Thursday, October 28, 2010

Circle of Grace as an Elephant Orphanage

I received a thoughtful email from someone who used to attend Circle of Grace about my last post.  She had some insightful responses and agreed with my assessment of Circle of Grace as a place of spiritual healing.  She went on to remind me that many folks who 'came through' Circle of Grace often returned to traditional churches as she, herself, had.   She returned to the church in which she had grown up and with whom she had a deep connection but she continued, she would never had been able to do that without her time at Circle of Grace.  She said that she, too, pondered why we hadn't grown and concluded that we needed to remain small to do the healing work we do.

It reminds me of what my spiritual director shared with me some time ago.  She said she had seen a 60 Minutes special about an elephant orphanage in Africa.  A woman began a refuge for baby elephants whose mothers had been killed by poachers or who had physical defects (like blindness) that had caused their 'tribe' to abandon them.  She and her workers take in these baby elephants and provide medical care and nourishment.  When a baby recovers sufficiently they go about the business of teaching the baby how to be an elephant- including pounding the ground with small logs to teach her/him how to read sound through the ground.   

Some of the babies are so damaged or ill they don't make it.  Some are able to be reunited with their 'aunties' and assimilate back into the wild.  Some recover but are never able to return to the wild and a new 'tribe' has evolved at the orphanage.   

"That's what Circle of Grace is like!"  she exclaimed.  "Some people heal and return to the church of their childhoods.  And some people find themselves to be more at home at Circle of Grace and become a part of its ongoing healing ministry, forming a new and different kind of 'tribe'."

I remembered that comment after I got the email this week:  two very different people seeing the same thing from different perspectives.  A final thought my emailing friend shared was that she now takes stands and provides a much needed witness in her more traditional church. 

I'll keep pondering all these things and we'll keep talking about these things.  For too many years I assumed we were supposed to follow a certain pattern and achieve specific things: membership, space, programs...

Now, I just want us to walk as faithfully as we are able and do the work to which we are called.  I want us to keep on living into who we are and not into any superimposed idea of who we think we should be.  It's an ongoing learning experience.  It is always challenging.  We're always going to have to question our assumptions and let some of them go.  

But I don't guess we would do it any other way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Identity Crisis

Truth be told, over the past seventeen years we have struggled to figure out who we are.  As in, what exactly is Circle of Grace?  It requires enough thinking to make my head hurt.

We are the same thing now as we were in the beginning, it just takes years to let go of assumptions and preconceptions and live into our organic reality.  When we first started we wanted to be a church- and we are a church- but over the years we have had to redefine what 'church' means- or at least challenge our individual and collective ideas about what it means.  Maybe we are closer to being a spiritual community. Because we are not connectional or denominational how we define ourselves is not preset.

This is what I know:
          We will never own a building.
          We will never have programs that involves teams or sports.
          We will never be large.
          We will always be intimate spiritually and personally.
          None of this is easy.

I confess that my struggle is often with internal formless expectations.  For a long while I thought that our goal was to grow and become self-sustaining.  I hoped for a membership large enough to support my addiction to ministry so that I could pastor Circle of Grace as my full time calling.  It is my full time job but the work doesn't support me financially.  (I'm not talking about making $30,000 a year,  but just enough to sustain a simple life style.)   I'm pretty sure that will never be the case.   My struggle/problem for years has been that it must mean I'm not doing something right.  Why aren't we growing into something financially viable?  Why can't the community support its pastor?  Why can't we have our own building?  

I admit, as pastor, there are probably lots of things I haven't done right.  I have been on the longest, steepest, seventeen year learning curve that has ever been devised.  But I don't believe it is any of my shortcomings or mistakes have hindered our 'growth'.  

Instead, I have come to believe that  we are called to be is spiritual healers in a world filled with spiritual abuse.  That's who we are.  We gather in folks who long for a way to connect with Godde, whose Christian grounding is important to them, but who have experienced judgment, abuse, discrimination, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or ableism in the name of all that is holy.   

Who we try to be, who we feel called to be, is a reflection of the kin-dom of Godde.   Our perenneal question is: who is not at the table?  Most recently, we are aware that we need more men and more heterosexual people sharing the bread and wine.  How do we get all kinds of people at our table, in community, sharing life?  The short and long answer is that we try to make a safe space.  If you come, all of who you are will be welcomed.  A challenge?  Absolutely.  But we have managed to be safe haven for people with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, different races, genders, classes, understandings...
Those who leave are often those who are uncomfortable with differences - both in the expression of humanity and in the variety of theological understandings.

So we are kin-dom builders.  In our small way, in the cosmos of our community, we work to live out the kin-dom within and between us.  It is our holy work.  And frankly, it's not work that is ever going to draw in the crowds, not work that is ever going to attract big givers or appeal to those who desire the absolute sureness of their beliefs.

We are a church, a spiritual community, a gaggle of stragglers, visionaries, dreamers, mystics,  scholars, laborers, and seekers struggling to be Godde's dreaming enfleshed in the world.
It doesn't pay well.
It is not self-sustaining.
It is not large.
It is not easy.
But it is a life-giving, soul-healing opportunity to live authentically.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


When my daughter was a freshman in college and home on winter break she and a bunch of friends sat up all night gabbing and laughing while I tried to sleep in the back.
 "What were y'all talking about all night?" I asked the next afternoon.
"Sex." she laughed.
"What about it?"
"We want it."

It really doesn't get any simpler than that, does it?  Really, that's how most of humanity is programed.  We reach a certain age and our hormones begin to percolate big time.  We begin to explore who we are relationally and attractionally (is that a word?).  And some of us find the opposite gender rocks our boat.  Some find themselves to be same-gender loving.   Some are drawn to both genders (how lucky is that?!).  And our intersex friends may or may not experience sexual drive.  

Then there's the gender thing.  Again, some (1 in 20,000) of our intersex siblings must find their way through the ignorance and 'no person's' land of being born gender-ambiguous. (Which has much to teach us all about what it means to be human!)  Some of us are, as the Zuni Indians would say, "two-spirited people", people born experiencing our gender in opposition to the physical expression of our bodies.  It's all a part of the wonderful the multi-layered, multi-hued, creative impulse of Godde.

So how did we humans get it all so screwed up?  Both sex and gender are used to exert  power and control.  At its worst it manifests as the subjugation of women, hatred of gays, lesbians, bi and transgendered folk, physical and sexual abuse and rape.   The closest, most tender, most vulnerable parts of ourselves are turned and used against us.  I'm going to name it here: it is the patriarchy.  It is a system of power and gender hierarchy that in its worst forms is an expression is evil.  Yes.  I said it.  Evil.

Unfortunately, theologians have historically been men of the dominant culture, viewing the world through the lenses of privilege while assuming that their experience of the world was universal.  While most of these thinkers and theologians were good men with good spiritual intentions, they were not able to see beyond their own 'cultural boundedness'.  They never challenged the basic assumptions of the patriarchy so, historically, we have been stuck with fairly rigid perspectives on gender and sexual expression.

Here's where I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sex and gender.  Contemporary feminist and womanist theologians have challenged and continue to challenge patriarchal assumptions and have moved theological dialogue forward. (thank you!)  Acknowledging their influence, I want to talk about where I have come to about sex and gender.  

It is so utterly simple: it ain't about who you have sex with it's about how you love, how you are in right relationship with another.  

I do not believe there is any way Godde wants us to fret, worry or be suffocated by guilt and shame over our sexual orientation or gender (ambiguous or otherwise).  

Really?  I want to ask the big boys, Really?   You're all worried about who and how someone is expressing sexuality.  Isn't the more important question that we should all be worried about, 'how do we treat one another?'   

Here are the questions I think we should be asking:
1-  Is my action/expression exploitive of another?
2-  Am I loving and respectful of my partner and myself?
3-  How do my actions/life answer the question: Am I loving Godde with all my         heart and mind and strength and am I loving my neighbor as myself?

Those questions are both complicated and simple enough to beg each of us to think and act with loving integrity.  

If we think about those questions when issues arise like, oh, the Bishop Edie Long case, our questions of him would be not about which gender he may have had sex with, but whether or not his relationships were exploitive or loving, respectful, and filled with integrity.  Self-loathing doesn't leave much room for those questions.

As the weeks go by and we are faced with an epidemic of suicides by LGBTQ youth I hope we respond not by debating tired old theology based in the inherently abusive system of the patriarchy.  Instead, let's begin a new conversation.  One that starts with Creation as the artistic expression of Godde and ends with a call for all humanity to be in relationships that are loving to one's self and the other.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How Do You Know If Something Is True?

     One of the first questions a thinking spiritual person needs to ask is: "How do I know if something is true?"
     It's important to ask because there are lots of different 'authorities' for truth.  Historically, people have known things were 'true' by the following reasons:
          1.  Because the community collectively agrees something is true.  The community agrees on a certain interpretation of events.  As in: we were liberated from slavery,  we experience that as an act of God, so from now on we when we tell the story of our liberation we will talk about it as an act of God.  It is the community's truth.  The community's truth becomes personal truth.

          2.  Because our religious leaders (i.e. the church)  tell us it is true.  In this scenario people defer to religious leaders.  The final authority on spiritual matters and biblical interpretation is the Church.  A good example of this is the Roman Catholic Church whose final authority lies with the Pope.

          3.  Because the Bible says it's true.  This understanding was revolutionary in its day.  No longer did people look to the Church as their authority for the 'truth'.  The advent of the printing press and the Reformation commitment that people (including women)  learn to read the Bible for themselves shifted the understanding of the Church as authority to the Bible as authority.  That is where many religious people are stuck today:  It's true because the Bible says so. And don't get me started with the ideas of truth and facts.  The rise of scientific inquiry set theological thinking on its ear.  As we began to value scientific fact we forgot to make the distinction between fact and truth.  Here's a thought: the Bible may be true and NOT factual.  But that is a whole other rant!

          4.  Because my experience says it is true.  This is where feminists weigh in.  If someone, anyone, any book, any thing, tells me that something is true that does not resonate with my experience then it is not true for me.  So what if it resonates for someone else?  Then it (whatever 'it' is) is true for them.  Which leads us to understand a world in which there are many truths.

     Clearly, I subscribe to the last idea of spiritual authority.  Are there problems inherent with this  perspective?  Yes.  But there are an equal number of safeguards.  The greatest one being that those who fall in this camp accept that there are many (often conflicting) truths.  But if your life experience is challenged by what another is saying is 'true', the onus is on you to trust yourself.  By the same token, it is incumbent on each of us to honor that what is true for me may not be true for another.

     Why is any of this important?  It is not to water down faith, as some claim but, rather, it deepens our own relationship with ourselves and with Godde.  It is important that we not try to shove ourselves into someone else's relational understanding of the Sacred like so many Cinderella stepsisters and find   ourselves trying to fit into some preconceived understanding of relationship with Godde.  Claiming the authority of our experience leaves the door open for growth and change, for our understandings to unfold as we experience life and love, tragedy and grief, spiritual events and Godde over time.   To whit:  it is not a static understanding of truth, but an organic understanding.

     How do you know something is true?  Or as my seminary professors would ask: what is your final authority?  Can you trust yourself?  Your experiences? Your integrity?  Your willingness and ability to grow and change?

     How do you know something is true?  The answer to that question really matters.