Thoughts on the New Zealand massacre from a counselor

Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.

I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in 2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?

I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.

One day my client came in complaining about, and even mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like this.

Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.

My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.

I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.

Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.

I couldn’t not speak. I questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.

I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.

So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?

Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?

We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?

TURN YOUR ALARM SYSTEM OFF!

Two women, worlds apart, are talking.

“It is hard to listen to me?”

“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”

On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild

You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.

Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).

What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just as we got to ours.

Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them a different way.

Sometimes giving facts to emotion-driven people is about as useful as this dog is presently being.

Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.

Admit it. You don’t want to be stomped either.

So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe – and also for helping others feel safe?

There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.

Cultivating openness.

Retrieved from www.pickthebrain.com

For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.

I thought about inserting a pic of Trump instead… but I like this better.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.

These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.

A new tagline; a clarified mission

My best friend and her wife were in town this weekend when we had the happy coincidence of a big, gnarly snowstorm holding us all hostage in our house. This meant we were trapped inside with them, forced to play multiple games of Carcassone and Sequence, eat copious amounts of cookies, cook hearty Southern food, and talk shop about the Enneagram. I know. Rough times, right?

Having them around gives me the chance to have long conversations about topics of interest to me (I love my husband dearly, but he’s more of a doer, not much of a conversationalist…). One realization I had (am having) is the surprisingly little amount of insight I sometimes feel I have into myself. For instance, although I know the Enneagram pretty well, I have the worst time knowing (or staying on) what type I am. I’ve been very good at persuading my listener that I am really a certain type, only to change my mind a couple months later. What that means to me is that sometimes I identify so strongly with an idea of what/who I am, that it is hard to step back and see the stable, unchanging Self that lies underneath all the preconceptions I hold about myself.

In that same vein, this weekend I realized that the tagline I had for my blog is misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but rather because I thought it was what I was about – or what I was supposed to be about. My tagline was “thoughtful explorations of spirituality, psychology, and their intersections,” as you may recall. After all, I’m a counselor, and I feel myself to be spiritually inclined and want to write about it. So that’s what I do, right?

Actually, no. When I take a cursory look at the podcasts I listen to, the books I gravitate to (currently just dived in to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), and the things I often write about on here, I have a different inclination. I unabashedly enjoy writing about theological issues. I particularly enjoy looking at those issues through a lens of culture: both our modern culture, and the culture in which ancient texts were written.

I have a passion that cannot be extinguished (at least it hasn’t been, yet) for the urgency of not letting constricting theologies and religious views lead society around like a bull on a nose ring. My heart quickens when I think about helping free an enslaved Christendom from its patriarchal, colonial, xenophobic, unbridled capitalistic chains, and help restore it to the justice-for-the-oppressed, freedom-for-the-enslaved, dividing-walls-broken-down, grace-filled emancipator that Christianity was meant to be.

Retrieved from Stock Photos

That is what I feel called to write about here. Sure, I might say things that some perceive as polarizing, or too political, in ways that writing about psychology would not have me do. But look at our world around us. Is the time not an urgent now?

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt you were “supposed” to do one thing but realized your heart was drawn toward another? Have you ever realized your conceptions of yourself were really misconceptions – and humbly chose your new way? Have you ever felt you must speak, but were afraid to, but maybe you did it anyway? My heart extends toward you, anonymous you, because I know your struggles to do so are probably greater than mine. This is no easy work. My hope is we push toward truth and emancipation together.

May we courageously step out into the unknown.

Intra- and inter-faith conversation in an age of division

Our world is undeniably diversifying. Our “tribes” of people who used to be separate and not in contact with one another are now rubbing shoulders more often, working at the same workplaces, living down the street from each other. There is still resistance to this encounter with the other, of course, but it seems inevitable that this pattern will only continue this way in the long run. One question this can raise for people is: what do we do about encounters with people of other faith? Do we pretend they don’t exist? Do we convert them? Will they convert us? Or is there a way to engage in productive conversation and respectful learning from one another?

Susan Strouse, author of INTRAfaith Conversations: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?, has created a guide for church members and leaders who are interested in doing the work of inter- and intrafaith learning. Strouse was (at time of writing her book) a Lutheran minister in California who is passionate about facilitating interfaith conversations. She has her DMin (doctor of ministry degree), and it appears much of her research for her doctoral thesis made it into the book. The pages are replete with all kinds of references and there are helpful appendices at the end. That being said, her writing is scholarly but not stuffy, and the book is very approachable. (My regret is I wish I had the hard copy version instead of the electronic version, because there’s so much information packed in!)

Having an interfaith conversation, or learning about interfaith matters, is altogether distinct from having an ulterior goal of wanting to convert the other faith-holders. Thus, for Christians (for whom evangelizing is often a big concern), there are many resistances that might be had about doing interfaith conversations. Strouse adeptly addresses questions that arise, such as “How do I stay true to my faith if I’m not trying to convert the other person?” or “But what about how the Bible says, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” She encourages the questions to be vocalized in congregations, because that is the whole point of an intrafaith dialogue. There are no single answers to the questions; no one “right” perspective to hold.

Strouse lays out some different frameworks for thinking about religious diversity. One such framework is pluralism spectrum: one end being exclusivist (e.g., faith in Jesus as described by Christianity is the only way for salvation); a middle ground of inclusivism (e.g., other faiths can hold their own beliefs, but it is the saving grace and way of Jesus that ultimately saves them, for that grace is for all regardless of if they choose it), or pluralistic (other religions are authentic paths on their own terms, regardless of if they include Jesus or not). Simply to have a framework to form one’s thoughts within can help people identify more clearly where they are at and be able to communicate to others their stances on issues. No position is declared right or wrong in the interfaith dialogue, but the intrafaith conversation allows for deeper self-understanding.

Strouse goes much further into other issues on the interfaith and intrafaith landscape, including the rise of the spiritually independent, how to do theology in an interfaith context, mysticism and the contemplative heart, and more practical aspects of how to actually host the dialogues.

I strongly believe one of the best antidotes to fear and hatred of the other is having actual person-to-person contact with the other, or at least taking the opportunity to be directly educated by the other (letting them teach you about their experiences. We can do this through reading if need be.). Strouse points out that we must not compare our best with their worst, but our best with their best. In an era seeming beset by division and skepticism about the “other side,” I wish that we could all be as humble and gracious to learn from others different us, yet as grounded in our own tradition to teach others the best of our best.

I wonder what you, my reader, think of the inter- and intra-faith dialogue. I wonder if these are issues you have thought about, or if you have wrestled with the theology behind it (I’m aware not everyone gets as excited about theology as I do…). What symbol might you choose to represent where you are? Would it be a picture with multiple religious symbols? A symbol of only your particular religion? Maybe a cross-shaped umbrella, sheltering all other religions (the “inclusivist” position)? Wherever you find yourself, this is a conversation worth having!

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Links:
Find INTRAfaith Conversation on Amazon
Check out the website
#TheINTRAfaithConversation

License to interpret: the Bible and same-sex relationships

It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.

Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.

Just a little dose of humor… “Bible-thumper,” get it??
From http://www.brainlesstales.com/2012-03-16/bible-thumper

There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!

The Old Testament

The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev. 19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish (Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their “sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property of) someone else.

Please, no. Gilead is not a society I want to exist in!
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock (9637472bd) Handmaids ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA – 19 Apr 2018

Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already. Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating. The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.

This is an important idea. We will come back to it later: and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.

One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.

A rather dismal situation, right? Glad I wasn’t there…
(retrieved from here)

Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.

So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.

The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.

So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?

The New Testament

Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable, seemingly intolerant things.

The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.

Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.

So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.

Ohhh man.
(Reference: “Cain” by Henri Vidal, 1896.)

For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.

And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.

Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter having his vision.
Retrieved from http://weareisrael.org/clean-foods/peters-dream-in-acts-10/

In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.

Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?

It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”

Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile

Once I knew I would be working as a counselor in a Christian counseling center at my pastor husband’s new church, in a new town where we knew no one, I immediately started crafting an online counseling profile in my head. What identity did I want to present to others? And how would I make clear to prospective clients who I am and what I stand for?

I do play therapy; I got my degree from a seminary; I’m psychodynamically trained; I have a heart for the spiritually wounded, questioners, and leavers of the faith. These are all true. But there was something else I needed to convey.

The line that kept standing out in my mind was LGBT friendly. This was a message I felt passionate about.

Now, this may not seem very significant. I’m licensed by the state of Ohio and I follow the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which specifies I cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc etc. I was educated in the importance of this. But a counselor being obligated to not discriminate is a far cry from a counselor being comfortable with and even welcoming diversity across the sexuality spectrum. Furthermore, I know that people too often associate Christianity across the board with a very narrow (and often judgmental) view of what is acceptable sexual practice. Many Christians still think you cannot be a Christian if you accept gay people being gay.

I know this all too well. You see, I grew up in a tradition that believes same-sex relations are an absolute sin. My evangelical / fundamentalist (I differ from Merriam-Webster in describing the jump to fundamentalism as not only interpreting your holy book in a strict, literal way, but actively denouncing and viewing with fear and suspicion the outside world. But that’s a post for another day!) upbringing taught me that the Bible (and therefore God) viewed homosexuality as an abomination. It even went so far as to believe that there is such thing as “the gay agenda” whose sole quest is to bring the world down into debauchery and moral decay. “Conversion therapy” was viewed as a legitimate and effective treatment for gay people to help guide them into a heterosexual way of life.

Of course, for people who find themselves experiencing same-sex attractions, whether in small degrees or in totality, this can lead to buckets of guilt, shame, and even self-loathing or self-hatred. That, or they have to find a way to make a quick exit from this theology, but it’s hard to leave such baggage behind. 

The path I took to get to where I am from where I was is far too long for this post (but stay tuned for another post in the future, about how to honor Christianity, the Bible, and non-heterosexual relationships at the same time). I have moved so far from that now that it might be easy to think such views are fading from society. In many ways, they are, if we look at the media and newly elected representatives as measuring sticks. But we all know those are far from genuine representations of the beliefs many people across the country hold. The Liturgists gathering that I just attended this month reminds me that there are still so many people – especially Christians – who are wrestling with the question of sexuality and God’s view on their own or others’ sexual orientations.

I was always aware that specifying “LBGT friendly” (and I could have added other letters) is a calculated risk. The pro obviously being that I am being true to myself and my practice, and communicating what may be desperately needed information to people who want a safe place to explore questions around sexuality, or who just want to be accepted for who they are already comfortable being.

The risk being that I am writing my statement on a website I am making for the whole counseling center, not just my own web page. I hope the others are comfortable with it, but I didn’t ask. I also might scare off some people who read the website and decide it’s not “Christian enough” for them (even though I am the only who specifies this). Or, perhaps a parent of a questioning, curious, or just open youth will not allow their child to see a counselor who might affirm their stance. (This, by the way, is not merely a hypothetical situation; it’s just not everyone reads our website thoroughly).

Some of you who come from traditions like mine understand the tension of such an action. I am sure there is at least one church in our small town alone that is being actively divided over the issue of sexuality and what is “acceptable” in Christian doctrine. I love our church’s website and how it describes doctrinal stances, but I am also keenly aware there is nothing on there about sexual orientation. It’s a big, divisive issue to take on, especially in a public setting. It’s easier to not talk about. Many Christians who would be affirming are quiet about it. I think this is even more the case in small towns, though I am still trying to figure this whole small town culture thing out. 🙂

So, I have decided to not be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” but rather to be out of the closet about what I stand for. This is especially important in the context of a Christian counseling practice, where others might easily assume things about my beliefs. I have decided if I have the welcoming light of love, acceptance, grace, and affirmation to share, then I should not hide it under any bushels, but let it shine so all can see. One little way I can do this, in my little role as one of the counselors at a Christian counseling center, is to specify “LGBT friendly.” Because I want everyone to know there is more than one way to be a Christian. And that God’s love is already for everyone and God loves us exactly the way we were made.

Just to be clear: All are welcome. 
https://goo.gl/images/G658Fd

“Confessions of a Funeral Director” whaaat?

This sounds like a morbid post, but hang in with me here. This book is a memoir of sorts of 6th generation funeral director Caleb Wilde. He shares his thoughts about death, life, love, and heaven – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

If you think about it, the descent into fall is a good time to write about death. Here in Ohio, the leaves are pretty much entirely off the trees. It is cloudy and gray most days. We have to gear up for a long winter ahead of us. Luckily, we still have the excitement of the holidays ahead of us, but most of us carry the awareness that winter will keep stretching out long after that. Moreover, for many, the holidays are a painful reminder of losses and people who are not with us anymore.

This is not a book about grief exactly, though it does go there at times. It is more a book about the theology of life and death. It is for people who have ever questioned the common American Christian narrative of being saved so God won’t send you to hell, and then when you die, getting to join God up in heaven. If the thought of questioning the simplicity of that narrative makes you uncomfortable, this book is probably not for you.

Caleb himself transitioned from that narrative, which he posits is a “death-negative” narrative, to finding a more open and death-positive narrative. A narrative where our own mortality is not something to be ashamed of, associated with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, but as much a natural and necessary part of life as birth is. As with birth, through death, it is possible to find genuine love and community.

I really enjoyed many of the points he makes in his book. Through watching many grieving families and communities, Caleb has witnessed how a heart broken open by death is able to love those who are different from them. Death is a great equalizer of sorts. Caleb theologizes how the pain, openness, and vulnerability a person experiences in death and grieving is really a form of worship. He asks what kind of a God we really believe in. Is it a God immune to our sufferings, who feels no grief about loss? Is it an immovable, invulnerable God? Are we too, to be stoic and strong in the face of death? Or is God perhaps deeply connected to our sufferings, grieving with us when we are in pain, vulnerable to sorrow? We can choose to believe in either God, but one might find that believing in one of those Gods leads to a more humane existence than the other.

The challenge we must confront is how to allow death to help us live more open-hearted and full lives. No one will escape it, so how will it shape how we live? The grief and mourning we encounter through others’ death can serve to break us open to our own selves and have compassion toward others. We do not have to “get over” grief: there is no timeline for healing. Caleb suggests doing “active remembering” as a way of acknowledging that the ones who have left us physically never really leave the ones they loved.

This book is heavy at times but also surprisingly manageable, considering the subject matter. It feeds the theological mind and the griever alike. I hope it helps all of us mortals approach the lives we have with freedom, love, and compassion.

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Other links:

Confessions on Amazon
Youtube trailer (it’s actually worth watching, I promise!)
Caleb featured on NPR’s WNYC Studios

a beautiful thing happened

imagine from iStockphotos; RyanJLane

It was one of those mornings when I was thinking about my own “whys” of why I go to church. Besides the obvious that my husband is the pastor and I feel duty-bound to show up at least at some point in the morning, what draws me to a church community?

We all have different reasons. Many people, out of habit. Or a guilty conscience if they don’t go. Or because this is the place they see friends and loved ones predictably every Sunday morning. Or to hear a Word from God, maybe in a sermon, prayer, or hymn. Or to sing in the choir. Or because, for some inexplicable reason, they were drawn even though they can’t explain why.

One of my own whys today was because, even though I can be quite content with my spiritual practice of sitting alone with a book, my thoughts, and being quietly with God, I also know that I need to practice the spiritual discipline of being in community. I know that my personality tends toward isolation, and that I need to find contact with – and eventually connection with – other people to help make me whole.

I also have been enjoying the songs of the choir lately, so I decided to go to the later service at church.

In service, I had been thinking too much during the sermon. Seeing things from an outsider perspective. Wondering we need to be doing / saying / bringing that might speak to the needs of the community.

What I didn’t have eyes to see yet was that it is already here.

After the sermon, the choir began the communion anthem sitting in their seats in the pews. It seemed like a mistake at first, as one member rose alone, but one by one, the others intentionally rose too. They made their way to the front, walking slowly. Later I learned this was no one person’s idea, but something that evolved with everyone’s input, shifting and changing and needing everyone’s involvement to be how it was.

And then, I don’t even know what happened, but what I believe is we all knew the power this held at the same time.

The eight or so choir members gathered behind the table that holds the Lord’s Supper, singing, lines moving back and forth, voices trading verses, melody flowing sweetly. I didn’t hear the words: I felt the song. All I knew was it was spell-binding. Tears welled up in my eyes. My breath was held. And when I went forward for communion, the same sense of being gathered together remained; that this community of people was being held by something powerful and gracious and loving. When I glanced in the eyes of others, I think they felt it too.

If we were Quaker, I would call it being “gathered” or having a “gathered meeting.” If we were UCC, we might give the pause of a comma and sigh, “God is still speaking.” If we were Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit would probably be speaking through tongues. Some people easily describe it as the presence of God, or Jesus, being in the room with us. I might call it a “mystical moment.” An experience that cannot be adequately described in words, that defies explanation, and is a reality so real that it cannot be proven, but only felt and experienced.

It doesn’t truly matter what words we try and put to the experience, or if we put words at all. We are all getting a taste of this powerful Divine Reality, a reality so powerful it speaks to us however we need to hear it. An experience that sometimes only happens because we are all gathered together in community.

It was only when I got home and re-read the words of the song that I realized what they said: He is Here in the Breaking of the Bread.

Amen.

using our voices

I don’t know about you, but this has felt like a rough week.

Honestly, the last two years have been disheartening (to put it mildly) and soul-crushing (if my feelings speak for themselves), in a way I wouldn’t have guessed political situations could make me feel. There is so much hate, distrust, and lying in our national space that it feels like evil will take us over. The news still tends to infuriate me, but recently, I’ve found myself slipping more often into feelings of despair.

I went on a short, silent retreat this week. It was a wonderful chance to read, write, meditate, and take long walks in the forest. I know I am lucky I get to do such things. My fears about myself still crept up on me (does my voice matter? What meaning will I make of my life? Who do I think I am, anyway, trying to claim a space with my words?). But I moved forward, pushing back the fears, being present, and putting down words anyway.

Then we left the camp and had the news on the radio as we drove home. Real life hit me like a ton of bricks. A president trying to incite fear about Middle Eastern terrorists hiding among people who are trying to take refuge from an unsafe environment in Central America. Tax cuts promised that can’t be passed before election day, but truth doesn’t matter anyway so say what you will. And then, all week long, bombs that don’t detonate arriving to prominent liberals around the country. I don’t need to give you details – you already know them.

What kind of world are we living in?

What can I do?

What can we do?

While on retreat, I brought my good friend Thomas Merton along with me in book form. Reading him inspires and challenges me. Merton was a Catholic monk and prolific writer who died in 1968. Monks take vows of poverty, submission, obedience. But Merton was also compelled to write – and write boldly. He didn’t hide his head in the sand but was acutely aware of what was happening in the world. He called out the violences and injustices of his day (think Cold War and nuclear threats, and the divisiveness both sides were partaking in). Even when the Catholic Church censored him, even when he scandalized people. And he did it all from a deeply spiritual place.

I know I’m no Thomas Merton, but if I could follow just a tiny bit in his footsteps, I would aspire to do that. To speak the truth that needs to be told. To love deeply. To live fully one’s authentic life that they are called to.

What are you called to do?

What voice were you given to speak to the world?

Our voices matter. Trust me, a lot of the time I have trouble believing this. I took my small step today and early voted. I felt grateful to still belong in a democratic republic, with a still-functional news media, and to safely cast my vote without fear of reprisal.

Voting is one way to matter – and an important one. But there are so many ways to raise our voices in support of love and all that is good in the world. It is hard to keep that faith, but if we do it together, maybe somebody will hear it, and believe that this isn’t how it has to be.

We must not stay silent. If we are privileged enough to be comfortable staying silent (i.e. if you believe yourself to be unaffected by all that is happening), but if you are also a person of faith, then let your faith be the motivator to speak. To stay silent and do nothing is to be complicit. Stand up for the vulnerable and the oppressed. Stand up for morals and values. Believe in the power of love over the darkness of hate and terror. Pray. Extend compassion to your neighbor: whether that is your family member or your fellow global citizen.

It’s easy to lose sight. Just writing this post, I am mocked by the inner voices: who cares about what you say? No one will read this! You’re not saying anything new! You’re not good enough! Do you really think you can make a difference at all?

But maybe you’ve been tormented by those voices too. Maybe sometimes, the anger and despair presses in on all sides. Maybe you feel too small and insignificant to have an impact. Maybe you’re so frustrated by the whole thing that you’ve checked out. Please come back. We need your voice, too.

Maybe if I can be brave enough to put the imperfect and the unoriginal and the vulnerable out there, you will know it’s okay to do it too. Maybe we will start to push back the darkness.

It’s hard work. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Find the beauty in the world. Remember that the sun rises every morning – regardless if we see it or not. Let yourself be nurtured by relationships. Nurture others. Find something that makes you laugh. Find something that gives you hope.

However it is that your life speaks, I hope we can believe that if we each do our part to speak the truth in our own sphere, it matters.

God, I hope it matters. Let it matter. But we will only find out by trying.

omygourd… SCIENCE!! (why Genesis and science are not enemies)

Omygourd… SCIENCE!!

Recently I heard a brief presentation from a lovely, caring, passionate woman who was speaking about providing Christian religious education to elementary school children. I was on board with what she was talking about (sharing about the love of God to kids whose parents opt in to the program), but then she said something that made my heart sink. A boy informed her that he couldn’t believe in the 6-day Genesis creation because his dad told him the universe started with a big bang. She expressed to us her sense of sadness for him and asked that we pray for his mind to be open to change.

*Deep sigh*

First, let me say that I get it. I come from the tradition where believing in a literal 6-day creation is one of the litmus tests of faith. I felt like my 7th-grade science teacher was personally attacking my faith when she introduced our class to the concept of evolution. The process of trying to figure out how to incorporate modern science into my religion was terrifying, and there is a real sense that “those scientists” are just godless people who are out to destroy Christianity.

I’m on the other side of this divide now. But what I’m becoming increasingly aware of is that even today, the divide is still quite real. I wonder how often people still feel like they have to choose between believing mainstream scientific research versus believing in the religion they hold dear, which they also believe holds eternal implications for their soul.

My concern for the little boy, and the woman teaching large numbers of the kids, is that they will think you have to pick one side or the other. The little boy has clearly been introduced to mainstream science from his dad. The likelihood that he will change his mind about this and believe young-earth theory in the long run (not just for his 3rd and 4th grade years) seems like a long shot, when his family upbringing teaches him differently. What if he thinks Christianity is sold wholesale with believing in young earth, without any big bangs, without any evolution? That someone cannot believe in Christianity, evolution, and the big bang, all at the same time? And then he throws out the whole thing?

There is a third way. The choice is not either / or. The choice can be a resounding “YES!!”

It takes a different way of reading the Bible. There’s so much to say that I can’t even start to cover it in one blog post, but reading Genesis without needing it to square with a literalist view of how creation came to be can be so exciting and inspiring.

Here’s the thing. Genesis was never meant to be a factual record of how the universe, earth, and all the living species came into existence. Ancient peoples just didn’t have that concern. They told stories as representations of how things came to be. Stories that demonstrated values they had and beliefs about where they saw themselves in the universe, what they thought about good and evil, and what it means to be human. The Genesis creation story, when compared with other creation stories written in ancient Mesopotamia, stands out due to its belief in the goodness of creation and the lack of violence with which God creates the world (we just don’t realize that because we are not exposed to other creation myths of the time). That is a beautiful, inspiring thing! Just think about what insights the ancestors of your religion had about the nature of a loving God! It’s enough to make me use too many exclamation points in this one paragraph!

If we can shift our framework for Genesis from literal, factual story to a beautiful, poetic story about how life came into being and what God is like, the whole thing changes. I would say it opens right up. No longer are we trying to figure out how long a “day” in Genesis is, and why Genesis 1 and 2 seem to be describing the same situation but differently, and how both scenes can be literal (huh?? Yes, read Genesis 1 & 2 for yourself and look closely). No longer are we trying to force the Genesis story into a box it was never meant to be in. It is finally allowed to speak for itself as the artful masterpiece it is.

I know that jumping from a poetic reading of Genesis to believing in the big bang and evolution (however we think of it… intelligent design included) may just be too much. Or maybe you’re disinterested in the whole thing, or maybe none of these questions have ever bothered you. And that’s okay. No one needs to or should deconstruct their faith in a day. Many people never feel the need to.

But in my own experience, I find a much more vibrant, alive, and – dare I say – evolving faith when I trust that God is not confined by our personal interpretation of text on a page, and trust that God is also actively present in science (which is just systematic inquiry into the reality we find ourselves in). When I am open to the mystery of what is and how things happen, my heart quickens and I am moved deep in my being. God will always show up, even if it does not look like how we thought it would.

Amen!

Omygourd! Because gourds are funny. Photo cred Mallory Woodard