A Love Letter to Eastern Pennsylvania

That is what lay between my aunt and I for years after I answered the call to ministry. I knew that it was because the idea had been planted in her mind that I condemned her, because she was a lesbian and I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The distance hurt both of us, but I did not know how to fix it. The pain of potential rejection blinded this pioneer of women in the film industry to the fact that I too was in a career that was difficult for women. Meanwhile, the pain of what felt like her rejection likewise incapacitated me from communicating to her how I really felt.

That is until she lay dying of cancer.

When the cancer attacked her body, it was not the first time that it had come knocking, but it would be the last. I found myself driving across the state of Pennsylvania as often as I could to visit her. My congregation in Lancaster was incredibly supportive and prayed persistently for her and for me. The loving families of the church made sure I knew that I was not alone.

The ice began to break when I visited her in July, before I went to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I remember sitting in her garden while she still had strength; taking a walk at night to look out over Mount Washington as she told me her story; and getting scolded by her partner Ana for letting her exert too much energy – but really there was no stopping her, there never was.

On my last visit, after returning from South Africa, I visited her in the hospital daily, bringing her a different gift each day. A large blue beaded bracelet that hung loosely from what had once been her muscular forearm. A lamb made out of beads – like her name, Amy K. Lamb. On the last day, I brought her a rainbow pin, made of beads at a hospice near Durban, South Africa. I had purchased three, and began handing them around. One for my aunt, one for her partner, and one more for them to give to a friend. “No,” she said, handing it back to me. “This one is yours.”

Of course it was.

And that’s when I knew- that she understood. That she knew that I did love her and did accept her and did support her.

That was the last time I saw her.

She insisted that I be the only one to lead her funeral. Not everyone understood why, but I did. It did not have anything to do with family politics or favoritism. Suddenly there was so much to say to me, but no time left to say it. It was the only way she had left of communicating something huge that we no longer had the luxury of time to tell one another.

She wanted me to know that she understood how hard what I am doing is. That she supported me. That she trusted me to do the right thing.

So I climbed up in the pulpit of my friend Sue Hutchin’s church in Pittsburgh, and I addressed the largest crowd I had ever stood in front of, there to honor their beloved Amy. And I told her story, every beautiful bit of it.

Silence between us had returned in her physical absence, but it was a comforting silence rather than the silence of distance. It was a silence that spoke everything that needed to be said.

A few weeks ago, sitting in an Internet cafe in Guatemala, I saw with Methogeeky excitement that the Resolutions for Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference had been posted online.

I downloaded the Resolutions to my iPad, and took them back home to pore over them word by word, next to the smoke-billowing chimney of the roof where I lived. I learned about cross-racial appointments, about the persecuted church, and a lot about the proper kitchen and bathroom amenities for parsonages (and I mean a lot… thank you Jim).

But I also read some resolutions that I knew were the kinds of things that had made my aunt feel apprehensive of me. That made her eye me warily for so many years of my early twenties, fearing she was being judged. What I read there in Guatemala gave me fair warning of the day of painful discourse that lay ahead of us in a couple of weeks.

That day has come.
And I can’t be there at the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.
And I hate that I can’t walk this path with you all today, and I hate that I cannot explain why right now; but please believe that my reasons are compelling and that I love you and I am praying for you.

These conversations that we will be having at Annual Conferences all over the country concern me greatly. They concern me because this does not really have to do with faithfulness to the Discipline. I grew up immersed in “church talk” and picked up an awareness of what the Discipline said at an early age without even reading it yet. Even then, growing up in a church that did not allow women in the pulpit, I knew that there were people and congregations that disrespected the Discipline. There are ways that people flaunt Methodist rules or expectations on a weekly basis with few repercussions: from chargeable offenses (like those that support rebaptisms, either leading them themselves or having others do so in order to technically protect themselves); to disregard for process and authority (like those who take on the stole of an elder before having been given the authority to do so); to major Disciplinary infractions (like those congregations who refuse to accept a female minister despite the United Methodist Church’s stance).

We do not have global trauma over any of those acts of disobedience.

This is not really about the Discipline. What this really has to do with is not the passion to enforce church law, but the fear of the real inclusivity of LGBTQ persons that our Book of Discipline claims we prioritize in ¶140.

What this is really about is whether a person is LGBTQ when they seek the blessing of the church on their commitment to being in a monogamous covenant relationship.

But shouldn’t that be what we are all about? I am frankly exhausted, completely exhausted, by the prevalence of other forms of sexuality in our culture – by the constant depictions or rape, adultery, and casual sexuality on television that fills my newsfeed with exuberant commentary from friends, and draws some into addiction to it and even violent acts.

In light of all that, the fact that there are still people – of any gender or orientation – that choose to go against that culture of jumping from person to person and commit themselves to a monogamous, God-oriented covenant offers me so much encouragement and helps me feel less alone in my own lifestyle choice to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.

During school, I felt more comforted and inspired in that lifestyle choice by the presence of integrity-filled, monogamy-seeking gay and lesbian leaders, than I felt by the presence of confused heterosexuals “spreading their wild oats” without any shame about when and where.

I understand that the Book of Discipline is not in full agreement with me, but I think that it could be some day. And I know that the people who are pointing to the Book of Discipline as the final word in their argument, are the same ones who would also have the courage to disobey it if they disagreed strongly enough. I trust their integrity that far. The churches that rebaptize adults and reject female pastors already do disobey the Discipline for their conscience’s sake.

Just as with the scriptures, we have learned to appeal to the things we agree with and ignore those that we do not.

That has never been an option for me, and is not now; I struggle with scripture, and wrestle with the Spirit until I find the blessing in it. Yet, I do believe there are different ways of seeing and understanding scripture. Until the day when those who oppose women in the pulpit also refuse to eat shrimp cocktails and insist women cover their heads, I am going to assume that we are probably on the same page about the authority of scripture more than they realize. Until the day when those who oppose two men standing together at the altar also insist on stoning their teenage victims of rape, then I am going to conclude that our method of reading scripture is similar. We may just have different opinions about which passages to read in context.

There are many of us. Bible-believing, Orthodox Christians. People who proclaim the actual, physical life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God made flesh in human form. Begotten not made. Of the Virgin born. In whom all things were created, things on heaven and on earth.

And who BECAUSE of that – not IN SPITE of that – are encouraged that in this time of confusion and division, there are people who still want to enter into monogamous covenants in pursuit of the glory of God. People. Not gay people. Not straight people. Just people. We are all, in the end, just people. Children of God. Called to love one another. So, let’s act like it.

I do not believe that I have to speak the script of any particular group. I know I’m not Progressive enough for some, and certainly not Conservative enough for others. But what I do know is that I am honest and I am not alone.

If we rip this body called the Church apart, and pull it to two opposing extremes, I may not fit completely comfortably into either (although I do know where I will land); and I am not alone.

Why? Because my faith has nuance and depth, along with orthodoxy; and I am not alone.

Because I can look to Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Howard Thurman as my teachers, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and I am not alone.

I have served rural congregations and urban congregations; and every single place where I have gone, in every single country, the families of those “Family Churches” knew and loved people who were LGBTQ and were looking for the space to love them and support them. And they are not alone.

My aunt may have left me long before her time, but she left me with a silence full of her love and support; and I know that I am by no means alone.

Who are your kin? – (Shared at UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar)

The following was shared at the UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar on May 7, 2014.

Mountains. They are one of God’s favorite places to speak to us. The bible is chock full of them. Mount Ararat, where God made a promise to Noah. Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. The sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration. The Mount of Olives where Jesus gave his final teaching, and later ascended into heaven.

Mount Tabor, where Deborah and Barak assembled their troops.

“How beautiful,” Isaiah 52:7 tells us ” How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

That is what all of you are, the ones who announce peace, good news, and salvation. The ones who trod the mountains of the earth with a step so joyful and so firm that it makes the earth shake.

The cheerful splendor of that verse, however, hides, as we so often do, the real difficult, painful work that climbing mountains can be. Those feet may be beautiful, but they are tired and they are dirty and they are sore as well.

And that may be exactly the point.

About a month ago, I woke up at 2:30 am, and slipped out of a house on the shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. I met up with a guide and I began to hike in utter darkness a five mile ascent so unrelentingly steep that it made me seriously question my lack of prior research into the endeavor.

I did not yet know much spanish, and my guide did not know any English; consequently leaving me with plenty of time to think in between his repetitions of “consado?” and my repetitions of “aqui o alli?”

The brutal difficulty of the task led me pretty quickly to feelings of intense gratitude for whoever it was that had quite literally blazed the trail. I knew I could not have made it up if there had not been many feet that had trod the path before me; driving its imprint deep into the dirt so that I could find my way even in the darkness; placing logs and sticks and stones to prevent the path from being washed away.

And then, of course, I thought of many of you. The ones who have made this possible, and the ones who came before you.

I thought about how hard it has been to blaze these trails, and to climb these mountains. And then I thought about how hard it still is to get up them.

While we have all run into the the cynical types of folks who say things like “things were so much harder in our day” – I hope I can take your presence in this room as an indication that you understand that while the trail may have been blazed for us, young women today are still climbing the same mountains. And we are still chasing the same dawn.

One of our panelists a couple days ago said that the thing that amazed them was that they had been coming to these gatherings for decades, and they felt like when we say what our needs and struggles and problems are – the list never changes.

It can feel as though the dawn never comes.

That can feel discouraging. It can feel like we are sitting in the dark with no way out. But that is not who we are, is it? We are empowered and we are strong and we are taking action and standing for each other’s greatness – right?

We aren’t the kind of women who sit around, as the song says, “just wishing and hoping and dreaming and praying.” We are the kind of women who make things happen.

We don’t wait for the dawn to come. We wake up at 2:30 and we chase the dawn down.

I think that is one of the reasons why Isaiah 58 is the passage that guides my life. Because it does not speak of a dawn that we wait for, it speaks of a dawn that we have a role in creating. It speaks of a dawn that we can chase with our beautiful, tired, dirty, god-glorifying feet.

verses 6-7
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn

Isaiah 58 gives us an endless list of things we can do to see the dawn come. But I have come to see that it starts with recognizing three things.

First, we need to recognize who God really is. Isaiah 58 starts off with a bit of a rant. “Shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

Why? Because God is so frustrated with people acting publicly religious, putting their faith on display and flaunting their relationship with God, while privately oppressing and abusing others and doing the things that hurt God heart. God is tired of people creating God in their own image, to support who they are and condemn others. So God says, listen here, this is who I truly am, and this is what I truly want from you.

Second step, learn to recognize who you truly are. The kind of recognition that goes much deeper than your face reflected in a mirror.

For the past five weeks that I lived in Guatemala, I had no mirror. No hot showers. No blow dryer, make up, nice clothes. And I learned to see myself more clearly than I ever have. I learned to recognize myself in the eyes of others. I learned to see my beauty not through my face in a mirror, but through the love and respect that others gave me. I learned to recognize that who I am was not what I looked like, but what I said and what I did.

I did not tell many people I was a pastor, because the Roman Catholic culture there is not super keen on women pastors. But one night I sat in the kitchen with the mother of the family I was living with, Gloria, as the rain poured down, and she finally asked me what she had been wondering after watching my behavior for a couple weeks. “Eres tu algunes como un sacerdote?” she asked me – “Are you something like a priest?”

I did not need a mirror to know what and who I was. She reflected it back to me.

When I arrived here from Guatemala on Sunday, I had a package waiting for me – with all the things I had not seen in weeks – nice clothes, make up, blower dryer, brush. I put it on Monday and Tuesday, but seeing my face in the mirror again, and putting on the trappings of my old life did not make it easier to recognize myself. So this morning, I dug out my old smokey, dried over a cooking fire clothes from my backpack and put them on – because I am not defined by the face you see and the clothes you see but by the actions you see, the honesty you hear, and the integrity I fight for as I chase the dawn.

So chase the dawn with me and learn to recognize who you truly are, at your deepest, purest, strongest, bravest place.

The third step you take when you are chasing the dawn is the one where you really start to see the light burst forth.

Isaiah finishes the stanza with the statement that when you do “not hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

Friends, this is where it gets real. Recognizing who God is and recognizing who you are is the spiritual prep work for recognizing who your kin are, your family.

If we ever want to see anything change in this church, we have to start recognizing our kin. Why is that important? Because we act differently towards our kin. We feel responsible for our family. We are protective of our family. We protect our own.

When we hide ourselves from our family, we refuse to see them, refuse to claim them, refuse to let their lives impact us, refuse to let their troubles become our troubles, refuse to let their struggles become our struggles, we say that is sad, but that is not my problem – I have boundaries and that is for their kin, their people, to deal with.

I may not have experienced the injustices you have experienced – and you may not have experienced the injustices I have experienced – the world’s not a fair place. But I am your kin, and you are my kin. And I will bleed for you, and I will suffer with you. I will not step out of the way and let you take the blows alone. Those who are close to me know that already.

If you have read Womanist theology or Mujerista theology then you should know already – we won’t ever get anywhere unless we all get there together. The ways of the past, of pushing ahead of one another, of one person or people group succeeding by beating another – that does not get us anywhere. That does not change the church. That does not make us any more like God. The dawn will not break forth until it breaks forth on all of us.

We may be chasing the dawn, but this is not a race.

I may not look like you. I am a millenial to start with (there’s only a few of us in the room), blonde, blue eyed, pale skinned. But I am not defined by my face in a mirror but by my actions in this world. And I am your kin. And I will do what kin do. I will laugh when you are joyful and I will cry when you are sad. I will spill my blood, sweat and tears for you. And never stay silent when I see you being harmed.

We are the people of God, we are not the person of God. We are kin.

When we start to act like it, that is when things will change. It is the only time it ever has. If women had not organized and fought together and worked together and bled together, none of us would be here today. We would not have the vote, we would not have COSROW, we would not have Ordination.

When we feel like nothing will ever change, look back at what has.

Things do change. They change when we start acting like family. Not when we strategize and scheme about how to get ahead of one another. Not when we accept this competitive system that we are trapped in and think our only option is to compromise to protect what we have.

The only way things will change is if we free ourselves. If we refuse to watch a sister slandered, harassed, abused, and stay silent because that is for her kin to deal with.

If enough of us get free. Things will change. Women got free of the expectations of society and marched in the street for the vote. Students and pastors of all races got free of the fear of death and marched in the streets of Birmingham for justice.

We too must get free of the fears and competitions and prejudices and complacencies that hold us back, so that we can recognize who God really is, recognize who we really are, and recognize who our kin really are. Set free together, we can chase the dawn down.

I almost missed the dawn from the summit of Vulkan San Pedro. The climb was steep and hard and dirty and I was tired. But I went faster and faster and faster to catch it – so that I could bring it back here to you and tell you – it is possible to see the dawn of a new day. Next time, let’s watch it rise together.