Category Archives: out of order

Wrestling with Holiness

Preached 8/3/14 at Head of Christiana PC

Genesis 32:22-31
Matthew 14:13-21

I have to admit I’ve never really understood wrestling as a sport. It just seems so raw and primal that I can’t quite understand how you can put rules to it. But apparently you can, and there are any number of different styles and rulesets across the world and across cultures, and we’ve found references to it in so many of the earliest records of peoples all over the world.

I don’t really understand it, and yet I’m fascinated by this particular scene; the story of Jacob wrestling with some divine creature. I just love the thought of god and humanity locked together in this primal sort of combat, somehow coming out even after hours and hours straining their muscles against one another.

Jacob has spent his life leading up to this story in deceit after deceit. He convinces his brother Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew, and then later tricks their father Isaac into giving him his dying blessing, meant for Esau as the firstborn. Then later, after he has married four wives and had 11 children, he convinces his father-in-law to promise him some of his livestock, and then they proceed to try and con each other back and forth so that each might get the most and strongest animals for himself. Eventually, Jacob just packs up everything and takes off in the middle of the night with his family, while his wife Rachel even steals the household gods from her Canaanite father.

So Jacob’s a very rich man, now, and he’s gotten just about everything he has by lying and cheating his way to the top, and now he finds himself about to face his brother Esau again after all these years. He’s sent everything he has on ahead of him along with his wives and children and servants, and here he finds himself alone at the river — alone finally with only his thoughts and his fears, his past perhaps having finally caught up with him. And he wrestles with an unknown man, all through the night.

Most Christian traditions think of this man as an angel, or perhaps even God the divine self. But, some Jewish commentators have suggested that perhaps he’s wrestling with a messenger from his brother, a representative of his past; or even with his own self and the weight of all he has done. He’s spent his life running blindly after money and status, not caring who he hurts on his way there. But now his past has caught him alone, wrestling him to the ground and leaving him wounded but not beaten.

I’m reminded a bit of the movie Fight Club, or of that big kid in elementary school who grabs the smaller boy’s hands to hit him with, so he can say, “stop hitting yourself!”

Because in a way, he’s been hitting himself all along, with this single-minded focus on getting ahead, no matter what the cost. Everything he’s done has been working on the assumption that there’s only so much to go around. There’s only so much blessing in the world, so he’d better grab what he can and run.

I think we all know people like that, don’t we? Because our culture certainly encourages us to think that way — that there’s only so much happiness in the world, only so much love — so when we find it we’d better hang on til our knuckles are white, because if we let that love out of our deathgrip for a minute, someone else is going to snatch it away. And so we wrestle our angels to the ground, trying to wrench the blessing out by force, because God forbid someone might just bless us for who we are.

* * *

Last weekend, we finished the filming of a documentary about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer pastors and future pastors. I’m being featured in it, along with seven of my colleagues who are at various stages of the ordination process. They’re beloved friends, and we’ve been an incredible support network for one another in the midst of a denomination that doesn’t quite know what to do with us.

For many people, we’re a sign of a church that’s lost its way; while for others, we’re symbols of hope for people who have lost their faith in the way church has been done in the past. And no matter what your perspective, the eight of us are part of a much larger picture of a church that’s changing whether we like it or not. We got sleepy and comfortable in a society where church was an essential part of life — just what you did — and now decades later, we’ve woken up and looked around to find ourselves all of a sudden in a much different world.

It’s a world where people have lost patience with checklists of what you have to believe in order to be part of the club; words we’ve been reciting for so long we don’t even know what they mean anymore; lost patience with the endless debates over who’s sinful and who’s righteous enough to be here. Over the years, it seems like Christians have put an immense amount of energy into deciding who, precisely, is loved by God, and who is not. The standards have changed over the years (most people don’t get quite as worked up as they used to about the exact theology of the sacrament of Communion) but there have just about always been standards.

We wear ourselves out with this; wrestling through the night with adversaries of our own making, until we finally emerge, not victorious exactly, still limping from the struggle, but somehow blessed. I’m not sure we always know what that blessing is that we’re fighting for, but we’ve set our minds on it and we’ll fight each other tooth and nail for the privilege. Obviously there’s not enough blessing to go around, and I’ve got to get my hands on it!

* * *

But I don’t think God works that way. We come back again, today, to this so very familiar story of hungry people being fed. And I’m caught this time by the disciples saying to Jesus, “send the people away, we don’t have enough food.” Jesus says, no, feed them! And they argue, but there’s no food for them. There’s barely enough for us. Let them get their own food.

“We don’t have enough,” they say, but Jesus says, “of course there is enough.” Over and over again, we insist that our resources are limited; that God’s resources must be limited. If I am to be loved by God, surely we can’t all be loved. Surely there is not enough room at this table for everyone to sit and eat. Surely we must ration our five loaves and two fishes; surely there is not enough to go around: not enough food, not enough blessedness, not enough of God’s love, and so we must decide who is in and who is out so we can assure ourselves there will be room for us at God’s table.

But what is still so groundbreaking and counterintuitive about this story, all these years later, is that even in the most remote, deserted place, with God’s blessing there is still enough for every single person to be fed, and more. There is no need for us to try and keep all the bread for ourselves.

And in fact, if we do try, those five small loaves will barely be enough for us. We’ll still wind up hungry, huddled together around this tiny meal.

But Jesus’ invitation is about more than food. It’s an invitation to a new attitude, a new perspective. It’s a recognition that abundance is a state of mind and not necessarily about how much food is on your plate. Most of us in this place don’t have to worry too much about where our next meal is coming from, but like Jacob we sometimes struggle with this feeling of never having enough, or never being enough — because all around us the culture is telling us we’re not enough, just so we’ll buy their products and maybe feel whole for a second or two.

Even churches struggle with this. We are convinced that money will make us happy again, that more members will mean we’re successful again, blessed again. That God’s blessing cannot possibly be present in a world where church doesn’t look the way we’re used to. That somehow God’s blessing is so rare that we must build walls around who can be loved by God and who cannot, so there will be more blessing for us.

And all the while God is standing back, watching us struggle and fight, until finally we pause for breath long enough to hear Jesus’ invitation to come, sit, and eat. It doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong, or even if we like the people sitting next to us very much. Somehow, against all logic, there’s enough food there for us and for our friends and for the people we disagree with and for the people we think don’t really deserve to be there; for those we know and those we don’t know, and somehow, still, for us.

God’s economics do not work like ours. We’re used to this zero-sum game where anything more for you means something less for me, and so we keep trying to push God into that mold as well. We keep trying to make God’s love work by our rules, because we understand those even if they don’t give us life. And yet, over and over and over again, Jesus says “there is enough.” Really and truly, there is enough room at this table for you, and for me, and for all of us — but only if we slide over to make room for more.

This was good news on a desert hill outside Nazareth, and it’s good news in our food deserts today, and it’s good news even for us here in this place, even when we think we don’t need to hear it. There is food enough for all of us, and there is blessing enough for each and every one of us.

dialogue is actually pretty great.

My friend John preached an amazing sermon for the national More Light Presbyterians conference about a lunch he had with the executive editor of The Layman, Carmen Fowler LaBerge, when she agreed to be interviewed for Out of Order.  She responded in the magazine, and I was struck by how respectful and loving it was, in a debate that is so often characterized by vitriol and hate.

So I sent her a thank-you note.

Dear Carmen,

I’m writing as one of the subjects of the documentary Out of Order to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the film, and for your lovely and gracious response to John’s sermon. I am so pleased to know that a lunch like that is still possible!

It grieves me to hear of the hurt and alienation you are feeling from the PCUSA, particularly because I’ve felt similar alienation at several stages of my journey – from a church which nurtured me and which I love deeply, divided over whether I could truly be part of it. I considered leaving the denomination, and I know what a painful decision that can be. Certainly, it is not one that’s taken lightly. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years to denominations where they felt more affirmed, and it is a painful loss every time, no matter what the reason.

I was recently ordained as Associate Pastor at the church where I’ve been serving in various capacities for the last year and a half. We are a small congregation, mostly aging as so many churches are these days, on the edge between suburban and rural, and fairly theologically diverse. My time there has been an incredible blessing, and I have high hopes for our future together.

We have lost a few members because of my sexuality – although not as many as I feared – and each has been a loss to the community. Those who remain do not always agree, about everything or maybe even about most things. But somehow, by the grace of God, it works. We have grown as a community, in trust and care and ministry with one another, and I have seen and felt there a renewal of confidence and hope for the future. Our diversity of thought has been a blessing, even if it is not always an easy one to navigate.

For my sermon this week, I’m working with the lectionary text from Jeremiah 29; his letter to the exiles in Babylon. To these people feeling displaced and alienated in a strange land, surrounded by people it seems like they have nothing in common with, he says, build houses, plant gardens, get married. Set down your roots there, in the midst of these strangers. Seek the peace/wholeness/well-being of this city where God has sent you, for in their shalom is your shalom.

It is a text I’ve come back to often over the last several years, and it never gets any easier. I know my temptation is so often just to surround myself with those people I agree with, and build walls around ourselves so we can safely yell out about how wrong everyone else is. Except that never works, because inevitably I would be blocking out someone I care about. And as much as I don’t really want Jeremiah’s words to be true, he is right every time. I am blessed and nurtured by my relationships with people different from me, even those who disagree with me. In their peace is my peace; in your peace is my peace.

Thank you again for your participation in the documentary and your willingness to engage in conversation. Blessings on your journey, wherever it takes you.

Christ’s peace,

Be Awesome.

I don’t talk much about my sexuality.  It just doesn’t seem relevant most of the time.

Working on Out of Order is the first time I’ve been quite so publicly queer, ever, and even though I haven’t yet identified myself on camera with any particular label, the context is plenty.  And usually that’s where I’m most comfortable as well – I will happily associate myself publicly with “the queer community” or “LGBTQ future pastors” and leave people to make what assumptions they will.

(This is also easier than fumbling with the inadequacies of labels to capture the complexity of human reality.  “I’m gay, except…”, “I’m bi, but…”, “I’m queer, and what I mean is…” are not easy conversation starters, and are usually much too personal for most conversations.)

* * *

A few weeks ago, some members of my presbytery found the Out of Order trailer,  with my name and face prominently featured, and suddenly my sexuality was AN ISSUE. I was examined for ordination on Saturday, and even though references to intimate relationships have now been removed from the PC(USA) ordination standards, suddenly I had to be ready for some pretty direct questions.

So, this Saturday, in response to one of the world’s most awkwardly-phrased questions (which was clarified to “tell us about your submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ in the area of sexuality”), I came out to my presbytery.  I said:

“I do identify as bisexual or queer.  That has zero impact on my ministry, except in that I know a bit of what it feels like to be excluded, which has helped me better minister to those who are excluded in many different ways.”

I answered several lovely questions about my theology, and one other pointed question about a) my integrity, and b) biblical sexual ethics, and then I left the room.  Judging by the reactions of my colleagues, family, and parishioners, some pretty awful stuff was said about me while I was gone, and some pretty wonderful stuff was said about me and my ministry.  The 17-member delegation from Head of Christiana (a 100-member church!) made a strong and eloquent statement.

After what felt like ages, I was called back in to a standing ovation and wild cheers.  I had passed!  I am going to be ordained, finally, after just shy of 7 years.

* * *

I had expected the vitriol.  I had expected invasive personal questions and attacks on my character – I’ve seen some of the awful things that get flung at my friends and colleagues who have been forced to leave congregations, presbyteries, and denominations to follow their callings; or who bear it for years with wonderful grace.

I had expected the hatred.  But I never expected the incredible love and support I received from the vast majority of the people present that day.  Before the meeting even ended, it felt like every single person in the room came up to hug me and congratulate me and tell me what a gift I was to the presbytery.  People I had never properly met before, and others I had known for years, looked at me with such love and new respect.

People thanked me for helping the presbytery have that conversation, and told me how glad they were that it had been me, who is so obviously called that I won people over.  I heard stories about gay children and queer grandkids; I met our newest Inquirer and another college-age guy headed to seminary, and we buzzed for a minute about how excited we all were to be entering the ministry; I watched my CPM liaison (and mentor) telling off one of my inquisitors with fury in her eyes.  I rejoiced with another pastor who had come out to the presbytery for the first time while I was out of the room.

I am so humbled, and a bit overwhelmed, by how incredible people have been.  I don’t think of myself as a trailblazer, I’m just trying to be the person I was created to be, following the callings I feel to ministry, to art, to the crazy roller derby community.  I “come out” so rarely that I forget what power those words and that honesty have in this cultural moment.  But I guess that’s something else I need to claim and get comfortable with, just like I’ve learned to claim my voice in the pulpit, and I’m learning to claim my presence on pastoral visits.

I have gained some wonderful colleagues and partners in ministry.  I might have wished for a slightly less nerve-wracking process, but then I would have missed out on this amazing outpouring of support and conversation and general fabulousness.  Y’all are great, and you’re why I do what I do.

This is my story / This is my song

Last week I participated in a screening of the trailer for Out of Order.  The chaplain at Lafayette college, Alex Hendrickson, invited the three of us who are featured in the film to come and speak, and have dinner with a few student leaders.

This was the first time since we began filming that I’ve spoken in public (to strangers!) about this film and about my journey.  And what blew my mind was that these smart and passionate young people not only heard my story, but cared.  I told them about my joys and calling, my struggles, my divorce, my fears, my hope.  And they were moved by it!  People said we gave them hope for the church.  They thanked us for being there, and for telling our stories.

Sometimes I feel like I’m toning myself down for the church.  Which, let’s face it, is probably a good thing to some degree, since I am trying to minister to older/established church folks as well as all the other things I’m doing.  But this was a good wake-up call: the world needs a bit of my crazy sparkle, even if the church isn’t quite ready for it all the time.  My story is worth something, and my passions are worth something, and even my struggles are worth something.

Today’s photo-a-day word is “silence.”  She asks, “what is the thing you can no longer keep silent about?  The last day or two has been unfortunately full of such things. (like this!) But I think the one thing I most need to speak is the truth of my self.

And right now, that truth is remembering how to be the silly, colorful, passionate/creative nerdy activist church-type that I am. Obviously I’m going to have to figure out how to integrate that into being both a responsible adult and a responsible pastor, which is a challenge in itself… But there is a lot of room for me to be me.

I just have to remember to trust that that’s a good thing!

Please check out the fundraising page for Out of Order, and support us in whatever way you can! Help us tell our stories.

Just As I Am…

I had an amazing weekend filming with the team from Out of Order!  I am so excited about this project.

On one level, it’s a project about queer people seeking ordination in the PC(USA) (or already ordained) – but what I articulated this weekend was that for me, this is a story about the church just not knowing what to make of me.  Or really, anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mold we’re used to.  I sometimes feel like the church just isn’t ready for the reality of younger people, who maybe have tattoos or play sports or make art or teach yoga or prefer brunch on Sundays or really like arguing and debating and picking apart theology and other claims of Truth.

We filmed at the church where I grew up, and we also filmed at a Brandywine Roller Girls bout where I was refereeing.  In talking about this project, a friend of mine commented that “the roller derby community is more like Jesus would have wanted the church to be: welcoming and accepting of people as they are, no strings attached.”

And that is SO true.  Derby falls short of that ideal sometimes, too, but that kind of accepting spirit is really integral to what roller derby is today.  While I was skating, we said it over and over again – you get on the rink, and it doesn’t matter how your day was, it just matters what you can do with 8 wheels on your feet.

There is such a hunger for that kind of community, especially as our generation becomes more and more transient and economically unstable.  I love that I could go to just about any city in the US, and a lot more around the world, and immediately have a group I can belong to.  And that belonging isn’t conditional – it doesn’t matter what my family looks like (or doesn’t), it just matters that I skate.

Imagine if the church could say that.



Singing with a new voice

My wonderful friend Alex talks about his journey back to the church.  God is doing amazing things!