No, Matt Chandler, Deconstruction is NOT sexy.

“You and I are living in a day and age where deconstruction — and the turning away from, or leaving the faith — has become some sort of ‘sexy thing to do.’  I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ — actually — that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from.  But if all you understand Christianity to be is a moral code, then I totally get it.”
-Matt Chandler-

The clip from that sermon has made its way around the internet in recent days, and while there are many people who are criticizing Pastor Matt and his words, I’d like to call into question the bigger picture here.  I’d agree, Mr. Chandler.  It’s almost impossible to deconstruct from Jesus, especially for those who have truly experienced the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.  That’s why so many of us still try to hang on in the margins — because even though the institution of the Church has closed its doors to us, we know that there is goodness and hope within the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I will contend to you that the reason so many of us are deconstructing is because we have seen the Church close its doors and act as gatekeepers to the very grace and mercy that you preach about.  We have seen families torn apart, lives ruined, and lives lost because of the refusal of churches like yours that continually tell us that we’re “too sinful” to exist within the walls of your community.  That our identity is akin to shouting outside the city gates, “unclean!”

Yet we KNOW from the Bible that this isn’t what Jesus is all about.

That Jesus went out and spent time with those that the Church wanted to shut out.  That Jesus dined with tax collectors and preached salvation to the prostitutes.  He listened to the condemned.  He embraced the people on the margins, and challenged the Church to do the same.

THAT’S what deconstruction is all about.  It’s not sexy.  It’s necessary.

Because as we sit in the rubble of our faith, condemned by leaders like Matt Chandler, we refuse to let go of the Truth of a God who still loves us and calls us to Himself.  Deconstruction is realizing that at the core of everything is Jesus, and the rules and added piousness that they add as requirements is akin to the way the Jewish leaders had expounded on the Ten Commandments to the point where thousands of laws had been written, complicating the faith to the point where it was no longer communicating hope, but rather a burden.

Want to talk about allowing people to experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ?  Then I challenge you to ask yourself how your church is doing that to the divorced.  To the single mom who is struggling to make ends meet.  To the immigrant.  To the person who loudly proclaims that “Black Lives Matter.”  To the gay or queer person in your midst.  The trans person.  These are people who have been looking to the church and saying, “we’ve heard about this Jesus — will you allow us in so we can experience Him too?”  Only to be turned away as a threat to your community.

Deconstruction asks the question of how we can help tell the biggest story of God in our world.  I’d wonder if you see it as a threat only because it challenges the limits that you and your theology has put on a God that refuses to be contained in a box.

In many ways, what’s important to know is that deconstruction is often a response.

“A response to what,” you might ask?

A response to trauma.  A response to knowing that there is hope and healing to be had in the Gospel, but also learning to separate that from the rejection and marginalization that comes with religion.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a podcast called, “The Rise And Fall of Mars Hill,” by Christianity Today, which outlines the ways that Mars Hill, a once popular mega-church pastored by Mark Driscoll, rose to prominence and fell to the pride and arrogance of its leadership.  While I won’t take the time to go into detail about the podcast here, I’d highly recommend taking the time to listen to it.  For many like myself, the trauma is all-too relatable.

As I sit and ponder my own faith and deconstruction journey, I have to stop and grieve the reality of it all.

The reality that I will never be able to experience my faith in the ways that I had spent so much of my life engrossed in.  Ways that I aspired to lead others to.  I grieve the fact that the stories shared on the podcast of abuse and trauma are not limited to Mars Hill.

They are stories I share too.

Stories of a senior pastor, who while working as his associate pastor, decided to post about our family and his “concerns” about what I was doing to his public bulletin board group — dedicated to fishing.  When we found what he had done and confronted him, our family was the one blamed because of our “inability to forgive for the betterment of the congregation.”  We left the church, and he remained pastor there for several more years.

Stories of a pastor who got so angry at typos and missing Oxford commas when I was the church’s graphic designer that I would be scared to come into work on Monday.  It would be there that I developed an ulcer and a problem with acid reflux.  Yet, the church elders routinely excused his angry outbursts and biting criticisms — as well as his sons’ — by stating that it was simply “the way God made him,” and “that’s just his personality.”  I was let go after it was found that I couldn’t support the church’s leadership and ministry, and it would be one of the last times I would step foot in a church for over a decade.  Meanwhile, he still resides as the founding pastor of the church.

Then there are countless stories of pastors that I’ve met with since coming out; some of whom I’ve ministered alongside in the past.  Pastors who told me straight to my face that who I am is an abomination; something to be repented of.  Pastors who try to explain away why I wouldn’t be welcome to seek Jesus in their community unless I was a faceless stranger who just blended into the background.  Back on the margins.  Back in the shadows.

No, deconstruction isn’t sexy.  It’s necessary.  It’s a necessity because at my core, I still believe in Jesus.  I still believe in a God who loves me.  I still believe in the Bible.  But I can no longer believe that without also acknowledging the ways that the Church continues to hurt and traumatize those who don’t fit within its walls.

The God I believe in cannot — and will not — be contained.

He continues to defy explanation.  It’s the reality we celebrate at Christmas.  That God — creator of the universe — would allow himself to become a vulnerable baby, born to a teenage girl who would be accused of scandal.  A woman who herself would become marginalized simply because she said “yes.”  And yet, in that marginalization, is Christ born to us this day.

An open letter to my Evangelical friends

Over the past year, Adventure Church - part of the Foursquare denomination - has been trying to push forward with their purchase of a theatre building in an area that is known to be a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community in the Fresno area.  The Tower Theatre has been used to host the annual LGBTQ+ Reel Pride Film Festival, as well as numerous drag shows and the like, and the insensitivity to this cultural icon that the church has shown as they have fought to move forward with this purchase has further damaged any possibility of a relationship between the LGBTQ+ community.  With this acknowledgement, some of the affirming pastors in the Fresno area invited conservative church leaders to listen to the voices of those within the LGBTQ+ community who had been affected by this move.  The following is the letter that I submitted to be a part of that conversation. I decided to share it here in hopes that it might spark more conversation beyond the Fresno area.

====================================

 

To the Pastors of Fresno and the Central Valley:

Hello! My name is Ellie Dote, and I am a queer transgender Christian woman. I have also spent almost half of my life in Fresno before moving back to Southern California following my divorce in 2018. I realize that for many of you who are hearing these words, the idea that I would call myself a Christian while also clinging to my identity as a queer and transgender woman is foreign or even downright blasphemous. But I would ask you for a moment to consider the reasons why.

I’ve spent most of my life in Church. Like many of you teach, I believed that I was saved by Grace. That my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior meant that I had received the promise of eternity in Heaven as opposed to eternal separation from God in Hell. I also believed that as a follower of Christ, I was to share that good news — the Gospel — with those who needed to hear the same message of hope that I had.

For years, I poured my life into the idea that if I was just that much holier… if I spent more time in church… if I “saved” just one more person — God would help me to overcome my own sinful desires and even questions. That I’d be able to truly become the man of God that I was supposed to be. Until that all came crumbling down in 2008 after years of abuse from church leadership, resulting in burnout that all but destroyed my ability to trust any sort of Church leadership.

It was in that context that I finally allowed all of the questions surrounding my own identity — questions that I hadn’t allowed myself to ask for most of my life. Of course, those were questions that I couldn’t ask within the Church. Church wasn’t a safe space for me to even admit that I “struggled” with the possibility that I could be gay or even feminine. Church was the place where men were supposed to be men: strong leaders, sports fanatics, and unemotional — everything I wasn’t. So with that, combined with my own understanding of what the Church had taught about homosexuality, I left to find answers in the shadows.

As one thing led to another, I ended up in a moment of indiscretion that would end up with me contracting HIV — a disease that went undetected for many years until it had almost taken my life in 2016. As the reality of everything began to set in and the truth of my actions came to life, I finally was forced to come to terms with the identity that I had been trying to hide for decades: I was transgender.

Now, remember — at this point in time, I was separated from the Church. I didn’t believe that there was a place for me there — not that God didn’t love me, but rather that the Church was just a place where I was going to end up burned again and again. I didn’t think that I’d stay away forever; but coming out seemed like it would mean that I’d be locking the door and throwing away the key.

And so, recognizing that I’d been away from the Church for 10 years already, I came out, understanding that while I believed God loved me, I would no longer have a place where I would find community or acceptance where others would believe that God loved me as I was.

That all changed in 2018 when a friend of mine invited me to a women’s event at Northpointe Church. It was a moment when, even after spending years in ministry and not experiencing it, I honestly felt the presence of God and heard the voice of God calling me to come home. And even with that being said, I didn’t feel that God was calling me to do so by giving up my newfound identity within the LGBTQ+ community.

Since that time, I have done a lot of studying to try and understand where I fit within God’s plan and to try and find a place where I could enjoy that within the context of community and church. During my time within the Evangelical church, it was always taught to me that the goal was to win everyone into the Kingdom of God — and that we were to do so with our love.

Yet so much of what Evangelical culture has become known for now is exclusivity and a lack of tolerance for anyone who doesn’t fit within their box of what “normal” is. Over the past four years, I have worked to counsel several members of the LGBTQ+ community who have felt that God had left them simply because the church — and even their families — had turned their backs on them. One of them had even started living on the streets here in Fresno and selling her body because her parents had kicked her out at the age of 13 for being transgender.

Over the past several months, many of us within the LGBTQ+ community have watched as what we felt was a safe have for us in the Tower District become a battleground over the “rights” of Adventure Church to open their doors in a venue that has historically hosted such events as the Reel Pride Festival and drag shows.

Does Adventure Church have the right to be there, barring any legal ramifications based on the sale of the building? Sure. But I would ask you, if the goal is to love our neighbor, how is it loving for a church whose denomination clearly states that homosexuality is a sin to force their presence into a community where the LGBTQ+ community has found sanctuary?

Equally disturbing is the fact that the leaders of Adventure Church are unwilling to have a conversation with us regarding their desire to move in. In many ways, the witness of the church has become akin to the person on the corner of Blackstone and Shaw holding the cross emblazoned with the word “repent” and shouting through his bullhorn that we’re all doomed to hell. Is it truth? Yes. But is it loving and an effective way to let people know that God loves them? No.

Since coming out, I have sought to have conversations with several pastors throughout both the Fresno and Southern California area where I now live. I may have talked with some of you. In each of those conversations, I expressed my desire to grow deeper in my relationship with God by being a part of the church community. And in nine out of the ten conversations I had, I was told in no uncertain terms that I while I’d be welcome to join in on a Sunday morning, being a part of the community — especially in women’s ministry — was out of the question. Had I not found connection with the people at Woven Community, I don’t know if I would have given up or not.

I am happy to report that I am now growing happily in my relationship with God at an affirming church here in Southern California. Yet what continues to trouble me are the thousands of people within your communities who are hurting because of how the Church has sought to exclude them and disregard their feelings every step of the way. These are people who will never darken the doorway of your church because your actions have spoken loud and clear that you are expendable. That their lives — and eternities — aren’t worth your own rights and comfort. People who truly believe because Christians have told them both through their words and through their actions that they are not worthy of God’s love.

Before he left this earth, Jesus told His disciples to “go out into all the world, making disciples.” Throughout His ministry, those disciples came from all backgrounds — people that the religious wouldn’t even go near. Yet those were the very people that God chose to build His church. It’s very telling then, that every single one of the pastors that I have spoken to has told me that I am the first transgender person that they have ever met. It means that the Church isn’t doing enough to go out into the world. It also means that when they do, they need to do so in a way that leads to the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

As it stands right now, the fruits that the Church has been bearing when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community have been death, destruction, pain, sorrow, and homelessness. Is that really the place we should be? I have a hard time believing that this is where God would want the Church to be. But I can’t make that call for you. It’s up to you now to do something with the knowledge you’ve heard today. And that, my friends, is a choice that is completely between you and God.

Thank you for allowing me to speak my mind openly here.

Your ministries are doing good work here in the Valley — but I think it’s time that we start casting a vision for the biggest picture of God, and working to tell that story. It’s a story that’s even bigger than the one that’s currently being told.

Sincerely,
Eleanor Anne Dote

Putting Words In My Mouth

Have you ever been in a place where someone has just assumed something based on something you identify with? Perhaps it’s your gender. Your sexuality. The color of your skin. Or, if you’re like me, it could be your faith.

Twenty-five years ago, I began the journey away from the Catholic faith I grew up in and started to dip my toes in the waters of Conservative Evangelicalism. It was a tumultuous time, and there was a lot of wrestling with my faith and how this would affect so many things in my life - but the thing that stands out to me the most were the various conversations that I had with Evangelicals within the community went. Some of my closest friends were more understanding, allowing me to walk the journey one step at a time while I asked questions and wondered what each step meant.

Others were not as subtle about their desire to see me convert to their faith and system of beliefs.

They approached me and began asking me questions in an accusatory tone, telling me that, as a Catholic, I must believe this way. That I must pray to Mary. That the Saints intercede on my behalf to Christ. That whatever the Pope said was infallible. I could go on and on with what they told me, and while they did get some of their accusations right, they honestly didn’t understand — and they didn’t care. They simply approached me with their preconceived notions of what they were certain I believed and stood for as a Catholic, and began their conversations with me in that manner.

We like to do that, don’t we? We enjoy putting people into boxes of our own creation. It helps us to understand and compartmentalize people that we don’t quite understand. People with backgrounds and cultures that are different than our own. There’s a power that comes from that. From assuming that you know about the rest of the world - and then assuming that with knowledge comes power.

At the core of this is the simple reality that we are ALL different.

The story of how I got here may be different than yours. My goals and calling in life are different than yours. And assuming things about my story based on your own experience or reading without learning about me first does both of us a disservice. It severs the relationship, offends, and starts everything off by communicating that you aren’t even willing to bother to get to know me.

I’ve said it before, but the entirety of Scripture rings with a thread of love. Of how God has been on a constant quest from the Garden of Eden to be in relationship with us, and how He also is working to do so by bringing us into relationship with each other. The more and more this happens, the closer we get to Shalom — wholeness — and the closer we get to God.

So with that setting the stage, I want to ask: how are you approaching the issue of politics in our current culture? When you see the Black Lives Matters protestors in the street, do you immediately find yourself in a place of disgust, assuming that you know their plight and cry? When you see a Trump sticker on the bumper of a car while driving on the freeway, is your first thought one of blessing, or do you make assumptions about the driver? Those automatic assumptions are things we all are guilty of. It’s hard for me to not assume that Trump supporters are against me because of the Republican platform stance against the LGBTQ+ community. But what if someone is a Trump supporter for another reason?

I spent several hours over the past two weeks watching, listening, and reading about the DNC and the RNC. As a self-avowed progressive, I have to admit that I was more encouraged by the DNC than the RNC, so there is a bit of a bias there. But what I noticed upset me the most was listening to the Republicans take the stage and tell their viewers all about what I, as a Democrat, want to do to America. Several of the speeches warned of the impending doom that would come with Biden as president. Of how the Democrats want to “destroy all that you [as conservatives] hold dear.” The effort was made to once again reduce me and my story to assumptions without even taking the time to listen to my story. To hear what got me to this point, having spent most of my life as a conservative Evangelical Republican and then a few years as a Libertarian before switching to the Democratic Party two years ago.

I could share stories of how I, as a queer trans woman, have seen and been on the receiving end of discrimination based on the fear that people have heard from conservative talk shows. How the time I spent before I left Fresno talking to volunteers in our local refugee ministries opened my eyes to the plight of many of the people seeking asylum in our country. And the more I listened, the more I began to see that the lives of people cannot be reduced to a single talking point. There is a humanity there if we just take the time to listen and care.

Jesus set the example for us in this.

He constantly urged the religious people of His day to leave the comfort of their homes and the safety of their synagogues to see and hear the stories of those on the margins. The Woman at the Well. The man at the pool of Bethesda. The story of the Good Samaritan. Every single one of those stories was meant to open the eyes to a space beyond the external issues that came with assumptions. They’re the stories we hear each week at church — and yet are we open to hearing the call that God is making away from our comfortable spaces and the echo chambers of our own friends and party, or are we locking ourselves out from that empathy?

It’s the crux of what we see in Matthew 16, when directly after Peter’s confession of Christ as Lord and being praised for it, we see him not wanting to leave the comfort of that moment to think about the sacrifice it would take. In the blink of an eye, we see Jesus go from praising the revelation that Peter has to the point that He gives Peter the “keys to the Kingdom,” and names Peter as the cornerstone of the church, and in the next, Peter falls from that space to a place where Jesus is rebuking him and saying, “Get behind me, Satan.”

I don’t know about you, but that brings a bit of comfort for me. Because at the end of the day, it’s not the last mistake Peter would make, and yet the Church still recognizes him as their first leader. At the same time, it’s also an eye-opening challenge to me that draws me out of the complacency where we’re raising our hands in worship and in the next moment upset and angry because we are pulled out of the warm happy place where we feel God is happy with us to a place where we realize that things aren’t going to go the way we want.

We have the opportunity now to have conversations.

To listen to each other. To hear the stories of how we got here. And to ask ourselves the question, how can we make the world a better place? Want to help make America a better place? It doesn’t begin with platitudes and party platforms. It begins when we listen to the individuals around us and actually caring about how we can lift them up. It begins when we open ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong. And it begins when we put aside our stances of moral superiority and assumptions and take a posture of being willing and open to listen.

As a Christian, I used to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 all the time: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” What I’m recognizing now is that God is calling His people to make sure that other people are humbled. He isn’t asking for us to force morality on others. He’s asking each and every one of us to approach Him in humility. In realizing that we don’t have the answers. That we’re not above anyone else. And that we are just as much in need of God’s grace than the next person. Perhaps it’s in that stance that we begin to see the face of God in the person that we have been told to fear all of our life. The person of color. The poor person. The rich person. The police officer. And when we begin to see that and live accordingly, God hears that prayer and heals our land.

So are you approaching this election season? Beth from the Pantsuit Politics Podcast said it so well in a recent podcast when she asked if we are voting for our own comfort, or if we are taking a step back and looking at what is the best for the entire world. May that be where we land with the conversations that we continue to have in the coming weeks and months. Is there a place for both? Yes. But both are necessary for shalom. And we must never forget that shalom is the goal.

Listening to Learn

To be honest, when I came out, I never envisioned myself becoming any sort of activist. I never even envisioned myself living openly as trans. For those who knew me early on into my transition, they might tell you that I never really identified myself as trans or queer unless there was a concern about problems arising. Otherwise, I made it clear that I wanted to be seen as fully female. Even though I never really understood privilege at that point, I knew enough internally to recognize that living as a woman put me at a slight advantage socially over living as a queer trans woman. There was privilege in that understanding - and, much like when I first came to an understanding of what transgender was, I just didn’t have a word for it until it all began to fall into place.

Privilege is a funny word - for many of us, we don’t realize we have it until it’s gone.

I certainly didn’t. I still remember going to the mechanic - the same one I had used for years - after my transition. All of the sudden, the normal itemized list of needed fixes needed to be ‘mansplained’ to me rather than simply handed to me. I remember the first night I stepped back through the doors of an Evangelical church, and realizing that I might not be welcome there. I remember walking back through those doors several weeks later on Sunday mornings, realizing that I would never be able to fully be a part of community at the place where I met and had a life-changing encounter with God because of my identity. Privilege for me in that was simply being able to worship God wherever and however I wanted to. I knew I belonged to something bigger than myself - even though my faith was nowhere near as authentic as it is now - simply because I fit into the “norm” of what everyone expected. If you were to have asked me before if I felt like it was privilege for that to be my reality I would have told you no. It was just something I did. Privilege isn’t often realized until it’s gone.

So when we see the news this week and accusations of white privilege start being thrown around, it’s important to note that most of the people who live with privilege don’t realize that what you’re talking about is them. They don’t see it as privilege - it simply is. Being able to jog through your neighborhood without worrying about being killed is just normal life for you - in fact, it’s a painful exercise that you feel like you have to do to lose those extra 10 pounds so you can fit into the designer dress that you bought last year because you aren’t “privileged enough” to just go out and buy another one this year. The reality of privilege is that it’s often taken for granted until it’s challenged or gone.

“But Ellie, what do we do about that?” you might ask.

“I can’t help the way I’m born! Why are you calling me out and persecuting me - making me feel uncomfortable - because of something that I have no control over?”

I used to hate being called out like that. Being made uncomfortable. When we see the world through that lens, our discomfort can often be seen and taken as persecution - but let me assure you: it’s not. I used to see things like affirmative action as a means to diminish my ability to succeed in life. It used to make me think that I, as a cisgender straight married male, was the one who was oppressed. That somehow allowing someone else to have rights would take away from my own ability to exist in the world. I get it, I really do - but as I often remind people, “when we know better, we are called to do better.” (Paraphrased from Maya Angelou)

So what do we do with it?

There’s a LOT of anger floating around social media right now. For me, it’s reminiscent of what God says to Cain after he kills Abel: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10, NKJV) The riots and unrest we are seeing; the pain in the eyes of the people marching through our streets - they are the cries of the blood that has for too long felt the sting of oppression and racism. The reality of life without privilege. It’s easy to try and shut it out - but to do so is the spiritual equivalent of a child sticking their fingers in their ears and signing out loud to try and drown out the things they don’t want to hear. Doing so might relieve your pain for a brief moment, but it doesn’t change anything. The cries are still there - and the pain has intensified.

I realize that in writing this I am woefully inadequate to talk about the systems of injustice that my black friends experience. People have wondered how I went from a conservative Evangelical Republican to where I am now - and here it is: there was a point when I began to realize how much suffering there was in the world, I couldn’t ignore it. When I began to understand the pain because I was experiencing it myself, I couldn’t help but speak out. I began to hear what so many conservatives were convinced was true about the trans community - even though much of it was scare tactics that instilled fear that my very existence meant that they had to hide their daughters and wives. When I ask to be a part of women's’ events, the question that often gets asked is how they can ensure safety in the restrooms. I have to actively work - and in many cases, I have to go out of my way to use a restroom before arriving to the event and just hold it until I can find another one on my way home. Privilege. Who knew that the act of being able to use a bathroom without fear of intimidation, attack, or accusation could be privilege - but for me, it’s a privilege I no longer have. I talk at times to my friends about how I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use the local city pool - because even an accusation of me using the bathroom in their locker room could destroy my life.

But this isn’t about me, though I’ve rattled on enough about myself. It’s about privilege. The privilege that you have but may not realize. Perhaps you read through what I shared and are beginning to realize things about the trans experience that you never knew. You never thought about the fear that strikes my heart when I need to go to the bathroom. The pain that I feel knowing that there are some church communities who will never accept me fully into their family. It’s my reality. And by reading my story, you’ve learned something. Perhaps it will change the way you approach the subject of trans rights. Of bathroom bills. Of how trans people are seen in your church community. That’s what knowledge does. That’s what listening does.

This is why I urge you, in the midst of the pain that is screaming from our communities right now, perhaps the call is to listen.

Not to respond in anger. Not to claim that your discomfort is some sort of persecution. Listen to the reality that my black friends are sharing. The stories that they tell. Because chances are, when we begin to truly recognize the pain that we never knew was there - pain that comes with things that we tend to just take for granted - we can begin the path of healing.

The Altars we Build

We’re just over one month into the quarantine, and one of my daily practices is to go for a walk (as weather permits). My morning walk is brisk - the intention being to burn enough calories so that I might lose some weight in case the lockdown is lifted in time for beach weather. You know - the important things, right? My afternoon walks are a little more reflective, and I often take worship music with me as I traverse the roads by my home to a pedestrian bridge that takes me to a spot just over the 91 freeway. There’s a weird sense of serenity up there - being still while watching so much movement happen as people below rush from one place to another, even in the midst of a shelter-in-place order.

On this particular day, however, my trek up to the top of the bridge takes me to a new discovery: a small altar built with makeshift candles and decorated poster board with messages surrounding the words, “We miss you, Breeane.”

It’s not uncommon to see altars like this in my last hometown of Fresno. And as many as there are, it’s also not uncommon to not give another thought to them. To chalk it up to some thought that it was just someone that we didn’t know.

“Perhaps they were doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing.”
“Perhaps they shouldn’t have been walking on the train tracks.”
“Perhaps….”

Today, though, I paused at the altar long enough to recognize that this woman - this life - was gone.

That this life meant a friend and daughter, among other things I’m sure. And that each of the candles, flowers, and notes left were lives that were now a little bit emptier because that person was not in it.

I don’t know what happened to cause Breeane to no longer be with us. I don’t know who exactly she leaves behind. But here’s what I do know - she was a person, created and bearing the image of God, and that presence is no longer with us.

All over the internet, I’m seeing people begin protesting the lockdown.

Saying that lives might have to be sacrificed in order to save our economy. Saying that the Coronavirus is a scam and a scare tactic, and that while people are dying, it’s one in a number of things that can kill.

The news all have a continual tally of how many people have fallen ill to this disease, and how many lives we have lost along the way. It’s weird to think that it wasn’t that long ago that we were shocked and horrified to hear of one person who had died of this disease in a Washington nursing home. And now here we are - somewhat calloused to the fact that the number has gone beyond one to the tens of thousands. These are lives.

So when we look at reopening the economy - when we talk about putting lives at risk so our businesses can survive, perhaps we should all take a moment to think about Breeane. To think about the value of one life, because the fact of the matter is, in the tens of thousands of people who are dying from this disease, is one who might matter to you.

You might pass by the altars on a daily basis.

Without giving it a second thought. But today, as we sit in our homes, perhaps we take a look at the tally on the TV, and rather than picturing the thousands, picture the one. And in that, we pray. Because when it’s not a pandemic, it’s going to be something else - gang violence, drug overdoses, starvation, AIDS, homelessness, domestic violence - that adds to the number of changed families in our world.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t even pretend to. What I DO know is this: If God’s entire plan is for us to know Him and to know each other - that if people are meant to bring shalom (wholeness) to this earth in the form of our relationship to God and our relationship to each other - then perhaps it’s time we spent the time looking at the person, rather than entire groups, to find the image of God that is present.

I still don’t know who Breeane is.

But I do know this - her life has affected mine. And perhaps it can affect yours as well.

Into the Unknown

A kiss. A simple kiss, and it was done.

The officers stepped out of the shadows towards Jesus, who had been praying in the garden.
And in a few moments, it was over. Everything that the disciples had been working for seemed worthless. The Messiah they had been hoping for was arrested, accused of blasphemy and rebellion.

“Why did he go so willingly?,” the disciples began to think to themselves.
“We could’ve taken them.”
“If he WAS God, then couldn’t He have stopped this?”

His followers - his closest friends - dispersed and went into hiding, including Peter - who remained close enough to hear what was going on but far enough away to not be tied to Jesus - who ended up denying that he even knew the man who had changed his life, the fear of being connected to this massive disappointment overcoming his love for the man who stood on trial for his life.

They watched in disbelief as the tables turned, and one by one, their prayers seemed to go unanswered. They looked on in horror as they watched their leader - the man they believed was going to save the world - tortured, mocked, spit on, crucified, and killed. Everything they knew was over. All of the dreams, the hopes, the promises - gone.

Within the next 48 hours, I can imagine the thoughts and the talk:
“Can you believe we gave it all up for Jesus? We left our jobs! We left our communities!”

And now the only thing that they had left was a dead body and dashed hopes with a fear of what the future held in store.

Nobody seemed to know. What they did know is that the Jews were threatening to kill and harm them as well - and so they went into hiding, not knowing when or how it would be safe to go out again.


Sound familiar? The past several weeks have been a test of our ability to trust. And quite honestly, it’s not always a test I’ve been passing. The temptation to point fingers and blame, especially in the world of social media, seems to get easier and easier, especially if you’re sitting at home watching any number of the news broadcasts on.

Jobs have been lost and workers are being furloughed. Everything that we thought we knew has been turned upside down. I don’t have to tell you, because you’re experiencing it right here with me.

So I guess the big question is, how are you spending your Holy Week?

My home church, City Church of Long Beach, posted earlier this week that “this might not be the Holy Week that we wanted; but it might be the Holy Week that we needed.” Sit with that a while. What does that mean to you?

For the disciples, they felt like what the world needed was a Messiah that would conquer the world. They felt like what they needed was an overthrow of the Roman government. Someone that would save the world and establish a world where God would be in charge. But with Jesus’ death… that all seemed so distant. If only they knew how Jesus’ death was only the beginning. If only they could begin to look outside of their own lives into what they had just been called to.

We can look with hindsight and judgement on how the disciples managed the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, but if we look at where we are as a society in this - or even where we are personally in this time of uncertainty - I’d venture to say that we’ve been acting very similar. It’s human nature. Our worlds are filled with “what if” questions - and in an effort to gain some sense of control we turn to things like hoarding, arguing on social media, and demanding our right to gather. We look for ways to push the limits - much like a kid who has been told to not cross a line on the ground. They’ll inch closer and closer, all the while, keeping their eyes on you knowing that they’re testing you. As a parent, you look back at them and sigh, knowing that they’ve completely lost the spirit of the rule, right? It’s not so much how close they can get to the line as much as it is that the line is there to protect them, whether it’s from a punishment or from getting run over by a ride vehicle at the local theme park. To keep them safe. (Side note: yes, those lines are there for the protection of you and your children. Please take note of them.)

If there’s a lesson I’ve been learning today, it’s the importance of finding God in the moment.

Yes, even in the uncertainty. When Jesus died on the cross, God was there. In our own homes, God is there. If I look to the future and wonder, I find myself scared. There are so many unknowns. So much fear. If the lockdown is lifted, will I still be in danger with a compromised immune system? How long will I be out of work until the theme park industry returns?

But I don’t have you tell you about the fears out there. You know them all too well. What I believe God wants us to know in the moment, though, is that this fear that we feel? The fear of the unknown? It’s not new. It was the fear of uncertainty that followed his death on the cross. Don’t believe that you’re going to be okay when this is over? Welcome to the club - it’s the same doubt that plagued Thomas after the resurrection. And yet here we are.

We might not be able to gather in our respective places of worship this Easter Sunday, but perhaps it’s a call for us to reach inside the fear and doubt to trust that there are promises of resurrection. That even when we don’t have control, God is in control. It’s not easy, no. And there’ll be times when we look back and wonder if it was better when we allowed our lives to be controlled by worry and anger. But one step at a time, we’ll get there. And we’ll reach our own Easter in His time.

That’s the hope we have in God.

It’s not about judgement. It’s not about exclusion. It’s about recognizing hope. The hope that is there all along. The hope that was lived out by example through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. There’s not a magic prayer to pray. There’s not a sacrament that you need. It’s a simple recognition of that hope and accepting it as a reality in your life. Perhaps that’s the step you need to take today in faith. It doesn’t matter who you are - gay, straight, trans, cis, citizen, or immigrant - God’s love is for everyone. And in the midst of the uncertainty, God’s love is there to offer you comfort and hope. And perhaps, just maybe, that’s the Easter experience that you’ll need this year.

Foolishness

It is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent’.

For consider, what have the philosopher, the writer and the critic of this world to show for all their wisdom? Has not God made the wisdom of this world look foolish? for it was after the world in its wisdom failed to know God, that he in his wisdom chose to save all who would believe by the “simple-mindedness” of the Gospel message. For the Jews ask for miraculous proofs and the Greeks an intellectual panacea, but all we preach is Christ crucified—a stumbling block to the Jews and sheer nonsense to the Gentiles, but for those who are called, whether Jews or Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. And this is really only natural, for God’s foolishness” is wiser than men, and his “weakness” is stronger than men.

1 Corinthians 1:19-25, JB Phillips

It was summer of 1995 when my life was turned completely upside down by a man who preached about a relationship with Jesus Christ and invited us to take steps to begin our own relationship with God by walking down with thousands of others to pray a simple prayer to ask God for forgiveness and to express our own desire to start a relationship with Him. It was simple, effective - and delivered by a man who never finished college.

What followed was a hunger for more knowledge.

I started attending Bible Studies at the local churches on a daily basis, sometimes even twice in a day. I joined a local college ministry. I started attending chapels at Biola University - and then I decided that I needed to attend there so I could further my Bible knowledge. I sat at lunch with other students to debate the theological implications of a Pre-Tribulation eschatology.

I longed to take the knowledge that I was soaking in like a sponge and teach it, and I began dreaming of becoming a pastor. I looked to the likes of John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, and Chuck Smith as examples of how I would impart the incredible theological truths that I was learning.

But that was before. Before that knowledge kept me from embracing the faith of other people who weren’t as “wise” as me. I worked hard to have the answers down, and used it at times to inform people as to why their style of worship and connecting with God was “wrong.” Oh, how that haunts me to this day.

Now, as someone on the outside, it doesn’t matter that I might have all of the answers.

And while sure, I still work on gaining knowledge, my outlook on faith has evolved quite a bit. It all started when I, just over one year into my life as Ellie, decided to walk back into church after spending over ten years away. And while I never expected God to meet me again and in the way that He did, I have to say that in one night, everything that I thought I knew went out the window. That night, the only thing that mattered was that God simply met with me there.

“Ellie.”
“Yes? God…. is that you?”
“Yes. I was wondering how long it was going to take you to come back.”
“You know… it hurt.”
“I know. But I never left you.”
“I know. I never really stopped believing, you know.”
“I know, Ellie. And I’m glad you’re here today.”
“You know, God - everything within me said I shouldn’t be here tonight.”
“I’m aware of that. And I’m glad you stepped through that to meet me here.”
“Why was it so hard?”
“You see, Ellie - the simple fact is that I love you. I want you to find me in the moment. I want you to experience life in community. What holds you back, though - is that you think you know so much about me. About the type of people that can come to me. All of that knowledge only served to help build barriers, telling you who is acceptable and able to approach me.”
“So… when I came here tonight….”
“Yes. You felt like you couldn’t, because you are exactly the type of person your knowledge says is unworthy of coming to me.”
“Oh.”
“And because of that, you were afraid, weren’t you?”
“Yeah.”
“I met with you here because you needed to know that the only thing that matters is that you reach out. Just like your own kids - when they reach out to you, no matter what they’ve done, you’ll be there, right?”
“Uh huh”
“You’re my kid. Stop over-complicating it.”
“But how do I…?”
“You’ll find a way. Listen to the song that the band is playing right now.”

I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.
I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.

The tears began to roll down my face.
“Ellie, do you believe that?”
“I’m trying to.”
“Then that’s a good first step.”

It was a few weeks later when I heard a Rabbi preach about the idea of shalom. Of how God, throughout Scripture, is on a constant quest to restore shalom - wholeness - to our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Every story, she explained, is an example of how God is working towards that.

But could it really be that simple?

What if it is? God gave us ten simple commandments that, when boiled down, call us to two things: love God and love each other. And yet we, in our humanity, can’t live with the simplicity of that, so we start putting parameters around those laws. And suddenly, ten commandments become volumes of works that parse out each word and letter. Each interpretation builds and builds, giving us a “blueprint” of what we believe God wants - and, for some reason, telling us who God rejects. The people in the Old Testament did it. And now history repeats itself, with churches telling people like me that we are an abomination. That God could never love me.

Cory Marquez, one of the pastors of New Abbey Church in Pasadena, California often says “Jesus didn’t come down to this earth to die on a cross so that God would change His mind about us. Jesus came to this earth so that we would change our minds about God.”

How far have we come? How much has my knowledge and schooling brought me? It only reinforced my own biases that justified my ability to say “these people can come in, but these people are too different. I question their faith. I question their salvation.”

Foolishness.

People told me that the simplicity of the Gospel in and of itself was foolish. That there HAD to be more than that. What if there isn’t? What if, at the end of the day, God is calling us to a place where He simply wants to say “I love you”?

We’re about to enter into a week where we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. A moment in time that changed everything. We’ve heard the stories before. I used to hate Easter services because it felt like it was the “same story over and over.” I wanted to get back into deep theology lessons and Bible studies. But perhaps the point isn’t that. Perhaps the point is that we, in the familiarity of the stories, find the thread that has brought us to this point - where God simply wants to meet with each and every one of His creation - no matter what race, gender identity, sexual identity, or anything else - to say, “Look. Think about this. Reflect on this. And know that I love you. Now spread that news to the world. Not the news you think you know. But the simple truth. Because the truth shall set you free.”

The best things in life are the simple things - womans feet on grass with wildflowers

Standing Together

“I wonder if God loves me.”

For most Evangelical Christians, that’s a statement that never really crosses our mind. At least, it’s not supposed to. And yet, if our exercise earlier this year at Open Table Talks: Faithfully Queer in Fresno was any indication, many who are questioning their identity as LGBTQ+ are struggling with the idea that this God we grew up hearing about - how His unconditional love surrounds us and will never let us go - could love even us. Rest with that a minute, would you?

Our exercise was simple; gleaned from a similar one that was done at Rachel Hollis’ RISE conference, and then the “Gloriously Queer” event at New Abbey Church in Pasadena: a one-page list of experiences and beliefs were passed around the room, each item on the list partnered with a checkbox that was to be marked if the reader had, or is, experiencing what was detailed on each line. Experiences such as “I have considered suicide” and “I wonder if I am going to hell” were part of the list. When all of the checkboxes were checked, the participants were to fold their paper in half, turn it in, and then all of the papers were shuffled and redistributed around the room. When each experience was read out loud from up front, those with the corresponding experience checked on their paper were to stand up, representing the person who anonymously admitted that they were experiencing that item.

While a number of them didn’t really surprise me as much, the ones that stood out to me were that over half the room stood up when asked if they had considered suicide, and a similar number of people stood when asked if they wondered if God loved them.

Friends, this is the church.

We are living in a church where what we teach on issues means that people around us don’t know if they are loved by God. After all, why would God love them when His representative on earth - the Church - has pushed out and marginalized so many? In his message at the Reformation Project’s “Reclaim and Reform” conference in Seattle, Pastor Mark Wingfield said that overwhelmingly the question that gets asked of him by LGBTQ+ people is if God still loves them. If that doesn’t break our hearts and open us up to the conversation, then I would venture to even question what you know of God, because the last I read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that WHOSOEVER believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) John doesn’t tell us that God only loved those people who vote Republican. John doesn’t tell us that He came for those who kick out their gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender children. He says, “whosoever.” That means you. That means me.

“But I still love my gay friends - I just love them so much that I have to tell them the truth!,” some might proclaim. “I need them to know that the way they are living is going to send them to hell.”

After all, “love the sinner, hate the sin - right?”

Here’s the thing, though - for those of us who identify as LGBTQ+, it IS just that - an identity. Our identity as a queer person is inextricably tied to who we are - in the same way that a straight person cannot separate that part of their lives from who they are. So to boil it all down to a bumper sticker that doesn’t take the issue of identity into account is to do a major disservice to the LGBTQ+ community, and fails to communicate that you are really interested in having a conversation and investing in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community, but rather to put yourself into a self-righteous position of power as one who is the determiner of who gets into heaven or hell. And the last time I checked, that sort of piety was exactly what Jesus came to destroy. It was also ultimately what killed Jesus. When it comes to the issue of identity - you cannot separate what you deem as “sin” from the “sinner,” and any attempt to do so will have drastic consequences.

People sometimes ask me if I ever regret coming out and think about returning to a life back in the closet - especially considering the pain that I’ve experienced over the past year: coming out, losing my marriage and children…. Moving from my own house in Fresno to a bedroom back in my parents’ house… dealing with the pain of divorce. And while my life would definitely be simpler back as a straight cisgender man, there is no way that I could ever go back to where I was. It’s like someone who has only been eating McRib sandwiches from McDonald’s taking their first trip to a gourmet BBQ restaurant and then asking if they’d ever settle for a McRib again. Sure, there are moments when we might consider it, but the world has been so much more colorful and expressive since coming out and transitioning to Ellie. Above all, my relationship with God has become so much more authentic than it ever has been, because I now feel free to express my love for God in ways that I tried so hard to avoid because I had deemed them as “sinful” or “wrong.”

Listen, if you wonder even for a moment if God loves you - that isn’t God causing you to question it.

You, my friend, are beloved exactly where you’re at, and where you’re heading. God knows who you are, and who you are is beautiful. Why? Because you, my friend, are a bearer of the image of God. An image that is so vast and wide and, as Chris Tomlin puts it, “indescribable,” that when we try and limit it, we fail - and that is where we fall into the trap of making people overwhelmingly wonder if God really does love them.

If we are to call ourselves bearers of the Gospel, then that is what we NEED to be - people that spread the news that God loves them, and working to assure them of thatg. End of sentence. Anything less, I would venture to say, is not of God.