Answering Question 7B and How I Hope the United Methodist Church Will Change Its Ways

Today I am going to take a break from my blogging sabbatical to tell a story. It is a story I have told few people because A) It is so painful and B) I was afraid of what people would say.

But now the courage of 111 people who recently spoke their truth is giving me the courage face my pain and fear to speak my own truth.

****

I grew up in the United Methodist Church. It was overall a wonderful experience. I was taught about Jesus by Sunday School teachers who loved me. I had a great cohort of friends in my youth group who helped me learn how to walk through adolescence as a person of faith. As I grew older and began to feel tugs towards ministry, the church provided opportunities for me to get my feet wet as a ministry leader. When I became certain of my call, the church cheered me on as I went through the steps that would lead me to become a fully ordained United Methodist Elder, a minster of Word and Sacrament.

If you are not familiar with the process of becoming a United Methodist minister, let me start by saying it is a long one. First your church gives you the thumbs up to become a candidate for ministry. Then larger denominational leaders and committees vet you and approve you. You go to seminary. You serve for a few years as a minister in a church. And then you write many essays about your theology, understanding of the Bible, and dozens of other things.

It was in the writing of these ordination papers that I got my first red flag about the UMC. Right between asking me about my theology and my understanding of the Bible, they asked me a different question. They asked (paraphrased) if I would live my life in such a manner that I would be a good example of what it means to follow Christ. You know, not cheating on my husband and living an all around upright life and all. I expected this question. I was only 24 and could only promise to do my best, but I wanted to be a good example of a Christ follower for others. Easiest question to answer out of all. Yes!

And then there was a part B to to question number seven that went something like this, “Are you a self-avowed, practicing homosexual?”

Wait, what? The Board of Ordained Ministry is asking me outright if I am gay? And the answer to this question determines whether I am living my life as a good Christian or not? The answer to this decides whether I will be ordained or not?

Now, I am not in fact gay. But this question troubled me deeply. My husband and I had several gay friends in school with us at seminary. We watched how that affected their lives and ministry.

One friend, who is one of the most talented, spirit-filled women I know, came out to us in our second year of seminary. You could tell she was scared to tell us, even though we were close friends. We cried with her after she told us she was gay. Not because we thought she was bad, but because we knew how hard life would be for her in the church. It was so hard in fact that after a couple of years of trying to find a way to minster and come out of the closet at the same time, she left the church altogether. She took her talents and spirit- filled self to the secular world. To this day I grieve for what a loss this was for the church.

Another friend came out to my husband about mid way through school. Though he had been deeply closeted he began to take tiny steps to share his identity with his teachers and church leaders (he was actually Baptist). These leaders shot down and shamed our friend. About a month later he attempted suicide. He felt so rejected, so hopeless, so wrong, he decided it was better to die than to live as he was. Thank God the attempt was unsuccessful. This friend also left the church. I grieve to this day for the pain and brokenness he has suffered at the hands of the church.

There were other friends. Friends who changed to more open denominations. Friends who buried themselves in the closet to live out their call. Friends who led almost two separate lives, hiding the truest part of themselves from their life’s work.

All these stories affected me deeply. So deeply that when it came time for me to answer question #7 part b, it was so hard that I almost couldn’t do it. I went to a friend and colleague who served on the board and asked what would happen if I left question 7b blank because I disagreed with it on principle. He told me outright, “Then you will not be ordained. You will be run out for siding with gay people.” (He said this not to be mean, or because he agreed with question 7b, but because it was true).

I finally answered question 7b, though it still felt wrong.  Looking back now I almost wish I had had the courage to refuse to answer and let the chips fall where they may.

I served as a United Methodist Minister for six years. In some ways they were wonderful years, and yet they were so hard and painful. I served in a denomination and more specifically a conference that was anti-gay. Whenever resolutions would come up at Annual Conference or General Conference, I sat in scared silence as I heard people not just oppose non-heterosexuals in ministry, but spew hatred about gays. I was terrified to be an ally in this hostile environment. Things were hard enough as a theologically progressive young woman. How much harder would it be if I spoke up for my brothers and sisters who were LGBTQ?

So I closeted myself as an ally and prayed for those who listened to that language and felt it drive them deeper into the closet. I knew it was wrong. I tried to make up for it by speaking about welcoming gays in my relatively progressive congregation (Open Hearts, Open Doors right?) But it wasn’t enough.

Year after year I felt the gap widen between my own heart’s conviction for justice and what I saw happening around me in my denomination. After six years I finally got the courage to step out of parish ministry and become a stay-at-home mom to my kids.

After leaving a job that dictated where I went to church, I found myself visiting an Episcopalian congregation that is known for its openness to people of all sexual orientations. It was like a weight was lifted off of me. I could finally live and worship in accord with my beliefs. I could actually be who I was in church.

After five years of family leave, I withdrew my membership from my conference of the United Methodist Church.

It was an incredibly painful decision. A decision I still grieve over today. But it is not a decision I regret. The UMC had become a place where I no longer felt comfortable living out my call.

This week I heard that 111 brave ministers, active UM ministers who identify themselves as something other than heterosexual, wrote a letter to the church asking it to change its policy towards the ordination of non-heterosexuals. This letter was submitted during General Conference, a quadrennial meeting of the entire denomination to rule on polity and other matters.

I knew that if 111 people could be brave enough to come out of the closet to their denomination and ask for acceptance rather than rejection of their gifts and call, the least I could do was add my voice as a “yes, please” along with theirs.

If you want to add your voice as well, click on the link here

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1mihdWcQp5DKaRZH8hYvsDhcyniY4hKIipt88EPh_CpE/viewform

I don’t know if I will ever be a United Methodist minister again. But if the denomination of my childhood and early ministry were to choose justice over oppression and love over fear, I would be so grateful relieved. And maybe those years after answering 7B and which were lived in the midst of such hostility and oppression wouldn’t feel wasted after all.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Celebrating the Small Steps

So I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with perfectionism and not feeling good enough. Recently I’ve had the chance to remember that I got these traits honestly (along with a whole host of good traits).

My dear mother had knee replacement surgery recently. She has just made it through her first two weeks of recovery, which I think is HUGE. But Mom, however, is not convinced. All along the way, in fact she has been a little hard on herself.

Take the moment her physical therapist taught her how to transition from using a walker to a cane. When mom took those first few steps with the cane, I was like a proud parent, clapping with joy at what the baby accomplished. Mom just looked at me like I was weird and kept trying to get her gait just right.

Yesterday Mom and Dad spent their first day without any outside help. I was a nervous wreck. Would they be okay? Could they make it on their own? After a day and half of wondering, I came to the end of myself and popped over at lunch to check on them.

“How did you do yesterday?” I not so casually asked. “Okay, I guess,” Mom replied. “I washed my hair. Did some laundry. Then your Dad and I went out and picked up Chinese to go.”

“Okay?” I’m thinking, “That’s AWESOME.” I guess I thought it so loudly it came out of my mouth. “Mom, that’s really awesome! I’m so proud of you.”

“You really think so?” she asks. “Everybody keeps saying I’m doing great, but I just don’t know.”

Now part of me totally gets where she is coming from. She is used to being a very active, on-the-go woman and now she is laid up at home. She is still limited in what she can do and she still doesn’t feel great most of the time. Knee surgery definitely takes its toll. She probably wishes the whole recovery was behind her and she could move on with life as normal.

But recovering from knee surgery doesn’t work that way. It’s a process. It a journey where you take two steps forward and one step back. You have good days and bad days. And this goes on for WEEKS if not months. No immediate results here.

Much the same is our spiritual journey. When we set out upon a time of healing or growth such as Lent, we have great expectations for ourselves. We want to get from our place of perceived lack to the place we think we should be and we want to get there FAST. Without any delays or missteps, please.

But of course that is not going to happen. Like any recovery or growth, it will be slow and sometimes painful. We will have good days and bad days. There will be two steps forward and one step back.

We may get discouraged or begin to beat up on ourselves.

But there is another way.

I had a chance to meet the beloved, brilliant Phyllis Tickle a few years ago at a conference. As she signed my copy of her prayer book for summertime, I was telling her how we used her daily prayer books at breakfast with our kids. A proud mother herself, Phyllis was intrigued. “Do the books work well with the children?” She asked. I got kind of sheepish and admitted that we didn’t say ALL the prayers or read ALL the scriptures for each day since the children’s attention spans didn’t allow for it. She said something in response I’ll never forget:

It is not the prayers you don’t say that are important. It is the prayers that you do say that matter. 

Oh, Phyllis. Thank you. Thank you for knowing how I beat myself up for all I don’t do and fail to celebrate what good there is in my life.

As you journey through Lent, I pray that you know this in your bones. It is not the things you neglect to do or mess up on that really matter. It is the small steps you are taking each day to grow into whom God made you to be.

And please know that God is not sitting around checking a watch wondering when you will get it together already.

On the contrary, God is cheering and clapping like crazy for every little new step you take like a proud, giddy parent. 

So during this season of self-examination, let’s all be a little easier on ourselves, why don’t we? None of us is perfect, but we are all doing good work. Even when we can’t see it.

But God can see it. And loves us relentlessly no matter what we do or don’t do.

And at the end of the day, that is what matters.

 

My Little Brother: A Guest Post

I am privileged to share with you a guest post by my friend and mentor, Dr. Catherine Meeks. Dr. Meeks has been working for racial reconciliation longer that I have been alive. During her distinguished career she taught African American studies at Mercer University and Socio-Cultural studies at Wesleyan College. She currently serves on the Anti-Racism Commission for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and is a religion columnist for the Huffington Post.

 Catherine inspires me continually with her courageous truth telling and her peaceful spirit (a powerful combination for sure).

I am so grateful to Catherine for sharing such a powerful and personal story. If you ever doubted that racism really causes tragic harm, doubt no longer.What is so sad to me about this story (other than the pain of the personal loss) is that some 60 years later we are still having to restructure our society to reflect the truth that all lives matter, equally.

Guest Post Catherin Meeks Black Lives Matter

So my friends, I give you the words of Dr Catherine Meeks:

*****

Though he was born before me, he died when he was twelve years old and as I heard the story about his death while growing up myself, he was always my little brother. His name is Garland and when he was a little boy, he got sick with what my family thought was just a common stomach ache that could be cured by home remedies. My family tried their remedies and he did not get better. Finally one night he took a turn for the worse and they rushed him to the local hospital which was seventeen miles from our house. The hospital turned him away because he was black and poor.

My father was instructed to take him to the charity hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana which was seventy-five miles away. My father managed to get transportation and took my brother there, but by this time his appendix had ruptured and he developed a serious infection which resulted in his death.

Daddy never recovered from Garland’s death. He grieved about him until his death many years later. He was angry and sometimes not very nice to the rest of us in part from his sense of helplessness when it came to being able to protect us. I can only imagine how fearful he must have been for the rest of his life that something would happen to us and he would not be able to intervene.

Now that I am a parent, I understand much better than I did during my earlier years why my father was so angry and over protective. As a teenager, I thought that he was just overbearing and controlling. But now I understand that he was filled with fear and rage about his own inability to protect us, which was a job that he believed belonged to him.

This is what racism did to my father. It was racism that took my brother away from us. A system that would not allow a hospital to offer services to a little twelve year old boy because he was not deemed good enough to be treated there. It was not the customary thing to do. I understand my father’s rage.

But, along the way I made a clear decision not to become my father. I made the decision to find a way to be empowered so that I would not be at the mercy of racist structures that sought to control me and to make sure that I stayed in my place. I made it my business to work to find out when and where I wanted to enter into life and to go forward as a liberated woman to do just that. I was determined not to relive the fear based and rage filled life that my dear daddy modeled for me simply because he did not know how to find a way out of it.

It is this determination that has led me to work for racial healing and reconciliation since I was in my early twenties. I believe that our only hope is to dismantle racism and to replace it with a commitment to work tirelessly to build a Beloved Community where all of God’s children can be free.

The Art of Taking a Sick Day

I have been battling a bad upper respiratory virus the past few weeks. I felt it coming on one Friday night, all scratchy throat and tired muscles.

What did I do? I just kept going, of course. We had plans Saturday after all.  I just kept drinking hot tea, sucking cough drops and went to bed a little early.

The cold worsened and I began to leave out optional activities. But still I plowed ahead. During meetings I sat at a distance with a box of kleenex by my side. I refrained from giving physical adjustments to my yoga students.

But day after day I felt worse. More tired. More achy. More stuffy.

It took almost a week for me to cry uncle.

I finally called in sick when I felt so crappy I feared I might actually have the flu and didn’t know it. After all I had no fever, but I just felt so bad. After a quick call to my doctor’s office describing my symptoms, they confirmed I probably had a bad virus that was going around.

Their best advice:

Rest. And drink lots of fluids.  

Yep.  That was the best that modern medicine had to offer.

So you know what I did?

I rested.

I laid on the sofa with my dogs and my cup of tea and watched Jane Austen movies. You know what happens when someone gets sick in Jane Austen movies? So much as a sniffle and they go to bed for like a week. No matter whose house they happen to be in at the time. (How else will one fall in love with a handsome stranger?)

I began to wonder if the Victorian English were onto something.

Of course a few days later my son fell ill as well. He ran a little fever and had the same scratchy throat and tired muscles going on.

So what did we do?

We totally rearranged our schedule as a family, let him anchor himself on the “comfy green chair” and began to serve him Powerade and jello.

Art of taking a sick day

 

For almost three days he lay on the chair in the same set of pajamas and watched Netflix with the dogs (Although he chose Cosmos and Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over Jane Austen. Imagine that ;-)). And let me say after three days he was feeling much better than I did after two weeks.

Sometime during all the virus fighting and recovery, I began to wonder when American adults lost the art of being sick?

Are things really so stressful that we can’t take three days out of our lives to rest and recover?

Are we really so important we must keep on with our routines, all the while coughing and sneezing our germs on others instead of letting the world go on without us for a while?

What causes our inability to just let ourselves rest, be sick, and then recover?

During all my thoughtful ponderings (another benefit of having a sick day, you have time to ponder) I remembered back to my first year of working a real job.

I was 25 years old and was working as an associate pastor at a largish United Methodist Church. One Sunday morning I woke up pretty ill and called my boss to let him know I wouldn’t be at church that day. I’ll never forget his response, “I usually just take some medicine and press on.”

Right, because no one else can pray the Lord’s Prayer and give a children’s sermon quite like I can. And church members might get mad if I am not fulfilling my duties. And God wants us to suffer for the sake of the cause. Message received.

Our church office proceeded to give each other a nasty case of bronchitis that year also. Out of four ministerial staff members I think I was the only one to spend most of my illness at home. A fact that was probably made known to me as well.

Slowly as I matured in age and experience I bought the lie. Even when I was put on partial bed rest during my high risk pregnancy I would at least make it to church every Sunday. I would kick my robed legs up on a milk crate that I kept behind the pulpit so I could take some of the pressure off of my incompetent cervix and sit instead of standing during hymns.

Now I look back and wonder how my small contributions each Sunday could have been worth even the chance of putting my unborn child’s life at risk.

So what do we do with this protestant work ethic gone bad?

I don’t know about you, but I am going to try and bring back the sick day for adults. After all, it is not like I work some high profile job. I teach yoga to seniors and write for a living. My students will get over it. The internet will go on.

I know not everyone has the luxury of sick leave and that is a justice issue all unto itself.

But for those of us who have the ability to take sick leave, FOR GOODNESS SAKES, USE IT.

It will be good for you. And all those around you. You will have both the joy of being missed and the relief that you are not essential to the world’s survival.

And when you do, might I recommend spending some quality time with Netfix and some a mug of your favorite comfort drink? It will almost make being sick worthwhile.

 

How do you handle getting sick? What is your favorite “get better” traditions?