Category Archives: progressive christianity

Being the First


Remember all those jokes that went around that began “This is what people think I do” followed by either glorified or belittling pictures – or both – and then the punch line, “this is what I really do”?  Well, that’s kind of what being ‘the first’ is like.

I was the first open lesbian student at Agnes Scott College in the late 70’s and the first open lesbian student at Columbia Theological Seminary in the early 80’s. A few people thought I was a warrior. Believe me, I wanted to be one. If I could have channeled Xena I would have been one happy woman. But I discovered not all warriors are Xena, some are just emboldened believers who are willing to make the grueling march through enemy territory. And the thing is, as a warrior, you really aren’t at your best when you are alone. It really does help to  have an army beside you. Being ‘the first’ is lonely.  But many saw me as a strong warrior like the woman pictured above.

Then there were the majority who saw me as a destructive force that threatened to shatter institutions and bring down civilization. I am glad to report I did neither of these things. Sometimes I wish I had, but I didn’t. I had no interest in destroying institutions only in changing them and challenging beliefs, privilege, and systems of power.  I did that every day, sometimes by my mere presence, but with nowhere near the force or power that some assumed I possessed. 

What I really did was show up every day and try to be my best, most authentic self.  I didn’t always succeed, but mostly. Being the first means you probably won’t get where you want to go. It means you are plowing the field for someone else to sow and harvest. It means clearing a way so that those who you follow will be able to push even farther into the uncharted territory. Being the first is lonely and sometimes forgotten work.

That doesn’t mean it is not important work. It has taken me decades to realize that being the first was enough for me and right for the time. It was a challenge I accepted and a grace I assumed. But really, being the first looks much more like this than what others imagined:

The really cool thing is that now I am telling the story of what it was like to be ‘the first’ from my perspective. My memoir, A Gracious Heresy: the Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet, is coming out soon. Stay tuned.

What Fresh Hell

I

What fresh hell is this that we have entered into as a nation? No one can be neutral now. No wait and see. No thinking that we are insulated from the atrocities our government is committing.

Is this the legacy we want to leave the world? No longer a ‘shining city on a hill’ we have become our worst nightmare. Do not be lulled into complacency. Only pray that there remains some chance that we will be able to retrieve what we have lost.

Add my name to the thousands and millions who believed we, as a nation, were immune to  authoritarianism and fascism or that our institutions could be infected and destroyed from within. We are not immune. And we have entered a fresh hell like none we have encountered before. I am reminded of this famous statement:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”   

                              -the Rev. Marin Niemöller, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

These children, mothers, families detained  by ICE are our Socialists. Our queers. Our trade unionists, our Jews.  If we were to rewrite this for our time it would begin: First they came for the immigrants…
But please, please, do not let what follows be “but I didn’t not speak out because I am not an immigrant”.

Stand now.
Speak now.
Write now.
Call now.
VOTE NOW.
Add your voice to the thousands who speak for these children and their parents. Who speak for people of color throughout this nation. Who speak up and out for women. Who demand that our rule of law remain in tack. Who refuse to bend to the dissolution of all we hold dear.
It is as bad as we think it is and most likely, even worse than we can imagine.

 

 

 

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.

Can the Center Hold?


Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats, from ‘The Second Coming’

 

I am tired. Weary to death and yet I can’t not get up. I can’t not keep trying to speak, to work, to march, to live into my conviction that the ideas this nation is based on are redemptive and worth fighting for. Ideas that continue to expand: freedom, justice, equality, and  the rule of law and rather than the rule of ‘men’.

I would tell Mr. Yeats that the best of do not lack conviction but, for myself, I am grieving innocence drowned. The belief that our system of ideas pushes us away from demagoguery, hatred, and self-serving as the basis for our actions and toward our better selves. But the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and we must fight to come up for air.

Early on we said to one another, “We can’t normalize this.” Little did we know that the onslaught of things outside our imaginings have become more normal by merit of the volume of expressions of ‘the worst of us.’ It is daily, sometimes hourly. And friends and neighbors who are lulled into the normalization of Trump and his ilk can’t understand the urgency many of us feel. Others have climbed out of their pits and descended on us with the ‘passionate intensity,’ of their self-righteous hatred glorified in fiery rallies designed to show their ascendency.

Can the center hold? Will who-we-can-be as a nation prevail over who we-must-not-be? Ordinary people have become numbed to the insanity and I fear for our ability to extricate ourselves.

I am tired. I can imagine that many, many are tired. And it is okay to be weary. Rather tired than numb. Rather weary and righteous than well-rested and complicit. Rest now, if you need to. The center must hold.

 

My Big Book News

I signed a contract for my book!

After years of work (okay, often sidetracked by work that pays the bills) and a slew of rejections, I signed with Wipf and Stock Press and A Gracious Heresy: the queer calling of an unlikely prophet, will arrive in the fall of 2018.

It really is like a pregnancy. A long, seemingly endless, pregnancy. Scads of creative energy that depends on your blood and bones, heart and mind, to mature into a viable being – that’s what it feels like.  And I am proud and terrified, relieved and anxious. Like any new parent.

NOW I get it that  I have exposed myself and I am like Eve, looking around for a fig leaf. Memoir writing depends on truth telling. And my truth-telling reveals a complex conundrum that is at times humorous, sad, lonely, connected, and very, very, human. But if I can use a piece of well worn wisdom, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”  I don’t know what will come next but that’s nothing new for me. I’ll hang on for the ride and see if I can steer.

Today, with pleasure and trepidation, I invite you to a snippet of the work:

” Frankly, I am the very last person you would consider to be a prophet. Even writing that feels grandiose. My life is untidy. I don’t always do my best. There are times I’ve wanted to give up. More times than I’d like to admit. And even though I am driven by grace I can be harsh in my opinions of others and harsher in estimations of myself. Or worse, I give myself a pass but find it hard to allow for the frailty of others. And there are times I get so pissed off at God I could spit. I am like Jonah who sat under that bush and groused because God extended compassion to the people he despised.

The following tale is a story about how I got myself – or God got me – into the heresy of challenging the church to justice over doctrine and compassion over polity. You might think I’m a heretic and you might be right. I’ve been called worse.

Here is a story about the gracious heresy of my life and an unlikely call to prophetic ministry. Nothing grand. Nothing large. Mostly it’s a story about the risk and the price of being faithful and learning to trust that somehow it makes a difference.”

 

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.