Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bodies are good and holy.

Bodies are good and holy. 

Your body is good and holy.

Your body is good and holy if you have more fat, or less fat, or more muscles, or less muscles, than is socially acceptable.  (Fuck socially acceptable.)

Your hair texture and skin color and nose width and thigh thickness are good and holy.

Your body is good and holy if it doesn’t do the same thing as everyone else’s, if it hurts sometimes, if it need care sometimes.  (Everybody’s does.)

Your body is good and holy if you use it to have sex, or if you don’t want to have sex, or if the person or people you want to have sex with don’t desire you.  Your body is good and holy if you are conventionally hot and other people impose desire you don’t want on you.

Your body is good and holy if someone or ones have done things to it that you didn’t want them too.  Your body still belongs to you.  Your struggle to reclaim it as yours is good and holy. 

Your body is good and holy if it is male or female or both or neither.

Your body is good and holy if it matches your gender identity or if it doesn’t.  The way you use or modify your body to express your gender is good and holy.  Your body is good and holy if it “passes,” or not, if it conforms to conventional gender or not.

Your body is good and holy if you menstruate, or if you don’t.  Your body is good and holy if it has carried children, or if it has not.  Your body is good and holy if you get erections, or if you don’t.

Your body is good and holy if it is aging.  Your body is good and holy if it smells funky sometimes.  (All bodies do.)

Your body will be good and holy when you die.

Your body is good and holy if it has disappointed you.  Your body is good and holy if you sometimes feel ashamed of it, or have a hard time taking care of it the way you know you should.  We all do.

Everyone else’s body is good and holy in the same way.  We are surrounded by good and holy bodies. We get to see them and smell them, and respect them.  Sometimes we get to touch them and care for them.  How good and holy!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ascension Day Sermon at St Matthias

St Matthias Episcopal Church in Baltimore welcomed me as a supply preacher on Ascension Sunday.

I loved this little congregation!  If you are looking for a welcoming church in Baltimore, and like liturgy and social justice, give them a try! The friendliness of their leaders was genuine, playful, and infectious.  They proudly told me about several social ministries that met the needs of their community, but even more impressive, it was obvious that people who received these services and people who provided them effortlessly worshiped and enjoyed fellowship together.  They are leading several churches in a discussion of white privilege, and are clearly accustomed to wrestling with social justice issues. The congregation was diverse in ethnicity, economics, and sexual orientation.  The church dog, Gracie, a beautiful and gentle poodle mix, wandered through the sanctuary during the service.  The choir was astonishing, people responded with emotion to the liturgy and sermon, and nobody wanted to leave coffee and fellowship time after worship.

St Matthias has a leader who films sermons and posts them to youtube, so you can hear my sermon here.  Links to the texts of the day are included.  You can also feel the delightful energy of the congregation as you listen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The ELCA's Poll Tax

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers." Mark 11:17

Poor people should be able to vote just like rich people.  Money should not influence our ability to participate in public life.  We believe it in the church, as well as in the secular world.

In the church, as in the world, this isn't our current reality.  The votes and voice of the poor are suppressed.

I want to make this claim as strongly as possible, about the practical effects of our policies and systems, without making claims about intent-conscious, or otherwise.  The church rightly lobbies for Voting Rights for all people.  But sometimes we are oblivious as to how we replicate the same inequalities in our denominational structure.

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (ELCA) has a de facto poll tax.

In the Jim Crow South, as in other parts of the world, a poll tax was the amount of money that citizens had to pay to be able to vote.  The amount was set such that it would not prevent middle and upper class participation, but would be substantial enough to prevent poor people from voting.  As part of Jim Crow, the poll tax was overtly racist, but poor white people were affected as well.

My friend, colleague, and #decolonizeLutheranism co-conspirator the Rev. Paul Bailie gave me the language of poll tax, in this excellent blog post on why he is not attending synod assembly this year.  His post raises several critically important issues, from racist worship to the dominance of certain cultural forms of Lutheranism to the exclusion of others, all of which are generating needed conversation.  But it is the concept of synod assembly registration as poll tax which I need to address.

Quick catch-up for those who aren't ELCA Lutherans: ELCA Lutherans are divided into regions called synods.  Yearly, we gather in these synods to do the business of the church: debating and voting on issues that will affect us all, from our policy on LGBTQ clergy, to the guidelines for paying our pastors, to refuting  past theological mistakes like the Doctrine of Discovery, to who will be the next bishop of that synod. Each congregation gets to send a certain number of voting members based on their size.

We have to pay the synod in order for our voting members to attend, and thus, speak and vote. If a congregation cannot afford to pay the assembly registration (and associated costs) they do not get to vote in church matters.

Like a historical poll tax, the amount that each congregation has to pay in order for voting members to attend, and thus, vote, is such that it is not a burden for larger and richer congregations, yet is a substantial burden, sometimes an impossible one, on smaller and poorer congregations. In Pastor Bailie's synod, the cost is $180 per voting member, not including transportation and hotel costs.  In the synod I served in, the amount is $250, again excluding travel and hotel.  The smallest congregations send three voting members, two lay leaders and the pastor, so the total cost for a small congregation to send voting members and pay for their travel and hotel can easily exceed $1,000.

When I speak of this, I don't get the impression that middle and upper middle class people understand what $1,000  means to a small congregation of people living in poverty.  $1,000 was larger than our entire yearly budget for Christian Education materials.  It was the difference between being able to pay the electric bill or not.  For a small congregation of people living in poverty, paying $1,000 to send three people to vote on church matters would have meant choosing not to make payroll, or to cut from some other essential expense. $1,000 for synod registration and associated costs too often prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending.

(This still does not take into account the full cost of attendance, which includes travel, incidental meals, lost wages, etc.)

When smaller, poorer congregations do have the money to attend synod assembly, their voices and concerns are often systemically ignored.  They experience micro and macro aggressions, up to and including racist worship services.  The cost for attending is very high, in dignity as well as dollars.

I understand that there are costs associated with putting on a synod assembly, and that in a world where congregational benevolence to synods is decreasing, synod assemblies need to be funded in some way.  I simply do  not believe they should be funded in a way that prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending, participating in debate, and voting.  Nor do they have to be.  One simple solution would be to more equitably distribute costs, by tying the cost of registration to the operating budget of the congregation, as reported to the synod in our yearly congregational reports.  Congregations with a operating budget below a certain threshold, such as the one Pastor Bailie serves, would not have to pay to attend, and larger, richer congregations would pay a larger fee.

In the church, as in the world, any policy that suppresses the vote of the poor is unjust.  And as we advocate for full Voting Rights in the world, we can change our church policies so that everyone has full Voting Rights in the church.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thoughts on a Saturday that is Holy to Me

Something is stirring in the air right now, and people are asking holy questions.

In case something might be stirring in you too, in case this might be helpful to you, here are some things I've said more than once in the past 24 hrs:

It's ok to reach out to the great Something Else, while still rejecting your old, childhood view of god. If you think there might be Love out there, you can open yourself to It, without becoming a Christian. If the Pulse of Energy, or the Universe, is calling your name, you might answer, or you might wait longer. She/He/It/They/Fae can wait for you. But also if you start to open to the Connection, It will reach for you.

And the Divine won't violate your boundaries. This is something I've only ever been able to explain to certain people: let those with ears hear. But the Other will push your limits, will take you to the edge of what you can handle, but not over. You can have a safe word. You can submit, but still say "not there."

Conversely, if you don't feel this Thing, but want to be part of a community that sings together, loves each other, serves the world together, you can, Feeling or not. You can look around for a church/synagogue/mosque/faith community that matches your values, watch them for awhile, get to know them, see if you want to join them more. If you're being pulled towards community, you can have that, "believing in God" or not. And you can even talk to the clergy person about this, if you'd like. The right one will rejoice in your longing, and welcome you. You can have a "church home" even if you don't believe in God.

And, dear ones, if you think I might be talking about our conversation, about you, I am. But also so many others. This is a Great Yearning which many of us share.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

For my Dear Lay Leaders, who wish their pastor would take a stronger stand for Justice

Dear wonderful, strong, beautiful committed lay leaders, who wish your pastor would take a stronger stand for justice,

I love you. The church couldn't function without you. Not only physically, but spiritually. The fire in your belly is holy, your dissatisfaction with the church keeps us honest.

And I know that we, your pastors, are largely failing you right now. We haven't given you the tools from our tradition that will help you in your resistance to the evil in the world around us. We aren't preaching the sermons you need, we aren't taking the public stands that you know the church should be taking.

And some of you have very specific pastors you're thinking of right now, pastors you love, but wish would be better.

Dear friends, as someone who hears what those pastors say behind closed doors, your pastors wish they could be better too.

And they need you to help them.

Your pastors, it's true, are afraid for their jobs. You pay their paychecks, and keeping you at least some level of satisfied is pretty essential to them being able to feed their families. All this is true.

But it's also true that your pastors are genuinely worried that if they speak too strongly, get "to far ahead" of their congregations, they'll lose you. They want to be able to continue to influence you, and they fear if they speak too strongly you'll stop listening to them all together. Because they don't really know that you want them to speak out.

And they love you. I don't know if you know, dear lay leaders in the church, how much your pastors love you, as people. And it's hard to say hard things to the people you love, to make them uncomfortable, to disappoint them.

Maybe this makes them weak, it's true. Your pastors are weak. We'd like to be stronger. You probably wish that your pastor would be the kind of person who can do the hard, uncomfortable thing, risking life and limb and livelihood, refusing to care about what people think of them. Your pastor probably wishes they could be that kind of person too.

But they're human, and the uncomfortable truth about humans is that most of us need a community to help us be our best. And you, dear lay leaders, can be that community for your pastor.

Have you talked to your pastor about this?

And, dear lay leaders, have you talked to your pastor in a loving, challenging, faith-filled way, trying not to attack or be too critical? It is hard, I know, and maybe impossible, but if you can get to "I'd love to support you in taking more risks, standing up for what we both believe," you'll be more powerful than if you say "Your sermons are boring and irrelevant."

Look, this isn't fair. It's true. But we believe that lay people are just as likely to be doing the work of God as the clergy, and sometimes this means even with and for your clergy.

And-even harder, can you not only ask your pastor to stand up, speak out, but can you promise to have her back when she does? Can you promise him that when you hear other congregation members criticize him in the parking lot, you'll join the conversation and turn it another direction? Will you promise her that if her bold stance gets attacked in the congregational meeting, you'll stand up and speak to your siblings in Christ about how she was being faithful to the prophetic call?

It's hard, I know. It's terrifying. Especially speaking up at a congregational meeting. Telling a roomful of the ones you love and go to church with and don't want to hurt something they don't want to hear. It will take courage. Right?

Right. The same courage it will take for your pastor to do those things in the first place.

Encourage her, encourage him. You have so much more power than you think. You are waiting for your pastor to take a stand, but the hard, human truth is, your pastor might be waiting for you to.

You, also, dear lay leaders, do the work of God. You speak the words of the Spirit, just like we do. By your work, the church can take a bolder stand, can reclaim its prophetic voice, can be Christ in the world.

Help your pastors, dear lay leaders. We need you now.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What to Do After You're Sexually Harassed, or, Surviving a Sexist Culture

This whole post comes with a trigger warning, in case that isn't obvious.

Sexual harassment sucks. It happens to all of us who are women, cis and trans, it happens to trans men, it happens to gender non-conforming folks, and from time to time, it happens to cis men. Most, but not all, of the time, it's cis men who do it. It is wrong no matter who does it to who. And it is almost always an extension of gender oppression. Even when a woman is a perpetrator, or a man is a victim.

We're pretty much all trained not to notice it, sometimes even the person doing it. Sexual harassment functions best as a tool of gender oppression when the person doing it can deny it, and the person affected doubts themselves and goes away. Quietly.

So my ways of responding are about preserving my voice. Not to be silenced anymore. But that's also because I'm a person of privilege, and I'm rarely in a situation where the attempt to quiet me is deadly. You're allowed to respond however you need to respond, and if that means surviving, you do what it takes to survive. If you need to preserve your financial security, do what it takes to preserve your financial security. What I'm writing is about what helps *me*, and some other people have asked me to share it. If it helps you, please use it. If it doesn't, do what you have to do. If you want to tell me about what works for you in the comments, I want to hear.

1. Train yourself to notice, and attend to, that feeling of yuck. We've been so socialized to ignore harassment that sometimes we don't even notice when it's happening to us. When we don't name the yuck, we absorb it. This is not a healthy way to live.

2. Make a practice of watching gender and sexual harassment dynamics. How do other people respond? Who is safe in those situations, and who isn't? Who is quiet, and who speaks? Who is listened to and acknowledged when they speak? Develop role models, people you watch you see harassment when it's happening, and notice what they do. If you can, develop friendships with them. You'll need them.

(I need them. I need you. I'm only writing this blog post because of the people-cis and trans, women, gender non-conforming, and even men-who have taught me.

Count me in your circle of people who will help you notice, who will validate your experiences, who want to hear your voice.)

3. When that feeling of yuck tells you something has happened, repeat the conversation or interaction to someone else, someone trusted. This is where it will really help if you have befriended the role models I've mentioned above. But cultivate a circle of people who don't belittle or deny harassment. Doubting our own perceptions about what happened is something we've been taught, and it is super helpful to have other people validating us, helping us tell our truths.

4. Be gentle with yourself about how you responded in the moment. Again, most of us are socialized to ignore or minimize harassment, giggle and look away, etc. If you did those things, that's a harm that sexism did to you, not a personal weakness. Forgive yourself if you don't like how you responded. If you want to, you can picture yourself respond differently in the future.

5. At some point, you can choose how you will respond to the person or situation. This is *your* decision, and *you* decide what works best for you. You don't have to keep everyone else comfortable. There will be people who will pressure you to be very quiet. They are helping the sexism, consciously or not. There will be other people who want you to be very very nice in how you tell someone they've harassed you, and will tell you to protect that person's feelings. This is a trap; there is no nice way to tell someone they've harassed you, and you will be wrong no matter what. You do not have to listen to these people.

Special note to Christians: do not allow anyone to use Mathew 18 to pressure you to be alone with a person you don't feel safe with! That text works when siblings in Christ have functional equality with each other, and are committed to living in love. This person has already demonstrated they don't want functional equality with you.

Depending on your situation, you can choose to report the harassment to an authority figure or not. For me, personally, the everyday grind of micro-aggressions, or mini-aggressions that can be denied, are almost never worth it. I don't need an authority figure doubting and silencing me on top of everything else. I save reporting to authorities for the situations when someone has actually physically touched me, or situations where I have written proof of verbal harassment that is pretty extreme. That said, everyday micro-aggressions can wear a person down, and if this is the one that I need to speak up about, I do.

I usually find it helpful to say out loud to *someone* what happened, and that it was wrong. You get to decide who, if anyone. Even saying it to myself helps, but I'm learning that it helps me even more to say it more publicly. Naming it helps take away the power, keeps it from silencing me.

You can think about the relationship you have with the person who harassed you and decide if you want to tell him about why what he said was wrong. Sometimes this is more satisfying in person, if you feel safe. You can take someone with you, if you want to. Other times doing it in writing is better, because you can double-check every sentence, think about it until you feel good about your words, show it to your trusted circle if that helps. An in-between option is to create a script for a telephone call.

6. Regardless of how I choose to respond, I might need time to recover. I sometimes designate a 24 hr time period, or even longer, when only women's (or gender non-conforming people's) voices are allowed in my space. I listen to music written and performed by women, I read books by women, I watch TV shows and movies written, produced by, and featuring women, etc. They validate that our perspectives, our experiences, our lives, are real.

7. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition. When I'm really feeling a violent anger towards sexism, I read Judges 4-5, or the book of Judith. I pray the Magnificat. I read theology and prayers by women. Alternately, I read the Psalms that talk about our enemies speaking evil against us (a wise friend, one of the few cisgender men in my circle I mentioned above, suggested Psalm 5). Allow them to be Psalms from your own mouth, and picture the evil doers speaking falsely as your harassers.

You might have your own "canon" of sacred literature, either from another faith, or from works of art that give you life. I'd love to hear what passages from them might fill this for you.

8. Continue to cultivate a list of people who don't let gender-based harassment silence them. Learn from them, and begin to imitate them. Start to notice the dynamics of how sexual harassment works to silence us, and start teaching other people. Write your own blog post. Preach your own sermons. Publish your own articles. Sing your own song, shout your own pain. Don't allow your voice to be silenced.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Decolonize Lutheran Sex

As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by Christ’s authority, I hereby declare to you that I want you to have good sex,   and only good sex1, whatever that means to you.
As a Lutheran pastor, I want you to have good sex, and only good sex, not only because I am a compassionate person and want your life to be good, but also, as a pastor, because I want your spiritual life to be good.

I’m not going to get myself too involved in the particulars of how you do that, because, as a pastor, that’s not something I have any authority over.  I don’t know what good sex is for you any more than the next person does. Good sex, to you, might even mean the way you enjoy your body in celibacy. But I do have the authority to say this: being connected to your own, created sexuality is intimately connected to the health of your relationship with God.

And I claim the authority to say that because I learned it from St Paul himself, in the first chapter of Romans.

The first chapter of Romans is one that has been most used, after Leviticus, to shame and exclude and colonize and oppress Queer people like me. Verses 26-27 are one of those “texts of terror,” and I’m going to quote them, so prepare yourself:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

As a Queer woman2, I’m especially fascinated by this passage, because it’s the only one in all of Scripture that arguably forbids girl on girl action.  Every other passage that is used against Queer people is explicitly addressed to men.  It appears that God is far more interested in what men do with each other than what women do.  Isn’t that odd?

What most LGBTQ theologians will tell you, and it’s true, is that this passage shouldn’t be used for constructing a sexual ethic, because the sex stuff just isn’t the point of the passage.  St Paul is setting up a bigger argument towards the famous Lutheran idea in chapter 3: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In order to get there, he has to convince his audience that all people have sinned, and that’s no easy task, since most of us secretly believe we’re pretty righteous, and that *other* people are the big sinners.  So in Chapter 1, where we find our sex verses, Paul is helping us connect to the idea that *other* people, like those crazy sex-having people are sinners, and in the first verse of Chapter 2 he tells us we’re sinning *right this instant* for judging them, and spends the rest of chapter 2 about how *we* are all sinners, so that he can get to his famous verses in chapter 3.

Now, if this is all a big trap to get us sinning by judging other people for sinning, we really shouldn’t use it as a way to call other people sinners, right?  That’s the traditional way of addressing chapter 1 in an LGBTQ affirming manner, and I agree with it 100%.  Everyone on earth messes up, and everyone on earth receives God’s grace, which is the center of our faith.

AND I still come back to chapter 1, those dirty sex verses, over and over and over again, as the center of my sex-positive Christian ethics.  Because there’s a hidden assumption in them that I just love.
Remember how those verses start out “for this reason God gave them up to degrading passions”?  What reason?  St Paul says “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him3.” 

It was because the people didn’t recognize the invisible nature of God in the things God made that their sexuality, St Paul says, is mixed up.  Paul thinks that having a mixed up relationship with God results in a mixed up relationship with our sexuality.

St. Paul assumes that our knowing the divine mystery of God’s nature is somehow connected with knowing our own sexuality.

St. Paul assumes that knowledge of our Creator is connected to knowing how God created our own sexualities.

Do you see it? A healthy relationship with God is connected to a healthy relationship with our own sexuality!

Now, St Paul is *not* an expert on who God created me to be, as a woman much less as a Queer person.  But St Paul *is* authoritative about what the human/Divine relationship is like, and I believe him here.  St Paul knows what he is talking about.

And this experience is affirmed over and over and over again in the lives of Queer people: when we try to stay in the closet, when we try to alienate ourselves from who God created us to be, we end up alienated from the Creator Godself.  And it is only in beginning to accept and love our own sexual selves that we are able to again love and trust God.

I think if you ask some straight people who’ve done as much thinking about sexuality as Queer people are forced to do, you’ll find similar stories.

So, as your pastor, I want you to connect to what *you* know your God-given, healthy sexuality is.  Because I honestly believe that it is connected to your healthy relationship to God.

Now, that relationship has been robbed from us, colonized, like so many other things. There are forces in this world that want to keep you alienated from God, and they’ll use all the tools they have.  And the tragic thing is, they’ll even use the church.  They especially like to use the church to colonize us.

To colonize something is to claim ownership of something that isn’t yours, to exert your power over it, to claim its resources as your own, and to not allow it to exist in its given state.  And the church is usually right on the front line of colonizing things: land, people, cultures…..your sexuality.

The church tells you it gets to decide what is natural for you, who God has created you, and your sexuality, to be.  But when it does that, it *harms* your relationship with God, and that is a grave sin.  The church is sinning against you when it tells you you can’t be yourself, that the sexuality God has created holy is somehow wrong.

So we need to reclaim it. We need to decolonize our beautiful, loving, healthy sexualities, in order to have whole and healthy relationships with Divine mystery.  And *you* are the only one who knows who God created you to be.  You are the authority on this.

There may be some guidelines the church, and Bible, have the authority to give: when we are our best created selves, we, and all the people around us, thrive together.  Sexuality that harms other people isn’t God-given.  Promises are sacred.  People who are weaker need protection from people who are stronger.  But there aren’t very many of these rules.  And it is a sacred task to figure out how they apply to your created self.  It will be a lifelong process, but the better your relationship is with God and the more you grow in love for other people, the more you’ll grow into knowing who you have been created to be. And it is a good and a holy thing to do, to grow in your relationships with God, yourself, and others.  In fact, it’s the center of our calling as Christians, and as Lutherans.

So, dear people of God, decolonize your sex. Claim what God has given to *you* to use in loving the world.  Grow into what your healthy sexuality is, who God created you to be.   Figure out what good sex is and isn’t for you, and have that, and only that. Because loving God, and loving the world, and loving your sexuality, are intimately connected.

As a called an ordained pastor in the Lutheran church, and by Christ authority, I say to you: have good sex.  Because your relationship with God depends upon it. 

1. Good sex, for you, may be sex by yourself. In fact, I hope the sex you have by yourself is really good! There are also people for whom, for a time or for a lifetime, a healthy connection with their sexuality has more to do with feeling good and yummy in the body in a celibate way, and I hope if that’s you, you get that too. I never want anyone to feel like they’re “supposed to” have sex they don’t want to have!
 2. Mostly woman. I’m a little GenderQueerish, but for the purposes of this post….let’s go ahead and say woman. GenderQueer stuff can be another post.
 3. Those are verses 20 and 21. Yes, I’m aware I skipped a few. I promise they don’t change my point, but go ahead and look them up if you want to. I’ll wait. Ok, ready to go on?