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Love Has No Ends

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on loss – loss of my pets, loss of my parents, loss of my partner. These losses are (hopefully) years away, but the inevitability of each stops me in my tracks. How will my heart survive? The emptiness, the missing, how will they not consume me? I think about these things, and it prompts me to ask,

“What am I afraid of? What do I fear?”

And I realize I am more vulnerable than I’ve ever been, because my heart is more full, more filled. I know love and acceptance like never before. I have embraced being embraceable. I have accepted that I am lovable, and I love being loved.

I belong. I am wanted. I am adored. Just as I am. For me.

That’s wonderful and amazing. And vulnerable. It means I can be deeply wounded or devastated. That’s what stops me in my tracks. Being loved. Knowing that I am loved. That’s the most vulnerable place to be, even more vulnerable than loving.

I am not in control of how others love me. All I can do is accept it.

Love, being loved, is a gift. I did nothing to earn it. My pets, my parents, my partner… they love me.

I can’t handle it. The only thing to do is experience the love, savor the acceptance, be filled to the place of bursting, and splatter the love around.

Love never fails.

I think what that means is love is not a zero-sum game. We cannot deplete love. It will never run out, never be gone. Love only grows and expands. Love is not a well. Love is a fountain. It is eternal. It never fails.

Those stories about oil and flour, about bread and fish lasting way beyond their capacity? Those stories are about love. We don’t live on bread alone. We live on love.

Bread runs out. A loaf has ends. Love has no ends.

[1 Corinthians 13. 2 Kings 4. 1 Kings 17. I Maccabees. II Maccabees. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b. Mark 6. Mark 7.]

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a malady of kin

Depression runs in my family. Sometimes it brings profound and suffocating sadness. The weight of the world descends for no apparent reason. Tears flow freely and frequently. At other times it’s a brain fog, no energy, the absence of motivation. Daily tasks and routines become my twelve labors of Hercules. Brushing teeth, taking a shower, cooking dinner. All are unreasonably exhausting.

I’m so tired todayI just need more sleep.

A nap lasts all day… for days on end. And then the self-criticism begins:

What’s wrong with me? Why am I so lazy? I have no discipline, no ambition. I am worthless.

Crosswords. Sudoku. Freecell. Mahjong. These games fill my days. Solving simple puzzles is all I can accomplish. I must continually remind myself to eat, to bathe, to take out the trash. I live in pajamas and sweats. My natural ability to focus, to concentrate, has evaporated. I surf the Internet endlessly. The news cycle demands my full attention. The plane crash in Malaysia last spring consumed me. So did the Ferguson protests this fall. I stayed up deep into the night watching live feeds of tear gas and clashes. I compulsively posted stories and commentary on Facebook. I was outraged and overwhelmed and emotionally empty.

My train of thought would derail into a pile of mangled images and feelings. This mental fog and idleness lasted for months and eventually deteriorated into anxiety and hypochondriasis. My marathon naps had slowly shifted into sleepless nights and frantic google searches on cancer. I felt out of control and crazy and finally admitted I couldn’t cope anymore.

Prozac.

It felt like defeat.

Why did I need medication? Why couldn’t I be normal? Why was my family cursed with this malady?

Physical illness is socially acceptable. The community rallies and lends a hand.

But mental illness? Stigma. Judgment. Isolation.

“Just snap out of it. It’s not real. Everyone feels sad and tired sometimes.”

People who’ve never had to fight the fog don’t understand. There’s no blood test or scan to confirm the symptoms. Depression is a hazy, murky, confusing existence.

Both mental and physical illness are real. Both are biological. Both require medication. Depression runs in families. So does high blood pressure and diabetes. I’m as healthy as a horse physically, but my mental health ebbs and flows.

One of the cruelest symptoms of my depression is my inability to write. It’s more than writer’s block. It’s a loss of language, a stifled and silenced voice. I have nothing to say.

My thoughts are migrating starlings in a tree: thousands of incoherent and deafening squawks merging into annoying noise. Words are impossible to capture and record. They melt into the mist. They flutter away into a murmuration of black nothingness.

After two months the meds are kicking in. My energy is back and concentration comes easier. And words. The words are returning. Pen to paper is not so fruitless. I still have low-energy days where I nap with my cats for hours or surf the Internet for news and purpose. I’m learning to accommodate the rhythms of my inheritance. I remind myself that depression runs in my family, and I talk to my mom about our common experience.

“Me too,” we say. “Yes, I know what that’s like. It’s what we have. It’s okay, we’ll manage.”

Shared experience is so vital in this life. It’s the heartbeat of our human condition. Find your kinfolk of common struggle and listen, tell. We need each other. We cannot survive alone.

not wrong, just different

Twenty-five years ago, when I was learning what it meant to be a Christian, I read two books: Know What You Believe and Know Why You Believe (by Paul E. Little). Both were foundational and grounding reads, and both set me on a path of understanding… intellectual understanding.

Doctrine became important, and Bible study was essential. Knowing “what the Bible says” was key to my spiritual development, I was told. I needed to know what to believe, the right way to believe. I needed to be certain about my beliefs.

I went to a conference in those early years and watched the main speaker quote Bible verses left and right without any notes. I was impressed. I admired his vast mental filing cabinet of verses. He had a solid relationship with the Bible. His belief was centered in his mind.

Five years later at another conference, I went to a seminar on discipleship. The guy up front modeled his talk on the book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (by Stephen R. Covey). This guy had come up with seven habits for highly effective discipleship. It was a checklist, a performance checklist. He had reduced Christianity to a system of tasks and results. He was teaching others how to disciple like a businessman.

A couple years after that I went to China on a missions trip. For six weeks we repeated this mantra to each other:

It’s not wrong, just different.

Chinese culture is different from American culture, REALLY different. Chinese don’t stand in lines. They crowd. Chinese drivers beep their horns constantly and create their own lanes in traffic. Chinese children don’t wear diapers. They have crotchless pants. Chinese culture is very different from American culture, and it’s easy to judge that difference as wrong. But the mantra made us realize that being different does not mean being wrong.

I found it curious at the time that we were conditioned to see Chinese culture as different not wrong, but we were there to evangelize because we thought their different beliefs were absolutely wrong.

—————————————-

There’s this verse that people in my community liked to memorize and quote, Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?

I was taught not to trust my heart, not to trust my feelings, to see that side of me as deceitful and corrupt. My mind would lead me to God, I was told. My heart would lead me astray.

I am a deeply relational person, a feeler, a heart over head kinda girl. But my spiritual community was teaching me to eschew my tenderness, to distrust my soft and intuitive nature, to suppress those core parts that make me who I am. From the beginning I was taught to intellectualize my faith, to elevate my head knowledge over my heart experience. As I matured I was taught to systemize it, to engage my soul with spiritualized business practices and metrics. Finally, after about a decade, I realized I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. I knew there was more to this life of faith than abstract intellectual terms and business concepts disguised in spiritual costume.

But this more is hard to grasp and express. More doesn’t come in a nice package. More cannot be found on a checklist of spiritual disciplines.

There is no certainty in more, no getting fixed by more, no being right with more.

More feels like a crap shoot. More is messy, snot and diarrhea messy. More makes people uncomfortable. More makes me uncomfortable because it requires a different kind of belief. The more kind of belief isn’t found in intellectual assent to a statement of faith. More belief is mostly trust, mostly vulnerable and uncertain, mostly cloudy and unmeasurable.

—————————————-

This week I found myself and my fellow LGBTQ Christians reduced to an issue, again, by the Southern Baptists. They gathered together for their national conference and talked about us. We were a topic on their schedule, not people to engage in real life. We were caricatured as a “sinful lifestyle” and cast with a threatening agenda. Our lives were extruded through their intellectual theology. Our desires were seen as corrupt. Our feelings and experiences were dismissed as deceptive and wrong.

It’s true, LGBTQ Christians do not fit into the evangelical worldview. Our very existence blows holes in their theology. We’re different, I get it. But there’s a problem when spiritual communities automatically judge our differentness as wrong. There’s a problem when people who do not reflect the established worldview are thrown out and excluded, even labeled as “no such thing.”

Worldviews are designed to tell us how the world is. They are intellectual frameworks that try to explain life as we know it, life as we experience it. But it’s not uncommon for people to encounter something in the real world that doesn’t fit into their nice worldview package. We tend to refer to this experience as mind-blowing, and it is.

Exceptions are everywhere, actually. So when a person comes to that place where his worldview does not match how the world actually is, when others don’t fit into his established and pre-set certainties, there is a choice to be made.

He can try to force his worldview on the people who don’t fit, making them wear masks and pretend to be who they are not; or he can expand his worldview to include the real people he encounters in the real world.

Jesus made a ministry of blowing people’s minds. Everywhere he went, he was expanding the cultural and theological worldview of Israel to be more inclusive of people on the fringes: the Samaritan woman at the well, the unclean lepers, the morally corrupt prostitutes and tax collectors, the adulteress, the centurion, the blind man. These were all people who had been deemed different and wrong, people not fit for the kingdom of God, people to be thrown out and excluded. But Jesus kept bringing them around.

The Pharisees wouldn’t let their minds be blown. They couldn’t tolerate an expanded, more inclusive kingdom of God. They made their living on judgment and exclusion. That’s where Paul started until Jesus blew his mind in Acts 9, and Paul, the hardcore Pharisee, expanded his theological worldview to include the Gentiles. It should not be overlooked that Paul’s entire ministry was to the people he had previously considered too unclean to even be in the same room with.

Peter didn’t get a pass either. Jesus blew his mind in Acts 10. He experienced the same expansion as Paul. Here it is in Peter’s own words:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28).

From the beginning God has been blowing minds and expanding theological worldviews. God has repeatedly used the outcast and oppressed to blow the minds of the righteous and religious. Every time it’s the righteous and religious leaders who resist and refuse. God is constantly expanding theological worldviews to further reflect how it is in the kingdom of heaven. And constantly, the religious leaders stand their ground against such an expansion, against including people whose existence blows holes in their theological worldview.

This history of the church repeats itself again and again, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve returned to this stage in the cycle. God is using another outcast people to expand the church’s theological worldview. LGBTQs have a very sacred role to play. And although it can be infuriating and frustrating, even demeaning, demoralizing, and dehumanizing at times, I consider it a privilege to be part of this outcast group God is using to blow minds and to expand the church’s understanding of the inclusiveness and equality in the kingdom of heaven.

Just like Tim Cook said yesterday, “I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Molting Part (-1)

Back in the late 90s I was working in full-time campus ministry. One of the things we liked to do was invite students to study the Bible. Not surprising. This is a very common activity in campus ministry. We wanted to have Bible studies in every dorm. Every campus ministry wanted to have Bible studies in every dorm. We were in competition. And one day, while my teammate and I were studying the Bible with a student in the commons area, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses skillfully inserted themselves into our conversation. They wanted to talk about the Bible, too. They wanted to recruit this student, too. And things quickly turned into a quasi-polite passive-aggressive spiritual-gang territorial dispute. It was weird and uncomfortable and kind of amazing. Both sides wielded their swords with equal precision. Bible verses were bandied about as if we were in an epic fencing match and the victor would walk away with the student as their trophy.

I hated it.

For the first time I realized with crystal clarity that, in that student’s eyes, there was really little difference between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and us. This was jarring and upsetting. It was bad. It was the first major crack that started me rethinking what this Christian life was all about. We weren’t really any different from Jehovah’s Witnesses! We quoted verses at people to explain our understanding of God. Our arsenal of answers was really just a bunch of verses pulled out of context, individual verses specifically chosen to rebut any question or argument a college student might have.

Now, I must stop here and tell you I was working for a ministry that is highly regarded in evangelical circles. It’s one of those campus ministries that evangelical parents want their kids to be involved in. I was working for an organization whose niche was discipleship, and we were great at focusing on the tools of walking with Christ. We were experts at Bible study and Scripture memory and quiet times and sharing the Gospel and knowing all the right answers to all the potential questions. But that was part of the problem.

We were experts on the trees but had no idea what forest we were in. And I started to see that we were obsessed with the trees, to the point of completely missing the point of the forest.

Was campus ministry really just about getting students to believe what we believed? Getting them to see the world the way we saw it? Getting them to see that they were wrong and we are right?

Was the Christian walk supposed to be a constant and sustained argument with everyone who believed differently?

I left campus ministry about a year after the Jehovah’s Witness incident. Try as I did, I couldn’t find any convincing evidence to prove that our strategies were different from the strategies of (what we were taught was) a cult. Sure we had spiritual language to make our mission sound like a great calling and commission, but all we were really doing was indoctrinating people. It slowly dawned on me that “making disciples of all nations” was code for “get them to believe exactly what we believe and get them to get others to believe it, too.”

I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. So I quit doing it and moved across the country… to Boulder. And for the first time in my life I was talking to people who had deeply profound spiritual insight but who were not all evangelical Christians. They were genuine seekers and God-fearers who were walking along a different but parallel path. Some were even avowed atheists. It was surprising and wonderful to realize ‘non-believers’ weren’t the bitter and angry god haters I’d been told they were. No, these people were beautiful, thoughtful, happy, and extremely generous. They happened to have different beliefs about God than I did, but I never felt like we were in a debate about it. I still had phantom thoughts that I was right and they were wrong (it’s hard to get free from indoctrination), but I couldn’t deny the love and joy and peace I saw in their lives. I couldn’t explain away their generosity and grace. I knew they had found truth even though it looked different than mine.

And then 9/11 happened.

Like everyone else in this country, I felt blindsided, shellshocked, disoriented. One of the first things I did was go and buy a book about Islam. For me September 11th deepened the cognitive crack that opened with the Jehovah’s Witness incident, but this time the players weren’t sparring Christian ministries. This time the players were deeply devout believers from completely different religions. The terrorists believed they were right. Our president and pastors told us we were. It was that same beliefs debate but with deadly and devastating consequences.

I found myself thinking things like: We know we’re right. They know they’re right. How do we get past this? How do we reconcile such opposing belief systems? How can we really know who’s right? And why is it so important to find that answer? 

I’ve been chewing the cud produced by these initial post-9/11 thoughts for over a decade now. If you’ve read my other ‘molting’ posts, you know where all that chewing has taken me. Even now, I can’t pretend to have any more answers than when that cognitive crack first appeared. But I’m starting to think having answers isn’t the point. I’m starting to believe that beliefs are over-rated. I’m starting to understand what Paul was getting at when he wrote that knowledge makes you need to be right but love makes you want to embrace.

Today, when I read the Bible, I notice that Jesus didn’t want to debate people, the religious leaders did. Jesus didn’t need to be right, the religious leaders did. Jesus didn’t insist that people believe exactly what he believed, the religious leaders did. In fact, Jesus didn’t really focus on what to believe at all. He focused on who to love.

Jesus focused on the forest of people not the trees of doctrine.

Jesus said the belief system was meant to serve and protect people, not the other way around.

Jesus didn’t care about getting people to believe what he believed. He cared about getting people to love who he loved.

[1 Corinthians 8:3]

Molting Part 3

The Duck Dynasty Defense may have been the last straw, but truthfully, this has been a long process of molting. I’ve been shedding this American evangelical skin for some time now. But last month that old withered dead skin finally fell away, and I find myself walking in freedom, feeling fresh, supple and alive.

I no longer identify as an American evangelical. To me American evangelicalism has become synonymous with:

conservative Republican politics,

with homo-antagonism,

with willful racial ignorance,

with the thinly veiled subjugation of women,

with evangelization that is imperialistic and patronizing.

American evangelicalism has an identity problem. They think it’s an image problem. It’s not. This goes much deeper than a spiritual skin affliction. It cannot be remedied with rockin’ worship or hipster clothing. It cannot be cured with churches in bars or tattoos or occasional profanity.

This identity crisis is not a marketing or messaging problem. It’s the message itself. And I’m not talking about the message of Jesus or the message of the Bible, because the message of American evangelicalism is decidedly not the message of Jesus. It is decidedly not the story communicated in the Bible.

The message of Jesus is love. The story of the Bible is one of the human race maturing toward love. Somewhere along the way American evangelicals let go of this message of love, this story of our evolving understanding of our God of love, and fear crept in.

Fear God, otherwise you’re going to hell.

Fear sin, or else you won’t inherit the kingdom of God.

Fear Satan, or you’ll be swindled by him.

Fear your very own heart, because it’s the most deceitful part of you.

Fear the liberals, because they’re leading our country away from God’s blessing.

Fear the gays, because they, well, they have the power to cause natural disasters, disintegrate our social fabric, and destroy everything we hold dear with something they keep insisting is love.

Fear the immigrants, because they are diluting what has made our country great, whiteness.

Fear Islam, because we all know the Islamists are its true leaders (never mind the Crusades or colonialism or Westboro Baptist Church).

Fear the feminists, because they hate everything, and by “everything” we mostly mean: Men. And unborn babies.

Fear evolution and atheists, because they want to destroy everything, and by “everything” we mostly mean: Adam and Eve and the 6,000 year old Earth.

I don’t know when it happened, but the current and deeply held identity of American evangelicalism is

Fear.

Maybe 9/11 galvanized this fear. Maybe the Republican party ruthlessly and cynically used this visceral event to weave a message of fear into the fabric of our religion. Maybe the evangelical leaders foolishly hedged their bets against evolution or Islam or liberalism to rally the flock behind an enemy. Whenever and however it happened, the current reality is an American evangelical mindset rooted in fear. And you know what the Bible says:

Fear and love cannot coexist.

If perfect love drives out fear, can perfect fear drive out love? I believe it can, and I believe it has.

It’s baffling to me how afraid American evangelicals have become, and it seems their biggest fears are directed toward love and grace. If love and grace get too much air time, then all hell will somehow break loose and we’ll all become incubators of hedonistic debauchery and selfishness. But how can this be?

Love and grace are not welcome in hell. Love and grace are foreign and offensive to the minions of hell. Love and grace make evil impotent and hate nonexistent.

But fear? Fear plays right into the hand of hell.

Fear brings suspicion and the need for control. Fear divides between us and them. Fear accuses and antagonizes. Fear lies and cheats and steals, and its most coveted spoils are love and grace.

I’m tired of being taught to place more trust in fear than in love.

When I began this journey of shedding my American evangelical skin, the first few steps were fraught with, you guessed it… fear. In walking away from this Christian culture, I was afraid I’d be walking away from Jesus, too. But now I realize the only thing I’ve lost is all that fear. I realize it was fear that kept me in the fold, and in overcoming the perfect storm of fear that is American evangelicalism, I’ve found love, perfect love.

It’s true that perfect love drives out fear. I just never expected it would drive out my religion.

[1 John 4:18]

Concrete Faith and Jackhammers

Is the Bible inerrant?

I don’t care.

Not in the way evangelicals are trying to prove (cling to) their belief on the subject.

The Bible is not God. The Bible is not part of the Trinity. The Bible is not perfect, not divine, not the authority in my life.

God is.

Jesus is.

Holy Spirit is.

Not the Bible.

Yes, of course, God can engage me through the words and stories of the Bible. But God is not confined to the Bible. God is not constrained by the Bible.

God also engages me through: Nature. Music. Movies. Novels and blogs and short stories. People. Pets. Birds nests and beehives. God engages me through just about anything or anyone if I’m paying attention.

The Bible is a record of humanity’s maturing understanding of God. It is a collection of spiritual truth, a dialogue with many voices sharing their experience of the sacred and divine. Those voices sometimes argue and sometimes agree, and I like that. It reminds me of… real life.

The Bible is true. I don’t need history or science to prove it to me. I know the Bible is true because its stories resonate with my soul. I don’t need apologetics or doctrine to convince me. All I have to do is read it for myself.

Its words and stories get under my skin, bond to my blood, and settle into my bones.

The Bible is not a science book, not a history book. It’s a sacred book. It’s absolutely true, and I know it. It is not historically accurate. It is not scientifically sound. It doesn’t need to be. The Bible speaks to my spirit and to my heart, not to my logic or mind. It penetrates to a far deeper place in me than my thoughts can access.

The Bible does not line up with astronomy. It cannot tell me anything about biology or chemistry or physics. I don’t want it to. The sciences answer what and how. The Bible answers why and who. So I’ve stopped expecting the Bible to answer questions it isn’t meant to address.

Sometimes I read the Bible for answers. Sometimes I go away with more questions. That bothered me before. It doesn’t anymore. Now I see more questions means I’m still curious, still searching, still… humble. More questions means I don’t get it, means I have doubts, means I have faith.

Because faith is not the absence of doubt, just like courage is not the absence of fear. You need fear to realize you have courage. You need doubt to realize you have faith.

I do not gauge faith by intellectual adherence to a set of beliefs. My faith could never be that concrete. Because that kind of concrete faith will be broken up with any jackhammer of failed theology or cognitive dissonance. And that’s inevitable when you insist on asking the Bible questions it does not answer.

My faith is mysterious and uncertain. It relies on a Person and a relationship, not on principles or dogma.

My belief is confidence in the goodness, the grace, and the love of God.

When you’re beholden to a book, you’ve got to always have it with you. Your nose is always in its pages and you miss the smell of any rose. You miss the glory of any sunset. You miss the beauty of connection with another human because you cannot see them when you’re focused on a page, when you’re quoting its words instead of listening to theirs.

God does not indwell the Bible. God indwells us.

Jesus never handed out a scroll of sacred texts. He gave us himself. Jesus never promised the Bible. He sent us the Holy Spirit.

The written record we know as the Bible is important. But, as with every good book, the story settles into the hearts of those who read it, and they carry its truth wherever they go. It’s the spirit of the story that lives on in people. It’s the Spirit of God who lives in us.

[Hebrews 4:12]

Interwoven

It’s funny feeling fluttery butterflies for a woman, knowing she feels them back. I’ve never been here. She’s never been here. We’ve both experienced unrequited, tortured love but never mutually expressed affection. We both spent years trying to manufacture that kind of affection in relationships with men but never knew how utterly disconnected our hearts had been.

Until now.

These emotions are wonderfully knee-knocking. It’s new. It’s powerful. It’s also scary. I feel alive yet timid. There are moments my heart inflates with courage and confidence and contentment, and I know I was made for this. But there are also moments my heart contracts in fear and uncertainty. The risk is for real this time, not for show to fit what I “should” want. My heart is exposed. I stand heart in hand, on my sleeve, in my throat before this woman.

It’s first love, 25 years later than most. We are like teenagers, exuberant and gushing. It’s lovely and fun and young. But we’re far from our teens. We’ve outgrown the angst and awkwardness of our juvenile selves. So it’s odd to finally experience what we saw all around us in high school. Back then it was like observing a foreign culture. Unknown customs, so much lost in translation. We were going through the motions without understanding the motivations. Romance felt robotic. All the giddiness we saw in our friends made no sense. That’s not how we felt. We looked on with the head tilt of a confused pet.

Until now.

It finally makes sense. We understand the language at last. And the story is written as we go. It’s beautiful in its hesitating confidence, like a lurching stick shift with a novice behind the wheel.

Learning. Experiencing. Together.

Because isn’t that the meaning of Life? Taking it as it comes, with gratefulness, an open heart, and a hand to hold?

There are no guarantees, of course. Life doesn’t keep promises. Love is an adventure without insurance, risk without mitigation. And it’s glorious in its goodness and beauty. I’ve waited for years to start living, to share the adventure with another, to knit our hearts together.

It’s a lovely picture.

Knitted hearts.

But knitting requires needles.

It’s risky and vulnerable and totally worth it. I’ll take that hand and walk, at times with hesitant steps and sometimes sprinting. But together. And that’s romance. Together. Walking with interwoven hands, working through the needles, toward interwoven hearts.