The In-Between

by Abigail Conley

On Christmas Day, I’ll lug bags through the airport. They’ll be filled with gifts that I wanted to see so I didn’t have them shipped straight to my parents’ house. Those gifts will be padded with the few winter clothes we own, all of which get pulled out for the week of thirty or forty degrees colder than Phoenix. Some version of this has been part of the ritual of Christmas since I became a pastor. A day of flying ends with a few more hours of driving in a rental car. Many times, I have longed to be traveling to a place where I could at least top off the endless day with a glass of wine. Alas, the Southeast continues to hang on to dry counties with the same death grip it uses for the Confederacy.

The plane ride is eerily silent and empty if it’s early and chaotic if it leaves after 8 a.m. The seats are packed with children who are excited about more things than I care to count, are ramped up on sugar or ramped up in hope of sugar, likely tired, and definitely bored. The best of parents are worn thin by the time anyone is seated on the plane. The same pattern is true for security, where parents herd kids through the line. It’s immediately evident if the family flies often or only at Christmas. The kids’ excitement manages to derail that process, too.

Pick a place along the journey and business as usual has gone out the window. The lone open gas station is packed, as is the Waffle House. Roads are mostly deserted, no matter where I’m driving. Across the board, people are either exuding Christmas cheer or in a Scrooge-level huff, with few occupying middle ground. For me, at least, this holy day is mostly an in-between day. It is most definitely the already and the not yet. I have sung carols, heard the Gospel, and marveled at the promise of the Christ child. Family gatherings are still a ways off, including packages and too much food. This day lies in between.

The in-between places are never the ones of memories carried through the years. They are never talked about at family gatherings. We don’t mark in-between places as holy. I am incredibly aware that not hitting cultural milestones makes some places feel more in-between than they should. I spent three years as a very single adult after seven years of higher education and another three as a kind of single adult before getting married. Many people treated all of those years as an in-between, not my life.

As Christmas draws near, I’m aware of how much weight the in-between places carry. Holiday expectations and in-between places never seem to match up just right. The in-between is a place of grief, a place of longing, and a place of wandering.

That day of travel every year that is spent mostly nowhere has given me some perspective on the rest of the year, especially the in-between times. If I cannot live my faith in the far more prevalent in-between times, then I’ve lost some of my best opportunities. Here are a few things I do that day a little more intentionally than the other days:

  • Hold babies. I’ve said it many times, but here’s once more: I hold babies in the line for security. At least I make the offer. Most parents look surprised, look around briefly at the number of security guards, then hand over the baby. I know they’ve done the math and realize I’m not going to make it anywhere with their baby. Maybe holding babies freaks you out. How do you make the day of the people around you a little easier? How can you tangibly love your neighbor in that moment?
  • Tip well. I loathe that we create industries where we intentionally underpay employees. I always tip 20% out of the conviction that if I can’t afford that, I can’t afford to eat out. We don’t buy drinks at restaurants most of the time, so it evens out pretty well. Maybe your budget is tight and you’re only eating out because there’s no other option. Even so, how can you be generous?
  • Be patient. So here’s one way to be exceedingly generous. I am not a patient person. Ask my partner about this and he could well talk for twenty minutes about my lack of patience before you got another word in. Still, we’ve opted for a society that pushes productivity amid stagnant wages. Most everyone is a little tired and overworked. An old Sunday school song might help, “Remember that God is patient, too, and think of all the times that others have to wait on you.”
  • Say, “Thank you.” The stories of people in service industries are appalling when it comes to the way they are treated. Recognize the dignity of people around you (imago dei, anyone?) and treat them with basic respect.
  • Accept help. The implication of “Love your neighbor,” is that we’re all in this together. There’s more than that, sure, but if you get nothing else, remember that we’re all in this together. You might need help one day and it’s ok to take it. You gave someone else the chance to be nice or to live out their faith. One terrible morning on my way to work, I stopped to get caffeine at a gas station. I opened my wallet to pay and it was totally empty. I realized in my non-caffeinated stupor that when I dropped my wallet from my nightstand the night before, the cards must have fallen out. Someone behind me paid the $3 and I went back home and found my cards. I love that person dearly, even though I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them, again.

The in-between is holy, too. For it was in the in-between place that the Christ child was born because we needed something in-between heaven and earth. Let us occupy the in-between with as holy intent as we welcome the Christ child.  

Guns and God: A Progressive Christian View

by Tony Minear

I own a hand gun. It is a 22 Ruger revolver single action with a 6-inch barrel. I received it from my dad on my 18th birthday. I even bought a genuine leather western-style holster in Tijuana to go with it. The next two summers I played cowboy while working at a church summer camp. I haven’t shot that gun for over twenty years. I go back and forth between selling it or some day giving it to one of my grandchildren. However, the possibility of one of my grandchildren or any individual doing harm to themselves or someone else, intentional or unintentional, frightens me. Occasionally, I contemplate literally carrying out the Hebrew scripture, “Hammer your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks.” I could have my pistol melted down to a pile of metal. Maybe even molded into a miniature plow. Not sure how the grandchild would like receiving a plow as an heirloom.

With the recent church shooting in Vegas and now Texas, the topic of gun control is once more front and center in our conversations. What can Progressive Christianity bring to the table in this arena? I offer an entrée, food for thought, for your culinary pleasure. What one believes about God can inform one’s stance on gun control.

Would Jesus under any circumstance condone a human being taking the life of another? No. Would one human being inflicting violence upon another ever be present in the realm of God’s will, which Jesus envisioned, either now or in a future “heaven?” No.

My understanding of Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God, or God’s will for humanity, is centered around God’s love and value of life. Yet some stories in the Bible seem to contradict this. God is said to have ordered the genocide of groups of non-Hebrews. Justification? They are evil. Yet God admits to using a wicked people (The Hebrews), who are slightly less evil, as executioners. This doesn’t compute. Perhaps our willingness, and at times, desire, to use violence influences how we interpret God’s will and imagine God. For me this does compute. If God is inclined to acts of violence, no wonder we are too.

Wasn’t it God who established and decreed that the results of sin are death? Wasn’t it God who desired daily sacrifices for enjoyment and appeasement? Isn’t it God who continues to use the threat of death as a means to shape our beliefs and control our behavior? If God constructed a system of justice based upon death and violence, is it any wonder that some Christians and nations are comfortable turning to violence to resolve their problems or punish evildoers? Is it any wonder that some Christians carry a gun and are willing to use it to protect themselves or their family? Is it any wonder that efforts to legislate laws to limit certain guns in our communities, to decrease the chances of such weapons ending up in the hands of unstable individuals, or to take steps promoting gun safety in homes, are opposed by some Christians?

What if this picture and understanding of God as violent and using violence is incorrect? What if what the historical Jesus taught about God and God’s kingdom being encapsulated in one word, “love,” is right? I choose to believe it is. For this reason, I read all of scripture through the filter of love. It is my bias. It is the presupposition I bring to my study of the Bible. It is the reason why I choose not to have ammunition for my gun in the house. It is the reason I continue to ponder the validity of a pacifist life for myself and what that might look like. It is the reason why I’m googling metal artists who can take a gun and turn it into a plow.

Spiritual Direction and a Rejection of the Nashville Statement

by Teresa Blythe

Evangelical Christian leaders who refuse to accept LBGTQIA+ persons as they are recently released their treatise on sexuality and gender, called The Nashville Statement (and did so during the worst hurricane in the nation’s history for who-knows-what reason). I’m not linking to this hurtful document—if you want to read it you can google it—and I have a few points to make about why I believe spiritual direction should always be a place of radical welcome to gender and sexual minorities (GSM).

Some spiritual directors shy away from taking a stand on controversial issues that divide left-wing from right-wing Christians. They contend it’s a political subject and they want to stay non-partisan.

I choose, however, to stand with all GSM people and offer my thoughts on why a statement such as this Nashville manifesto is worth countering.

As a Christian spiritual director, I take my cues from Jesus and one of his teachings that has always guided how I treat others—whether they are like me or different from me—is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

How would I like to be treated? Then that’s at the very least how I will treat others and I believe it would be Christ-like to go even farther and treat people as they would like to be treated.

I would never want to be referred to in the angry, hurtful, heterosexist language used in the Nashville Statement. In fact, in one way, I was mentioned and I felt the burn. This statement links marriage primarily to procreation. I have no children, so I guess I’m in need of repentance in their eyes.

It also speaks of male and female as the only genders around. What does this mean for people who are Intersex and born with both male and female characteristics?

But mostly the statement employs the usual anti-gay rhetoric that has been driving the gay community away from church for the past 50 or so years.

OK, so I’ve made my point. I reject the Nashville Statement wholeheartedly. As an ally of the GSM community and as a spiritual director who loves working with a diverse and wonderfully created clientele, I stand with Jesus in loving neighbors as I want to be loved and accepted.

And I’m asking all spiritual directors to be open and affirming of gender and sexual minorities. In fact, I would say that if you only want to work with cisgender (look it up) and heterosexual people, you should really not be a spiritual director. If you fall in that category, I would encourage you to get to know some people who are different from you. Many progressive churches (UCC, some UMC, PCUSA, Episcopal, ELCA and others) are open and affirming and in those churches you will come to know people who are GSM and their loved ones. I think you will find that to know them is to love them.

Arguments about homosexuality and church teachings used to seem so complicated. But after doing spiritual direction for over 20 years now, there is no argument for me.

It’s all about the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule.

reprinted with permission from the author from Spiritual Direction 101 on Patheos

On the Light Rail

by Abigail Conley

A street preacher made her way onto the train, walking down the aisles, calling people to repentance. The odor hovering around her made it clear that her newfound faith didn’t include regular access to showers. Her language was crass, naming all the sexual sins people fall prey to, including what makes them appealing. Substance abuse was a far second in what required repentance. My drunken neighbor said to no one in particular, “Well, she’s got passion. I’ll give her that.”

I knew her particular brand of fundamentalism well, chuckling to myself as she shouted some new tenet. Only one person took her up on her offer to talk. Graciously, I wasn’t close enough to hear any of the conversation. My neighbor continued to sip from his gas station cup, a whiff of what was most certainly not a soft drink wafting over occasionally. His running commentary on events continued for most of the morning.

“Get through the train, then start over,” he said of the man panhandling. It was true. I watched the man quietly make his way from one end of the train to the other, asking each passenger for some money. Even those who had in headphones to avoid conversation were asked repeatedly, until they took off their headphones and offered a response.

When he got to me, he told his story, “I haven’t eaten in two days. Do you have just a couple of dollars? Even some change?” Truthfully, I didn’t. The three or four dollars in cash I currently have are in the glove box of my car. As he spoke, the odor of cigarettes permeated the air around him. Looking into his eyes, I saw that they didn’t meet mine or focus as they should. It’s often that way with people who are chronically homeless. I’m not trained enough to recognize the whys, but I have the guesses of mental illness, low IQ, or lifelong trauma. Truth be told, in most cases, it’s the last one that means they can’t get off the street. They’ve lived under toxic stress their entire lives and there’s no way out.

Today, the light rail was more interesting than usual. My work and life don’t often give me an opportunity to use the light rail. When I can, I do, because I believe in systems created for the good of the public: public schools, public healthcare, public transportation. The world here is different than the one I inhabit daily. The homeless people I typically encounter are in a program. They’re not the chronically homeless whose struggles are so great that they will always be homeless unless offered free public housing. These homeless neighbors have been coached to be polite, to say thank you, to act how people who want to help expect people to act.

There is a rawness on this train, a rawness that grows as the day goes on. In the morning, it’s filled with commuters and college students. By mid-afternoon, it’s full of everyone. Get on a bus if you want to see truly raw, though. The bus is where people lug groceries, and coach their kids through boredom, and sit in pain. Buses that run late and clumsily roll down city streets are a different world than the reliable, well-policed light rail.

Here’s my confession: about every third ride on the light rail, I think about calling the police. So far, I’ve talked myself out of it every time. The conversation about my racism is one I’ll hold for another day. I know that’s part of it and why I must think through events to reach the conclusion that I’ve never been threatened in any way on public transportation. Instead, I’ve been taught to see people as dangerous even when they aren’t. To fix that, I need Jesus.

When I think, “Maybe I should call the police,” I start to tell myself, “These are the people Jesus loves.” It’s difficult, at first, to believe that Jesus loves the smelly street preacher, from her unkempt hair to her booty shorts. Jesus loves that man sitting across from me, in who knows what state of intoxication at 7:30 a.m. The man asking everyone for money, Jesus loves him, too.

Jesus loves the jerk who didn’t move from the handicapped seats until asked, even though she was obstructing the only place for a wheelchair to sit. Those noisy guys who were doing only God knows what, Jesus loves them, too. And Jesus loves the probably homeless guy who was overjoyed to find today’s sports section of the newspaper left on the seat of the train.

I don’t think that Jesus loves them more than he loves me, but am pretty sure he would be quicker to show them he loves them because they haven’t had enough people to love them. This in-between, nowhere sort of place is beautiful in its own Jesus-breathed way. On mornings like this, I am grateful that it pulls me closer to Jesus.

Fear: An Invitation to Risk

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons

“Fear is good,” says Peter Bolland. “It keeps us alive. It keeps us from falling off cliffs, touching fire and kissing rattlesnakes.”

“If [humans] were to lose his capacity to fear, he would be deprived of his capacity to grow, invent, and create. So in a sense fear is normal, necessary, and creative. Normal fear protects us; motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare.”

SO why does the Bible consistently encourage us to ‘fear not?’

  • Do not be afraid – 70 times in 67 verses
  • Do not fear – 58 times in 57 verses

Because “there is another kind of fear, abnormal fear,” wrote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Abnormal fear paralyzes us, constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”

Fear can be “our greatest liability,” according to Bolland. “It keeps us from taking the risks necessary to develop our unrealized potential. If we let it, fear has the power to keep us from becoming who we really are. Fear is a thief that steals our joy.”

“FEAR is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited,” wrote Howard Thurman. “There is nothing new or recent about fear—it is doubtless as old as the life of man on the planet.

“when the power and the tools of violence are on one side, the fact that there is no available and recognized protection from violence makes the resulting fear deeply terrifying.

“Fear…becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give [themselves] some measure of protection…”

Certainly I resonant with Dr. King’s observation, “In these days of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty, is there any [one] who does not experience the depression and bewilderment of crippling fear, which, like a nagging hound of hell, pursues our every footstep?”

Dr. King was right when he preached, “Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.”

But how? Our texts, and scores like them in both Jewish and Christian sacred texts, help us know how.

Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?
I’ve learned your ways, Sovereign One.
I believe that I shall see [your] goodness, Gracious One,
in the land of the living.
Self, be patient. Self, be strong. Self, take courage in the Lord!

“I tell you, my friends,” said Jesus. Friends! “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” Recognize that the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, “for what it is—merely the threat of violence with a death potential.” With that perspective “death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death.”

Verse 5 of our Gospel reading we must hold for another discussion this week because the prospect of hell or God casting someone into it can’t possibly be handled by a sermon in a UCC context. For this morning we are invited to remember that five sparrows were sold for two pennies, yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight!

God counts even the hairs of your head. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your [Heavenly Parent’s] good pleasure to give you her whole realm, his entire dominion!

“In the absence of all hope, ambition dies.” But to know that Creator God, cares for us – cares for me – to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus “renders us unconquerable within and without!”

When the time comes to speak truth to power do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt,

When the time comes to speak difficult words to the people of God  And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.

When the time comes to do something that you’ve always been taught was contrary to God’s Law, remember how an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

When you’ve poured out your fears to God in prayer, know assuredly that like Haggar and Zechariah God has heard your prayer, and that you are living the fulfillment of the plan of God.

I wish that we had time this morning to consider every one of the 128 times we hear the admonition to lay aside our fears. Aren’t you glad we have a whole week to consider them together?! Know this morning that taken together, those 128 passages invite us to:

  • Learn to live beyond the war of nerves, keeping perspective on our priorities and values as people of faith
  • Live apart from conditions imposed by an oppressor.
  • Find ways to love while under the threat of violence when the power and the tools of violence are all on one side.
  • Create ways to live outside of the artificial limitations that offer the illusion of safety-restricting freedom of movement, of employment, or speech, and of participation in the common life.
  • Ferreting out even the smallest glimmer of hope fanning those embers into the flames of ambition.

Fear is neither good nor evil; it is [an invitation to risk] that must be read with great care. Cultivating the skill to interpret fear accurately is an essential task in the creation of the well-lived and fully-realized life.

  1. If I do this frightening thing, will it bring real quality and beauty into my life?
  2. If I do this frightening thing, will it move me further toward the fullest expression of my innate potentialities?
  3. Am I respecting my health and life, and the health and life of others?
  4. Is this fear really just a misguided attempt to protect my fragile and limiting self-image?
  5. Is this apprehension and anxiety simply the death-throes of my outmoded ways of acting, thinking and being in the world?
  6. If I took these risks and let go of my old ways of acting, thinking and being in the world, would I be closer to my highest good?
  7. Is the larger purpose of my life the realization of my highest good as opposed to being comfortable?

“If the answer to any of these questions is no, your fear is telling you something important. You should probably listen,” writes Peter Bolland. “But if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, then” remember the words of David to his son, Solomon: “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.

Seeking Justice

by Abigail Conley

One of my sustainable sermons (that’s the preacher term for ones we can recycle at a later date) is on Matthew 7:7-8. The lectionary passage is surely longer, but that’s the portion I preached on. To save you Googling or grabbing your bible, here it is:

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

While not the point of the sermon, a point of the sermon is to call bullshit. Well, actually, it’s to call horse feathers. Because church. With little kids. I’m guessing most people who read that text would agree that most things don’t really work that way. Ask, and you’re turned down. Search, and you get lost. Knock, and no one’s home. It doesn’t make for a very promising Gospel, mostly because it’s too close to reality.

Less often than I probably should, I check on the legislative nightmares going on in Congress right now. The newest distracting or incendiary tweets receive just as much news, with Trump by far the most popular Tweeter. “Compassion fatigue” comes to mind as a possibility for the constant barrage; how much more can we manage to care when assaulted day in and day out?

This week, the fight to repeal and (not actually) replace the Affordable Care Act continues, along with political attacks on rights of trans people. I care about both deeply. The collective anxiety becomes a lot to bear, though. We’re only a few months deep, but we’re a few months deep in overwhelming collective anxiety. I keep pondering the story we tell.

Right now, we’re living in the parable of the persistent widow. In the story Jesus told, she receives justice because she keeps nagging the judge until he gives her what she deserved. Presumably, he gives justice begrudgingly. It’s pretty close to how we live. The other day, a friend and colleague called; we hadn’t talked in a while and she said, “Yes, I normally call my senators during my commute, but their offices are all closed right now.” It’s funny, but the standard expectation for many of us right now.  We are the people of #neverthelessshepersisted

Some of my friends are the widow, the one who is asking, searching and knocking. Most, though, have mostly had what they needed given to them fairly easily. They haven’t had to ask or search or knock, hoping to rouse someone.

This ask, seek, knock text is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches us what the Reign of God should be. Rather than a command about we should be doing, what if it were a command about how we should respond? What if we started with the assumption that someone should be given what they ask for? Or find what they are searching for? Or have their knocks on doors answered?  

That widow should never have needed to go to the judge more than once. Similarly, people should not have to ask for healthcare more than once. No one should knock on elected official’s doors and have it remain firmly locked. That’s the Reign of God. We need that reality in front of us if we are going to persist alongside the widow. We need that worldview as we continue to seek justice.

Communion and My Transgender Experience

by Joe Nutini

A note from the Southwest Conference: This is edgier than our usual posts. It graphically describes an authentic spiritual experience. If that’s not for you, we will see you next time. But didn’t want you to be caught off guard.

 

I knelt down on the red wooden kneeler before the priest. His well adorned robe flowed gently over the railing separating us. He held the body of Christ in his hands. This was a sacred duty. We were to be subservient to the lord who had reportedly sacrificed himself for us. I did not share this story. For me, even as a young teen, the Eucharist was much more than that. I knelt because the cells of my body knew that there was something special, something mystical about the transubstantiation that took place in the communion ceremony. I did not kneel for the priest, I knelt for the mystic Christ who transcended all boundaries.

When the Eucharist touched my tongue, I often had an almost erotic experience. His body, his miracle touching me physically…this was something tangible. I could eat the in-between space that the risen Christ occupied. I felt it in my cells just as I felt my most recent first orgasm. I often experienced signs and visions that I now understand to be communications with the spirit world. When I took communion I did not feel so alien in my body. For a moment, though my gender and physicality did not fit quite right, I was able to overcome this painful conundrum.

Now here we are many years later. I started transitioning about 13 years ago. In that time I have become much more interfaith in my spirituality. I believe in variety of things, many of which could be termed new age.  I practice Buddhism as a way of life. Today I see most religions and spiritual practices as being a part of a large interconnected web. We are experiencing this web in both this world and in the metaphysical plane. My transgender experience has allowed me to see this more clearly and to feel it viscerally. There are no borders or barriers between this world and the next. Just like there are none when it comes to gender. There is only fluidity and change…there is only sacred and mystical blending, bonding, separating, transmuting and impermanence.

Thought I look much more like a man outwardly, I still consider myself a transman.  I am more on the masculine side of the spectrum. Yet, like my experience of Jesus in the Eucharist, I move through the fluidity of gender. There is a flow in my body. An existing in two spaces simultaneously.

There is a certain dharma to my transgender existence. I do not know what it means to be a cisgender man because I was not born one. That is my experience of being a transman. It certainly isn’t everyone’s experience. But for me, the lesson is to be able to occupy a space with which I resonate, even if it does not fit the boxes that society has created. In the 13 years that I have engaged in physical transition, I have not once said I was a man trapped in a woman’s body. I never had that story. I don’t feel a need to have the story to justify the physical changes I’ve made. It is simply what needed to be done. When the time came I knew and felt that it was right. This is a spiritual practice of trusting one’s own intuition and internal guidance system.

I often think back to the days when I was young and practicing Catholicism. The same catholic church that later threatened to excommunicate me if I came out as queer, provided the mystical experiences I needed to fully grow into myself as a transgender person. My body, like Christ’s risen body, occupies a mystical space. It is a physical manifestation of what Buddhists call impermanence. I think we all exist in this state. A state of in-between. A state of a body, a person, a mind, a heart and a soul in flux. I believe transgender people are here to be visible manifestations of this concept. I also believe we are here to help cisgender people move away from the rigidity of gender roles and into a more relaxed way of being.

Christ on the Cushion

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school, was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my fathers and not my mothers. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” per the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful”. I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13-14, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. IT just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the scripture or bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the US. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva”, a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand as well before.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me and in its place, was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing these teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are also complexly intertwined and simultaneously always available to me. I still learning, debating, meditating, praying and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason…a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

They’d Had a Tough Week

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons,
Designated Conference Minister

It had been a tough week for Jesus and his posse.  As Robert Brown observes in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, the realm of God wasn’t “exactly appearing overnight.”[1]

In a sobering moment, King Herod Antipas arrested Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and beheaded him.

After fleeing north to escape Herod, Jesus asked his closest friends, “Who do people say I am.” And then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am? ” Peter nails the answer with, “You are the anointed one, Son of the Living God.” Jesus used the moment to clarify for the group what Peter’s answer meant. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.[2] And then, if that wasn’t scary enough, Jesus adds, “If any [of you] want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [after] me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [3]

“Jesus’ followers had never seen crosses dangling over the stomachs of princes of the church, writes Brown, “but had seen plenty of crosses used as instruments of torture and very, very slow death.”[4]

How does one hashtag that? Yes, it had indeed been a rough week for Jesus and his followers.

One might think that being on a mountain with Jesus, and seeing him shining in all his glory accompanied by the Lawgiver, Moses, and the Proclaimer of Justice, Elijah, both dead for millennia but now somehow alive, would have captured the attention of John, James and Peter.  But they were exhausted. They’d had about as much ‘rough week’ as anyone could bear. So they laid down into as much sleep as they could find. There was a time for staying awake with Jesus but this was not it. This was a moment for surrendering to tired, and their feelings of enough.

After the mountain-top-experience in which Jesus took on the physical identity that is the real Son of God’s due, Jesus and his three climbing companions descend into the reality of a man whose soul is pierced through with the pain of caring for his epileptic son, the seizures of whom have thrown him into the fire to be burned, and rolled him into the water leaving him nearly drowned. His last hope had been Jesus’ followers waiting at the foot of the mountain for Jesus to come down again, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy of his illness.

What is a few moments of Jesus shining with God’s glory when your cousin and best friend had been set up to be murdered, when your child faces the possibility of death everyday from his illness?

Being God’s anointed, the Son of the Living God, doesn’t mean much to anyone but the anointed one if all you do with it is enjoy it on the mountain.

Being on the mountain with God’s anointed and witnessing the glory of God doesn’t mean very much to anyone but you if all you want to do with the experience is relish the perks of having had the vision.

This story’s meaning is all about God’s glory – the anointed One through whom that glory broke into the world, and the ones who witnessed God’s glory in the anointed One – coming back down the mountain and into the lives of families like the family of the epileptic boy, or the martyred John the Baptist. God’s glory only means something if we do something with it.

Those few moments of glory give meaning and reliability to the words that accompany them – words from God. Did you catch God’s words about the experience? “This One is my beloved; listen to him.”  Did you hear what Jesus said? “Rise up and fear not!”

Four other SWC pastors and I were at the ICE  building in downtown Phoenix [5]
when Guadalupe Rayos reported for her check-in appointment and was detained on Feb. 8. She was deported the next day. She was the test case for our new immigration rules for undocumented non-violent offenders. That was a tough week for the Rayos family; I saw it on their faces. It was a tough week for every family who has an undocumented loved one with a traffic ticket.

Earlier that morning the SWC announced that it joined other faith communities in filing an amicus brief in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of two Iraqi refugees denied entry into the US.  Ahmed Darweesh is a husband and the father of three children. He worked for the US military and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. The wife and son of Hader Alshawi, the other plaintiff in the case, were threatened because of their perceived ties to the US. Both men had been granted legal entry into the US only to arrive and be detained and threatened with deportation. That was a tough week for Darweesh and Alshawi and for every refugee awaiting entry into this country.

Next week the SWC becomes a friend of the US Supreme Court because we have befriended Gavin Grimm, a Texas High School student denied access to school facilities because he is a transgender youth. This week was a particularly tough week for Gavin and every trans high school student because rules protecting them and granting them access to facilities appropriate to their expressed gender were rescinded by the President.

Pastors all over our conference, and throughout our beloved United Church of Christ, have shared stories with me that everything they say seems to be heard as political speech. Maybe the examples of people having tough weeks sounded political or even partisan to you.

“Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance,” wrote John Pavlovitz in a recent blog , “and in many ways, it now is. Maybe homeless refugees and sick children and the working poor and black lives and fewer guns and universal healthcare are indeed now ‘Democratic talking points,’ he continues. “And if they are, then you should take a long look in the mirror, let your knees hit the floor, and ask Jesus just why that is. Maybe some repentance is in order.”[6]

Before anyone accuses any preacher of being political because she or he proclaims those talking points, remember that those very same talking points are in every sacred text known by humanity.

“When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?” asks Pavlovitz.[7] Yes, when did compassion become partisan politics?!

You see, beloved, the people whose stories I shared with you a moment ago are at the foot of our mountaintop experience here this morning, and they’re waiting to see what we will do with the glory of God we’ve experienced. As dark and terrifying as things might get, in the deepest, worn out, tired, lost, scared and confused moments of our lives, God’s voice still breaks into human experience inviting us to listen, to rise up, and to fear not.

NT Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, invites us to

“suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose [God] were to claim, at long last, … sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it … or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time…, but to fill it with … glory, to allow [us] to enter a new mode in which [we] would reflect [divine] love, [divine] generosity, [the Creator’s] desire to make it over anew.

“[That] might mean a living God really had established … sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to [put] an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

“Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’s transformations within the material world is what they would imply both [spiritually] and politically.”

In the transformation/transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, “Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet…where God’s new creation intersects with ours.” What if the gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” What if they are about how God is becoming more and more “ruler on earth as in heaven.”  Isn’t that, after all, how Jesus taught his followers to pray? “Your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [8]

Sometimes whole churches get caught up in their own moments of glory – past days on the mountain top – as if those glory days were an end in and of themselves. Like Peter sometimes congregations want to enshrine them, build booths of veneration to them, and never let them go.

But in today’s texts Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.[9] And so are we! Moments of glory like this one today are only valuable if in them we are transformed in ways that bring God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s compassion into the time and space of suffering and marginalized ones, in ways that heal and bring hope.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration/ transformation invites us to spend our lives stepping into both God’s glory and human suffering in ways that connect one with the other in healing hope-filled ways.

All this is more than supposition, beloved. We are not following cleverly devised myths, wrote Peter. We are in relationship with the powerful and majestic person of Jesus – the Child of the Divine One – who is trustworthy and gives us the strength to do what God has always invited God’s people to do: make God known in the world. That’s how this season of Epiphany comes to a close. And on Wednesday Lent begins, a season reminding us that there are tough weeks ahead of us, weeks filled with crosses and costs. “It’s time to listen, rise up. There isn’t any reason to be afraid.” Amen.

[1] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. P. 118ff

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes

[5] Immigration and Customs Enforcement

[6] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/

[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Hope in a Child

by Abigail Conley

“I think you have a kid in there,” I said, nodding toward his truck, and taking his empty cart back to the return for him.

“Thank you so much,” he answered, looking relieved.

Both of us were crazy enough to go to Costco in the week before Christmas and just happened to park near each other. I confess, I second guessed taking his cart for him. Mostly, I second guessed because women doing things like that for men in public space isn’t expected. I almost did it as soon as I headed toward the return with my own cart, but walked past him just a little bit. I looked back to talk to him, to offer to take his cart for him. In that split second, I might have seen his hesitation to walk away from the truck where his child was safely strapped in a car seat. I don’t know. I do remember what was expressed more deeply than usual, “Thank you so much.”

I’m quite certain he didn’t know that I’d seen him earlier, along with his son, inside the store. I was sitting at the restaurant, quickly scarfing down a slice of pizza before heading on to my next task. He walked by, between my cart and the wall, pushing his cart with both purchases and son. I noticed him because his son was crying. When I say crying, I mean that horrible version of crying that children do when they’re just done.

I’d taken notice because of the crying, and then I saw a father being a very good father. They had a smoothie, and the child wanted some. As he cried, the father gently coaxed, “Use your words.” Over and over, again, “Use your words.” The phrase is familiar, one often heard spoken by teachers and parents of young children. Those words struck me differently today, though, as the man spoke them to his son.

I thought about them after he left Costco, as I was finishing up my pizza and walking to my car. It’s the week before Christmas; the walk to the car in a Costco parking lot is extra long. I let the please, “Use your words,” roll over in my mind, thinking how different the world would be if we used our words, instead.

My mourning for Syria has been long and deep. A “complete meltdown of humanity” the news says. That might be the best summary imaginable if even half of the news making it to this part of the world is true. I fear we actually don’t know the half of it. My fear as leaders talk of the need for more nuclear weapons is deep, as well. Words, it seems, are always used to cry out for something more, too often, that thing is violence. It seems that’s the go-to answer right now, with no one quite sure how to put a stop to it all.

I don’t know any more about that father than what I just told you. Who knows what he’s like day in, day out. I have hope, though, that this father coaxing his very, very young son to use his words rather than have a tantrum might do even more good with that child in the long run. Use your words, not your fists. Use your words, not a weapon. Use your words, face to face. Use your words first, and finally.

It is the absurdity of the season, after all, that our deepest hope is in a child—a child called the Word, made flesh, and dwelling among us. The child, called Word, brought all sorts of hope along into that manger, including that swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would not learn war any more. The beauty of that impossibility lingers deep these days, the promise that we will one day put away our many, many tools of destruction.

For today, while I still await the Christ child’s coming, I am comforted a bit by this man and his child. The hopes of this season run deep: the hope for peace; the hope for fear to subside; the hope that our words become enough. To this man who I’ll likely never see, again, thank you so much.