Why I've been going to an Episcopal Church

When I try to think about how I found my way into this place, I think all started after reading a few book written by Episcopalians. I didn't realize they were Episcopalians when I started the books, but by the end I really found myself identifying with their stories. They seemed like the kind of people I would hang out with. I thought to myself "I think I'll check out one of those churches one Sunday and just see what it's like." I just kinda stumbled into the place, like one stumbles into a coffee table in the middle of the night. I didn't show up because I wanted to read a lot during the service or because I love organ music, though I've come to enjoy those both. I started showing up week after week because it felt like a safe haven. It's the only place I've ever stepped foot into that didn't seem expect something of you. There was no push for me to beat my personal beliefs into submission in order to believe exactly as the rector did, no push for me to pray a prayer which my life depended on, and no push for me to start volunteering or anything. Not to say that the volunteering portion is bad, but I believe I've heard all of these things for so many years that I almost feel like I'm being pecked to death by a chicken every time I'm asked to do something.

There are a lot of things theologically that I haven't exactly gotten nailed down. Things like heaven and hell, what all salvation is entailed of, and who all is involved. I'm very slow to say who's "in" and who's "out" these days. There are parts of the Nicene creed that I have a hard time believing. I haven't gotten it all figured out. Never once have I been "rebuked" for not believing exactly as others would have me to believe. It appears that the Episcopal church is pretty welcoming of diversity of belief. Never once have I been forced to get it together or get out. There's an openness there that is refreshing. I would feel comfortable bringing by gay friends and straight friends there, in addition to my Christian friends, Muslim friends, Jewish friends, and Atheist friends, because I know they would all be welcomed and accepted just as they are.

I was in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago and decided to participate in an 8am Eucharist service before we started the rest of our day. Every church is a little bit different, so there were definitely cues that I had to pick up on such as "is it socially acceptable for me to sit during this part of the prayer or am I supposed to kneel?" Or "am I using the kneeler correctly? I think I may have it at a bad angle. My leg is hurting. Let me slide it forward just a little bit," which then caused a loud screech against the cement floor of the chapel.

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I didn't really bring church clothes with me on the trip, but my church in Wilmington is rather informal, so I had hoped for the best when I walked in. There were probably 8 other folks who showed up. There were older folks there, both black and white; some dressed nicely and some dressed down. There was me, in a hoodie and jeans, and then there were two guys who appeared to be homeless. They were napping in the chapel when I walked in and one of the guys kindly handed me a bulletin after I blindly walked past the stack of them on the way in. I was happy to be in a diverse room of people. As we were waiting for the service to begin, the silence of the place washed over me. It gave me permission to lay down my arms and discard any kind of mask I wanted to put on. In a way, it was like the silence stripped me of my false identity, left me naked, and allowed me just to simply be. The silence in each Episcopal service I've attended has affected me in the the same way. It's disarming and peaceful in equal measure. As we went through the service we read the creeds, prayers, scripture passages, and then the pastor preached a sermon on the sovereignty of God in the context of the Big Bang. It was the first time I hadn't heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting. It was a beautiful sermon, which went a little long for my taste, but beautiful nonetheless. When it came time to pass the peace, because it was such a small setting we all got a chance to look each and every person in the eye, shake hands, and say to one another "God's peace."

Then it came time for Eucharist. We were invited to kneel around the table together while the rector came around and fed us each the bread and wine. Whenever I was kneeling and chewing the piece of bread, I started to tear up because something about this moment just felt right. I thought to myself, "I'm at the same table as the middle aged black man in the nice suit and the older white couple and the homeless guys. We're all kneeling. We're all being fed. We're all eating the same bread and literally drinking from the same cup."

I think that's why I can't manage to pull myself away from the Episcopal church right now. Everything is centered around this one moment where people of all ages, gender identities, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and backgrounds are welcome to come to the table and receive the elements. Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It's a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

I've started crossing myself, walking the labyrinth at my church, and reading from the book of common prayer when I'm not sure what to pray. The ancient practices and prayers are beginning to slowly but surely draw me back to the heart of the God I fell in love with 7.5 years ago, except in a different manner than I ever would have expected. I'm finding that God is much more inclusive and full of grace than I initially thought.

I'm not sure if I've found my home or if I will have moved onto something else in another couple of years, but what I do know is that this place has been beautifully restorative to me and I'm ever grateful for it.

LGH

2014: Travels, a paradigm shift, and journey of busting my ass

As I look back over the past year, it's almost hard for me to fathom all that has happened and evolved. It's been an expansive, life-shattering, grace-filled year. The year started out on the road with some friends. On New Year's Eve we were headed back from a Christian conference called Onething in Kansas City. This trip was where l first developed the insatiable desire to travel. There was something freeing about being West of the Mississippi. We slept in a friend of a friend's house, who we vaguely knew, with three of us to a bed. We ate delicious food that I eventually discovered had come from a dumpster. We lived like hippies. We walked down city streets and beside the freeway downtown in coveralls, flannels, and sweaters. We drove through the night and stuck our heads out the windows to look up at the most beautiful stars I've ever seen, in the Illinois sky. The conference itself wasn't quite up my alley, considering that there were folks convulsing on the floor and whatnot. But it was the experience of living in community, trying new things, and exploring new places that transformed me.

From that time until I left for China in May, life was pretty joyful. The most alive and joyful I've felt in years, actually. It was lovely. I had a sense of belonging and purpose.

Whenever I was first approached and asked if I'd be interested in studying abroad in China, I said yes. The thought in my mind immediately afterward was something like this: "Shit. Shit. Shit. There you go lying again. China is the last place I would ever want to study abroad." However, the more I thought about the prospect of China, the more I began to like the idea. It was a crazy idea.

May rolled around and for the first time in my life, I hopped on a plane and went to the other side of the world. I remember when we landed in Beijing, frantically trying to figure out where my belongings were and how to go through airport security. I remember the sound of our suitcases rolling out of the sliding door and onto the concrete outside of the airport. I remember the initial smell of China. It wasn't necessarily a bad smell or a good smell, just a smell. Like the smell of my childhood church or my grandmother's house, it had a smell. Something I'll always remember.

Life was incredible in China. Everything was an adventure-- ordering food, mailing postcards, running, riding the metro, and getting to know new friends. I wanted to stay there. I missed my family and knew they missed me, but China had my heart.

I was reborn in China.

On a weekend trip we went to the most beautiful place I've ever seen-- Emerald Valley. The mineral deposits on the bottom of the stream are a beautiful turquoise color. As a geology nerd, I was in heaven there. The waters were crystal clear. Million year old rock cliffs were towering above us. As we walked up the trail beside the water, something told me "you need to get in there." I wanted to jump in, but I had seen the signs warning us not to in addition to threatening looking security guards. "Besides, I don't even have an extra pair of underwear," I thought. I heard a splash and looked over to see a friend, who I love and look up to immensely, coming up out of the water with her hair plastered to her head. It was quite a ballsy thing to do. I had to follow suit now. The security guard yelled at her in Mandarin and then sent us up the trail. When we got further up and there were no security guards to be found, I decided to go for it. I thought to myself "this is going to be peaceful. Like a baptism," right before I slipped on a rock, fell in, and was immersed. Something shifted in me, though. I felt free and content as I was.

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Now that I think of it, I almost feel like that experience perfectly describes the past six months of my life.

I'm continually falling, busting my ass, being brought out of my legalistic ways, and into freedom.

I think my belief system and worldview were the foundation of my identity for a lot of years. To watch that whole belief system crumble and to begin to question and doubt a lot of things I once held to be foundational, was painful. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this past six months has literally been one of the most difficult seasons of grief I've ever been through. To watch some of those beliefs go was like losing a piece of myself. Those beliefs were there when the shit had hit the fan in my life. They were what I held onto when there was nothing else. When 90% of your friendships are built around a belief system, and then suddenly yours begins to evolve, friends become distant.

I've been angry. I've been depressed. I've had what from the outside looking in, appears to be an existential crisis.

This wasn't the kind of baptism I asked for. If someone would have told me all that would happen after China a year ago, I'm not sure that I would have had the guts to hop on the plane.

At this point it feels like I'm learning how to walk again. Learning how to fall again. Learning who I am again. Learning how to pray again. Learning how to love people again, except, this time without an agenda. Learning how to follow Jesus again. Learning how to be inclusive. Learning how let go of the boxes categorizing "us" and "them." Learning that the grace of God is so much deeper and wider than I initially thought.

If I had to do 2014 all over again, I would, with antidepressants in tow, do it all over again. Because it's been well worth the trip.

LGH

Race, Advent, and Shalom

Since I’ve been spending the past couple of months visiting an Episcopal church, I have really reoriented my life around the church calendar. All Saints Day, Christ the King Sunday, and now the Advent season. Though the holidays often involve a certain amount of stress, I’ve always enjoyed this time of the year. It always seems to feel like a journey of expectation, requiring a little bit of acclimation. The one thing that is really striking me this year is the spirit of peace. If you’ve watched the news lately, most of what you’ve probably seen is the antithesis of peace. After the Ferguson case, Eric Garner’s death, and the C.I.A. torture report that just came out, I’ve sat in front of the TV in tears. You see, these aren’t just stories on a TV in some far off place. These are other human beings with real stories, lives, hopes, dreams, and plans. To be honest, I’ve been angry more than anything else, because my gut just says there’s something horribly wrong with the acceptance of violence and discrimination in our culture.

There’s been this anger and aching in me for justice. For things to be made right. For humans to be treated like people made in the image of God, regardless of the color of their skin, their sexuality, or religion. For violence to cease to be our norm.

A couple of weeks ago one of the lectionary readings was from Isaiah 64. Our rector put a lot of emphasis on verse one as she talked a little bit about the injustices in the world and the righteous yearning for justice.

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

I found myself nodding my head in agreement as she preached.

That verse has been rolling around in my head and heart over the past few weeks as I’ve sat in front of the news. I’ve sometimes had rather heated conversations about race with my friends and family in response to the recent events.

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Notice that there’s an exclamation point at the end of that.)

Advent is the celebration of a peaceable king who DID tear open the heavens and come down. Shalom came down. History has been reoriented around him.

That greeting we say to one another at church each Sunday, “God’s peace,” has taken on a whole new weight for me.

At the end of the day, I think that’s the responsibility for people of faith (regardless of who you believe God is)-- to graciously steward the peace of God, or shalom, and pass it along to each person we come in contact with.

LGH

Dugar

Since my grandmother passed away 5 years ago, I’ve really had a difficult time holding it together on Thanksgiving. On Thursday morning I sat in a Starbucks in Richmond, VA, cried, and got snot all over their table as I thought about my grandmother. She was the kind of person who welcomed people as they were and always listened before she spoke. She was the family secret holder. She cared genuinely and would always go the extra mile. She was intuitive and tended to sense things before they happened.

Back in the days when I was a miniature, female version of Mark Driscoll, I would have conversations with my grandmother and leave frustrated. She wrecked my nice, neat understanding of the world because she had lived in it long enough to understand that not all things are black and white (though the picture below actually is).

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Sometimes whenever I try to imagine God and what He’s like, I think of my grandmother. I’m coming to see just how much her presence in my life influenced my understanding of the divine.

I called her “Dugar.” We’re still not sure where that name came from, but it’s all I ever knew her as. Her neighbors and church friends called her “Towana.” Her sisters called her “Wannie.” She was called “Aunt Wannie” by the nieces and nephews. My dad called her “Mom.” Granddad called her “Sugar” or “Sweetheart.” We all called her by different names, but we were referring to the same love and compassion, same voice, smile, and sense of humor. We were referring to the same woman with the scar under her left eye and the tan skin she inherited from her Cherokee ancestors.

Same woman, many different names.

I don’t remember her ever kicking me out of the kitchen because I was a kid. She always invited me to help in the preparation of anything she was cooking. Even though there’s not that much helping that a kid could have possibly done, I felt like I was important and favored. I was a part of the process. I was bringing something awesome to fruition.

She always invited me to get my hands dirty.

As a kid Thanksgiving was a gathering of city folk, country folk, straight people, gay people, liberals, conservatives, white people, black people, biracial people, people who smoke, people who didn’t, people with tattoos, and people who thought tattoos were sinful.

Everyone was welcome at the table.

Folding tables were taken out from behind the couch and made of use. We sat on the floor, front porch, on any available chair in the house. The place was packed. Casseroles and other dishes sat atop the washer and dryer. Any place that food could be sat, there it was laid.

We all had our differences and our flaws, but when we met together and ate, casseroles and turkey acted as equalizers. We were family, joined together, if not by blood, by the simple fact that we needed food for sustenance and all had a hunger for it.

I don’t claim to have a ton of things about faith nailed down, but the same things I described about my grandmother, I also believe to be true about God. That’s where my hope lies.

LGH

Losing and Finding

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the words of Jesus when he said that those who lose their lives will find them. I feel like my understanding of those words has always been something along the lines of “when you die to yourself and don’t do the things you want to do, you’ll lose your life in order to find a better life.” Yes, I think losing your life sometimes involves sacrifice, and it may look exactly like I described above. It may involve spending less of your money on coffee so you can be more generous. However, I also think that perhaps Jesus was talking about something deeper. I don’t think losing our lives to find them always looks the same. I don’t think we can anticipate what it means to lose our lives. I don’t think anyone ever chooses to lose their life. Who would want to? I’m in a season of life right now where it, at times, feels like I’m losing it, but not in the way I ever would have expected. The belief system I once held so tightly to is slipping between my fingers like sand. My understanding of God and a lot of life has evolved. I don’t say that lightly either. Things really have been shaken and shifted. There’s a reason why I see 3 different mental health professionals at this point…

I have a few good friends who are currently on the journey of losing their lives. Of course, they’re not literally dying, but there’s a lot of loss going on. My hope right now is that in the process of losing life we will, in fact, find it. My hope is that the lives we find will be vibrant and abundantly more fulfilling than the lives we lost. If we have to continue this process again and again and again, then so be it. Sometimes losing and finding are simultaneous. At least that’s the way I’m experiencing it at the moment. I’m learning to live and die, to celebrate and mourn, to bury and give birth, all at once.

I can’t say enough about how comforting Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Leaving Church” has been during this whole season. She truly has spoken right into my soul. In reference to these words of Jesus she says this:

“In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.

I can never quite get over how beautifully she describes this state. Flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. This is where we find life again.

LGH