If you don’t have anything nice to say 

Best not say anything at all. 

Some old idioms do have meaning and wisdom – don’t they?

And hey, I’m all about public discourse, enriching conversations, and working to find spaces for disagreement. However, when it comes to a person’s individual life, I have yet to figure out why it has become culturally “okay” to offer unsolicited commentaries.

I won’t dance around the elephant in the room – I am speaking specifically to my experience as a lesbian. I came out several years ago and even today continue to encounter pushback in the form of texts, Facebook messages, and the like from individuals who are affronted by my “choice” to be gay.

The most recent message just came a few weeks ago; a scathing, loaded message that, quite literally, was “a message from God” from the person who wrote it. Included in this long note was comments about the surprise and shock that came with realizing that I was gay, specifically that I was touting myself as both gay and Christian.

This person wrote, “I was once again surprised and devastated to see on one of your recent posts that you still consider yourself to be a Christian even though you’ve chosen a lifestyle of homosexuality. That is not possible, Heather. Please believe me that it is not my desire to preach to you: my utmost desire is to obey God in reaching out to you in love and truth, and I do so because I care for you as a person.”

Mhmmmm.

You can imagine I had lots of thoughts about this. One, I didn’t choose this identity. What I did choose to be was a Christian. Also, homosexuality is not a lifestyle. IT IS NOT OKAY TO SAY THIS. A lifestyle is how a person chooses to live (i.e. “a lavish lifestyle” would imply lots of vacations and luxury travel). It is problematic to assume that an LGBTQ+ person has a specific kind of lifestyle. LGBTQ+ people are not robots and certainly do not live in one particular kind of way.

And lastly, it is probably best not to make presumptions about my relationship with God OR how God sees me. Nobody can say this definitively. We are humans. I am tired of communities or individuals thinking that they have their market share on who or what God stands for. The entire premise of faith is that of mystery. Faith is expounding on certainty; it is finding solace in the inexplicable. Faith is trusting something bigger than yourself. Faith is vested in hope, love, and humanity. Yet, so many of these kinds of messages reek of self-righteousness, doctrine, and a prescribed kind of religion.

I wanted to share some other comments, words, questions, and conversations I have had to have in the last few years since coming out. Many of these have been so uncomfortable. And so, I write this with the hopes that if you do know someone struggling with their identity or someone who has already come out, please please – don’t ask them these questions. I’ve listed them below for reference.

Whatever you think about LGBTQ+ people, understand that your opinion does not carry more weight than the right for that person to exist. Their story is just as important as yours. It is tempting and often the norm to feel as though you MUST share what you think about a person’s life experience. Here’s the thing: you don’t.

All you need to do is listen. Hold space. Make no assumptions. Be curious (but respectful). Be open. 

_______________

“Why can’t you change?”

This question assumes that a person a) should change or b) hasn’t already asked this question. I prayed at least a hundred times for God to change my identity. I wanted it so badly. I even tried to be straight. It doesn’t work. At one point, I even considered trying conversion/reparative therapy. The “therapy” works on a premise that having a non-conforming gender identity or same-sex attraction is a mental disorder. Conversion therapies are largely discredited by governing associations the psychological and psychiatric realm. Countless studies show that the therapy is ineffective and harmful.

But to the point – how would you feel if a core piece of your identity existed and someone asked why you couldn’t change that? Could you help that you were born with a particular skin color? Could you help what nationality you have?

It is offensive to postulate that a person must change to be “better” or accepted.

“Have you tried to pray or talk to God about this?”

See above. Yes. A million times.

LGBTQ+ individuals who also hold a faith tradition have likely explored this within a faith lens. It’s no wonder that many LGBTQ+ individuals leave or shift away from the church as an institution – if they are not welcome there, why would they go?

And after all, how do we know God hasn’t already created us as the people we are meant to be?

“But, Heather, it’s not possible to be both Christian and Gay.”

If you believe this, then fine. That’s your prerogative. However, your experience and understanding of faith and Christianity is bigger than you. Leave room for other ideas. Leave room for experiences you can’t necessarily understand. Christianity has not and could not look the same across the world. I am telling you – Christians in Rwanda do not look like Christians in the United States.

It would be important to then ask (to yourself), well, why do I believe this to be true? Why couldn’t a person have a different sexual identity and also be Christian?

Perhaps this will conjure up the six bible verses (known as the clobber passages) that mention this.

Is it possible the text was written for a different context? Is it possible that the writer could have been speaking to something else? It is possible that the text does not hold up today? I am not suggesting the answer to these questions, rather, these are the kinds of exploration a person who would make a statement about someone else’ faith should be asking themselves.

“You have so easily fallen into this lifestyle…carefully consider the choices you are making.”

To say that a person’s exploration and understanding of their sexual identity has been easy is ludicrous. More than anything, it’s also dangerous. According to the Trevor Project, LGB youth are 5 times more likely to consider suicide than heterosexual youth. That’s a big number. And, we’re talking about lives. We have to be more delicate than assuming the road for an LGBTQ+ person has been “easy.” It is anything but that. It breaks my heart to think about the isolation, anxiety, depression, fear, shame, and loss that comes with this process.

Stick by your person. It’s scary. They need you simply to love them, regardless of what you think.

“How do you know your gay?”

To that question, I can only ask: how do you know you are straight? Exactly. You just know.

I remember as a young girl thinking I was different because I wasn’t attracted to boys the way others were. I pretended, and of course I can objectively recognize a man’s beauty, but I was not drawn to it the way I felt I was supposed to be. I know I am gay because I am attracted to women. In the same way, I know I am a vegetarian because I don’t eat meat. I know that I have green eyes because I was born with them. Much of what makes us us, isn’t easily extracted with explanations. It just is. 

“Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy.”

Oh boy. I tried being straight for a number of years. I believed this. I thought that maybe I just hadn’t met the right one. And so, I went on a dating blitz and had dinner with boys from all over the place (Denver, Centennial, Parker, etc.) I dated some more seriously. And trust me when I say, it was not a fit. Even when I met someone who was everything I would want on paper, when it came closer to physical intimacy (or really, any intimacy at all), I balked big time. It felt so, so wrong. This is not about meeting the right man, it is about knowing which gender is the one I am attracted to.

______________

NOTE:

Full transparency: this was hard to write.

It is hard to revisit these painful wounds that I have experienced. Yet, when they keep happening, I know it’s then time to say something. I still struggle the residual impact of coming out. I wrestle with anxiety and shame. I fear I am doing something wrong, sometimes. But I am happy to say, that BECAUSE of my faith and trust in God (and myself) I know who I am is good. I know I am worthy. I know I am loved. No matter what questions or words come my way, this truth cannot be altered.

Thank you for reading. Keep spreading love.

IMG_0060

from, through, to

Last month, Our Bible App officially launched.

I first learned about the development of Our Bible App after Chelsea attended the Gay Christian Conference in 2017 (now Q Christian Fellowship) and learned about the project. The creator, Crystal Cheatham, was looking for devotional writers.

On a whim, I submitted a devotional and low and behold, it got published.

Our Bible App is a “progressive worship and meditation experience” that offers multiple bible translations and additional podcasts, video, and writings from pro-LGBTQ+ individuals and advocates for interfaith inclusivity. You can download it here, and is available in Android or Apple format.

The mission of Our Bible App is broad; the app “…supports the belief that spirituality is a spectrum and that faith is a journey. At its core, the holy text was written to be inclusive of all of God’s creation especially those on the margins.” The goal of the resource is to “untangle the binds that Christian colonizers have spread across the globe over hundreds of years.”

That’s huge. And, I’m grateful to have some small, teeny, tiny part. I’ve included my devotional below (titled “from, through, to“), but if you are interested in learning more about this work, you can read about it in Sojourners and via PBS.

Cheers.


 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1081

from   

A closeted woman, I carried the secret of my sexual identity for over 15 years until my aunt bluntly probed during a late, wine-infused Thanksgiving evening, “are you gay?”

The world stood still. I froze. I knew. “Yeah, yeah. I mean, yes, I’m gay.”

In the aftermath of her asking, however, I wasn’t yet ready to fully “come out.” Yet, though my journey ofopenness began here, I was still so far removed from any ounce of a freedom to be me.

I was stuck on one repeated worry, “what would God think?”

Though I could verbalize my gayness, living life openly (and liberated from fear) would take a lot more time – and perhaps a lot more conversation (wine included).

The taste of freedom for my half-opened gayness lasted one week. Then, like a tidal wave absorbing each grain of the sand, I fled from the truth, using the following year to try and “fix myself.” I tried believing that being gay was wrong and in a twisted expression of love, that my faithfulness for God could be conveyed through a path of righteousness – shame and doubt as the main forms of transport.

Denial worked, to a point, until I came upon the intensity and depth of the gospel. Instead of ignoring questions about who I was and how I was created, I began to ask them to God. I slowly sought to remove the voices of my head, the sound of religiosity flowing from my past, and to hear only the voice of the Divine. I could be vulnerable – not necessarily yet for others, but first, for God and for myself.

The gospel is a story of God’s people returning to who they were made to be. Our God does not desire or expect us to hide from Him; that “god” is a man-made, offensive, and manipulated version of who God is. God is wide, vast, loving, and able to exist within tensions and complexities that we can hardly grasp. This God re-writes the narrative that humans are only evil, malicious, and sinful people. God made us in His image[1], and hence, there are fragments of His character everywhere.

A return to God is less about a perfection of righteousness, and more about the righteousness that comes from Him, God. God created us as free, open, and genuine humans. When it comes to our identity this is even more pressing: if we are unable to see that all of us come from God then how can we celebrate the lives we have been called to?

My aunt always assured me that “God makes no mistakes” and until I explored, acknowledged, and celebrated my whole identity, especially being gay, I was unable to proclaim that indeed, I was no mistake. I’m not; my roots and origins are abundantly from God.

What God wanted, was me to be me. For me to live as His daughter, unashamed and copiously open to His love. When we are released of living into the shell of someone else, we are free. We are given grace. Like our identity, this is from Him. My prayer is that we can receive it.

through

If all things, including our identity are from Him (God), then all things are also through Him.

Being a Christian who also happens to be lesbian is hard.

“Coming out” was arduous not because of the brave boldness that is required with others, but because an internal transformation of integrated identities is needed in asserting who you are.

Internal transformation shifts attitudes of fear to celebration. This kind of transformation occurs through Christ, the Messiah, that is God who meets us in human form. Repeatedly, I had to remind myself that as a woman, I was enough. I was wonderfully adequate. I did not have to change because an ideology or institution was telling me that I had to. I returned to the question, “what does God want?”

To live authentically with unyielding love for God and others – that’s the answer.

When I finally came out – to myself, most notably – I did not accomplish this through my own abilities. Christ’s love was flowing and alive in me. I could accept myself because I knew I was safe, and wholly loved with God. Christ infused belief and hope through me and brought me on a path I did not expect. I could be Christian. And, also, I could be gay.

to

Accepting each part of our identity is our life’s work.

We never stop this process. As we take a broader look at our existence, our lives become testaments and offerings back to God himself. Not religious sacrifice, but of loving, genuine devotion and gratitude.

When I reconfirmed to the world that I loved Christ (and that I was gay) I began to have conversations I never could have anticipated. People reached out to me, thanking me for my sincerity, and in turn, shared the deep corners of themselves that they had previously hid. I met someone new. I healed from a broken heart.

When we allow our identities (all of them) to stitch together and form one, unique, diverse fabric, we are presenting ourselves wholly to Christ. God can admire the work that has been done, the beautiful blending of His fingerprints and our choices, and know that are made to exude, proclaim, and propel love forward.

Let us bring our identities from God, through God, and to God, with hearts full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control and all good fruits that remind the world that being gay and being Christian are just one parts of a diverse fabric of God’s people.

[1] Genesis 1:27

“Created in the Image of God”

I recently attended my first training as a participant in the Colorado chapter of SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Injustice). I caught myself glancing around the room, pondering, what has brought people here?

Inevitably, we have to ask ourselves the same question; that is, why do we do what we do?

Questions like this become more important when we flip on the news and hatred is spewing from the headlines. Urgency to find significance in our daily lives is pivotal when our neighborhoods and communities grow tense because we aren’t sure which side of the line to stand. Tensions wedge us a part; still, my deepest hope is that in fact, they would drive us together.

In these times, we need voices of hope.

I am honored and blessed enough to have a best friend who is one of those voices.

Michelle Ashley, a current seminarian in pursuit of her Master’s in Divinity at Boston University, as well as a lover of tea, community, and more recently, Zumba, recently shared a sermon that she gave at her current church in Kingwood, Texas. She sent the audio and written text to me, and so I spent one morning last week reading and listening to her words, insights, and scriptural teachings to begin my day.

Thought-provoking, genuine, passionate, and bold, I knew this message was not simply something “good to hear” but in fact, something needed. I am thankful to share this message – not only in applause for Michelle’s insights – but for what God has done, continues to do, and will do to redeem His people. The gospel never, ever grows old. And that will incite more hope than ever imagined.

*

INTRODUCTION

Created in the image of God. The subject almost seems trite in the wake of the violence in our country and world these past couple of weeks. It’s the kind of phrase we might find printed in calligraphy on a coffee cup or pinned between pictures of flowers on Pinterest. In fact, I Instagrammed a picture of the phrase just a few weeks ago as I began to think about this sermon. It was…cute…but that’s about it.

ANCIENT ITCH

For men and women in the world in which Genesis 1 was written, there was no cute “created in the image of God” paraphernalia. There was—for those ancient near east humans—only one person in all of society created in God’s image: the king. The king was representative of the gods and ruled on their behalf.[1] The king had a coffee cup that said, “I and only I am created in the image of God #sorrynotsorry.”

Bible scholars know that Genesis 1, in particular, was written in the context of a community of exiles. They’d been exiled—by the king. So, that made them not only far from God, but also rejected and despised by God. If the King looked like the gods, the first readers of Genesis 1 looked like stray coffee grounds in the bottom of the king’s mug.

CONTEMPORARY ITCH

Here in America, of course, the Divine Right of Kings isn’t a problem. We declared our independence from that a long time ago.

Instead, we have the Divine Right of Straight, White Males.

I want to be clear that, when I say “divine right of straight, white males” what I am talking about more often than not falls under the category of social sin, rather than personal sin. (Not always, but more often than not.) I am talking about the ways in which good people allow our institutions and our social structures do our sinning for us[2]—a lot of the time without even realizing it. Whereas an example of a personal sin is me stealing $20 from the offering plate after church; an example of a social sin is an entire clothing industry built on cheap, outsourced labor to adults and children working in inhumane conditions. The uncomfortable part is that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to confront both.

Our society is ordered, both historically and systematically, in such a way that privileges certain types of people over others.

This doesn’t mean that people who are straight, people who are white, and people who are male never suffer injustice or hardship or pain. The last thing I want you to hear this morning is that the pain and suffering in your life is invalid. It is valid. We are a people who have a God who hears our cries—every last one of them.

One thing I’ve learned since becoming a seminary student in a multi-racial context and making friends with people who are very similar to me in all but skin color is that I don’t often notice my privileges because they don’t come in the form of things I gain, but rather in the form of injustices I am spared[3]—because society says I don’t look like a thief, I don’t look like a terrorist.

Sometimes I call my privileges blessings, but that word has started to leave a bitter taste in my mouth when I realize that sometimes I’m ascribing God’s benevolence to the ways in which I profit from my brothers and sisters being oppressed. It’s not a blessing if someone else has to lose in order for me to win.

When I was in college, I spent a summer interning at the Star of Hope Emergency Homeless Shelter for Women and Children in downtown Houston. The shelter provides daycare for the children during the day so that their parents can look for jobs and receive training and counseling. I worked in the classroom of 8-12 year old children of homeless families. I had done some youth and kids work in the past, but I had never encountered anything remotely close to the emotional and behavioral problems that we experienced on an hourly basis in that classroom.  I loved them; they were amazing kids; but they had unfairly seen a lot in their lives, and most of them—for good reason—did not respond well to my “skinny little white girl from Kingwood” authority. Maybe a month after I finished my internship, I decided to go back to Star of Hope for a visit, to see my old classroom, to see if any of my kids were still there. It wasn’t a super long visit, there were a few old faces in my classroom but mostly new—that’s the nature of an emergency shelter.

And this is what happened: when I left that afternoon, I was remembering all the struggles of working in that environment, wondering how the new kids were behaving, I thought to myself “those two new kids sitting at that table in the corner looked like really good kids—I bet they will be really sweet.”

Here’s the problem: I didn’t know those two children. So then I had to ask myself why I thought they looked like “good kids.”

They were the only two white kids in the room.

That summer I learned that saying “I’m not racist” isn’t good enough. I am racist. Racism is like the air we breathe.

We say that we believe everyone is created in God’s image, but our actions as a society speak otherwise.

We’re all created in God’s image, but you should only have good healthcare if you can afford to pay for it.

We’re all created in God’s image, it just so happens that some of us are enslaved so that others of us can wear nice clothing brands.

We’re all created in God’s image, it’s just that some of us—because of the color of our skin—are statistically more likely to be poor, incarcerated, uneducated, homeless, or, if those things don’t get us, murdered.

The belief system of our society is really not that far from the belief system of the Genesis 1 society.

ANCIENT SCRATCH

Through Genesis 1, the God of Israel (our God!) offers an alternative story where humankind together—not as individuals, but together—1) bears God’s image, 2) shares God’s power[4], and 3) becomes God’s vehicle of blessing to the world[5].

1) Bears God’s Image

Genesis 1:26 says: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In Genesis 1:1-25, God is singular. It is only when God begins creating humans that God starts speaking about Godself in the plural: “Let us make…”

This text isn’t talking about one, individual person being created in God’s image—

The Hebrew word used here, “adam” (Adam), means “humanity.”

It’s talking about all of us, together—and ONLY together—being formed in the image of our Creator. [6] I can’t bear God’s entire image on my own—I need other people, people who don’t look like me, people who don’t come from the place where I come from, people who speak different languages and eat other types of food and sing other types of songs. Together we bear the image of God.

It was a little unnerving for me when I took my first religious studies class in college and learned that there were lots of creation stories circulating in the world at the time when Genesis was came on the scene. It wasn’t that novel of a concept for a group of people to have a story about where life came from.

There were at least three other creation stories that were widely dispersed in the ancient near east. Among them, Genesis 1 stands out for many reasons, and this is one of them: in the other creation stories, humans are created out of the gods warring against each other. The gods fight, and their fighting leads to creating lesser beings in order to serve them in some way. It’s quite the opposite in Genesis 1, where we find the singular and yet plural Trinitarian God—in community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creating humanity and pronouncing them “good”…and then resting to enjoy it!

Genesis 1 says, “THIS God is different.” THIS God offers an alternative way of being human. Do you want in? Welcome: everyone is welcome.

Humankind together bears God’s image.

2) Humanity Shares God’s Power

The second radically counter-cultural message of this passage is that the God of Genesis 1 is a God who shares God’s power with humanity.

Verse 27 says: “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

In the other ancient near east creation stories, not only did the gods create humanity out of their own fighting, but they created humans in order to do their work for them—so that they could spend more time boosting their following on Twitter, or whatever it was gods did back then for fun. Humans existed to serve the gods. There was strictly no power-sharing going on.

The Genesis 1 God gives us dominion. Dominion doesn’t mean “be like the king with the coffee cup that says #sorrynotsorry.” Dominion means God sharing God’s power with us, so that we can have the power to emulate all this good work God’s been doing. It means God trusts us!

Being created in the image of a power sharing God means that our DNA is originally designed to share power—not hoard it.

This is, again, an alternative way of being human.

3) Humanity Becomes God’s Vehicle of Blessing to the World

The third game-changing message of Genesis 1:26-31 is that humanity becomes God’s vehicle of blessing to the world.

Verse 27 says: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply….’”

When God blesses humanity, this is not the sort of blessing that really just means: “Whew! I am so glad that I got dealt a better hand than you did.” Sometimes people say “God bless America.” God says: I bless the whole world: Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Turks, French, Syrians, Cubans, North Koreans, South Koreans—all of them!

The first time God blesses humanity, not only does EVERYONE get blessed, but that blessing is also fundamentally based upon unity in difference. Male and female. Be fruitful and multiply. Unity in difference. Humanity is blessed when we unify through our differences.

One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, tells this story of when he was working with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India[7]. He says that they would throw street parties for kids that were beggars on the streets, and one day it was the birthday of one of the kids Shane had grown really close to. It was about 100 degrees, and he was thinking, “What should I get him for his birthday?” And he thought: “What better than an ice cream cone?”

So Shane gets this kid an ice cream and takes it to him. He says that he really had no idea if the boy had ever had ice cream before, because he just stared at it and shook with excitement. And then the boy’s instinct was that, “This is too good to keep to myself.” So he immediately yells to the other kids, “We’ve got ice cream! Everybody gets a lick.” He lines them up and goes down the line saying, “Your turn. Your turn.” Finally, he gets full circle back to Shane and he says, “Shane, you get a lick too.”

This is a kid who knows what it means to be God’s vehicle of blessing to the world.

CONTEMPORARY SCRATCH

What does it look like to be human beings who, together, bear the image of God, share God’s power, and become God’s vehicle of blessing to the world?

Well, there’s this guy named Jesus…. (This is what historians think he might have looked like.)

Not only did he bear God’s image, he was God.

Not only did he share God’s power, but he gave out double portions to the poor and the oppressed.

Not only was he a vehicle of God’s blessing to the world, but he lived, died, and rose again so that we—all of us—“might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, …one in ministry to all the world.”[8]

[1] “Genesis 1:1-2:3 Commentary,” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 345

[2] This idea comes from a quote from South African pastor and bishop Peter Storey, found in Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, page 361.

[3] This idea comes from “White Boy Privilege” by Royce Mann, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/13/us/teen-slam-poet-white-privilege-hln/

[4] “Genesis 1:1-2:3 Commentary,” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 346

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “A Theology of Blessing,” Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 36-37

[6] “Genesis,” Dr. Roy Heller, Lecture at Southern Methodist University, Houston-Galveston Campus, 30 August 2014

[7] https://convergemagazine.com/radical-discipleship-3006/

[8] Language taken from “United Methodist Service of Word and Table I”: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/a-service-of-word-and-table-i-and-introductions-to-the-other-forms

stones of help.

The intensity, growth, and pervasiveness of Denver traffic is becoming more and more noticeable these days. Ask anyone. Commuter or not, the thickness of cars – sitting idly, bumper to bumper – is a vision you will find more frequently along the two-lane routes of Downing into RiNo; from the re-gentrified enclaves of LoHi into 16th Street; or even from the curvy highways connecting Aurora to the rest of the metro area.

The recent buzz within the last year of Denver as the fastest growing city in the United States is palpable. From packed restaurants, saturated realty markets, and jammed high-ways, you can sense the growth within each segment of life here.

We – Ebenezer and I – were sitting in his car on the way to work earlier last week fighting this very traffic. Bless his heart, particularly being a new friend of mine, he had offered to help get me to the office in Denver while I waited for news on what exactly went wrong with my broken-down Honda the week prior.

As we sat in between stop-lights and construction stops, “small talk” quickly became irrelevant; for whatever reason, the breaking-down of barriers in communication is eased with open (or closed) roads and a window with a view. As we mingled in conversations ranging from cross-cultural mishaps (he’s from Liberia and now lives in Aurora), faith ideologies, and intrinsic motivations for why people do what they do, he asked me some very important questions –

“But, Heather, why do you believe what you believe? Where do you think that has come from?

I smiled and smirked my lips nearly simultaneously, recognizing immediately the wisdom from which he asked those questions. It was clear to me that through his own life story and experiences, he’d realized an important, central truth: our lives, perspectives, values, passions, and beliefs are deeply engrained from the environments we grow up in.

He then said, “What if we did know everything…could you, or anyone, really handle that?”

I took a moment of pause. These were important questions. Big questions. Necessary questions.

“No, I really don’t think we could. I think the power of our worldview rests when we recognize how wide, how deep, and how limited our experiences actually are in the context of the world and in the context of something larger than humanity itself. This is powerful, actually, because our humility enables constant learning, constant growth, and a constant desire for truth. Our humility leaves room for God.”

In that moment, I actually admitted it – it was better to trust God with life, purpose, and our stories, than it was to pretend as if we knew it all.

By “all” I mean a perfected doctrine; I mean practiced explanations for all the of pain, suffering, grief, war, hurt, and hell that we see on the earth; and I mean also how God has managed to be a creator, a father, the great “I Am”, and the redeemer. Just to name a few.

You see, the beauty of Christianity is that at its best, it doesn’t have to be a “religion”. It doesn’t have to a perfect order of things to do to please God. Christianity is about liberation – it’s about a God who loves and saves. We don’t find God. He finds us. That’s why we don’t have to have it all together. Or have all the answers. Or live life as religious zealots.

We’re free by grace – and that’s what we can “hang our hat on.”

This is a tall-order, however. If I believe this, than I must be willing to let God direct my life. If I stand by this, I must be willing to be vulnerable enough to accept how God has created me – and others. If I submit to the reality and truth of God’s sovereignty, than I can trust that my life is so infused with grace and love that I can do the impossible. We all have “impossible” things in our life; but what if we could actually do them?

I think, well, I know, this is what Ebenezer was getting at. He told me later that his car (the one we were conversing in) is named “Anaya,” meaning admire God. As for his name, Ebenezer is a Hebrew name that is directly from the Bible. Samuel, in preparation for battle against the Philistines, sets up a rock that is referred to as “Ebenezer.”

Thus, the name means “rock” or “stone of help.”

I’ll need every “stone of help” I can get in order to continue recognizing the power of humility in our day-to-day lives. I sense it in my work; I sense it in my relationships; I sense it in where my life is headed. I don’t know a lot of things. I do know, however, the bedrock of my faith – that is, God loves me. And there’s really nothing I can do about that.

That’s a pretty cool conclusion to reach at merely 7:35am on a Tuesday morning – traffic or not. Good thing there would be more coffee. Always, more coffee.

*

Skies

pretty spring skies on morning commutes to Denver. 

privilege.

My sturdy, red Honda Accord slowed to a stop around the bend at Staunton Rocks State Park – about 20 minutes outside of the foothills of Morrison, Colorado. They’re open! Yes!

I was a sight for sore eyes. With a car that has a duct-taped driver-side window (oh, and it’s not just grey duct tape either, it’s Colorado Buffalo themed-tape to boot), with Otis Redding tunes spilling out, the park ranger must have been thinking, oh boy.

I had awoken Christmas Eve morning, ate a hearty bowl of oatmeal (with banana and cookie butter, obviously) and decided that with a couple hours of free time on my hands, one should be outside. Exploring. Why not? I made no plan (this is typical of my behavior), gathered my hiking boots, gloves, and backpack full of the essentials – a cliff bar, my journal, a water bottle, camera, and a coffee mug to go. As the highway stretched further towards the high country I simply smiled and thought, I’ll find the right spot.

Stumbling into Conifer – and the State Park – I knew I did. I pulled up to the window.

“Hi there! I am excited to see you are open today.”

She warmly waved and exclaimed, “Oh yeah! We are open every day of the year. You got yourself until 5:00 today with a day pass. Have fun!”

I paid and continued onward. Parking my car close to the entrance, I chose to do one of the main trail loops – Staunton Rocks. In totality, the round-trip hike can last up to 12 miles; I chose a shorter circle, something around 3.3 miles. Not bad for a holiday jaunt.

Though snow was ubiquitous, my boots – purchased from a mountaineer-garage sale last winter – crunched everything in my path. The joy of a good pair of boots is unparalleled – at least for outdoorsy folk.

IMG_0862

At mile 2, in the midst of my prayers, thoughts, and contemplations, I sat on a damp log, with a view of the Continental Divide; that’s a view that’s hard to beat.

As I eyed the peaks of Colorado with gratitude, and journal and pen in hand, Mike and Brad walked by. With walking sticks and snow-shoes, they had greeted me earlier in the trail and now had managed to catch up to my speedy ways.

IMG_0856

Are we going to be in your story?”

I looked up. I smiled. I told them, “We’ll see; you never know…”

In a serious tone they asked, “Are you a journalist?”

Camera. Journal. Inquisitive behavior. Am I that obvious? I laughed and with a resounding “no” explained that though I wasn’t a journalist, I was a writer, and found it far easier to write when I was away from the noise, from the distractions – from real life.

They paused and thought for a moment. I went on to share that what was most amazing to me was that we live in world with scenes like the Rocky Mountains and the hills of Rwanda – and the innumerable sights in between. We live in a world soaked with beauty, and it’s overwhelming sometimes. As I rambled about these musings, Mike agreed and said that when he was younger, that was what had kept him travelling. His friend, from Wisconsin I would learn, Brad, interjected,

Yes…we certainly are privileged.”

They walked away a few minutes later but it was this simple statement from Brad that kept me thinking. Not only am I privileged in terms of materials, experiences, knowledge, opportunity, food, relationships (I could go on), but on this day, on Christmas Eve, I feel all the more privileged because even in my doubts and questions and against the grit of life, I know there really is such deep and purposeful intention in life. I am privileged to trust in a God that really does love me. A God that doesn’t make mistakes – and certainly, a God who desires mercy – not sacrifice. I am privileged because I am His child.

I sat on this log and thought about that for a while.

IMG_0873

I think about my friends in Rwanda who so intensely comprehend this truth that each day, each moment is done in gratitude towards God. I consider those in my family who have sought and found God in impossible situations – my mother, namely, who in deep concern for her child, turned all of her fear into hope in Him. I remember teachers, and pastors, and friends – all of whom echoed this idea. I find that in some parts of life, truth hits a lot harder, and when it comes to understanding privilege, I think being 27 and “figuring out life” is one of those points. I don’t know where life is headed – but I do know who I am.

I looked at these incredible, albeit leafless Aspens and considered that when we forget our truth, our identity, we are frayed – like the extending, frazzled branches. But in truth, we are rooted. We are privileged – much like the strong, single trunk of the tree.

IMG_0872

Christmas is a holiday sometimes filled with joy, sometimes with loneliness. A season where we thank God for what we have – but admittedly consider what we don’t. And yet, His gift is greater than all of this. We celebrate Jesus, because it’s a gift of life – from God Himself.

This life isn’t for nothing. I forget that all the time. And so, it’s why I have to drive myself away from the world sometimes, find a log, and be gently reminded by the people around.  I am privileged to be a child of God. In potlucks of food, in carols of Christmas, and in exchanges of gifts, it’s this truth I pray I will hold onto.

*

loving radically: a state of emergency

take this fainted heart, take these tainted hands, wash me in Your love, come like grace again : even when my strength is lost, i’ll praise You. even when i have no sun, i’ll praise You. even when it’s hard to find the words –

i will always sing Your praise. 

Even When It Hurts, Hillsong United

Philadelphia, Mississippi, January 2008

Her fray, wrinkly body, capped by thick, black hair with a slight gray hue, stood at the forefront of the altar, gazing to the scattered rows of pews in front of her. We filled those pews – or at least 4 rows of them – in the back. Other congregants had come and gathered to hear this old, but mighty old woman speak. Like honey glazed with just enough sugar, her voice was quiet, sweet, but clear.

In this rural, strongly Southern chapel, at a mere 19 years of age, I heard a story that changed my life.

HPIM2669

This woman – her name has since escaped me (though, I am confident it’s inscribed in one of many journals I keep) told her story from the 1960’s. I’m sure she shared about her upbringing too, but it was her experience during a KKK attack on her church that sticks with me – even today. “Mississippi Burning” with Gene Hackman is a film that is loosely based on the event; essentially, three civil rights activists were mobilizing African-Americans in the South to be come enfranchised so they could vote during ‘Freedom Summer’ in 1964. At Mt. Zion – this particular church – the activists had spoken and inspired members of the church. When the KKK caught wind of this kind of activity, the church was set on fire, burned, and destroyed.

I remember two things from her shaky yet poignant words; the intensity of the fire, and the even stronger intensity in her love of God. God – not policies, not preferences, not politics – drove her to forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, love. She forgave the KKK, the people who burned her church, the very system that desegregated, humiliated, and dehumanized her. Testimony is powerful, and I don’t remember ever hearing something quite so moving.
*

Kayonza, Rwanda, July 2012

I cooked 20 helpings of bananas, beans, and macaroni on one particular sleepy Sunday. I knew visitors would be coming – and thought I only expected around 8 people, something deeper kept tugging at me. Cook more. So I did. On that dinky charcoal stove, I cooked for at least three hours. Sweaty, smoky, and smelly, I shared with neighbors who had said they would be dropping by. We fellowshipped, shared food, and sipped coffee on my low-lying coffee table ad my beloved mat. We ate over my school-turned-home furniture and all in all, it was rather quaint. As the day drew further into the late sunny afternoon, I heard incessant knocking on my front tin gate. As I creaked it open, I glimpsed and saw two middle-aged women in pink, yellow, and blue African fabrics, holding 20 lbs. worth of stuff on their head. They spoke French. I did not. Naturally, I invited them inside.

My colleague, who just happened to be visiting at the right time, could communicate in the Francophone language and so while I poured warm drinks and gathered plates for food, he filled me in on the smaller albeit important details. Refugees for 8 years with no home to speak of, they were searching for resources outside the camp. Somehow, they had stumbled in from the outer-laying valleys and into the hills of Ruramira. How they found my house? I’ll never quite know. But, I did know that I had cooked enough food and when I passed their portions, they mumbled a small “God Bless You” and nibbled slowly but with gusto.

My heart broke that day. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t possibly understand how in a foreign land I had managed to find a home and yet these women could not. It seemed unfair. I knew I could only handle what was in front of me, and my concern was to maintain an open door, a heart full of love, and the food – as long as it was made available.

I never had to reconcile my hesitations or questions that came with allowing strangers in my home. Not once. In fact, it was second nature in the moment; it kind of, sort of, well, just happened. It was an important lesson about reconciliation.
*

My short time in Philadelphia, Mississippi taught me that reconciliation is unexpected. In Rwanda, I learned it was a life style. A choice, even. Even more, a gift that we either choose to embrace or hastily cast aside.

These are two stories. They are two – of so, so many. I’ve been fortunate to see the intricate weaving of God’s love in and out of my life in the course of 26 (almost 27) years. It’s no accident; God has demonstrated time and time again (and still again) that His love is of the radical kind; it doesn’t make sense, it transcends boundaries, and it’s the only thing I can trust. I have witnessed it in my family; I have lived within it while engaging in Rwandan village life; I have found it’s riches in my own brokenness; and I have been soulfully drawn to it as I’ve grown closer to God. His love is unexpected, surprising, un-ending, boundary-less, and unpredictable.

Yet, I’m alarmed. We (this world) have entered a state of emergency and I haven’t known how to say what I want to say or share what I want to share. I was content to say nothing until the two stories grazed my heart while on a run through the city recently and I felt compelled to scream at the top of my lungs that, yes, GOD WINS. Scream, because a quick glance into the rants, complaints, and proclamations on facebook and the media show me a world guided by fear and hate. Fear and hate. 

We have terrorism besieging Paris; criminals ruling Beirut; signs of Genocide in Burundi; and people, (ahem, largely Christians!) are standing firm in their own self-effacing ideologies and shouting, “No! We can’t accept you!” It makes me sad. What kind of gospel is that? If God has reigned victorious in our lives then we ought to know the depths of grace and the weight of mercy. And for people crying out, in need, and truly burdened, how can we possibly close the door in their face?

My question is quite simple:

What, exactly, are we so afraid of?

Even if ISIS, or evil itself came knocking, don’t we trust enough in the power, sovereignty, and love of God to protect us? Have we really given Him everything? Because before I am anything, I am with Him. I am a child of God. That is my identity. I refuse to embrace anything else. That’s why I am speaking about God at all in all of this madness; for me, this is not political, it’s not ideological, and it’s not about taking sides. It’s about loving when it really hurts. When it’s hard. When maybe, we just don’t want to.

Why does that matter?

It matters because before being Republican or Democrat, man or woman, young or old, educated or illiterate, or American citizen or not, I am with God. My loyalties are with God, above all else, and no matter how many times I flip the Bible in, out, and around, one thing above all else is clear – Love God, Love Others, and DO NOT FEAR.

It matters because in a lot of ways, we are all refugees. We are all searching for home, belonging, and identity. When you find it, you realize how precious that treasure is. God’s love is kind of like that. It matters, because there are people in the world seeking love, seeking peace, and seeking solace. They are hungry, beaten, suffering, and in need. Why wouldn’t we be moved so much by our hearts (and by the gospel) that we knew that something should be done?

And granted, we are messier, sloppier, and human. So, we’re going to mess it up. It’s easy to talk about love, but hell, it’s a lot harder to do. I struggle with this a lot. Sometimes, crazy enough, it’s hardest of all to love the people we know we should love. But that’s just it; the life of Jesus demonstrated what love without boundaries was like. He is our precedent, and I see no other way but to follow.

I don’t know how to respond to everything in all these really uncomfortable, uncertain, and painful times. But I knew that today I needed to declare my allegiance to God; mindfully aware that my theology, research, studies, opinions, and formulations will amount to nothing but a grain of sand to what God is offering to the world. He brings His heart – and as far as I am concerned, that’s the only the thing that matters.

Begin to see how God radically loved you, and in turn, you might see how we can radically love others. That is what our world needs more than anything else right now.

May this be a time of opening – not closing – a time to reconsider our misconceptions, a time to look deeper into our hearts, challenging ourselves to probe the deeper side of love. May we draw near truth, and express a desire to be united – not broken – by the evil that knocks, threatens, steals, kills, and destroys.

God wins. So does love.

“Gospel change is the Spirit of God using the story of God to make the beauty of God come alive in our hearts…Religion, then, can tell you what to do—namely, to “love God with all your heart, soul and mind” and “to love your neighbor as yourself”; but the gospel alone gives you the power to do it.”
J.D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:7

*

 

 

skies & stories

To any airport nerds out there: I’m with you! Baggage claim, terminals, café stops, and gates are my jam.

Need to arrive early for a flight? Fine by me. More time to explore, people watch, and make new friends.

It’s strange, I know, but the love of airports and planes is just one of many reasons that I love traveling.

On a recent flight from Kenya to Rwanda (one that I barely made from 2+hours stuck in insane Nairobi traffic…) I sat next to a sharply intelligent, young, Ugandan medi-physicist who lives in Bahrain, in the Middle East. We exchanged typical flight partner pleasantries as you awkwardly squeeze together like little sardines. The airline attendants gave their routine speeches and we settled in for the journey. This man, inquisitive and open, like myself, shared that he is feeling led to move back to Africa, his “homeland”. He is researching cancer treatments in Bahrain – and is only one of two Ugandans specialized at this point in doing so. I asked about this “calling” home and he spoke directly and assuredly –

“God will show me, I’m sure.”

I tilted and nodded my head slightly. “That’s great…are you by chance a Christian?”

He chuckled sardonically. “No, I’m Muslim.”

He wasn’t defensive; either was I. This created the opportunity for both of us to feel comfortable to delve further into a conversation that most people could dread having.

I was undeterred, however. I wanted to respect this man, but not convolute the truth of my relationship with God. Essentially, be clear. That’s a semi-messy challenge if I have ever seen one – don’t you think?

He was quick to speak and said that he grew up in a house full of Christians. Religion had been shoved down his throat, he admitted. He clarified his experience specifically,

I’ve read the Bible back and forth. I know the laws. I know your theology. I know what Christianity stands for. Growing up, I knew I was a Muslim. It’s not that different, you know. We worship the same God.”

I disagreed – but before I could continue, the crickety cart of snacks came through the crowded 2-foot aisle. I asked for both a cup of coffee and soda water. “Sorry,” the flight attendant muttered, “there is not coffee.

Woah. What. Of all times…!

I took the soda water gratefully, and turned back towards my new friend. He changed the topic and pressed further into his own faith curiosity and asked about my “religious background.” I took a sip, and shared.

Well, let me start by saying that for me, God isn’t a religion. It’s the purpose of my life.

From a family of divorce, I just wanted something that would stick together and church seemed to have it. At first, the God I followed was demanding of perfectionism, deeds, and self-promotion. I saw a lot of brokenness, poverty, and suffering and figured the antidote was good works. Later, I conceived of a God that was much more free-flowing; love-all, do-all, we all got a bit of truth. Nobody had it all figured out…right?

He stared at me compassionately as I articulated my testimony. I hadn’t expected to give this on a plane; but I suppose in the skies is just as well as anywhere else.

Life in Rwanda dramatically impacted my experience with God – and I changed. I was kept safe (sometimes explainable only by miracles!), surrounded by love, and met people that spoke of the Spirit of God unlike I had heard before. Echoes of Jesus and his ministry became real and tangible. Yet, I was at times obsessed with goodness. Instead of God’s love consistently fueling my actions – it was sometimes my desire to be accepted, do well, and find approval in the world. I was doing all the right things, but not always with the right motivation. He was using me, I am sure, but spiritually, I never felt good enough. I could FEEL the power of God around me; I could SEE the fruits of faith; but a fear of vulnerability kept more from total surrender to this God I was witnessing work.

God wasn’t done. He would press vulnerability into me like the mashing of sweet potatoes in the fall. A friend that would challenge my entire belief system, life, and identity entered my life. Divine, God-fearing, funny, and kind, became a close friend in Rwanda. She taught me about being a Rwandan woman, about the complexities of this country, and ultimately, what was required to be a part of my small, rural community. It was strangely one of the easiest friendships I had ever had. We had no reason to relate (culturally, economically, emotionally, and geographically) but a foundation of trust was instant. She demonstrated to me what raw vulnerability could be like from the beginning.

Something happened along the way and the openness I was feeling with Divine became a replacement for God. I felt so safe in that relationship that I placed it on a pedestal and felt identity-less without it. I became confused. Our relationship slipped into romantic involvement and for the next weeks, months, and yes, even years, would be uncertain about my heart and who I was. I tried dealing with this confusion by excessively exercising, under-eating, and ignoring any inclination for God in my heart. I could do figure this all out, I told myself. I could fix this.

I took a deep breath. That’s a lot to tell someone on a plane.

“Wow….you have quite a story here…”

I cut him off. If he wanted the story, he was certainly going to get it.

That wasn’t the end. I didn’t figure it out by myself.

I surrendered my life to God – and then (and only then!) could anything make sense. God found me this summer, drew me up, and showered forgiveness, grace, and promise unlike I had ever known to be possible. The life of Jesus and the importance of the resurrection began to make sense for the first time; with God’s people there could be no saving themselves. In my life, there could be no peace from my own work. So, we need Jesus. I needed Jesus. He wants us that badly. When I resigned to defining my own identity, finally – that in fact, I couldn’t figure it out – He met me in that very real place of weakness, submission, and brokenness and took care of everything else. For idolatry, for sexual immorality, for selfishness, for anger, for sin – I asked for forgiveness. It sounds crazy, but in those sweet moments with God, I saw the gospel alive and I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit come to life. It’s real. God’s real. I am still the same, messed up, woman. But, I have been made new. The confusion that so long had ruled my life, reigns no more. I know who I am. I acknowledge the imperfections of my humanness and surrender to serve God anyway. He chose me first, after all.

I released a sigh. “Yes, now….yeah. That’s my story with God. As much as I can really summarize, anyway.”

Surprised with this kind of candidness, I think, he graciously thanked me for sharing. I was exhausted, surprised that I shared so much, surprised that he had listened. I thanked him also for giving me the space and the respect to give a personal testimony like that – all in the comforts of Seats 10A and 10B.

You talk a lot about Jesus.” He pauses for a single moment.

“And while I appreciate your story, I still don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘encountering Jesus’ and ultimately, why you would need Jesus to find God. I hear Christians praying TO Jesus and I find this incredibly confusing. Don’t you think God might be offended by the fact that you would need to go through Jesus to get through Him?

Woah. Now we’re getting serious. This is the core of the Christian faith – why the gospel?

(Where’s the coffee when you need it?)

If there was no Jesus,” I slowly say, “there could not be reconciliation. God did not to reconcile Himself – He needs us to be reconciled to Him. He is perfect. Unable to reconcile ourselves amidst our own depravity, Jesus was God’s gift, heart, and love for the world. He gave Jesus all authority and thus He was both man and God –

But see! How is that possible?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know! I can’t tell or explain everything perfectly. But, I can tell you that Jesus was sent to free us. Evil swarms the world and without any point of grace, we will be lost to it.”

You see, that’s where we differ. I follow God. I follow His commands. I seek to submit to Him and He works in my life.”

It was around this time I could sense we would have to agree to disagree. The flight was coming to an end, our seatbelts needed to be fastened.

A life with Jesus recognizes that your power is limited. It’s all from Him – He’s the one that found you in the first place. Jesus – and then knowing God – has far less to do with your own actions as much as it does as allowing Him to work in your life. It’s seeing His glory in everything – not our own. It’s a faith unlike any others. It’s less about you, more about Him.”

I stopped there. I recognized there wasn’t much more I could say. And, really, that was okay. This passenger-neighbor of mine again thanked me for the conversation. He kept it simple,

Perhaps we’ll meet again. You aren’t like a lot of Christians that I know.”

I had no idea what the heck that meant, but okie dokie, then.

Exiting the tarmac that cool Rwandan evening, I found my bags and glided onto the back of a moto.

I recounted this conversation in my head (did I say everything right? Was my theology sound? Did I glorify God?). I found myself laughing aloud. I had prayed specifically for opportunities to share my faith – only then did I realize that of course, it would happen on a plane. Less about getting it all right, I was honest and spoke truth. Less about forcing someone to think the same, I gave glory to God.

*

In the skies, I guess, anything can happen. Conversations can lead to deep testimonies or small musings over tea. It doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to throw your ideas around in other people’s faces – but you can share, humbly and definitely, what has happened in your life. It’s your story.

Not everyone will listen. Not everyone cares. But if you are faithful, you will get a chance. People want to know why the gospel or why faith or why (fill in the blank). You never know when you might need to be heard.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6: 3-4

*