What Not to Wear: Church Edition?

I had started to believe that we church folk had moved beyond judging one another’s clothing choices.  Clearly, I was wrong. 

In the past two months, I’ve heard enough snippy remarks about “those young people” and the clothes they wear to church that I could have scripted an entire season of What Not to Wear: Church Edition.  And I’m not just talking about remarks made in my own congregation – I’m talking about things I’ve overheard in other churches and in restaurants during the Sunday lunch hour.  I’m also talking about myself.

Sometimes while on vacation I visit other places to get my worship on and see what other folks are doing.  Just yesterday, as I walked up the steps to visit another place of worship, I saw a young woman in a skirt that was slit way up in the back.  I mean, waaaaaaay up.  Her rear end wasn’t exposed, but one wrong move could easily have changed that.  And boy howdy did I start judging.

You may have heard these things before (or thought them yourself):

  • “What is she thinking leaving the house in that, let alone wearing that to CHURCH!?”
  • “What are her parents thinking?  ARE they thinking?”
  • “You’d think that people would KNOW what is APPROPRIATE to wear to worship!”
  • “If only girls today had more respect for themselves and their bodies…”

Now, here’s the funny thing: when people have said these sorts of things about kids in any one of the youth groups I’ve served, my immediate reaction is to shut them down. I tell folks we should be glad those young ones are here, no matter what they wear.  I tell them that I won’t be a part of shaming young women and men for their bodies or their clothing choices. I explain that the judgments we make about women’s clothing are directly linked to the victim blaming that often accompanies sexual assault and rape.  I advise them to get to know the young people in question, because if they do, they will discover that health problems have caused the weight gain that makes clothing snug, that tight finances mean wearing clothes that no longer fit “properly”, that those jean shorts and t-shirt really are the nicest outfit a young one owns.

And yet, in a situation where I don’t know the teen, I catch myself making the same unhelpful judgments.  Oh, what a hypocrite I can be!

But enough is enough.

If you don’t have a real relationship with a teenager in your faith community, you don’t have a right to make statements about his choice in clothing…and neither do I.  In relationship, I can begin to discover who this teen really is: what she cares about, who and how she loves, what motivates her and what makes her feel defeated, how she dreams and works for a future, how she hurts when no one is looking.  I can begin to appreciate her full humanity, instead of seeing her as an object – a mannequin – dressed in a particular style of clothing.  In relationship, I also build the credibility and trust to begin having conversations about clothing, embodiment, self-image and self-esteem in ways that are compassionate instead of judgmental, loving instead of shaming, and mutual instead of unilateral.

Outside of real relationship I lack any necessary context for understanding the person or outfit in question.  For example, with the young woman I observed on the church steps, I know NOTHING about her.  Though she walked in with her family, I don’t know them or what they value.  I don’t know the circles they run in, the professions they choose, the schools they attend.  I don’t know where she plans to attend college, what event she was attending after worship, when or if she was baptized, or which family member helped her choose and purchase her outfit.  I don’t know that she attends 2 Bible studies or none at all.  I don’t know that she’s a Girl Scout or a cheerleader or a member of the math club.  Hell, I don’t even know her name.  And even if I did know her name, even if over the years I’d observed her from five pews back as she grew from a curly-haired cherub of a child into this young woman, if I’m not in real relationship with her then I don’t have the right to comment. 

Outside of real relationship, the judgments I make about this beloved child of God are more about me than about her. They are about my assumptions, my prejudice, my tastes, my beliefs and my own sense of shame. Outside of real relationship, if I judge and grouse and complain about what she’s wearing, I’m acting like a jerk.  And so are you.

We all become jerks when God’s house is closed to those who don’t have the right wardrobes.  That’s not church, that’s a country club.
If we strive to be about right-relationship more than we’re about the “right” hem lengths and start loving each other better…we’ll start acting like the Church again.

Let’s be Church, y’all.

*NOTE*  Though I write primarily about the judgments we make about young people, I’ve heard remarks about people of all ages and the choices they make in church clothing.  Too sexy, too frumpy, too loud, too shabby…these labels get thrown at adults too.  And they’re just as wrong.  We’ve got to cut it out, people.  Myself included.

*SECOND NOTE*  In response to the question of a dear friend, I am not advocating judgment WITHIN relationship.  My hope is that when we enter into real relationship (and start doing the hard work that is a part of that), the temptation to judge will turn into a desire to talk, know, understand and, if necessary, hold accountable in a way that is loving instead of all those other alternatives (a way that allows the other person to say “I disagree, and here’s why…”).  Also, while I’m at it, I recognize that this may rub folks of certain generations the wrong way.  After all, if you were raised in a time/manner in which church dress was all about respect for the sacred, it is obviously difficult to let particular styles of dress slide. We’re all welcome to think what we think and feel what we feel, and some of our most deeply held views may never change.  But let’s give others the benefit of the doubt and not assume that their choice of clothing is made out of malice or disrespect, acknowledging that we don’t know their heart, mind or difficulties.

Some Truth About Rape

Spoiler alert:  This may be overkill.  Most of us are now fully immersed in election-overload, and the thought of reading one more rant about politics may be too much to handle.  It may also be too personal for you.  If that’s the case, that’s fine.  Don’t read it.  Today I write for myself.

This week I have come to realize a few important things about myself and the ways I’ve been personally affected by this election cycle:

  1. The more the election cycle has heated up, the harder it has become for me to write.  Anything.  At all.
  2. At the same time, it has been harder and harder for me to read – especially the books on the history of women in Christianity that make up the assigned reading for my January D.Min fortnight. They are all on one of my favorite topics, but I’ve hardly been able to bring myself to read them.
  3. These emotional blocks have everything to do with the rhetoric of women and rape that has saturated our political discourse.

It has taken months to sift through the emotional sediment contributing to these blocks.  But earlier this week, while talking politics with one of my youth, everything clicked into place.  This depression, this funk I’ve been in, is about rape:  both my own, and rape/sexual assault “in general”.

An appalling number of the women I have worked with, young and old, have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  I’m one of those women.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at us – the scars are buried deep inside.  We haven’t forgotten – even if our minds would let us, our bodies won’t allow us to forget.  So we’ve tucked the wounds away in a special holding cell – not so that we can avoid the pain, but so that we can function; so that we can heal; so that we can love and hope and dream; so that we can be the women God has called us to be.

The hurt usually hibernates under the surface.  But in a usual world, on a usual day, the topic of rape isn’t brought up – at least not in polite company.  When things are as they usually should be, you can turn on the television and not be slapped with phrases like “legitimate rape”.  On a normal day, politicians don’t talk about how some women “rape easy”.  In election cycles of the past, we haven’t had to witness arguments about the level of violence and brutality required in order for a rape to be “real”.

In this election cycle, we kicked “normal” and “usual” to the curb months ago.  And for some of us, the layers of protection and salve have been stripped back, allowing that pain to wake up and move closer and closer to the surface.  It’s become accessible, visible, tangible all over again.  We’ve started to relive our rape again and again.  With all the arguments over “legitimate rape”, this is especially true for those of us whose rapes “don’t make the cut” because they weren’t brutal or violent enough to count.  Those of us who weren’t beaten half to death, who didn’t have the opportunity, the undrugged motor skills, the physical strength, or the fight-response required to fight back – we not only relive our rapes, but we also relive the judgment of the people around us, the assumptions that we must be lying because we don’t have visible bruises.  Some of us relive our rapist’s sneering indictment that it doesn’t count as rape because “you’re my wife”, “you’re my girlfriend”, or “you should have just put out more in the first place.”  We relive it all.  Over. And. Over. Again.

Here’s the thing about rape:  rape simultaneously reinforces and destroys everything a woman or girl suspects about herself and her worth.  All that cultural crap about our value being tied to our bodies?  Our rapists confirm that with every unwanted touch or thrust, and at the same time they destroy us with the knowledge that while our value is in our breasts and between our legs – those things are ultimately worthless, deserving of nothing but violence and indignity.  Simultaneously we are told: you are your body, and your body is worthless – You are worthless.

This is what I wish these politicians and commentators knew.  Rape is about more than sex, and the abortion question doesn’t make their flippant conversations okay.  For the sake of this conversation, the abortion question is immaterial.  It helps politicians avoid responsibility for the violence perpetrated by these callous words about rape.  It enables us to turn a blind eye to the fact that when we talk about “rape” we separate it from the broken bodies and spirits of the women and men who have been violated, as though rape could exist without the victims.  Rape survivors ourselves come to different conclusions about abortion.  Pro-choice, pro-life, undecided – none of these viewpoints change the fact that the screwed up way we’ve been talking about rape hurts people.  It’s hurt me, it’s hurt the women with whom I minister, and I suspect it has hurt many many more.  It has got to stop, and no matter how important voting is (and I believe voting is critically important), voting alone won’t fix the problem.

I know that tonight we’re all preoccupied with the election.  But starting tomorrow, we’ve got to do better.

Why We Need Planned Parenthood

I try not to blog-rant very often – but this afternoon I can’t help myself. The announcement about Susan G. Komen For the Cure halting funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood pushed me right over the edge.

You see, not all that many years ago, Planned Parenthood could have saved my life.

Between student loans, a starting youth ministry salary and a few other medical debts, I was cash poor.  What’s more, I was underinsured – my health insurance provider treated womanhood as a preexisting condition and wasn’t much help when it came to gynecological screenings and other services.  So, rather than finding a health care provider I couldn’t afford to pay, I went to Planned Parenthood.

Over the course of four years, PP was my provider and resource for women’s health.  I didn’t “freeload” – their sliding payment scale made it possible for me to pay what I could.  I paid more than some women, and less than others.  In a sense, we were all in it together.

I didn’t get an abortion as a Planned Parenthood client.  I suppose I could have if I’d had and felt the need, but that isn’t the point.  The point is that I got the care I needed.  Because I could afford it, I scheduled those necessary yearly appointments.  I actually showed up for annual screenings instead of ignoring the reminder cards that arrived in my mailbox.  And, when one of those annual exams indicated the possibility of cervical cancer – I was able to afford the colposcopy that let me know the abnormal cells were benign.

If it had been cancer, and I hadn’t had Planned Parenthood, I wouldn’t have known until it was too late.

When I look at the news and see the attacks made on Planned Parenthood by some politicians and religious leaders, the demands that Planned Parenthood lose all of its funding because 3% of their budget goes towards abortions – when I see these things it literally makes me sick to my stomach.

What Planned Parenthood Actually Does

The cancer screenings, STI screenings and treatment, family planning services (including contraception) and other women’s health care – all of that should be thrown away (along with the women and men whose health and lives depend upon it) because of one issue?  I don’t think so.

Regardless of your stance on abortion, you should care about the consequences of this sort of defunding.  Regardless of your stance on abortion, you should care that people who live at, below or near the poverty line will be hardest hit by this.  In the end, this is not about abortion.  This is about a callous disregard for the lives of men and women who have no access to the top of the line health care that policymakers seem to take for granted – and it is unacceptable.

If policymakers really want to take down Planned Parenthood, if they are truly hell bent upon it – then they had better be prepared to create and fund other avenues for acquiring low-cost and free women’s healthcare.  Those avenues had better be prepared to accept ALL of the people who currently rely upon Planned Parenthood, and then some.  And they had better do it BEFORE they hamstring what is already in place.

If they don’t – if we don’t – people will fall through the cracks.  Cancer will go undetected.  STI rates and unplanned pregnancy rates will increase – and there will be even more women in search of the abortions we tried to eradicate.  People will die – and their blood will be on our hands.

I’m not willing to see that happen.  And I’m not willing to tear down an organization that has helped millions of women and men (including me) to be healthy, educated and whole.  So I’m ranting about it, but I’ll also be writing letters and helping to educate others about the need for quality affordable community healthcare.

What will you do?

Words that Reveal – Words that Conceal

Words have always fascinated me – just as much for what they cover up as for what they reveal.

For example, there are lots of words that some Christian folk use for ideas and people who challenge their traditions or beliefs.  I’ve read some of these words recently in the comments left on Amazon about the books of the Where’s the Faith? series as well as in the comments section of friends’ and colleagues’ blogs.  Words like “unChristian” and “unBiblical”.  Phrases like “slippery slope” and “lukewarm”.  In a comment about our Oh God! book, one “reader” (I use scare quotes primarily because I am skeptical about whether or not the commentator actually read more than the introduction to the book) went as far as to state that we had produced a “good handbook for incurring the wrath of God.”

Well, damn.

Statements like that hurt, and for a time I found myself grieving the fact that anyone would rub the wrath of God in our faces – we who had come together to write a book that was honest and real and raw and faithful.  I mean, we knew that our approach to sexuality would tick some people off, but comments like that wounded nonetheless. Yet, now that the hurt has worn off a bit, I find myself wondering what those comments are really about.  Are they words that reveal?  Or, are they words that conceal?

I’m inclined to think that they are the latter.

If this is indeed the case, what in the world could such hateful and hurtful statements be hiding?  On the face, they seem designed for the primary purpose of revealing our sinfulness (with a secondary purpose: hurting the god-less authors and putting us in our place).  But as I have sat with these words, listening to them echo off the surfaces of my mind, I’ve noticed something at work that is akin to sonar: as the words bounce and reverberate, they provide valuable information about what exists hidden in the darkness (both within ourselves/myself and within our accusers).

If we listen carefully, these words betray the presence of the very things they are designed to conceal:  fear and pride.

This is not to say that any one of us (myself very much included) isn’t periodically off course  and in need of someone to help us find our way back.  Sometimes we are blazing a new trail that seems inconceivable to those who have come before us (or who cannot see beyond their own context), and other times we are simply wrong.  But regardless of which position we may find ourselves, the fact remains that someone who wants to help us back on track doesn’t do so by insulting or hurting us.

Those who hurl epithets and judgment like bricks, those who almost gleefully lash out and brand others with a searing “H” for heresy, those who post scathing blog comments or send sanctimonious letters have no desire for the wholeness of the other – those of us who do this to one another are mostly trying to hide our own uncertainty, our own fear that we might not be as thoroughly right (or righteous) as we pretend to be.

Instead of engaging the ideas and the people who challenge us, so often we give in to the temptation to lash out.  It is far easier to boldly pronounce “blasphemy” than it is to enter into that vulnerable, risky space where dialogue happens.  Dialogue is sometimes perceived as “dangerous” because it always contains the possibility for change.  The other folks in the conversation might give us new insights or help us to see that we’ve been holding onto a faulty assumption.  They might sway us with their logic or convince us that we don’t yet have it all figured out.  Rather than take this chance, sometimes we reject dialogue outright and insist that our way is the only way (and then commence with destroying those who are different from us).

That may very well be pride at its worst.  When we look down our noses and wish damnation on our neighbors or enemies (or when we revel in our certainty that they are hell-bound, ignorant, unenlightened, etc.) our own pride has pushed us so far from all things Christlike that the ways we are “right” no longer amount to much.  For even though we may be correct on the finer points of doctrine or the meaning of a portion of Scripture, when we prance about without humility or love for neighbor and enemy, we have missed the point.

I’m still working out what all this means.   I don’t have all the answers by any means.  But I want to shed my fear and my pride.  I want to be in dialogue with you, even if you think I am lukewarm, unBiblical and unChristian.  I want to be in dialogue with you, even if I think you are ignorant and mean-spirited.  Chances are good that we are far more (and far better) than our biased opinions of one another.  We may never change each others’ minds, but we can love each other and pray together that God will make us whole.  And part of that relationship, part of that process requires using words that reveal instead of conceal.

May the light of Christ shine upon and within us as we learn to love each other more deeply, differences and all.

Bully Culture?

For fairly obvious reasons, bullying has been heavy on my mind these days.  The recent suicides of several GLBTQ teens have brought the issue back to the fore in a way similar to that of the media blitzes that followed school shootings like the ones in Jonesboro and Columbine – and while both parents and pundits discuss the horrible reality of bullying at schools around the country, we have also been witness to an entire political campaign season full of bullying:  bully signs, bully pulpits, bully commercials and rhetoric…  All of these things point to an uncomfortable truth:  in all sectors of our current system/culture, bullies thrive and rise to the top.

If it seems as though I’m exaggerating a bit, take a look at the following list of “Not-Well-Enough-Known Facts about Bullying” that comes from the work of Dan Olweus in his book, Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do:

  1. Most bullies don’t suffer from low self-esteem. Some have circles of friends and may have a high status among their peers.
  2. Most bullies are not looking for attention, so ignoring the bullying is not a way to make it stop. Bullies look for control. The behavior is likely to escalate if adults ignore it.
  3. Bullying behavior isn’t something a child or young person outgrows. Research shows bullies are at much higher risk of later becoming involved in a crime, alcohol or drug abuse, or tobacco use.
  4. Victims of bullies are rarely able to stand up to bullies and deal with the situation themselves. They are usually younger or physically weaker than their tormentors. In order to withstand bullying, children need a system of supportive friendships, something victims often lack the social skills to form.
  5. Contrary to what many parents believe, most bullying does not occur off school grounds. Almost all bullying occurs at school.
  6. Bullying is not an isolated instance but rather a fact of life in a majority of schools.
  7. Most bullying takes place outside the sight of teachers. Many of those targeted are reluctant to report their harassment because they are afraid of retaliation, and most bullies deny the behavior if confronted.
  8. Many victims of bullying suffer lifelong side effects, including depression and mental health problems. Some suicides are attributed to bullying.

While this list is clearly directed towards the bullying that occurs in educational settings, there are striking parallels between these schoolyard  exchanges and the discourse taking place in political campaigns, social networking sites and even (*gasp*) the church.  For example, how many of the politicians you’ve seen really need more attention?  They’ve got friends, family, fortune (more often than not) and fame (at least in their own particular context).  What they are looking for is power.

Now, power in and of itself is not a negative thing – there are politicians out there who truly want to serve the greater good by using the power they have been given by the electorate.  But, regardless of the intentions of each individual politician, this campaign season has demonstrated how a desire for power and control can lead one to pick up the tools of a bully:  belittling remarks, cruel (and often racist, sexist or homophobic) jokes at another’s expense, statements that call into question not just an opponent’s positions and beliefs, but also their character, their citizenship, their patriotism, their faith, their very humanity.  Similarly, our churches all house individuals who crave control and use the bully tool belt to get what they want:  poisonous remarks lobbed with a smile like velvet-covered bricks, statements that call into question a church member’s status as a Christian, insinuations that straying from the “right way” will get you left out or ejected from the fold.

Both our political discourse and our ways of disagreeing with one another have devolved into bullying.  What makes it different from the bullying of a schoolyard is that it takes place very publicly.  While there may only be a handful of silent bystanders in the hallway of the middle school, we are all bystanders as politicians attack one another, the supporters of their opponents, and the pundits – and we are all bystanders as church members or co-workers or family members rough people up (verbally, emotionally or physically) in order to get their way.   Unfortunately, silent bystanders are just as much a part of the problem as the bullies themselves.

Researchers all agree that bullying is a learned behavior.  It is something we are taught (both by bullies and bystanders) and it is a behavior that doesn’t go away easily (see #3 above).  In some ways, bullying becomes an addiction – once you pop, you just can’t stop.  And while we have spoken out of one side of our mouths to bemoan the dire situation of those children and teens who fall prey to young bullies, we’ve used the other side of our mouths to participate in “adult” systems where bullying is the norm.

Children and teens learn how to be adults by watching us.  If we want bullying to not be normative in our schools, we’ve got to step up and quit modeling it for the young people in our circles of influence.  Regardless of whether it happens at school, at work, at our place of worship, at home or during a debate, bullying is wrong and it is well past time for it to stop.  Let this change begin with us.

Scapegoats or Discipline…

Today I watched a news report about a man who was convicted of raping his own daughter and fathering four children by her.  The report included a comment from the man’s elderly uncle who said that the father shouldn’t receive the steepest sentence because he was a “good man” and the daughter could have “said no” or “gone to her mother.”

Made me sick.

But it brought to the forefront of my mind/heart the way that we are so good at blaming victims and addressing symptoms instead of digging deep in search of the root problems.

  • I don’t care how many examples there are of “professional panhandlers” – most homeless human beings don’t “choose to be homeless”.

  • I don’t care how many examples there are of “kids who are out of control” – kids don’t deserve to be neglected or abused.

  • I don’t care how short her skirt is – women and girls don’t deserve to be raped.  (and they certainly aren’t “asking for it”)

  • I don’t care how many kids she has by however many fathers – single mothers aren’t the root cause of poverty.

  • I don’t care how frightened or angered or appalled you are by homosexuality (whether its for religious reasons, or not) – people of other sexual orientations are not the cause of broken families and marriages.

If we want to find solutions to these very real problems, we need discipline.  Because without discipline, we won’t be able to stand looking deep within ourselves (individually and corporately)…at the darkness of greed and selfishness and judgment and rage and fear and lust for power/control that are really at the root of these societal ills.

Without discipline, we will find yet another scapegoat to pin the problem on and throw under the bus – and chances are so very good that the scapegoat will be one of the people already devastated by the problem at hand.

Without emotional & spiritual discipline, it’s easy to fall into traps set for us by commentators on both sides of the divide. And as long as we spend our energy fighting each other, the more time and space there is for injustice/oppression to spread. Let us be a disciplined, compassionate community that seeks out root problems instead of attacking victims & symptoms.

Because, without discipline, we are part of the problem.

The Un-Holy Bible??


Ministers tend to have odd habits.

One of mine pokes its head up every time I set foot in a major bookstore.  Regardless of my purpose for entering the establishment, whether it be the need for a new cookbook or a fluff-filled sci-fi paperback, I inevitably end up staring at the shelves upon shelves of religious fare.  The racks of Bibles are of particular interest to me – in part because of my turbulent relationship with the Book, but mostly because of the various and sometimes sundry ways that the Book is marketed to a wide array of readers.

There is the “Duct Tape Bible” – an edgy-looking tome presumably intended for teenagers and some young adults, “The Green Bible” – for burgeoning environmentalists,”The Life Application Study Bible” – for those who want to bring the Bible into conversation with their day-to-day living,  “The Extreme Faith Youth Bible” – for young people who need scripture that goes beyond the normal, boring faith of their parents,  “The Apologetics Study Bible” – for Christians looking to defend the reasonableness of their faith,  “The Oxford Annotated Study Bible” – for the more academic of believers, “The Good News Bible” – for those who didn’t enjoy reading the Bad News Bible… the list goes on and on and on.   And then, of course, there are dozens of varieties of “The Holy Bible” to choose from.

This bizarre (and VERY abbreviated) list brings me back to the habit I came close to describing:  I am very nearly obsessed with watching others select Bibles from the shelf.  

Some walk up knowing exactly what they are looking for.  They scan the shelves, irritated by the various other Bibles present – and when they find the “right” one, they snatch it and leave with satisfied, victorious expressions on their faces.  Others pace in front of the shelves, obviously overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options at their fingertips.  Still others walk up, see the plethora of Bibles and stiffen as though they have abruptly encountered a brick wall – these folks usually leave the section empty-handed with a slightly glazed expression.  And every once in while – very, very rarely – someone peruses the shelves with wonder, his or her face backlit with the whimsical joy of discovery and love for the written Word.

But, more often than not, the individuals I’ve watched don’t come looking for a new version, a new perspective, a new twist…

Instead, they come looking for “THE RIGHT” version. 

During  one of my people/Bible watching sessions, I gave in to the temptation to help someone find what she was looking for.  When I asked her which version of the Bible she was trying to find, she snorted at me with contempt and disbelief:  “I’m looking for the HOLY Bible.”  She then snatched a slimline leatherbound copy of the KJV off the bookshelf and stomped away.

I’m still trying to figure out which Bibles are holy – and which ones are not.

And I still watch people select scripture from the stacks.

And while I don’t know the answer to the “un-holy Bible” question, there is one thing I do know:

The holiest of those people-watching moments has never depended upon a particular translation, version, endorsement or binding.

Instead, the most sacred of those moments has invariably come in faces awash with wonder, resplendent with joy — the faces of people thrilled to discover that there is more than one way to know God, more than one way to  interpret the Word, and more than one way to share that word with others.

That love.  That joy.  That energy…

That’s what keeping something holy is all about.

And in that regard, they are all holy.  Even if “holy” isn’t printed on the spine.

Sometimes, the most profound and theological thing we can manage to say is: “God, this sucks.”

Things were supposed to get better in 2009.  After the chaos of 2008, we had such high hopes…

And now, here we are.

I don’t know about you, but things haven’t improved.  If anything, things have gotten worse.  The economy tanked, people are despairing to the point of self-destruction, marriages are falling apart due to stress and worry and financial woe, depression rates are soaring… the list goes on and on, and I’m intentionally only describing the happenings in our small Arkansas community.  I imagine that things are very much the same around the country and in your churches.

I’ve been trying very hard to keep my spirits up, and the effort was proving mostly successful – at least it was until the “C-Bomb” dropped.


Damn, I hate cancer.

Three weeks ago, my aunt was a perfectly healthy middle-aged woman.  She felt fine and her energy level was up, which is a good thing when you need to chase your 2 1/2 year-old grandson around every day.   When she went in to have a cyst removed, the doctors sent it off for tests as a matter of course even though they were certain it would prove to be benign.


Three weeks after that little outpatient surgery, our lives are upside down.  As it turns out, the cyst was merely the tip of a much larger iceberg.  Cancer has taken up residence throughout her body – liver, lungs, pancreas, brain – and fear has taken up residence in all of our hearts.  Just as the systems of the body are tied together and affected by the disease, ripples of terror have swiftly spread through the family.  She is a mother, a daughter, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt… each role points to another person grieving this bitter news.

And we each grieve in our own way.

One, the classic midwestern stoic, keeps a stiff-upper lip in public and breaks down into puddles when she is alone.  Another, rooted in a very particular religious background, plows forward with cheerfulness – certain that any display of grief is a sign of unfaithfulness.  My cousin grieves publicly – and feels crazy because “no one else around [her] is grieving”.  And here I stand in the middle, like a multifingered sign at a cartoon-crossroads, directing everyone towards the truth that we all grieve differently – AND THAT IS OKAY.

As for me, I am angry.  Angry that family members have to deal with this horrible reality.  Angry that we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  Angry that I can’t ball up my fist and shout at the heavens because, as the minister of the family, it is my job to be that aforementioned road sign.

The good news is, its okay to be angry.  Just as it is okay to cry or hide (for a while), it is okay to be mad as hell.  God can take it.   Sometimes, in the face of tragedy and loss, the most profound and theological thing we can manage to say is:  “God, this sucks.”

Why is that profound?  Because it is true.  This does suck.

And why is it theological?  Because it acknowledges that God knows this sucks and that God cares enough to listen to us in our anguish.

No matter what we deal with, no matter how we grieve, God knows our pain and hurts with us.  The Good News of the Gospel is not that God will whip out a magic wand and fix everything with a wrist-flick and a little “presto-chango.”  Instead, the good news is that when things hurt so bad that all we can do is cry, or hide, or scream, God is there with us.

Sometime this week I will probably take a moment to go outside.  As the sun shines down upon my face, I will thrust my fist into the air.  With all my breath, I will shriek out my theodicy:


And when I’m done – when my breath is gone, my throat is tattered, and all I can hear is the exhausted rasping of my lungs – I’ll sit down on the curb, wrap my arms around my knees like a child, and rock in time with the Holy who whispers in return:

“I know, and I am here.”