Two Faces of the Church

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After being asked to leave two churches in as many years, I’ve been thinking about The Church a lot.

When you’ve been asked to leave a couple of times, you of course ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong? How am I hurting the church that she doesn’t want me to be a part of her?”

Believe me, I’ve looked. I know that I am an imperfect part of the Body of Christ, and I know that there are times that I have been the one to dole out the hurt. I know that there can be negative consequences to negative actions.

But I also have come to see that there is a dual nature to many churches. Perhaps not all, but enough that it makes me wary of the whole.

There’s the church where everyone is called family. It’s the home where grace and forgiveness are preached. The safe haven where people are encouraged to share their hurts, their sins, their struggles. The sanctuary where honesty and authenticity are used with sincerity.

I have seen this, and I love it.

But in those same walls, there is another church. It’s the brand that can’t be tainted by sin because it already preaches grace and if they “look the other way” at sin by allowing them to continue to worship in our midst, they will be accused of peddling cheap grace. It’s the business that SAYS the pastor doesn’t have to be perfect, but doesn’t really want an imperfect pastor. It’s the story that says come as you are, but don’t tell anyone who that honest you is.

I have seen this as well, and it makes me question if I’ve actually experienced the first good church. If the second lurks behind the first, does the first really exist? Can the first really exist?

I’m not sure how we change things. How can we change an institution that values rules over relationships? How do we change an institution that calls a molester’s actions a mistake and then turns and speaks venom about trans women, calling them the predators? How do we offer grace to those who have hurt, while still protecting those who have been hurt?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. I thought I knew what that church looked like, but time and again, I’m finding that I don’t.

I want to believe that we can experience a Church that serves and loves the way that I believe we are called to serve and love by Jesus. But we will have to acknowledge that there are two faces before we can make that a reality.

It’s a Good Life

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I went to grab a napkin from the kitchen and my pizza fell on the floor. Upside-down, of course, the sauce soaking into the carpet, the toppings picking up the hair that can never really be cleaned away when two people with long hair occupy a house.

The kids and Rich tried to lighten the mood that came over me, but I had no sense of humor about it. I snapped at them, and went about the business of scraping the toppings and sauce back onto the crust, feeling like everything bad always happened to me. I couldn’t even enjoy my damn pizza without it falling apart. It was a bit fatalistic and certainly not an appropriate response to over turned pizza.

It’s been almost a year since Elliott’s death, and the “I’m fine” is starting to give.

I feel myself slipping more often. I want to be better, in many regards I am better, but as June approaches, I don’t feel better at all. My ability to regulate my mood has been going steadily downhill since Mother’s Day.

I don’t spend all of every day in a malaise, but when it strikes, it is complete, like the summer thunderstorms that roll in quickly, crashing with lightning and pouring rain down with almost no warning. I don’t just tear up, I sob. I don’t just feel  small pangs of jealousy when I see a baby who would be about Elliott’s age, they are sharp barbs. I don’t just have a sense of injustice, I feel cheated and betrayed.

That afternoon, I looked into the mess on my plate, the stain on the floor, and I wanted to wail. I wanted the sackcloth and ashes. I wanted everyone to feel as bad as I felt so they could understand.

But the people that I love who are here do understand, and they need me. They don’t need me to deny my sorrow, but in the midst of it, to recognize their humanity. To remember that my pain, while completely valid, is still only a part of what is happening around me.

There is pain, yes. But there are water gun battles to be waged, and homemade ice cream to be savored. There is still binge-watching Cinemasins videos while cuddling on the couch. There are still mornings to be marveled at from my porch, mug of coffee in hand. There are still nights to be spent wrapped in my beloved’s arms before we drift off to sleep while he whispers a reminder, “It’s a good life.”

I’m not fine right now. I am keenly aware of the things that I have missed in the past year. I missed the luxury of planting kisses on a soft baby belly. I missed the smell of the top of a baby’s head right after a bath. I missed nursing my child at my breast and watching him drift off to sleep. I missed hearing babbling, watching first steps, learning his new personality.

But even in the midst of my sorrow, there is hope. Even in the midst of my sorrow, there is beauty. Even in the midst of my sorrow, there is joy.

Because even in the midst of my sorrow, I know that it’s a good life.

Mother God

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Sometimes I have to remind myself God isn’t a man. When it is “he” this and “his” that, it can be hard to remember that God is much bigger than our gendered visions.

Today God is the nursing mother holding her child to her breast singing softly,
“I will never forget you.
I will never leave you.
I rejoice in you.”

Her lullaby is whispered in the ears of many today.

It is sung in the ears of the woman who is so overwhelmed with providing for her children that she barely had time to be with them and the woman who feels like her life is deemed less important because she has chosen not to be a mother.

It is sung in the ears of the woman who is happily snuggling her newborn baby and the woman who is crying over another negative pregnancy test.

It is sung in the ears of the woman who is planning a girl’s day out with her mom and the woman who is going to her mother’s grave to place a small bouquet of flowers.

It is sung in the ears of women who are cherished and treasured and women who are abused and discarded.

It is sung in the ears of  women who have a hard time hearing it over the laughter and joy of surrounding loved ones and those who have a hard time hearing it over the ache of loneliness.

No matter who you are, the song of Mother God is for you.

4 Reasons Why My Next Church Will Be Affirming

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Yesterday I shared why I have stayed in non-affirming churches even though I have been affirming for quite a while. There is still a part of me that doesn’t want bullying behavior to “win,” and I want to continue to be a person who works from the inside of the organization to help bring change. But after being asked to leave our most recent church specifically over this issue, I want to attend an affirming church when the time comes to be a part of a church body again. Today I want to share some of those reasons with you.

  1. I want at least one part of my theology to line up with my church. There is something exhausting about constantly feeling on the outside of what my church teaches. It is wearing to hear archaic-sounding phrases like “homosexual lifestyle” still being said in a Sunday sermon. To hear people talked about as issues. To have people assume that I agree simply because I attend. I know that I will never agree 100% with any church, if only because as soon as I involve people who aren’t me, there will probably be some disagreement on some small thing, but as the mom of a transgender child, this doesn’t feel very small any more and I want to celebrate my faith with people who accept my child as he is, without conditions.
  2. I never want to have to choose between my family and my church family again. Being forced to make a decision between supporting my child and continuing to attend church was absolutely heart-wrenching. And as much as I’d like to think that it was an isolated incident, I know that it’s not. I have met others with stories just like mine and it saddens me to know that it could happen again. Attending church with a sense of fear and mistrust is not conducive to a healthy relationship, but I don’t know if I could regularly attend a non-affirming church again without those being present. Certainly there could be relationships within the congregation that are free of those negatives, but I think it would be almost impossible to feel like a full member of a congregation agin, knowing that at any moment I could be asked to leave because I fully support my flesh and blood family.
  3. I don’t want to support organizations that actively work against the LGBTQ community. I recognize that I may not know where every dollar that I spend goes. I am certain that I have unwittingly supporting things that I disagree with or that are harmful. I try to be an informed consumer, but I recognize that sometimes I make choices that can be harmful. However, if I actively participate in an organization that opposes the LGBTQ community, I am offering tacit support of that. I don’t want to do that any more.
  4. I want the LGBTQ community and my child specifically to feel like their safety matters to me. There is a great episode of The Ligturgists Podcast entitled Safe Church where Betsy Ouellette shares about what it means to be a part of a safe congregation. And while “safe” is a somewhat loaded word because it means different things to different people, a church that does not believe that a person can be gay or transgender and a Christian is not safe for that gay or transgender person. And if I continue to support churches that preach a message of non-acceptance to the LGBTQ community, I may convey the message that their spiritual, emotional, and physical health is not important to me. I never want my friends or my child to feel that, even in the most round-about way. By attending an open and affirming church, I hope to confirm for them that their safety matters.

I still love the Church and hope to again be a part of a community of believers. However this time, I want to be able to worship beside my LGBTQ friends and family. I want to be able to worship God without fear, without shame, without conditions.

4 Reasons Why I Stayed in Non-Affirming Churches

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In the weeks following being forced to choose between voicing support for my transgender child and leaving our church, I’ve been asked a few times why I’ve continued to attend non-affirming churches. I’ve supported the full inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ people and relationships for some time now, but I have continually found myself in churches that are non-affirming. This seems strange to people – both those who are affirming and those who are not.

There are some simple reasons like knowing that some of the more progressive churches theologically tend to be places where an electric guitarist and synth player may have a tough time finding ways to use their musical gifts. There are family and friend ties to a number of churches that are not affirming that are difficult to sever. And there’s the simple fact that where I live, it’s not that easy to find affirming churches.

But beyond those more shallow reasons, I’d like to address some of the big reasons why I’ve stayed. Tomorrow I’ll share why I want my next church to be affirming.

I’ve stayed in non-affirming churches because:

  1. I want to be a visible source for those who are asking questions. There are a lot of people questioning what they have always been taught about the sinfulness of same-sex marriage. Simply by showing up week after week with the HRC sticker on our van lets people know that there is a different view out there and it’s okay to ask the questions. Even if it’s just to ask how I came to my view, I want to be available to those who are interested in exploring other views about this topic beyond what may be presented by the denomination or pastor of the church.
  2. I want to be a visible support for LGBTQ folks who are still in non-affirming churches. Almost every church has a gay kid or adult in attendance. Whether they are brought by parents, attending because of friends or family, because they like what the pastor has to say about other issues unrelated to the church’s view on LGBTQ people, or any number of other reasons, if you walk into a non-affirming church, there is probably someone who is a part of the LGBTQ community sitting nearby. I want people to know that they are accepted and loved just as they are by people in their congregation, no strings attached.
  3. I can draw comfort from the certainty of others. This one feels counterintuitive to me, but it’s still true. Certainty is not something that comes easy to me. I’m fine living in the tension of not-knowing most of the time. And while it is often infuriating to be around people who live with certainty, sometimes there is a comfort that can be taken from that. It reminds me that it’s okay to believe things passionately and to be vocal about them. As one who often struggles with sure footing, it can be good to be reminded that there are those who have found solid ground in the church.
  4. It’s easy to fall into a mind-set of “you’re with us or against us.” In this video by CGP Grey, he talks about how our emotions can be manipulated to believe things that are not true through anger, and that can be amplified when we associate primarily with people who are like us. I do believe there can be comfort found in finding like-minded people, it can easily become turn into a way to avoid recognizing the humanity of those who do not share our beliefs or world-view. In choosing to stay in non-affirming churches, I am reminded that we are all more than our views about whether or not gays should be allowed to marry.

Join me tomorrow when I explain why my next church will be an affirming one.

He Knows Their Name: The Mom of a Transgender Teen Speaks Out

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I am one of those people who has very strong feelings about naming children. When choosing names for my kids, I was very adamant that the names not be shortened, but that they go by the name given to them. Why give someone a name that you have no intention of using? That just seems silly to me.

Each of our children’s names were chosen with care, but of course, most hopeful parents have at least one name that they want to use, and my oldest was the one who had that name. I had always loved the story of Deborah, the warrior judge, and hoped some day to have a child who would bear that name. Not a Debbie or Deb or even Debra, but Deborah. It was a name decided on with hope for the child to whom it would belong.

For sixteen years, that name was the one that the child used. When they were 14 and came out as gender fluid and pansexual, they flirted with another more androgynous name, but it never really caught on. As an affirming parent, I could wrap my head around their orientation and support it, but when I asked if they wanted me to call them that name, it was always with a sense of, “Please, don’t want that,” behind it. And for a while, those unspoken words were heeded. They were ambivalent about the name, and were content for those who knew about their orientation to continue to use their birth name.

Then at 16, the child who had the name that I loved came out as a trans man.

I’m posting today over at The Marin Foundation about my son’s new name. Click here to read the full piece.

He’s My Partner

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When we’re young, labeling relationships is easy. This person is my friend, this person is my best friend, this person is my BEST best friend. When it’s a romantic relationship, it’s the same. You can be dating or going out. Someone is your boyfriend or girlfriend. When you’re young, finding a handy title for the people in your life isn’t that complicated.

But then  I became old and began  a new romantic relationship. One day, I was on the phone, adding Rich to my car insurance. I finished updating the information that they already had on file about my vehicle, and then said that I needed to add another driver to the account.

“What’s his relationship to you?” the woman on the line asked.

And I froze.

When you’re nearing forty and you’re in a new romantic relationship, there aren’t any good terms for it. Calling him my boyfriend felt a little bit too infantile and flippant. Even though we knew that we would be married at the earliest possible time, calling him my fiancé felt too formal for the relationship that we were in right at that moment. I figured calling him my lover would probably be a little too much information for an insurance customer service rep, so I just blurted out, “He’s my partner!”

I had no idea how much that title would come to mean to me.

I’m posting today over at You Are Here about defining relationship the second time around. Click here to read the entire piece. 

We Take, We Eat, We Remember

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Every time our friends come over to spend an evening with us, I get excited about what we can cook for them.

At first, there was an element of “PLEASE LIKE ME” to the food. If our food was good enough, we might be good enough. Perhaps the stink of “social pariah” might not be so pungent if the aromas from our kitchen were pleasing.

But they proved to us that we were more to them than just a well stocked fridge and wizard sauce makers. We had conversations where we got to know bits of our pasts, parts of what make us who we are today. We discussed favorite authors and books, sharing a few favorites with each other. We have talked about religion, politics, social justice – all of the things that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. We have laughed hard enough that we’ve needed to take ibuprofen at the end of the night. Ours is a young friendship, but it has the making of something lasting.

And we’ve eaten together.

Every time, they will tell us, “You don’t have to feed us to for us to visit.” And I believe them. But when we’ve made plans to get together, I still pull out my computer and start searching new recipes to try, or think about old favorites that I want to show off.

The truth is, there is something intimate about cooking for another person, and I have come to appreciate that.

Cooking requires our time, our imagination, a bit of ourselves. When we prepared a shrimp scampi, our hands were on each of the shrimp as we pulled off the shells. When we made waffles with a strawberry compote, I tasted the strawberries to check the sweetness. When we made wings, I used my memory to recreate an Alabama white sauce that we’ve done a few times, using my creativity in making substitutions for some of the items I didn’t have in the house.

Cooking involves all of the senses. Pressing down with our fingers on the piece of meat to check if it is cooked properly. Looking to see if we have the nice caramelization we want on the onions and garlic. Smelling the aromas of charcoal and wood chips when we open the grill and a roll of smoke pours out. Hearing the bubbles on the bottom of the pan as the broth begin to simmer for a risotto. Tasting to see if we’ve achieved the right balance of salt and acidity in the honey chipotle sauce. Our whole bodies are involved in the preparation of the meal we’re serving.

Jesus took a cup of wine in his hands and gave thanks to God. Then he told the apostles, “Take this wine and share it with each other. I tell you that I will not drink any more wine until God’s kingdom comes.”

Jesus took some bread in his hands and gave thanks for it. He broke the bread and handed it to his apostles. Then he said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this as a way of remembering me!”

After the meal he took another cup of wine in his hands. Then he said, “This is my blood. It is poured out for you, and with it God makes his new agreement.” (Luke 22:17-20, CEV)

Here, our table is the living room floor. Our eucharist is chicken wings and Coke Zero. But when we gather, we share what we have with one another. We share our friendship, our home, our food, our lives.

We take, we eat, we remember.

Let’s Be The Church Together

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Yesterday was a hard day. Hell, in the last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of hard days. Once again I find myself unchurched, and I don’t know quite how to deal with it.

It would be nice if I could just blow it off. Tell myself that they don’t matter, that if they can’t accept my son, why should I care.

And the defiant part of me that doesn’t like being hurt by the Church says that. I’ll listen to my empowerment music and say, “Yeah! The haters ARE gonna’ hate! I can shake it off too!”

But it’s not true. I can’t just shake it off. I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. I can’t act like finding another new church will be no big deal. That it wasn’t a huge act of courage just to step through the doors of that place and lay myself out to church people. That there wasn’t a massive unburdening when I was able to stand behind a keyboard and play again, after being certain that I would never have the opportunity again. That I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when we found ourselves in a home group, surrounded by people we genuinely liked being around.

Growing up, we used to sing a song that talked about the Church. One of the verses was:

The church is not a building
The church is not a steeple
The church is not a resting place
The church is the people

When I was asked why I would want to attend a church where I had so many differences with the theology, I wish I had been able to come up with that lyric, because that last line is why. The people. The woman who put her arms around me when I was telling my story and said, “I don’t judge you.” The group that prayed with me when my son came out. The people on the worship team that we ate terrible fast food and pretty decent Tex-Mex with. The times we were the Church, not because we believed all of the same doctrine, but because we believed that the message of Jesus was one worth following.

That same song had one other line from the chorus that has stuck with me for all these years:

Let’s be the church together.

I’m not sure where my church journey will take me next, but it will be with other people. I know that I’m still part of the Church, but it’s hard to be the church alone.

Welcome to Church, Hope You’re an Ear

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“You can come to our church, but you can’t serve.”

The first time I heard those words, I was sitting in a living room one summer evening. There had been countless meetings about my thoughts on music before I took over as the worship director and then countless after I began to implement the changes that I had laid out in those previous months. Despite assurances that what I wanted to do was okay and in line with the vision of the church, when there was pushback, the leadership decided that the old ways were easier.

The second time I heard those words, I was in a sanctuary, trying to figure out how something that I never hid suddenly made me unfit to play the piano in our church. We heard that we were to love our son, but not to support him, and why would we want to attend a church where we had such different views about topics like the inclusion of the LGBTQ community and the necessity of a literal hell.

When I wrote that we were asked to leave a church, there was some resistance to that idea. Of course we weren’t asked to leave – we were simply asked not to lead, and in our case, leading was playing on the worship team. We were welcome at church, just not to serve.

I find this disingenuous. I don’t believe it’s intentionally misleading, but nevertheless, it is untrue.

First, I think we need to talk about the purpose of a church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says this about the Body of Christ (the Church):

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? (1 Corinthians 12:12-17, NLT)

Paul uses some fairly shocking imagery here. The idea of a single giant body part is both comedic and slightly horrific. A disembodied eye or ear is silly, but it is also the stuff of nightmares. It is certainly not a functional body.

When we tell people that they are only welcome in a church in the limited way that we have laid out for them, aren’t we assigning them to be body parts that may not apply to them? If we say that someone can attend church, but are unqualified to serve, we make them into an eye or an ear – something that observes or listens. There are benefits to those skills, but how do we function as a body when we relegate the bulk of the Church to passive positions?

In both of my situations, I was told that I needed to be quiet and get with the program. To be who the pastor wanted me to be. To make myself an ear.

Which brings me around to the original question – was I asked to leave?

If someone is being asked to make themselves something that they are not, are they being welcomed to your church? If you’re asking someone to make themselves invisible, do you want them in your congregation?

If someone comes to you as a hand or a heart or a foot and you tell them to be an ear like everyone else, then is this a Body or is it just a nightmare?

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