Riding in Cars with Men (…and I guess dining with them, too)

I had not been in the ministry long and was brand new to the area I was living in.  I immediately set about meeting with my local colleagues in the United Methodist network and beyond.  McDowell County, West Virginia is a mission field for most major Christian denominations because of its complicated mixture of socioeconomic and environmental issues which have left a lasting impact on the culture and the land. So, it was no surprise when a couple local missionaries, based out of the deep South, but living in Welch, showed up at my office wanting to tell me about the work they were doing and invite me to join them.

Both men had fallen in love with the people of McDowell County when their churches made short-term mission trips to the area. As these men reached retirement age in their professions, they felt themselves called to launch a full-time ministry in the area. 

They had a passion which matched my own, and a vision I could get onboard with. Their desire wasn’t simply to bring resources into “The County”, but to provide a dignified way in which those most in need could begin peicing together the necessary parts of their lives. I was sold pretty quickly.

A couple weeks passed and one of the missionaries, “Don”, called me and asked if I would like to see the Ieager (pronounced Yay-ger) site of their mission work. There was a work team from Georgia in town and he thought it would be nice if they could talk to a minister who was a West Virginia native.  I agreed to go, but I was not familiar with the town of Ieager and needed help fining my way.

Don volunteered to drive me and we arranged to meet at my church and carpool out.

Everything was going great the day we made the trip. It was a beautiful summer day with bright blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Being an avid carpooler, I was perfectly comfortable in the passenger seat of Don’s pickup truck as we headed toward the little town a few mintues North.

All of a sudden Don made the whole thing very awkward and uncomfortable… and he waited until we were well out of Welch city limits, on an isolated stretch of highway.

“I usualy don’t run around alone in a car with a woman,” he said, “But I’m hoping anyone who sees us will understand the situation.”

The situation? 
What situation?
Two colleagues sharing a ride to a ministry setting?
And… “running around”?

The worst part of it was that Don had just made my presence in his vehicle abot sex. The only reason he would have to be worried about my presence in his car was that it could be a threat to his marriage or viewed as such by someone else. Which was the furthest thing from my mind. 

My hand to God, the only thing I thought this twenty minute ride was about was ministry:  Driving from point A to point B so that we could do minstry. I wasn’t planning on doing anything  other than ministry with Don.

But now it’s about sex.

I tried to make excuses for Don’s faux-pas. He was much older than me, so he was from a generation that honestly didn’t believe men and women could be friends without a sexual element involved. And he was Southern Baptist, so chances are he didn’t really see women as acutal ministry colleagues. He was respecting my position as a pastor because the ecumenical nature of mission work required him to, which was commendable… but on some subconcious level he probably had a hard time seeing me as an actual pastor.

While I didn’t view this as a sexual advance, it certainly raised a red flag because, for whatever reason, Don sees this as a sexual issue.

Don is thinking about sex.
Why is Don thinking about sex?
And why did he start thinking about sex only when we reached an isolated stretch of road?
Why didn’t he think about it before I got in his truck, when I could still opt to follow him in my own car rather than be closed up in a confined space with him?

I was uncomfortable. I leaned awkwardly against the door because that’s what I subconciously do when people act inappropriately around me, I lean away from them.

And I was offended.

I am a pastor.  I am a well-educated woman. I have worked hard to accomplish these things in my life. I am well-read. I am disciplined (even if sometimes a procrastinator) and I have dedicated my life to full-time Christian service. I volunteered to serve in an isolated area with a unique set of economic and cultural obstacles–an area some of my colleagues wished to avoid. I am a hard worker. I am fiercly loyal. And I deserve to be treated with resepct and dignity as a Child of God; but, Don is treating me like a sexual object–as if anyone looking at me will see the entirety of my worth in my sexual attainablity. Don let me know, in one simple, awkward, offensive, intimidating statement, that he saw me only as something that could sexually corrupt since I wasn’t sexually connected to him through marriage.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that horrible carpool lately because of past comments Vice President Pence once made (which have recently come back into the limelight) about not dining with a woman.  VP Pence and Don are both guilty of doing the same thing: reducing women to sexual objects. Women, in their estimation are either sexually acceptable or sexually inappopriate, but never anything other than sexual things.

We aren’t colleagues in their eyes. We aren’t people who have worked very hard and become very good at what we do, people who deserve an audience and an opportunity to excel. And should we forge a way for ourselves outside of our marriages in the professional world and seek to be treated as an equal, we are looked at with suspicion: as corruptors who are seeking to destroy the peace and happiness of men.

We deserve better.

Jesus, thankfully offered us better.  When he met the Syrophonecian woman by the well and engaged her in a theological discussion (despite the obvious social taboo of speaking to a woman alone or associating with a Samaritan), he set an example–one which spit in the face of social norms and identified women as being worthy of the Gospel, of  salvation, or standing before God. There were numerous other instances–when he allowed Mary to set at his feet and learn with the other disciples, when he intervened in the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, when he discussed the theological issues of Resurrection with Martha in Bethany… Jesus, over and over again was displaying the perfect relationship betweeen men and women.  He didn’t identify us as sexual objects, even when sex was involved (the woman caught in adultery), but as children of the same Creator.

Confess What? (Thoughts on Psalm 32)

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
whose sin is covered over,
is truly happy!
The one the Lord
doesn’t consider guilty–
in whose spirit there is no dishonesty–
that one is truly happy!
When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
I was groaning all day long–
every day, every night!–
because your hand was heavy upon me.
My energy was sapped as if in a
summer drought.
So, I admitted my sin to you;
I didn’t conceal my guilt.
“I’ll confess my sins to the Lord,”
is what I said.
Then you removed the guilt of my sin.
That’s why all the faithful should pray to
you during troubled times,
so that a great flood of water
won’t reach them.
You are my secret hideout!
You protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of rescue!
I will instruct you and teach you
about the direction you should go.
I’ll advise you and keep my eye on you.
Don’t be like some senseless
horse or mule,
whose movement must be controlled
with a bit and a bridle.
Don’t be anything like that!
The pain of the wicked is severe,
but faithful love surrounds
the one who trusts the Lord.
You who are righteous,
rejoice in the Lord and be glad!
All you whose hearts are right,
sing out in joy.

(Psalm 32, Common English Bible)

It takes forty days for us to confess the burdens of our souls in preparation of Resurrection Sunday (Easter.) Forty long days. And that isn’t counting the Sundays of Lent. Add those in and it comes closer to 50 days.

Why so much time focused on confession and fasting?

As a child I assumed confession only alluded to the “bad” things we’d done. So, I would list the naughty things. And if the list didn’t seem long enough to be sufficiently penitent, I’d go to the old fail-safes:  “Forgive me for not being a good daughter, for not paying attention in school, for picking on my sister, for fighting with my brother…”

Often, those “confessions” were so vague and general that I couldn’t really tell you what specifically I had done wrong.  But that was the nature of a sin-only confessional:  A person spends so much time self-flagellating that she winds up seeing herself as nothing more than a steaming pile of bad. Surely, if I was such a bad person, I must be a lousy daughter, sister, student, friend, etc…

There wasn’t a lot of room left for self-exploration, let alone time to decide what it was I needed to name in order to be set free.

Sin isn’t just about the “bad” things we do. It isn’t just about the “wrong” things.

Sin is anything that separates us from God. And sometimes, what we need to confess isn’t a list of the naughty things we’ve done…

Since adolescence I have struggled with depression. These dark episodes of my life aren’t caused by anything I’ve necessarily done. It’s not that God is punishing me for being “bad” by oppressing me so heavily with suicidal depression that each day during those periods of time was a struggle just to make it through. It was caused by biological factors–a brain chemistry that wasn’t quite right (and in later years, a thyroid that just doesn’t quite function correctly).

However, there is a major stigma about mental illness in our society–particulary around depression and anxiety.

“You just need to get over it,” I was told. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Just decide to be happy. Stop being negative. Just think happy thoughts. Anti-depressants are the lazy way out. Pray more. The only prescription you need is an Rx for the Bible!”

There were nights I lay in my bed, sobbing into my pillow because I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the night. There were moments when everything in me was so twisted and tense that I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed. There were mornings I cried because I didn’t have the strength to get up. And there were the prayers–that a logging truck would strike my car so that I wouldn’t have to go through the motions of another day. A nice, long coma seemed a happy alternative to the misery of one more day with the weight of the world hanging on me.

So many of my confessions during that time of my life were missing the point. I’d beg for forgiveness for feeling so bad, as if I’d chosen it. I’d ask for mercy for the hurt I was feeling, as if I’d just decided I wanted to be suicidal. But I wasn’t able to name the actual thing that was separating me from God because I assumed the only way of understanding sin was to see it as something I had done wrong.

Then came the suicide attempt.

Then another.

There was the therapy I didn’t want to tell anyone about because I was afraid it was a sign of weakness. Why did I need to talk to a stranger? Wasn’t talking to God enough? What could some middle-aged woman with a notepad do for me that God couldn’t?

And the dark episodes just didn’t stop coming.

I’m not sure when exactly I realized I was not confessing the truth about my situation. I was so busy trying to live into the narrow misunderstanding of sin, that I had not been able to see just how much I needed to name the thing that was hurting me–to say it out loud–to tell God that I was hurting and why I was hurting without having to whip myself for the pain.

It was a pastor in my teens who pointed out to me how many of the Psalms deal with anquish and depression. He told me to read the Psalms attributed to David, to pay attention to the moments when it seemed David was suicidal or so depressed he couldn’t find the strength to go on.

And so I’ve been reading the Psalms ever since because I hear my own voice in David’s songs.

Yes, David did things that were a clear transgression against God and against others. Despite his legendary leadership skills and his devotion to God, he could sometimes be a bad person.

But, can’t we all?

And yet, many of the Psalms didn’t necessarily deal with his trangressions, but his anquish at things beyond his control.

Oh, how many mornings did I lay in my bed, like David, with “my bones wore out… groaning all day long, every day, every night… my energy sapped as if in a summer drought”?

David was never afraid to name his pain. And he did it eloquently. Nor was he afraid to point out the separation between him and God.  For David, confession was about more than simply listing his wrongdoings… it was about naming his hurt and pain and suffering, whether it was caused by something he had done or something caused by sources beyond him. He acknowledged his depression, and even his suicidal moments. He confessed his loneliness and his fear. He told God when he was angry at other people… and at God. He named it all.

Confession is about naming. We just don’t name the wrongdoings of our own lives, but we name the things that separate us from God. We name the suffering and that is the first step to allowing God to bridge that gap, to reach across and offer us a respite.

We need these forty days because we need the time to really dive into the depths of our souls, to explore the broken places and to find those chasms between us and God. We need time to begin to name them. We need time to understand them. And we need time to listen for God’s voice coming to us from the other side.

To put it bluntly, if your Lenten confession is nothing more than a list of your wrongdoings, you’re doing it wrong. You’re missing the point. Sit back down. Look deep inside your soul. And begin to name the things that are blocking you from truly accessing God.

It’s when you keep quiet that your “bones wear out.”

But confession will set you free.

 

 

A Lenten Prayer And Confession of Sins

For this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed,  and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. ~ Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV)

How many times, O Lord, did I sit silently as Your children huddled in cold homes? How many times did I choose a night of Netflix and Hulu binge watching while my elderly neighbor sat in unending silence? How many times did I choose to waste away in my freedom rather than enter into the hell of incarceration with the suffering, the broken, the hurt, the hopeless?

I cry in outrage as I listen to wealthy men explain why the poor and the elderly are no longer productive–why we should no longer invest in their well-being. I shout at the walls, rage at the news, and greive in my heart for those whose suffering will amplify, for those whose voices will be weakened and ignored. 

But as I search my heart this season of Lent–as I pick away at the things that have built up in my heart, in my conscience–the things that have separated me from You, I realize my silence has made me complicit. My comfort made me reluctant to demand Your justice. I sat by, idly, distracted by the things of this world, only to find that the worse had become commonplace. I opened my eyes and saw the shadows of Sodom had engulfed us all. That arrogance and complacency had claimed us all and the poor and the needy were being crushed.

For my silence, forgive me.

For the sins of my complacency, which gave birth to the sins of a selfish, unconcerned society, forgive me.

And give me strength.

The wilderness is a frightening place and my sojourn has just begun, but the weight of a barren place is taking its toll. I yearn for the lush valley, again. I yearn for the peaceful places beside the still waters. I yearn for the bounteous pastures. 

But I must finish this journey and stare deep into my own soul. It is there that I confront the darkness of evil, where the devil has hidden in the corners, and I must resist the temptations of my own heart. 

In this desolate place, let me find my voice. Let me find courage. Let me find a faith in You and in Your justice. Let me cross this dry place and come out on the other side, declaring that Your Kingdom has come, on Earth, as it is in Heaven. Let me cry the tears You cry for Your hurting children. Let me hear the cry of Your people, calling to You for a justice this world will never give them. And let me be a laborer in Your kingdom. 

Forgive me my sins.

And give me a message to carry to the people–a message from Your own heart. Amen.

One Word at a Time

It was about four years ago that I decided to take my practice of spiritual writing up a notch and to dedicate myself to writing a post each day during Lent.

How that season played out was not what I expected. I assumed I would write my simple little devotions and thoughts–and a handful would read them. But I didn’t expect that one post would create so much drama and conflict in my life.

In those four years since I have learned so very much more about myself, about God, and about my relationship with God.

But I have also felt heartbreak like I never knew was possible.

One would think that heartbreak might be a bad thing… and in many ways (one of which I will address in a moment) it did. But mostly the heartbreak forced me into a place where I had to trust in God so much more than I ever had before.

By facing the heartbreak day-after-day, having to seek out the signs of a Living God still pulsing under the surface, searching for the beauty in an ugly moment, reminded me that God is still more powerful than all the hate and hurt and suffering in the world. Each day, each new moment of heartbreak, was another opportunity for the Spirit to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes and catch me up in the whirlwind of the Spirit’s movement.

So, as I approach this new Lenten season–the last I will be spending in this particular town–I find myself thinking about the first Lenten season I spent here and how much I’ve change and grown over the years. For the most part, its been for the better, I think. I’m more certain of who I am as a beloved Child of God. I’m more certain about my calling and what direction it is taking me. I’m more certain that God has called me to be in ministry to the marginalized and disenfranchised–particularly the LGBTQ+ community.

Yet, as I mentioned, there have been some not-so-positive effects of heartbreak and I have to tackle those and reclaim them in my own life.

Somewhere along the way, I let go of one of my most cherished spiritual disciplines: writing. It wasn’t just that I stopped writing publicly… I stopped journaling and creating in general. It was as if the greatest outlet I’d had since childhood to pour our my soul to God had been stolen away and beaten to a pulp.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had a strange dream–most of the details I won’t bore you with… but as it ended I came face-to-face with an old college professor who has since passed away, Dr. Richards. He was also a priest and a friend with whom I stayed in contact until he died. In this dream he asked me point-blank what happens to my blog when I don’t update it. I confessed that I haven’t been updating it because every word I type is burdened by depression and anxiety about how people will receive it, what their reaction will be, or how they’ll treat me. To this, Dr. Richards simply said, “You’ve just got to write it one word at a time until you get it all out.”

So, here I am. I’ve come full-circle to a brand new Lent. Once again I’m at crossroads in my life and I’m wandering out into the wilderness to pray to God for these forty days and forty nights… and I’m going to do it one word at a time.

A Year of Change Is Coming

speak-truthWhen I began this ministry path by heading off to seminary in 2006, I was on fire with the possibilities of how God could use me. I knew that throughout my life I had been drawn to people who were on the fringes, people our churches often overlook. I didn’t fully know how that would shape my ministry, but I knew God had plans to use this tattooed, pierced (at the time, not anymore), Straight Edge, Billy-Joel-loving, high-liturgy-admiring, walking contradiction.  But God was going to use me.

And let me tell you–God worked on me hard those three years in seminary. I began as someone who identified as a right-leaning moderate and I viewed myself as being far more conservative that my classmates at the uber-liberal Iliff School of Theology. Until I realized that we all had the same desire–to see God’s Kingdom established here on earth (“Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”–the new heaven and new earth from Revelation, you know). And suddenly we weren’t so different. That drew me into a realization that many of the people I had thought were (or should be) excluded from different aspects of our ministry for various reasons maybe belonged as much as anyone else did. I grew in an unexpected way.

On paper this moved me from the Christian Right column to the Christian Left. But in reality all it did was stoke that original fire that had been burning in my soul to be authentically who God had called me to be so that God could use me as an instrument to touch the lives of others–notably, those who (like me) had never really felt they fit in. But in God’s kingdom we all fit in.

So, you see, I didn’t really change. I just became more.

Since full-time ministry in 2008, I have seen how God has used to me to do just that. And while that should be stoking the fires of passion to burn even hotter, something else was happening.

Like all seminary graduates, I had taken classes that warned us about the statistics–how short clergy careers often are, how quickly pastor burnout can set in, the stress levels, the loneliness of ministry, the feelings of let down. I had been warned that ministry can isolate a person. That we can sometimes get so bogged down in the minutia of administration that we lose track of the purpose of ministry. That we can be so busy trying to keep the peace and keep people happy that we forget we’re supposed to be serving the Lord.

Somewhere along the line, that happened. I didn’t notice it, I just woke up one day and realized I was tired beyond all reason the that old fire was sputtering on its last embers.

Before I knew it I was in the trap of trying to make people happy whom I don’t think were ever willing to be happy with me. I found myself trying to make peace with people rather than living in the Peace of God–which sometimes is very upsetting to us. I lost track of who I was. I forgot who I was. I was more worried about making other people content and keeping the boat afloat that I forgot Jesus would save me from sinking.

And so, after several months of soul-searching, I have decided to make some big changes in my life. As the time becomes more appropriate, I’ll be making announcements–but for now, I am trying my best to remember who I am.

Over the past year I haven’t been the pastor I should be because I lost track of who I was–but that’s going to change.

I haven’t made a New Year’s Resolution in several years–largely because I never keep them. They usually involve eating healthier or going to the gym more–but who can keep those things when there is so much chocolate in the world and Netflix?

This year, though, I am making a resolution. Not the tired old clichés no one keeps for long, but one that means something.

I am going to start stoking that old fire all over again.

I’m going to read.

I’m going to be deliberate in what I read. I will read things that challenge, things that inspire, things that motivate, things that outrage. I will read about social justice. I will read about race relations. I will read feminist and womanist writers. I will read about LGBTQ+ Christian issues. I will read about authoritarianism and I will read Deitrich Bonhoeffer over and over again.

And I will listen.

I will listen to trans voices. I will hear the stories of intersex teens. I will listen to Black Lives Matter. I will listen to the spoken word poetry of under-resourced youth of color. And I will listen to the voice of the opposition with the hope of better understanding and with the purpose of never being caught off guard again.

I will get educated.

I will educate myself about the water conflicts in Flint, Michigan and Standing Rock… and in Appalachian coal country. I will learn about Syria and the refugee crisis. I will study the homeless crisis, particularly among our military veterans. I will educate myself on the prescription drug epidemic. I will study non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

I will remember who I am.

I will warm myself by the fire of passion day in and day out. I will let my bruises mend and my sore muscles relax before taking it all on again another day. I will remind myself daily what matters, the burden God has laid on my heart, why I once found such energy and hope in my calling. I will remember what God has done in my heart and in my soul. I will remember how far God has brought me.

And I will dream.

I will dream about where God is taking me, about where God is taking the world. I will dare to see the visions I used to see, before I got so bogged down in the tumultuous sea thrashing all around me. I will dare to imagine a world in which all people dwell in God’s presence and what that will be like.

Through it all, I will write.

I will write in the journal that has been untouched in nearly a year. I will write here, on my blog. I will write letters. I will write to editors. I will write to legislators. I will write to God and to myself and to the universe… I will write about hope and change and dreams and visions.

Because this was who I once was and it is who I will be again… there is a year of change coming.

After the Election: Some Thoughts and Sketching A Map Forward

A little personal history lesson about me and elections:

  • In July of 1995 I registered as a Republican on my eighteenth birthday. (My parents were Reagan Democrats)
  • In the general election of 1996 I voted for Bob Dole. I was so disappointed “my candidate” didn’t win the first time I cast a vote.
  • In 2000 I joined George W. Bush’s grassroots “Get Out the Vote” movement, knocked on doors, worked phones, and canvassed neighborhoods. I rejoiced in his win.
  • In 2004 I was beginning to have my doubts about the notion that the Republican Party had a lock on Christianity. So many policies and practices had occured that seemed counter to what I was learning as a young woman about my growing faith–but I stuck to my guns and I “Got Out the Vote” for Bush again.
  • I spent the next four years finding it impossible to defend that choice and drifting away from the “Christian Right”, even as my faith grew by leaps and bounds.
  • In 2008 I abstained from voting in the general election. I spent the day in prayer and fasting and recommitted myself to working for the Kingdom of God and for the good of our nation in my day-to-day life. There is more than one way to fulfill our civic duty.
  • In 2012 I switched my registration from the Republican Party to the Mountain Party (basically, West Virginia’s Green Party) as a protest to the shifting attitudes and policies of the Republican Party more than anything and voted for Barack Obama because I liked what I had witnessed from him the previous four years and many of his policies (not all) were in line with my ideas and faith.
  • In the early days of this election I supported Bernie Sanders. I even switched my registration to Democrat so that I could vote for him in the primary. When Hillary Clinton won the nomination, I stood with her, not because I thought she was the ideal candidate, but because she most closely reflected my positions and ideal out of all the remaining candidates.

 

Now–with all that out in the open, I’d also like to point out that for the second time in my voting life it is beginning to appear that the person who won the popular vote will not win the election. That’s because America is built on democratic principles, but is not a “pure” democracy.

In 2000, the electoral college system worked in my favor–last night, it did not. But my support of the system hasn’t changed.

What I saw unfold in the 2000 election, which helped to cement my understanding of the electoral college system (something I had a difficult time grasping in junior high Civics classes), was how the electoral college system, with the guidance of the popular vote, spreads the power of the election more evenly throughout the country. Highly populated areas along the coastlines often carry the popular vote. But what happens when those of Middle America come out in large numbers? They may not be able to tilt the popular vote completely in their direction. But with the electoral college system, they have the power to do so… in certain situations.

The lesson, I loudly told anyone in 2000 who would listen, was that the simple majority needed to be willing to listen to the minority who had been able to use our system to tilt the election. The system protects the differing views of our citizens. What matters to people on the West Coast may not matter to those on the East Coast and what matters to either coast will be different from what matters to all those in between. But what is in between tends to be less populous, but should not be ignored just because they aren’t as many in number.

I was twenty-three then–sixteen years later, at the age of 39, I realize I had only half learned the lesson. It took a second close election. It took another probable chance of a popular vote not deciding another election. And it took me being on the other side. But I’ve finally learned the other half of the lesson.

Yes–those who tilted the popular vote need to listen to the other side. But, those who tilted the electoral college need to listen to the majority, too.

In 2000 we were so busy yelling, “We’re angry and you need to listen up” that we failed to do exactly what Bush had been promising to do: to be unifiers. We ushered in a season of unprecedented polarization in this country. I fully take responsibility for my part in that.

Look at how it has played out in this latest election cycle: people are fighting with their own families, friendships and relationships have been ended, angry rhetoric on both sides shut down any hope of reconciliation or coming together and finding a common path forward. We’ve all developed a “my way or the highway” attitude.

So how do we move forward?

Well, as a nation we need to stop shouting insults at each other across the political divide. We need to come together in wisdom and peace and be willing to listen to one another. And not just hear the words that are being spoken so that we can debate or argue, but hear the hurt, the anger, the fear, the worry, the hope, the dreams. We need to stop listening for the sake of arguing and start listening for the sake of understanding.

That’s the first step. From there we can begin working out a way forward. It will mean compromises on both sides, something we’ve all become loathe to do. But if we set aside our personal pride, we can do it.

As people of faith we need to realize that we are a broad and diverse group. I know good Christians who voted for Clinton. And I know good Christians who voted for Trump. No one party has a lock on what it means to be Christian. If anything, they may a lock on how we live in our personal lives. But just because we may walk with Jesus in different ways, we need to realize that we are all walking with Christ.

My journey with Christ took me from my conservative upbringing and the Christian Right into the world of progressive activism and the Christian Left today. To assume that this moment in anyone’s life locks them into attitudes and understandings for the rest of eternity is faulty. We are all growing. We are all changing. And if we are approaching it as people of faith, we are all experiencing a changing (hopefully deepening) relationship with Jesus.

I was a devout Christian when I cast my vote for Bush. And I was a devout Christian in the booth yesterday when I cast my vote for Clinton. I woke this morning, disappointed and disheartened, but still a devout Christian–and no matter how the election turned out, that is the truth that is bigger than any poll or result.

So–from a personal perspective, I vow to continue my journey with Christ. I vow to continue this walk that began 39 years ago, when my parents held me in their arms in that hospital room and met me face-to-face for the first time and promised to raise me as a Christian. But I won’t assume that the path I am on is the only path to Christ and the only way to be a Christian. I will be willing to hear you. I will love you. I may not always understand you, but I will try to do so. I may not always respect your positions and opinions, but I will respect you and give you space in my pew–a pew that has been growing longer and broader throughout my life.

Professionally speaking, I feel obligated to create a safe space for all people. Over the past year I’ve noticed that politics has edged its way into our conversations in Bible Studies, Sunday School classrooms, meetings, and other church-related discussions and gatherings. It has resulted in some people feeling alienated or unloved–myself included. This morning I’ve already fielded telephone calls from members who are also disappointed and dreading coming to church on Sunday because they worry the results of a worldly election will be lorded over them in their moment of sorrow.

This won’t happen. It can’t happen. In our pews are people on both sides of the divide and every where in between–and not one of them should be made to feel they aren’t welcome or that their faith is somehow less than someone else’s.

I will be deliberate in the days ahead in shutting down political discussions–not for the purpose of shutting down public discourse, but to preserve the sanctity of our holy gathering place. People need to know that regardless of which box they checked yesterday that they can come before the altar and offer themselves to God. Those who are celebrating need to be able to rejoice in the Lord…and those who feel disenfranchised by the current events need to be able to bring those woes before the Lord also.

Our sanctuary is big enough for all of us because it is big enough for God. But when we drag our opinions into that space, we start to edge out God with our selfishness and everything becomes smaller.

Yes, we can have honest discussion about things that are affecting our world and our lives. We can wrestle with God. We can struggle together to learn more. But it must be done with Christ at the center, not our graven images.

Rhetoric that lashes out at a candidate or that candidate’s followers will not be tolerated. Insults will not be tolerated. Hateful language will not be tolerated. Generalizing people and communities, casting stereotypes, or making stands that pit one group against another will not be tolerated. All of those are weapons of this world’s powers. We are going to lay down those weapons and come together, equally vulnerable, equally humbled.

We are all in this together.

As Americans I hope and pray we will learn to live together again.

As Christians we are obligated to live together. We are obligated to love one another.

What I Learned About Fear By Carrying a Stun Gun

A few weeks ago I was shopping for pepper spray (defense against random loose dogs) when the suggestion, “Other people who purchased pepper spray also bought this” popped up at the bottom of my screen.

It was a suggestion to purchase a stun gun.

It was a cute little device and came in an assortment of bright colors–Lime Kool Aid green amongst them.

Since my favorite color was included I clicked on the link and took a look at the product. It was only fifteen dollars and shipping and handling was free… so why not?

I didn’t really feel the need for a stun gun. I had never considered owning one. But it was an impulse buy… like those little odds and ends placed strategically in the check out lanes at Wal-Mart where you are forced to stare at them rather than make eye contact with all the other people standing in line.

A few days later it showed up in the mail–a tiny little package and I couldn’t help but wonder if it would actually work. So I ripped it open and anxiously gave it test fire, nearly dropping it when the loud crack of electricity exploded in my hand. I burst into giggles and set about trying to find some adventurous soul who would let me “zap” them as an experiment.

Later that night, having not found anyone willing to be a guinea pig, I zapped my own leg. Thank goodness I was sitting, because I would have dropped to the floor if I had been standing. Between the “oooohhhs” came bursts of laughter from myself and my friends.

“It’s not so bad,” I said… but I was still rubbing my leg and still laying on my side, so they didn’t believe me.

But fun and games aside, now that I have a stun gun I might as well start carrying it, right?

So every evening I’d slide the device into my pocket before leashing the dog for her nightly walk… and then I would go about wandering around town, hoping to burn off some of my dog’s surplus energy before bedtime.

The only thing I really used it for was as a flashlight (that’s one of the bonus features on it) to locate the doggie doo I needed to clean up. Mostly, it was just one more thing in my pocket and I hardly thought about it.

My usual route takes me by the only bar in town–a little dive dedicated to bikers. There are always a couple of them hanging out on the bench out front, getting some air and puffing on cigarettes. The dog always greets each one with a sloppy kiss and I usually stop for a moment or two and shoot the breeze with whoever is out that evening.

After having carried the stun gun for nearly a week, the novelty of the thing was wearing off and it was becoming more a force of habit to shove it in my pocket rather than an intentional act.

One evening I lost track of time as I sat in my chair reading an interesting book. By the time I was getting ready for bed it was late in the night–past midnight, but the dog still needed a walk unless I wanted to be awakened in a couple of hours by a cross-legged dog. So I took her out. What else could I do?

As the dog and I rounded the corner heading toward Clayton Avenue a young man caught my attention. He was cutting across the Fire Department parking lot cussing and fussing at someone I could not see. It was clear he’d had a couple too many over at the bar and I didn’t recognize him. So I took a mental snapshot of the man and kept moving. No harm, no foul. I didn’t even think about it as I directed the pooch down Clayton and tried to speed up the tempo to wear her out a bit quicker.

It was on the way back down Clayton, heading home, that everything changed, though.

As I as nearing the old Catholic Church, where Assumption Records is now housed, the young man reappeared. He came around the corner at a power-walk pace. He was agitated and he was still loudly cussing, but now it was clear that he was alone and talking out loud to himself.

It was close to 1:00 a.m. and I didn’t recognize this man as a local or a regular at the bar. He was under the influence of something, or at least appeared to be–In the past, my response would’ve been to do the things they taught us in women’s self-defense seminars back in college: make eye contact because most perpetrators want the element of surprise, note what they are wearing, what they look like, their height, their weight, don’t hunch over, don’t show fear, don’t appear vulnerable… but instead I fumbled in my pocket for a stun gun and every thought in my mind was about how I could zap him with it.

Fear bubbled up inside me. My fingers itched to jam the button that would set the electrical arc into motion… but he just nodded his head, gave a small smile, and kept moving.

My hands clutched the stun gun until I had crossed the foot bridge back over to “my side” of town…

At home I removed the unused stun gun from my pocket and laid it on the counter next to the dog leash and couldn’t help but think that when I had my hands on a weapon of defense all I could do was think defensively. A device bought for protection had actually instilled a great deal of fear in my soul–by having something I could protect myself with, I just assumed I had to protect myself.

The next day I happened to be reading John Dominic Crossan‘s Excavating Jesus in which he addresses the difference between Gospel accounts on Jesus’ command to his disciples to “take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt…” At least that’s what Luke says. Matthew says to “take nothing for the journey except a staff…”

Crossan maintains that the staff was the basic weapon of self-defense–what pepper spray had always been for me. It would protect a traveler not only as a club to be wielded against thieves and criminals, but also against wild animals and dogs, as well as a device to lift and throw dangerous snakes (okay, my pepper spray won’t do anything for snakes, but I got all the others covered). Luke’s version of Jesus encouraged complete pacifism. Luke’s Jesus sent his disciples into a world without even a staff for defense. But Matthew’s Jesus allowed for self defense. Both encouraged complete dependence upon Christ–they were to take no money, no supplies, no extra clothes. But they differed on whether Jesus intended that complete dependence to extend to self defense.

That caused me to start thinking about my reaction to the young man on the street. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been nearly as afraid of him if I hadn’t had that stun gun in my pocket. Once I knew I could zap him and drop him to the ground I just sort of assumed I would have to… but in the previous four and a half years, my nightly walk more often than not takes me right past the bar that many folks in town are afraid of. Yet I’ve come to see the bench out front as a safe resting spot. A lot of the burly bikers who hang out in front of the bar love on my dog and give her the attention she wants.

Here’s the thing about those guys–they are a rough talking lot. They curse. They’re a little too loud sometimes. They say some pretty offensive things at times. They are big and heavily bearded and they roll up on thunderously loud motorcycles with their orange bandanas waving in the breeze. There’s a lot of leather and a lot of tattoos and not all of them well-done professional jobs, many are clearly prison tats. But without a weapon clutched in my hand, I perceived them as friends, even as others feared them.

But when I had a weapon in hand I perceived one of them as pure danger.

Now, I’m not advocating for people to put themselves in harm’s way. Nor am I taking a stand for or against carrying devices for self-defense. I’m not saying Luke is right and Matthew is wrong… because I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Heaven knows I’ve taken self-defense classes and that I usually have some sort of deterrent in my pocket, even if it’s just my keys held between my fingers… but when we approach people with weapon in hand we’ve already assumed we need a weapon

What Jesus wants, what I think Matthew and Luke both would agree upon, is that we are to set aside our tendency for defensiveness. We need to live with a spirit of peace that trusts God and that spirit of fear which causes us to cling to our insecurities and our assumptions that other people can destroy us needs to be laid aside and left behind. We can’t extend grace if we have a weapon in hand. We can’t be an instrument of peace if we are clinging to an instrument of destruction.

If we are going to be wholly dependent upon Jesus Christ, we need to be willing to be vulnerable: For the Spirit of God does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.