In the Church, but not of it

Lady Justice

My favorite presentation while I was at Wild Goose was hosted by Jared Byas with Levi Weaver. They spoke on spiritual creativity, and as someone who fancies herself a bit of a creative, I was interested to hear their thoughts on that issue.

Jared’s talk and Levi’s performance were amazing, but one of the things that really struck me about them was that they both said that we had to get beyond cynicism if we wanted to create. They did not suggest that we could not experience seasons as a critic, but cautioned against setting up camp there because it is nearly impossible to create from that space because it can be just as limiting as the things that we’re cynical about. If we constantly put ourselves in the position of critic, the ability to see beauty diminishes and with it, the ability to project beauty with our art.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear this message.

I didn’t realize how much I need to have hope affirmed.

While my real life circles are primarily conservative, online I run with a fairly progressive crowd. The people who I interact with grew up in a Church culture that emphasized to they be in the world but not of it, but mostly meant not to really be in the world either. But we discovered that we related to God more through Alanis Morrissette than Darlene Zschech, more Kurt Cobain than Stephen Curtis Chapman. We joined AOL chat rooms and found out that the world was much bigger than our local church and that the scary people we were warned against weren’t all that different from us. We realized that the alternative to black and white wasn’t grey, but rather a stunning array of color.

As a result, we found ourselves in the role of critic. The status quo could no longer satisfy, the old answers no longer accepted at face value.

And our mantra changed. We became in the Church, but not of it.

But in the same way that they didn’t mean in the world, we didn’t really mean in the Church either.

Instead, we positioned ourselves as the new arbiters of what it meant to be Christian. We traded one form of judgment for another that fit us a bit more comfortably.

I have to be honest, though. Any kind of judgment starts to chafe after a while. This seat became hard, this robe confining. Being on the outside is lonely, even if there are others there, because really, everyone is suspect.

Last week, Tina and I were talking about how we need to absorb the shock waves that result from the loss of power. How do we take something that is hurtful and potentially harmful and lessen the impact? She asked how we become Antoinette Tuffs in those situations.

As I listened again to the 911 tape of a woman talking down a shooter at a Georgia school, what struck me about her was that rather that placing herself as the shooter’s critic, Tuff came alongside him and found commonalities between them. She acknowledged her own hurts and disappointments. She showed compassion, even when it was a risky.

This is what I want. Not to be on the outside, but to be in the midst. I want to be one who sees the humanity of people, even when we disagree; even when there could be some cost. I want to surround myself with people who acknowledge pain, but search for beauty, and when they can’t find it, create it themselves.

I don’t simply want to say that I’m in the Church, I actually want to be in the Church.

When You Don’t Fit In At Church

square peg round hole

On Sunday mornings, I wake up early, kiss my still sleeping husband good-bye, and drive nearly an hour to my church in one of the more rural parts of West Virginia. I park my van, covered in HRC and Obama and Strong Bad bumper stickers in a sea of conservative pickup trucks. I wear an Arrested Development t-shirt among a throng of Christian t-shirts.

I should not fit in.

According to a number of demographics, I am nothing like a lot of these people. It would be all too easy for me to focus on our differences. There are plenty, and if I’m being perfectly honest, some of them matter to me. I care about things like LGBT equality and access to birth control. I’m pretty iffy about hell. I’m far more likely to reach for John 3:17 as a life verse instead of John 3:16.

And yet this is my home. The owner of a local bed and breakfast who brings in flowers every Sunday never fails to give me a hug. The Christian school teacher asks me how things are going with my book writing. The man who helps run the children’s archery program stops me to let me know that he’s praying for the women at Beginning of Life with me. The pastor’s wife calls me beautiful and the pastor always thanks me for being a part of the family.

I don’t fit in, but I am loved.

And because I am loved, it is much easier for me to reciprocate that love. I am accepted, so it becomes easier for me to accept. I am honored, so it is my desire to return honor.

I know that there are numerous discussions about people leaving the Church. There are so many valid reasons and I have encountered a number of them in my own experiences with the church, but most of them boil down to the idea that there is some right way to do church. We think that there is a magic formula that we can put together and it will make this whole Christianity thing come together for everyone. More political involvement! More contemporary music! More focus on ritual! More skinny jeans! More candles! More focus on orthodoxy! We make our lists and we assume that if we could just find that sweet spot, people would stay.

There is no sweet spot. There is no right way. There is no magic formula.

But there I don’t think that means all is lost. There is looking at someone you don’t understand and saying, “Tell me your story,” and then listening. There is thanking the person who made coffee for showing up an hour before the service started to get the machines running. There is going out of your way to pass the peace to someone who has a different bumper sticker on their car than you have on yours.

There is love.

And when we love like Jesus tells us to love, fitting in isn’t really a concern, because love makes all kinds of room for everyone.

Dear Child

I spent most of yesterday afternoon crying about the words said by Sean Harris to his congregation about kids who don’t meet gender norms. As the mom of kids who don’t fit most stereotypes, it breaks my heart to hear that kind of harsh treatment suggested for young children. I’ll let others who are more eloquent speak about the pastor. Today I’m just writing to the kids in his congregation.


Dear Child,

Do you know that you are dear? If you hear nothing else, read that and hold it in your heart. Keep it close, because I know you may have heard that you’re not dear. But with all of my heart today, I want you to know that you are.

I’ve listened to the words that your pastor shared with your parents and I just want to hold you. I want to hold you if your parents take his advice and hurt you because of the way that you are. I’m so sorry that you are enduring abuse at the hands of people who have been entrusted with the position of caring for you. You are a treasure and a gift and should be treated as such. Your mannerisms, your sexuality – none of these should detract from the love that your parents show you.

Even if they don’t hit you, I want to hold you because those words damage without any direct action. Hearing that you “need to be attractive” if you’re a girl can hurt you if you don’t feel like you’re attractive enough. Hearing that you have to dig ditches if you’re a boy may cut at you, especially if that’s not your idea of a good time. When the way that you look or the things that you enjoy or the people you love are criticized by your pastor, the shame of that goes deep.

But, my dear child, please know that love goes deeper.

Photo by A. Witt

You are not a cockroach. You are not a problem that needs to be fixed. Your value is not based on your looks. Your worth is not tied to your ability to do “manly” things.

I’m sorry that this is a lesson that you’re being taught at church. In a place where you should be loved, you are taught that you are unlovable. In a place where your unique gifts and abilities should be celebrated, you are taught that you must fall within certain parameters to receive praise. In a place where you should never have to earn love, you are taught that receiving love depends on your behavior.

Dear child, you are beautiful just the way you are. Not because you look or act a certain way, but because you bear the image of God. He delights in you. He sings over you. He dances because of you.

He loves you. I love you.

If I could hold you right now (and oh, I want to hold you right now), I would whisper that to you over and over.

He loves you, I love you, we love you. You are loved.

Dear child, I’m telling you that today. And if you need to hear it years from now, I’ll say it again.

Because no matter your age, you are, and always will be, a dear child.

Why I Wrote a Letter to Mark Driscoll

photo © 2006 Dennis Jarvis | more info(via: Wylio)

There has been a bit of push-back to a Facebook status that Pastor Mark Driscoll posted last Friday, asking folks to tell a story “about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader (they’ve) ever personally witnessed.” While not stated explicitly, it was implicit in the note (and from Pastor Mark’s overall demeanor) that these would probably not be primarily positive stories.

I’ve read a number of posts about this. On Monday, Rachel Held Evans invited her readers to consider writing a letter to the leadership at Mars Hill Church, asking them to address the issue of bullying. I had a moment of hesitation in writing a letter because I don’t know Pastor Mark and I don’t really know any effeminate worship leaders (some metro guys for certain, but no one that I would consider to be effeminate).

And then I read a post from Tyler L. Clark that compelled me to write a letter. In his piece, Tyler wrote, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack “effeminate anatomically male” men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.”

Reading that, I knew I had to write.

You see, there’s a really good chance that’s going to be my son. He is a funny, creative, smart, good-looking kid. But he’s not the most masculine boy you’re going to meet. He’s more likely to play Super Mario Brothers than to play football. He collects Pokemon cards, not baseball cards. He invented the game “hug ‘o war” at our house. He says “I love you” to people he’s just met.

This kid wears his emotions out there and as a result, he gets teased by his peers at school or at day camp. Most of the time we’re able to talk about it and he’s able to blow it off. And honestly, most of the teasing isn’t too bad yet. He’s still mostly a little boy, so things haven’t turned really nasty. But I can see it, looming. He’s getting older and expectations of “manliness” are going to start to become more and more persistent. And odds are good that some day, my son is going to tell me or his dad or some other trusted adult a story similar to the one that Tyler referenced above.

There’s one place where he should be absolutely free to be who he is, and that’s the Church. He should never have to fear that he’s going to be verbally assaulted or mocked or torn down or gossiped about when he steps through the doors of the church. Instead, it should be a place where he can go to have wounds healed. A place where he can be encouraged. A place where he can have his talents nurtured and used.

Pastor Mark’s call for stories about effeminate males was a call for stories about someone’s son or brother or friend. The post dehumanized a group of people by reducing them to a single trait. Of course, if I look at Pastor Mark as just a bully, I risk doing the same. He becomes a caricature instead of a person.

So I wrote my letter. Because I don’t want Pastor Mark to be reduced to the part of villain. And I don’t want my son to be reduced to the part of anatomically correct male. They are both so much more than any single negative trait. When we choose stand up for one person, we are standing up for all of them.

What Are God’s Ways Like?

photo © 2007 matthew venn | more info(via: Wylio)

Since the release of Rob Bell’s latest book, there has been a lot of talk about hell. Francis Chan is in on it. The Southern Baptist Convention is in on it. Some guy I don’t know is in on it.

Honestly, it’s not a topic I’ve spent a lot of time studying. I have no idea who is right in this case. I’m only on the very beginning of reading through some of these things. But even in my very brief study, I do have some questions that won’t go away. Not exactly questions about hell, but questions about hell speaks about the nature of God.

Whenever this discussion comes up it’s hard for me to understand how we talk about it without putting it in human terms. Most of us are appalled when we hear about stories of torture of any kind, particularly prolonged torture. It cuts at the very nature of us to think that someone is experiencing agony. Even if they are bad by every metric we have available, torture is almost universally met with disgust and loathing.

And yet when it comes to God, we seem to have no problem assuming that this is how he operates.

He condemns people that we work with, that we go to little league games with, who ring up our groceries, who may even attend our church to an eternal torture. And we are to believe that this is good and just. Despite nearly all of us agreeing that torture in this life is reprehensible, we are to believe that eternal torture is just.

And how do we know that it is just? We simply say that his ways are not like our ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Here is where it gets tricky for me. Why is it that when it comes to eternity, his ways are significantly shittier than our ways?

As a parent, I get that just does not always mean fun or happy. I get that we might not see the full picture. But I also know that my kids have a pretty good head on them and they know when a punishment is just and when it’s just me acting out in an angry, mean way. They may not always like justice, but they know what justice is.

I feel like part of being made in the image of God is that we have an ability to see that which is good. The Scripture tells us that even in our evil ways, we still know how to give our children good gifts. We have the capacity for creation, for generosity, for love. Folks frequently point to our inherent ability to know right from wrong as a proof of God. And yet we all too often simply abandon our gut instinct about the goodness or justice of Anne Frank sharing the same eternity of torture with Adolf Hitler.

Over at Rachel Held Evans’s blog last week, KatR commented, “I hope when I get to the end of my life I will find that God is not the a-hole that so many Christians insist that he is.”

I hope the same thing.


How do you reconcile the idea of justice with the idea of eternal torture for temporal wrong-doing? Do we have any way of understanding God’s ways?  

The 24/7 Project

Last week I had the distinct honor of posting over at the Friendly Atheist site. I meant everything I wrote there.

And the very next day, Hemant posted something that just tried my patience big time.

I decided that I could sit here and complain, or I could follow my own advice and do something. I hate being a hypocrite, so it’s time to do.

One of my very favorite organizations in the whole world is Nuru International. They go into a community that is dealing with extreme poverty and they work with that community to help them learn better agricultural techniques and better hygiene techniques, which allows them to earn more money, help their children become better educated and end the cycle of extreme poverty. Their methods are working. They are seeing huge improvements from farmers who participate (averaging a 300% increase in production) and these farmers are repaying the initial loans at 98%. 
Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this organization. They are making a difference. 

Philip’s Question from Nuru International on Vimeo.

Take a look at the following video. This is why I care so much about this organization.

So here’s the deal. Six other bloggers are joining with me and in the next 24 days, we want to try to raise $7000 for Nuru. (24/7, right?)

I get it. $7000 is a whole lot. Likely more than we can raise in 24 days. I admit, there was a minute when I really wanted to just cop out and try for a way smaller number. But I don’t need faith for a small thing. Seven large takes a lot more faith to put out there.

But in a week where I’ve written about keeping my title consistent with my contentand about taking risks, I want to stretch my faith. So I’m asking you (and me) to dig deep and see what we can do. To see what God can do through us.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Donate. Head over to the Nuru Donation Page and give something. Give anything. If you’ve got an extra $12.47, they can use it. The amount doesn’t matter (well, it has to be at least $5, so it matters a little bit). When you make a donation, please include “24/7 Project” in the comment box so the good folks at Nuru can keep us updated on our progress toward the goal.
  • Spread the word. Do you have a Facebook page? Then share this post. Share the posts of the other bloggers who are participating (check the bottom of this post to get to their sites). If you’re on Twitter, follow the hashtag #247Project and retweet stuff you see coming in under that title. Write your own blog post about Nuru and as your readers to donate (and shoot me a link so I can promote it as well!). Send an email to your friends (though feel free to exclude the obligatory “if you really love Jesus, you’ll donate” line). You can follow Nuru’s Facebook page and Twitter feed so you can see what they’re doing.
  • Pray. While I don’t want us to be people who JUST pray, I don’t discount the power of praying. The other bloggers have agreed to pray for Nuru for the next 24 days and if you pray, I would love it if you’d join with us in that.
  • Donate. Seriously, please make a donation. These folks are doing amazing work and the way they can continue to do it is with money. (Even if you’re not a person of faith, I would encourage you to check out and donate to Nuru. Even though it is founded by people of faith and as a response to their faith, they are not a religious organization, so the help they offer is not dependent on folks listening to a sermon or attending a Bible study. Again – the “do instead of just pray” thing is a big part of why I love this organization.)
Here are the other bloggers who are joining in with me. I am ridiculously grateful to them for their support and for their heart for Nuru. If you don’t already read these folks, here’s a great opportunity to start. Add them to your RSS feed because they’re fantastic writers and you don’t want to miss what they’ve got to say.


  • Seeking Pastor (Matt Cannon)
  • Randomly Chad (Chad Jones)
  • From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell (Sarah Bost Askins)
  • Off the Cuff (K.C. Proctor)
  • Shawn Smucker (Shawn Smucker)
  • Jennifer Luitwieler (Jen Luitwieler)
All of us have an opportunity in these next few weeks before Easter to be a part of something big. Ending extreme poverty seems like an insurmountable goal, but Nuru is making it happen and we can join with them.
Be hope. Be light. Be Nuru.

My Big Gay Post

I’m Alise, and I affirm gay relationships.

This wasn’t something that I came to lightly. Rather, this has been a long journey that I have spent years waffling, thinking, studying, and praying about before finally coming to a decision.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought that being gay was a sin. It never made sense to me that being attracted to someone could be inherently wrong and nothing in the Scripture seemed to indicate that it was sinful. Everything seemed to be related to action rather than attraction, so I made my peace with it and just camped there for a long time. Of course, living in a small town and having no friends who were out certainly made it easier to simply not think about it and when I went to college any gay friends that I had were decidedly not Christian, so their sexual orientation didn’t really have any bearing on my theology.

And then things changed.

Tina helping me dye my hair at Camp Happy

My closest friend from high school was in a climbing accident that left her severely injured and which killed her best friend. And as we sat on the deck of her parents’ house, her covered in bruises with a broken eye-socket and grieving, she told me that her friend was more than simply a good friend. She had lost someone not only who she loved, but with whom she was in love. All of a sudden, everything that I knew about being a gay Christian was challenged.

For fourteen years I rolled this issue around in my head. I went online and talked to gay Christians who had no problem embracing their sexual orientation and their faith. I read articles and books about the difficult passages of Scripture that seem to condemn homosexual behavior. I examined nearly every avenue I could in trying to come to some peace, but peace would not be found.

If I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was not a sin, there could be a rift in relationships with a number of people – people who probably thought I believed the way I did on nearly everything else just to be contentious. I didn’t know how to look at a pastor and say, “I think you and most of your colleagues with years of biblical training are wrong about this issue.” I didn’t know how to tell my family, “Add this to the list of thing that I don’t agree with you about.” I didn’t know how to tell my kids, “You’re probably going to be told that homosexuality is a sin, but I don’t think it is.”

I could do this with things that affected me more directly. I could explain why I primarily vote Democrat and consider myself a liberal. I could carry on a discussion about why I accept theistic evolution and have a real problem with things like the Creation Museum. I could talk about social justice and the importance of caring for the poor. But gay stuff? Why would I put my neck out on the line for that? I’m a straight, married, stay-at-home mom of four. What’s the up-side to me not just supporting gay rights, but going one step further and affirming gay relationships in the Church?

Of course, if I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was a sin, there was only one person where there could be a relational shift. But that one person was important to me. She was a person with whom I had shared fake birthdays. She was a person who invented games with me. She was a person who had been my best friend during my unbearably awkward teenage years. And she was a person who wanted what I had – to share her life with someone that she loved.

I spent years agonizing over this.

And then it clicked.

God is love.

Tina and me at a friend’s wedding

I want to make it more complicated than that, but that’s it. God is love. Two people wanting to share love is of God. John 13:35 tells us how we know we’re being disciples of Jesus – we love. Love isn’t something that needs to be fixed or healed or redeemed. It’s already the highest law. It’s what God created us to do.

There are other reasons why I’ve come to this conclusion (I highly recommend Jack Rogers’s excellent resource, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality for a more thorough examination of the Scriptures and history surrounding the issue), but the primary reason is because of love. So maybe I can change my opening statement just a little bit.

I’m Alise, and I affirm love.