to my friend, who is coming out

I sent this letter to my friend about a week before the DOMA decision came down. In the week or so since I have had the go-ahead to publish it, I’ve kept it close, hoping I had the right motives, and wondering what friends – in all parts of the country and the political/religious spectrum – would think of it. In the end, I cannot do very much to determine whether you read this post with grace. I only know that I do not want my friend to be alone anymore.

I lit a blue candle for you at an interfaith Pride service last week. I needed to pray with my body.

It wouldn’t have been the place for you in some ways, with vague references to a benign force, possibly named God, who seemed mostly to exist to affirm US and our IDENTITIES and our PRIDE! I thought of you and me, iron sharpening iron, trying to learn from one another the passé art of humility.

But in some ways, it was beautiful, complex, justice-seeking and, so important, safe and affirming. And so I wished you were there.

Because you are coming out, and though this will not subsume all your many other layers, it will be a turning point. It will shape the next episode of your becoming. It has already shaped mine. It will be hard for you, and I hope soon I can literally stand with you – and the multicolored family your lot has been thrown in with – and say you are loved. you are whole.

You are whole, and you are stronger than anyone could have known, and you are deep, wise, and gracious. That is why I can – and that is why I must – have my own baby-coming-out and say also, I support you.

What a silly thing to have to say to a friend. Even friends with troubles and strange opinions, I don’t tell them “I support them”. I love them, and I love you.

But, there it is anyway: I support you and I am glad for who you are. And I support whatever decisions you make. You are a good decision-maker.

I live in two places, and I live in between, and I live outside of both. I know, I really do, how it feels not to belong anywhere. We ended up in an American culture that is strangely intolerant of nuance and grace. If people think you are slightly wrong, they will let you know that you are very, fatally wrong. You and I have always occupied this inhospitable in-between, everyone thinking we are wrong, and this will not change for you. Not ever.

Because if you are celibate, many of the only people who know your struggle will turn on you. They will call you a sellout and a tease. They will tell you to go home to the Bible-thumpers.

And even though I know, between your beliefs and your personality, that your love life would be very, very far from the “promiscuous lifestyle” some would expect from you, it might not matter much; if you have a family, many of the people who claim to love you will still put sorrow in place of the joy they express for everyone else. They will call you a sinner and a destroyer. They will talk about you behind your back saying things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and commence hating the thing they just defined you by. They will tell you to go home to the gays.

Being who you are is not a sin.

Nothing that truly defines you is wrong.

I will not tell you what to do. I do not know what you and God have been saying to each other lately, or how you think about the Bible these days, or which parts of it the Spirit has brought out and said, these are for you. I only know that you follow Jesus with your own quiet intensity.

I do not know your dreams for a future love, or who you will fall in love with, or when, or what that will mean for you. I only know that you are special, and you could make someone else terribly happy, and loneliness is not a virtue.

I only know that you will always be family. Whatever you do will be hard in its own way, and I will do all that I can to make it easier. You know how I want to live in a commune? I will be neighbor. I will be aunt to your children.

Do I sound too much like a mother? I know this all comes from a place of great privilege. But all I know to do with privilege is to tell the world I don’t want it. We are all struck with equal, unpredictable, terrible force by genius and love, by disaster and disease. Why make it any harder on any specific group of people? The world is changing at a pace which, when we are truly honest, terrifies us all. Why blame others for our fear?

I write you a letter. I hope you do not feel used. I must admit that I see your face and speak to you, but imagine a great many others who might read this. Some will tell me that I must pick a side; that I must stand for The Family or for Progress, for Civil Rights or for The Bible. Perhaps only a few will understand the region, the culture, and the generation you and I share, which have complicated your past and your future so.

And that is why I will not pick a side. Because this is not an issue. This is not an abstract question of philosophy. This is your life, and I am on your side, and I cannot imagine what you have already experienced so how could I dare to try to convince you? We have talked about “the others like you” – stuck in these in-between spaces. They will not all agree. But I am on their side as well. I stand with you; with laws and attitudes and policies that free you to make your own decisions just as I do. Of course we all have responsibilities to ourselves, our partners, and our communities, to make decisions – sometimes hard decisions – about what it means to be our sexual selves. May we all do so with humility, with discipline, with the guidance of others, with our traditions and scriptures, with self-giving love for our partners, and above all, with hearts and bodies attuned to the winsome whispers of Holy Spirit.

I am very, very proud to know you. Maybe that is what Pride means to me; not that we use our own pride to prop ourselves up, like cardboard cutouts pretending to be autonomous, but that we learn to see all that is extraordinary about each other’s stutter-steps toward life, toward humanity. Remember, when your struggle becomes monotonous and it feels like a children’s book or a farce, that your story will always read to me like an epic.

May you, gay, truly yourself and vulnerable before the world, find yourself surrounded by all the love and grace and acceptance that you, hiding, “straight”, have found in all the pockets of Christ’s kingdom where you’ve nestled. May you always find a way into messy family, mysterious Church, into all-loving triune God.



when more is not enough

“The economics that Christian hospitality seeks to embody, then, is marked by abundance, surplus, excess, and surprise.”
-Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality

Abundance! Surplus! Excess! Surprise! You could make a song of it; the list rolls off the tongue with ease. It sounds beautiful and hopeful and you want to rush out and invite everyone to a feast.

Maybe you start a food pantry, and you say you have faith that God will provide the plenty. You stock your shelves, open the doors, and prepare to welcome God’s precious children with a smile.

And then an ocean of need crashes in and floods your little store room of food. God’s precious romanticized children are just as broken and ugly as you are, and as you stand exhausted in the quickly-empty closet all your faith looks like wishful thinking; you discover that plenty is an illusion and there will never, ever be enough.

What is enough?

All the nonprofits, all the discussions about poverty, we talk about getting the poor to be like us. If only they could join The Middle Class, we say, then we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about them; then they would have a future; then they would have enough.

All the world worships the middle class, don’t they? Politicians wouldn’t dare not to pay homage. Sitcoms about normal life take place in the suburbs. Advertisers and credit cards offer sacrifices to anyone with just enough to consume a little thoughtlessly. And that is, indeed, how we identify them, the successful-enough, the middle class: by what they consume.

Why, then, the indignation when food pantry clients show off brand-new Nikes? Why act surprised when food stamp dollars go to expensive Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, when Tide becomes a street currency, when too-new cars park outside the Near East Side’s dilapidated rental units?

These are the markers of success. Of enough.

Meanwhile the do-gooders, the nonprofits, the bleeding hearts, the Church, and I rush to give people more, more, more. If only they had more, we think, they would have happier families, healthier bodies, they would leave the gangs and get savings accounts. Then they could get all the things that I can get.

But it is a pipe dream. We are standing in empty closets. There is never more; always scarcity. We despair.

I submit, though, that we despair only because we base our assessment of human well-being on market assumptions. We believe a certain amount of money is necessary for happiness, for freedom, for healthy families and healthy bodies, for virtues like hospitality and generosity and patience, and even for the “luxury” of seeking God. And we believe we are better off the more we are able to consume.

Click through to the story

Beans in a Ugandan offering plate. Photo by Ann Voskamp

The question remains. How much money is really enough money?
Enough to live on. Enough for rent and blankets and rice, beans, seasonal vegetables and the occasional can of tuna fish. That is more than billions have.

My food stamps, though they are labeled “supplemental assistance,” have been quite sufficient. They are enough for someone to eat a healthy variety who knows how to cook and how to shop. So which empowers the poor more – to dole out more money for frozen chicken nuggets at $8/pound, or to teach someone to make a simple chicken stir-fry for themselves at a fraction of the cost? Why are dollars for convenience foods a human right, but not the satisfaction of creating something from scratch? Why not the meditative rhythm of cooking, that ancient human act? Why not food that is made from food that is made from earth, rather than food made in laboratories?

Of course it is easier to hike up the payments than to teach such skills and hope for such intangible goods. Of course, if you ask them, people will grab for the money in a culture where consumption constitutes the good life.

We think we are countering that culture when we ask the middle class to give to the poor. But too often we are only operating from within, and perpetuating, the myth that money can solve any problem.

We will only counter that culture when we look at what we have and declare it enough! We will never discover abundance until we reach for contentment. We have taken on the wrong assignment if we count success as satisfying consumers before making disciples. And we are guilty of a deadly pride if we think only the bourgeois should be generous, contented, joyful people.

When we burst out thanksgiving over all that is already here, when we delight in the boxes of pasta before us, when we learn to celebrate every moment, every day that the Lord has made; and when we carry burdens for one another, when we give ourselves – not just our tithes – when we cherish one another as family and forget we could ever ask for anything more. That will be God’s kingdom coming, God’s people feasting, all giving, receiving, teaching, learning in a rhythm of shared contentment.

There is an abundance of food in the pantry, if none take more than they need.

There is a surplus of opportunities to help others.

There is an excess of God’s grace and sustaining power for the hurting and the weary.

And the surprise is there’s no income threshold for learning, believing, and living in the hospitality of God.

Joining with The Despised Ones for a synchroblog: Justice, Solidarity, and the American Dream.

who loves us

Last night at supper, a friend: “All the debates between conservative and progressive Christians are really about one thing: is our faith primarily a matter of what we believe, or of what we do?”

He’s right. In matters of life and policy, from resource distribution to personal conduct to teaching on doctrine, the battles over the Church’s priorities and positions are often a tug-of-war. Will the flag fall behind the line of adherence to the Bible and tradition, or on the side of action to improve the world we share with others?

“I have memorized the Bible,” says one, “but I have done more good,” says another. “Because my way is orthodox,” says one; “Because my way is fair and nice,” says the other. “Let us submit to an authority,” says one; “Let us strike out with boldness,” says another.

One defines a Christian by a list of inviolable beliefs and tends to personal holiness based on those unyielding beliefs, with little regard for the cries of a hurting world. The other defines a Christian by a list of actions, orthodoxy and personal choices secondary to feeding the hungry and fighting for justice.

Both of them sound to me like exhausting exercises in missing the point. Infinite hours of debate and conversation will never draw the two closer to one another; they sit on a seesaw rocking on a fulcrum of pride.

Our faith is neither a matter of “what we believe” or of “what we do.” It is a matter of whom we love.

Believing things and doing things are projects. They require work and striving and scorekeeping.  Knowing and loving God is a way of being. A way of seeing. A way of resting. It can be done by children and sinners.

Do not tell me what you believe. Do not tell me what you have done. Speak to me of events unspeakable, of the thunderous waves of God’s presence. Tell me about the whispers of God’s face where you have seen her among the stars and beneath tall trees. Read me out the words that gave you peace when all seemed lost. I have no use for your arguments and reasons, the definitions you have so carefully wrought. I want to know about the times when you felt small – the quiet certain moments when you knew that you knew nothing, but there was peace.

I will not live and die for what I believe. I will not live and die for what needs done. I will live and die for God who has captured my heart, who has taught me of my infinite worth and is leading me ever deeper into humility. The closer we get to God the better we see what he sees – the better we walk with the rhythm of his ever-giving heart. The oftener we return to the ocean, the better we remember we are not so big.

Sink into prayer, ask to find more of God, and there she will be; do not be afraid. She will be wild and terrible in the stories of Scripture; she will be dirty, raw in the depths of poverty; she will be wide, soft, and loving in the fragmented mirror of a Church reflecting her on its better days; but always she will show you more yourself, sanding down the edges of you that weren’t meant to be. It will hurt. Do not abandon those places. Do not say she wasn’t there.

Chase God; follow Jesus; seek the leadership of Holy Spirit; and you will be caught by love, and you will love. You will believe when it is hard. You will act when it seems impossible. You will know every day how strong every one of us is connected, and you will learn ever deeper how every smallest action creates or destroys, sways the world – and you will not say any matter in our lives is not important to God. You will tremble with rage in the face of injustice, and you will not be still, but you will act for the poor and brokenhearted because you can do no other.

And when you tire of personal discipline, or of wrestling with faith and doctrine, or of working always for justice, you will hear him calling you to come and be. Rest a while. You will look back and discover you had believed aright and acted with courage, but it was because God called you into those things to show you more of himself.

Then, when someone wants to argue with you, takes offense at your actions or questions your beliefs, perhaps you will not tug the rope but will pull yourself along it; and when you reach the other side perhaps you will join hands in silent prayer. And when you open your eyes perhaps you will find you each see the other anew.


crowds are made up of people

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

I never noticed the crowd before.

I always thought Jesus just raised the widow’s son because he had nothing better to do. Because he knew he was supposed to, maybe. Because it was his job.

But this is different. Jesus had very important things to do – he was leading a crowd to a town! They must have been jostling, talking, kids running around, people asking questions – “Rabbi!’ “Rabbi!” – with the disciples there, too, blundering about in all their earnestness like always.

If I were leading a crowd somewhere, we would give a funeral a wide berth. People died all the time. People died young all the time. There was no reason for the two crowds to meet.

Jesus, though – Jesus didn’t see a funeral. He didn’t see a crowd. He saw one woman, whose last hope for a family had been stripped from her. He watched her replaying scenes from her son’s life, helpless to stop reliving a happiness she would never know again.

And he had compassion on her. And he stopped. And he gave him back to his mother. Did he even think about what chaos must have ensued?

Zacchaeus couldn’t see over the crowd, but he didn’t go home. The professional in his suit and tie climbed a tree instead; and it must have been a relief to be invisible for a while.

Why did Jesus stop? Didn’t Zacchaeus have some fairly first-world problems? The text doesn’t say what made him single out the sinner in the tall tree; but we know he was always looking, searching out people in pain, people who sought him, people whose sin was bearing down hard on them. The Spirit has a way of calling attention to the people on the edges.

Jesus and crowds have a strange relationship. He alternately has compassion on them and feeds them, alienates them with his weird teachings, confuses them on purpose with impenetrable stories, weeps for them, shows vague disdain and disinterest in them, tries to get away from them, is worshipped by them, seems wearied by them, blesses their children.

This used to confuse me. But my own life has become much more crowded in the past year as an “adult”. I have a larger network of shallower relationships than I used to. Graduation expands one’s peer group vastly. And I live and work near the middle of a city, surrounded by crowds and interacting regularly with hundreds of people experiencing various levels of poverty.

It is exhausting.

Now I get Jesus’ ministry a lot more than I used to, and I’m also more intimidated by it, because even though it’s wiser, it’s not any easier. It’s not easy to let the crowd be and say and do what they will while you minister to one person at a time.

How did he stay open to these individuals’ needs, to their pain, when the needs and follies and demands of the crowd are so blindingly overwhelming?

And how did he so often stand against the crowd… precisely because of his love for the crowd?

I don’t often know; I rarely feel that I succeed. Sometimes circumstances absolutely prevent me from spending any time on the more intimate relationships that make this work worthwhile. And sometimes I follow the crowd in the wrong direction because I just can’t fight the current anymore.

But I find myself looking harder for the lost and lonely, for the rock-bottomers and the desperate-for-a-glimpse tree-sitters. I find myself throwing away efficiency and the crowd’s demands to reinstate compassion, following my heart when it goes out from me to offer the unbusinesslike moment of rest, the hand on the shoulder, the gift of my full attention.

And when it is still all too much, when I get overwhelmed or make mistakes or need to get away, there is the friend, the phone call, the timely Scripture or the whisper of the Spirit bearing rest, and I see Jesus walking through the crowd toward me.


On Good News

I am becoming more and more skeptical of models and movements for church and growing the church. Some say small groups are the answer; some say the church must become outwardly focused; some insist we only need to preach enough love or enough social justice or enough good theology; some are still trying to plan better events.

But I just don’t think there is a magic potion for making disciples, and that, after all, is what I hope we mean by “growing the church”. I think the fact of the matter is, discipleship, following Christ, is just not all that sexy. There is a difference between “what people want” and what they really long for, deep in the cavities of their insides they’re afraid to acknowledge; which is why it’s generally fruitless to attract people with coffee and comfy chairs. And I’m grossly uncomfortable with the idea that a truly “missional” or “seeker-friendly” church will discard all the normal church distinctives in favor of the culture’s norms. There is something sacred about every church’s language and family rituals; you can never eliminate the distinction between “in” and “out”.

In the end, there’s just no getting around the fact that a person’s conversion from non-church-person to growing, praying, loving, committed member of Christ’s body is a sloooooooow process. Double the o’s there if the person is my age. The process will probably be punctuated by moments of clarity or decision, but those may be far between and unpredictable.

I hope though, that I am clear: I’m not trying to be discouraging; I care very much about evangelism and hospitality; I think we can and should invite others into life with God. But as I puzzle over how to do this, in a real live church in one of the nation’s most secular cities, I’m coming to the conclusion that a lot of the plans and strategies and “movements” are
A) unbalanced, and/or
B) trying to circumvent two of the most foundational and difficult steps in the process of making that invitation.

The first is being a disciple yourself. One of the many vexing and beautiful paradoxes of Christianity is that this life, lived abundantly as Jesus lived it, is so often full of deep joy and great sorrow in the same breath. So few are willing to live in either of those realities, shying away from God’s fierce, breathtaking love as well as the pain that obedience to him so often brings. But you cannot ask others to believe something you haven’t bought into yourself; if you are a Christian, be all the way Christian. Dive deep into God.

The second might sound overly simplistic, but I (re-)learned it from a bunch of socialists (community organizers), not from church. It is: talk to your friends about themselves and God. Ask them questions. Be genuinely curious, and be willing to wait out the answers. We’re always afraid we’re making people uncomfortable, but I think most people are receptive to someone asking them the courageous questions in a spirit of love. It’s not threatening to ask a friend for their story, to just say “What do you think about God” or “What have your experiences in church been like”. But it’s a risk to ask and a risk to answer. People should feel safe with you – and that requires you to be bravely vulnerable with them.

No one is looking for another thing to add to their schedule, another place to hone their skills at pretense, or another expectation they can’t measure up to. But they do want to belong, to trust, to find grace, and maybe even something to sacrifice for. Are Christ’s followers showing the way to those things? Or the way to a comfy chair?

On dancing with the rich and the poor

The kingdom of God is a dance party, after all. I’m surprised.

Because I have never doubted that I have seen heaven, and heaven is the library in Beauty and the Beast. It is blue, white, and gold, with sunshine pouring in and your pick of poofy chairs. It is big enough to have earnest, intellectual conversations without disturbing the other members of heaven readers. In the evenings you have dinner and participate in a choreographed musical revue.

Never once have I hoped that the kingdom of God would be a warm room becoming ever more stifling with the heat of all kinds of strangers moving to some mediocre music – until now.

I spent the weekend at the United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio at a conference on “building a multicultural, multiclass church”. If you are like me and think this sounds way too abstract and touchy-feely, focus on the “building a church” phrase. The multiclass church is the center for all kinds of ministry to/with the urban poor.

Our group learned about how to give away clothes and organize leaders, how to teach nutrition and prepare to write grants. Which was all very helpful and interesting, but the church itself was captivating. From the moment I walked in, I hurt from missing Havenplace, how life-giving and faith-challenging it is to really know your neighbors from the wrong side of things, because I saw that family again, here in Ohio. We came in the door and found a tiny grey-haired woman blocking our path: “I’m Darlene, and I’m the hugger for this weekend.” She was like the opposite of a bouncer, making sure you knew you were included. You were in. Are you “all people”? You belong.

That’s the kind of hospitality the place is built on. There’s something about accepting everyone, and doing it together, that builds on itself. You get bit with something when you start to experience the joy of approaching everyone as a gift, whether they like it or not. And when everybody knows there’s enough to go around, a culture of hospitality is unstoppable.

So when Eileen stood up at Open Mic and said, “teaching Robert is my greatest accomplishment,” I don’t know why I expected Robert to be some kind of virtuoso. I should have known that Robert’s simple ability to hit all the notes of a song would be enough for celebration and the backup singer would support him without overpowering and it would not be beautiful like a diva’s superhuman aria, but for how very human it all was. Robert’s voice was nothing special and the food we were served was nothing special and having a “hugger for the weekend” sounds really cheesy, looking back on it, but love made it wonderful. Love made me not want to leave.

I think that’s why I only dreaded the impending dance party until it actually started, and then I knew it was covered with that same love. I don’t like to dance the way I don’t like to say how I feel, or actually I don’t like to feel, because I’m not in control. The hokey-pokey, maybe, where you can follow instructions one limb at a time and you won’t be doing it wrong. But when you know you’re accepted, and everyone else in the room looks kind of silly too, and there is no wrong, then you find yourself being honest – moving when you want to move.

So Billy pulled uncertain me out on the floor and we danced, everyone together, because there was music and joy to be had, there in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Columbus. And somehow it wasn’t a denial of all that was wrong and hurting there. It was recognizing that there is still much to be thankful for; that the world doesn’t stop because of job loss or storms; that being satisfied is about having enough, and in one evening a dinner and a dance is about all anyone could ask for. There’s a kind of defiance about not needing more.

I don’t mean to idealize the Church for All People. I’m quite certain it has its share of politics, workaholics, incorrigible committee members, budget strife, goof-offs and leeches; and more than its share of troublemakers and naysayers and “urban challenges” (let that be a euphemism for what you will). But it was founded to be a place where the hungry could become the fed, where alcoholics could become recoverers, where the proud could be humbled and the humble lifted up, where the formerly incarcerated could become truly free. And I, a wallflower, became a dancer.

on knowing and being known

The hallway can get crowded on Fridays with people packing up bags and boxes and socializing after they shop. I raise my voice a little over the hubbub.
“Sonny, could you pass that cart behind you over this way?”
Five or six heads turn to look at me and Sonny breaks into a grin.
“Did you hear that? She remembers my name!”

Much as I love seeing everyone smiling, inside my heart drops. I haven’t performed a spectacular feat of memory; Sonny and I introduced ourselves to each other 10 minutes ago before we walked through the pantry together. In his happy exclamation, what I really hear is an indictment of the systems that shuffle Sonny and other community members through a rotating door of forms and numbers. I hear a longing to be recognized as an individual human being, not a member of the mass called “the poor”.

I am a big-picture person. I like efficiency and organizing things strategically. I want to know how to improve the system, how to create widespread change, where to put resources for maximum impact on real-life circumstances. But ultimately, that approach on its own is destined to fail, because relational and spiritual needs, so bound up with physical ones, don’t fit into its spreadsheets. Systems and strategies can deliver faster service and smarter budgets, but they don’t make more of humanity. George Buttrick writes:  “Life itself seems to insure that mass pressure shall splinter again into its units. Real conversations are not stereotyped. Artistry is an individual gift. Thoughts are intimate. Memory is essentially personal. Love knows its own. Prayer is selfhood aflame – the more itself because it is lost in God: at Pentecost every man was heard speaking ‘in his own language.’ In this wide realm where separateness reigns, people are valued not only because they are like, but more because they are unlike: friends are dear for their idiosyncrasies of gesture and thought… It is a rule that ignorance and indifference see men in the mass, while knowledge and love resolve the mass into remembered friends. The Good Shepherd ‘calleth his own sheep by name.’”

“Social justice” has become such a buzzword for me in the past few years that I have divorced it from its real beginning and end: the love of God. And in the process, I lose sight of the deeply personal nature of love, and of true justice. I imagine that my responsibility is to “contribute” in some way, but not to offer myself as a neighbor, as a friend. It is easy to take a similar approach to student ministry – to focus on getting a certain number of people in the door without taking time to simply appreciate those people once they get here. The hard work of relationships is not efficient, not measurable, not a cause-and-effect chain; it is slow and uncertain to a degree the system’s spreadsheets would calculate out as absurd.

It’s also not optional. We have to care for whole people, and the massive investment that takes requires all of us to commit to making these “others” part of our lives. But this is the mystery of God’s economy: when we start doing that, we might find that it is the first time we’ve started to care for ourselves as whole people, with relational and spiritual needs nothing else can fulfill.

oh dear

In an interview today, one of my interviewers mentioned that “we don’t want to proselytize, just make friends with people and get to know them…” This is completely understandable; on a list of “horrible things that should never be done,” a lot of people would rank “proselytizing” just below “pushing strangers in front of subway cars”. However, the word “proselytize” just means “try to convert someone to one’s religion”, which is something I still plan to do. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think people would be better off if they knew Jesus.

This is not to say I don’t understand the aversion to proselytizing as it’s been done by Christians in the past (the past being the last few minutes before now), my chief image of which is people handing out those baby New Testaments with Psalms and the Pledge of Allegiance (I am not making that up, go find one and look at it). Now, I love the New Testament and Psalms and the Pledge of Allegiance as much as the next redheaded blogger, and I truly believe those baby Bibles have done a lot of good. But as a strategy for winning people over, I see some problems with them:

1. Blind people might have a special understanding of dependence on the Lord, but I think it’s kind of cruel to induce blindness on people we don’t know. I mean for real, why are they SO tiny? Are we trying to make people believe that it’s an easy read? Like,hey, this book is so small, it’s snack sized, I’ve got half an hour… Or have we read too many of those Civil War stories about bullet-halting pocket Bibles? I guess the pocket thing is an important consideration, but in real life, at least if you’re a girl, you’ve still got to be wearing some serious cargo pants to really tote that thing around easily. Maybe someone should develop a holster so we can all keep our tiny Bibles on our belts next to our pagers.

2. It’s disingenuous. Not as bad as those fake-tip tracts, but still, it’s a pretty heavy-duty text to foist on an unsuspecting stranger without explanation, even if it wasn’t in the King James. But I’ll accept the argument that they’re supposed to get all intrigued and go to church and be all welcomed and their questions answered – I still submit that it’s disingenuous. This is because the vast majority of the New Testament and Psalms is fairly appealing – yeah, there’s the occasional imprecatory, but it’s mostly all hey you’re a sinner but you probably knew that, however God loves you!!!! And that’s super fantastic. That’s the heart of the message. But what about the other stuff? Last night I read in Numbers about God swallowing a bunch of his own people INTO THE EARTH for suggesting a more democratic form of government. Can I admit that I don’t get that? Can I please for one second put aside all the journal articles and Hebrew study I’m supposed to tackle this with and just say, WHAT.
I don’t think we can leave these things out, like here, try our religion, there’s nothing in it that’s totally bat-sh*t crazy! As well as all that is good and beautiful and true in the Old Testament, the whole beginning of the story, the part where there is God before there are Christians. It’s important. But it’s also much, much older than the New Testament, it’s a narrative and not an essay, it takes work and trying and, like, research, and most importantly, community to start to understand what it’s really saying about God’s family and what it means to belong there.

3. The Pledge of Allegiance is seriously not a holy text.

If that’s our picture of proselytizing (or “witnessing”, as we who hate syllables like to call it), then no, I don’t want to do it. Making friends with people and getting to know them, however, is something I definitely want to do, just because I want to know the image of God. I want to tell my friends my story and listen back to theirs. I want to be able to look at them and say, there are things I don’t understand about this, but this is still the safest and truest place I’ve ever been. I want to still be there when they have questions, not off handing a Bible to someone else. I want to pray for them, alone and together, because that’s what Jesus did, that’s what it means to be a Christian, that’s what we do when we need God, which is all the time. I don’t really want to engage in any one activity that could be labeled “trying to convert someone to one’s religion,” and yet I hope that it is impossible for me to refrain from doing that. Because I want to introduce Jesus to people, every day, and by some unimaginable act of grace I’m starting to think that means introducing myself to them.

i am not the good news

“This might feel a little junior high, but could you all just… join hands right now?”

YES SIR, I think, thrilled at what he is saying, I’ve been waiting so long for a worship leader to ask me to acknowledge the others in the room, he’s saying how we are the body of Christ and if this were an amen-saying church I’d be shouting amen. But a half-second later I realize the only people on this row, near the door, behind a pillar, are me and the only other single girl I’ve ever seen come here alone. I don’t know her, but it seems this is our station. I meet her eyes, take her hand. Turn back toward the stage.

“Can I hold your hand?”

Here is a woman I don’t know in the row ahead, ignoring her husband’s outstretched hand to sweep the two of us into her family as the congregation strings itself like beads down the rows and I wonder at her noticing us and I sing to God with these strangers, my sisters. Thank him for a church whose leaders love the Bible and whose people love each other. Remember why I keep coming back, alone – because I’m not.

We line up for Communion in families, here, and for once I am not the stray; Katie is behind me (her name is Katie) and I can’t wait to invite her, her face is glad, and we feast together and no one’s a stray. I nearly beg her to join us for lunch, me and my older friends, mentors, the parents of my friends who are not here. In the back of my mind, I’m only here for two months, and Katie will stay for a long time in Cumming, land of the nuclear family, hardly a twentysomething in sight; but there is little so agonizingly awkward as church alone. I see her eager to connect. It won’t be better elsewhere.

She comes and we all feast again, we get acquainted, and these dear families commence the usual uproarious conversation. Stories. Opinions. Laughter, always so much laughter, and the subject changes quick as the conversations of lightning bugs but Katie holds her own. I’m inexplicably proud of her, my brand-new friend, and bowled over with the blessing of these extra aunts and uncles folding her in without a blink. After a minute two hours are gone.

All along I’m struck with how strange it is, that I’ve been thinking over and over how there’s no one my age in this city, almost convinced that’s the literal truth, just itching to get out and move on. And suddenly here’s another, newly arrived to town and she’s got a couple roommates but there must be a lonely ache sometimes. So while I rail against the constriction and the loneliness of this Target-brand suburb I’ve already got an escape plan; but she’s just making do. At least at church she is.

So where’d I get the idea that any of this is about my happiness? When did I decide that God owed me a life free of lonely summers? If in this season all he gives is a couple old friends and a stranger-lady’s hand, heaven help me understand the astonishing grace in it. And if in this season all I accomplish is to watch God set the lonely in families, heaven help me overcome my selfish soul and rejoice.

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