Because He Could

Because He Could

When I left for Cincinnati last week I flew out of Denver International Airport. I have been in over 100 commercial airports in the United States and some of the TSA agents at DIA are among the most power hungry I have encountered. I always fly with a container of dry powder – okay – it’s Metamucil – I know – TMI. Anyway, I never need to take it out of my bag, except when I am at the Denver airport.

Knowing it’ll be flagged, I place the orange container in one of the dog-dish bowls and put it through the x-ray machine. They pick it up – shake it to satisfy themselves it is a powder, and I’m on my way. On this day there were no bowls so I placed it at the top of my open purse, obvious to all. They stopped the x-ray machine and waited two minutes for someone to come and pick up my purse for “additional screening.” The guy sitting beside the x-ray machine said, “Oh never mind. It’s only Metamucil.” But the agent who came decided to make a show of the importance of searching my bag.

Mind you, to even get to this dedicated screening lane I submitted to interviews and fingerprint clearances with both CLEAR and TSA Pre-Check. Yet this one person decided he had to search my bag, the one with the dangerous Metamucil in it.

I said, “This is so frustrating. This is the only airport in the entire frippin’ nation that pulls a bag for Metamucil. The only one.” To which the TSA agent responded, “Ma’am, if you are going to cuss at me we can call my boss over and you will be in a heap of trouble. Do you want to get into that? Do you? Do you want to fly today or not? You’d better treat me with respect.”

All of this was spoken with a palpable condescension designed to bait me, pure and simple. He wanted to flex his power and pull me into a bigger conflict. Knowing I was in a position without power I said, “Just do your job.” I was livid.

The TSA agent treated me this way because he could. He was one of far too many power hungry men in positions of authority. In his book, In Sheep’s Clothing, Dr. George Simon says there are more power hungry abusers in the military, law enforcement, and the ministry than in any other profession. All three give men with weak ego structures the unchecked power they lack without their positional authority.

I said nothing more, took my bag and walked away. I was able to walk away because I was White and at a busy airport in Colorado, not Black on a quiet highway in rural Texas.

Sandra Bland’s response to the officer who arrested her was utterly and completely understandable. It was the response of a woman flabbergasted she was being treated so ridiculously. I do not know what happened in the jail, but I know what I saw on the arrest video – a Black woman showing justified frustration, initially expressed no more vociferously than I expressed my frustration to the TSA agent. While I was treated condescendingly, my civil rights were not violated. Ms. Bland’s were. This kind of behavior will not stop until we all show outrage and stop it. I do not care what color you are. This will not be a just society until we all realize Black Lives Matter!

Saying Yes To What Is

Saying Yes To What Is

For years I remained within the institutional church, situated at what Richard Rohr would call “the edge of the inside.” From my Bible college days I asked questions that had no answers. I did not see things dualistically, black/white, right/wrong, in/out. My struggle with my gender identity taught me this is a complicated world in which suffering is the norm. I was not going to accept a faith that did not acknowledge that reality.

People in the church often became angry with me because they wanted to hear something with which they already agreed. They did not get that from me – not from my preaching or my magazine columns or the seminary courses I taught. My mentor, Dr. Byron Lambert said, “The truth is hard to tell and the truth is hard to tell.” What he was saying was the truth is hard to discern and equally difficult to communicate. That instruction formed the heart of my ministry.

We cannot start the religious journey without structure. We need boundaries to control our developing egos. But when our faith never leaves those rules and regulations, religion becomes little more than an evacuation plan for earth dwellers. Follow the rules and heaven is yours. All it takes is a willingness to color inside the lines. It is still all about you – your ego – your personal comfort. That kind of religion does not even demand love.

Rohr suggests the first phase of faith could be called the construction phase, and the next is the period of deconstruction. We enter this phase when we encounter suffering, life’s greatest teacher. Suffering occurs when we are not in control. Having to stop for a traffic light is an infinitesimally small form of suffering. Losing your work and your friends because you dare to live your own life instead of the one mapped out for you is another form of suffering. Cancer, or the loss of a loved one, is an even greater form of suffering. Suffering helps us see that a religion of rules and regulations is utterly inadequate. For many this is the stage in which faith is dormant, if not altogether lost. In this period we are often angry. But if we work through our anger, we come to the next phase of faith – reconstruction.

In reconstruction we lose our superiority complex and return to Jesus in genuine humility. We understand Christianity is not about meritocracy. It is about grace. We realize our soul never needed answers. It needed meaning, and the story of redemptive suffering found in Jesus holds all the meaning we need. We embrace mystery and realize, as Rohr says, that mystery is not unknowable, it is endlessly knowable – truth unfolding in deeper and surer ways as we live into it. And when the day is done that kind of faith will bring us to a place in which we can accept the profound truth that love is saying yes to what is.

I’m not there yet.

It Begins in the Dark

It Begins in the Dark

I grew up in Carter County, Kentucky.  About ten miles west was Carter Caves State Park.  As with most Kentucky parks there was the obligatory lake, lodge, campground, golf course, etc.  But I went there for the caves, especially Bat Cave.  Cave Branch creek flowed out of the cave, meandering through rhododendron, beech, yellow poplar, and sugar maple.

I always entered Bat Cave with at least one friend, each of us carrying two sources of light.  About 100 yards inside the daylight dimmed to a dull distant flicker before leaving us totally in the dark.  When our lights were extinguished it was darker than any night I have ever known.  Yet there was something comforting about the dark.  In David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness, he writes about the work of the heart that can only be done in the darkness, “The dark will be your home tonight.  The night will give you a horizon further than you can see.”

The nighttime is when the distant light gets in, the kind that takes countless years to make its patient way to our perceiving eyes.  In Learning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor suggests we go to a counselor when we want to be led out of a cave, but we go to a spiritual director when we want to be led further in.  All life starts in the dark, from conception to that first Easter morning.  It is when we willingly venture deep into the darkness that new life begins.

Yet the darkness is so terribly frightening.  Though I loved Bat Cave, I barely tolerated the 40,000 Indiana bats that hibernated there during the winter months.  A January visit brought the unsettling view of 1.4 miles of undulating walls of mouse-eared bats.  It was scary in there.  Yet on the other side of the fear was exotic beauty.  Deep in the cave were shallow ponds with ribbon-like walls and delicate translucent fish.  There were large caverns with stalactites of shimmering crystals that welcomed our temporary light.  And we always knew if our lights failed us, we could follow Cave Run creek back to the light of day.

Though I learned long ago there is beauty in the darkness, I still resist going there.  We all do.  It’s human nature.  The last 18 months have brought a lot of dark days I could not avoid.  But in those dark days I discovered my true grounding in the faith that found its way through cracks and fissures into the dark night.  It has been a long 18 months, but I discovered even in the deepest of caves, trusting the flow eventually leads you back to the light.  Trusting the flow was all I had on which to rely, and it was enough.

Yesterday I returned to one of the churches planted by the Orchard Group, Forefront Brooklyn, and received a genuinely warm and inviting welcome.  I participated in unique, meaningful worship and listened to a well-researched, imaginatively crafted message I did not want to end.  I saw ethnic and cultural diversity, and observed a community moving boldly forward in radical grace.  All of it the reward of trusting the flow.

Sweet Darkness ends with the wise words, “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”  I was brought alive in worship on Sunday, and it was good, very good.

A Living, Breathing, Document

A Living, Breathing, Document

In writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, “No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family…It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Many conservatives are up in arms about the decision. Fellow Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.” Okay… I guess we could say the court is sharply divided.

The justices are often divided about how the United States Constitution should be interpreted. Scalia and those on the right believe in originalism. They are convinced the Constitution should always be interpreted according to the specific language of its authors. Beyond that, the democratic process should take precedence. Kennedy and others believe the Constitution is a living and breathing document, in which the intent of the authors is taken into consideration, but interpreted in light of the growing body of human knowledge added since the document was written. For instance, the founding fathers knew little or nothing of monogamous homosexual relationships, but today we understand the common nature of these relationships and the rights that should be afforded to these individuals.

While many Christians are enraged by Kennedy’s words, the truth is the Bible has been seen as a living and breathing document for centuries. We no longer consider ourselves bound by the 613 laws of the Old Testament, because those teachings found their completion in Jesus. But those are not the only changes we have made in our understanding of scripture. At the time the Bible was written slavery was common, and the scriptures encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters. Do we believe that instruction today? The question of obedience is not even relevant, because we do not believe there should be slaves and masters.

It is the church’s living and breathing response to historical change that brought about that shift in understanding. The same could be said of eating meat sacrificed to an idol, or Paul’s admonition that it is best for Christians to remain unmarried. And some would argue (and I would agree), the same could be said for monogamous gay relationships. Historically we have not viewed the Bible as a book of ironclad rules. We have seen it as a divinely inspired document to be understood and interpreted by the church embodied in each culture and age.

Christianity is not primarily propositional, or doctrines to be believed. It is not primarily experiential, a feeling to be received. Christianity is a language to be learned, and you learn a language by immersing yourself in the culture, in this case, the body of Christ. By living together and loving God and neighbor, the scripture takes on meaning, not as a book of rules, but as a divinely inspired guide to our common life.

Just as the members of the Supreme Court came to different conclusions on gay marriage, Christians will come down on both sides of this issue. We have a choice. Those on either side can treat the other with respect and grace, or we can follow Antonin Scalia’s example and excoriate our peers and call their words pretentious and egotistic. We get to decide the spirit we will exhibit. The world gets to decide what they think of that spirit.

And so it goes.