(Repost) Lessons From a Mother’s Experience

As we reflect about God beyond gender and the image of motherhood, I want to just lift up again this previous about the experience of women, and lessons they teach us about our faith and life.

Your progressive preacher,

Micah

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Continuing on my earlier theme of examples of theology flowing from the wisdom of the collective lives of folks often overlooked, I want to share a little from Carol Flinders’ book Enduring Grace : Living Portraits of Seven Mystics.
Cuellar-Daru Mother and ChildFlinders explores students of women’s lives who suggest that the unique ways women relate and make moral choices are suggestive of ways of changing our approach to life for all people which can lead us toward my ecologically just lifestyles that lend themselves toward peacemaking. These scholars suggest these “ways of thinking arise out of the ‘practice’ of being a mother”, not meaning of course that all women become mothers but all women are acculturated to think of motherhood as the norm. These ways of thinking seem to naturally fall in line, according to Flinders, to the practices and approaches of peacemaking and nonviolence. These approaches can be and are at times embraced by men but, according to Flinders, are unique to a women’s experience.
Here are some of these approaches that are shaped by the wisdom of women’s lives, according to Flinders, which also can point toward new more peaceful ways of relating:
1. Holding close while welcoming change.
“The growing child needs protective ‘holding’ and yet even while she welcomes it, she is struggling to break free and assert a new identity. Mothers snuggle, therefore, and reassure; we reenact the family traditions tirelessly, telling the child in effect that her world is stable no matter what. And when she shrugs off the bedtime ritual one evening as if it had never mattered anyway, we know we must shrug it off, too, and move blithely into the next stage of life”.
This attitude recognizes limits of what can be controlled, embracing change.
eskimo-mother-and-child-john-keaton2. A preference to the concrete rather than the abstract.
This is because of focusing on not children as ideas but this child – this daughter and son – and their unique needs. Flinders suggests that this leads away from abstractions to concrete, real needs. You can see how so much of our conflicts are ideological, and could not be sustained when seeing others as real people.
This leads to not focusing so much on sharp divisions between self and others, outer and inner world. This includes a focus on open ways of approaching others, seeing the connections that exist. She suggests this is “related to the kind of entity a child is. ‘A child herself might be thought of as an ‘open structure’, changing, growing, reinterpreting.’
This includes recognize the value of their own bodies and the bodies of others.
“Women tend to know … in a way and to a degree that many men do not, both the history and cost of human flesh … No woman who is a woman says of a human body, ‘it is nothing.’” After all it is from the flesh and blood of a woman’s body that humans enter the world: as particular, vulnerable bodies of children.

3. “Attentive love” as a discipline that guides living.
This is love that mothers must learn to raise children, love that “does not give place to self-serving fantasy” but rather “stays focused upon the child as he or she really is”. This love “implies and rewards a faith that love will not be destroyed by knowledge, that to the loving eye the lovable will be revealed”.

new image of motherhood4. “Women tell stories to one another out of their daily experience, stories that are meant to strengthen their values in themselves and one another”.

Flinders goes on to suggest what practically could flow from all of us, of all genders and gender expressions, learning to embrace some of these aspects of the wisdom common to women:
“The relevance of all this to current political events is not hard to find. In a world full of breaking-up empires and emerging nations, respect for the ‘complexities and uncertainties of another’s experience’ is surely of the first importance. So are a strong sense of connectedness, tolerance for ambiguity, and the capacity to ‘hold on’ while at the same time welcoming change. So, too, if we are to keep ourselves from destruction, is a reverence for human flesh itself — all human flesh: First World, Second, Third, and Fourth”.

She goes on to suggest that “the values that arise out of maternal practice are in fundamental opposition to those of a military-industrial complex” and the machinery of war or mass violence.

Whether one completely agrees with every suggestion Flinders is making of what her experience and other women’s experience looks like (and I will not assume as a straight cisgender man to be the best one to determine how close to a woman’s experience her analysis is), I do think there is truth to her essential premise: as we listen to women’s stories, as we hear them speak in their own voices, there is a wisdom that can call into question the violence, both psychic and physical, at the heart of our patriarchal society.

We might, if we would listen to mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, single women of all stripes, and all who don’t fit our patriarchal mold, hear some wisdom that can point us in a different direction than the violence we have seen in our streets both at the hands of police and people raging against police oppression, that we see occurring in gang violence and domestic violence, and that we continue to engage in on institutional levels through our war machine as a country.

What have been your examples of ways listening to the wisdom of other’s lives has shaped your own lives?  In particular, what is the message the experience of women in your life (or your own experience if you are a woman) teaching you?
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

(repost) The Womb of Life

As we reflect on the motherhood of God, I thought this piece might be helpful to share.  I hope it touches you!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Follow us on our podcast, on iTunesTwitterfacebook, and here on our blog.

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I continue to talk about us and our stories, as well as the stories of others, as ways to encounter Christ.
Colossians 1:27 identifies our hope in glory as “Christ in us”. This points to the presence of Christ not just as under the stones or within the log we cleave with an axe, as St Thomas is said to have remembered Jesus saying in his Gospel, but within ourselves.
Just as the Cosmic Christ is present in every creature from the tiniest atom to the largest alligator, the squirming worm to the splashing whale, so in our lives Christ is present, living and active.
In its own this is what Psalm 139 recognizes, as it beautifully suggests to us our whole lives are lived within God:
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
A-Prayer-For-You4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.”

mother and foetusLike a fish is ever surrounded by the ocean, yet has its water ever flowing through its body, so our lives are lived within Christ as Christ is present in all creation. As Jurgen Moltmann suggests in his books God in Creation and The Source of Life, one can legitimately picture God in Christ in these verses as being depicted like a mother in whose womb we exist like children. While in our earthly mother’s womb, we are surrounded by her, yet she also fills us. For it is her air, her nourishment, her body’s strength that fills our own while we dwell within her. Likewise the Psalmist pictures God as so near us in Christ that w we live in, with, and surrounded by Christ in every place, with Christ being the life, strength, and nourishment flowing through us. Is it any wonder St. Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as the Cosmic Christ as existing as our Mother when she wrote,

“It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. And He showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words when He says: “It is I”.

“As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfilment of all true desires. (…) Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God.“It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace. I then saw with complete certainty that God, before creating us, loved us, and His love never lessened and never will. In this love he accomplished all his works, and in this love he oriented all things to our good and in this love our life is eternal. With creation we started but the love with which he created us was in Him from the very beginning and in this love is our beginning. And all this we shall see it in God eternally.”
(From Revelations of Divine Love by Juliana of Norwich (1342-1416), (LIX, LXXXVI)).

I often picture this all-embracing presence of Christ around us and within us, like an all-surrounding womb to an unborn child or like an ocean to a fish, through the following prayer, in my work as a minister and chaplain:

“Oh Lord, who is nearer to us than the air that we bring, or the cool breezes that refresh us in summer heat, your word to us is always love. It is your love that births us into this world, and to your love we all shall return. Your love is what gives us strength to stand on all of our days – from days of overwhelming wonder and joy which nearly floor us with delight to days of crushing pain and heartache which make our knees knock and legs tremble, to every kind of day between. And when we cannot stand, it is your love that lifts us up like a child in their mother or father’s arms to carry us on”.

This all embracing presence of love, compassion, and grace that ever surrounds us, strengthens us, and guides us is the presence of the living Christ. Because we are both surrounded and filled by this loving presence, we can know wherever we go, whatever we face, Christ is always, ever around us and with us.
This all-surrounding presence is so beautifully pictured by the prayer of St. Patrick :


“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”Amen.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

(repost) Encountering God the Spirit as True Mother, Christ as True Brother

As we reflect on the theme of motherhood and God as beyond gender, I thought it would be good to share again this reflection from several years ago on the motherhood of God in Scripture and Christian tradition.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Our readings in the New Testament focus first on the work of Christ as older brother, the one who has gone ahead of us on the path God has laid out for us. Yet they center on the work of the Holy Spirit, which Trinitarian theologian Jurgen Moltmann has come to call the motherly work of God with us and for us.
Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Source of Life, writes:

“If the experiences of the Holy Spirit are grasped as being a `rebirth’ or a `being born anew’, this suggests an image for the Holy Spirit which was quite familiar in the early years of Christianity, especially in Syria, but got lost in the patriarchal empire of Rome: the image of the mother. If believers are `born’ of the Holy Spirit, then we have to think of the Spirit as the `mother’ of believers, and in this sense as a feminine Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, as the Gospel of John understands the Paraclete to be, then she comforts `as a mother comforts’ (cf. John 14.26 with Isa 66.13). In this case the Spirit is the motherly comforter of her children. Linguistically this brings out the feminine form of Yahweh’s ruach in Hebrew. Spirit is feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, and masculine in Latin and German.

mother holding baby 1The famous Fifty Homilies of Makarios (Symeon) come from the sphere of the early Syrian church. For the two reasons we have mentioned, `Makarios’ talked about `the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit’. In the seventeenth century, Gottfried Arnold translated these testimonies of Syrian Orthodox spirituality into German, and they were widely read in the early years of Pietism. John Wesley was fascinated by `Macarius the Egyptian’. In Halle, August Hermann Francke took over `Makarios” ideas about the feminine character of the Holy Spirit, and for Count Zinzendorf this perception came as a kind of revelation. In 117411, when the community of the Moravian Brethren was founded in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Zinzendorf proclaimed `the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit’ as a community doctrine for the Brethren. He knew very well what he was doing, for he wrote later: `It was improper that the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit should have been disclosed to the sisters not by a sister but by me.’

family-silhouette-clip-art1As a vivid, pictorial way of explaining the divine Tri-unity, Zinzendorf liked to use the image of the family, `since the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is our true Father and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is our true Mother, because the Son of the living God is our true Brother’. `The Father must love us, and can do no other; the Mother must guide us through the world and can do no other; the Son, our brother, must love souls as his own soul, as the body of his body, because we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and he can do no other’ (see also my book The Spirit of Life, pp.158-9). Zinzendorf then also describes the influence of the Spirit on the soul in romantic terms of great tenderness. And in a German hymn, Johann Jacob Schutz describes the leadings of the Spirit similarly as a guiding `with motherly hand’.

It is right and good that contemporary feminist theology should have discovered the `femininity of the Holy Spirit’ and reinterpreted it, and it is quite out of place and a sign of ignorance when official church organs in Germany believe they can scent heresy in this discovery.

This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God.

Of course the picture of the family of God Father, God Mother and God Child is no more than an image for the God to whom no image can approximate. But it is much better than the ancient patriarchal picture of God the Father with two hands, the Son and the Spirit. For there God is a solitary, ruling and determining subject, whereas here the Tri-unity is a wonderful community. There the reflection of the triune God is a hierarchical church. Here the reflection of the triune God is a community of women and men without privileges, a community of free and equal people, sisters and brothers. For the building of this new congregational structure, the motherly ministry of the Spirit, and the Tri-unity as a community, are important”.

I invite you as you crack open your Bible with me, to look to and listen to the descriptions of the brotherly work of Jesus on your behalf, and how you can join him in the path he has tread for you, but also to hear the descriptions of the motherly work of the Holy Spirit. Open yourself to the presence of the Spirit in your life, and how you can experience Her as she makes real to you God’s transforming love.

 

In my life, opening to the experience of the Holy Spirit first happened among a youth Bible club in my high school, a group of mainly Baptists and charismatics. I remember as I joined in a prayer circle with them, and joined in praise choruses to the strumming of one of their guitars, feeling my heart open and sensing a presence of love that melted my defenses and opened me to feel fully alive. I experienced then, and since, the Holy Spirit in the terms Moltmann describes Her in his book: “the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up, becomes wholly and entirely living, and is endowed with the energies of life”. In different ways through different experiences and practices in my life I have felt God’s presence flow over me like water, embrace me like a mother’s arms her child, and I have felt myself filled with the sense that I am fully alive.

This presence in which our lives wake up, the mothering Holy Spirit, is not just available in the strum of guitar chords or in moments of prayer, but in each moment and each place in which we draw breath. Just as the Holy Spirit has helped me discover the joy of being fully alive, so the Holy Spirit is there for you in each moment, as you open your heart to Her presence.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Micah

Micah and his momma.

jesus-park-benchMatthew 16:13-20. I wonder as I read this story. We often read it literally, as if Jesus is trying to put together some Christology or maybe an ad campaign for himself, like in “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Jesus literally asks “Who do you say that I am?” Yet Jesus already knows who he is. Jesus does not need someone to inform him on the right doctrine of Christ, to let Jesus in on the secret of his own identity. I wonder if instead of asking who he is by saying “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus is really asking those who answer “Who are you?” by this question. After all, our answer to who Jesus is to us is really more our description of our relationship to Jesus than anything else. Our answer to this question flows less from our theology and from Bible verses than we would like to admit. My answer to “Who do you say I am?” flows more from my lived experience of Jesus in my life. It comes from my heart, my life. Your answer does too.

The challenge of this verse for me is that Christ still haunts us with this question. “Who are you, really? I know who I am, but who are you in relationship to me?”. The question of who we are is the question we struggle with the most. God is constant, Christ is ever for us and with us. The Spirit is nearer than the air that we breathe. They never falter. Yet our hearts waver, and we struggle to find our way. Know that Christ is not trying to force you into some mold that is not who you are. Nor is Christ sitting in judgment of the rightness or wrongness of your beliefs, as if your ideas about Jesus determine your rightness with God or others. Rather, Christ is holding out his hand, saying “follow me”, “walk with me”. Christ is offering to walk with you on this journey to discover who you are, who you are always meant to be. You cannot answer either the question of who Christ is, or who you are, without embarking on this journey. Jesus is not worried about the abstracts of your dogma. Jesus is worried about you, and offering a richly rewarding relationship with you that will help you discover who you truly are and what your life is for. Jesus invites you and me to a journey that is never ending, never easy, but worth each step and every mile

walking-with-jesus-pms-j7p1Matthew 28:11-20. What strikes me as I read this story is how Jesus has made a 180 from his earlier approach. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus nearly refuses to heal a woman because his mission was only to the Jewish people and she was not Jewish. She confronted Jesus on how he had let his cultural upbringing stand in the way of God’s work. Jesus heard this woman out, and he began to change his approach so Jesus’s ministry included more people. Now, after his death and resurrection, Jesus commands his followers to go into all the world, proclaiming God’s realm to people from every nation and walk of life. We see Jesus learning, growing, and evolving, throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Apparently the sort of holy sinless life Jesus embodies is not one that is static nor the holiness of a man that doesn’t make mistakes. This shows me that a mistake and a sin are different. There seems to be a point where God confronts us with our prejudice we inherit from our culture and upbringing, an inheritance that puts up walls to keep the other out. When that happens, we have to choose what to do. After that encounter, such prejudice becomes not just something we grew up with but outright sin and bigotry. Jesus’s evolving holiness suggests something to me about our calling as Christians. The Christian life is not adhering to a list of rules and regulations. It is following Jesus. It is embarking on the same shape of life Jesus lived out. For Jesus that was a life constantly open to learning new things. It was a life of ever adjusting his boundaries so they reflected more and more of God’s mercy, love, generosity, and grace. This holiness is a journey where we follow Jesus in moving daily out of the cultural prejudices we have been raised with, oftentimes which view only certain people as worthy of God’s love or the community’s embrace. This path of holiness guides us in moving more and more toward fulfilling more perfectly Jesus’ command to reach out embracing all kinds of people in all kinds of places with the message of God’s love. We are fooling ourselves if we think this is a simple process. This path, like Jesus’s own holiness, is evolutionary. It means regularly confronting our own inner prejudices that could be overlooked, and working to really see people for who they are, so that we can honestly more fully see them as just as much bearers of the Divine image as we ourselves are. It also means not just making the other mistake of beginning to castigate those who grew up as we did, who taught us the values that we did, as evil and unworthy of grace, love, and inclusion in God’s family. We do not know their journey or story, and they too have need of love. Living out this all-inclusive grace is the holiness Jesus modeled for us, and it is a journey and a process. Its destination is a day of great home-coming and family reunion where all sit at the table of fellowship. May it come quickly in this earth, and thank God it remains for us beyond this veil of tears!

jesus hugsRomans 8:1-11. Two lines resonate with me in this rich and moving section of Scripture. First, “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. So much of my Christian life I lived as if God’s love was fickle, as if God was a kid who did take backs on God’s gifts. Yet in clear words we have the promise: there is no condemnation in God for those in Christ. All fear of divine retribution, fear of being abandoned by God, and fear of being kicked out of God’s family need to be laid aside. God’s love and acceptance is here for all of us. This inclusion in Christ sounds like it is for some of us, but in actual fact all are included in this. God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus. The whole world, not just part of it. Jesus came for all the world, so that all are included in this phrase “in Christ”. This promise lets us in on the great secret: we can abandon any need to relate to God with fear and can begin now to open up to God.

If only we could see ourselves as God sees us.

I think that the phrase, “there is no longer any condemnation,” also speaks to me because I am my worst critic. I beat myself with my “if only’s”. To quote my friend, Pastor Bec Cranford-Smith, I should on myself all the time, until I am a should-y mess. This is not God’s doing. This is my continuing to live as if I am not in Christ. It is continuing to live as if the story being written for me is the word of shame I heard from so many sources as a child, the word of rejection I heard as a little boy on the playground, the word of abandonment I heard as a young minister when colleagues and mentors decided I was “too far gone” with the inclusion I preached and practiced. I know firsthand how powerful these shoulds can be, but should-ing on myself does not make my life any healthier or this world any better. All should-ing does is make things messier and uglier.
In fact, shoulding on ourselves is paralyizing. It makes me, makes you, feel helpless and unable to change for the better. It also causes us to see condemnation all around us, even in people who love us and care for us. It makes it hard to hear good advice, fearing underneath it might be shame, rejection, or abandonment because of words of critique or disagreement.

mirror dimlyNo wonder “there is no condemnation” is the first word in this text! Without it, nothing that follows can be life-giving. In fact, I would argue that the words “there is no condemnation” are a lens we can use to guide us on how to interpret the whole Bible. We can ask, “since there is no condemnation, what does this verse mean?” and go through Scripture treating it less as a rulebook with a pass/fail test at the end, instead realizing it is a testimony, a letter of love and grace to us and to all people. We can let go of that fear of being condemned. Doing so can help us realize that interpretations of Scripture which seem to present that this or that person is rejected, condemned, cut off from God, are far of the mark because we are promised that all people — even the whole world — are in Christ, and in Christ there is no condemnation.

Jacob wrestling in the night is a fitting picture for how some picture the struggle between flesh and spirit.

The flip side of this text only makes sense when we realize no one it talks about here is condemned. The text begins to talk about the way to a full life that God intends, and it talks about the way of life versus the way of death. This brings us to the second set of words that stand out to me. It talks about a way that is guided by flesh or Spirit. Flesh is a translation I hate, because it makes it sound like our bodies, the trees, the water, the birds, …. all those fleshy things … are evil. A condemnation of our bodies and our earth is not what I understand the Greek word sarx, which we translate flesh, means. Sarx means more flesh without spirit in it. Sarx is body without breath or life in it. Sarx is not flesh in the sense of living skin. Sarx instead is more like the corpse that is dead flesh being chosen over the life-giving Spirit. The life-giving Spirit is what gives our bodies life so they are not a corpses but living things that carry within them the image of the invisible God. Yet we can live as if this is not the case, live as if we are zombies, just bodies without life. We do this when we only focus on the material of life, without its meaning, without its purpose, without its connection to the deeper reality that undergirds it. To not live as zombies is to cooperate in our bodies with the Spirit of life.

9781e9e0-c634-698e-112d-5c720e4c6430_TWDS4_Gallery_Rick-Fen.jpgThe ironic thing about this text is that instead of ignoring our bodies and the earth as some take this verse, the Spirit we are called to cooperate with in this passage is the Spirit that is already in all of us, and which gives our bodies life and breath. So Paul calls us to cooperate with the Spirit who is breathing life into us each moment, rather than to fight against Her. Jesus embodied what this looks like, what this cooperation with life is like. Cooperating with the Spirit sounds like a struggle in these verses, but that is only because from day one we have learned that working against nature, working against our own natures, is necessary to survive. We have to fit others’ molds to succeed. We have to be the good boy or girl, the strong man or motherly woman. Or do we?

tree-of-life-river-of-life-05-08This text paints a picture that we can come to know full life only as we follow Jesus’s example of continuing to cooperate with the Spirit of life who indwells us. Two images help me with what it means. Both suggest that, far from becoming flesh-hating, we are being called to love our bodies. My sister is a sustainable agriculture student who works as a sustainable farmer. Getting plants in step with the life-giving Spirit is what she is studying to do. To thrive, that plant needs water, fertilizer, and sunlight. As a sustainable farmer, my sister does this for the plants as organically as possible. To remove the plant from these things would be the agricultural equivalent to pulling that plant away from the Spirit of life so it lives according to the flesh as a vegetable zombie. To do so would mean that plant or that field of plants would shrivel, waste away, and eventually die. Physically, we have all seen not just plants experience this, but neglected animals and people in dire straights. To cooperate with the Spirit is to open ourselves up to those ways the Spirit is available for us to help nourish us, to cause us to thrive.

pinnochioAnother image that helps is the one CS Lewis gives in his book, Mere Christianity. He says it is like without the Spirit, we are Pinocchio dolls. The Spirit is the One who animates us and gives us life. She wants to work together with us so that we can go from marionette dolls to becoming real boys and girls. The Spirit is the Love of God made manifest, so we Velveteen rabbits can become fully alive.

I hear a call in these words of Scripture to ensure we take time and space to drink deep of the well of Spirit water that quenches our soul thirst, to stand near the sunlight of Christ light shining upon us, to set down roots deep into the ground of the Creator Spirit we call “Father” and “Mother”.

children-coming-to-jesusRomans 8:12-25. On one hand, this section of Scripture is a word of unbounded hope. You and I have been adopted into the family of God. Somehow you and I have been brought into the relationship of love God the Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit have shared from eternity past. That all-enduring embrace is about you always. It is a pledge that we now stand upon a solid foundation that will not be shaken, that lasts. It is a promise that beyond the suffering of this world, there is a great home-coming in store for you and me at that great family table laid out before the Creator’s home-stead. It is a certainty that whatever you and I face, the outcome will be more beautiful than this suffering, for we will enter into the quality of life Christ has known in the Father and mothering Spirit from eternity past.

peaceable kingdomYet this son-ship and daughter-hood we are granted is also linked here with the redemption of all creation and the earth. Again this shows Paul is not anti-flesh, anti-body, anti-earth. Paul is not a hater of the created world. He looks in hope to see it redeemed from its suffering, through our entrance into our full life as children of God. A part of this pledge is a reminder that our salvation is not just about heaven apart from this earth. It is also about God redeeming all of creation in this earth — from the mountains and rivers, to the trees and tigers, to the clouds in the sky — from the damage our selfishness, pollution, and abuse, has done to them. This is a part of what the doctrine of the second coming is supposed to be about in the Christian tradition: Jesus redeeming all of creation from what we have done to it so that heaven and earth may become one.

I don’t think this connection, though, is just about what is coming by and by, whether in Jesus’s return and the new world that follows, or in our entrance into glory at death. I think it is also about the meaning of son-ship and daughter-hood in the Bible for here and now in this earth today. Because we know Jesus as Son of God is also a reference to heroes of faithJesus as the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, we often forget the meaning of son-ship in the Hebrew Scriptures. A son of God in the Hebrew Scriptures was a messiah, an anointed one, sent by God to deliver people here and now from oppression, to heal the broken earth, and to be one who helps the promise of Abram of all people being blessed, and the earth beginning to be healed so it is more like Eden than Pharoah’s slavery-powered Egypt. Many figures are such sons and daughters of God in the Bible. These sons and daughters of God messiah, anointed one, figures in Scripture including David and Deborah, Cyrus of Persia and possibly Zerubabel. So to be adopted as a son or daughter of God means you and I also, in this world, are called to be ones who, like these sons and daughters of God who came before us, join Jesus in the work of overturning injustice, bringing liberation to the oppressed, bringing healing to the broken, reconciliation to the estranged, and healing to this earth. Here, in this world, we are to work to make this world more as it is in heaven, in anticipation of that mysterious moment in which God will make earth and heaven into one, a moment which Christians picture in the language of Jesus’s second advent. It is a daunting challenge, and possible only because we are not alone, but welcomed into the embrace of love the Father, Son, and mothering Spirit have always shared through being adopted as God’s children. This work flows from the adoption, into this world.

sitting in despairRomans 8:26-30. This text continues to look at the work of the Spirit. “The Spirit….comes to help us…when we don’t know how to pray,” means so much to me. A part of this promise is, of course, that we do not pray alone. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us, inspiring us from within how to talk to God. But I think, too, of many times I needed to reach out and words would not come. We all have moments of joy and pain too deep for words. We are promised here that wordless times can also be times of prayer. We can sit before God, groaning or silenced by what we face, and know God hears. God the Spirit translates these groans to words.

The famous words, “God makes everything work out for the good,” follow this description of silent groans and sighs as prayer. This working out for the good of all things, too, is the work of the Spirit in response to our wordless groans. The Holy Spirit not only fills our hearts, but fills all things with Her loving presence, so that everything from the stars in their shining orbits, the plants in God mother hentheir growing, the rain as it falls, is in a relationship with the loving Spirit who indwells them. This is not what traditionally is thought of as predestination. Our hope is not in some cold determinism of God’s will, blind fate, or our will-power. It is in the fact that all that is remains indwelled by a loving Spirit who relates to it and to us as a Mother to her children. Biblically, this relationship of the Spirit to us and all things is pictured as a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wings. Like a loving mother, this loving Spirit does not force anything — from the earth moving its tectonic plates, to birds in their migration, to the choices of men and women — to do anything. Like a mother to her children, the Spirit whispers, nudges, guides, and leads all things. Like a Mother, the Spirit is persistent. We can know that while no one and nothing’s outcome is forced, such a leading, though it cannot prevent pain and heartache, will guide, inspire, and lead all things to work toward healing, hope, love, and new beginnings for all people and all that live. This is what our mothers on their better days have done for us as children, and so what the Holy Spirit as the Mother of all living continues to do for us and all living things, always and forever.

A final part I think is important to me as I reflect on this text is that mother-and-childthis movement is linked to “those who love God and are called to God’s purpose”. This is a reminder to me of what I noticed yesterday: that being adopted as a son or daughter of God is not just about our being loved, blessed, and given a secure place in God’s homestead. It is that, to be sure. It is also the Hebrew concept of son-ship; being anointed as one who shares the responsibility of working together with the Spirit to help the healing of the world to happen. This adds to my sense that all things working together for the good is not cold determinism. We have a part of being ones who listen for the Mother’s voice, who listen for those Spirit whispers that come. We must cooperate with God the Holy Spirit and in so doing we help further this process of God restoring all things. Being a child of God is to be a partner with the Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit as they work to draw all things into healing, reconciliation, and peace. Closer to that day all will be brought to the peace and wonder of the Father’s heavenly homestead.

Mother_and_Child_by_senseibushidoRomans 8:31-39. This text says it all. It is a glimpse into the very heart of God, which is exactly what Christians believe Jesus came to reveal to us. What is the heart of God? A promise, true as a baby’s cry, firm as Appalachian hills: nothing, my child, will ever separate you from my love. Nothing will ever doom you away from my care. Never, in all of time, will you ever be forgotten or abandoned by me, even in those moments that like Jesus you cry “my God, my God, why?” Nowhere, in all of space and a multiverse of worlds will you ever be hidden from my sight, or too far for my love. Even in hell below, and in death to come, yet my heart will hold you close. You are my child, precious and beloved. Hear this words today, and know they are ever, always, God’s promise to you, to me, and all who live and breathe in this world.

tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecRomans 9:1-18. Paul is very human here. Paul is struggling through how to understand the Holy Spirit’s work to turn all things to the good in a situation where Paul feels people are not making the best choices. Why do my own country-men and country-women not choose to embark on this new path of Christianity? Paul agonizes over it as a Jewish believer in Christ Jesus. I too can relate with times when the paths others take — and I take — are ones I end up agonizing over, fearing they (or I) have gone a path that is dangerous, risky, and that misses the mark.

The picture I get of the Spirit’s working in Romans 9 is that the Holy Spirit does not force us to a particular choice, but works together with our freedom. The Spirit works with the paths we embark on, trying to lead us and gently guide us. Silhouette of pregnant woman with baby inside _pvWe don’t always make the right choice, and at times that means pain or suffering for us or others affected by our choices. This is not the final word, though, for even then the Spirit works with us, within our lives, within our world, as if in labor pains, working to bear within the Spirit’s own self both our good and bad choices, just as a pregnant mother bears within her own body every move her child makes. The Spirit is constantly working so that out of these good and bad choices something good, beautiful, and healing can be borne into the world. We are like the child wriggling in the Spirit’s womb, sometimes kicking against her womb walls, sometimes growing comfortably, but ultimately never separated from our loving Mother who forever surrounds us. Ultimately, we cannot overturn the Spirit’s work of turning us and all things to good, though we can fight and wrestle against them, causing grief to the Spirit. Like a mother leading her child back home, so the Spirit is able to guide us to the right destination from all of our journeys, even when we make a wrong turn. And often the turn that seems wrong to another may be right for us, even if it is wrong for them.

mother helping child find wayIt seems to me that Paul does not know what the Spirit is doing, and why his fellow country-men or women reject the Christian message. I think instead of trying to rule on who is in or out, Paul is trying to illustrate that God the Spirit is still turning all things to good, even when how that will happen is not clear. I wonder if we have a better picture of this question he asked today. Do we not see Jewish people of faith who, without becoming Christians, live out their Jewishness in a way that makes the world more whole, more healed, more beautiful? Do we not also see how the continued witness of the Jewish people in their own terms has caused Christians to have a more beautiful, more loving, more just faith through hearing the stories of these Jewish believers? I wonder if this example shows us to trust the Spirit when people and groups go down paths we feel are wrong. Who knows what the outcome will be? Who are we to say that it is ultimately wrong for them? After all, the Holy Spirit continues to work with that person and those groups, groaning in them and in our world, until that path is brought into one that brings healing. Even when our choices are not perfect, the Spirit is able to guide us aright, and guide our world. To me that is a message of hope for us, for all we care for, and for all who live on God’s earth.

(respost) Squirrels, birds, and eternity

Yesterday I shared a reflection from earlier in my life on the influence my grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, had on my life and faith.  I thought it would be appropriate to share this further reflection on her life.

This is particularly poignant to me as it reflects on the continued presence of such strong figures in our life through the mystery of the communion of saints.  The last several years I’ve gone through the experience of being widowed, so the reference to a wife (and also mother-in-law, for Katharine’s mother also passed) in this writing are now of folks only present to us in the communion of the saints.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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This morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting on my porch in Carrboro, I’m drawn into the presence of eternity.

My mother-in-law bought me a bird feeder for an early birthday gift. Today is one of the first warm mornings in a good while here in the Carolinas. And as I sit and sip my coffee, I am surrounded. I’m surrounded by the light which slides through the tree branches like a summer rain, falling as quiet around me as oak leaves in autumn, and wrapping around me like the blanket I put around my shoulders to keep out the early morning chill. I am surrounded by the rising music of bird-song, and the chitter of squirrels.

While I grab a bite to eat, a bird hops beside the table, a small tattered brown leaf in its mouth, and looks me right in the eye.

In moments like this I sense the nearness of my grandmother, who I shared about last year when I Imagewrote The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian . Grandma Myrtie is the only grandmother I remember, since the rest of my grandparents died when I was very little. After her husband, Charles, died she had a stroke and came to live with us. Our back window looked out into a wooded area and often the scene I saw this morning would play out through that large window – squirrels chasing and playing, birds singing and flittering, and the sunlight falling through the tree branches like a shower of light. I remember Grandma Myrtie sitting in rapt attention watching those scenes. She had a particular fondness for the squirrels. She would sit, her hand on my little fingers, and point out all the little in’s and out’s of the squirrels’ running, jumping, and dalliances through the window.

I think my life-long love of nature, particularly of sitting in the spring weather watching the birds build their nests and the squirrels at chase with each other, is something I in part learned sitting beside her on that grey tweed couch, watching the squirrels go by the window.

ImageGrandma Myrtie passed in my early teens, in a nursing home near my parent’s house in Fayetteville. Momma had taken care of her as long as she could, but Grandma’s dementia got worse, to the point she needed constant care. I always remember that the night before she died, momma pointed out to me – “Every night I could hear her praying to us, ‘God give me strength to be here one more day, to be here for my family’. Tonight I heard her say ‘Lord, I’m ready. Take me home’”. That next day Grandma Myrtie had congestive heart failure and passed.

Yet every time I see the squirrels play, I feel she sits beside me, her wrinkled hand on my little palm, whispering words of comfort and of strength. I remember it when I would go to a creek in adolescent distress, just to be alone, and saw the squirrels in the tree. I remember when I learned to pray by the lake side on my own as a teenager finding my own faith, seeing the birds dip into the water. I remember feeling that sense of not being alone one afternoon sitting outside the bookstore at Campbell University having just gone through a painful breakup and said bye to many friends who graduated. I looked up and two squirrels were circling my table, staring at BLT. Each moment when I sit with the squirrels, I am reminded of a truth of the faith Grandma Myrtie’s life was a testament to – I believe in the communion of the saints.

Anyone who grows up in a church that recites the creeds of the church knows those words. I did not grow up reciting them, but I have come to see the truth behind them and hold them close to my heart.Image

“The communion of the saints” is the Christian phrase used to describe the experience those open to things of the Spirit have found of sensing that all of us are connected and that even though we might be separated by miles or continents, if we both remain open to the Spirit, that same Spirit who breathes life into the budding flower and fluttering bird will connect us despite the miles. And that this connection continues even after we leave this earthly body, for death is not the end but the beginning of a new kind of life.

This has been an important reminder this past year, when I’ve sadly had to face many close to me pass. It can be quite heart-wrenching to say “good-bye” or, at times, to hear the news another has passed without the chance to say good-bye. But even then there are moments where I sense the fact they are ok, that their life continues in a way that I could not have expected, and that their love and care for me goes on.

ImageA few years ago, a dear friend from college passed, one who had been a true friend during tough times. Though she had been sick for a long time, her death was sudden and without warning.

Yet in the days before I got the news she passed, I remember having moments I felt a presence standing near me, one familiar and full of love. I remember once swearing I could hear her laughing. Then I got the call that next day that she had passed after falling suddenly. In my heart I know in some way, God had let me sense that she was alright; that this was not the end for her but the beginning of something beautiful I could only begin to glimpse. And in moments here or there that led to my friend’s funeral I could sense again that feeling of presence, peace, and love which told me she was entering into new and deeper life, a life where I was not forgotten nor any she cared of.

I wrote the following about one of those experiences:

On Golden Streets

 

Image

The last time 

I saw you

a-twirl with 

a kaleidoscope of color

was it you I saw

or some phantasmic vision

of my desperate mind?

 

My heart knows.

Has always known.

 

Finally I saw you that day

as you’ve always said

you were

in your dreams.

As you have always been

though too few saw it.

 

Your crumpled form

I had been told fell lifeless,

and without warning

like some rag doll dropped

by an untidy and careless child

was such no longer,

but now you stood alive

before me,

more alive than ever.

 

You stood almost three inches taller that day.

But, how can I call it standing?

Your feet were ever moving

your body swaying like a ballerina.

You were dancing,

moving as always

to music you alone could hear,

dancing upon that marble altar

as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,

and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on

like the foghorns of Fort Fisher

mournful in the mist

announcing the coming of the night.

 

Your laughter chimed out its own song,

a thousand hand-bell choirs

in joyful unison

cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul

like summer rain on my old home,

drowning out those other more ghostly voices.

 

I could have sworn this brilliant form

all crutches and wheelchairs layed aside

curtsied

and you giggled

whispering of joys

that mournful company could not dream of.

Another secret you whispered

like the many we shared

as friends so long ago.

 

You were a gift to me, dear one,

a friend and big sister

when friends fled

and my own big sister forgot me.

Know you are never forgotten.

I can still remember our late night talks

stories and jokes

singing in my Chevy Sprint

en route to each visit our youthful loves,

and the whispered stories

we both shared of our romantic endeavors

on returning.

 

Nor can I ever forget

the wonder of

seeing in you

a person more alive

than I’d ever known,

never worried what the world would say

free to be herself.

 

Dance on, bright spirit.

Dance!

 

And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes

and join you in moving again

to the music of the spheres.

 

Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!

Recently while reflecting on my life and especially the ways in which we take with us so much from our families, including some things we so deeply appreciate and also areas of brokenness we have to work with God’s help to heal, it dawned me another way we experience the communion of the saints: we carry with us all who are dear to us every moment of our lives, choosing which aspects of who they are to embrace as a gift. I carry my daddy’s love of fishing, of story, of good preaching, and I make that a part of who I am. Yet I also carry my dad’s temper, his tendency to be a bit workaholic, to drink more than he ought. I choose each moment which part of him that I have taken into myself I will be faithful to and how. So I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prayer Home Companion, I preach my heart out, and I choose to find peace in my soul that doesn’t need a bottle nor flies off the handle. It is more than memories we carry – it is all those good qualities others have that we can let shape us, all the mistakes they have made we can learn from, and all the quirky uniqueness they have we can celebrate.

What is your point of connection to the communion of the saints? Who has been that point of light shedding the way for you, whose presence in one way or another continues to inspire you, though separated from you by distance or by the veil of death & the life after? What qualities do you choose to embrace from those who’ve touched your life, and what do you choose to take as lessons to walk another path?

May you sense the nearness and love of all who have gone before you, and hear the invitation of our faith – “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage … that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, Common English Bible)

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

2013-07-10 07.19.16

(repost) The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian

Yesterday having reflected on my mother’s influence on my life and faith, I thought it would be appropriate to share a post I did at the beginning of my doing this blog on the influence my southern grandmother has had on my faith and values.  I would love to hear you share about the influence your grandmothers or other strong women have had on your life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Follow us on our podcast, on iTunesTwitterfacebook, and here on our blog.

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This Sunday I had a real moving conversation with David Gibson, the choir director of our church. We were discussing during my sermon people who influenced our faith. He shared how his grandmother is part of why he is a Christian who loves the Lord today.

Hearing David share about how the faith of his grandmother shaped him got me thinking. The power of grandmothers in our lives is something we often don’t take time enough time to reflect on.

Most of my grandparents died when I was too young to remember them, but one of my grandparents, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, left a lasting impact on me. In fact, in looking back, I realize she is part of why I am a progressive Christian too. Thanks to her I am today a progressive redneck preacher.

My earliest memory of Grandma Myrtie (or Ma Barefoot, as we all called her) is the taste of caramel. Before her stroke, whenever we would visit her at her old country home in Blackman’s Crossroads her soft, strong wrinkled hands would greet us with a pat on the head, a hug and then an old fashioned caramel chew. I can still remember the comfort I felt with the taste of caramel in my mouth and those wizened arms holding me tight. I think that will always be for me what safety and love feels like.

Grandma Myrtie had a grand old house with the sort of porch you could imagine someone sitting at for hours, looking out over waves of tobacco fields, while sipping cold sweet iced tea for hours. Though farming was long over for her, behind her home was a large tobacco barn. I can remember climbing into it and running through it with a cousin while playing a game of hide and seek on one visit.

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A little after her husband, Grandpa Charles, died, Ma Barefoot moved into our house. Approaching her 90s this grand old lady no longer could easily care for herself. A stroke, the loss of her husband, and just the frailty of her many years took a toll on her. So Ma Barefoot moved into our three story home in the city and lived with us until my early teens, when her health became so bad she had to be placed into a nursing facility.

Even though she had moved out of the family farmhouse, Ma Barefoot continued to be a southern belle. I remember her crisp, exact speech. Unlike grandpa Charles she was well educated – a school teacher – and just like she did with her charges, so she encouraged us to use good English and clear speech. I can still here her rich cultivated southern accent as she spoke to me, always telling me something aimed at educating me and whetting a desire to learn.

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One day, probably around the age of five or six, I had taken Ma Barefoot’s hand and walked with her around our little suburban neighborhood of green manicured lawns, so different from the rolling fields of Johnston County, as she began a history lesson.

“You know, this city where you live, Micah, it almost became the capitol. Back in the days of the revolutionary war, it is here they signed the bill of rights,” Ma Barefoot began.

I walked, awestruck and jaw agape, in wonder at the wisdom of her years, as she began to tell me the story of Fayetteville where I lived and the great state in which I had been born. I did not understand as I do now that Ma Barefoot meant the capitol of our state, North Carolina. So visions of Ronald Reagan (the only president I have ever known at that tender age) getting sworn in at our market house building.

The many talks Ma Barefoot had with me like this, helping create in me a love of learning. The fact that she was a woman of strong faith also impressed me. Throughout her life she always spoke with honesty and compassion. I never remember her saying a harsh or hateful word about anyone.

I still remember how, as a fervent Missionary Baptist, Ma Barefoot would always have daddy drop her off at a local Baptist church (we attended somewhere else) to take time for her beloved Jesus. Also I recall how, when she was later living at the nursing home due to poor health, she would end each day praying every night for each of us and asking “Lord let me see another day to be here for my children and grand-children”. Ultimately one night she ended her prayer “Lord take me home”. That next day she had congested heart failure and died. I have always known on some level that moment did not end her life but ushered her into a new and more vibrant life in the presence of God.

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Following that day there have been moments I have sensed this so strongly it has sometimes been as if Grandma Myrtie was standing right beside me again. I remember one point, after a turning point in my life. I had moved from the restrictive sort of ministry I had grown up in – where women, gays, and a long list of other folks were given second class place in the church because of the denomination who ordained me holding onto some of the slave-holder Christianity I spoke about last blog. I had left that type of ministry and begun the sort of ministry I do now which is welcoming of all. I had experience a lot of rejection and loss by former friends and colleagues who felt I was abandoning my values and my Christianity by welcoming gay and lesbian couples into the church. It hurt. My family members didn’t understand what I was doing, and in many ways I felt very alone, cut off. Those who grew up in the south where we prize family so much know how painful that can be. I remember waking up one night, sitting bolt upright. I had a dream more vivid than real life where I walking down a winding country path and ran into Grandma Myrtie again – but strong and healthy like I’d never seen her. She wrapped her arms around me and said “I am proud of you, Micah, for what you are doing. You are doing the Lord’s work and he will take care of you”. When I woke from the dream I felt the strong presence of her there with me, and knew in some way she was still looking down from heaven and praying for me, rooting me on, in my journey of faith. With the words “I am proud of you in my ears”, still feeling those loving arms around me, tears of gratitude poured down my face.

I have thought many time about that dream since, though I’ve only shared about it with a few people. The dream reminds me not just of the fact Grandma Myrtie continues to live in a fullness of life with God I can only begin to imagine. It also reminds me that is one of the gifts she gave me was how through her I found the way toward my progressive Christian faith. The love of learning that Grandma Myrtie placed in me at such a young age helped me realize that learning, questioning, and growing are not contrary to faith but a part of loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. Her example gave me a foundation where when I so both creation and evolution both make sense, I knew God did not require to pick between science and faith. I can use head and heart. It gave me the freedom to later realize if my science book said being gay was not a choice or a sickness, and my Bible say marriage is a gift of God and blessing to the world, I could affirm both by blessing same-gender marriages and saying hate is not a family value. Her love of family demonstrated to me an example of love and service to others I strive to walk in today. Her love of God expressed in those nightly prayers for another day to live and help her family which ended with a final prayer to go home to God leaves me with an abiding sense that in our darkest moments, God is with us. And that in our final moments we face not an end to be feared but the ultimate embrace by one whose love is as deep as Granda Myrtie’s was to all her grandchildren.

Have you, like David and me, had a southern granny that helped you find a progressive faith of your own? If so, please share it with me.

In honor of Grandma Myrtie and all grandmothers out there, here is a song about the power of a grandma.

Let’s honor those who have gone before us, shaping us to who have gone before us. That’s another lesson Grandma Myrtie gave me.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

God Beyond Gender: Theology of a Transgender Life

kyle kentopp

In a recent podcast, I interviewed Kyle Greyson Kentopp, a young United Church of Christ minister in Raleigh working toward ordination who self-identifies as a transgender man. As a followup to our podcast, I shared a number of excerpts of writings Kyle has made on theology from a transgender perspective.  If you are interested in reading any of these writings, they are listed below.

God Beyond Gender: Gender Through the Lens of Divine and Human Diversity

God Beyond Gender: Gender Diversity in the Bible’s Creation Story

God Beyond Gender: God is not a White Man — Gender Diversity within God’s Nature

God Beyond Gender: Gender-Fluid Jesus

 

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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(repost) Lessons I learned from my mother

Having just celebrated mother’s day this past weekend, I thought it would be good to share again a piece I wrote celebrating the gifts my mother gave me that have shaped my life and faith.  I wrote this piece as I finished graduating from Divinity school at Campbell University, while I was serving as a pastor of a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Eastern NC.

Micah

Follow us on our podcast, on iTunesTwitterfacebook, and here on our blog.

 

ImageLast night I strode forward to take a diploma from the hands of the dean at Campbell Divinity School, while joining many smiling and laughing colleagues in receiving the bright hood of a Divinity School graduate.

This graduation was a long time coming for me. Many times I gave up hope and never thought it would come. My journey to a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Counseling began over a decade ago, when I began seminary at Azusa Pacific’s Haggard School of Theology. I attended there very early on in my pastoral ministry. My hope had been to receive the Master of Divinity and become a pastor in the denomination that I had begun my ministry within, which is today called Grace Communion International.

We plan, and God laughs, or so the country proverb says. Shortly after I was ordained by this denomination I faced a crisis of conscience. Serving as an assistant pastor on a church circuit in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, I began to see the exclusion that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people faced at the hands of my then denomination. My heart broke to see the barriers standing in front of those men and women. That fellowship of churches joined many other denominations by standing in the way of people in that community experiencing the embrace that God seeks to extend to all in Christ not because of how God looked at them, but because of the church’s ignorance and prejudice.

When the senior pastor of the church I was serving pushed me to practice that same exclusion to someone in our community in order to keep peace at the church, I chose to part ways. I knew the God I had experienced in Christ opened God’s arms wide to all people, and that I couldn’t rest easy in my walk with God by joining in the decision to stand in another’s way who was trying to come to Christ. I began to minister independently then, something I continued until I affiliated with the Progressive Christian Alliance around 2 years ago. While this opened up the doors to reach out with God’s love to people the traditional and mainline church were not then yet embracing with Christ’ love, leaving my denomination of origin and ministering independently also came at a great cost. It meant losing the sort of funding for ministry that had allowed me to begin my theological education in the first place. When that happened I had to take a break on my theological education. I thought the degree I just received was no longer possible for me.

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Where does this connect with my mother? Well one of the great lessons my mother taught me growing up was it is never too late to further yourself and move forward. Receiving last night’s diploma was in large part inspired by her example. When we were little, my mother stopped her career as a teacher both to help raise us and also to take care of my ailing grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot. On one level this is what she wanted, and another it was what her culture expected of her in that day and time. I have always wondered what that was like for mom. For me it would have probably felt like I was done, and it was time to throw in the towel on my dreams. But when we kids had grown older and needed less care, mom went back to school. Mom earned a Masters degree which she used as an educator.

Mom’s example of not giving up on her dreams, of doing what must be done in her time and place but, when the time was right, shaking off the dust from her feet, rolling up her sleeves, and going for her dreams has stayed with me. It is a part of what gave me the strength to go back and finish my degree after all this time. It is a lesson from my mother that stays with me.

This willingness not to give up on her dreams, but to dream again, reminds me of one of my favorite images of Scripture, the words of Psalm 126:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

Thank you, mom, for teaching me to be as them that dream! Thank you for inspiring me to, when I have done what needed being done, to shake the dust off my feet, roll up my sleeves, and get to work living the dream God has given me.

Another lesson my mother taught me was to find faith for myself, not simply going along with what I had always heard. For many years while I was growing up we went to church in a really extreme offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists: one that did not keep Christmas or Easter, one that didn’t allow us to eat pork or shrimp, and one that had a lot of beliefs most Christians (including myself today) find pretty far out there. This church was the church where my daddy found God, and I think that is part of why my mom eventually supported him by going there with him. However, she never really fully bought into their ideas, still holding onto certain aspects of her Missionary Baptist upbringing. I can still remember as a young teenager, when friends invited me to visit their Sunday-keeping pork-eating church, hearing my mother say to me, “Listen, Micah, you have to decide for yourself what to believe and what you think is right. Whatever church or religion you join, you need to know we will support you”.

This conversation with mom laid the foundation for me realizing that what counts is following God, not what church, denomination, or religion you or I join. Just as I mentioned how grandma’s background as an educator instilled in me the importance of always learning and keeping an open mind, so this example of my mother helped me realize I had to find God for myself, on my own terms. It is a part of why I felt free to embark on this journey of progressive Christianity that has so shaped my own life when it became clear to me the form of Christianity I had been brought up in wasn’t completely working.

My mom taught me to embrace my creativity too. Mom has always been a creative person. Growing up, our house was covered with paintings momma had made over the years. Right now Kat and I have paintings my mom made covering our walls in our home. Beyond painting, mom did artwork, crafts, jewelry design, made hand-sewn clothing, and did so many things with her hands while I was growing up that I lose track. Mom encouraged us to also be creative – to paint, to draw, to sing, to write stories. One of my earliest memories of church was sitting at my mom’s feet drawing pictures inspired by the sermons I heard. I still remember later on as a child how my little sister and I would act out skits for mom. Momma taught us to be creative, and to embrace creativity as a gift.

I would have to say that this love of creativity is part of why I write, a part of why I love music, and even a part of why I do theology. Just as fishing with dad opened me up to the fact that God is Creator, so momma helped me learn that you and I are Co-Creators with God. Working together with God we can make the world more beautiful, more kind, and more just. Writing is part of this. Painting is part of this. Dance and song too help create beauty. Even theology, at its best, is a form of artwork – putting into words the unspeakable beauty that breathes life into each moment.

Finally my mom taught me that strength can be found in weakness. She stood again and again by people dealing with pain and hurt. She showed great strength and compassion caring for Grandma Myrtie when she could not care for herself. She continued to put the needs of other family members with debilitating health problems ahead of her own. Much of her career was working as a teacher for special needs children, where she helped those children and their families find their own strengths in situations where often the world at large only found weakness. Later in life mom has had some bad health problems of her own, some that were painful to both her and to the rest of the family. Yet them it all she remained a person of strength.

The strength she has exemplified in the midst of pain and the strength she helped others discover within themselves in the midst of what others saw as weakness reminds me of these words by Mumford & Sons –

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Or as the Lord told the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9)

What are your stories of southern mommas? What are some lessons your momma taught you?

I hope to share some more thoughts on motherhood later, but in the meantime I look forward to hearing your stories.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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