dear church (can we please have different conversations?)

this is my contribution to my brilliant friend Allison’s syncro-blog “Dear Church”. If you also have some things to get off your chest, find out here how to and join the conversation. 

Dearest Church :

A couple of years ago, I was quite prepared to never be part of you ever again. One of your branches decided I was disposable and cast me out without so much as a second thought. My willingness to walk away was a mixture of “well if you don’t me, I don’t want you” and an unbelievable pain at being called horrible names by my church. After several months of crying and reflection and pro/con lists, I decided to stay with you.

I re-make that decision regularly.

Now, do not get me wrong, there are times I find you simply delightful and you are “home” to me in a way that few other things are. As someone who lives outside my home culture and has spent most of my adult life doing so, little makes me feel more at home than singing hymns with a simple piano and a group of family I’ve never met before.

But – like any relationship – choice is a big part of our relationship. Every time someone stands up in your name and makes a comment which makes my blood boil? I choose to stay. Every time I have to defend your true intentions to my friends who have been hurt by false ones? I have to choose to stay. And I know I’m not alone in this.

As someone who is a professional academic studying you and your use of language, can I make some simple suggestions to maybe change how regularly I (and many others) have to make that choice? I had a beloved professor in seminary who used to tell me I was free to abandon a congregational church but that I should never, ever abandon the Bride. I carry that thought in my heart as I write this. I firmly believe that if we could use different language and have different conversations, we could embrace our identity as the Bride more firmly.

Instead of “my pastor speaks for God” can we say “my pastor does his/her best to use the education they’ve acquired and the insights they have to show me new things about Scripture/God/Church that I never would have thought of on my own”?

Instead of “if the Bible says it, I believe it” can we say “I find my truth in the words of Scripture but I acknowledge that I am also influenced by 2,000 years of tradition and history and we may not fully understand everything”?

Instead of “hate the sin and love the sinner” can we say “I don’t need to agree with every choice someone makes to love them”?

Instead of “you are going to hell” can we say … well, anything else? It really is time to stop invoking that threat.

Instead of standing on street corners preaching to anyone passing by, can we commit to loving people for the long term with no agenda? Instead of focusing our budget on the activities of a Sunday morning, can we hire social workers to help craft our interaction with our local and global neighborhoods? Instead of paying for buildings can we talk about meeting in houses or public spaces? Instead of involving ourselves in the reproductive and sexual choices of people we do not know, can we involve ourselves in the rhythms of our communities?

Can we start talking about promoting farming and local food in America? Can we talk about how Jesus wasn’t an American and God is an ahistorical and apolitical deity? Can we promote artistic expression and the laughter of children in countries we’ll never visit? Can we fight for clean water and proper dental care?

Can we be known by what we are for rather than what we are against? Please?

 

may I introduce logic to emotions?

This is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ MutualityWeek2012. To see the other incredibly wise people who have written about this, see here.

~*~

“But you can’t do that.”

I turned and stared at the boy who had uttered those words. I was seventeen and working at a Christian summer camp in Southern New Jersey. That fall, I was headed to university to learn how to love students better and was telling my fellow co-workers that I wanted to preach in the all-camp final service.

With sunblock dripping in my eyes and confusion clouding my soul, I replied “why?”

“Because you’re a girl. Girls teaching men is a sin. Everyone knows that.”

And with those simple words I would never forget, boundaries were placed upon my previous understanding of a boundless God.

~*~

“What do you mean they walked out?!” I shrieked.

I was twenty-one and in the college cafeteria after one of our mandatory chapel services. A brilliant woman had come that morning to teach us about loving orphans and vulnerable children in Vietnam and I had enjoyed every moment of her talk. My male lunch companion had just informed me that several of his male friends – upon seeing it was a woman at the pulpit – had walked out.

“Yeah,” he shrugged non-commitally. “It’s not a big deal, Kristen.”

“It’s NOT A BIG DEAL?!” I felt my temperature and temper rising. “But they walked out just because it was a woman!”

“Well, they’re just following what the Bible tells them to do.”

“WHAT BIBLE?!”

“The one we all read, Kristen. You can’t change what the words say. Stop being such a Yankee about it.” Yankee, you see, was many people’s shorthand at that university – located in the American South – for me when I was being opinoniated, or fiesty, or strong willed. If they weren’t such “good Christians”, I’m sure they would have just called me what they were thinking – a bitch.

“Like I said,” he looked me dead in the eyes, “it is not a big deal.”

And with those words I realized I had larger dragons to slay than I had ever thought possible. 

~*~

In the past ten years, had I a dollar for every time someone told me that my gender limited me instead of empowered me within the context of the institutional church, I promise you I would not ever take out another student loan. Myself, my friends, my colleagues, my sisters: we have all been told we are “less than” for whatever reason. The comments were made by seminary classmates and college professors, by pastors in our churches and by authors we’ll never meet. Each hurt, though. I won’t deny that.

This conversation is incredibly emotional for anyone involved. We, as humans, put deeper value in religious language than any other. Thus, whenever God’s ideas about humanity are introduced into a conversation the conversation automatically becomes more intense. By the way, that is the foundation of most sociological studies of religion and language. But that’s why I like to pause for a moment and attempt to remove the emotion. As a sociologist, I am deeply interested in how religion shapes society and society shapes religion. Both of those things have logical trajectories.

I believe it is only logical to end gender discrimination within the Church. Which, by the way, is what is currently practiced in millions of congregations around the world. I’m not being dramatic, I’m being factual. Whether you feel it is backed up by Scripture or not is irrelevant. It simply is. The question – therefore – becomes whether or not you feel God is in the business of gender discrimination.

I don’t believe there is any evidence that God is. In the ancient Hebrew scriptures, YHWH is constantly shown as a deity of order and stability. In vast contrast to the origin stories of Babylon and Messopotamia, YHWH was never subject to fickle whims and YHWH’s actions were always bent towards the good of humanity. The ancient Hebrew people believed deeply that God was a god of order. So why are we so hesitant to embrace that now?

Of course, as with every other issue in Christendom, this one comes back to your interpretation of Scripture. Many other wise writers this week have tackled exegesis and I do not need to go into that here. But if you are someone who believes women must be subordinate to men within the Body of Christ, may I ask for your logic behind that?

Why would we allow participation based on reproductive organs and not skill sets? Why do we think God small enough to be limited by only creating women to bear children or clean houses? Why – and again, I ask for a clearly logical answer – am I – a woman with a first-class seminary education and a gift for public speaking – less qualified to preach than the gentleman sitting beside me with no formal training and a job as an accountant?

My hope for the Church as we move forward is that we begin to have adult conversations about this. This week is a great start and I hope it fuels more weeks like it. However, I also hope every congregation can discuss this. I hope young girls are taught to be strong women of valor first and foremost and to find themselves in Christ – whatever that ends up meaning to them – rather than finding themselves in their potential future husbands. I hope we can value other sacramental relationships other than marriage and other professions than motherhood.

May we find the deepest and widest definition of the Kingdom – one which represents the boundless and complete love of the God we claim to serve. May we allow people to be safe within our midst; their gifts encouraged and strengthened and not shunned. May we – as the Universal Body – be a place known for “yes” instead of “no”, hope instead of condemnation. May we celebrate the fullness of each gender, each human, each living beings as miniature expressions of the fullness of God and embrace each other as family.

anniversaries of trauma: or, in which i talk about my dark day

In the beginning seasons of Gilmore Girls, Luke disappears for one day every year. Lorelai cannot figure out why and Babette informs her it’s his ‘dark day’. On the anniversary of his father’s death every year, Luke removes himself from society. He shuts down his diner, goes fishing and remembers.

Yesterday was my dark day.

Four years ago, in the name of loving me, the church I belonged to and was volunteering for declared me to be a “damaging and harmful” individual in the lives of teenagers and both implied and outright said I had engaged in inappropriate behaviour. They complied a list of evidence, which I was not permitted to see, and gave me no chance to respond. They ordered me to cease working and interacting with all young people immediately. While they communicated they hoped I would stay within the congregation I am not entirely sure how they expected me to. It took me three and a half years to consider joining another institutional congregation. There are so many nuances of that day and that event and that reality. Know I take responsibility for any of my actions which appeared on that list, but I will never agree with how I was treated or spoken about.

A significant piece of me died that day. I lost a family, an identity and a place. I felt moorless and afraid to go out into public in that town in case I ran into someone. I was asked to never speak to any of the young people ever again even in public and I tried to take that request – which was a little insane – seriously. If I saw them in Target, I walked out. If I saw a parent at Chilli’s, I left. I essentially turned into a hermit in my house. I lost friends and there are people I thought would be family for me forever who have rarely spoken to me since.

You can imagine that whenever people talk about ‘church discipline’ I get a little antsy.

For anyone reading this who has not been a member of a congregation, this may seem a little insane. It was just a horrible set of things said to me – why the mourning? I completely understand your confusion. Let me say these people had verbally pledged to me to be ‘family’ and to love me and guide me through seminary. Instead, they shunned me. I now also get a little antsy when institutions use family language.

So every year on that day, I take a dark day. I remember and cry and mourn the moments which shifted the direction of my life. I may also say nasty things about the man who compiled that list. I pause to remember the girl who trusted the church to be a good place who would love her and believe in her and champion her and how I’m not actually sure I miss her. But then I remember the past four years. The years of healing and hope, the years of people who rallied around me and assured me I was not a bad youth worker and did, in fact, have a place in the Global Church. The ways in which my definition of church has changed and how I like it better. I’m proud of how I have risen from that day and who I am now.

However, the 25th of April will always be marked with deep breaths, quiet reflection and gratefulness for hope and resurrection.

conversations I am simply tired of having

I, as a woman, am tired.

I’m tired of being told I’m second rate in a thousand subtle ways, I’m tired of being told that fighting for equal pay makes me militant or ungrateful, I’m tired of living under double standards and I’m tired of my worth to many being judged by my reproductive choices.

I, as a Christian, am tired.

I’m tired of the myth of homogeneity, I’m tired of having to defend my faith with a tone of shame in my voice as I sip beer or watch Sex and the City and I’m tired of having to figure out how evangelical any friend is before I can be vulnerable about things.

Today I am especially tired that we – as a religious system – keep seem to fighting the wrong fights.

The most recent installment of “Things Which Make Kristen’s Blood Boil” is the bru-ha-ha over the use of the word “vagina” in a new book by Rachel Held Evans. She explains the whole thing on her excellent blog and it is worth a read. But for those who want the Reader’s Digest version, here it is. In a book about womanhood and its relationship to Christianity, Rachel’s publishers are telling her to eliminate the word “vagina” because Christian bookstores (Family and Lifeway in particular I assume) will not carry it if its in there.

<Insert my best Amy Poehler impression>

REALLY?! 

Really, Christian booksellers? Really? These are the lines you’re choosing to draw? And even if Rachel’s editors are being overly cautious and booksellers still would sell the book… REALLY? Because the thing is I have yet to speak to anyone familiar with this world who isn’t surprised.

I don’t want this to turn into a vitriolic rant against the Christian publishing industry; what I really want to question is this: It is the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve and we’re still uncomfortable with using words speaking about female anatomy? So much so that we would possibly deny an important voice to be distributed? We have no problem with selling all manner of violations of the separation between church and state or works which perpertuate the health & wealth gospel which seems to be so very popular in my beloved country at this point. The problem we have is with the word “vagina.”

I think we’re having the wrong conversations. 

I think we should be wrestling with an appropriate response to capitalism, human rights violations, and the state of the American education system. We should be working the best we can at every moment to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love the Lord our God with all our being. We should be trying to be gracious and kind, loving and hospitable. We should be figuring out how to deal with theological and orthopraxic realities regarding homosexuality. We should be fixing the foster care system.

Because here is the deal, love crumpets. If you believe God created the whole world, then He created vaginas. And I’m fairly sure He’s comfortable with the word.

 

 

’tis the season for homesickness

Can I admit something? Celebrating Christmas in another country is hard. I know that I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult. Every commercial, every song played in a shop, every piece of tinsel reminds me that this place is not my home. In my home, we celebrate Christmas with cookies and not mince pies. We celebrate with shopping trips to Target, not Marks & Spenser’s. In my home, we celebrate Thanksgiving and Santa comes at the end of the parade.

I am not trying to pitch any sort of hissy fit – those of you who know me know I am gifted at those – I am simply remarking that this particular season is bittersweet.

You see, as hard as it is, I love the trappings of Christmas in the UK. I love Christmas markets (like the one at Belfast City Hall pictured above) and mulled wine and yes, even mince pies. I love the special Christmas adverts they’ve started showing on TV and I am pretty excited that when I go to London next week it’ll be decorated for Christmas. I am so glad I’ll get to spread Christmas cheer with favorites here and that I’ll be able to do some of the advental season of waiting with Church of the Resurrection here. I really am. I promise.

It’s just that… well, Penny said it best yesterday when she remarked that this season is a constant series of visual reminders that this place is not our always home. Our mothers are Americans and we have always celebrated Christmas as Americans. (Except for the one night where my family celebrates it as Danes, but that’s another post.) As I wind things down here in Belfast, I am often torn between laughing joyfully at the present moment and turning a longing eye to Yardley.

As it did last time, being here makes me see Advent in a new light. I understand longing and waiting and anticipating in a different way. I know the joy which is about to dawn and I am eager to embrace it, but I know there are daily tasks of life which must happen in the meantime. I am constantly living in the already and the not yet, which I suppose is the whole point of the season.

So, my darling American friends, enjoy the first weeks of December for me. Enjoy the red and white shopping bags and the trips to introduce your children to Santa. Enjoy lighting candles on Sunday mornings and singing hymns of hope. I’ll be enjoying the same hymns in different accents while I pop open Christmas crackers and watch the X-Factor finale. But I’ll see you soon.

maybe people grieve by chopping carrots

For my doctoral research, I’m reading quite a few ethnographies (which are essentially biographies of a specific sector of a culture). One of the best so far is Heaven’s Kitchen by Courtney Bender. She spent 18 months examining volunteer behavior and motivations at God’s Love We Deliver, a non-profit in Manhattan that provides food for persons living with AIDS.

One of the more interesting points she makes is that, while most people who volunteered in the kitchen were affected by the virus in some way (they lost someone they loved, they watched friends die, etc.), no one ever talked about it.

She writes:

“What was shared in that kitchen was possible only when volunteers refused to speak. They shared the silence, and these secrets, by doing something about AIDS rather than by talking about it.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in light of societal trauma – moments where the whole country goes through something huge and unspeakable. Times where people look around and say “what just happened? where do we ever go from here?” When I was in Rwanda, I had a chance to talk to some of the survivors of the genocide who were living alongside perpetrators. I asked how they found the strength to do that and one very wise woman responded, “My children needed to eat. So I had to plant and harvest and wash. I couldn’t stop doing because I was feeling.”

In times where there simply are no words for the depth of grief, perhaps there are actions. There are ways to pray and grieve and process through bodily works. Chopping carrots, peeling potatoes: these things can be holy. Because as much as we social workers love to provide people spaces to talk and process, we also must keep in mind that sometimes people have to grieve with their hands.

 

 

identity crisis

a continuation of my introductory series on Northern Ireland

'Luther's 95 Theses' photo (c) 2008, Keren Tan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Okay, so now that we’ve established that the British made a definitive presence on the island, let’s pause to discus the religious implications of that presence.

So, once upon a time, all of Europe was a part of the One True Faith, i.e., Roman Catholicism. Then this monk with some manic depressive tendencies posted some ideas on a cathedral door and everything began to unravel. (For anyone not familiar with the Protestant Reformation, may I refer you here or here or here.)

(In deference to Dr. Brewer – my Reformation History professor- let me note that trouble was brewing long before Luther got out his hammer. The main sticking point was the idea of the Bible in the vernacular of the people. John Wycliffe was a specific proponent of this and was put to death for his beliefs. Jan Hus was also a revolutionary who was executed for questioning papal authority. And moving on.)

This is where the relationship between Mother England and the Irish people get interesting. Catholicism had deeply embedded itself on the island. becoming part of the lifeblood of the culture and contextualized with Celtic Christianity centuries before this event to the point where it was a deep part of the Irish identity. However, to be a proper British person at this point was to be Protestant and so thus Protestantism was the dominant faith incarnation of the Ulster Plantation.

It is important to remember here that these two divisions of the faith were viewed as enemies of each other and bloodshed between the two was not uncommon. Europe was awash in blood for many centuries over this debate. For anyone who doesn’t believe me, the Hugenots would affirm my anaylsis.

The issue of identity is really important to remember. To be Irish was to be Catholic and to be British was to be Protestant. End of story. Now, this is a vaguely crude generalization, but most of the scholarship from the 17th-19th centuries seem to affirm this reality. So in a world where the church was the dominant institution and where one attended service on Sunday morning was a deep part of their personal identity, you can imagine that the encroachment of another faith system was incredibly harming.

Perhaps it can be related to the feelings some people have towards the “Muslim takeover” of America. For them, to be American is to be Christian and to suggest otherwise is deeply damaging. The situation on that island is honestly not that much different for many people.

Now, with that in mind, let’s re-enter the timeline in the early parts of the 20th century.