A love letter to my LGBTQ sisters and brothers

To the beloved people within the LGBTQ community:

I am so, so sorry.  We the Church need to beg our sincere forgiveness for how we have treated you.  My heart is wrecked that we live in a world where we accept mass shootings as the status quo, and where the vast majority of us do not grieve with you because of your sexual orientation.  I am sorry that we have to designate “safe zones” in our schools and universities, because you have rightly felt unsafe by our harmful actions done and those left undone.  I am sorry that we have not protected our LGBT youth who struggle with the desire to end their very life, because it is easier to pass by than come close.  I am sorry you’ve had to live under the label, “Hate the sin, love the sinner” as if it assumes we are not.  I am sorry that the Church has imposed conditions for love and timelines for change.  I am sorry for how my own heart has judged and excluded, staying silent when I should have spoken.  I am sorry for my apathy.

Regardless of what anyone tells you, you are needed and wanted.  Your stories are brave and true and welcome.  Here are my arms wide open, in hopes that I make you feel a little more safe and seen and loved.  A couple of weeks ago when I was in Boston, a good friend invited me to a beautiful Episcopal church where the pastor identified openly as queer.  She spoke of the Holy Spirit in the language of she which I almost stood up and cheered right then, because the Greek word pneuma is gender-neutral and Hebrew ruach is feminine for the Spirit of God.  But I digress.  Several of the church members were gay or lesbian couples that had finally found a worshiping community where they are loved and accepted just as they are,  a safe haven to cherish the God of endless mercy and grace.

At the end of the service, we were all invited and included in the promise of the Eucharistic table.  This is his Body broken for you.  This is the Blood spilled for you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.   Communion brings us together in ways nothing else can, partaking in death and resurrection, breaking the bread of Love, passing the cup of peace.   When we gather in community with those we may not agree with, when we make room at the Table, our carefully-constructed boundaries of who’s in and who’s out shatter, a fresh inbreaking of Spirit with the redemptive movement that she brings.

This precious work called reconciliation bids us to come: deeper and closer together to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  To listen to stories wrought with pain, and to grieve that pain as our own.  To see the face of our beautiful God in the other.  To cover over a multitude of sins, with love and grace and forgiveness.  To hold hands and pray over and over and over again.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Amen.

 

 

I used to think I could change people’s lives, but now I know the life being changed is mine

This morning, I’m teaming up with the beautiful blogger and author Sarah Bessey for a synchroblog, in the blessed release of her new book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith.”  You can learn all about it here: http://sarahbessey.com/outofsorts-synchroblog/

It all seemed so much simpler in college.  So many of us were “doing big things for God,” traveling the world over, handing out our little gospel tracks (in English mind you), volunteering in orphanages, aftercare homes, schools, and nursing homes.  We were the world-changers, ministers of justice and mercy and humility.  Or so I thought.  It appeared that the Spirit of God was only moving in your life if you were, so I made sure that I was.

Upon moving home from all my wild, exhilarating adventures abroad, my life felt small and slow, insignificant even.  I no longer stood out because of my mission, and I deeply believed that God wanted me somewhere else.  Then I was hired as a child welfare worker in Milwaukee’s central city and was forced to confront that I had very little figured out.  I quickly learned that I needed these precious parents and children to teach me something of God that was only etched into their stories, with great care and promise.  Slowly, painstakingly, I’d welcome the gift of a receptive faith, one that was ever-evolving, belonging, recognizing the face of God in the other.

I needed the mama who sang her broken heart out with her darling two-year old girl at her little boy’s funeral.  The community ablaze in bright orange, swaying and wailing; his eye is on the sparrow and he watches over me.  I needed the messy truth in all of its anger and angst from a mom my own age, suffering inside the system of everyone else’s decisions.  I needed the little girl who loved to comb my hair with a fork and the little boy who called me sister on our last day together, braiding the boundary of city and suburb, black and white, good and bad, because childlike love never labels like that.

Now that I work in the Latina community, I need the mom who slows me down to try her homemade soup, even when I’m running way late for class.  I need the sweet tears of a woman profoundly grateful, to gather at her table, receiving hospitality and thanksgiving on plates pooling with goodness, because that’s how beloved community gets made.  I need to hear the words, “Eres nuestra familia; you are our family” when invited to a first communion for my favorite child with autism.  I need the little arms of a three-year old wrapped around my legs so tight I can’t walk out the door, because if I can’t receive this grace, then what does that say about God’s saving grace?

I used to think that I could change people’s lives, but now I know that their lives are changing mine.

Back in February, when Milwaukee is frigid and snow-laden for miles, my car got stuck, naturally, and as soon I opened the trunk to grab my shovel, one of my sweet families was already gathered with many of their neighbors. Turns out the only thing harder than digging out a car in the snow in English, is digging a car out of the snow with the limited amount of Spanish car language I know.  And though my words often fail me, the co-creation of togetherness was once again our common language. The courage and kindness, laughter and starting over surpassed the border that dares to break us.  Our wheels will spin in discomfort. Our arms grow faint from shoveling away the injustice. But only then are we one with the other.

So go ahead, dear one. Lean in and listen to the stories on the fringes. The immigrant’s. The refugee’s. The teenage mom’s. Or high-school dropout’s.  Reach out and touch their broken humanity with yours. Invite those you have nothing in common with to your table.  Speak the language of welcome with every breath, and see how you are changed.

a labor of love: on losing a person

Autumn is arguably my favorite season. I love the trees teeming with color: rows of glittering golds, blazing reds, burnt oranges beneath a dull, gray sky. I can’t get enough breath of brisk air, leaves bustling in the breeze and crunching in late October, and of course the endless cups of tea and pumpkin spice everything. But there’s another side to fall: the waning daylight, early morning frost, the ushering in of the season that’s next. Fall is that beautiful, natural surrender unto the death of winter. I find myself there, in all the waiting and anticipation, longing and lament, in the middle of fall, sitting at the edge of death.

I got the call on Tuesday morning. I should probably rush up to Minnesota if I wanted to see my grandmother alive again. She had a major seizure, a series of small strokes, and was now diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia. Her swallowing is impaired and she has no reserves to fight off her infection and sepsis. The evening I arrived she awoke at last from what her doctor warmly joked was a marathon to her body. She opened up her eyes wide, which was welcome improvement from the day before. All six of us, my Mom and I, my aunt and uncle, and cousin and her husband, gathered, huddled rather in her tiny hospital room singing the hymns of old, with tears welling in our eyes. That was the last time Grandma joined in the sacred song, with her beautiful, fading voice, praising the God who gave her breath until her last. The days following were filled with too many meetings: medical social workers, palliative nurses, doctors, and finally hospice social workers.

We have been round the clock keeping vigil, morning and evening, bearing witness, nursing body and soul, breaking bread into tiny pieces, feeding her hunger, quenching her thirst, singing her softly to sleep, reading the psalms, and spilling tears all over their pages. Scripture is a tender love letter for our family these days; I can’t read it aloud without getting choked up. And then there are the prayers: of the visiting pastors and chaplains, stephen ministers and family members. And we are profoundly thankful for the prayers of the people everywhere, those near and far-away, from our families, our churches, our homes.

Dying is most deeply a labor of love. It is the liturgy of mourning, a work of the people indeed. It is holding on and letting go all at once. It is offering the ministry of presence, of patience, of love in the waking and the resting, the rising and the sleeping. Watching someone so dear to you dying is one of the hardest heartaches, but it is also one of the most holy. In the more promising moments, we’ve had sweet conversations about how ready she is to meet her birth mother who died when she was four, to run into the arms of my Grandpa who died sixteen years ago, and of course to gaze into the face of God for the very first time. Her doctor made us cry all over again before she was discharged today: “Harriet, God bless. God is holding you in his arms.”

God is holding her in cradling, maternal arms, now and at the hour of her death. The darker the days become for us, the weaker her body, a dazzling light grows and explodes, guiding her way Home. Soon she’ll be swept up in Glory, like a lovely leaf fluttering in the wind, a flower flourishing in the field, then gone.

my brother. my sister.

I sat perfectly still, procrastinating, wishing this moment had never arrived. The car halted in front of the foster care home. I treasured these drives deeply, giving my favorite five-year old free reign with the GPS, leading me, weaving through the streets, the same way for a year. But tonight was different; it was the last ride home and I was hardly ready to say good-bye. He handed me the GPS and his sweet little voice burst my heart into a billion beautiful pieces, “I love you.” Never had I heard him say these words to anyone. Getting out of the car, he bolted into the fenced yard, all giddy and restless, until he landed in his foster mom’s arms. “Nini, nini…I told her I loved her!!!” Nini kindly invited me inside for a moment to show me pictures she’d had developed of the boys. I hugged each of them with all the love I could manage, eyes filling with tears. And then…then this little boy bravely reached out to hold my hand. Locking eyes with mine he said, “Goodbye sister.”

My mom was at the grocery store the other day. When she walked out, bags in hand, two African-American men stood by a table, and asked if they could talk with her. They were raising money for their inner-city ministry that helps those who are isolated by drug and alcohol addictions. She unassumingly reached into her purse and gave all the money she had left. The men expressed their profound gratitude for her generosity and asked if she’d like to take a Bible home. She responded that well, she has a number, you know being a pastor’s wife and all. And then…then she smiled and told them, “You’re my brothers.”

An African American boy accepting a white woman in the inner-city. You’re my sister.  You’re welcome here.

A white woman accepting an African American man in the suburbs. You’re my brother. You’re welcome here.

These are the moments when the world feels right. When we affirm the goodness in the other and bravely light our candles in the dark, believing and praying the promise: that we might be one.

But then Baltimore or Ferguson or Milwaukee for that matter leave all of us in shock, longing for justice or judgment. And I can’t help but think tonight of a precious six-year old I love, tucked away in bed, not yet aware of the world he’s growing up in. A world that does not value the humanity and dignity of the African American man. A world where one in three black men are imprisoned. A world where a cop could pull the trigger just because of your beautiful dark skin. A world where white will forever deny its privilege. In seven years or so sweetie, people are going to be afraid of you. They’ll run through red lights for fear of being on the same street in which you walk and play. And you’ll have to fight hard for your survival and even harder for their trust. But it’s worth it baby, it’s worth it. We need all the childlike love you have to offer, to teach our hard hearts to be kind.

As you fall asleep tonight, beneath the sacred stars, I’ll be singing with heartache and hope. I’ll be begging God for a world that will treat you right. And I’ll pray that you’ll be able to forgive us with your whole heart, when we fail you again.

Because you’re my brother.

And when I look at you, I see the face of God.

on how catholicism taught me to pray

catholic

Last weekend I had the tremendous privilege to pilgrimage to the holiest place I’ve ever been: the-middle-of-nowhere-Nebraska.  I don’t kid about such things.  A keen sense of the Holy is exactly what one feels when entering this Benedictine monastery, where so many saints have come to pour out their prayers & their love to God.  And it was in this beautiful, Benedictine monastery, where I too learned how to pray again.

It has been some time.  Three years has passed since I first landed from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  And it has been three years of nothing but divine silence.  Me not hearing from God.  Me not praying to God, because truthfully it was just too painful.  As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Praying,” my best and brightest attempts truly felt like “weeds in a vacant lot.”  These scrawny weeds germinated out of the deep, desolate place of believing that I’d seen the worst humanity had to offer, and I had no words for God after that.  I could not fathom to pair the words “good” and “God” after I had walked through Killing Fields where untold millions of families and children and infants were murdered, and thrown into piles, one on top of the other.  I couldn’t bear the agony of holding tiny hands of 5-year olds whose little bodies had already been exploited for sex.  Interacting with the largest population of amputees in the world was equally as devastating.  One unexpected, undetected landmine exploded their legs and their lives forever.  And in very different ways, I’ve been limping since.

It was not until this weekend that I finally learned there is a prayer without words.  That it is okay that I haven’t been able to pray out loud, because God knows my intention.  This form is in fact a very ancient practice called “Centering Prayer.”  The purpose of this prayer simply or tragically is to consent to the presence and action of God in this world.  This can feel tragic to people who like to think they’re Jesus or who need the everyday reminders that God is God and I am not (totally me!).  In the words of one of my new favorite people, Phileena Heuertz, centering prayer is how we “reconnect with an unhurried God.”  Part of this prayer practice requires that we choose a sacred word or symbol in order to consent to God’s presence and action within us.  And anytime a thought, feeling, or distraction is noticed, we return ever so gently to our sacred word, like the lightest leaf fluttering down a still stream.

The word I chose to consent to the presence of God this weekend is abide.  Abide in the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within me.  Abide in the here-and-now, instead of the somewhere else.  Abide in my createdness rather than my comparisons.  Abide because I and the Lord are one.  This was new information entirely.  I’ve been exposed to almost every kind of evangelical there is, and a part from Scripture, no one has ever told me that Christ and I are one.  Or maybe I just wasn’t listening.  I grew up believing that God is other, out there, who knows where, and when you initiate a prayer, then God will respond.  This prayer practice teaches us however what grace means: that God is pursuing a beloved humanity that is never separate, never divided, always one.  Christ in you.  Christ in me.  Centering prayer makes room for our anger, for darkness, for shame, for tears falling, but also for love, joy, peace, so much light baptizing our frantic hearts.

This ancient, Catholic prayer taught me how to gently re-connect the words God and good again.  Because God was in the Killing Fields.  God is in the brothels.  God is with every person whose only choice is to beg for mercy.  And God is in every last crevice of our dark and wandering hearts.  Holding.  Protecting.  Welcoming.  Rejoicing.  And that makes God very, very good.