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Remembering Goodbye

My Facebook memory on Wednesday was from two years ago. Kim and I got up super early and drove to Yosemite National Park so we could watch the sunrise at Tunnel View. We were in countdown mode, experiencing our favorite California places before moving, yet again, across the country. As the sunlight filled that iconic Yosemite Valley view, we held each other and soaked in that moment.

We moved to California from Tennessee three years earlier to live a dream that was now in pieces. California was home for me, and I had hoped that we would make it home for us – that we would find home in a community that would affirm our belonging and promote our flourishing.

Previous to moving to Tennessee to be with Kim, I lived in Fresno, CA. I was connected with a church community that meant the world to me. It had nurtured my theological development and welcomed my service. I preached my first sermon there. I worshipped there when I was just starting out teaching within the Biblical Studies department of their denominational university. I was eager to grow into a leader within the Mennonite Brethren (MB) worlds of church and higher education. I wanted to belong within a chosen family and to experience the Anabaptist vision for community and peacemaking.

I remember going through the process to become a member in 2008. I met with a small group to share my story and discern the fit of membership. At that time, I still used an ex-gay paradigm to understand and tell my story. I talked about my struggle with same-sex attraction throughout my teenage and college years and how following Jesus led me to resist and overcome homosexuality. I felt called to serve God by devoting my life to teaching bible and theology. I needed a community that would help me continue to grow in my faith, challenge me to obedient discipleship, and provide deep relational connection.

In the few years prior to my attending the church, they had gone through a period of wrestling with the issue of LGBTQ people and membership. The outcome provided the option to join the church as an “affiliate member,” a category used for those who want to be part of the community, but who are out of alignment with the Confession of Faith in some significant way. Article 11 of the USMB Confession of Faith defines marriage as “a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life” and dictates that “sexual intimacy rightfully takes place only within [such a] marriage.” So, for a same-sex couple to formally become part of the church, they must accept a category of membership that deems their relationship outside the boundary of the community’s interpretation of the Bible for ethical practice. Policy, then, would prohibit such members from serving in a couple of key leadership roles. At the time, I was impressed that the church was willing to have those hard conversations. Though I was a bit uncomfortable with making room for what felt like passive acceptance of same-sex relationships, I was confident that the church would support my own decision to reject homosexuality. I was welcomed into membership and actively participated in various lay leadership roles over several years.

As I’ve shared before, my journey led me to wrestle with my sexuality and theology intensely for a period of two years that culminated in a full affirmation of myself as a lesbian and for same-sex relationships. During that time, though I felt the support of a couple of trusted people within that congregation, I did not trust I could live that period of my journey “out loud.” I did not share what I was going through with many people. Because I was also struggling with depression that radically limited my capacity to engage, I quit the leadership role I was in and stopped participating beyond attending Sunday services. No one asked questions, and I felt largely alone as I slipped away from active participation.

Toward the end of that two year period, I found most of my connection through the Gay Christian Network’s online community (now known as Q Christian Fellowship). On November 10, 2013, I received a message from a woman who had also recently come out to herself and reconciled her faith and sexuality. She asked me about my experience of coming out to my best friend, because she was about to come out to hers and she knew, as was my experience, that it was not going to go well. Thus was the beginning of my relationship with Kim. We connected during a very difficult time in our lives, and we’ve been by each other’s side every day since then (even when we were 2,000 miles apart for the first 10 months of our relationship).

The first time Kim came to visit me in California, I took her to my church. We had the practice of passing around the microphone to introduce our guests toward the end of the service. I stood up and proudly proclaimed, “This is my girlfriend, Kim.” She wanted to crawl under her chair. I was also nervous. Though a few people knew about my affirming shift, that moment really was my public coming out. For some who only knew me as ex-gay or committed to celibacy, I’m sure it was surprising. The service ended, and several people came up to us to welcome Kim and express their joy for our relationship. A couple of those people told me years later that they had been hoping I would embrace my sexuality and find someone to love authentically. At the time, I had no idea anyone would feel that way. After all, the church was non-affirming, and coming out resulted in the loss of my closest friend and meant that I would not be able to work for the denominational organizations within which I had spent much of my professional life. For years the desire to belong within that MB world, though I was not aware of it at the time, kept me from even being open to honestly seeing myself and wrestling with my theology around sexuality. That Sunday morning gave me hope that I might find belonging as my authentic self within the community I loved and had invested in for longer than I had connected with any other community.

Circumstances kept Kim from moving to California as was our original plan, so in September 2014, I moved to Tennessee to begin our engaged life together. We got married soon after SCOTUS declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Though we got married in California where it had already been legal, Tennessee – home of one of the plaintiffs that culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges – had no legal protections against workplace or other discrimination. Kim was not out at work and even though same-sex marriage now had to be legally recognized, she didn’t feel comfortable telling people that we had gotten married. We flew out to California on a Thursday, got married in Tahoe on Saturday and flew back to Tennessee on Monday. The cultural climate toward LGBTQ people in Tennessee combined with the hope of making the Fresno community our family motivated our plan to move as soon as it was possible.

A job offer moved us near Sacramento, CA for a year before a transfer opened up to Fresno. In my mind, we were finally home. I had kept in touch with several people from the church and was so excited to rejoin that community. The conversations I had over the three years I was away only served to grow my hope that the church was moving toward LGBTQ inclusion. It wasn’t long after we began attending that we were invited to participate by sharing our faith stories in the Adult Education hour, I was invited to preach, and we read scripture during several Sunday services. The more we talked to people, the more we heard a desire to become affirming. We were finding our place, and I invested myself in moving change forward.

Our experience during the two years we lived in Fresno will be the topic for an upcoming blog post. Now we’re back where we started: the Facebook memory from two years ago. With dashed dreams of belonging within that community, we were soaking in the sunrise filling Yosemite Valley and saying goodbye. Several days later we loaded our two pups in the back of our car and drove away.

I share this memory today to say to all those LGBTQ people (and allies) who have lost the people and places they most wanted to belong: I see you. I have suffered my own hurt and grief. As someone who deeply feels the pain of “this is not the way it’s supposed to be,” I understand that these losses, these rejections, these shattered hopes are traumatic. As I said in my last post, the anger and sadness I feel in response to suffering is energy I want to engage to offer the healing gifts I have to give: compassion, resilience and imagination for seeking justice and flourishing.

If you want support as you navigate your own journey, I would love to connect with you about spiritual coaching. If you are in a non-affirming church that you want to influence to move toward LGBTQ inclusion, let’s talk about how I can help facilitate that change. As in my story, things may not work out the way you hope. However, you are not alone. Together, we can chart a path that opens you up to greater healing and flourishing.

The Next Right Thing

I’m an enneagram type 1. My type is commonly called “The Perfectionist,” “The Reformer,” or “The Improver.”

At my worst – when I most disconnected from my true self – I devolve into incredibly harsh self-criticism because I feel “not good enough” and I can’t “fix it all.” When that inner critic is raging, it spills out as judgmentalism. What is really going on is deep insecurity, anxiety and rage – that it is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” Whatever it is – me, others, the world. All I can see and feel is the pain of the “not yet.”

At my best – when I am most connected to my “very good” and “beloved” embodied identity – I open up to hope and am energized to participate in the cultivation of shalom. I am able to join the suffering I see without being consumed. I am able to celebrate the present moments of goodness, practicing gratitude instead of giving in to foreboding joy or resentment. When I am most fully myself, I have healing gifts to give: compassion, resilience and imagination for seeking justice and flourishing.

Over the last year and a half, during the isolation of social distancing, I have watched as people and communities respond to a global pandemic. There have been stories of neighbors grocery shopping for those at most risk. I have seen people urging their friends and family to pull together and make sacrifices even though at a distance – encouraging wearing face masks, foregoing holiday gatherings and learning to connect on screens instead of in person. I have also seen some of the most egregious, selfish and harmful behavior I have ever witnessed.

I have spent much of these last months wrestling with anger and the temptation to throw my hands in the air in resignation. Because of the privilege of my race and socioeconomic status, I could choose to stay in isolation. I could detach and retreat into the safety of a self-centered and self-righteous existence. I’d have to numb my emotional life and close myself off from compassion. I’d have to console myself through distraction and avoid moments of stillness and quiet when I might have to face myself. But, I could give in to the despair of the suffering I see in the world and fear that healing and justice are hopeless fantasies. That would be to allow my worst shadow to overcome my true self.

I have also spent much of these last months wrestling with how to use my energy to engage – to seek justice and promote flourishing. A few weeks ago I decided it was time to quit my job and commit full-time to the work I have been trying to do “on the side” for the last couple of years. It is time to give this my full attention and effort. It is time to go all-in with the work that most reflects and shapes my truest self. It is time to wholeheartedly embrace that my story, my self, and my gifts are an important contribution to the story of liberation and healing that has been at work in the world as long as Love has “heard” and “come down.”

It is time for the next right thing. This is not the whole thing. This is not every thing. This is my part. I cannot heal the whole world, but I can spend my life healing. I cannot fix all that is wrong and causing harm, but I can spend my life tending to pain and fostering hope.

Here it is: the relaunching of my website comes with the announcement that I am launching my own business. The majority of my work is focused on LGBTQ inclusion in Christian spaces. I am building a spiritual coaching practice. I am also teaching and facilitating courses and seminars on faith related topics such as the Bible, theology, spirituality, and on other topics such as personal growth and leadership for non-faith based contexts. In addition to teaching, consulting and coaching, I will be creating content to share on my blog, and, eventually, in other media.

So take a look around. Let me know if I can be of service to you. If you would like to support my work, the first thing you can do is share it with others. Check out the “What I Do” page for the services I offer. If you would like to contribute financially, one of the first things I want to establish is a scholarship fund for clients that cannot afford coaching or consulting. Contact me for more details. If you would like to talk more about what I’m doing and how you might benefit or get involved, let’s schedule a time to meet in person, on the phone or online.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Jesus is born into the midst of deep longing for liberation. God’s people root their identity in their deliverance from Egyptian slavery into the promised land. They are the people who cried out under oppression, whose God heard their cries and came to be-there* with and for them.

“I have seen how My people in Egypt are being mistreated. I have heard their groaning when the slave drivers torment and harass them; for I know well their suffering. I have come to rescue them from the oppression of the Egyptians, to lead them from that land where they are slaves and to give them a good land – a wide, open space flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7-8, The Voice)

By the first century, God’s people had endured wave after wave of foreign powers ruling over them. Though they had taken the promised land and established a king meant to maintain God’s rule, everything unraveled. The first wave crashed in 586 BC, when the Davidic monarchy was dethroned with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The people were taken into Babylonian captivity and exile became the new reality. The second wave hit: the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Though permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, God’s people were still under foreign rule. The third wave rolled in with Alexander the Great conquering the region. The next wave of subjugation brings us to the Roman Empire into which Jesus is born.

Imagine hundreds of years of wrestling with your identity as God’s liberated people in the midst of constant captivity. Imagine gathering for worship and singing yet again:

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2, NRSV)

“My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, ‘When will you comfort me?’ How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:81-82, 84, NRSV)

Your constant prayer in these dark times is – God, hear again; come down again; liberate again!

O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear!

In the thick of mourning and longing, of hoping and praying, God’s people are bombarded with the dominant reality of the Empire. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) was celebrated as Lord and Savior, a Son of God, who brought good news for the whole world by establishing peace. Caesar’s gospel marked the beginning of a new era. His birthday was said to be “the beginning of the good tidings for the world” and  “a way to honour Augustus” was to “reckon time from the date of his nativity” (see Priene Inscription article). Thus, his birthday was decreed the beginning of the New Year in many provinces. It is into this Empire, this reality of Roman power, that Jesus was born. The birth announcement in Luke proclaims a different Savior about to bring a different kingdom. This language is a direct challenge to Caesar and his gospel. This language is resistance language. Another reality is breaking in. Do you hear it?

Do not be afraid, because your story of exile and oppression has turned a page, and this chapter is titled, Promised One. The good news you have been desperate to hear, that salvation, liberation, rescue, deliverance has come, is breaking into this drama right now. (my paraphrase of Luke 2:10-11)

Bringing us back to Reframing the Gospel

Several weeks ago I shared about the workshop I presented, “Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision.” In the post, “Moving the Conversation Forward,” I wrote:

If this discussion [about LGBTQ inclusion] is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern [of biblical authority]. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.

In the next post, “Fruit and Roots,” I engaged Matthew Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” and the traditionalist concern that becoming affirming would require rejecting the Bible as authoritative. Vines calls us to engage scripture with openness to new insights for the sake of LGBTQ people suffering great harm due to non-affirming interpretations.

As a first step toward demonstrating how LGBTQ inclusion is central to the gospel, I reflected on the story of Jesus’ birth and “good news” in the post, “What’s This All About?” Good news, or gospel, is connected to salvation – liberation from something; deliverance into something else. This brings us to today’s exploration of the context in which Jesus was born, one of longing for freedom from oppression and the restoration of God’s kingdom. The good news proclaimed at Jesus’ birth is that this freedom and restoration was breaking into the world where Caesar’s gospel of Roman peace dominated the landscape.

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired the connection for “Reframing the Gospel.” In the first chapter of this important book, they write:

In the face of an imperial gospel that proclaims that all salvation lies in Rome, and that identifies the emperor as both lord and savior, while bringing crosses, crippling taxes, agricultural exploitation, economic destruction, war, and violence wherever it goes, Paul brings a gospel of deep, transformative, creation-restoring salvation that turns the empire on its head. You have to realize that proclaiming Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, as Lord flies in the face of imperial ideology. This is seditious language because if Jesus is Lord, the Caesar is not. Moreover, this gospel reverses the order of the empire by coming to the Jew first and then to the gentile… And now if there is any gospel left to be proclaimed from the heart of the empire, it is that a struggling group of Jesus followers have bent the knee to the Messiah, have named him as their Lord, have embraced a faith alternative to fidelity to the empire, and have an obedience in their lives that subverts imperial obedience. (17)

In Paul’s letter to the Roman churches, opening with what seems to be one of the largest barriers to becoming affirming (Romans 1:18-32), he unpacks “the good news of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) for the believers in the heart of the empire. Exploring this text in light of its imperial context leads us to reframe the gospel and see a trajectory pointing toward LGBTQ inclusion in our context. This is where we’re heading in the next post.

 

* Everett Fox translates God’s name in Exodus 3 (often translated “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”) to signify God’s presence – “God said to Moshe: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH / I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And he said: Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel: EHYEH / I-WILL-BE-THERE sends me to you” (Ex. 3:14).

What’s This All About?

Every time Christmas nears, the scene of Linus reciting from Luke 2 comes to mind. Charlie Brown is frustrated with a meaning of Christmas wrapped up in flashy decorations, showy pagents and greedy consumerism. He knows there is something else, something more, something special, but he can’t quite put it all together. Linus takes center stage and answers Charlie Brown’s question – Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? – with a story.

An angel appears and speaks (Luke 2:8-14):

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (NRSV).

When we read this, we may not immediately jump for joy. We miss so much that is packed into this announcement because of the distance between our moment in time and the ancient world of those shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. Reading other translations and paraphrases might help:

“Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority!” (The Voice)

“Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere! For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah.” (The Passion Translation)

“Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

Somehow the announcement of Jesus’ birth is good news that changes everything. The good news I first heard as a teenager can be summarized like this: Jesus saves. Believing “Jesus is Savior” was supposed to change my life. It was supposed to change everything. Looking back over the years, however, I resonate a bit with Charlie Brown. All the window dressings of the Christian life left me feeling like there must be something else, something more, because though the Christians I knew said we were participating in something special, I couldn’t quite see how it fit together. Many times throughout my journey, I’ve been exasperated and cried out, “Isn’t there anyone that can tell me what this is all about?” It just seemed we were all actors in a play that might have been produced well, but that was telling the wrong story.

Throughout my 20s and 30s I’ve been exploring the question: What is this story that is supposed to be such good news?

Lights please.


Do not be afraid, because your story of exile and oppression has turned a page, and this chapter is titled, Promised One. The good news you have been desperate to hear, that salvation, liberation, rescue, deliverance has come, is breaking into this drama right now.


We need to ask some questions in order to understand this story. When this announcement was heard, what was the plot of the chapter in which the hearers lived? What was happening? What were they waiting and longing for? In other words, from what did they need to be rescued? Also, for what would they be liberated? Salvation from what and for what? Jesus’ birth announcement in Luke is one of four beginnings to the story. Let’s turn to the other three gospels to see how those writers set the stage for this good news.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’’” (Mark 1:1-3).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Matthew, Mark and Luke use the language of “good news.” John is doing something a bit different, but we’ll get to that in the another blog post. For now, notice the language connected to good news: the kingdom of God is announced (that’s good news) and is demonstrated through healing; Isaiah’s vision of God delivering the people from exile (also good news) is connected; this story includes everyone.

We are in the first week of Advent (began Sunday, December 1), a season that begins the church year. This season is one of expectant longing that leads up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. In the next post, we’ll dig into the good news story more and, hopefully, get a clearer picture of what this is all about and how it is core to the work I presented at the TRP Conference in my workshop, “Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision.” In the meantime, think about how you might answer some of the questions I posed regarding the announcement of good news.