Friday, March 27, 2020

Our Viral Grief

Often, people think of grief only in terms of loss through death, but we grieve—often very deeply—other types of loss. In the face of pandemic, we have much to grieve from stay-at-home orders and social distancing. We grieve missed hugs, financial losses, and the loss of physical community for worship, work, and school. We grieve lost vacations, sporting events, graduations, weddings, and funerals. 

We want to do the right thing—flatten the curve for everyone—but the losses hurt. How can we process all this hurt and deal with this new, viral grief?

Recognize your feelings. Grief can stir up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings that need to be acknowledged. Feelings are neither good nor bad…they just are. We can’t control what we feel, but we can control how we respond. The first step in responding well to our feelings is to recognize them. 

Accept your feelings. For instance, Christians sometimes think it’s a sin to be angry at God and therefore have a hard time accepting that feeling. The good news is that God’s not afraid of our anger. God’s love in infinite. God can handle our anger and every other feeling our grief might conjure up.  

Express your feelings. Cry. Punch a pillow. Keep a journal. Pray.

Trust that feelings are unique to each of us. People might have the same source of grief but very different feelings about it. Trust that everyone’s doing their best with their feelings…even you! Treat others’ feelings the way you want them to treat yours, even if you might not understand them.

Share your feelings with someone you trust. Often, the most healing part of working through grief is putting the words out there; feelings often lose power in the open air. Talk with someone who listens without judgment, without trying to “fix” the feelings, and without telling you what you “should” do. (And remember to be a good listener when others share their feelings with you!)

C.S. Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” Indeed, we now see in our response to this pandemic just how closely related fear and grief are. God is with us as we wash our hands and struggle with this new—and temporary—normal. God is with us through this uncertainty, fear, and grief. God gave us feelings; let us work through them together. 

This is a slightly edited article I wrote for our church newsletter, and it comes out of my experience as a Stephen Minister and Leader. If you want more information, please email me through the blog. Blessings and peace to everyone. ~Susan

Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Long Time Coming

I've been trying to write this post for several years now. I've written it, but it may not be for you.

This post is for those in the LGBTQ community, and those who wrongly believe that all Christians think gays are going to hell, and for those who are as upset as I am at the harm being done to those who are vulnerable and marginalized.

If you're on the fence about homosexuality and the church, maybe my words will help you.

But if you believe gay people are going to hell, well, I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine. We're going to have to disagree.


This morning I attended--as the only layperson at a table of ordained ministers and seminary students--a discussion of the book Holy Love by Steve Harper, a conservative Methodist theologian who has come out in support of LGBTQ inclusion in our church. He's one of many UMC pastors who, after years of discernment and of ministering to LGBTQ people, have changed their stand on inclusion. If you're wrestling with this issue, I recommend the book.

As you may know, I'm a United Methodist, and our denomination is losing its ever-loving mind over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion in ordained ministry and same-sex marriage. Schism is inevitable and may come as early as the General Conference in May.

Here's the situation. This debate isn't really over human sexuality. That's the presenting symptom. It's really about biblical interpretation. I can't understand the conservative side in this, though I have tried. Truly, I have. But the bottom line for me is this. Harm is being done. The church has established policies and theology that exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation and identity. Bible verses are pulled out of context and used as sticks to exclude and hurt the marginalized, the "different," the "other."

But there is no "other." There is only humanity. All of us. Together in creation. Each one made in the image of God. Each beloved and created to love and serve.

God didn't write the Bible or dictate it to scribes. Claiming that He did turns the Bible into an idol...a leather-bound god we can carry around and hit people over the head with when we judge that they are misbehaving. It's also not the "inerrant word of God." The inerrant word is the fully divine, fully human Jesus. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to help us grow in faith and spread the gospel of love because God is, in fact, love. The Bible is, instead, a collection of writings by divinely inspired humans spanning centuries that was gathered together in the early church as our faith's foundational document.

The Bible, divinely inspired, shows us the story of God's relationship with His creation and how he has worked in the world. It shows how He shepherded us from being polytheists--who sacrificed our children and animals in attempts to bargain with gods--to monotheists with a gospel of mercy, grace, peace, and love for all. Parts of the story are "go and do likewise," and parts of the story are warnings of what not to do (idol worship, treating the poor badly, hoarding wealth, not welcoming the stranger).

Parts are specific to a historical context (Ruth sleeping with Boaz; God ordering Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho as a sacrifice to him), and parts speak to the eternal will of God (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself). The Bible is by turns poetry, prophesy, letters, history, myth, and even advice column. It's a book full of contradictions, context, and complexity. It's a wonderful book that you should read for yourself, wrestle with, question, explore, interpret.

But if you take away anything from the Bible that doesn't make you love each and every one of God's children as you love yourself, then you're reading it wrong.

All means all.

My church used to advertise the motto Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors. But three passages in our Book of Discipline shine light on the hypocrisy of that welcoming motto. One excludes self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from ordained ministry, one says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and one says marriage is between a man and a woman.

For years, these passages have been quietly ignored in many parts of the UMC. We have LGBTQ pastors serving all over the world and even an openly queer bishop. (We also have an African bishop who's a polygamist, and that is ignored as well, in the name of cultural difference.) Complaints have been brought against pastors who marry same-sex couples. Some are acted on; some are simply ignored. That's part of being a "big tent" church; you allow for difference and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

However, recent legislation was enacted so that if a pastor marries a same-sex couple, he or she will lose position and pay for a year. A second offense means defrocking. These sentences are mandatory and cannot be ignored, and no other infraction is punishable this way. This is what the conservative forces in the UMC passed a year ago, trying to give teeth to their interpretation of the Bible as the inerrant, eternal, absolute will of God.

My mother called me after that vote, heartbroken and in tears, and said, "This is not my church."

Harm is being done. Lovely humans who happened to be born gay or trans or queer are being told they cannot answer God's call to ministry in my church. Lovely humans who want to grow in their faith and deepen their relationships with God are told they simultaneously are welcome and abominations...a toxic mixed message. Lovely couples who want a committed, monogamous, God-centered relationship are told they cannot be married in the church or by a UMC pastor. Lovely UMC pastors are gutted when they have to say no to those requests or risk their livelihood.

The Bible has a lot to say about women shutting up in church, not teaching in church, submitting to men. Yet half of UMC pastors in the United States are women. The Bible has a lot to say about how to treat your slaves (beating is just fine, in case you didn't know) and how slaves should submit to their masters. Yet no one today considers slavery anything other than an abomination in the eyes of God. That's because the Holy Spirit is alive and kicking in the world, moving us TOWARD perfection. We imperfect humans resist. I know I do, every single day. But the Spirit's movement is forward, not back to a world so broken God had to clothe Himself in flesh to show us how to treat each other.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said we should do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. The UMC does a lot of good, and people on all sides of this conflict are deeply, profoundly in love with God. But harm is being done in the name of the UMC and in the name of biblical interpretation.

If you are a person who happens to be LGBTQ, know that God loves you as you are, and many of us in the UMC welcome and affirm you. Every person at the study table with me today is committed to a theology of grace and love. I left the meeting full of hope. A denomination will come out of this mess where all who love Jesus will be welcomed, affirmed, and invited to full participation in the life of the church.

Please, do not grow weary. Please, do not turn away from God. Please, do not give up hope. You are loved. I am loved. Those who are doing harm--knowingly or unknowingly--are loved. The Spirit is working. I witnessed that today.

Mercy, grace, peace, and love,