Confession

** In the wake of the marches on Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th and 12th I have decided to write about my journey (still in progress) of divesting myself of whiteness, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Before getting in to discussions explicitly pertaining to race, I believe it will be helpful to begin here – with a conversation on confession. 

I am a child of the American church. I was born into a United Methodist Church. I spent midweek mornings as a young child in an Evangelical Presbyterian Church while my Mom attended Bible Study. I spent evenings during elementary and middle school attending AWANA clubs at a Southern Baptist Church. The karate class I took was housed in a Pentecostal Holiness Church. My youth group years were smattered across time in Evangelical Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Willow Creek-inspired churches. During college I was involved in Baptist Student Union, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Campus Crusade for Christ. I have history in U.S. evangelical Christianity. It birthed me, it raised me and it gave me many gifts.

One such gift, is understanding the place for confessing sin. I heard about it every Wednesday night without fail during the Bible study portion of AWANA. Whomever was speaking would end their lesson with an “invitation” – as any good Southern Baptist would – some more jarring than others. The consistent theme in all of the invitations was the opportunity to confess ones sins to God and receive forgiveness. I did this when I was twelve. I was too embarrassed to even raise my hand, as the speaker had requested. Having established quite an excellent reputation at church throughout my elementary school years, I felt like I would be letting everyone down if they knew I had been doing this from a place of self-service rather than obedience to God. So I confessed quietly, in my heart, in my own chair and never said anything to anyone.

I shared a similar practice of confession with people on the beach in Panama City, Florida during spring break in college. Armed with a colorful packet of artistically shot photographs, I marched out on to a beach full of college students to invite them in to conversations about spiritual things over a beer. Except, they were the only ones drinking. I remember sitting cross-legged on a beach towel while debating the existence of God with a guy a few years older than me. His face pink and warm from the sunshine and alcohol. In my head, I silently judged him for his drunkenness and the profanities he wove into our conversation, and I prayed in my head he would confess his sins. He didn’t. And neither did I.

I had forgotten that sitting in a place of self-elevation and judgement of another isn’t the Way Jesus showed us to live either.

My experience of church has always been one where confession was something we talked about a lot, but practiced very little. The unspoken message beneath the weekly invitation was that if you had prayed the words of confession printed on the back of the bulletin once, then you were set for all of eternity. There was also little need for being specific about what we were confessing either. I learned to view humanity through a lens of “total depravity” which, at that point, I understood to mean that I and everyone else was completely sinful and broken and needed total forgiveness. When you believe everything about yourself is wrong and sinful and ugly, you don’t have to practice discernment or be specific when you confess. I had prayed and confessed that I was terrible and wretched without specification silently when I was twelve, so there was no need for further practice of confession as far as I knew.

Five years ago I stumbled upon the Book of Common Prayer, which records prayers and liturgies Christians have prayed and followed for hundreds of years. It gives a structure to a persons’ prayer life and guides a persons reading of Scripture. One of the prayers I discovered in the book was the prayer of confession, to be prayed – according to some – daily:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

Confession for things I have left undone? Confession as part of my daily rhythm of prayer? This was new to me.

Slowly though, I began to develop a sensitivity to the things this prayer spoke to, the ways in which my life does not line up with the example of Christ in the things I think, the words I say, the things I do and the things I fail to do. As I began to come to an awareness in myself of those things, I also began to be able to articulate them to others.

As I begin to look at the ways in which white supremacy is interwoven in to different aspects of our culture and worship in the U.S. I want us to begin here, with confession. Discussions around race and justice are challenging, and can often leave us feeling paralyzed. Confession is one of the paths out of paralysis. In Twelve Step programs, the first steps are to admit powerlessness, seek a Higher Power, turn ourselves over to God for God’s care and then to take a “searching and fearless” inventory of ourselves.

For many who, like me, grew up in evangelical Christian traditions, our faith called us to the first three steps. We realized we were powerless to sin – in such ambiguous terms – and called upon God to save us. Many of us stopped there though, because our sin often tore apart our lives in subtleties and we believed ourselves recovered because our brokenness was not as visible as some. In these tense times though, we are invited to continue working the process. To take a searching and fearless inventory, in this case of the ways in which we are complicit in the system and practice of white supremacy.

May we continue to show up fearlessly to face injustice and evil wherever it lies in wait whether in our country, our cities, or in our own hearts.

 

Photo credit: Bored_Grrl.

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The Story

One of the most sure-fire ways to get under my skin is to cop a grandiose (and often far-reaching) “Well, the Bible clearly says…” in the middle of a conversation about the intersection of faith and policy and our shared life together as humans flying through space on a living rock. There’s not much about that scenario that is abundantly clear. We exist in tensions and grey areas, always learning from one another and from our mistakes.

And yet…

And yet…

And yet…

There are some things, written time and time again, forming a consistent arc throughout Scripture. These things we seem all too ready to overlook or cast aside.

That God is with us.
That God is for us.
That God, for some reason, chose and continues to choose to work with and through us.
That God moves to draw more and more people to Godself.
That the revelation of God’s grace gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

From a chosen family, to a chosen nation, to a priesthood of believers.
From a tent, to a temple, to an ascension leaving us staring into the clouds with wonder.

The table gets bigger time and time and time again until John has a vision of a giant feast with people from every tribe, and every nation, and every tongue gathered at around the table.

Within this arc there is no space for building walls and closing doors, that’s the wrong direction.

The table never gets smaller, only bigger.
Groups of people are not kicked out, only welcomed in.

First the Jew, then the gentile.
First a call to love your neighbor, then a call to love your enemy.

So for those of us who claim this tradition, that’s the arc of our story, too. It’s not just that we read about this expansion of the God’s grace and love in a morning quiet time, it’s the pattern our lives should reflect.

First your people, who sing the songs you like…and then the people who sing the songs you cannot even begin to sing along with.

First your people, who preach the messages that feed you…and then the people who preach the messages that make you angry.

First your people with whom you know which jokes will be funny and which values may be assumed…and then to the people who could not be more unlike you.

The table always gets bigger.
That’s how the story goes, the story we signed up not just to believe but to be a part of when we decided to follow Christ.

We decided that it was more advantageous to build bigger buildings than bigger tables though. The fastest way to build a bigger building is to gather a whole bunch of similar people. We blessed this idea and called it “church growth.” I’m not sure which hermeneutic we used to get there, because when I look at the growth of the Church in Scripture it hardly seems like a bunch of similar people who gathered. The Church seemed to grow when there were a lot of people with differences who gathered in defiance of the social constructs which pushed them away from one another. The Church seemed to grow when this rag-tag group of Jews and Greeks, free people and slaves, rich and poor gathered and shared and dared want and hunger to exist in their midst.

The Bible clearly says that.

Which is inconvenient, so we ignore it.

It is inconvenient for the table to get bigger. This is not a happy-clappy, Instagrammable feast with flower crowns and microbrews.

It’s hard to come to the table with someone who sees the world differently than you do.
It’s hard to break bread and pour wine with someone who may abandon you after dinner.
It’s hard to wash the feet of one who would betray you.
But this is the way we have chosen.

It is fine if you are compelled to work for walls and new policies to keep people out in order to “keep your family safe,” just realize that is a different story you will be living in when you make that choice.

It is fine if you chose to hold on to your anger because a person or a group has hurt you, just realize you are choosing a different story when anger become the center and the animating force.

The table always, only gets bigger in this story, and it is most inconvenient to continue to choose to live in it.

 

 

(Image: mrhayata)

Taking up Space

I’ve spent the last several years of my life purging closets and emptying drawers.

Minimizing.

Trying to use less water, less energy, less resources.
Produce less garbage, and compost and recycle more.

Just this past weekend, a bookshelf and two full bags of random old things were evicted from my home.

Smaller impact.
A simpler life.

These are good things.

A more long-standing practice in my life, though, has been learning to reign in my larger-than-life, bombastic feelings and reactions to the world around me.

Smaller impact.
More managed, more acceptable, more polished.
I resonate with our family’s omnipresent Disney princess, Elsa, on this:
Conceal don’t feel, put on a show.

That’s not such a good thing.

I remember my Dad looking me in the eyes when I was twelve and he was beginning a new chapter of life by going to medical school:

“You have to be strong.” 

I’ve always been a determined, disciplined person so being told to be “strong” (even as a twelve-year-old) didn’t feel like too great of a burden.

I’m sure I had more than my fair share of outbursts and sulky attitudes as a teenager (in fact, I know I did), but I did try to follow through on my Dad’s instruction. I tried to be strong – both for my family and for my own sense of identity.

I’ve never been a particularly “girly” girl. I opted out of ballet in favor of martial arts. I hated sewing and cross stitch and knitting and all the things requiring being very still and meticulous for long periods of time. I played more with mud and rocks and sticks than I did my dolls – and when I did play with them, my Barbies were going on secret rescue missions to save orphans and lost puppies, instead of going to the mall.

Being “strong” was a way to differentiate myself. Especially in the conservative Christian community I grew up in, where girls – especially as we broached adolescence – were quite concerned with honing their homemaking skills and cultivating “gentle, quiet spirits” so they would make excellent wives one day.

“Gentle and quiet” were illusive, and I possessed none of the typical skills associated with homemaking at the time, so I sought out “strong” instead. In part at my Dad’s request, and in larger part because if I couldn’t conform to the norm, at least I could rock at being an outlier.

Somewhere along the line of trying to either conform to “gentle and quiet” or be the most bad-ass strong, solid woman ever, I found my way to “small.”

Maybe because if I shrank my feelings, my fears and my self it was easier to manage, to bind into a polished and strong exterior.

Maybe because if I shrank my strength, it was less intimidating and brazen.  It seemed more “gentle and quiet” if I bound it up and kept it for just my own purposes.

Don’t get me wrong, I can seem as big as I  want to be.
I can laugh loud and light up rooms and set more places at bigger tables and fill platters with more food. I hug tight and give obnoxious amounts of high fives. Obnoxious.
When a room is dead, I can be the helium which lifts it up.

But did you know that helium is one of the smallest elements that exists?
Helium floats because it takes up so little space of it’s own.

And I stand with my arms folded tight across my chest.
I sit with my hands tucked beneath or between my legs.
My fists are closed more often than my hands are open.

Even though my words would never betray me, my body – when I’m not conscious of it – screams “smaller, smaller, SMALLER!”

If I truly engage my feelings, then I’m emotional and weak.
If I truly display my strength, then I’m too bold and intimidating (if not downright bitchy).

So I go through life, conscious of every gesture and smile; every glance and expression.
Even when I seem to be over-the-top excited, I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing. Just ask me, at any given moment, and I can give you a detailed rationale as to why.

I don’t think I’m the only person who does this.
I know other people (especially other women) know what this feels like.
To be bound up tightly on the inside as if a corset were holding all of your reactions and feelings and emotions into the figure and form society has deemed acceptable, even though you’re actually crushing yourself to a slow death.

I don’t want to live like that anymore.

I think we’re supposed to take up space.
Which means we’re going to have to be big enough that we can’t be everything to everyone all the time.

I am going to have to big enough to be someone who isn’t always only helium, filling up ever-more balloons for non-stop parties.

I want to live life with arms wide open, instead of scrunched and tight across my chest.
Legs crossed, fists clenched.
Smaller and smaller.

I want to be open and aware and present and completely here in the moments of my life.

One time, a woman was confronted about being caught up in the moment, listening at the feet of Christ, rather than hosting and rushing and serving and being concerned with ALL THE THINGS.

To those upset with her for being there, Jesus said:

“This will not be taken away from her.” 

We are given an opportunity to be enchanted and caught up in the movement of Christ at every turn, because we carry the Image of God within us. 

Every day is an opportunity to bear witness to the Divine at work.

I’m planting myself here. Taking up my space. Fully engrossed in the whispers and words and subtle movements of God all around me.

And it feels scary to sit here with my arms open and my heart exposed, but if I listen closely I hear the assurance from the One who drew me here in the first place:

“This will not be taken away from you.”

*Image credit: Herb Real via Flickr. 

 

 

 

Deconstruct:Reconstruct – The Summum Bonum

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When Ben and I first drove up to Milwaukee from West Virginia six years ago, we missed one tiny split on the highway around Chicago –  it was one small lane change. Unfamiliar with the landscape of the midwest, we drove for an hour before we realized we were getting deeper and deeper into rural Illinois and were nowhere near Wisconsin.

We’ve all gotten off track before, right? A little lost when we’re trying to go somewhere new?

As Christians, our whole tradition is the practice of striking out in a new direction:
God called Abraham to leave his home and family to go to a new land.

God led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt to a new land.

John the Baptist took his rabbinical teachings out of the Temple where his father served and into the desert.

Jesus took his teachings to the outcasts of society – the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans – breaking with the tradition and the holiness laws.

Paul took his teachings to the gentiles and to the people whom he would have long assumed completely outside of God’s capacity to work in and through.

And so on and so forth.

Our tradition is to set out for the unknown, going to the “ends of the earth,” so as we’re on this journey it’s prudent to stop and ask ourselves honestly, in our own lives and contexts:
Are we on track?

And perhaps we exercise the discipline of looking within ourselves, rather than taking the much-frequented route of pointing fingers and plucking splinters out of others. Let us look deeply into the mirror and search for the planks in our own eyes which blind us.

I, for one, lost the plot somewhere along the line. You know, the plot we read and study and preach and meditate on and honor in art pieces and such?

God creates the world and humanity.
Humanity chooses a path that tears apart and destroys the world and other humans.
God patiently and painstakingly draws humanity to Godself, and to a love for God and other humans.
Humanity doesn’t get it, so God becomes human to help us understand.
And when God-in-flesh is asked what is most essential rule of #alltherules,
he says this:

“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love God.
Love others.
Love yourself.

Could it really be that simple?

A couple weeks ago my friend Tim was talking about the philosophical concept of summum bonum – or “the greatest good.”

Tim explained it this way: the summum bonum defines the whole system for a given philosophy. It is the goal, but it also defines the means by which you get to the goal. It is the most essential thing, and if at any point you lose the summum bonum the whole system is for naught.

Different philosophers throughout the ages have identified different summum bonum.  For some the greatest good is beauty, for others law and order. Utilitarians would say the summum bonum is productivity, and rational deontologists would say it is duty.

For those of us who identify a Christians, our summum bonum seems to be love.

We look to the accounts of Jesus’ life to inform our definition of what love is:

Love goes to the outskirts, to those discredited for their lack of social capital and to those despised for their unjust gain in the system.

Love goes to weep with and heal broken and the sick, and love interrupts the life as usual of those who are well and at the top of their game.

Love feeds the masses in the field, and love accepts the invitation to the exclusive dinner with the elite.

The thing I find most beautiful (and annoying) about the love demonstrated by Christ is that it was a spacious, generous love. A love that insisted on and instead of either.

When the community in Corinth was wrestling with how to live a life of love, Paul described it like this:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.  

(1 Corinthians 13, The Message)

But when I look at my life, can I say those things about myself?

Is the defining characteristic of my life and practice of the things I say I believe on target?

I never give up.
I care more for others than I do for myself.
I don’t want what I don’t have.
I don’t strut.
I don’t have a swelled head.
I don’t force myself on others.
I don’t demand to be first.
I don’t fly off the handle.
I don’t keep score of the sins of others.
I don’t revel when others grovel.
I take pleasure when truth flowers.
I put up with anything.
I trust God always.
I always look for the best.
I never look back, but keep going till the end.

We live lives inspired by the God who became Flesh and Bone to demonstrate this love, and empowered by the Spirit of God – nothing is impossible – yet we settle for so much less.

We look for evidences of God at work in miraculous, unexpected healing; in large arenas with smoke and lights and loud music.

We look for God in the interruptions, the breaks from life as usual, all the while claiming to follow God Emmanuel – God Who is With Us.

Paul starts off his statement on love with this reflection:

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 

There must be love. Above and below and overarching everything else: love.

All of the law and the prophets are summed up in this- the summum bonum of our tradition. Love.

While we look for bigger crowds, brighter lights, and more astonishing signs, consider this:

In this fractured and hemorrhaging world, what could be more miraculous than love?

As much discipline and energy that we invest in studying the Word, pursuing justice, crafting apologetics, planning services, writing songs, baking casseroles and however we work out our faith – should we not also invest so much more in cultivating and experiencing the one thing that remains before and behind and beneath it all?

So the brilliant theologians will one day stop writing,
the inspiring preachers will fall silent,
the worship leaders with their lights and guitars will be stilled and this will remain:

Only Love.

 

 

 

Searching for Sunday: Confession

My footsteps echoed loudly against the hard wood floor, stained deeply like burnt sienna. The sounds from my high heels against wooden planks bounced from the floor to the rafters to the vast painted dome above and finally back into mine and a dozen other sets of ears around me. I felt like I was invading.  I’ve never been in a Catholic church before, much less a basilica.

I made my way cautiously along the aisle by the confessional booths, equally confounded by their need for existence, ashamed of their abuses and desperately wanting to fling myself inside and break my heart open.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. 

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Confession is unmistakably absent from much of my personal church history.  I got off pretty easy when I repeated the sinners prayer that night after AWANA. I silently repeated the words of the teacher up front. “I confess my sin” I prayed within myself.   No need to be specific about what those sins were. After all, Jesus died to take on all of my sin anyway, so why name them?

Confession lacked by omission, “I have an unspoken prayer request.”
Confession lacked by volition, “You don’t want to hurt our witness, don’t let them see you struggle.”

Confession just…lacked.

I spent many years of faith claiming a rejected, murdered Messiah who routinely welcomed those who were openly hurting and broken, all the while trying to present an polished and perfect appearance to the world around me.

Like so many others, I failed to value confession as a discipline of the faith.  Awkward and painful and time consuming as it is though, confession is vital. When we lose confession as a discipline, we immediately buy into the lie that has pulled humanity away from God since the very beginning: Do this, and you’ll be like God.

Don’t let them see you sweat, and you’ll be like God.
Save face, and you’ll be like God.
Hide your struggles, and you’ll be like God.
Overcommit your wallet…
Over work your life…
Over simplify your arguments…
Over look the faults of your ancestors…

…And you will be like God.

Except, God isn’t looking for people to hide and cover and stitch together facades of life so that they might be “like” God.

“We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.” (Searching for Sunday)
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I had dinner with a friend last week.

Actually, I had vegan desserts in the middle of the afternoon, but we called it dinner so it was.

“What’s your story?” He asked, and I shimmied around the joys and broken bits of my life like a flamenco dancer.

“How about you?” I ended my dance with a flourish.

Shaking his head, he spun me back to the first bit I had skirted past and asked me to unpack the baggage I had tried hide amidst swirling skirts and flashing lights.

Step, ball change.

And I finally let it pour out in it’s entirety.
The pouring out of hurt and angry and broken matched by the rushing in of grace like salve on my soul.

“‘I’m a Christian,” Rachel writes, “‘because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition—that we’re not okay.’”

We’re not okay.
I’m not okay.
And I’m even worse when I refuse to let anyone past the facade of “I’m good, how are you?”

I need to come to that place, daily, of not just walking past a monument of confession or muttering prayers written hundreds of years ago (Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…) I need to allow those words to take root and open up in my soul.

The things I have done.
The things I have left undone.

Just because I can portray my life as perfect doesn’t mean I should.

“Imagine,” Rachel writes, “if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.”

Everyone is safe, no one is comfortable, and maybe we all could find the bravery within ourselves to step out from behind the bushes and walk confidently with God and one another in the garden once more.