Church as Home: A Statement for Candidacy

Woo – what a day! I woke up at 4:30 am and drove to Mo-Ranch to be examined for candidacy by the presbytery. It was my first presbytery meeting ever and I was beyond nervous. But, I read my statement, answered a few questions, and was unanimously approved with a warm, standing ovation. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the reception I received and for all of the people who have held me in prayer. Tonight I will celebrate and tomorrow I will get back to work because there is so much of it to be done. In the meantime, if you’re interested in what I said on the floor of presbytery, here it is:

In the church I grew up in–St. Luke’s Presbyterian in Atlanta—there was a secret passageway that ran through the storage rooms between the old Sunday School wing and the choir room.  (I think I’m the only one that knows that) And if you stood on a chair in the top row of the balcony, you could climb onto the ledge of the round stained glass window in the back of the sanctuary, and it was just wide enough and just the right curve to sit comfortably and pray. And on the concrete underneath the carpet in the lobby of the new Sunday School wing, all of us who were children when it was built signed our names in permanent marker. Mine was bright red.

I know these things because I spent a lot of time in my church growing up. My church was my home. It was the first–and sometimes only–place that I felt safe, claimed, and embraced.

In the nook of that stained glass window and on a broken down mission boat in Manaus, Brazil, and a dozen places inbetween–my experience with church growing up convinced me of two simple but profound truths: God is love, and Church is home.

My Christian formation as a youth shaped me into a person who believes strongly in a relational God and that authentic, courageous, and vulnerable relationship is our most sacred calling–it is the mark of God within us. This conviction led me to a life of serving others in the nonprofit world, and then ultimately to seminary.

I believe in God’s steadfast and abiding love for all people. And I believe that though our brokenness would divide us from that holy love, Jesus offers reminder, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. In the face of such grace, we are not content to be merely passive receivers. We are called and empowered–amazingly–by the Spirit to participate in the reconciling and restorative work of Christ. This is a weighty responsibility, but it is also an incredible gift.

A year or so ago, I was speaking with a group of prospective seminarians, and our Vice President of Admissions, Jack Barden, said that he was once told that one’s call ought not to be linked so much to a particular job or position, as to a short, simple, statement of purpose. He asked me to share mine and though I offered something up, I hadn’t really fully figured out my answer. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

This summer, I spent three months working at Broad Street Ministry in downtown Philadelphia and I finally figured out my phrase–my response to his question. I found the words to express what I have felt for as long as I can remember.

Broad Street is a ministry that serves many in urban Philly who are experiencing homelessness and hunger through meals and other social services. Once a week, the staff meets to share stories, strategies, and compare notes. One week, one of my coworkers reported back about a “guest” who had been visiting Broad Street for a long time. This man had been coming to our meals for years, and had eaten every meal standing up–with his back against a wall–because he didn’t feel safe. This summer, on an otherwise insignificant week day afternoon, this man arrived at Broad Street and sat down at a table to eat for the first the time in God knows how long because he finally felt safe enough to do so.

I can think of no more poignant image of God’s heavenly feast and I can think of no more apt illustration of what I believe the work of the Church to be than this sacred welcoming home.  This is what I feel called to. There are too many people in this world who feel homeless and unloved and too many who have been made to feel this way by our own church. Those who are homeless, LGBTQ, immigrant, mentally ill, and so many others. But we know better. I know better. I know–as I have been blessed to know my whole life long–that church is precisely the place where those who would otherwise feel lost should find the comfort and welcome to sit at the table and feel at home.

What seminary has taught me, more than anything else, is that faith is a lifelong journey and I am blessed to have so much more to learn. But this I know: God is love, Christ is love, Church is home, and the work before us is to make sure all of God’s children know it in the depth of their bones. The world is deeply hungry for it, and it is my deep, deep gladness, and my sincerest and most desperately faithful hope to spend my life exhausting myself in that holy, communal effort.

Snow Come In: A Slam Poem about “Home” and Psalm 84

This was my first ever attempt at writing and performing slam poetry. It is a response to Psalm 84 and was performed during a morning prayer service at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on October 24, 2013. (Text below the video)

Disclaimer: Part of this poem speaks to my coming out experience and my struggles with a sense of home since coming out as bisexual. My coming out has been challenging not only for me, but also for others I love whose views of queerness vary. While this has been hard, I want to be clear that I have been largely received with beautifully stubborn love. I am grateful for it, and it gives me much hope.

Snow Come In

In 1993, we had a blizzard.
But it was Georgia, so that meant inches
5 solid inches of apocalyptic snow
made for an ice age, a transformed world
we didn’t know

We ran out gloveless, ecstatic
our glee frozen in the chill
and dug down deep into the whiteness
traded politeness
for the thrill of throwing magic
tore through bushes where it gathered most
made snowmen, angel prints like ghosts,
And it was beauty, it was love
until it hurt,

it burned my gloveless fingers, all that snow
it soaked them wet and made them raw and red and so
I cried, betrayed, and ran for home.

They set me by the fire
blanket wrapped around my shoulders
and I trembled like a train track
like a cairn of tiny boulders
in an earthquake
But it didn’t take
too long to thaw my fingers,
dry my tear tracks in the heat
I let it hold me, let it fold around me,
let it reach
so far inside my heartbreak
I forgot that snow was anything but sweet.

Is this the sort of place we mean
when we say God’s house is home?
where even sparrows, even swallows
find a rest to call their own
and trust the safety of their children
to the one who calls their name and knits their inward parts
and conquers all the shame
the world has thrust upon their hearts
and left them flightless
I would want no less

And so I hope so, but I have to say
that in this world, and in these days
it mostly doesn’t feel that way.

Too often, Church is “church”
That is to say, a building and a cross
and a password at the entrance
and a dress code and a boss
they say is God
but sounds an awful lot
like human error
the type that thinks conditional grace
somehow makes things fairer
and proclaims that if you tear apart
the Bible into verses
you can find the truth of God
in such a way to suit your purpose.

Is this the sort of place we mean,
when we say God’s house is home?
Please tell me no, please tell me no

And what has home become for us?
well it’s distorted, it’s defective
we purport it to be elective
and say that if you lose it
it must be because you choose to
But I know, I’ve seen the way it drags
when home’s a tattered backpack
barely halfway full of rags
and soaked with rain that pours in buckets
so the straps dig through your skin
and if you stop for just a minute
the cops will make you move again
it’s endless, not a place to rest
your weary wings

Or else it’s silent, tense, and fearful
with a hollowness that rings
and you tiptoe through your hallways
scared to cry, speak, do a thing
it’s quiet, ceaseless torture
when your home doesn’t feel safe
it’s just a day by day reminder
you don’t believe in such a place
there are no monsters in your closet
but you’re haunted just the same
and the worst part is, you love it,
because it’s all that you can claim
It’s not a haven, not a place to dwell
in joy and praise

Or if it ever was, it left you
some time while you were blinking
and you’re clinging to the thought of it
while you and it are sinking
here’s the trouble I can speak to
that’s a kind of home I know
because it’s been 7,530 days since that blizzard
and sometimes, I still feel stuck out in the cold
it’s gotten old, it hurts like frostbite
there is no respite
Because it’s been more than a year
since I first told them I was queer
And everything’s been different since
and home’s no longer clear
And all I’ve got to hold to is
the things that I know we both miss
fire, blankets, blizzards,
And a love that lets us risk
being known.

Is this the sort of place we mean,
when we say God’s house is home?
Man, I don’t know

But look, this poem’s not just derision
I’ve got hope, I’ve got a vision
I’ve seen glimpses of what could be, will be
when we spell church h-o-m-e
And grace is not a concept
so much as the air we breathe.

it will be bold, it will be wild
It will break every mold
that’s ever failed us,
Even snow will come in from the cold
to be reminded it’s a child
And we’ll sit at rounded table
Every person able
to find place and space for feasting
and we’ll empty every platter
And then, we’ll each and every – finally, finally shatter
into shards of human brokenness
we could not mend and can’t forget
And so, we’ll wait for God to fix us
But to our surprise, she’ll mix us
all together, every colored piece
of each into a window
stained with beauty we forgot
that we were made for
And we’ll shine like grace
with light that streams in through the open door

Oh to be a window in that house.
Oh to witness to that holy mass
and feel the warmth of new day’s sun
pour itself through us, the sacred glass.

Is this the sort of place we mean,
when we say God’s house is home?
cause I hope so
I really hope so