Herding Non-Doctrinal Cats

My writing group friend ,who is also a pastor, asserted this morning that people don’t come to church because of doctrine. “If you stood outside the doors of the church on Sunday morning and asked people if they believed what they had just heard, if they were honest they, would say, “No.”

I found that astounding. She went on the say that most people aren’t interested in doctrine. They come because it is a place of welcome, a place they belong, where they have a sense of family. My daughter responded that she doesn’t go to a church because of doctrine but there are churches she won’t go to because of doctrine.

One would think then that being a non-doctrinal church would be easier to establish among the young, but the truth is it takes a certain amount of spiritual maturity, a certain amount of personal history that challenges everything you thought were certainties.

When Circle of Grace started I insisted that we be non-doctrinal. It’s easier said than done because one of the first things someone asks of a church is, “What do you believe?”.  Our covenant is one not based on belief but on relationship. We wrestle with the questions, “How do we relate to Godde?” and “How do we relate to one another and to the created world.” In 1993 we wrote our covenant:
We, the Circle of Grace Community Church, as Christians, covenant with Godde and with one another to:
– Live with compassion and seek justice
– Continually discern that to which Godde calls us
– Build spiritual community that is inclusive of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class,      culture, age, and religious backgrounds.
– Provide safe haven
– Worship together using language about Godde and humanity that is inclusive.
– Live in right relationship with Godde and one another
– Speak truth to power

Our covenant is a pointer and directional marker, challenging us to a different kind of faithfulness and a beacon in the wilderness times. And, yes, it was hard making space for  passionately pro-life and pro-choice people, for those who needed substitutionary atonement and those who found the crucifixion to be a judgment on humanity.  We even discussed whether or not to put “as Christians” in our covenant because of what people assume it means when you say that. But we ended up saying we were reclaiming the word in the same way lesbians reclaimed the word “dyke”.  We would define what it means to be a Christian and, for us, we could agree it meant to follow in the Way of Jesus.

The beauty and the challenge of herding non-doctrinal cats is how much we can learn from one another. I confess that, as a pastor, I was often filled with anxiety. The question uppermost in my mind was, “How can we make room for one another?” – though, truthfully, sometime it was, “Will everyone be able to tolerate this?’. It’s different when you say out loud that a church is non-doctrinal than it is silently living with the reality of it.

I like to think it is some of the important work we do, re-imagining what spiritual community can be in all its unsettled and unsettling differences, making expansive statements that call us to live into a way of being, every gathering and worship service an exercise in herding non-doctrinal cats. Circle of Grace’s commitment and experience is a necessary beacon of a different possibility, a different way of being in the world while still being authentic.

As the world churns with uncertainty and fear for the future, it is seductive to reach for doctrines that give us absolute sureties . But doing that only perpetuates the current miasma. We need a different vision of how to live in the world with all our differences.

Our world desperately needs to become a herd of non-doctrinal cats who choose  to make home together.

 

Into the Heart of Godde

My mom was free
if she could be outside
that is where you would find her.
If she could walk
or bike
or swim
she would shuck down
to the bare minimum
and plunge into life.
The  common became
her adventure.

No fences allowed.
Unfettered is how
she wanted to live
in every moment
the world had to be
open enough
free enough
expansive enough
to hold her love.

 

I kept some of her ashes
to put into a glass pendant
to hold her close to my heart
to encase her in beauty
but her spirit refused.

So on my own adventure
to the beauty of glaciers
and whales
seals and sea otters
snowcapped mountains
and flowers blooming
wild and free
I freed her
into her next adventure
into the wake of a small boat
into a large ocean
into the heart of Godde.
Where she belongs.

 

Broken Spirit Seeks Hope

Yesterday I was at a gathering of ‘good Christian folk’ who all seemed to have good intentions. They would say they were loving and faithful. They were the neighbors who live down the street with such different lives from mine, uncomplicated by any urgency for justice because they don’t live outside of its possibilities, and  are privileged in ways they can’t comprehend or acknowledge.  They were ‘nice’.  My friend reminds me that ‘nice’ comes from two Latin words, ‘ne scion’, meaning ‘to not know’.

But that wasn’t the point. Some would tell me I shouldn’t have been talking politics. Unfortunately, that thinking ends up perpetuating the myth that we can’t have the important conversations and that we can’t work through our disagreements.  We have fostered generations of folks who cannot or will not listen to one another. Even within their own families.

I broke that taboo yesterday and shared my fears about our current political situation. As a student of history I talked about the parallels between some of what we are seeing today and the advent of Nazi Germany.  The response was, and I quote, “All politicians do it, they are all alike.”

This is where my spirit is broken: she could not see any difference between the evil of children in cages, the rise of rampant racism, the control of women’s bodies and autonomy, violence against members of the LGBTQ community,  and common corruption. Has Trump and the Freedom Caucus (sic) so normalized abhorrent behavior that it is seen as acceptable political discourse? How can I not challenge the nice, Christian lady who is blind to her privilege?

I am sad and frightened and when I meet people who are nice and blind, I struggle. How can we move forward? Where is the hope? I cannot stay in this place, though it is important for us to live with the sadness or we deny and belittle the current reality. What we cannot do, what we must not do, is despair. Despair kills our ability to act and destroys our ability to hope.

We cannot live without hope. We can be broken, tired, grieving, perplexed, and overwhelmed, but our souls shrivel and die when there is no hope. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once said, “Hope  is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion.”

To my fellow broken spirits: keep seeking hope. Refuse to accept the ‘reading of reality’ of the majority – even the ‘nice and blind’ majority. We must keep our eyes open to what is in front of us and name it for what it is. Yesterday I said out loud to the ‘nice’ lady that there is a difference between corruption and evil.

Seek hope not as a light and airy feeling, but as the quiver in your voice when naming and challenging evil. Hope is not polite. It is grieving, broken people refusing to accept that we cannot be better than this. So stand, or kneel beneath the weight of the evil perpetuated in our names, and refuse to be blinded by whatever privilege you carry. Keep your eyes open and do not normalize the current moment. That is the hope we must carry into the world.

 

 

 

Waiting for Godde

I’m no Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and would never pretend to be but I feel like I’m in the middle of his play only it’s happening in real life. I’m in that  in-between-place, having conversations of the meaning of our current reality and  waiting for Godde ,who never seems to show up.

When Trump was first elected the mantra was we mustn’t become inured to the absurdities and atrocities- of language, attitudes, and policies. We must not let it become the ‘new normal.’ Somewhere along the line I had to detach enough to keep my sanity and to keep from sinking into the depressive, palpable miasma of every day news. All this in spite of the fact that I am involved in activism from fighting voter suppression, working on the campaigns of good candidates, writing letters, making phone calls, marching… and struggling not to burn out from all those absolutely important activities.

But the train is bearing down and we are in a struggle for the track switch.    Whoever controls it will determine  the outcome that  will define for generations who were are now and the legacy we leave behind. Will we continue to do the flawed and messy work of expanding freedom and justice? Or will fear and ignorance transform us into yet another authoritarian travesty? Will we make room for our glorious bouquet of differences or will we become absurdly invested in a kind of sameness that destroys our humanity?

These are questions I ask myself every day. And sometimes I wonder, where is Godde in the midst of this?  I am not the first to ask nor will I be the last. In prayer and even when I cannot pray my answer comes. Godde shares our desire for justice, walks with us in our fears, and shares our grief and anger.

And I know this, too: I know that I and we are Godde embodied in the world.  My arms and hands and legs, your arms and hands and legs are Godde’s. A miracle isn’t going to drop out of the sky. I am the miracle. You are the miracle. We are the miracle. We will find a way to pull the switch that will change the tracks.
And even if we cannot throw the switch in time, hate and fear are never the final word. The Christian story tells it this way: death, itself, does not have the final word.
Love is the final word.

Waiting for Godde means waiting for myself and each other.
Waiting for Godde means showing up as the embodiment of Godde.
Waiting for Godde means acting  Love and justice.
Waiting for Godde means speaking truth to power.
Waiting for Godde  means living our truth without fear,  that Love is the first word and the last word.  

 

Learning from Our Elders or My Momma Is Still Teaching Me

That’s my momma on the right (my daughter is on the left and that’s me in the middle, but this is a story about my mom). She passed away December 20, 2014, a little over four years ago.
The other day a neighbor stopped me and told me a story about her I hadn’t heard before.

A friend  borrowed my mom’s car and it had broken down in the parking lot of the VA. Mom needed to get there with her AAA card for it to be towed. She called our neighbor and asked  if she was doing anything that day and, if not, would she take her to the VA?
Our delightful neighbor said ‘yes’ but in less than a mile her car came to an unexpected stop. Eventually, the neighbor’s  husband arrived to wait for the tow truck and Mom and our friend took off in the husband’s truck.

They drove to the VA, my friend tells me, and drove around the parking lot for nearly a half an hour but couldn’t find mom’s friend or her car. So they call the friend who tells them, “Not that VA” and they take off for another VA and finally meet the tow truck and pass off the card. It’s mid to late afternoon by the time they get home. As my 91 year old mom is getting out of the car in front of our house, she turns and says, “Well, we’ve had an adventure. Just think, if we weren’t doing this you would have been at home not doing anything.” She smiled with a twinkle, or maybe it was a glint, in her eye and said, “Life is an adventure.”

I am so very glad I got to hear that story. It rang true and opened my heart to a flood of memories and to the loving grief and gentle tears that have replaced the anguish of loss.

So today I am packing to go to the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green and I confess to some trepidation. Hope my car will make the drive, hope my budget will survive the expense, hope I won’t be exhausted when I get there, hope I do well, hope I meet nice people, hope… actually, that’s a lot of trepidation.

However, I am girding my loins to lean into my mom’s wisdom. Whatever happens, life is an adventure. If I encounter life without expectation, if I am willing to do just the next thing that needs to be done –  perhaps even with enjoyment – well, then I will be participating in a well-lived life.

I’ve been  an observer of a woman who lived unafraid and with joy. It’s time for me to follow in her footsteps.

Saints and Sinners

I just got back from Saints and Sinners Book Festival (a LGBT subset of the Tennessee Williams Book Festival).

I want to list all the writers who read their works. All the books that piqued my interest. All the poems that pierced my heart. All the laughter that made room for the many and differing ones of us. Suffice it to say I had a wonderful time.

I was affirmed as a writer and accepted as a person of faith. Unlike some gatherings , my faith and call did not relegate me to the kiddie table.

And I met some amazing people. Part of me thinks that being in a place where I could read new work to an attentive audience was the best thing. Part of me thinks that being on panels with other writers (many of whom were best-sellers and have published multiple works) was the best thing. Part of me thinks that my musings about the writing process being received and appreciated as equal to my panel compatriots was the best part… but really, the best part was the people I met and connected with. The best part was taking master classes with Dorothy Allison and Judy Grahn. The best part was the deep conversations about life and writing.

The very best part was being a part of a tribe that welcomed me in, accepted my gifts, and encouraged my growth. And I don’t think my reflection would be complete if I didn’t lament that this is where the institutional church often falls short.

The Rev. Connie Tuttle, author
A Gracious Heresy: the Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet

Are you my tribe? and other silly questions

For those of you who have read my book, A Gracious Heresy: the Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet,  (and if you haven’t, please do! Shameless plug: It’s available at Charis Books, Barnes and Noble,  Amazon and from the publisher, Wipf and Stock) then you know a recurring issue is that I claim tribes that don’t claim me back. I’m sure there is some way to unpack this psychologically or metaphorically but, really, the living of it is just part of who I am.

Here are some good descriptive words: audacious, silly, bold, self-deceived, hopeful, entitled, and brave.
Here’s a good question: what was I thinking?!

Which brings me to the story of the week. As an author I am also learning to be a marketing   person. ‘Learning’ being the key term. The best advice says one must identify one’s audience. Who would want to read the book? In my mind it could be anyone: army brats, people of faith, queers of all sorts, feminists, memoir readers, southerners, third culture folk… give me a minute and I could add to that, but you get the idea.
Then there’s the problem that the book, or me for that matter,  doesn’t quite fit into any of those categories. Take  the ‘people of faith’ category. It  isn’t the best fit because I am messy, flawed, unabashedly sexual, and salty. So my story isn’t inspirational in the usual way, nor is it filled with such spiritual insight and practice so as to invite others more deeply into their spiritual lives or impress them with mine.

You get where I’m going here? But I digress. That’s just some background to tell the story of how I and a dear friend travelled to a conference to give a presentation that virtually no one attended. I’ve come to believe it’s yet another case of me claiming a tribe that didn’t claim me back. As I tell this rest of this story be clear: I am not angry, dejected, or sad. Oh, I was but I don’t want to live there and frankly, it would be dishonest, because I might could have anticipated it. Today I am laughing at myself.

…So Erin and I drove to Oxford, MS to Ole Miss to the Southeast Women’s Studies Association Conference to talk about being queer in the church in the South. We were in the pedagogy path and ready to talk about the lived experience on which theory is based. As another dear friend reminded me: stories are lived theory. On the day of our presentation we arrived early at our scheduled room. It was set up for about 75 with our table at the front.
We got the lay of the land and waited for our captive audience to arrive.
They didn’t.
The moderator came in, looked around, and spoke with us briefly. No one was coming in for our presentation. I think she went out, grabbed a faculty member, and strong-armed her into coming in. Soooo… we gave our presentation to the moderator and the strong-armed faculty member. We were articulate, engaging, challenging, and charming – all the things you would hope for in a presentation at a conference. And more fun than most because we are both storytellers by profession and nature.

On the drive back we talked about how to describe our experience. “Though the room held 75, we managed to provide an intimate experience.”  Okay, it took a couple hundred of miles of driving to get to the belly laugh,  but I think we both  wanted to get there. Eventually.

Back to the question. Are you my tribe? I assumed that the SEWSA conference was  part of my tribe because, well, I’ve been living as a bold, out lesbian, feminist in the South since the mid 70’s.  In a gathering of feminists and queer theorists it just seemed like a seamless fit. I claim my tribe.  I have something important to add to the conversation. Thoughtful, nuanced, and lived.
But… as so often happens, my tribe did not claim me back. They are not alone and I do not fault them. Much. This experience helped me name a bigger truth: most of my tribes don’t claim me back.

Here’s the thing. I’m gonna keep on claiming you. I’m going to keep insisting that I belong. I’m going to keep on doing it because it’s at  the center of my story. And it’s what makes my story universal. It’s at the center of my theology, the way I am in ministry, and the way I live my life:  with the absolute certainty that we all belong.
Our deepest truth is that  we are all members of the same tribe.
So look for me. I’m coming to a meeting, a group, a gathering near you soon!

 

To My UMC Siblings: Follow Your Gift

Let me begin by saying I was once a United Methodist, baptized as a teenager into the communion. I left when the church didn’t reflect my commitment to and passion for civil rights and women’s rights and against the Viet Nam War. At 17 and today, the most urgent needs of humanity ground my understanding of a life in Christ.

At 25, as a lesbian, feminist, justice-seeker I experienced a call to ministry. The year was 1977. My book tells the story of how I figured out what that meant. Well, I still am, all these years later, nonetheless…  may I offer the insights of my journey?

I became a Presbyterian (now PCUSA) because their structure and theology, in theory, offered a way to challenge their then anti-gay stance. I learned a lot about what it means to challenge a church you love. Today, with love, offering comfort to your grief, and standing with you in your passion and anger, I want to offer whatever small wisdom I have garnered:

The most important thing you can do is honor one another by holding the tension that there is no ‘one right way’ to respond to the events of the General Conference.  Some will be called to stay. Some will be called to leave. Some will be kicked out. Some will leave their faith – and perhaps not just the UMC but the Christian faith. All these choices must be honored because each experience of faith in community is different, no matter how shared.

For some, what has happened reflects continued abuse and rejection. It is okay to leave.
For some, it is a family argument. It’s okay to stay.
For some it is a betrayal. It’s okay to question or even reject Christianity.
What matters is that you remain authentic to your journey.

Some of you have the gifts to stay and fight: the intellect, the history, the strength, the spiritual grounding, to take on an institution that summoned you to your spiritual journey. It will require your deepest, most Christ-like self.

Some of you have the gifts to leave. The intellect, history, the strength, the spiritual grounding to strike off into uncharted territory. No telling where it might take you- to what denomination or if you will sail untethered. It will require your deepest, most Christ-like self.

Some of you have the gifts to refuse to be abused or betrayed: the intellect, the history, the strength, the spiritual grounding to remove yourself from those things that have hurt and controlled you. While your experience is not necessarily a universal one,  many have been abused or betrayed by institutional Christian power structures. If this is your truth, speak it. You are not obligated to protect your abuser. It will require your deepest, most Christ-like self.

As your journey through this time of anger and grief, please know that you are held in the prayers of many in your city and state and around the world. The answers you discover as you move through this painful time must be your answers. There are no wrong answers. Your history and your gifts must direct you. However you proceed, may you always be held gently in the heart of Godde.

 

A Memoirist’s Confession

It’s true. It takes a certain amount of ego to put one’s life on paper, to peddle it to publishers, and to ask people to read your story. The other true thing is that once all that is done it’s left to the author to live with insecurity and self-doubt.
It could have been done better, written better, crafted better.

The editor in me asks: what was left out that should be in? what is in that should be out?
The philosopher in me asks: what is true?
The theologist in me asks: where is Godde?
The woman in me asks: having spoken your truth, can you still love yourself?

I have to believe every memoirists asks at least some of these questions. And perhaps it is not only the writer who must ask these questions. As you read the story of another’s life it’s an invitation to ask those questions of your own life.

How do you tell your story to yourself? How willing are you to be a truth-teller, even when your truth is messy or even downright ugly? Does it matter?

And then there’s the question I’ve danced around: if people know who I am will they still like me? It is a universal question that is also an invitation to an authentic life. For me, the answer is: not always, sometimes, and passionately. Speaking and living your truth can result in people not always liking you. Or liking you sometimes. Or disliking you passionately. Or liking you passionately. And sometimes, loving you warts and all.

The risk and joy of telling one’s story is that it sifts out chaff and reveals what you may have always known but were afraid to acknowledge.

I would love to hear, read, know your story. It is worth the risk of telling whatever the venue. Hearing your story will grow me into a deeper, more compassionate human being. I hope my story does the same.

So here is my story. There are some unresolved issues with the crafting of it that I only saw after its publication. There are truths that make me look quite weak at times and trite at others. There are passions revealed. And flaws. And even some places where I look quite exceptionally good.

My final confession as a memoirist is that I want  you to read my life. I want to share the connections of our human stories. And somewhere, deep down, I hope that telling my story makes a difference.

 

 

Do You Love?

Today we celebrate love
and my first question is:
Who do you love?

Who do I love?
And before that question is the question:
What is love?

I’m going philosophical on you today.
These are meant to be big questions
not small ones.
These are questions
without firm answers
except maybe to star-struck lovers
and new mothers and fathers…

This week I am preaching  the Sermon on the Mount
not just the beatitudes
but three long chapters of teaching
that includes the challenge for
my interior life
to match my actions
to love those
who I might otherwise
hate
to risk a kind of living
that is as dangerous
as it is
difficult.

So today, I ask myself:
Who do I love?
And part of me answers:
no one.
And part of me answers:
everyone.

The whole of me answers:
my daughter, with all my heart
my family, to the best of my ability
my friends, who have refused to
abandon me.
But am I that small?

So I reach further back
and ask:
What is love?
Is it feeling?
An intention?
Or is it the will toward goodness
for every life?
Isn’t love the activity of justice?
The care of and for each life
no matter their doctrine,
skin color,
gender orientation
nationality?
Isn’t Divine love
what propels our planet
through the cosmos
and insists on recognition
in the most unseemly places?

This day of hearts and flowers
lovers and dreamers
is also a day that invites us
to think bigger
act larger
open wider
to the Love
that both drives  planets
and searches out our deepest
secret places
to insinuate itself
into our beings.

So if you are buying flowers for a loved one today
or strewing rose petals across the bed…
if your heart is racing as you hold the image
of your beloved in your imagination
let the feelings  grow
let them grow big enough
to hold the whole world
in it’s embrace.
So that what thrives
deep within you
grows the bigger question:
‘how will I love the world?’