Theater is Church

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Eastern Mennonite University Black Box Theater

I met my Dad halfway through my sophomore year of college. I remember hearing his voice on the phone for the first time in 15 years and thinking to myself, “He sounds just like he did on those old home videos.”

During those early phone calls, he told me about my siblings, my stepmom, her pregnancy with my then unborn brother, his upbringing as a Palestinian born and raised in Jordan, and about his life as an Arab American.

That same semester, my Theater professor assigned My Name is Rachel Corrie for my class and I to read, a one-woman play about the late activist who lost her life defending a Palestinian home in the Gaza strip from being bulldozed by the Israeli army.

This play brought me closer to my father and our shared roots, and it pushed me into an inner confrontation with American and international policy. It is a story I return to when my Dad tells me about the pain of displacement and when I continue to see the plight of Palestinians, who are my family by blood, ignored by American and international media.

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During the first semester of my senior year at college, I took a Basics of Acting class. For our final project, my fellow actors and I acted out scenes from a themed series called “University.”

At this point in my life, I was in the deep throes of my faith crisis. Day by day, my firm foundation revealed its unsteady nature. I kept hoping to find solid ground but continued to be met with sinking sand.

It was in this state of mind that I found out my professor had assigned me the role of a young college student who had just had an abortion and found herself in a confrontation with her one night stand about it.

I hated him for that.

And yet, it was this acting exercise that met me where I was in my crisis, in all of my uncertainty over my previous ideologies and biases, and pushed me into the mind and body of someone I had once deemed “other.” It was in the black box theater, as I worked on memorizing my character’s lines and getting into her skin, that I realized how to play with a story, discover the crazy nuances of human lives, and remember that when we talk about “issues,” we are always talking about divinely made human beings.

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My second year of seminary, I joined the cast and crew of Corpus Christi, a play depicting Jesus as a young gay man living and proclaiming the Gospel in Texas. I served as the dramaturg (a nice, fancy, theater word for the one who does lots of research) to prepare the cast and help them understand their roles as disciples, and I joined rather last minute as an actor to play the part of John the Baptist, in which I baptized (read: washed the hands of) all of our cast members.

Unfortunately, due to the “controversial” nature of the show, we had to shut it down.

That didn’t stop us from holding a final and open dress rehearsal to a packed house, though.

The powers that were also couldn’t stop us from sitting around during rehearsal time and trading laughter, tears, university cafe treats, and stories about how the Church had wounded the LGBTQ community.

The powers that were could never take from us the power this production had, in many ways, to save and heal the lives of the cast and crew, most of whom identify as LGBTQ+.

In this communal theater experiment, I found myself pushed into a story that was and wasn’t mine. I found myself in the supporting role, and as such, I learned to listen and be present instead of my more natural role of taking charge and stealing the spotlight. I confronted my own pain and the pain of others suffering in ways I cannot completely understand but with whom I can sit, stand, and live in love and camaraderie.

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Theater is not frivolous. It is not for the faint of heart or the narrow of mind, but it is for the experienced and inexperienced, the diva and the shy, the believer and the skeptic. Theater molds, shapes, and even break us in ways we spend a lifetime unpacking.

There are times when theater is the voice, body, and spirit of God when churches remain silent, paralyzed, and breathless. There are times when theater becomes the Church to the doubters, skeptics, LGBTQ+, people of color, and the oppressed when the churches all but slam the door in their faces.

 

Theater does this, because theater is story. It’s the stories with the immense power to make us confront our “others” and our own roots. It’s the stories which wake us up and wind us up. It’s the stories which comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the comfortable.

It was stories Jesus used to illustrate the finer points of his gospel message, through parables of seeds and soil, great banquets, feuding families, and pestering widows. It was theater Jesus employed when he caused a public and zealous disturbance in the temple. It was these stories that baffled the disciples and the religious elite but made sense to the ones who had lived them in some capacity.

And throughout all of those stories and theatrical displays was the call to remember we are God’s, and we belong to each other.

While many fear the “death of the Church,” I have no fear of this, because as long as theater and stories exist, and as long as we continue to tell the stories to each other without fear or shame, the Church will survive and thrive.

I’ve seen the theater be Church for me and for others, and it gives me hope that Church will outlive every congregation we ever make or attempt.

For the Literal Love of Christ, Stop Making Jesus White

 

Superstar

Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing Buzzfeed the other day when I found an article about the Mary Magdalene film starring Rooney Mara (as Mary) and Joaquin Phoenix (as Jesus).

To be honest, at first I thought it was great that a film about Mary Magdalene would be coming to theaters soon, especially because of the issues many in the Church might have with her story being portrayed well on screen (she wasn’t a prostitute?!).

Then I saw the casting, and I got frustrated at the fact that once again, two white actors are portraying religious and historical figures of color.

MaryMovie

Daily Mail

I quickly went to IMBD to check out the rest of the cast, and I discovered that black, Israeli, and Algerian actors will be playing Jesus’ disciples.

Which is…better than having them all be white, too, I suppose. At least this casting is a bit more accurate.

Starting from top left: Australian actor Ryan Corr as Joseph, Israeli actor Tawfeek Barhom as James, Matthew Moshonov as Matthew, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, and French actor Tahar Rahim

This being said, Hollywood is not off the hook. The fact that in most biblical films, Jesus is cast as a white man while the people of color are relegated to the supporting cast is a greater symptom of the American white savior complex.

 

The simplest way to define the white savior as an entertainment trope is a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. While many well-meaning people defend these characters as benign and even admirable (perhaps citing that they learn a lesson about themselves and “those people” and become “better” in the end), they are actually rather harmful.

The danger of the white savior mentality is that it enables the savior to look down on the ones they try to “save.” It allows the savior to say, “You are only worthy of my time, attention, and compassion as long as you are beneath me. Never equal to me, and definitely not above me.”

The white savior complex “racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems.”

This racialization of morality frames white people as the good guys, and the people of color as either the bad guys or the ones needing saved.

White savior mentality does not embolden people on the “receiving” end to take agency over their own lives.

One of the primary results of the white savior/one needing saved relationship is enmeshment, which can occur “in any relationship where there is a power imbalance due to structural inequality, and ensures that the power imbalance stays firmly in place, resulting in frustration and resentment for the oppressed group.” This ensures that the person or people being saved become fully dependent on their saviors to survive and thrive, while the saviors get a nice dose of purpose and goodwill from having saved someone. They are dependent on each other for the wrong reasons.

The white savior mentality does not allow people of color, or those being “rescued” or “saved,” to voice their own concerns or opinions about their own lives. Instead, the saved remain subservient to their saviors, who tell them to trust in the savior’s goodness and logic above their own needs.

This is prevalent in reality, as seen in the accusations of TV personalities and news anchors concerning black culture and black individuals. There seem to be zero forms of protest that a person of color can participate in which white leaders will not criticize. This is why Black Lives Matter can be deemed “the new KKK” with little to no mainstream backlash. It’s why any criticism about white supremacy and privilege is clapped back against with cries of “reverse racism” and accusations of “not letting the past be past.”

Feminists are not exempt from this.

Rafia Zakaria writes in Al Jazeera, “Nonwhites are expected to approbate and modify their own lives or positions to participate in this [white feminist] narrative. The parameters of this paradigm ignore differences in privilege that separate the white and nonwhite feminisms. White women dominate the mainstream American feminism because they can still draw on white privilege and occupy the entire category.”

If left ignored, women of color will continue to be ostracized by a movement which claims to seek liberation for all.

This is why, for the literal love of Jesus, we need to drop the white savior complex, from our media and from our lives.

Jesus regarded everyone with whom he interacted as inherently worthy of his love and attention. But white savior mentality does not acknowledge the inherent dignity within every human being as a child of God.

If we continue to call ourselves the Body of Christ on earth, yet continue to ignore our siblings’ cries for justice, then we are attempting to cast off our hands and feet, destroying the Body from the inside out.

We will also damage our testimony as Christ’s body on earth to those who are not in the Church.

A personal case in point: I have a Middle Eastern, Muslim father, but I did not grow up with him. I grew up with my white mother and white family, so I learned about Arabic culture from them and the media.

And they didn’t exactly paint the best picture. Especially post 9-11.

Post 9/11, I thought all Arabs were terrorists, because that’s all I saw in the news, in TV shows, and in movies. I thought they were oppressive to women and democracy and all the other things Americans claim to hold dear (but they really don’t).

I know how this affected me, and I know how it could affect my younger siblings, and the people with whom they interact, especially in an era of proposed “Muslim bans” and chants to “Build the Wall.”

I worry about representation because of what it will tell the world about my family.

So what do we, the white Americans wrestling with our white savior complexes, need to do?

A small way to break this oppressive cycle is to consume more media with better representations of people of color, in which they, not us, are the predominant actors, writers, producers, and directors.

Love comics? Check out Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and America Chavez.

Looking for a new show to binge-watch on Netflix? Check out Luke Cage, The Get Down, or 3%.

Want a Redbox night? Rent Moonlight or Get Out.

If you don’t consume media with predominantly POC casts and production because you think it’s “too harsh” on white people, or you wonder why you’re not in the lead role like you’re used to, you might be feeling a trace of what black, Latinx, Arab, and other “minority” communities have felt for years.

We often have the audacity to ask, in a culture we dominate, “What about me?”

I asked that question as a four year old when I was dyeing Easter eggs with my cousins because I didn’t want to share the Easter egg dye with them. As a child, I acted like a child, as do we all. Now, it’s time to leave our childish ways behind.

Will watching and reading more stories in which people of color are the heroes and heroines change the world overnight?

Of course not.

It can, however, begin to change our mentality, break stereotypes, and empower people of color.

And for the literal love of Christ, we can do that much.

Church Runaways, Meet Marvel’s Runaways

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This year, I didn’t go to church on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday.

Instead, I binge-read 3 volumes of Marvel’s Runaways, the comic series about “a group of young teens [who] find out their parents are actually supervillains and do the rebellious thing…they become superheroes.” (Read the whole article if you’re a new fan to graphic novels and comics, while you’re at it!)

The group consists of 6 individuals: Chase Stein, the oldest and a stereotypical jock (with a penchant for lasers and vehicles) despite having mad genius parents; Alex Wilder, a lonely MMORPG lover with firm but loving parents who is considered the brains of the group; Nico Minoru, the daughter of two sorcerers who wields the Staff of One, a magical device which can do any spell but only once; Karolina Dean, a Majesdanian alien whose parents hid and suppressed her powers for her whole life; Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes, whose time-traveling parents gifted her a dinosaur with whom she shares a telepathic link; and young Molly Hayes, a precocious pre-teen mutant with the power to lift all the big things.

The series sees the teens coming to terms with their parents true selves, the motives behind their actions, familial and fraternal betrayal, coming of age without the parental guidance they expected to receive, and living with and leading each other through these difficult and new days.

It’s the perfect read for people struggling with the Church, those who have left the Church, those who are thankful they left, and those who still feel remorse over leaving.

There’s Molly Hayes, the youngest Runaway, who is perhaps the most confused over her situation. She is still in that stage of life where adults can still be trusted. She doesn’t have her house, her bed, or her parents, and while she knows they did something wrong, she never witnessed it herself, because the older kids didn’t think she could handle seeing it. She is a runaway, but a reluctant one.

There’s Chase Stein, who rather willingly abandoned his abusive household and came into his own as a member of the Runaways, providing them with a hideout (albeit it literally unstable), fighting baddies with his parents’ technology, and piloting their Leapfrog ship. Being a runaway, in some ways, saves him, and he finds a true family with the rest of the gang.

There’s Nico, Gert, and Karolina, who are aware of their families villainous ways and know they have no choice but to flee them, yet they continue to be haunted by the lives and legacies from which they left behind.

And there’s Alex, the group’s leader, who seems to easily leave his family and lead the Runaways but refuses to cast off his familial identity indefinitely, hoping instead to redeem them.

We’ve seen Big Church, the Christian Machine, act in ways they believe will save us but harm us more. And we’ve become runaways as a result.

But it’s not an easy decision to make, even if it’s a necessary one.

It’s not easy to leave our church homes, our comfy beds of unquestioning faith, the warm hugs from the Christians we love and who love us but suddenly become cold and false, the routine traditions. Sometimes, even after we’ve been gone a while, we still dream of those “good ol’ days” and want them back. Even when we understand that staying would have meant falsehood or even death, returning to business as usual is appealing. At least it meant a home was involved.

Runaway status isn’t always fun. Not having one place to call “home” can wear on you after a while. Rootlessness isn’t the safest way to live. We are creatures of habit and security, and while having nowhere to settle gives greater freedom to make nests in other places, there really is nothing or no place like home.

But Runaways reminds me that realizing the home you once loved is no longer there, and perhaps never was, can be the Good Friday which eventually moves into the Easter of finding family in the ones who have also fled.

Running away is sacred and scary. It can involve putting down roots for a time only to yank them up again. It is being honest with the beauty and the brokenness of our upbringing and figuring out what’s left to salvage. It is dropping our nets and leaving our tax collector booths like Jesus’ disciples and following the One who calls us into a new way of life, one more risky and more fantastic than we care to imagine.

Most of all, running away can remind us we are the Church, and we make home wherever we go, on the run or otherwise.

To the runaways, take comfort and know you are in good company, and even though some may say you’ve fled God, God is with you through the wilderness and in the homestead.

Also, may you find out you have an 87th-century dinosaur with whom you share a telekinetic bond. Because that would be freakin’ awesome.

Saved

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On Easter Sunday 2008, I joined my youth group drama team to do a dance to This Blood by Carman. With our bodies, we acted out the story of the torture and violence Jesus endured at the hands of his Roman captors, from the the binding of his arms and flogging of his body, to the painful carrying of the cross up the hill and his body’s convulsions when his captors dropped the cross in the grave.

It was a graphic song, filled with gory language that to this day I’m surprised my overly sensitive self could stomach enough to put on this performance.

It held a clear Easter message: This blood, spilled willingly and violently, is for you. All of you.

It was a powerful message, and I invited my mom, who didn’t often come to Sunday services, to see our performance on Easter Sunday. I wanted my mom to hear it, because I wasn’t convinced she was saved.

With the youth group team, I fervently prayed for her soul, that it would find Jesus, not only so she could go to heaven with me at the end of her life, but so she could find some peace and happiness in this life, too.

I knew she was in an unhappy marriage. I knew she was frustrated at work and life hadn’t worked out the way she had planned. She knew turmoil and loss I’d never had to know.

And I knew Jesus’ blood could save her. I knew a relationship with Him could make her better, even if it didn’t make her actual situation better. I knew this, because the people at church told me this was true, and I convinced myself it was true to my life and it could be for hers.

I wanted to save Mom, and that Easter Sunday, as I listened to the brutal lyrics and imitated Jesus’ pain to my congregation, I focused mostly on Mom. I did my best to meet her eyes as we pointed across the audience for the final “This blood is for you,” and I prayed she would feel the stirring in her heart and be moved to accept that blood sacrifice and find a new joy in life.

Nine years later, I don’t know what it means to be saved.

I thought it meant accepting the love and blood of Jesus, but what does it mean to accept a violent sacrifice? What does it mean to be made clean by the blood of the Lamb? Why would blood save us anyways? Why did God need to kill God’s own Son to save our sorry, sinful selves? What did this do?

So much violence and suffering, and for what? What does this sacrifice even mean anymore? What did it ever mean? How could it save me from myself, or my mom from herself, or us from ourselves?

What does it mean to be saved? Does it result in praying a rosary, or praying in tongues? Does it condemn people based on their race, sexuality, gender identity, and income, or does it welcome those at the bottom of the ladder? Does it save us from ourselves, or does it give us abstract words that comfort us enough to get us through each day?

These concepts I once accepted with joy are foreign, confusing, and even hostile to me now. They are disconnected from the world I live in, a reality in which Christians can claim to be washed in the blood of the lamb but do nothing on this earth to relieve their brothers and sisters in physical pain. They tell me to cast off my doubt and rebuke the enemy, but the enemy seems to have infiltrated their ranks and filled them with hatred, hostility, and division.

They tell me “Jesus Saves,” and I ask them, “From what?”

So You Wanna Keep Christ in Christmas?

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In the past month, I’ve read countless signs in front of churches demanding, “Remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This week, I even saw a sign on a grocery store declaring “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

And just to keep kids from getting a little too excited, some signs went so far as to say, “Santa never died for anybody!”

Every Advent season, I see signs like these, and year after year, I grow more exhausted with them. I’m tired of the energy expended over the so-called “War on Christmas” when we are still reeling from the aftermath of a poisonous election season and actual wars are destroying the lives of thousands.

I see these signs, and I can’t help but wonder: Who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, the “unchurched,” or the Christians?

I wonder if so many congregations put messages like this on their signs, because they don’t want to do the hard work of living out the Gospel. They want the words, doctrines, and signs to do all the talking, and more often than not, the message is loud, clear, and cruel: we don’t want you unless you’re ready to prescribe to our rules. They want to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and “It’s Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays!” because that’s a lot easier than saying “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” It’s a lot easier to make Jesus seem as proud and fear-mongering as we are instead of proclaiming the true words of God incarnate: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

This is tough, counter-cultural stuff to swallow. Proclaiming a war to defend and maintain our already high privilege and supremacy is so much easier and, as such, more prevalent. From personal experience, it’s much easier to act with false pride than to live in true humility.

It’s easier to act like shoving the slogan of the culture wards down the throats of “non-believers” is more effective than doing justice for the oppressed, showing mercy towards those who have hurt us, and walking humbly with the God who guides us through times of joy and deep sorrow.

It’s so easy, for everyone, to put words on a church sign, believing in the false hope that this is what will save our dwindling numbers.

It’s not so easy to live in such a way that people already know the deep good news of the Gospel in real ways, ways that can’t be fit onto church signs.

Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” isn’t a proclamation of the good news of Christmas. It’s an empty, guilt-invoking phrase which does nothing to invite people into living a life devoted to the God who sent him. It does nothing to point to the God of Jesus, who upset the natural order of things in Jesus’ very birth in order to live among us and bring the good news of the beautiful, upside-down kingdom to a dark, hopeless world. It’s a phrase evoked in the name of a baseless culture war that continues to remind those who aren’t already aware that the Church is more concerned with having power than it is with caring for actual people.

It does nothing to explain why Mary accepted such a dangerous, beautiful mission from God. It does nothing to explain why Joseph accepted his role as co-parent to God. It does nothing to explain how significant it is for the Creator of the world to be wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough, because no one would give up their rooms to make way for God in flesh.

Only teaching and living the whole story does that, and it involves more than church signs.

It involves being willing to accept God’s dangerous, beautiful call to live a life of love for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, doubting, and abused. It involves making space not just in your heart, but in your own home and life, for weary travelers like Mary and Joseph. It involves clearing out physical space in your life to welcome the infant Jesus in the form of actual people whom the rest of the world wants to cast aside.

So sure, you can keep doing the “easy” task of putting the same ol’ guilt-inducing messages on your boards each year.

Just remember that eventually, it becomes the hard work of explaining to a lot of those same people who didn’t want to come why you were so preoccupied with proclaiming Jesus’ birthday instead of actually throwing a party for the ones Jesus came to love.

Please, keep Christ in Christmas, but not by forcing people to tell you “Merry Christmas” and demanding the right to put a nativity in front of your store.

Do it by living like Jesus. Then you won’t have to say much of anything, even on a church sign.

Salvation is…Here?

As we prepare to remember the birth of Jesus and the gift of salvation, I want to share this reflection I shared 4 years ago about “being saved.” Enjoy!

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I used to think I had salvation figured out.

I used to think it was as easy as saying a prayer, or as powerful as experiencing an altar call. I used to think it happened in a moment, and a big one at that. I used to think tears and singing and lifted hands and quitting major addictions were a necessity.

I used to think it was a once in a lifetime thing. Once it happened, you were good to go.

But I also used to think you had to work for it, that it could be lost when you slipped up, when you didn’t do everything right, or when you weren’t perfect. For a time I worried that no matter what I did, I had to be part of a “chosen elect” to be in the safe zone.

I used to think salvation was all about being safe from God. I used to think I had to say the prayers and do the things so that God would like me enough to let his bouncer St. John take down the velvet rope and let me into His club.

And to be entirely honest, a part of me still believes all of this. In the perfection, in the glamour, in the earth-shattering, charismatic revival and even the elitist version of salvation.

But now, it’s becoming something different. It’s becoming something more than this.

Maybe it’s because after having so many “big” experiences, I still felt trapped by so much. Anxiety. Insecurity. Self-doubt. Fear of abandonment. And if I was to believe that salvation was a one-time thing, I was led to wonder if I had ever truly experienced it in the first place.

To me, salvation was being immediately transformed by God so I could be close with Him. In my youth, salvation was simply an affirming feeling, a warm, fuzzy, God-loves-me-all-the-time feeling. But it wasn’t immediate. And I didn’t always feel so close to God. And I was left fearing that I was still so very distant from the God I wanted to love me for who I was.

These questions always lay at the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I actually started to sit with them.

Suddenly, salvation wasn’t as cut-and-dry as I’d always imagined it to be. Suddenly, salvation became bigger and more beautiful than I could have imagined. And suddenly, it wasn’t as easy or simple as I’d hoped it would be.

Suddenly, salvation wasn’t something that just happened, suddenly or not. Instead, I began to see it as a process.

A process of being set free from all the things I allow to hold me back from becoming who I’m meant to be.

A process learning, day by day, that fear, death, pain and hate do not have the last word in this world.

A  process of living into the truth that God loves me, that I am a gift, because I am me.

A process of learning to accept myself for who I am, with all my strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, and to fully embrace myself so I can fully give of myself.

I remember when a little book called Love Wins came out a few years ago. I remember it generated a lot of controversy because it dealt with heaven, hell, and salvation. I remember people accusing Rob Bell of being a heretic, a universalist, a “lukewarm” and “lying” Christian who was leading others astray with his words.

And then I read the book after a long season of doubts and questions (which still continues on and off to this day), and I was surprised to find that I identified with the words of this “heretic.” And I don’t believe I enjoyed his words because they made the Gospel look “easy” or “not important.”

In fact, his ideas made the Gospel bigger and all the more challenging to me. And that was because in his book, he dared to ask this big, controversial, and all-together beautiful question:

What if heaven isn’t just a place we try to get to when we die? What if it is here, on earth, in the ever day lives we live?

I can understand why this question alone is controversial. We like to keep things that are “sacred” away from things that are “secular,” or “profane,” or “worldly.”

And I get that. I understand that whenever I hear of murders, sex trafficking, senseless violence, disasters, and other tragedies, it’s hard to imagine heaven in some other dimension, let alone here on earth. I understand that when I look at the way people treat others and how they interact in relationships. it’s hard to imagine God creating us to be “good” and a lot easier to see humanity as “deprived” and evil. More often than not, it’s a lot easier to see Hell on earth than it is to see any glimpse of heaven in it.

But I see so many little glimpses of heaven on earth, of salvation being and happening among us, that I cannot help but believe that heaven is more than a distant kingdom. I see these glimpses when I play Wii baseball with my Little Sister, in the girls I mentor, in the Farmer’s Market vendors who give their extra produce to local pantries, in the arms of those who love me, who tell me that I am perfect as I am and listen to my stories.

And tonight, I saw a heaven shining brightly when two cars stopped in the middle of Route 11 to make sure a mama duck and her babies made it across the road safely.

Seriously. I almost cried when I saw this.

Because now, this is salvation. This is heaven on earth. This is God restoring His Creation, making it new day by day, setting us free from all that prevents us from loving God, ourselves, and others. This is God saving me from myself, saving you from yourself.

Because when one of us hurts, many of us hurt.

And when one of us is healed, many of us are healed.

We are all connected, and we are all bound to and weighed down by so much. All of us need set free, from our own fears, our own pressures, our own anxieties, our own addictions, and our own pasts.

So this salvation has turned out to be a lot more difficult than saying a prayer once in your life. This salvation involves a lot of grace, a lot of dedication, and a lot of work. It involves owning our pains and struggles, owning our faults and sins, and knowing that we are so deeply loved regardless. And it involves hearing the pains, struggles, faults, and sins of others, and telling them that just as we are loved and matter, so do they love and matter.

Because if the Truth shall set us free, and the most beautiful Truth of all is Love, then Love shall set us all free in the end.

In the end, Love is Salvation. And while it’s not always easy, it’s always worth it.

My Faith is Solid…and This Worries Me

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My senior year of college threw me into a major faith crisis. It was the year I took my most challenging classes, heard the most upsetting insights, and asked my hardest questions.

During that time, I began to question everything from my conservative Pentecostal upbringing. And in this case, “everything” is not much of an exaggeration.

I poked holes and made cracks in all aspects of my theology to see what would stay in tact and what would crumble. Unfortunately for me, most of it crumbled. I found out very fast that what I had thought was my rock solid foundation consisted of sand, and I began to sink into its mire.

I pondered predestination and free will, religion and science, the “debates” about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ equality, and the culture wars. I wondered about the legitimacy of doctrinal “facts” like the Trinity, the inerrant word of God, salvation through Christ alone, and whether or not women should pursue leadership roles (I actually wrote my thesis about this topic).

These questions of crisis kept me fearful and skeptical of the Church for many years. Engaging with my home community was too much for me. There was no room for questions, doubts, or even different opinions. Instead of trying to make some change from within, I ran away from the community which had once been my home, and I still have yet to return.

Fortunately, my journey led me to many brothers and sisters of the Christian faith who gave me space to ponder, wonder about, and tinker with my faith. They heard my questions, and when necessary, they offered new insights to consider. They told me I didn’t have to look at things through the black and white, right and wrong lens of my upbringing. They taught me new, life-giving, colorful ways to interpret the Scriptures, live as the Church, and follow Jesus. They taught me about the harsh realities of racism, sexism, and elitism I had been taught were long dead, and they taught me how prayer and protest go hand in hand. They let me create and lead. They swore, did theater, loved books and comics, and prayed. They seemed like authentic human beings, not the carbon-copy perfect Christians to whom I had been accustomed.

I met these people in school and church, in the theater and in the classroom, on the streets, in student apartments, and in cushy homes. They guided me through seminary and the faith communities I joined. They helped me find God and faith anew.

Now, I’m out of the faith crisis and living into a more solid, steady, and real faith. I still have questions, but now I feel more comfortable with some things being unresolved and have a firmer understanding in what I do and don’t believe. I continue to be irreverent while revering the sacred Presence around and within us. My prayers are more consistent, and they are full of joy, lament, and honesty. I feel closer to God and the Church than I have for the better part of 5 years.

And this worries me.

While in faith crisis mode, things were new and uncertain. Everything from whether or not I would remain in the Church to which authors I would revere was under question every day. Now that the ground beneath my feet is firmer, I’m not sure what to do. What do I do when the next step I take meets firm ground instead of sinking sand? What do I do when I’m swimming steadily instead of struggling to stay afloat?

This isn’t foreign territory. I remember when my beliefs were steady, before I knew the true essence of my former foundation. I remember what I was like when I was “right,” in every definition of the word. I distanced myself from those with whom I disagreed and felt the need to correct them when I was around them. I look back at who I was then with some disgust and horror, hoping I will never again be like this.

I don’t want to shut myself off from others, especially those who still struggle to feel welcomed by the Church. I worry that my more solid faith will be appalling to those still struggling and full of doubt. I worry that instead of listening to and hearing them, I will revert back to my old tendencies to correct and give clear-cut answers for chaotic and hurtful circumstances. I worry I will lose my sense to be understanding and be sympathetic to where my brothers and sisters are in their journeys.

I fear I will forget what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. I fear my present comfort will cause me to forget this difficult, wonderful, and necessary part of my journey, a part of my life which I treasure more than my any of my times of certainty.

So to alleviate these concerns, I will need reminders from my community.

There will be times I need to be reminded to do the hard work of listening to others, with whom I agree and disagree, who comfort me and challenge me. I will have to work hard to resist the temptation to either rest in tepidness or continue pursuing fleeing fancies. I will need regular, gentle reminders to hold my ideas with open palms instead of clenched fists.

I will need those younger and older than me to keep me in check, and the wisdom and stories of people of all ages and walks of life. I will need to be reminded I am not the be all and end all of the Church or good theology, and that steadiness in faith does not equate with unyielding certainty. I will need my blind spots pointed out and my slip-ups called out (but graciously, please!). I will need as much help as I can to keep moving forward in this journey.

So as I live into this time of steady faith, please continue to challenge and share with me. Keep telling your stories. Be honest about your beliefs and the joys and struggles of your lives. Continue to ask questions and remind me to keep asking them, too.

Let us remember that faith is never meant to be stagnant and still but ever-moving and ever-changing. Let us journey on together, wherever and as we are.