There is No “But” in Love

 

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Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

 – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have spent the better part of the last decade trying to figure out love. I think there is a good reason why Jesus left us with this as our greatest command, for it is quite possible one could spend a lifetime pursuing how to love and be loved.

My youngest brother came out a decade ago as a gay man. I was conflicted. Nothing, at the time, in my Christian world supported celebration of his sexual identity. Nothing supported an affirming relationship with him. Nothing in my Bible-believing faith allowed me to love him without condition. Nothing in my spiritual practice provided space for grace, for him or for me. Every sentence I wanted to say, held a but.

I love you, but

Jesus loves you, but

Love the sinner, but

I support you, but

Love in the church and Christianity still has qualifiers. Love still holds many buts when it comes to expression of faith, church involvement and acceptance.

Friends, our “loving” statements toward another should never contain a butButs are lazy, revealing the undone work of humility through discernment and wrestling. Buts say: “If the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. Buts close doors and toss aside the keys of beauty and community and resurrection.

Why are Christians so afraid? What is threatened by relinquishing our control?

It took me a long time to be able to be free of the buts. For many years I believed there were conditions on my brother’s faith. I believed there were conditions for my own and everyone else’s, too. I believed grace wasn’t free, but only available if we lived within the confines of the little box established by the church’s narrow interpretation of Scripture.

I keep hearing variations of the same story:

I was raised in a Christian home. I went to church every Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night, too. I was very involved in the youth group and I loved Jesus. I knew something was different about me. As I got older I realized I was gay. I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t tell my parents. So, I hid. And then I prayed. And then I tried to change and did horrible things to myself to inflict punishment. And then I tried to kill myself. I came out and my parents want nothing to do with me. Sometimes we will talk, but we can’t talk about this. This huge piece of me and I can’t even talk to the people I love the most in this world. How is it possible to turn away from your own child? How come they don’t fight for me?

The pain is real. The rejection is heartbreaking. People are dying. This is not love. This cannot be love.

Christians are to be about the business of living the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus. How is the Good News being dispensed by Christians? What are we known for?

If the Gospel, the life-giving, redeeming work of Jesus Christ is not Good News for everyone, it is Good News for no-one.

If our efforts to love another are not perceived as love, our efforts are not love. When Christians claim the role of gatekeeper, determining who is in and who is out, we fail to be the beautiful, life giving, generous welcome of Christ as the Gospel. In our defining of sin, in our offering judgment rather than unconditional love, we are dispensing hate. When our love is not perceived as love, our love is perceived as hatred. This is on us.

Will we drop our need to be right? Will we fight to love our people well? Will we strive hard to love as God asks us to love, without condition? Will the church recognize she is losing a generation?

Community with our gay children, our transgender siblings, our bisexual parents is possible and beautiful. When the work is complete and love is allowed to rule, we get to abandon the Buts and embrace the Ands.

I love you, and

Jesus loves you, and

Love the sinner, and

I support you, and….

Our work is to receive one another in celebration and affirmation, no conditions, no buts.

The journey Trevor started for me is one I will protect and defend. We all share the table, the table of generosity and community, the table of belonging together. Each person is welcomed, honored, filled and loved in equal measure. We are all received as children of God. This God who adores each and every one of us without buts, without qualification.

Test God in this, wrestle with the text of Scripture, let’s follow our heart’s desire and love with abandon. Our LGBTQ loved ones do not have to be our greatest spiritual test.

I will leave you with the ethos of Highlands Church in Denver, written by co-pastor, Mark Tidd:

Married, divorced or single here, it’s one family that mingles here.
Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here.
Big or small here, there’s room for us all here.
Doubt or believe here, we all can receive here.
Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here
Woman or man here, everyone can here.
Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.
In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us,
let us live and love without labels!
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The Reluctant Feminist

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I confess. I am a reluctant feminist.

As a young girl, I remember angry women on the TV screen picketing, faces filled with outrage, signs held high in protest against something.

I, from a line of male pastors, had strong women in my life. My mother and grandmother served as their husbands’ musical backbone, skirting the keys of piano and organ, leading with a raised eyebrow or head nod. A great-grandmother was a pastor. My other mother organized everything at church. We are not a fragile bunch.

I didn’t know I needed a female pastor. Usually there was a woman in the role of Children’s Pastor and Women’s Pastor, women I admired and felt like I had a kinship toward, women who seemed to know Scripture as fluently as the men, serving and loving well in the roles they were destined to play. I didn’t have a nagging sense of needing a woman to preach from the pulpit. I didn’t know what I was missing.

Until now.

Many churches still cling to the interpretation of Scripture that women are called and required to submit and be subordinate to male leadership. Women cannot and will not be entrusted the opportunity or responsibility to lead men.

So where does this leave women who believe they are called by God to preach and teach in a church setting? And, if we are each created in God’s image, men and women alike, what is the church missing?

Sarah Bessey, in her book Jesus Feminist  offers this definition of feminism:

At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that women are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance – not greater than, but certainly not less than – to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women.

Feminism is not bra-burning rage with picket signs held high. Feminism is the crucial belief that women have an equal place at the table of men, with a beautiful and life-giving offering. Typical female characteristics are not seen as weak or lesser, but as an essential expression of the complexity and grace of God. As a woman, my softness and tenderness, my empathy and compassion, my feels and tears are not things to be mocked or made light of. My contribution offers the heart of God and does not demand I submit to the priesthood of men.

I have held this notion that to participate in the world of men, I must adopt masculine characteristics. That somehow I’m not enough as I am. But I now realize, women need to be women, fully ourselves. There has been this narrative that women must fight, lean in, be strong and forceful, fighting for equal rights and equal air time. I owe these women my allegiance and gratitude, for they have moved mountains and paved inroads for us all.

However, many of us are not interested in operating with force and fight, we are designed to be soft, nurturing, sustaining. There is this whole side of God that is valued as less. This side of God that resembles me. I’m at my best when I can listen, weep and mourn with another, preferring to bear burdens without the need to fix and change or have answers.

I believe the church has missed this mark, and Christians are so tired. The mothers and fathers are worn out. People are battle weary and terrified with all the rules and shoulds, the fear. We need people who will speak grace and kindness and rest.

I want our churches to be led by both women and men in equal measure, together. I want our churches to manifest tenderness, sparing water for the road weary traveler, providing food and clothing to the destitute, rendering grace and mercy to the sinner, lending a listening ear and gentle word to the tormented, healing the wounded.

In a world where people are clamoring to posture, the church must empower her women. Maternal love sees, knows and nurtures. Maternal love carries the overwhelming thrumming heart of God. Maternal love bears the weight and burden, gathering her precious children to her breast, providing sustenance and relief. Maternal love is the surrogate heart, belly and bosom of God, the source of life and renewal.

Will you let me join you? I so want to. I so want to be seen and known as God’s faithful child, bearing light and love to all my world. I want to lead with men, to be heard and respected, to be given a place at the table. I might fight you for the spot, but I’d rather be offered for I’m not that person. I just need you to know you’re missing out on a valuable resource, on a remarkable opportunity. Don’t include me because you have pity on me. Include me because you want me there, because you know you need to hear what I have to say, because you believe I offer half of God’s expression in this world.

Please do not silence our female voices in the church. Invite us in. You need us. You need our fierce tenderness, our loyalty and generosity, our accountability. You need our loving embrace of grace. Together we can manifest the wholeness of God’s heart to the hurting world. We can partner in our offering to another.

You need us and we need you.

The Communion of Wine, Pie & Friends

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I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap. 

-Ani DiFranco

Our church small group has met now for a couple months, driven by the need for unity and identification. Sometimes there are three of us, most times four, other times five or six.

We gather every two weeks. Half of us are lesbian and transgender, the other half straight. Wine and dessert are our top priorities. Kids come, grabbing their ice cream, finding their way to the backyard. We greet with hugs, making small talk about the day. One of us breaks the seal on the self-imposed dietary shyness, uncorking the wine – goblets clink, dessert is parsed. We join at the long, oversized, rectangular table of rustic wood, benches pulled out from underneath at angles. Our conversation begins slow at first. But the wine works her magic, tongues loosen while thoughts of everyday concerns fade and the real discussion commences.

Years ago I prayed a prayer, wondering if it fell on deaf ears, unsure of how or if it would be answered. I prayed for a community of diversity, a community which included LGBT people. I wanted to grow and learn, with faces instead of issues, real life instead of labels. I wanted to have my presumptions challenged, to practice love instead of fear and to show my children the same. I wanted to learn how to love with an open mind, without assumption.

The wine is poured and glasses toast marking the beginning of generous, wholehearted discourse. Two hours of nodding, passing tissues, earnest listening. Two hours of receiving and dispensing kindness. Two hours of telling stories.

Stories shared and information set right. Vulnerability and honesty from the outset, centering the drive for understanding and clarity. Laughter tinged with truth, tears tinged with fear. Will any of this get better? Can I make them see? How did it become this way? Why am I my family’s greatest spiritual test?

We each come to the table from Christian backgrounds and deep faiths. The work of unraveling former ways of thinking and operating is time consuming, a relentless and oftentimes painful road that bears great burden and much pain. The notion that we are all loved beyond our imagining is difficult to comprehend, much less accept. The strength of my friends astonishes me, their courage to live with authenticity into how they were created is beautiful and exemplary.

So, after I fetch Kleenex and more water, I sit and listen to the wisdom born from suffering and I rejoice. My prayers were answered, my heart swells, relishing this full glimpse of God’s kingdom.

The worn table wears the beautiful burden of honest and seeking questions where conditions have been left behind. Sexuality is not a sin. Sexuality is not an identifier. Sexuality is not something to be afraid of here in my house.

This is our group of undoing. The undoing of painful denial, the undoing of fearful obedience, the undoing of a vengeful God, the undoing of presumed rule-breaking.

This is our group of building. The building of new identities, the building of faithful honoring through learning to love self, the building of generous and life-giving presumptions of the church.

This is our group of healing. The healing of time worn lies, the healing of painful assumptions, the healing of God’s presumed condemnation. Healing from the treatment of other Christians.

This is our group of grace. The grace to live as one was born, the grace to live as one is called, the grace to live in wholeness, gazing ahead into generous beauty and expectation.

This is our community of lesbian, transgender, straight, women, man, wives, husbands and friends. This is our group that meets at the table to learn and grow, to lament and weep, to celebrate and honor, to tell stories and provide encouragement, to question and bring relief.

I am grateful to have this plentiful space, with Kleenex and food. I am grateful for the strong, remarkable people who choose to gather, bear witness and move forward in this beautiful and holy work. I am beyond grateful that I have a front row seat, all of it beginning from a little prayer.

The communion of food and drink, celebrating life together, this picture of eternity a snapshot of redemption. The good work of empathy. The holiest work of compassion. The just work of healing, joining together in community, learning how to love better.

 

Small House Martyr

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During the hardest-years-of-my-life-aside-from-the-death-of-my-mother, our little but growing family dwelled in a small 1940s bungalow in the heart of our town. A brick ranch with alley access afforded us the dream of quaint and historic with mature landscaping and majestic maples. The toddler and I spent afternoons crunching through leaves, while the infant was still ensconced in the cocoon of me. Our wanderings were short and punctuated with a multitude of questions and exclamations of unbridled joy. Brooks holding a truck in each hand, climbing in and out of the wagon, a new conquest of discovery every few feet.

The streets were narrow with room for cars to park and a single lane to drive. The local city pool just up the way, downtown shops and restaurants, turn of the century homes, lush gardens and parks within a five minute meandering walk. Bungalows, craftsman and ranch homes, some remodeled, some not, fueled the wonder of my imagination. The location was perfect, the dreams and opportunities of our young family’s life simmering and bubbling to the surface.

Winter months were hard. No insulation, two small children stuck indoors, the vision of encasing them in snow clothes, forcing them outside was a ridiculous dream that no one should have shared. The house shrunk and my anxiety rose. We had everything we dreamed – the cute, fixer upper, yet I was miserable.

One especially difficult day, I chatted on the phone with my mom for a couple hours. Way back then, instead of texting and social media, we ignored our children by talking for long periods on the home telephone, tending to the bare necessities while surviving the contained chaos.

I was griping about the house and how small it was, that we were making proper sacrifices, living in less, choosing to live more simple – blah blah blah. Earning my goodness and superiority through suffering in my home, she said, in her perfect timing, “You aren’t better than others because you live in a small house.”

What the what?!!

I was hanging by the skin of my righteousness, defined and elevated by my voluntary sacrifice. I believed I was better because I suffered by choice. But the sacrifice was unnecessary, the house was making me crazy, my patience already frayed, almost shattering across the re-done hardwood floor.  My personal goodness and entitlement were defined by my martyrdom, by my willingness to suffer.  I was better because my home was humbler.

I was a martyr. I am a martyr. I sacrificed my health and well-being, alongside that of my family and marriage on the altar of YES. Yes to volunteering at church. Yes to volunteering at school. Yes to sending my husband off for his weekly soccer while I was this close to coming undone. Yes to being the good mom – whatever that means.

My relationship with God was, at its core, transactional. If I did this or that, I would receive this or that. And if I didn’t – well, that’s a huge problem. The comparing, measuring, one-upping was constant. A merry-go-round of misery. I could never win or get ahead. My self worth as a woman, a mother, a wife and Christian pinned on my yeses.

The temptation sneaks in at our low moments, doesn’t it? When we are looking for ways to prove why we deserve what we have been given, to justify all of it. We think we have control over God’s favor, that somehow our achievement, our busy-ness will result in blessings.

This way of thinking is damaging and dangerous. When God is reduced to a cosmic blessing manufacturer we lose out on the mystery, and worse we become cynical and angry, believing we have done it all right, so therefore we deserve ___.

 

I still hold martyr tendencies. I still find myself wanting to suffer for Jesus – that somehow I will earn the Golden Ticket to righteousness and I will earn the applause of the heavenly hosts. And I hustle, I pry, I scheme and I fight. And then I get tired and cranky and broody, so I pay close attention to the usage of should and must and have to. I rethink obligations in which I feel inclined to offer a weak yes rather than a firm no.  And then, I wind up in recovery, reclaiming rest and grounded and kindness and generosity, inflicting harsh boundaries upon myself that require careful examination of priorities.

I become a better human, able to give and provide love and grace with security in my own beloved-ness, for I am loved as I am, always.

Hi there. My name is Jennifer Jepsen. I am a recovering martyr and I have been sober for about 20 minutes.

How Stinky Was Jesus?

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We have sheep, two ewes and two lambs. I confess once held romantic notions of lying in green pastures, sheep beside me, lambs sharing my lap, celebrating their gentle grace and beauty. Spiritual connotations abounded, my heart filled to brimming with the fantasy of their nuzzling noses, goodness rubbing off in some cosmic exchange of pastoral wonder.

My daughter, Claire, is our resident shepherd. She, her brothers and my husband have been rafting the Grand Canyon for two weeks, leaving me with the animal duties. Our Colorado spring weather has been unpredictable and uncooperative for those of us longing for blue skies and sunny days. Sloppy and slushy, the backyard is a muddy poop puddle.

Five minutes in the barn to feed and water animals, my clothes and hair reek, damp straw owning the stench. My Psalm 23 fantasy has bit by bit eroded into a nose-pinching, eye-watering affair. After accomplishing the necessary deeds to keep the creatures alive, clothes are deposited on the mudroom floor, alongside muck boots.

Two years ago, Claire’s first lamb, Rosie, had a medical condition that did not bode well for her long-term health. Well bred and fed, she was a formidable creature, topping the scales at 140 pounds. We knew she needed to be put down and the butcher had a brief opening one day in summer, during county fair season. It was up to Eric and I, being the good parents that we are, to salvage what we could of Rosie. The trip was long and arduous. Eric drove while I occupied the middle seat of the SUV, anchoring the lamb with a single tether. Baa-ing for her life, pooping profuse in the cupholders (to be discovered later by an unsuspecting child), her fearful eruptive bleats contributed to the erosion of my aging eardrums.

Upon arrival we led Jesus…er, I mean…Rosie to slaughter, bearing the burden of our daughter’s grief, into the rear door of the nondescript cinderblock building. Her unwitting offering as seventy pounds of white paper-wrapped blocks of frozen, grass-fed, Rosie.

Regardless of whether Jesus was the sheep or the shepherd, he must have smelled something awful. That barn, the scene of his birth was no doubt downright raunchy. The stink of the animals, the soggy straw, the shepherds. Yuck.

I doubt this image of Jesus is misguided. It is not possible he escaped his own birth, life and death without repelling people. In fact, we know he repelled people – the righteous people, the Law-abiding people, the educated and careful people. Jesus did not linger long with the perfect or presentable. He was one with the poor, the sinner, the outcast, the average. In other words, our homeless, our diseased, our oppressed and marginalized.

This Jesus is with me at my worst, when my actions, judgments and beliefs, my jealousy and self-righteousness have spoiled me to the point of stink, ruin, ridicule and foul. This Jesus, born with sheep and other barnyard creature, did not hesitate to enter the pain and suffering of the world. He dwelled among the offensive outcasts of society. He brushed against the bleeding women, the demon possessed men, the three-days-dead. He lived among and healed, offering mercy to our fetid shame, greed, lust and pride, our humanity.

He chose us, to dwell with us, to understand us, while we we are still in our mess, while we still choose our mess.

And He loves us.

I’m not interested in a sanitized Jesus.

I’m not interested in a Jesus that doesn’t know what it means to bleed or be hungry.

I’m not interested in a Jesus that doesn’t know racial prejudice and exclusion.

I’m not interested in a Jesus who doesn’t understand and love women in our reflection of the Imago Dei (Image of God).

I’m not interested in a Jesus that does not mourn and weep with us.

This Jesus is mine. This Jesus brings hope and offers us good reason to follow, not only because he identifies with our suffering, but  because he dwells with us. Our pain will not be erased or wasted. The plight of refugee, abused, gay, transgender, black, Native American is seen and known – all are redeemed, all are rejoiced over and honored and loved.

This stinky Jesus, is the one I worship. Not the white-washed, blue-eyed model Jesus with the hipster beard and rock-star hair.

My Jesus carried all of this with a cross draped across his broken body.

My Jesus bears the pain, the stench and the redemption of my neighbor, and of me.