Pre-Coming Out: a Gestation Period

Gather in close, because I want to share a secret with all of you. I don’t like the word  “closet” as a reference to the period of time before LGBT people make a public declaration of their sexual identity. For some people this metaphor is really empowering. There’s a sense of being trapped and stuck in the dark and you really do have the power to open the door and step out into the light. You do have the power to leave that closet behind.  This metaphor has its merits. I know many friends that speak with great pride about the day or the month or the year they decided to come out of the closet.  In truth, this is a life long process. My own partner speaks with great pride about her decision to finally come out of the closet.

For me, that wasn’t the right metaphor. And I’ve been thinking about how I would choose to reframe it or what metaphor I would use for myself and I came up with the idea of a “Gestation period.” I like the phrase “gestation.” It’s a gentle phrase. It’s a kind phrase. My sister is pregnant right now,  and so many critical things are happening for her little babe in the womb during this period of gestation. Her womb is a safe place. Her womb is a protective place. It’s natural for babies to need time in a mother’s womb. Her little girl was the size of a pea, and then a peanut, and then an orange, and she keeps on growing. Her little girl is growing a heart and lungs and a brain. She is growing strong. She’s being nourished by my sister via an umbilical cord. She is reaching full development, and when she’s ready, and when it’s her right time—she will exit the womb and she will greet the awaiting world. The journey to get here will be harrowing.  She will arrive naked and vulnerable and probably a little traumatized by the trip for having been squeezed out of my sister’s womb.

Her little lungs will be filled with oxygen, and with a lion’s roar–she will cry, and she will scream, and she will announce her arrival to the world. And as soon as she has done these things, a precious community will envelop her with love. She will be embraced in community. She will be named in community.  Mama lioness will grab this baby girl cub and clutch her close to her chest, and little one will be lulled by the sound of a beating heart. By presence. By family. Aunt Marcy and my partner/Aunt Adrienne, and my other sister, Aunt Laura will hover around this new baby girl attending to her, and doting, and attending to my sister and her husband. Grandmas and grandpas will be there too. She will have a tight-knit circle—a community pledging their love and support to her–speaking joy and hope and promise and blessing into her life.  We will pledge ourselves to this little girl and to walking with her in her life, but especially in her first few years when she is so vulnerable to the elements. As she gets older, she will develop motor muscles, and she’ll develop skills and mastery, and we will start to protect her less and less, because she won’t need us to protect her in the same ways anymore.

By contrast, my partner, Adrienne, was born as a preemie. She was born several months too early.  Her first few weeks, in fact, her first few months of life outside the womb were a full on fight for her survival. She was a scrapper and so she did survive, and she went on to thrive. But her first few months in this world were tenuous. She was rushed as an emergency delivery to a hospital. And then later she was sent on an emergency flight to an entirely different state with a bigger hospital and more state of the art equipment for neonatal care. She needed all sorts of outside intensive care to survive outside the womb. Her birth would result in a need for crisis care that would follow her for the first few years of her life as she acclimated to life outside her mother’s womb. Her gestation period was cut too short. She did not have the time she needed in order to come to maturity. She reminds me that she’s lucky to have been born when she was, because if she had been born 5,10, or 15 years earlier–the technology would not have been advanced, and she almost certainly would not have survived the birthing process and those first few tentative months outside the womb.

It’s been my experience that people have two basic personality types in coming out–and probably just two basic personality types.

One personality type naturally errs on the side of turning inward and hiding. When it senses danger, it shuts down, and it shuts everyone out. It keeps tender things bottled up. It puts on a facade or a charade before the world. Like a turtle, it goes into its shell.  It has to be coaxed out. It has to be encouraged to take the risk of vulnerability.

The other personality type, my personality type, errs on the side of vulnerability.  Too much vulnerability. When people initially resist vulnerability or behave recklessly with my vulnerability, this personality type often pushes me to offer even more vulnerability. The thinking is that if I just keep offering myself they’ll return in kind. If I just keep offering my vulnerability they’ll eventually rise to the occasion and hold me with great care. I don’t have personas or masks that I take on or off in different social settings. I don’t walk into the world armored up. I am the same in churches that I lead, at home with my partner, and at work for the military.

For the first personality type, growing strong means learning to take risks. This personality type is usually terrified of intimacy and vulnerability. This personality type is the personality type that needs a cheerleader to wait patiently as they tell their truth to themselves, and then to help them make a list of just 1 person or 3 people or 5 people that they’ll offer their truth and practice their vulnerability.  This personality type struggles a lot with shame.  This personality type engages in escapist behaviors when they are confronted with harder aspects of their life.

For the second personality type, wearing your heart on your sleeve is a default setting. And when you’re going through difficulty—wisdom and discernment means being a better steward of your own vulnerability. It means exercising greater restraint into who you let hold the most tender parts of your heart. It means recognizing that not everybody has actually earned the privilege to hold space with you or for you.  It means learning to practice the art of turning inward. It may mean slowing down and becoming more discriminating and intentional in your relationships with people. A non-response or a thoughtless response from someone is a response to be taken seriously even if it’s not the response you had hoped for. If someone tramples a small amount of your vulnerability, they will continue to trample larger and larger amounts of your vulnerability.  Welcoming more vulnerability may not be wise in these instances. This personality type intrinsically and enthusiastically trusts people, but because there are no safeguards in place, it has an incredibly difficult time recovering and putting the pieces back together when it is  wounded in its most vulnerable places.

This personality type can move into unhealthy behaviors of demanding intimacy and vulnerability with people instead of inviting vulnerability and adjusting and stepping back accordingly when that vulnerability is not respected or reciprocated.

This personality type doesn’t need help to be coaxed out. It may need wise guides to come alongside and say—don’t give this much of yourself to people.  It may need someone to tell it not to post the 2 page Facebook status update about your family member who is in critical condition at the hospital, because you will be devastated if a casual acquaintance leaves a thoughtless or unsupportive comment.  This personality type needs to be given permission to draw inward and draw away from relationships on the periphery of their life for a season. This personality type needs coaching and needs to learn not to feel guilty about setting strong boundaries with people and actually sticking to them.

As I was moving toward the Coming Out process, I was terrified of anyone anywhere perceiving me as closeted. I could not think of a larger insult to my personhood than someone accusing me of being closeted. Nothing would hurt me in my heart more than someone accusing me of a lack of transparency or authenticity.  I felt this way because vulnerability and bravery and intimacy–these are my natural gifts and they are my deepest gifts. I felt a desperate urgency to come out publicly, to be a role model for others, and to stand up and be counted as queer.  But that sense of urgency was really not rooted in anything specific or particular.  There was no timetable that I needed to meet or that I should have met for myself or to appease anyone else. And so I charged headlong into a process before it was really wise or prudent for me to do it.

I did not have a good social support system in place in my life. I did not have a supportive faith community. I did not have a supportive LGBT community around me at the time.  I had LGBT communities that I had served in a professional capacity as a straight ally pastor and they had some difficulty in following along with me to the other side of a process in which I would emerge as a queer woman and a queer Rev. The old ways of relating to me had to be exchanged for new ways. I had upset the delicate balance of the status quo and I would never be returning to it. Those relationships (while meaningful to me) were transactional relationships. I was there to care for people not the other way around.  I was giving of myself, not the other way around.  And I desperately needed things to be the other way around.

I had not found my way to the right professional supports and resources in my life (i.e. counselors, spiritual directors, pastors to pastor me, life coaches etc..). I did not have a supportive partner in my life who was really “with me” in this experience. In fact, at the time, I had a straight male partner who was not at all “with me” and was actively resistant to my process. He really didn’t quite understand or get why I felt any need to declare a bisexual or queer identity if I really and truly loved him, and if I felt sexual feelings for him. He wondered why this couldn’t just be our little secret. He would frequently whisper in my ear–“No one has to know. Your church doesn’t have to know. My family & your family don’t have to know. Our friends don’t have to know. This is our secret.”  But I didn’t want my personhood to be a secret. I desperately wanted to know others and be known for who I am.

I did have a few supportive clergy colleagues who were kind and gracious in private–and that empathy was meaningful to me. But all of them worked for churches that are not LGBT affirming—much less—“Bi affirming” or able to say the word “bisexual” out loud  and in public and from their pulpits. What they could say in private—they couldn’t say in public. And I felt that limitation of support.  So as much as they might have cared for me, they were not safe people—not really. They didn’t mean or intend to be “unsafe people” but they weren’t actually safe for me, because they were entangled with systems and beholden to systems that actively encouraged my silence, my oppression, and my diminishing rather than the empowerment, freedom, and the full abundance of LGBT people.  I know they did and they do care deeply for me. I can acknowledge that and receive that love and care. I can acknowledge that it’s precious to me while still recognizing my need to change the nature of those relationships–while still recognizing the need to pause, take a step back, add an arm’s length distance, and stronger boundaries with individuals enmeshed in oppressive systems.

I had an inner knowing. I had an inner wisdom guiding me during this time frame in my life, and I didn’t listen to it. That inner wisdom directed me toward something I call the 20min rule. If someone didn’t exhibit 20min worth of curiosity toward me–if they weren’t someone inclined to meet up for a cup of coffee and get to know me in an organic way—if they weren’t genuinely offering me the gift of friendship—they really had not earned the right to hold this tender aspect of my life.  In fact, they were giving me indicators that they were likely to hold this tender and vulnerable part of me poorly–and worse they might inadvertently do harm to me in these vulnerable areas of my life.  I felt guilty about this inner voice of mine. Likewise, my litmus test for churches and lgbt organizations was their express unequivocal support for bisexuals out loud and in public. And if they lacked that–they weren’t organizations or churches that were right for me. I felt guilty about this inner voice inside me and sad about the ways that my relationships with people and places might change if I had the gumption to honor it.This doesn’t necessarily make these people or places–bad guys or bad gals or bad people. We all have limited emotional bandwidth. We all only have 24 hours in a day. We all make really difficult decisions about how we prioritize and utilize our gifts and our limited emotional resources.  It’s not loving to demand for someone or some place to love you, and in fact, it’s unloving. It’s not fair to others to demand their emotional labor. And finally it doesn’t work. Love and support and friendship are gifts freely given. They can’t be demanded.

In Mark 1:29-39, Jesus has been out in the world doing his thing. He has been loving and encouraging people, feeding people, healing the sick, casting out demons—ya know–standard Jesus stuff.  Then he goes away to rest. Jesus rested. When his disciples came to him, they let him know that everyone had been searching for him. Even with Jesus own infinite powers to love people, heal people, feed people— there was a never-ending amount of need in the world. There was more need than even Jesus could manage. His response to his disciples was a telling response. He set a limit.  He prioritized his own rest and revitalization over all that need in the world. He told his disciples he wasn’t going back there to that place to heal anyone else, because he had just been there. He let them know that he was moving onward to a new location the next day, onward to the next place that his ministry would take him. Even Jesus said “no” to people in need.

When someone says “no” to you, there is no need to vilify that person. Jesus said “no” to people. Likewise, there’s no reason to vilify yourself if you have to say “no” to someone. But it should give you pause. If you are a leader who says “no” what is the “no” teaching you about yourself. What is your growing edge. What is your inner voice wanting you to gain on the other side of that “no.”

If you are someone with a need and someone says “no” to your need—honor their “no.” It means that your need was meant to be met  by another person, or by another means.  This is really important–it does not mean your need is invalid. It does not mean you should try to overrule or ignore or simply push through your deepest needs. It does not mean you put yourself in places or around people or in situations where you feel unsafe or where you feel unsupported or unloved. There were good and healthy reasons for my needs. My needs were valid. I had an inner knowing and an inner wisdom telling me not to come out and not to share my story and not to entrust places or people with too much of me, and I should have gently adjusted my relationships with people, places, and groups accordingly. I should have picked up on the natural energies of these relationships, and if their needs and my needs were incompatible, I should have gently distanced myself and sought out more compatible people, places, and groups where all these things would align. That’s no easy task when you’re emotionally compromised.

Mostly, I had transactional and non-reciprocal relationships. I had relationships that put me into a Rev role in which I was giving of myself but those relationships were not reciprocal (or reciprocating to me) and they’re not meant to be.  I had a series of professional relationships in my Government job where I was expected to perform for people. There’s nothing wrong with that either. That is the rightful expectation of a professional relationship. You provide a product or service for someone else. I’ve had to learn “no” in my life. I’ve had to learn how to accept other people’s “no” to me.  And I’ve also had to learn how to start saying “no” with greater frequency.

Somewhere in the balance, I lacked really solid and reciprocal friendships. And my deepest inner needs were screaming at me–that this was lacking, and that my number one priority should have been to push everything else to the side and attend to this part of my life.  I had failed to build these relationships. I had neglected to maintain them. I had cast myself into the role of always being “in service” to others. The 20min rule was a reminder to me, that this was a moment where my needs should have taken center stage. This was a moment where instead of “care taking” or “giving”—I deserved to be taken care of, where instead of giving, I was allowed to receive. Where instead of tending to others– I was allowed to seek relationships where I would be tended.  Where instead of being drained, I was allowed to be filled.

But instead I pushed through. I quieted my inner voice.  I found myself coming out to a whole lot of people before I should have attempted it. I shared with colleagues, family, acquaintances. Enduring painful relationships. Loss of relationships. Loss of job opportunities.  And a handful of years ago, this culminated with me sharing my bisexual status in confidence to someone, and then due to a miscommunication with that person, I had my personal information, my sexual orientation, and various other information released on a national website.  I was cast as a leader in a movement. At the time of this release several years ago, I’m sure I wasn’t the 3rd bisexual Rev in my denomination, but I was only the 3rd “out” bisexual Rev in my denomination to have her personal information published on this particular national website, and I saw my name being spread all over the internet like wildfire. I saw my picture and my deeply personal information scrolling through Facebook feeds, through twitter, through other websites. I had completely lost control of my coming out process and the surrounding narrative. I felt completely raw, wounded, and wildly over exposed.

I remember the day this happened. I will never forget this day. I was sitting in a hotel room at the time, and I was not just lonely—I was lonely to the bone. I wasn’t just lonely. I was completely alone. I didn’t know who to call, because the truth was, I didn’t have anyone to call.  I didn’t have an emergency contact to walk with me through this process.  I sat there like a deer in the headlights watching my name scrolling across the internet, and I did the only thing a person can do in that situation. I did a face plant on the desk in front of me and I wept for several hours knowing that my career trajectory as a Rev. had been permanently altered. Knowing that several hundred or perhaps even several thousand people were now learning something about me and commenting and engaging with an intimate part of me that I had wanted to be the one to share. I wept until I couldn’t cry anymore. I was a preemie. I had been born prematurely. I hadn’t been outed exactly, because I had willingly shared of myself with this person, but I had not shared my express consent or my permission for my information to be broadcast publicly. At the time, I was not ready to represent any sort of movement. I wasn’t leading an affirming church. I didn’t have a “post coming out” business plan for ministry. I didn’t have a supportive community to go home to. I didn’t have a supportive partner to go home to. I didn’t have really any of the things I needed to thrive. I am ready now. But then, I was still in the process of sharing with all the people in my life. I was still in my gestation period–a period that I needed to honor and let unfold in its own good time.

And like my partner who was born as preemie, my coming out was way too premature. Like my partner, I needed a few years of highly intensive care to repair the damage of being a preemie. Like my partner,  I was a scrapper. I survived. And I grew to thrive. And ultimately I grew new layers and new depths of compassion.  I grew wisdom from this experience. There was grace for me in the lack of discernment. There was grace for me in learning to set strong boundaries. There was grace for me in lacking the wisdom to be true to myself and following my inner wisdom before entrusting people with my deepest self. I’ve had a series of heart to hearts with the individual who released of my personal information via the internet and we worked it out. There was no ill will or intent to cause harm. There was grace for me. There was grace for that person and there was grace for many others who bumbled or bungled their interactions with me. All around there is grace. The world is filled with grace. Every day is a new day and tomorrow’s graces are new too.

For those of you who are moving toward a “coming out” process, maybe you’re in a closet. Maybe you’ve been in that closet for 5 years or 10 years or 15 years, and you need someone to encourage you to kick the doors wide open and greet the awaiting world. In regard to her coming out process, my partner was in a closet. She sat on the deepest parts of herself for almost 15 years before she started trusting others.  She lost a lot of her life living in that closet.

But like me, maybe you are gestating in the womb, and you need a wise and loving voice to tell you to take a deep breath, slow down, and to honor the gestation process unfolding in your life. You don’t have to take on the entire world in a single day. In a world where a throng of  people were clamoring for more of me–I should have followed Jesus’s lead and stolen away to get some rest.  I should have said “no” a lot more often and to a lot more people than I did. I should have focused on finding really solid support, building a solid foundation and a community with deep ties to help me weather the most daunting elements of a coming out process. At times, we find support quickly and at times we’re in the wilderness for a long while as we wait for that support.  The good news is that we will survive either way. I eventually found support in my current partner, and then I eventually started finding other sources of support in my surrounding community. But this took a long time. It didn’t take a month or 6 months, it took several years for me to find my people, and for my people to find and claim me.

For those of you who are still in development, who are still gestating, there’s no shame in staying in that womb until you come to maturity, until you’re really ready to come out.

To encourage you, as you discern, here is a lovely poem from David Whyte to journey with you in tender space “pre-coming out” space.  It’s called “Hiding.” It’s a poem I come back to again and again. I have a few years distance from my coming out process but this still blesses me each time I read it.  It still invites me to slow down and turn inward. May it bless you and give you food for thought. May it help you to guard the wellsprings of your heart and to recognize them as the life giving source that they are. May it help you to protect the beauty and the tenderness of your vulnerability so that you can keep offering your authentic unvarnished vulnerability to others. May it help you to know which season of your life is a season for hiding and gestating and which season is a season for venturing out and coming out.

HIDING

is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light. Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world: the protective quiet of an icy northern landscape, the held bud of a future summer rose, the snow bound internal pulse of the hibernating bear. Hiding is underestimated. We are hidden by life in our mother’s womb until we grow and ready ourselves for our first appearance in the lighted world; to appear too early in that world is to find ourselves with the immediate necessity for outside intensive care.

Hiding done properly is the internal faithful promise for a proper future emergence, as embryos, as children or even as emerging adults in retreat from the names that have caught us and imprisoned us, often in ways where we have been too easily seen and too easily named. We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure; our thoughts, imaginings and longings exposed to the light too much, too early and too often, our best qualities squeezed too soon into a world already awash with ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others. What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.

Hiding is an act of freedom from the misunderstanding of others, especially in the enclosing world of oppressive secret government and private entities, attempting to name us, to anticipate us, to leave us with no place to hide and grow in ways unmanaged by a creeping necessity for absolute naming, absolute tracking and absolute control. Hiding is a bid for independence, from others, from mistaken ideas we have about our selves, from an oppressive and mistaken wish to keep us completely safe, completely ministered to, and therefore completely managed. Hiding is creative, necessary and beautifully subversive of outside interference and control. Hiding leaves life to itself, to become more of itself. Hiding is the radical independence necessary for our emergence into the light of a proper human future.

© David Whyte: March 2014: Excerpted from ‘HIDING’ From the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.

Becoming A Family

My partner and I will celebrate three years together in February.   Three years. When measured by a lifetime, that’s not a lot of time. But we are proud of this time.

This time has gone by so quickly.  We are at the place where we are no longer evaluating if a shared tomorrow is going to come, we believe, and we hope, and we pray that it is. We are committed to writing the joint story of us. We eagerly hope for three years to become 10 years, to become 30 years of a life together. We hope to spend more of our life together than we have previously shared apart–which is to say, we hope to spend the rest of our life together.

It seems like only yesterday our relationship was fueled by a seemingly endless cycle of airline tickets to steal a few days together. I would go to Texas to visit her, and she would fly to Ohio to visit me. In the space between, our relationship was sustained via text messages, e-mail, and Skype.  Thank God for Skype. For real. I’m so grateful for Skype.

For the first year of our relationship, Adrienne and I relied on Skype as a primary means of communication and togetherness. We would have web-dates. We ate meals together on Skype. We watched movies together on Skype. We confessed our hopes, and dreams, and deepest secrets to one another on Skype. Occasionally, we would have arguments on Skype.

And then in February 2016, she moved in with me. After more than a year of being together long distance, we were finally together. In real life. We were together. Every day we were together. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anxious. I was overjoyed at the thought that there would be no more trips to airports for drop offs and goodbyes. We quickly settled into our life together. It was comforting. Domestic. I inherited two wild and crazy Chihuahuas.  Here is a secret. Historically, I was not a “dog person.”  In fact, I hated ’em. The little ankle biters were a nuisance.  I was a cat person through and through. Cats are small and quiet and docile in their movements. They sidle up next to you gently and purr. They are not disruptive.

Adrienne’s dogs were small, and extremely hyper, but they fancied themselves the largest dogs in our neighborhood. They had Napoleon syndrome for dogs (is that a thing?) They were disruptive. They disrupted my quiet and neat and orderly world.  They were bold enough to have near death encounters with the biggest dogs in the neighborhood, and over time, something happened to me. I found their rambunctious tendencies charming.  I grew to love them as if they were my own dogs.  And then one day I realized, that these were my dogs too. We were becoming a family. We were a family. And we were happy. So happy.

Proverbs 13:12 tells us

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

From day one of our relationship, Adrienne was a tree in my life. And she brought joy into my life. She was sturdy. Protective. Offering shade and safety from a harsh world. She watched out for me. She is fiercely protective of me. She would whisper in my ear when people were being unkind to me or taking advantage of me. She reminded me who I was. Who I am.  She reminded me that I don’t negotiate my identity.  For anyone. She reminded me that being kind to others starts with being kind and compassionate to myself. If faith communities take advantage of me–that’s not kind and compassionate to myself. If others disrespect me or disrespect my gifts–that’s not kind and compassionate to myself.

And if your gifts/talents/interests/passions and pursuits don’t align with another person or another organization–sometimes it’s a kindness to bless and release people or organizations and wish them well. I am a woman. I am a pastor. I am a bisexual. I am a community leader with specific gifts to offer. I am all of these integrated things in every room that I navigate. I do not wish to negotiate them. More to the point, I refuse to negotiate them. Adrienne helps me live this boundary.  It’s not kind to demand relationships from others. For those that do not think I am a good woman or a good pastor or a good leader or wish to silence or diminish the bisexuality aspect of who I am— my compassionate offer is to bless and release. I may not be the right woman or the right pastor or the right leader for them. If people or organizations want me to be quiet or silent or invisible about my bisexuality, I will have a limited relationship with them.

It’s not kind to me to ask me to negotiate the core of who I am for the sake of preserving a relationship or fitting in with anyone or any organization. Adrienne taught me this. She is my lookout. She is my guard. She is my protector. She encouraged me to set stronger boundaries. And she still does.  She is my tree. She calls me to life—new life. She calls me to love more abundantly than I could have ever imagined.

And I was her tree. Strong. Faithful. Loyal. Protective.

When we were first dating, she confessed to me that as a woman with a disability, her deepest fear in life is that she would be rendered homeless, and helpless, and without family. That she would not just be lonely, but that she would be alone. Alone to contend with a world that is set up for able-bodied people and that doesn’t give much thought or care to those who are differently abled. She had a crippling fear that she would never be able to compete in this world with its particular conventions of beauty, education, success, and able bodied tasks.

To combat this fear, she pushed herself hard to excel in school. She believed that excelling in school would give her the tools and the earning power to stay ahead of this crippling fear. She pushed herself to get a bachelor’s degree and an education from two separate graduate programs in multiple career tracks. One of the programs sidelined her because of her cerebral palsy. But she warriored on and got a masters degree anyway. And with those degrees came a crippling six figure price tag for debt. And with her broadening self-awareness came the realization that being true to herself meant not taking a six figure job, but rather, a job in the helping profession. She was never going to have the earning power to climb what felt like a never-ending mountain of debt, or so she thought.

I thought differently. I didn’t swoop in to save her or rescue her from her debt, and I would not choose to do that. Because this hero’s journey is hers. Instead I reminded her who she was. I believed in her–in who she is, in what she’s capable of doing in this world. I used my best gifts in this world to help her brush up her resume, acquire some new leadership skills, and find a job that is a good fit for the gifts that she has. I helped her prioritize her debt and devise a plan to get herself completely out of debt. I take care of most of our monthly living expenses to empower her and free up her energy and mental focus toward the singular goal of debt reduction. And she is crushing it. We have mile markers and goal posts along the way. We are always sure to celebrate them.

I assured her that she’s not ever going to be lonely or alone again. She will not ever be homeless. She is not now, nor has she ever been powerless. Is the system unfair? Yes. Is it particularly unfair to her as a woman with a disability? Yes. Has it been unfair to her in the past? Yes. Has she lost jobs because people could not see beyond her cerebral palsy? Yes. But I saw her—that was my gift. I really saw her. And with this candle lit, I will remind her that this means that other people can see her too. I will do battle with her and for her when she is weary. I will never stop seeing her when she needs someone to help her see herself.

I will remind her that we are in the process of writing a new story. And when we beat the system, we are going to change the system and make it more fair for all. She’s going to be debt free in a few years.  Instead of being “indebted,” she will owe nothing. She’s going to save, and she’s going to invest. And then we’re going to invest in other people.

And after she reaches that zero debt goal, we are going to get married. We are going to have the wedding we’ve always wanted. It won’t be an expensive wedding,  but that being said, we’ll spare no expense on what we want for our wedding, and we will not feel the slightest bit of remorse for splurging and celebrating. We are going places. We are going to those places together.

Together we are going to give back. We are going to reach back and give back by investing in others, by offering financial coaching, cheerleading, and encouragement as we watch other people become liberated from banks and payday lenders, and student loans, and car dealers, and credit cards and the endless cycle of products and services that sing their seductive siren songs and ensnare people.

When I sit down with couples who want to get married, I always ask them a provocative question? Why?  Why marriage? Why not some other type of relationship–dating, friendship, partnership.  And I expect them to have thought about this and to have a coherent answer.  What is the thing that is uniquely calling you to this particular social arrangement we call marriage?  Is there a “why” that is bigger than your own individual wants and needs. Is there a specific sense of vocation or calling to each other and with each other? Is there something bigger than love or attraction or romance calling you to this person? Love and attraction and romance are fine–but you don’t need a marriage to have any of these things. Is there some sort of “becoming” that requires you to become together in this unique way we call marriage.

For my partner and I —our answer is that we are becoming a family. We’re writing a joint story. We’re navigating shared dreams. Ultimately we’re sharing the journey of life together.

But we’re not getting married, yet.

There’s a second important question to ask when contemplating marriage. Why now?  My partner and I know we’re headed toward marriage. We don’t question this. But we have some goals to accomplish first. Life has more to teach us about being an “us” first. We have some beloved and immediate family members that currently won’t attend our wedding and while I am not willing to wait on them forever, as a kindness to me (and to them) I’m willing to wait for a little while to see if they’ll come around. Because what I do know (and they might not know yet) is that they will regret it if their pain and their shame keeps them from celebrating my greatest joy. I don’t know if they will realize this in 3-4year time-table that I am offering (but I hope and pray that they do). And if I am right, this will have been a small price to pay on my part to see my family united for a joyous occasion. And if I am wrong, I will not regret the compassion and the generosity I’ve extended to my family. Nor will I regret moving forward with my life and following it into the next right step for Adrienne and I—marriage.

So in conclusion, It’s okay to be where you are. There’s no right age, no right length of relationship, no right time in life for two people to get married.  That’s not a thing. Grow forward from your current spot. Don’t take someone else’s path. Take your unique path. Don’t pursue someone else’s dreams. Be bold enough and courageous enough to pursue your own dreams. Don’t live someone’s else’s ideal version of your life. Claim the life that was meant for you.

When my partner and I marry, we will stand before God and the family who have gathered and we will publicly proclaim our family status. Loudly. Proudly. Joyously. Triumphantly. We will have a big party. But here’s the thing, we will be announcing to the world who we already are. We will be announcing what people have already observed over dinner at our house, and family holidays, and church, and social events with friends and peers. We have become a family—  even as we are still becoming a family. Because the truth is, we will spend the rest of our lifetime becoming a family.

Bisexuality, Community, Shame Free AND Compassionate Conversations

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video which I’ve attached below. It’s a roundtable of women of various sexual identities who have gathered together to talk about bisexuality. It’s 17min long. It’s well worth listening to this video.  This video was compiled by a young woman working on her Master’s Degree in journalism.  She does not identify as bisexual, but she recognized that people don’t talk about bisexuality enough, and she wanted to convene a conversation among LGBT women and straight allies.

One of the more controversial claims that I have made is that my own experience of LGBT circles as a bisexual woman was initially similar to my experience of being a queer Rev in the church. And I stand by that statement. But I should explain it.  I don’t have any interaction with churches that preach and teach that queer people go to hell. As a pastor, I know those environments, and I have seen and observed those religious environments in action. I have never personally worshipped in an environment like that, or attempted to be a leader in an environment like that. As a pastor, I have counseled religious individuals from those types of conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical religious environments.

I grew up in a conservative to moderate mainline protestant church tradition. This tradition had the most significant impact on my spiritual formation. As a leader, I still frequently find myself in those environments today. This segment of the church does not preach or teach hellfire and damnation for LGBT people. They just don’t quite know what to do with LGBT people. As a queer person in this part of the church–you just never feel quite at home. You just never feel quite yourself. You just never feel fully valued, visible, embraced, wanted or affirmed. I jokingly (and not jokingly) say that this part of the church is one in which–“All are welcome…..to sit in the pews invisibly.” They don’t want to change you, in fact, they don’t want to know that you’re there at all because it might stir up conflict and bring conflicted opinions to the surface. It might spark a set of difficult and vulnerable conversations between pastor and congregation and queer people of faith.  Likewise, many of the community based LGBT groups that I engage with are not overtly hostile to bisexual individuals.  Bisexuals are welcomed—-to sit in the pews invisibly.  But programming really isn’t for bisexual individuals. The community spaces really don’t include bisexual individuals. Resources aren’t considered for bisexual people. We’re allowed to attend, but beyond that, these spaces just don’t quite know what to do with bisexuals.

Both of those environments (the church) and (LGBT spaces) left me feeling vulnerable. Lonely. Isolated. Misunderstood. Judged. Talked about. Analyzed.

Most of us know what it’s like to be queer in the church. This YouTube video might offer some insight into what it feels like to be a bisexual person in many different LGBT spaces.  I’d encourage people to listen to this roundtable of women twice. Once all the way through. And then as an empathy exercise, anytime you hear someone in the video use the word “bisexual”–I’d invite you to change that word or swap out the word “bisexual” in your head with the word  “Gay,” or with “Christian” or with “female” or “Male” or “Straight” or some other identity word. And as you listen to the conversation with a different identity word and with different ears, ask yourself how it feels? What do you notice? What do you observe? What feelings are stirred in you?

Before people click play on the YouTube video, I want to be thoughtful and sensitive to the women gathered and on camera in this YouTube video. My intention is not to call any of them out. My intention is not to stir up a shame shitstorm for anyone. There’s way too much of that kind of “call out” behavior in activist circles, and it’s not helpful.  On the contrary, I applaud these women for having honest and thoughtful conversation about bisexuality in public and doing it on camera.  All of us are a work in progress. None of us have it all figured out. None of these women are being mean or mean-spirited in their comments about bisexuality.  None of them are being hostile. If I met any of these women in real life, I would probably reach out and invite friendships with any of them.  The questions they have about bisexuality are genuine and honest questions. The beliefs they harbor are pervasive in many LGBT circles. The uncertainties and concerns they have reflect their own experience (or lack thereof) with bisexual folks.

Many of us may not have supported LGBT people—until we did. Most of us at one point in our lives identified as straight—until we didn’t. Most of us believed things about differing or diverse identity categories that we probably don’t believe now. We changed because someone cared enough about us to challenge us, and then that someone walked alongside us as we were growing and changing. For that matter, most of us don’t believe today what we used to believe 5 years ago or 10 years ago about a lot of things, because life and knowledge and experience have a way of changing us. And the best way to create change is to bring our current beliefs to light in public and to openly talk about them.

If I were invited to participate in a roundtable conversation exactly like the one below, I would say yes to that opportunity. But it’s important to note that I wouldn’t feel supported in the LGBT space below, nor would I refer to it as a “supportive space” or a “healing space” or a “relaxing space” for me as a bisexual woman.  I would be in a specific leadership role in that space. I would be working in that space. This LGBT roundtable would be a space that is requesting emotional labor from me. It would not be a space that is serving me emotionally or bolstering/encouraging and caring for me as a queer woman.

In short, when I first came out, I traversed community LGBT spaces a lot like the one in the YouTube video below.  In fact, a majority of the spaces that I encountered were a lot like the one in the YouTube video below, and the attitudes, experiences, questions of the group members were a lot like those of the women below.  And it left me very confused. I was doing all the things I saw other queer people do in order to claim health and healing and wholeness in their lives, except I wasn’t getting emotionally healthier. I wasn’t feeling whole. I wasn’t feeling healed. Instead I was getting more drained, more depleted, and progressively less healthy.

This was confusing and frustrating to me. Because these LGBT spaces were healing spaces for some. They were community making spaces for some. They were safe spaces for identity exploration and formation for some people and some identities. They ARE doing some really great LGBT work in their community.

One of the things that I learned is that a group will always unconsciously reflect the majority or dominant identity group represented by that group.  So if you are white, upper middle class, college educated, politically centrist and 80% of the group is composed of people like you–the group will take on that dominant identity/personality. The group itself will actually have an identity. The group will accept that frame/world view as the dominant or predominant lens without anyone questioning it. On some level I already knew this, but I learned this quite intimately when I came out and didn’t find other Marcys in many of the LGBT groups. It takes a conscious choice and a willingness to break your own frame wide open, to seek out counter narratives, and to expand your frame. This choice is and always will be an uncomfortable one, but the rewards for doing so are great.

Recently, Evan Rachel Wood shared this tweet below about her own experience of bisexuality. And the word that jumped out at me immediately was the word “lonely.”  This was not in relation to the YouTube video I’m sharing. It was a sentiment she was feeling on a specific day related to a conversation thread on her own twitter about bisexuality. But I know this feeling. In fact, “lonely” is the main word I would have used to describe bisexuality for the first few years that I donned this identity. Lonely because I didn’t know any other bisexuals. Lonely because I didn’t feel particularly supported in most LGBT spaces or church spaces. Lonely because I didn’t feel well understood by straight friends, straight family, or straight or gay romantic partners. Lonely.

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The longing and the deep cry in my heart was to exchange this feeling of isolation–for deep connection. To exchange this loneliness–for a deep sense of community. To have my deepest vulnerability–held  gently by all those around me.  In place of having my identity scrutinized/analyzed/questioned—to have people unequivocally support and reinforce my identity. Instead of having people express their questions or concerns about bisexuality, to have people simply say to me–You.Are.Awesome. Keep living out as your awesome bi self.  Instead of being told what my story was–To have people ask me to share the journey of where I had been, how I had gotten here, and what this identity actually meant to me.

I have all of those things now. And wow it is amazing. Wow it is such a blessing. I want everyone everywhere of every conceivable identity category to have these things.  To know love. To know support. To know unconditional acceptance. To know their worth. I want to be a helpful voice in helping communities become “bi friendly” places.

The women in the YouTube video took an important first step in discussing bisexuality and they were willing to do this publicly on camera. That is awesome. And they are awesome for taking that first step.  I want to hold them generously for speaking publicly and candidly. It’s scary to do that.  The next step is examining their dominant thoughts and beliefs and assumptions about bisexuality.  The next step is letting 4 or 5 bisexuals share their own experiences in their own voice and to challenge assumptions so that we can teach and be taught by each other.  The next step is to write a brand new story together.  The next step is listening to our collective wisdom. Loving each other well. Becoming wise together.  Supporting each other.  Linking arms and moving forward together. Onward together. Kicking ass & changing society for the better together.

Christmas Meditation by Langston Hughes

Shepherd’s Song at Christmas ~
by Langston Hughes

Look there at the star!
I, among the least,
Will arise and take
A journey to the East.
But what shall I bring
As a present for the King?
What shall I bring to the Manger?
I will bring a song,
A song that I will sing,
In the Manger.
Watch out for my flocks,
Do not let them stray.
I am going on a journey
Far, far away.
But what shall I bring
As a present for the Child?
What shall I bring to the Manger?
I will bring a lamb,
Gentle, meek, and mild,
A lamb for the Child
In the Manger.
I’m just a shepherd boy,
Very poor I am—–
But I know there is
A King in Bethlehem.
What shall I bring
As a present just for Him?
What shall I bring to the Manger?
I will bring my heart
And give my heart to Him.
I will bring my heart
To the Manger.

The Virgin Birth (Or Was It?)

When I was in seminary, I began to study the origins of my faith. It was exhilarating. I was over the moon about it.  It was emotionally/spiritually/mentally intoxicating to be around so many other strange souls who were haunted by the same questions that I was pursuing.  So many other strange souls who believed that this ancient religion was worth their life’s energies.  So many of us had a sense of divine encounter, and miracle, and testimony that had brought us to this place called seminary. So many of us had lived our lives in the rhythm of the Christian church, steeped in traditions, and in a community that helped us to make sense of ourselves and our world. We had known its abundance and we wanted to give back.

My friends, we were those kids who grew up reading Chronicles of Narnia and we had stepped into the Wardrobe. But the world we uncovered was not quite as we expected it to be. I think many of us had gone to seminary with a sensibility that we were trying to answer our own existential questions. This is largely contingent upon the faith communities that raised, shaped, and formed us. Some people came to seminary with a different set of assumptions than I had.  But I had come to seminary with a belief that I was going to leave as an “answer person.” I had come with expectation that I was going to become a professional Christian & professional practitioner.

Imagine my surprise–when I left my first year of seminary with more questions than answers, and with more sophisticated questions than I had ever asked before.  I also had more sophisticated tools to ask these questions. I also had bigger words to form together while asking my questions. What I didn’t have were shrinking questions. The questions seemed to multiply.  Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that I hadn’t gone to seminary to learn “the answers,” at all. I thought I had. But I really hadn’t.  I had gone to seminary to give myself the courage to be less afraid of my own life long pursuit of the questions. What I would slowly surrender in my 3 years of seminary would be any claim to expertise, authority, or answers.

I was eventually awarded a Master of Divinity. A “Master of Divinity” is perhaps the world’s greatest misnomer. At the end of 3 years of Div school, nobody is a master of divinity. If someone purports themselves to be one of those, I recommend that you run away from that person–because it means that they believe that they can stop learning, stop growing.  The pursuit of divinity and its mysteries is not something anyone ever masters, it’s something we spend our whole life chasing. It’s the lump in our throat that you can’t quite explain. It’s the overwhelming joy, the compassion in suffering—the overwhelming ache and longing that you can’t quite name. It’s the privilege of loving and being caught in love’s gaze. It’s the sensibility of being lost in the rhythms of something and found by that same thing. It’s the desire to reveal and be revealed.  After three years of Div School, people should be awarded reverse degrees. They should be invited to surrender claims to wisdom and to adopt the role of  “life long seekers of holy wisdom.”

I remember so clearly the ideas that I found scandalous north of a decade ago. I remember the things that shook me to my core as I learned them. One of the things that I learned was that there had been a vigorous debate about the Virgin Birth. I don’t know why this surprised me. Our own sacred text has captured stories about people trying to make meaning of mystery. That’s pretty much the plot. Some believed easily and often. Others stared into the face of divinity and did not recognize it.

Some scholars genuinely believe the virgin birth as an article of faith, and believed that this supernatural element of Christianity was essential to true Christianity. Other individuals intent on using science to prove the veracity of the claim have suggested that Mary went through human parthenogenesis which allows certain species of animals to reproduce without a mate. Certain species of birds, fish, and reptiles go through parthenogenesis. And in that sense, they are also capable of these miraculous virgin births too. This is a far-flung theory but one that is not without creativity or beauty. Other scholars had different theories. They noted that the original translation for the word “virgin” was a clumsy translation and it’s not clear what that actually means. It could mean a young woman? It could also mean a woman who had not had sexual relations.

In the same way that it is unclear what virginity means today or what it technically means for a person to be a “virgin.” These scholars noted that Paul doesn’t bring this concept of virgin birth up in his writings, and his writings are earlier than many of the Gospels. They noted that two Gospels don’t even talk about the virgin birth at all. Some scholars have hypothesized that the virgin birth tradition was added after Jesus’s death by his most devout followers. Some scholars have pointed out correctly that in the ancient near eastern world–there were many stories that involved a Virgin birth narrative as a precursor for a human to achieve divine status. This was a familiar theme in the ancient world.  Or absent a virgin birth, many figures still ascribed their own birth narrative to divine origins. Augustus Caesar asserted a divine lineage–and called himself a “son of God.”   Some scholars have introduced rabbinic writings which disputed that Jesus was born of a virgin. Other scholars point to a 2nd century greek philosopher named Celsus who claimed that Mary got pregnant via an affair with a roman guard named Pantera. Yet others eschewing the supernatural aspects of this story insist that Mary got pregnant via Joseph (the old-fashioned way).   What are we to do with all of this information?

The pastoral advice I received in seminary was not to bring any of this up if it might injure someone else’s personal faith, and that struck me as really bad advice. It struck me as part of the reason there is a mass exodus from the church. If we can’t talk about our deepest doubts, questions, ideas, and provocations in church—where then? Where is a safe container for our deepest conversations?

Why not bring it up? Why can’t I talk about this? In a world where google and amazon have afforded unlimited access to information to inquisitive seekers and congregants alike, the search for truth has been democratized.  Armchair theologians have access to most of the same resources that I do. Revs are not gnostics. We don’t hold the keys to enlightenment or any sort of special knowledge. A three year degree doesn’t make us experts on thousands of years of religious history.  Many times a congregant comes to me and if they’re really passionate about a topic, and if they’ve read several books on that specific subject, they may have read more than I have or they may have more research  under their belt than I do.

But as a Rev & as a spiritual director, my specialty isn’t knowing all the answers. It’s helping people develop the resources to process their best questions and walking with them to make beautiful meanings with the tools and the resources that I have, that they have, and that we have together.

There was a point in my life where it would have been important to me to ask historical/scientific questions about the Virgin birth in a quest for answers. Now, I’m comfortable holding space for all I do not know and all that I cannot possibly know.  The virgin birth falls into the category of things I cannot possibly know or scientifically validate. Now, I would be less inclined to invite people to build the scaffolding of faith on answers, but rather to build the house of faith by living and leaning into our best questions.

Sure, at the end of the day, I have some opinions about the birth of Christ and how the whole thing might possibly have gone down, but that’s what I have—my opinions. My opinions are far removed from actual events. My opinions are based on oral stories passed down through generations of people who were curious about, inspired by, transformed because of—and brought into community around these Jesus stories. I think that’s pretty miraculous. Living, breathing stories.  These stories about Jesus rocked my world and turned my life upside down. I know to be unequivocally true. And in signing up for the larger Christian community, I became part of an organic living story that is still unfolding. A story that existed before me, and a story that will outlive me.

Here is the truth: you can live a deeply fulfilling and rewarding life whether you adhere to longstanding traditions around the Virgin birth or whether supernatural events and possibilities have been excluded from your conception of how the world operates. You can find radical life altering and ultimate meaning in Jesus whether he was born of a virgin or not.  I’m less interested in what you believe about the virgin birth than how you want to take your beliefs (whatever they might be) and translate them into making the world more beautiful, loving, kind and peaceable.

If you are persuaded that the Virgin birth was a miraculous event that happened as recorded and transmitted via tradition, what does this mean to you? What gift do these supernatural events and miracles add to your faith? What stirs inside you? What does this do in you and for you, and how does it compel you forward and onward toward a sense of mission and purpose in this world? That’s what I want to know.

There are those who fall into my camp—I have always had a ferocious appetite for beauty. And because of that, I can’t rule out a magical world where supernatural events  happen—I won’t rule out a world of wonder and miracle simply because I don’t want to. I’ve seen this world and tasted its sweetness. I’ve seen too much beauty.  The world is too amazing a place for me to feel like I’ve got my hands around how the whole thing works. By the same token, I do not need a supernatural event or a virgin birth to have ushered in the life of Jesus for Jesus life to be the grandest of miracles. I do not need a virgin birth for the Jesus story to have radically altered and changed my life forever.  I don’t wake up in the morning dwelling on thoughts of the virgin birth as the central motivator of my faith.  I’m no expert in theological gynecology.  That’s a small niche field to be sure. Anymore, I don’t pretend to know the intimate details of how Jesus arrived here?

By hook or by crook, and against all odds,  Jesus did arrive here on this swiftly spinning planet. And that’s miracle enough for me. The world thought so too. Hope was personified. Hope was given a face and a body and beating heart and a name–in the Christ child.  That God was in Jesus and Jesus was somehow in God. And that through Jesus that promise extends to the human family —making us all kin by the Spirit. That to me is pretty amazing.

Shepherds were drawn to this baby. Kings and those in power were terrified of this baby. The political order was turned upside down.  Middle Eastern Zoroastrian astrologers–practitioners of a different art—kept seeing something, kept seeing someone in the stars. They chose to cast their lot with their gut intuition—and trusting this revelation–they followed a star leading to a backwater town, to hang their hope on a peasant teenager, her husband and their son.  Jesus probably wasn’t born in a barn, but rather a house where animals were stabled. However, even those details are up for debate. But wherever Jesus was born–he was born. And wherever these strangers were headed, they arrived. And when they saw the Jesus. They saw the answer that they sought–because what they sought was not a doctrine but divine encounter.  When they sought was not logic—but beauty, and truth revealed in the most unusual of mysteries. They saw the face of God in a baby in a manger, and they were forever changed by it.

These days instead of searching for answers—I try to live my best questions, and I try to devote my time to asking better questions still. Depictions of the holy family and Jesus in particular are always influenced by geography, cultural context, theological context and by our own limitations—our own location in time & history. Jesus is timeless. We are not. We are time bound. We are location bound.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking in 2017. In a nation where we have cut significant Government funding for refugees, is it significant that the first family fled as refugees? Yes. Now what? In an America which has still not admitted nor healed from the sin of white supremacy, is it significant that Jesus geographical location likely made him a man of brown skin or at least olive skin? Yes. Now what?

Jesus belongs to all of us, and there is a sense in which I get excited at the prospect of cultural malleability and cultural exchange, at the ability for all of us or any of us to see ourselves in the face of Jesus. To see our struggles, our hopes, our dreams.  Recently, I’ve been looking at Nativity sets from around the world. I recently saw an Alaskan nativity in which the artist took license and Jesus was born in an igloo and a penguin waddled on over to bear witness to Jesus. I’ve seen a few South American nativities and Asian nativity sets where I’ve noted that the animals at the scene were probably not common to the Middle East. But the Jesus story is a gift that belongs to all of us as it stirs hearts and minds and souls.

In a fearful world we were not given a king or a strong military or a president or a political victory for the party of our choice–as an answer, we were invited deep into the heart of a question. We’re invited to ponder the workings of divine wisdom in which we are given a baby and told that God was somehow in this baby and this baby in God and that all of our fates were inextricably tied to him and to each other. In a year has been politically contentious and scary, I’ve been journeying with the question of where I see myself, when I look at Jesus face. Where I see my own story?  I’ve been journeying with the question of whether I have been searching for my neighbors faces in the face of Jesus.  Where I see their story in Jesus story. And in a world that seems more divided and disunified than ever, I’ve been on the search for the stories behind this story–our connective threads, our common hopes, our common questions, our common dreams.

Labor Pains:Coming Out & Universal Stories

I’ve been thinking about how we tell stories. Or at least how I tell stories in a social media world. People on the other side of the coming out process have a tendency to rush quickly to hope, and to speak in platitudes like “It Gets Better.” We have a tendency to paint our rose colored lives and put them on display.

“Look, here we are. We’re here. We’re queer. We have lots of family and friends.”
“Look, here we are with our queer partners at Whole Foods buying the perfect fair trade, ethically sourced queer beer for a holiday party.”
“Look, here we are dressing our dogs in sweaters for the queer family Christmas photo that will go out in our new queer family newsletter.”

In my own life, I do a lot of this as an exercise in gratitude. Hope was hard won for me. And I will never forget that. I am so grateful for my life now. I am so grateful for the woman I love. For the life that we have together, for every day that we’re given. I never want to take this for granted. I want those that are in a bad place to know that there is also a really good place. No two journeys are the same. No two roads to get to the good place are the same. Sometimes showing people your destination inspires them to keep traveling down their road.

But sometimes when people are lost and lonely with no end destination in sight, they need to have an acknowledgement of their lostness, and their loneliness. Sometimes the rush to hope feels superficial and glib. So if you’re on the other side of your coming out process and you’re feeling fabulous, congratulations! High Five. Blessings. Happy holidays. Mistletoe. Egg Nog. Jesus and Joseph and Mary, I’m so happy for you. Also, this post isn’t really for you. For people who are lost. Welcome to the party. Grab a seat. Sit down and settle in. I want to tell you a few seemingly unrelated but connected stories–even as you are in the midst of writing your own life’s story.

Romans 8:18-30
Present Suffering and Future Glory

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit herself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And She who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who[i] have been called according to God’s purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

In the book of Romans chapter 8, Paul speaks to change. Both change on a micro level/human/internal level and change on a macro level/systems/world—all creation level. Everything is is striving, growing, laboring toward something utterly and profoundly beautiful. And the analogy that Paul uses is child birth.

Romans 8 is not usually invoked during the Advent season. There’s a good reason for this.  Contextually this passage is not part of the larger birth narrative, and truth be told, it has absolutely nothing to do with Advent & Christmas. Systematic theologians and scholars, I give you permission to stop reading and part ways with me here if you need to do so.

Metaphorically and poetically this passage has everything to do with a world in motion. It has everything to do with clinging to the certainty of God’s love for us. For the whole world. It has everything to do with God standing in solidarity with us, for us, holding all things together. It has everything to do with the intersecting space where past and present converge and point us toward our future hope. In this broad way, the threads connect. And I believe they hold.

These themes can also be found echoed in Advent. As we lean into Advent, I often read Mary’s prayer in Luke 1— I find that prayer emboldening, powerful, and courageous,  but I also find my own prayers anemic and flimsy and futile in response. It’s comforting for me to read the Christian narrative out of sequence sometimes. It’s comforting to break the rules, to skip around in the story, to know that the story holds me even when I can’t hold my place in the story. It’s comforting to find my way over here to Romans 8 and to ponder the possibility of a Spirit Interceding for me when I don’t even know what to pray for myself.  Holding me when I feel so thoroughly lost. Revealing to me that there is a larger story within the story.  Showing me not just a singular woman in labor, or a story about a family, but a cosmic macro level story unfolding in front of me.  Is it ok to do this? Can I skip pages, mix metaphors, connect threads and find meaning that ties together different Biblical stories. Well, I just did it. So apparently I can.

As we focus in on Mary’s pregnancy, this passage in Romans points to a whole world that is feeling the brunt of labor pains. A whole world is groaning on the road to growth and expansion toward something altogether beautiful and new. A future is foretold. God’s love for us is certain. Promised. Claimed. God is for us. With us. In solidarity. It’s echoed in the Christmas story.  It’s echoed and revealed here.

Advent is about waiting. Advent is about expectation. Advent is about pregnancy and toil and labor. Advent is the sacred passage that comes before the sacred birth. And passing through suffering is often part of that journey. In the birth narratives we get small glimpses of Mary and Joseph’s journey–their journey toward God and each other, toward their own destiny as characters in a story that will change the world. A story that would outlive them for its truth and beauty. A story that will surely outlive all of us.

This passage in Romans 8 draws back and offers a macro view of all of creation being liberated from bondage and brought into freedom. This promise is set into motion in new ways by these birth stories of Jesus.

Mary has the penultimate birth narrative. She has birthed the Christ-child. And nothing will ever hold a candle to this story or rival it in human history. It is a central mystery in our tradition.  And she survived her suffering to claim her unique place in history as the mother of God. Here is what I know about suffering and surviving. When you come into contact with the razor thin margins between life and death, when you stare down death—you will forever look at life differently. Your life. Other people’s lives. You will become acutely aware that you are alive in a way that you previously weren’t aware.  This newfound sense of presence is a grace. It’s a gift.

If childbirth is at the heart of the Christmas, then the deepest, thriving, thumping bleeding part of the  heart– is the beating heart of the Christ child himself. We are reminded in Sunday school that by way of mystery and spiritual metaphysics, Jesus somehow indwells and incarnates our own hearts too. We are brothers and sisters to Christ. We are kin. If not by blood relations, then by adoption, and by spirit. We are kin to Mary and Joseph too. We are all connected. The big human family.

And we too birth sacred things in our own lives. Birth is a trustworthy analogy for major life change. Major life transition. For queer folks, the coming out process brings the death of an old self, and the invitation to live into a new self.  We birth something new. As a Rev,  I’ve never endured the physical labor of child birth, but I have come out and endured the labors of that process.  Furthermore, I have been on the business end of other people’s physical birthing experiences.  I’ve been in the Labor & Delivery room playing spiritual midwife and catching feelings and holding sacred moments. I’ve seen the physical birthing process up close and personal several times. I’ve seen people traverse thin spaces between life and death. I’ve seen it close enough to declare unequivocally that women who endure the physical birthing process are heroes. I’ve seen it close enough to declare that I will never intentionally subject my own body to such an arduous process.

I’ve seen women splayed naked in a room as professionals dart in and out with no regard to the fact that they are bearing witness to sacred space. If you see something often enough I guess there is a tendency to become numb to its mysteries. I’ve seen professionals behave more clinically than humanely without contemplating the fact that these women are physically, emotionally, and spiritually laid bare.  I’ve seen women feeling the height of everything— fear, pain, ecstasy, hope, joy and exhaustion as they are surrounded in a room by close family members holding sacred space.  I’ve seen women in more physical pain than they’ve ever known in their life at the same time as they are paradoxically experiencing more joy than they’ve ever known in their life. I’ve never had the gumption to ask a woman in the full throes of labor if she would choose to get pregnant all over again, because I’m not an idiot. I’m sure I wouldn’t survive asking a woman in labor such a question. Sex is often sexy and we sometimes feel unspeakable pleasure which is why we’re prone to groan or scream. The labor process isn’t sexy. Women in labor also feel unspeakable things (mostly the pain of the process) which is why they pant, and groan, and scream. Pain comes before joy comes.

Here’s the thing. For all our modern hospitals, and modern medicine, and 21st century innovations, childbirth is still a huge risk. It’s dangerous. You subject your body to a wild ride of transformation, growth, and expansion over a 9 month period. It expands and contracts. It’s possible that you will put your own life at risk to usher in  new life. Your body can’t unknow, undo, or unexperience the birthing process. Your body becomes something new in light of this process and forever you will bear the stretch marks and maybe also the scars. This is what it costs to bring beautiful new life into the world.

As we strive to “self-actualize” or to become “new creations”—to grow into the person God made us to be—we die to our selves—false selves—to uncover or recover our true selves. Like childbirth, the process to recover our true selves is risky business. There are no guarantees of what you’ll experience along this road. What you’ll lose. What you’ll gain. What you will suffer. The way your body will shift and grow and change. There is no shortcut or easy road through this.  Sometimes the gestation period goes smoothly. And sometimes the gestation and subsequent labor nearly kill us. That’s not hyperbole.  Ask anyone who has ever been rushed into an emergency C-section to recap their experience of “before” and “after” the process.  The aftermath of the process (if it goes well) is hallmark cards and facebook posts, and people in the waiting room embracing you and kissing your new baby. The before part is a series of intimate questions–Will I survive this? Will my baby  survive this? Will we survive this together?

I was recently talking to a friend about another sacred story–another ancient myth. The myth of Pandora, and she reminded me how the story ends. Somewhere along the way, I had lost the plot. I remembered this story as a Greek tragedy.  It isn’t. I had remembered that Pandora had opened her box and all hell broke loose. I had remembered that all manner of suffering and pain came flying out of that damn box.  And I remarked to her that the initial stages of coming out are like this. Upon unleashing death and destruction, Pandora was devastated by her initial curiosity. She regretted opening the box. I remembered the part of the story in which she sat helpless as she cried with despair at her decision to open the box and follow it all the way down where it led. In our pop culture renderings of this story, that’s often where the story ends. It ends as a cautionary tale.

My friend reminded me that my memory was faulty. Here’s how this myth really ends. As she sat there tending to her despair, the last thing to fly out of Pandora’s box was hope. In fact, at the end of all things, hope was really the only thing left in Pandora’s box. After suffering, hope was unleashed and released to the world. And beauty too. Hope and beauty sat at the bottom of Pandora’s box.  Let me repeat this. It deserves repeating. The only things left in Pandora’s box after suffering and destruction were hope and beauty. Clearing the contents of  suffering and pain became absolutely necessary in order to clear space for beauty and hope to be released. Suffering paved the way for hope to be released into the world.

What does this have to do with Jesus and the Christmas story? Absolutely nothing. And also, absolutely everything.  Whether you are exclusively Christian, pluralistic in your religious affections, or a-religious, the moral of these stories across traditions is that all roads lead us back to hope. This is the truth. The penultimate truth. This is a truth that echos and reverberates throughout world traditions using so many different ancient narratives to focus us.

For those who are Christian, we are a peculiar people, we cling to an unseen hope in the most hopeless of circumstances. We are a tenacious people. We fight for hope. We pray for hope. We contend with suffering. We wait with baited breath for hope even when it’s counterintuitive for us to do so. We risk and wager everything we have on the paradox of hope as our first promise and our last word. Hope hangs pregnant in the air this time of year, and really hope is there quietly at work behind the scenes all year. But this part of the year we see the baby bump forming–and we know the baby is coming. The Christ child. We mark our calendars with the birthdate, and we await the birth with baited breath. The world unleashes chaos, we still await this birth. Our own lives unleash chaos, we still await this birth. We follow in the footsteps of a sacred journey that we’ve followed a thousand times before. We follow it all the way down into the heart of the story. We await the incarnation of our world. Of ourselves. That Christ came to dwell in our world. In us. The Christ child makes us kin to God by Spirit. The Christ child makes us kin to each other by Spirit.

In the face of birth, I find myself filled with hope. Whether the labor process was hard and hope was hard won. Whether the labor process was easy and hope came easily too. At the end of the day all roads lead to hope. Even when we can’t see it. Even when we’re sidelined by obstacles. Even when hope seems to speak another language or enter as a foreign story or a foreign tradition. Even when our stories take place out of sequence. All roads lead to hope.

For those of you who have had the curiosity to open Pandora’s box and peek further into some aspect of your life–to follow it all the way down—whether you are losing faith, finding faith, whether your life is falling apart or coming together–there’s something in the air this time of year. The world is birthing something new. You are birthing something new.  For those of you who are pregnant and bearing the brunt of labor pains right now–what sits on the other side of all this is new life.  As you groan in expectation, as you long for transformation—no matter how painful or perilous your journey is, after all the contents of Pandora’s box have been released, the only thing left in your box is hope. No matter how harrowing or hard or frightening the road to Bethlehem was–Christmas morning comes to us every year. Sacred. Raw. Powerful. Transformative. For you. For all of us. Together we find our way home.

There are ancient sacred stories here to guide us. You have the mother of God as your guide. And the Christ child too. And also the stars. And also so many other ancient stories which echo this paradox. There are pilgrim travelers on a journey across all the earth, across all traditions.  After all, the magi weren’t Christian travelers. They were just travelers. They were seekers and stumblers and pilgrims besotted by the magic and mystery of the stars. Practitioners of astrology and likely Zoroastrians. They were practitioners of a foreign faith. They spoke a foreign language. But hope came as revelation. Hope painted itself across the sky and revealed itself in the stars. And they were wise enough to trust the revelation. They kept company with twilight and let stars guide them on the lonely road to Bethlehem. Standing in a foreign home at the foot of a manger. At the scene of incarnation. They followed the breadcrumbs of poetry and  prophecy. They clung to snippets of stories foretold,  and people who would companion them along the way and reveal clues, point them in the right direction. They opened pandora’s box and they trusted their gut to follow it all the way down. It lead them to a place where they would bear witness to word becoming flesh. To  hope meeting bone.   You may feel lonely, but you are never traveling alone. Together we’ll link arms. Together we’ll all find our way home. All roads lead to hope. It’s written in the stars. It’s foretold. It’s etched upon the human heart. It’s echoed throughout the world in foreign languages and foreign stories and familiar ones too.

I’ll hope for you. I’ll hope with you.  And next year, I’ll await your queer holiday card with your new queer life. I’ll await your queer family newsletter telling the story of the lonely road you traveled and your unique journey to find your way home. All roads lead to hope. Your road leads to hope too.

She Asked Me To Pray for Her…

She made an unusually tender request as we were lying together in bed. She asked me to pray for her. She doesn’t do this often. My partner isn’t one to wear her faith on her sleeves. She’s uncomfortable with more emotive and intimate public expressions of faith. She prefers to reserve discussion of her deepest spiritual beliefs to those closest to her. She does not like public prayer and excessively emotional praise and worship music. She’s a civilian who got herself mixed up with me. I’m the one who is professionally religious. She’s still learning to navigate this world of professional religion with all of its intricacies and intrigues.

Furthermore, my partner doesn’t journey the same way that I do. We choose to walk together but we don’t wear the same brand of traveling shoes. There are large elements of Christian language and tradition that don’t ring authentic on my partner’s lips and so as a matter of personal conscience she carefully avoids the offending words and the elements of Christian tradition that she can’t abide.

We are bisexual women. We are spiritually bilingual women, or perhaps even better—we are spiritually multilingual women. Conversant in more than one spiritual language. My first love, my native language is the Christian language. From the time I was a toddler, Christian language provided the context for my acquisition of language. It’s how I learned to speak, and the first words I formed were Christian words. Over time, I’ve become fluent in Christianity’s many rich accents and dialects. I’ve traveled the country and learned how to speak New Englander, Southerner, Midwesterner, East Coast, West Coast Evangelical, Mainline, and Fringe traditions. Emotive and cerebral, Academic and earnest. There are more subtle variations than there will be time for me to learn in this life time.

But I am still the sum of my parts. I have so many life lines running through me. The proud German- Lutheran tradition of my father’s side. The Welsh-English Methodists of My mother’s side. In my early teens my family and I found our way into a Presbyterian church, and we migrated into the system from the outside. I grew up going to the large Suburban Southern Baptist Church for youth groups and for youth activities. The Christian Missionary Alliance for young adult and 20something gatherings. Occasionally a trip to the Vineyard would get thrown into the mix. My best friend was Catholic, and I would go there too. I would elect to go to Christmas Mass with her and sometimes Easter mass. I traveled through mainline spaces and I’ve hung out on the fringes too. Something glorious was happening in these spaces, something sacred. What it amounts to is that inside the church or outside the church, anywhere God was–I wanted to be. I wasn’t all that hung up about the particulars, and the older I get the less interesting I find them to be.

My partner’s lineage is a little less complicated than mine. She also grew up with Christianity as her native language, and she can still speak this language. It comes pouring out easy like a Sunday morning over brunch and a hot cup of tea. She has the sweetest Texan Methodist drawl. She lights up when she recounts her summers at Methodist church camp. She gets downright Evangelical as she shares memories of bible studies she attended and the Christian rock music so formative to her teen and young adult years. She tells me that Christian musician– Chris Tomlin was part of the house band of a church that she attended for awhile. She says this with a twinkle in her eyes and beaming with pride. In an earnest moment, I can get her to admit how much all of that really meant to her and how much it still does.

As she came into her own as a young adult she left the church for a season for a number of intersecting reasons that are hers to tell and not mine to share. In her twenties, she eventually found her way back into “loosely” organized religious tradition through the Unitarian tradition. Both of us have learned that a curious byproduct of aging is expansion. That is to say, the more we age, the more we tend to grow and expand. You may interpret this however you’d like. In all cases, we’ve learned that as we age, “loose” things just seem to fit us better.

Now, the Unitarian tradition is her daily language. She would say that she’s a Unitarian with Methodist sympathies. This is to say, she’s Unitarian most of the time, but on Christmas and Easter, Methodist Jesus comes a knockin’ and he usually has his way. She feels a desire to sing things in Christian churches that are too earnest for her to sing on other days. She wants to pray things out loud that unearth the parts of ourselves that have penetrated deeper than words.

Prayer is a tricky subject for my partner—you see she has cerebral palsy and when she is using her crutches, and when she’s using her mobility scooter, she gets approached by strangers. Usually Christian strangers. Scratch that. Always Christian strangers. We’ve never happened upon a Jewish stranger or a Muslim stranger with a wild eyed tick and a penchant to evangelize us via their prayer. She’s approached by good hearted people who want to “fix her cerebral palsy” through their prayer. It hasn’t occurred to them yet that she isn’t broken.

The woman I love needs our world to be fixed by recognizing that beautiful bodies come to us in all different ways with all different needs, and all of us travel differently within a infinite number of skins. It would be nice if the strangers prayed about that. Better yet it would be nice if their thoughts and prayers turned into hands and feet, opening doors for her if she’s struggling on a given day, and building accessibility ramps creating access to spaces for all people to enjoy.

In my partner’s world, and now in mine, unsolicited prayer has come to symbolize something painful. It’s come to symbolize people who see her cerebral palsy but people who are too lazy to invest the time and the energy to truly see her. Her—the woman with a master’s degree. Her—the woman who is program director for one of the largest military bases in the country ensuring medical access all around the globe for over 1000 military members and their special needs family members. Her—the woman working on her post graduate clinical license in social work. Her—the woman who loves so ferociously, advocates for justice so fiercely, and accomplishes all of this before dinner on most days. Some days she comes home late, and I forgive her for this. Most of these strangers have not truly earned the right to pray for my beloved partner, because they do not know her. And that’s made her cynical about the whole enterprise of prayer.

But on this night, lying in bed, cheek-to-cheek, skin-to-skin with Adrienne bundled in my arms, she whispered softly in my ears, “would you pray for me?” There were tears in her eyes. She was in a lot of physical pain. Conservative Christians make much ado about same sex relationships and the way same sex flesh plays and delights in other same sex flesh, and that’s such a beautiful and sacred thing, but that’s not what I want to share about today.

What I want to share is what I think the poets and sages and biblical authors were really talking about when they said that Adam & Eve “knew” each other. I want to share how Adam & Steve might “know” each other, or how Marcy & Adrienne are “life long learning” each other. I think the sages were talking about something that goes so far beyond skin deep knowing. I think they were talking about a kind of “knowing” and “knitting together” that is cultivated over a lifetime of shared intention with bodily, emotional, and spiritual practices engaged. What I want to talk about is not the way that bodies play with bodies, but the way that hearts dance with hearts, and bone sings to bone, and deep calls to deep, and how two people trust each other enough to hold the marrow of a thing.

She was in a lot of physical pain–Adrienne. And so I prayed for her. She was anxious and scared about recent losses in her balance and mobility. She wondered if these will be permanent. And so I prayed for her. I prayed in the overlapping spaces of the spiritual language we’ve known our whole lives. I prayed for her in the spiritual languages we’ve learned to speak together since.

I didn’t pray for her healing. Instead, I prayed for her peace. I didn’t pray for her to become different than who she is, instead, I prayed for pain to subside so that she can be the full expression of who she is. I didn’t pray for a supernatural miracle, instead I prayed for all the medical personnel who have worked with her, are working with her, and will work with her in the future. The changes in knowledge and the innovation of adaptive technology are modern day miracles. I prayed for the technology and the equipment that already makes so many of our shared dreams possible. And I prayed for future advances that will do even more.

I prayed that every cell in her body would come alive with love, and light, and heat, and spirit’s energy. I prayed that whatever energies are good and holy and sacred from my own body would be poured out and absorbed into hers. I prayed that this would be felt deeply. I prayed that I would be able to feel what’s going on in her body as deeply as possible as if it were my own. I prayed that her beautiful body, the vessel that God has given to her for her work in this life—I prayed that it would be filled with grace from head to toe, leaving no hair on her head uncounted, no freckle unexamined, no weak spot untouched, no strong place unfortified, no corner unturned or unknown.

I prayed that we would lean into the body’s grace together. I prayed for her, and both of us felt the light and heat and power of stepping outside of our self-occupied spaces, and into a sacred space together. Both of us opened our hands willing to receive. Willing to believe. Both of us being vulnerable together. I prayed for something so much bigger than I could ever give to her, and that’s saying a lot because I would lasso the moon and give her the whole world and then some if I could. And so standing face to face with the contemplation of mysteries that run deeper than even that, and having the courage to summon them into our room— I cried. Who am I in the face of such deep mysteries? I’m someone who is humbled to tears. I’m someone who prays.

I prayed for her. I didn’t pray for her by invoking Jesus name out loud, because that’s not the name by which my partner prefers to pray. And prayer is such a gentle thing. Prayer is such an intimate thing. To pray together is to dance together. If you punch someone in the gut or smash someone’s toes, you’re not dancing with them. If prayer is manipulated into being a persuasive tool then we are not praying at all. We are marketing.

Prayer relinquishes power and control. I let us both hold fast to the sacred names rising up in our hearts. I let us hold shared space separately but together in our silence. This is what it means for 2 to become 1, not that one completely loses and forsakes herself for the sake of another, but that the two find themselves in each other and create something new and dynamic together. We participate in each other’s becoming through a shared spiritual bond that is thicker than blood, and a bit more mysterious and ephemeral than that too.

I silently held space. And the name that tenderly and gently filled me to my core–was the name of Jesus. That is the name I know. Like muscle memory. Like reflex. Like tradition flowing through my bones. Whether I chose my myth, or my myth chose me, I don’t really know. And I don’t really care. I just know that when I pray, I pray in Jesus name.

Absent any words, Jesus is the name that rises up authentically as I give myself over to prayer. And so it was to Jesus that I silently prayed. There in our silence, I invoked a few other names that are sacred to me too. I let my partner hold her sacred names in silence too. My partner and I held each other for dear life, because she is dear to me. And she is the most precious thing in my life. And we prayed. We cried. And we prayed.

I cried because she asked me to pray for her. She ASKED me to pray for her. She asked me to PRAY for her. She asked me to pray for her in a world where prayer is so often weaponized against her by well-meaning people who don’t really understand what they’re doing. Assaulting her dignity with their shallow assumptions. She does not need their pity prayers. She does not need to be healed via their prayers. She does not need to be told she’s an inspiration just because she is a woman with a disability. She is an inspiration just because she is Adrienne, through and through, beginning to end, from A-to-Z, all of her parts and pieces knit together in intimate and intricate ways. She is an inspiration simply because She is…

I cried because I recognized the intimacy and the trust that she was affording to me. She was inviting me to take a weapon that she’d experienced with blunt force and to transform it into something beautiful. She asked me to pray for her, and we would quilt this prayer around ourselves and hem ourselves into its fabric together. She cried because she felt tightly held and covered by the blanket of prayer which we had stitched big enough to hold room for the both of us. She cried because she was having a difficult day with her body, and though she felt lonely and trapped by an experience that I will not ever be able to know as she knows it, she wasn’t wrestling this alone anymore. I know that I love her, and she knows this too. She cried in giving herself permission to release herself to a hope that runs counter to pragmatism and deeper than intellectual kinds of knowing.

It’s okay to cling to your body’s grace, and to ask of it yet more grace. To lean in—request relief, and rest, and care—to speak to your body tenderly, and to have someone else intercede on your body’s behalf too. It’s okay to let someone touch all of your hurting places and to tell them the truth that they are so exquisitely loved in the hopes that maybe they’ll hurt a little less too. It’s okay to admit your deepest fears and vulnerabilities and to dive deep into sacred space while someone else rocks and cradles you there.

She asked me to pray for her.

And together we prayed. Amen.