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Yes, what about Chicago?

I grew up mostly in suburban Cook County, near O’Hare, in what is locally referred to as “Chicagoland.” For as long as I remember, Chicago was, at minimum, the most fun place to be. As an adult, it has been home a few times, including now.

love my city. I always have.

There is a spot on the inbound Kennedy, right before North Avenue, where you can get a gorgeous view of the skyline as well as the smaller buildings that make up the city I love. I’ve probably photographed it a 150 times. I love the architecture, and how walking between the skyscrapers downtown makes me feel somehow embraced. I love how the details on older, smaller buildings make neighborhoods feel unique, and hold its history, however long forgotten.

In my neighborhood, it seems more common to hear a foreign language than it is to hear English. If I want ice cream, the nearest places to go are either Latin or Indian. I have a dozen taquerias within about two blocks, and the grocery stores stock foods I cannot pronounce, and in some cases, have labels written in Gujarati or Arabic or Korean, so I am even less able to guess.

Since moving back, I’ve gone to comedy shows and met a ton of funny, talented people. Some of those people, I am sure, are going to be quite famous some day, and I will get to say that I knew them before they made it big. My city is a city of blues, art, comedy, folk, and all kinds of wonderful things.

I love my city.

My city is also broken. I have driven around the south side of Chicago, unable to find a gas station that didn’t have a long line of cars, waiting to fill up with gas that costs 25% more than gas in my north side neighborhood. I’ve parked a van full of food on the side of the street and stood in the cold as people lined up, hungry, and eager for whatever sustenance was in the cambros. I have gone from one block to another and noticed the spraypainted tags change, the color of clothing change, and realized that my ability to move so freely was aided by the fact that I clearly didn’t “belong” there. I’ve spent time with my neighbors who are homeless and addicted, been brokenhearted by children who do not know what it is to have a bedroom or a constant place to call home.

I’ve heard the stories of friends who were pulled over for being black, by cops who wanted to know what they were doing and where they were going, without citing any kind of traffic violation. I’ve heard stories from white friends, pulled over on the south or west sides and asked if they knew where they were, warned that lone white girls shouldn’t be in this part of town. One friend told me about the time he was informed that he, a minister, should not visit his congregation in the projects without a resident escorting him because he probably wasn’t safe.

I know that in some cases, my whiteness and my north side residence give me a more privileged experience than some have. I am not blind to what is around me, nor am I immune from the heartbreak.

I still love my city. I want everyone to have the chance to love my city.

Today, Trump used my city as an example of the horror this nation has become. I’ve read countless articles in which a stranger to my city uses statistics to make some very ugly arguments. While the statistics are true, the way they were used was manipulative, and is at best ignorant of the reasons they are what they are. Unfunded and overcrowded schools, food desserts, gangs without leadership, few jobs to be had, and a long list of reasons contribute to the heartache my city faces. 

I love my city. I ache for my city, the way one does when a loved is deeply troubled, or seriously ill. I still see her beauty. I still know her joy. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. 

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I hate clichés, except when I love them.

A year and five days ago, I went on one of the worst dates I could have ever imagined. The guy was unattractive as he pounded beers, talked about how much he hates his job and hates the place he lives and hates that he has no friends, but nothing was as unattractive as when, at the end of the date, he made a homophobic joke about merchandise in a store window. It is the only date I was ever on when I texted my sister and had her make a rescue call. In retrospect, I should have just ended the date with a “no thanks, I don’t need your negativity!”

I was so tired of bad dates that it made me twitch, so I decided to take a break. No more reading profiles, no more awkward coffee dates, no more waiting for a text that might not come. Clichéd… so clichéd.

Three days later, I was up well past my bedtime, had already put my glasses on the bookcase, and I get a message: 

Ok, Mike, I guess I will take a look at your profile, but I don’t know… an hour later, having read what has to be the longest profile in the history of dating sites, as well as answers to questions, I figured that if I was interested enough to read that much, there is enough to respond. Except, I was tired. Like, really tired. I had no idea how to muster up the charming sweetness I tried to have in messages. So that is nearly exactly what I said: 

I wasn’t sure that the little smiley face at the end was going to make up for my complete inability to flirt, but I went with it. I had said I was done dating, but he said he wasn’t looking for serious. What harm was there in having someone who lived in the same little town, who could meet for dinner once in a while?

Our first date was July 29, 2015. At a tavern downtown, I walked in and was greeted by a huge smile and a white and orange Hawaiian shirt. I sat, terrified that I was going to be too nervous to be interesting. And then suddenly, it was three hours later, and I was fascinated by this guy. We left the restaurant and walked up and down the main street, flirting and laughing and oh my god, why won’t he just hold my hand already!? We got to his car, and he asked if he could kiss me. Swoon. Finally. He walked me to my car, and we stood there, talking, and he kissed me. I was not ready for this date to be over. So it wasn’t. We ended up sitting in his car for a few more hours, never running out of things to say, always smiling, wishing that the clock would stop. Our first date was seven hours long. 

But we didn’t have “serious” on the horizon. He had other commitments, like his show, which was just getting started. I had just started a new job, and was looking for a place to live, trying to get settled. A short while later, date three or four, maybe, there was a moment after he reacted unexpectedly to something I said, when I thought, oh no, I’m in trouble. If this keeps up, I’m going to fall really hard. 

I swear to you on my mother’s life, I did not expect the next year to go like it did. I couldn’t have imagined it. I had dreamed about it, but never thought it would happen. Not to me. Falling in love like this was something that happens to other girls. Prettier, thinner, funnier, braver girls. 

All those clichés, the annoying ones that keep young actresses on a steady diet of rom-com roles, happened. Have you seen Trainwreck? That part when she and her new boyfriend become that obnoxiously new, starry-eyed couple who make eyes at each other in restaurants, kiss in the freezer section, and all that stuff? Yeah, that’s us. AND I LOVE IT. I’ve become one of those women.  

There have been hard moments, when I’ve had to deal with insecurities or have a conversation I would like to avoid. But in each and every one of them, his response has been nearly perfect. 

When we got to the point that we were serious, I made a very conscious choice to not keep a running catalogue of all the things he has ever done “wrong,” or when he has done something to really upset me. Instead, started another list: romantic things he has done, and moments of sweetness. I didn’t want to overlook those things, and I wanted those things to be what I think of when I am upset. I wanted to remember, even when it was tough, that I have someone who loves me, and whom I love very much. Ugh, that is a cliché right out of a relationship expert handbook, except I started it without it being suggested. Can’t I just be normal?

In truth, there have been two times that I have been upset, and one of them was so minor that now, I can’t even remember what the cause is. But I would make Hallmark roll its eyes over the list of sweetnesses. 

The last year has been one surprise after another. Meeting people, going places, doing things: all great. What has surprises me more, though, is how easy it is to be with him. He is my home, no matter where I live. He is the first person I want to see in the morning  and the last person I want to see at night. He makes me laugh, encourages me, and believes in me, even when I struggle to. He is every damn cliché in the Guidebook for Lovely Boyfriends and sometimes I think my heart and head will literally explode. 

I do have a list of things he does that annoy me to the point of giving him the stink eye. In its entirety: 

  1. He leaves cabinet and microwave doors open (though he has mostly stopped leaving he dishwasher and kitchen drawers open, so there is hope).
  2. He squeezes the toothpaste in the middle and sometimes gets spit splatters on the faucet when he brushes his teeth. 
  3. He likes everything too loud.

I mean, ugh, men can be so annoying… meh, who am I kidding. He does the dishes without asking, so I totally don’t care about the toothpaste. 

I cannot believe how lucky I am. I know that people say that all the loveliness of a relationship changes and often lessens as it gets older, but that is the cliché I hope desperately to avoid. So far, I still think he is the best thing since peanut butter. 

Today is our anniversary, and we are going back to that same tavern. Despite having woken up next to him this morning, and having gone to work, holding his hand nearly the whole way, and having kissed him about two dozen times before I went to my office, I can’t wait to see him. I never expected him, or us.  But holy hell, I couldn’t be happier about it. 

Before one of his shows

After a very long, very excellent birthday

He was mid-laugh on this one. It’s one of my favorites.

Transition Statements

It’s been almost two months since I posted, and in such a short time, my life has, again, turned itself inside out:

Shakespeare warned us to beware the ides of March, and this year, that warning was painfully appropriate. The night before, my dog, Mrs Weasley, was breathing kind of funny. Then, Tuesday morning, I woke to find that she had thrown up three times, and her breathing was worse. I cleaned up the mess, gave her a pet, and had to go to work. A few hours later, when my mother went to take her out, she was not herself: very labored breathing, not moving off the floor, a worrying look on her face. My mom called me, I called the vet, and she took her right over. In half an hour, my biggest fear came true. She had developed tumors too big to treat. The vet said that even if they tried, the treatment would kill her before the tumors were cured. I sobbed the rest of the afternoon, left work early, and stayed with her as the vet put her down. It was a monstrous grief that followed. My mother was with me, and Mike came straight to me after he got off work. My sweet girl was gone, and being in the apartment without her was almost unbearable at times.

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Shortly before this happened, Mike and I had started talking about living together. Since he moved to Chicago in January, it had been a constant effort to make arrangements to be together. A few nights at my place, a few nights at his. So much time and money spent driving back and forth, and it was becoming silly. That night, Mike asked me to move in with him.

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. ~Alan Watts

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It was a no-brainer. Not only did the logistics make sense, but I have fallen so shamelessly in love with him. Like, the kind of love where I think he’s the best thing since peanut butter, and where I don’t care what people think when he kisses me in the produce section at Jewel, and where I fall in love with him over and over and over again, at the weirdest moments (this week, it happened when he was singing Rainbow Connection in his Kermit the Frog voice).

Just when I think I’ve learned the way to live, life changes. ~Hugh Prather

And so, I let my apartment manager know and started packing. Once again, my picture frames were wrapped in paper, my I Love Lucy snow globe put into its Styrofoam, and, after the moving weekend from hell, it was done. Since Mrs Weasley died, I had been slowly taking things to Chicago, but now, it is home once again.

I have wanted to live in Chicago ever since I left it. No place else feels like Chicago does. I live on the north side, where most of my neighbors are Hispanic, Indian, or Asian. When I walk to Walgreen’s, I pass a Mexican bakery, a few Indian/Pakistani grocery stores, some Halal restaurants, and a lot of other places I haven’t explored yet. I hate the lack of parking, and I could do without people honking in the alley so much, but it’s wonderful.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. ~Lao Tzu

There is a part of me that is anxious about all this change. Part of me that wants to be more cautious about life, but that part is swiftly drowned out by the awareness that life is too short to wait for everything to be risk free. The greatest decisions in my life have always been the risky ones, and this is following suit. I am ridiculously happy, even when I am tired or anxious, to wake up with Mike every morning. I love living in the city again. There is a sort of settled feeling in me that says ah, yes, this is how life is supposed to feel.

Someone asked me a while ago where I see myself in five years, and I honestly can say I have no clue. Five years ago, I did not think that this would be my life at all. But the truth is, this is so much better than what I would have guessed. I know where I would like to be, but if I don’t get there? That’s OK. Life is meant to be lived, not just survived.

Two Truths and A Lie

My mother wore a hoodie over her nightgown and a blanket around her waist as she shuffled her gym shoe- clad feet through the doors of the ER and plopped gracelessly into the chair next to the admitting nurse’s desk. I got in line behind the two girls who stood in front of me, chatting like it was study hall. We waited for a minute until the clerk got back to her desk – a very long minute as I stood there, watching my mother shiver and bounce in her seat.

“Who’s next?” The clerk asked.

“We were here first. I have a toothache,” said the girl on the right.

“O- are you? – are you all together?” The nurse gestured her hand towards all of us, eyeing my mother.

“No,” I said. As uncomfortable as a toothache can be, my mother needed help more quickly.

“What is she having trouble with?” She asked me.

“She’s diabetic and her blood sugar is tanking. She’s freezing and is having trouble breathing.” I said.

“I have a headache, too,” piped the girl with the toothache.

Are you kidding me? Please tell me you’re kidding. Are you seriously trying to insinuate that your toothache is more pressing than my mother’s present condition? If you are going to try to make my mother wait for treatment, let me talk to you outside. I’ll bust out your damned tooth, and it won’t hurt for too much longer…. I am not very kind when someone messes with my family.

The nurse motioned for me to come over by my mother and she ignored the girls at the counter. She took her blood sugar, got her name and birthday, and got her another nurse to get her right back into the room. The girls went back to chatting like nothing was wrong.

Once we were in the room, I messaged my bff, told her where I was, and about the girl with the toothache.

“Clearly she doesn’t understand how the ER works,” she said.*

Tonight ended up being another example in a very long list of examples this week of people who don’t seem to understand how a society should work. People who oppose gun regulations that would save lives because they feel it impinges on their personal rights. People who are in a stable financial situation who oppose liveable wages for others because it would make them feel less successful. A clerk who refuses to do her job because the legal, equal right to marry supposedly threatens her individual right to exercise her faith…. A young woman who begrudges the few minutes spent waiting while a retired grandmother is rushed into the hospital room first.

People have always been selfish, rotten, and egocentric. That’s certainly nothing new; this week just seem to be a spectacular display of that truth. People are so very concerned with themselves that they can’t see what is happening outside of their own heads.

It’s quite hard, in this moment, to remember the other, equally true statement: people are good, kind, and selfless. Friends of mine who prayed for my mom, the nurse who patiently rubbed my mom’s foot when it cramped up on her, the cashier who was sincere in his well wishes for her night.

People are rotten.
People are good.
Both of these are equally true.

I like to think that I am better at being good than being rotten. Sometimes, my good actions happen directly in opposition to my own heart and brain. I could be mad and mean and ornery at someone on the inside, but on the outside, I force myself to be kind and gracious. The actions feel like a lie. It’s not like it’s all the time or anything. But after days like this, weeks like these, I confess that I feel just as selfish and mean as others seem to be acting. I tell myself that not acting it out is better, that it is at least a step in a better direction. Is it? I’m not so sure. My faith tells me that it’s my heart that matters, and I’m not sure I understand my heart very much today.

Is it enough that my desire to show love, despite my own feelings, wins out (usually)? Or am I cutting myself too much slack?

*My mother is OK, by the way. It was a stress-induced drop in her blood sugar, which is now back where it should be and she is home, sleeping.

Bits and Pieces

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who found herself floating between worlds. Without any control over it, she wandered between homes, between patchwork families who all meant so much to her. These families lived all over the Midwest, and inevitably, when she was with one, as happy as she was, and as loved as she was, she missed the others. As she grew, so did the scope of her families. Fellow choir singers, college buddies, seminary partners, and assorted strays wandered in and sat down for a while. Life has a way of continuing to move onward, shifting shape as soon as she figured part of it out. As the shape of life changed, so did her heart.

Most people seem to experience this evolution as growth; hearts get bigger when there are more people to love. For this meandering fool, it is precisely the opposite.

E. E. Cummings famously wrote “i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart).” It’s a lovely poem, but the truer truth, for me, would be the inverse: “you carry my heart (you carry it in your heart).” Over time, I have come to realize that my heart does not primarily beat within my own chest. Instead, it has been willingly parcelled out into the care of people who love a piece of it. My heart beats within the hearts of so many others. If I were solely responsible for the care of my own heart, I would no doubt break it irreparably before sundown.

This means that my heart often beats in places far away from me. My life, my soul, my broken little brain all long for the times that I am reunited with these bits and pieces. I know no other way to describe how it is that to encounter some people is to also reconnect with a bit of myself.

For a few years now, one piece has been tucked away in Istanbul, safely held by my cousin, Vince. We were not particularly close growing up, and still, now, we don’t communicate like we should, but nonetheless, there is a bond. I worry for him like I do very few people. He is a mix of a tender spirit, an intense resilience, and quiet intelligence that I admire. He is the one who holds the title for Best Hug of my Lifetime, given on the Easter when I first saw him after his first tour in Iraq. With him, my anxious self is comforted and doesn’t fear vulnerability. It seems like our own experiences, though very different, seem to give us a slightly different understanding of both fragility and strength.

Tonight, I got to see him for the first time in several years. We did some catching up and then moved on to theology, able to discuss our churches and faiths like I seldom get to do. I wish we had had more time. He invited me to visit him in Istanbul, and now, I’m trying to figure out how to make that happen.

I am always bewildered whenever anyone seems willing to care for a piece of my heart, but I’m grateful that they do. It’s a relief to know that he holds onto a bit of it. When he said, as he was leaving, to make sure I talk to him if things get hard, I could have cried. I know without a doubt that he meant it. I know that, should (when) things darken, he will listen and remind me that all is not in peril because he carries a bit of my heart(he carries it in his heart).

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Love Shows Up

I went somewhere fairly unexpected today: CFOT (the pseudo-seminary I went to). I never intended to go back. I was certain that if I did, I would be either met with pitchforks, torches, and holy water, or would have a massive heart attack upon entering. The universe has other ideas, though, and I found myself saying to a friend yesterday, “I’ll be there tomorrow.”

My friend needed help. I had the day off. Every molecule in my body demanded that I go, so I woke up, used my coupon for free donuts, and drove the few hours to get there. The traffic was gross, but I didn’t mind it. It was when traffic cleared up and I was a few blocks away that things got wobbly. My hands felt a little lighter. My shoulders tensed. My mind raced: pitchforks or heart attack, which will it be? What horrifying circumstance would undo me?

Whether it was one or the other, I was afraid of one message being received again: I don’t belong here. It was a message I heard a lot when I was in The Salvation Army. I saw myself being greeted by one of the officers who was sure to not want me there and having to explain why I was on campus. I thought of all the scathing things I would say and all the potential reactions. The one that brought me the most hypothetical satisfaction was the simplest: Because love shows up. When people need help, love shows up. In my mind, not only would this be simple, but it was also a little gratifying and pompous.

In order to get to the entrance, you have to drive around three sides of the campus. As I drove, I didn’t know what would happen. What monster was I going to meet? Three right turns and I saw the monster I didn’t plan for: my friend Steve.

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Me and Steve, a Godzilla of love

If I’ve never wanted to jump out of a car I was driving before, I did then.

Steve is the best kind of monster. Steve is, for lack of a better descriptor, a Godzilla of love. Fierce, funny, unapologetic love for everyone, just stomping around this planet, daring anyone to prove themselves unlovable.

Cindy, listen to yourself sometimes: when people need help, love shows up.

I parked and called his name. He hugged me and in seconds, I was laughing. He walked me inside and I waited in his office for a bit. I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong anymore. I don’t know where he was coming from, or where he was headed, but through serendipitous circumstances, he was there.

I went and helped my friends for a while, and while I was helping, a few others showed up throughout my day: Heather came by and helped (I’ve known her since we were nine), and then I ran into her husband Xav, and my former instructors, Beth and Sandy. Dennis, whom I knew as a teenager and now as a young man. Hugs and happy faces. It was a mini “This is Your Life.”

Love shows up.

I was also excited to see my friend Brian, who works there. He’s been good to me over the years I’ve known him. He listens and and asks good questions. We sat and talked for a while before he had to leave and I drove home.

I wish I could have done more to help my friends, but I left knowing they have more help coming, other friends whom I love dearly are going to show up.

Love shows up.

There are times when I am still a little raw about the hurt some people caused. But the deepest part of my soul knows that when life is desperate, when my panic sets in and I need it, love shows up somehow, and often from the friends I have gained through my time in The Salvation Army. It’s not the place for me anymore, but thank God for the people who do get it right. Some are active members and some formers, but we all try to be Godzillas of love.

Because love shows up. When people need help, love shows up.

Double Starbucks

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a double Starbucks day, but today is one. In fact, today might be the first double Starbucks day I have had since I resigned from professional ministry. Last night, I worked until 11, and then had to be back at work at 6 a.m., which doesn’t sound all that awful until I factor in the half-hour drive each way, the fact that I am never actually out on time, and still had to eat dinner when I got home and shower when I got up, and, perhaps more significantly, my brain is more likely to misbehave when I’ve not slept well. My first cup was a venti dark roast I picked up on my way in to work. When I got to work, the place was full of customers. Men just standing there, talking about nothing and drinking their coffees. I think I may have grumbled a hello as I stalked through them to get to the office.

I did not feel very pastor-y today. I didn’t want to have to see or interact with people. I didn’t want to listen to anyone’s problems. And for the love of everything holy, I did not have it in me to be gracious to other crabby people.

As a pastor, I should have known better: people seem to know when I feel least pastor-y, and that’s when they demand it. 

My first shifter got a running start on pushing my buttons. She refuses to take on any responsibility, but wants to do all the management tasks that make her feel like she has authority. She has been in the store longer than anyone else, so she feels like she can do whatever she wants. She is forever telling me what she thinks I should be doing and is frequently disrespectful, particularly when she has an audience. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. when I was venting in my office, via my cell phone, to my sister.

I needed to be gracious in how I dealt with her. But oh my God, why today? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow to be in such a spectacularly awful mood?

I spent more than an hour trying to deal with a vendor whose delivery was every kind of messed up you can imagine: wrong products, wrong quantities, wrong prices. We scanned and counted and crossed things off of lists, and still, we got nowhere. There was no combination of things that got us to the right ending.

I needed to be patient. Of all the days to demand patience, today was hardly the best choice, but there we stood, reviewing stacks of Monster energy drinks and trying to sort out $3000 worth of beverages clogging up the hallway.

As a pastor, I should have known better: the universe knows when I can’t handle one more thing, and that’s when it throws its best curve balls. 

My two favorite people to work with are Carol and Abby.* Abby works at the sandwich counter in the store, is barely nineteen, with a pixie face and her dark hair up in twin pom poms that look like Minnie Mouse ears. Last night, we were talking about tattoos, and I told her that the verse written in Hebrew on my right wrist reminds me that no matter what is happening, God’s character is constant. She told me about her tattoos, from the matching bow tattoos she shares with an aunt to the flower on her arm “just because it’s pretty.” Her grandmother, Carol, works on my side of the store. She’s in her mid-fifties, with bottle-blonde hair, pink iridescent lipstick, and a voice that tells you that she has had a wild life. She’s shamelessly herself, chatty, funny, caring, loud, and has the ability to make people feel like they are the light of her world, just by being on the other side of the counter. She’s always talking about her dream of owning a food truck, making good, reasonable food for people in an environment where she can cook, hang out, and live the life she loves. Sometimes, despite the fact that I know she doesn’t have much of an income, she will make a bunch of food and bring dinner for everyone at work just to let us know she cares. I adore her. Last night, I got to work with both Abby and Carol, and it was really great.

When Carol came in today, she looked at me and said “Honey, you look so tired, and a little depressed. Hard day? is everything OK?” I said that I was pretty tired, and that it had been a hard day, but that I was otherwise OK. She asked about how things are going with a guy that I’ve been seeing, and I filled her in on the latest. She was, as usual, glad to hear that things are going well.

“I’ve had a hard day, too,” she finally said. “You know I went to that [lung] specialist today, and that asbestos disease that they talk about on TV? Well, I don’t have that, but it’s almost the same thing. My lungs are all folded up and full of shit and there’s no treatment or anything. I’m gonna get a second opinion, but if it’s this disease, I didn’t do nothing to cause it, but then it’s like, six months and I’m gone.” She wiped under her eye. “Don’t tell nobody. I’m not saying anything until I get a second opinion, and if I talk about it, I’m gonna cry again. So don’t tell nobody, OK?”

Regardless of the work polo I was wearing, I was immediately in “pastor mode” again. I listened, and told her that I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone in the store (given the fact that none of you know her/where I work and names are changed, I figure this isn’t violating her privacy). I was stunned. She has been in and out of emergency rooms for her breathing, and her condition was generally overlooked by the staff at the income-dependent medical clinic that she went to for far too long.

She’s too young. Too nice.
She doesn’t deserve it. I mean, how many people do you know who, when given a six-month sentence, go to work a few hours later and are first concerned about how their raggedy boss is doing?

I’m glad she feels like she can tell me these things. She’s part of my little unofficial mini flock, now that I am in a different kind of ministry. I doubt she thinks of me as her pastor, but she does think of me as a friend, and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.

As her friend, I’m devastated, heartbroken. I am so very angry that it is happening to her.

I’m helpless. My years of pastoring taught me well that I cannot fix anything. I can guide, love, teach, pray. but I cannot fix things, and that is the cruelest reality for pastors. Every pastor I know wants to fix things, and not one of us can. I’m reminded, again, by the verse on my arm that God didn’t change from one minute to the next. God is still God, diagnosis or not. No matter how hard that is to comprehend today.

So I do what I can do: I can love. Listen. Grieve. Pray. Be a friend. And drink this tea at Starbucks while I brainstorm how to do those things better.

*Names are changed.

The Happy Little Heretic

Heretic. A crap ton of judgment, condemnation, and exclusion all wrapped up in one little word. It’s a heavy word, especially to those of us who put a great deal of study and consideration into where we stand. It’s also a word that gets thrown at me and some of my friends on a regular basis, most often from people who I think mean well, but who really come off as self righteous and arrogant instead.

I didn’t set out to be a heretic. I grew up in a very theologically and socially conservative denomination. I am the daughter of two preachers. I had quite a bit intentional, meaningful investment from goodhearted, Godly, loving adults who spent many hours over the years teaching and setting the example they hoped I’d follow. I am immensely grateful for all of it, and I cannot help but love them.

Teach a youth about the way she should go, even when she is old she will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6 (HCSB; pronoun changed, since I’m a woman)

This verse irritates the crap out of me because it is often used to imply that the outcome of a person is totally dependent upon one’s parents, which becomes a problem if the offspring ends up being an evil little monster. Life is more complicated than that. Like  with all proverbs, there is a general truth to it: kids follow examples set by others.

“I always wanted my kids to think for themselves, but I thought that they would end up thinking like me. I didn’t think about the fact that they might disagree.” My father said this to me years ago, when it was very, very evident that we disagree on a lot of things. Sometimes I think that the church sends really mixed messages to people: “Dare to think differently than the rest of society – be bold in your conviction – but if you don’t want to go to hell, you better agree with us!”

My parents and the other adults who raised and mentored me did a pretty good job, I think. I am a generally well functioning member of society who is most often kind and tries to love people, even when they are actively trying to make that a bigger challenge than it should be. I think for myself and try to keep a balance between feeling solid in my convictions and knowing that I don’t know everything. The problem, some may think, is that I came to conclusions that differ from their own. Conclusions that prompted one well-meaning friend to recently imply that I have made an idol out of “my God,” because my understanding of God is too different from her own.

So for kicks and giggles, I decided to list some of the “heretical” beliefs I have (at the moment, anyways; I’m always learning):

– I am kind of an agnostic Christian, to borrow a term from another pastor acquaintance. Basically, my study and experience tells me that there is a God, and that Jesus is the best human expression of what it means to be holy/divine, but there is a part of my brain that leaves the possibility that I could be wrong.

– I am sort of universalist in that I don’t think that salvation is limited to a super small group of people who get the secret, magical formula correct. I think we wrongly limit the image of God and grace when we limit try to limit who gets to have salvation. I’m not a total universalist, though, because I don’t quite think that people who keep evil hearts and never change experience salvation. Honestly, I’m still figuring this out, but I know that I think God’s grace is bigger than the church seems to think.

– I don’t think that salvation is limited to straight people and gay people who are celibate. I have way too many inspiring and devoted Christian friends who are LGBT+ to think that God rejects them because of this factor. Too often, they are defined as “gay Christian,” but that is too limiting. To describe or label them requires many more words: kind, compassionate, educated, intelligent, Godly, loving, funny, humble etc. Their example of love and grace is so often outstanding that I cannot fathom limiting them to the sole descriptor “gay Christian.”

– I don’t think sex outside of marriage is sinful. (Mom, pick your jaw up off the ground; I can already hear you using my full name.) There are tons of Biblical examples of sex with more than one spouse, and I’m not advocating on behalf of careless and dangerous promiscuity. But really, I have no problem with adults who have sex when they’re in a relationship. Be safe. Make sure consent is given and maintained. And stop the puritanical/Victorian fear of and control of sex.

– Swearing might be trashy or in poor taste, but it’s not sinful. Even a cursory look at scripture tells me that God is not concerned with whether or not I say “shit” when I smash my finger in the door but is concerned with whether or not my words – and heart – are arrogant or overbearing or unkind.

– I think the modesty movement in the church is actually pride and judgment wrapped up in long skirts and high necklines.

– I believe in science. I think young earth creationists are willfully ignorant of the God-given gift of science. I think anti-vaxxers are dangerous. I am baffled by climate change deniers who insist that they love and are inspired by the earth God created and yet so gleefully ignore the damage humans are doing to it. It’s probably where I am most guilty of being judgmental, but honestly, if you are so fearful of science that you reject it, I am not sure we are going to have very many conversations.

– I don’t think that the church or government or my friends or parents or anyone else should decide for me whether or not I have kids, and that includes my right to choose what happens (or doesn’t happen) in my uterus. Legal abortion doesn’t increase the number of abortions, it increases the safety of abortions. Criminalizing it doesn’t decrease the number of abortions, it makes it more dangerous to everyone involved – did “Dirty Dancing” teach us nothing?!? Similarly, it’s not my place to tell women what to do with theirs. If they want to have kid after kid after kid, that’s up to them and their partners.

– I think American patriotism/nationalism is idolatry. American flags have no place in chapels, and I find it hard to not roll my eyes when the military is put on a pedestal.

– Last one for today, a big one: I do not believe that the bible is the word of God. Jesus is the Word, the full expression of love and redemption. The bible is, as my old denomination subscribes, divinely inspired words about God written by humans (practically entirely men, though there are mutterings about women contributing to Hebrews and maybe some others). So reading it requires that I keep context in mind. I don’t think it’s inerrant, and that’s enough to make some people to dismiss what I say.

There are likely other things that would make the list if I wanted to think long and hard enough. Plenty of reasons for people to tell me that I’ve crossed the line, that I have gone too far to still call myself a Christian. Reasons for those who raised me to wonder what “happened,” not seeing that I have taken their instruction to think critically, study intentionally, and take my faith seriously only to have come to different conclusions.

I don’t enjoy being called a heretic. One of the reasons I chose to leave my old denomination was because of the incessant pleas from narrow minded conservatives to do so. I found that I had the strength to leave but not the strength to endure a lifetime of being told that I was not welcome, and had no place in their fellowship. Not that leaving was weak, but it is a different kind of strength. There are others who are strong enough to stay, who continue to serve and love and worship in spite of the calls of heresy. I appreciate their ministry and am hopeful because of them.

I do wish, though, that the church would more completely practice the “whosoever” it preaches. That we (because I am part of the church, too, and can be better at it) were less eager to accuse others of being wrong and more willing to listen to and learn from one another. I hope that we keep growing in our knowledge and understanding of God. My church reinforces the conviction that “God is still speaking,” and the corresponding need to keep listening.

I pray that God will keep me listening. That I won’t become so certain of myself that I become deaf. I also pray that we will have open hearts with one another, and understand that we can be unified through God’s spirit while holding different opinions.

Patchwork

Today, I woke at an ungodly hour, loaded a few bags in the car, and headed off to a small town in Michigan to spend the holiday with family I’d never met and to whom I’m not related.

I don’t know how long ago I “met” my friend Ange in a Facebook group. It feels like I’ve always known her. Smart, funny, humble, and more than anything, loving, Ange has become like another sister. It’s no surprise that she invited me to come spend Thanksgiving with her and her family, but it’s quite a privilege.

I was really excited last night when I heard some other friends from our group would be here, too. Kelsie, Phil, Cassie, and Angela were here for Ange’s annual pre-holiday party, too, and though almost all of our communication has been through Facebook, it felt like seeing family.

One of the best parts of being an adult is the ability to pick my own family, to an extent. Somewhere along the way, my path crosses with someone else’s we unconsciously decide to “keep” one another, stitching ourselves together kind of like patchwork. Not the precisely tailored pieces that are so carefully planned out, but irregular bits of material that somehow fit together in ways that are sometimes unexpected.

Coming to Michigan has been good for my soul. It’s a real-time reminder of the support and love I have. It’s a welcome distraction from my daily thoughts about what is going to happen next. It’s fun to watch her 14 month old try to sneak another cookie from the table and it was exciting when the otherwise shy three-year-old decided I was OK to talk to. To get hugs and smiles and feel a little more alive again is well worth the drive.

For as long as I can remember, vacations have usually involved crashing on a couch or spare bed while I visit my patchwork family. Perhaps a huge bed with a zillion pillows would be more comfortable, but how lucky am I that I have people who welcome me into their homes like this? Not everyone gets to bunk with Feenie and fall asleep listening to Crosby giggles from downstairs.

Play It, Sam

Nostalgia was originally a medical diagnosis, one so serious that it was a reason for medical discharge from military service. Soldiers would become so stuck on the fantastic world they left behind that they became unable to function in their present circumstances.

Not that I’m anywhere near that level of “stuck,” I have had a lot of time to think in the last week and a half, and I think that my efforts to not be anxious about the future have made me a little more prone to nostalgia. For the most part, it has been good, or at least harmless. Except for a few memories, all connected to the same person, that seem to be tripping me up. Someone impossible to see again.

It is no small cruelty that our senses have memories. It’s not just that my brain trips up, but I don’t have to try to “see” his face, or “hear” his voice, or “feel” his cheek on mine (not in a Cindy’s-gone-crazy way, but in a my-memories-are-that-vivid way). Instead, it’s like the memories trapped in my senses demand to be relived. He’s someone long gone, not to be seen again, and still, my brain cycles through all the things I never said, the things I would say if I had the chance. Impossible scenarios at best.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a romantic in that hold-out-for-the-long-shot sort of way. I am eternally like Rick Blaine, the protagonist in Casablanca, an endless battle of both intense cynicism and hope, understanding that I’ll never be Victor Laszlo, but still maintaining the absurd shred of hope that someday, I just might be.

I sincerely hope Cameron is the only one who hasn’t seen Casablanca (and that he sees it SOON), but for those who haven’t, Rick is the bar owner who loses his great love prior to the start of the film. Their song was As Time Goes By, and Rick forbade his musicians from playing it. Then one day, Ilsa, the great love, comes into the bar and insists the song gets played. Rick is quite displeased until he learns Ilsa has returned, and then things get muddier when you learn Ilsa isn’t alone: Victor is there. For the remainder of the film, Rick and Ilsa wrestle with the themes of love, loyalty, duty, honor… It’s just beautiful.

One night, when Rick has been drinking, he insists his pianist play the song over and over. It’s painful and soothing all at once. An exquisite tangle of fond memories, unrealized dreams, and present heartache, with bitter solitude to boot. “Play it, Sam,”* he says. At first, Sam resists, but Rick tells him again, and Sam plays. The memories demand to be relived no matter the inevitable heartache.

I don’t want you to think I’m spending my days crying in my soup or anything, but in the midst of the changes in my life lately, I do find myself feeling like Rick. These beautiful memories of someone long gone, the sadness over his absence, the things left unsaid, the faintest glimmer of hope; they’re all there, swirling around in my brain while I unpack suitcases of clothes and look for work. So I will listen to his song, a hundred, a thousand more times, until the memories stop demanding to be relived.

*edited to fix misquote