Sometimes a well-meaning friend will preface a story, opinion, or joke by saying, "I don't want to offend you, but . . ." or maybe they say a few words when their story is over, "That might have been offensive! So sorry!" maybe they even ask, "Did I just offend you?"
The above statements/questions cover a multitude of subjects. Most often they come to me in a religious context. Somebody is about to tell me (or has just told me) about something they aren't proud of - something they've said or done, or something that their family members have said or done. Perhaps they're worried because I write lots about God or sing about God, and they're afraid that somebody who seems to spend so much time contemplating the Good Book must be judgmental and unfeeling about certain things.
These days my response is, "I'm not easily offended and am not usually surprised by stuff. What do you need to talk about?"
It's not because I think I'm perfect. It's the exact opposite. I know I'm not perfect. And I grew up in a real family with a bunch of beloved family members who continue to bring diverse expressions of faith to the table . . . in fact, I'd say no two of us see things exactly the same even though many of us grew up United Methodist (on one side of the family). On top of our spiritual diversity we bring our life stories to the table. These are not uniform. Between us sits a wealth of experience, including our great triumphs and mistakes. Having witnessed all of this, I find myself able to stand in the gap for people who feel alone, more often than not, by simply listening and saying, "Yeah. I get that. I can see that. I can see you. You're one of God's kids." We all are capable of this, if we're willing to tear away the many masks we wear and stand naked before God. The idea of being "better than that" (whatever "that" may be) is more than foolish. It's built on sand. It caves in if you try to walk on it.
But somewhere along the way I gave folks the impression that I would be shocked and I would be easily offended. And there likely have been times when I've not responded with grace or honesty when confronted with somebody's anger, hurt, or truth.
I'm so sorry about that.
As I come home from a wonderful trip to the Wild Goose Festival and to E&H, my alma mater, I'm carrying with me a new sense of urgency about being honest and accessible to diverse people. And because I've recently shared some stories with some old friends for the first time (a street that has gone both ways), I feel that I ought to unapologetically make a few things clear. These are things I've been quiet about in the past for a variety of reasons. Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes because I've felt outnumbered. Sometimes because I've thought to myself, "People will stop listening to my music if they know this about me." None of those reasons are good enough. So let me be very plain right now. I've got a developing Manifesto of sorts floating around in my head . . .
I believe that God made us how we are, who we are, for God's own reasons.
I'm proud of my dear friends and family in the LGBTQ community who are daily living lives of integrity and truth. I believe that they are God's kids exactly like I am. There is no separation between us. I realize that in "church circles" this continues to be a sort of hot topic. I'm a church going, Bible reading, Jesus believing lady and my faith has landed me right here . . . right here in a space where God reconciles all peoples to God's own self. Right in the center of the open communion table. Right in the middle of the Great Mystery. I know that God loves me and my brothers and sisters the same. Anything beyond that becomes ridiculous. Love God. Love your neighbor. Period.
I believe that practical ministry is incredibly important.
The spirits of God's kids belong to God . . . not us. God is the primary actor in all baptism. God is the origin of any true profession of faith. The bodies of God's kids? Their hunger? Their thirst? Their needs? That stuff is our job. We need to hop to it, friends, if we say we believe in Jesus. This is one thing we ought to take literally. Mega churches don't impress me, but free medical clinics do. Fancy church "programs" don't impress me, but churches full of actual Good Samaritans do. "Church Culture" really bums me out, but neighborhood centered activism and providence is exciting to me! Over the past couple of years I've witnessed some really neat expressions of faith as people have reached out to directly support and uplift neighbors inside and out of the "church body." I've seen enough of the good stuff to think, "If I keep writing music about this kind of thing, and if I keep participating and lifting up these stories . . . and if we all do all of this together, maybe it will grow and grow until it becomes the norm." But I've also seen the equal opposite. I've seen inward facing churches and little corners of churches. I've seen people arguing about musical style, bickering over spotlights, and worshiping titles, playlists, and the success of mega churches instead of God. And I've done these things myself. I've caught myself in the midst of my own pride and my own misdirection.
I believe that healthy liturgical practice in churches helps us with our ever interrupting pride.
We're all proud. We're all broken this way. Nobody is immune to this difficulty. When we allow our churches to be built up on looks, cultural popularity, and the idea that "talent" rules the day, we're in for a rude awakening. Liturgy is "the work of the people." The people need to be working when they gather for worship. I'm not saying it all has to be "old school" or King James. I'm just saying - those of us who design worship services need to be careful about glorying more in ourselves than in the cloud of witnesses itself. Talent is nifty, but church is about God. Church is also about remembering that we each belong to God and are equal in God's sight - all children, all needing, all longing for peace and hope and home. There is not a stage that can lift us closer to heaven. There is not a spotlight that can make our gifts more evident to God than somebody else's. Belief in God and Jesus Christ ought to bring us to a profound sense of humility and equality. That doesn't mean we'll get it right all the time. But we ought to try to keep it in mind.
I believe that God is constantly speaking to everybody and that we don't always get to hear professions of faith how we think they ought to be said. God is God. We know almost nothing. We should get used to it.
I had a friend in college who used to tell me he was an atheist. He didn't grow up in any kind of church community and had seen some pretty ugly stuff coming from "Christian" kids at school. He didn't have a whole lot of encouraging data about the big "why" behind church attendance or religious belief. None of that was his fault. And he would ask me questions about my faith and why I would pray to God and what I thought prayer would do or not do. We talked about "The Wounded Healer" and liturgy and practice. I found myself apologizing to him for the strange things he'd witnessed from "churchy" folks growing up. As I have worked in more churches I've come to see that these things aren't so unusual. They're somewhat normal. People are people. We're easily distracted, we enjoy arguing, and we behave erratically when we gather in large groups! (I'm chuckling as I type this, in case you're wondering) My friend would say things like, "If I thought Christianity could be like our friendship is, I might be a believer" to which I would reply, "Christianity is supposed to be like our friendship. Maybe you are." And we'd chuckle and move on. I didn't need to hear that my friend believed in God. God and my friend had and probably still have their own thing going. It's not about numbers. IT'S NOT ABOUT NUMBERS. It's. Not. About. Numbers. Businesses are about numbers. God's relationship with God's own children is an awful mystery. I'm more at home in the mystery than I used to be. And I'm so sorry that I ever went on allowing anybody to believe I'd see this stuff any other way.
I don't believe that God will cease to recognize any of God's own children. I believe that God sees all and knows all, and that God has always been reconciling all things to God's own self.
I know that ruffles feathers sometimes. I'm sorry about that. But I know God and God's love for me. And I know how completely imperfect I am. God shouldn't recognize me. Not really. But God continues to speak and act in my life just as God does in the lives of others. I don't always choose to see God there, and sometimes I separate myself from God . . . but I'm the one who changes. Not God. Once, after a great tragedy, I heard a local pastor telling somebody about the death of a young person. This pastor said that God had ceased to recognize this child because this child had led such a "wayward" and "ugly" life, and that the child surely hadn't gone to heaven. My question was and is, How do we know? Do we know the mind of God? I think not. Do we know the hearts of other human beings? I think not. Let's leave it at that for now.
Now . . . dear reader . . . all of the above is just what I carry around in my head and my heart. I'm not a theologian, although I've read plenty of theological books. I'm not a pastor, but I have practiced music ministry for a number of years. And you couldn't call me a perfect example of anything because I've never ever been perfect.
So I guess you can take or leave any or all of what I've said here. Whatever you agree or disagree with, I'd like you to know that I'll still be your friend if you need me to be. And if, for some reason, you find yourself wondering, "Will Sarah be offended because I or my family ____ or ____ or _____" the answer is probably "No. Sarah will not be offended." and "No. Sarah will not give you an earful about how you need to make yourself perfect before God." Let's start here instead: Hi, I'm Sarah. I'm one of God's kids and I'm not perfect. If we end up side by side on this journey I'd be happy to talk with you a while, and maybe we can help each other along.