Millennials Are Neither Lazy Nor Entitled

I have heard it said one too many times that “millennials are lazy and entitled.” This is a damaging myth that needs to be put to rest, and likewise it is a myth which, if I hear it uttered one more time, will cause me to need to be scraped off the ceiling.

This is going to be a rant, and by way of disclaimer, it’s important that you know that this is not prompted by one particular occasion or another but is rather a response that has been bubbling up under the surface of my thought life for some time and has finally reached the point where it can no longer go unsaid.

Here’s the deal, y’all: spaces and organizations in which there is a cultural assumption that people my age are lazy and entitled are spaces and organizations that people my age do not want to countenance or support with their presence, gifts, time, labor, or witness.

If we are consistently being told by churches, non-profits, and corporations that we are lazy and entitled children that need to be treated with kid gloves, quelle surprise, corporate cultures are going to make pains to infantilize and patronize us at best, and at worst, simply tell us that we don’t matter. Naturally, we aren’t going to want to associate with organizations and corporations and other people who treat us like crap.

Yes, some millennials are, in fact, entitled and lazy.

And for every lazy, entitled millennial I know (and I know a few), I know as many or more baby boomers who are just as entitled and lazy, if not more so.  I personally know plenty of folks in older generations who refuse to countenance the realities of changing culture, who expect everything to be “as it always was,” who sing paeans to the 1950s as though they were a golden age (which they were not, unless you were a straight, white, Christian, cisgender man), folks who can’t be bothered to do the emotional labor required to learn about people who are different from them—to say nothing of learning how to live in covenant and yield mutually with someone who is unlike them.

And still more, for every lazy, entitled millennial I know, I can point to five times as many millennials who are taking matters into their own hands, who are busting their tails as entrepreneurs or growing professionals or community organizers or scholars or spiritual leaders or teachers or skilled workers or parents and who are making wild, beautiful lives out of the rough material they’ve inherited from older generations, fully aware that the promises made to previous generations are not to be taken for granted.

My news feed is full—every! single! day!—of brilliant young women and men in my age group who are getting it done in spite of the world constantly telling us that we’re nothing but lazy and entitled. We know we’re probably not going to have social security in the States, an NHS in the UK, whatever. We know our retirement funds will probably not keep up with inflation (I have a 401k and a UCC pension and a Roth and I FULLY expect to be working until I’m 80). We know it will take us 30 years to pay off our student loans. So we’re going to do what we can to make the best of the situation, and in the meantime, we’re going to demand rightly that older generations take ownership of the ways in which they have contributed to the situation we find ourselves in and work to adjust.

And if we happen to advocate for equality, inclusion, dignity, and social safety nets while we’re at it, so be it. It seems to me like that’s a lot less about “entitlement” and a lot more about making sure that the folks who come after us inherit the world better off than the way we found it.

Imagine that you are an established person in your community—whether that’s a church, a nonprofit, whatever. What happens when, for instance, a number of young, bright, motivated, and fiery millennial adults in their 20s and 30s comes into your community? What happens when those adults begin taking leadership roles on boards and committees—as is a desire in many congregations? What happens when those millennials then begin to shift the direction of the community’s interests and priorities, through their intentional and honest effort, away from what the priorities of the organization 40 years ago were and towards the felt and discerned priorities of these young adults and the communities and concerns that they know and struggle with daily? Do you encourage their growing leadership? Do you bless their efforts? Do you go along for the ride with this new leadership?

Or is it much easier to continue to dismiss this generation out of hand as “lazy and entitled,” to throw a wet blanket on their sincere efforts, and content oneself with the way things have always been?

To paint an entire generation with such a broad brush based mainly on the media’s selective portrayal of us as being the scapegoat for why the economy is crashing is a surefire way to get us not to pay attention to you, and for the organizations and causes that you cherish to fade into obscurity as there is no compelling reason for new energy to come into those spaces and be nurtured by the wisdom of past generations.

It would be phenomenal if older generations could take a moment to get to know us and our priorities, needs, and unique gifts. It would be phenomenal, in the deepest sense of that word—as something to behold—if older generations could bless and encourage and empower us, instead of writing us off based on some crappy think pieces about millennials spending all their money on avocados.

Could you imagine what kind of synergy could emerge from the wisdom of older generations joined to the vigor and vitality of millennials? Yet those partnerships will never form if older generations, folks in the pews and in the board rooms and the legislature and the marketplace, continue to infantilize and patronize us while remaining blissfully inflexible and set in their belief that the world as it is in their view is exactly as it should be.

Instead of being written off as “lazy and entitled,” it would mean a tremendous amount if it could simply be acknowledged that we are a generation with our own priorities who have received a raw deal: we have been handed a broken economic system, a heritage of systemic racism and intergenerational poverty, and a polluted planet and told to “suck it up, buttercup” while being made to clean up an economic, political, and environmental mess that we did not ourselves make, all the while paying down the mortgages we had to take out to finance our education so that we would be employable for slightly over minimum wage while having to move back in with our parents for a few years after college. What we want, more than anything, is a chance.

And if we can’t find that chance in the communities that already exist, we will make our own communities and find our own chances.

Coming Out of Good Earth

Today is National Coming Out Day.

I.

One may wonder why LGBTQ people have to “come out” in the first place—well, think of it as a kind of proclamation. There is something different about us that is good and holy in its own right and it is not up to the norms of the prevailing society to give us intrinsic value. That value is inestimably and ineffably given to each of us at the moment of our entrance into this life by the One who calls us out of the dust of the earth and names us.

To come out is to name that we too, with our different ways of loving and walking and seeing in this world, are of good earth. We give voice to the fire in our bones and name the goodness of creation. We claim our blessing: “out of good earth were we made, and good we are.”

II.

For those who would accuse us of celebrating and identifying with “sinfulness,” perhaps studied consideration of what “sin” actually is would be a worthwhile endeavor—so often we call “sin” that which doesn’t jive with our societal norms. Pepperoni pizza remains an abomination, after all.

Yet I’ve grown completely tired of engaging in any conversations around the so-called “clobber passages;” any number of qualified scholarly luminaries have shown time and again that these passages do not provide the right to exclude and “reprove in the Lord” that many so desperately want. I won’t countenance this particular conversation because it’s so boring. Instead I have decided to take the posture of demanding of people the reasons they would seek to exclude and eliminate with the same vigor with which I have been asked to defend my own existence and my own insistence in being part of my faith tradition.

My existence, my belovedness-in-God, my walking in the Jesus pilgrimage is not up for discussion. Nor are my inalienable rights to life, liberty, and equality. Nor are the inalienable rights of those who, for accident of birth into different race or class or nation or way-of-being, have had their rights called into question. My freedom as a gay man is bound up in my black neighbor’s freedom, in my woman neighbor’s freedom, in my immigrant neighbor’s freedom, in my white cis-het neighbor’s freedom (from the fetters of privilege and prejudice!). Until we are all free, none of us is—for we are all made of the same Good Earth by a Good Maker.

III.

To come out is not cheap for many, if not all of us. While I am grateful for the privilege I enjoy of having a supportive family, a network of ride-or-die friends, and connections to faith communities that understand the mystery of the Good Earth, those came part and parcel of walking through a journey of loss. Others are not so fortunate and have either lost everything, including their lives, or are forced into silence and shame by the ungrounded fear that others have of them.

And so today my heart is with those who cannot name the goodness of the soil from which God called them for fear of silencing, rejection, loss of social and financial support, and the very present threat of psycho-spiritual and physical violence; moreover my heart is with those who have come out at great cost to their security and safety. May we all be so brave and so willing to let go of those things that tether us in order to show forth God’s handiwork.

A postscript.

To my ally friends: thank you. Know well that today is -not- the day to come out as an ally. If you must act, do so tacitly by lifting up the stories of LGBTQ people and succoring those for whom coming out has come at great cost.

Hammering away at silence

I remember reading an article from 1999 that described John Coolidge Adams’ process when working on his nativity oratorio, El Niño. The writer (whom I don’t remember and I can’t find the article) describes Mr. Adams working at his Finale workstation and playing through the Act II opener, a setting of “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar,” up to the point where he hasn’t written anything else and the music cuts off abruptly. Mr. Adams then begins writing there, entering notes and chords one-at-a-time, in the writer’s description, “hammering away at silence.”

In a separate interview regarding preparations for the premiere in Paris, Mr. Adams remarked that, at the initial rehearsal of the same movement, it couldn’t quite come together. There was a part of him that worried about the movement being “a compositional mistake”—problematic for the rest of the act, considering his admittedly “genetic” style of composition wherein the first note and the last note of a piece are linked by progressive evolution.

I often find that in approaching any writing projects, whether musical or whether prosaic, that my task is much like his—akin to a sculptor, hammering away at a block of silence or a block of white screen one character, one word, one phrase at a time. I have to get several thoughts out, I have to step aside, I have to come back and take up the instruments again in order to continue saying what’s down in my bones but I can’t get out. It’s a cycle; moreover I can never feel satisfaction in something I’ve written until it moves beyond me entirely.

Even when I complete a work it’s not done until it’s read; a sermon isn’t “done” being created until the final “amen.” I wonder what this magic is—we could easily say it’s the Holy Spirit, in the case of things ecclesial. And I wonder whether it’s not the same God who prompts sermons who fills in the space when glyphs and notation emerge from the page or the screen and are interpreted in time.

During the final dress rehearsal for El Niño prior to its world premiere, Mr. Adams describes the run-through of “Pues mi dios” as having an “otherworldly scintillation,” if I’m remembering that interview correctly. There’s something beyond him as composer, beyond the notes on the page, beyond the performers, that hangs in the air and makes it electric.

I’m extremely hard on myself regarding my creative work. And yet, even when I know when an essay is a dud or there are twenty glaring improvements I can make to a piece of music or there are ten more points that spark in my intuition as I’m interpreting my manuscript to my congregation, there’s a je ne sais quoi when all is said and done that has bound together writer, interpreter, and audience in a synergistic and synchronistic experience of creation.

Maybe part of our purpose, our telos, as sentient beings is to be able to participate in creation by observing what’s already there and by contributing our own riffs on it. That might be the task of the gathered Church too, and it’s certainly the task of those of us—pastors, rabbis, imams, poets, whoever—who have been called by the stories in our bones to give voice to them, even when the words aren’t there, even when we too are starting down a block of silence or a blank screen. But the words always come, whatever their quality, through faithful hammering.

#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.”

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.

I Have Called You Friends

A recent afternoon adventure took me to a Hindu temple for the first time, namely, the Siva-Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland.

The one thing we never talked about in seminary was how to appreciate another’s religious tradition. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; we were taught to appreciate it in order to dismantle it and win people over to evangelical Christianity. And here I was, watching men and women and children worship in an effusive whirl of saris and songs and delicious food.

And I, doing my best to be reverent and not knock anything over, found myself joining in silently, using what prayers I knew: “Come, Heavenly Comforter and Spirit of Truth, blowing everywhere and filling all things…” And there was joy, and beauty, and a tasty meal afterwards.

Because Abraham’s kids all live on the same block, it’s easy enough to engage in those conversations that drag us into the realm of the spiritual; it’s easy to live on the borders of faith when we all claim religious descent from a tribe of kooky Levantine nomads. What about those traditions that are simply not-of-this-floodplain?

The impulse of conservative religion is to dismiss another religion’s traditions as “demonic idol worship,” or perhaps with the more genteel othering of “false teaching.” On the other hand, the impulse of liberal religion is to blur the outlines of each tradition’s understanding of the deity. “Jesus Christ was an avatar of Vishnu,” one well-meaning ecumenist may say; “Allah is another name of Yahweh,” says another.

Perhaps the same Christ who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” also dances on the back of ignorance, or brings mountains of medicine (his own flesh and blood?) to heal those to whom he is devoted. But Christ is not Shiva nor is he Hanuman, and I have no desire for him to be because Siva and Hanuman deserve their own share of the collective unconscious’ airtime.

On the contrary, however, that’s not to say that those traditions don’t give me new ways of imagining Christ, or of understanding his work in the world. In that sense I’m not a theological liberal, because at the end of the day Christ remains unique, but I’m not a theological conservative either, because I would hope that I have the openness of heart as a follower of Christ to be able to embrace other people for whom the Christ I know and follow is still a stranger–even with enough humility to learn from their traditions.

Perhaps there are many paths to the Christ who is reconciling the world to God in his body. But that is not for me to say, because at the end of the day the language I have been given for the divine is that of the Christian story in which Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” That’s what I speak in; that’s what I know, what fits like a beloved pair of jeans. But neither is my faith threatened by the faiths of others; in fact, the devotion of another can (and does!) fan the flame of my own devotion to Christ.

For me, Christ is a scrappy Jewish peasant with a penchant for wonderworking, who gave his followers his very life in a sacred meal and called them–called us!–his friends. The greatest goal, the uttermost thing, “the only thing worthwhile,” says St Gregory of Nyssa, “is becoming God’s friend.” And Jesus has called us friends. Not devotees or followers, not servants or disciples, but friends.

That being the case, I think it only fitting that those of us whom Christ called friends in turn go outside of the perimeter of the Christian tradition to find those other people whom God is calling into friendship with God, with enough openness to embrace God’s friends wherever they can be found. That, friends, is sharing good news: “you are a friend of God.”

As a Christian, I’ve got no issue attending a seder or sharing prasadam–whatever is offered as hospitality is offered to the Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” and whose capricious weaving together of all creation means he might show up here and there in naught but calligraphy, or elsewhere with breasts, or perhaps a tail or blue skin, or even on a chalkboard somewhere as a mathematical formula. A shocking suggestion, perhaps–but is it so shocking that the trickster Holy Spirit would use whatever means are at her disposal to make friends with all people?

Maybe we should be shocked at the work of the Holy Spirit.

E’er She Calls

prayer-card-good-shepherd-prayer-for-vocationsI entered seminary five years ago under the impression that I had been called to ministry.

The call was real enough. I have been so told, and that calling has been tested and affirmed in community as well as my episodes in own journey. But I imagined when I “answered the call” that the process of so doing would somehow set me on a path whereupon all the divots and bumps of the human journey would be smoothed out, such that I could soar through my education, catch my diploma midair, and gently spiral into a cushy landing as an associate pastor under commission in the United Methodist Church.

Needless to say, such isn’t the case five years later.

Interestingly, what prompted my decision to enroll at ATS was my chance encounter with Romans 8.1, which came at the end of a long struggle against my perceived call to ministry. Near the end of my undergrad career I was faced with it, as I had considered for some time what it was precisely that God wanted me to do with my life. I heard the verse–“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”–and I wrote in my journal, “I can’t not tell people this.” I took this as a cue to enter into seminary towards a life as a professional proclaimer of non-condemnation, as I imagined the ministry to be.

It’s a real gas that such a verse would be the key in my vocation’s ignition, which had been silently simmering below a seven-year melange of high school finding-of-thyself, classical music training at evangelical college, and internalized homophobia. The priceless pearl of truth that I thought I had to share with the world–that there was now no condemnation–ended up, at the end of seminary, being the very thing that I needed to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

But then, how would I be able to proclaim it if I didn’t live it? And having lived it, indeed, how can I not proclaim it?

I had the benefit of an excellent field placement mentor during seminary who often pushed me on this issue of calling–why do I feel called? Thanks to her prodding, I’ve turned this over in my mind for a long time. I certainly have my commission on ministry and bishop’s interview answers–that this is a calling I have been led to through prayer, participation in the sacraments, growth in community, &c.–but I also sense deep, abiding pull that I can’t quite put into words. It’s as if the vortex of God’s dance of self-giving love has sucked me into it in this particular channel for living out my death and resurrection. I feel like I can’t not do it.

Is that a complete answer? Probably not. There’s only as much as I know to this point; what will be revealed in the future remains clouded in God’s unboundedness.

But my sense-of-call isn’t because I think I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t a pastor, or that being a priest will suddenly shuffle everything in my life into a manageable order, or that being a priest will finally get others to respect me, or even that being a priest will finally get God to love me. Those were all things I thought at one point or another during seminary. And a lot of people in discernment and formation think these things, if we’re being honest. Because God calls humans, baggage and all, to baptismal ministry, and from there on to ordained ministry. I can’t not do it because this is the path, one, that God has called me to whereupon I’ll work out my salvation, and two, because I’ve chosen to answer that call. We’re always free to say no to the call.

But I’ve chosen to say yes to it, to set out on the journey of testing and fanning it into flame in a community, knowing that I will hurt, and I will suffer, and I will celebrate, and I will hold others. Because Christ has hurt, suffered, celebrated with, and held me. But all along the way I will tell people that they are freed from condemnation, because God has freed me from condemnation in ways that I could only experience by walking out the journey of formation and discernment. It’s my hope that I will be a faithful witness to that unconquerable God-is-for-us love each time I share love and welcome and food with them.

In that, my vocation ceases to be about me at all–because it’s only ever truly been about the Caller and Her beloved people.

Stumbling through Silence

I attempted to have a retreat day today.

I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.

After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.

And then I hit a wall.

Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.

Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?

Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because  it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.

There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.

Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.

In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.

Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.