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.