How I Became a Radical Queer Feminist at a Straight-Laced Seminary (Abridged Version)

(For the last year and a half I have been editor of our seminary student publication, KAIROS. Today I am printing my last issue. The following is my final article. I decided along time ago that in my last piece I would name all the things, but apparently even with the privilege of setting my own word limit, I could barely scratch the surface. I guess I’ll have to write a book after all.

In any case, if you’re thinking of seminary and someone tells you that it will change you… believe them. And embrace it.)


Three years ago I was a slightly leftward leaning moderate with a fear of feminists and a staunch commitment toward ignoring my attraction to women. If you had asked me for a statement of faith, I would likely have regurgitated the Apostle’s Creed and if you had told me to use inclusive language, I probably would have punched you in the nose.

It’s fair to say that things have changed a bit. I am a proud feminist, a radical queer (that is, I believe my queerness is not only a sexual identity but a way of being in the world), and a theologian with a passion for exploring the boundlessness of God. If you asked me for a statement of faith, I would write you a dissertation. I would not use masculine language for God. It has been quite a three-year journey.

Nine months ago, I decided on the title of my last Kairos piece. I hoped that the content would provide itself over the course of my senior year. The truth is, I am still figuring out how I got here. But I can tell you that I believe it has been journey of becoming more and more myself—the person God created me to be. I believe that it has happened as a result of both good things for which I am grateful, and bad things that I would like to see changed. I absolutely believe that it could not have happened in quite this way anywhere else.

This is a long story, and if you really want to hear it – buy my book when I publish it (haha), but for now, I’ll say what I can in a short list.

1) I learned that relationship is everything – There is no more sacred calling than authentic, vulnerable relationship and there is no greater gift you can give someone than the full truth of who you are. According to my blog, I learned that lesson within two days of coming to seminary. It affirmed what I had always felt but had never been able to express. It set the framework for my theology and my sense of call. And it set me on a path to love more honestly, to let myself be loved more vulnerably, to live fully into the beautiful, queer, powerful person God created me to be.

2) I was taught that my voice matters – This started before I even became a student when I came to Discovery Weekend. Over and over again this seminary has told me and shown me that I have something vital to contribute to the conversation of faith and that I have a responsibility to say it. I’ve been taught that my voice can shout down injustice and lift up the stories of others. My voice can speak truth and cultivate hope. This discovery gave me the courage to speak with the authority of one called by God.

3) I was told my voice didn’t matter – It’s important to learn that your voice is not the only one and that there are times to be silent so others can speak. But too often I have had my identity and my voice undermined by those who find it uncomfortable or subversive because I am not the voice they are used to hearing. It was these moments that taught me that I cannot wait for the powers of the world to give me permission to speak. I must dare to speak without permission, and I better know what I want to say. I have learned that you do not take a stand and speak because you’re ready, but because somebody has to, and ready or not, sometimes that someone is you.

4) I have been terrified (and graded for it) – From talking to snakes (a nature exercise), to having a sermon torn apart and then being told to preach again, to leading suburban youth through the most heavily drug-trafficked street in Philadelphia, seminary has challenged my deepest fears. It has led me into the darkest places of my uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety and challenged me to find the light within myself. It has taught me trust and unearthed within me the capacity for unsinkable hope and resilient courage.

5) I have been a heretic – I have written papers that would make my grandmother blush. I have explored my understanding of God in relation to sex, to abuse, to death, to feminism, to queerness, to vulnerability. I have fought with Calvin and told Augustine and Paul they need therapy. I have done slam poetry in church and read the bible in a bar. I have dared to search out the theology of impossible places and found out that, indeed, God is there too. I have fallen in love with this art of finding God in the unexpected and I have been encouraged by brilliant professors and classmates every step of the way.

6) I have felt cool – Don’t underestimate the value of this. I have gone through most of my life feeling irrevocably awkward and weird. I probably am. But here, I have found many of my quirks and much of my nerdiness embraced. I have talked Harry Potter for hours and geeked out over theology and liturgy. I have made many terrible jokes. And I have done it all in good, equally nerdy company. There is nothing like finding yourself embraced for precisely the things you are most insecure about. There is nothing like learning to define your own cool.

7) I have had lots of coffee and beer – Laugh all you want, but the truth is that some of the most significant conversations of my life have happened at 1 am at The Local or 7 am at JPs Java. Over beers I have shared my story with those who believe differently but want to understand. I have had debates and swapped legends and memories. Over drinks, I have forged relationships that have turned classmates and friends into family.

8) I have seen the church at its best and its worst – I have seen injustice in the name of lifeless polity. I have seen faith give way to bitter rigidness and ugly arguments. I have seen privilege win out and the marginalized remain invisible. I have felt angry and overwhelmed by all the ways the church is broken. But I have also stood hand in hand in prayer with those who are different from me. I have seen incredible growth and transformation happen where it seemed impossible. I have heard prophetic words preached. I have felt the Spirit move. And I have learned to love and have hope for this broken, beautiful thing we call church.

9) I have had amazing mentors – Let’s just be clear: none of the above would have happened without the guidance of amazing people who have come before me. Certainly professors, but also pastors who have nurtured me, and especially those queer colleagues of mine who blazed the trail that I now walk. They have shown me what integrity, courage, and faith look like. They have taught me what I am capable of and why it matters. My world is incredibly different because of their example. Now I get to blaze a trail for others to follow.

10) Perichoresis. – Obviously. Could there be a better term for the overlapping, close-knit, dramatic, chaos that is seminary than “mutually-indwelling?” It isn’t perfect, but it’s neither the perfections nor imperfections that make this place what it is. It’s that we’re all stuck together with all of it, shaping one another even as we love one another and hurt one another and annoy the heck out of one another. How can you not feel your own rhythm transforming and coming more alive, this close to so many other heartbeats?

There is so much more to say, it would take a lifetime to say it. But I’ve got ministry to do. So for now, let me end with this:

Thank you. And thank God.

 

Pretty much.

Pretty much.

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Jonah and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week: A sermon

**This sermon originally preached at Lytton Springs UMC in November 2013.**

 

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

—————————————–

Jonah was not having a good week. In fact, you might say that he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was about a boy named Alexander who was having just the sort of day that fits this long-winded, depressing description: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.

Reading about Jonah, I can’t help but remember Alexander and his bad luck. He wakes up with gum in his hair, chooses the cereal box with no prize, and winds up with plain old white sneakers when they don’t have the pair he wants in his size. He gets smushed in the middle during carpool, and his teacher likes his classmate’s picture of a sailboat but doesn’t like Alexander’s clever picture of the invisible castle. She tells him he sings too loud and forgot number 16 when they were counting. “Who needs sixteen?” He wonders indignantly.

This litany of unfortunate events leads Alexander again and again to the same conclusion: Arms crossed, frown firmly fixed, he huffs, “I think I’ll move to Australia.”

But by the end of the day, Alexander has resigned himself to a good night’s sleep and the possibility of a better tomorrow. His mom has convinced him that “some days are just like that, even in Australia.”

There is a lot in Alexander’s story that reminds me of Jonah, but here is where I think they are different. After all, the maladies that befall Alexander have happened to all of us at one time or another—some days really are just like that—as his mother says. But it is not every person who wakes up one day with a call from God to march into a city filled with violent, wicked, lawless people and tell them that God is going to annihilate them. For most of us—days aren’t really like that, but Jonah is a prophet—so for him, it’s just the beginning of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

Like gum in the hair and no prize in the cereal box, this command from God does not sit well with Jonah. Jonah would probably have been happy—on that fateful morning—to move to Australia. Instead he settles for Joppa—the opposite direction from Ninevah, the city to which God has sent him. From there, things only get worse.

The ship he barters passage on gets battered by a storm, and in an effort to spare as many lives as possible, his shipmates reluctantly toss him into the sea where he is promptly swallowed by an enormous fish. After three dark days in that piscine belly, he is vomited onto the shore and commanded once again to go to Ninevah and declare their impending doom. When he finally does it—marches into this city full of terrifying heathens and proclaims their annihilation—God changes God’s mind. God decides to spare the Ninevites when they repent.

Jonah is not pleased. He goes out to the desert to pout about this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week he’s had. He’s upset that after all he’s been through, the Ninevites are received with love and mercy by God and end up having a much better week then he has. It’s just not fair.

I have to say, I feel for Jonah. I get it. I would not be excited about this call from God. I would want to move to Australia. Or Joppa. Even, perhaps, the belly of a fish.

And I’ll tell you what—I would be mad and scared if I had run into a city telling everyone they were going to die because they were such terrible people and then that turned out not to be true.

But there is one thing I can empathize with about Jonah that I am more reluctant to say. See Jonah is upset after Ninevah is spared for a very particular and uncomfortable reason. During his temper tantrum out in the desert he says to God,

“‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah isn’t upset because of what he’s been through or because of whatever way the Ninevites might retaliate against him. He’s upset because God loves them. Just like he knew that God would. Nevermind that God has shown arguably even greater mercy to Jonah as he ran from his calling than these people who were immediately repentant. They are Ninevites! And now that they’ve repented they are family. But Jonah doesn’t like them.

It sounds so obnoxious – Jonah’s fury at God’s forgiving nature. But the truth is – I get it.

We talk a fair amount in our faith about the enemy. But I think sometimes the harder population to accept are the people we don’t like. The children of God who just annoy the heck out of us. Enemies can be this abstract, distant reality. And we don’t have to share table space with them. We don’t have to get along with them. But what about the friend of a friend who always makes passive aggressive comments to you? Or that man that [not so] subtly clarifies that he thinks you have no place in your job? Or that woman you know that cannot stop talking about herself and her problems?

It is sometimes hard to accept that God loves them too. It’s even harder to accept that God loves them just as much as God loves us.

It’s just not fair, is it? Except of course, we don’t believe in a God that’s fair. We believe in a God that is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. And even when it’s annoying, that can only ever mean one thing – that God loves the ones we don’t like. Loves them enough to spare them from just desserts. Loves them enough to want them at the table just as much as God wants us at the table.

The thing is, God sees these Ninevites in a way that Jonah just can’t. God sees past the things that so annoy Jonah. They are repentant; they are seeking the love of God. They are just human trying to be better than they have been. In this way, they are remarkably like Jonah. And remarkably like us. And so God loves them like God loves us.

This is hard stuff to accept. It makes me want to go pout in the desert. But it is who God has revealed Godself to be. Perhaps we could just roll our eyes and grudgingly say “okay, fine, whatever.”

But I think there are some deeper elements to our dissatisfaction that this story about Jonah is calling upon us to confront. Jonah is mad at God for showing exactly the kind of mercy to the Ninevites that God has already shown to Jonah.

God loves the ones we don’t like. And that is true even when the one we don’t like is us. God loves the parts of us we hate, the parts that scare us, the parts we wish God would just take away. God loves them. And so the pathway back to God is not about trying to suppress the parts of ourselves we don’t like – but learning how to see them with God’s eyes. With compassion and expectation and hope – rather than judgment.

And this is the other thing underlying our resistance to God’s all-encompassing love. We know it doesn’t stop with God. If we love and believe in God, then we are called to love who God loves. Maybe this is the hardest part.

Loving our enemy means not hating them. Trying to see them as people. Interacting with them justly.

But loving the one we don’t like? The one at the table whose lip-smacking drives us up the wall? What does that look like?

Maybe sometimes it means speaking truth to power. Maybe sometimes it means challenging their assumptions and calling out destructive behaviors. But it also means listening and being challenged. It means understanding that without them the kingdom of God is less than it should be and so are you. It means faith seeking understanding—not just of God, but of each other. And it means hurting when we are at odds and growing from their strengths when we would rather see them as weakness. It means believing in a better world and reality that is only possible because the people we don’t like are a part of it. It means rejoicing when God makes their day better than ours has been and better than we think it should be.

It means confronting those qualities in someone that kill us, and seeing the parts of ourselves that we’re afraid to see and knowing that God loves it all – loves it all. And because God has created and empowered us, we are capable of loving it all too and God expects to.

Even on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Even in Australia. In Tarshish and Joppa. In the belly of a fish. In Ninevah. Even right here. Right now. This moment.

Love in a way that drives you absolutely nuts. Even the one you don’t like. Even when the one you don’t like is you. And know that God does too.

This is the way to a better tomorrow.

To Eat At A Time Like This: A Holy Week Sermon

John 12:1-11

12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

——————————-

I never had the chance to see comedian Mitch Hedburg perform live. In fact, I never even wanted the chance. I’m something of an accidental fan of his. See, once, in college, my best friend Lila left a CD with 5 hours of Mitch Hedburg’s standup in my car CD player, and because I was lazy, it stayed in there for about 3 months straight. As a result, I have an absurdly in depth knowledge of Hedburg’s jokes and they always seem to pop into my head at rather strange times.

He has this one about waiting to be seated at a restaurant. He says:

When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it’s busy so they start a waiting list, they say, “DuFresnes, party of two, table ready for DuFresnes, party of two.” And if no one answers they’ll say the name again: “DuFresnes, party of two.” But then if no one answers, they’ll move on to the next name. “Bush, party of three.” Yeah, but what happened to the DuFresnes!? No one seems to care! Who can eat at a time like this!? People are missing. You people are selfish. The DuFresnes are in someone’s trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry. That’s a double whammy. We need help. “Bush, search party of three.” You can eat once you find the DuFresnes.”

Who can eat at a time like this?

Holy Week is a heavy time to be telling jokes from the pulpit. I know. But I have to admit that this is the joke that came to my mind and has stubbornly stayed there as I wrestled with this passage for today.

This story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with oil is a well-known one. Much has been said about the significance of her action. The dubious intentions behind Judas’ objections have been explored and examined and reexamined. And Jesus’ own powerful and foreboding words in this passage—“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”—have been debated about endlessly.

But when this story comes up in our Sunday lectionary, it is only the first 8 verses. It tells us that Jesus is attending a dinner thrown in his honor at the house of Lazarus—whom he so recently raised from the dead. But it stops short of telling us what’s going on outside of the house. The final three verses of our scripture today tell us that even while this party is debating about expensive perfume in the house of Lazarus, Jewish officials are plotting his death.

This changes things a bit for me, when it comes to reading this story. Generally, I get caught up on the often harmful way that Jesus’ words about the poor have been misconstrued. I roll my eyes at Judas even while I secretly question whether he may just have a point, after all. I chalk the whole thing up to another mysterious moment in the life of our strange Savior and I try to move on.

But this time around, as I read this story in its fuller context—my reaction changed. It all seems a little bit more ridiculous. Suddenly, arguing about oil and having some carefree meal seem so unimportant. I feel like I’m watching a scary movie and I’m screaming at the tv screen “don’t go in there!”

Don’t you know that people are plotting against all of you? Some of you are going to die! Forget the oil, forget the food! Who can eat at a time like this?

 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the longer version of this passage comes up every year on the Monday of Holy Week. The first few days of this week are a strange time. They occupy this liminal space between the subversive joy of Palm Sunday and all that is to come. It is hard for us to stay here, I think, in these inbetween days. They seem so unimportant in light of all that is going on around them. What message could they possibly have for us? Let’s get on with it already.

I think this story paints in sharp relief the ludicrousness of this whole week in the life of Christ. Because, yes, they do know that people are plotting to kill them—or at least Jesus does. It’s not a coincidence or dramatic irony that they have this party at Lazarus’ house even while his murder is being planned. It’s a choice.

The events of this passage technically occur before the entry into Jerusalem, but after the Jewish high priests have begun to plot against Jesus. In fact, Jesus retires to Ephraim for a moment, and this story—this stop off in Bethany for a party—is an interlude on his return to Jerusalem.

And just like that parade into town on a donkey was no coincidental act—but rather a profound statement. This meal too—with its petty disagreements turned life lessons—it also is act of subversive joy. There are forces bearing down on them, threatening to tear them apart and they choose to stay and celebrate their togetherness with a meal.

The sharing of table is a particular kind of fellowship—one that was a major component of Jesus’ ministry. There is a certain vulnerability in eating. No one looks pretty when they eat. Nobody looks proud or lordly. The act of eating is an expression of basic, vulnerable human need. To share in that vulnerability is an act of solidarity and genuine communion. And of course, this is particularly true for the one who takes on this human life with its human needs and human vulnerabilities just to be with us.

And here, I think, is the point.

 

I call this week ludicrous because at every moment the smarter thing may have been to lay low or to get out of town. But Jesus stays. Not in ignorance of what is coming, but in full recognition. And he stays profoundly. In full, shared vulnerability.

I mean this is it! This is what it’s all about for Jesus, isn’t it? Becoming human, all his teachings, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. It’s all about Christ choosing to stay with us. Come hell or highwater, come hunger, come death.

I think too, that it is about Jesus wanting us to choose to stay with each other as well. I think that is part of his conversation here with Mary and Judas. I think it’s why it matters that Lazarus too chooses to stay when his life is at risk. I think it’s why Jesus gets mad at the disciples in the garden. He wants us to stay with him, yes, but as long as he is with and for us, and certainly when he is no longer with us in body, staying with Christ must also mean staying with each other. In our hunger, in our thirst, in our arguments and in our vulnerabilities. He calls us to the table to be with him and with one another. It is, for him, a calling more important than any impending threat—even of death itself. It is not a story or a moment to be overlooked.

It is a powerful choice, a holy choice, to stay and eat together at a time like this.

This story—this party—is not the only meal, or even the most important meal, that Jesus will lead this week. But I think it matters that we stay here with it. I think it has important truth for us.

Because what this story reveals to us is that Jesus doesn’t just choose to stay with us on the cross or in the tomb. Jesus chooses to stay with us every second of this week. Every second of his life and of ours. Even the mundane moments that seem so unimportant. Even in the chaos of impending trouble. Over and over and over again, Jesus stays with us.

So let us stay here at this table. On this Monday in this big week. Let us stay with one another and with Christ and feel every moment. Let us look in the face of what’s coming and choose to stay and remember that Jesus chooses us, chooses to stay with us. Not just once. But all the time.

Thanks be to God.

The Bare Bones Question of Faith: A Sermon

(Originally preached for Cheapside Church on April 6, 2014)

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14
37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

37:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

——————————————————-

“Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel.

They’re standing in the middle of a dry and dusty valley. It is dark all around and the ground stretches on endlessly. Barren, soulless. And as far as the eye can see there are bones. Bones and bones and more bones. All of them bleached white and leached of every single drop of moisture. A wretched, forgotten, hapless graveyard. An indisputable lost cause. This is a wasteland. This is a place of no hope. Or so it would seem. But God has whisked Ezekiel away to show him this vision of a wide valley filled with bones. And not for nothing. God asks him:

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

This is a powerful passage. Indeed, it gives us one of the most striking images in the entire Bible. Whether we’ve heard this story once or a thousand times, it has probably stuck with us—such is its stand out nature.

And so when I first realized that this was the text I would preach on, I was pretty excited about the opportunity. And then I sat down to write my sermon and I found myself at a loss for words. What exactly do you say about God putting sinew and muscle and flesh and breath into an endless valley of dry, decayed, human bones? Wow?

And so I struggled to speak. I knew there was abundant and powerful truth to speak in this passage, but I was daunted by the call for me to speak it.

I am the sort of person, I suppose, who puts myself into the stories I read. And the more I struggled with this sermon, the more I found myself relating to Ezekiel in this text. I imagine, when he stands in this midst of this wasteland valley with God, and God’s ask him “Mortal, can these bones live?”—he is, at least momentarily, left speechless.

If it were me, I would certainly wonder if this was a trick question. Can these bones live? Are you kidding? It feels almost like adding insult to injury that God starts the question with a reference to the very finite nature of Ezekiel’s humanity. Mortal, God calls him—or more directly translated “Son of man”—just before asking him if fargone mortal bones can transcend their mortality and live again.

Ezekiel plays it safe—at least as safely as it can be played. “O Lord, you know,” he defers, with just a tad bit of snark.

And God does know. So why, I found myself wondering over and over again as I wrestled with this text, why does God even bother to ask? Why bring Ezekiel to this valley? Why show him this wasteland of bones? Why ask him the question and why tell him to prophesy? And why share any of it with us?

This is a God who can create a world in seven days and destroy it with a flood. This is a God who can part seas and speak in burning bushes. What need does this God have for us to participate in the work of resurrection?

God doesn’t need our answer or our participation. God is creating and recreating life. But God asks us anyway. “Mortals, can these bones live?”

The safe answer, I guess, is “O Lord, you know.”

But the truth, I think, is that God wants to know that we know. This question posed to Ezekiel and now in this moment posed to us, is a question of faith. Do we know? Do we believe? Will we dare to speak it? Can these bones live?

God asks Ezekiel about these bones and commands him to prophesy for exactly the same reason God created life in the first place. God desires relationship. Perhaps God doesn’t need us, but God wants us. God wants us to believe—in God, in resurrection, in hope beyond hope, in the world made new.

This story reveals to us just how committed God is to being in relationship with us. God can raise up a valley of bones—no problem. But God wants to share that miracle with Ezekiel. God wants Ezekiel to be a part of that good work. God could start over from scratch, leave those bones to turn to dust and create anew. But instead God chooses to stay with God’s people and raise them up. God could forget the body entirely, but God chooses messy human incarnation and resurrection full of sinews and flesh.

This is the God who will not let us go, not one inch of us, even in the valley of death. The same God who chooses to be with us in Christ. Who chooses to die for us rather than forget us in our brokenness. This is the God who chooses messy human life, and messy human death, and messy human resurrection just to be with us.

What a powerful truth. It’s enough to make your bones rattle.

We are not dead. We are not bones parched and white. But neither are we strangers to valleys and shadow. The dry dusty places of death are a part of life. And the message of this text today is that even there God is with us, raising us up, making us new, daring us to have faith and speak.

This past week I attended a conference called NEXT Church in Minneapolis. This is fairly young event in the Presbyterian Church, started four years ago by pastors from around the country who wanted to dream together about the future of the church. They had grown tired and frustrated by the constant despairing talk about the church’s imminent death. They had, in a sense, found themselves in a space that had been declared a valley of dry bones. A lost cause. And they weren’t content to stand and watch in silent vigil, waiting for God to work around them. They felt, these pastors who started this dreaming place for the church, that God was asking something of them.

“Mortals, can these bones live?”

And they said yes. And for the last few years they have come together to prophesy and to dream of the new life that might enter old bones of the church. It is not a perfect place or a new heaven. It is still a valley. This past week during a worship service at that same conference, all gathered named aloud their fears and troubles—the dry bones of faith inside them. And from within the very heart of those fears, God was at work—creating new life and new hope in the rubble. Hope and resurrection aren’t things that belong to some other world or some perfect place. They belong to the valley itself, because even there God is with us. Choosing us.

Every year, by the end of summer, the fields around this church have gone dry and wilted in the heat. It is hard, on those hot, lifeless days, to believe that even then new life is stirring beneath the ground. We doubt, we sweat, we languish in the deadly Texas swelter. But always, sooner or later, life blossoms anew in this field with a celebration of flowers.

Today we are in the shadowy valley of Lent. The cross looms ever closer. But so does something greater. If we listen, we can hear the bones rattling, daring us to believe in the God who never lets us go. The God who wants us to be a part of God’s amazing work. The God who remains with us in the dark valleys of life and even beyond the grasp of death. The God who makes beautiful things out of dust and out of us. The God who is making all things new.

Those bones, they are rattling for us. Do you believe it? Will you dare to speak it? To prophesy to that holy, impossible truth and watch them raise?

Mortals, can these bones live?

Called to the Holy Inbetweens: Reflecting on what’s NEXT for me

Just over three years ago, I found myself at the prospective students’ weekend at Austin Seminary. I was having the rare and exceptional experience of feeling absolutely certain that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I didn’t know then that 6 months later—about a week after starting my M.Div—I would come out as bisexual. I didn’t know that I would leave the congregation that raised me to seek ordination in a less personally conflicted environment. I didn’t know that I would suddenly feel like a stranger and outcast in a church that had always felt like home.

But when I showed up for worship the first morning at this week’s NEXT Church conference and learned that our primary scripture for the week was Jeremiah 29—

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare

–my first thought was—this is my story.

My path to ministry has been filled with amazing moments and people, but it has also been filled with challenge and doubt and fear. Coming out confused things in a way I never could have predicted and made me rethink where exactly it was that I felt called to. At my most frustrated points, I nearly determined to leave the church behind entirely and stick to something simpler and less conflicted.

And then I went up for candidacy, and I told a room full of people from Mission Presbytery how church had always been home for me and how I believe everyone should get to feel that way and far too many people in this world don’t get to because they’ve been cast out, rejected, exiled. Afterwards, many people—strangers and trusted friends alike—asked me to please stay in the church so that I could keep speaking those important words. And so I did.

A few months later, I attended a service at my home church for the first time since coming out publicly. It was Lessons and Carols, and I watched as the service was led by people I had known my whole life. People who had grounded my faith and taught me to believe that I am beloved by God. I was filled with joy and gratitude even as I knew that many in that room weren’t sure what to think of me now. I could not help but love them. At the same moment, I suddenly thought of my family of choice—a community of queer Christians and allies who have guided me these past few years as I struck out into new and scary territory. And I was filled with love and gratitude for them too. I laughed out loud, because here in my head and my heart in that moment were two groups of people who probably wanted nothing to do with each other—but they were connected anyway, because I loved them and belonged to them both. I found myself thinking about God, who stands in the middle of every person in this world who wants nothing to do with other people and just laughs out loud, and knows we’re all connected anyway because God loves us and we belong to Her.

It occurred to me then that maybe my call wasn’t somewhere out there—in some perfect place where everyone’s story matches mine and we’re all just alike. Maybe my call is right where I am—at the awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful inbetweens of communities that don’t know how to be connected but are anyway.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

For a first-timer, NEXT can be a bit overwhelming. There is a whole lot crammed into those few days. I saw old friends who I’ve met on this journey to ministry and I got to spend time with some of the great people from Chicago and Fourth Presbyterian where I am headed this August to be the new Pastoral Resident. I know I learned about creative worship, and biblical storytelling, and how to have crucial conversations, and failing well, and being a better race ally, and that justice will build the church. And these are important things that will inform my ministry for a long time to come.

But those things weren’t what struck me most. What struck me most was a contemplative service we had on the second day. We were asked to write down the tumult that was inside of us at that moment. And then the worship leaders read our prayers aloud as we all came down to light candles. The prayers were heavy and most of them were about fear for the future, and isolation and loneliness, and bitterness and burnout, and uncertainty. Maybe hearing these prayers from a room full of pastors shouldn’t have made me feel good. But it did.

Because I am still afraid of what’s next. Recognizing that I feel called to the inbetweens and the tensions is powerful—but it is also terrifying. During that prayer service, I realized that there was space in that room and in this church for my fears. That indeed, hope is not born in the absence of fear or doubt but rather when we come together and carry our fears and our brokenness and share them and hold each other’s vulnerability, and then courageously dare to dream together of what could be.

That room, where for 3 days we worshipped and learned and dreamed together—it too was an inbetween space. And the church it represents is an inbetween space. It lives in the tension of what has been and what’s next, of failure and success, of justice and not being just enough, of queer and straight, of fear and hope. It is a holy inbetween, and there are good people there. Our stories are different but we are learning how to be connected. We are grinding it out where we are. We are finding new uses for the broken shards.

So yes coming out of NEXT I am feeling scared and hopeful at the same time. I am feeling again the exhilarating certainty that I am exactly where I’m called to be. I want to be in that room and this church for the rest of my life.

I am building a house there. In that holy inbetween to which I have been sent. I am living in it with these good people. And you know what?

It feels like home.