Spacious Christianity

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Recently I was introduced to the concept of Spacious Christianity and I had one of those “aha!” moments, that moment of recognition.  The pastors at my local church, Steven Koski and Jennifer Warner, are incredible innovators and, as the kids I work with would say, whenever I talk to them I leave “mind-blown!”  So I’m not surprised that they have introduced me to a concept that gives me a much needed framework.

The idea of Spacious Christianity extends an invitation to show up, a promise that there is room for all of us with all of our diversity. It implies that in and through exploring our differences with respect and kindness we will develop a more nuanced and insightful understanding. This isn’t about dichotomy, it’s about dialogue.

It’s a recognition that we are all burdened by baggage, some of it’s ours, some inherited. It’s a way of being that is gentle with each other because of this and it never promises to have the final word or answer. It’s an invitation to explore the mystery of God and to do this together.  It requires really good listening and communication skills. It requires the ability to value and honor differences.  It implies a recognition that we are all doing the very best we can with the tools that we have and that some of us have different tools so our best looks different. And this is not only OK, it’s necessary. 

Somewhere along the line I heard a metaphor for interdependent wholeness;  that we are all working on our own image, our own masterpiece, just like someone piecing together a puzzle, only we don’t have all our pieces. And some of the pieces we do have don’t belong in our puzzle, they belong in someone else’s and someone has the missing piece we are looking for.  We need each other and this need extends beyond our working on a common project. I need you in order to be fully who I am because you help me see myself, you supply the missing pieces without which I will never be complete.  I think that’s beautiful. 

Engaging with mystery has a whole lot to do with letting go of preconceptions,  and so does really, truly listening to others.  Perhaps that’s because others are essentially mysterious. It is their otherness, their difference, that is both challenging and which invites us into a true encounter. Our preconceptions provide stability and this can feel really comfortable; it’s the “I know what kind of a person you are,” that helps us maintain our status quo. But we cannot meet one another until we let go of our preconceptions, our history with each other, our baggage, which categorizes, isolates, and separates us. To peer beneath the mask of our baggage and preconceptions requires vulnerability and a willingness to be changed by this encounter.

I do want to be clear that these are my own musings. I may be way off from where my pastors are headed but I am encouraged to share because if we really are being spacious then there is room for my voice too. And if we are creating space for all people to show up then we will have a diversity of views and that’s more than OK, it’s beautiful and amazing.

I trust that as we dare to meet each other, bravely putting down our preconceptions, dropping our baggage and forgiving ourselves and each other, that we will be transformed by this experience, that we will be drawn into a genuine encounter. And I want to be brave, I want to open myself up to God as God works in my life and in yours.  And I know if we do this we will challenge and discomfit each other and we will all be “in process” and very much unfinished and that’s OK. Because I won’t leave you hanging out there all alone and I trust you won’t leave me because there is lots of space, enough for all of us, and that’s pretty sweet!

You can read more at: http://www.bendfp.org/Who_We_Are/What_We_Believe/

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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 illustration by Nadezhda Illarionova

Recently I read Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Tara is a therapist and  Buddhist. She writes from this combined perspective and as such is prone to asking such questions as “who is the one who is watching,” and “can I feel compassion for the one who hurt me.”  These are good questions but as I read I began to wonder about another question; one she didn’t ask, “what story am I telling myself now?” You see I realize that often when I am angry, hurt or upset about something there is a narrative going on that justifies that feeling.

I love stories. Sometimes that makes me so gullible because someone will be sharing this incredible tall tale and I’ll be all like, “Wow! What happened next?” when someone more wise would be shaking their head. I love stories. I tell myself stories all the time and these stories usually make me either the good guy or the victim. I prefer to be the heroine even if it is a heroine in distress. I tell myself that I’m the one who was injured in my divorce, so wronged! I tell myself that I was one voice speaking up for abused women at seminary. I tell myself that I am one of those hurt and abused women and that the world is dangerous. I tell myself that as a single middle aged white woman I have privilege and responsibility while also being divested of power.  I tell myself a lot of things. And I usually believe my stories and that’s the rub. You see most people believe my stories and they believe their own too.  My friends have my back and they believe in me and my stories.

And my stories are true, at least historically, from my perspective, but the rub is they aren’t always true now. Not now, not today. And sometimes I act as if these old stories are still going on. I feel the emotional brunt of them and I make decisions as if. So I began to wonder what would happen if I simply asked myself, as Tara Brach did with so many other wonderful questions, what story am I telling myself now? When I am hurt and angry, what story am I telling myself? When I am sad and lonely, what story am I telling myself? When I have to move from one house to another, to another, because I don’t have a home, what story am I telling myself? When it’s been years and years since I went out on a date, what story am I telling myself?  You see some of these stories aren’t even mine. The story that if you are larger than a size 6 or 8 that no one will date you is a media story, it’s a myth.

We all have our stories. We create meaning in our lives by telling ourselves stories that explain why things happen. But sometimes we also create pain. Sometimes we diminish our expectations because it’s just too scary to hope, to try for something better. Sometimes we justify continuing in negative patterns and habits and we tell ourselves stories that make this OK.

So I’m wondering today what story I want to be telling myself. What stories empower me. What stories leave me feeling devastated and powerless.  What story do I want to hold close to my heart?

On being a grand dame, or why I like Maggie Smith

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First I think of Maggie Smith. Every time. She is the quintessential grand dame. She is incredibly unapologetic and she stirs admiration, she inspires courage and she lives with integrity.

 

In the past I have written about wanting so badly to fit in to the athletic model of beauty that is so prevalent. I generally eat less than 1800 calories a day and am usually on a diet of some kind. I work out whenever I am not injured and sometimes then too. And I recognize a sort of self-betrayal in this.

 

Lately I have been wondering about aging and what aging well would mean. I have begun letting my hair go gray and I have insisted that exercise must be joyful or I won’t do it. I have begun to imagine that I too could be a grand dame, that I too could live with the integrity and courage that I imagine someone like Maggie Smith to live with. 

 

When others look at me askance because I am overweight I want to raise my right eyebrow and look them dead in the eye. Dare them to comment and make fools of themselves. Sometimes I do manage a little anger but often I turn that anger on myself. And I wonder what it would be like not to do that.

 

When courage is called for and someone needs to speak up, often I do, but often my voice shakes and my words lack conviction. I hesitate and I wish I didn’t.

 

When I think of women of courage and authenticity I am inspired. I too want to stare down people who would disparage me. I too want to raise my voice when courage and compassion are called for and not hear it quaver. And I want to be fully who I am even when, or especially when, it’s just silly and it’s just fun and it makes me laugh.

 

And so I wonder if the process of becoming a grand dame isn’t about owning the desire to fit in and be liked, to be approved of. If it isn’t about recognizing that loneliness is the intermediate step between fitting in and stepping out on your own to find internal acceptance that doesn’t diminish or rely on other’s recognition.

 

I am beginning to realize that I can never hope to live as fully and joyfully as a grand dame nor command the respect of one if I try to make myself over into other’s expectations.  I must insist on being treated well and being valued.

 

One thing I am sure of though is that becoming a grand dame requires one to authentically like oneself. It requires a quiet acceptance of one’s flaws and one’s strengths. And I am beginning to believe that it requires one to mourn the loss of youth and a nubile frame, to go beyond that and accept aging. I am aware that sometimes being young and firm makes it easier to avoid difficult issues that seem to simply wait us out, hanging on the edge of consciousness until we can no longer ignore them. 

 

I am beginning to believe that being a grand dame means living on the existential cusp of being, where one faces dissolution and death as imminent and inevitable possibilities  and chooses life instead of despair. And I believe that becoming a grand dame means refusing to diminish oneself even if showing up fully makes others uncomfortable. 

 

As I think about the future what potential exists I know that I will never again be a sexy young thing but that I can become more myself. As a young woman I lived for others and sought their approval, met their needs, fulfilled their desires and when I was no longer able to do this I was discarded. I had difficulty even identifying what I wanted or liked.

 

Becoming a grand dame means choosing to honor myself as well as others. It means not participating in my own betrayal, my own diminishment. It means choosing positive self-regard. It means honoring my own wounds and respecting the brittle edges that surround them. It means finding that balance between being gentle with myself and being rigorous in maintaining my standards. It means showing up fully as who I am and doing my best to be unapologetic about it. It means accepting that my own power and ability to influence others, to effect change, and to speak wisdom.  It also means acknowledging that only if I can do these things will I be able to encourage other women, young women, to do the same. It is because of Maggie Smith and women like her that I feel I might be able to do the same. 

 

Tigger Unplugged

So last week I deactivated my facebook account. It appears it’s pretty easy to pop back on, see how you all are doing and what’s up, even share my blog, so I’ll likely be doing that from time to time. I won’t be on facebook full time for the near future though and I’d like to share why.

When I first joined facebook it was a means of staying connected to friends and family that I had left behind in Oregon while I attended seminary. I learned quickly to be cautious about what I posted as some people read tragedy or disaster into any whining or complaining post that I wrote. (I can’t say I’ve stopped complaining or whining though!). It’s really easy to let unfiltered thoughts become public in a format where other’s reactions are distant or unseen. I find that, for me, this can be a big issue. I find that I tend to share things publicly on facebook that I might not in a person to person conversation. It can feel really exposed and the interpretations that others make sometimes can be way off base. It’s easier to offend and it’s easier to scare people who care about me.

So I made my facebook public, welcoming all people, even those I had never met and likely wouldn’t meet. I changed what I posted and no longer wrote long notes or shared poetry. I became more involved in political comments and movements and recognized that what I posted would be seen by future employers, congregants, and work connections. I don’t mind a high degree of transparency and for the most part this has worked well for me. I like to be known for who I am.

The downside is that it affects my personal relationships. I can be a pretty exuberant person, lots of energy over here! And I do love to share. So when I am excited about something I want to bounce over and say, “Hey guess what!!!” and invite others to share my enthusiasm. With facebook this simply doesn’t happen. The reaction is typically, “yeah, yeah, I saw it on your facebook post.” There is no celebration, there is no enthusiasm, there is no authentic connection. We would have to be a very superficial and facile people if facebook posts were all that was needed to connect with each other. Even though I like to share and I can be very open, I’m just not that superficial of a person and I don’t believe you are either!

I long for authentic connection. I want to be present to the people I care about and I don’t want my presence to be dismissed as “already seen it, been there, done that.” Perhaps those who are so willing to dismiss me are never really going to be good friends anyway, but sometimes I think we (all of us facebook users, well some of us, me at least and a few I know) have simply gotten a little lazy. Perhaps we have forgotten how important it is to maintain a sense of curiousity, a sense of wonder for each other, about each other. I want to honor and treasure the gift of connectedness that I have with so many of you. I don’t want to be facile or superficial in my relationships. I want to treasure each and every one of you and if I bounce up all full of energy and I see that expression cross your face that says, “Oh God, not her again.” I want to know so that I can temper my energy and recognize that sometimes I can be a bit much. On the other hand when my heart is overflowing with wonderful things and the gratitude is running deep and I want to invite everyone to the party, if you are up for it, and I know not everyone is, but if you are and I can see it in your reaction, then hold on! Because here I come!Image

What is it that drives my crazy behavior?

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Dieting makes me wonder… you see about 4:30-5 ish I get real ditzy because I haven’t eaten much all day. This makes my drive home on a busy highway a little less than safe. I really have to concentrate on what I’m doing. I have learned to keep a stash of something, some little treat to boost my blood sugar before I head out the door.

And I can get real emotional if I’m not cautious about over-doing the diet bit. My ex-husband once told me that dieting wasn’t fair to the kids because they wouldn’t understand. Sometimes when I feel myself sinking into a big ole pit of depression I have to stop and think about what I’ve eaten, or not eaten.

All of this makes me wonder what the world would be like if women weren’t encouraged to diet, would the ditzy blond jokes be anomalous? what could women have contributed to society if being small weren’t the mark of success?

but…still I diet because I want to date and I don’t want to feel all that anger towards men when they smirk at me, on that first blind date, with their hands crossed lazily over their pot bellies and say, “I could tell you were hiding that you were overweight from the way your pictures on Match.com were taken.” Which really isn’t fair because I haven’t been on match.com for at least two years and it says right there that I’m overweight. I try not to set myself up! But still I get that smirk as if I’ve been caught trying to pass myself off.

More than anything I just want to be loved for who I am so this becomes a double bind. I know that by most people’s standards I am too large to be date-worthy and that when I am small I doubt the sincerity of anyone’s attraction. In the back of my mind I’m wondering what would happen if I gained weight again, so I don’t trust.

but…still I diet because I want to have hope and I have learned that the larger I am the less hope I have. And I realize that this whole thing is wrong and unhealthy and a little sick but I don’t know the way out of it. I have learned a lot about being safe though, about keeping emergency food nearby in case my blood sugar crashes and I become more ditzy, or emotional than usual, my eyes glazing over and my mind shutting down.

I look forward to the day when I can go back to the gym and I can enjoy being strong and fit again. For now all I want is for friends to stop reminding me that ‘some men like fat women’ and to fit into my jeans again. And I don’t want to hear the reassurance that there’s someone out there for everyone or any other platitude that fails to take this seriously because I have tried so very hard for so very long. For as long as I can remember.

All I want is to have the hope that someone, some day, might want to be with me, not in spite of how I look or because I’ll “do” until something better comes up. So I, like so many, many women before me, am willing to be ditzy, to be emotional, to be less than I might otherwise be because the alternative, being alone, is just too painful. While I hope that if I ever do meet a man who would want to be with me that he would, sooner rather than later, really see me for who I am, I know that to get there, first he has to simply look at me and at least, be intrigued.

Finding God in All the Wrong Places

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It’s interesting being on facebook with a lot of pastors. I hear all these comments, these questions about our lectionary text for any particular weekend. This week’s text drew many insights, many questions, many imaginative responses. Some wondered why the first group of petitioners who spoke with Jesus said the Centurion was worthy and deserving of Jesus’ help, but the second said he was unworthy and didn’t want Jesus to feel as if he were being asked to come into the house. Some wondered about what it means to be under authority, or to have authority and as our society struggles with questions of authority this raised some interesting questions. Others wondered about faith and the trust that the centurion had placed in Jesus. Some wondered if the centurion’s slave held a special or unique relationship with the centurion and what that might mean. All of these are good and interesting questions.

But I am drawn again and again not only to Jesus’ boundary crossing behavior but to his astonishment. Not only is Jesus immediately willing to go to a gentile, even enter his home and risk ritual defilement but before he gets there he learns that God has been working in and through this centurion, someone outside the Jewish faith. Before Jesus himself can even get there God is at work in this man’s life. The centurion expresses a faith beyond Jesus expectation. Faith which does not come from us but is a gift of God appears richly and vibrantly in an outsider. When we see Jesus astonished by God we see Jesus’ humanity affirmed. Isn’t it surprising? When I think of Jesus being astonished by God I find myself on the edge of heresy. God surprises God’s very own self. There is something wonderful about that. God make’s God’s self vulnerable to us.

I suspect that it is part of our human condition that we tend to avoid surprises. We seem to seek out familiar patterns and affirm what we already know even when these patterns aren’t healthy, or good. Often it is easier for us to stay with the familiar than to risk something new. If we stay with what we know we don’t risk being disappointed, but we may also be shutting out possibility, shutting out hope, shutting out change. Our scriptures tell us that the Spirit will blow where it will and this uncertainty disturbs us. We have a tendency to want to predict where God will show up and how. To name God, to claim God, to wrap God in our doctrines and theologies. As if we could describe God and contain God within our understandings. Seminary students are perhaps the worst at this!

Yesterday I read an  article about the band Mumford and Sons. Perhaps some of you know this band? It’s a Christian inspired rock band. This article stated that attending a Mumford and Sons concert was a ‘church-like’ experience. Yet for most of us church and a rock concert are as far apart and disparate as we can imagine! We cling to the way things have always been, our familiar comfortable descriptions of life, of church, of God, of simply the way things ought to be. We hold as inviolable the roles we maintain for each other. This centurion was a rule breaker, a boundary crosser. Imagine the conversation between him and his supervisor. “You get too close to these Hebrews! You have no boundaries! I’ve even heard that there is a slave you have allowed yourself to get close to! You are weak and your weakness makes us all weak!” Yet in his willingness to be vulnerable to those he was in charge of governing, he became an agent of healing, an agent of change, an agent of God. His ultimate authority was not the culture, it was not his commander, it was not ‘the way things ought to be.” It was God in all her goodness, grace and mercy. It was God exhibited and made manifest in all of God’s creation.

What are the boundaries within which we seek God? Do we look for signs of God at work only in our own faith, in our own culture, in our own understanding?

I wonder what it would mean for us to stand astonished with Jesus as we see God working in those places we least expect to see God working in. What would it mean for us to actively search for God in the midst of our daily lives? To search for and affirm the goodness of creation? I want to show you a video clip. Perhaps you’ve seen it, or one like it. We live in an age of surveillance, but what are we looking for?

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQMbJ5XUR68&feature=em-share_video_user

Isn’t that something? We see what we expect to see. Part of our Christian calling is to see and affirm the good in the world. When we actively seek and affirm the good  in the world, we change ourselves and then the world we live in changes. We actively call out, we elicit, the good in the world and we have faith that it will answer us. When we seek the good in the world we are deliberately provoking it, we are calling for it, we are acting in faith that it is there even when we don’t see it, and we call it into expression. We are agents provocateur provoking the world to manifest goodness.

We hear God’s affirmation of life, of creation, repeatedly in the Genesis accounts, where God pronounces a benediction over all of creation, good, very good and we are asked to respond to creation, to life, from a place of faith;  affirming this goodness, and as we do we become part of the inbreaking kingdom of God made manifest in the world. To continue to believe in the goodness of all creation is an act of defiance. The world is all too ready to provide evidence of pain and suffering, of evil and wrong doing. When we affirm the goodness of the world we do so in defiance of all that is painful,  of all that would tear us down.  John Caputo, puts it this way, “The world resonates with the echo of God’s ancient blessing of creation, so that every time the wind blows or a child smiles, we can, if we have ears to hear, detect there the murmuring of the “good” that Elohim pronounces over things, the movement of the Spirit of God listing where it will.”

Many of you know of the story of Anne Franke, a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis during WW2 with her entire family in an attic. She did not survive the concentration camps. During the years that Anne and her family hid in the attic Anne kept a journal and before she was taken away she wrote the most profound and hopeful statement, that after all she and her family had been through, after all the news of what was happening outside to others, she still believed in the good. She was a light in the dark.

Yet we do not know what she might have said if she had seen the camps. For that we must go to Etty Hillesum. Etty was older than Anne and more politically aware. She lived and worked for a time in a work camp. She knew more details of the horrors awaiting her if and when she was put on the train. Etty was so well loved by friends and family that they actually tried to kidnap her to save her from the camps, but she refused. She knew that if she escaped others would suffer. The last word we have from Etty was a postcard thrown out the side of a train headed to Auschwitz. It said simply, “we left the camp singing.” I imagine her friends thinking, “if they were singing Etty, it’s because you led them.” Etty was not naïve. She questioned the good in mankind, in her guards and oppressors. In one poignant entry she states that she had spent the afternoon watching a guard strutting back and forth by the fence and struggling with the idea that he too bore the image of God.

These stories reverberate because they astonish, because they inspire. These are stories of people who in the midst of pain and loss beyond imagination found hope, found courage, found love, found God in the strangest places, in the oddest circumstance. In our scripture today we have a group of Jews coming to Jesus asking him to do a favor for a Roman centurion. He was one of the oppressors, but they argued, he really was a good guy! He wasn’t a jack-booted thug who ravaged the countryside but one who took pity, who encouraged their worship, who showed mercy. But what a strange place to find God at work! What a strange man to display incredible faith, to bear witness to the authority and power of God. What a strange man to express such humility and surrender. Jesus was astonished! Isn’t that amazing?

When we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit we begin to see the possibility of the impossible. We begin to doubt the certainty of our assumptions and the way it’s always been. We do not give in to cynacism and despair but defiantly proclaim that what today seems impossible is possible and that this impossible possibility is groaning and stretching within us desiring to be born anew each and every day. We deliberately engage in a second naivete, not the innocence of an Anne Frank but the informed and knowledgeable faith of an Etty Hillesum, knowing the full spread of evil, of pain and wrongdoing in the world we continue to believe in the good.

Believing in the goodness of the world is an act of defiance, it is an act of faith. It is to take God’s benediction upon creation as truth. It is to affirm with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning that earth is crammed full of heaven and for those who have eyes to see every common bush is ablaze with God.  Our faith asks us to believe beyond belief that God is acting in the world even when we cannot see it, perhaps especially when we cannot see it. Our faith asks us to be astonished, to stand in awe of God working in the shadows, in the unforseen places in distant, unknown people, in strange faith traditions, in strange cultures. Our faiths asks us to be astonished to stand in awe of God working even within our own shadows, our own darkest, most seemingly irredeemable places.  Our faith asks us to surrender ourselves and our expectations that God might astonish us with grace and redemption beyond belief.  May it be so.

In Praise of a Mothering God

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Created in God’s image we sit here together to give thanks for the greatest of blessings. Created in God’s image we have been shaped and formed by those who have been birthed through us, been born of us.  It seems to me that often we mistake mother’s day as being a day that celebrates those capable of birthing children but this is not so. Today we celebrate our inclusion in the mothering work of God. We celebrate that our hearts have been torn open and made tender. We celebrate that we can no longer dwell in the self-centered concern of adolescence or preteen years but that now our hearts and our minds, our very souls have been stretched like weary childbearing bodies to include a fierce and passionate love, a love that is deep and enduring, that changes us, that changes everything.

That we can be so unseated, so knocked off balance by this love is the miracle of motherhood. It is not that we must ourselves bear and carry a child but that we must ourselves allow our hearts and minds to be broken open, to be torn asunder by this love and by the knowledge that it is not safe. It is to remain open and vulnerable to the love of one’s child knowing we cannot keep them safe from the world and we cannot make their choices. It is to remain open and vulnerable knowing that our children must walk their own path, make their own mistakes and find their own way. It is the keeping of our hearts as the open and safe place to which they can return when life has left them bruised and things become uncertain. It is not the easy provision of answers but the uneasy provision of space in our already full and often fearful hearts, the caring without certainty. This is motherhood and this is the love that God, the mothering God of scripture, gives us.

Motherhood is less about bearing and childbirth, although these are tender and sacred things, than about the waiting and the hoping, the longing and the caring. It is to spend hours wondering how one might help one’s child without intruding. It is about listening for the door to open and hearing those glorious words, “Mom! I’m home!” It is about honoring the tears and the pain of one’s child and bearing that pain with them rather than intervening. It is about the waiting through endless days, months, even years to see their hearts open and blossom with the kindness and tenderness that we saw in them as children years ago. To see them become more than they can begin to believe in. This is motherhood. It is to see our children grow into their tall, strong, bodies, their independent, seeking minds, their questing, adventerous spirits, and to know that there is more. It is to hope and to know, to wait longingly, till love infects them too and carries them into their own soul searching, heartrending journey into the heart of the mothering God.

Mothering is to be given a glimpse into the very heart of God. To know, to experience,  how power can be given up, surrendered willingly to make space for one who is loved beyond words. It is to know what it means to make oneself completely vulnerable as God has made God’s self vulnerable to us, to be changed and transformed by love. It is to know that all that we are and are not, all that we say and do, has incredible impact on those we love most and it is to be humbled by our inadequacy to this task. It is to know that at some point we must surrender our role as mother to the mothering God, to the one who is up to the task and who will not fail our children but who can meet their every need. And it is to know that we can mother only because God has our back and that the end is secure. It is the love of our mothering God for us that allows us to embrace every moment in its tender fragility and its passing temporality. We love because God has first loved us. We are mothers because God has mothered us and has shown us the way. Mothering is not simply a physical thing or a genetic thing, although these may play a part for some people, it is about loving another so wholly and completely that we give our whole selves to the task and that we allow them to have their own journey. It is to allow another to play with our heartstrings and to know that with the grace of God it will be the sweetest melody we have ever been a part of.