Making Safe Space Safe: A Tough Call to Make


I don’t recommend taking drugs before going to a viewing. I’m not talking about Valium or a sedative, washed down with a glass of whiskey. I’m talking about the sort of high that makes you forget your own name, pronouncing it over and over again to hear if it ever sounds familiar as you try to remember how to walk. That kinda high. And if you do make this colossal mistake of a decision, don’t select a viewing of a car crash victim. With the sight of her broken hands folded over her abdomen clearly stuffed with something to compensate for the shattered sternum and ribs that punctured her lungs and caused her to die reaching for a cassette tape on the passenger seat floor. Because that corpse will be wearing makeup, even if the person who inhabited the body never wore it, and was particular about what went on her skin. Don’t get ridiculously high and not have enough sense to introduce yourself to the family; don’t approach the casket, gather around with the 6 friends–also high–who are with you, and stare. And gasp. And whisper, “What the fuck” loud enough that someone can hear it. I think. It has been many years. I might have added that detail in the memory, perhaps wanting to act like the affront was the open casket and not the intoxicated twenty somethings bursting into the viewing and leaving within minutes, all without a word to family or friends. Don’t do it because it will haunt you.

In my vocation, I come across death fairly regularly. Expected death. Unexpected death. Slow death. Quick death. Deaths that bring with them relief; deaths that destroy family dynamics to such an extent, the pieces never come back together. Deaths where I have to remain emotionally unattached. Perhaps that’s not an accurate description. One of my spiritual practices is the cultivation of compassion; understanding the experience of mourning without making it about my experience or projecting my own emotional needs upon the family and friends of the deceased. Funerals are not the place to speak empty platitudes, or feign emotions that are not present. For me, serving in times of grief means being able to share the emotional space without placing needs or expectations on others; to allow myself to respond to their processing while being present in the moment. Mourning does not happen on a schedule; fretting about the future or what comes tomorrow can fill a person with dread and anxiety. Sometimes we need to be given permission to live in the moment, to surrender to the seemingly overwhelming emotions, to allow them to overtake us and wring us dry. 

I have a funeral tomorrow. One which takes place within the sanctuary of First Presbyterian, but one over which I will not preside. I am reading one prayer, and sitting with the family. By their request. The presiding pastor is theologically my opposite. He was once president of a local college known for its conservative Christianity. And while I would be loathe to surrender my pulpit or to allow for a wedding to take place as officiated by a conservative pastor, a funeral is different. Burying  the dead is one of the most ancient things we do as human beings. It is at the heart of Christianity. So why would I insert myself into a process that is central to my faith tradition just because I have theological and social views that are different from the pastor requested by the deceased? To me, that would be unChristian. 

I write this not to congratulate myself, but to be transparent. I have been very public about saying that First Presbyterian Church is a safe space for GLBT persons. While I do not know the presiding pastor personally, it is safe to assume that someone who served as president of that college locals know I’m talking about will have rather strident and stringent anti-GLBT+ views. I will not allow pastors who are against same-gender marriage to perform weddings in the sanctuary. But in the case of a funeral, I think that my duty is to be hospitable, loving,  and supportive for the family. The members of the family have been attending worship the past two Sundays, and have asked that I sit with them. This is a great honor for me, and I believe that God is calling me to prove that I will not let personal feelings prevent me from serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. I am not called to preside over this funeral, but rather to pastor. 

I feel a bit torn, though. I know I am doing what my heart tells me to do and what I believe is God’s calling, but I also know how important it is to have a consistently safe space. And I have very publicly declared FPCYS a safe space. I hope that my quandary is more owed to my own assumptions, and that there will be little to no evidence of anything that would indicate that my fears are well-placed. But I know how fervent this school has been in silencing and oppressing GLBT+ persons, both on and off campus. I also know some incredible people who earned their degrees from there, including one who is queer and is also a pastor. So this situation might be an opportunity for me to further unpack my assumptions and prejudices. I’m thinking about safe space, though, and what is required; the ways in which a safe space needs to be versatile, to encompass all those who approach and ask for refuge. For hospitality. For service. For the presence of Christ.  

God of comfort, hear my prayer. 

     

Consolidated Forgiveness


I have lots of student loan debt. I’m an Xer, so that is not a surprise. Our generation has the distinct honor of being the first to face total financial ruin because of how much it costs to go to school and gain certifications. Millennials seem to just assume that their lives will be defined by debt. It is a brave new world. 

Periodically, I get letters about consolidating loans or even applying for loan forgiveness. The language of this is striking. Consolidating our debts; seeking out ways of forgiveness. I don’t know if Great Lakes is in the business of sparking theological thought, but they did with me. 

I have decided to move to the Narrative Lectionary, and the summer begins with a six-week series on 2 Corinthians. For any Trump supporters who might read this, it’s pronounced second Corinthians. The opening chapter is about consolation.  Paul is dealing with a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. The last time he was there, a member said something that really pissed him off. The congregation disciplined him, but when Paul canceled a trip to return it appears that all hell broke loose. Scholars have spent a long time trying to piece together the myriad letters (and allusion to letters) that are contained in 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter that Paul wrote to Corinth. He writes because of a previous letter. WHich was harsh. Very harsh. And people did not receive it well. I know how that goes.  To address it, Paul begins by essentially saying, I know that there are hurt feelings. And I know that I played a role in that. Paul offers words of consolation, not necessarily of apology.  He thanks God for God’s comfort. 

Consolation is different from forgiveness. Consolation is tending to a person’s emotions, trying to soothe and assure them that distress is temporary. No matter how devastating the blow, time will lessen the acuteness of pain. I hesitate to use a word such as recover, so perhaps adjust is better. Consolation is the promise that circumstances will once again change, and things will adjust. 

Forgiveness is investing oneself in the process of adjustment, either as the person who receives it or as the one who administers it. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your actions, and owning your mistakes; forgiveness means working through your pain and recommitting to a relationship with a person who has hurt you. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of asking for forgiveness when we should be in the process of consoling. Sometimes the person seeking forgiveness needs consolation, too, even if the aggrieved are not ready to extend absolution.  Sometimes we can be so blinded by our own pain that we do not recognize the pain we are causing to others. Acknowledging that yours is not the only pain can go a long way in repairing relationships. 

Today, I set for myself a prayer project. I do these every now and again. I am praying on knowing how to separate who I am as a pastor and who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. This may seem odd, but I am learning that it is vital if I am to be effective as a minister. To be fulfilled as a Christian. And as I was praying and reflecting, I realized that I need to be able to console even if I am not forgiven. Even if I have not forgiven. Consolation is essential to relationships and community. Consolation allows us to step outside of ourselves and even to gain perspective. God consoles us before God forgives us. Because the journey is the destination. . 

I think I sometimes seek consolidated forgiveness. I want to stack up all my sins and put them in a package, setting them before God–before others?–and say, “Here. Forgive this, please!”  Paul, in his letter, lets know that there needs to be some pain before forgiveness. God will console, and we should as well, but forgiveness without full investment in the process is not a forgiveness that will feel complete or livable. If we are too quick to forgive, or too quick to seek forgiveness, we might just be setting ourselves up for continued strife. Regardless, we should aim not to hurt people’s feelings purposefully, and remember that despite continued tensions, we still care for one another. We are still able to console.

Today, I am thankful for God’s consolation in the midst of being unforgiven. Unforgiving. Today I am thankful for the friends and colleagues who have reached out to console, to forgive, to express solidarity. I am thankful to the people who reached out to me for ministry help, still trusting me to be of service to them and providing the opportunity to offer consolation myself. Today I am thankful for a person who so powerfully empathized with me that she took on physical pain. 

All things in love, love in all things.    

Blessing Zay

In case you don’t know her, this is Zay. Click here for a short film The Cincinnati Enquirer did on her and the family last year. Knowing her story is pretty important to understanding this blog.

I met Zay when she still went by her birth name and responded to male pronouns. She was full of energy and in the cast of The Three Penny Opera, a show that also featured my wife. I thought that it was really cool that her parents supported a gender-fluid child. Over the coming months I–like many of us lucky enough to be in her life–understood that Zay is a girl. She is not a boy who likes to wear dresses; she is not confused or experimenting or trying to be cool. She is trying to survive. She is trying to be who she knows herself to be.

There are not many people I will say I admire; respect? Yes. Love? Yes? Appreciate? Yes. But admire? That’s a high bar. Zay’s parents, Chass and Jason, are two people I admire. Because as hard as it was for Zay to give voice to herself, it was equally hard for them to understand what was going on, what they needed to do, and how they could go about doing it. I have marveled at their tenacious dedication to let love and compassion overpower fear and uncertainty. Having held the hands of trans* persons as they recounted horrific tales of unspeakable violence by their own family members, I know (as well as a cisgender person can) how incredibly important family support is when coming out and transitioning, and how lucky Zay is to be facilitating transition as she goes through puberty. This community is not unfamiliar with trans* persons; we already helped produce the inimitable Trace Lysett (although I speak with no authority on Trace’s transition or experiences), but we are by no means a perfect community. There is trans* phobia here, and transitioning can be rough. Zay’s parents have done an incredible thing for their daughter, while all the while mourning the loss of a son. It is a tough dynamic.

I’ve been on the organizing committee for Yellow Springs Pride for the past several years, and that is really how I go to know Zay and Chass the best. The year I was the featured speaker, Zay was crowned Pride Queen. She led the parade and the village rallied around her. I’ll be honest and say that I only ever see Zay smiling, but I know there have been difficult times. I know that being who she is takes a toll on her, on her family, on the dynamics they face each day. I wish it were different, but it is not. As wonderfully supportive as family and friends are, fear and uncertainty make people behave badly and there is no avoiding it. That’s why days like today are so important.

I was asked several weeks ago to put together a blessing service for Zay on the day that her name becomes legal. Friends and family gathered at the county courthouse before packing into a small courtroom to witness the historic event. The guards, court officials, and magistrate were lovely. Absolutely lovely. They recognized this as a huge event and were nothing but cheerful, enthusiastic, and helpful. As nonbinary people continued to join our ranks, there was no snide remarks, no persons pointing, no untoward questions about genitals. It was an amazing moment when the magistrate declared that “Zay Irene Crawford” is now one step closer to being her legal name recognized on all documents. We clapped and cheered and laughed and hugged and cried. It was beautiful.

After, we gathered together at a local park to break bread and share stories. Zay flitted around and fed the ducks, danced, and greeted her admirers. It came time for me to give the blessing, which I did–and you can read it below–while trying not to cry. Zay stood next to me as everyone encircled us, a physical representation of our spiritual commitment to surround Zay with love all of her days.

In many Christian denominations, I would be defrocked for what I did today. The fact that I am so open about my support of the GLBT community–a community to which I belong–means that many churches and many Christians won’t have me as a member or as a pastor. But I feel that today I followed Christ in one of the most significant acts I could do: affirming the idea that Zay is not an abomination, not an affront to God, not a boy who thinks he is a girl, but rather a wonderfully made, radically loved miracle. I was able to be a vehicle to communicate God’s love and compassion, to express that God’s wondrous creation is so much more intricate and beautiful than the binary spectrum reflects.

This, friends. This is why I went to seminary. This is why I seek to serve. I am invited into the most powerful, intimate moments of people’s lives as a symbol of God’s presence, as a reminder of our undeniable connection to one another. I may have delivered the blessing today, but Zay IS the blessing.

The Ceremony 

William Shakespeare famously queried, “What’s in a name?” The ancients believed a lot. Abram, the founder of the three great monotheistic faiths, became Abraham as a testimony of his transformation; Sarai, his beloved and the matriarch, became Sarah. Millennia later, a passionate Jew named Saul was so overcome with a sense of God, be changed his name to Paul and helped bring forth a new revelation. Around the world, Jews and Christians take religious names at bar and bat mitzvahs, christenings and confirmations. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are named in honor of their prophet and revered figures. What’s in a name, indeed.

Names are highly symbolic within the vast variety of Native American tribes and nations. The blood of Native ancestors runs through Zay’s veins, and while today is not an official naming ceremony in a Native tradition, the spirit of such a hallmark event is present in this moment. Zay—in ways that most of us cannot imagine at her age—understands central aspects of herself, an understanding that transcends years on earth. She has a deep, intrinsic knowledge of who she is, and she has spent most of her life explaining that to others. In her bones, in her body, in her mind, in her soul, and in her heart Zay Irene Crawford understands that she is a young woman meant to grow more fully into her identity. Today, we recognize that; we recognize her strength and beauty as a child of God.

I now ask that Zay’s family come forward. Please repeat after me.

On this special day, we surround you with love. We affirm who you are, and embrace you on your journey. We will walk in solidarity as you continue your path, and we pledge our unwavering support. In this family, you are a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, a beloved of our own. As long as we are with you, you will never be alone.

Zay, please repeat after me.

I, Zay Irene Crawford, do proclaim that this is my name. It identifies who I am called to be. I take the name of my grandmother, Irene, which means “peace,” and the name of my family. I am to you a daughter and a sister, niece and granddaughter, and you are beloved to me. As long as you are with me, I will never be alone. 

In every tradition, a community gathers around a new name. A community that pledges to love, to seek justice, to extend compassion, and to be present in the wonders and mysteries of life. Will those present who feel so moved, affirm their continued support of Zay and her family by repeating after me: As long as you are together, we will be here.

In the Love of the Creator, the Source of All Things, the Unnamable Spirit, we lift up our hearts and present to the world, Zay Irene Crawford.

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

firstpresby

I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.

Practicing Resurrection: Naked Night Fishing

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959
Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11550

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 

This week has been dark for me. Painful. Disconcerting. Maddening. As each day passed, with its attenuating missed experiences, I sank further into a dirty nest of blankets and sweat. It is an odd thing, this illness. I have no broken bone or plummeting T-cell count to which I can point and say, “Here. This is why I can’t. This is why I simply can’t.” Even the experts who provide my care admit, at some point it just takes faith that we’ll figure out how to deal with the chemicals that course through my brain. It seems almost everyone has an opinion: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that; have you tried yoga? How can I do yoga when I’m night fishing nude and nothing is biting?

It is perhaps my greatest fear: to be followed by people and for us to catch nothing. To be sitting in the boat, completely exposed, with people looking at me and shaking their heads in disappointment. That demon visited this week; he unpacked, got himself comfortable, and refused to leave my side. In the darkness, when I cast out my line, nothing worth keeping bit. Self-doubt, fear, feelings of insecurity, dread, and self-loathing were abundant; they leapt into the boat and flopped around, fighting for the same air as I. As they slapped against my naked flesh, my demon sat in the boat with me, pointing to each species and saying, “This? This is what you will use to feed the people? This is what you offer to others in service to your God? This isn’t palatable. No wonder the congregation is shrinking.”

Sarah Silverman has a comedy special titled Jesus is Magic. Sadly, this notion often passes for theology. Despairing? Give it to Jesus? Angry? Look to Jesus. But what we often forget is that there are times in our lives in which we will be nude, fishing in the dark and catching nothing. And that’s where I was, my boat becoming a rotating cast of people I feared I was disappointing or letting down. Family. Friends. Congregants. Each had a turn. Some stayed longer than others. Some came back for repeat visits. For me, depression is not lonely. It is filled with visitors. And it matters not that I am, in reality, surrounded by wonderful, amazing, supportive people who love me; in my head, they are just being fooled. I know the truth. In the darkness, I see who I really am.

At least that is the best way for me to describe it. Depression is not rational; it cares not for degrees or loving words from others. Depression eats happiness and sows seeds of self-hatred. It shuts everything else out and demands my full attention.

This morning I think I heard Jesus whisper “Child.” The boat seems less filled with menacing creatures, and I do believe that is sunlight rising behind Jesus’ form. And I tell you, I want to jump out of this boat like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan. The Greek text describes Peter as girding up his loins with his clothing, and jumping into the water instead of waiting for the vessel to dock. I get that. It is a sense that the darkness might be abating.

There are times when we stay on the boat with all the fish Jesus has helped us to gather, and there are times that we jump into the water, determined to get to Jesus first, even if it only lasts for a few precious minutes. The thing is, I don’t think God judges us one way or the other, really. When I’m strong, when I’m doing well, when the meds are doing their work and I’m doing mine, I’m on that boat. I’m gathering the fish together and telling the others on the boat to take a break and go see Jesus. I got it covered. I’ll finish the haul. I’ll mend any nets needing tending. Go. Be with God. I’m good.

I hope to be back there soon. As I said, the sun is coming up and I’m about to jump into the water and start swimming. I look forward to being with God, and to the breakfast I will share with others. A few months ago, the Session of the church I serve agreed to allow  Communion each Sunday after the service during the season of Easter. I’m anticipating that it will be the most delicious, filling, and empowering meal I will have had in a long time. People will be there. Not visitors. Not demons.Not creatures demanding to be named and acknowledged. God’s children. Together. And we will be fed. And we will see Jesus. Some will have taken the boat. Some will have swam. But we will be there together.