Week 11 Devotional: Experiencing God: A Freely Chosen Spiritual Life

Experiencing God: A Freely Chosen Spiritual Life

Just outside the town’s gate, a starved widow gathered sticks to create a fire that would cook her last meal. She was starving to death. The prophet Elijah, after hearing God’s life-saving instructions, met her at the gate (1 Kings 17:7-16).

Upon meeting, Elijah instructed her to give him a morsel of bread and attempted to soothe her fears. Elijah, a male and prophet with social privilege, reiterated God’s reassurances for her and her life: “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17:14). The widow simply did as Elijah instructed.

Most likely, the widow was unable to read the Hebrew Bible, but she was, however, willing to rely on God. The widow was eager and open to experience God first-hand—she didn’t need social privilege to do so.

Many of us have felt adrift and nomadic in our spiritual lives. Wandering near the influential gates of our lives, where the safety of normalcy meets the open, bare wilderness of options, we find ourselves at spiritual thresholds. And sometimes we end up in the wilderness to gather sticks because we’re starving for something more. Our hunger forces us to confront the spiritual impasses, but then we negotiate within ourselves: to venture into the unknown landscape or remain in the safe confines of our comfort zones?

The laws of our internal cities, where we’ve forged a relationship with God, are often well-defined. They provide boundaries that stabilize peace and give us rubrics that guide our moral code. But sometimes, that which is safe doesn’t give us the option to experience what can be. The wilderness is where angels are wrestled, our names are changed, and Satan is confronted. It is also the place where God shows up (Genesis 28:10-17; 32:24-26, Luke 4:1-2).

The call to experience God might just take place when we choose to step beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones, so we can experience God internally, in our relationships, and in our everyday lives. The internal world where our spirituality is maintained has the potential to be bigger than we know.

Jesus was all about experiences: healing the sick, performing miracles, speaking to hundreds, and interacting one-on-one. Without needing to confirm any other facet than sheer belief, Jesus created experiences that convinced people of God’s presence.

When we are as eager to experience God as we are to rely on a theology about God, we will undergo a paradigm shift—just like the woman who, at one point, prepared for her last meal. The widow realized she wouldn’t get a farmer’s silo stocked with flour and a well full of oil. She received just enough, one day at a time. God is a daily-bread God (Matthew 6:11). She had found her life source.

In the same way, we are challenged to step into the experiences that expand our spiritual lives and allow us to tap into a different form of spiritual vitality. Although we must keep our experiences accountable to Scripture, we must also be open to walking on the edge—where the safe city meets the bare and unpredictable wilderness—to experience God. Thomas Merton, an influential monk and world-renowned theologian, would call this “contemplation.”

God is bigger than the Bible. God transcends doctrine, theology, and that which is known. Experiencing God gives us the courage to believe what we believe, not because others have taught it, but because our interactions with God have been the final proof.

In his interactions with those to whom he ministered, Jesus was good at getting us to move our gaze from ourselves and our theologies to life-changing experiences made possible by God; we participate by proclaiming, “I believe” (Matthew 9:28). We might be enamored with shiny theologies or want to joyfully engage doctrine, but what we really hunger is what Jesus pointed us to: God.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  • When have you been ‘gathering sticks’ to realize that God showed up just in time?

  • How might you be called to trust the ‘daily-bread God’ in this season of your life?

  • Is prioritizing an experience with God new (or require renewal) for you? If so, do you have any fears or biases that might color your interactions with God?

  • Is there an area in your life where you are seeking or needing an experience of God?

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Week 10 Devotional: Connecting to God Authentically

Connecting to God Authentically

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”- John Steinbeck

Last Christmas, my niece, Madison, wrote to Santa for a pogo stick—and, goodness gracious, she wanted it desperately.

For hours on end, Madison practiced bouncing up and down after unwrapping her treasured present. She is a tenacious, just like her mom. She would fall. She would hop and teeter to the left and then the right. Initially, Madison found more frustration than success.

Madison, an 8 year-old at the time, would coach herself as to what was not working and how she needed to adjust her stance and technique. Occasionally, she would whisper motivational quotes to herself. Eventually she mastered the pogo stick, but she never realized I had been listening and observing her tenacity. I hope she would have done the same exact things if she knew I was watching.

I want Madison to feel so safe with me that she neither loses, filters, nor minimizes her authenticity in front of me.

In last week’s devotional, I wrote: “Our perfectionism—an idealized litany of standards that rob us of experiencing true safety—will produce shame.”

I want her to avoid perfectionism at all costs, which means there will be a time when I have to protect her from my expectations and my criticisms. I never want her to believe she is better off hiding her genuineness than unleashing it in front of me. We see this type of protecting love wonderfully scattered throughout the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

I am enamored with Jesus’ ministry. Every person with whom Jesus interacted seemed to walk away from their exchange having experienced a major transformation: Zacchaeus realized he was a community member (Luke 19), the Samaritan woman at the well learned she was free from shame (John 4), the woman who pulled the hem of Jesus’ garment discovered she wasn’t dirty (Luke 8), the woman who introduced us to the alabaster moment discovered she was just as profound and powerful as any Pharisee (Matthew 26). Jesus was in the business of reminding us of our God-created identities. He wanted us to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were created as the imago Dei (as the image of God).

Jesus, in his famous Beatitudes sermon, stated a very simple phrase that has the power to deconstruct our pillars of shame, tear down our facades, and assuage our fears. It resounds with tones of the imago Dei, defining our inherent role as God’s masterpiece:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

One interpretation of this passage claims that “pure in heart” refers to our motivations. But what if the purity of heart that Jesus mentions is the purity of our internal disposition? What if “pure in heart” refers to a shameless self-understanding or a solidified and confident self-perception? The Beatitudes seem to center on a person’s disposition, rather than how a person behaves.

Jesus’ one-liner could suggest that the disposition of a person pure in heart may be a reflective mirror, allowing us to see ourselves as God’s wondrous creations—an identity that shifts the manner in which we present authenticity to the world, and the way we bond to God. When we see ourselves as God’s masterpieces, we have the opportunity to see God in ourselves and each other.

Wouldn’t it be silly to try to hide the painting from the painter?

Here’s the liberating truth: We cannot fabricate authenticity. In fact, one of my favorite theologians, Richard Rohr, wrote a statement that transformed the ways I understand human authenticity. He writes:

“We have to let go of the passing names by which we have tried to name ourselves and become the ‘naked self before the naked God.’ That will always feel like dying, because we are so attached to our passing names and identities. Your bare, undecorated self is already and forever the beloved child of God. When you can rest there, you will begin to share in the very ‘mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16).”

Falling in love with the way God loves us and being bold enough to love ourselves with the same tenacity is the key that unlocks the painter’s masterpiece. Expressing our unrestricted authenticity gives others the permission to know and see our truest essence. We will forget what invisibility and isolation feel like. We’ll feel safe to create bonds that stands the test of time. In this way, authenticity gives us the power to create the relational intimacy we’ve craved.

It’s easier than it sounds. Authenticity is vulnerability. Being bold enough to show someone your unfettered and undecorated self means you have the stamina to withstand judgment. In this context, we participate in an exchange of sacred vulnerability, whereby our raw and genuine expressions not only expose our authenticities, but also invite others to do the same. You will discover relational safety—a freedom to genuinely encourage another to embrace their own essence. Vulnerability breeds vulnerability.

God rejoices in us even when we don’t even realize. Whether on a pogo stick, in a relationship, or in a moment of pure delight, God connects with the pure hearts God created.

Drop the façade and pick up your resilience. Whether you bounce with tenacity or talk to yourself with words of self-encouragement, God wants to bond with the child God created, not the façades we produce. Trust the authenticity of God’s love and you’ll discover an invitation to live and love undivided within yourself.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  1. Have you grown more accustomed to protecting yourself from rejection than protecting your authenticity?

  2. How might you hide your authenticity from others and God?

  3. In order to reconnect with your pure heart, what façades, fears, or internal shaming narratives need to be addressed?

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Week 9 Supplement: The Power of Belovedness

The Power of Belovedness

I have been serving as an advocate for LGBTQ+ people for a long time. But as a mainly straight person, it took me a long time to really understand, at a deep-gut level, what being an ally was all about and what Pride celebrations were all about.  And I have to wonder if maybe some other kind, well-meaning straight people might be in a similar boat.

My lack of “getting it” wasn’t because I didn’t care about LGBTQ+ people.  It wasn’t because I was homophobic or transphobic. It wasn’t because I didn’t know the right language to use. It wasn’t because I was hung-up on scripture. It wasn’t because I was a hateful bigot.

My lack of “getting it” probably wasn’t even readily apparent. Afterall, I was serving in ministry to cultivate places where LGBTQ+ Christians could connect with God and with each other.  There was certainly some theological unlearning to do and the ministry has evolved fairly radically over the years. But the deep understanding I needed wasn’t really about those things.

It was a lot more personal than that.

Truth is, I had internalized the idea that God was oppressive. Oh, I wouldn’t have worded it that way. But somehow it became my assumption that God would constantly and consistently expect and demand hard things of me, that suffering was the dominant motif in the Christian life, and that my personhood really only existed so that I could submit and surrender it to God.

Truth is, my being was rife with internalized misogyny.  Women were second class citizens in most of the contexts I found myself in – including church.

Truth is, I was riddled with shame. “Don’t get too big for your britches.”  “Who do you think you are?” “How dare you?”

I didn’t really “get” what being an ally was or what Pride celebrations were really all about because I wasn’t an ally to myself and I couldn’t conceive of a Pride celebration for someone like me.

And I have to wonder, when I hear the tone-deaf refrain, “When are we going to have a Straight Pride month?”, that mixed in with all the resentment, and lack of awareness, and potentially toxic mix of fear and disgust, if there isn’t a cauldron full of self-hatred and shame lurking.

I am grateful for all that I have learned about dynamics of privilege and power. It has profoundly impacted how I understand the incarnation of Jesus. And it has helped me understand how essential integrating an anti-oppressive lens is. But, if something hadn’t shifted in that deep place within me where self-hatred and shame resided, I’m not sure that just learning about these things would have really helped.

What really shifted and changed everything was practicing and choosing to live into my belovedness.

Intellectually, I’ve known my whole life that God loved me. But how can you receive love from your oppressor? Stockholm syndrome has revealed some of the crazy things that happen to our minds when we’re trying to survive – but the sense of loyalty and commitment that can arise in these situations aren’t anything close to the power of true love.

The problem wasn’t with God.

The problem was with my conception of God.

And it was LGBTQ+ people who helped me deconstruct the violent and oppressive conception that held me captive.  I always believed that the church was impoverished if LGBTQ+ people were missing. But it was witnessing their courage and resilience and sometimes defiance to take their rightful place as beloved children of God that moved something deep within me – and imperceptibly it began to take root in my own heart.

“I am beloved of God.”

It has become the refrain of the Generous Space community. And every day I see it taking root in hearts and changing people’s lives. For some of us, it isn’t an easy thing to live into this truth consistently. But that is where I see the beauty of our community as we affirm and speak this into each other’s lives again and again and again. Knowing I am beloved isn’t a silver bullet for all human struggles. We still share the pain of mental illness and emotional anguish. We still long for deeper wholeness. We still grapple with finances and housing. We still ache from broken relationships. But, living into our belovedness reminds us that we are worthy of dignity and respect. We deserve to know and be known in a safe and loving community. And we are held by a God who works for our good. And for many of us, that is a huge change indeed.

So when I reflect on all of this, the transformation I have experienced and witness everyday in the Generous Space family, I stand in awe of the power of belovedness.

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Week 9 Devotional: Connecting To God Out of Fear

Connecting to God out of Fear

Out of desperation, I imagine, Moses’ mother made a basket out of papyrus, tar, and pitch. Pharaoh wanted her son dead; she wanted to ensure his survival (Exodus 2).

After being placed in the raft-for-one, Moses floated to Pharaoh’s daughter. The irony is uncanny. Moses, a Hebrew-born Israelite, became what we would consider Pharaoh’s adopted grandson. Pharaoh, as you may know, was an Egyptian ruler who enslaved Moses’ people.

I can imagine Pharaoh’s daughter reaching into the basket.

But I wish I could take account of Moses’ experience of being picked up and out of that papyrus basket, or even a newborn’s perspective of being plucked out of a crib. Developmental theorists like Jean Piaget claim that in a sensorimotor stage, wherein an infant has no concept of self or other, it must feel as though parents are God-like figures who swoop down to pick us up when we coo, cry, or need relief from our discomforts. According to psychosocial theorist Erik Erickson, it is when these God-like parental figures develop timely response patterns to infants’ cries that children learn to trust not only the power of their own cries, but also the safety provided by their attentive parents. Crying initiates soothing results. In other words, infants in healthy relationships will grow to trust the God-like figures who swoop in to acknowledge and meet their needs.

In unhealthy circumstances, however, our dependencies may leave us more confined than safe. In this light, those who protect us may very well become the ones who control us.

For example, I spend many hours talking with children of religious parents who negotiate, plan for, and often strategize their coming out processes. As a means of creating tranquility, they describe patterns they have unknowingly fallen into- maintaining their parents’ happiness by hiding their authentic selves. To them, it is beneficial to disguise their genuine selves as a way to preserve their parents’ peace and familial cohesion. To these children—one of which I was—pretending is better than flat-out rejection.

Their hidden pattern directed towards their parents is designed to beguile with self-denial. They either subconsciously or overtly believe they maintain belonging and stability by buffering, filtering, and hiding their genuine personhood. They articulate a profound, yet subtle statement of dependency gone awry: those who protect us often control us.

Truth be told, many LGBTQ+ children have connected to their parents out of fear instead of safety.

As children who were often swooped up by a God-like figure from cribs, bassinets, and car seats, we develop a type of safety (either stable or weak) that extends into adolescence and young adulthood. The coming out process forces us to reckon with, and often assess, the type of safety we have grown to call enough. Some of us come out with complete confidence in our parents’ unwavering love; sadly, many others of us cannot trust our parents because they have shunned us with angry and hardened hearts. Their safety is revealed as limited and condition-based.

I would imagine Moses felt the same way. He was, after all, a Hebrew child growing up in an anti-Israelite Egyptian home. In fact, after killing an Israelite-abusing Egyptian, Moses ran away because Pharaoh wanted him dead. One might assume Moses would receive a royal pardon, especially as a member of Pharaoh’s family. Instead, Moses was forced to flee to Midian for safety. The familiar echo resounds: those who protect us often control us.

Here, many of us may relate with Moses—the man who found refuge in a faraway city and the one who fearfully covered his face from God at the burning bush. He, too, may have had a fickle sense of safety. But unlike Moses, who encountered God directly, we still fear for our worth. We, too, might feel like an outsider living in a tyrant’s home, all the while believing perfection will keep the overlord cool, calm, and collected.  When the relational Red Seas part because of the emotional battles we wage, particularly in the process of coming out or living out, you may seriously question if, to God, you are the Israelite being saved or the Egyptian about to drown. In our attempt to play the present-day role of the Israelites, many of us aim for perfection because we fear God’s answer.

Our perfectionism—an idealized litany of standards that rob us of experiencing true safety—will produce shame. Where shame exists, we will find fear. Where fear exists, we will create a durable façade. And when we believe and trust in our façades, we lose the power to connect to others genuinely and intimately. On the most subconscious, foundational level, we will starve to be accepted and perpetually wonder if we’ll ever be good enough.

When life’s circumstances take us down the river of turmoil, we will question whether or not our raft is bound by buoyant love or destined to dissolve in certain conditions. Many of us who have feared coming out, as well as the parents, allies, and clergy who dared to love us unconditionally, question whether or not to trust an Abba parent or fear what feels like the tyranny of an overlord.  

Many of us believe God is more pleased by our perfectionism than our fallible humanity.

Trusting God with who we are does not mean we tense up, cross our fingers, close our eyes, and hope that everything turns out just fine. Trusting God means falling in love with the way we are loved by God, and then loving ourselves with the same liberating, radical acceptance.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  1. Are you brave enough to love yourself like God loves you?

  2. Have you connected to God out of fear? If so, are you willing to replace perfectionism with self-love even while you are perfectly imperfect?

  3. Can you support another who might achieve for perfection's sake, particularly to facilitate their journey towards discovering a felt sense of inherent value?

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Transgender Day of Remembrance

Written by Paula Williams, Q Christian Fellowship Board Member

November 20 marks an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in the United States.

In 2018, 22 transgender individuals have been murdered in the United States this year. Almost all have been young transgender women of color. Globally, between Oct. 2017 and September 2018, there are 369 cases of reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people (TransRespect.org). This constitutes an increase of 44 cases over the prior year and an increase of 74 over two years prior (TransRespect.org).

Under the current political climate within the U.S., violence against the transgender population has been on the increase. When federal employees in the U.S. are instructed to stop enforcing existing regulations protecting the rights of transgender workers, you know we have a problem. When legislation has been proposed seeking that the United States should only recognize the gender listed on one’s birth certificate, we have a problem. And when irresponsible political rhetoric causes increased violence, we have more than a problem. We have a travesty.

I am a transgender woman of privilege, with opportunities for employment, influence and friendship. I have a supportive family. I have been able to travel freely with very little concern for my safety beyond that experienced by any female. But with the escalating rhetoric against transgender people, I am more frightened than at any time since I transitioned. I can only imagine how difficult it is for transgender women and men of color.

The problem goes deeper than the violence done to the transgender community by outsiders. The atmosphere created by the religious right and the current political climate has wounded transgender people deep within their own souls. Did you know that the most common reason for post transition suicidal ideation is the internalization of transphobia?

We are not immune to the messages of our culture, casting us as a population that should be legislated out of existence. We know rhetoric is not empty. As we’ve seen with the bombers and shooters who have recently targeted politicians on the left and sexual and racial minorities, words incite violence.

Those words also burrow deep within our own psyches. When there are blatant attempts to legislate us out of existence, no wonder so many transgender people internalize those words in ways that can be dangerous to our own wellbeing.

Last week I learned from a tribe member that the Ojibwa people have seven gender identifiers. Many other Native American tribes have five. All of them celebrate and revere those they call "Two Spirit" people. I find it fascinating that those who never heard the story of Jesus are more like Jesus than the Christians who have sold their souls for political power.

During this week of remembrance, we pray for the many who have lost their lives in 2018, and we pray that all Americans, and especially evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, will learn to follow our better angels and stop the violence against all transgender people.

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Week 8 Devotional: Never Unclean

Never Unclean

My partner and I sat across the table from my father at our favorite restaurant. We had just finished breakfast. My father counted down from 3 and told us to smile. He snapped a photo with his new camera. It was the first photo that my father took of us. More than that, it was the first time my father made a gesture that acknowledged I was in a relationship with another man.

My father and mother have been pastors most of my life. They have lived their lives steeped in the tenants of the Assemblies of God, preaching to the largely Hispanic/Latinx congregations they’ve started over the years. It was in this context that my coming out led us into awful and often angry debates surrounding the cause of homosexuality and the “choices” I did or did not have in the matter.

Our arduous and painful debates affirmed my early understanding of my parents’ sexual ethics, particularly around homosexuality. I knew where they stood theologically. According to my resentment-based assessment, they had written off my sinful soul some time ago.

Angrily, I had made my assumption because it was customary to hear my parents preach anti-LGBTQ sermons promoting the perception that anyone in the LGBTQ+ community was a deviant and unwelcome in their place of worship. Their position of the early 2000s felt static. And after all those years, even after coming out, I assumed it was still the same.

It was not until a recent phone call with my parents—inspired by Q Christian’s side-by-side dialogue—that I got to talk about my fear during those sermons and the months before and after my coming out. As I told them about how I planned on them kicking me out of the church, family, and our home, my mother gasped in disbelief. In response to those memories, both my mother and father repeated more times than I could count, “You are inherently valuable and I love you because you are my son.”

My assumptions of my worth and their theological positions had been off-kilter, after all. Our story mimics one we read about in Acts 10.

God had taken two men with differing religious backgrounds, Peter and an Italian named Cornelius, on a similar journey.

Cornelius prayed to God and gave gifts to the Jewish people in his community. After being heard by God, God orders Cornelius to send for a man named Peter—a man who was a devout Jew. About the same time Cornelius is getting his instructions from God, Peter has a vision where he is instructed to eat animals that were considered to be unclean according to Jewish law. Like any God-fearing Jew, Peter, in his vision, refuses to eat the animals. God speaks to him once more: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). Peter has no clue what this vision is designed to teach him.

The next day Peter meets Cornelius’ men and they travel back to the Italian community of Caesarea, where Cornelius and others assembled to hear from Peter. Upon arrival and out of confusion, Peter inquires as to why he’s been summoned by God. Cornelius tells him how he had been praying and giving gifts, and that he had received the instruction from God. Cornelius was vulnerable in sharing his story in front of Peter. Because of Cornelius’ honesty, Peter realized the true meaning of his vision.

We read in Acts 10:34, “Opening his mouth, Peter said: ‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.’” Both Cornelius and Peter’s vulnerabilities and actions were necessary for the two of them to see one another differently.

Both of them had learned the message my parents reaffirmed on our phone call: We belong in God’s family because we are all inherently valuable.

What I find more interesting is that God used two members of different faith backgrounds, in the ancient text and in the present day, to convince one another, through a series of circumstances, visions, and acts of faith, that all are inherently valuable: I feel loved because my parents looked past my identity and beliefs and cherished my inherent value. I love them, not for what they believe, but because they play an irreplaceable role in my life.

It wasn’t our commonalities that compelled us to believe in God’s expansive love; it was our differences. Let us not call anything unclean that God has made holy, not even one another.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  1. Have you embraced your inherent value?

  2.  How might God be calling you to see something as clean even when it seems unholy, either about yourself or your neighbor?

  3. How might you need to embrace the inherent value of another, even if they are your theological, political, or social opposite?

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