On Cakes and Inclusion

Alternatively, The Easter Post I’ve Been Trying To Write for Two Months.

On the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake.

Lent was a hard season this year. I set myself impossible tasks (as I always do), and I failed miserably at them (as I always have). I finally started dating the woman I’d been falling in love with for months, only to have a friend I thought was supportive tell me I’d “lost [my] moral compass.” World Vision set a queer-friendly HR policy, resulting in the loss of several thousand child sponsorships over two days. My friends threw me a fabulous birthday party, and my parents sent me the most perfunctory birthday card ever.

I felt over and over again through those 40 days as though lines were constantly being drawn, placing me outside of groups that once welcomed me with open arms.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake.

On Easter morning, I got up at 5am. I put the casserole I had assembled the night before in the oven and dressed in layers. The girlfriend and I headed out into the unseasonable pre-dawn chill to my church’s sunrise service. We met in a park and watched the sun rise over the trees. We sang hymns and baptized a baby and listened to the story of the women at the empty tomb. Afterwards, we walked to the pastor’s house for a potluck drunk brunch.

My church’s motto is “Everyone, everyone, everyone.” They mean it. We’re smack dab in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood in the queerest city in the South. We’ve got a little bit of everything: academics, queers, feminists, homeless folks, and homeschoolers. I’m always astounded by how openly we’re all made welcome. It’s an extravagant sort of love, a transgressive kind of grace.

All through Lent, I struggled to make peace with what’s going on between me and my parents. I keep worrying that this is something I’m doing to myself. I don’t have to be alone like this. They would pick up the phone if I called. They even reached out a couple of times at the beginning of the semester, asking for updates or expecting me to get over my snit and start speaking to them again. But at the same time, they are the ones drawing the lines that leave me out. In coming out, I attempted to include them. In telling me I was going to hell, being influenced by demons, defying God and them, they are drawing a line between us and then asking why I’m on the other side. Every time they made loud commentary in my direction about LGBTQ news stories, excluded me from a meal or conversation, or refused to acknowledge my identity, they were reaffirming that division.

On my parents’ 25th anniversary, my mother did the math and announced that she and my father had moved 12 times during their marriage. That averages to around every other year. Needless to say, we rarely lived around extended family, so we almost always travelled for holidays. Easter was the only exception, since it always falls on Sunday, so Easter became our holiday. My mother has made the same meal every year since I can remember: roast pork loin, hashbrown casserole, asparagus, spinach salad, deviled eggs, yeast rolls, and . . . The Easter Cake.

The Easter Cake was the centerpiece of the meal. It’s a two-layer dark chocolate cake, ridiculously moist, with a creamy, whipped frosting. Mom always made it the night before so it could sit in the fridge and soak up part of the frosting over night. She served it cold with pastel sprinkles in the shape of rabbits and ducks.

I have never been homesick in my life, but last year I almost got in my car and drove home during Holy Week. Since that wasn’t really practical, I asked my mother to email me her recipes and cooked the traditional Easter dinner for my friends, complete with The Easter Cake. Mom was ecstatic. Apparently your daughter’s first holiday meal is a big deal because she made me take pictures of everything so she could show her friends at work. Even thousands of miles away, I knew I was part of something special. I was making the same recipes that my mother and grandmother had made. I was carrying on a tradition of friendship and hospitality that I learned at my mother’s knee.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake. The Easter Cake. And on Sunday afternoon, I welcomed my friends into my apartment where they demolished most of a 9 pound ham, a double recipe of hashbrown casserole, two pounds of asparagus, a giant spinach salad, 36 deviled eggs, two dozen yeast rolls, and about two-thirds of The Easter Cake. (My friends are grad students. HUNGRY grad students who were all writing their theses and had not a home-cooked meal in weeks.)

There were no pictures this year, and I’m fairly certain my mother did no bragging the next day at work. But on some level, I am keeping the faith that I am still a part of that family, still a part of the family of faith, still a PART, because the blood of Christ, the love of Christ, the death-conquering power of Christ washes away all the lines. After all, they’re only drawn in sand.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake, knowing that many miles away, my mother was doing the same thing. It tasted like hope.



Some Days You Can’t Pretend

I’m having one of those days where I just can’t. I’m exhausted with holding back the grief and getting on with life. I’m exhausted with keeping a stiff upper lip. I’m exhausted with going to therapy and taking my meds and meditating. I’m exhausted with the fear and anger and isolation of being a queer woman from a conservative Christian community.

My girlfriend and I went to a friend’s house last night to watch The Normal Heart, a movie adaptation of the semi-autobiographical play by the same name written by famous gay rights advocate Larry Kramer. I knew it was going to be sad. It’s about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the crisis it caused among gay men in NYC. I didn’t expect it to hit quite so close to home. I didn’t expect it to poke quite so perfectly at all the sore spots I’ve been guarding these last few months. I didn’t expect to go home with my girlfriend last night, turn off the lights, and start sobbing.

A couple of months ago, after yet another friend from back home felt the need to tell me that I’m heading down a bad path because I’ve finally come to terms with my sexuality, one of my friends from school told me, “I’m sorry you’re having such a 1980’s after-school-special coming out. It’s not supposed to be like this anymore.”

My parents did not come to my graduation. Instead, about a week after, I received several cards in the mail. One from “them” (obviously written and signed by my mother) assuring me that they watched the livestream of the graduation and were very proud of my accomplishments. One from their church, a group of people that I have never met, and one from a couple from their church (also whom I have never met). The couple also sent me a $50 check and included a note about how they are looking forward to meeting me eventually, but assuring me that they understand how young people want to see their friends when they come home for the holidays.

Since I am terrible at remembering to check my mail, I just received these yesterday. As we sat in the living room staring at them, my girlfriend tentatively suggested that it was nice that my parents finally sent a card. “I guess,” I replied.

But really, it’s not. Really, I don’t want their card. I don’t want them to act like the good guys, waiting for me to repent of my sins and come back to them like the prodigal son. I don’t want them to act like I’m part of their church family, when I know that an openly gay couple would never be accepted there. I don’t want them to be able to reduce our feud and the five months of silence since to a selfish, impulsive visit to my friends.

There’s a scene in The Normal Heart where Ned, the main character, confronts his brother about his homophobic behavior. The character demands that the brother say out loud that they are equals. The brother refuses, and Ned storms out, vowing not to speak to his brother again until he changes.

I am not refusing to speak to my parents because of a petty spat we had about visiting my friends. I am refusing to speak to my parents because they are refusing to acknowledge me as equally beloved, equally forgiven, and equally welcome in the community of faith. I am refusing to speak to my parents because they consider my relationship something wrong and dirty. I am refusing to speak to my parents or welcome them into my life because they are only willing to accept bits and pieces of me, and I am tired of trying to trim myself down to fit their perfect, paper-doll image.

And as angry as I am, I am also heartbroken. It feels like I’ve been bleeding to death from a thousand paper cuts for months. There are days when my chest hurts so much I can’t breathe. The grief and sense of loss that comes with this kind of separation is constantly being reawakened. Just when I think the wound is scabbed over and healing, there’s a holiday or a birthday or some milestone or the other that reminds me that my parents aren’t willing to share fully in my life or to allow me fully into theirs. Just when I think I’ve got a good handle on things, I’ll see my brother posting about a visit home or one of my parents saying something encouraging on his Facebook wall, and I feel abandoned and lost all over again.

I feel incredibly blessed in so many ways. I have wonderful friends, a loving church, and an amazing girlfriend. But I still want my family.


Whose Vision? (An Open Letter To Evangelicals)

Dear Evangelicals,

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times.

Homosexuality is just like any other sin. It’s no different from lying or gossiping or gluttony.

Except it’s not. You don’t believe it, and I don’t believe it, and I honestly don’t understand why we’re still saying it.

It’s different because we disagree about whether it’s a sin at all. No one tries to excuse lying or gossip or gluttony. Except, that’s not true, is it? Because we excuse those things all the time. We lie to save our skins or our reputations. We gossip and call it a prayer request or “venting.” We eat too much, drink too much, buy too much, and excuse it because it’s a special occasion. Those are just little sins, after all. They’re easy to excuse.

Obviously, homosexuality gets classed in with the big sins. It’s up there with murder and adultery. It’s the kind of sin that marks you as a morally bankrupt person, because no one jumps strait to the big sins. You start with the little ones and work your way up. So, obviously by the time you get to homosexuality you’re kind of the worst person ever. You’re probably a habitual liar and a bitter gossip and an all around general reprobate, and then you start sleeping with people of the same gender. Because if you’ve already completely abandoned your morals, why not?

So you think homosexuality is a sign of moral bankruptcy while I think it’s just a thing that happens. Some girls like other girls. Some dudes like other dudes. NO BIG DEAL. That’s a pretty intensely different way of thinking about something.

That’s not the only difference, either.  While most sins do come with their own label, no one uses “liar” or “murderer” to describe themselves. No one considers “adulterer” a vital part of their identity. No one uses “gossip” to explain how they see the world and are seen by it in return. (I mean, maybe they do, but that’s kind of unhealthy, and those people should probably seek counseling.) Certainly, no one is proud of those labels. (Again, if you do, please find someone to talk to.) But for us gay people . . . well, it’s right there in the name. Every other sin is something you do, but homosexuality is something you are.

I’m sure that you’re already gearing up some sort of argument about why I’m wrong. I’m sure that you’ve got your Bible open to Romans or I Timothy, and you’re ready to explain to me in painstaking detail how incredibly deceived I am. But you know that saying, “Actions speak louder than words?” Your actions have already told me that I’m right.

There are a lot of different ways to be a Christian. People from churches that sit across the road from each other may disagree about the role of women in ministry, the appropriate clothing to wear to the pool, or the type of music that should get sung on Sunday mornings. We argue about who is saved and how they get that way. We disagree about what the end times will look like and whether or not it’s okay to drink alcohol. But at some basic level, we all recognize each other as part of the same body. When you get down to the brass tacks, we recognize that we are called by Christ to love and to serve, and we are usually happy to do that side by side.

Except for the gays.

When I heard earlier this week that World Vision had decided to amend their hiring policy regarding queer people, the first thing I did was go look at their list of open positions. I’m six weeks away from finishing a degree in public health, and I want to work in international development. I’d pretty much given up on the idea that I would find a Christian organization to serve with. I’m a queer woman. I know where I’m not wanted. But suddenly, this week, I was a part of the body of Christ again. I was welcome as a sister, called by Christ to love and to serve alongside my fellow believers. It was a beautiful thing.

Of course it was short-lived. Less than 24 hours later, I was reading World Vision’s reversal of the decision, complete with an apology to their conservative supporters who were apparently “hurt and confused” by the idea of radical inclusiveness. I felt like I’d been offered a seat at the table, only to have it jerked out from under me while the rest of the group pointed and laughed. Because of course I don’t belong here. Of course, I’m not called to love and to serve. Of course I’m not a part of the body. Not really. I’m just a sinner.

Well I’ve got some news for you. The body is made up of sinners. We’re all saved “by grace, through faith, and this not of ourselves. It is the gift of God.” And without the blood of Christ, your name would be Liar and Thief and Glutton and Murderer. Just like you keep calling me Homosexual.

Sin is sin, and only God gets to decide what that is. Only God gets to decide if I’m forgiven. Only God gets to invite me in or shut me out. And on this side of heaven, we’ll never know who’s right and who’s wrong. You are not the gatekeeper to the kingdom. You are not the arbiter of righteousness. You are not my judge.

We are all sinners, and as long as the Church insists on excluding those they deem unworthy of the name of Christ, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face, because the only thing you do by pulling that chair out from under me is make me wonder if it’s worth it to try. I have gifts to share just like anyone else, and I want to share them for God’s glory. I want to live out the call to love and to serve in a way that honors him. You need my gifts. The body doesn’t work without all the bits and pieces.

So how long will you keep this up? How long will you keep cutting out healthy tissue and calling it cancer? There’s only so much slicing and dicing a body can handle. Excluding us doesn’t help anyone. It hurts us. It hurts you. And it hurts those we should be loving and serving.

So stop lying to me, and stop lying to yourselves. Stop making the excuse that you treat homosexuality “just like any other sin” and think about the truth of your words and actions. Be honest about what you’re doing to the body of Christ, to your brothers and sisters, and to the work God called us to.


These Ashes (are for Sinners)

Erin Ashes

To a Pentecostal girl, raised without all that fussy liturgical nonsense, Lent has always seemed a bit pretentious.  Especially Ash Wednesday.  I mean, don’t y’all know that you’re supposed to fast in secret???  Lent seemed like an opportunity to show off what a good Christian you are by giving up something hard like chocolate or soda or Facebook, and it all began with Ash Wednesday, the day when everyone wandered around with crosses smudged on their foreheads proclaiming, “Look at what an awesome Christian I am!  I got up super early and went to church on a weekday!”

My, how things have changed.

This morning, I received ashes to celebrate the beginning of Lent for the very first time, and as I have prayed and pondered this experience, I am coming to a new understanding of what Lent means.

Lent is about repentance.  It’s a time to acknowledge our short comings as human beings.  It’s a time to mourn our failures.  Our fasting does not proclaim that we are the best Christians.  Rather, it acknowledges that we are the worst.  Lent is a time to heap on the sack cloth and ashes and contemplate our inability to follow God wholeheartedly.

Lent is also about renewal.  It’s a time to recommit to our struggle against sin.  It’s a time to draw closer to God.  Our fasting is not a symbol that we have it all figured out.  Instead, it gives us space to examine our lives and critically evaluate the ways in which we honor (or fail to honor) God.  Lent is a time to cut out the distractions in our lives and make ourselves uncomfortably aware of how we are living out our faith.

Finally, Lent is about futility.  For 40 days, we wrestle with our flesh.  We repent.  We pray.  We contemplate God’s word.  We abstain from the temporal things that bring us happiness and satisfaction.  And at the end of this period, we are no better able to save ourselves than we were on Ash Wednesday.  We wake up on Good Friday to find that Christ must die for our sins, that his death and suffering are the only path to salvation.  We recognize that all our feeble efforts are in vain because we are saved by grace, through God’s gift of faith.  And on Easter Sunday morning, we embrace the futility of our striving against sin and rejoice in the gift of new life, symbolized by Christ’s resurrection.

So on this Wednesday, as I wear my ashes, I am reminded that they are not a gold star that shows what a good Christian I am.  They are not a badge of honor or courage.  These ashes are for sinners.


Love Is (A Lot of Things)

A youth pastor I’m Facebook friends with due to connections forged in a former life* recently shared a blog post about a sermon he preached to his youth group on love.  He titled it “The Love Song that’s the Biggest Boatload of Crap” and posted a link to John Mayer’s “Who You Love.”  The song, which I’d never heard of before, talks about how the object of our love sometimes surprises us.  The chorus says, “I’ve fought against it hard enough to know that you love who you love.”

The graphic he used with the post seemed to reference the hook from Mackelmore’s “Same Love,” which was written by Mary Lambert and later expanded into a complete song, “She Keeps Me Warm.”  To be fair, that’s the closest he came to actually referencing homosexuality.  It’s also the main reason I clicked the post and probably should have been a sign to stay away.

The sermon had three points:  “Love is a choice.  Love is not an emotion.  Love is a commitment.”

It’s something I’ve heard before.  The arguments aren’t new.  I sat on my parent’s couch six weeks ago and listened to them.  But they make my blood boil every time.

I’m not a Greek scholar, but I’ve hung around churches long enough to know that there are different kinds of love.  C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book called The Four Loves, which discusses the four ancient Greek words that get translated as “love” in modern English.**  Eros is romantic love.  Philia is the love between friends.  Storge is familial affection.  Agape is unconditional love or “charity.”

Saying “Love is a choice,” is manipulative.  Some types of love are a choice.  Maybe even all types of love are a choice sometimes.  But when we say, “Love is a choice,” we usually mean “Eros is a choice,” and then back up the statement with examples of agape.  We set people up for failure when we do this, implying that if they are attracted to or fall in love with the “wrong” person (whether that means a person of the wrong gender, race, religion, or moral fortitude) they have somehow sinned.  They have failed to be self-controlled.  They have neither the mind nor the heart of Christ.

Frankly, that is the biggest boatload of crap.

There are lots of choices to be made in the romantic sphere of life.  Acting on attraction is a choice.  Entering into a relationship is a choice.  Becoming physically or emotionally intimate is a choice.  Marriage is a choice.

Commitment is an important part of a romantic relationship.  We commit ourselves to a single partner.  We commit ourselves to planning for marriage.  We commit ourselves to marriage, itself.  And each of these commitments deserves due consideration.

Love is a choice, sometimes.  Love is a commitment, sometimes.  Certainly any long-term relationship will require love to be a choice and a commitment at various points.  But love isn’t only those things.

In today’s Western culture, most marriages begin with a combination of eros and philia.  Two people find each other attractive.  They get along well.  They decide to date.  This first, heady rush is why we have idioms like “falling in love” and “love struck” and even “lovesick.”  It’s incredibly emotional.  It’s not something that’s carefully reasoned and well thought-out.  It just . . . happens.  This is the narrative we grow up with.  This is the narrative we hear from movies and television, but also from our parents and pastors and Sunday School teachers.  This is how we learn that love works.  So to stand in front of a group of teens and say, “Love is a choice,” is to twist that narrative in a way that is viciously cruel.

I know what it’s like to love as a choice.  For years, I have silently quoted I Corinthians 13:4-6 to myself during difficult moments with my parents.  I have chosen to be patient and kind and unselfish as I loved friends and co-workers.  I have wrestled with what it means to “keep no record of wrongs.”  I have been challenged by the idea that “[l]ove does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.”  I have thanked God for a love that perseveres and never fails.

I have also found myself completely and unexpectedly in a different kind of love.  I looked up one day and realized that what started as friendship with an edge of attraction had turned into something entirely different without me noticing or intending it to.  And when I realized that the object of that affection was not an appropriate partner, I made the choice to ignore those feelings and continue to nurture the other types of love in our relationship.

“Love is a choice” is a pithy tagline for a sermon, and sometimes it’s true.  But let’s be honest about what we really mean when we say that, and let’s be consistent about the story we tell when we talk about how love happens.  To do anything else is manipulative and hurtful.

*I actually unfriended this person immediately after reading the blog post.

** I apologize to any actual Greek scholars who read this for any mistakes I made in discussing these words and their meanings.  I hope my overall point is still adequately clear.


On Kissing Girls and Speaking in Tongues

I was eight years-old the first time I spoke in tongues.  It was a Sunday night, sometime between Easter and the Day of Pentecost.  I remember the chaos of the early part of the prayer time, the altars packed with people shouting and crying.  I remember my Sunday School teacher shouting in my left ear “Just hold on!” and a deacon’s wife shouting in my right ear “Just let go!”  I remember my mother standing behind me encouraging me to just tell God how much I loved him.  I remember getting lost in an incredible sense of God’s presence, a bone deep knowledge of how much he loved me in return that caused me to weep and eventually collapse.  The next thing I remember is my mother holding me up as I open my eyes and start speaking the nonsense syllables I’d been hearing in my head.  I think my Sunday School teacher was still there, but fortunately she was the only one left, as I started to jump and dance, alternately laughing and exclaiming in my new prayer language.  My mother has always insisted I was dancing with an angel.

I still speak in tongues, but not often in church.  These days I use my prayer language while I am sitting on my couch having quiet time or driving in bad traffic or washing dishes at the church’s soup kitchen.  It is a comforting reminder that God is present and active in each moment, working in and through me.  It is a reminder that I am not alone in my joys and sorrows or in the actions that precipitate them.

And on Sundays, I go to a church where there are no mourner’s benches at the front, no altars at which to kneel and pray.  Instead, my pastor wears a stole decorated with rainbow-colored commas, symbolizing our denomination’s commitment to the idea that “God is still speaking.”  When I first visited here and began researching the UCC, this idea seemed comfortingly familiar.  Of course God is still speaking.  We Pentecostals believe he never stopped.

I grew up with the unspoken sense that our church had figured out something about God that no one else knew:  That God could and did speak to us, directly and indirectly and in many ways that fall somewhere in between.  I grew up in a church where it was not uncommon to be approached by someone who felt God had given them “a word” for you and where it was not inappropriate to suggest based on your own understanding of God and of your situation that the person had either misheard or misinterpreted something.  In short, I grew up with the idea that I could trust myself to know God’s truth from Satan’s lies (or even just the sinful desires of my own human nature) based on my reading of the Bible and the move of the Holy Spirit in my own life.  Because God is always speaking to us.

It was this understanding of my own spiritual discernment that allowed me to accept my sexuality despite the teachings of the church I grew up in.  It allowed me to visit the church I now call home for the first time with an open mind and heart.  It allowed me to acknowledge that my pastor is a person of genuine, active, abundant faith, even though it significantly complicated my understand of God’s will for my sexuality, because that woman’s love for Jesus and her desire to share that love with others would fit in beautifully in any of the congregations I grew up in, even if her female partner wouldn’t.

I grew up understanding the Pentecostal movement as a place of rebels and dreamers, of misfits and outliers.  But finding myself, now, on a different kind of border, I find that there is no longer a place for me at that table, and I wonder why.  Why is a fellowship founded on the idea that everyone else had been getting it wrong for so many years so resistant to the idea that there’s something else we’ve been getting wrong?

When I was in high school, my father and I had a talk about the gift of prophecy in which he told me, “The word of the prophet is subject to the prophet.”  He explained that this meant that a prophecy is a word from God, but it comes through a human filter.  The person God uses perceives the message in a way that is unique to his or her context and makes a choice about what to share and how to share it.  I’ve since come to understand that this also means that we only hear from God what we are willing to hear.  God is always speaking, but we don’t always hear or hear clearly.

I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in church history or theology, but I know enough about my church to be aware that the Pentecostal movement and the holiness movement went hand in hand.  My parents have joked that their youth group motto was “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do!”  (Or boys, depending on which parent is telling the story.)  My grandmother was regularly chastised by their pastor for daring to work in her front garden in pants.  My father didn’t allow me to pierce my ears until I was 16, at which point one of his minister friends finally convinced him that he was being ridiculous and old fashioned.

In my childhood and teen years, I could see that my church was in transition, trying to find a way to keep its sense of holiness in a culture that no longer recognized beehive hairdos and long skirts as anything other than weird.  I knew families who required their daughters to keep their hair long and didn’t allow their children to go to movie theaters.  I also had friends who wore knee high boots and denim mini-skirts to church on Sunday mornings.  There was a constant debate about appropriate attire for services at youth camp, and the rules shifted a little year by year.  Sometimes we were encouraged to eschew all such forms of ungodliness as books and music that weren’t explicitly about Jesus, but sometimes we were just encouraged to prayerfully consider our entertainment options.  My (admittedly moderate) youth pastor would read to us from 1 Corinthians 8 and encourage us to make choices about media based on how they affected our personal walk with Christ and our witness to others rather than any list of specific rules.

My mother recently treated me to a long, rambling lecture on how holiness is a matter of the heart, not a matter of rules.  I’m honestly not sure if she was implying that my attraction to women is evidence that my heart is not truly holy or if she is beginning to accept that my sexuality may not be an indicator of moral and spiritual decay, but I can’t help but think that there’s a way forward here.  There’s a place for wild-eyed prophets, overflowing with God’s and manifesting his gifts who are also queers or allies.  There’s still a place for holiness and fire and God’s ever-active presence in my life.  There’s a chance that God is still speaking, and we might just be ready to hear him.


Just Like Heaven

I had dinner with a new friend Sunday night.  She is in seminary studying disability theology (which I didn’t actually know was a thing).  I am studying public health (which she knew existed but that was all).  We talked quite a bit about how both of us are going to school because we want to help people.  We want to make the world a better place.

That same day, someone significantly older than I am told me that he no longer believes in justice, even in God’s kingdom (by which I think he actually may have meant the Church).  He said he had seen too many awful, undeserving people get ahead during his life while he had rarely gotten what he truly deserved.

My new friend and I talked about how hard it is to work towards the goal of saving a world that can’t really be saved, at least by our actions.  We commiserated about how disheartening it is to work day in and day out with a vision of the potential of an individual or organization that will never really be fulfilled.  We talked about how people generally suck, and it can be soul crushing to come to terms with that again and again and again.

I think the man who told me he no longer believes in justice was like my friend and I once.  I think that he set out wanting to make the world a better place.  Now he is older and wiser and more cynical.  At some point he lost sight of that potential that he was striving for.  He got so mired down in what is that he forgot the beauty of what could be.

I have stopped reading the Psalms.  They make me crazy.  They are so often about balance and justice and the writer insisting that he is RIGHT and they are WRONG and God should DO SOMETHING.  But in my life, I mostly find myself holding up the shattered bits of what was probably supposed to be something wonderful, asking God if I’ve screwed it up too badly to fix.  The idea that God is just or that the righteous are justified is not comforting to me.  I am not righteous.  Justice would not be on my side.

When I was a child, someone (probably a Sunday School teacher) told me that when we die and go to heaven, God will play our entire lives out on a big screen for everyone to see and then judge us based on what we did.  At the time, I was utterly mortified that everyone would see all of the bad or silly or stupid things I would do in my ENTIRE LIFE.  I’m not sure if that lesson was supposed to be a “Scared Straight” kind of thing, but I always left discussions of our future judgment promising myself to be absolutely perfect from then on.

(Please don’t judge me on my end-times theology.  I’ve steadfastly ignored Daniel and Revelation since I gave up about halfway through the Left Behind series.  I know.  I’m a terrible Christian.)

As an adult, the idea of all of my deepest, darkest secrets being so exposed is oddly comforting.  Not because I want the entire world to know how often I eat burritos for dinner or fail to make my bed, but because we will be in heaven, and we will finally know.

I have a theory.  The kind of theory that will get me called things like young and idealistic and naïve.  I think that there are very few truly, belligerently evil people in the world.  I think that most people believe that their actions are right, or at the very least  . . . justified.  They act wrongly because they’ve reasoned their way out of it being wrong or they’re convinced the world owes them something.  It doesn’t make them right.  It also doesn’t make them evil, mustache-twirling villains.  It makes them human beings, just as deeply flawed as the rest of us.

(Yes, even the baby-killers.  Even the abusers.  Even rapists and child molesters.  Even the billionaires who cheat on their taxes.  Even the drug lords who sell crack to eight year-olds.  We are all of us deeply flawed, and only the world we live in makes the evil we are capable of seem good in our eyes.)

In the here-and-now, it is impossible to listen to all of these stories.  It is impossible to understand all of these justifications.  It is impossible to weigh and measure and balance all of these delicately constructed reasons for continuing to get up and go out and do whatever it is we do, good or bad, right or wrong.  But in the hereafter . . .

Then, the Bible promises, we will know fully.  Then, we will see the whole picture.  Then, we’ll be able to get it.  Then, God will take off the blinders of time and physiology and self-centeredness and limited human understanding, and we will know each other like we know ourselves.  We will look with God’s eyes and see all of the extenuating circumstance and good intentions that support those threadbare justifications.  My father will finally get what my struggle with depression has been like, and I will finally really know why he is so incredibly angry.  Rachel Held Evans will hug Marc Driscoll, and they will tell each other, “It’s okay.  I understand, and I love you.”  It won’t be the horrible, humiliating time my small-self envisioned of judging and being judged.  Instead, it will be a time of knowing and being known.  Of giving and receiving compassion.

It is easy to love people we understand.  The impossibility that Christ calls us to is to love those we don’t understand, to love those we cannot possibly understand on this side of eternity.  Compassion is hard when you don’t have all the details, but we are told to offer it anyway.  We are asked again and again and again to give of ourselves in this way, always as an act of faith.

And this, my friends, this is why we gather week after week.  This is why we greet each other “Peace be with you.”  Because loving the unknown is unsettling.  This is why we offer the body and blood, the bread and wine.  Because we are all invited.  Because we are all loved.  Because we are not alone in this spending of ourselves.

And this is how we hold onto hope.  This is how we guard against cynicism.  Because when we gather around the table and greet one another with comfort and compassion and companionship, we are reminded of the day when we will do this for real.