6 may 2016: race, gender and the language of welcome

Early last week, on the way to a multi-day meeting in Eastern Kentucky, I was sharing a ride with a colleague and another colleague remarked that he would join us, “to keep Deb and Josh straight.” I noted, in a playful way, that “straight is overrated.” 

Yeah, yeah. It’s a line I stole from someone, and you’ve probably heard me use it. For me, it’s just a tiny reminder that language affects us. That we hear differently. 

During those same meetings, I was chatting breezily with colleagues with whom I was sharing a dorm, and in the conversation I said something like “what’s a little white lie among friends.” And was suddenly, painfully, aware of the blackness of both of these colleagues. My words stuck in my throat as I apologized. 

A few days before all that, in a worship service not at Woodside, the person offering the prayers used the common “traditional” prayer that Jesus would “wash us white as snow.” But the prayer was read by a black woman. Which gave me pause. 

You may think this is about being “politically correct,” which some folks say is ruining America. But when I try to hear the words from the perspective of the one who is not me, they sound different. What does it suggest when we say a white lie isn’t all that bad, but a black lie is awful? What does it communicate to hear a black woman pray to be washed “white as snow”? (I actually believe the prayers were pre-written by the worship planners, as our prayers are here at Woodside. I hoped the writer was also listening at that moment.) 

Even if we agree that language matters, fear of saying the wrong thing can keep us from talking at all. I get that. 

I’m telling you all this, not only because the work of understanding and healing isn’t done, but because we are embracing the next compassion journey here at Woodside and around the world. 

As I’ve written recently, there is a wave of legislation crossing America that intends to draw lines around the realities of our transgender brothers and sisters, lines that would keep some of us out, devalue our humanity, or dismiss our experiences. So-called bathroom bills are one way, but there are others. (I’m thrilled to note that in Michigan, the Secretary of State recently enacted a policy change that would allow transgender residents to change their gender on their drivers’ licenses without requiring any surgical interventions. She has said by this policy that we should believe people when they tell us who they are.) 

Sandhya Jha wrote, in her book we’re reading together, “If we don’t find a way to listen to one another’s stories across difference … we’ll keep rebuilding the foundations of the Beloved Community over and over again. … A lack of concern about one another’s narratives has led us to neglect of the load-bearing walls.” 

Woodside has a loving heart and a warm spirit of welcome. Visitors tell us this all the time. We mean it, and we work at it. And maybe it is partly a result of our having not been welcomed somewhere else. We don’t want to do to others what we did not like having done to us. That’s a great thing, and I love this congregation. But as I’ve talked with members and worshippers, I’ve realized that we lack language, awareness of each other’s stories, especially about what it means to be transgender. 

Recently, in conversation with an acquaintance who is transgender, I remarked about the trend toward “gender neutral bathrooms,” and he said “I’m not gender neutral.” 

It’s tricky. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong words, so we don’t talk at all, and that’s not usually helpful. So, I’m going to try to help. To invite us to talk even if we use the wrong words while we learn the right ones, and to help us find entre into each other’s stories. I’m going to urge us to listen to what we say, to imagine how our words may be heard by others, and to be willing to adjust our language to widen the welcome and minimize the pain. 

And I’m going to invite us to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To correct each other, to unravel more conversation that helps us get where we’re going, to assume that we are doing all this in the spirit of Jesus, a spirit of compassion and care. Understanding one another won’t always lead to like each other, but it will take us further along the justice road. 

And that, ultimately, is what it means to be resurrection people. 

With you on a journey to life, 

 

 

— pastor deb 

21 april 2016: the rabbit hole

There’s a series on Hulu I’ve fallen for lately, only 8 episodes, so not too much of a distraction. It is called 11.22.63, which, ofcourse, is the day Kennedy was shot and killed in Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The short story is that Jake, a high school and adult ed teacher from Maine in 2015, learns through a friend about a time portal, the “rabbit hole,” through which he can travel back to October 1960. The friend, dying from cancer as a result of Agent Orange, persuades
Jake to go back and prevent the assassination, to prevent the ramp-up in Vietnam, which he blamed on Johnson, and so ultimately to prevent the friend’s cancer. So Jake tries it. And without ruining the whole thing for you, I can tell you this lesson he learned pretty quickly: when you try to change the past, the past pushes back.

I’ve been thinking about that, not so much because I believe in time travel (although there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know and am not willing to write off), but because of things we can’t see that try to make us conform, that try to keep us from causing “trouble.”

In social and political discourse, we refer to the “system,” and in some corners, folks still talk about “the man.” In this electoral season, it’s “the establishment.” As in the parties, PACS and
profiteers that control us, that write the social equation to their own benefit, that won’t take no for an answer.

At both ends of the political spectrum, there is a disgruntled bunch saying “no” and trying to
make it stick. The ones on the far right and the ones on the far left have only this in common:
an acute awareness that something isn’t working. Of course, we don’t agree on what isn’t working, much less how to fix it, but each edge has embraced what it considers an off-the-radar candidate to carry its flag.

Now, you know me, and you know I believe the right has it wrong. You probably could guess that I don’t think the left is nearly left enough. I get this from scripture. So, let’s concede that I’m out of the mainstream, the 80 percent in the middle where candidates will duke it out in the general election.

But from that vantage point, here’s what I see: people challenging the system, and the system
fighting back. Against the people. Like this:

 Disenfranchising voters. Voter ID laws that confuse and manipulate; voting machines that don’t work, or ballot shortages in critical precincts; voters inclined a particular way finding their party affiliation changed or their names inexplicably dropped from the rolls; people of color, captured their own communities and hauled off to some other, whiter, community where they won’t have a right to vote or where their personhood will be counted differently;

 Tilting media coverage. I know. I can’t believe I ever doubted this, but it has been so blatant this season as to give me chills. After the debate here, CNN’s clips on the post-debate show were manipulated to flip the story about who got the most applause; after one recent
primary, the tabulations of the less desirable, but winning, candidate were on the screen, but it was the face of the one who lost, the establishment’s choice, which was shown prominently on the screen, perhaps to boost the public impressions of the candidate’s strength. Writers I trust
seem to have given up on their long-held ideals, suddenly jumping on some other bandwagon. Is it because they’re syndicated by major corporations? Even facebook seems to be manipulating coverage; watch what “trends,” and tell me if you think I’m wrong.

It could be that I’m just a jaded conspiracy theorist. Or it could be that the establishment is in full defense mode. Because the system isn’t working and people are catching on.

Establishment. System. The man. Big Pharma. Wall Street. In church, we call them the
powers and principalities. And some would add “church” to the list.

No good for you, no good for me.

Paul, the apostle, wrote that our fight is not against people, but against the forces of self-absorption, against the powers and principalities.

With all due respect to Paul, the powers and principalities are a system made of people, not
just unidentifiable energy or auras or karma.  Actual people.

Three folks I trust read advance copies of this newsletter and all three told me it didn’t really
go anywhere. One said she felt me holding back. I am. Because I’m trying to say something about the system that isn’t about a particular candidate.

So here’s the truth: I feel manipulated. Bottom line is that the system has an agenda and I’m
in the way. So are you, FYI. We are component parts, and we are being sold off for parts. I’m not against having a system. But I am against one that uses, exploits and manipulates us. The system we have has steered far off course. I resent the system that seems to have decided well in advance who will be our next president and how life will go for the foreseeable future, even before we’re done voting.

“Rabbit holes,” they say, are metaphors for disorienting, nonsensical realities. And I’mlooking at the rabbit hole we’re being asked to jump into, and I’m disgusted and angry. More than any other political season.

But if “rabbit hole” is a way of talking about disorienting or nonsensical realities, perhaps
“resurrection” is the way of describing the antidote — the only thing that makes any
sense at all.

So I guess I would like to say that voting is part of a resurrected life. So are donating, and
organizing and protesting and boycotting and choosing animals from a shelter instead of
from a breeder and questioning where food comes from and challenging the tax benefits
of a Panamanian life.

In a system that likes keeping all the power for itself, maybe resurrection is just life fighting
back.

With you on the journey,
— pastor deb

 

15 april 2016: our transgender neighbors need us

So, someone forwarded me a posting today, a photo of an ad for Match.com, a dating website. The ad was a billboard in a London mass transit station, and featured a young adult with red hair and freckles. Here’s what the ad said: “If you don’t like your imperfections, someone else will.” There’s another poster in the series that features a young person with one brown eye and one blue eye. Same tagline. 

Yeah, I learned early – elementary school, actually – that red hair and freckles are “imperfections,” as are extremes of height or differences of weight. Honestly, I thought we’d moved on. I guess not. The ad has been removed due to strong public backlash, but the thoughts linger about the ways we judge and divide and disempower one another. 

In other backlash news, North Carolina is reeling this week from its so-called bathroom bill, the legislation that would require transgender men and women to use the bathroom aligning with gender as assigned at birth, mostly based on anatomy, rather than the gender aligning with identity – the one based on that deep psychological and spiritual self-knowing that the bravest among us are claiming and proclaiming, to the chagrin and sometimes hostility of a terrified world. 

North Carolina has gotten complaints and criticism from companies and churches, and from other states and municipalities (including this week Royal Oak, MI), about the nonsense of this bill, the unnecessary sanction and discrimination against people who are generally minding their own business. 

North Carolina isn’t alone, of course; some 20 states have introduced bathroom bills, and this, of course, is in addition to the states that have passed “religious freedom” bills, allowing discrimination against LGBT folks, as long as your discrimination is based on religion. 

South Carolina, you may remember, is my home state, and has its own version of the bathroom bill in the midst of hearings this week. The governor is against it, as is the Chamber of Commerce. The county sheriff couldn’t attend the hearings, but wrote a letter of opposition. He said, among other things, according to The State newspaper, that, in his 41 years in law enforcement in the state, “I have never heard of a transgender person attacking or otherwise bothering someone in a restroom. This is a non-issue.” 

Here in Michigan, the state Board of Education has proposed guidelines to keep transgender kids safe in schools (as well as lesbian and gay kids), including bathroom usage in conformity with gender identity. The response has overwhelmingly been vitriolic, tinged with fear, ignorance and animosity. The guidelines are forward-thinking, but progress often looks radical and unreasonable. (They include a smart but unpopular provision that parents of transgender kids should only be notified with the students’ assent, since parents are often hostile to their own transgender kids.) Our legislature has threatened to withhold a portion of state education funding if these guidelines are adopted. (You can read about it here and find a link to the proposed guidelines here.) 

Michigan Board of Ed needs us. The public comments are lopsided in their opposition to these safety measures. The public comment window has been extended to May 11, and you can offer your thoughts here. 

As a lesbian, I am all too familiar with the scorn, the verbal assaults, the fear, the ostracism based on the lack of understanding. As a redhead with freckles, I know the “benign” laughter, the teasing, the otherness. As a Christian pastor, I am also familiar with the basic tenet of every major faith -- that we love one another. 

I get tired. Tired of having to defend the right of others just to be. Tired of having to defend the boundaries of my own right to be. The teasing I endured as a child for my hair and skin pales in comparison to the brutality endured by our transgender brothers and sisters, pales in comparison to the threat of death or the humiliation of enduring the invasive questioning regarding our most private bodily and psychic areas. 

So, this is a faith issue for me. Not only because there are transgender Woodsiders, but because the vision we keep coming back to is about space for all of us, about a world that works for all of us. And because the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; the opposite of faith is fear. 

Red hair, freckles, eyes of two colors, same-sex orientation, anatomy inconsistent with identity: these aren’t imperfections; they are simply more of the variety that blesses us when we believe what we proclaim: that we are created in the image of God. 

I know that not everyone is in the same place, living with the same experience or the same understandings. But I’m happy that Woodside is the kind of welcoming place that it is, that we understand the immensity of God’s grace and choose to be a community reflective of that. And that when we aren’t sure, we get educated. And tired as we get, having to defend against whatever the current assault on humanity, we never quit advocating for justice, calling out bigotry and easing fear, putting ourselves in the place of the persecuted ones. Such was the life of Jesus; such is a life of faith. 

It’s resurrection the way we live it here. 

With you on a Woodside journey, — pastor deb