Sunday, October 14, 2012

Boxes of a life

It took me a week and a half to take the boxes of memories out of the car. Pictures, keepsakes, her jewelry, recipes, all filled the trunk and back seat of my car, the smell of yellowing paper and fading photographs overpowering the new car smell for days. I waited to bring them in the house, like I thought that if I left them there, somehow, miraculously, they would find the right place for safekeeping. I'm not ready to be the keeper of the family pictures, but I guess that's a time that finds us, however ready or not we may be.

My mom is the last of her generation, nine kids altogether, eight of them already dead. There is no aunt or uncle to turn to to bring a sense of our history to my perspective. My mom has slipped from us so quickly in the past nine months that it's clear now that what I know of our family's history is perhaps all I will know. I may be able to piece together a little more from cousins, but the personal connection to the past is gone.

Questions linger. I find them coming to mind on the drive home from work and I reach for the phone to call and ask her, but as I punch in the first number, I remember that the number I know by heart doesn't work anymore, and the one I don't know never reaches her, though the phone sits near the chair where she waits, day after day, for one of us to call. On good days, she doesn't know how to answer it, on bad days, she doesn't hear it at all. I've asked most of the important questions, but it's the little ones that linger, the curiosity about that special thing she did with her fried chicken that made it taste better than any I've ever eaten, the wondering about how on earth she managed to make sure all of us kids, seven of us, went to college on the salaries of two people who never graduated high school, about where she found the courage to leave behind family and home in Tennessee and never return. And then there's the reality that she's never met Lisa, and will never likely comprehend and be grateful for the incredible joy she and our life together bring me.

The boxes sit in the corner of a room in my house, unpacked, like they're waiting to go where they really belong, what's left of my mom reduced to a few boxes, scattered between Oklahoma and South Dakota, items with stories that will come quickly to mind as I pull them out of boxes, others that will make me wonder, never really knowing for sure the story they tell.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Beyond the Impasse of Polarizing Conversation

Beyond the Impasse of Polarizing Conversation
A sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tahlequah
August 19, 2012

Reading: “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Who is tired of political ads and public wrangling among candidates? Already? We still have just two months to go before the election. We are bombarded with interviews, debates, ads, articles, all pointing to the great divide in our country between the Democrats and the Republicans. We hope relief will come after the election, assuming that at least the ads will stop and we can return to our TVs, radios, and the internet safely. But will it end there? Is our fatigue and disenchantment only with the process by which we elect our public officials? Or is there a wider problem that comes into full focus when election time rolls around?

Somehow we’ve come to a place in our civil discourse when issues of great importance to us become issues of either-or. Either you are pro-life or pro-choice. Either you are Democrat or Republican. Either you are for marriage equality or you are for the “traditional” family. And where we stand on these issues becomes the litmus test for whether or not we belong in certain groups or whether or not we can be in relationship with certain people. After a while, under the influence of a steady stream of narratives that demonstrate this either-or thinking, we begin to think the divide can’t be overcome. We throw our hands up in frustration, unable to find a way beyond the impasse of polarizing conversation. Many of us say with the poet, “I know there’s somewhere better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe.” We’re looking for solutions, aren’t we?

People sometimes throw out suggestions when conversations reach the point of heated intransigence. “Can’t we all just agree to disagree?” A nice thought, perhaps, but in most cases, even if we think it’s a good way to end, it leaves us feeling less than satisfied with the outcome. It’s an attempt to bridge the divide, but that bridge comes up short. It ends the conversation, but those on either side of the issue return to their respective camps unmoved and unchanged, assured of their rightness and the other’s wrongness and without much hope for any movement forward.

The problem, at least in part, I think, is that we believe the only way forward is for one group to win and the other to acquiesce. Imagining a world in which our viewpoint is no longer the dominant one seems less than satisfying, so we feel compelled to fight for the cause. Sometimes we’re even spurred on by a sense of righteous indignation. The other side represents injustice. We have to fight for justice! We are convinced of the rightness of our opinion. To move to any common ground with the other is to surrender ethical high ground, to let go of things we value highly.But as long as winning is the motivation for engaging others in conversations about things that matter, we will surrender any real possibility of solving problems, of achieving true justice, all for a chance to be right.

Frances Kissling, long time president of Catholics for Choice, has been engaged in the abortion debate for over thirty years. Much of that thirty years has been spent as an activist, advocating a pro-choice position. However, in recent years, she’s shifted away from the role of activist to one of seeking relationship with those on the other side of the issue. This new pursuit has changed her. In an interview with Krista Tippett, host of the NPR program On Being, Kissling was asked, “[W]hat goes wrong in our culture as we try to navigate this issue of abortion? Where would you start to talk about that?”

Kissling replied,
I think … I always had an approach to abortion that was somewhat different from that of the mainstream choice movement in that politics never interested me very much. You know, the idea that abortion was about getting the right people elected, that there were extremists on the side of those opposed to abortion and rational people on the side of choice never quite fit for me completely. I think that, since I did this work as a Catholic, even though many Catholic venues were closed, I probably talked to more people over the years who were opposed to abortion than most folks in the choice movement. And while I certainly think there is a twin absolutism between those who think there is only one value at stake, the value of women's identity and rights, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, the value of the fetus, that for most people, including me, both of those values exist and the abortion issue is one in which one mediates those values and others.[1]
This assessment demonstrates how most of these issues aren’t as black and white as we’re led to believe. A person who is pro-choice isn’t for killing babies, as the opposing side likes to portray. Likewise a pro-life person isn’t necessarily anti-women, as they are often portrayed. Kissling believes more people hold both values: the value of women’s rights and the value of the fetus. In the process of mediating those values through the issue of abortion, they often get pulled to one side or the other.

Psychologist Ken Gergen describes a relational process he calls “bonding.” He believes as social creatures we are pulled toward “the co-creation of shared realities, and the comfort, reliability, and trust that accompany them.[2]” He posits that the loss of security from the erosion of shared realities in our contemporary world may be what intensifies our need to bond with others who share our view of reality. The drive is enhanced, perhaps sped up, by the ease of access to likeminded people through the internet and social media.

In the process of bonding, the “I” slowly gives way to the “we.” In other words, the narrative that I tell about my own life and how I see the world gives way to the narrative of the group, which holds up those things on which we agree. Slowly, as we take on the narrative of the “we,” what we hold individually becomes less and less important, particularly if it isn’t the same as that which the group holds in common. We lose sight of the values we share with those whose narrative of “we” is different from our own. It’s the “enchantment of ‘we’” that pulls us in that direction.[3] The sense of belonging takes on a transcendent importance to us. We express our satisfaction with it by saying things like, “These are MY people. We really click.” Or, “Our connections run deep.”

Bonding is important. But when it’s done at the exclusion of recognizing what we hold in common with others, it can become dangerous. If we allow the transcendent importance of the “we” to take on a certain absolutism, we run the risk of creating a fundamentalism, a sort of rigid outlook on life, one which can never be touched by the other, which never shifts or changes.[4]

This, I believe, is the danger we face in our culture today. It’s the danger of allowing our sense of belonging to one group to become so important to us that we can never find any value in the other. And while we fight for the values of the group to be upheld, ironically, we surrender values that are important to us as individuals.

After thirty years of engagement with one of our culture’s most polarizing issues, Kissling says,

And the polarization that exists on the abortion issue in which people have called each other names and demonized each other for the past 30 years speaks against — it definitely speaks against any level of trust that enables people to come to some commonality, and so that you really have to start with this first idea that there are some people — not all — who see some benefit in learning why the other thinks the way that they do. And, you know, some of it's the simplistic stuff of humanization that the person becomes a real person, not an extremist, not evilly motivated, you know, that perhaps for some people you can overcome the epithets that we have charged each other with. And that, I'm a very strong believer in.[5]
Do you see a value in understanding how people who differ from you think? What motivates them? How were their values formed and shaped? What are the stories they tell about how they arrived at the positions they hold so dear?

There’s a lot of risk involved in asking such questions. But, I wonder, what we would discover about our own positions if we took the time to ask them of someone who thinks differently than we do. Kissling encourages people to risk in two ways: one, to find what is good in the other’s position, and two, to acknowledge what is troubling about our own position. In doing so herself, Kissling and others found themselves engaged in a dialogue in which the issue of abortion shifted from whether or not it should be legal to a scenario in which is legal, but efforts are made together, people on both sides of the issue, to make it less necessary for women to seek abortions. In a sense, then, people on both sides of the issue let go of the either-or and arrived at a place of both-and. No one changed her or his position necessarily, but they were able to find a perspective in which both views were valued.

The Sufi poet Rumi says,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn’t make any sense.
Do we dare imagine such a place? That field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. Who will we meet there? And what will we create together? Is it a place where both-and solutions might exist? I’ve seen this movement. I’ve seen it with theological students moving to work together, regardless of theological position, to ensure their community is hospitable toward all people. I’ve seen it in communities where Democrats and Republicans who differ greatly on issues related to welfare and how much government should be involved in meeting the needs of people who struggle financially, work together to build community gardens and make access to healthy, safe food possible for everyone. The world needs more both-and solutions.

What are you willing to do this week to hear what’s good in someone else’s view? Where are you willing to risk acknowledging your own uncertainty about your position? I believe if we will take this challenge, we take one step closer toward dwelling in that place of both-and solutions. Let us dare to be people who let love beyond all that bonds only with those with whom we agree cast a widening pool of light that leads us to a way forward.

May it be so.

[1] Frances Kissling, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice: Interview with Krista Tippett,” On Being, 2011. (Accessed on August 18, 2012)
[2] Kenneth Gergen, Relational Being (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 175.
[3] Gergen, 179-190.
[4] Gergen, 175.
[5] Kissling.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I'm alright now: Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Home is an interesting concept. I have mixed emotions about it. If it refers to that place where my biological family exists, whether it’s where they live or where they gather together from time to time, I don’t get the feelings of nostalgia and warmth that many people do. In this sense, home is where I’m known, at least a part of me is known, that person who lived with them until I graduated high school and moved out of the house. My experiences after that changed me in ways that made going home increasingly difficult. Coming out as gay and sharing with them my theological transformation created a chasm between my family and me. My changes were taken personally, seen as a betrayal of all that's most important to the family. To their credit (and mine, too, I suppose) there is at least enough decency in our family values that we have not cut each other off completely, but what connects us is a thin, worn thread and the effort it takes to keep that thread from breaking is exhausting.

Home can also refer to that place where we live. That gives me much warmer feelings now. Until four years ago when I met Lisa, home in this sense was a place where I kept my stuff, slept when I was in town, and occasionally hung out when I couldn’t find something better to do. It was practical and functional, but not warm. Now, home has a sense of connectedness that gives me a feeling of security and acceptance. It’s a place where I love and am loved, where I let down my guard, allow myself to be vulnerable to the point where I know heartbreak is only a single breath away at any moment, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. What Lisa and I have created together has given me the greatest sense of satisfaction and contentment I’ve ever known in my life.  And home extends beyond the boundaries of the place where live to include a group of friends who are family, people who accept us and share in our lives and when I think of them I get the warm, nostalgic feelings that many share when they talk about the homes in which they grew up.  With all of these people, there isn’t a part of me that I’m afraid for them to know. My past is of no consequence. Many among our friends share it, and for those who don’t, it doesn’t raise any red flags. It’s just a point of great curiosity. Likewise, who I am now is allowed to grow and change. That kind of acceptance, of past and present, gives me a deep sense of support, like the kind of support roots that run deep into the soil offer a plant that flourishes.

I am a fortunate woman. I am grateful for it every day of my life. Having all this finally has helped me come to a place where, perhaps for the first time in my life, I know I’m alright. I don’t feel like I have to be anything other than what I am now and that feeling provides the foundation for much healthier choices about what I will become than at any other time in my life.

But experiencing home in those relationships has helped me see that the welcome I’ve received in churches over the past few years is just that, welcome, but it is not home.  And while the most recent of those choices has come close and could in time feel more that way to me, it doesn’t for the simple fact that I feel like my past as an evangelical Christian, specifically a Baptist evangelical Christian, isn’t understood, that it’s something I have to leave behind for people to think that I’m really one of them.

To be continued (you know you're going to get tired of this)....

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I'm alright now: A story of religious and spiritual exile

Religiously speaking, I’ve been an exile for the last 14 years. I grew up Baptist, went to a Baptist college, served as a Baptist missionary for two years in South Korea, and graduated from, as well as served as an administrator at, a Baptist seminary. Somewhere along the way, I started asking questions and the answers to those questions for me led me on a journey that made it harder and harder to identify as Baptist. I attribute that in part to my own theological shifts and changes, but the distance grew to a chasm by the changes that were taking place in Baptist life at the time as well. No doubt, the debates in the 80s and 90s about the Baptist Faith and Message and what one has to claim theologically in order to remain in the fold (odd reality for a group that, historically, claimed to be non-creedal) sped up my own theological transformation. Nothing creates a greater crisis of conscience than realizing one’s own livelihood depends on holding to ideas and claims that no longer work for her. For me, it was a matter of integrity that I leave, integrity as a woman called by God to serve the church in capacities Baptists would not support, integrity as a gay woman increasingly aware that the prayers I prayed for God to change me and take away my desires were prayers that could only be answered no if God were to remain true to God’s character.

I fear the path I’ve taken since then looks radical at best and wishy-washy at worst to those who consider stability and loyalty to institutions values worth upholding. There were a few years at a church affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship where I experienced Baptists who were open, but not enough, and who, at least at that time, were more committed to telling a story of how things used to be than they were in the kind of radical change I was going through in my own faith. I quit going to church for a while, though I was still working as a chaplain and completing coursework for a PhD in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling. Knowing that the day was coming when I would need to be ordained/endorsed for continued employment I finally got serious about finding a church I could join. I found myself in Presbyterian church and after a year entered the inquiry process, the first step toward ordination.
I was in a relationship with another woman at the time and conscious that while I felt some sense of “at-home-ness” with the PCUSA, being open about the relationship was not a possibility if I wished to successfully complete the ordination process. I’ve come to realize in the years since that there may have been a little sub-conscious self-sabotage in my choice. I really didn’t want to be ordained in the Presbyterian church. My grief from all that I’d left behind left me cynical and jaded and unwilling to trust churches enough to consider any kind of covenantal relationship with them.  On the day that I went for my first interview with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry of my local presbytery, I had a full-blown panic attack, my first and only ever. That should have been a clue, but I didn’t heed it. I kept moving forward through the process until finally the relationship I was in exploded in a mess that threatened more than my future as a minister and I chose to drop out of the process before being out-ed to the committee on someone else’s terms. The day I mailed that letter was the first day I had felt free in years.

I found a job at a seminary doing admissions and recruiting, a job I have to this day. I made a conscious decision to choose a church that felt like home, where I could be person in the pew and not someone who was preparing for ordination for a while. I visited a lot of churches and spent a lot of Sundays sleeping in when I first moved to Tulsa. I finally found a home at All Souls Unitarian Church and joined. My attraction to All Souls and to UUs in general was based on the freedom of religious/theological expression. I wanted a place where I would be able to remain within the fold as my theology continued to grow and shift and change, something that I’d come to realize was a natural progression for a thinking spiritual person. After a while, I considered the possibility of ordination with the UUs. I ultimately dropped it but could never articulate what my resistance was. While I felt welcome with the UUs, I didn’t feel at home. I now realize there’s a big difference.

To be continued….

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Digging up the theological roots of the environmental crisis

A sermon preached in chapel at Phillips Theological Seminary. This is one I can't let go of. It doesn't feel as well-developed as I'd like for it. Nonetheless, it's done for now. This was a different kind of sermon that I typically preach. I am more of a narrative preacher, rather than a theological expositor. This falls more in the category of theological exposition.

Here's the podcast, where you will hear me stumble over my words a lot. Glad this one is over.

Digging Up the Theological Roots of the Environmental Crisis
Genesis 1:26-31
Phillips Theological Seminary
April 24, 2012

I want to start with some congregational participation. I’d like to see how many of you have ever heard one of the following responses regarding global warming and other environmental issues from a co-worker, family member, friend, etc.:
  1. We need to be concerned about people, not the planet. God will take care of the planet. He created it and sustains it. We don’t need to worry about it.
  2.  People before animals and earth. That’s the way God ordered things.
  3. God gave us the earth for us to use as we see fit. We are to have dominion over it, to rule it. That’s what the Bible says.
Even if we don’t personally hold any of these views, we are affected by them every day of our lives. These views and the theology that’s used to justify them are at the heart of the environmental crisis and our country’s response to it. As shocking as it may seem, intelligent, well-educated people hold to these views. My partner Lisa met someone who is well-educated and holds an upper level administrative position in a university who told her, “We don’t need to worry about things like plastics in landfills, etc. God will eat the garbage!” Where does that theology come from and what are we to do about it? That will be our focus today, because as one who is theologically trained, environmentally aware, and deeply concerned about the issues we are facing regarding the environment, I believe it is of utmost importance that Christians and others be able to address the concerns from a theological perspective. As religious leaders, we need to pay close attention to what the Bible says and doesn’t say to help us respond to those who use it to justify practices and opinions that endanger the future of the earth. If theology is at the heart of the problem, then perhaps theology can help lead us to solutions.
The book of Genesis opens with a declaration of God’s creative work. It states that what existed when God’s creative work began was a formless void, covered in darkness. God swept over the darkness like a wind, and with God’s own words, spoke into existence light, a separation between sky and earth, a separation between water and land, vegetation, stars, sea creatures, animals, and finally humans. At the end of each day, God declares that creation is good, and at the end of the sixth day (the day on which humans were created), God declares that it was very good. Traditional Christian theology holds that this story establishes a hierarchy in creation. The story is a narrative that builds to a climax at the creation of humankind. God says that God’s work on each of the first five days is good, but upon the completion of God’s work with the creation of humans, that it is all very good. I grew up learning that humankind is the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance in God’s creative work, a bit ironic, I think, considering how terrified some in my church were that we kids would all become humanists if we paid too much attention in school.

At the point of that climax in this story, God says to humankind, “Have dominion over” the earth. A mere 26 verses into the Bible and already we’re in trouble. It’s that word dominion that has caused us trouble. What does dominion mean? I wish we could find an alternate translation that reveals more a sense of care and less of power. Instead, some have taken it to mean that all of creation was made for the sake of humankind. In the hands of humans for far too long the idea that humans were given dominion over the earth has been used to justify hunting of animals for personal gain, for sport, all with no concern for the hunting’s impact on the species themselves, drilling of oil and extraction of other natural resources for the “good” of humankind, with no concern for the impact of the methods used or the amount of the resource taken from the earth. This view is used to justify the commodification of animals, plants, and other resources of the planet. Coupled with a firm commitment to God’s ordaining of free-market capitalism as the way things are meant to be, animals, plants, habitat, all are considered expendable if growth of human wealth and progress is to be gained. [i]

As good students of the Bible, you already see the problems with an interpretation of dominion that justifies exploitation of creation. Many have called for a tempering of this interpretation and claimed God’s intent was not for us to rule the earth, but to be good stewards of the earth. It keeps a hierarchy in place, but puts God at the top of the hierarchy and moves humankind to a position of being God’s managers, ones who use the resources wisely. This view was explicitly stated in a comment from Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum who said the following about the Endangered Species Act, “It’s a radical ideology that says we are here to serve the Earth instead of man having dominion over the Earth to serve him and to be a good steward of that Earth.” In light of a more exploitative approach to our relationship with the earth, the shift to understanding ourselves as stewards seems helpful, on the surface, because it at least recognizes that there is not an endless supply of resources, that not all of humankind’s uses of those resources are good, and that we have responsibility for determining the right use of them. There are problems with this view, though. In the hierarchy of God first, humans second, and everything else existing to serve humankind, there is a devaluing of the earth. Such devaluation leaves the earth vulnerable to human exploitation. Viewing the earth as a resource to be used for our own benefit is not sustainable. To end the current environmental crisis and to ensure the future good of the environment, a different kind of relationship with the earth is needed.
So, can the creation stories from Genesis be understood in a way that points to a different kind of relationship with the earth? For starters, it helps to read the creation narratives together to enable us to see to more dimension to the relationship we are to have with creation. The second creation narrative in Genesis 2 helps temper any tendency to understand dominion as a justification for exploitation. Hebrew Bible scholar Richard Lowery points to the second creation narrative which tells us that the earth was a formless void until humans were put on it to “serve” it. Repeatedly, this story tells us that God put humans on the earth to till it and to keep it. So, Rick Santorum had it completely backwards in his critique of environmentalists. Earth does not exist to serve humans. Humans exist to serve the earth. If humankind is to serve the earth, dominion then, can be understood more clearly to be a relationship of care, of bringing some discipline perhaps to what might otherwise be utter chaos. It is the work of humankind on the earth that helps creation to flourish. Neither exists without the other.
This turn in interpretation can lead us to see the earth as a subject with whom we are in relationship, not a resource which can be used, whether wisely or not. It privileges interconnectedness, rather than power. But we are far from living this in reality. We live in a world where science often serves corporate wealth and greed, rather than the earth and its inhabitants. We inhabit a place where those who would spend their lives working to provide us with food become indebted to corporations bent on engineering food, sometimes even in the name of ruling or subduing the earth. We are witnesses to environmental disasters that destroy habitat for all living things, humans included, all in order to feed the insatiable hunger for petroleum which fuels the nation’s economy.
If we are to have hope for the future of the earth, as faith-full people, we need to work to help shift the cultural understanding from a view that gives humans superiority and unlimited power to one that privileges interconnectedness with all of creation, that no longer views the earth and all of creation as resources to be used, but as subjects with whom we are in a mutually supportive relationship. It requires us to temper our consumerism, to ask ourselves how our relationship to things impacts on our relationship to the earth. It requires us to consider outcome for all of creation against outcome only for humankind. Though it is important to continue pressing on specific issues related to the environment, no real change will come until we make a cultural shift away from a hierarchical view to one of interconnectedness. I think we have to start with ourselves, by asking where do our own self-interests leave the environment vulnerable to exploitation. My partner Lisa and I work hard to use sustainable practices in our farming and in our lives. We have not arrived at a place of complete sustainability. We ask ourselves constantly what we can do differently to be more sustainable. We seek to hold in reverence the interconnectedness of our lives with the earth. It’s evidenced in the way we structure our farm. Each creature has a purpose. Chickens provide food, but they also help clean up parasites on the pasture after the goats and sheep have fed there. The goats and sheep supply fertilizer which helps restore nutrients to the earth after what we plant absorbs them. When we’ve harvested all we can from the garden, the goats and sheep go in and feast on what’s left. We plant cover crops and leave plots unused for periods of time to allow the land to rest and restore. We use natural approaches to pest and weed control. We compost our waste from food preparation to return nutrients to the earth. Still, the relationship we share with our environment calls us increasingly to ask how do we better serve the earth.
Not all of us can farm. That’s not really even the point, but whether we farm or garden or not, whether we even enjoy the outdoors and appreciate nature for its beauty, we are dependent on the health of the environment. We are all in relationship with the earth. It’s up to us, though, to decide what the nature of that relationship will be. Today, I ask you, how would you characterize your relationship with the earth? For starters, when was the last time you paid attention to who you share your space with. I don’t mean just the inhabitants of your home or workplace. I mean all of creation that exists in your space. Do you hear the birds singing in the morning? Do you see the scores of bugs that crawl through your yard? Do you know what the plants are that grow in your yard, in spite of your best efforts to have only the most beautiful grass? Pay attention to these things. Cherish them. Ask them that what you can learn from them. Then ask yourself what you must do to honor your interconnectedness with all of creation.

[i] Ariel Edwards-Levy, “Rick Santorum Worries Endangered Species Act Values ‘Critters Above People,’” Huffington Post, March 12, 2012.