(February 2, 2014) When we read the list of blessings in the Gospels (“beatitudes,” as they are often called), we can read them both as reminders of whom God loves, and as soothing balm for the parts of ourselves most in need of blessing. What blessings do you need to hear? (Matthew 5:1-12)
Over a year ago, I wrote an essay for an amazing compilation, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith (Erin Lane & Enuma Okoro, eds), which officially launches today. I’m overjoyed to be included in this book, a huge collaborative effort, and looking at the other authors I’m humbled and a little confused as to why I got to be part of something so cool. My copy came in the mail on Friday, and I excitedly tore into it.
And quickly realized that much has changed for me in the past eighteen months or so. And I don’t just mean my name.
My essay, “The Pastor has Breasts,” dances in the dynamics of pregnancy, pregnancy loss, breastfeeding, and embodiment as they intersect with personal boundaries. It’s the story of two congregations, three pregnancies, and one scary incident where my lived, embodied authenticity contributed to me feeling too vulnerable and unsafe. I hope people read it not as a cautionary tale about being too approachable or “human,” but as a wrestling with the struggle of embodiment and authenticity in a space and a vocation where those are still challenging and potentially unsafe, particularly for women.
I don’t regret the words I wrote, or the story I shared. I think my essay has an important place in this compilation, standing in dialogue with other essays about one’s body and/or about pastoral roles. Surely there are new and relevant stories I can tell from today’s vantage point (and someday may), although other women have written about divorce and relationships, so I’d be in different conversations within the collection.
But the biggest difference I see now is how my story about physical authenticity and vulnerability is a metaphor or perhaps an illustration of a larger theme in my life. Just as I embrace my femaleness and my body, not apologizing for the “discomfort” people may feel when forced to deal with the physical reality of who I am, I also strive to be honest about my life and the situations I am going through. In each case, this real-ness is not only something I personally value, but it runs the risk of putting me in situations where I feel more vulnerable– sometimes more vulnerable than I want to be. Coming through separation and divorce and entering into single parenthood in a way that has been public and honest was only somewhat of a choice; there was very little I could hide about my struggle even if I wanted to. The result is that I’m open to support and critique, solidarity and prying questions, affirmation and painful rebuff.
If I had the essay to write over, I’d draw out this connection, and talk about how physical and emotional vulnerability intersect in ways both beautiful and damaging. I think this is true for all of us, and might only be elevated in the lives and experiences of women. For me, it’s not a commitment I’d ever want to back down from. I believe authenticity is important and I wouldn’t know how to live, much less minister, in any other way. That this embodiment and authenticity come with vulnerability is a given; that this vulnerability can be too much or even dangerous to physical or emotional well-being is a reason for pursuing strength and wholeness, not for shutting down.
Other things I’d change, now that I’ve seen the published book:
I didn’t realize how many of the contributors come from more conservative, evangelical backgrounds and denominations/sects. These contexts have shaped their experiences profoundly, and many of their essays convey the dissonance between where they may have started and where they have come. My writing takes for granted that I’m steeped in mainline to liberal protestant Christianity, which is fine because that is my context. However, there are things I gloss over about that, and seeing it as part of a compilation now, I’d have done more to name the relative openness of United Methodism to women as leaders and pastors, and the progressive theology that is my oxygen, from which statements like breastfeeding my daughter in the sanctuary was sacramental come.
I’d have left out the Reverend in my name in my bio, seeing as no one else used it where applicable, and now I feel stuffy. I would of course have changed my last name entirely (the legal change happened even after the very last last last proof went to print), but I am glad I did not excise evidence of my then husband from the piece. He was and is part of the story.
I’d have submitted a better picture, without a robe. But hey, I was distracted at the time, and felt horrible about both my body and my life. I didn’t have a lot of pictures of me smiling. Too vulnerable? Too real?
My learning continues.
Looking for a place to purchase Talking Taboo?
1. Let me know if you’d like to buy a (n autographed) copy from me and I can order up a box to sell and share.
2. Contact a bookstore near you and ask them to carry the book– this is great for spreading the word!
3. Buy from the publisher, White Cloud.
4. Buy from Amazon.
rough manuscript, by Rev. Becca Girrell Clark – 7/21/13
A child was walking along the road from the convenience store to the suburb, when he was set upon by a man who wanted to be a hero. The man stalked him, engaged him– we do not know for sure how the child responded. And the man shot him, dead.
Neighbors heard the altercation outside, but they did not want to get involved and so the neighbors passed by on the other side. Police arrived on the scene, but the man with the gun said he’d been afraid for his own life, and so they did not book him, or take him into custody, or press charges against him, and the police passed by on the other side. The law of Florida retained that a person (although maybe not a black person and maybe not a female person, but a person) could carry and use a weapon, could use deadly force when they believed their life was in danger, and so the law of Florida passed by on the other side. A jury of this man’s peers, not the victim’s peers, not the boy dead beside the road’s peers, but the gunman’s peers, listened to the evidence, tried to determine if the boy had posed a threat to the man with the gun, and they determined the man with the gun was not guilty of murder or of manslaughter, and the jurors passed by on the other side (one of them stopping a day later to sign a book deal). Good Samaritans and Good Samaritans wannabees wept and wore hoodies and mailed empty packets of skittles from the comfort of their quiet neighborhoods and their safe roadways, and, grieving yet alive, passed by on the other side.
Martin Luther King, Jr said once that Sunday morning at 11 o’clock (or in our case 10 o’clock) was the most segregated hour in American Christianity, with people worshipping almost exclusively along racial lines. We give thanks that our congregation is blessed by each member, and that we are growing in diversity in many ways—racially, socioeconomically, politically, theologically, in terms of orientation and age and place of origin, and we give thanks especially for our children, who lead us in song and prayer and life together, regardless of the things adults might see as differences.
Even so, we recognize the comparative lack of diversity of our church, our community, our state. In 2012, Vermont was ranked as the second-whitest state in the country, falling just behind Maine and just ahead of New Hampshire, with more than 96 % of our population identified as white. This is not a criticism, or at least not one from which I can stand apart—I grew up here too. I’ve lived a life of such white privilege that I often don’t recognize racist jokes or slurs, and that I commit racist actions, on occasion without recognizing what I’m doing. It’s taken me years to come to see and understand white privilege, to acknowledge and see how my life is different because of the color of my skin, and how people make assumptions about me—almost always favorable—based on their perception of my ethnicity.
(example, ABC’s show “what would you do”- actors “stealing” a bike. The white actor is confronted once; the black actor by a crowd almost immediately. A pretty woman is assisted… Video from YouTube)
Steeped in privilege as so many of us are—the privilege of being white, or middle class, or from a loving home, and the list goes on—steeped in privilege as we so often are, it is our responsibility to recognize when and where we have privilege and power, and are therefore called to give it away.
That makes us turn to Jesus’ apparent motivation in telling this parable. We are familiar with the story, and we so often focus on the compassion and charity of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we look beyond to the greater justice issue, standing yet again in the legacy of MLK when he said in “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” In fact, in saving this text until after our guest preacher, this was what I had initially planned to preach about.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying to the lawyer who asks him this question about what it means to be a neighbor. That is not the point of the story. Not today.
We are not the Good Samaritan. We want to be. We strive to be. We name our homeless shelter—that we keep in another town so we don’t have to look at it—after the Good Samaritan, but that is not us. And this isn’t a parable about how to be the Good Samaritan, or how to cultivate charity in our hearts.
We are not the robbers, whose situation we don’t know, what deprivation and fear they faced in their lives. We are not George Zimmerman. We are not, today, in this story, reflecting on the violence we do in our lives. That’s a powerful and important reflection, but it is not the point of the parable.
We are not the man on the road, the child walking back from the convenience store, robbed and beaten and left to die, stalked and shot and dead on the ground at 17. We are not Trayvon Martin. In the days after his death, and again after the Zimmerman verdict, some people began posting pictures of themselves in hoodies and captioning or hashtagging “I am Trayvon Martin.” But then someone else began a tumblr—a site to share pictures and thoughts on a single theme or idea—entitled “We Are NOT Trayvon Martin.” People there post their recognition that none of us are actually this young man, and many non-black folks reflect on the privilege and safety they and their children enjoy, which the Martin family does not. It becomes an opportunity to confront the white privilege I mentioned earlier, and to reflect on the disparity and brokenness of our society. None of us, not even those of us of color, are Trayvon Martin. Some of us could be, or our loved ones could be. Be we are here and whole and alive. And so we cannot appropriate his experience or his family’s loss. Jesus is not talking to Trayvon Martin, to the boy on the sidewalk, the man on the road to Jericho.
Jesus’ caution to us, to us all, to all his listeners, to the lawyer that asked him the question, is that we are the priests. We are the judges, the police, the mild mannered citizens, the members of the jury, the neighbors failing to be neighborly, the travelers on the road, who see the man bleeding out on the pavement, and pass by on the other side.
Because we are busy. Because we are afraid. Because we are complacent. Because we have seen it too often. Because we have seen it not enough. Because we benefit from the privilege we have, we swim and breathe in it as a sponge in the ocean. And we don’t need to concern ourselves with children lying in pools of blood. We pass by on the other side.
We live and work and flourish in a system that is flawed and unfair and broken. A system that defends itself, protects itself. A system that last week did not fail. It worked. It worked to protect George Zimmerman, and the Stand Your Ground Law and the status quo and the culture of fear and violence and its very self.
It failed the Martin family but it’s not meant for them.
Anymore than it’s meant for Marissa Alexander, age 31, convicted in May 2012, three months after Trayvon Martin was shot, and about the time when Zimmerman’s plea of not-guilty was accepted at his arraignment, Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, when she fired a warning shot into the ceiling, in an attempt to get her abusive estranged husband to leave her home. Like Trayvon Martin, she is black. Like George Zimmerman, she pled not guilty and her defense argued that she “stood her ground” in a life threatening situation. Like neither, she will see her next birthday—and, unless there is a successful appeal, about 19 more of them—in prison.
Whole systems pass people by on the other side. Is there any wonder that children hold signs like these at vigils in remembrance of Martin? “Black Life Matters.”
There is something I notice about the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus doesn’t give us any detail about the person on the road to Jericho, except to say that he is male, I suppose. We do not know the color of their skin, or what they were wearing, or whether or not the robbers felt the person was “a threat.” Jesus does not pause to make a case that the person beaten by the roadside is of sacred worth. It is presumed, as a given, that all people are sacred, that all people should not be passed by. This needs no argument. Not for Jesus. And for those who would live as his body in the world, not for us.
Black Life Matters. Life of all colors and ages and orientations and economic statuses and faiths and abilities matters. Jesus is asked to clarify what it means to be a neighbor—and there the distinctions matter, come into play. There it matters that the Samaritan, with very little privilege or power, gives what he has to the aid of a person in need, while the privileged, powerful, pious elite pass by on the other side. But when it comes to who the people in trouble are, who the people whom we must not pass by ARE, it does not matter. They are people, and that is all we need to know. Need is indifferent to color and status and privilege. The call to act is not. Those who have the greatest power and privilege are called to give it up on behalf of… on behalf of anyone. No distinctions, no exceptions.
Who do we see and value? Who do we rush to help? Who can we not leave on the roadside? Jesus assumes we already know the answer, and I think deep down we do. Everyone. In Christ’s eyes, in God’s eyes, we are all of sacred and profound worth, and we are called to see that in one another.
We, Jesus warns, are the ones with the power. The power to protect ourselves and our culture of fear and violence and the status quo. Or the power to lay down what we have for any single person in need, any creature suffering. The story, the reminder, is for us. There is no excuse. May we open our eyes, and never, or to the best of our ability never again, pass by on the other side.
I’ve started a new blog project with a partner in crime (and what we hope may become a team of contributors and discussion partners). “InterRelations” (www.interrelationsblog.wordpress.com) Seeks to break open conversation about gender, sexuality, relationships, and families in all configurations.
From our introductory blog post:
There is a conversation missing in The United Methodist Church, and perhaps in the progressive church overall.
It’s the conversation about gender and sexuality that invites us to each be our authentic selves… the conversation about sex that seeks health, wholeness, and faithfulness comprehensively… the conversation about relationships that values single persons, married persons, partners, spouses, friends, loved ones, and acquaintances… the conversation about families in all their configurations that presupposes nothing when it comes to how people name, define, imagine, shape, and relate to their families…
Here at InterRelations, we hope to open the space for those missing conversations.
I hope you’ll take a look and a read at the posts there from time to time, and contribute to the conversation. If you have topics you’d like to discuss– or even better, like to blog about yourself!– please drop me a line.
Family legend tells that the year after my parents separated, my mom faced the prospect of her first Thanksgiving alone. She accepted an invitation to the home of a friend, and my family and I have been spending alternating Thanksgiving holidays with them ever since, adding spouses and children and new traditions along the way, changing the location but keeping the love and laughter that I have always associated with my favorite holiday.
My nuclear family system is undergoing tremendous and unanticipated change. Change of the sadness and separation variety. With my two children spending the holiday break with their father, Thanksgiving represented for me my first long stretch away from my kids since the new visitation rotation started, my first holiday separated from the joys of my life, and my first Thanksgiving without a delightful, warm, amply-set table, packed to capacity with mismatched flatware and ringing with the noise of little people’s laughter.
Your basic hell.
Invitations to each of my parents’ houses did little to ease that pain; the thought of being surrounded by family—but not the family I missed—stung deeply. When I imagined myself with the rest of the guest list, as literally every other person who would be at each gathering spent the holiday with at least one of their children, there was no way I could imagine keeping turkey and stuffing in my belly.
Sometimes, family isn’t the place we can be. Or should be. Or is healthy or safe for us to be.
Sometimes, when family feels broken, what is really happening is a breaking open.
Fortunately, I know and love a lot of people who have a much more expansive concept of family. I’m part of this crazy connection of Methodists, and reconciling ones at that. I called a friend, who called a friend, and I ended up with a much more inclusive, broadly defined family celebration than the typical Thanksgiving crowd: four reconciling United Methodists, some good cooking (duck, not turkey), some shared laughter and song (okay only two of us sang), and a supportive space for tears, joy, and rejuvenation.
If that sort of feast isn’t a foretaste of the inbreaking of the kin-dom, I don’t know what is.
My expectation of the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving through the New Year isn’t born out of magazines and Martha Stewart, and doesn’t need to be picture-perfect. It does, however, include a strong focus on connection and love and family, and I’m experiencing what so many already know: that family is defined by who we love and cherish, the people with whom we set (and clear) the table, the ones who welcome our grief and our celebration.
In the Thanksgiving episode of the NBC show “The New Normal,” the main characters define for themselves a difference between relatives and family. While the former might represent obligation and dysfunction, places of pain or alienation, the latter are the ones with whom we choose to surround ourselves, the people who make a holiday special and sacred. I found mine, and it’s a vast and diverse family, some of whom are even related to me.
This season, may your places of brokenness be places of breaking open, and may your gatherings be filled with love and laughter and the deep joy of chosen family.
Here is an column about the #DreamUMC movement I wrote for UM Reporter.
I’m still working on a summary of last week’s chat– hopefully by the end of the day, and Jeremy is hard at work on the break down of work/interest groups. Stay tuned to the facebook page and twitter account!
I had a very strange experience last night. I preached a sermon on Twitter. It had been a very hard day (more on that another time) and I had left the voting area (called the bar– not a social establishment for beverage!), and sat for a time with some friends, members of the GLBTQ and ally community. The music began, and a joyful liturgical dance that moved me deeply, but I felt such a disconnect because my friends and loved ones were cut off from the worship, both by the voting area, and by some of the votes we had taken.
Members of the Common Witness Coalition, as I was writing, the “church”– the broken, internally and externally wounded, frightened church– I was thinking of was not the UMC. It was the Coalition. My word is for us in our pain.
I wavered on the edge, and I began to write:
(we sang the wonderful song “You Are Mine,” which includes the lyric “I will call your name, embracing all your pain, stand up, now walk and live.” and the refrain “I love you and you are mine.”)
(we heard the story of Jesus asleep in the boat as the disciples cried out in fear at the wind and waves, until Jesus awoke– Lord, save us! We are perishing!– and rebuked the storm)
(I’m having a Pentecost moment. There’s another sermon in this room, and I hear it too) #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012 (The preacher in the room was preaching a sermon that was sort of in conversation with what I was writing, sort of source material, and sort of separate)
A lot of folks on facebook have been posting links to this video, where political science graduate and non-profit worker Jefferson Bethke seeks to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion” (text of video description). Mr. Bethke is a self-proclaimed healed pornography addict, and attends the Federal Way campus of Mars Hill Church (dot com) in Washington. For those keeping track at home, that’s the mega church pastored by Mark Driscoll (as opposed to Mars Hill Bible Church [dot org] in Michigan, pastored by Rob Bell– man, did that confuse me for a while). I won’t try to articulate my concerns about pastor Driscoll, but will refer you to the excellent critique of his particular brand of (in my mind, masochistic) Christianity by Rachel Held Evans here and here.
Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video has some merits and some pitfalls in my mind, and so I’m torn when I see it on facebook on my friends’ feed or as a recommended link by The Christian Left. Here are my thoughts on religion and Jesus and this particular video.
The video is thought-provoking and invites reflection and discussion. Case in point. Anything that encourages us to think about our faith instead of blindly following gets bonus points in my book.
The video challenges certain assumptions about religion and Christianity, which I think is helpful. For example, Bethke says that being a Christian and a Republican are not the same thing (nor are being a Christian and a Democrat!), and that we should be freed by Christ, not enslaved by what he calls “behavioral modification” through the rules and chores that he sees as religion. I think breaking free of the rule-based way of thinking about religion is important.
The speaker insists that Jesus doesn’t support self-righteousness. I agree, although I’m not totally sold that the video succeeds in demonstrating that.
The video clearly separates Jesus from religion with what I see as a beautiful distinction (if phrased in gendered language that makes me gag) “Religion is man (sic) searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.” Further, the words separate religion, which Bethke says he hates, from the church, which he says he loves, and that makes for good reflection as well. I fully agree with leaving behind some or all of institutional religion to follow Jesus, if that is what is needed.
We are asked “Would your church let Jesus in?” Not a new question, but an important one.
Finally, there are some beautiful words, phrases, and ideas here. I like “Religion says ‘do'; Jesus says ‘done’.” But my favorite:
If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean. It’s not a museum for good people; it’s a hospital for the broken.
I’m not sure what the speaker thinks religion is. He distinguishes it from “Christianity” as well as from Jesus, says he hates it, calls it an infection, and blames it for wars. But I’m not entirely sure what he means by “religion.” I suspect he may mean “institution,” but it’s not clear. I would define the broad concept of religion as a set of beliefs about the Divine (theology) and a particular way of living out beliefs (praxis), held in common by 2 or more people in a given place and time.
The video then blames this ambiguous concept of religion for war and attacks it for failing to feed the poor. Since religion, as I define it, is a series of beliefs and practices, it doesn’t really *do* or fail to do anything. Rather, religious people carry out actions and explain them using their theology and praxis. Religious people have gone on crusades and committed genocide, slavery, and rampant discrimination, claiming religion as their motivator. Religious people have also preached civil rights, resisted apartheid, lived among lepers, and given all their wealth to the poor, claiming their religion as their motivation. Maybe this is a little like saying guns don’t kill people, but I see religion as a tool, an implement, and in the wrong hands, yes, a weapon. It’s what we do with it that matters.
Bethke also decries religion for being a human invention. While I like the above-mentioned distinction that religion is humanity’s search for God while Christ is God’s search for us, it is presented as if this is a bad thing. We cannot simply receive God’s searching for us separate from our human responses. Yes, religion, church, prayers, worship songs, cathedrals, ministry programs, global institutionalized church, and YouTube videos are all human-made. And they are imperfect. What else would they be? The fallible, broken, human construct of religion is humanity’s response to and search for God. We’re still working on it and we don’t get it right, but we’re in it together with one another and with the Holy. We might show *that* a little grace, too. We never know how the God of the Universe might be able to use even the broken vessels of the church, her people, and each individual person of faith. I hear God’s good at that.
Having rejected and resented “religion,” Bethke replaces religion with something else that looks a lot like… religion. He replaces it with a series of beliefs about the Divine and implies a way of living out some of those beliefs in practice.
Furthermore, I don’t like the theology he presents in place of “religion.” It’s very strong on substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus took on our sin and bled and died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish about blood dripping down Jesus’ face and him dangling on a cross thinking of me. Just not my thing. It may move us away from adherence based on fear to adherence based on guilt, but I’m not sure that’s a drastic improvement.
Finally, rejecting religion undermines the important function of accountability it serves. The video itself suggests some good theology and some bad, and the praxis is largely unknown or perhaps irrelevant. In the context of a “church” or dare we say a “religion,” there are other believers present against whose wisdom we check our theology and praxis. If my relationship with Jesus teaches me to hate gay people or club baby seals, who is to correct me if “religion” is vile and my personal interpretation is all that matters? Rather, the institution of religion, for all its faults, serves as a clearing house, a sounding board, a discernment group. Call it what you like, but it keeps the crazies at bay. When corrupted, yes, it mistakes the prophets for the fanatics (because there are fine lines already), and Jesus is crucified. But when it tries to let God work, it can also lift up the Desmond Tutus and the Mother Teresas, and it can resist the false prophets of Fred Phelps and his ilk. All of us individually searching for God are bound to make mistakes. In the grouped-together theology and practice of religion, our mistakes can indeed be amplified and multiplied, and more to our shame. But the good that we do, the times that we reject discrimination and violence, the voices we lift for the outcast and oppressed, the compassion we extend in word and deed– these can also be amplified and multiplied and tested, empowered, and equipped.
I applaud the video for raising questions and provoking discussions, for challenging outdated assumptions about religion and for lifting important, beautiful, inspirational concepts about what the love and grace of God are like. I support the sentiment of serving Jesus, even where that breaks from the institutionalized church (perhaps especially there!). I agree with the critique against what the video’s text description calls false religion. I hate false religion, too. But I remain unconvinced that the theology and (lack of) praxis lifted up here in place of such false religion are better, or a place that I would feel comfortable, and I believe the demonization and rejection of religion as a whole is throwing the baby (possibly the baby Jesus) out with the bath water. Instead, I would affirm the rejection of false religion, and the call to make the church and individuals therein more faithful to the true ministry of Christ. Let us swim in the ocean of grace.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for my blog. How nice of them (and how interesting to read!).
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 16,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.