Abortion Meets Compassion

About five years ago, I decided to reshape my life. A mental health scare coupled with spinal injury and vocal cord paralysis may bring on the overwhelming need for change, I suppose. When the you-know-what hits the fan in pretty much every area of your life, it’s time to re-evaluate what you believe.

And I decided to believe in compassion; compassion for my own self, and compassion for others. Even, maybe especially, others who make different choices from the ones I would.

That sounds easy, right? Not always, my friend. Nowhere even close. Living a life driven by empathy can sometimes wound. It can occasionally wear you down.

Last night, I had a bit of a rough start to my evening. I was rushing from my full time job in an office to my part time job as a college professor. Traffic had been light, so I had a few minutes to sit in my car and eat an apple while checking in on social media.

Thanks, Facebook.

Here lately, because of a case in New York, there’s been a lot of talk about late term abortions. Talk that hurts.

If you know me at all, if you have heard my story or read my blog, you know that I used to be a devout Christian. I was raised in church. I won the Bible Bee at church camp in sixth grade, I studied Bible at Lubbock and Abilene Christian Universities, I counseled at camp, I spent seven years as a youth minister’s wife, I created the Sunday School curriculum for our entire church in Oklahoma. I physically helped to baptize two of my children. I stood in the shade of my husband’s sunlight, as a good Christian wife was meant to do. I stayed home raising babies as much as possible.

I just love it when a stranger on social media calls me both an “atheist” and an “idiot” in the same sentence before going on to trumpet their own Jesus faith. Pffft. Silly, silly man. Jesus and I go back a long, long way.

In my youth, both spiritual and emotional, I believed all the things a Christian is supposed to believe when it comes to politics. What was it Paul said? When I was young, I spoke like a child…etc.?

In the current American climate, I have come to suppose there are three weighty issues that fuse faith with politics; one’s stance on a wall to keep out illegal brown people is now tied with opposition to abortion for top priority. Putting mandated Christian prayer back into schools seems a distant third.

I only want to talk about abortion though. And how it changes the way people relate to each other.

First, let me get this out of the way: I believe abortion is a tragedy. Always. I never, ever think it’s a thing to celebrate.

When I was eighteen, I was resolute in my understanding that abortion was a sin. An unforgivable sin. So very sure. It was what my preacher taught, and it made sense. Precious sweet embryos need protection. They need a chance to live. They are dear. It was, in my young and certain mind, a black and white issue. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Then a friend, I’ll call her Cindy, found herself pregnant. She had been a fringe youth group girl, we hung out some at devotionals and trips to putt putt, but we went to different high schools. We weren’t close. To be honest, it surprised me when she came to me, imploring me to take her to the abortion clinic in Dallas. I didn’t have a car, but she just needed me to drive her home, in her car.

No one else would help her. She told me then that she felt she could trust me. That I would keep her secret. That I could forgive her. Friends, sisters, that was a crucial moment. I could have condemned her like all her other friends had done. I could have told her she should have just kept her legs closed.

But I thought of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. How he knelt, how he refused to condemn her. How he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Cindy had been abandoned by pharisees. She needed me to be Jesus. So I took her to the clinic.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe a shadowy, filthy room with cobwebs hanging in the corners and an upside down crucifix suspended over a stone altar engraved with a pentagram? Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” playing backwards over the sound system while men wearing butcher’s aprons cavorted in glee as they worked over the poor women? I was scared to walk into the clinic, though. It turned out to be a well lit, clean doctor’s office. It looked like the same place I had visited my entire childhood to get antibiotics, vaccinations, and lollipops. Cindy ached after it was over. She didn’t cry, but she was very, very, quiet. I got her home and tucked in to her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Just six months later, another close friend had a secret abortion. Pretty much the same reason, and secret because of the derision she knew would be heaped on her. We attended a private Christian college, and sexual purity was literally a requirement for continued attendance at school. The appearance of chastity was the price of admission to our social life. She could not bear the shame, and she would not stigmatize her family.

Did Jesus ever reproach women who were suffering with shame, even if their sin was sexual? Did he ever, ever put limitations on the blessing he offered? I’ll stake my life, there’s no instance in which he ever imposed boundaries on the gift of grace and compassion to hurting people. Self righteous pharisees? Yes. But not hurting people.

Not being Jesus, I still struggled, though. I ached in my soul to think of lives not lived. Embryos terminated. I knew what church taught. The Bible is not specific about this particular situation, and so one has to decide if its prohibition of murder is applicable. I asked my mother in law about it, and was surprised to hear her own thoughts. She supported keeping abortion legal. Surprised is too mild a word, really. I was stunned.

My MIL reasoned that women would have abortions. Period. Always had. Always would. In her heart and mind, to allow a woman to perish due to a misplaced, jagged coat hanger causing uncontrolled hemorrhage was as vile an outcome as the other. To my mother in law, the woman’s life and safety was precious and also worth protection. Pragmatism, yes. Compassion for women? Definitely yes.

I remind you, in case you’ve forgotten the bit I wrote at the top- I think abortion is a tragedy.

In my early 30s, I was staying at a beach house with a group of relatively new friends, and as the night progressed, we started talking about abortions. Several of my friends had had them. Different ages, circumstances, responses, faiths. I began to understand, to really get it: it is possible to have compassion for all the people in the scenario. And in the time that has passed since that night, I have learned of more friends, students, and even family who have trod that lonely sidewalk into the clinic. I don’t think any of us are truly untouched by it.

So that’s the way I have approached the abortion issue since that night. I utterly and unequivocably refuse to sit in judgement of a woman who feels she must have an abortion.

I understand why some people can’t condone the act. I really do. Nevertheless, I believe with all my soul that my heart contains enough compassion for both mother and lost child. Our hearts hold limitless love. It is only when we choose to wall off that love that we cannot meet people in their need.

You know what I don’t understand? When some of those same, supposed Christian warriors call me names. Like “Idiot.” or “Atheist.”

It is incomprehensible to imagine Jesus talking to me like that. It is unfathomable to put Jesus on a street corner shouting obscenities at wounded women entering clinics. And yet, for some, it is their MO. It’s how, in their sense of righteous indignation, they’ve decided to win the race to climb Morality Mountain. They’ve forgotten though, that Jesus isn’t up there. He’s down in the valley, loving on the hurting folks. Even the women who have chosen to abort a child. And so I must, too.

Let’s Go To Camp!

Pettijohn 1

Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.

The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.

The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.

We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.

The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:

“Get your elbows off the table, David H!

Get your elbows off the table, David H!

We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,

Get your elbows off the table, David H!”

Camp Pettijohn
Molly, Angela, Chellie, the author, and Jill get ready to board the bus to Pettijohn!

It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.

I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.

Pettijohn 2

There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.

The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.

I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.

As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River;  while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.

It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.

The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.

I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:

“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”

“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”

“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”

“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”

“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”

There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.

Summer-Camp-image

My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.

What’s your camp story?

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

Image result for Mary Oliver

This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

tree 2

And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

tree 4

I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

Why “Christian Soldiers?”

 

I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*

Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.

But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:

“I may never march in the infantry,

ride in the Calvary,

shoot the artillery. I may never

fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”

There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:

“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/sacred-text-us-gun-habit

Image result for if jesus had a gun

I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.

And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.

How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?

Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.

The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.

Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.

I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I  decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.

Image result for The Christian Flag

I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.

In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:

“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.

It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.

America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”

The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.

Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:

 

https://justajesusfollower.com/2018/02/22/christianity-vs-the-nra-finding-a-different-perspective-on-gun-control-and-violence/

*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.

An Open Letter to The Christian Left

 

This morning, I felt I had to leave a Facebook group that I had, for the most part, been enjoying. I joined The Christian Left based on the recommendation of a college friend with whom I had recently reconnected. We both graduated from the same private evangelical Christian university, and it’s somewhat unusual to find alumni who share at least some of my crazy Leftist leanings.

I am a Liberal. There. I said it. I said it in Montgomery County, Texas. I said it as the rarest bird in my neck of the woods.

“I am a Liberal. That means I look ahead, not behind. I welcome new ideas without rigid reactions. I care about the welfare of the people: their jobs, housing, schools, and health; their civil rights and their civil liberties”

The above is a meme I have been seeing floating around in the cyberspace world, I have no idea whom to credit. It pretty well sums up how I see myself.

Most of my family is pretty Conservative- the Tea Party movement resonates for them. My neighbors as well. My husband wouldn’t let me put a Hillary for President sign in the yard for fear the house would be egged. My Obama campaign signs got ripped in half in 2012. I have cringed at the ugly  faces contorted with anger seen at Trump rallies, cried at the Nazi salutes being thrown. Shuddered at David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and his refusal to repudiate it. I have shaken my head at Betsy DeVos’ agenda and Paul Ryan’s sycophancy.

I have called and mailed and e mailed my senators and representatives, at both state and federal levels (Unfortunately, Ted Cruz thought I was writing in support and put me on a mailing list. I called his office pronto).

We donate money to Public Radio/TV, a local theatre, an animal shelter, a global humanitarian organization, an environmental advocacy group, and Planned Parenthood (because women need resources and if abortions are going to happen-and you’re blessedly naive if you think they aren’t- they need to be safe).

I really do try to walk, not just talk, my belief system. And I feel pretty isolated. So I was thrilled to learn there might be a Facebook community that shared my ideals and my open-hearted approach. For a month, I have been seeing a daily scripture, usually about caring for the less fortunate, and seeing mostly useful news stories about relevant issues.

Until this week.

The POTUS had his physical. And the one page where I thought it would be safe to read the comments became a mixture of sarcasm, body shaming, name calling, and hate.

Do I believe the official height and weight that they say Trump is? No. Does it matter? No. And I know some people would say, “It’s just one more lie on top of so many. It shows a pattern.” Yeah, I get that. But when there are two posts by The Christian Left in one twenty four hour period about his weight, and this photo leads:Image may contain: one or more people and text

When the comments are:

  • if that is true then I am the virgin Mary
  • Sorry, he ate the moon, it looked like a big mac
  • What, they are referring just to his ass?

Then we have a problem. I, along with others, tried to call TCL out on it. We tried to point out that there are bigger issues, even bigger lies, on which to focus. That didn’t go so well:

  • “Kimberly, take a chill pill…Venting is healthy. So many of us feel hopeless with the nuclear button threat. Too bad Kimberly only sees things her way. Bless your teeny tiny heart Kimberly, may it grow like the Grinch’s did.” That’s from a nice lady named DeeAnn, who, though she has never met me says I have a tiny and judgemental heart.

It’s no wonder we are not making headway, Liberals.

A third post on TCL’s page within the same time frame shows a photo of Trump with a signature and the caption “I know how to write my name!” Of course he does. This particular post was the intellectual equivalent of blowing a raspberry or calling “Nanny nanny boo boo.”

Where’s the smart and mature resistance, folks?

I have held such hopes that the left side would adhere to the former First Lady’s exhortation. That we could, by taking the high road, show all those haters at the white supremacist rallies and Tea Party functions that love wins (Thanks, Rob Bell).

Alas, that’s not the case. So I left the group, unliked the page, and headed over to my BFF (in my fantasy life) Brene’ Brown’s page. At the top? This quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr:

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Truth. Silence is a betrayal. But we must choose our words wisely. Me? I will speak to injustice and call out cruelty, whether it’s from the Left or Right. I will speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I really hope my like-minded brothers and sisters will too.

 

 

Between Shame and Ovation (Thoughts From the Wife of a Former Texas Youth Minister)

Sunday night, after a quiet day of reading and watching television while my husband stayed tucked in bed fighting off a cold, we watched the news together, and looked on in horror and recognition as a story broke about a pastor in Tennessee who had confessed to the 1998 sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl in his youth group. The news program showed footage of Andy Savage apparently remorseful, as he confessed to a megachurch audience. They gave him a standing ovation.

A standing ovation.

I have something to say about all this.

In 1999, living in the very same town (I currently live just five minutes from the church where Savage was a youth minister), my husband was also a youth minister. Though he doesn’t specifically remember Andy Savage, it’s likely they at least attended the same monthly youth minister luncheons that were held at the various churches around our town.

And in October of 1999, my husband stood in front of the congregation and confessed, at three different church services, a sex addiction.

There was no standing ovation.

Thankfully, he never touched a member of his youth group. His struggle was with the fantasy world of pornography and adult bookstores, not with the flesh and blood reality of teenagers.

I will never, as long as I live, forget the glare of the lights and the wide eyes of the church members as we stood on the stage, hand in hand, and Travis told everyone his deepest, darkest secret. This was a move that was required by the church leadership if he wanted to receive a severance salary.

Unlike Andy Savage, whose church leadership demanded silence, both of him and the young lady he abused, our church leadership insisted on full and public disclosure.

I don’t think it is coincidental that last week I downloaded a double episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, with guest Brene’ Brown . The universe was getting me ready to see this story on the news and in my social media feed. Last night, on the way home from work, Brene’ spoke her mantra to Oprah: “You share with people who earn the right to hear your story. It’s an honor to hold space for me when I am in shame.”

As my husband stood in the sanctuary and, in a broken voice, told 2,000 people, most of whom were complete strangers, his darkest struggle, I felt like we had been raped. It was as if our clothes had been ripped from us, and we stood bare for all to see. My children also had to bear the burden of the sidelong (or worse, pitying) looks that were sent their way over the next few months as we struggled to keep attending the church where every room, every person, and every worship service sent us spiraling back into shame. Two years later, when I sat in a therapist’s office and told her this story, she was horrified and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we had been victims of profound spiritual abuse. I have often wondered how many men sat in the pews that morning and breathed great big sighs of relief that their own garage stash or computer files hadn’t been found yet. My husband got to be the whipping boy, the sacrificial lamb, for them.*

Is it any wonder I can’t do church anymore?

There has to be a middle place- somewhere between public shaming and standing ovations. A place where healthy confession is possible, accountability is attainable, and healing is administered for all.

I am beyond thankful that my own husband didn’t ever actually touch a kid in his youth group. We have a close friend, A.,  for whom that was not the case. Earlier in our church work, Travis was compelled to share his struggle with a fellow youth minister who, it turned out, was crawling a similar path. They went to the same support group together. A. didn’t come out unscathed, either. He molested a youth group member.

There’s a lot to think about here: impossible standards of perfection that set young men up for deep, internal sexual struggle; spouses who suffer in silence as they try to raise children and create the model home, knowing that they dare not speak a word because their family’s very livelihood depends on maintaining the veneer of holiness; how to maintain accountability that is safe for both ministers and their charges.

But standing ovations? No. Andy Savage has to make this right with a humble apology to Jules Woodson. She needs healing. Savage and the church leadership must stop making excuses and hiding behind the passage of time. Because I know that if my own experience is any indication, 1998 can feel like five minutes ago. Shame can rear its ugly head at any moment and utterly incapacitate you. I hope Woodson gets the love and joy she deserves. I hope Andy Savage can move forward in honesty. I hope his wife has courage and a couple of love warriors** by her side.

And I hope that his current congregation learns how to support, but not idolize, the penitent minister. I hope they know who the victims are and I desperately hope that they have compassion and love for all concerned.

May the Divine One breathe healing and peace on all of these broken people. And may we all know that we can be broken and healed, as well as being instruments of grace and healing.

 

*There was one particular family who sat in our shame with us. They listened as we cried, watched our kids while we went to therapy, and never gave us that pitying look. They know who they are, and they are blessedly still in our lives. Most folks just ignored us or tried to pretend nothing weird had happened. I get it- once you’ve seen someone’s nakedess, it’s hard to go back.

**Love Warrior is a phenomenal book by Glennon Doyle. A recovering addict, Doyle was married to a sex addict herself. She knows this journey. I highly recommend this book, which was fortuitously and prophetically given to me this Christmas by my eldest daughter.

 

Losing My Religion

candle

It’s the day after Christmas. I am sitting in my quiet house, my sweet husband is napping, my eldest daughter and her fiancee have left for a movie, my son is at work, and my youngest is across the world. It has been a wonderful Christmas- everyone is healthy (I didn’t fall and injure myself severely- just one small second degree burn from a candy-making fumble) and happy, and very much in love with their significant other. I don’t feel any post Christmas blues, but the holiday’s passing has left me feeling reflective about one very specific thing: my vanished faith.

I do understand the actual origins of Christmas- Yule and Saturnalia, Pope Julius I’s decision to create a celebration of Jesus’ birth and using the conveniently placed Solstice celebrations to do so, the Puritans’ refusal to acknowledge the holiday (it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681), its absence in America throughout the 18th century, then its resurgence in the 19th with the publication of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ novels.

Historically, Jesus is really not “The Reason for the Season.” But in contemporary America, in Texas, Christmas is very much about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But not for me.

Amy-Grant

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s Christmas concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion here in the Houston area. I was so excited! It was a chilly night (a rare occurrence in a Houston December), and poor Amy had come onto the outdoor stage in an emerald sleeveless gown. She spent most of act one wrapped in a blanket, and changed into jeans, boots, and a quilted parka at intermission. Smitty was in a suit, and playing pretty vigorously at the grand piano, so he seemed to fare better in the chilled air. I loved it. They sang back to back renditions of “Jingle Bells” (Smitty sang the Perry Como arrangement, Amy the Streisand), “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I have been listening to these two sing Christmas songs since I was 18 years old, and it was like being home.

But the mood changed in the second half. It became more tender, more reflective, more…worshipful. In this half, Amy sang “Heirlooms” and “Breath of Heaven.” Smitty led a sing along. But this was not a sing along like happens at your child’s elementary school PTO program, with “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” This was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” The mood became holy. And I couldn’t sing. Clearly, the audience was worshiping, and I knew that to lend my voice would be inauthentic. Counterfeit. It was beautiful, and I felt alien. Throughout the remainder of the concert, I teared up several times; and when the first notes of “Friends” played in the encore, I began to really cry…when the lights went up, I found I couldn’t talk, I could barely hold it together and my sweet husband held me while I wept, truly wept.

Christmas is often a time for heavy-heartedness- that’s not news to most adults (and a few kids). We grieve for lost loved ones. We mourn passing time. I am a little melancholy this year. But it’s not really nostalgia for my childhood Christmases (which were spotty, to say the least). It’s not even nostalgia for the holidays for when my kids were little.

losing_faith_by_perxneko

My grief is for my lost faith.

I no longer believe in the Christian faith. Not because of “hypocrites” or the times when God hasn’t answered prayers. Not because of the insanity of millionaire ministers or the rampant suffering and injustice in the world.

I can’t believe a virgin birth. I just can’t. Nor can I believe that a dead man rose and walked after three days entombed. And I can’t force myself to sit in a sanctuary and recite the Nicene Creed or sing hymns (or praise and worship songs) that strike me as so very, very false. It would be, for me, fraudulent, and an insult to the sincerity of the Christians who find such joy in their faith.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus, wisdom of the Proverbs, the passion and pathos of the Psalms. But I cannot accept that many of the writings of the apostle Paul were meant to be followed verbatim, by all humans, no matter gender, culture, and time, for ever and ever amen. I know enough to know that what we have as the Holy Bible was passed around, rewritten, interpreted, and adapted for 300 years before finally being codified. How can it possibly be infallible?

Unusual-Christmas-Trees uses

But secular Christmas seems so empty.

How does one recover from lost faith?

When I posted on Facebook that my thoughts, not prayers, were with the victims of the French terrorist attacks, a long time friend (who is not a person of faith) sought me out two days later to tell me, in person, that that made him sad. That he sensed that the loss of my faith was a grief to me. How profound is it that it was an agnostic to express sorrow over this loss?

That he has expressed more kindness over my loss than nearly any Christian in my acquaintance is also profound. I think I am a pretty big disappointment to a lot of people.

Most days, I don’t really give it much thought. I don’t miss church, not even a little bit. I think years as a minister’s wife, privy to the inner workings of church politics, cured me of ever wanting to belong to a church again. American Christianity has become a frightening place, full of fear and politics.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigian

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes the dilemma of introverts (of which I am most definitely one) trying to participate in American Evangelicanism: ” Contemporary Evangelicanism…emphasizes building community among confirmed believers, with many churches encouraging (or even requiring) their members to join extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject- cooking, real-estate investing, skateboarding.” She meets with a man who struggles with his introverted nature, and can’t find the place where he can worship, commune, and serve. I get that. In my last attempts at finding a church home, all I wanted was a place where I could have a few real, genuine friends and contemplative, thoughtful worship, preferably far, far away from LED smart lights and Jumbotron screens.

Oh, and by the way, I still believe in God.

So I try to use walking or yoga time to reconnect with the Divine. In my solo worship time, I have learned that God is also Goddess. That trees and animals carry a bit of the Divine spark. That literature and music do as well. I have learned that kindness can be found and is often practiced by the most unexpected people: the tattooed, gypsy “heathen” is often more benevolent than the most polished Evangelical.

Years ago, when I confided to two of my aunts (on my mom’s side) that I had found myself in a desert place, they assured me that if I was just patient, that God would lead me out of the desert. I don’t feel arid anymore, and that’s a blessing. But I don’t feel Churched, either. I feel like I am in a quiet forest, with a beautiful lake. Pretty alone, but with something Divine whispering to me. Maybe that’s enough.

Merry Christmas, friends.

 

And the winner is…

Astros ring

It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

biblebowl

Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

make-america-great-again_a-G-14251339-0

I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

blue-ribbon

I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.

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