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Take It – I Dare You.

You stripped me of my
rank in a crowded Starbucks
on dismal and damp Sunday
evening on your way home
from my war zone.
Your day had been calm
and joyful and you asked
me if it really had been all that bad.
Fuck you.

You mocked my scars and
turned off your ears.
You are done with me.
You don’t care about me, and
to be honest, the feeling is mutual.

But you lazy, incompetent fools:
you half-assed it, again.
You canceled my legal status
as a minister, as if my
ordination had anything
to do with you.

I am ordained, whether you
like it or not. God did that;
if you have a problem,
take it up with God.

Because so far, God has not
taken it away. I preach,
though my sermons are
now meted out in segments,
dispensed more often as acts
of love that don’t make sense
to the angry and selfish sheep
who frankly piss me off most days.

God still places me
with those who need counsel,
but not in my office
with cups of coffee and
planned responses, but behind
a truck stop counter, when she
told me she is terminal, or
she told me she cuts herself
to ignore her pain.

Rank is of no consequence.
Yours does not make you
a minister, just as losing
mine does not stop me
from it.

You took my title but damn
if you didn’t cock it up again.
Because you didn’t take
my ministry, my sermons, my
goddamned heart.
You couldn’t if you wanted to.

They were never yours to
give in the first place.

We’re ministers – even when we’re not. – BobbyJeff

Clearly, I was pretty angry when I wrote that. Some moments, I still am, and those moments are getting fewer and farther between. I’ve gone in circles about posting it, more because it’s just terrible. But it’s honest, and honesty is what I aim for more than anything else. If nothing else, hopefully, it will help in some way, whether it is that someone will understand me better, or will be able to relate and feel a little less alone. My most frequent emotion relating to the trauma that happened is a sense of outrage over injustice. The things that weren’t fair, the things that are overlooked now, the people who failed to do their job without consequence, the annoying prices I have to pay over and over again… It all adds up to a lot of annoyance. But days are getting better, I promise. 

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A Surprisingly Big Voice

My family does not do quiet well. I blame my father, though it’s not quite his fault. See, he’s a very big man, standing 6’9″, so his lungs and vocal chords are bigger, which means his natural speaking voice is much louder than average. My siblings and I inherited that volume (even if I didn’t get much height), and we have natural “outdoor voices.” As if that isn’t enough, throw in a few years of choir training and I have never, ever needed a microphone. I’ve never been afraid of public speaking, either.

Yesterday, I was in a rough place. I took a long shower. I cussed. I cried. I messaged a friend who has been here before, having resigned ministry a few years ago herself. I sat on my bed with a towel on my head and did the only thing I could think of: I wrote. I wanted to write about how unfair it was, how angry I am sometimes, how justice doesn’t seem to be winning. Instead, I wrote what was harder.

I wrote some of the things I cannot utter out loud to my little brother and his wife, who are about to enter into full time ministry. He may be more than a foot taller than me, but I am still the big sister who is terrified that her little brother will experience some of the same hurts. So I wrote, thinking not only of my stories, but those of other officers. Though I want all of the cadets to have fewer troubles than I did, my deepest concern is for them. I needed to tell them, but when I need it the most, sometimes that “outdoor voice” shrinks and I have to write it instead. I feared sounding foolish, or arrogant, or jumbled. If I wrote it, I supposed, I could feel that I had said what needed to be said, even if they never saw it. It was just some words on my little blog, after all. I didn’t even tell then that I wrote it.

I just wrote it. And shared it like the rest of them. And my friend shared it. And another one did.

And then my meek little cop-out got shared again and again. Then, someone in the UK shared it and suddenly I got almost 400 hits in about an hour and a half. Considering few of my posts have come close to that EVER, that’s a lot for me. In a little over a day, nearly 1000 hits from Iowa to the Isle of Man to Egypt. It has been read by people on four continents so far. Not sure of how it ended up like that, I asked a group of friends if they had seen it somewhere. A few had, and I peeked at what had been said.

They were agreeing with me. They thought it was bold but not offensive. They liked my writing.

Suddenly, I had a big voice again, whether I meant to or not. And I was a little less afraid of it, but only slightly. I have reread that blog fifty times if I’ve read it once, half-panicked that I sound stupid in it. When I started my blog, I didn’t think it would have much consequence. Big-picture, it doesn’t, but it does have quite a bit of consequence for me. The last twenty-four hours have restored a little bit of the voice I lost when I stopped preaching. They have reminded me that the words I have can be big. That my thoughts have a little bit of substance to them.

I’m not saying that I’m going to start writing presidential speeches any time soon, but maybe –maybe- my voice doesn’t have to be so small. 

Dear Cadets

Dear cadets, especially Jeff and Sheena:

image

What's left of my uniform

You’ve been waiting for years. Some of you have been waiting for decades, paying off debt, selling homes and cars,  working through complicated hearts and minds in order to get into – and through – training. You’ve prayed, studied, lost sleep, sat through lectures so dull that you missed the joy-filled physics lectures from high school. You’ve listened to officers who’ve “been there,” heard about the glory days and the horror stories.

You’re weeks from commissioning. You’re working on the songs you’ll sing, practicing walking and sitting, staring at the commissioning uniform and trim hanging in the closet. It’s not much of a change, really. Red trim and a star instead of blues and bars. You can’t wait. You’re a bundle of nerves and excitement. Red shoulders… You’ve been waiting.

I am hardly the voice that your instructors want you to hear. I am the warning, the cautionary tale. Maybe that’s why I want to say something to you at all.

I used to wear red trim. I have been where you are. When I was in training, my session mates were sure we would be the exception, that none of us would leave. On one hand, I wish that had been true, that some of us had had different experiences as officers. On the other, I knew it was unrealistic.

I hope that your experience is so much different from mine.

For whatever it might be worth, here are the things I wish I had known years ago:

1. Your ordination is not given by The Salvation Army. They may be the ones to legally register you, but ordination comes from God. This is, perhaps, the most important thing. God gives you your ordination, your pastor’s heart, your love for people. That doesn’t go away. Ever. Never ever ever.

2. Most “fire” will be “friendly fire.” Unless you are in a developing country or one riddled with war, chances are, the most devastating and perpetual conflict will be with those in your corps and with other officers. Become students of conflict resolution. Try to make sure you are sending out as little fire as possible.

3. Your faith will change. You will have seasons of doubt. These are generally good things. If your faith doesn’t change in unexpected ways, you’re doing it wrong.

4. Position statements are not doctrine. There is no doctrine about abortion, homosexuality, pacifism, or the death penalty. You don’t have to agree on position statements. You won’t agree with everyone on them. This does not mean they, or you, get to judge another’s state of salvation/faith/intelligence because it is different.

5. Do not let the SA become all that you are. Please, my darlings, hold tight to what makes you so special. Stay weird, even if it means you’re not at the Cool Kids Table at officer’s councils. Keep on with your DC Comics glee, your intense love of the Oakland Raiders, your knitting needles. If you are a Cool Kid, sit with the dorks. The quiet officers, the officer who brings a Muppets blanket when she’s cold, or the one who laughs way too loudly.

6. There is life outside of the SA. There is ministry after officership. I know, you’re either nodding along and saying “I know, I know,” or you’re absolutely certain that it won’t be you, because you’re in for life. However, life, and officership, will take you in directions you cannot imagine. Please don’t ever think that this is the only way for you to fulfill your calling.

7. DHQ and THQ are not always right. Never be afraid of them. Ever. They only have as much influence and power as you give them. Do not let them intimidate you. Intimidation is the primary tool of the insecure fool and impotent manager. In the same vein, do not think that the red on your shoulder is license to intimidate employees or soldiers.

This may sound like a gloomy list, and I suppose that, when compared to a lot of what you have heard, it is. My goal isn’t to frighten you or make officership sound horrible. I just wanted to tell you a few things I learned that weren’t in the brochure, some truths that I wish I had known and held onto during my time wearing red.

You are both stronger and more fragile than you could possibly understand right now. Time and strangers will help you discover that. Whatever your journey is, however long it lasts, you are loved. By God, by me, and by every little boogery kid that walk through the door (even when none of us seem to be good at communicating that).

Please take care of yourself. Ask for help. Let others help you. Be ready to help others.

And breathe. No matter how many people are in the audience, just breathe. You can do this.

-Cindy

The Girl and the Warring Wolves

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a bland house, whose family had little money to spare, and who was burdened with a mind and heart that waged great battles between themselves. To many, she was invisible. To the government, she was a number. To herself, she was flawed.

But to her grandmother, she was lovely. Brilliant. Kind.

She loved spending time with her grandmother, sitting on the brown, worn carpet, eating lemon drops, and listening to stories. These stories, told over and over, belonged to both of them. They were the fabric of their shared history, the sole possession no one else could claim.

The girl felt sorry that she could offer nothing so prized in return. Her heart wanted to tell her grandmother how much she loved her. Her brain told her heart that everything fell short. Around and around, they went, warring over how they were going to resolve the matter.

The war raged on as she packed two bags for the walk through town to her grandmother’s. She hoped that the time walking would help her piece something together. The bag of food was heavier than she had anticipated as lifted it off the counter and it fell from her arms and landed with a thud. She picked it up, telling herself that carrying the bag was the least she could do, hoping she had not broken the jar of pickles that was packed with the things her mother had bought for her grandmother on her recent trip out of town. In the other bag, she carried two sweaters and a pair of horribly ugly, but practical, shoes her grandmother had forgotten at her house.

Her hair in a pony tail, sunglasses on her nose, she held a bag in each hand as she walked down the driveway and headed west. She breathed in, and as soon as she thought she had caught the notion of lilacs in the air, she sneezed, verifying their presence. Figures, she thought, everything I enjoy comes back to bite me.

Enjoy it anyways, her heart said. Lilacs are here to be enjoyed, it whispered, the scent getting stronger as she rounded the corner and saw the row of bushes lining the street, beautiful purple and pink bunches crowding their branches. She couldn’t resist them, and she nearly got petals up her nose when she leaned in, smothering her face in them, half of a deep breath in when she sneezed rather loudly.

“Do you need a tissue, honey?” came a voice from the other side of the bush.

She walked to the edge of the row and peeked around. An old man sat on a green painted park bench. He held a small plastic pack of tissues out to her, and she took it.

“Thanks.” She wiped her nose, shoved the used tissue in her pocket, and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She had to get to her grandmother’s house, but the old man held her gaze as if he wasn’t through with her.

“My Mariann used to do the same thing. She loved lilacs, they were her favorite. In fact, she planted these bushes. She said they reminded her of the bushes that grew next to her swing in the yard when she was little. But they made her pay,” he laughed. “She would be out here all day in the spring, sneezing and wiping her eyes. By supper, her nose was as red as a clown’s.”

He hardly seemed to be talking to her until he blinked. “Did you know my Mariann? She used to work at the library, in the magazine room.”

The girl shook her head.

“Ah. Well, I suppose that was probably years before your time. It’s a great story, though, of Mariann in the magazine room. Would you like to hear it?”

“Um, OK, but I kinda can’t stay very long,” she said, sitting next to him on bench, grateful to have a place to set the bags down for a moment.

“Yes yes,” he said, but it didn’t seem at all like he had heard her. “I was a young man, a few years older than you, and I will start by telling you I was horribly in love. Oh, I hung on her every word, and knew every speck of her eye and every freckle on her face. She was perfect, and I knew she and I would be together forever. She would think so too, if she knew I existed.

“She worked in the magazine room at the library, where I saw her one day, when I needed an article about President Truman. I fell in love right when I saw her. I went back every day, requesting articles and back issues of Life Magazine until the day I left for boot camp.

“Soon, I was overseas, up to my knees in mud and pining for her. My mother, bless her, wrote often, and she added my name to the list at church. I wasn’t one to attend unless my mother prodded me through the chapel door, but the letters from her church friends were kind enough. One was from a young lady who wrote exceptionally well, and she and I began to write to each other more and more. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, even though I was a bit sad to let go of my love for the girl in the magazine room.

“I didn’t come home for nineteen months, but her letters promised she would wait for me and welcome me home, and that she did. I was twenty-one years old when I stepped off the train, and saw her: my Mariann, in a dress the color of those lilacs there, holding my name on a sign like a cab driver!

“All that time, I had loved her, never knowing that the one writing to me was that same girl from the magazine room.” He finally paused. “So it was meant to be, me and my Mariann.”

The girl sat still, waiting.

“Someday, you’ll be that girl in the magazine room,” he said, placing his hand on hers. “You will get to live your own fairy tale, like my Mariann and I did. There will be dragons and earthquakes and miracles of your own, but oh, what an adventure it will be!”

The man stood, slowly.

“And here I am, an old man, keeping you from it!” He smiled and offered her a hand to help her stand, an unnecessary gesture done out of habitual chivalry.

It was then that the girl realized how long she had sat there, and knew she would have to walk faster to get to her grandmother’s before she started to worry. She picked up her bags and awkwardly smiled at him. “Thanks. I mean, well, um. She sounds like she was a nice lady.”

The words felt stupid falling out of her mouth.

“She was. And you’re a gentle one to listen to an old man talk. Go on, and pay attention to your adventure so that you can tell it to someone some day.”

The girl walked out of the yard and headed uphill. Of course I would have to walk twice as fast when I’m walking UP hill! she grumbled to herself.

Four blocks later, she gave up on switching the bags from one arm to the other; both arms were tired and she still had three blocks to go. The wind picked up and the sun seemed to be setting faster than usual. She pulled the hood on her sweatshirt up and tightened the strings.

The wind took that as a challenge, and began blowing into her face.

Despite her usual anxiety about hidden places, she turned into the alley behind the hardware store, a path that would save her both distance and time.

She was a little more than halfway through when she heard hushed, frantic speech that she couldn’t quite make out. Her heart pounded. She couldn’t breathe. To turn around would be a longer trek to the open streets, but to keep going could mean an unwelcome encounter.

It’s OK. Be cool. If you’re cool and act like everything is fine, they’ll leave you alone.

She tried to keep a steady pace and fake confidence.

She heard a sniff. A little rattling metal. A sigh, but not a human sigh. Her heart pounded even faster as she neared the end of the hardware store.

She saw the end of the sleeping bag first. Then the end of a tail. She slowed and looked around the corner of the building and saw a woman trying to make herself comfortable, braced against the wall, soothing the shabby dog that sniffed and sighed next to her. The woman made eye contact with the girl but said nothing, pulling the sleeping bag in a little tighter.

The girl stopped.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

The woman continued to fidget with the sleeping bag.

“Are you cold?”

The woman looked at the dog.

Why are you bothering? It’s not like you can do anything about it, her brain nagged at her, before her heart chimed in: give her the bags.

The girl felt helpless. This woman needed more, needed a rescue, a superhero, a… something else. Someone else. What good would it do to give her the bags, really? The bags really weren’t hers to give. But…

“I think it’s going to get colder, and I know it’s not a lot, but I have some food, and…” She set the bags down in front of the woman, who still said nothing. She turned and walked down the alley. She tried not to be so obvious about it when she looked sideways as she turned, and saw the woman laying back down, pulling the sleeping bag up over her shoulders, which were now snug into the confines of what used to be her grandmother’s sweater.

She walked, almost running for another block. She was disappointed. She was supposed to have used this time to come up with something good, something profound and worthy, but instead, she had only bought herself more trouble. She would have to explain why she was late, and why she had given away what wasn’t even hers. She was barely up the front steps when her grandmother flung the door open.

“Where on earth have you been!? I expected you to – And where is – why is your face so red, are you OK?” Her grandmother spit out questions and half-questions faster than the girl could answer.

Grandma!” The girl nearly shouted.

Her grandmother stopped.

Not having had the time to put something polished together, she simply started talking. She told her about the lilacs and the old man, about his Mariann and the look on his face when he spoke of her. She told her about the dark pathway, when she was afraid until she found someone who was probably more afraid, about how her heart told her to give the bags to the woman, even if it wasn’t much. She told her about how she was supposed to have spent the time being clever and ran out of time.

The grandmother was silent.

She brought the girl over and sat on the brown carpet with her, reaching up onto the coffee table for the dish of lemon drops.

“My girl,” she finally said. “What you did today is better than words you could have said. You listened to the heart that needed to be heard. You shared without expectation. You’ve made me proud of who you are.”

“You’re not mad?”

“I was worried, but no, I’m not mad. The day didn’t end up like we had planned, but how can I be mad at you loving when there were people to be loved?”

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.

Gas Station Pastor

I should be sleeping. I have to be up for work in a few hours, and I’ll no doubt regret this in the morning, but I won’t sleep if I don’t write it.

A few months ago, my friend and fellow pastor told me about how often people seem to be drawn to him for the kind of listening ear and compassion that is the earmark of a good pastor, even when they don’t know he’s a pastor. I get it: he’s often a pastor as well as a friend to me, even though he didn’t necessarily sign up for the gig. I remember telling him that being a pastor doesn’t have to do with a title.

And then I resigned my role as professional pastor, and felt like my pastoring days were over.

I always felt weird thinking of myself as a pastor. I often feel like people are a huge mystery I’m always studying, only to find myself more and more bewildered by them. I certainly care for people, and have tried hard to maintain that, despite whatever hurts I’ve experienced. But pastor? I’m no meek Mother Teresa. I’ve spent days at hospital bedsides, but I can’t even wager a guess about how much of that time was painfully boring. Do you have any idea how often I (and the rest of the pastoring population) think “oh mercy, will you people stop talking and complaining for five stinking minutes!!!!” — only to immediately feel horrible for having had that moment of humanity? It’s in the billions of times, often before our first cup of coffee is done.

So because I felt so human in my pastoring, I often felt like I was missing something. Surely if I was a better pastor, I would feel less human. Less cranky. Less “strong-willed.” Don’t get me wrong: I spent all those hours in hospitals and listening and serving because it was what I wanted to do. It’s the only way I know to be, despite how human I am.

Officially, I am anything but a pastor now. Given the total crap economy in this former industrial city, the best job I could get with some measure of immediacy was as a manager at a truck stop. In a lot of ways, I hate it.

“I have to eat at work, because we have no food at home, other than what I can afford for my daughter,” explained one employee, as she ate the overcooked hotdog that had been pulled from the grill and had been destined for the garbage. A single mother whose oldest kids are in college, she does what she can to make it while her youngest is still home. Last month’s paychecks fell just so that it looked like she “made too much” for food stamps, so she is cut off until next month, when the state will deem her poor enough again. I hadn’t asked about – or particularly noticed – her eating the hotdog. I hate that we throw food away, so if anyone wants to eat it, fine by me. Yet for some reason, she felt comfortable offering such personal information. Maybe she was afraid I’d be mad at her for eating it, but I doubt that’s the case. It was shortly after she had asked about my tattoo (Deuteronomy 6:4; a giveaway that I’m a person of at least some kind of faith). Later that shift, she told me about her shaken faith, nearly obliterated by the death of her grandmother, who had been the religious glue in the family.

“You know, I – I – *sigh* I’ll be honest. I’ve just gone through a real big transition, and I just – I needed a new start. I got a new career, a new life, and so I painted the house. Then I colored my hair. Then I got my neighbor’s scissors, flipped my head over, and I chopped. Then I flipped my head up and chopped some more. And then I thought, ‘OK, now I’m ready.'” All I had done is compliment the in-store Subway manager about her hair. I didn’t expect for her to share about her tough season, or how she was eager to start over. Those are the kinds of things people tell pastors, not gas managers.

I’ve been trying to think about why my employees/coworkers seem to be so open and candid about their struggles. None of them know I was a minister. None of them necessarily know I go to church. I do listen a lot, though, whether it’s because I don’t know what to say or because I think they just need ears to hear their words. I don’t really offer solutions or answers because I don’t feel it’s my place as their boss to weigh in on how to deal with personal matters, so I say a lot of social worker sort of things like “I can see how that would be really hard to deal with.”

A lot gets said about the “ministry of presence” and “active listening” when in seminary, but I almost think I have more time for it now than I did when I was a professional. Instead of trying to figure out how to get hurting people to come into my church to be ministered to, I’m the one they see for hours every week.

I wish that these two things were taught to the lay people in our congregations. They are the ones who have the most contact with the outside world. How different would the church be if it was made up of people who were present and listening in their own communities? Not beating them down with immediate evangelism or invitations to some overly programmed Women’s Ministries function, but just listening.

I didn’t have a congregation for a few months while I was unemployed. I got to join a new congregation that I absolutely love. While I still kind of hate my job, the last two days have helped me see that while I may not be where I would pick, and while I am still trying to figure out how to not feel so embarrassed about my job, I am still a pastor. It’s a continual lesson in humility, but it’s not like I’m the first person to find themselves in an unorthodox, unofficial ministry position.

Hopefully, I’ll remember this tomorrow, when I am stupidly tired and maybe a little more cranky – and human – than a pastor should be.

I Was a Salvation Army Officer

Me, almost 5 years ago, waiting to get my official "Lieutenant picture" taken (also, pride demands that I mention that was also a long time before I lost a LOT of weight)

Me, almost 5 years ago, waiting to get my official “Lieutenant picture” taken (also, pride demands that I mention that was also a long time before I lost a LOT of weight)

In the past, I have been very careful to try to avoid identifying my denomination. I avoided it out of fear. Fear that you would assume that I’m a homophobe or conservative weirdo. Fear that you would think that I am speaking on behalf of The Salvation Army. But mostly, I feared punishment from my leaders.

I have feared punishment from my leaders for seven years, the entire duration of my pre-seminary/seminary/professional ministry years. I’ve feared it because the main motivation tactic used is “don’t screw up or you’re a goner.”

That’s a pretty scary umbrella to live under because I’m someone who screws up a lot.

I’m too opinionated. I’m too liberal. Even the filtered version of me is not for the faint of heart. I’m not impressed by or intimidated by rank or title. I challenge people without meaning to.

And so for seven years, I’ve been intermittently punished for the strangest things. While in training (seminary), I commented that I missed college, so I was reprimanded for 40 minutes about how my comment was disparaging to the instructors and my peers. I was written up because my kitchen smelled like fruit (I had a fruit bowl and an orange scented plug-in air freshener). I wrote a blog post about being anxious and my blog was then sent to territorial headquarters (which is several levels of leadership above me) “for review.”

It seemed like I never knew when I was going to be blindsided.

I know I made my share of mistakes. When I had my first congregation, it was nothing short of an abusive hell. Had it not been for a few people who held onto me, that ministry would have killed me. Literally. I begged for help, but it came two years too late. As things fell apart at work, something had to give. Looking back, The Salvation Army isn’t used to dealing with situations as bad as that one was, so it wasn’t prepared to help me while I floundered and tried to figure it out. None of us seemed to know what to do. I was thankfully moved out of that location when the third year of moves were announced.

But not before I was assured that everyone in leadership thought I was a terrible person. Not before it was made abundantly clear that I was incredibly disliked by most of the other officers/ministers. I kind of knew that already, but to have it spelled out for me was something else.

I feared saying where I ministered because The Salvation Army, as an organization (not to be confused with everyone who comprises it), is primarily concerned with its reputation and image, and if I said something they thought might damage that, they wouldn’t hesitate to react. So we are told by leadership and our peers to shut up. To never, ever, under any circumstances, criticize anything at all related to The Salvation Army. It’s the old attitude of keeping your dirty laundry in the cupboard instead of cleaning it out, no matter how badly it stinks the place up.

I feared punishment for living out my faith. I’ve never been a conservative, but the older I get the more I believe in full LGBTQ inclusion in the church (meaning they should have the same access to membership, ministry, etc. as a straight person) and marriage equality in both civil and religious marriage. These are not just political or social opinions – they are rooted in Christ’s command to love others. The Salvation Army is officially against both of these beliefs, so much so that we have received written “guidelines” that are nothing short of thinly veiled threats for the minority of us who are more liberal. My gay and lesbian friends cannot be fully participating members of The Salvation Army if they are in a same-sex relationship. They cannot be married in a Salvation Army wedding. Any participation in a same-sex wedding on my part is grounds for termination, meaning if I choose to be a part of Brandon’s wedding party, or say a prayer during the wedding, or help tie ribbons on reception favors, I could be terminated. What a crock of shit.

PLEASE, PLEASE KNOW THAT NOT ALL OFFICERS AND MEMBERS OF THE SALVATION ARMY ARE HORRIBLE – THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M SAYING. There are still plenty of good people doing good things in their community through The Salvation Army. I’m saying that the organization that I believed in has failed me. I’ve watched as it failed so many of the good people within its ranks. I’ve seen it destroy people.

One of the two baby dedications I had. The officer with the ceremonies book would later become one of my favorite seminary teachers.

One of the two baby dedications I had. The officer with the ceremonies book would later become one of my favorite seminary teachers.

Writing this, and the resignation that will follow, means that I will become gossip fodder again. I’ve been in The Salvation Army since I was born, and I know what gets said of those who leave. I will be accused of breaking a covenant with God. I will be accused of having been too sinful. I will probably be “unfriended” both on Facebook and in real life by some. There will be an awful lot of people who will read this and think I’m just bitter and angry and disregard my experience. There will be people who will blame my decision to leave on a great spiritual failure. One friend who left four years ago warned me that I will be essentially disowned. That’s bleak.

But it’s not worse than what I’ve been living, and after seven years, I cannot in good faith say I want 34 more years of it. I can’t survive 34 more years. One former officer said to me tonight that he left when he realized that he spent most of his energy in internal fights instead of joining with other officers to fight against the things we’re supposed to battle (poverty, war, hatred, etc.). I did not sign up for 37 years of fighting like this.

I feel weak for not being able to keep fighting to change the things that are broken.
I feel like I’ve let a lot of good people down, some whom I couldn’t face right now for fear of seeing the disappointment in their faces.
The fear I have right now is that some people I love won’t love me anymore.

So as of 2:18 a.m., October 16, 2014, I’m done being an officer. My resignation won’t be submitted until I have ironed out a place to live, work, and recover, but I’m taking my the shreds of my heart back. The Salvation Army did not hold up their end of the bargain, so as of today, I’m moving on.

My sessionmates (seminary cohort), the Ambassadors of Holiness, just after we finished our last class, trespassing on the grass no one was supposed to walk upon.

My sessionmates (seminary cohort), the Ambassadors of Holiness, just after we finished our last class, trespassing on the grass no one was supposed to walk upon.

THE REALITY: Tonight, I submitted my resignation. I don’t have all the details ironed out yet, but it’s just too hard to try to find work in a town three hours away when I cannot travel for interviews. So I am going to move there in hopes that either A. something comes from the few interviews I have lined up, or B. I find something else really quickly. Tomorrow, my sister and mother will come and help me pack up and move.

I have told a handful of people that I’ve resigned, including my parents, best friends, and sessionmates (seminary cohorts). They have all been overwhelmingly wonderful. I didn’t shed a tear while writing my resignation, but I have cried over and over because of their kindness and support. One of them said she hopes I can love the SA again. I told her the truth: I don’t hate the SA, I am disappointed and hurt by some people within the SA, and unfortunately for me, those people hold a lot of power.

I am scared. Nervous. Bruised.

But also freed. Hopeful. And thanks to my PGs, admins, and AoHs, LOVED.

On How Tough it is to Be Tender

A wonderful woman who is kind enough to be my friend recently made a comment that we must remember that when we are admonished to care for the poor in spirit, sometimes, that includes us. It’s not earth shattering news to say that ministry is hard. Whether it’s as an ordained minister or as a lay person, it’s tough.

Most people in ministry will tell you that they are called to do it. For those who aren’t steeped in Christian argot, what that means is that there is a desire, a compulsion towards ministry that is so particular that it feels divine. In my experience, that often means having to operate outside of your comfort zone. Sure, elements of it may be right up your alley, but there will inevitably be some part of it that is maddening and inescapable.

Oh, my friends, I have to tell you that I am weary. I’m so very weary because the things I like least are confrontation and conflict, and it just seems like there is an overwhelming amount of that lately. It sucks the very life out of me and sends my anxiety spiraling. I’ve had a pretty wide range of ministry settings, and I can tell you that it’s easier (for me) to deal with a recently sober addict on a bad day than for me to deal with two church ladies arguing for a decade over whether or not to fold the napkins. The prior responds to directness and confidence, but the latter is like dancing in a minefield of potentially hurt feelings. How phenomenally exhausting.

At the risk of sounding like my mother, I am also dismayed, discouraged, and disappointed in the endlessly negative atmosphere created when church members and leaders insult and belittle each other, only to try to cover it with “oh, you know I’m kidding.” What a horrible example that is of the love we profess from the pulpit! I can be sarcastic and edgy sometimes, but I am trying very hard to never do it at someone’s expense. As someone who was/is bullied, I know what it’s like to be the butt of the joke that goes too far, and I don’t want to treat others like that. Almost everyone I have ever talked to who has left the church or avoided it altogether has done so because the people who make up the church are unkind. All I really ask is that you follow the Golden Rule.

Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.

These interactions just aren’t holy. And they suck the life out of me.

When I voiced this concern recently, I was nearly destroyed by the response I got: “You’re just being too sensitive.” I’m too sensitive because I don’t like meanness? Or because I think insults don’t reflect Christ? Or because I am concerned about how someone might be hurt in the process (including, possibly, me)?

Well, OK then. I’ll keep on being too sensitive if it means that it will prompt you to be kinder, at least in my presence. I’m OK being labeled too sensitive, and maybe that sticks me in the “poor in spirit” crowd according to some, but you know what? If I’m surrounded by people who need a minister, then I’m right where I need to be. Just please save some kindness for me, because I am weary, and I don’t need the church making it any harder to minister than it already is.

Please be careful with me. I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way. -Jewel

Love is Easy

Relationships are hard and people are frustrating, but love is easy. 
Trust is scary and faith is a gamble, but love is easy. 
Forgiveness is humbling and grace is unfair, but love is easy. 

I needed to be reminded of these things today because it seems like the bad week has stretched into two weeks, and it’s exhausting and it would just be so much easier if I could decide that love is harder than I can handle. Because if it’s harder than I can handle, then it’s easier to give myself a pass.

Elijah and his friend from another class

Elijah and his friend from another class

This past week, my five-year-old nephew, Elijah, made it into the local newspaper. That morning, he had declared himself to be a secret superhero named “Lava” and went to school in plaid shorts and a brightly colored striped shirt and brightly colored gym shoes. Why? Because he loves superheroes and (at least that morning), he loved those clothes. That’s not why he was in the newspaper, though. He was photographed with another kindergartner as they walked through a school fair with their arms around each other’s shoulders. When my sister asked him who the other kid was, he said it was his friend from another class. He couldn’t tell her his name, though. He just knew that they were friends.

I wish I could love like he does. I’m supposed to love like he does.

Elijah is really too young and has had a thankfully privileged enough life to not hesitate to love the things and the people around him. He’s still five, and has all the stubbornness that comes with being five, but he hasn’t yet learned to be distrustful, resentful, or skeptical.

It has felt very hard to love some people lately, especially people who have hurt my friends. I’m very protective of my tribe and when they are hurt, I want vengeance. There have been a lot of moments lately when I’ve prayed “but do you know how hard it is to love the people hurting my friends?”

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” from Matthew 11; NIV

Love is the burden we’re to carry. There are a lot of learned lessons that become obstacles in carrying that burden. We get hurt and we hurt others. We mistake hardness for wisdom. Somewhere along the way, we get this mixed up idea that we get to hold off on loving people.

But over and over, I am taught another lesson: loving people, as reckless as it may seem, as often as it requires that I practice the things I listed at the beginning of my blog, is a far better use of my time, gives me a deeper peace, and partly satisfies the desire for holiness. Some day, I hope I’ll remember this lesson instead of the other ones. I want to be like Elijah, who, like that one Jesus guy, is OK with loving just because the person is there for me to love.