Crissin’ and Crossin’

Is it possible for a Protestant to be Too Catholic?

I serve a church in a heavily Catholic part of Cincinnati, and my parking spot is immediately across the street from a large Jesuit parish replete with parochial school and daily masses. Fortunately the fires of reformation zeal have cooled in the last 500 years and at this point we’re not at each other’s throats about the primacy of the Pope. Most of our spats are over use of parking these days.

Now, because I was ordained in the Independent Catholic tradition, I have a decidedly Catholic approach to the way I approach worship and devotional life. “High Church” might be a better phrase, but in the imagination of the people I serve, “High Church” and “Catholic” are the same thing.

There are the outward things for sure: I wear vestments in worship. I reverence the altar when I enter the chancel. I bow at the name of Jesus Christ. I make the sign of the cross at certain points; I use manual actions during the Eucharist and pray a prayer (from the UCC Book of Worship!) that hearkens to the earliest known Eucharistic prayers—prayers which, of course, were written by Catholics.

But there are inner postures too that can be considered High Church, like my devotion to the Eucharist, my conception of the communion of the saints, or my belief that liturgy and our worship spaces can be big and beautiful because such experiences point to a big, beautiful God.

I haven’t received feedback yet that I’m too Catholic, but my churchmanship hasn’t gone without notice. When I first celebrated last year at the UCC congregation where I was filling in for a clergy friend, our musician came up to me and said, “I ain’t seen that much crissin’ and crossin’ in YEARS—but I loved it!”

As it happens, I’m in good company in the United Church of Christ, specifically thanks to the work of two folks from our tradition’s history, Philip Schaff and John Nevin. These two men were both part of Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania and through their scholarly work contributed to what is now known as the “Mercersburg Movement,” which has played a vital role in the overall trajectory of ecumenism that we see today in the existence of things like the World Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and even Vatican II.

Nevin and Schaff believed that, throughout the history of the Church, there has been a continued thread of catholicity, that is, what is believed everywhere by everyone, and they particularly saw this as tied to Communion as being something that shows us in a unique way how Christ is present in, with, and around the community of the baptized at the Table in the same way Christ is present in, with, and around the bread and wine in the Eucharist.

They saw the challenge that a particularized form of German Reformed Christianity in the United States posed to the notion of a Church that was truly for all, and concerned foremost with the mandate to unity, they understood the Eucharist as central to the life and witness of Reformed Christians too, just as much as it was for Roman Catholics. And so the Mercersburg group endeavored to offer the Reformed Church ways of reconnecting with its roots in Eucharistic celebration by setting pen to paper and using their scholarship to craft forms of worship that were conversant with the earliest Christian traditions.

They were, of course, panned for being too Catholic.

What Nevin and Schaff seized upon in their work and in the theological tradition that followed in their footsteps was the idea that Christian unity cannot take as its point of departure a particular inculturated form, but rather it must begin with the Eucharist as its source and summit. We continue to see this position reflected in evolving social statements from the UCC General Synods, especially ones like the 1993 statement on becoming a multicultural and multiracial church. Unity is not the same as assimilation to a particular form; unity is, instead, to be approached from a posture of eucharistic expansiveness.

Moreover the UCC as a denomination endeavors to embody a liberal style, that is, we are intentionally making room for expressions and interpretations of our faith that expand our hearts towards fuller justice and inclusion for each individual Christian as well as each of the individual congregations that compose our covenanted community. It’s also why not every one of our congregations necessarily has the same feel or even the same socio-political priorities.

I’m aware that my particular form of worship is not the same as everyone else’s, nor would I ever try to force someone to adopt my own practices. Freedom of conscience in matters pertaining to doctrine and worship is key to the functioning of our denomination. The snare is always the particular, yet the table is always bigger than the snare, and I think we’ll be surprised to find that the Church is way more catholic than any one of us Protestants is ready to admit—even if competition for parking remains pretty tight.

When we get tied down to particulars, we lose sight of the vision of the alternative empire that stretches across humanity like a net and catches everyone in its weave, or that starts in the small and particular and expands outward to provide shelter for everyone, like the mustard seed. The communion table, connected to the font, connected to the doors of the church and into the world of the community, provides the framework by which God’s people can be blessed, lifted up, broken, and sent out to share the good news of an alternative empire of peace and justice with the whole world, which is literally what the word “catholic” means to begin with.

 

Why Church?

In recent times, I’ve often seen top ten lists as to why you should or why you shouldn’t do something: people argue valiantly and vehemently in favor of or against such things as yoga or sleeping or avocado toast. And it follows that, especially in light of the shifting reality surrounding religiosity in America, those of us who remain committed to the big, messy, family dinner called “Church” may want to actually consider why it is that we continue to be part of this community that, at its worst, has been toxic and destructive in the lives of so many.

[disclaimer: swears ahoy!]

But I love the Church, because I have seen the Church at its best. I, a gay, over-educated, Diet Coke-addled, world-weary millennial clergy person, still show up and still demand that God’s people practice God’s welcome, even though there are some people in the Church who would rather I just shut up and sit quietly, even though there are some people who—I speak from direct experience here—would rather me be dead. As Emily Joy says, “My ass will be in that pew more Sundays than not, if only to look up at that crucifix above the altar with defiance and wonder and say See? I’m still here. I often suspect that I have outstayed my welcome in organized religion and am becoming more of a thorn in their side than I am worth but what can I say? I like to have a place to bring casseroles.”

When church is at its best, it is a great place to be. But for many of us “church” brings up some difficult memories and emotions, too. Church is a place where dysfunction and toxic relationships happen just as much as in any collection of people. And I own my own part in that. And at the same time I also own the fact that church truly can be “Church At Its Best” if we also admit that we can’t be perfect but we can be good; we will fail miserably but we covenant to forgive and repair the damage.

If you’re on the fence about visiting for the first time, or if you’re wondering whether you should come back, consider this my Top Ten as to why I, a person who has every right to ditch the Church, still continue to pattern my life around it.

TEN: Come and be blessed. Not the “hashtag blessed” of vapid Instagram queens showing off their latest Lush bath bomb, but rather, real blessing—Church is a place where you, your entire self, can be called “blessed,” that is, be acknowledged as very good because God made you. You don’t have to check any part of yourself at the door when you walk in, whether it’s your brain, your doubts and beliefs, your sexuality, your gender—all of that matters to God and it matters to church at its best too, because you matter, and you are blessed.

NINE: When shit hits the fan, when the bottom falls out of your life, it’s pretty cool to be connected to a community that can lift you back up. Because, to be honest, when everything’s going wrong isn’t the time to begin a relationship with God and we will never try to say, “Oh, your life sucks right now because you don’t have Jesus.” I know that coming to worship regularly helps me have a solid foundation for when life inevitably throws curve-balls and I find myself standing there, mouth-agape and clueless, both as to what has happened and what I’m supposed to do now.

EIGHT: We aren’t all about money. We are an organization that has operating expenses, sure, but the money we use we are trying to use as judiciously and responsibly as possible for what matters to us. If you can’t give, don’t. But walking alongside Jesus helps us reorient our relationship with money and free us from being slaves to it. It can also open us to new ideas about economic justice and fair wages, because at the end of the day, there can be enough for everyone according to their need if we give according to our ability, which is one of the underpinning messages of the Old Testament.

SEVEN: Any good church will have good food, because eating food with friends was one of the things Jesus was all about. It’s not accidental that the kingdom of God is described like a banquet.

SIX: Churches offer immediate ways to get involved with helping the community. If you want to help, chances are there’s something you can immediately jump in and start doing, whether it deals with racial justice, income inequality, food insecurity, gender justice, LGBTQ inclusion—most churches already have something ready to go and your energy could be put to good use.

FIVE: If you want to start something new and have a knack or a gift for something in particular—photography! nursing! social work! carpentry! flamenco dancing! yoga!—there’s a community of people who want to bless you in doing that.

FOUR: No one is asking you to believe anything you don’t want to believe or behave in a particular way. Because we’re a community we say things like our Statement of Faith or the Lord’s Prayer together, and we are in this together. If you can’t believe part of the statement of faith, or if part of a prayer makes you squirm, you don’t have to say it. I’ll say it for you. On the same token, there isn’t a single major doctrine in all of Christianity that I haven’t at some point ditched wholesale and reclaimed in my own way later on in a way that was healthy and appropriate, but what enabled me to do that was being part of the Church.

THREE: The world says you have to work 50-60 hours to make it, to be someone, and that if you ever take any time to yourself you are being an irresponsible member of society (at best), or at worst, a parasite. Church breaks that myth wide open and gives us time during the week to be truly human. We’re not meant to work ourselves to death; we’re meant to cultivate and enjoy the goodness of the world. The idea of Sabbath is revolutionary.

TWO: Bread and wine, water and oil, hugs and paper and casseroles and pancakes and carwashes and all the ordinary stuff of our life becomes extraordinary in the Church and somehow God shows up through all of them, breaking me open and helping me to be more kind and compassionate with others (even when I don’t very much feel like being kind or compassionate at all).

ONE: Jesus is f*cking awesome. Where we profoundly screw things up, Jesus enters into the ugliness and says, “I’m still here.” And then Jesus does something amazing with it if we let him, and raises the dead. Jesus will show up and give you bread and wine and things you never thought possible will happen.

We know that many of us who are already in church do a lousy job of following Jesus and emulating him in our lives, content to keep on crushing and destroying and screwing people over, but Jesus hangs out in the midst of all of our garbage and the worst of what we have to offer, taking it in, destroying it, and raising us from the dead with him.

I hope that we in the church will always have the humility to acknowledge that we too need gracious care, that we too are in need of being “raised from the dead.” Come to Church to get to know Jesus, because he’s bigger, more expansive, more open, more welcoming than any of us could ever hope to be.

(This post was inspired by, and in a way adapted from, a similar top-ten by The Rev. Anne Russ of Argentina Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, AR.)

simmering silences

My lenten practice this year is to be kind to myself, and in so, to better know God.

God is unknowable in God’s essence, but only in God’s energies. That is a tenet to which I have ascribed for not a short time—ultimately to say that one can “know God” is any unfiltered, unmodulated way is flatly wrong (since any of our thoughts, our filters, our metaphors, are ultimately created things). God is knowable only in the darkness between the things that God is clearly not.

In other words, God is audible silence and visible darkness.

I’m not sure why I’m on about this; I think perhaps that the cognitive and emotional effort with which I’ve been pressing into my pastoral, professional, and creative endeavors have been causing me again to ask “where is God in this?” It’s certainly not as though I am making the kind of harried “I MUST FIGURE THIS OUT” attempts at coming to know God that characterized my adolescence, and to be sure I’m quite comfortable with silence and darkness.

I want to be connected to the ground of being in a way that brings me into inner quiet and the balance that the intensity of my personality—a flamboyant enneagram Four with a strong 3 wing, a romantic achiever, a pursuer of ego projects—needs in order to be healthy. I angst a lot, and frequently I try to pass off my groundless angsting as prayer. To be sure it can be that, but I think my rambling and railing can ever-so-gently mutate into a kind of self-flagellation which has precious little to do with communing with the Uncreated Ground of Being and more in common with working myself into an emotional froth so I can feel everything, that is, so I can feel special.

This is the Four’s modus operandi, after all.

This isn’t bad; it too belongs, and it’s part of me, but it is without a locus of immaturity and an opportunity for me to grow. To wit, I want to pray well, and to pray honestly, and to pray in such a way that I am not demanding things of God—although the last time I ‘prayed extemporaneously’ it was as though I was God’s HR manager and I was giving the Divine a gentle but firm talking-to about areas for improvement. I think we have a precedent for this in the Psalms, at any rate, and I believe God can handle it.

But I want to cultivate a spirit of silence, a spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love,” as St. Ephraim the Syrian beseeches, “and let me see my own sins and not those of my brother.” I pray the daily office (not faithfully), I receive the Eucharist (not regularly), and I do my best to live at peace with my neighbor—though my loveable-yet-culpable pettiness shines through more often than not.

I’m attempting centering prayer, known better in the secular world as “mindfulness meditation.” I’m still too new at it to even pretend like I know what I’m doing, and I won’t even bother to rehash the practice here when the term be-Googled yields more information than one could possibly assimilate in several sittings, but my initial inclination is that it is cultivating kindness, in the very least to myself.

I learned the practice first from a seminar led by an Orthodox monk in my pre-death-and-resurrection days, but the practice has come back into my view through my recent quiet exploration of the mystics—Merton (via Richard Rohr) and Julian of Norwich, especially. It’s called the “prayer of the heart,” or “contemplation,” depending on who you ask, but the point is the same: to find silence and to be present therein.

Because the spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love” which I’m seeking is in as much to help be humble, patient, and loving toward my own person inasmuch as it is toward God and my neighbor. I can be phenomenally cruel to myself; I can say things to myself with ease which I would never dream of saying to another human being.

Can I love myself as God does? Most likely not. But to be able to be as gentle, patient, and kind towards myself—for I too am an icon of God—may be within my ken, inasmuch as I am called at obligated by my baptism to strive to be gentle, patent, and kind toward my neighbor. I will fail, and failure belongs as well.

At the very least, I feel zen’d-out, and by millimeters less dependent on my go-to coping skills of stuffing my feelings with drink and food while wallowing self-loathing because of the drink and food. And that’s a kindness, and a mercy.

 

in the indicative

I’m just past the threshold on the opposite end of a long, dark tunnel. The light hurts my eyes. And like a puppy who was abused freshly brought to a caring home at last, I find myself learning to trust, learning to not be afraid of the passing shadows or sudden noises that pervade typical life. When will the other shoe drop in this newfound place of peace and comfort? More terrifying, what if it doesn’t?

For once I am not in crisis mode, as I have been since, oh, 2009. Part of this is simply growing up and entering into a deeper sense of self. Part of this is abandoning the toxicity of a religious imagination that only valued me inasmuch as I could be something I wasn’t. And still part of this was getting out of the situations that held me in thrall to crisis-as-normative.

But there is now a new normal, and the task before me is to learn how to live not out of fear of an imagined shoe-drop but rather to live in contentment and contemplation of the way things have turned out, aware and open to deep joy and acceptance of the things that are. To no longer live in the subjunctive. To give my poor beleaguered limbic system a break.

To wit, I stand on the other side of a series of difficult interactions, decisions, and circumstances that have consumed the bulk of my twenties. Before me there’s a vast expanse of an open field-forest-mountain-range-vineyard laying before me (oh Shenandoah!) and now there are four demesnes that beg my attention—I would lavish it upon them.

I will lavish it upon them, given that I’m now living in the indicative.

I. Relationships. To myself, to the divine, to my family first and foremost. Renewing, strengthening, and propelling my bond to my daughter as she becomes more and more an individual (six going on sixteen, help Lordt). Forging deeper and tighter cables of love for my partner as we prepare for marriage. Cultivating understanding and growth with members of my family system. Inviting friends to dinner. Deploying periphrastic phrases will-he nill-he to make a rhetorical point.

But these chains of love and friendship are the very backbone of my existence as a functioning adult, or so I proclaim. It’s time to square proclamation with the reality of things.

II. Household. Frankly, it’s time to get my financial shit together. I have a pipe dream of somehow, some way, completing an additional graduate degree in the human services—because I’m a masochist, that’s why—and I can’t responsibly do that until, at the very least, my consumer debts and other financial obligations as they stand now are taken care of. I’m working a dream job with phenomenal opportunities for growth, so I have no reason not to do this. I’m even more beholden to the stewardship piece of spiritual development given that I now actually have something to, you know, steward.

III. Creativity. Not only have I neglected this space for too long, I’ve also been neglecting a major part of my soul, to wit, music. Ideas for this opera or that sonata or this dance suite have been kicking around in my head unabated but I’ve lacked either the presence of mind or the energy or the sheer chutzpah to make those ideas become a reality as I hammer away at the block of silence in my workspace.

At the same time, too, words make their way to the fore and fall unrealized into the fulminating abyss of ever-present distraction. Oh Blog, how I love thee! And yet how I have drawn distant, or worse, navel-gazey (and I’m doing that right now, flagrantly). I’d been starving Euterpe* and Erato** for the sake of paying too much attention to Melpomene’s*** call to self-loathing and self-limiting. Such shouldn’t be the case, given the need to practice creation is as much a part of my existence as the need to breathe oxygen. Forgive me, muses.

Though, admittedly there is space for grace here—there’s good reason one in constant crisis can’t be creative. Now my muses can breathe again.

IV. Contemplation. This is perhaps the most crucial to the whole process: learning not to live in the future or the past, but simply in the present, aware of how the world is throwing itself at me, screaming to be observed and appreciated and contributed to in the sheer raw realness of the moment.

For this is not something to be tacked on as an addendum, but a modality through which everything else must be filtered. All exists because in the loving inclination of the Universe’s engine of joy, everything belongs.

And in that I claim that while I cannot live in the future, I am shaped by its unbounded goodness; by the same token, I am not beholden to my past despite having been brought to this place by my very journey through it.

Indicative. Present. Presence. And all is yet grace.

*the muse of music
**the muse of lyric poetry
***the muse of tragedy and emo MySpace pics

#blessed

What phenomenal power is there in the sacred practice of naming the goodness of something? To bless it? After all, blessing—benedicere, bendecir, bénir, evlogeo—at least in the languages I know—literally means “good-saying.”

Goodness is not perfection, goodness is not spotlessness or the meeting of expectations. “Good,” is an earthy, visceral quality: “good” is what one calls the bloody, screaming mess of birth. Good is an orientation towards further creation, further life, further love.

And “good” is what God called each part of existence as God made it. In the way that the poet who put down the Hebrews’ creation myth, it’s as if God is taken aback with the goodness of that which the Word produced: God sees it and reflects, “oh, hey, this is good.”

God names goodness throughout the creation poem, always with a note of surprise, and yet always noting creation’s goodness while it remains unfinished—light without celestial bodies, seas without land, land without life, life without sapience, sapience without wholeness, humanity without community.

To wit, the whole creation is good, even in its imperfections. And that God is constantly improving God’s own handiwork is a comfort, because it frees us from the need to get everything right on the first go, to have everything nailed down. It’s work.

So the poem goes—the divine works at creation in an exhausting process that requires God, upon its completion, to rest, having named the goodness in all God’s work, blessing it, calling it “very good,” turning “tohu wa-bohu” into “tov ma’od” and leaving it in the hands of those bearing the divine image to continue to work.

I daresay that the naming of the goodness of each thing created is integral to its creation, and with that, it is integral to our continued obligation of creating our world. The poem gives us the model: as God names unfinished, unperfected works “good,” so are we given license to name as “good” those parts of our lives that we are yet collaborating with God and with each other to create, even when they are dark or unfinished.

It could be that in those spaces that are imperfect or unfinished we have an opportunity as co-creators with God to be taken aback, saying, “oh, hey, this is good.” And the hard, imperfect, unfinished spaces are work. They take it out of us. They are exhausting. Yet deep down there is, below everything, an engine of surprised joy and self-giving love driving the whole operation, between each of us, in the midst of wale and waste so overwhelming that it pulls our attention from the task at hand.

I say all this to say that the practice of blessing is crucial to our ongoing collaborative work with God in creating the world, because when we are in the midst of imperfection and unfinishedness, there is yet goodness there, because goodness is inherent to the unfolding work.

Though the wale and waste threaten to overwhelm, when we are exhausted from the work of creation, we can look to those unfinished spaces and bless them, saying, “darkness, you are good, and I commend you away from nothingness and towards creation, to the goodness that drives the universe.”

Mother, Make Me

A broken and resolute Florence Welch sings,

Mother, make me
Make me a bird of prey
So I can rise above this, let it fall away
Mother, make me
Make me a song so sweet
Heaven trembles, fallen at our feet

When I was a teenager I used to pray over and over again as I floundered in the throes of hormones and fear, “make me something different, or leave me like this and leave.”

Years later prayers are, “make me more me than ever.” I no longer fear who I am, but rather stand in awe of it.

In the slow, agonizing throes of resurrection I am becoming who I am. That is the only possible way to exist with any shred of authenticity in a world that demands we wear masks, binding ourselves in the shrouds we use to protect ourselves from one another’s wills, demands, expectations, insults, and prejudices.

We hide because the world demands it, telling us who we can and who we can’t be if we expect to live under the world’s bankrupt conception of “peace.” We case ourselves in layer upon layer of falsehood as we pray and pretend, “God, make me successful; God, make me at peace with my body; God, make me straight; God, change me to make me acceptable; God, don’t abandon me in my worthlessness.” The prayers echo in silence.

But we take that silence to mean that God doesn’t care, or isn’t there at all. Can that be true at the end of the day? I say no—I scream it; God is desirous, voluptuous, persistent and perplexing, who, even as we wait in silence, is making all things new, including a core deep within each of us that must be dug out and fanned into brilliant flame. That is who God makes each of us, that part of us that will be raised from the dead in spite of the death of our egos and wrongdoings and defense mechanisms, to make us one with God.

It’s only when we die that we can be raised from the dead. Something will break us, and only when that crack is there and we lay in shards on the floor can we be pieced together again radiant with light and gold.

The frenzied love of a God in the business of raising the dead will have nothing to do with anything but our truest selves. To wit, no one was ever saved by pretending; it could be that the Advocate who leads us into all truth does so by showing us who we are, by showing us how God sees us: of infinite worth, no longer dead but alive. Because this is the only reason I understand humans to exist: to radiate with love, dancing with God, and pulling all the world into the dance alongside us.

A month of Pride is celebrated by people who have lived this poetry—people who have been broken and come back to life, who have torn their shrouds off and experienced what it is like to be wholly, arrestingly real. We, dappled things, are desired, are beloved, are sustained and sanctified by the Ground of All that Is. Queers and Christians alike should know this: we are a people undergoing resurrection, even if we don’t know it is Christ raising us, making us who we were meant to be all along and had lost in the fray. And heaven trembles with joy at the sight.

Mother, make us—make us a song so sweet
Heaven trembles, falling at our feet.

Craving Ashes

A single Facebook status from a friend encapsulated so well why I love today. “Ash Wednesday is great,” she said, “because we look at each other and admit, ‘Yeah, we’re f*cked.’”

I crave Ash Wednesday. I crave it all year, it seems, but especially so when winter is taking final, ferocious swipes at the mid-atlantic as the world wheels away from it and into spring. And I sat at my desk most of the day both begrudging the fact that I’d missed helping out with Ashes-to-Go given a wicked head cold, while waiting for the day to end so I could go get that precious smudge of ash, to pray all those delicious psalms of penitence and confession, and to eat the family dinner again.

I think I needed it more than normal this year, though. Having endured so much in the past few months, in the midst of wrestling with questions of discernment and career and housing—now, today, right this second, rattled by these questions, is why I need to be reminded that I’m dust. And you with me. We’re but dust.

Dust and water, really—the smudged thumbprints on our foreheads are as much remembrances of our baptisms as they are our mortality. Either way, death is inescapable. But if death is inescapable, new life is even less so, because we are dust and living water.

During mass tonight I put the ashes on the rector’s forehead: “Hey, you’re gonna die.” And she turned right back around and did the same to me. Just a couple of sinners, we.

It’s kind of gauche to talk about sin in progressive circles; surely we’ve evolved beyond that. Well, I should hope that we’ve moved beyond the rhetoric of “you’re a sinner and sin is bad and you should feel bad” that roots sin in basic misbehavior, as if the Cross and Resurrection were some kind of cosmic behavioral therapy. Stop being bad, pay the toll, get into heaven, the usual.

But the sweet-sounding liberal approaches to sin—that we fear that “we are powerful beyond measure,” or that we’re simply not holding ourselves and each other in high-enough esteem–ring hollow as well. ISIS is not crucifying children because they fear their own power and aren’t letting their light shine. I’m not harboring grudges and ill-will towards others because of a failure of self-esteem.

When we come to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, there is absolutely no way around it. Sin is real. Sin is not mere misbehavior, or holding ourselves in low esteem—sin is a failure to love in the right direction, mixed with the shimmering darknesses that lie in human hearts, without any means of fixing it on our own.

The great comfort of Ash Wednesday and the whole Christian tradition of penance, ultimately, is that God is at work in us turning our turned-in love back out towards God and towards our neighbor, and rooting out those darknesses. Our slap-bracelet love is given to whip back in on itself at any second, and so left to ourselves we are constantly fighting the elasticity of our hearts. Turning our hearts back out, something that is impossible for us to do, is arrestingly possible for She who squeezed together a handful of fertile black dust and water and gave us a heart of flesh.

I need freedom to admit my own failure to love rightly, to admit my own humanness, to ask for help. And I need the promise of a God who is dealing with it by taking those failures onto Godself and inverting them once and for all in resurrection.

Nadia Bolz-Weber rightly says, “To me, there is actually great hope in admitting my mortality and brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program and allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.”

To be grounded in our ground-ness once again and let God be God, that’s what I needed today. Even as I’m struggling to figure out where “home” is for me among the Church, even as I’m working to live into my calling to ministry, the very basis of all of that is that I am ‘adam, a God-made earthling, a beloved sinner, who has a head cold and eats too much fried food and holds grudges and is in desperate need of bread and wine and welcome and mercy. Who forgets too often and needs to remember.

Like Totally

The greatest of my weaknesses is that I desperately want to be liked by other people. Not just chummily tolerated—genuinely liked for who I am and what I bring to the table in a relationship, professional or otherwise.

There is, floating somewhere with in me, a lingering glob of the sad and surly eighth grader who desperately, desperately wanted to have friends and to be accepted, welcomed even. I’ve since moved on from that—“well-adjusted emotionally” is a descriptor I pride myself on—but whenever I find myself faced with conflict or decisions that could possibly alienate others I tend to freeze. “What will they think of me for saying this? Will they still like me?”

This was brought to the fore by a conversation I witnessed (of all places) on Facebook between a gay friend of mine and a former pastor of his who decided to Say His Peace on my friend choosing to celebrate his committed relationship. I’ve had run-ins with folks in similar positions—you know, the guy who called me an unbeliever, the street preacher, the former boss, the single-minded activist, the ex, and so forth. I say, on one hand, who gives a shit? but the floating glob of corpulent loneliness says, I do! That’s another person! I want them to like me! I give several shits! The major difference now, as opposed to my greener days, is that I accept that feeling and lay it aside (at least, I try to).

Truth be told, I do still wonder what people from my past think about me—more than I should, in some cases. I know I’ve lost friendships, mentors, and opportunities because of my decisions, and each one of those losses seems to take a little chunk of me along with it. Here is where I would give myself the pep-talk of “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” That is truth, but walking out that truth is a challenge for folks like me, who simply want to have their existence acknowledged as valuable and welcomed.

Is it so strange to want to be liked? Is it so rare? I think more of us than realize it want to be liked more than anything. If you’re one of those rare souls who genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of you, I envy you (and, surprise, I want you to like me).

It’s a bearable ailment for a while. It becomes problematic, however, when we start compromising beliefs and boundaries to extract more “like” from people who don’t have the time of day for us—or worse, people who are consistently abusive and have no regard for our boundaries to begin with.

The desire to be liked is an addiction—and a socially acceptable one at that. It just feels too good to get a fix, and getting it feeds that deep place of desire within us that other dependencies don’t get at (alcohol and tobacco aren’t on Maslow’s pyramid, but social needs are right there in the center). I would wager that it comes from experiences similar that have rendered us, in some ways, unable to like ourselves. The challenge is recognizing when seeking friendship and approval from others becomes destructive to one’s own self-interest, where we’d rather let people re-assemble us according to their specifications than simply taking us as we are.

Religious people are kind of terrible about this (I am one, so of course I’m preaching to the choir), and religious communities are especially risky places for those of us who suffer from like-deficiency. The criteria of welcome are frequently so extrinsic—welcome isn’t rooted in a person’s inherent worth, but rather a person’s adherence to a prescribed shape of humanity based on an external belief schema held by the community. God help us if we don’t conform entirely to expectations. Lest anyone read this as a dig at my evangelical history, it happens on the right and the left in spades.

On the other hand, religious communities that get the whole concept of “welcome” and “inclusivity” can be incredible places of integration and healing for people with this particular addiction. We are welcomed as we are into something bigger than ourselves, and the experience of welcome begins to overwhelm the need to be liked (see also: the Eucharist). It doesn’t vanish entirely—does any addiction?—but the fixes don’t seem to do as much, and we can go longer between them, and at some point the desire to be liked is eclipsed by knowledge of our own belovedness. It is painfully rare to find a church that does a consistent job of doing this 100% of the time. In fact, I’d say it’s completely impossible. So there remains the work those of us with this addiction need to do on our own: liking ourselves—or writ more broadly, having compassion on ourselves.

And damn, that’s hard in a culture where everything has a “like” button on it.

Fear Not

MMXIV, c’est fini!

Truthfully I’ve never been one for the end-of-year apotheoses that Bloggers Aplenty are feverishly typing in order to post before the earth turns ever so slightly into the future. This is even moreso the case now that I’m done with a year that has been a melange of hope and despair (as every year is, if we’re honest). Is it honestly helpful for me to recount publicly the things that have happened that I like and that which I dislike? Probably not–most of that information is useless, anyway.

But here’s something perhaps a bit more useful: what I’ve learned.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. The best $2000 I spent this year was on my therapist, who led me through a confusing and life-changing time of emotional integration and self-compassion that’s enabled me to name and understand the people and processes that have been shaping me in good ways and in not-so-good ways. I called an abusive relationship what it was. I learned to listen to my heart. I stopped letting people and events from my past live in my head rent-free. And I think I learned a little bit more about discernment–do we ever figure that out, though? Mostly I just learned to be kind to myself.

Don’t be afraid to establish boundaries. After the blowouts in Ferguson and New York I got an unwelcome crash course on the ugliness that can come out of others when we refuse to take the earplugs of privilege out of our ears and attempt to square what is happening in the world with what we believe about humanity. Between the worship of the American Imperial Cult of Violentia, the devaluing of people’s lives because of their skin color, and the refusal to acknowledge that the System Is Fucked Up, my block button got some much-needed exercise. And that was okay. If one is bringing bigotry, hatred, racism, violence-worship–violations of the baptismal covenant, all of them–into my personal space, one is violating a boundary and I reserve the right to refuse to consent to that noise.

Don’t be afraid to shut up and listen. In fact, this is crucial, and pertains to the last item. I learned that sometimes it is Not My Job to speak about everything, because God raises new voices from unexpected places to be prophets, people whose experience allows them to speak to, well, that experience. I can speak all day about LGB issues. Not as much about T issues, and certainly not at all about the black experience in America. That’s why I yielded the floor to my friend Broderick to let him preach powerfully and prophetically about Ferguson and New York. That’s why I’ve done my best to signal boost, listen, and learn about the realities of white supremacy in America. And I have needed to be silent and listen because I have a role in the aforementioned Fucked Up System about which I need friends like Broderick to teach me so that the Good News I allegedly proclaim can really be Good News for everyone.

Don’t be afraid to own your mistakes. I’m in a new field this year, social work, which is admittedly one I don’t know a lot about. I’m learning how dependent I am on the ministry and accountability of others. I’m learning that, in some ways, I’ve still got a lot of ego sewn into my work clothes and I’m trying to slowly pull that out one thread at a time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But how can I improve in living out my calling without admitting I’ve failed and relying on the God who used a bunch of hard-core failures to turn the world upside down? It seems failure is exactly what God requires–not failure for its own sake, but failure unto learning.

Don’t be afraid to lack answers. It’s cute that it took me five years of seminary and a year in the trenches to figure this out, and I am still becoming more comfortable with that. “I have no idea where I’m going,” prayed Thomas Merton, and I find myself coming to that prayer over and over again in recent days. Because I don’t. I have my own well-crafted plans, ones which I am fairly sure are so perfect that they can’t help but have God’s stamp of approval. Of course, God is at least so kind to refer to them as “adorable” before she brushes them off the desk and gives me something else entirely. And the plans which God actually gives me are the ones that require the difficult but life-creating work of owning mistakes, shutting up to listen, honoring boundaries, and asking for help.

Because none of us are in this alone, and only together can we get anywhere, wherever that may be.

Traveling Mercies

I spend a lot of time in my car.

My intrepid Nissan Altima has seen many, many miles of the American countryside during its time in my care, the lion’s share of which it has suffered during my daily commute. I haven’t vacuumed the floorboards in a while so there’s a fine layer of road grit and leaf litter spangling the black upholstery abyss.

A few articles linger on my back seat–a CD wallet, a small cardboard box containing the “Insanity” workout DVDs (unused, naturally), stray mass bulletins that never found the recycling bin, and a binder from a conference I attended last summer.

The back seat of my car runs the risk of becoming that one forgotten room in the church building where the husks of summer vacation church school programs go to die. In some ways it’s like my car itself has become a church building–or at least it’s become the thing I wish a church building can be.

I’m at my most human and unguarded while driving, after all.

In the course of my commute I can run a traffic-induced gamut of emotions spanning all degrees from rage to elation depending on how the turn onto Old Bridge Road from 123 is going to go. Everyone knows about road mania in Northern Virginia–we live on the roads, we work on the roads, we rely on the roads to organize our family lives. Pedestrian-accessible? Nonsense. And not even with public transport is the stretch of highway between DC and Richmond really navigable for those poor souls without vehicular means.

So we spend hours on end in our cars, living a significant portion of our life behind the wheel–I clock at least ten to fifteen hours a week driving. It’s only natural that bits of my spirituality seep in through the cabin air filter.

I wish that I could be as ecstatically open with my feelings toward God as I am with my feelings toward the beloved child of God who–bless their heart–just cut me off in their Land Rover in the middle of a left turn. Glory! But perhaps that’s some of what the Psalmist felt when they wrote “blessed is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

But the truth is, even with an hour-long commute in one of the worst traffic areas in the country, I love to drive.

My adventures have taken me to cities and seas, to monasteries, mountains, and myriad wild, wonderful places; to truck stops and dive bars and dance clubs; to weird little antique shops in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of I-44 in Missouri that consisted of nothing but porn shops and Churches of Christ.

I’d stop on the side of the road to instagram sunsets and valleys and the accidental waterfalls that leach out where the water table hits the giant scar gouged into the earth to construct I-64 west of Lexington. Sometimes the beauty would pull a tear or several out of my eye.

II.

When I came out I put a lot of miles on my car.

Quite unsure of what I was to do and, in hindsight, oozing shame and terror, I took off in my gold 2002 Chevy Prizm with a peeling clear coat and peeled out of the driveway.

I spent many balmy autumn Kentucky evenings driving a circuit that took me out southwest of my college town, over the Kentucky River palisades, by a Shaker community-turned-museum, around to another much more liberal college town where my first job was–I’d stop and buy liquor just to bask in irony, because I worked for a tea-totaler baptist church–back up US 27 and into Wilmore.

In my car–not church–I felt for fleeting moments as though I could get away from the things that were holding me in thrall, and that if I widened my spiral around my town enough I’d eventually run into a monastery where I could dramatically crash my car into a tree, throw a robe on, and make it into the chapel just in time for mass.

If I spent the rest of my life running, I reasoned, I’d never actually have to become a whole person. And so I ran for a solid three months.

When I finally stopped running long enough to sit still and heed the perplexed voice of God wondering aloud what the hell I thought I was doing, I kept driving. I traded the Prizm for the Altima in the following spring, during Holy Week. And I kept driving, a fresh car with new memories, playing a Beyoncé CD on repeat.

Somewhere in all that time spent in my car, my car became a church. There’s an icon of Christ the Teacher in my console and a St Benedict medal hanging from my rear-view mirror. More than once there’s been a black leather bag with a phial of God’s blood and a hunk of God’s flesh in it on the seat next to me, ever so gingerly placed (and buckled in).

In addition to giving Jesus a ride, I gave a stranger a ride too; they’re the same thing, after all. I shared meals with friends at the Parkette. I blasted dance music in parking lots. I took the Eucharist to darling people. I forgot to take the Eucharist to someone (ask me about that later). I swore like a trucker and got mad. I had long, hard conversations. I wept and I guffawed. I drove to go see a moonbow at 3AM the night before I had to preach for the first time in years. And then I packed up all the crap I could fit and drove–not ran–home to start a new job in a new field as a new person.

III.

A car might be a means of grace. It’s not so patently ridiculous–if God becomes bread and wine to feed God’s people, if God is blowing everywhere and filling all things, then surely she can use metal and vinyl and upholstery and glass and gasoline to be a sacred space.

Whenever I had to make that long slog from my parents’ home in the DC suburbs to my college town–when I was still running, in other words–my dad would always pray for traveling mercies. In fact, dad still prays that whenever we take a trip together, or when I’m off for a trip by myself.

Maybe it wasn’t that he was praying I’d get there safely, though perhaps that was a part of it. Perhaps he prayed that I’d be able to hear the voice of God amid the road noise and Beyoncé beats.

IV.

When I mentioned packing all my crap into my car and driving home, what I failed to point out was that said trip was actually my second haul from Lexington to DC in a month’s time.

During the beginning of November last year, I wept in my Altima during a conversation when told by an administrator from my seminary that I was under disciplinary investigation by my conservagelical seminary. Someone had reported statements I had made on my blog regarding my identity and support of queer people. That same administrator–in the same breath, almost–told me that my calling and identity were sacred gifts that nobody could take from me.

Later that month I was in a Red Robin bar when I got a phone call from my dad, who was audibly shaken. My godfather had passed away. We knew Fletcher was going to pass for a while—he was in his late nineties and had lived the kind of teeming, abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s gospel—but even when one expects these things, one is never quite prepared for the lurch.

A hurried missive from the bar—I was trying to keep it together—went to my field placement mentor to ask for a bye for the following Sunday. With her blessing I went home and threw together my clericals, cassock and surplice, and some other odds and ends of clothing so I could leave first thing in the morning to make it to the funeral.

There wasn’t a lot of music on that trip; mostly road noise and a smattering of Beyoncé songs from the CD still in the dash. The next morning we sullenly dressed, piled into the car and set off on our way. Dad prayed for traveling mercies before we backed out of the driveway; between Dumfries and Fredericksburg I remember numbly saying my morning office to myself in the back seat of my dad’s hybrid, the ceiling too low for my enormous head, the plastic rectangle on my clericals digging into my throat and pulling whiskers that I hadn’t had time to trim.

I didn’t weep until the frigid Sunday afternoon when we buried Fletcher in Danville, while we were singing “In the Garden.” I remember hiding my face behind the half-sheets of paper with the lyrics on them while the guardsmen’s captain hassled the presiding pastor about the funeral taking too long.

We ate at Wendy’s later, mom, dad, and I; we didn’t say much.

Fletcher baptized me and set me on my journey, and I suspect that he’s surprised by the turns it’s taken since I was a rotund little thing in the baptismal waters. He was responsible for my dad’s meeting Christ, and in that mystical communion-of-saints way, my own. And more besides.

Fletcher was the kind of man who prayed for traveling mercies, and I suspect that he still does. And I pray to St. Fletcher sometimes, too, because he didn’t just pray for traveling mercies; he lived them.