2005, as friends and I spent the day at Philadelphia’s Live 8 concert advocating for global action to end poverty, especially in Africa before the G8 summit. At 12 AM on July 3rd, I crashed into a telephone pole, wrecking public property (along with my car) and was even told I had to pay for it. A week later, I re-lived it all over again as I read “Melissa Otterbein, 18, cited for reckless driving….” Fortunately, I’d built enough rapport with the parents whose kids I coached and babysat. As I received cards from these families, all I could think was, “Hopefully they didn’t read the newspaper.”

I found some old CDs in the memory boxes, including a couple Christian cds. I stopped listening to Christian radio about two years ago when I grew tired of hearing infomercials about how there’s new aged speakers on Oprah who are leading people astray and if we really love people, we shouldn’t let them listen to these people. I grew tired of their cheesy slogans that they would repeat multiple times per hour. “Family friendly, kid safe.” What about those of us who don’t have kids? Does that mean public radio is evil? I hardly think so. Anyway, as I drove home later on, after I had left the closet, a strange familiar came over me as I found myself nervously singing the words again for the first time in a long time. I thought about the times when those songs carried me though difficult nights, when things weren’t so good at home. Or when I’d have those occasional teenage relationships dilemmas, experiencing life’s stress, but oh, I was happy. It didn’t even feel weird anymore to sing these songs. The attachment felt peaceful, like I could enjoy it while keeping it a safe arms-length away. I guess that’s where I am with Church now. I love God, but seem to keep Church that arms-length away. It wasn’t God who scared me, it was Church, well, just some Churches, that often minimized how I could find the love of God in my sister’s smile instead of ancient text that angered me most of the time.

It’s funny, I spent almost two hours in that closet and left the room a lot messier than I found it. I figured it would give me a good reason to go back in there the next time I’m home.  It’s amazing where photos and cds, or letters and decorations and old newspaper clippings can take us. It’s amazing how words on crinkly paper from a decade ago can help you make sense of today. It’s amazing how a box of photos that we can no longer reprint because we stopped using 35 mm film about the same time we stopped playing with pogs can spark up warm fuzzies and fear all in the same memory. TS Eliot once said,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I sense that in my boxes of nostalgia. I sense that we’re on this journey and the good, the difficult, the crushed, the joyful all carry us into our future in untied fragments. Someday, some great-grandchild might finger through our letters and CDs— what the hell were those, never the less tapes?–and smile. Perhaps they’ll ask their parents about us or put us back in a box. Or perhaps if you lived a life bold enough, they’ll proudly place your picture on a nightstand and smile at it when they wake up in the morning on their way to work.

It’s a strange life. We live it once. That’s it. And all that’s left are the memories. Half of them, we forget about, until an old photo jogs our memory as though we need basic instructions on how to look back on very own lives that we created. We do things everyday that we won’t even remember doing tomorrow, let alone 40 years from now. That’s weird.
But I hope when you go to bed tonight, you feel the love of those people.
I hope you keep taking those photographs, even if you’re scared to document this time of your life because you don’t want to re-live the pain you’re going through right now by finding it buried in the pixels of an old photograph. I hope you keep writing those journals, even if you don’t want to read the sad tale you documented on paper ten years from now.
Or maybe you’re having the time of your life, too busy to sit down and even capture it. But one day, though, someone’s going to look back in order to find themselves because they got lost too. We all get lost. I’m trying to keep up with these memories in order to make sense of my life and maybe you are too. It’s amazing how five people can experience the same event, but none will recall it the same exact way with the same exact details. We each bring forth our little vignettes and keep our lives sustained into another year, another decade, another century, or even millennium. It’s ok to look back on your pain. It was a part of your struggle. I only hope that the painful parts of your story will find some healing. I hope there’s days you can’t pen down because you were so overwhelmed by the privilege of being alive that even if you tried to write it down, no one would get it. Perhaps you too, just like TS Eliot will live along some day and be able to put back the pieces. We’ll find ourselves and lose ourselves until we glance up to the endless sky in these cracks and crevices of darkness and of light.

“It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember dressing the wound with meat tenderizer and you saying I made it better…” -Jenny Hallowell, A History of Everything, Including You

‘Cause Tonight the World Begins Again.

Christmas Eve.

There’s a song that reminds me of this night, no matter what time of year. It’s not your typical Christmas song. You probably won’t hear it on your local soft-rock-turned-Christmas-since-Thanksgiving-Station that’s already played Feliz Navidad 50,000 times. I doubt you’ll sing it in Church, either.

It’s called “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls. I’m not sure what lead singer Johnny Reznik intended for this song, but I can’t hear this song without thinking about the hope of Christmas.

I picture Christmas Eve like looking out the window at midnight after an evening of appreciable snowfall. The roads are unplowed, smooth snow glistening like sugar cookies, fresh in the street, untainted. The media isn’t yet in a frenzy over which facility is closed and which will get a two hour delay. A hushed silence blankets the world, if but for the night, drawing you in closer to the person next to you. There is peace and wonder and beauty, but it doesn’t scream, nor demand your attention. Heaven knows we don’t need more screaming, more arguing. Instead, its peacefulness is what garners our attention and draws us nigh. This is a bit of what Christmas Eve feels like to me- a baby, born in privation, surrounded by the love of God, except this baby isn’t screaming. This baby is sleeping peacefully in Mary’s arms. There is a beckoning to this Jesus that doesn’t yell, but quietly, calmly pulls my soul in deep, especially on a night like tonight. 

This night is always my favorite out of the year. A sense of anticipation churns in my heart as I look up at the stars convinced that hope is always out there for the searching, that life is inherently good, that there is a love out there trying to find ways into every person’s heart.
For the past twenty-some years, I’ve felt a taste of this beauty, this hope, at Church, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. I remember the peace and stillness in my mother’s voice as she sang. Sometimes I would lower my voice, or stop singing altogether just to hear her sing. She rarely sings, but this night is an exception.

This year, I barely went to Church, as in a place you go to on Sunday mornings. But I’ve experienced Church that much more strongly out here in the wide open spaces. I liken it to how some animals have a poor sense of eyesight, but sharp olfactory acuity. I may not get “fed” through sermons and communion and prayer anymore, but my sense of God in the everyday is clued in more strongly than ever before, and I find God gathered around a fire with friends, in 5 AM foggy sunrises, in sunsets over the mountains, in conversations about reconciliation and peace amongst nations, and in the most boring, trivial parts of life.
So I may be joining the crowd of “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians tonight, but there’s no place I’d rather be. I know I’m not the only one. All sorts of people can find their way to Church on this night. Some who haven’t set foot in a Church in 10 years, only to discover that tonight, there really is plenty of room at the inn for all of us.

We discover, tonight, that in the midst of all the gifts, packages tied up in strings, something isn’t satisfying, and we realize that the greatest gifts that we’ve been given, like the song points out, are faith and trust and peace while we’re alive. We realize that we’re in this together, not focused on ourselves or egotistic societal mores, if but for one night. We’re focused on something bigger, on something we can’t explain, on something we can’t quite put our fingers on, on an event that we weren’t even around for all those thousands of years ago, but still choose to celebrate, year after year after year.

•••

It’s not coincidental to me that Christmas Eve falls one week before New Year’s Eve, and somewhere, at some moment in time tonight, you might find yourself placidly at a pew or lying in bed by candlelight, or perhaps driving home from a Christmas party or wrapping that last gift, turned inward, pensive, musing about the year as it slowly dwindles into its final seven days. And maybe your heart will fill with regret, or even bitterness. Maybe you didn’t treat people around you the way you wish you would have this year. Maybe you’ve had more joys this year than you could have ever foreseen, and on this night, your heart is so full, it just might burst with gratitude. Some of us will have lost someone, or something, this year, perhaps unexpectedly, that meant so much to us. And so our hearts are hurting as we experience our first Christmas without them. And as tears of joy and abundance, or tears of pain and hurt—or perhaps an amalgamation of both—warm your cheeks tonight, may you feel a presence come over you. Dare to believe it is God, softly whispering in your ear, “tonight’s the night we begin again.” All of our unmet hopes, all of our grievances, all of our confusion, all of our gratitude, our story, commingled with God’s story- the hope that on this night, like so many thousands of years ago, the world begins again. A hope rekindles. A baby gets born who will one day encourage the whole wide world to know how much they are loved, forgiven, freed. Whose words will affirm the pushed aside and the misunderstood. Who will flip things upsidedown, claiming that the last shall be first, the first shall be last. Ah, yes, that subversive guy. But wait. He’s just a baby tonight. Not a word has come out of his mouth yet, and his life, the story, is just starting, or re-starting. Ah yes, tonight’s the night the world begins again.

May we come to realize we are loved tonight. All of us, everyone of us, united together, seen with eyes of love. And not with a trite “Jesus loves you” kind of love, but a deep, pursuant, persistent love that never shouts nor excessively coddles, but is after you constantly, desperate for you to know how much- just how much you are loved, dear Child of God.

May we realize that together we “will do even greater things…”

May we each realize that Church doesn’t have to be a place you go to, but a peace you feel when you look up at the stars and can’t explain anything coherent at the moment, taken over by awe, knowing that in the midst of all this chaos is order and solace and constancy and bigness and smallness.
And if Church is a place you go to, should you ever feel dismissed, remember, God’s heart never closes. You are welcome here; there is always room in the inn of God’s heart. 

May we remember that everyone is forgiven. That this night is characterized by the innocence of a Child in a Manger. We are forgiven by a God who longs to lift us up out of shame; a God who will bend down on one knee, lift your chin up for you when your crestfallen glance won’t leave the ground, look you in the eye and say, “Look into my eyes, Child. I love you. You are forgiven. Whatever ‘dirty secret’ you hide, whatever you are so afraid of the world knowing about you, whatever holds you down, traps, and ensnares you… Whatever tries to convince you that you can’t change or that it’s too late or that you’re too far behind… Whatever prevents you from experiencing the allelujah… let it go tonight.”

Because God has promised us better days.

For tonight’s the night the world begins again.

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
And it’s someplace simple where we could live
And something only you can give
And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive
And the one poor child that saved this world
And there’s 10 million more who probably could
If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
I wish everyone was loved tonight
And somehow stop this endless fight
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

When Calories Have a Gender

I was driving home yesterday only to be greeted with a Dr. Pepper  radio advertisement emphatically proclaiming that their new soda has “10 manly calories” and that “it’s not for women,” so I can “keep my romantic comedies and lady drinks.”

How can an inanimate object like a beverage have a gender? I wondered.

How can calories be “manly” or “womenly” for that matter? I mused.

Thinking more expansively, I pondered, “Why does media focus on Kim Kardashian’s newest beckon for attention instead of highlighting the stories of women like Wujdan Shahrkhan and Sarah ‘Attar, who are breaking cultural taboos by becoming Saudi Arabia’s first women to compete in the Olympics?”

“How can more women, girls, men, and boys hear the life-altering message of freedom in Christ rather than hearing each of the ways in which we are to comport ourselves to propriety (if we were born with two “x” chromosomes) or leadership (if we were born with an “x” and “y” chromosome).”

Can I sing “Courageous” by Casting Crowns and alter the lines to “women of courage” and proclaim that we will love our husbands and children (and friends and orphans and neighbors),” proudly exclaiming, “let the women of God arise!” instead of the true lyrics?

Feeling frustrated yet imbued to continue promoting gender equity with ardent fervor, I spent the rest of my commute home reconciling how Church, media, and society all have perpetuated stereotypes for genders and how this can be changed.

I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that we can make the Church and society more equitable and just when we omit exaggerated stereotypes, challenge cultural norms, and affirm the imago dei in all.

I’m trying to discern what my gender means to me, but one thing I know for sure is that it looks counter-cultural to the “rules” upon which I have been imposed. I tell people that I often think about keeping my last name when I get married because I don’t think the woman should have to drop her last name simply because it’s expected or implied. I often joke that if I were to ever have a child, I would make birth announcements in pink for a boy and blue for a girl and laugh at all of the comments I’d get that I can just hear now… “Was your printer not working?” “Was something wrong with your ink?” Hear me loud and clear, there’s nothing wrong with changing your last name and nothing wrong with donning pink and blue, but I’m ready to ask bigger questions, such as why is a  woman ‘supposed to’ change her name? What makes pink a ‘girly’ color?

When God is described as one sole gender, we negate that God is Spirit (John 4:24) and that the excessive use of gender depictions of God focuses more on humanness, dulled down to words that we can understand, rather than dwelling in the mystery and richness of the God who created the Heavens and the Earth.

When calories have a gender, we exacerbate gender stereotypes instead of leading our generation into partnership and teamwork.

When we extol men to be courageous, we must then do the same for the women and girls of this world, particularly encouraging those who face dowry murder, honour killings, genital mutilation and sex trafficking.

When we learn that ultimately, male or female, we are one in Christ (Gal 3:28), we can drop our arguments and stereotypes and calories at the foot of the Cross, united together in synergistic partnership, ready to change to the world.

Ignited by a Fire That Will Never Burn Out ((Thoughts on Wanting to be Understood))

I never realized how badly the desire to be understood rested dormant in my heart until waterworks poured from eyes sitting down at a newcomer’s meeting one Sunday morning this past spring. I drove forty minutes southbound to a church I’ve always wanted to go to whose founder has authored writings that have put words to all that I feel in my heart, allowing me to sigh, wow. Someone else who thinks like me. Someone with whom my questions are not only safe, but welcomed, encouraged. So when the woman giving the newcomers’ overview asked me for my name and I burst out crying, I realized that for one of the first times in a very long time, I knew I was in a safe place where I could be understood. Where no daggers would be thrown at me. Where I could grow in my faith without being chastised for asking difficult questions. Where I would be met by other people, walking in faith, who aren’t afraid to acknowledge wounds that the Church has caused, and offer an opportunity to start anew, welcomed with however little or however much faith you possess. I can’t explain to you the peace I felt to be present in a community in which I knew I was welcomed, genuinely welcomed, to explore the Ancient of Days knowing that I was not in a room full of Bible-quoting, finger pointing Evangelicals. Instead, I felt like I had literally been ushered into the arms of Jesus himself.

I knew that that rainy Sunday in April was the start to a new beginning in my journey of faith; one in which I officially surrendered trying to be someone I’m not, letting go of my college Evangelical days in which I sat uncomfortably in my seat, cringing each time I heard that anyone who didn’t accept Jesus into their heart would spend eternity burning in Hell, but too afraid to speak up and say politely that I really didn’t want to pass tracts around campus after class on Friday. Ever.

I now know that I don’t fit in many Christian circles but I can’t let go of this incessant longing for the Divine. My heart is with the thirsty, for those who yearn for something more but don’t necessarily know what it looks like.

I do know that part of it looks like letting so of stringent views about theology. I am frustrated with the walls I’ve seen so many in the church put up. Holding signs that say, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” doesn’t exactly help a fellow hungry human being feel closer to God, much less change their sexual identity, if that’s the “agenda’” you’re after. Writing books about Hell, emphasizing that “we can’t get it wrong” doesn’t exactly help the person with questions looking for hope feel welcomed.

But besides all of that, I am tired of wasted time spent on arguing over theological debates instead of fostering loving relationships. I don’t want to lose any more friends; I also don’t care if you think I’m a heretic; and above all, I really just want to be your friend. I don’t care if you believe in eternal punishment for those who don’t profess Jesus or if you do believe that Jesus did it once and for all to “save” everybody.

I don’t care anymore.

All that I’m concerned about is if you are finding God in this journey. That you are finding freedom and joy and peace and some mess and some conflict and some yes-es and some no-s and questions, LOTS of them. I hope that you can find peace in your storms, comfort in your sadness, grace for every time you fall. I hope your journey is about feeling appropriately small when gazing upwards at the Heavens, in awe of so glorious a Maker. I hope your journey finds God in unexpected places, far from steeples and tracts, like in the smile of the poor, in the playfulness of a child. I pray your faith encourages you to spend time with those who are different from you and challenges you to find the image of God in all you come in contact with. I pray your hurts get healed, and that you would come to realize that God is kinder, that God is warmer, that God is more loving than you have ever dared to imagine. I pray you find your hands holding God’s and that your shoulders will be squeezed in a heavenly embrace and that you won’t want to let go of this moment because this moment is exactly what you have been longing to experience all this time. I pray you never go parched, but oh, that you would still maintain your hunger and your thirst and may it draw you straight into the arms of your Creator, beyond understanding, until your soul is dancing, on fire, ignited by a flame that will never burn out.

The second time I went back to this church, I did cartwheels on the church property with a new church friend. By far, my most favorite Sunday afternoon to date.