Below is the message I shared at my meeting, West Hills Friends on Sunday. One of the awkward things about posting a message brought to a Quaker meeting is that the responses during open worship aren't included in the recording. This is awkward because what happens during open worship is just as important as the words shared from the person standing up front. For this particular message, the open worship responses moved me to tears. I am sad that you cannot hear the wise, heartfelt words shared during our gathered time.
Also, I talk harshly about my upbringing in my Evangelical Church in my hometown. My family still attends that Church and have many close connections there. If you are listening to this and are still connected with that Church, please know that I am still grateful for everything that community did for my family in the years following my father's departure from our family. You were a community that supported me and my family, and you still do. Thank you. I am not speaking about a Evangelical Church that shares anything different (theologically speaking) from the one I attended during my adolesence. So as much as I site my specific experience at this Church, it could be about the majority of Evangelical Churches throughout the world.
Thanks for listening! A transcript of the message is included below the player.
A couple months ago Mike gave us a message about everyone being only 15 seconds from tears. Shortly after that message I gave my own, about similar themes when I worked at Starbucks. How customers I served cried in front of me often, either because I knew their stories, or because I told them we were out of chocolate croissants. I served nearly seventy five customers per hour, each of them carrying with them, out into the world, their stories of pain, of loneliness, and the constant question, “Do I belong here?” Once I realized this was behind the seemingly irrational outbursts of tears, my care for each of those people changed.
Just two days after I gave that message here, Mike and I met in our usual spot for coffee. As we talked the owner of the coffee shop walked in the front door. Mike and I said hello, but as we looked at him we could tell he had something to say. “I’m so happy the two of you are here. Seriously. Thank you for spending your money here, I so appreciate it.” As he said the word appreciate his eyes filled with tears. He continued, “It’s been really hard, sometimes I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep the doors of this place open. So, I just need to say thank you for supporting us.” As he walked behind the counter Mike looked at me and said, “15 seconds”
The thought that everyone is only seconds away from tears hasn't left me, and has only revisited me more in these weeks following the yearly meeting decision to expel us. In the wake of that decision I've struggled. I've struggled because I have a hard time figuring out a way to respond that adequately takes into account that each of you sitting out there in those uncomfortable pews feel differently about what has happened, and that the yearly meeting decision has hit you in a place that brings up tears for different reasons than the person sitting next to you. How possibly can I say anything to take into account that each of us is hurting for different reasons, and to speak into that?
So instead of talking about our expulsion from the yearly meeting, and about how I feel about it, I want to talk some more about the well of tears that waits just under the surface for all of us, and how that can make us better listeners and attenders to our souls.
I was raised in the Evangelical tradition. I was about eleven years old when my family started attending our Evangelical church. Even at eleven, the message was clear from the moment I started attending…you are a sinner, in need of saving. The only way I could be saved from my sinfulness was that Jesus Christ died for me. He was sacrificed on my behalf. That was the Gospel. That was the heart of my upbringing in the Church. If nothing else, knowing that I was saved by Jesus was the key.
So, when it came time to read the Bible, every word was read through the lens of my depravity, my guilt, my shame, my tendency towards sin, towards temptation. It was read through the lens of my constant need to be saved from myself. It was read through the lens of a God who was so angry with me, all the time. It was read through a lens of a God who was always disappointed in me.
To this very day, when I hear scripture the first and sometimes the only thing I hear is, "You are awful. I am so disappointed in you." I've been out of the Evangelical church for a long time, the fact that this is still the message I get when reading scripture tells you how foundational this belief was in my formational spiritual years.
When a religious tradition speaks into our self-worth it has incredible power. If God is our cosmic father, the father or all fathers, and this father is perpetually disappointed in us, even angry with us, it speaks to our self-worth in the eyes of God. What’s even more strange is that we are told this disappointed father loves us, but only because his real son sacrificed his life for us to be loved and in relationship with him.
I didn’t want to disappoint my father. I didn’t want him to be angry with me. And so I was called into the Evangelical Christian life, of constantly checking my sinfulness, of constantly begging for forgiveness. As a teenager I was afraid that if I said a swear word before I died and hadn’t asked for forgiveness that I’d go to hell. I was terrified that Jesus would return to the world while I was busy being a misbehaved teenager.
And so I lived my adolescents constantly reminding my self that I was indeed awful, and unworthy of the love that I received from Jesus. God, for me, was in the business of calling me out.
In speaking of my own experience I realize that it just isn’t Evangelicals who are guilty of this, of calling out our unworthiness. There are people in our lives, there are institutions, and powers that tell us this day in and day out.
My formational years as a Christian created in me a sense that God didn’t like me, and that Christianity existed to constantly call out my sinfulness and lack of obedience. This has obviously colored the way I still see God, even though I’ve done my best to abandon this understanding of who God is. What I want to suggest, today, is that maybe we need to know that we are beloved. That God actually…well, likes us. What if we can begin to hear this, that we are beloved first and foremost. What if we can begin listening, just a little at a time, from a knowledge that we belong and that we are indeed loved, and liked.
For the last couple years I have tried my best to listen in this way. So when I hear the words of Jesus I try to imagine that I am being invited into a new way of seeing the world. I am being invited to seeing my place within the world in a different way. What if Jesus is calling me out of a system that values boundaries and is calling me instead INTO a system that has no limitations on who is loved and welcomed? What if we begin listening to Jesus not from our own shame, but from a place of love. What if we see that Jesus is so gosh darn excited to have us be a part of the new story, a story unfolding against the powers and institutions that have made it their business to tell us we don’t belong? What if we heard scripture and knew, intrinsically, our place within a world steeped in love?
I know, it's hard. We've been hurt. I know it's hard when the world has only ever seemed to tell us that we are not welcome unless we fit the script. I know its hard when we’ve been told time and time again “no, you are not welcome here” It isn’t enough, I don’t think, to walk into a knowledge of being beloved by faith alone. We need to walk into our belovedness by being shown the safety and reality of that love.
Wouldn’t it be something if the Church could be that place? Wouldn’t it be something if a community of people committed themselves to surrounding each other with a love that was real and tangible, a love absent of strings, and stipulations? Wouldn’t it be something if this community was assured that it was blessed by a God so in love with human beings?
Is it heretical for me to say that my Lord’s prayer has been a Mary Oliver poem? For about four years I interned and pastored at a Episcopal Church. The repetition of liturgy communicated that these specific words are important enough to say over and over again. A few years ago I actually started to roll my eyes a little bit when I heard someone use Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese in a sermon or talk. Here we go again! And than, I realized that maybe the reason it is repeated so much is that it is so important that we actually need to say it over and over again. Maybe it should be in the liturgy. As I was writing this message the line, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciteng— over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” And I thought darn it Mary, you’ve done it again. You’ve said in eighteen lines of poetry what I’ve been trying to say for the last ten minutes. So here is the whole poem, our liturgy for this morning. If you know it you can say it with me:
You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles though the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Amen, and amen.
May it be so that we can say to one another, “tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” May it be so, that you are reminded, over and over again your place in the family of things. Beloved. As much as your able listen from that place. Listen for God there. Let’s try that now as we head into open worship. Here are some queries:
When have you known that you are beloved?
How might knowing that you are beloved change the way you listen?