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.

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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.

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God Who is Unexpected

It’s a week after Easter, and I haven’t posted since before Palm Sunday.

Mea culpa.

I chose not to give anything up for Lent this year, but focused instead on adding things to my life.  I started attending church (somewhat) regularly again.  I tried to be more faithful about prayer.  Somewhere along the line, I developed a weekly habit of sitting on my tiny balcony with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, a lit candle, and a journal, just to see if God has anything to share.

I’m finding that God is not what I expect.

I grew up in church.  I should know how this goes by now.  God is a well-educated white man with a temper, right?  Except that every time I go sit on my balcony, I realize something else that doesn’t quite fit.  One week, I wrote a journal entry about what it would be like to see God as Mother and wept the whole way through.  Another week, I pondered the beatitudes and wondered what it meant that all of these blessings were for those who had lost or were lacking.  The God I’ve always looked for is not the one I’m finding, and it’s strangely comforting.

This pattern is pretty obvious in the Bible.  We expect God to want a fancy house.  He prefers to live in a tent.  We expect God to appear in wind and earthquake and fire.  He shows up as a still, small voice.  We expect God to be born as a king.  He comes as the bastard son of a carpenter.  We expect to find God hanging out with the “holy” people of the day.  He parties with corrupt businessmen and hookers.  We expect that God loves the rich best because he has blessed them the most.  Instead, we find that it is almost impossible for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.

In some ways, this is not the God I want to know.  I want God to be something that I can understand.  I want to be able to quantify what he expects of me, to make a list of rules I must follow and codes to which I must adhere.  Instead, I find a God who is smudged and fuzzy, who is so massive that he stretches away from one thing only to come back and encompass it.

As a high school senior, I took calculus.  I remember drawing a graph, its first and second derivatives, and its integral on top of each other and trying to see all of the relationships at once.  It was this big, complicated idea that I could understand in pieces but that I wanted to understand as a whole.  It felt like too much to wrap my head around sometimes, but in the moments when I could, it was absolutely gorgeous.

God is like that.  I can’t actually understand God.  I can only pick apart the facets and hold them up against each other and wonder what it all looks like together.  But in the moments when I glimpse something larger, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

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He Loves Us

I grew up on fantasy fiction, namely CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.  I learned to read by following along as my mother read me The Chronicles of Narnia the year I started kindergarten.  Aslan has always held a special place in my heart, and I treasure Lewis’ description of “heaven” in The Last Battle.

Although I discovered Tolkien later, I probably love his work more.  I’m the nerd who owns and has read most of his background work about the larger history/mythology of Middle Earth.  Despite my love for Tolkien, I’ve always struggled to see the redemptive allegory that so many people insist is in his work.  The battle between good and evil is hard to avoid, and there are several Christ-like figures, but I’ve never considered the tropes particularly explicit.  Certainly nothing that moves it from fantasy fiction into religious allegory.

Today, though, I have found myself contemplating the figure of Gandalf.  He is the most obviously Christ-like figure of the bunch, as he is an incarnation of a heavenly being, sent specifically to defeat Sauron, a fallen Maia (comparable to an angel) who has long troubled Middle Earth.  Gandalf dies during the story and is later resurrected, an obvious parallel with Christ.

The hitch in this story is that Gandalf never does anything to explicitly save or redeem the people of Middle Earth.  He does not destroy the ring.  He does not lead the battles.  He serves as an adviser.  He meddles in the affairs of others.  He makes sure everyone gets where they need to be.  And then he kills the Balrog and dies in the process so the quest can continue.

It occurred to me today, though, that this is the story of our salvation.  Christ came to save us, but we are active participants in that salvation.  We each “work out [our] salvation in fear and trembling.”  We each make a choice to accept or reject Christ and his message.  We are not passive objects in this story, waiting to be saved.  We actively choose to be saved and to act towards that salvation.

Gandalf’s death is important to the story, but it is not really the most important part of his redemptive work.  Rather, all of the meddling and advising and manipulating that he does are what allows the hobbits to become heroes and vagabond to become king.  Similarly, although we focus on Christ’s death and resurrection as the culmination of his redemptive work, they are truly only a small part.  They would have been meaningless without all that came before.  Christ’s real redemptive work was to love us as he found us.  He loves the woman at the well with too many husbands to be respectable.  He loves the tax collector who was obviously compensating for something.  He loves Martha in her desire to serve and Mary in her desire to learn.  He loves a 24 year-old woman who can’t seem to get her shit together.

He loves us, just as we are.

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Everyday Best

I haven’t posted in ages.  I was sick most of last week between a badly timed bout of PMS and something that seemed to start out as a sinus infection and ended up as a bad cold.  I feel like I just can’t get traction this semester.  I feel like everything is moving too fast, and there’s no possible way to keep up.  I’m starting to feel the pressure of what-are-you-going-to-do-next, and sometimes I’m not even sure what I’m doing now.

When I was 8 years old, I felt God’s call to missions.  Over the years, I’ve wrestled with the details of that calling, as it led me towards Africa, then towards a specific country, towards teaching, then medicine, then finally public health.  And on one hand, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.  But another part of me is terrified that I’m not going to be in the right place to take the next step, and yet another part wonders what, exactly my “call to missions” will look like in action since I’m fairly certain I’m not interested in doing traditional missions or working with a heavily faith-influenced organization.

And then there’s so much else going on in my life right now.  I don’t have time to worry about the next step, because I’m trying to figure out how to keep from relapsing into depression and how to live like a normal person after 3 years of panic attacks and meds.  I’m trying to figure out who I am after all of that.  I’m trying to figure out what I actually believe about God and how that impacts my every-day life.  I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to be alone forever and how I feel about that, particularly since I can’t count on my family for support.

I’m trying to grow up.  It’s more complicated than it looks.

Life doesn’t stop so I can deal with things.  I’m honestly not sure I would get anything done if it did.  But somehow, I have to believe that God will offer me time to work out what’s important and grace for what’s not.  Somehow I have to believe that the part of me that wants stability and companionship isn’t somehow entirely outside of God’s will.

Maybe that’s my challenge for Lent.  Maybe it’s in this time of preparation that I need to begin to make space in my life for questions, not by allowing them to overwhelm me, but by putting boundaries around them.  Maybe I can fast from doubting and enjoy my life.  Maybe I can fast from worrying and focus on the present.

I’ve always been afraid of missing God’s “best” for me.  I think it’s a common concern for kids raised in evangelical churches.  But I’m beginning to realize that God’s best isn’t just in the broader arc of my life.  It’s in the smaller spaces, too.  God wants his best for me every single day.

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Lenten Preparations

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  My first introduction to the Lenten season came when, as a fifth grader, I sang in the children’s choir at First Methodist Church in my hometown.  My father was friends with the music minister, whose wife had been my teacher the year before, and they somehow conspired to get me involved.  I enjoyed the opportunity to sing, but Methodism was different.

Lent was introduced to me as a time when you give things up.  My fellow mini-choristers were all abuzz one Thursday with what they were giving up for Lent that year.  Sweets were a popular choice, as was soda.  Some may have given up television or video games.  I was a bit confused by the whole idea, to be honest.  Why are we giving up things?  And what on earth is Lent?

Now, I am aware that Lent is the mirror image of Advent, a season of preparation for a major church holiday.  Just as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child during Advent, we take time during Lent to prepare our hearts to honor Christ’s death and resurrection.

The fasts of my childhood seemed to be mostly about giving something up to get something else.  In junior high, girls who wanted to lose a few pounds gave up sugar and soda during Lent.  Those who needed better grades gave up television and video games so they would have more time to study.  It was also about community, about fitting in and identifying with a certain group.

Now, as an adult, I find myself at the beginning of Lent wondering how I can prepare myself for the Easter season.  How do I prepare to break bread at the Passover table?  To mourn at the foot of the cross?  To celebrate at the empty tomb?  I am challenged to take stock of myself, to ask if I am truly the kind of Christian that I want to be.  Am I living in a way that honors the Christ’s death and resurrection?

I struggle, these days, to center my life in Christ.  There is so much else going on, and some days it seems like there is no time to stop and find that center.  I rush from class to class and crisis to crisis, planning days and weeks in advance in order to find time for everything that needs doing.  And while sometimes Christ is a joy, sometimes He is also a discipline.  It can be hard to pull myself out of my head and intentionally engage with God.

This Lenten season, I want to make Christ my center.  I want to create sacred space and time in my daily life.  I want to define what it means to be a Christian in this season of my life.  I want to prepare myself for the encounters of Holy Week by bringing those encounters into my daily living, breathing, working, learning, and being.

How are you observing Lent?

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