Must Love Dogs

A little dog wagged her tail
and she walked bravely
straight from Texas into my crooked little heart
Though she was tiny
she was mighty
as a catalyst for my growth

when I first met Lola
I did not like dogs
and to be honest I did not particularly like her
She was loud and obnoxious
and excessively needy
I loved my partner
and Miss Lola came as a package deal

Ultimately, I was a cat person
cats are a little more Emersonian to be sure
which is to say; they are self reliant
They really do not need you
save for a feeding now and then
they might want you
but without you they’d probably be fine

My cats existed solely for my good pleasure
I had trained them to cater to my whims
I fed them daily; no fancy foods
And they sat on my lap and purred
stroking my ego all the while
reminding me that I’m a good caretaker
And it didn’t cost me more than showing up

In a career that is hard
in a ministry that is hard
they had appointed roles
My pets have always played their part
They have ministered to the minister

It’s comforting to be a caretaker
of creatures that ask so little
In a profession where people ask too much
where absent strong boundaries
people would take all of you
low key pets that needed low key care
That’s the way I had always wanted it

But my little Lola girl was different
She broke my rigid mold
She broke wide my recalcitrant heart
She had the audacity to need me
She needed me for feeding
She needed me for play
She needed me for bathroom breaks
She needed me constantly
She let me know this too

She depended on me like no little creature ever had before
And my sweet little dog, she refused to apologize
because she knew she was worth every ounce of care

As a woman who had shut the door on having children
to focus on partners, personal growth, and career
Lola encroached upon some off limits places
And tugged at them with her little puppy paws
She looked up at me with big brown eyes
And she gambled that I could reach deeper
and become so much more selfless than I was

The truth is she held all the cards
with her little wet nose,
she gently nudged my shoulder
and she masterfully called my bluff

She laid her chihuahua head against my heart
which began to open up and flower
though Lola was tiny but mighty
like Silverstein’s fabled Giving Tree
she stretched my imagination tall
about who I am and who I can be

In this game of hearts 
It was not a question who would win
she would;
Chihuahuas are notoriously stubborn
I thought she needed me
but truthfully I needed her

With sloppy dog kisses administered like medicine
Lola taught me something new
As part of love’s totality
I don’t just love cats 
one little chihuahua taught me
that I must love dogs now too 

The Way It Is (Our Sacred Threads)

Poetry has long been a staple in my life. It’s always been a medium of exploring, articulating, and even coming to understand my deepest questions.  Poetry has given me a way to examine what the theologian Paul Tillich called “questions of ultimate concern.”  Here’s one of my favorite William Stafford poems, “The Way It Is.”  It is from a collection of his poetry also entitled, “The Way It Is.”

This poem was written shortly before Stafford’s death. It is a traveling companion that I have revisited at different times and places in my life, and it’s always sparked something powerful in me.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

We all have mysterious threads in our lives.  Sometimes the thread is a religious or existential question that fascinates us. Sometimes it’s a longing for marriage, or family, or children? Sometimes it’s a specific career aspiration? Sometimes it’s an experience in our lives? A longing to travel to specific place?  Sometimes the thread is related to some facet of our identity that’s being revealed or explored.  As we move through our lives, we might have several threads?

In my own life, exploring religious identity has been one of my most joyous threads. From early beginnings in evangelical christian environments, to exploration of moderate mainline protestant traditions, to progressive christian traditions, to unitarian, to jewish, to Islamic, to earth based religions, and to eastern religions. The metaphor I like to use for faith is the metaphor of a sturdy tree. My roots are planted deep in christian soil, and they form the source, the basis for the trunk of my tree. This is fixed. It’s immovable. It anchors me to a particular philosophical tradition, and a particular meta-narrative. However, the branches of my tree are continuously growing up and out. The branches sway and bend and flex and dance with other trees. They dance with each other. They dance in the wind. They dance with the world around them. They grow. They play. They explore. They are forever shedding dying leaves, and sprouting new leaves in the spring time.  The cycle of birth/awakening, growth/change, maturity, death, and birth yet again is a continuous cycle for my tree.  This identity in my always in motion. Always fluid. Always expanding. The more I learn, the more exciting it is and the more fascinated I become. Following this thread is the work of my lifetime.

Creativity is another thread in my life. In fact, one of the most potent and meaning rich names that I know for the Divine is the title “Creator.” We imagine the Divine as one who creates. As we scan this big, wide, beautiful world–there’s no shortage of creativity. Creativity is happening all around us, always, and everywhere. Every sunset since the dawning of time has brought a different color palette and a slightly different arrangement of clouds. This ongoing act of creation has been taking place for more than a billion years. The poet in Genesis says that God spoke light into being and saw that the light was very good. God separated the light from the darkness, and suddenly there was day and night. Indeed, it is good. This ongoing act of creation is a golden hum that’s woven into the fabric of our universe.

As people who have been made in the image of God we too have been endowed with this remarkable gift of creativity. We have divine fingerprints on our lives, and creativity is our birthright. We have been invited, and even called to engage in the act of creating, creativity, and creation. There is no such thing as a person who isn’t creative. I truly believe this. There are only people who have not discovered their uniquely God-given creativity–yet.  This is also related to sense of religious/vocational identity for me. As a leader and as a pastor, I can think of nothing more satisfying to me than inviting people to wake up to themselves, to believe in their own creative potential, and to release them to live into their creative gifts and make the world more beautiful.

And finally, sexual identity has been a long and winding thread in my life. The movement from a straight sexual identity to a bisexual sexual identity has been about an awakening to and an expansion of love in my life. To the many people I had the potential to love. To the many people I have in fact loved. To the infinite possibilities that exist for love. To the manifold beautiful and diverse kinds of love. Straight became too small and too constricting a container to hold the vast and spacious and infinite possibility that exist in this world. I identify with the technical term “bisexual” but underneath that label what I really identify with is an unfettered freedom to love. To love across categories. To love across social class. To love across race. To love across gender. To love across virtually any identity category.  I do not abide borders and boundaries and walls of separation for love. I want to love with a holy and disruptive grace.

There’s a beautiful prayer in the book of Ephesians chapter 3, and the book’s author attributes this prayer to Paul (attribution was a common practice). The author offers this prayer for the community. And the prayer reminds the community how long and wide and high and deep is the love of Christ. Limitless. Infinite. Unbounded. Unpredictable. Uncontainable. Untamable. Love that surpasses knowledge. Love unexplainable. God loves us this way. The prayer further invites people to be filled to the full measure of God’s love and reminds us that with the power of this kind of transformative love at work in us, we can do more than we’ve ever dreamed, hoped, imagined, or dared would be possible.  This is the benediction I use most often in churches.

These three threads have something else in common. They all require vulnerability. Vulnerability is intimately connected to spiritual growth and maturity. Vulnerability sits at the heart of creativity.  It requires courage and vulnerability to engage a journey of self exploration or self discovery.  Vulnerability yields growth, change, and fluid/forward movement in our lives.

Holding onto your thread doesn’t make life easy. It doesn’t make life unfold according to your agenda. Your best laid plans may not happen on the timetable that you’ve set for yourself. Life has its own secret schedule. But I resonate with Stafford. When you hold onto your thread, you do find your strength. You do find your voice. You will find your way through. Anchored to your thread, you won’t get lost. You’ll have the courage to plumb the depths of your own heart, to explore the outer reaches and unknown places in your life.  You’ll have the resilience to pass through the suffering spaces in your life.  You’ll uncover the growth and the wisdom that sits beneath all this. You’ll start asking really good questions. And you’ll have the humility to become receptive to the wisdom that your own questions will give you.

Each of you is pursuing your sacred thread. Don’t ever let go. I’m cheering for you.

I’d love to hear from you.
What are the sacred threads in your lives?
What practices do you engage to become fully present to the still small voice?

The Gospel of, “Jesus is Nice; Stay for Coffee”

Many of us who have roots in Evangelical Protestant Christianity as well as Mainline Protestant Christianity are intimately acquainted with John 3:16.  Chapter and verse, I’d venture to guess that many of us memorized it at some point or another in our childhood and teen years.  Many of us can probably still recite it by heart. If we can’t, there are no shortage of football games, baseball games or televised events where someone will invariably be holding up a John 3:16 sign and reminding us what it says.

John 3:16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Now the context surrounding this verse is actually quite profound. Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to meet with Jesus under cover of darkness, and he begins asking Jesus some questions about what is required for him to be saved. What Jesus is asking of him is to be born again. To have sin exposed. To have his life radically re-ordered, re-prioritized, re-newed, and re-made. In different quarters of the church we disagree about what constitutes sin. The Firebrand preachers of the Puritan era spoke of personal purity, and the Social Gospel movement exposed the sin of corporate, systemic, and structural sin.

But in both Evangelical Christian quarters AND Mainline Protestant circles, we have cut the paws of the Lion of Judah and turned him into into a purring kitten. A purring kitten fashioned and suited to our tastes and palatable to our modern ears. In Evangelical quarters, we have reduced this verse and the surrounding story to a cerebral exercise. A profession of faith. A script. Some magic words that allow us to fly off to heaven at the end of our life. And while Evangelicals have retained some of the personal holiness codes, we only selectively receive and enforce these in Evangelical quarters when we’re not too inconvenienced by them.  Specifically, we enforce our purity codes against brown bodies, the poor (who can’t contribute to our coffers in a meaningful way) and various other minorities who do not advance our power of dominion and empire.  Pre-marital sex is wrong *wink wink* but being LGBTQ is really wrong. That is more easily observable and enforceable. So we’ll draw the line of orthodoxy there, because we only have to contend with excluding 5-10% of the church and not the 85% who invariably had pre-marital sex and deserve our compassion.

In Mainline Protestant circles we are not much better. We have not succeeded in this Gospel sized life.  We have largely stripped away the personal holiness code except around LGBTQ folks and People of Color (where we are largely silent.)  But in place of this stripped down purity culture, we have offered a Gospel that doesn’t actually require anything meaningful of our parishioners.  “Take up your cross and follow me” is not a scripture that I regularly hear preached in Mainline Protestant churches.

In fact, what I usually hear in “Evangelical” and “Mainline Protestant Churches” alike is something akin to a Gospel which purports, “Jesus is nice, stay for coffee. And if it’s not too much of an imposition, bring a some canned goods for your local food bank.” This will make you feel very good, and it will cost you very little. No actual sacrifice will be necessary to maintain this spiritual practice.

If you cannot confront the events in Charlottesville, VA from your pulpit tomorrow, regardless of which side of the church you serve, you are probably operating in a “Jesus is nice, stay for coffee” environment.

This type of theology is a form of theological masturbation. And here’s what I mean. It’s pleasurable. It makes us feel really good. But as a people of faith, it doesn’t actually require anything from us. It’s a self focused, and solo focused activity. Religion and religious professionals are a commodity that we consume. Like Sunday Brunch. Or TED Talks. Or that 5min YouTube meditation that you watched to give you a “hit” of spirituality. But these things do not break in, break forth, permeate our lives and call us to a more beautiful vision. These things do not call us to “wake up” spiritually, and to immerse and be immersed in a life changing story.

Within reason, theological masturbation is ok. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Sometimes we’re so broken and battered and bruised that we really do need a simple reminder and a simple message that Jesus is nice. And that’s ok. When you are facing death, deep depression, overwhelming circumstances, “Jesus is nice” is a good word.  But the point of faith isn’t to dwell here and it isn’t to stay here. That’s a form of spiritual adolescence.  And if that’s all you have, then you don’t have much by way of faith worthy of emulation. That is spiritual junk food rather than a path of true spirituality. That’s not what the Christian life is or what it was meant to be. And frankly, this version of a Christianity is not something I find interesting, it is not worthy of my time. It is not what I signed up for. And it is not something I’m interested in perpetuating through my call to ministry.

This version of “Jesus is nice”  Christianity whether it is playing out in Mainline environments or Evangelical environments, is not a substitute for person to person intimacy, or for communal intimacy drawn out and embodied are articulated in a life that looks different, foreign, alien to the society around us. It is not the call to holiness and justice that our faith requires.

The Jesus way—is a way of being in the world that requests and demands your whole life. The Jesus way—is a way of moving and being in the world that costs something of you. The Jesus way–is a way that radically re-orders, re-forms, re-makes, re-prioritizes your life. It is an affront to pride. It is an affront to selfish ends. It is an affront to our lust for power, title, status, oppression. It meets violence with love. It meets convenience with truth. It meets a disordered and messy and violent and bigoted world with a mission to bring the Kingdom of God down to Earth. Here. Now.  It makes demands of us. It invites us to live cruciform lives. It invites us to let go of power and lift up the lowly. It invites an in breaking of love, holiness, beauty, selflessness, gentleness, and self control.

In conclusion, Jesus is not nice. Jesus is not tame. Jesus is not packaged with a latte and a worship band. Jesus is not included with brand merchandise. The holy way of Jesus is not found in that sweet new devotional that you just bought on Amazon and that you will discuss with your “small group.”  For mainline folks, “silence” is a moral stance. And it’s a dangerous one. Stripping away personal disciplines, and the purity culture/personal holiness code of evangelical faith should not be a point of pride. Have we replaced it with a call to deeper holiness, to pride wrecked and humility gain, to the work of justice, to life re-newed, re-born.

The holy way of Jesus is found when your faith meets the real world. The holy way of Jesus is embodied in real time and all the time. The holy way of Jesus is faith made manifest in action. The holy way of Jesus afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. The holy way of Jesus is active, alive, transformative to us and the world around us.  Following the way of Jesus is arduous, long, difficult, and worth it. Worth it for the re-made life you gain. Worth-it for society radically re-ordered. Worth it for the word of life broken into and dwelling in formerly dead places. Worth it for our heart and soul and bone and marrow broken, baptized, and radically re-ordered. Worth it for the quest of making a more beautiful, just, and holy world.
Jesus is not Nice. The way of Jesus is very hard. It will cost you everything. Including  your life given over to ideas, to causes, to mission, to ministry, to the work of justice that is so much bigger than you.  And if you’re into that, then by all means, stay for coffee.

Layer Cake (A Series of Stories)

Berry-Mascarpone-Layer-Cake3

These storytelling/spoken word pieces chronicle my experience of discovering and claiming a bisexual identity. As I looked around, I had a very difficult time finding bisexual specific narratives at all. And then on occasion when I did see a reference to anything bisexual, the stories were not usually being told by people who self identify as bisexual. Additionally, I really wasn’t seeing, hearing, or interacting with anything that felt like it resembled my particular story. These resources and depictions were not mirroring back to me–pieces of myself. Some people meet a specific person and they have an “aha” moment. Some people have deep-seated religious angst that they battle for long periods of time.  In my case, I ran around the world feeling like an “in between” categories person. I ran around feel like I didn’t exist. There wasn’t a lot of bisexual representation or visibility around me.

The closest thing I did have to any sort of representation were media depictions of sexually curious straight women who retained their straight identity. And this was vogue for about a decade. TV shows would trot them out during sweeps week to hike their ratings, and it had everything to do with the male gaze and nothing to do with authentic human journeys. And so I really wrestled for a long time about how far straight could flex, how far it could bend before it became another category. Where does it start? Where does it end? And when I looked at the other binary expression of gay, I knew that wasn’t me. I had a number of meaningful attractions/relationships with people of different genders than my own.

There were a series of personal experiences building upon themselves over time and then finally revealed themselves as a discernible and repeating pattern in my life. My stable state is fluid and diverse romantic and personal attraction. As I experienced each of these events in real-time, they felt completely random and unrelated.  When I could eventually look backwards at a large enough stretch of my own life, and when I finally had the benefit of perspective, I began to recognize fluidity as a thread that had been weaving  itself all throughout my life.

These stories isolate a handful of the personal narratives that unfolded and build toward a discovery of bisexual identity.

A few notes.  I use a very simple and rhythmic nursery rhyme structure, and this format is intentional. In recent years, this whimsical sing-song rhetorical style has become a mainstay of conservative politicians. If you watch campaign speeches of Sarah Palin, she frequently uses a  “folksy” nursery rhyme style on the campaign trail and so do others of her ilk.  I live smack in the heart of the part of Ohio where red meets blue and there are always numerous campaign stops jockeying for counties around me that have the potential to flip to either red or blue. So I wanted to claim this form and use it in a subversive way.  It’s often being used by conservative politicians to incite a gospel of fear and whip up fundamentalist and evangelical voters as politicians as the fan the flames of cultural tensions around LGBTQ people, race, economics, etc..

So I wanted to use this same form to speak to that exact same demographic. Rural and Suburban conservatives around me.  I wanted to slow down this often hostile conversation about LGBTQ people, humanize it, and steep them in stories.  I was also interested in using my real personal narratives to build a bridge and connections between straight woman and queer women. Many evangelical straight women bump up against the borders and boundaries of their faith and struggle to reconcile their faith and sexuality. This isn’t unique to queer people. It’s unique to anyone who is earnestly trying to negotiate between upholding a conservative faith system, and defining themselves, their core values, and experiencing life that may challenge it.

I’ve done these pieces for small groups of about 20-25 people a handful of times. And these are really meant to be performed for small and intimate groups where I have the luxury to really explain and talk about the pieces. These take awhile to listen. If you are not a patient person and you have a 5-10min listening limit, skip to the last piece, “Salvation.”

Final Question: I am contemplating turning these into YouTube shorts ala “The Feels.” And I’d be interested in feedback if people would appreciate that style/format for these pieces.

Layer Cake- “A Sara for My Sara”

Layer Cake- “Recess”

Layer Cake- “Say Anything”

Layer Cake- “Son of a Preacher Man”

Layer Cake- “Salvation”

Some Thoughts About the “Self” Engaging with Systems

All of us have systems in our lives: family systems, faith systems, political systems, invisible systems that guide friendships, jobs, and vocations.

For those of us who are leaders, we are often something like seed crystals in the nucleation/crystallization process. This is to say, we are brought into organizations which are hopefully malleable, flexible, super saturated solutions, and we are put into these systems specifically to encourage their growth. When this system is healthy,  a process of nucleation and crystallization will occur. People will organize and crystallize around the leadership of this new leader and they too will become crystals. A brand new–and stronger and more robust crystal structure will be created.  An organization will come together. Everyone has a role in this system. The system is solid. The crystal state is solid and it is beautiful to behold.  We see this in churches as they organize and cement themselves around a leader who has the right organizational vision for the church. We see this in businesses as a small business develops its niche in the marketplace and hires a seed crystal of a leader to help it grow and expand.  We see it in family systems where a strong leader—a matriarch or patriarch of a family will organize the whole family system. We see it in the non-profit world when a seed crystal leader will hatch a vision, and people will rise up and form around this person to help them organize, grow, and execute the vision. People will come together and grow.  But as the crystal forms, it becomes a more stable, solid, and rigid structure. And if the original seed begins to change course and change shape, it will begin butting up and chaffing against the larger crystal that is already in place.

If you take a pair of pliers and yank the original seed crystal out of the system, the shape of the original crystal system will remain. A non-profit organization, a church, a job system can’t flex or change or grow unless it’s willing to submit itself to a person who enters into the system and acts as a solvent agent. That is to say—a person who comes in makes the system aware of its previous spoken/unspoken & rigid shape, a person who cleanses the system, who bathes the system in warm water, who adds a touch of gentle agitation, and who shepherds the system by adding in a new solvent to help that system become saturated and fluid again. That system has to become humble, malleable, flexible and fluid in order to become receptive to a new leader, a new seed crystal around which the organization will recrystallize and become a strong beautiful new crystal.  My experience in churches is that too often we neglect this process of deconstructing the old system, of cleansing the system, of reflecting on the old system, of bathing it in a solvent that will work it’s way throughout the whole system and help it to become a fluid system again. A receptive system again.

But this is not just true of systems. This is also true of people as we engage and move through different transitional spaces in our lives. We crystallize. We become rigid. We take our accumulated knowledge/wisdom/plans—our roles and we become rigid and unreceptive to anything or anyone that tries to knock us off course. We don’t handle detours well. We don’t flex and bend and inhabit space the way we should or could. We develop blindspots because of this rigidity in our lives.

As I worked through my own identity process of coming to terms with my bisexuality, and as I moved forward to engage my own “coming out” process, I approached it as something that would likely be nothing more than a 1-2 year nuisance in my life. I thought that I would go through a series of disclosures with my denomination  and that I would flail and bounce around for 12 months or so before eventually landing in some progressive church as a part time staff member, associate pastor, or parish associate–and resume my life as normal. Easy as that.  Except it hasn’t been as easy as that.

I thought this way, because I was almost exclusively focusing on the personal theological/spiritual aspect of my coming out process. And I’ve held my theology/spirituality with a gentle and open hand for a very long time. My personal sense of spirituality has been fluid for a long time. Changing beliefs, changing ideas, changing knowledge—all of this is comfortable and comforting to me. I expect it. I welcome it. My faith is/has always been/and always will be in motion. In fact, I don’t feel particularly safe in places that expect me to stand still. I can’t think of anything more depressing than being told to stop searching, stop growing, to stop. The idea of making the leap from straight to queer was not a big deal to me spiritually. The seeming contradictions and ambiguities of the sacred text I serve are easy for me to hold with gentle hands. Because tradition is living. Text is living. Human knowledge and experience are living. Faith is living. 

With this knowledge in mind, my life of faith is a life of constant play, constant discovery, constant exploration. My life of faith is built upon the value of the journey itself rather than any particular destination. My life of faith is cumulative and constructive rather than necessitating a splitting of self or a deconstruction of places I’ve been.  I am the sum of every space I’ve ever engaged. The evangelical spaces. The mainline protestant spaces. The Unitarian spaces. The Jewish communities. The humanist spaces, and so many others.  All of these “Deep Wisdom Sources” articulate and present themselves in who I am as a religious leader/preacher.

However, in coming out, I had not anticipated how all these external systems in my life would react and respond to me. I had not anticipated how I would respond to them. I had not anticipated how my family system would respond. I had not anticipated how the faith system around me would respond. 

I had not anticipated how local LGBT groups and systems would respond. Would they be places that are inviting bisexual leaders to lead? To speak? To participate on panels?  To teach educational events? And what should I do if they are not. If that’s not the conversation that as a corporate body they are having?
Frankly, there are versions of my story that may have yielded that 1-2 year nuisance of “coming out” and then flailing in exile and finding my way into a progressive christian community on staff as a faith leader. If I were flexible and mobile anywhere around the country I likely could have found this scenario. But for many reasons, I’m not mobile.

If I had the financial flexibility to take on part time or full time positions, but for many reasons I do not have that flexibility. I have a pretty specific and finite amount of time and energy to give to ministry activities while juggling my full time Government job.

If I lived somewhere other than the Midwest in a larger Metropolitan area there would be more LGBTQ affirming churches looking for leaders and/or leadership. But I don’t. I do live in the Midwest. In a Mid sized town with only a handful of truly LGBTQ affirming churches. And the line to serve in leadership in most of these churches 10-20-30 queer leaders deep. And most of the churches–even the more progressive churches, are still caught in binaries. That is to stay, they’ve just barely mastered “straight” and “gay” –so those of us who are bisexual or transgender or non-binary in any fashion are ahead of the conversation that is really happening where I live. Even most of the progressive faith spaces available to us are really not engaging beyond straight & gay parishioners. This is not universally true, but it is mostly true. And I really don’t have control over these systems and the speed and pace at which they will decide to change and grow.

I couldn’t anticipate how my family system would respond to me. Here, I was not naive. I knew that it would be a long hard slog for my family of origin to reconcile themselves to my sense of sexual identity, and/or that they may or may not ever successfully adjust to this information, and I’ve been right about this. I anticipated this correctly and gaining the necessary support in light of that has been a top priority for me.

The other day, I turned to my partner and I had the courage to finally say something out loud that up to this point, I had been holding back–because it was too painful for me to think about much less to articulate it out loud. I hadn’t been able to breathe when I thought about it, much less to find the courage to say it. I said to her, “You know it may well be another 5 or 10 years before I’m attached to another church in a formal pastoral staff role.” This acknowledgement brought with it a massive wave of grief for me. I was shook to my core. I was shook in a way that up to date I really haven’t let myself be shook. With this acknowledgement I’ve had to surrender a dream. Or at least I’ve had to surrender one version of a dream that had been invisibly guiding and dictating a lot of my assumptions, goals, and life plans.  And I sobbed. I sobbed a gut wrenching, full-bodied, cry until I dehydrated myself level of sob.

It’s important to note that this concession on my part does not mean forsaking or giving up on my call to ministry. It does not mean I’m not a Reverend.  It does mean releasing myself from a particular kind of ministry and releasing myself for a particular vision for what a Reverend is and how our vocation of ministry manifests itself. It means releasing my iron grip on a version of ministry that I had been holding very tightly. It means creating a new one. It means introducing peers, colleagues, friends, and family to a new way of being a minister. It may mean that I am the one who holds a new vision, creates a new space.

I think of so many queer spiritual leaders who came before me. Those who had countless setbacks. Those who endured numerous rejections. Those who suffered. Those who spent 10, 20, 30 years of their lives longing to participate as ministry leaders before they were afforded their chance to so do. Those who lit their candles and never lost hope. I think about how long they were in exile. I think about their patience and long-suffering. I think about their unwavering faithfulness to their sense of call and calling. I think about the kind of leaders they became because of what they experienced. Their wisdom. Their integrity. Their gifts. I think about their dedication and drive and determination of leaders. I appreciate these queer elders now in a way that I previously hadn’t. I realize that there is a hall of saints and that is wide and deep and rich. I realize that I’m in their good company.

I also realize that this is a space where I’ve had to let go and surrender what has been, but it’s also the fertile soil for new dreams and new loves and new hopes to be planted and seeded, to be watered, sown and harvested. This is not dead space. This is not useless space.  It’s fluid space. It’s not a space to grit your teeth and survive. It’s not a space to rush. It’s a new rhythm and a new season in my life.  It’s most definitely not a ministry free space.  My preaching calendar and my guest speaking calendar is filled more weeks than it isn’t. This is a growth space. It’s an exploring space. It’s a skill building space. It’s a space where I have a newfound ability to re-imagine and re-envision my life, my dreams, my hopes—and for the first time, I have the ability to build a professional infrastructure around myself that will accommodate a fluidity that runs through every facet and corner of my life.

I have the ability to be wise and to create a structure around myself that lets me function in my truest deepest gift instead of resisting it or handcuffing it.  I have the ability to start my own business, to add new skills/new services/new ideas.  I have the ability to take classes, get new certifications, and offer people brand new skills. I have the ability to take the crystal I’ve become, submit myself to gentle solvent, and become fluid. A fluid that can hold all manner of new seed crystals—grow/change and recrystallize as an altogether different—a yet even more beautiful crystal structure.

So these days, I’m asking myself a new set of vocational questions. What does it look like to embrace this fluid space in my life with real intention and integrity? What does it look like not to resist it but rather to lean fully into it.   Who are the people who have the sacred calling to rise up and come alongside me as my squad, as my inner circle of friends, as my braintrust—to imagine/to dream/to brainstorm/to explore/to feed off one another creatively–and to walk this journey along with me.  This is not just a willy nilly role that any individual can fill. This is a role specifically for someone who wants to befriend someone in a fluid space. Someone who wants to commit to walking with someone in a fluid space. Someone who wants to embrace changing roles/relationships/dynamics.  And that is a special kind of calling.  Setting this support system in place, and laying this foundation in place is my first and most crucial task.   Next up, who are the leaders, the care-givers, the professional support team that will come alongside me to help me build my skills, to keep me accountable, to challenge me, to keep me healthy.  And finally where are the communities/groups/people that will benefit from the wisdom I’ve gathered, collected, and that I’m ready to start sharing. I have more questions than answers these days, but they are really good questions that will lead and prompt me in the directions that I’m meant to pursue.

I’ll end with a poem by Denise Levertov.

Variation on a Theme by Rilke by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being.  And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task,  The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can
————————————–

The poem that Levertov is riffing with and referencing is below….

The hour is striking (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”

Rilke’s Book of Hours
(translated by Johanna Macy & Anita Barrows)

Today is a new day. I have the opportunity to ring out like a bell awakened, and so do you.

Blessings,
Marcy

Fluid.

Fluidity is beautiful.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this word. In fact, I remember the exact day.

I had purchased a copy of a book. “Sexual Fluidity, Understanding Women’s Love and Desire” by Dr. Lisa Diamond.  I saw it in a bookstore in 2010. I was intrigued. At the time, I wanted to be a better ally to LGBTQ women.

I cracked it open in a coffee shop, and I dared to read it.  Twenty minutes of reading became an hour which became two hours which became three hours.  I got up to go to the bathroom and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I noticed that I had been crying.

But why had I been crying? There was this word called “fluid” that I was hearing only now. I was hearing it for the very first time.  It was circling around me and it landed on my shoulder like a little pet bird whispering in my ears, “You are not crazy. The way you think and feel and navigate the world, suddenly, there’s a word for this. It’s not an isolated phenomenon. You’re not alone. You can’t be alone. There’s a whole book about it.”  Fluid.  It rolled off of my tongue. It was such a comforting word.  Fluid.

It was a word that drew into sharp relief these very abstract and seemingly contradictory pieces of self, or at least of my “self” and suddenly knit them together in a brand new way for me to see. For me to hold. For me to grasp. But why weren’t other people talking about these fluid spaces in their lives. And why weren’t they talking about this in LGBTQ spaces where I thought people would be most likely to talk about such things? Was I the only one in these spaces engaging with these thoughts and feelings? Surely I wasn’t? But it felt this way? Where were the other fluid people? How do I find them?

My great love of people (all kinds of people) I had never concealed from anyone. It was available in plain sight. I saw my life as holding infinite possibility.  I saw my life as being malleable. As being in motion. And It was all available for public view. To be seen. To be heard. To be held. To be observed from afar. To be dismissed. To be judged. To be roughly handled. To be speculated. To be whispered about.  And it was.  Believed and Questioned. Cherished and Trampled. Thought of as credible and incredulous. Held as distinct and held as an indistinct step in a process.

I didn’t see “fluid” as a distinct sexual orientation or even something separate from straight. I hadn’t gotten that far in my own process yet.  But I saw it. And I held it. And I cherished it. And I sat with it. And I absorbed it. And I embraced it. I was fluid. I was a fluid person. My sexual attractions were fluid. My romantic attachment style was fluid. And this is a gift that I carry into every room, but it’s not necessarily one that is well understood. Not to anyone else. Not even to me. This word “fluid” was now a surfboard where I had previously just been flailing and lost at sea. From this word, “fluid” I could suddenly see a shoreline off in the distance as waves came up under me and also crashed over me. But I didn’t exactly know how to surf.  And I didn’t know of anyone who could teach me. I didn’t know of anyone who was telling their own surfing stories, or their own lost at sea stories. I didn’t know when this board and when the ocean itself would carry me all the way to shore. I didn’t know when my feet were going to hit dry land. And I didn’t know who I would be when my feet hit that shore. But I wanted to know. In fact, I desperately wanted to know. I knew that I would still be me. But I knew that I would probably be a new version of me. I wanted to direct the ocean and steer the surfboard, but I couldn’t. I had to submit myself to the journey.  I had questions. I was fluid.

And I began to ponder what else in our lives is fluid.

Water is fluid.  Water is fluid like a gentle rain, or like a flood, like calm waves that hold you up and let you swim or like a raging sea that can’t be contained.

Space is fluid. The space between us is fluid. The gentle air or the warm breeze that draws us together or the cold chill that separates you from me, and that divides spirit from bone.

Seasons are fluid.  Fall.  Winter. Spring. Summer. Sometimes these transitions overlap and we don’t always have a clear handle on one season’s ending as another season is beginning. Sometimes these transitions are so gentle that we miss them until they’ve already happened. And sometimes transitions are violent. Winter announces itself with a showstopper of an ice storm and below zero temperatures. And a perfect Spring day is punctured and ruined by the first day that hits 90 degrees with humidity.

Faith is fluid. Some people (a small few) land comfortably in a location in space-time-language and religious affection that will follow them for all of their lives. But this only happens for a precious few. For most of us we will experience shifts both seismic and small that will require us to flex and grow and change. We will bough and bend and dance with faith, and our conception of what faith is, what ultimate questions are will have to bough and bend and dance with us to go the distance of life. If we have a native language, we may have to learn a second and third tongue to sustain us as global citizens. And sometimes this growth will be so smooth and so natural, and sometimes it will be a response to deep or violent pain. Sink or swim. The tempest or the gentle rain. Sometimes the sensation of sinking will force us to swim. And sometimes when we jump out of that boat, or head out for the shore toward deep waters it is our survival instinct that has kicked in.

Our roles and titles are fluid.  I am a sister, daughter, Reverend, business woman, partner, teacher, student, mentor, mentee, friend, lover, companion, caregiver, recipient of care.  And many more. Sometimes these roles are distinct. But more often than not they bleed together in intersecting and intersectional ways. And they need to be given their due space to grow and change and shape shift and flex and bend and meld together.

Love is fluid. It does not stay still. It cannot stay still.  Love—real love— in our lives is a crucible for holiness. Love invites us to be naked and unashamed. Love invites us to take off our masks and encounter the truth of each other exposed. vulnerable. Love sees us at our worst. Love gently calls us toward our best.  Love challenges us.  Like good medicine, love heals us. Love grows us strong. Love makes and remakes us. Love is a container in life’s great process of becoming.

In a world of “either”/”or”, In a world of “black”/”white,” In a world of “pick a side,” in a world where fluidity is a disruptive grace, and in a world where sometimes others only acknowledge the “disruption” without stopping to honor or engage with fluidity as a potential “grace,” you need to protect your heart. Your fluid heart.

—Protect your fluid heart. Nurture it. Nourish it. Cherish it. Speak gently to it. Give it it time and space and room to  grow.  Give it room to wander and ponder and move and settle. Give it room to explore and expand and contract. Give it room to journey. Give it room to settle in and settle down with deep roots.

Give it flourishing space. You need it. And the world needs you. Exactly as you are. Fluid.

You can’t shortcut or rush your journey. It unfolds as its meant to, when its meant to, how it’s meant to.  Wherever you are, and whatever insights or experiences you are having in your life, you are exactly on time. You are a temporal being. You live in time. And wherever you are in your process and in your journey–you’re on time.

Trust in the ancient wisdom of one of my favorite mystics, Julian of Norwich.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Fluid. The fluid spaces in our lives have the capacity for deep beauty, for growth, for change, for metamorphosis, for “becoming.”  It’s not a space or season to be rushed, to be hurried through, or to be forced or cajoled. Submit yourself to “becoming” spaces in your life. Abide with yourself exactly where you are.  Journey with your fluidity. Make friends with your fluidity. Let it be your strength.

Fluidity is beautiful.

Journeying With Messy Middles

What do you do when you’re a Queer Rev and most of the churches in your region are not fully affirming? Most people want to divide churches into neat and orderly categories of “non-affirming” and “affirming” but I live in a world of very messy middles. I live in a world where churches are not usually overtly hostile to LGBTQ people, but the vast majority of the churches that I engage also do not meet my personal definition of an affirming church.

Here is how I personally define an affirming church.

  1. The Church clearly states that is LGBTQ affirming on its website.
  2. The Church has formally engaged a denominational discernment process and has intentionally decided to call itself an LGBTQ affirming congregation
  3. The Church has an active interest in ministering to LGBTQ people and they have a dedicated ministry to and for LGBTQ people.
  4.  LGBTQ people are allowed to engage at every level of life and leadership in the church with no restrictions.
  5. LGBTQ people have the ability to get married on church grounds and with full approval of the church session.
  6. The church advocates for LGBTQ justice issues at the local, state, and national level
  7. The church shows up at LGBTQ events, fosters dialogue with the LGBTQ community and goes out of its way to make itself visible as an LGBTQ affirming church to the surrounding community.

As I surveyed my region, the vast majority of churches in my region do not meet my requirement for LGBTQ affirming churches. Indeed, only a handful of churches in my region actually DO meet my requirement for an LGBTQ affirming church.

As a queer Rev, this was a major defining issue for me. What should I do? Should I uproot my whole life and move somewhere else for new opportunities and new churches that might meet my definition of LGBTQ affirming? These churches exist. They exist all over the country. Financially, that just wasn’t feasible for me. I have a full time job working for the military and I only minister part time. I can’t hang my financial fate on something so unstable.

As another alternative, knowing that the churches around me do not meet my personal definition of “safe churches” or “affirming churches” should I sit on the sidelines, or just throw in the towel on my ministerial vocation? Should I quit preaching altogether? I couldn’t bear the thought of this either. I had worked too hard and worked for too long for my ministry credentials. I had studied. I had trained.  I had felt this calling so clearly in my life, and I decided I’m not willing to sacrifice it because I happen to be queer and most of the churches around me happen not to be LGBTQ affirming churches. So I’ve had to learn how to navigate my world in new ways.

Most people read the headlines and see churches become LGBTQ affirming with very little thought about the journey a church actually takes or the journey the people in the church actually take to arrive at this place of affirmation. Sometimes there is a spirit of welcome that starts with a few congregants and spreads quickly throughout the whole church, and churches change stances seemingly over night. Sometimes people come out and it spontaneously changes the course of the church. Sometimes this is a painstaking and long suffering process that takes years or decades as people are influenced by meeting queer people, one person at a time, one relationship at a time.  Ultimately, most churches exist on a spectrum somewhere between an instant “aha” moment and “decades.”

It’s here that I live. In this incredible tension. In this world of “messy middles.”  Most of the churches I engage would say that LGBT people are welcome to attend (and they are.) But somewhere between “welcome to sit invisibly in the pews” and fully valued, fully cherished, fully equal is where they fall short. They stop somewhere short of affirming the full humanity and spiritual worth of LGBTQ people. And I won’t lie. I pay a hefty emotional price to live and function and minister in this world. The price I pay is the price of steep vulnerability. I carry a tender and vulnerable edge into most faith spaces. The price I pay is that a lot of people don’t quite understand or don’t quite know how to navigate the world that I live in with its complexity, with it’s fluidity, with its motion. The price I pay is often a price of deep emotional exhaustion.

What on earth do you do when you walk into a sanctuary and wonder if people knew this facet of your identity, would they still want you here? And what on earth do you do when you suspect that their answer might be no?

The answer I decided upon was show up anyway. Let go of that which I can’t control and keep offering the gifts I have.

These are questions that I have journeyed with for the past few years. Every queer ministry leader, every queer congregant, every queer person might have a different answer to these questions, but here is how I unpacked some of these questions for myself.

1. I would draw a distinction between a “personal closet” and a “systemic barrier.” A personal closet is a fear based internal response that a queer person has to some person, group, or institution. A “systemic barrier” is an outside force that seeks to oppress or silence or ignore LGBTQIA identities or specific identities (in the case of bi erasure in LGBT spaces).

2. I can walk with, journey with, and engage my own feelings of fear, my own personal experiences of shame, my own personal closets and the people/places & things that trigger them.  But I am absolutely powerless to control/manipulate/change/topple and demand that “systemic barriers” come down.  Acknowledging this truth–“I am powerless” was the first key to my regaining and restoring any semblance of my health and sanity. A good leader knows that you cannot demand respect, authority, leadership.  People offer these things freely to you or they don’t. They think highly of you or they don’t. They respect your leadership or they don’t. You don’t get to own other people’s responses. A good leader knows that you cannot lead people/groups/organizations to a place that they absolutely do not want to go.

I am powerless in all things except one. I can offer genuine friendship and relationship to people, and when I’m invited to do so I can share my experiences, and I can share my story. And I can be stubborn enough in my resolve to keep showing up. But always I’m at the mercy of those doing the inviting.
3. The one area where I am not powerless is related to setting boundaries. I can set good boundaries. I can set boundaries that seek to keep me safe, and that seek to keep me healthy.

here are a couple of my boundaries:

-I will not take a dedicated staff position at a church that isn’t fully LGBTQ affirming. And that means I may not be taking another staff role for a very long time. There’s an arm’s length relationship that necessarily needs to exist between me and any church that would hire me in some manner but that would not treat me as fully equal in dignity/worth/value as their heterosexual congregants.

-Even in non-affirming church spaces, I share my bisexual identity with every Pastor and every church staff that invites me to preach. It doesn’t matter whether the church identifies as evangelical or progressive, non-affirming, LGBTQ affirming, or somewhere in between hostility/affirmation spectrum. I do not pastor any of these churches, so I am ultimately not the one who has the power to set the theology for these churches or drive their mission/vision.  But transparency is important to me. I want the people hiring me to know who I am.

-Related to the above, I will not allow myself to become entangled in a system in a manner that this system has financial, emotional, or spiritual power to silence or oppress me. I may choose to preach as a guest preacher and my topic of the day may not be LGBTQ related, and the church may not be LGBTQ affirming, but I have made a calculated and thoughtful decision and I have asserted my own agency to accept these invitations, and I do this on a case-by-case basis.

-I will not allow my engagement in one non-affirming space to dictate what I can or cannot do related to LGBTQ advocacy in my surrounding community, at national events, or to dictate how visible I want to be as a leader for causes that move my heart and mind and spirit.

-likewise, when it comes to LGBTQ advocacy, I will not engage LGBT spaces that don’t want to honor or make visible the gifts I have as a visible bisexual leader, as a distinctively bisexual voice.

-When I am not preaching, I have a very high standard for what “LGBTQ affirming” means and I will not personally worship in churches that do not meet my standard for safety and LGBTQ affirmation.

-I look for opportunities to nudge all spaces a step or two forward when I can. Everywhere I preach, I ask the question as to whether I am invited to bring my partner so we can worship as a family. And that by itself is a revolutionary question revealing to me and to the inviting church where they stand on LGBT ppl. I get a range of responses from “no” to “would you mind saying that she is your friend?”—to which I respond emphatically, “No. Because she is not just my friend. She is my partner and to say otherwise dishonors her role in my life.”  And then I have pastors of churches that are in a middle space, and they are scared, and they are tentative, but they invite me to bring my partner along. Often the greatest acts of revolution are the smallest ones. In the case of my partner and I the greatest act of revolution is just showing up together as a family. When we are met by a tentative or uncertain yes by a church, we deal with our vulnerability, join hands, and we step into a world of unknowns where anything could happen to us, where we cannot predict the response to us.

-For my peers in ministry, I also have resources at my disposal: Bible Studies, Books, Podcasts, Talks, Speakers, My Own Speaking Event—all of these things sit at my fingertips readily available when peers request them.

-Everywhere I preach I try to bring the essence of who I really am into that space while meeting that congregation where they happen to be. I try to bring a message that is uniquely for that particular context, to grow that context forward, and to challenge that congregation to take a baby step toward courage. The sermon I preach in an LGBTQ affirming progressive mainline protestant congregation might be very different than a sermon I preach in a Presbyterian church with evangelical sensibilities, but both of them will authentically represent me.

As I’m fond of saying, the best step forward is any step forward, because people are often so paralyzed by a fear of change, that they choose to die instead of taking even that first crucial small step.

So what does all this look like “in practice.”  As a guest preacher, I don’t have the ability to shape long range goals/plans/theology for a church.  There’s a lot of fluidity in the churches that I engage. There’s a lot of motion. My goal is to woo them, and invite them to take a baby step in a new direction.

In churches that have their first female pastor, it might mean that I lift up examples of women in leadership in my sermons. In churches that aren’t quite sure where they stand or haven’t “picked a side” in hostile church debates over LGBTQ issues or politics–it might mean that I give them tools and cast vision for engaging the world in a different way. It might mean that I haven’t been given the permission of church staff to come out in the pulpit, but that in individual relationships in that church or in small groups, I can speak freely with congregants and share my life and plant and sow seeds of LGBT affirmation that they are invited to harvest.

Here’s an example of me preaching to a “middle place” church.

So this is my appeal. We need middle space people, and we need people who have a calling to encourage, affirm, and support middle space people.

Middles can be stuck spaces, but they can also be the spaces where different voices finally come together for the first time and things really start to get moving.