In the fall of 1983 I started my first "real job". That is, not a summer job, or work study, but the beginning of a career. And I was lonely. So lonely. I started to look for a church, mostly as a way to meet people.
Here's the rub. How do I find a church that accepts all of me, that doesn't require that I pretend to be someone I'm not? Would I be welcome as queer? (In those days most of us commonly used "gay" to describe ourselves; "queer" was a slur. I'll use today's language throughout this story of my past.)
I remember picking up the phone and calling churches, listening to the dead silence after my question, the hangups, the sweet and horrible undertones as someone said "honey, we love all sinners". I remember my silence when I finally reached a church that said "yes, we will care for you exactly as you are." I sobbed with relief.
It would be later that I'd fall apart and Jesus would assure me that God says I am okay. It would be much later that I'd turn to ministry and sharing the good news that God cares for each person exactly as they are. In 1983 that welcoming church provided community with others that wanted the best for me.
Over time our culture has developed signs for marking that a church is safe, often by voting to be "Open and Affirming" (UCC) and "Reconciling" (UMC). Straight people and cis-gender people studied how to be affirming, not just welcoming, how to trust our LGBTQI family members, neighbors, and ourselves. We started to hang up flags.
The rainbow flag makes it clear that "we welcome all" means more than "you can come in". It means that we will do our best to love all the parts of who you are. You don't have to pretend to be straight, or even to pretend that you have figured out everything about yourself.
When Ashburnham Community Church put out our flag we got a steady stream of phone calls. Some sounded just like me in 1983, tentatively asking "does this mean I can be queer at your church?" Crying when I said yes. All of the calls were expressions of thanks and relief. Overwhelmed, surprised, relieved to be seen.
Of course some Community Church members have heard negative feedback, mostly from people concerned that it meant they had to be LGBTQI to come inside. Oddly enough, almost all of our congregation is straight! We want you to know that you can be who you are when you are in church with us. You are welcome to wrestle with who you are (and what you believe) in our space. We are wrestling ourselves.
Right now Ashburnham is struggling with whether flags--the rainbow flag and the blue-white-pink trans flag--are appropriate in our elementary schools. Honest, caring adults are wrestling with whether the flags cause division, or if children are too young to think of themselves as GLBTQI people.
Here is what I know--I was in third and fourth grade, in public school, when other children started calling me "Lezzie Lizzy". I didn't know what it meant, but I certainly knew that it was meant to hurt me. I can't imagine how much better the rest of my schooling would have been if someone had said "Lesbians are people who are love other women, and we don't make fun of that." I wish there had been a rainbow flag in my classroom.
Kids recognize gender at age two and start thinking about their own gender at age three. Many trans kids who come out as teens or pre-teens remember feeling mis-gendered when they were three or four.
For most of us, gender is pretty secure--being around trans people doesn’t affect my identity as woman, and being around people who doubt them doesn’t affect a trans person’s gender identity. A trans flag in a classroom is a lifeline for a young person who knows their gender doesn’t match what they have been told.
What's in a flag? A chance to offer welcome, a chance to reassure a child they are safe in this space. It's a sign; in a church it is a sign that God loves you, in a school a sign that the community loves you.
This is from the SNEUCC Starting with Scripture from March 15.
Jeremiah 31:31-40 (NRSV)The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar--
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me for ever.
Thus says the Lord:
If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel
because of all they have done,
says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate towards the east, shall be sacred to the Lord. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
Reflection: Righteous AngerThe days are surely coming when I can get a COVID vaccine. Right?
To be honest, I've really held off on worrying about this vaccine. When pressed in discussions of how to get it, and who can get it, and which one to get, I've just said, "I'll wait my turn." A friend said, "but you are going to get it" and I got impatient. "Yes, I'll get it. But I'm not going to spend time fretting about it."
Then it was my turn. I went to the website to schedule a vaccine about 10 minutes after I was authorized. The website crashed. And now I am fretting. Refreshing the screen. Texting others, whining on Facebook, pounding my desk. Lent is a time of reflection, quiet, of giving things up. But suddenly I’m obsessed with getting what is rightfully mine.
We focus, as Christians, mostly on Jeremiah’s lovely image of God’s covenant written on our hearts. “I will be their God and they will be my people” says our creator. That is appealing. I’m ready for this new day! One where God’s love is expressed in vaccinations and a chance to visit with my family and my friends.
I remember when we locked down, just about a year ago, when we shut everything down for two weeks so we could flatten the curve. The days are surely coming when this is over, right?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. As much as I wish for it, prophets do not predict the future. Instead they tell us what to do with present. And Jeremiah is talking here about the ways we have, I have, broken God’s covenant. What would it mean to consider the ways I have not been faithful? If God’s word is not on my heart, today, this minute, right now, here in the middle of these hard times, what can I do to fix that?
I will need to calm down. Take a deep breath. Focus my breath on God. Perhaps picture my heart with the word Love written on it. Righteous anger has its place, mostly in critique of a system that has not enough vaccines, and not enough effort to get them to those suffering the most. Yelling at my computer is not an example of righteous anger.
It is so easy to see all the world through an interpersonal lens. “This is hurting me.” But the interpersonal lens is quite narrow. It hides systemic oppression—for example the reality there are not enough vaccines and that we aren’t making sure what we have is accessible to black and brown communities. And it hides cultural oppression—our unwarranted confidence that everyone has computers to make appointments and transportation to get to vaccination centers.
When I can stop focusing on the interpersonal, when I can calm down, I can see that the fact that it is hard for me to get an appointment is not the big problem here. Solving COVID is not, mostly, about me.
Which begs the question—what is this covenant that I want written on my heart? Is it a promise that all will be okay? Or is it a promise that I will work for equality, that I will pay attention to my neighbor, that I will give God the righteousness They are seeking in our world?
The days are surely coming when my heart will ache for God’s covenant of justice.
PRAYER God of all people, write your covenant on my heart. Help me to see the systems and cultures and assumptions that maintain oppression, and to work to change our ways. Amen.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.