Jessica Rathbun-Cook finished her Masters of Divinity at Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2012, and is hoping to start a PhD program in the fall of 2013. Put simply, Jessica wants to tell people that God loves them. She sees that love expressed in community, and hopes that, in being known and knowing one other, we may begin to see everyone we meet as a child of God. She blogs at http://www.clatteringbones.com/
“The Place Where We Are Right,” by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right / Flowers will never grow / In the spring.
The place where we are right / Is hard and trampled /Like a yard.
But doubts and loves /Dig up the world /Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined House once stood.
I always kind of chuckle when people ask me how my partner and I met.
“We actually grew up in the same church,” I reply, “so we met when we were in pre-school.”
This answer elicits a range of replies – most often rooted in some form of surprise. Though I have a number of childhood friends who have married people from my hometown, I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Presbyterian youth groups (especially in East Texas) are not usually the place where same-sex partnerships begin. Though we weren’t really friends in high school (we went to different schools and were a grade apart), and started dating about a decade after moving away from Texas, our relationship was built upon a foundation of care for one another that had been laid by the church community that raised us. In many ways, we learned what it was to be part of a faith community from being part of that faith community. We learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t our parents, to be challenged and taught to live into our beliefs, because it was modeled for us in the lives of the people who took the time to teach us Sunday school, direct us in youth choir or bell choir, take us on trips. The people in the congregation took the time to listen to us, to ask us tough questions – they showed us what it was to be loved.
When we got married, my partner and I received a number of gifts from some of those people who’d played such a big part in bringing us up. One of the most treasured of those gifts is a set of wind chimes we got from one of my favorite Sunday school teachers. They came with a note, telling us that the wind chimes were meant to be a reminder of our love for one another, so that even in the more difficult times we were sure to face we would have something to bring us back to the commitments we made, and the love we share. As I write this, I can hear the wind chimes on our back porch being played by the cold air that sweeps through every minute or so, and it is with joy that I am reminded of that love.
Last year, after the ordination standards of the PC(USA) changed, opening up the way for the ordination of LGBT people, 75% of the members of my hometown church voted to leave the denomination. Among this 75% were the bulk of people who had been most formative in my faith. The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, have now left the denomination because LGBT people (people like me and my partner) can be ordained. Because we live several states away, we didn’t have to hear people call us an abomination, unnatural, or unrepentant sinners (that burden has largely fallen on the shoulders of our parents and on the 25% who’ve remained in the congregation). We didn’t have to feel directly the vitriol that some of the members displayed at various meetings. I cannot help but recognize the irony in the situation – that the woman who gave us the wind chimes to serve as a reminder of our love for one another is no longer a member of the denomination precisely because people like us – LGBT people who feel a sense of call and want to serve as leaders in the church – can be ordained.
A few gusts of air just blew through, causing the chimes to clang with a briefly-heightened intensity. They remind me not only of my love for my partner, but also of love that was offered to me by the people who raised me in the church, and of the love made possible in a faith community. I am reminded that the church is a family, at times stunningly beautiful in its potential to make connections, and at other times heartbreaking in its imperfection and messiness. The chimes tell me that even those who love us and nurture us cannot always travel with us down the road we feel called to travel. They are a gentle reminder that we still exist in the now, even as we keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the not yet.
I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church. There are some days when my heart feels as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God. I temporarily forget that the church is made up of people, that it is imperfect. In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, with the inevitable pain that comes when we strive to live authentically with one another. Yet, in doing so, I am turning my gaze from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the bellies that are filled and the souls that are nourished. I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love and pray for the community, in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure.
“The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.” It is the doubts and loves that turn the soil, the places we are broken that allow growth to spring forth. What might the church look like if we honored the brokenness in one another, if we confessed our fear and our shame and the things we don’t know, rather than trying to convince ourselves that the ground of what we do know is a firm enough foundation to hold us all? Let us celebrate the unfamiliar, and see it as the opportunity to learn; celebrate our brokenness, and see it as the opportunity to be healed; celebrate our individuality, and see it as the opportunity to be part of something more. Let us celebrate the silence that comes in the breaking of our hearts, and see it as the opportunity to hear the whisper that tells us we are all worthy to be loved.