Category Archives: everyday theology

Absolutes Suck

Okay people, I’m about to go on a rant. As a feminist I would like to introduce you to the concept that two seemingly opposing ideas can both be true or right or correct.  Take a breath. I know it’s difficult to give into the idea that you are not absolutely right.

I want to add to that that one can be passionate about what they believe to be ‘right’ and still hold room for other views. For example: straws. I am part of the ‘let’s do away with them’ club. They multiply. They infest our landfills and more importantly, our oceans. They threaten  and kill wildlife. Straws are a bane to our society and we should make way for alternatives. So yay, Starbucks!!!

I refuse straws when eating out and if they bring me one already in my drink (because I didn’t anticipate it- learning curve!) I bring it home and cut it into small pieces. I have my own straw. It is a pyrex straw that I clean every day. It is one of the small acts I do to make a small difference, to begin the change. And though I no longer buy canned drinks with plastic rings, but when I did, I made sure to cut them up so they would not choke dolphins or constrain turtles.

Everyone should stop using straws! Now! the future of the earth depends on it!

… Well, except… there are people with disabilities who clearly NEED straws to survive. That is if we consider the ability to eat and drink survival. Which I do. So is there room in my passion and my ‘rightness’ for understanding that my ‘universal’ has exceptions? I really hope so. Because I have friends with disabilities for whom I would also make a stand for their continued ability to use straws.

Is this really so hard? Can two things that seem to be contraindicated both be true? If  you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, you may need to look more closely at your belief system. My hunch is that if you don’t  it will tie you up into bitter knots.

And here’s my final shot at ‘absolutes’. They keep us from being reasonable, compassionate people. Whether we are talking about legal absolutes, moral absolutes, political absolutes, or theological absolutes.
What I get when I hear someone propounding an absolute is that I am in danger.

The Red Hen: Civility and Resistance in the Age of Trump

Here are my desires:
that we are able to come together as a nation,
that we share our founding values of justice, freedom, and the rule of law.
that we find a way to civilly debate our differences.

It is also my hope (unrealized) that we agree on a few basic premises. Like the ideas that racism, sexism, and homophobia are evil, that people of differing abilities are of equal value, that immigrants are the building blocks and backbone of our nation, and that our government exists to protect the weakest of those among us and provide for our mutual welfare.

My desires are unmet and my hopes seem almost inconceivable at this juncture in our history. Not that it hasn’t always been a struggle for us but somewhere enough of us have clung to the idea that, while our approaches are different, we are essentially on the same team. Today, it is clear that lines have been drawn to such an extent that it is assumed that some, if not most, of us will be losers.

We argue about human decency while faced with the ignominy of a wannabe dictator who incites hatred and violence against brown people, black people, yellow people, red people, poor white people, women, and queers of all sorts. Part of us knows that maintaining civility is urgently important to the state of the union. Another part knows that evil unresisted multiplies.

So what are good and decent decisions we need to make about the how of our political discourse? I’d like to suggest there is no one right way and that each way has its shortcomings.

Take the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA. A plethora of talking heads have taken sides. They shouldn’t have refused service to Sarah Huckabee. It was an overreach. Against our values as a nation. And yes, it is true that it is not an expression of one of our values – but it is an expression of other values. Namely that we will not participate in that which demeans another. It is called civil disobedience and Sarah Huckabee, as a representative of this regime, having fashioned herself as a symbol of Trump policies and values, is fair game.

This is an unusual time and our ideals and morals are called into question every day that Donald Trump and his cronies remain in power. How are we supposed to participate in public discourse when no one seems to be listening to one another? And then let’s raise the question, “What is a Christian response?”  Some answer that it is building bridges. Some believe it is staying open to those with opposing views. To, as Paul of the New Testament says, heap burning coals of love on their heads.

Others answer with a refusal to participate in or validate a system of hatred and oppression. Dietrich Bonhoffer, a Lutheran pastor,  wrestled with the same issues during the reign of Nazism in Germany and ended up actively working for the resistance – even being  privy to attempts to assassinate Hitler. His writings from the time remind us that  “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”

I have come to believe that any way we resist the present culture and the forces of intolerance and hatred is the right way. What is right for me may not be right for you. The more important question is:  what is right for each of us? Figure out how you are going to exercise your freedom to speak and act and stand against the devolution of us while we still have those freedoms.

Are you ready to speak? Are you ready to act? Are you willing to resist and to support others who resist this horror show? Can it be okay what we are not perfect at it? Can it be more important that we take responsibility for what is going on in the choices we do make? Can we support one another’s efforts as we challenge something none of us have been up against to this degree before?

The theologian, Martin Luther, would encourage us to “sin boldly” – that is, to do the best we can and then be bold about it.  I support the Red Hen Restaurant because they did not insist that their workers participate in their own oppression. I am glad they did it civilly.
I am glad they acted at all.
Their actions call us to action.
May we all step up and take responsibility for what is happening.
One imperfect act at a time.

 

Naming the Evil of Donald Trump

I saw Hamilton the other night (it was fabulous!- from the cast to the lighting, the music to the musicians- but I digress) and I remembered something it took me a long time to learn: our heroes have clay feet.
No one is perfect. Everyone I have ever looked up to has been flawed.
Yet somehow we demand perfection from our leaders, certainly those in politics or religion. A not-so-secret part of me  demanded it of myself as a pastor. But perfection is not possible, or even reasonable. Who we strive to be and who we are sometimes diverge. Sometimes by intent and sometimes, because we are just plain flawed.

Until now  we have held our politicians (and religious leaders) to unreasonable standards. I am not saying this to give people a pass but to suggest that there is a difference between making mistakes (we all do) or having blind spots (also true of us all) but to say the hope is that we are able to learn from our mistakes and acknowledge it when our blind spots are revealed.

The term “feet of clay” is understood to mean a weakness or hidden flaw in the character of a greatly admired or respected person. We are disappointed when someone we admire falls off the proverbial pedestal, when a flaw or weakness is revealed. Like when we grow up and find out  that the founding brothers of our nation were less than perfect. That’s one thing. It is different from downright evil.

Donald Trump does not have clay feet. Clay feet assumes a weakness or flaw in an otherwise decent human being. Say the word with me: EVIL. I will not prance around the word. We cannot excuse behavior that demeans any human being. We know racism is evil. Sexism is evil. Heterosexism is evil. Ableism is evil. ‘Other-ism” is evil. And Donald Trump perpetrates evil everyday with the people he appoints to oversee the very institutions created to protect us, with the lies he tells about himself and others, with the decisions he makes about world politics, and with the words of hate and dismissal spewing from his anal mouth.

Donald Trump is evil. I wish he had clay feet. I wish he had a conscience so that he could have clay feet. But there is no indication that it is even a possibility. Donald Trump is evil with power. And if ever there was a time we needed to recognize the truth about this man, it is now.

Evil is being normalized and the more we accept or allow his actions to continue the more complicit we become. Now is the time to call our clay-footed leaders, our representatives in government, in the churches and synagogues and mosques, in our neighborhoods to remove the scales from their eyes and see the urgency of the tasks before us.

Even if you have been called evil by the un-saintly religious, even if the use of the word troubles you because of how it has been appropriated by right-wing fundamentalists, even if you haven’t considered the concept of evil to be relevant  in the 21st century, say it: Donald Trump is Evil.  If we don’t say it. If we  continue to normalize his words and actions, evil will take stronger and stronger footholds in our institutions and our population.

I don’t  know how to end this. I don’t know where to go with this. I only know that this is an urgent time and we are a vulnerable people. I believe we must begin with speaking the word. With acknowledging what is going on for what it is. For the past two years we have repeatedly said to one another, “We cannot normalize his words or actions.” That is true. But now is the time to name them. It will give us a clarity of focus. Say it:EVIL


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Who Gets to Say What a Christian Is?

Salon.com posted an interesting opinion piece suggesting that the religious right was ‘shrinking itself’ and that its overzealousness was driving people away. Take a moment to read it: https://www.salon.com/2018/05/14/how-the-religious-right-is-shrinking-itself-overzealous-christianity-is-driving-people-away/

Part of me wants to respond with a “no duh” but the other part wants to examine the issue a little further. If you think of faith in terms of stages of development then you see that the religious right speaks to those whose thinking is concretized, whose  world view is  black and white, and who are afraid they will be caught and punished for their misdeeds.

I’m not the first one to think of this. There is a terrific book entitled Stages of Faith: the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning by James W. Fowler. Read it if you get a chance – it’s not as dry as it might sound. His premise is that in the same ways we develop psychologically (think Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle) we develop spiritually.

The religious right tends to be stuck in an early developmental stage. For example, when asked why not to do something – that it would be breaking a rule, earlier stages of development would say something like: because I don’t want to get caught, or I don’t want to get in trouble, or I don’t want to be punished. Later stages of development say rather, I don’t want to do it because it is wrong or I don’t want to do it because it diminishes me or another or I don’t want to do it because it interferes with my relationship with Godde .

Christianity, like other religions, has means of spiritual deepening and growth that transcends our more youthful understandings. So I am not saying that those earlier understandings are bad or evil, but that they are developmentally stunted for those who want to mature in their faith. There comes a time when a childlike understanding doesn’t satisfy spiritual longing.

I am a Christian. If my faith couldn’t stretch my heart and mind and soul I’m not sure I would want to be one. If you have been driven away from the church by the religious right there is still a place for you in the Christian faith. Christianity is bigger than the smallness of their understandings. It may be uncomfortable at first and sureness will be replaced by possibilities and uncertainty – but it is worth it. In the same way we cannot let Trump define America, we cannot allow the religious right define Christianity.

You Must Pay the Rent…

When I was a young mother – twenty-four and my daughter six – I worked construction.
I got her ready for school in the mornings and hopped a ride on my boss’s truck to our work site for the day. Often it was to rehab public housing near the federal penitentiary here in Atlanta.

I came home exhausted in the evenings and made sure she got her bath, supervised homework, cooked supper, and ,once a week, prepared the evening meal for 60 children and adults in our church’s mentorship program.  Sometimes when you are busy surviving you forget you are afraid.

Our rented duplex was cold in the winter, heated only by gas space heaters that I hesitated to keep on while we slept. We bundled together in my bed, piling all of our blankets on top of one another until the mattress on the floor grew to resemble a multi-colored mountain.

One evening our landlord dropped by to pick up the rent. It was fairly early but we were already snuggled down under the pile of blankets, keeping warm while I read and she wrote poetry on 3X5 cards.  Her first effort went like this:

My dog has fleas (fleas, fleas, fleas, fleas)
All over her knees (knees, knees, knees, knees)

which we sang to the tune of The Blue Danube Waltz.

When the doorbell rang I forced myself up, padded to the door, and invited him in while I wrote the check that would wipe out my bank balance. Drafts of icy wind accompanied his arrival and departure ridding us of the last gasp of heat we had hoped would last for a little while longer.
I shivered back under the covers when my daughter informed me she had written another poem. “Great,” I chattered, trying to recapture some semblance of warmth to my hands and feet, “read it to me.” She took a breath and recited:

The night is long and wind blows cold
And I and my mother pay rent.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I just hugged her tight.  Mother’s Day, I remembered this story and how there is, somehow, always enough. Always enough warmth.  Always enough joy to create and to sing. And most of all,  always enough  love to cast out fear.


 

Easter Heresy

This is Easter,
when our hearts beat with truths
not facts,
pounding the rhythm of
some knowing
of rebirth
love
justice
and promises kept.

This is Easter
when we try to find words
paint pictures
make music
that captures
the unknowable,
all that is beyond
our small imaginings

This is Easter.
This celebration
of grace
beyond explanation,
of hope
transcending dread;
trusting  the inconceivable,
availing ourselves
to a cosmos
filled with tender possibilities.

This is Easter
To be known by Love
in ways that make us fearless
in both life
and death.

 

 

 

Passover Heresy

To some:
It is a heresy to celebrate a religious holiday on a day other than the prescribed date.
It is a heresy to place an orange in the middle of a seder plate.
It is a heresy to adopt a tradition outside one’s own.

To me, it is only ‘heresy’ when my tradition (Christianity) appropriates the meal to give it ‘Christian’ meaning. The story is universal. It is the story of the Jews. It is the story of humanity. The question for me is, “where do our stories intersect?”.

My answer this year is this:
they intersect in the places we are oppressed
they intersect in the places we oppress others
they intersect when we examine the journey of the faithfulness/faithlessness
they intersect when the story we recall resonates in our hearts and minds

With great thanksgiving for the Jewish tradition of the Passover seder,
we celebrate the meal each year
and we remember
and we learn
and we internalize
and we encourage
and we mourn
and we celebrate
and we learn to hope again

We challenge authority and the misuse of power. We encourage one another to resist. We remember to trust that Godde’s vision for humanity as one of freedom.

And we learn with our bodies. We take it in.
the flatness
the bitterness
the heaviness
the sweetness of safety at the expense of slavery
the price of freedom
the joy of shared stories
and the celebration of hope.

This is our gracious heresy: that our stories are shared and that they call us again and again to remember who we are  to one another and to Godde.

The Consequences of Being Present: a Lenten Practice


          At Circle of Grace we are exploring the spiritual practice of ‘being present’ during Lent, especially in worship. Since we are a small community it is easy for all of us to participate.

We began the season with a discussion of our own mortality and how Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are made of dust and to dust we shall return. So if the beginning of Lent invites us to ponder our own deaths, how do we respond? Sometimes experiencing the death of a loved one makes one pensive. We think about the meaning of life and become self-reflective. Another response is to become intensely aware of being alive. Colors become more profound, sounds sharper, taste richer, flesh more sensitive. We become more fully present in our bodies, our lives, and our world. We find that we need to be honest.

How to incorporate that awareness and the desire to be present with Godde?  How could I structure (loosely) worship to reflect this practice? So far, these are the things we find helpful:

-Laying down our burdens. At the beginning of the service we go around the circle and speak the burden we need to lay down to be more fully present. Most often it is a worry or anxiety we carry. No comments, no fixes, only the attempt to release the busy-ness that keeps us from being in the moment. It is a conscious struggle, sometimes not attained but, at least, attempted. We then begin worship with words we have repeated since our inception: “Step aside from the busy-ness of the day. Let us open to the touch, the breath, the power of the Spirit. Let us draw a circle around ourselves in this place and step onto holy ground.”

-celebrating the physicality of the Eucharist. We pass the bread before it is broken so that each one might feel the roughness or smoothness of its texture and smell the scent of yeast and salt and flour. We listen to the sound it makes when it is torn in two and watch crumbs fall to the patent below. We pass the cup to look at the depth of color and take a moment to savor the aroma of its sweetness. And as we serve one another we savor the sharing and the tasting, present with each other and with the feast that invites us into life.

I have found that being present is not only a physical and spiritual activity, it is a political one. When we experience ourselves and one another as part of an intrinsic whole our world view can no longer take the shape of ‘us and them’. Christ’s call to love justice passionately moves us from awareness to action.

I have found that being present isn’t the end game. For me, it is a practice that brings me more fully into the struggle for peace and justice in the wider world. It makes me more honest in speaking out and less afraid of the consequences of living with integrity.

 

Still A Heretic, Hopefully Gracious

          In an unabashed plug, my memoir,  A Gracious Heresy: the queer calling of an unlikely prophet, will be published soon.  I am at the stage of seeking permissions for works I quote in the text and that is where my story begins.
I asked a poet for permission to use his two line poem which sums up the unexpected confrontations, joy, and challenges that Godde sets before me. It took me a while to track him down because I didn’t know the context in which the poem was published. I did what all good researchers do: I googled him. I discovered he taught at a Catholic university somewhere in West Virginia so I called him and asked for permission directly, assuming he would tell me what publisher to contact.
We had a lovely conversation in which I told him I had written a spiritual memoir and was hoping to use his poem. He said he could give permission and was glad to do it. We talked further and he asked if he could read my manuscript. I was delighted and agreed to send it as an attachment. Here is what followed (redacted to protect the guilty):

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you so much for giving me permission to use your poem, XXXX, in my memoir. I have attached a copy and hope you find it worthwhile.
Warmly,
Connie

Before too long I received this reply:

Connie,
Although I certainly wish you every success, I think we might have a problem here.  The University I teach at is (like me) orthodox Catholic.
You seem like a good person, and so I feel kind of bad to ask you, but could you use a quote from someone else?
We all have to try and be faithful to the Jesus we know.
I’ll pray for you and you pray for me!
Again, I wish you the best.
In Jesus and Mary,
XXXX

Dear XXXX,
          Of course, I am deeply disappointed. I suppose I could have avoided your conflict by not sharing my manuscript but I choose not to prevaricate or mislead about my life and faith. Rejection in the name of doctrine is not a new experience for me though I did not expect it here. I will not use your work since you have withdrawn your permission.
Your poem, XXXXspeaks deeply to my absolute joy in God. Perhaps because of this, I am surprised you do not see the Spirit in the eggplant that is me. Be assured, I am not a good person but I am a child of God and a follower in the Way of Christ.

         Without rancor I concur: I pray for you, you pray for me… we are all a part of God’s body.
In Christ’s love,
Connie

To which he responded:
Thank you, Connie, although I wouldn’t say that I don’t see the Spirit that is in you.  We all need mercy; we all struggle.
(I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you were doing better than I am.)
And thanks, too, for the prayers!

 I only regret that I didn’t expect this. There is no question that this person is warm in spirit and seeking to be faithful.  What is clearer than ever is that I have absolutely no struggle with who I am, only with systems of oppression, especially those in the name of Godde. In the relative scheme of things this is not a big deal but it is an important reminder of the reason I need to tell my story.

I Will Not Be Your Enemy

We can choose not to be enemies.
We share history that is the source for all our struggles, self-definitions, failures and successes. For minorities and women much of that history is bad, even despicable. We have been oppressed, terrorized, marginalized, and repressed. But we have also built communities, resisted the dominant paradigm, and survived unimaginable violence to our bodies and psyches.

So how can we choose to not be enemies? Perhaps more importantly, why should we make that choice?

Women have the front seat on how for us to critique finding common ground with those who would oppress us. I hate the patriarchy and its systemic power to dehumanize one group of people and elevate another. I hate it for the same reasons I hate racism. And ableism. And heterosexism. I hate them all for the the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that   form a temple of fear.

Women love men: we love husbands or fathers or sons or friends or all of the above. We do it while existing in systemic patriarchy that devalues our existence and codifies laws about our bodies. Here’s an example: I love my dad. He supported my every dream and did not reject me in the face of questionable choices. He is the first feminist man I can remember – though he would have cringed to be called that. Loving him did not eliminate the ways I was sexualized by a man as a child, groped as an employee, or give me the right to be in charge of my own reproductive health. My dad was my ally even while he benefited from being a man in ways I can’t even imagine.

I don’t want to make the mistake of dehumanizing and demonizing ‘the other’ any more than I want to be demonized myself.  Where will that get us? How will we make meaningful change if we repeat the same patterns?  The real ‘demons’ are systems that oppress.

What if, instead, we worked to find value in our differences rather than fear them? What if to give to one didn’t mean to take from another? What if we embraced the idea and the fact that we are all in this together? That to survive we must reach across the divide? If we are to survive as a nation we must find our way back to one another. We will always have things to disagree about so let’s treat this like a momentous disaster and rally around so that all survive.

Our goal can’t be that we are lock-stepped in agreement about our beliefs. Instead, let’s find ways to see the humanity in one another, to listen to the concerns we have, and to work together for solutions to this nation’s problems that require compromise not only by the oppressed.  Believe it or not, we used to do something like it. The opposing party was referred to as ‘the loyal opposition’. The idea was (and is) to take the best of both sides and find a solution of compromise that meets the needs of both. More compromise may be required by those who have traditionally held power but we can do this if we find our will.

The depth of our polarization deafens us to one another’s needs and will defeat us if we are not careful. For me, it starts here.
I will not be your enemy.