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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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

Hurry Up and Don’t Die (Re-learning lessons from life/death experiences)

I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, summer after graduating high school. I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face,2005 corolla crash phone pole quickly discovering that my car was halfway on the sidewalk, the other half still on the road. I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” 2005 corolla crash“It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. The arrival of the ambulance ended our back and forth. I was brought to our nearest hospital with tears in my eyes, shocked but relieved that I felt ok, and quite scared of what my parents would say. Someone had already notified them and my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am soo. soooo. sorry,” I tell him, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” After the x-rays came back showing no broken bones, I was handed some gauze and a prescription for pain and then sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted. I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered amongst hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade, colorful cards. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me some hugs and went back to play at the pool for the rest of the day. One of the moms on the swim team I coached gave me a hat. “You’ve got to keep that chin exposed to as little sunlight as possible,” she said, patting my shoulder. A few days later, I found my name in the police report section of our local newspaper, ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness. All of that was countered, though, by the love I received. Family emailed me and gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much and to try just being me, doing what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But I often think of that memory now and feel an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. And I’ve been driving myself crazy ever since.

I’ve cut corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, doubt, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in pain and sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience pain or difficult “wilderness” seasons, I’ve tried to skip that step altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow. I wish I would let myself go through painful processes without white-knuckling my way through, trying to control my emotions, my circumstances, rather than let God do God’s thing God’s way. In the process, I end up seeing my dirty fingerprints all over my life when I could have seen even more of God’s tender fingerprints implanted on every scrapbook story page day of life.

I’ve rushed through conversations so that I can go talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn from others, things to teach others, and these deep connections, the ones that mean the most and are savored the deepest, take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death, the hope of Heaven, etc. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven; my soul would die without it. I can live as if life ends at the grave or I can dare to dream that there is something bigger, something larger, something longer, something that will never, truly ever end.

The “do more, quicker” mentality has caused me to be erratic rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living with the questions, the uncertainties. It’s caused me to search for the answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be present for them.

And I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time on 30, that’s ok, in fact that’s great-each of us just might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…

So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.

May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.

May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.

“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to  celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident.

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident. July 2005

The shallow cracks within my soul.

There’s a path I sometimes walk
That doesn’t create wonder and gratitude nor beauty or intimacy
But that walks in the “in-between.”

That’s too afraid of change or the possibility of things turning out worse
So I don’t take full steps to make it better.

The part of me that trades in originality and audacity and brightness
For dullness and sameness.
And makes me feel like a let down
To the 18 year old girl inside of me
Who once woke up with an airbag in her face
Car slammed in a telephone pole
Calling 911
Vowing to never ever take the preciousness of life for granted ever again.

Who pushes off booking a Southbound flight
To roll down hills with my cousin
Who feels like a little sister
All because I’m scared of what will happen
If I don’t make the next dollar
And have to live off savings for a while.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t say the words I want to say
Because I’m scared to be different
And so I choke behind the voices that tell me to be quiet
Just to “fit in.”

There’s a part of me that wants to run the opposite direction of anything religious
And get pissed off at God
Or rebel against every Christian teaching
To spite the dogma of heavy nooses I’ve experienced in Evangelicism.

And sometimes,
I’m glad I do this.

Because in the defiance
I find space to stop hearing the words that hurts me.
And get to ask every unadulterated question I’ve ever wanted to ask.

But most of the time, I know I go home
To my room
And my candlelight
And it’s just me
And God
And I get scared of death
Or need hope
Utterly.
Within my soul
Every part of me in tune with my need for God
And I’m ashamed that I would ever turn my back on him/her
When the last thing God would do
Is turn his/her back on me.

So the words of the most subversive person I know
Whispers in my ear,
“Come with me
And I will show you the unforced rhythms of grace…”

There’s a part of my soul that dies a little when I think about how much time I spend
Ruminating on how much I dislike my job
But don’t know how to make my dreams reality
So I become like many Americans
And get a temporary high on Friday nights
That crashes 48 hours later
With the Sunday evening blues.

There’s a part of me that’s too afraid to take a chance on my dreams
Because they aren’t “academic” enough
Or important enough
Or impressive enough.
And that’s when I remember
I’m feeding into the trap
That certain careers are more important than others
When all we really need to do
Is find that makes us come alive
And go do that
And let everyone else
Chase success and notoriety
In a job they hate but think “looks good.”

There’s a part of me
That wishes I were the opposite gender
Because I hate the fact that mine
Makes me less muscular, less tall
And is laiden with propriety
And tells me to change my last name
And have kids
That I don’t really want to have.
At least not biologically.

There’s a part of me
That’s hurt by every ignorant statement
Mouthed by Evangelicals
Or conservative white or black men
Spewing out their desire for pompous power
By telling women how they should live (the “sanctity” of life) and die (don’t you care go into combat, after all, you’d make the military have to change the way it does things to become more gender equitable and that’s really inconvenient).

I realize how much I want to become sarcastic
And yell in anger
And let men see
A women get angry
Instead of passive, taciturn, and “nice.”

And sometimes I’m glad I do this.

But most of the time,
I think about Jesus.
And how hard it is to love the way he talks about loving.
Especially when it comes to loving those crazy (insert the opposite political party with which you affiliate).
And so I make a fool of myself
Missing out on an opportunity to develop my character
By instead choosing anger and resentment
Instead of something more courageous
Like love.

I walk these icy paths of the cracks within my soul
And confess my wasted moments
And ask God to redeem them
To start afresh in the morning
And ask for just a little more time in solitude
Here in the light
In open spaces
Where the sound of stillness
And the beat of my heart
And the wind on my face
All remind me to come alive
And be contraire
And get out of my head, my self, my biases
And get lost in the dreams and stories of each beating heart around me.

And together we’ll solidify the cracks
Until they become steady ground
Connecting hearts
And minds
And dreamers.

We’ll glance up to the endless sky
And find ourselves and lose ourselves
In these cracks and crevices
Of darkness
And of light.
046

Turning Chain Linked Fences into Open Fields

“loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
   set the oppressed free and break every yoke” ::isaiah 58::

  

“Proclaiming freedom to captives” and “where the spirit of God is, there is freedom” are beautiful gems strung together like pearls throughout the Bible. Here’s 68 more of those. I’m sure there’s more.

But what do you do when this very same belief, Church, Christian faith, doctrine, enslaves you?

What do you do when you’re told “you’re wrong?” When you cringe at the idea of voicing up a question, sharing your experience, or your opinion for fear of retaliation? What do you do when you aren’t accepted by some? What do you do when everything in your heart tells you one thing but your head is full of voices that drown you in disapproval?

What do you do then, when you discover yourself straight in the arms of God, away from those restraints and fears and arguing, as s/he places you in his loving arms beside still waters? What do you do after a good heart to heart talking-on-down from your maker proceed by an introduction to children of the same God, playing in a big open field, beckoning, inviting, waving you on in, urging, “come on in, there’s room for you!?”  When someone invites you to cartwheels, to running barefoot through this wide open field, heel against moist Earth and cushy, verdant grass? When someone sits beside you, blowing on wishies, talking about the Ancient of Days, and love and grace as they share their kite with you, untie the noose around your neck, and replace that choker of dogma with wings to fly? I know, they feel a little funny at first, right? But go on. Those wings are yours. And you can choose which direction you fly. Trust me, babe, these wings are made for you, by your Creator. He longs for you to give yourself permission to let your feet off the ground and take flight.

Suddenly each of you will have flown to a place. A place with this big, big table, with some grape juice and wine, some bread and some wafers, and you realize that everyone you’ve ever known and everyone you’ll ever know is gathered here, around this same table, and none of us are bickering or arguing or correcting or any of those other forms of speaking you can do with your mouths… just the kind of speaking that comes from our hearts, as we hold one another’s hands in reverence of the great big God who brought us all together. What do you do then, gathered around this love feast of saints and sinners, the “wrongs” next to the “rights,” brushing hands and elbows until surrender takes over and those hands are squeezing each other’s? Oh the downtrodden and weary suddenly finding their soul lifted as an inexplicable joviality takes over, cobwebs of depression and never-being-good-enough flinging and zinging up into the atmosphere, slowly dissipating into the cosmos, exploding into stars, bringing light to darkness, and beauty, too.

I don’t know what you do.

But worship the Holy.

And forget the rest.

And decide that this little bird’s gonna leave the cage, open up, and sing, along with all the other birds on trees, calling out to one another from Evergreen to Evergreen, and telephone wire, and, if you’re not ready to fly just yet, we’d still love to hear you, even from your nest.

We’ll celebrate all that’s bright and beautiful and good.

And try to live everyday in that field and around that table.

And create fields where it seems like there is only cracked pavement baking in the mid-afternoon sun, litter bunched around the chained fence.

And we’ll stock our fridges with bread and wine, ready to whip them out whenever we’re stuck in a moment that’s far strayed away from that meadow, those still waters, these gripped hands that are desperately ready to be open palms, clasping your hand, as you hold someone else’s, like dominoes mellifluously falling into sea billows of grace.

I’m ready for this.

I’ll head out to the grocery store now and make my way to those fields.
And though late autumn has settled in, I’ll bring nothing but a lightweight jacket, knowing my heart will grow warm from all of the love and the hugs and hands holding other hands.

For Those Who’ve Ever Cringed Through a Wedding Ceremony

This is for everyone who’s ever sat through a wedding service, cringing in their seat over the hurtful, debilitating, limiting words they’ve heard from the preacher, whether about gender limitations, or salvation of some and damnation of others, or both.

This is for everyone who’s ever sat through a church service, for that matter, and shaken in their in their pew, anger slowly boiling up in them, unsure whether they will cry or give voice to their righteous anger.

For anyone who’s ever been to a convention, women’s conference, meeting, or bible study, for that matter, and been told over and over again that Jesus died for you, but were never taught what he lived for. Who’ve been taught that God finds us so utterly, distastefully sinful and so despicable that we can’t even catch a glance at Him without the blood sacrifice of another human being. Because God’s punishment is death when you mess up, make a mistake, or sin. A loving Earthly Father would be jailed for punishing a child in such a manner. I find all of this rhetoric to be a bit of a hyperbole, because the God I know told me I’m made in His image, and like my Earthly Dad, I don’t need to be beaten, spanked, or die when I mess up. Knowing I’ve disappointed him is the ultimate punishment for me in itself because I hate it when I disappoint someone I love so much.

This is for days like today, in which I’m outside on a beautiful autumn day, sitting in a cushioned seat at a wedding, while a white socially conservative Evangelical man purports that this man up front, about to become a husband, is this woman’s leader. And she, the wife, is to submit to his leadership while he “lovingly leads her” and “leads his family as head of the home.”

For days in which the preacher man then describes God’s design for marriage with Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 to designate the husband as a head of a wife and his family instead of Jesus’ words to “love God, love one another, and love others.” I don’t understand why Evangelical preachers focus on gender so much during a ceremony, when Jesus never once used the terms “gender roles” or “submission to male leadership.” I don’t understand why the preacher asks an adult female, who has already consented to marriage, “Who gives this woman to be the bride?” in which the father, not the mother, then states “her mother and I do.” The Jesus I know offers choices and reminds me to grow up in maturity. I don’t need permission from anyone. Even if a woman actually needed permission, why wouldn’t the husband need permission too? Never mind. Someone’s probably going to retort a verse about leaving and cleaving instead of actually affirming equal decision making capabilities among spouses.

A service in which the preacher mentions not once, not twice, but three times in the same half hour service that marriage is between one man and one woman. We heard you the first time, actually, sir. And it doesn’t make you “right” simply because you repeated this three times with a stolid, authoritative glare and had “reverend” in front of your printed name in the wedding ceremony bulletin.

In which the preacher declares that “sin isn’t discussed often enough in the world” and I internally have to remind himself that this is his opinion, which he is entitled to, but it’s just that- an opinion; not etched in stone cement fact.

In which you must shake the hand of this preacher man who just finished stunting your entire gender as you exit the recessional, only to be seated across from this same preacher at the reception table afterwards.

And this, then, is when things start to turn around. Loud sound pours through the speakers and the first song ushering the crowd onto the dance floor is Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT.” You rise to your feet and start singing it at the top of your lungs, in wild, reckless abandon, glancing over to eye this preacher man in the face, as if to remind him to respect the strength, knowledge, power, and VOICE that women have, alongside of men, and that this preacher man’s words will not resound as the only possible way for a woman to be a Christian woman, for we are in an era of freedom and grace and this girl, alongside so many other women and girls, has Kingdom life ready to bust out of her veins to quickly remind other females that you don’t have to adhere to any “role” some white man tells you to… for you have brains in your head, passions in your heart, and your relationship with God to reveal who you are and who you can become.

This is for Jesus’s words in which he asks us to, “be one, like I am one with God, to complete unity.” And to “love your enemies.” “Do good to those who disagree with you.” Because we’re all in this together, even if we come to different understandings.

This is for gathering around the table, the same table, with that preacher man and the rest of the body of believers, and sharing in the same cup, partaking in the same bread, whispering a  prayer to the same God, realizing that our God is bigger than the divisions we’ve created.

This is for unity without passive agreement to everything “Christian” that you hear.

This is for asking questions. Lots of them. Any of them you’d like.

This is for speaking up, recognizing that your voice is equal to that preacher man’s, regardless of title, gender, professional studies, or social beliefs.

You see.

There’s a place, there on that same dance floor that Aretha was singing out from earlier, that’s big and open and free.

A place you can go to physically, or carry within your heart on days in which you feel stuck hearing another message that doesn’t ring true of your study of scripture, who God says s/he is, that is subtly being used to denote a hierarchy of gender.

We’re in that place with you.

It’s this wide open field.

Some of us do cartwheels here.

Others, handstands.

And some of us just like to sit on our backs, gazing up at the sky, deciphering the shapes of puffy, white clouds against a contrast of ocean blue, while warm zephyrs tickle your face and the tip of your nose.

We love each other here.

We offer freedom here.

There’s more of us out here than you think.

Look around.

We exist.

We sit in church pews next to you, putting our arms around you when  they tell you that the Muslim woman on the tv screen suffering in Saudi Arabia from gender based violence, rape, female genital mutilation or human trafficking, is, undoubtedly going to Hell, banished from God forever. We know that all you want to do is hug this woman and sit down with her, like Jesus would have, and listen to her story, her pain, her dreams, her brokenness and affirm her strength and dignity and that God knows her heart, her beautiful, pained, but still resilient heart that’s being redeemed by the Healer of the World. This is what happens when we embrace. When we engage in loving kindness and this is how we make Jesus visible. Not through forecasting doom and hell and who’s “in,” and who’s “out,” as if you are the gatekeeper.

We sit beside you in wedding services that often feel unbearable and oppressive.

We dwell inside of you, the voice that longs to be heard, to be voiced, to be understood.

I promise you, there’s more voices than you think.

You just have to be courageous and dare to believe that the God you worship is big enough to hold you, those you disagree with, room for all of us… to believe that God is big enough for our questions, our doubts, and differing interpretations and studies of scripture.

We have a dance floor too out here in this open space.

And our song is freedom.

We’d love for you to sing along.

We will comfort you when you are cringing in your seat, in disbelief of what you are hearing.

We will listen to your questions and share some of our own.

We will help you find new places and ways to worship, places in which you are free to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas, longings, and aren’t restricted by an authoritarian, intransigent pastor.

We will cheer you on when you speak up for the first time.

We will support you when it feels like no one else is.

You don’t have to be afraid here.

You don’t have to submit to one of your fellow, Earthly, breathing, pulsating human beings here.

You don’t have to vote any particular way.

You are free to love whomever you love, irrespective of gender.

We are people of grace. We are people of second chances. And third. And ninety nineth. We’ll come back to find you if you lose yourself along the way.

We are people who are willing to stand, or at least try to stand, in the face of those who try to tie boxes around you, dismantle your voice, stereotype you, or shame you.

We are outsiders, on the fringe, and our God has brought us into inclusion.

Instead of shrinking and succumbing to words of preachers who try to tame your gender, passions, feelings, and questions, we ask that you speak out.

You are needed.

You are wanted.

You are welcomed.

We want your presence. The world will be stronger because of it.

We want your voice. The world will be more courageous because of it.

We want your song. Whether it composes a beautiful cacophony choir of Aretha Franklin’s R-e-s-p-e-c-t or the song we have yet to hear because you only sing it alone in your shower, where no one can judge you or tell you you’re not good enough. We’re here to tell you it is good enough. In fact, we’d like an encore.

Enough of walking on eggshells.

Enough trying to please everybody.

Enough division.

Enough of the disrespect and incivility.

Come, let’s lock arms together, you, and me, the preachers who are willing, all of us, each of us, each of us who recognizes the Image of God in ALL of us, not just some.

Let’s run.

Let’s laugh.

And instead of debating and arguing and trying to convince your “rightness,” and their “wrongness,” hop on the dance floor. Put on your boogie shoes. Play your funky music, [white/black/Asian/Indian/whatever culture you identify with] –[girl/boy/man/woman/transgender/whoever you are, wherever you come from.]!

Because you can’t argue and dance at the same time.

And remember, the place we’re headed- we’ve already been told there will be dancing and merriment.

Some come on.

Dance. Dance with somebody who loves you.

Turns out there’s a lot of us.

Love letters with God

Dear God,

I lay here tonight, alone, in the quiet of my room, the only light shining being that of glowing candle casting flickering shadows against my mostly undecorated walls, a peaceful ambiance bringing closure to a busy day.

I’m breathing peaceful, sleepy breaths here in this moment, and all I can think about is you, God.

How I so long to know you.

How I so long to be close to you.

This innate desire to near you.

I hear so many things of you, God, from Churches and books and radio stations, that seem so unlike what I’ve experienced of you, God, experienced with you, God, together.

It’s enough to drive me crazy. Or at least frustrate me.

But you, God, your Spirit has captured my soul.
So I offer you this. My love letter to you.

It’s not a prayer per se, although it is the cry of my heart.

I’m not going to quote any verses.

Or mention hell. Or re-pray the sinner’s prayer, although I wonder if that’s what you even had in mind when you said that you wanted us to have faith like a child.

I just want to express a raw gratitude for every single thing you’ve spoken to me, given me, helped me to enjoy, everything you’ve used to help me grow, God. It all comes from you; all of this leads me back to you. Even if I were to purposely try to not look for you in it, God, I would still find you.

Oh how I love you, God, and Jesus, who marvels me into simplicity when he urges us to learn from the wildflowers and the birds of the air. Did you do all this to dazzle us, to beckon us closer to you, our Creator, through the beauty that drips from the works of your hands? Some artists use watercolor, others use charcoal, paint, or yarn, but you, God. You swirl sunsets with your hands. You design waterfalls miles wide. You hang gaseous luminaries in the endless twilight, composing Pleiades and Orion, while we forage around with plastic ornaments on fake trees or rearrange stiff, staged portraits on crème colored walls.

We are far too easily entertained by the baubles of manufacturing while the whole outside world screams your name in iridescent hues and highlights of every magnitude and height.

I wonder, God, if the next time someone tells me I’m wrong about my view of salvation or homosexuality or any of the stuff that some Christians seem to get so vehement about… I wonder God, if I can go back to your artistry and sunburst and pluck one of your Black Eyed Susans from a field, and talk with that person in a lush meadow of cattails and clover, birds in flight. And I wonder if in that moment, all of that chatter and shaming and “righting” and “wronging” can dissipate, God, as you meet us there and offer us this cup and this bread and we delight in it, so we pass it around for all to taste this… this love, this light, this indelible connection to the one we come from.

Oh, Lord. I’ve been taught to take my faith so seriously, take the Bible so seriously, as if my entire life hangs on the thread of “correct” interpretation and pedantry. Truth is, I don’t think you’re as serious as they’ve made you out to be. I think you’re a lot more fun than that. You have a sense of humor, and that wasn’t discussed in our bible study lessons. Instead we memorized words on pages, not once being encouraged to explore the endless ways in which we can experience you outside of the pages, the text, the words.

Please keep showing me how to “unlearn” some of the things that I’ve been taught about you, the aspects that are hampering my freedom in you. Tonight, that might look like the juxtaposition of how to let go and how to hold on, and the wisdom for when to do which, as you show me what my hands should pick up and what they should put down as to have room enough to embrace such experiences when they come.

Please keep being patient with me, and thanks for letting me muse questions and for allowing me to show up to Church wet and dirty from stomping in mud puddles on those rainy days in which I’m stir crazy indoors and want nothing but to taste your rain on my tongue and feel music in my feet.

I can’t wait to see you when I wake up. Only you know the ins and outs of what’s to come, but I just thank you that I get to experience it all with my mouth and my toes and my ears and my nose and my eyes to let in more light, love, beauty, wonder…

I love you.

       •••••••••••

Dear Child of God,

When you feel a closeness trickling from your heart, up to your chinny chin chin, going up to your ears, that will be me tucking you in tonight.

I’ll see you when you wake up to the fresh dawn of a new day, a blank page that you so love to embrace in  possibility, unsullied and smooth, that is, until you’re ready to create words and lines and stories with each person you’ll meet today, footprints running all over the page in new directions. I’ll see you, and you’ll see me through the wind kissing the tree tops of the forests, a soft breeze brushing through early autumn leaves of faded green, yellow, crimson, and orange. You’ll see me through the smile of your sister, the open road before you, and oh yes, those wildflowers and birds you seem so blithely fond of.

I know you don’t understand me all the time, or other people either. And that’s ok. I don’t expect you to. I only ask that you love that much harder when you encounter voices that drive you crazy. Whatever you say about them, even if no one is listening, remember, I hear. And they are my children too. You don’t have to listen to the hyper critical voices. But do take a look inside and examine your words too. Will you bring love and hope with your words, or cynicism and criticism? Together, I hope you’ll make the time to take some bread and dip it in the cup, together, and feel free to dance, too- play the hokey pokey or the macarena and come together on the dance floor, unencumbered arms moving in and out and over to compose the letters “YMCA” above your heads. After all, you can’t argue and dance at the same time… Pretty soon the two of you, or this group and you, will be out there, on the dance floor, laughing, like old friends at a wedding reception, and all the bickering and “righting” and “wronging” will fall to the wayside as you let yourselves go fly free into the night, souls so alive and abandoned. Remember, I meant it when I said there will be dancing and merriment when you make it to the other side…

I am so proud of you when you hang on to me through faith when your world is shaking. Remember, though, that your world will shake time and time again. But I am right here where I’ve always been, as much as I’ve ever been, beside you, inside you, inside each person you meet and in all that your eyes encounter each day. I created all of it, and long to walk together through it with you, Child, even in the midst of confusion and struggles that you cannot make sense of. But I hope you trust long enough to experience the ways I grow you in these times, so that you can smile and know I’ll use even your saltiest tears as the gateway for goodness, sweet, genuine goodness. And I will watch you, I mean, take a step back as to really take you in, all of you, both your body and your soul, as you soar, as you dance, as you hop, skip, jump, and as you sprint ahead, never once looking back over your shoulder, into the life I have for you.

I love you; I love all of you- your questions, reflections, and even your muddy feet.

When Words are Unnecessary

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I am tired of explaining away my faith. I am tired of defending, “proving,” withholding my true feelings for fear of religious retaliation. I’m tired of watching some people argue their faith, trying to “win people to Christ” with their … Continue reading