Thursday

rockets and waterfalls


It was the last song of the night, and the house was on its feet, abuzz. We flung long tresses wildly, and bespectacled hipsters imperceptibly bobbed their heads. The band requested attendees dress in costume or finery, and the earnest crowd complied. Skeletons whirled like dervishes beside masked, feathered birds and adults clad in footie pajamas. Daniel Tiger drank pale ale, and girls in bright sequins nestled under the arms of lanky boys in pinstripes, rapt and content.

The entire affair could have been a case study in whiteness or youth culture, but something transcendent was palpable, too: that strange, larger-than-life connection when the music soars and thousands of perfect strangers share one enchanted moment.

I've felt it at concerts and experienced it in worship, and sometimes I've sworn the two were one and the same: the keen awareness of being united and alive and the near-audible whisper that something exists beyond all we see, something like home.

Years ago, in his book Sex God, Rob Bell argued that such moments were sexual in their essence because sexuality is broadly about connection, not just climax. Many thought he was reaching, but his thesis always struck a chord with me. I do believe that our sexuality encompasses more than desire (or desirability) and what we do with our genitals (although it's those, too, of course).

Whenever a teen starlet comes of age, it's almost inevitable that she'll announce her entree into adulthood with a racy photo shoot, music video, or movie role. While embracing sexual agency is a hallmark of adulthood, I do wonder how performing that particular cultural cliché demonstrates sexual autonomy as a rule. Teen queens are sexual people, of course, no matter how provocative or chaste their stage persona is.

We're sexual whether or not we're partnered or perceived as sexy by the crowd. Sexual agency may be expressed in the act of sex or abstention from it, in projected sex appeal, a passionate kiss, or the practice of personal boundaries.

What might it look like to express our sexuality in ways that honor God, self, and neighbor? Consent and respect play critical roles (with one's partner and in community), but a believer's sexual ethic can't start and end there. What honors God must factor centrally, too, even if Christians disagree on all that entails.

It's no secret that as Christians, we often lack a compelling and holistic vision for healthy sexuality and do perhaps the worst disservice to those who are single and/or celibate. "Purity culture" teachings inherently link sexuality with dirt and defilement, requiring something akin to asexuality from unmarried adherents (and inviting residual shame into a significant number of Christian marriages). While the absence of sexual desire is completely normal for those who identify as asexual (and others), expecting single Christians who do not ID that way to repress their sexuality is another thing entirely, and it’s as unrealistic as it is harmful and dishonoring. Our bodies and sexuality are at the core of our humanity regardless of marital status, drive, or experience.

So what then? How can we express desire in ways that honor the image of God in one another? What might it look to fully inhabit our bodies in faithfulness and without shame, whether we’re partnered or single? Is Bell right that sexuality is linked to points of connection in the bedroom and beyond?

For Christians, can sexuality be understood as the pursuit and expression of wholeness, encompassing acts of physical love as well as other manners of platonic union or spiritual transcendence? Is it possible to express our sexuality whenever we serve or create? When we love our friends and community well? Could our sexuality be tied to other ways we inhabit our bodies, perform masculinity or femininity, or glimpse the sublime in nature, worship, or art?

If we accept Jesus' incarnate humanity, then he was a sexual person, too. Could Jesus have expressed his sexuality when he fed the five thousand, upending expectations and satisfying needs? When he healed broken hearts and bodies? When he esteemed the woman who anointed his feet with perfume and tears, drying them with her hair?

What does it mean to be sexual when we aren't having sex? Ecstatic moments when breath catches or feet tread holy ground, are these touchpoints to shalom and sexuality, both? Am I a weirdo for thinking this might be true (even if spiritually more than literally)?

Maybe I am. But I can't help being drawn to the idea that sexuality is something greater, simpler, and more inclusive than either the Church or Hollywood currently projects.

It's reaching for each other in the dark and dancing with friends, at home in our skin. It's a longing, an embrace, and a killer pair of heels, and it's liturgy and Eucharist on a Sunday morning. It's an arena rock show and a climbing trip in the mountains, with a verdant view four states wide. It's that flicker of recognition or belonging,the feeling of being seen and known. It's two hands clasped in passion or support or prayer, not unlike the rest of this everyday, ordinary, sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking-around life that we live together and offer unto God.


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Monday

let's call the whole thing off


lament | complaint
prophetic | toxic
attack | critique
divisive | divided
status quo | unity
shaming | accountability
boundaries | bitterness
indulgent rage | righteous anger
iron-sharpening-iron | infighting
aggressive | assertive
peacekeeping | peacemaking

Each of us responds to situations in the light of our own histories, hurts, and personalities, which impact our perceptions disparately. There's rarely just one way of looking at anything, but that doesn't stop us from chiding one another for caring about the "wrong" thing.

Manufactured outrage...waste of time...I don't care, and you shouldn't either...

Myriad issues that get folks riled simply aren't my bag, but I try not to tell others to pipe down or get over it, because that's what jerks do.

There's room enough for us to care about different matters, appreciate varied interests, and work toward unique goals. It's even possible to care about more than one thing at at time! Just because something is meaningless to me doesn't make it devoid of import or value. There's little reason to dismiss each others' concerns or rank injustices in a losing game of Oppression Olympics.

If I don't generally operate from a place of malice, it's a safe bet that others might not either. But public work will always invite public response. New media still functions as media, and pressing publish is not the end of any conversation, even if the author taps out (or wants to).

Any benefit of the doubt we espouse must extend well beyond our own relationships and camps. We can assume people operate from good intentions and still examine meaning, power, and praxis. There's room for generosity as well as reform, growth, and pushing back the effects of the Fall together. 

Before writing each other off, what if we considered, "Why does this matter so much to you?" What if we listened more, particularly to wisdom from the margins? What if Christians grieved injustice and pain as much as other people's reactions to to it? What if we sought Christ first among the crucified and "least of these" rather than amid the halls of power?

We can assign positive intent and still seek and make amends for harm caused. We can practice resurrection and accountability both, refusing false choices between criticism and creation.We can discern our own motives and manage our own feelings and time in healthy ways, recognizing that ours are the only ones we have any insight to or control over. Like we tell our kids, "You do you."

Let's call the whole one-size-fits-few universal prescriptive thing off. We aren't made to function identically within the Body of Christ. Maybe peacemaking is something akin to hospitality: open doors and boisterous, laden tables with room enough to feel, heal, love, respond, understand, choose, and serve in diverse ways.

There are a million ways to be faithful.



Tuesday

wherever i'm with you



I practically lived at the neighbors’ blue house growing up. I’d get there early enough on Saturdays to watch PeeWee’s Playhouse (unless, of course, I’d woken up there) and can’t begin to count the hours we spent in costume, lost to our imaginings. She was an only child and their home a charming oasis where classical music soared at the piano, and her mom served hot, homemade Chex mix, fantastical movies, and creativity in every hue. We accompanied her do-it-yourself parents on dozens of trips to Hechinger Hardware, played cards with her Nana, and celebrated Thanksgivings, because that’s what you do when you’re family, even if not by blood.

In high school I joined a Baptist youth group. My Presbyterian self rolled a bit differently, but I barely realized it till years later (when I told my youth pastor, “I followed in your footsteps!” and his eyes widened, confused). Back then we all just loved Jesus and U2 and each other. They were my skiing, singing, shelter from the adolescent storms.

In college, I joined sundry Christian groups full of earnest-hearted girls and irresistible boys with guitars, but when I found My People, they didn’t believe or look all that much like me. They were smaller and darker and laughed even louder, and it never seemed to matter that we weren’t The Same when the dance floor heated up or someone needed a listening ear.

Other times in my life I’ve experienced—or at least suspected—that I’m Too Religious to be accepted by those who aren’t, but finding a home among Christians is tricky too, if you’re deemed Too Free-Spirited or Progressive (or if you’ve been hurt too much or ask too many questions). Alternately, I’ve found myself feeling Too Serious, Too Silly, Too Smart, Too Inexperienced, and altogether Too Much. If only I could somehow make myself less—or more—surely I’d find my place.

But looking back, I have found my heart’s home at way stations along the way, just rarely, if ever, among people exactly like me. When my husband and I left the city for the life bucolic, it took me long and wandering years to find my footing, but eventually we did: at the evangelical camp where we live and work; at our Episcopal country church, among the elderly and empty-nesters; and with friends our age with whom we share secrets and meals and vacations down the shore but not our faith.

I’m increasingly convinced that belonging is more about nurturing creative space together than finding a “tribe” of people Just Like Us. Belonging is cultivated in the fertile soil of hospitality, kindness, and grace, not doctrinal, political, or cultural conformity.

(Anyone who tells you differently is probably selling something, and it’s not the gospel, which is surely not for sale.)

The honest-to-God, Truth-in-Love Good News is that our differences are gifts not liabilities. We need and complement each other precisely because our strengths, perspectives, and experiences are unique. We’re not meant to squeeze diverse passions, personalities, or people into tiny molds.

Folks are disenchanted with Evangelicalism. I get it. Sometimes you gotta get out, start over, and not look back. There’s just one holy catholic and apostolic church, and like the phoenix She’ll outlast every smoldering ruin.

But if there are no standard molds, there are few one-sized-fits-all answers, either. Sometimes we’re just running away, and we can’t outrun our ghosts. Loneliness catches up, and depression descends anew the moment we stop to catch our breath.

At some point, rootedness and growth require staying put, mucking shit, faithful watering, and more patience than we think we can muster.

There is always a death. “Pain is our mother; she makes us recognize each other.

But we are an Easter people. Joy comes in the mourning. Seasons and families and hearts change. The Spirit whispers, and new life stirs.

Shadows lift at Sunday’s dawn, and the strangers and aliens are found at home at last.



Sunday

in defense of evangelicalism



Labels are a strange beast. As a word-lover, I appreciate their precision, but plenty of people eschew them altogether, perhaps not wanting to be categorized, pinned down, or boxed in.

There is power in naming, which I suspect relates on both counts. Label lovers use them to demonstrate certain understandings of the world or to proclaim integral components of personal identity. Label haters, on the other hand, refuse to allow themselves to be controlled by something so limiting and inadequate.

"Evangelical" is something of a contentious badge these days. The media made it synonymous with the Religious Right of the 1980s onward, and plenty of Christian culture warriors were (and remain) happy to play along, but Evangelicalism's hallmarks are not conservative politics but belief in the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Christ, his saving work on the cross, and a commitment to conversion and evangelism.

I grew up evangelical, asking Jesus into my heart when I was five. I am well-acquainted with flannel board Bible lessons and Psalty praise tapes. Every summer at camp, I re-dedicated my life to Jesus with my back against pine and tears in my eyes. I signed a True Love Waits pledge and fasted for the 30-Hour Famine with my Baptist youth group. I kept quiet times, prayer journals, and well-marked Bibles. I skanked to the beat with the Supertones and camped the Creation Music Festival. I dragged my longsuffering Jewish friend to a volleyball tournament that included a gospel presentation. To this day, I can't hear "Total Eclipse of the Heart" without flashbacks of mimes falling prey to addiction and gossip. I know my way around Young Life, InterVarsity, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and non-denominational worship. I crushed on Mac Powell of Third Day and sat through dozens of iterations of a that "I Am a Thief" skit where Jesus is crucified, and you're supposed to feel sad, but it's also confusing because camp's cutest counselor is playing Jesus, and he's not wearing a shirt.

I also technically grew up in the Mainline, but my twenty-odd years in the Presbyterian PC(USA) church were thoroughly evangelical. (I didn't actually meet a bona fide Mainline liberal until I got involved in anti-poverty and peace organizing as an adult.) I didn't feel stifled there as a woman. My gifts for ministry were nurtured and largely affirmed, and I worked as a youth minister my first job out of college.

I still believe in the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus, but I believe that Jesus is the Word of God to a greater degree than the Bible is, and I have a few more questions than I used to. I seek to understand the Bible in community through the witness of Jesus, historical context, and the arc of the biblical narrative as a whole. My esteem for Scripture is just as strong, but when Truth is understood as a Person, the Bible becomes something more than a textbook. There's more room for mystery, tension, and beauty.

I still believe in Christ's saving work on the cross, but I believe his birth, ministry, and resurrection were significant, too. Jesus wasn't "born to die"--he lived to reveal God's shalom and set right the ill sin wrought. Put to death by religious and political authorities, Christ's resurrection disarmed their violent power, revealing a better kind that makes all things new in humility and love, without coercion.

I still believe in conversion, but less as a once-and-done event. Repentance is an ongoing work, and salvation is not merely for individual hearts or heaven: it's also the liberating, reconciling inauguration of God's reign here, "on earth as it is in heaven."

I still believe in evangelism, but not like I used to when I alienated more than one friend trying to get them to come to Christian events. The gospel of come-to-church-stuff (or go-to-heaven-when-you-die for that matter) isn't the most compelling good news we've got, and honestly, it betrays a certain heresy about where God works and dwells. These days, evangelism looks more like attempting to reveal what Jesus is like and acknowledging the ordinary sorts of places where I see God at work. It's a lot more like regular life.

When we moved here nine years ago (for Jim to work at the evangelical camp where we met and I grew up), we found ourselves most at home at the little country Episcopal church full of elderly folks and empty-nesters. I suppose that means I'm not properly an evangelical anymore, but not because I outgrew it or was pushed away. Evangelicalism was good to me. It showed me Jesus. It still does.

I know a lot of people's stories are different. Many stories involve great pain and loss, feeling chased out or condemned, and those stories need our hearing. They are valid, 100%.

Mine is, too.

***

Some fundamentalists are evangelical, but all evangelicals are not fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination. Fundamentalism has a unique history and identity, and its emphases on separatism, authority and control, literalism, doctrinal purity, and rigidly enforced boundaries delineating In from Out set it apart from its far less inhibited cousin.

Having grown up and ministered in bigger tents with a considerably more generous orthodoxy, that's not the Evangelicalism--or honestly, the Jesus--I recognize. Since their faith doesn't particularly read like Good News, I'm not sure why the fundamentalists should be allowed to renegotiate the bounds of Evangelicalism.

"Fundamentalist" was originally a self-chosen label, but as it's taken on a pejorative connotation culturally, there is a vested interest in re-branding fundamentalism as evangelical, but any dogged policing of the gates betrays the tell-tale mark of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are free to assume the evangelical label, but when self-appointed emperors aren't wearing any clothes, we don't have to pretend otherwise or acquiesce to their determination of who's Out.

I don't presume to know if God would have you stay or go. Since denominations, local congregations, personal experiences, and tipping points vary tremendously, there will be few universal answers for the faithful navigating the minefield that is Evangelical Christianity in this post-modern age. The Spirit may make it clear to you, or She may feel a million miles away, but I trust you'll know your next steps better than any random blogger on the interwebs. But if the gatekeepers can't kick us out, the leavers can't drag us out either. Go or stay; there are a million ways to be faithful.

Here's what I do know: Christ has but one Church, and for better or worse, we're family. Fundamentalist, Evangelical, liberal, Catholic, missional, Mainline, conservative, charismatic, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Reformed: we're sisters and brothers. We can disagree, drop, and pick up new labels and traditions, but as long as we're following Jesus, there's no escaping the fact that we're keeper and kindred, meant to live and bear the Good News together. We belong to one another.

At the end of the day, these labels matter little. It is by love we're called to be known, and we've got a world of work to do.

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