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.)

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.

Guest Post: It’s Not Just, “I’m Beautiful”

Hey darlings! Today’s post is a guest post by one of my favorite people: Sarah. I had the good fortune to cross paths with Sarah and Lindsey on several different occasions in the great churning ether that is the Internet; first on Gay Christian Network, then via our mutual friend Heidi Weaver, who is the boss lady of LOVEboldly. Sarah and Lindsey and I finally met in person a couple of weeks ago over overpriced chocolates and vodka cranberries near Metro Center in downtown DC, and in person they exude every bit of grace and dignity that comes across in their writing. Sarah and Lindsey have a unique and beautiful calling as an LGBT couple who are living out their mutual calling of celibacy in a committed and covenanted relationship, which has drawn both praise and ire from all angles of the LGBT-Christian conversation–nevertheless, these two have borne the joys and challenges of accepting their callings with grace I only hope to emulate. Sarah and Lindsey blog about their story at A Queer Calling. Today’s post is by Sarah.

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I always begin the Christology lecture in my freshman Intro to Theology course by performing a brief Google Images search for the term, “Jesus.” I do this as a means of segue into discussing how diverse our own mental images of Christ can be. You can probably imagine the variety of pictures my students see projected from the classroom desktop. We find traditional depictions of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sacred Heart, and the Pantocrator icon interspersed with modern depictions of Jesus laughing, playing soccer with children, or welcoming souls into heaven—and there are always a few irreverent images too (a smoking Jesus with a gun???). This exercise has never failed to produce insightful discussion, so I thought doing something similar in preparation for this guest post might relieve my writer’s block…and as it turns out, my first couple of search results for the phrase “body positivity” were scarily close to what I had supposed they would be: a photo of women with different body sizes proudly modeling underwear, and right next to it a set of “before and after” shots of a woman who had lost a significant amount of weight.

Daily, we receive conflicting messages about how we should view and treat our bodies. We hear from medical professionals, nutrition experts, and even the government about dangers associated with unhealthy food choices and larger body sizes. The diet and fitness industries take this message to another level, training us to believe that we’re fat, lazy, wastes of space unless we’re as toned as Jillian Michaels. But oppositely (some will disagree with me on this), we hear an equal abundance of “Love your body!” messages, especially from women’s organizations, the fat-positive movement, the eating disorder recovery community, and various nonprofits aimed at building self-esteem and healthy body image in young girls. We get both types of messages both in the media and in daily life. Within a single hour-long dinner, I’ve heard both, “You’re beautiful just as you are” and, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” from the same friend. It’s little wonder that many people find themselves perplexed about what “body positivity” even means. I’ve never considered myself particularly good-looking, but I certainly don’t see myself as unattractive, and I have many friends who would say the same about themselves. Does body positivity require being able to say, “I am beautiful and I love my body no matter its size”? Does it mean making “healthy” changes in order to adjust one’s body size or improve physical abilities? Or is it something else entirely?

Perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing body positivity, but I feel that I have a certain degree of competence in this area just from lived experience. On my own blog, I’ve shared openly about my struggle with bulimia (link: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/27/encountering-the-mirror-of-erised/), and though I don’t see body dysmorphia as a cause of my eating disorder, in addressing the condition I’ve necessarily had to explore questions of body image. In the world of eating disorder treatment and recovery, it is assumed that a people dealing with these conditions have severe body image disturbances. In many (though not all) cases, this is true. One doesn’t spend more than an hour in a residential eating disorders facility without hearing, “I’m fat and ugly,” or “I hate my body.” That’s why anorexia and bulimia treatment programs usually involve a significant amount of activities designed to increase body positivity or at least get clients thinking about body-related beliefs. Seven years ago during one of my stints, I spent many a day drawing pictures of my body, evaluating magazine ads for the messages they send about acceptable body types, constructing body positivity collages, discussing the impact of Barbie dolls on self esteem, writing letters to my body, and so forth. A Christian treatment facility where I once received treatment actually had us searching the scriptures for positive body image messages, and therapy groups often ended up being informal proof-texting sessions. As a result I’ve never forgotten Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Though I participated fully in treatment (while admittedly being a terrible patient at times), I don’t think any of those activities had even the most miniscule of impacts upon how I viewed my body at the time, or how I view myself now. Ultimately, I’ve come to see most of them as impractical efforts at putting a Band-Aid on a wound that requires far more than superficial healing. You might be stopping at this point to suggest that maybe these exercises just weren’t the best for my situation, or to remind me of how in the last paragraph, I admitted that body dysmorphia was not a factor contributing to my eating disorder. But the truth is, while I’ve never wanted to change my body in any serious way, I’ve never acquired the ideal sense of body image either. I don’t think too many people have, even most who claim absolute, unmarred love for their bodies…even therapists specializing in eating disorders. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t had a bad body image day at one time or another—whether it’s brought on by general insecurities about size, a clothes shopping excursion, a critical remark from mom, or a vague sense of, “I’m not feeling so confident this morning.” Such days are part of life, and there’s nothing that will make them go away permanently. There is no silver bullet for forcing a person to believe that he or she is “beautiful,” and even if there were, I’d not be convinced that it would bring about true “body positivity.”

As I see it, the presence of body positivity does not necessarily indicate the absence of occasional body negativity. Body positivity does not require thinking you’re beautiful—as the old adage says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing wrong with having a sense of neutrality about one’s body. Unlike body acceptance campaigns would like us to believe, “I look okay,” and “My body is alright,” are not dangerous words. They are not the same as, “I hate myself.” To me, body positivity means being able to accept the limitations of one’s body, whatever those may be. Not everyone can be thin, or even “normal” as far as weight goes. I’m still working on accepting that after years of damaging behaviors, my body is currently larger than it has ever been, and despite workouts and healthy eating, that’s probably not going to change much because my metabolism is so irregular. I believe that sometimes, body positivity can involve standing up for oneself when a medical professional uses one’s body size to assert, “If only you ate better and exercised more, you wouldn’t have the health problem you’re currently experiencing.” At the same time, body positivity can be expressed in seeking help and support, or listening to a doctor’s unpleasant-yet-true words of advice about living more healthily. It can mean deciding to alter one’s body for any number of reasons, or contentedly accepting one’s body for what it is despite external pressures to make changes. But most importantly, body positivity is accepting oneself as a beloved child of God, created in his image and likeness. It means approaching Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist with awe and wonder, treasuring the intimacy we experience with God as he enters our bodies and uses his own to bring us to wholeness.

Body Image and Eating Disorder Resources:

Something Fishy (link: http://www.something-fishy.org/)

Grace on the Moon (link: https://www.graceonthemoon.com/home.html)

Eating Disorder Hope (link: http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/)

ED Bites (link: http://edbites.com/)

About Face (link: http://www.about-face.org/)

The Body Positive (link: http://thebodypositive.org/)

Finding Balance (link: http://www.findingbalance.com/)

New ID (link: http://www.newid.org/)

Rock Recovery (link: http://rockrecoveryed.org/)

Symbols

I’ve been asking a troubling question of myself over the past few months: why am I still a Christian?

On the tail end of a seminary career, serving at a parish–now is probably not the best time to appear to be reconsidering my identification as a Christian. I’m not reconsidering my identification, so everyone relax. To be honest, much of my discomfort is not with Christ himself but rather with the forms of Christianity that are predominant in American society. Much has been made about this by other progressive Christian writers, and many of their judgments are accurate: Christendom is tragically alive and well in America, and so frequently the good news of Jesus’ triumph over death is twisted through the dark arts of punditry and apologetics into an instrument of torture for people who don’t conform.

Adherence to a certain doctrinal statement becomes the measure by which we separate the pure bloods from the mongrels, allowing us to encase those who are unlike us in the psychological concentration camp of “conscious eternal torment” so we can gloat alongside a God whose love is clearly limited for those who think and do exactly like him. A God who doesn’t seem to care about those outside the “in crowd,” or even a God who would destine half of his creation for destruction for his own glory. Such a God is no loving Father; such a God is a crazy drunk uncle at best, a narcissistic monster at worst.

I stopped believing in that God around my second year of seminary.

But I still believe in God.

I’m still a Christian because I believe in the uniqueness of Christ. I’m not a Christian because I feel as though Christianity is morally superior, or politically advantageous, or some kind of hypermetanarrative that explains every particle in the universe. I believe in science; I believe in the cultural conditioning of certain moral strictures; I believe in one commandment: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And I believe that the uniqueness of Christ and the uniqueness of his commandment is embodied in the language of signs and symbols that have been handed down in the Christian tradition through the past millennia. As Tillich asserted, a symbol is a sign that participates in the thing which it represents. And so for me the symbols like those of Virgin Theotokos, the Eucharistic Feast, the Crucified God, and the Risen Christ are all symbols that speak to and participate in the reality of a God who loves us madly and wants to live with his people. Our creeds are a symbol of our shared tradition. Our liturgical colors, feasts, and fasts are symbols of the opportune moments in which God acts in history. Jesus himself is a symbol of the creating, redeeming, and sustaining God.

And that same network of signs and symbols as a means to understanding God is what gives me cause to believe that those who do not think and believe exactly as we Christians do will still find themselves awash in the love of a gracious God, because each person is born into a time and context with a pre-established network of symbols. I do not believe that all symbols equally point to a loving God; obviously a network of religious symbols that glorifies violence and self-aggrandizement can have nothing to do with the true God. But I do believe that God will both work within a present network of symbols, or even work in spite of those symbols, to reach all his children with his parental love.

The symbols of the Christian tradition, chiefly the symbol who is Jesus Christ, point to and participate in that kind of God. And that’s why I’m still a Christian, even in spite of the Christian family who is both maddening and endearing in spades.