God just is.

I have often found that the presence of the Divine is surprisingly subtle.

Experiencing, feeling, noticing, observing, communing (or really, whatever you want to call it) with God, for me, is typically an occurrence in the quieter, more reflective spaces of my life.

This is counterintuitive to many of the religious spaces I have found myself in over the years. Places where God is equal to loud praises, loud shouts, and loud songs. And sure, God can be found here too, in fact, I think that God is accessible anywhere and everywhere.

Yet, for me I feel God when my environment errs on the side of discreet and still.

So, it was completely “on brand” that when riding my bicycle this afternoon I felt the noticeable, pressing experience of God. Gliding along the paths near Crestmoor Park I was sorting through what felt like a million feelings. I had just returned from Rwanda. Even after two weeks, I was literally gleeful to be with Chelsea again. I was considering upcoming transitions. I was thinking about weddings, fall plans, and the end of summer. I was also recalling conversations with my parents, wanting to make sure that they were both doing well after not speaking with them during my travels.

A lot was on my mind. At one point during these thoughts, I turned the corner, touching on my brakes ever so slightly when –

Silence.

I felt a need for all things to be quiet – mostly the noise in my head. And so, with resistance, I silenced my questions, to-do lists, and contemplations. I existed in the moment, amidst the vibrant, green trees and slightly rocky bike paths. Suddenly, a mantra –

You are loved. You are enough. You do not have to explain yourself.

These phrases came to mind – on repeat – like a song that you just cannot get enough of. I wondered to myself: how do you know when you are skimming the line of God versus when you’re giving yourself positive self-talk?

Real question.

And, the real answer is that I don’t know. I literally have no idea. However, I do have a hunch.

When I am with God, everything is in balance. Everything is with perspective. And, any thoughts I have (positive or otherwise) feel exquisitely simple and yet equally profound. It is as though my spirituality is full of reminders of love, yearnings for compassion, and fierce dedication to hope. All of this, without any of my own internal baggage. It is quite nice.

Prayers, revelations, and messages come together – time with God is never so clearly sparred out and divided like we do with our church programming. God just is.

I kept riding my bike, sifting through this nugget of faith that I was greatly welcoming. You see, connecting with God in this way has been more difficult lately. There has been so much moving around, so much change, so much distraction, to be frank. Because of that, I have missed these still moments that allow me to push further, beyond myself, so that I can access God, the Divine, and explore life from a fresher perspective – even if it is just for a moment.

Connection with God, I am learning requires connection to self. One must take the space. One must understand their identity. One must be willing to find what is available to them in any moment. God does not require a church, God does not require a certain verse or saying, God does not require a performance.

God just desires you – me – us.

Realizing this is changing my prayers, too. Today, I prayed a simple set of questions, a kind of prayer of humility:

God.

Thank you for today.

Thank you for bringing me home.

Thank you for the love I have in my life.

My hope is to steward this love well.

Where can I grow?

Where can I learn?

Where can I forgive?

Where can I hope?

Where can I give?

Where can I receive?

Where can I support?

Teach me how to explore these spaces – whatever my resistance, whatever my disposition. May I live well. May I love well.

God, help me to not forget the richness of this life. God, be with the hungry. God, be with the lonely. Be with all of us – regardless of belief, regardless of circumstance, regardless of anything. May your presence and experience be known. May your love reign.

I love you.

 Faith is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex.

I will forever fall short of describing my faith. I mean, how does one describe that which can only be felt?

Here’s to finding God in all kinds of places, in the most unexpected of ways.

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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.


 

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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.

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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

Remember: A Prayer

Remember: A Prayer

[6:37 AM, 10/2/2017]

Hey ladies! I woke up and heard the horrible news in Vegas and I’m so so depressed and heartbroken about it. I just want to spread some love and let you know I love you ladies very much and value our friendship greatly ❤❤❤❤❤

I woke up last week, on Monday morning, to this message from one of my dearest friends. My heart broke in a million pieces. My mind raced back through the many other events like it, Columbine, Aurora, San Bernardino – the list goes on. I assumed that what had happened in Vegas was a shooting. Unfortunately, I tend to think this way because our particular generation has been conditioned to this: gun violence has become normalized. It’s messed up. It’s sad. And, it’s also true.

I hesitantly checked the news and I was right. At that point, over 50 had been reported killed and hundreds were injured. I prayed before I even got out of bed. 

Lord, have mercy.

The rest of the day felt foggy and as I sat at work, rhythmically typing and listening to some tunes on Spotify, the ever-present question of, “what do I do? kept ruminating in my mind and heart.

At lunch, I took a walk to get some fresh air. I brainstormed ideas or thoughts that might help. Maybe I should give blood?  Maybe I should give to a fund to support the victims’ families? Indeed, there were several action-oriented things I could (and can) do.

When I came home later that night, I tried to absorb everything that has transpired in the last couple of months: Chelsea’s losses in her families, the hurricanes, the Vegas shooting, Charlottesville….

I mean, is it just me or has it felt like these months have been really hard?

It is overwhelming to sit with all that has transpired. As I did, a pronounced call to prayer came to me. Gratitude. Though much has happened in my own life and the world throughout this summer (and now fall), there is a steadiness of God that I have been unable to ignore.

In the midst of crisis, pain, loss, violence, and death, in me there remains a steely and steady trust that God is in this with us. I don’t mean to say that God is a bystander. And, I don’t mean to say that God allows these things to happen. If that was the case, what kind of God would that be? No, I mean that God that exists through and in us. I think God grieves with us. I think God celebrates with us, too. And so, I as I entered this call to prayer, I made a list of remembrances. It is my hope that by remembering, we can acknowledge that we will get through this.

We know this because we always have.

Remember: A Prayer

I remember when my brother was born.

I remember when I learned to ride a bike.

I remember making new friends.

I remember starting my first job.

I remember my parents divorce.

I remember changing schools.

I remember my parents remarriages.

I remember starting and loving field hockey.

I remember moving South.

I remember wondering if I was gay.

I remember changing my mind about my beliefs.

I remember seeing and witnessing real poverty.

I remember when grandma died.

I remember when one of my students was raped.

I remember living in Papas house.

I remember bucket baths.

I remember failing and then succeeding as a teacher.

I remember leaving.

I remember coming home.

I remember coming out.

I remember depression.

I remember renewal.

I remember taking the job I really wanted.

I remember the Pulse shooting.

I remember Pride.

I remember when the Broncos won the Super bowl.

I remember moving near Washington Park.

I remember being brave.

I remember meeting Chelsea (again).

I remember falling in love (again).

I remember being bold.

I remember God, in everything.

God has never left me.

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“Love is bigger than you think.”

When I was 13, I bore witness to the death of my great-grandmother.

Slowly, she curled up into herself in those last moments. She was in her late 80’s and so her wrinkly, dry skin held her together like an old leather saddle left in the sun on horseback. Her last breath was ragged and soft. I touched her hand before her soul departed, perhaps hoping to hold onto the last piece of life she could give to the world around her. There were numerous family members circling her bed, including my own grandmother who would pass away a few years later. The air smelt still, pungent, and sad. I felt stuck; I couldn’t look, but I also wasn’t able to look away. I knew this woman, she was family after all, but I did not know her well. So, my heart grieved her life with a kind of distance that is both awkward and strange.

It was the first time that I had seen life leave a human being.

It was a haunting moment.

It was humbling too, reminding me that despite the pervasive differences soaked in the human experience, all of us must wrestle and reconcile the inevitability of our mortality. That is a weighty topic for a young teenager, but in many ways, I was ready to engage with it. I asked (and journaled) about my own life. What would I stand for? What was my purpose? If my life would end someday, what would I want people to remember?

If nothing else, I knew then that life was precious.

*

Three weeks ago, I had to face the reality of death again, but in a very different context.

As I’ve become an adult, I have learned that death, though bringing about the same outcome, looks different in the life of each person. Some individuals, like my great-grandmother, die in hospice of old age. Other deaths come more unexpectedly, through accidents or painful diseases. Other times, a person suffers for long periods of time, unsure when the end of their life may come.

As it happened, I was visiting a friend and professional contact of whom I had connected upon launching the Denver location of The Women’s Bakery in January 2015.

We laughed more than we talked when we first met, and I knew she would be a positive resource for me as I began to build my professional life back in Denver. With more than 20 years of experience in the legal arenas of business and finance and active involvement for women’s issues in the community, I respected her insights, opinions, and ideas. As 2016 unfolded, we met three times: all for wine. Over deep red merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this woman shed light on what her life had been like and how she had woven her career into the other areas that life offers us.

There was no wine during my most recent visit.

This woman had cancer and she was dying.

Months ago, after we sipped wine on a summer afternoon in the urban enclaves in one of Denver’s trendy neighborhoods, I emailed her about getting together again. Radio silence ensued. Eventually, she responded to my emails and invited me to her mother’s home, where she was now staying, to talk.

I knew it was serious when I saw the long, lingering tubes at the front of the house, connecting to a plethora of oxygen tanks. I knew it was serious when I saw that all her long, bold, red hair had fallen out. I knew that this woman would not continue to live when she looked me in the eyes and admitted to herself and the world that her battle would be coming to an end.

I sat on a chair across from her, silently praying that I would be able to show her all the love, comfort, and dignity that I possibly could. I was scared.

We spoke for 49 minutes.

“I’m so sorry this is happening. How are you getting through this?” I meekly asked.

“Friends. Family. Normal things. I am trying to stay connected as I can. It keeps me grounded. And since the diagnosis, I have been able to talk more openly with people in my life than I have in years.”

Her diagnosis was just a couple of months ago. And, the most recent CAT scans told their own story: she would be dying soon.

Wow. Why do you think that is? How can you feel free to talk with people in your life like that?”

She hesitated, but only for a moment.

“It’s about healing. And there’s been a lot of it. Take my mom. We didn’t talk for years. And with this, we have reconciled and acknowledged where we have both been wrong over the years. Situations like this bring experiences like that about.”

In an effort for true empathy, I mentioned a difficult conversation I had coming up with some people in my own family.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it about?”

I told her the truth. I told her everything.

And she smiled. Slowly. And then, she spoke words that I can still hear echo softly in my heart,

“Be patient. Love well. You are being exactly who you are supposed to be. But remember the journey you have traveled in this experience – others must take it too. Remember to have compassion on those that may not understand. You’ll see. Love is bigger than you think.”

I nodded. I felt encouraged. I was relieved.

I handed her an old black cardigan and a reading light.

She pushed me further in conversation.

“You are a woman of faith. Have you always loved Jesus?”

I was honest about that too.

“I’ve been a Christian for a while. 10 years, maybe. But only in the last couple of years have I understood what it is to be free of the rigidity and system of religion. I didn’t know that loving God was inherently a relationship. But when I knew that I was free from perfection, acceptance, and proof of worth because of Jesus’ love, my life changed. When I discovered that knowing God is far more of a relationship, I began to be free of my own fears.”

She seemed to agree willingly and quickly, “Fear. I think religious systems promote this more than anything. And let’s be real, we all probably need a savior. From fear, and, I think, from ourselves.”

I pursed my lips in soft agreement.

“You’re right. That’s the crazy thing; modeling a life like Jesus is far more radical than a lot of churches like to admit. Recognizing the impact of real, living grace is powerful. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s a changing of heart. It’s a transforming of a mind. Jesus has provided me the freedom to love God, myself, and others. I can’t really describe it.”

I must have described it well enough.

One week before her death she sent me a short email.

“Dear Heather, thanks!  I also wanted to let you know that I consider our conversation to be the time I accepted Jesus as my savior!  Like I said, we all need one.  I already treasure our friendship!”

My mouth dropped and I cried.

*

I took her wisdom as I’ve entered difficult and important conversations in this season. I’ve held tightly to her word: compassion. It’s a word that has been repeated to me, time and time again, and so I suppose that’s what I’m learning: compassion creates pathways for healing and growth. It’s painful, but my, it’s necessary.

I learned of her death while driving late last Friday afternoon into the southern range of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over. I exited my car, holding on the ledge for balance, and breathed in the chilly air with a new kind of heaviness.

Death had taken her early. Still, she left me (and I presume many others) with advice and hope to keep going.

We never know what life might teach us. We don’t know what death can teach us, either.

What I do know is that each person on this planet, friend, enemy, foe, colleague, neighbor, or the annoyingly slow driver ahead of us can teach us something. We are all teachers. We are all students.

I miss this friend of mine. I miss her quirky-sassy attitude. I mourn all the lives that are lost early. And I hope, fiercely hope, that we don’t take for granted the people around us for this very reason. As I learned when I was 13, life is fragile. Beautifully fragile. May we see it, and may we know it.

Eat Together Anyway

Anxiously awaiting four (yes, you read that correctly) different thanksgiving gatherings over the holiday, I wrote a simple prayer in my journal.

Writing my prayers with paper and ink, for me, gives them fullness because in writing, there is an ease in both articulation and authenticity. With little effort, my hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, concerns, and thoughts rise from my soul and I know what it is I want to speak to God.

Plus, being a vegetarian on a holiday with excessive amounts of turkey calls for extra kinds of prayers (kidding, kind of).

I want to share this prayer with you.

Lord, thank you for this day.

I give thanks for a time we can remember, reflect, and cultivate gratitude.

I recognize that this space is holy. Humble me Lord, and let me honor that today.

I thank you for the humans I will sit with today. Cousins, aunts, step-uncles, family friends, grandparents, dogs, and mom, and dad, too.

We sit and eat with our people whom have both celebrated and hurt us; With our people whom have inspired and disappointed us; With our people whom have defended and accused us; With our people whom have loved and left us.

We are sinners and we are saints. And so am I.

I ask, Jesus, that this day of gratitude looms larger than philosophical, political, and worldview differences.

We eat together anyway and God, that’s the real gift.

Jesus, bring your mercy and bring your peace. Extend it where I may fall short. Thank you, Jesus, for this life.

I love you, this day, and I love this life, too. Amen.

This might be shocking (insert sarcasm here), but I’m actually not an expert on prayer. I don’t know for certain how it works. I think that’s what makes the whole faith process miraculous; we don’t know precisely when, or how, God enters these conversations, but without a doubt, He is there.

I think prayer is a revealing of self before God. Which, seems funny, because God already knows us. Still, like the exchanged vulnerabilities in any relationship we have in our life, it’s our responsibility to reveal the cracks in our perfectly manicured presentation of self and share who we are. Like, for real.

That’s why I think prayer is powerful and, I think it’s why prayer works, too.

As we toss away the layers before God, we also do so with other people. We become ourselves. And with time, we become more comfortable with that, inviting and allowing God’s grace to change us. We’re imperfect (and so are other people), and my goodness, that’s literally okay.

The table of Thanksgiving offers us this opportunity to not only empathize with the imperfection of ourselves and others, but to celebrate the goodness, beauty, and loveliness of ourselves and others, too. No matter the brokenness, the victory, the celebration, or the heartache, we’ll eat together anyway.  

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We’ll eat together even as we talk about religion, politics, money, sex, or the 2016 election. 

We’ll eat together even if not everyone in our family can be there.

We’ll eat together even when someone drinks too much and says something insensitive.

We’ll eat together even if a loved one refuses to accept another for who they are.

We’ll eat together even if forgiveness has yet to be offered, received, or accepted.

We’ll eat together even as family members begin counseling to save their marriage.

We’ll eat together even if someone continues to work far too much.

We will eat together anyway because we are family and these are our people.

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I’m grateful to have this – knowing full well that there are many individuals roaming streets, dumpsters, and shelters, with no place to go.

I’m thankful to have a home and these traditions that have come long before me.

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I’m thankful for this year, because without it, I don’ think I would be able to celebrate love, community, Jesus, perseverance, hope, freedom, and maturity the way that I can now.

I am thankful because it is the love of Christ that allows me to see this world bent towards justice and light and courage.

2016 was not good – for many (think: Syria, the death of Muhammad Ali, the Zika outbreak, racial tensions in the U.S., Brexit, etc.). John Oliver even talked about it being the worst year ever. Historians don’t necessarily agree, but we can all recognize: this year wasn’t the best.

Yet, I’m propelled, encouraged, and inspired to continue to seek all that we give thanks for: community, hope, love.

Our job is to seek, promote, and allow these things to come before the standing world order of power, greed, money, self-focus, and all of the sin that runs rampant to de-throne a different kind of kingdom that Jesus speaks so heavily about.

Until then, as we strive towards this, we give thanks and work that much harder – together.

We can give thanks because we are not alone in these pursuits.

As an addendum to my prayer, I wrote the following words in my journal from a book by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, of House for All Sinner & Saints,

“It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.

As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create things thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace. We must tell it to each other. It’s a terribly inconvenient and oftentimes uncomfortable way for things to happen. Were we able to receive the word of God through pious, private devotion – through quiet personal time with God – the Christian life would be far less messy.

But, as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling…Sometimes, I believe that God’s word of grace can also come through simple, imperfect everyday human love.”

Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber

womanhood.

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou

                               

“You can’t play with us. You’re a girl.”

Girl. It spits harshly off his tongue as though my gender is a direct, detestable offense to his playground territory. Tears brimmed my delicate eyelids and I walked away, sensitive to the idea that inherently, I was an outcast. Undeterred, I secretly brought my Aurora soccer club jersey to school the following day. I slipped the mesh green “28” jersey with “Heather” on my back with pride during our lunch break. Come hell or high water, I was going to play – with the boys.

When recess commenced, like a first class ticket, the jersey bought me leverage and I was suddenly allowed to join the match. Insecure, it was the first time I ever muttered the word, “shit” – largely to fit in with the other 3rd grade posse kicking the ball around with me. Girl, or not, I just wanted to play.

                               

The complexity of humanness strikes me when I watch a homeless man hold a cardboard box sign that reads “needing food.” I’m in the back-seat of my dad’s car, as he drives us home after a long day of school and sports practice. We’re eating the snacks he’s allowed us to purchase at 7-Eleven. Lance even has a freshly-printed pack of Pokémon cards, so you can be sure he was some kind of happy camper. I glance at this man, outside my window, probably even a few years older than my dad, and I ask myself, “who is he?” He’s not just a man. He’s a person, who happens to be hungry.

Yet, for some reason, I, a young girl, got to be in a warm car, with food, on the way home. I realize then that whatever – or whomever – I was wasn’t the full story. We aren’t the sum of our gender, of our incomes, of our jobs, of our status, of our families, of anything. We move between boundaries, definitions, and experiences, recognizing that our lives give expression to whom we become. I think about these things as a young girl because it seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world. What else am I supposed to think, when I see a hungry person on the side of the road?

                               

I hid boxes of Kleenex under my bed. My best friend since the 4th grade was developing fast, already adorning large bras at the age of 12. To keep pace, I stuffed tissue into the small trainer bras that I was able to wear. I was preoccupied with my body and fixated on the fact that I didn’t have the slim, full-breasted look like my friends. Or in the magazines I saw at the grocery store. I was a flat-chested girl, with glasses, and face sprinkled with acne. I thought I was an ugly girl.

                               

Sometime around the age of 16, I heard a sermon about submission. Not through the lens of Christ, but to men, specifically and most emphatically, men. My obedience, to a man, was equated to my reputability as a woman. It didn’t make sense to me. But, the Bible said something like it – so it had to be right, right? The legalistic nature of this, and many other morality clauses of the sacred texts would haunt me for years.

Eventually, the gospel broke through. Eventually, I saw the beauty, strength, and possibility of womanhood because of the message Jesus came to share. Before this, though, I experienced the real dangers that moral extremes bring to the expression of womanhood. Women are not meant to be controlled – but we are. Women are not meant to be sidelined – but we are.

A mentor of mine recently told me that at 83, and over 60 years of marriage, “there is no way in hell that I could have sacrificed my own inner strength for the sake of my husband.” She went on to say, “Our submission and partnership is built on a mutually exclusive commitment. I follow God – not my husband. I honor him. I listen to him. But, our relationship is give-and-take. God did not make me to be quiet. He gave me things to say. And dammit, I’m going to say them.” Her words brought healing. Her words brought permission to give life to the voice inside.

                               

My life changed when I went to Mississippi and Alabama for the first time as a freshman in college. On our trip, to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with two women that deeply informed my understanding of growing up and becoming. The first woman provided her testimony of survival at a rural church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her church had been burnt by the KKK in the 1960’s and she had then spent her life building reconciliation and forgiveness throughout the community – for people of all colors. The second woman was named Roslyn. I met her in Birmingham. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that she appreciated a warm sandwich more than anyone I had met in a long time. She was in between jobs, trying to make ends meet, and she wasn’t going to give up.

One night, I stayed up late at the church that was hosting our stay. The sanctuary lights remained lit and I entered the sacred space. I stared at a portrait of Jesus for 30 minutes. I questioned everything I had ever been told. Womanhood, I realized, was much like the way God has formed our lives. With clay, He works like a potter, molding us, forming us, building us up. My life was also shaped by my own fingerprints. What did I want my life to say? Who would I become?

I didn’t become a Christian that night – I already was one. I became an independent thinker.

                               

New Orleans, Louisiana is crowded, noisy, and bursting at the seams with fruity hurricanes, mojitos, and Jack Daniels, most noticeably during the long, lazy week of Spring Break. With two car-loads of my college girlfriends, we had made the trip down to the Bayou from Arkansas so I could work on my senior thesis. And, you know, do everything else that comes with Spring Break shenanigans. One night, we enjoyed a drink or two (and perhaps more) and were singing “Tik Tok” by KeSha on a random karaoke stage. I was energized and happy. With some of my favorite people, we were soaking up the last few months of our college experience.

Our show-stopping tune of karaoke finished just after 1:00am and so as I exited the stage, I noticed the drunken stupor of the crowd had risen. A particularly inebriated man, probably in his mid-40’s approached me hastily. He squeezed my butt and smiled. I didn’t say anything. He slurred ,”hi” and then wasted no time to proposition me – not before acknowledging that he had a wife and young baby at home.

I flipped out. Crying, distressed, and visibly upset, I walked back to the open air of Bourbon Street. I was mad he grabbed me. I was disrespected, as was his family, and it left an incredibly foul taste in my mouth. I was infuriated that he presumed he could do whatever he wanted.

                               

I was new to the village, only having had moved to Ruramira the day before as my community’s first ever Peace Corps Volunteer. Successfully, I made it through my first night, and decided to introduce myself to the local government authorities. The office was a mile walk from my blue-green home. Putting one foot in front of the other, I absorbed the rolling mountains, the ubiquity of bananas, trees, and the songs of chirping birds. I lived in a beautiful, breath-taking community in the Eastern Province.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man, Mugabire, joined me abrasively on the side of the road. I would learn later that Mugabire was Ugandan (and thus the reason behind his perfect English) and was often in trouble for causing issues with other individuals, especially women. I was new then, though, and I didn’t know this. Aggressively, he spoke and followed me on the long stretch of rural road.

“Hello, which country are you coming from?”

“Hi – I’m from America. The United States of America.”

“You’re in Rwanda. Why?”

“I’ve come here to learn about Rwanda, to make friends, to support this community, and to teach English at the local secondary school.”

It of course, all sounded quite rehearsed, but like I mentioned, I was a newcomer.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Please. I want to sleep with you. I will marry you.”

Slightly alarmed, I pause, don’t say anything, and begin to look upon the horizon for people who might be nearby. I curse myself; it’s 11:00am and nearly everyone is working their fields, away from their homes. He presses further.

“Give me sex. I want your pussy – “

I interrupt this time and speak with every drop of boldness I have in my voice, “Please. Go. Leave me alone.”

It’s escalating and he calls me a bitch.

I start to run.

When I reach the local officials’ office, I’m crying hysterically. When I tell them this man was Mugabire, the shake their heads. “Oh Mugabire…Oh Mugabire…”

                               

With 30 bright, young women singing self-made songs of hope and autonomy, my body feels out of balance, like I am flying. I’ve taught this girls’ group (GLOW – Girls Leading Our World) about periods, sex, confidence, relationships, public speaking, domestic violence, and identity. I’ve been teaching them for months, and I realize that in the process, I’ve been just as much of a student of them as they have been students for me. As they have worked to establish their voices at home and at school, they have released me of my own assumptions about men, about women, and about the unity of people together.

This group of women has brought together unique forces in our ecosystem of our community (the headmaster, local authorities, fathers, mothers, and brothers) to celebrate their successes as a recognized organization at our school. Their mission is to show that shared leadership is the only way forward in a society.

I close my eyes as the traditional Rwandan beat catches my ears. My soul dances, and I thank God that I was born who I was.

                               

On a date arranged through online networking, I’m propositioned for sex in less than 10 minutes. I’m also asked when I last “put out” for someone else. This excuse of a person asks me three times to sleep with him as I sit across the table. Casually, he admits that he lied about certain parts of his online profile, and quickly, my instincts tell me that I could be sitting adjacent to a rapist.

I firmly respond with a hard “no.” In a flurry of goodbyes he attempts to punch my face. He calls me a “f****** bitch c***.” I run. Around the parking lot, I hide behind several cars that glisten under the night lamps. When I reach my car, I lock the door, and I shake without any possibility of stopping. The harassment continues via text message and I cannot feel safe. I am exposed, as if my dignity is torn apart. I am a woman. A mighty, gritty woman. Yet still, in a matter of minutes, someone else has been given license to threaten every piece that is holding me together.

                               

Recently released from rehabilitation, I’m tasked with spending time with my brother for three days straight. He is getting clean, and to do so, he needs extra support to make sure he gets there. I’m recently returned from Rwanda (read: jobless) and my parents are all responding to their own working commitments and so, voila! Lance and I spend extra time together –more than we had spent together in the previous five years.

We start by doing what we do best: eating. Slowly though, like strangers getting to know each other for the first time, we go on long walks and dig through old notebooks and journals we wrote when we were younger. We laugh hysterically. We also cry together. We discuss hard things. Emotional things.

In the middle of a green belt, on the edge of Denver, I share parts of myself that at the time, I hadn’t yet revealed to other people in my family. My brother asks questions, gently, ever so kindly and hugs me after we finish our walk.

I won’t soon forget the way he looked at me. With the corners of his own pain so fresh on his heart, I could have understood if my own pain would be too much of a burden. But for him, it wasn’t. He listened, acknowledged it, and assured me that I was going to be okay.

Womanhood, in its optimal place, is a kind of freedom to be liberated; to be honest; to be open. My brother taught me that. A man. A gentle, kind, brilliant, passionate, man. That’s the beauty of this earth you know, that we all get to learn together like that. Everyone is a teacher.

                               

It’s 2016, and I’m learning each and every day about what womanhood is all about.

For me, it’s never been dainty or distant. It’s not a journey of perfection or working far too much. Womanhood is releasing the notion that we have to save the world all by ourselves. Becoming a woman calls for incredible grace, a damn good sense of humor, and an ability to listen, see, and celebrate people. Tolerance – of anyone, male or female – is a sad expectation. Celebrate. Exploring my own feminism builds a trust in the communities we become a part of. It empowers men, recognizing that men are equally wonderful, interesting, and capable. Men do not hate women – and vice versa. And so, we must work together, to remove seeds of misunderstanding, hatred, and contempt. We have to call out discrimination, inequality, maltreatment, and hatred when we see it – male or female. And in a world, where women (and men) are harassed, we must do everything we can to stop it. We must be willing to acknowledge the dignity and value of others, even if that scares the hell out of you.

Being a woman propels me forward in this pursuit. For myself, for my future children – for all of us. It’s a worthy, worthy fight, my friends.

                               

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

“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