Loving My Unlikable Neighbors

So one of my housemates is an asshat.

I say this, dear horrified Reader, knowing full well that name-calling on the internet is something we all need less of right now.  And I say this knowing that it is certainly unkind to tear someone apart in a forum s/he can’t see (and isn’t even aware of).  But I also say this from objective (read:  many others besides me) narratives and from subjective (read:  my own experience) narratives.  I say this from having several encounters with this particular individual that were, to put it lightly, unpleasant.  And I say this from exactly that place of hope for cleaner conversations in which we likely all sit right now in the wake of recent political injustices.  Why this particular person is an asshat doesn’t really matter to you since your experience with him/her should not be shaped by my interactions.  But s/he makes it really, really hard to do the Christian love thing.

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY JESUS TELLS US TO DO IT.

7e2d5d2d9120ee69ea0c1c24bf0fe3eeThere is no shortage of people at which we can direct all manner of negative emotion right now.  It could be on a personal level, like my idiot housemate; it could be on a political level, like misogynistic senators; it could be on a celebrity level, or a random-stranger level, or whatever.  Don’t even try to tell me there aren’t people you seriously don’t love right now, Reader.  But the hell of it is, every single one of them is also a creation of God.

I was struck by this when I got back to the house after yet another ungodly long day of classes and meetings and all of the crazy that this semester is throwing at me.  The house where I live isn’t really a house; it’s kind of an apartment building with some shared open spaces on the first floor.  In that open space is a baby grand piano and this particular person was sitting (facing away from me) at the piano and pouring his/her heart out onto the keys.  S/he’s a pretty decent player and I just stood there and listened for a few minutes.  I love music and wish I were comfortable playing the piano (I have the most basic knowledge but haven’t made space to practice enough to gain any proficiency) and I just loved watching this person be so in that moment with the act of making art.  S/he was a person, a fully three-dimension person in that moment who loves and aches and laughs and plays the piano.

And is also an asshat.  Because the thing about loving other people, Reader, is that love does not mean everything becomes okay.  Let me unpack that:  if I love you, I love all of you, even the parts that drive me up the wall.  But when I love you, I do not allow you to be cruel or unjust; my love is not a permission slip to harm other people.  My loving you does not make you perfect.  Likewise, God love us all.  (YES, YOU.  GOD LOVES YOU.  DEAL WITH IT.)  But God’s love in and of itself does not make every action we do perfect.  We are still more than able to sin (trust me on this one, I know).  We are still more than able to be misogynist, or racist, or demeaning, or dismissive, or general asshats.  We are loved, but that love is exactly what calls us to be better versions of ourselves, to be more like the Jesus Who called us to such an impossibly difficult task as loving those who persecute us or even just really honk us off on a regular basis.

So what does this mean for my neighbor?  For starters, it means that this whole post is making me miss Mr. Rogers like whoa.  For seconds, it means that his/her actions are not excused because Jesus calls me to love him/her.  When s/he says things that are intentionally condescending to me or when s/he does things that negatively impact my ability to continue my day unharmed, that’s wrong.  Love doesn’t make that right.  It’s still wrong.  (For a lovely and well-written version of this in a more historical view, check out Magister’s examination of How to Read History Responsibly.)

But it also means that I don’t get to hate the very existence of this person.  I don’t get to talk about him/her with my friends and laugh about how annoying s/he is; I don’t get to ignore him/her when I see him/her in the kitchen like s/he’s not even real; I don’t get to tell you, Reader, all of the things that s/he does and have you agree with me about his/her asshattery.  I am called to love the personhood of this other, to respect that s/he also has ungodly long days.  When I call him/her out on the jerk things s/he does or says, I am called to do so from a position of knowing that Jesus died for him/her, too.  I don’t get to tear him/her down to bite size because I’m pissed off.  I don’t get to undermine his/her humanity.

Even though I really, really want to sometimes.

Because Jesus asks hard stuff.  And He knew it would be hard; this is that “pick up your cross“-level work.  This is “the rest of the world will think you’re stupid.”  This is “I am flipping the whole system over.”  Love is powerful.  It changes things, if it’s real.

Even me.  And, hopefully, even my neighbor.  Provided I don’t punch him/her in the face first.

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?”  (Matthew 5:43-46, WEB)

Christianity in the New Reality

Oh, Reader, I could use a whole lot of Jesus right now.

It’s been a hell of a week for Americans—for the world at large, really, since America has had nearly 100 years to wrap its long fingers around the limbs of every other country.  I have been disappointed by my country quite a few times, but this is perhaps the first time I’ve been frightened by and for it.  The reckless foolishness, the open childishness, and the marginalizing endangerment of the new administration—in only one week!—are exhausting.  My spirit hurts, my heart hurts, my body aches from marching around Washington, D.C. to remind the world and myself that I matter because I am a woman, not in spite of it.

And I won’t lie, being in seminary is not making it easier.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I attend a pretty liberal divinity school—far more liberal than I am, in some areas.  The anger and the pain of the students here feed mine such that we all starve from them, our very souls gnawing at empty insides because we see only that which is cruel, that which is unmerciful.

I do not know how to recharge from that.

dscn2067Because I do not believe that I, as a Christian or as a faith leader, can walk away from this.  A family member called me out earlier this week in accusation that I wasn’t preaching love, kindness, and forgiveness because I went to the D.C. march and am unapologetic about my reasoning.  But what is love that does not pull the loved one away from evil?  How kind is it to avoid confrontation such that others are harmed because of my unwillingness to speak?  At the end of days, how do I ask God to forgive me if He has to say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me“?

I’ve no intention of turning this blog into an activist space in terms of recruiting you to do anything, Reader; I have other spaces for that, and I hope you do as well.  Nor do I particularly want this to become a conversational space about which politician we dislike this week, not least because I am tired of having those conversations without the benefit of looking people in the eye and saying their real names.  For me, this blog needs to remain a place in which I catalog and describe the God-shaped space in my life and how that shifts and shines.  Heaven knows I need to be more aware than ever before of God’s constant Presence.

But I challenge you and I challenge myself to bring faith into all of our conversations in this new era.  Who is starving, physically and spiritually?  Are we contributing to their inability to be filled?  Are we ourselves, we God-made vessels of the imago Dei, trying to survive on not enough?  Who is parched, and how can we offer both water and Living Water that does not drown and does not cause further thirst?  Who is strange to us, and how do we welcome them?  How do we welcome the parts of ourselves that we cannot yet face because we have bifurcated our own souls, our families, our friends who are too “other”?  Who has been stripped naked, who stands in the harsh light of this day without rights, without safety, without hope, without love, without kindness?  Who is sick, who is trapped in prisons of their own making or of ours?  Have we gone to them and called them by name as children of God?

In the least of these is God.  In the greatest of these is God.  In the average of these is God.  In us is God, for in Him we live and move and have our being.  How shall we act as though this is true?  How shall we move forward as those who have claimed and been claimed by Jesus the Christ?

From wells of worship that never run dry, though we may feel as though there is only dusty earth at the bottom.  May God stand with you in the days ahead, Reader.  May we both recognize Him as He does so.

Help me understand your orders. Then I will think about your miracles.  I am sad and tired. Make me strong again as you have promised.  Don’t let me be dishonest; have mercy on me by helping me obey your teachings.  (Psalm 119:27-29, NCV)

Christmas Day: Women and Religion

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, CEB)

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It has been quite the journey this particular Advent; now we come to the “payoff,” so to speak.  Christ is born—alleluia!  The Church year has restarted and soon the calendar one will as well—but what shall happen to the women when Advent ends and the Church follows the very much male Jesus through His life?

Today’s particular passage from Isaiah, besides being a pair of great pieces from the Messiah oratorio by Handel, is applicable not least because there are so many ways in which we walk in darkness.  From the context of this female-affirming Advent series, we walk in the darkness of those who continue to overlook the gifts and presence of women within and outside of the Church.  We walk in the darkness of humorous nativities that still don’t challenge the lack of women in our faith stories (you can have an iPhone but not a female angel, really?).  We walk in the darkness of those who are still arguing God intended women to be utterly submissive to men.  We walk in the darkness of clouded glass ceilings.  We walk in the darkness of having to choose and defend pronouns for God as though God actually has a gender and inclusivity of both “He” and “She” somehow challenges God’s ability to be God.  We walk in the darkness of inequity and injustice.

And oh, how good to see a great light.

In this passage Isaiah hails one who made the nation great—long before red hats ever proclaimed the campaign slogan, Cyrus of Persia sent Israelites back home to rebuild their temple after having been in exile for hundreds of years.  Christians of the early Church took the passage and remade it to recognize the risen Christ who would make all nations great in shattering the binding yokes and oppressors’ rods.  In this new place with this new ruler will be justice and righteousness flowing like the rivers Amos invoked in his prophecies.

feminism_fair_enidePart of that justice, part of that righteousness, is the Church’s commitment to honor its people through the year.  Mary and Elizabeth fade back into the Christian tapestry now that Jesus is born, but their voices are not silenced.  Mary continues to appear in Jesus’ life as an important figure, and other Marys and a Martha and many nameless women walk across that world-changing stage.  Women do not drop out of the narrative, then or now; their voices continue to be important, their gifts continue to deserve development, and their place in the work of bringing God’s reign into human life continues to matter.

So how can the Church work into this justice?  Listen to women’s stories; hear their voices without trying to correct them or reshape them.  If you are a woman and you feel comfortable doing so, tell your story; speak of what religion and faith mean to you and the places within your tradition where you find acceptance.  Actively seek to place women in leadership roles—and women, do not settle for not having them.  Learn about the damaging history the Church has with women and pay attention to the ways that those words and actions continue in the present day.  Challenge fellow Christians not to let passive sexism slide.  Challenge yourself to call out those who make crass comments or jokes to you.  Pray for guidance in relationships with those identifying as female.  Read through Scripture, paying attention to the places women are and aren’t.  Love the women around you, whether as a woman yourself or as an ally and supporter.  Recognize that Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, did not turn away from women, and neither can we.

Merry Christmas.  May the love, the joy, the hope, and the peace of the season go with you to your places of celebration.  May the coming year truly bring us closer to the increased joy of a land on which light has dawned and women and men are both understood to be gifted and called into the priesthood of all believers equipped to go and bring that light to a dark world waiting for good news.

All the Things We Cannot Know

I have survived my second trip to Difficulty, Reader—and I didn’t get lost this time, for which I am damned proud of myself.  It’s amazing what any degree of familiarity will do for a person.  If you have been/are praying for me in this journey, thank you so very much; even if you haven’t, thank you for reading along, for supporting my rambling, for walking this with me in your own quiet way, for even just dropping by.

With this small success, this decidedly lower level of panic, comes the space to appreciate the city.  I still don’t particularly like it, but I can see that people live their lives there, bare their souls there, dream their dreams there.  I was soundly (and rightly) chastised by Interpreter this past week for forgetting what people bring to situations, for assuming that they are not doing enough without knowing what they’re doing elsewhere.  We were discussing my frustration with the Church at large and he reminded me that that many come to receive because they have nothing left to give—life has taken it all from them, and they can but whisper the prayer for God to fill them just enough to keep going.

I know this place.  Rather better than I’d like.  And in thinking of how I shouldn’t be so quick to judge others by my own standards and ideas, I’ve been very aware of these things I don’t know,  can’t know.  Even if they were to tell me their stories, I still wouldn’t know them they way they do.  I will feel the thick round stump and call it a tree because I have not seen the elephant.  In the abstract, it’s kind of lonely to realize that we can never know each other, who we truly are when the lights go out.

But we must try.

I tie these two concepts together, the conversation and the city, because I was glad to be able to note the people instead of simply hurry along yesterday.  Cities offer people-watching second only to shopping malls, and I hate malls far more.  Even though that many people wear me out, it’s still amazingly cool to see so many representations of height, hairstyle, clothing, ethnicity, personality; to hear a barrage of languages in a million snippets of conversation covering all the topics that make life a living process.  This people-watching was especially interesting for me in the light of this conversation about knowing; I will likely never know these people, their stories, their faiths, their places of refuge.

There was a woman in a smart black pantsuit in front of a glass-and-steel business building talking on a cell phone, slowly wiping away tears streaming down her face already red from the effort of crying, people flowing around her unheeding as the river.  There was a man waiting with me at a crosswalk who leaned against the light pole and whispered lightly to himself—a prayer?  I couldn’t catch the words—looking as weary as Atlas.  There was a young man in the train station as we waited for our half-hour-late ride home who was wearing a Seniors 2012 hoodie, nervously confronting this busy world within the comforting safety of his success and 80s-style headphones.

Would I tell any of them who they should be and what they should do?  Would I allow them to tell me?  Of course not.  So why then do I wrap myself around this plethora of standards, especially separating myself and others?  If you prick me, do I not bleed?  Don’t they?

My class in Difficulty continues to intellectually scare the hell out of me—surely these older, more educated people recognize me as an impostor,  an idiot in their midst.  But then I listen to my Italian classmate fight through this secondary language and get so frustrated that she can’t articulate these complex historiographical concepts in this double-jointed pack rat tongue, and I realize she is likely also worried that we won’t see her intelligence behind the barrier.  I hear myself speak and see that I have come so far in the last 10 years, academically and in many other ways (confidence not least among them).

I’ve always found it wryly hilarious that a fearful introvert like me has consistently been drawn to very people-oriented careers.  It is even more so now, no matter how I wish to understand this call to ministry.  But we, all of us, are called to this communion, this community, this frustrating mix of never understanding and constantly explaining.  God created 2 people in the beginning, Genesis tells us—I’m not interested here in the sexuality that is or isn’t in this passage, I’m interested in the fact that God did it because it was not good for man to be alone.  We were created such that we dive headfirst (side first?) into this relational mess, granting each other the room to recharge and grow—and the forgiveness to continue when we forget our differences and demand ourselves from each other.

People honk me off.  A lot.  They also frighten me, hurt me, and disappoint me.  Sometimes it is mine to call them on this, to hold them to account for their actions—as they hold me to mine.  But I must also remember how much I do not know, how much I have to wait for them to tell me, how much I have to be reminded that God is God, and I am not.

 

“Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.’ But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? That’s why Scripture exclaims, A sight to take your breath away! Grand processions of people telling all the good things of God! But not everybody is ready for this, ready to see and hear and act. Isaiah asked what we all ask at one time or another: ‘Does anyone care, God? Is anyone listening and believing a word of it?’ The point is, before you trust, you have to listen.”  (Romans 10:13-17a, MSG)