Category Archives: Ecclesiology

What Feminism Cost Me

What feminism cost me.

(It has come at a price, and I’ve paid dearly.)

It cost me:
-abusive theologies
-abusive ecclesiastical structures
-abusive relationships
-a sense of place (as in, now I’m always out of place, out of order, and improper)
-a sense of propriety (in the sense of property: that culture or church or man owns me)
-orthodoxy
-willful naivety
-easy answers
-comfort
-self-doubt
-nostalgia
-the respect of some family and friends (you know who you are)
-an education (as I had to unlearn much of what I’d been taught)
-fairy tales
-notions of perfection
-jobs
-a future

What feminism has given me.

(And it has been generous with its gifts.)

Feminism has given me:

-life-giving theologies
-life-giving ecclesiologies
-life-giving relationships
-nomadic perspectives (against the parochial)
-ownership and responsibility for the persons, places and things by which I’m surrounded
-heterodoxy
-perpetual self critique
-the desire to be rubbed raw by the truth
-an anticipation of change
-the respect of some family and friends (you know who you are)
-an education
-oral traditions
-a deep love and delight in humanity and all its flaws
-a vocation
-a future.

If, in your mind, I appear to be all elbows…
I appear to be flailing…
I appear to not know the proper way to behave
or the right way to be…

Remember it is the bars of your cage I’m bloodying myself against.
I will not sit quietly by and allow the perch upon which you
(or the church, or society)
have been placed,
to be the parameters of my world.

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Never Forget: a Christian’s reflection on 9/11

Jesus had a vision of what it means to “Never forget” (the mantra of 9/11): that is, the open stance of “Do this in remembrance…”.

The open table might be the BEST metaphor for peaceable living and reversing the enemy-making process we are so good at.

In order to “Never Forget”: let us live openly, welcoming all who will come to the divine banquet of fellowship.

So out of remembrance:

Break bread with your neighbors today

Give to the poor

Encourage the weary

Welcome the excluded

Break the chains that bind

Out of remembrance…

 

Out of remembrance…

Refuse to be exclusive…

Refuse to ignore the needs around you…

Refuse to gain when others suffer…

Beloved, let us love one another.

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Virtue ethics

The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder used to frequently get asked about his pacifism. He used such opportunities to talk about virtue ethics. Here is how the conversations would often go: “You can’t be serious about being nonviolent. I mean, what if you were in your kitchen with your wife, and someone came in and tried to rape her, and you had a gun right there on the counter top, easily within reach… you mean to say you wouldn’t use it to stop him?” And Yoder would say “That wouldn’t happen. The question is wrong… you don’t understand. I wouldn’t have a gun.” By virtue of who he was, the ethic of living came forth… Thus it is with our responses in all things: to God and to each other.

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Threading the Needle

Audio HERE.

My sermon this morning:

Needle

Call to worship:  (from Jeremiah 6:16)

Leader: “Stand at the crossroads and look;

Congregation: ask for the ancient paths,

Leader: ask where the good way is, and walk in it,

All: and you will find rest for your souls.”

 

Ancient Witness:

Mark 10:17-26

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

She was one of my heroes as a child: LaWanda Krumery was one of the kindest people I ever knew.  She loved us kids, served as our Sunday school teacher, made the best taco salad at the church potlucks, and was my favorite person to sit next to during services: she would pull out her handkerchief from her purse, and roll and twist it into the form of a doll—keeping me entertained and quiet whilst dad preached. She laughed easily and always had a twinkle in her eye.

It was that congregation’s tradition to take hymn requests for the music of the Sunday night sermons.  Each request was often accompanied by a testimony (a public witness of that person’s spiritual journey).  When she was asked to select the hymn, it never failed: Wanda would choose ‘Deeper Deeper’ and explained her choice to the entire congregation that the line “Deeper, deeper, in the love of Jesus daily let me go; higher, higher in the school of wisdom; more of grace to know” was God’s calling on her life.  She wanted to love more deeply, and be more gracious. I will always associate that hymn with her.

But twice this jovial, kind woman scared my brother and me.  During Sunday school she brought my brother to tears because she talked about the need to ask Jesus into your heart (she said while pointing to her heart).  Bill’s face fell at this requirement–the tears began to flow freely.  What’s the matter, Billy? She’d asked.  Between sobs he managed to get out “I can’t ask Jesus into my heart” he said “Because I don’t have one of those.” –he pointed where she’d been pointing: to her voluptuous chest.  Wanda later told my dad he needed to ‘have a talk with the boy.’ J

The second time she scared us, I was sitting on the floor of her Sunday School class in a store front church in East St. Louis, learning about the rich young man who wanted to go to heaven, and Jesus saying that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.  Maybe it was my steady diet of Bugs Bunny at the time, but gross cartoonish imagery went through my mind: what it would take to shove a camel through the eye of a needle.  I was aghast.  And the violence and impossibility of it all was overwhelming. I couldn’t make that bloody imagery mesh with the loving and generous woman I knew. I also couldn’t quite mesh the conditions laid out in the text with the unconditional love I knew she strived for. The tension was too much for a little girl to hold: I placed that scripture in my ‘pigeon-hole of suspended judgment’—a location where I stored lots of the perplexing paradoxes that growing up the church fostered– and cautiously went about my business.

But I grew up in a tradition that took scripture quite seriously. This text simply wasn’t allowed to lie fallow for long.  This troubling text haunted me when my parents were missionaries in Papua New Guinea.  While we weren’t wealthy by western standards, we certainly lived at a different and much higher standard than those to whom we ministered. Even if it was meager, we were salaried and living amongst subsistence farmers.  We were expatriate whites in a country of colonized Blacks. We were educated. Our passports carried a seal which promised even the protection of the US government. We had a safety net. We were privileged.  And in that sense, we were wealthy. I felt doomed.

As the text confronted me in my teens, I began to seek explanations of the harsh language which emanated from the mouth of Jesus.  “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”? What did God have against the wealthy? Could the wealthy not also be pure of heart? I knew the poor, and I knew better than to idealize them.

So I began to look for ways of explaining the texts which would relieve me of this anxiety: And based on the plethora of commentaries out there on the subject, it seems I wasn’t the only one who found this text troublesome.

The most common interpretations of the text revolve around attempts to soften the blow of Jesus’ words by minimizing the metaphor.  There are two prominent ways of thinking about the parable of the “camel through the eye of the needle”—‘Traditional’ explanations noted the narrow gates going into city walls.  After dark, when the main gates were closed, travelers and merchants would have to use smaller gates, a sort of a door within the door, through which only small camels could enter only by supposedly crawling on their knees. Traders and travelers would have to have the bags taken off the sides of the camel, unpacked, with the riches removed, in order to fit through such a narrow gate.  Since Jesus also speaks of entering through the straight gate, this could be what he had in mind.  Although there is no historical/archeological evidence of such a gate existing. And as one Roman Catholic commentator wrote “This I understand now as a wishfully interpreted gate in Jerusalem conjured up by Sunday school teachers.”—designed to soften the tone of Jesus’ instructions.

Other scholarship considers that the Aramaic word for camel is very similar to the word for rope and that it was translated as a mistake.  This opens up an interesting thought:  for a rope to pass through the eye of a sewing needle, it must be unwound, simplified, reduced to the threads that constitute it.    As God is compassionate, merciful, and forgiving, the analysis of the parable remained clear.  The wealthy will have to unpack their distracting lifestyle, humble themselves, simplify themselves, focus their vision in order to walk the narrow way that leads to eternal life.

I felt some relief.  I could deal with pietism: give me something formulaic about faith; something I could apprehend and comprehend (in the sense of grasping or laying hold of something). “Tell me what I must do to be saved”—to echo the words of the rich young man.

But a broader textual study of the phrase “eye of the needle” within different religious traditions of the time reveals a different story:

  • The Babylonian (Syrian) Talmud makes use of a very similar phrase with equal emphasis on the hyperbole: stating that something is as impossible as a palm tree of gold, or an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.
  • The Qumran (7.40) contains the phrase: “To those who reject our teachings and treat them with arrogance, no opening will there be of the gates of heaven, nor will they enter the garden, until the camel can pass through the eye of the needle…”

This phrase appears to be common parlance to indicate the difficulty or improbability of something occurring.  And in all instances, there seems to be a hint of humor contained therein: a little tongue in cheek.  A modern equivalent might be for us to talk about the difficulty of something to be like “herding cats” or “nailing Jell-O to a tree”.

But a Jewish Midrash on the Song of Songs uses the phrase to speak of God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison, to accomplish intimacy between God and creation: “The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?].”  And again in a Midrash on Genesis the needle’s eye was mentioned in that “A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but a world isn’t big enough for two enemies…” Here in the Jewish midrash, we see that the needle’s eye was used not as a parable for the impossibility of a given task, but rather to emphasize the possibility!  Give me an opening the size of a needle’s eye, and I’ll throw the doors open wide!  Given Jesus’ penchant for quoting the Jewish scriptures of his day, it is highly likely that it was in this sense that Jesus uttered the phrase.  Indeed, if we read the final verse of the section that Tim read earlier as the Ancient Witness, we hear Jesus proclaim “With God, all things are possible.”
All these years I’ve read that text with the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle!

Let’s return to the narrative for a closer reading:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments… ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.”

As we listen to the instructions of Jesus to the rich man with an eye towards possibility (instead of impossibility) we pay closer attention to the posture of Jesus as he uttered this phrase.  The text tells us that Jesus said it lovingly—without a hint of judgment.  If anything, one can read compassion in the tone.  And the instructions were simple and clear.

First, an acknowledgement of place: You lack one thing.  One thing: not a litany of sins for which you must confess and make restitution.  Instead it is the acknowledgement that one who seemingly has EVERYTHING, lacks one thing.

The only claim the young man had made was that he’d kept the commandments.  And there is no indication that Jesus doesn’t take him at his word on that.  But what stands out to this reader of the text is the very ego-centric response “I have kept all these since my youth.” You see, it is only from a very privileged and self-sufficient position (AKA the rich young man) that we can assume that have arrived by our own volition.  Only the privileged are blind to the help they receive from others.

A few years ago I ran the Center for Ethics and Values at the Seminary at Northwestern.  I had 3 faculty members and 4 PhD candidates working in the center—all men—and as academics are wont to do, these gentlemen paid little attention to the details.  None of them knew how to load paper in the copy machine.  They had no concept of the time and logistics it took to host a conference.  For as intelligent as these men were, I was often amused at the ‘magical world’ they seemed to live in.  Things just HAPPENED for them.  The storage closet was one of the magicians’ tools.  I recall one day the Head of the Ethics Department standing in front of the closet with the door flung wide, aghast that the item he was looking for wasn’t present.  His frustration was evident. Did you use the last of them? I innocently asked.  Yes, he said.  Did you let anyone know we were out? I asked.  “No.”  You do realize that I don’t read minds.  How did you think I’d know to order more?  “Um… I don’t know.  Things just appear in there. I don’t know how they get there.” Was the response.  From an Oxford PhD.

Only the privileged are blind to the help they receive from others.

Jesus’s admonition to the man to sell his belongings and tend to the poor in the community was a means of stripping away the trappings of privilege or privatized notions of faith (just as the camel has to be unloaded to fit through a narrow gate, or the rope unwound to pass through a needle).

Second, Jesus invites the man to join the community by the invitation to ‘follow me’.  The way of Jesus is a journey. We are pilgrims together on a spiritual journey: sojourners along the Way.  Having “arrived” is never an option within the teachings of Jesus, but instead following the living traditions of Jesus means opening ourselves up to continued growth on the journey, and it means casting aside all privileged notions of privacy and instead joining in the communal pace.  We are pilgrims on the journey, and those who have gone before us light the way.

And here I want to pause to consider our own location as we read this text. While there is a measure of diversity a midst our congregation, there is also evidence that we aren’t quite as diverse as we’ve imagined ourselves to be.  You will remember the results of the search committee’s demographic study indicated this very clearly.  We are largely a congregation of privilege.  And while the usual suspects can be addressed (male privilege, white privilege, north shore privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, etc.) I think what is most interesting to consider from this text is another form of privilege we both bizarrely sing the praises of, and at the same time frequently ignore: that is the idea that we are ‘exceptional’.   We do believe ourselves to be “exceptional” (i.e., unusual or extraordinary).   We like to define ourselves by what we are not… that is, we aren’t too Christian… we aren’t really Baptist…  we don’t really require anything of our members… etc.

A group may assert exceptionalism, in order to exaggerate the appearance of difference, perhaps to create an atmosphere permissive of a wider latitude of action. The term “exceptionalism” can imply criticism of a tendency to remain separate from others. For example, the reluctance of the United States government to join various international treaties is sometimes called “exceptionalist”, as is an assertion that a person or group refuses to acknowledge, and perhaps communally participate in, a widely-accepted principle or practice.

When Jesus asks the privileged man to dispossess himself, he merely asked that man to do what the other followers of Jesus had committed to: equality and participation in the life of the community of pilgrims.  No unusual demands were made.   Grief came for the rich man, when he thought himself somehow to be an exception to the rule, that is, unwilling to submit to the discipline what it means to be in community.

Perhaps we need to consider the ease at which we can dismiss the collective wisdom of both those who have gone before and those who walk along side us.  I wonder if our particular interpretation of ‘soul liberty’ has moved us into the realm of the privileged privatized faith?  How do we find balance, allowing for both the individual to work out his or her own faith, and the spiritually formative role of community?

A few years ago I attended a large ‘mega’ church in Oklahoma City.  I had been visiting a friend in town, and happened to also be acquainted with the minister (we’d gone to seminary together). They just built a new building and he was quite keen to show it off.

The building was in the suburbs, and new the sanctuary was large, clean and spacious. There were clearly marked signs pointing to the restrooms, the fellowship hall, and the sanctuary. There were hand sanitizer dispensers outside each door. The bulletin spelled out the order of worship clearly, and gave hints and the customs of the congregation. His staff clearly ran the church like a well-oiled machine. There was theater-style seating, with wide aisles and lots of leg room. The arm rests were padded and I could stretch out my legs comfortably. The minister stood in the pulpit only a few meters from me, but because they also had large projection screens, I could opt to watch the sermon ‘larger than life’. And there were no troublesome hymnals to have to locate or share. The songs were projected up on screens for all to see.

My friend came up after the service SO very proud of his church and asked me my thoughts. In all honesty, all I could think of was “I just went to church and never touched anyone. My hip didn’t rub up against anyone’s hip in the pew. I never had to share a hymnal, or ask for help to locate things. I didn’t even have to look at the live ‘performance’ of either the minister or the worship leaders. I could do it virtually. This has been one of the loneliest church experiences I’ve ever had.”

It is experiences like this which make me love life in the city: the hassle and the congestion, the inconvenience and the need to deal with that which is less desirable or uncomfortable.  It seems that ‘church’ should also be that way: I want to touch and be touched. Even when it means risk. I want to get my hands dirty.

And as a theologian, I had to consider this when joining the church.  This is the question I had to face: was I willing to let this minister, and this congregation, form me spiritually?  Could I trust them to do so?

I’ll close with an ancient Buddhist story where the Buddha talked about the role of community in our spiritual journeys. The Buddha’s faithful attendant, Ananda, asked about the importance of having wholesome companions. Ananda asked the Buddha whether having noble friends and companions wasn’t half of the holy life. The Buddha replied: “Do not say so, Ananda. Noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life.” (SN 45.2, Bhikkhu Bodhi)   Friends, let us truly be companions together on this spiritual journey: open to each other’s gifts and critique.

The call to commitment (an adaptation of W. S. Merwin’s poem “Separation”)
“Your presence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.” 

 

Benediction

Go in peace, disturbed only by that which strips us of our pretense and privilege, and open to the gentle influence of the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being.

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What a cab driver from Kashmir taught me about hockey…

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

I got stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, the first night of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and the Blackhawks.  My cabbie was visibly frustrated as time passed with little movement.  He counts on multiple fares each hour to meet the cost of renting the cab each day, let alone make a profit.  Sitting for over an hour in traffic doesn’t bode well for his income for the day.  I caught him watching me in the rear view mirror. He’d been pretty quiet thus far in the trip.

I smiled and told him to put me on the clock, instead of charging me by the mile.  He smiled REAL big and said “You understand taxi drivers, yes?” I laughed and said, “Well, I understand what it is like to be struggling to make a living wage.  And I want to be fair with your time.”

We chatted about the usual ‘stuff’ then, the ice apparently broken by reliving his financial anxiety.  We talked about places we’d lived, and about the city of Chicago.  I asked him if he was a hockey fan (seeing that night’s traffic was due to the first game of the Stanley Cup finals).  He shook his head no, but then said “Wait.  That’s not fair. Let me explain…”

“I do not care for the violence, ma’am.  I have seen too much violence in my life.  But then, it is not any more violent than any other sport, is it?  At any rate, it is not a sport I grew up with. But I must confess that I rejoiced when Patrick Kane made that goal last week.  That goal paid a million people.”

I looked at him quizzically.  He smiled. “You see, he scored that goal, and hotel workers, airline workers, cab drivers, restaurants… all of Chicago benefited.  That goal set in motion (like a trigger or a catalyst) a series of events which will ensure that we have plenty of work, and good income. For that goal, I thank Allah.”

And I smiled, pondering the thought that it takes more than a village: it takes a hockey goal.

Epiphany…

Epiphany (from the Koine Greek: ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia,
meaning “manifestation”, “striking appearance”)

Today is one of my most favorite days of the liturgical calendar: Epiphany. In the Christian tradition, this is a time to remember the Wise Men who followed the star and found God in the most unlikely of places: a stable.

In my local congregation, the tradition of Epiphany is to follow the lead of the Magi (the wise men) seeking the Divine in the poor  and those in need of shelter. We do so by bringing gifts of warm coats, hats, scarves, gloves, disposable razors, and bus passes to the homeless shelter.

EpiphanyGifts

Gifts brought for the homeless shelter.

These are brought forward to the chancel during the final hymn of the service. And then taken to the homeless shelter.

Wise men know to seek God among the poor.

Tough love…

Yesterday was the Pride Parade in Chicago and I attend with an agenda in mind: 1) to lend my voice of love and acceptance and celebration to the throngs of people who will be ‘Out and About’, and 2) to bear witness to a different way of being Christian–documenting on film for anyone who stumbles across this blog that there are churches who welcome you and support you, in all your fullness and complexity.

To those ends, I offer the following witness to love:

The Hill Family (clergy–United Methodist)

Rev. Jacki Belile, clergy, American Baptist Church–USA

The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Churches in Chicago.

A sea of banners announcing the churches who are welcoming and affirming.

My own church’s banner.

What a powerful statement of trust: it is a robust pneumatology indeed.

It is an amazing statement to those who’ve spent their lives excluded by the church, to be celebrated by the church on their own terms!

But to the churches who practice so-called “tough love” by condemning homosexuality  and homosexuals in the name of Jesus, I offer a word of caution: Gay people aren’t beating down your church doors, wanting to get in.  There are options, as evidenced here.  When you, in the name of Jesus, preach judgment and condemnation, stop and think who it is you are preaching to: your own.  It is only your own closeted gay children who even attempt to stay in the hostile environment that is your church–whether out of conviction or nostalgia.  The rest will find places where they are celebrated and welcomed and love flows freely.  They will surround themselves with life-giving people, in life-giving places.

The only ones you exclude are your own.

Beholden… being held…

To be beholden: Obliged, bound, liable, indebted, to owe.

To be held: to be borne, sustained, and supported, to be kept in the hand, to be kept in relation, to be considered of value, to remain attached or steadfast

As a child I remember being held by the church: being the pastor’s daughter and youngest of the family meant I was often quite literally ‘held’ by the church. Mom and dad were always on the platform. Our little churches were too small for a nursery—thus I spent the first several years of my life nestled in the bosom of various church ladies. They comforted me when I cried, kept Pepperidge Farm gold fish or Cheerios in baggies in their purses in case I got hungry, and made dolls out of handkerchiefs when I got restless. There was even one parishioner who attended our church in E. St. Louis who would actually spread her mink coat out on the hard wooden pew in order for me to lounge in comfort (my mother praying fervently all the while from her perch on the piano bench that my diaper didn’t leak). The church was my world—my cradle—and it wasn’t particularly hard to imagine myself, as we were wont to sing those days, being like the whole world—in His hands.

When my family became missionaries, however, and I was old enough to recognize the political machinations of the evangelical church, more often I found myself in an ecclesial hold: isolated (quite literally in the bush) and with familial ties all but broken (through traditions about loyalties, insistence upon boarding school as the only educational option, and a demand that nothing rise before a divinely-ordained command to save souls), the hold of the church tightened to the point of suffocation.

Suddenly being “in His hands” was levied more as a scare tactic than of a source of comfort. Pain and suffering, sacrifice and stoicism, detachment and pietism were idealized. Weakness, vulnerability, and the expression of pain were stifled—demonstrating little other than a lack of faith.

As I grew older and began to question the motivations for decisions that were made in the name of ‘the Great Commission’, it was swiftly made clear by ecclesial authorities that it was to the church I needed to reconcile my desires and issues and concerns (the suggestion that perhaps the church might have want or need to reconcile with me was beyond consideration). They made it clear to me that I was beholden to the church. In that sense, it became impossible to deviate from doctrinal norms or dogmatic proclamations.

I took a 5 year hiatus—a breather—from this ecclesial hold, returning to ‘church’ through a different denomination and with significantly different notions of authority. Naturally I’d grown quite cautious about the church, content to sit on the periphery of things and generally to come and go anonymously. I eased quietly into the Lake Street congregation in that fashion: slipping in and out of services and trying hard to not become involved, lest the church lay hold of me again.

However, in recent months there have been those whose arms have gently enfolded and engrafted me into the life of the congregation. Such beckoning gestures have been gentle and loving, concerned and considerate; they are neither invasive nor limiting, but have been respectfully circumspect and freeing. It is folks like ML who found room in ‘her’ pew for me; LL who helped me move into a new apartment; CBS who has listened and counseled, along with LS who has made space for me when I needed it; TH and LL who invited me over to a family meal; ALH  who asked how she could help; and BV who fed my cats while I was tending to my mom when she was having surgery… folks who likely have little idea of the impact their kind and generous spirit has had in helping me find a spiritual home. It was the beautifully strange moment when I found myself willingly handing over the spare keys to my place to ALH with little other than the promise: “I’ll find someone to feed your cats…not sure who it will be, but I will find someone. Now go take care of your mom” that I realized my trust has shifted. I was willing to trust the congregation with my home—with my heart—in ways I never imagined possible.

For the first time in more than 30 years, I felt ‘held’ by the church.

Hidden in plain view…

This is a piece I shared with at my church a couple years ago.

When a systematic theologian is asked to write a concise statement of what it is she believes, the temptation is to simply repeat the Nicene Creed or some other ecclesial-sanctioned confession of faith and let that ‘timeless classic’ stand for itself.  I suppose there are ways in which I could in good faith do this: not that I personally can give rational assent to each aspect of the creed (I’m not unwilling to entertain the idea that there are aspects which might not bear up under the weight of ‘historical’ or scientific scrutiny), but rather that I trust that there are those in the community who can say for me, and therefore hold for me, the things of my faith tradition which I cannot simply hold on my own.  I am unwilling to dismiss the witness of those who can hold them.

So how does a closet creedalist find herself at home with a congregation who is proudly (and at times, defiantly) non-creedal and non-dogmatic?

It seems I’ve spent a lot of time in closets in my life—literal and figurative closets.  I was a hider as a child.  Not that I had anything particularly shameful to keep hidden from others, but I was the child that hid in the hopes of being found.  The household I grew up in was passionate about ministry—so much so that as a kid I often felt erased from view in contrast to those with ‘real’ needs (whether physical or spiritual).  I tested this theory of erasure at a very early age. My mother reports occasions when she would suddenly become aware of my absence, and eventually find me in repose in the back of a closet somewhere—I’d waited so long for anyone to notice my absence that I’d fallen asleep.  I became consciously aware of this personal ritual while my folks were missionaries.  At the age of 13 I’d come home from boarding school after having been away for 10 months, closed the door of my bedroom and laid under the bed for hours.  I remember quietly playing with the geckos who shared my hiding place, all the while imagining that my parents were frantically searching for me.  I emerged, disappointed and unnoticed, only when I was hungry enough to go to the kitchen for food.

I hid in similar closets at boarding school where we missionary kids were indoctrinated with the notion that our parents were out and about doing “the Lord’s will”.  Any trouble or infraction we committed was chastised with the fear that if we were disruptive enough to merit parental intervention, we were likely distracting them and preventing them from their real calling—spreading the Good News.  Even when circumstances felt abusive or I was just plain homesick, I stayed in my closeted state.  I remember our scheduled time on the ham radio early on Sunday mornings—that 10 min weekly window where we could talk ‘privately’ with our parents in the village—with the whole country listening in (what else was there to do when there is no TV or radio?).  Their questions of ‘how are you?’ were met with dutiful and respectable closeted answers: “I’m fine.”  

During my first seminary degree, I became a closeted woman in a mostly-male school. No, it wasn’t a ‘Yentl’-type moment—I wasn’t into breast binding or cross-dressing.  But as one of just a few women out of 350 students, I learned the patriarchal philosophies and theologies that served as currency.  I had purchase because I excelled at the argumentative, combative learning style—besting the brightest men around me. I was ‘one of the boys’.  Eventually graduating with honors, I was hired as the seminary president’s ghost writer and became professionally closeted—writing sermons and speeches for which he received credit.  In my writing I could pass as a man.

I spent years as a young woman, closeted in the heterosexual world where everyone assumes the young are marriages-waiting-to-happen.  Just this spring I was invited to speak to the General Executive Council of the American Baptist Churches—USA, and was both surprised and tickled to be introduced as having been invited to speak because they wanted to hear the perspectives of “a young adult”.  I joked about this as I took the podium, asking the group just how long I might be able to continue pulling off that moniker—seeing I’m almost 40.  One gentleman spoke up and explained, “you are considered a young adult until you get married”. “Wow…” I thought, “I never will reach maturity in your mind, given my orientation.”  Apparently, I’m also a closeted adult.

Closets are functional spaces: rooms for shelving and storing the parts of ourselves we aren’t prepared to deal with (either personally or publicly).  I believe this is how I’ve remained a closet creedalist at Lake Street Church: the bits and pieces of my faith heritage which don’t quite fit often sit shelved—only to be pulled out and worn on special occasions, if at all.  But I’ve also experienced the liberation of spring cleaning, where closets are opened and laundry and baggage are aired.  Items are sorted: some cleaned and restored and replaced in the closet to return to someday in the future; these are often items of sentimental value.  Other items don’t seem to fit any more—and these are sent out on consignment.  Finally, some items are deemed rubbish and are simply trashed.

These periodic spring cleanings do me good.  Spring cleaning helps me find hidden treasures—items I’d put away—maybe they were inappropriate for the season, or the size wasn’t right at the time—but are now comfortable and wearable—available for public viewing and consumption. It also reminds me of bits and pieces that were forgotten and repressed and allows me to clean house and open up more space within.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.  Interestingly, it is also the Sunday of the American Baptist Church’s Biennial Meetings.  The irony of the two coinciding is not lost on me.

I believe I’ve also been a closeted Baptist (and I suspect I’m hardly alone in this).

I became a member of Lake Street Church 4 years ago.  The decision to join was not undertaken lightly.  Oh, it was easy to want to count myself among the members of such an inclusive and warm community.  It became more difficult, however, when I realized that joining such a community meant embracing the ‘baptist’ moniker in my professional life.  The bi-lines of articles of mine in print would heretofore read, “Baptist theologian”.

Frankly, my Baptist closet was pretty full.  As I began sorting through this closet, I discovered all sorts of musty old baggage: stereotypes of Baptists which did not meet my experience with either the leadership or the congregation of LSC (such as blatant sexism, homophobia, and fundamentalism).  When I thought “Baptist” it was images of Jerry Fallwell, not Bob Thompson, that immediately came to mind.  At the very least, I knew that becoming “Baptist” would raise some eyebrows amongst my feminist colleagues in the academy.

But it was a particular congregation which captured my imagination and forced open the doors of that Baptist closet.  And I began to explore the theological underpinnings of what it was that could possibly allow for both the Jerry Fallwells of the world, and the Bob Thompsons of the world, to co-exist under the same rubric.  And I was delighted to discover that the theological foundations for such diversity were at the core of Baptist theology itself—understandings of freedoms which all Baptists claim: the freedom to have access to and interpret sacred texts; the freedom of the individual to work out their own spiritual journey in their own unique way; the autonomy and freedom of the local congregation to create communities of grace and justice that are relevant in their particular locales and to their particular congregants; and the freedom of the church from the state.

It turns out that being Baptist provides for the very conditions under which we can be who we are.  Being Baptist allows space for me personally to open up my closets and begin that painful but necessary process of spring cleaning.

I suppose what has appealed most about the Lake Street (and therefore Baptist) tradition to this feminist is the inherent modesty in the church’s theological claims.  Our divisions are not hidden or protected.  Our history and politic is not (nor can it be) swept under the rug.  And because opinions range vast, we cannot pretend to speak decisively and representatively ‘for all’.    To quote a well-crafted line of Ted Peters, “Tentativeness, as opposed to dogmatic swagger, can be a virtue in theological situations such as this.”

It is in recognition of this theological heritage that I have begun to embrace and take pride in Baptist Life.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult Baptist woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.

*Of course, the perpetual adolescent in me (I am a closeted adult after all) wants to arrive at the next Biennial meetings in full Lake Street force proclaiming in honor of the Stonewall riots, “We here.  We’re Baptist.  Deal with it.”  Or better yet, in the spirit of Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a Baptist?!?”