So small…

I went out to a Halloween party several weeks ago. I was dressed like Nicolas Cage from National Treasure, but that’s a story for another day.

At one point we landed at a bar that was packed with people. I was standing next to a bunch of friends at the bar, and behind me was a group of people sitting at tables. It was so tight that a waitress could barely squeeze through. Although I wasn’t the cause of her issue I caught myself saying to the waitress, “I’m so sorry.”

The week prior I had hung out with some of my girlfriends. One friend was telling us that her daughter mentioned that mommy says sorry too much. We made a vow at that hang out to catch ourselves when we were saying sorry for things we didn’t need to. Ever since that vow I have started noticing how small I made myself over the last few years.

We were part of a church where (for some reason) we never talked about anything related to politics. No, I’m not talking about who to vote for, or saying crazy things from the pulpit. I’m talking about blatantly obvious inequalities that people who care about loving others should give some thought to. If you never question your own privilege, and if you never learn to have empathy for others – can you ever really grow as a person? I don’t think you can.

Del was a pastor at a church for a little while. We had a congregant who posted something horrific on social media. It was both inaccurate and inappropriate. Del did what he thought was right and gently corrected the person. That person then proceeded to leave the church. I thought we were somehow keeping ourselves safe by making sure we never upset those around us. If I just stay quiet enough, if I hold in my own truth, I won’t bother others and then I can keep myself safe. It’s a tactic that probably worked for some point in my life.

I gave birth in 2020. Yes, it was a pandemic. Yes, it was a very difficult time for many people. But do you know how many people from our church staff checked on us? It was exactly zero. I had stayed so quiet to keep people around, and no one came anyways.

In 2021 I started getting our tax information together. The day I was doing our taxes I also drove into town and saw a line of homeless people waiting to get food. I pulled up online how much money we had donated to our church over the years. It was a lot. Then I asked myself a very important question. Stephanie, what are you doing to feed people in need? And I answered to myself, “nothing.”

For almost a decade I stayed complacent and gave money to support a building of people. I stayed quiet when I should have spoken up because I thought it would help me build relationships.

I was wrong.

I am working on no longer staying small when I can use my voice to speak up. Science matters. People of color matter. Women are important. We need to support the LGBTQIA+ community. And the model of churches in the United States is not serving people with the greatest need.

We stopped tithing that amount of money. Instead we started giving to others. Organizations that feed people. Missionaries that are doing great work. Places that support the arts. Friends and family in need. And good people we know who are building a new church.

Saying I’m sorry for things that don’t need an apology is a habit I’m trying to break. But I am sorry that I stayed small for so long. Sorry to people that needed a voice. I apologize for supporting organizations that were detrimental to many. I will do the work to be better. But mostly – I’m sorry to myself for not being the truest version of who I am. I am starting to voice my own needs and boundaries.

Staying small stops now.

How do we see others?

How do we choose to see other people?

And what does that mean about how we see ourselves?

At counseling a while ago, her closing remark to me was, “You are doing almost everything right. And you need to start focusing on the good things you are doing.”

Like people, my view of others and myself is simple and complex simultaneously. In a moment it is black and white, and then upon reflection there are more than fifty shades of gray. There are back stories, weird moments, genetics, parenting, feelings that should have been squashed but came alive, and who even knows what else?

“Jenn is the worst. An inconsiderate and selfish thief who cares nothing for her family or for others.”

While also…

“How sad she must feel to cause herself and others such pain. She can’t be a true narcissist. I hope whatever is causing her pain ends soon.”

And on myself…

“I’m so glad I’m not as inconsiderate as <insert name of person I’m judging>.”

While also…

“What does <insert name of person I’m feeling insecure about> have that I do not? Smarter? Kinder? Better looking? A better soul? What do I lack? Where have I failed?”

In moments and thoughts my brain will drift between strange extremes. Others and myself are the best, worst, deepest, most shallow people I know. I make others and myself the hero and villain at the same time.

The truth of a person, is of course, somewhere in between those shades. Maybe they are gray, but maybe they are purple, green, orange, fuschia, turquoise, or something else? We are bright shining examples of the best of humanity is some areas. We are just plain damn average in most areas. And in other areas, we are dark, gray, weak, and struggling.

Yet it all begs the questions, “How should we view ourselves?” and “How should we view others?”

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7, 1-5 (NIV)

And also…

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13, 34 (NIV)

A person who is truly self-reflective, is often freer from judgement. The ability to look within, see your own flaws and then ask “Why am I judging this person?” is a skill. But it is also something that is demanded of us. Being cruel is easy (I know, because I can be great at it). Yet taking the plank from our own eye is the only thing that gives us a clear view of the humanity of others.

Of course, Biblical context is everything. In John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples a short time before Peter will deny him. He is telling the church that will be built what is needed of us. After betraying him, and after denying him, Christ did not falter to lay down is life for his disciples. Let’s be honest, I’m probably not ever going to reach that level of grace and forgiveness. But I let myself be inspired by His gift.

We steal, because we are lacking. We lie because we are empty and filling a void. Others are worthless, because we feel worthless. That is not how God sees us. He tells us simply that he loves us, and that in return – we are to love others. With his remaining moments, God asks us to see us and others as whole people who are worthy. Worthy of love, beauty, and redemption.

I pray I can be better at seeing myself and others with such light.

On Blue Like Jazz…

My fiance calls my debate and speaking style “laser-like.” I am not much for rambling, and I am quickly annoyed by people that blabber on unnecessarily.  However, for whatever reason, I saw a movie this past week-end and my mind cannot form one concise thought or argument on how the movie impacted me.  Thus, I shall do the unthinkable, and attempt to ramble.

Blue Like Jazz.  A tiny movie about a Texas boy with divorced parents who was active in a Baptist church.  After the boy discovers that his mother is having an affair with the church youth pastor, he abandons his plan to attend a Christian college and opts instead for a crazy hippy liberal college on the West coast.  While there, he questions his faith, doubts his beliefs, throws down God and Christ and everything Christian.  By the end, of course, he somehow manages to balance the bad things Christians have done to him and the people he loves with his love of God.  Yes, it is a feel good movie.

SPOILER ALERT

At the end of the movie, the boy apologizes.  He apologizes to his friend who was raped by a priest.  He apologies to everyone who has ever been hurt by a Christian in the name of their God.  For whatever reason, I want to do that too.

If for some reason, a Christian has hurt you – I apologize.  I apologize if you have been raped, or hurt, or beaten down or degraded or made to feel less than.  I apologize for the churches you have attended that have told you God will not love you because you are X or Y or Z or have done A or B or C.  I apologize for the kids that picked on you when you just wanted to be left alone.  I apologize for the priest or pastor that told you that you could not be a priest or pastor.  I apologize for the pain, the hurt, the grief, the agony.  I apologize for all of that.   It is ignorant to think that I have never caused anyone pain – so I apologize for myself.  I have messed up a lot.  I have hurt people.  For that, I am sorry.

Not too long ago, I lost all of my faith.  For a long list of reasons, I lost all hope I ever had in God or Christ.  I cursed everything religious and any person who practiced a religion.  I thought they were dumb, naïve, stupid and condescending.  I hated God.  I hated Jesus.  Most of all – I hated everyone who called themselves a Christian, but actively practiced hate (yes, I see that irony now).

One day I woke up, and everything I loved felt like it was gone.  On that day, I felt like I had no friends, no family, no job, no education – and no God.  My options, frankly, were suicide or to find everything I thought I had lost.  Obviously, I did not choose the former.  Instead, I walked into a Lutheran church in a Polish part of Milwaukee.  I don’t know why (grace, most likely), but that day – everything started coming back to me.  An old man who was greeting in the church said hello to me.  He invited me to coffee after the service.  I did not stay.  I came.  I attended service.  I left.

I left, and then… I started going back to church.  However, I did something different this time.  I hated going to church growing up.  I thought it was boring, dumb and I remember leaving feeling like I loathed myself.  Ick.  So instead, I came back on my own terms.  I went to dozens of churches and dozens of denominations.  I listened to some Catholics, a Unitarian, a few Lutherans, a crazy Charismatic guy – and a TON of other people.  I did what very few seem to do… I was lost, and I searched until I felt found.

Along the way, I realized what I think the main character in the movie realized. I realized that God does not hurt people and that religion does not hurt people.  I realized – that people hurt people.  Some of those people call themselves Christians or call themselves Muslims or Atheist or…..  At a Christian place where I use to work I once had a lady tell me, “We are all Christian here, but we are all humans first.”

That is the simple truth of the movie.  We are all human first.  And, frankly, some humans REALLY suck.  They hurt a lot of people.  And I am not sure if there is anything worse than someone saying “It is okay I am hurting you because God said so.”  People do that so they do not have to take accountability for their own actions.  People do that so they can give themselves more power to be hateful and cruel.

For what do I hope?

I hope for honest and respectful discourse about the insanely diverse beliefs that we all have about God.  Or about a lack of God, or the existence of multiple gods,  and everything in between.  I have had dozens of conversations with people regarding their religious beliefs – and not one person shared all the beliefs of another.

I hope that people admit that they are humans first.  We mess up.  We are not perfect.  I know of a college professor who tells he students that he has not sinned in years.  Pft, yeah right dude!  Giving off the impression you are perfect does not make me envy you, it makes me feel inferior to you and thus fear you.  We question God, we question the world, we question people, we questions our faith, we question lots of things.  It is human to think.  It is human to err.

I hope we can forgive.  Confession time.  I was once soooo bitter about things that had happened to me that when I would say the Lord’s prayer I would say “And forgive us our trespasses” but would leave out the “as we forgive those that trespass against us.”  That is right, I was asking people to forgive me but doing nothing to forgive others – not my best moment.  I cannot say I have forgiven everything in the world and should be a keynote speaker at a forgiveness convention (for that – call my fiance – dude is a pro!).  I can say that I have learned to forgive and move along. I can say that it always gets better.

I hope that we can just get better.  Starting… right…….now.

On poor Christian leaders…

It has happened again.  I was going through some survey feedback and someone said, “You are too expensive for a Christian business.”
Really?  What is that suppose to mean?
By saying anything is too expensive for being a Christian business, you are implying that “Christian” anything should be cheaper, more affordable or less expensive.

But why?  Why do people have this expectation that Christian stuff should be cheaper?

I have also heard a lot of people I know complain about tithing.

“They just EXPECT me to give them MY money?  It is my money, and they are a church.”

What is that suppose to mean?  Name me ONE other service in your life where you can walk in, expect the service people to me ALL of your needs and you pay nothing?  Oh yeah, there are none, because they do not exist.  How much you feel you need to tithe is between you and God.  But it is hard for me to imagine that you go to church every week and God says, “Just leave, give them nothing, that’s totally awesome.”

Three things:

Thing one:

Churches are a business.  Well, not exactly.  But keeping up a church involves many of the same things need to keep a business up.  Many church services exist in buildings that must be maintained.  Maintaining a building involves: rent fees, maintenance fees, upkeep, electricity bills, water bills, etc.  Buildings are managed by people: secretaries, maintenance, treasurers, etc.  Church services – be they Sunday service or extra-curricular – are run by people.  People – need – money – to live.  People want so badly to believe that churches are run on some type of magic where they can survive simply off of wishful thinking.  But, well, that just isn’t true.  Churches – need – money – to exist.

Thing two:

At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, we live in a capitalist economy.  And even in a socialist economy, things still get paid for via taxes.  So if you want a good or service, you have to pay for it.  I get that things are tight and money as tight and – let’s be honest – you are really cheap.  How do I know you are cheap?  I know you are cheap because I work in market research, where the bottom line is the only thing that matters.  You, my dear consumer, are cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap.  You want everything for the cost of nothing – including any “Christian” service.

Thing three:

I am quite sick of the expectation that those who are Christian servants should be very poor and suck it up.  I have heard people use the “they are servants of Christ” to justify paying people WAY less than they deserve.  Christian professors get paid way less because they are “doing God’s work.”  Missionaries, pastors, priests, nuns… they are expected to live, eat, and take care of their families – all while serving dozens of people – making below poverty line wages.

“Well, God calls his servants to give up earthly goods and just be poor.”  If you think about it, we are all called to do God’s work and to serve God’s people.  So if you give me that thinking, then it is fair for me to expect that you should live sparsely as well.

The thing is, excluding those rare tv pastors who rake in money, I don’t know a single pastor or pastor’s family who lives above the median income.  Every single pastor I know – by government definition – is poor.  Which means, my dear church-goers, you are living every day of your life okay with that fact that the person you want to serve you at your wedding, your funerals, your family’s funeral, and basically – every beck and call moment of you life – sometimes doesn’t have enough money to: pay rent, buy groceries or even buy clothing.

That, to me, is wrong.  The fact that people expect someone to be at their beck and call, but then give them nothing for it – is not right.

Pastors and missionaries don’t need to be millionaires, but neither do you!  They do, however, deserved to have enough money to take care of their needs.