Exposed

Excitedly, my kids told me that there were visitors standing at the front door.

I was caught off guard. The three littles and I had just returned home from an early morning of swimming lessons and I was still standing in the kitchen in my bathing suit and bare feet. The littles had just sat down for a snack and I was scrambling to unpack, start laundry, and recover from our whirlwind morning.

That’s when visitors arrived.

Normally I enjoy visitors, surprise or otherwise. But today was different.

Today I was caught off guard.

It was never meant to be this way, a secret that took on a life of its own.

It started years ago with an awareness of how many people felt about my secret, an awareness that had been present my entire life and was experienced in conversations, sideways looks, and comments. I was aware that many people, including those closest and most important to me, had strong feelings about it. Many of them not positive, some clearly condemning.

I also knew that I felt differently. Motivated by deep love and respect for those close to me, I poured over the Bible to discern how it presented the issue, and to determine how that knowledge might impact me as a follower of Jesus. I had spent years considering the significance and meaning. Even with this, I found myself in a different place of understanding.

It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, or something I took lightly.

I was keenly aware that this secret was one to guard carefully. Though safe to share with some people and in some places, I understood it was best to hold close. Revealing this about me might cause people to think differently or less of me, and could damage relationships I hold dear. I wanted to honor those I loved and not to be perceived as flaunting this, risking my reputation and spoiling my witness.

Carefully and methodically, I guarded this part of me. I deliberately planned ways to avoid drawing attention to myself or offend those who felt differently. This was especially true at some church and family gatherings. For eight months, I’d been largely successful.

Until then.

Standing at my door, with my blissfully oblivious children loudly alerting them that we were home and completely aware of their presence, these visitors unknowingly forced my hand. I felt naked and exposed. The illusion of control and privacy that I had so carefully cultivated was shattered, and I was left standing in fear.

How would the tattoo over the surgical scar on my foot, the secret I had guarded for so many months, change things now that it had been exposed?

I still don’t know the answer or how everything will ultimately shake out, though I’ve chosen a much different journey in how I handle this now. Instead of fear and guarded secrecy, I’m working to choose vulnerability and openness, living openly and in the the Light as best as I am able. I am constantly striving to rely on God’s rich grace that is bigger than my failures when I completely get things wrong, tattoo or otherwise.

This experience was powerful. Though grossly over simplistic, it allowed me to consider in small part the burden those who feel that they must guard their sexual identity carry all the time. The constant awareness of trying to carefully protect what is revealed, the stress of being ‘outed’, the fear of damage to relationships, and the exhaustion of keeping hidden an important part of self was draining. Unlike sexuality, though, my experience was entirely by choice: to get and where to place a tattoo, to reveal or conceal as desired, even to reverse my decision if things got too unpleasant. These choices are luxuries, luxuries not afforded with sexual identity.

I’m struck by how full transparency with the Church far too often has caused fear and pain. We who love Jesus need to do better. How can we shift from reinforcing that people stay in the dark to extending invitation into freedom and Light? Can we create space for people to bring themselves, ALL of themselves, and hold that gently?  Will we trust Jesus to lead, setting aside our ideas of how that must look?

Election Crazy & The Jesus Way

I awoke today distressed, and not about the impending results of the election today. (Though, if I’m honest, that alone is enough to distress me. I seem to care more about this election that I probably should.)

This “caring probably more than I should” is why I really empathize with others who are deeply invested in the outcome. Whether their vote matches mine or they vote differently, I understand that today is wrapped in an awkward bundle of passion, hope and fear.

I get it. BELIEVE me, I do.

But that’s not what’s behind my distress.

Surprisingly, it’s not the sour taste that a long campaign season leaves, or the general weariness resulting from my attempt to consume somewhat balanced media regarding “the issues”. It’s not the ads, the opinion pieces, or the yard signs.

It’s about how many who openly call themselves followers of Christ are handling the ‘bigness’ and stress of today. And it breaks my heart.

Spending time on Facebook during election season has involved my seeing which of my friends ‘like’ Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama. Though I know this type of activity drives some people to a self-imposed media fast, it doesn’t bother me. I confess, the Social Studies teacher in me appreciates seeing the democratic process at work, and feel that it can be valuable for people to put words around the reasons why they support specific measures or candidates.

Checking Facebook last night was different, though. A political group appeared in the sidebar ticker that provides updates about what friends and family are doing online. I was not terribly surprised to see a group called “I will NOT vote for (fill in a candidate name here, since there are groups for both major candidates) in 2012” pop up in my feed, as I have family and friends all across the political spectrum. As I looked closer at the ticker, I noticed that a number of my friends were members of one of these groups, all of whom are Christ-followers, several who hold positions of leadership in the Church or community of faith.

Intrigued, I clicked over to see what kept the group going after members shared to whom they would (or would not, as the case may be) give their vote. The overall tone felt disrespectful toward those who felt differently about the upcoming election. The site moderators primarily posted opinion pieces, political cartoons/memes and election news coverage while group members engaged in name calling and open mockery of people who believed differently.

As I was thinking about the cognitive dissonance I felt over Christian leaders participating publicly in groups characterized by disrespectful and overtly negative tone, a new group showed up in my ticker: “Christians against Obama’s reelection”. Like the previous group, several publicly professing Christian friends were members. Hoping that there would be a difference between the tone of the two groups since the second publicly declared itself to be Christian, I clicked over to check out the page.

I was horrified.

Aggressive and abusive language. Name calling and hate speech. Verses pulled from the Bible and applied with seeming disregard for context.

The worst came with a short scroll down the page. A group member composed an election day prayer that the moderator(s) shared publicly. Among accusations of the President being a treacherous, lying Muslim who is “owned by the Brotherhood”, the prayer calls on God to “rid the world” of President Obama, explicitly calling him “evil” and “Satan’s child”. Last night at midnight there were 41 ‘likes’ and several comments supporting the message, most with an all-caps ‘amen’. (Mercifully, the comments section is now disabled.) By mid morning today there are 199 ‘likes’ and 82 ‘shares’.

My heart breaks over this.

199 Christians publicly judging that our President acts on behalf of Satan and calling for his death.  82 Christians sharing this ‘prayer’ in the name of Jesus.

Is it any wonder that people aren’t always jumping to learn more about the good news of Jesus?

God, forgive us.

This morning I found myself singing one of my favorite songs performed (and composed, I believe) by William and Jacob Jolliff: “Oh, the Jesus Way”. It feels timely in light of what I read last night on Facebook and what type of conduct today almost certainly holds as election results unfold.

Oh, the Jesus way

Is the way of peace

Oh, the Jesus way

Is the way of peace

Oh, the Jesus way is the way of peace

When He is King all wars will cease

May his peace begin with me.

When Christ is King, all wars (including political fighting) will end. When we choose the way of Jesus we choose peace: in our hearts, in our families, in our work, and on Facebook. Even on election day.

May we remember, today and always, that in Christ alone our hope is found, not in any candidate or political party. May we remember we have an incredible privilege and responsibility to represent Jesus with our actions and words, for better or worse. May we be constantly mindful that choosing the way of peace is an act of worship, and lean into the reality that the Jolliffs share: the peace of Jesus begins with us now.

Little Less Talk

I stumbled upon a quote by one of my favorite authors yesterday, and it’s been in my thoughts ever since.  These words capture so beautifully an idea that I’ve been increasingly drawn toward the past few months.

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, or telling them how wrong they are and how right we are…but by showing them a light so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Madeleine L’Engle

Less telling, more showing. Less condescension, more grace. Less talk, more action.

The more I consider the quote, the more true it becomes. It feels simple to see how L’Engle’s words apply to a life of faith, but I wonder if we cheat ourselves by stopping there. I wonder if her words might carry an even broader challenge to those of us who choose to follow Jesus. In a season of politics and opinions, are we more concerned with discrediting the opposition (whomever we believe the opposition to be in this particular election) or humbly sharing our understanding of the good in the beliefs we hold?

Beyond politics and general faith, these words connect deeply to how I see many in the Church treat our gay friends and neighbors. With the stated concern of “drawing others to Christ”, some who follow Christ seem to get swept up in the business of “not condoning”, in essence speaking condemnation and judgement to the very people with whom they hope to share faith. The results of this witness have been abysmal, and, far too often, deadly.

I wonder how differently things might unfold if we who follow Jesus took L’Engle’s words to heart. What if we expressed our witness through actions of service and sacrifice rather than word? What if we shift our focus to a pursuit of living Christ’s joy so fully and vibrantly that it becames palpable to those with whom we’re in relationship? What if we lived in a manner that reflected trust that God is able to connect with people even without, and in many cases in spite of, our words?

I suspect that radical, God-breathed transformation just might take place.

Praying today for grace to soak in this truth that L’Engle shares, and to live into the challenge I hear in Toby Keith’s lyrics (though I’m certain he never intended them in this way):  faith that’s “a little less talk and a lot more action”.

Merited Grace

It would be a strong understatement to say that things have been a bit busy around these parts the past month.

The extreme allergies that we battle have an inconvenient way of rewriting life. They leave me desperately longing for the normal, day-to-day ‘busy’ of raising my three littles instead of finding myself knee deep in ambulance transport, hospital stays, and fear for the next reaction.

Even outside of medical drama, the past month has been full. Through a string of what felt at the time to be random events, I was given the opportunity to practice love. The timing couldn’t have been worse, or my resources more stretched. The issues involved were horrifying. It was obvious that nothing I might do or say would begin to make a dent in very real pain, struggle, and loss. Yet, I felt an undeniably strong call to reach out, to practice love.

It was clear from the start that what I was being led toward was not the easy-peasy, convenient type of love that I tend to practice because it fits easily into my life, schedule, and preferences. Certainly not the “this-love-will-probably-come-back-around-and-benefit-me-in-the-future” kind of love that finds itself at home in my heart more often than I’d like to admit. This was different. It was an opportunity to practice the kind of love that I dream and write about, the love to which I believe Jesus calls us.

And it was hard. Constant, and utterly exhausting.

It was also surprising.

I was surprised by the deep peace I experienced as I was following what I felt to be Jesus’ leading. I was surprised as well by how people from different churches, generations, and walks of life worked together to tangibly support someone they knew nothing about other than having need in a horrible situation. It was Jesus’ love in action, and incredible to witness.

I was also surprised by reactions from some in the Church. Many followers of Christ knew those in need, and used the painful situation to share what they saw as past failures and choices of which they did not approve. I heard that any attempt to offer support was a both undeserved and a waste, that my efforts wouldn’t end up changing anything long-term. I was told I was being taken advantage of, pouring out my time and energy only to be discarded when needs were met.

It was a sea of judgement, and waves of condemnation came crashing down.

I suspect some spoke from a place of having been taken advantage of before. Others shared from a place of past hurt or betrayal. Others still spoke out of a desire to protect me.

There was, however, another message that came through loud and clear: grace shouldn’t be wasted on the undeserving.

This idea reminded me of Mike Yaconelli’s perspective in ‘Messy Spirituality’—

“Nothing in the church makes people in the church more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace “more responsible” by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out (which, as I understand it, are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include).”

Why do we, as followers of Christ, refuse others entry to the party by judging the merits of their attendance? How can we better extend grace as we’ve so abundantly been given? How do we move away from the false paradigm of merited grace?

And, one step farther, what are our words and actions toward our gay neighbors communicating?

Unwittingly Defined

After weeks of nursing my three littles through the nasty summer crud that’s been sweeping through town, I succombed. And, as is often the case for mamas in the sick-bay trenches, my sleep-deprived body was no match for the crud that hit me like a ton of bricks. What began as a nasty cold/flu evolved into a nagging cough, which blossomed into a full-blown lung infection.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time.

All that to say, I had some extra time recently to catch up on my reading and Facebook. I clicked over to a friend’s page who had recently moved, hoping for an update on her new life in North Carolina.  What I found instead were words she shared with hurting and upset friends after suffering deep injustice.

“The way we fight defines us.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, nearly choking on my tea.

The words were so simple, and at the same time profound. They rang of truth, and have stuck in my head since I read them.

The way we fight defines us.

These words weren’t  spoken to people of faith, but without a doubt they have challenged mine.

For those of us who represent Christ when we call ourselves his followers, what does the way we fight say about him? Do we take the high road, even when the invitation to travel the low is desperately tempting? Do we hit back? In the midst of deep frustration and anger, do our actions point others toward or drive them away from Jesus?

Facing Inward

So, where did we leave off?  Ah, yes.  Fighting.

I really believe that the spark of disagreement is often faned into a blaze of an ugly fight by the magnification of difference and perceived lack of common ground. Our perspective informs our feelings, which often drive our actions. More often than not, the situation isn’t as desperate as we fear.

It seems that it all boils down to fear. Fear that we’re alone, that we’re not enough, or that our work to see the perspective of the other person might uncover our own wrongs. We fear that our weakness will be exposed, and that we’ll be hurt deeply. We fear that we’re so far off from each other that we need to fight more extreme even have a chance of being heard.

Our fear seems to drive our desire to self-protect and to “fight beyond”, and does little to move toward restoration or healing.

Something that’s helped Jeff and I get through the these “standing together but looking outward” cycles has been counter intuitive, and often really, really scary. In the moment of deepest vulnerability and frustration, we try to (note the inclusion of the words ‘try to’ lest you think my feet aren’t firmly anchored in reality) step away from our attacks on the other, and look at why we feel so defensive. There’s usually a reason, often only tenuously linked to the topic being argued, that is a deep insecurity or wound. Whatever the reason, we feel so vulnerable that we shift seamlessly from conversation into defense mode, lobbing attacks on the other person to fend off assault (real or perceived) on our place of hurt. It’s only when we realize our insecurities and wounds that we are able to break the nasty cycle.

Realizing our own insecurities and wounds, actually naming them and saying them out loud, is horrible. What’s even harder, though, is sharing those vulnerabilites with each other during conflict. It feels like a major tactical error—like mailing the enemy a map to the weakest section of the fortress wall during a fierce battle, with a direct route to the slumbering King’s bedchamber clearly displayed. It feels like a death wish. It’s scary because we don’t know what the other person will do with our disclosure. Will they hold it gently? Or will they use it to destroy us?

It seems that sharing weaknesses with each other is the key that opens the door to grace, though. Sitting with each other, holding brokenness and humbly asking for mercy, opens our hearts to see another perspective. It loosens the entrenching work that’s been done, and changes our posture of facing outward back toward the middle. Facing the middle brings relief— we see each other on the same spectrum, and realize that we’re not actually as far off from each other as we originally feared.

In a climate of polarization, in the world of politics as well as in the Church, how do we avoid letting our insecurities, wounds, and fears dictate our actions? How can we move toward vulnerability with each other, even (especially?) those with whom we disagree? How can better ask for, receive, and extend mercy?

Back-to-Back on the Spectrum

This may come as a surprise, but Jeff and I have seen conflict in our marriage a time or two.

I know, shocking.

Fortunately, we share the values of honest and direct communication, and we work to see the perspective of the other, especially in places of disagreement.  These values, as well as shared commitment to attempt fighting fairly, result in misunderstandings that generally resolve quickly and without major casualties along the way.

It isn’t always the path of smooth sailing around here, though. There are times when our disagreements go very differently. Out of nowhere, tensions spike and anger flames. What began as a simple disagreement somehow morphs into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

We’ve found that even in our ugly fights, we’re often approaching the issue from a similar place. It helps to think about our disagreements as a spectrum, or a line extending infinately in each direction, each of us at a different point on the line. We’ve been surprised to find that most of the time it doesn’t really matter how near or far away from each other our positions are on the spectrum, but it matters profoundly the direction we face from our points on the line.

When our positions are close to each other and we face toward the middle, we see that we’re not as far off from each other as we originally feared. We see hope. When we face outward, pointing in opposite directions, it’s a different story. We don’t see common ground, and believe that the other perspective is so far from our own that it’s not even visible. We fight harder, and more extreme. We pull farther and farther from our original position near the middle, reaching toward the far ends of the scale.  This ‘fighting beyond’ what we actually believe moves us from conversation and relationship into a negotiating mentality: advocating for a more extreme position, knowing already that we plan on “giving a little” to move toward the middle (which, incidentally, is exactly where we started). We pour effort into entrenching ourselves in an outlaying position, gearing up for battle, rather than into listening, understanding, and working to see our common ground.

It seems like we do this as Christians, too. Sometimes we lose track of the reality that we’re all standing together in largely the same place, the ‘main idea’ of Jesus. We allow our observation that some of us more naturally face toward the side of God’s grace and mercy and others face toward the side of God’s holiness and justice to become fear—fear that our perspectives are so desperately far off that we’re not even on the same continuum. Grace see-ers begin to fear that those who see things differently are on a completely different plane, and worry that it’s a “God as vengeful, condemning, smack-bringer-when-expectations-are-not-lived-up-to” plane.  Holiness and Justice see-ers worry that those who see things differently are on a “willy-nilly, ‘anything goes’, pushover God” plane.  Standing together while looking outward seems to force our focus on our differences, rather than on the understanding that neither perspective is more right than the other—that both reflect important aspects of the character of God. Both are part of the same spectrum, together.

I wonder if the magnification of difference and perceived lack of common ground serves as a ripe compost of fear. And from the rich manure of fear grows disdain for those who see things differently, which yields a strong crop of pride, arrogance, and judgement of others at harvest time.

If this is true, it’s probably time to find new compost. How can we shift our focus from our differences onto our common ground instead? How do we turn inward after standing back-to-back, facing outward?

Asserting Love

I’m not a Southerner myself, so this is admitedly hearsay. However, I understand that there’s a Southern coloquialism that’s quite popular: “bless her heart”. What on the surface sounds to be a sweet, well-meaning phrase is in practice used to preface something unkind, harsh, or that we’re not proud to say. You know, like saying “Bless her heart, she can’t pass up a donut to save her life.” That kind of thing.

I feel like I’ve stumbled across the Christian equivalent of ‘bless her heart’ recently: “I say this in love”. Just like its Southern counterpart, the way this phrase is used sometimes feels like a magic wand, or a secret code. It seems to allow Christians to set aside responsibility for any consequences of their words about to follow. It functions as a free pass to say whatever we want.

This past week I’ve seen many things said “in love”, especially in regard to my creating space for conversation about how we understand homosexuality in the Church. Despite the stated intent, being “spoken in love”, I didn’t experience it as such.

“Saying this from a place of love”, or any of its derivatives, feels eerily similar to something Jeff and I call the “I’m Funny Rule”. The rule is this: an inversely proportional relationship exists between how often a person feels the need to tell others how (adjective) they are and the reality of how true that (adjective) is in actuality. The more often a person says “I’m really funny”, the less likely it is to be true. It’s the same with humility, inteligence and physical attractiveness: the more a person talks about how that characteristic applies to them, the less true it seems to be. The most hysterical people typically don’t run around announcing it—they just are. The same thing holds true with those that are highly intelligent, and is especially true for the humble. They don’t need to convince others how true those things are, it’s plainly obvious.

This rule reminds me of  how my 4 year old daughter plays ‘make believe’. The majority of time spent playing ‘make believe’ is comprised of her running around asserting who she is pretending to be. “Hey, Mommy!  I’m Cinderella!  Look at me, Daddy!  I’m Cinderella!  Hey, brothers—it’s me, Cinderella!” This cycle can (and often does) repeat for hours, with no end in sight. She is so busy asserting that she’s Cinderella (or whatever role captures her attention that day), trying to convince us of who she wants to be, that she often never actually gets around to the business of being Cinderella.

Lately the phrase “I’m saying this in love” strikes me in the same way. If we are confident that our message is inherrently loving, there should be no reason to convince others of the point. It almost seems as if we doubt our own motives so we try to cover our bases by “saying things in love”. I wonder if we are acting out our faith the same way my daughter plays “make believe”? Do we assert that we’re acting out of love, or do we simply act out of love?

The Parable of the Leprechaun Gold Coins*

I reflected on the variety of response to my last post over a few cups of coffee this morning. A few brave souls posted their perspectives publicly (thank you, Old Marine and Melanie!), and several others shared through emails and in private conversations. Each perspective was marked by vulnerability and honesty, and was unique in the way they used words to give color to something that ultimately is much more broad, deep and all-encompasing than words are able to paint. It was awesome.

It was awesome because each perspective reflected a piece of the greater truth of the character of God. When we start to put all those pieces together, the result is a more clear understanding of God.

Like I said, awesome.

I noticed, though, that our sharing created a paradox of sorts, an unspoken tension. Some of the ways we understand aspects of God, if taken to an extreme, can appear to contradict other parts. Can we actually hold several different aspects of God together, at the same time? I found myself marveling at the challenge of fully aknowledging our not-enoughness and need for Jesus without devolving into complete self-loathing, demeaning messes.

It was in this state of reflection I found myself as I prepared a mid-morning snack of sweet potatoes for the kids.

My kids and sweet potatoes.

If I say we’re eating sweet potato fries, nary a bite will be taken—it’s as if the children are so offended I am trying to pass off the imposter vegetable as a “fry” they can’t bear to stomach more than a tiny taste. If I call them ‘sweet tater wedges’ to play up the natural sweetness, they are pushed around the plate pityingly before being cast aside altogether. Simply calling them sweet potatoes has no better result, and I might as well be calling them boogers for all they’ll be consumed. (Though, if I’m painfully honest, boogers would probably be eaten much sooner by the discerning panel of my three littles.)

If, however, I slice the sweet potatoes in thick rounds and bake them so they are soft in the middle yet crispy on the edges (you know, exactly the same way as I prepare both the fries and wedges) and call them Leprechaun Gold Coins? They’re gobbled up in seconds. No matter how many I bake, they are gone in the blink of an eye.

It’s not as if the kids believe that the Leprechaun Gold Coins are materially different from the sweet potato fries or wedges. I don’t whip up a batch the night before and pull them out in the morning with a flourish as a surprise, or pull them from a bag or a box that’s been already processed and prepared. I just bring out sweet potatoes—plain, dirty, fresh-from-the-ground sweet potatoes. Then, the kids watch me wash and prepare the sweet potatoes, step by step. (Sometimes they even help.) There are NO surprises. Everytime, without fail, it’s how I talk about the sweet potatoes that guarantee that they’ll either be eaten or sit on the plate, untouched.

All of this made me wonder if  what happens with kids and sweet potatoes is similar to what happens when Christians talk about “the main idea” of Jesus. Some of us more naturally connect with the aspects of God reflected in justice and holiness, while others more naturally connect with parts of God reflected in grace and love. (Even writing that feels a little funny, because I wonder if this is a false paradigm. I wonder if it’s not an either/or situation, but instead a both/and paradigm.) Both of these perspectives seem to give voice to an important part of the character of God. Neither one is more or less ‘God’, just as the Leprechaun Gold Coins and Wedges are no more or less ‘sweet potato’. They’re both the same thing, just presented differently.

To be clear, I’m not advocating changing what actually ‘makes up’ the message of who God is any more than I changed up what ‘made up’ the sweet potato dishes I served. (Which is not at all.) Instead, I’m wondering if increased awareness of how we approach conversation about who God is, together in the Church and with friends who may not hold the same beliefs, might bring about dramatically different results.

If this is true, as I suspect it might be, are we willing to set aside our own strong preference for Leprechaun Gold Coins and see value in the other ways of serving sweet potatoes? Can we work to create space for others to have Wedges without feeling like it devalues our own preference for how sweet potatoes are served?  How can we better focus on the ‘sweet potato’ that ties us all together?

*This parable is not included in the canon of Scripture.  🙂