One Good Thing I Learned in Church

one good churchI became a feminist first because i am a Christian.

I’ve always loved the fiery Jesus. The Jesus who turned tables, the Jesus who spent time with sex workers and valued them as human beings, the Jesus born of an unwed teen mom.

My feminist heart can get down with this rebel Jesus.

But the pill i’m learning to swallow with my unapologetic feminism is that Jesus wasn’t all table-turning. And Jesus, for all his brood-of-viper shade-throwing, spent a lot of time in conversation with people who neither understood him nor cherished him.

And still, Jesus loved them. He loved the Pharisees, men asserting power in a marginalized community desperately trying to forge an identity and gather numbers they saw being erased by empire. Jesus loved people who probably depleted his emotional energy and time. Jesus loved his friends who hurt him, who abandoned him, who betrayed him.

And this kind of love is a love grounded in a deep, deep humility.

Jesus humbled me this week in an awful seminar on colonialism and missions.

A white man asked – i think innocently, but blunderingly – if the “Africans” were grateful for the Christianity brought by colonial missionaries. In my head, (and on my face) i was screaming “like being grateful for 40 acres and a mule after years of being told they were un-human, un-beautiful property?!” (It was not my finest moment of Christian charity.)

Before i could blurt out my furious response …

To finish reading this post, please join me over on HolyHellions.com where my dear friend, mentor, and editor Erin Lane is running a series on what good things sticking it out with the church has taught us! 

Marriage.

On Tuesday morning i woke up with gravel in my throat. Gone are the days of student health, of moping in my dorm and calling my mom until she convinces me i need a doctor.

At least, that’s what i told myself.

So up, showered, to the doctor i went; the fever clocked and aches measured within half an hour of the urgent care opening. I did good, i thought. I didn’t sleep in, i sent the emails needed to miss class, i didn’t even make my husband come with me to the doctor. Waited in the pharmacy lobby for thirty minutes until that opened, too. Took my meds, in timely shifts, and tried to not complain and do the Adult Thing and get better.

That was Tuesday.

By Friday evening i was convinced the doctors had missed a record case of the flu, my self-pity a puddle of tissues and cough drop wrappers.

Melt-y eyed and miserable, i pled with Jonathan for something other than Netflix to stave off my boredom and anxiety of walls in-closing. There were theatrical puffs on my nebulizer. I was moving from gross-sick to panic-stricken-sick, the kind that starts to wonder if i’ll ever see the light of day again.

Gently, laughingly, he plopped me in the car. Thirty minutes later i had what i really needed: a fat stack of coloring books with a replenished stock of crayons.

And Saturday morning he woke up sneezing.

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Madonnas in the Alley

One of the most enchanting aspects of our wander around Central Europe was the profusion of religious art. In allies, tucked under windowsills, nooks on the most mundane of buildings.

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Just outside of Loreto, Prague

I love the reverence for Mary, and for maternal divine images. One of my favorite reliefs was of Saint Francis cradling a Christ child in a small Bavarian village.

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My absolute favorite was in the graveyard attached to Nonnberg Abbey, the famous nunnery of Maria von Trapp (both in real life and the film).

 collage black madonna wandering writes

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Juxtaposed to the remnants of communism in the Czech Republic, it seemed a small miracle these relics of medieval and Renaissance art remained. I thought it had to be at least part for history, for culture, for their simple beauty.

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Committing + Confirmation: On Finding a Church Home

We’ve committed. Hell, we had our first confirmation class this morning.

After years of waffling, of hurling insults of elitism and masculine language, of denying the abiding current of the liturgy – a current that sustains and challenges – Jonathan and i are committing to the Episcopal Church.

I am not a commitment phobe. I am not afraid of routines or weekly commitments or sharing the peace with people i don’t agree with. I use a label maker for my bureau drawers to delineate socks from underwear, for Chrissakes.  I’m not the cliché anti-labeling (as much as i believe in the danger of a single story).

But i am very, very opposed to monogamy when it comes to church denominations.

It’s not a moral thing. It’s not even really a result of theological meandering rooted in my confused Protestant-Catholic dualistic upbringing. I don’t think any one person believes every facet of the catechism of their denomination. I’ve long accepted that part of being in the Church (and a church) is that i’ll never 100% agree. There are too many people in one community to ask for conformity. As deeply as i want a community to universally support feminism and such, i also know that this desire itself can be skewed to be a desire for conformity of mindset. It is the lack of conformity that challenges me to go beyond my own limited scope.

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God as a Child

We moved eight times before my seventh birthday. Chapel Hill was the pin on the map my mother pressed into concrete, telling my father Switzerland and Singapore were perfectly commute-able for him, but her children had friends, and so did she, and that was the end of her moving.

Still, i’d spent hours in the stratosphere, legs dangling over the seat and nose pressed to the oval windows of airplanes. I thought if i looked hard enough, i could see angels in the clouds.

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Postcard from Prague

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In October, Jonathan and i did what we love to do most of all: took off for a new place to meet each other all over again. My brother Thom was studying in Prague for the semester and it was the perfect opportunity both to visit him and to explore a new crook of the world.

If you read my interview over on Viscera Stories, you’ll know that one of my favorite parts of travel is finding that the mundane is made new all over again. It’s also in that newness that i find myself meeting people i’ve known for years for the first time again. Seeing Thom, my younger-but-taller brother, expertly navigate a city in an entirely new language to him (Czech) and participating in his life as an adult was a real treasure.

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Old Town Square, all lit up at night. I loved the Astonomical Clock best, where on the hour the “Death” figure tolls the bell and the apostles process in the windows of the clock. It is, admittedly, mildly underwhelming; a Brit next to me blurted out: “Is that it? I’m off for a pint!”

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ALCHEMISTS

Jonathan and i had some days to wander about by ourselves while Thom had class. We tried to find a monastery, and wound up in a nunnery, which felt prophetic. Loreta, built like the one in Italy of the same name, to honor the alleged brithplace of Mary. [Don’t question the Italian distance from Nazareth]. We had the cloister to ourselves, and every chapel was dedicated to Mary or another woman saint. I wept. We finished the afternoon with the above view and a cup of tea and a long chat with our waitress where we taught her North Carolina English slang and she gently corrected our frenetic Czech attempts at ordering the cheese plate.

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PENTECOST LORETO PRAGUE BUILDINGS

Prague was also clearly a city reeling from communism; Thom was strict that we were not to speak on the trams, to stay quiet in restaurants. There was a joviality between friends, but not an openness to strangers. Religious iconography adorned almost every building, but then there were layers of grimey graffiti around the edges.

PRAGUE time eated

You cannot go to Prague and not at least walk to the Jewish Quarter – a once thriving part of the city, now full with ten times more more tourists and tombstones than Jewish inhabitants. Remnants of a not-so-long-ago genocide.

There are numerous famous sites to visit, but we decided our hearts could best handle a long time in one place, and i was most intrigued by the Spanish Synagogue.

jewish spanish synagogue

All the architecture and design is done in a style similar to Islamic art in Spain and Northern Africa – interlocking patterns, calligraphic Hebrew verses, and no images of people or prophets. All the descriptions were in Czech, but the piles of tefillin stripped from faces and mezuzah ripped from doors all now piled behind glass cases told the story well enough.

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Prague is often described as the new European hotspot; it’s extremely affordable (seriously, the amount of beer consumed for the pittance of pennies spent) and rich in a complicated history. On the one hand, there’s all the color and warmth of Central Europe and the Mediterranean, but on the other, there is the brooding undercurrent of Easter Europe’s communist history. It is a city coming to know itself all over again. Which is the epitome of traveling together, for me. My husband, my brother and i met between buildings of saints and sinners, over goulash and pizza, we met again for the first time and talked as old friends.

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Must-Do’s:

Have a beer in a local micro-brewery. Slash, have a beer with every meal. It’s cheaper than water.

Try goulash or, if you’re brave, point randomly at the Czech menu and smile. This game of mine has not always paid off (anchovies over cooked carrots in Spain – blech!) but in Prague i wound up with a potato-onion pancake with brie melted inside. Aaah-mazing.

Visit Loreto, the nunnery on a hill overlooking the city. Quiet, less touristy than the main squares, and very affordable. You do have to pay for a photography pass.

Pay for the pass to see the inside of the Saint Vitus Cathedral at the Castle. The stained glass is breathtaking.

Meander in the Jewish Quarter, but try to go when the crowds are lighter (early in the morning) to give the place the time it deserves. Don’t plan on doing anything fun after.

Walk across the Charles Bridge at sunset, when the vendors are closing up shop and the tourists dispersed. You’ll have time to look at the statues then, and the Vlatava river sparkles as the city lights splutter on.

Avoid: Wenceslas Square, if you can, unless it’s a date memorializing the Velvet Revolution. Otherwise, it’s an overpriced and overcrowded Times-Square-esque thoroughfare. Also, beware pickpockets and try not to talk on the trams.

Highly Recommend Miss Sophie’s Hostel for cleanliness, location, and unbelievably kind staff.



How to Have a Feminist Christian Wedding

To the first: if you self-identify as that beautifully paradoxical and frustratingly poignant mix of feminist and Christian, AND now you’re planning a wedding, bless you. 

And please know that, contrary to the title, this post is not a one-size-for-all guide. We contain multitudes, and in those multitudes is the very understanding that feminism (and womanism) liberates us to choose, and contain contradictions, and that the elusive “feminist” and “Christian” essence is perhaps so elusive because essentializing anything causes allergic reactions to Jesus and Audre Lorde alike.

Urban South Photo

Photo by the effervescent Urban South Photo!

In August, my cis-male partner and i got married, in a big Southern church, with an exchange of rings and big organ music in the background. I wore white(ish), he a tux, and ordained preachers married us.

That’s about where the tradition ended.

We had a multi-gendered bridal party where my 6’2″ brother held my bouquet; we had a “Blessing of the Families” where all our immediate family laid hands on us, giving us both their blessing instead of giving me away; and Jonathan kicked off the procession with his mother, and both my parents escorted me down the aisle.

Since then, i’ve been asked a lot about how we did it, and here are a few of the big tips i have:

1. Ask supportive people to be a part of your wedding – priests and bridal party alike! We had three officiates who were all amazing feminists. Because they all knew how much we wanted a faithful and feminist wedding, they supported praying to “Our Mother-Father God” and assisted us in finding “biblical marriage” resources from same-gender unions to use in our own. The homily even included some Gene Robinson and Saint Teresa of Avila quotes! As for our multi-gendered bridal party, we were

Chosen Family, by Urban South Photo!

Chosen Family, by Urban South Photo!

careful to ask what people would be comfortable wearing, and we unabashedly loved how uneven and perfect our friends looked surrounding us on the altar. They, too, understood deeply who we are and what we wanted our covenant to look like.

2. Choose your Scriptures thoughtfully. I admit, it baffles me that there are Christian couples who have little to no preference for the Scriptures read at their wedding. It’s easy to get swept up how many mason jar tea lights you need for the reception (guilty) but for us, the ceremony was the centerpiece of our day. Take some time together to think about how the Scriptures you choose reflect the life you want to lead together, and if you want the more traditional Ephesians 5 or 1 Corinthians, take some time to really discuss why. We chose Ruth 1:6 – 18, John 15:1 – 15, and “On Marriage” from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I’ve been to some other amazing weddings that included quotes or passages from Mother Teresa and Bishop Oscar Romero.

2A: If you’re like me, and you simply can’t choose an economic number of readings, try and integrate these extra readings into other parts of the service; for example, we couldn’t quite squeeze Songs of Songs into our readings, so for the Eucharist we used this Great Thanksgiving based on Song of Songs

3. Make use of the resources your church/officiate knows of. We wanted to ensure a number of heteronormative and sexist doctrines were removed from the liturgy of our wedding, so we wrote our own “Statement of Intent” that made reference to Biblical friendship and love (i.e. Ruth and Naomi, Jonathan and David) rather than to Eve being made for Adam as the original two people destined to be hetero-happy forever. Our pastor recommended the Protestant Wedding Sourcebook which was especially helpful for reading through various liturgies, knowing the liturgy had all the good stuff in it – connectedness to the church throughout time, familiarity – but there was flexibility in the language. Also, i always recommend the WATER Womyn’s Alliance as a good place to start with feminist liturgies.

Yellow shoes & true love, by Urban South Photo!

Yellow shoes & true love, by Urban South Photo!

4. Be prepared for the Emily Post fanatics. I refused to address our invitations to any sort of “Mr. and Mrs. Man-name Man-Surname” on principle, choosing instead to say “Mrs. Lady and Mr. Sir LastName” or throwing all convention out the window when it came to the majority LGBTQIA/single friends we invited. (One friend was addressed as the Future Queen of England, on the fancy printed paper and everything.) We also conscientiously chose local businesses and showed a preference for mostly womyn vendors. Wedding can be massive capitalistic consumerist monsters, and while we chose to have the Big White Wedding, we wanted to be as responsible about our spending and financial support as possible. This raised some eyebrows, but on the whole once we sat down and gently explained why, the rule of Our-Day-Our-Rules kicked in. Mostly.

4B: The best piece of logistical advice i got pre-planning was this: sit down, in quiet, and picture your dream wedding. What are the top three most important things to you? Mine were: solidify the covenant with my love before God and surrounded by our community, focus only on getting married and no last minute drama or planning [so make sure other people know the plan for the day], and throw a raucous party that is casual and fun all at once. In the moments where my mother and i inevitably argued over the mason jar tea lights or why i should/should not have to wear a veil, i remembered my list, and let go what i knew she wanted to be in charge of. So when it comes to the social niceties, sometimes it is okay to keep the peace and make small concessions that you don’t feel violate your core values or partnership.

This is true whatever kind of wedding you’re a part of – no matter how much it may be your moment, there’s always someone else who thinks it is theirs. And when it’s your parents or in-laws or friends, try and remember that they love you and are excited for you and just want the day to be perfect – even if their vision of perfection is not, well, yours.

And take some time alone to breathe, and find a friend who won’t judge when you need a good vent session.

5. Breathe. Pray. Take time to remind yourselves why you are doing this ridiculous and beautiful thing called marriage. Especially during the wedding week – try and find time every day to be alone with your love and just hang out, if only for ten minutes.

This is a sacred and wonderful time, and it will be messy and feathers will get ruffled, but your marriage is between you, God, and your partner, and the tea lights are really the least important thing to worry about.

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Mother Wisdom: A Sermon for Epiphany

Nativity, Loreta, Prague.

Nativity, Loreta, Prague.

Texts: Matthew 2:1 – 12 & Book of Wisdom 10: 15-21

Our texts this morning are drawn from two sources: one I imagine is familiar to you all: the Gospel of Matthew. The other, however, is a little less known – The Book of Wisdom, or Wisdom of Solomon, which is from the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is comprised of biblical texts that are included in the original catholic canon but have not always been used by Protestants. I, however, think the Book of Wisdom can richly inform our faith and as it was suggested in the lectionary for this week thought to share it with all of you.

The Book of Wisdom, along with other Apocryphal literature, tells us that Wisdom has been with God since the very beginning of time. The Book of Wisdom itself retells many stories of the Old Testament explaining how it was She, Wisdom, who moved with famous patriarchs to fulfill God’s will. Our text today comes from the retelling of the Exodus, explaining how it was She, Wisdom, who dwelt in Moses’ heart as much as She split the Red Sea.

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God is not my Father

For Mother’s Day this year, a group of Christian theologians and musicians created an alternative liturgy honoring the motherly aspects of God. The central piece of this motherly worship was an apophatic meditation – an ancient form of prayer meant to simultaneously acknowledge the breadth of God and the limits of our language and understanding of this breadth. One of the main examples of such a meditation (used in this liturgy to challenge father-only metaphors for God) is this:

God is our father.

God is not our father, for God is more than our father.

God is not not our father.

I’m a fan of this crew of people – The Liturgists, as they are aptly named – and the work they are doing. As someone who actively tries to engage churches in feminist discourses, i’m always glad when people reputable in more conservative circles talk about faith in a feminist bridge-building manner.

Though i find it most worshipful to refer to God in feminine terms, i understand that it is important to give space for all people to speak about God in metaphors that are most authentic for them.

But it really irks me when churches only use gender-neutral language for God.

I’m not opposed to androgyny; i love and affirm gender-fluidity, breaking gender binaries, the boundless spaces my trans* siblings dwell in. Godself created us in a multiplicity of gender images in Genesis – naming male and female as ends of a spectrum, like saying one looked high and low to mean one looked everywhere.

Yet i still don’t like using gender-neutral language. Partly, because i don’t think neutral language actually embraces the gender binary challenging aspect of androgyny. Using God and Godself as a pronoun can make our language strange to us. Clumsy sentences not only challenge our language structure, but can pointedly illuminate the prevalence with which masculine imagery is used in Christianity. The foreign-ness of Godself as a pronoun embodies God’s wildness.

How God is like us, not like us, and not not like us.

Churches and seminary classrooms and conversation where i do encounter gender-neutral language for God, gendered pronouns do eventually wiggle in. And they are almost always male. The metaphors remain of masculine fortitude, of a king lording over his people, of a father who materially provides. The imagining of God – with few exception – remains masculine, reinforces the idea that creator and author of all is personified as male.

So when i hear people using God in neutral language in church and in conversation, it mostly comes off to me as people wanting to be “PC” but fearing the feminine.

Fearing what it means to call God – all-powerful, all-merciful, all-mighty God – female. Feminine. Tender. Vulnerable. Motherly. Capable of carrying life.

watermarked loreta betterTo associate God with the feminine with one hand expands our understanding of God and gender-full and gender-less, and with the other turns the lens on our broken, sexist society that essentializes human beings to gendered stereotypes. A God who submitted to death on the cross, but who calls womyn out of man-made subservience. A God who does not mandate womyn be servile and men strong, a God who denies our human-wrought binaries. 

I know that churches using gender-neutral language in liturgy theoretically enables people to imagine God in ways outside of the white-man-with-a-beard model. The best model i’ve encountered is when the pastor invites the congregants to use the language most worshipful for them.

I like this invitation to use what is worshipful, because i don’t think father-language or kingdom language has to be thrown out with the bathwater. Father-language can be healing for someone whose father was less than loving – but it can also reinforce destructive hierarchies for people who have been abused by their fathers.

But even using Father-language alone is not Biblical. What of Jesus who yearns to gather us like a mother hen protecting her chicks in Matthew 23 or Luke 13? Consider Wisdom, who is the mother and fashioner of all things in Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, the very “breath and power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty,”  in 7:25, who sits by the throne of God in 9:4.

Fundamentally, if we rely on the faith of the apophatic meditation, we have to know our language of gender cannot ever fully cover God’s expanse.What i want from the pulpit and the classroom and conversations that actively engage with and preach a mother God. And a genuinely androgynous God. And a father God who weeps for Zion and a mother God who cloaks us in Her own armour.

A God who is father, and not father,  and not not father.

A God who is mother, and not mother, and not not mother.



Bitterness, Balls-Busting, and Seminary.

1525368_2532026305289_7201001417806567651_n“To what extent are we all afraid of angering people?”

She was talking about the fear to broach the race question in church. Fears that when white pastors tell their old white parishioners (who give a collection-tin full of money) that their old ways are plain old-fashioned racist, that collection-tin will disappear. Fears to disrupt the white-code,  the code that says  when we (the royal, White We, the we presumed but never explicitly stated) are all in the same room it’s finally okay to bash Affirmative Action, make dialect jokes, microaggresions that aren’t so micro.

Fears as clergypeople that aren’t necessarily rooted in worries about a comfortably paycheck found in those tins – fears that a paycheck will come at all, fears that the church doors will not stay open. Fears that wonder how we can be pastors to even the most racist, sexist, homophobic, and prejudiced of people.

My husband often gently reminds me – when i’ve gone off again on Hobby Lobby and whiteboys and how it’s all a conspiracy to disempower anyone who isn’t white and male and hetero and wealthy – that everybody hurts.

I’ve been walking this line of anger – and how much of it to show – for as long as i was being told girls couldn’t do all that boys could. My friend Erin has written an incredible piece on the spiritual power of bitterness. She writes about uncompromising anger, the anger that does not flinch the way Christian discipline and Christian guilt may teach us to doubt. But there’s the double-edged sword of bitterness for us Christian feminists:

“Bitterness, I’ve been told, is to be avoided by Christian feminists who must wrest themselves from the reputation of both angry activists and fuming fundamentalists.”

I live this in the classrooms where i’m one of three womyn, when i feel my own internal pressure to speak so that it’s not an all male voices, but worry that once again speaking as a feminist will be met with more  grimaces and eyes rolls. It’s fear of letting down my own internal riot-grrl-engine (which, yes, i’m also quick to trace to its capitalist feminist individualism) and fear of being That Girl (which is also maddening, because i’m a woman and not a child).

As Erin writes, bitterness can also be another word for heartache.

Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman spoke briefly during our Divinity School orientation, primarily to explain why we are required to take a course in Black Church Studies. “We are not the black church because we chose to be,” she stated. “We are the black church because we had to be.”

The intersections of race and gender are complex, and the more i assert my stance as a feminist/womanist in classes where only 35% of us are womyn, the more i understand what she meant within my own social location. The culture shock of coming from a school full of gender minorities to an institution that has historically been (and still is) hostile to womyn has run deep in me these first few weeks. No matter how much i celebrate the feminist hermeneutics we read, no matter how grateful i am for friends who are also womyn’s college alums, it is exhausting to work day in and day out assert your right to be where you are and think what you think.*

And the balance of anger and bitterness, heartache and peace-seeking, it’s this impossible walk i’ve never really learned. Because on the one hand, as a feminist, i want to be authentic and true and unapologetically assertive. A woman who fights impostor syndrome, who knows my own value and ability and right to ask the first question or push back against the accepted way of thinking.

But on the other, i’m supposed to be walking this walk in the humility of knowing my own humanity, and its fallibility, and that even the most conservative white cisgenered heterosexual man is still created by God.

(I really do actually sort of know that last part; my husband is from Wilson, North Carolina. He still has to remind me that i know this.)

My mother calls it the “Divinity-School-Shakedown.” The peeling open, scrambling around, and puking out all you know and all you think, a jenga-puzzle game of identity and call. So today, still thumbing through scattered notes on bitterness and heartache, my professor asks us this question:

“To what extent are we all afraid of angering people?”

I still don’t have an answer.


*(I also feel it pertinent to mention here that it’s still the first month, and all us ickle firsties are in various forms of culture shock, and anyone who says they aren’t still adjusting is slurping down that liar soup)