No More Palms, Please

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Spiritual practice isn’t practice if it isn’t practical on some level. Insisting on one faith emblem for traditional rationale at the expense of the quality of living of others renders my own spiritual discipline as oppressive. Some very good food for thought…

gathering the stones

Most Christians never question where the palms on Palm Sunday come from. It never occurred to me, until my first year pastoring, that someone had to get the palms (and order them well in advance).  But as we approach Palm Sunday, we ought to reexamine our theology of palms.

Traditional (read: conventionally harvested) palms are shipped from a handful of countries including Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. But because palm harvesters are paid by the number of palms, not the quality of them, the most efficient way to get palms is also the most destructive. Cutting as many leaves as possible from each tree damages the trees and the long-term sustainability of palm trees. Not only that, but palm trees grow in the shade of forests, and so sustainably-harvested palms support both the palms and the wider forest preservation efforts. Such noble organizations as the Rainforest Alliance have promoted the eco-palm…

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‘Dem Bones, ‘Dem Bones, ‘Dem Dry Bones

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We speak so many words over ourselves — true, false, and a pasty mixture; necessary, unnecessary, and a quagmire of both. It’s not hard to begin to see why we step into the stereotypes we tell one another. We pronounce so many realities on ourselves — realities that sicken and kill us, take power over others, and distort who we are.

Even people with the best intentions have the power to maim us. I’ve often been told that as long as someone offers me something with good intention, I can receive it as such.

Anyone else spot the possible flaw in this belief system? Anyone else been burnt by it, but forced to swallow the goodness because the other person really meant well?

Even Jesus in his humanity faced a terrible reality about his own life and death, and it brought him to his knees. Yet in his wailing, life began to water not only the bones of Lazarus, but his own.

Dare we hope for such new life?

Maybe I’m Not So Inclusive After All

 

tolerance

No one wants to be tolerated.

That’s right. You heard me.

When was the last time you felt free and accepted by someone else because they gently whispered in your ear: “I tolerate you”?

Really? I don’t know about you, but when someone tolerates me I feel like they are simply putting up with me. They don’t actually want me around, they aren’t interested in my life, they’d rather I not be in their personal space even if they confess the need to share communal space, and while they do indeed have to acknowledge the reality of my existence, they would really much rather not.

That doesn’t sound like peace-making, kingdom-of-God-on-earth that Jesus was talking about. In fact, I don’t think it’s anyone’s idea of utopia from any religion or spiritual path. It sounds demeaning and divisive.

One of the fastest arguments we hear these days from any side is that the other side pretends to be loving and tolerant, but they’re clearly intolerant of my side. It’s a quick and easy shutdown that screams hypocrisy and gets a lot of social media attention. It appeals to the emotional side of our nature, and we feel safe in justifying the other side’s clear hypocrisy by pointing out how tolerant they claim to be all the while living intolerant lifestyles.

Education minister issues order for Christian schools to accommodate LGBTQ students

Two Alberta Christian schools have been ordered to support the presence of Gay/Straight or Queer/Straight Alliances in their institutions. Instead of taking the opportunity to really dig into the nuances of inclusion, the word itself has been wrongfully applied to the concept of tolerance.

LGBTQ+ people and allies claim that it is no skin off the schools’ noses to provide space for a student-led, optional group. No one is forcing children or teens to sign up for these groups, nor is the province forcing the schools to change their religious views. In fact, it is a small thing to demand such schools provide this space, being funded with public tax dollars.

However, the ‘other’ side claims that religious freedom is at stake, that morality is at stake, and that if the rights of LGBTQ+ people are being held in such high regard, then so should the rights of Christians. Fair is fair, correct?

Perhaps.

Personally, I think it’s audacious and brave for any student to begin a GSA/QSA in such hostile environments. Imagine trying to create a safe space in a school where you know most parents and teachers and faculty and students believe your entire existence is a ‘lifestyle choice’. Imagine trying to create safe space when adults teach that homosexuality, at best, is a mental illness. Even if there were sympathetic students, they would be confused with the conflicting messages. The level of bravery and self-awareness being demanded here is profound.

Not only that, but the power still rests with the Christian schools. 1) they must “tolerate” GSAs/QSAs following the government’s mandate, but are still free to teach their views on homosexuality; 2) no one — that is no governing official — is demanding that students be taught about the history of PRIDE, or the persecution and marginalization of LGBTQ+ people, or LGBTQ+ sexual health. And yet school supporters, whether they have children attending the schools or not, claim that Christianity is being persecuted. It is being forced to include programming that goes against Christian beliefs.

Well first of all, these two schools don’t represent all of Christianity (currently or historically). It would do these schools well to remember that. When people begin a conversation with “I love gay people, but Christianity clearly says…”, we can reasonably and authentically conclude that this is not the truth. It might be the truth for some Christians, but it is not the whole and entire truth for Christians in all times and in all places. This is a critical truth in the ongoing conversation for both Christians to understand, and the world at large.

When having sensitive discussions, it would do people well to include specifics. While it might be romantic to declare how we are all one in the Body of Christ, there are times when we need to identify our affiliations for the sake of clarity. If these schools affiliate with Baptist denominations, that helps give other people clarity looking from the outside in. Too often Christians are all painted as anti-LGBTQ+ (sometimes rightfully so, but often wrongfully so). I can’t say it enough: loud voices claiming to be Christian who declare homosexuality a sin do not, and cannot, speak for the entirety of Christendom. This is also a challenge for affirming/inclusive congregations who need to speak louder and stronger.

We can be Christian. We can be LGBTQ+. And we are loved and beloved of God.

Clearly there are Christians who disagree with me, and put my faith, salvation, life and existence on trial for it. And LGBTQ+ are the ones in power by being offered GSA/QSA space?

A part of what is happening here is — and please hear me when I say “a part of…” (we’re trying to leave room for nuance, remember?) — Christians who are against LGBTQ+ people are confusing tolerance for inclusion. By tolerating gay, lesbian, bisexual, two-spirited/transgender, queer/questioning people in their churches, homes, and schools, these Christians truly believe this is a form of inclusion.

One of the difficult aspects of having more meaningful discussions around all of this is the term inclusion (and diversity for that matters) has a vast quagmire of nuance and vagueness that makes it hard to pin down. For now, here’s a working definition that I’ve found useful. I fully concede it is a growing and working definition (as it needs to be), so your input would be appreciated.

defining inclusion
…AND promote new growth, transformation, & life (let’s not forget leaving behind the negative means also pursuing a new radical future in the present)

At this point in Albertan history, Christians aren’t being excluded. These schools are not being asked to teach anything that goes against their values or principles. Parents are still free to choose tax-payer funded religious schools.

However, we can demonstrably show that LGBTQ+ people in Alberta, Canada, and across North America have suffered exclusion, marginalization, violence, and death. Some branches of Christianity might be quick to point out that LGBTQ+ “lifestyles” are becoming normalized and mainstreamed, while church attendance dwindles. And these realities are causing existential and moral angst for some Christians in some denominations.

I would caution anyone against using LGBTQ+ inclusion and the decline of church attendance as a sound argument for how Christians are being forced to include beliefs they don’t agree with. It’s specious at best, and not a rational or sensitive way of mending fences or healing wounds.

Now for the thrust of this post.

I’m sitting here in a comfy blue chair in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, trying to figure out my family of origin’s genogram (thanks, Mom!) for my Pastoral Care intensive. That’s right: Pastoral Care. I’m a bisexual seminarian training for Christian ministry.

I’m going to be a pastor…who happens to be bisexual.

I exist.

I am.

And I am good.

I am a full supporter of inclusion. I am learning how my white privilege has supported racial division; but I’m also being given opportunity to share how heteronormative privilege has kept even the most well-intentioned ally cocooned, while LGBTQ+ people (especially people of faith) have to choose very carefully with whom we will share our identities and lives with. For us, it can mean the loss of loved ones, churches, or jobs. For others, it has meant death.

But what am I going to do when I am finally called to a parish, and someone begins a conversation with “Well, those gays…”?

Suddenly inclusion doesn’t seem so appealing.

My challenge will be to actively embrace and include people I have deliberately run away from. I ran away for legitimate reasons, but if I’m to return as a person of faith who espouses inclusion (not belittling tolerance), I’ll need to find ways to authentically include those people who would rather I not exist. They might tolerate me, but as a pastor and a beloved child of God, I will need to love them.

Perhaps some of the accusations from the conservative side of things are justified: perhaps I’m not as inclusive as I thought I was. Perhaps I need to work harder at discovering ways of connecting with dissenting voices, even if those voices dehumanize me, because those people are created good too. They might not sound good in the moment, but they are created good. They are the Creator’s good creation.

I have no profound ways of doing such a thing just yet, friends. I’ll confess to it. But I want it…most days. And I need it.

All days.

Peace.

Willing Humiliation

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It has to be some kind of Lenten scam: when I sense myself finally submitting to a divine urging to lay down a treasured belief, I suddenly feel righteously proud about myself. I am present in the moment with God, I understand the need to relinquish control over that thing in the corner that has far too much say in my life, and I give it over. I lay it at the feet of God, and step back.

Slow…fading…clap. Drop curtain.

Wait? Am I supposed to feel this good about myself when I deposit my sacrifice before God? A stabbing pain in my gut tells me: “Nope, you’re not.”

Humility seems to slip through my fingers when I grab at sacrifice. I sense my intentions are in the right place; I even agree with the need to lay down whatever it is that I need to lay down. I mean, it’s not like I’ve sacrificed chocolate or caffeine. Those things clearly are self-improvement sacrifices that can begin and end at any time. They have more to do with making myself feel better about myself and little to do with listening to the dire need of a deepening relationship with God.

When I think of sacrifice, I start thinking of all those little things that make my life comfortable but I choose to give them over for the sake of relationship, for community, and for God. I give up time meant for sermon preparation to make a hospital visit; I give up money that I was saving to pay off car debt to help a local student; I graciously give up my voice during interracial discussions because the best thing to do is to pass the mic. I give up those things that hurt me the most.

What’s all this talk about chocolate?

It’s in the painful moment of sacrifice – and it is genuinely painful in the moment – that I see humility bleeding beside my amazing, willing gift that I’ve turned over. Along with my sacrifice has gone much of my perspective in giving it up in the first place. Once laying it all down, I stand up not in a posture of worship but ready and waiting to get pats on the back for my significance and nobility.

It’s been a struggle for my entire adult life: how can I possibly make a sacrifice without losing humility? It seems that the moment I do the right thing, I’ve lost the very heart of what humility was meant to be. Once I realize that, the sacrifice suddenly becomes less meaningful or profound. Who cares if I sacrificed my white privilege if the internal accolades congratulate me for the amazing impact I (might have) had?

When I look at the Way of the Cross – when I look deeply into the Jesus’ sacrifice – I have to be honest: I don’t see just humility. I see humiliation. When Jesus stares me straight in the face, asking if I could drink of the same cup, do I really know what he’s asking?

No. No I do not. I have absolutely no idea.

I’m coming to believe that there is very little genuine sacrifice in this world that doesn’t walk hand in hand with humiliation as well as humility. In fact, I am coming to believe that the humility part comes after I’ve been taken down a notch or two in my sacrifice.

I don’t say this so as to become a humiliation-chaser. When a deep sacrifice is demanded of me, humiliation – private or public – will find me easily enough. It may come as a clear message from the person in the hospital who didn’t really want a visit from me (even though I set aside everything for that person to make the trip); it may come in the form of a person approaching me after those difficult and tense interracial discussions that, while she understood my intent, she didn’t quite understand why I passed the mic. She’ll go on to say that my gesture didn’t really have the impact I meant it to have, and perhaps I could possibly be a little more attentive to both my intentions as well as my desired impacts.

I feel the flush rising in my cheeks; my breathing becomes shallow and tense; my stomach goes cold with fear. I’ve been exposed. I’ve been held to account. I’ve made my sacrifice, but the sacrifice was not made complete until even my deepest intentions were released along with my actions.

People can sniff out falseness in one another from miles away. We are bombarded with false humility, false sacrifice, and false willingness on a daily basis. We are so steeped in a culture of falseness, that it is fair to say that we sometimes don’t know how to recognize truth and authenticity when it’s staring at us in the face.

Regardless, I am tired of laying down big and little sacrifices with the best of intentions but rarely seeing growth and fruit from those sacrifices. Yet when I’m presented with the reality that a dose of humiliation often accompanies sacrifice, I confess I step back. Suddenly I’m not so willing to lay anything down. I don’t want to be exposed to the world as a fraud or as imperfect. It is in this moment that I realize fear and pride have been controlling my sacrifices rather than a gentle Spirit leading me to depth and reconciliation.

I will never bear humiliation well. I don’t think I was meant to. Humiliation, justified or unjustified, serves a deep purpose of making sure authenticity grows tall while pruning away any falseness. The good news is that the gentle Spirit leading me to accept the humiliation inherent in true sacrifice rarely points the finger and laughs. This Spirit comes alongside me as I’m down on the ground, offers a hand, helps me up, dusts me off, and walks me through the jeering and scoffing.

Humiliation might be interwoven with sacrifice, but Love is the character of Spirit. The humiliation will transform my perspective, but will last only through the night. In the morning, the new person will begin all over again the journey of what it really means to lay down her life.

He’s Heavy Because He’s My Brother: Thoughts on Loving The Critics

I’m working on a series about inclusion. We hear the word bandied about quite freely, used by some as the catch-all word for utopia and hypocrisy by others.

Maybe I need to explore different paths of conversation about what inclusion is, and what it means to be inclusive. To start, here’s a pice I wrote some months back to help readers understand where I’m coming from and starting from. Peace.

Reluctant Mysticism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Mirrored Objective via freeimages.com

It’s inevitable.

No matter what we believe or what we stand for, someone will invariably disagree with us.

Sometimes it’s over petty life stuff. Obviously the correct way to replace the toilet paper roll is OVER — it’s just common sense — but there are strange folks out there who think that the proper way to replace the roll us UNDER. It makes for a frustrating bathroom experience when visiting the home of UNDER people.

Sometimes it’s in the classroom. Professors put out an idea or an issue, and everyone has an opinion about the context and history of the thing or how to go about addressing it. Sometimes the rigorous debate sparks better teamwork and greater relationship. Other times, disagreements are simply expressions of who’s corners we’re standing in and, how in our stubbornness, we refuse to leave.

Sometimes we disagree because we really don’t…

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Gender, Pleasure, and God – Rev. Lura Groen

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I’m still learning to embrace the word ‘pleasure’. From childhood, I learned all too quickly that the word immediately referenced sexual touching, and that was meant for a specific time and place in all times and in all places. Anything else was shameful.

At least, that’s my limited view of the world interpreted the messages I received.

Whispering to myself that I feel pleasure in eating a homemade meal I’d put together from scratch was revolutionary. And scary. It felt dirty and wrong and carnal.

Doesn’t God hate all things carnal?

Learning to acknowledge body pleasure, in its various forms, as GOOD is a journey I’m far from completing. But even with the muscle ease that comes with deep breathing, I’m discovering that pleasure is connected to life in more ways than sex only.

Having said that, I’m learning that my greatest moments of pleasure are distinctly private. I do experience pleasure when I’m out with a few friends for coffee, buried in deep discussion. But when I’m alone and have the time to actually sit with this experience called pleasure, be afraid of it, be welcoming of it, or move however I need to with it, I find that I am able to release more of the fear that I’ve held for too long.

Great thoughts from We Talk We Listen.

We Talk. We Listen.

ThomasLinda sittingIn many, many Christian circles enjoyment is suspect and “pleasure” is a dirty word. This quandary even more problematic when you’re a woman (let alone any other gender-oppressed group), as society is often perpetually finding ways to force itself upon everything in your life – let alone your sense of pleasure. In response to this, Rev. Lura Groen provides a rather eloquent and affirmation that bodily pleasures are part of what it means to be created by God – and by extension are holy. It makes a wonderful addition to this months entries and we hope you enjoy it. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”


Like an apple tree among the wild trees,
so is my lover among the young men.
In his shade I take pleasure in sitting,
and…

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Look Up

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Seen from the descent at Busteni

Where do you look to for help?

When real life demands to be lived, a chirpy Psalm might seem a bit shallow to turn to. What’s the use in saying God will keep us from all evil when death and evil clearly still impacts our daily lives? What is the Psalmist trying to say? What hope is there in celebrating the faithful presence of God when presence seems impossible?

I asked myself these things while reflecting on my moments in a Romanian cable car swinging hundreds of feet in the air.