This Fractured Methodist Church

Welcome to March, Reader.  I am that much closer to finishing my degree!

7crossandflameIn case you missed it rebounding through the news that loves to cover the Church in crisis, my denomination is a bit on fire at the moment.  The United Methodist Church held a conference this past week to talk to itself at the highest level of representation about what we believe in regards to sexuality, and what we’re going to do if we disagree about that.  I went, and I’m glad that I did because I have so many stories of community built on Ghiradelli squares and snarky commentary, stories of support and of sorrow, stories of parsing through the seemingly labyrinthine legislation and of trying to find the Spirit in the machinations of factions quietly politicking around each other in the name of the Holy.  It was a beautiful, ugly, extraordinarily human few days.

The end result is that the more conservative faction within the UMC (made up mainly of delegates from a corner of the American South, parts of Africa, and pieces of Eurasia like Russia and Kazakhstan) pushed through some legislation that doubles down on the idea that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It also insists that any pastor who officiates or otherwise supports homosexual relationships should be punished by the Church, up to and including being defrocked.  And anyone falling under the term “homosexual” (which was broadened to catch other folks in the LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning] community) cannot be ordained as long as they hold to that identity.

This breaks my heart, Reader, for many reasons.  Most personally, it breaks my heart because it catches me.  You see, I am bisexual.  But I am also United Methodist, Christian, a lefty, a poet, a white woman, a Trekkie, a cat person, an amateur calligrapher, a friend, a decent baker, a preacher, a chaplain, a daughter of God.  I have absolutely no difficulty holding all of these identities together at any given time.  I do not find them to be incompatible with each other at all, and given all of these pieces of me I find that I am still called to ministry.  If you’ve been around this blog for a minute, Reader, you can see that I fought that call for as long as I could; I didn’t make up the idea that I should be ordained, that I in all of these identities have been asked to be part of God’s Church in this way.  So for my denomination’s conference to tell me that people like me are abominations, that we cannot be called to ministry if we continue in our sinful ways—that simply doesn’t match my experience, and it baffles me.

The reasons so many folks focus on anything other than heterosexuality as the focus of sexual sin doesn’t baffle me.  During the conference, several amendments were offered to similarly strengthen the penalties around acceptance and ordination of those who are divorced, or those in polygamous relationships, or those who are not celibate outside of marriage, or those who are adulterous—all of which have plenty of Scriptural grounding as sexual sins.  None of them passed, because this isn’t actually about sexual purity.  I’m not here to have the argument about the verses or the interpretation or whether homosexuality is a sin; if you’re curious about my take on that, ask me, but I am not going to sermonize about that here.  I am going to point out that this is a narrow definition of sexual purity and leave at that.

I’m also going to point out the fear of losing relevance.  At this conference, I listened to delegate after delegate speak from the Congo, from West Africa, from Central Russia, all mentioning that in their home countries they were losing ground to Islam.  If we give up on this issue, the delegates threatened, we as a Church would no longer be acceptable to those looking for a worship home and people would go be Muslim instead.

This line of thinking makes me curious, because either we believe that Jesus is the Lord of all or we don’t.  If accepting gay folk can dilute the power of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, we need to seriously rethink the idea that God’s word “shall not return to Me empty.  Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:11, CEB).  Do we believe that we carry the message that will transform the world or don’t we?  I get that that doesn’t answer the question of sin around sexuality, but that’s because it tosses it away.  God is an unstoppable force, and if we truly believe in the power of this good news that we are loved enough for the Creator of the universe to take on human form, eat with friends, heal the sick, speak to the outcast, be betrayed, die gruesomely, and defeat death through the resurrection triumphant, then nothing we do can derail that news.  God doesn’t need us for shit, which is one of the reasons that I love Christianity so much.  God doesn’t need us, but God wants us, God invites us, God calls every single one of us to this grand design even though every single one of us has sins for days.  If we’re going to bend ourselves around this one thing called sinful (through some weird, twisty readings of Scripture) in order to hold Islam at bay, we are both thinking that we are the guardians of God and we are not trusting that God is already upholding us through the other things we are doing that can be called sinful.

In moving forward, the UMC has lots of challenges.  There are ethics violations, constitutional questions, and hosts of problems with the legislation that was just rammed through the process.  We as a denomination need your prayer while we untangle this mess, especially since it’s entirely possible that none of what just happened will stick after all of the inquiries and lawsuits.  We of The United Methodist Church are not united but divided, and that sucks all around.  I do not like fighting with my family, even if a goodly portion of them seem to love fighting with me.  So please, pray for us as we discern how to proceed.  For my part, I will keep working within this denomination that I love, in this ministry to which I am called, for this God Who knows me inside and out and says a willing heart is what is needed.

 

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.”  (Job 42:2-3, NIV)

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Grace and Manual Transmissions

In my last post I mentioned that yet another car had been totaled just before the holidays.  A friend of mine heard of the plight and offered the car he was looking to unload—a generous and wonderful gift.  With a catch.  The car was a stick shift.

I’ve tried to learn to drive stick once before, with a professor of mine during a slow summer in college.  He was a very good and patient teacher, but I was so fearful of damaging his car that I was a poor student.  It’s actually quite amazing how my desire not to fail often makes me fail harder than I would have if I’d just accepted that probability.

07_mini_cooper_s_003This time I was determined to learn even though it was daunting and nerve-wracking.  My friend and I went out and spent several hours with me lurching around a stadium parking lot, and then I practiced going in circles in my church lot the next day, and the next.  A month later, I can say that I can indeed drive a stick—can even parallel park it, if I absolutely must.  I’m set to go for the zombie apocalypse as well as every punk who tells me that no girl/millennial/urbanite can drive manual.

And I hate it.

The thing of it is, I only dislike the actual driving, not least because I have hearing issues that prevent me from really being able to discern when the engine needs to shift and therefore have to rely totally on the tachometer and speedometer.  What I hate, absolutely hate, dread with every fiber of my being, is driving around the other people in the world.

It may not surprise you, Reader, to learn that driving in the Wicket Gate stresses me out on the best of days—after all, I’ve lost two cars to this city and its poor drivers.  But in a manual, as I’m just learning, with seemingly thousands of stoplights at the crest of hills that feel like mountains?  It’s a slice of hell.  Folks here have a habit of creeping right up behind me (please don’t do this; manuals need some room to rock backward while shifting into gear, especially older models) or of impatiently hounding me while I’m trying to navigate a left without an arrow or of hurrying me along past street parking things that take way more time now that reverse is a whole production.  There is no grace in the driving here.

As a preacher, it’s an occupational hazard that part of my brain is always looking for illustrations in daily life, but this one has surprised me.  I’m looking for a new car again, an automatic transmission, accepting the strain and stress that is on top of my last semester of school and my denomination getting ready to set itself on fire because the toll this kind of driving is taking on me is too much to maintain.  That’s what a lack of grace looks like—in driving, yes, and we’re always ready for some kindness and understanding on the road.  But in general:  how tired we become when there is no grace given us!  How tired we make others when we extend no grace to them!

Grace isn’t a blank check (nor is it free); I don’t expect other drivers to be okay with me, say, driving at 30 on the highway.  I need to stretch, and learn, and grow into this new way of commanding a car.  Grace isn’t about letting someone walk all over me, or about never registering things that bother me (like folks who ride on-ramps until the land ends instead of properly merging as soon as there is an opportunity—there are not clean words for how much that annoys me).  But grace is about understanding that there are folks who are just learning how to drive, who are working with a car that may be unreliable, who need a little extra space and time to get going.  Grace is not expecting everyone to have the same skill set that I do.

That is a hard, hard idea.  There are some things that I’ve been doing long enough that they seem second nature.  This re-learning how to drive (legit, it is like being in a car for the first time again) has been a serious blow to my pride, I who have driven hundreds of thousands of miles in this country.  So part of this not only asking for the grace of others but for grace from myself.  I keep having to give myself permission to skip that parking space because I can’t manage that maneuvering; to breathe and try again when I stall in an intersection; to accept that I may roll backward into the car that is too close to me on a hill and that isn’t on me.  Giving myself grace is hard, hard work, because I have to accept that failure happens and is not the end of the adventure.

I think it was pretty sly of God to become human before the invention of automobiles so that Jesus never had to learn to drive stick, but it’s not like grace came along with the combustion engine.  This idea of patience, of space, of forgiveness that someone—that I—have to try again is part and parcel of the Christian faith.  We don’t get it right, we humans.  Sometimes it’s sin, a purposeful turning away from the road we’re called to drive.  Sometimes it’s us just not paying attention, letting up on the clutch too soon and stalling the engine.  Each time God calls us to breathe, restart, and try again.  It’s grace.  And it’s hard, hard work to give it and to receive it.

The tricky thing is remembering that I still need the grace when I’m driving an automatic.

 

 

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.  As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.  (1 Peter 4:9-10, ESV)

The Longest Night

Yesterday was the winter solstice.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the day when our part of the world is tilted the farthest away from the sun we orbit, meaning that the sun never gets very high and that the time spent in darkness is the longest in the year.  After the solstice, we tilt back toward the sun and the days—that is, the amount of sunlight per 24-hour period–get longer.  The Southern Hemisphere has a solstice with its own longest day, since the earth doesn’t spin on a straight-up-and-down axis.  In many prehistoric places, the solstice was a time of festivals and rituals (Stonehenge is a worship site for just such a thing), a day of lighting all the fires and chasing the dark away until the sun returned.  Surviving the longest night was a feat of courage and endurance.

We don’t think as much about the solstice in the 21st century, especially in the so-called first-world countries, partly because we European types (and others; history is a complicated, bloody mess) stomped out most of the cultural and religious observances of native peoples and partly because, in an age of electricity, we can have light anytime we want—and in cities, we are never without it.  But that fear of darkness, that hint of anxiety about the long stretch without sunlight, still exists in the back of our cultural minds—and not just for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I began my solstice this year being picked up by a friend to go to a body shop and clean all of my possessions out of my totaled car, the second car I’ve lost since starting this degree.  The time between the car begin hit (don’t worry, Reader, I’m fine; I wasn’t in it at the time) and this solstice goodbye was a long, frustrating, exhausting two weeks, and for right now I do not have a car or any money to handle the loss—now, three days before Christmas.

It’s no accident that the Christian festival of the Christ Mass falls so close to the winter solstice, and it’s not actually because Jesus was fortunate in birth timing.  As far as the birth itself is concerned, it was more likely in the summer of about 3 B.C. or so than December of 1 A.D.  The Christ Mass, though, that celebration of the infant Incarnation, was quite deliberately calculated.  Some of it had to do with overriding Roman and pagan festivals, but fuller developments as Christianity spread north were mindful of this longest night.

Star cluster Trumpler 14Christianity is a light-saturated faith system:  God shows up a lot in fire, Jesus is named the Light of the world that is never overcome by darkness, the first moment of creations is to declare that there shall be light.  Christmas hangs out right next to this day of hours and hours of darkness exactly because this is when we need light most—this is our version of the prehistoric hope in the fires that burn till dawn, the prayer for the rising sun, we Christians who look to the star shining over Bethlehem.

A thing I feel it necessary to say, Reader, is that Christmas doesn’t fall on the solstice.  There is a harmful and toxic strain of Christianity that requires cheerful acceptance at all times, often packaged in filtered Instagram photos proclaiming we are #TooBlessedtobeStressed.  I’m sorry if I’m stepping on your optimistic toes, but stress and blessings are not mutually exclusive.  The star shines over the city at night when it is dark enough to see its light.  The Light shines in the darkness that does not overcome it but is also not obliterated by it.  I now have no car, which sucks, and a friend has offered to give me his old one.  Not “but;” “and.”  The maddening, saddening, inconvenient reality of having to say goodbye to another car sits alongside the generosity and possibility of this new-to-me car I will meet in January.  The longest night is four days before the Light is born.

So, Reader; on this first day of the sunlight hours beginning to lengthen again, let the night have its place in your day.  In a healthy way—trust me, I do not advocate depression or despair—let yourself not be holly jolly for a moment.  If you’re stressed, acknowledge it; and acknowledge the blessings, the light, the deep joy that abides.

Merry Christmas, Reader.  May even your longest nights have the light of a star to guide you and thread through the velvety darkness.

 

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2, NIV)

A Church Home

The church in which I came to the Christian faith was a small thing of jumbled additions on a tried-and-true brick Protestant sanctuary with mottled-glass windows and a plain, wooden cross.  When I was there we worshiped mostly in the fellowship hall, which was less a hall than a multipurpose room with a kitchen off to one side and some classrooms on the other.  I learned to make noodles in that kitchen.  I learned Scripture in that room.  When I worked for that church as the secretary, I helped keep the classrooms stocked.  I knew every inch of that building, that church.  It was home.

I recently learned, indirectly, that my church no longer exists.  The building is still there, though it’s been totally redone inside.  It’s still a church, even, but not the church I knew; it has a different name, a different pastor, a different worship style, a different congregation.  I have the feeling that, if I went back, almost no one would recognize me—nor I them, to be honest.  My home is gone.

Every year at my annual conference (which, for all the non-Methodists, the yearly meeting of representatives of all UM churches in a geographical area to hash out things like theological stances and budgets and delegates to the global General Conference; kind of like a state’s House of Representatives), we close churches.  Every year.  Part of this is because Methodism in its heyday put a church within walking distance of everybody, which just isn’t necessary now that we’ve invented things like cars.  Part of it is that the UMC, like every other mainline denomination, is shrinking in this post-Christendom world and we can’t fill all the churches anymore.  Every year we as a governing body lament the loss of another church, and I’ve always been kind of skeptical of it because I see the bottom line of why we do need to close that church.  My logic kicks in.  My sentiment checks out.

When I found out about my old church, though, I understood in a whole new way why people lament the closing of their churches.  It has nothing to do with the reality of too many bills or not enough congregants or pastors who are spread too thin.  It has nothing to do with the fact that there’s another church a mile away and it’s not a real inconvenience to merge a couple of parishes.  It has everything to do with the fact that that was home.  That was a building whose every inch you knew, whose walls held huge portions of your life and memories that made you who you are.

churchWe often remind ourselves, as the Church, that the Church is the people rather than the buildings, and that’s good.  We should be careful not to get too attached to the structures such that we spend all of our time maintaining them instead of maintaining the communities around them.  God didn’t live among us to teach us how to repaint a narthex or replace a boiler; God lived among us to show us how to grieve with the lonely and rejoice with the healing.  The people are the Church.  But I think that sometimes we fail to see that we humans get attached to stuff whether we’re supposed to or not; we are incarnate creatures seeking safety and belonging, and even those of us with oodles of wanderlust want a place that offers that to us when we are too weary to keep going.  We are all, in our own ways, looking for home.

So I grieve the loss of my church, of my home that I haven’t even visited in five or so years.  I grieve it the way we grieve a favorite childhood playground or our grandmothers’ houses that always smelled of mothballs or our best friend’s basement where a thousand sleepovers told secrets to the walls.  We sentimental saps grieve the things that shaped us when we outlast them because we forget, for just an instant, that we still hold that shape without them.

Perhaps, Reader, I’m speaking too much for you.  Perhaps you don’t have that sentimental bone in you; perhaps you are self-aware enough to hold the million selves you’ve been before without the external aid of a building or place.  That is a gift; that is a sorrow.  Just as sentimentality is a double-edged sword, a lack of sentimentalism has its own benefits and losses.  Very few of the emotions we silly, sentient skeletons have are purely one thing or another.  Being human is hard, so I wouldn’t expect any piece of what makes us human to be uncomplicated.

In any case, as I sit on my yoga mat on the floor on this Saturday morning, I am aware of having lost my church—and I am aware of others having found one, in this new congregation, and I rejoice in the people who will learn to make noodles and learn Scripture and find the Jesus that is in every structure and no structure at all.  Blessings on the new church, and the new Church of people who go there.  I am aware of the new churches I have found that have become home; of my home here in The Wicket Gate with the beautiful stained glass windows that make the pews gold on Sunday mornings, and of the place where my heart lives back in the Land of Pilgrims where the rafters creak with the wind like a chorus under the many, many prayers that sanctuary holds.  These, too, are places that shape me, and these, too, will someday become unrecognizable to me, and I to them.  And I will grieve, then, too, because the Church is the people but my church is also a building where I felt safe, and where I belonged, and that is perfectly okay.  God is not bound to the Temple, but God resides there, and we who have lost churches know the holiness we found in that Presence.

 

But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.  (Deuteronomy 12:5-6, NIV)

Screaming in Silence

I meant to update the Friday before last, as has become my schedule.  But then, as the first round of Kavanaugh news slithered through my day, I never got around to it.  And then there were the testimonies.  And the advancement.  And the protests.  And today will be the vote, and I don’t mind telling you that I don’t know when that is because it’s 10 o’clock in the morning and I still haven’t gotten out of bed because I can’t.

I have been doing a lot of grieving for my friend who died, and that takes energy.  And there have been a lot of other occurrences that have been emotionally draining in the last month.  But this—this blatant circus of partisan denial, this willful ignorance, this good ol’ boys club; I don’t have it in me to deal with that, really.  A very small part of me envies my friend for having bowed out before this happened, which is not good.

If you are not in America, Reader, let me summarize:  the current Republican president nominated a man back in July to fill an empty Supreme Court seat.  That man has since been accused, credibly, by several women of sexual assault.  A Republican Senate heard statements from the first woman to speak out and from the man in question.  The man’s statement was belligerent, childish, and emotional.  The White House then ordered a hasty and circumscribed FBI investigation that, likely, most people didn’t even read because it was released in the dead of night and lauded by the White House.  The mostly-male Senate voted to advance this man’s confirmation.  Today there will be a vote on whether to give this man a lifetime appointment to the highest court in this country.

I’m tired.  I’m tired of expecting more from my representatives.  I’m tired of how blatantly they don’t give a shit if ignoring the pain of others will advance their desires.  I’m tired of the constant news cycle that makes everything infinitely worse.  I’m tired of having to deal with the cowards who go online and attack women because it makes them feel righteous and brave.  (Which, by the way, if you want to fight me on my not-at-all-attempting-to-be-gentle summary of this mess, don’t.  I will eviscerate you in text and I do not care if you feel like God loves you better if you’re an asshat about this.  I am too damn tired to be kind and understanding.)  I am exhausted by the memories that I carry that have nothing and everything to do with this dumpster fire.

But the thing of it is, I’m also a pastor.  And I know that I am not the only one who’s tired in my congregation.  I know I’m not the only one with a mind full of pain, with a heart broken by the betrayal of those who are supposed to listen, with a soul cracking under the reality that I do not matter to those in power.  I’m also a historian, and I know that humanity has always been trash and this is not necessarily worse than any other time, not least because we went through this whole thing back in 1991 with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and the Senate confirmed that guy, too, because fuck women apparently.  So I know that I do not get to stay tired.  I know that I have to get out of bed, and put on real clothes, and pray with everything in me to have the strength to look my congregants in the eye tomorrow and help them bring their broken hearts to God because I stand on the promise that God was with Anita Hill and God is with Christine Ford and God is with all of us who are silenced.  God hears our screams and holds our tears and there will be justice one day.

43289557_1277060152434331_5922446407226097664_nThe thing is, that day isn’t today.  And it won’t be tomorrow, when I face my congregants and their pain.  It won’t be the next day, when I have to talk to people who call this travesty a triumph because it paves the way for things they find more important, pouring tar over the bodies of those in their way.  I don’t know when God’s justice will come rolling like a cleansing river.  I don’t know when God’s justice will wipe away the tears of those weeping from the wounds of being unheard, of being mocked, of being forced, or forgotten, or used, or broken, or erased.  I don’t know when God’s justice will remake this fallen world.  But it will.  I cannot bear the idea that this world is left to our own devices, we stupid and selfish humans who cannot see the God-light in each other even when it shines like a fucking supernova because we are so damn scared that more of you means less of me when, actually, the infinite compassion of God holds open the edges of the universe itself to make room for the entirety of who God sees we could be.

If only we got out of the way.

If only we listened to someone unlike ourselves.

If only we held the pain of another to be real even though we can’t feel it.

If only we actually sought to treat one another as God treats us.

If only we loved like both you and I matter.

If only.

Faith is not built on “if only”s, though some people might characterize it that way.  Nor is faith built on certainties.  I know very little about God and God’s ways, in the concrete sense.  But I believe, in my bones, that God hears.  And God’s heart is breaking, too, and God is having trouble getting out of bed, but God will because there is work to be done and rivers to flow and justice to be brought and tears to be wiped away and hope, foolish and overwhelming and immeasurable hope to hold tightly because the darkness has never overcome, is not currently overcoming, and will never overcome the light.

To this I hold, with everything that I am, because it is that which gets me out of bed.  It is that which I will bring to my congregants.  It is that which I will take with me into every vote, and phone call, and moment of determined remembrance that my friend’s way out was not the better way.  “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

May it be so, in these very dark days.

 

And the Lord said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows.”  (Exodus 3:7, NKJV)

I Was Me but Now He’s Gone

These are lyrics from Metallica’s Fade to Black, a 1984 rock ballad about James Hetfield’s struggle with suicidal inclinations (Hetfield was the singer and lyric guitarist of the band).  I have these lyrics and I have a three-day late post because last week a friend of mine killed himself, and Reader, that really fucks up your schedule.

This is not my first loved one to die.  It isn’t even my first suicide.  But that doesn’t matter; if you’ve lost someone by any means, you know that this never gets easier.  Each new death is a suckerpunch, a chalk outline of that person in your life.  I have no real problem with death, but suicides are hard.  Suicides carry not only grief and sorrow but anger, doubt, guilt, frustration—that whole cocktail of “what did we miss” and “how dare he” and the sheer suddenness of it.  It’s a mess, a stupid, painful mess.

I suppose the one good thing about suicides is that no one tries to comfort you with the usual empty platitudes like “it was his time” or “God needed him” or whatnot.  Hint, from someone who has worked as a pastor and a hospital chaplain:  that sort of nonsense is unhelpful.  I get that we who are not part of the grieving circle want very much to help our grieving friends, and I get that grief makes everybody uncomfortable because we humans so desperately want to fix hurt even if that’s not really the best thing to do, but don’t do that.  God doesn’t yank folks out of the realm of the living because some hourglass ran out of sand or because He needed someone with the specific skill set to hang a new wall rug or something.  Even if either of these were true, they are awful to say to someone who is in grief because it downplays that grief, makes it seem selfish to feel that loss.  I mean, there’s a reason our English language calls it “loss”—it’s not because we’ve misplaced someone but because there is that hole in our lives that is no longer filled, that sense of missing a piece of ourselves.  I have lost my friend.

He lost himself.

And it’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that I’m at a divinity school and I reached out to several of my friends here and back home in the Land of Pilgrims, and it took about five conversations with people before anyone was willing to go theological with me about this.  Thankfully my friend Prudence gave me space to say hey, I’m absolutely on board with what The United Methodist Church says about how suicides aren’t automatically damned but my friend was of no faith before that, what does that look like?  How do I mourn someone who turned his back on not just the Church but the God Who started it?  How do I square the many, many conversations he and I had because my friend was tickled pink to have a religious leader like me around to ask questions of when he found the courage to do so?

Telling me that it isn’t my place to judge where people go after death and that God is much bigger than my imagination misses the point completely, so please don’t do that.  What Prudence understood was that I am an exclusivist in my theology, which means that I do believe in a Heaven and a Hell and I do believe that dying isn’t an automatic ticket to Heaven, although I also don’t believe in the laundry list that’s usually trotted out of reasons people go to Hell and I also don’t believe that Hell is a fiery mess of torture or that it’s even limited to the time after death.  I think we can create Hell just fine right here while we’re alive, and I think my friend may have been in it for suicide to seem like a good plan.  But I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s as much grief and pain in itself, and Prudence let me work through that without trying to answer it for me or let me get to a place where it felt answered.  That was good.

But my friend is still dead.

grief-straight-line-and-jumbled-circleAnd will remain dead, and in my estimation will die a hundred thousand more times over the coming years when I reach moments where we usually did something together and he isn’t there, or when I think to text him something funny and remember he won’t answer, or when I want to invite him to things and know he can’t come.  Mr. Honest suggested I think of moments like this as ways to say hello to the memory and the spirit of my friend, to invite him in.  Mr. Honest is far more compassionate and optimistic than I am.

Amidst this is the fact that I went to a birthday party this weekend, and a cookout for a friend who’s about to be married, and last week before this news I went to a wedding, and it is good to have a plethora of friends who are living to help me constructively grieve this one who is not.  Because the grief comes in waves, and is not a linear process that tapers at one end.  Now he’s gone.  I am a different me.

 

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken.  (Psalm 34:18-20, NASB)

Grace Isn’t Free

Right, so one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is the idea that grace is free, in that you don’t earn it and you can’t make yourself more grace-filled by cashing in extra chips or something.  Grace isn’t about what we give at all, ergo, free.

That part is true:  we can’t earn grace.  We can’t earn God’s love, or forgiveness, or presence.  In that we can’t pay for grace, it’s free.  But what I’ve been ruminating on for a bit now is that grace isn’t free in the sense of having no cost.  I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before, given the idea that we’re supposed to carry crosses and that ain’t cheap labor, but grace is actually the most costly thing in existence.  Grace is not something for nothing, and I’m not in the least the first person to figure that out.  There are plenty of sermons and blogs and all sorts of things that talk about the price of grace.   No less than Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the idea of “cheap grace” as a disgraceful thing.  Grace is something for the entirety of who you are and who you wanted to be and how you understand your own life.  Grace costs everything.

I head back to the Wicket Gate on Sunday for my last year of this degree and Reader, I could not be more thrilled to have the end in sight.  This experience has cost me dear:  I’ve spent money, I’ve lost innocence, I’ve had property and physical safety and emotional integrity taken from me.  I have paid a high price for this experience, one that isn’t done collecting yet, and I will be very glad to move toward closing this particular chapter of my life.  Looking at how much this has cost me over the past couple of years has led me, again and again, to the awful realization that I didn’t get it wrong.  I feel quite strongly that this is where I needed to go to do this, even with all the shit it’s brought.

I don’t say that to say that God in any way wanted me to suffer, because I don’t go in for the manipulative and sadistic god concept.  It is to say that there are amazing things that have come out of this experience.  I have friends I never would have met otherwise who are teaching me all sorts of things and learning from me things I didn’t know I had to offer.  I’ve grown deeply, anchoring myself in a whole new kind of faith that I still don’t fully understand and that still needs a lot of work.  And I’ve been plunged headfirst into the recognition that grace is what sustains me through all the shit and all the sunshine; that it is grace that binds me together and attaches me to the God Who continues to call me.

But it isn’t free.

ba1dcdd7ebb6dc59cd80c7e00f1cddb9In both the Midwest and the South I often see bumper stickers proclaiming “freedom isn’t free,” which is a sentiment with which I agree in principle if not in application.  The concept of freedom, of being able to choose one’s own path, requires payment—whether that payment comes in terms of labor and time on the part of those who came before to guide a system into freedom, or in terms of lives laid down to protect human rights, or in terms of actual money and services paid to unhinge the injustices that perpetuate various kinds of slavery depends on the context in which we discuss freedom.  But there is always a cost of some format, and grace is like that.  Grace comes at cost, not in a substitutionary atonement kind of way where a vindictive god had to kill his son because we’re all evil but in a kind of way that acknowledges we killed a Man because He rocked our world too far and God took that death and made it redemptive, made it holy, makes us holy a little piece at a time when we realize that God extends grace and then asks for everything that we have ever been and ever will be in return.

The thing about grace is that, once you receive it, you’re totally fine paying that highest of costs.  It is worth everything; it is that pearl of great price, that marvelous wonder, that gift that keeps on giving.  I’m willing to pay everything because I am given everything, not in return but alongside, in, through, despite, around, on top of.  This grace thing is astounding and fair knocks me over when I consider what a lifeline it truly is.  But it isn’t free.  Nothing is.

And I won’t lie, I’m a bit grumpy about that bait-and-switch there.  But then, I’m grumpy about most things.  It’s a character trait.

 

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  (2 Corinthians 12:8-9, ESV)