I believe it’s time for what I call “the pandemic pivot,” the development of spaces in which the best of what was and the possibilities of what could be intersect as the hybrid church. This article is the first in a series that explores how questioning tradition, examining embedded understandings of the Divine, creating curious conversations, developing a holistic hospitable approach, and innovating failure is the recipe for digital discipleship.
Just when we thought there was light at the end of the proverbial pandemic tunnel, we get news that some members of our communities want digital gatherings as part of the “new normal” moving forward. While it’s true most churchgoers don’t prefer digital gatherings, they are interested in having both physical and digital options. According to the latest Barna research 35% of folks claim a preference for both physical and digital gatherings. This is not welcome news to pastors who are exhausted from preaching to empty sanctuaries for the last year.
Online is here to stay – Instead of seeing this as an insurmountable challenge we have to overcome and grieving the loss of what was, I invite you to consider the opportunity this time has given us.
Bikes and Bullhorns
Mainline churches have long been late adopters to technology. Case in point, the bicycle. Many Ministers were not pleased when bicycles came onto the scene in the late 19th century calling them the work of the Devil! “No greater crime against civilization can be committed than the action of bicycle clubs to hold meets, parades, races, and other sports on Sunday. It is a question of health and civic virtue. For to trample upon the religious use of Sunday as a day of rest and worship is to poison the lifeblood of our American civilization.” (Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1895) Clergy were very concerned about desecrating the sabbath – seems a lot of folks were forgoing Sunday services for bicycle sojourn.
In addition, many clergy worried what would become of the relationships forged by long talks on a carriage ride or walk to Sunday services. Now that bicycles were the primary mode of transportation, how would these relationships be impacted now that a quick bicycle ride was the norm. Those ministers who did take to a tour on a bike were met with harsh repercussions. It was reported that a Rockford Illinois minister lost a church trustee and a number of members due to his bike embrace.
“Rev. F. M. Johnson, of Rockford, Illinois, is in trouble. He bought a bicycle and learned to ride it. One of his trustees remonstrated with him, but the pastor claimed the inalienable right to find happiness on a wheel and the trustee resigned, a number of the members going with him. Probably the disgruntled prefer that he should ride the foal of an ass.”-Sandusky Register Oct. 31, 1894
As we all know, the Church survived the great bicycle debauchery of the 19th century and lived to ride another day. Yet, I can’t help but see some similarities in how many clergy responded to the invention of the bicycle then and the introduction of digital worship now.
The first similarity is simple resistance to change. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard the phrase, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it” or some variation thereof. The church, Mainline protestants in particular, are very set in their ways and have a soft spot for tradition. Don’t get me wrong, Tradition is wonderful in many ways, however, when it stands in the way of the Gospel, we have a problem…and we’ve had a problem for going on more than 70 years now.
The Evangelical church, for me, is troublesome in theology, unchecked power dynamics, and oppression of women and marginalized groups. However, one lesson Mainline denominations could learn from our fundamentalist siblings is to be early adopters of technology. Leveraging mass media provided a unique opportunity for fundamentalist religion to effect cultural change during the past seventy years. Take for example TELevangelists. Bursting onto the scene in the 1950’s harnessing the power and influence of the media, Dr. William F. Fore, asserts that they are the main reason for the increased role of religion in American life, and in particular, its political life.
“In America there were scores of television evangelists and hundreds of radio preachers on the air, day and night, preaching a bogus religion whose story is a wild tale of the end of the world, and whose values closely resemble the values and worldview of secular America — the values of winning, of wealth, of power, and of being Number One. On the other side of the Atlantic, European audiences were never subjected to this kind of message.”Dr. William F. Fore
The teachings of Christ in the Gospels are clear: love, justice, and generosity. Yet, these are all overshadowed and skewed by television evangelists for more than half a century because they had they bullhorn. Fundamental evangelicals were quick to harness the power of new media technology to spread their flavor of the Gospel – and they have continued to be early adaptors of technology throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries. History shows evangelical churches were some of the first to develop websites, embrace social media, and live stream worship services. Meanwhile, most mainline denominations continued to do things as they had for more than a hundred years.
The love of tradition, complacency, comfort, judgmentalism, and perceived piety, all play a factor in mainline denominations not adapting, innovating, and participating in sharing the Gospel of Christ by embracing new media. Instead of harnessing the latest technology to advocate to love, justice, and peace, we continued to demand people come to us on our terms and at our prescribed time. We turned our noses to changes in culture, families, and held tightly to “The way we’ve always done it.”
I’ve heard it said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Stop the insanity! It’s time we embrace the opportunity this time has gifted the Church, get ourselves a bicycle, and enjoy the ride!
I stood outside the Snack Shack looking over the schedule for the day. It was my first trip to camp and I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss any of the action. My small group of friends bounced with excitement as we perused the itinerary. First up was chapel followed by small group discussion – the girl’s group for my age would be meeting in the dorm lobby – followed by “Girls Swim Time” at 10:30 am. Several squeals of delight flowed from members of my group as we made our way to breakfast.
As I was getting ready for our swim time that day, I asked my counselor why only the girls were swimming at 10:30, did the boys have a special activity we were missing out on?
“Oh, no,” she replied, “you’ll all be doing the same activities, just at different times this morning.”
Being the curious and stubborn girl I was, I had to know the reason. So, I asked, “Why?”
“Well, we can’t have mixed swimming!” she announced as if I had suggested she dye her hair green.
“Mixed swimming?” what in the world was this lady talking about, I thought.
“You know, mixed swimming. We can’t have you, girls, swimming with the boys! It’s just not decent,” came her curt reply, “You may be wearing a full piece bathing suit, but boys will be boys!”
I was eight years old, at church camp. And so began my immersion into the cruel waters of purity culture and the ever-present confusion of tempting my brother to sin with the wicked ways of my body and being.
This week, the underbelly of Purity Culture was exposed, yet again, as a Southern Baptist kid justified his murdering of eight Asian women with the excuse of ‘sinful temptation.’ Having been raised in a fundamentalist evangelical faith tradition, I know first hand the trauma and harm that has been and continues to be done, by purity culture and the churches that espouse it.
The confusing mix of messages to girls and women, like those I received at church camp, tell us we are the object of temptation and held responsible for the lustful and sinful actions of males reaches deep into our psyche warping our sense of identity and value. It is deeply harmful and traumatizing to be told repeatedly, and thus come to believe, that you alone could be responsible for sending a young male friend, “into the eternal lake of fire” simply for wearing a shirt that is too revealing, a skirt that is too short, or walking in a “suggestive” way.
As a teenager, having pastors and parents constantly apprising my worthiness to date a boy based upon innocuous things such as my clothes and hair left my head spinning and my heart broken. Who was I supposed to be? What did I have to do to pass the test and be approved? How could I be worthy of God’s love and grace if I was the source of sin? Would I ever be able to live a life without sinful thoughts or desires? I mean, they may think I’m wanting to tempt and tease boys, but I had other thoughts running through my head that I knew made me an abomination. If wearing a skimpy dress was sin, I was pretty sure me dreaming about one day kissing a girl was definitely on the lake of fire list!
To those who have not experienced purity culture, it is hard to explain how deeply ingrained this theology becomes. It reaches deep into our psyche inviting a host of trauma and battles that might not otherwise occur. The confusing mix of messages becomes overwhelming and left me, and many others I know raised in purity culture, feeling confused at best and hopeless at worst.
Purity culture espoused by evangelical and conservative churches shames women and girls for “tempting” men and boys, as if they have no control over their actions or decisions. Being pure and holy without sinful thoughts or desires is drilled into the head and heart of every child and teenager. Simply thinking about sex on a daily basis is declared a ‘sex addiction’ in purity culture, let alone acting on those thoughts.
Bringing us to this week, and the death of eight Asian women at the hands of a Southern Baptist kid. It seems he couldn’t control his ‘sexual addiction’ and found the only resolution to his problem was murder. Murdering the source of his sexual temptation, Asain women, was better than acting on his desire. Purity culture raised him to believe women are merely objects of desire, not human, sources of temptation that could lead to eternal death. His acts expose the underside of purity culture and a Church that too easily stokes and cloaks racism, sexism, and misogyny right within the pews under the guise of the will of God and scripture. Purity culture is sin. Purity culture must be called out.
The sin of purity culture and the harm it has done and continues to do in our society grieves the heart of God and should drive us to action. The sin of the Church that continues to perpetuate racism, misogyny, oppression, and sexism must be brought to the surface and laid bare for all to see. I pray you can see it. I pray you can see the sin of purity culture, the pain, the harm, and the abuse of the Church. I pray that we, especially us white Christians, will finally gain the courage to not only see, weep and pray, but also act. I pray we finally begin to listen intently, call out the sin of the Church, and act for justice.
We stood at the trunk of my car, neither of us knowing exactly what to say. The summer sun shone bright and I could feel the heat on my skin. “You are so brave,” he finally said. I felt anything but brave. I loaded the last box and tried to smile.
“This will cost me everything,” I said knowingly.
He reached for my hand and then let it fall, tears forming in both our eyes, as he turned and walked back inside the church.
I looked around at the church that was once my safe harbor and the genesis of so many dreams. I stared at the stained glass window of Christ and wondered if he would have kicked me out, too. I didn’t think so, but the thought still bubbled to the surface along with so many other doubts.
The plans for a new church plant were now nothing more than scraps of paper containing ideas that would never see the light of day. As I watched my would-be co-pastor walk into the church, I knew the door was closing on what could have been and our time in ministry together. The teams we had poured into, the presentations given, the hours of prayer, and the months of work all gone in with one simple, yet profound declaration, “I’m gay.”
One moment I was a talented, inspiring, up-and-coming pastor with all the gifts and graces to lead – even lifted up at General Conference as starting a new and profound kind of church focused on missional communities. In the next, I was an abomination, assumed adulteress, and astonishing disappointment. It was a lot to carry and the load was more than I could bear.
What followed was years of sifting through the rubble of my once upon a time life. Hours of therapy to finally accept who God had created me to be – regardless of the faith tradition of my past or the wants and needs of my family. Trying desperately to make sense of it to my soon-to-be ex-husband and our two children all the while not sure any of it really made sense to me. I didn’t feel brave at all. I felt like a farce and a failure.
It’s amazing the things we do for love. The love and need for family is a powerful force, one that can be filled with so much potential, and at the same time, so much pain. Fear of losing love, abandonment, and disappointing those I love held me captive for forty years. I learned to live a lie and lie to myself, to hold onto what I had and what I thought I needed. I relentlessly and intricately built a life that would be pleasing and acceptable to those around me and the God they raised me to believe in. I followed all the rules, pursued every idea, and tried desperately to conform for their comfort. After 40 years, I broke.
It didn’t happen all at once. It wasn’t like one day the plate slipped and crumbled into a thousand pieces on the floor. No, it started with a tiny crack that ever so slightly let light in. Hours in a discipleship group for pastors exploring what it meant to be a beloved child of God, in whom God is well pleased, was a paradigm shift that made me reflect on my life and the unconditional love I had for my own children.
Was it really possible for God to love me with such love?
Could God, the creator of the universe look at my life and call me Beloved?
Was God truly pleased with the thoughts, desires, and wants that coursed through my veins?
Trying to live into the notion that there is nothing I could do or say to make God love me any more or any less left me feeling uncertain about the rules, obedience, and works focus of the faith tradition I had inherited from my family.
Sitting in seminary classes, I learned to read scripture in light of its historical context, literary genre, and different theological lenses. Struggling to learn the original language of the Bible, Hebrew, and Greek, coupled with an extensive exploration of the scriptures left me questioning if the interpretation that had been handed down to me had been the full and rich explanation of the text. I discovered that a “literal translation” is still merely the translation of privileged white men across thousands of years, several different languages, and cultural contexts. I began to search and scrutinize scripture, interpreting, deciphering, and deciding for myself what I believed them to mean.
I prayed. Sweet Jesus, did I pray! I prayed God would show me a way to live an honest and authentic life. I prayed Jesus would give me a pass – I didn’t want to take up my cross anymore and follow him. I pleaded for an easy road, a way out, and even, God help me, for my life to end. How could I stand before a community of faith and declare, “God loves you just as you are,” and “You are a beloved child of God. There is nothing, no-thing you could ever do to make God love you any more or any less,” if I was living a lie. If I could not be authentically me, the person God created me to be, then I had no business in the business I was in.
One by one, little by little, moment by moment, the cracks added up until one day, I broke. I sat on the cool green grass at a local park and realized, I’m either going to become a raging alcoholic or I’m going to kill myself. Since I was well on my way to being an alcoholic, I figured the latter wasn’t far behind. What did this mess of a life I created mean for my kids, my husband, my family…for me? I didn’t like and no longer believed the understanding of God that was given to me. I could no longer accept the notion that was handed down to me – that putting others before self was holy and righteous – when putting others’ feelings and comfort level above who God created me to be led to such guilt, shame, and fear. That was not holy. Surely, that is not of God.
And so began the journey of the one-time hand-me-down girl, who was determined, with God’s help, to build an authentic, honest, resilient woman.
I wrote this piece two years ago. After a conversation with a close friend this weekend, it reminded me that many of us, for a myriad of reasons and in many ways, grieve the living…
I learned yesterday afternoon my grandfather died.
Grief is complex and complicated. The death of my Grandpa is going to take some time to work through and process. He was a wonderful man, my hero. Yet, I can’t really say, “I will miss him” because I’ve missed him for over five years now. Some would say his soul left his body yesterday. I know his body and spirit left me more than five years ago when I came out as LGBTQ+. That’s when the loss of my grandpa first occurred and my grieving first began.
I grieve many who are still living. Those who have chosen to ban me from their lives for what they claim are my “lifestyle choices.” They look at who I love, shake their heads, and turn their backs – making their own “lifestyle choices.” In an instant what was is gone. The relationship has forever shifted and the connection permanently severed. But, one still hopes, even prays, for the possibilities. One still clings to the potential promise of reconciliation and reconnection. And in the midst of the fallout, in the mire of the mess, one begins the slow and steady journey of grief.
Those of us who grieve the living learn to live fully in memories of the past – even if for only moments of time. We hold firmly in our grasp the glimpses of joy and laughter we had with those who have left us. Like anyone who grieves the dead, we lament the loss of what could have been and the hope of things that were yet to be.
And yet, there is another layer of heartbreak when you grieve the living – the fact that the one you love is, in fact, living. The knowledge that they are here, breathing, walking, doing, loving, and living alongside others – and not you – is its own special type of suffering. Knowing the family Christmas party is happening without you. The realization that they are in the same store and have rushed to another aisle. Walking into a room and seeing them run out. Hearing the disdain and distance in their voice when you do find yourself face to face and attempt a conversation all brings its own complex and undeniable grief.
Grieving the living is hard – and it’s necessary because in grieving the living, I am reminded that I am living. I am living my truth. I am living my life in authenticity with integrity and honesty. No longer am I sacrificing who God made me to be at the altar of others’ comfort and understanding of God. The grief I hold for the living is simply a product of life – my life – my true, authentic, beautiful, amazing life!
And so, I grieve. I grieve the living. The ones who have made their own choices. The ones I can not control, confront, or comfort. I mourn the loss of what was and what might have been. I lament the lack of understanding, grace, and acceptance. I pray for peace. I hold onto hope. And I give thanks – thanks for what was. Thanks for what still could be. And above all, I give thanks for my life. My one true life.
I have a lot to learn from my dog, Prim. I came to this realization not too long ago as came down the stairs to say goodbye to two children as they headed off to their Dad’s house. Prim was right in the mix of things, standing beside them, tail wagging, leaning in for last-minute hugs, and ready to sneak in the car as she realized they were leaving her. As the kids walked out the door Prim ran to her perch at the window – crying softly as she realized they were, in fact, leaving without her. After watching them slowly back out of the driveway, Prim took up her post by the front door – with a soft sigh, she lay down, stretched out – no doubt hoping for their quick return.
Prim has a lot of hope. Every night she sits quietly with her head in my lap under the dinner table throughout the meal, hoping I’ll sneak her scraps of the good stuff. Each time she returns from a trip outside she goes straight to the cabinet that holds her treats and sits patiently, hoping I’ll reward her. She often grabs her favorite toy and drops it at my feet, hoping I’ll play. She even lays down beside me and gently puts her paw on my hand in the hope I will rub her ears. My dog is full of hope and she has an enviable ability to hope patiently
This is what I need to learn from Prim – patient hope – the sit quietly and enjoy the wait kind of hope. Prim is a master at patient expectation, sitting and waiting for inevitable goodness she believes will come. It’s hard for me. I’m more of a “do” kind of gal. I like to always be in control, checking things off my list, and making things happen. I’m a type-A personality, for sure. So, when things seem to take too long or don’t come as I planned, I am prone to lose hope. I often become impatient, frustrated, and full of despair.
Over the past year, I’ve lost hope. Social distancing, an increasing death toll, and a divided nation all fuse to make hope a scarce resource – at least for me. As I journey through this season of Lent, this time of being in the wilderness, I’ve decided to take a lesson from my dog Prim and put down despair and, at least try, to pick up hope. I’m striving to learn from her how to sit patiently and hopefully in the liminal space of waiting.
Not so for my dog, Prim. Every day she hopes. And I learn lessons on hope.
- Do you hope?
- What or who gives you hope?
- What are some ways we can provide hope for others?
Holy God, you know I am prone to despair and impatience often becoming frustrated when things do not happen as quickly as I would like. Help me to hope for what I can’t yet see and learn patient hope. Amen.