On Leaving Our Church and Entering the Wilderness of the Unknown

February 1, 2017 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

What a weekend. What a week. What a weird, weird world.

Wild.

Weird.

Wonky.

Wonderful, still. Probably. Probably?

But for now, OH MY WORD.

My son has been throwing up since Saturday, and, with the state of the world right now, the state of my country, and the state of my church, that feels wholly appropriate to me. Like his body has offered the only reasonable response to what’s going on. Vomit.

We thought he was getting better by Monday, but NOPE. More puke. Cherry Popsicle just everywhere. Also, he keeps pooping his pants because gauging soft poopies versus farts is VERY, VERY HARD when you’re sick. He keeps laying in bed saying, “Sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let my poop out,” which is exactly how I feel. I’m trying, dammit, not to let my political or religious or familial poop out, but I’m not exactly sure when it’s going to slip out anyway.

In a turn of events that has taken us quite by surprise, given years of effort to stay together and stay in conversation, believing there’s room at the table for people who disagree, our broader group of churches — the umbrella organization of 60+ churches in our region called Northwest Yearly Meeting — has let us know those of us who are open and affirming of LGBTQ people must leave.

Because we belong to a church organization that operates based on consensus and not hierarchy, we didn’t see it coming. At all. In a group that purports to believe in consensus — that has the process of discernment over years if necessary written into its doctrinal statements — there was none, and there is no appeal. The decision was mandated, the process was bypassed, a “time sensitive” clause of questionable application was brought to bear, and, as a result, Greg and I and our children will be leaving the church family into which Greg was born and where we’d hoped to raise our children. Not right this minute. Not immediately. In fact, our smaller church — the one we actually attend — may stay with the larger group; it’s far too soon to tell, and they’ve made no decision yet. But within the next year and a half, we Woolseys will be leaving the Northwest Yearly Meeting and leaving behind Greg’s family, who advocated for the separation and who will, I assume, remain with the churches that have no room for us.

There are many things I don’t talk about in this space, though I’m sure, given all I do discuss, it comes as a shock I have any filters at all. Disagreements with extended family are usually one that stay on the down-low, although I assure you we have had plenty of disagreements. Some resolved. Some unresolved. Many that carry significant hurt, as I suspect is true for all families, everywhere. Now, I have a strange choice: to remain silent in an effort not to exacerbate the extended family’s pain and our own, or to speak out with the hope of alleviating the pain of those who have been made even more marginalized and vulnerable with this decision. With this type of theological purging, though, and with it the knowledge that our LGBTQ friends, an enormous number of whom are already at risk of assault and violence in the greater communityspiritual harm by church communities, and who are more likely to cause self-harm or engage suicide as a devastated response to the loss of family and community, I cannot remain silent. I cannot, from my silence, contribute to that loss and cause more harm to a people already so vulnerable. I can’t do it without it costing my soul. I won’t.

So. We will soon be without our broader church home. Our choices: adhere to a statement of human sexuality that categorizes homosexuality with incest, bestiality, pedophilia and rape, and remain with the church Greg was born into, with many people we love very much… or follow our conviction by the God whose other name is Love, and follow our best understanding of Scripture which is to welcome our beautifully and wonderfully made LGBTQ friends, to repent for the ways we’ve belittled and discriminated against them, both explicitly and insidiously, to ask for forgiveness, and to try to do and be better.

Our choice is clear. We will make our way in the wilderness of the unknown. 

It is, as my friend Paula put it, a rending.

This is a week when our country is in chaos with a ban on the world’s most vulnerable.

And a weekend when our church is in chaos with a ban on the church’s most vulnerable.

And in the midst of it, in the midst of the rending, we had one 10-year-old boy puking and his twin brother finishing, finally, after 13 months straight, Harry Potter Book 7.

I spent Saturday rushing between the puke bowl, Popsicles, Gatorade and cold wash cloths… and the child who was riveted by the ending of Harry Potter.

And, because I’m a mother, I hovered. And I worried. And I posted to Facebook, as he stayed up too late reading…

…and read into the next day.

FACEBOOK:
“Mom! You will never believe what Mrs. Weasley said to Bellatrix!

‘Not my daughter, you bitch!’
Ha! I think Mrs. Weasley is just like you, Mom.”
He has 11 pages to go. Harry Potter, Book 7.
#BeStillMyHeart #HarryPotterForever

……….

FACEBOOK:
“MOM! I love this! THERE ARE, LIKE, 100 GOOD FIGHTERS for every Deatheater!” 

He has 8 pages to go. Harry Potter, Book 7.
#ImportantReminder #InRealLifeToo #HarryPotterForever

……….

And then, he finished.

At the end of Saturday.

When our churches, apparently, finished with each other, too. The end of a long story, full of good and bad, that we’d hoped wouldn’t end.

As his brother puked, he finished Harry Potter Book 7, and I was a wreck.

HE was fine.

*I* was a mess.

I managed to ask him through my blubbering, weary and worn in more ways than one, what he thought, and he said, “It’s such a good story, Mom. SUCH A GOOD STORY. But why are you crying?”

“Oh my gosh!” I said back, “Dobby? Dumbledore? Lupin? Tonks? FRED, kid! FRED DIED. I just can’t. Twin boys, and one’s gone.”

I sat on the couch with tears streaming down my face, looking at my kid, one of my own twin boys, losing EVERY BIT OF COOL I HAD. Cool dribbling down my face.

And you know what he did? He reached out and held my hand and said, “But, Mom. You can’t lose heart during the bad parts. You need to think about the whole story. You need to think about how good wins in the end. Right, Mom? Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Oh my word, friends. Oh my word. Out of the mouths of babes. And out of the pages of Harry Potter.

You can’t lose heart during the bad parts.

You need to think about the whole story.

You need to think about how good wins in the end. And you need to do your part to make it so.

In conclusion, what a weekend. What a week. What a weird, weird world.

Wild.

Weird.

Wonky.

But wonderful, still. If you think about the whole story, anyway. And about how good wins in the end.

Sending love, friends,

 

 

 

P.S. Um… and now let’s talk about privilege. Because have you noticed how I’ve made this entire story so far about me and my family? MY sense of hurt and disenfranchisement? And Greg’s? Yes. I’ve noticed, too. I’m quite good, it turns out, at making things all about me.

My friend Elizabeth spoke my heart earlier this weekend when she wrote: “I am sad to be removed from the conversation and from the invitation to worship. I know you don’t understand this, but I actually think it is important to worship and be in community with people I disagree with. I want the opportunity to learn and grow from you. I want to get to know your kids at camp and I want to hear the Spirit speak through you in worship. I want to be witness to your gifts and challenged by your passions. But I can’t be and that is a slap in the face for this privileged middle class white lady. I suppose that is one good thing coming from this: an understanding that I never had before of what it is like to be rejected from a group of people you want to call your own. I promise I will spend the rest of my life working hard to not recreate this experience for anyone in the future.”

Our LGBTQ friends have suffered far, FAR more than what those of us who are removed from fellowship are experiencing this week. We are, in fact, SO privileged to have even been able to say phrases like “I want to be in community with people I disagree with,” because being in such a group did not come with the price of our sanity, our faith or our lives. Now we get to enter into a new kind of privilege; the privilege of experiencing, in a tiny way, the kind of disenfranchisement and marginalization our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have been experiencing for decades.

I am ashamed it has taken this long to enter your suffering, LGBTQ friends. I am grateful to get to do so now. You, of course, are the very ones who have taught and are teaching me how to be welcoming and gracious. Thank you for being Jesus to me.

 

It’s All on the Line. Like, EVERYTHING.

November 29, 2016 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

I’ve been hidey again these past two weeks. Partly because my burrito baby felt like the truest and best thing I had to offer the world in the wake of a haunting election, so why mess it up with more? Partly because I’ve been working hard at listening to All the People, especially the Afraid People and the Hurting People, but also to the People Who Think Very Differently Than Me because listening is a sacrament and holy. And partly because I’d convinced myself, as usual, that I have nothing to say because my thoughts are too many, and too loud, too complicated and jumbled to make sense. By now, of course, we know that last thing is my modus operandi; my M.O.; my area of expertise; my spiritual gift. And who am I to squander my talents? The Bible says whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability, and I am SUPER GREAT at self-doubt and silencing myself, so WOOHOO — look at me, rocking the heck out of that!

I have, of course, been responding to the rampant uncertainty and unkindness in all the usual ways. Panic, deep breathing, remaining calm, and panicking again in rapid succession, which is a form of prayer. Also, french fries. Also-also, a ferocity of conviction to DO MORE THINGS to help marginalized people. And binge watching the Gilmore Girls revival all in one sitting and ’til 2:00am because that’s a wise use of my time and emotional energy. (It totally is.)

I don’t know, friends; I just feel more and more like it’s all on the line again. “It,” you know? Everything. All the Things. Whatever defines me, and defines my family, and defines faith, and defines our country and communities; it’s all in need of review and unpacking and simplifying and purging and paring down to the barest essentials so we can Love Each Other Better, which is the Main Goal and the Biggest Thing and the most Of-God we get to be in the world.

I wrote once about unpacking my God box to find a truer truth.

And so it was that becoming a mother stripped me down to nothing and left me bare, exposed to my fears and my not-enoughness and my God. It was there, in that empty space, that I slowly began to unpack my Lunchables box, trying to discover whether any pieces of my God-meal matched a more significant, infinite, loving God who could sustain me… whether I could somehow mesh my easy, compartmentalized answers with my difficult, messy questions…. and whether, perhaps, I might find myself in the process.

My box was loaded with things that were striking to me in the way they didn’t fit with my understanding of a loving God. Things I was surprised I’d carried for years and in secret because I thought I would be shunned by the Church if I discarded them. Things that I thought were core to being a follower of Jesus, but which I found out… weren’t. Things like:

  • a Letter of the Law fundamentalism that’s married to mob-mentality politics,
  • “the Lord helps those who help themselves” and “love the sinner and hate the sin” and other trendy sayings that embrace a cringe-worthy sense of entitlement or judgment and, strikingly, aren’t in the Bible,
  • and the pressure to deliver the Horror of Hell story with enough conviction to scare people toward a merciful God and into Heaven

These and a thousand thousand other things stuck in my throat and became increasingly difficult to swallow. They clogged my faith and made it hard for me to breathe. And so, with the cacophony of “but you must believe these things to raise righteous children” and a great deal of uncertainty ringing in my ears, I let them go.

I let them go for the risky pursuit of an authentic faith.

You can read the whole thing here, but the crux of my current conviction is this: we’re here again, except this time collectively, and we’re flailing a little bit together. To find Love. To find Truth. To find Each Other. To find the things to hang our lives on, and to discard the things that keep us from what matters.

I’ll be writing more about this in days to come, but I’m going to have to let it leak out slowly. Incrementally. As I figure out which pieces of the boxes to unpack. Again.

Here we go, friends.

Here we go. Except I’m really glad we’re going there together.

With love as always,

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P.S. This was my face at 1:00am watching Gilmore Girls’ Fall, as messaged to my friend, Laney, lest I feel all the feels all alone.

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I just wanted to share it with you because I’m so pretty, and the point of the internet is to share pretty pics. Heh heh heh. Also, WE NEED EACH OTHER, friends.

P.P.S. Ferocity is totally a measurement of conviction. Do not even try to tell me otherwise, or I will have to tell you stories of about my mother that involve chainsaws and trees and a wireless phone and threats to call the police. Ferocity of conviction, I tell you. It’s a thing.

Heartfelt and Sort of Horrible but Also Honest Prayers for America and Her People, Some of Whom Are Undeniable Assholes, Sadly on Both Sides

November 11, 2016 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

A Prayer for America Knowing She’s Hurt and Hoping She’ll Heal but Not Being Sure of Much of Anything Right Now (and Because We Believe You, Oh God, Always Hear the Cries of Our Hearts Even When We Don’t Know Exactly Which Words to Use), We Pray in Earnest Devotion: Well, fuck.

Lord, hear our prayer.

A Prayer for the Marginalized and Vulnerable and Disenfranchised, Including Those Who Are LGBTQ, Refugees, Immigrants, People of Color, Women, Unemployed, Without Education: We beseech you, oh God, to be with those who are suffering, today and every day. Help us be on the lookout for those who need a champion, a defender and a friend. May we lend our hands and hearts to raise others’ voices up to a mighty chorus that sings and signals justice and mercy at hand, and may our neighbors in danger find refuge and sanctuary, equity and equality, safety and sustenance.

Lord, hear our prayer.

A Prayer for We Liberals Who Are Losing Our Everloving Minds: Dear God, we are running around like our hair is on fire. We are full — filled to the brim — with histrionics, angst and dismay. We are trying to channel our freak out into actual, practical, Real Loving Things to Do and Ways to Help the folks for whom we just prayed ^^^up there^^^, but, to be honest, we are not done panicking quite yet. When our neighbors are in danger, panicking is part of it. It’s OK. Panic, Help People, Panic, Breathe, Repeat; this appears to be the way of things when we’re made out of human and in the image of the Divine at the same time. Do help us Breathe, though, Lord Jesus, and, even more than that, help us to Conspire, which I just learned means Breathe Together. From the Latin con (with) and spirare (breathe), help us become Grand Conspirators; people who lead breathing exercises for a nation that needs to breathe Love in and breathe Love out. Breathe Love in and Breathe Love out. A Love Conspiracy all around. Also, help us to be a tiny bit less condescending and superior and insufferable even though we are correct in all of our thinking and all of our policies as You Yourself are aware. We confess we can occasionally be a teeeeeensy bit haughty, and our outrage isn’t always that much fun at parties, and we might, with your help, try listening better to our conservative friends and being less, well, dickish at times.

Lord, hear our prayer.

 

A Prayer for Our Conservative Friends Who Think We’re Sad Because Our Candidate Lost Which Isn’t the Crux of It at All But Seems to Be the Story Going Around Anyway: God protect them. Keep them safe from the red laser beams shooting from our loving liberal eyes. Lord, we know there are many, many Conservative Friends Who Mean Well, and Who Have the Very Best Intentions, and Beautiful Hearts (Really), and Who Genuinely, Deeply, Truly Believe They Are Saving Unborn Lives and the Economy and Vanquishing the Very Devil and Draining the Swamp and Heralding Hope; they do not want refugee lives lost, or people of color profiled, or disabled children huddling in fear of being beaten and shamed and mocked and ridiculed and called retarded at school, even though those things are Actually Happening. We suspect we may have more in common with our conservative neighbors than not, and that we hope for the same things, even though, God, just between us, we all know there are some who are Bigoted, Heartless Assholes. Sadly, the Conservatives do not have a corner on the Prejudice Market, or on Dogma, or on Intolerance, and, God, this sucks. It really, really bites, as we would Very Much Like to dump this all upon their doorstep. It’s our preference, we confess; BLAME THE CONSERVATIVES. And so, reluctantly, we ask you for Clarity, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, and the worst and most hopeless one of them all, Self-Control, that we might hear each others’ hearts and find our common ground and turn down our laser beam strength from Death Ray to Stun, or even, because you are a God of miracles, turn them off entirely so we can keep our eyes open and on the lookout for the Image-of-Godness in all people, even the conservative and liberal Assholes. Eventually.

Lord, hear our prayer.

A Prayer for Forgiveness and Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves Which is, Like, Totally Impossible but We’re Asking Anyway: Oh, God, who is capable of Forgiving All Things, even the Most Heinous Ones, in Others and Ourselves, hard though we find that to believe, teach us your ways. Your vast, endless, bottomless and mysterious ways called Love Our Neighbors as Ourselves, and Love Our Enemies, and that Everyone is actually Our Neighbor by Your definition, even though that goal is, like, impossible and we’ll never fully arrive there. Teach us, Lord, in your Infinite Wisdom and Grace, two of the things we lack most often, to suss out humbly and truly where we have wronged our neighbors and to say those words I detested when my mother, a complicated saint, made me say them to my horrible brother even though he Maligned me and Mocked me and Punched My Thigh and was Always Completely Wrong while I did Nothing and was Totally Right, “Please forgive me.” Ugh.

Lord, hear our prayer.

And, Finally, a Prayer That We May Someday, for Real, Form a More Perfect Union Where We Gather Huddled Masses Longing to be Free and Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident — That All People Are Created Equal; That They Are Endowed by Their Creator with Certain Unalienable Rights; and That Among These are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty please, Jesus? Please?

Lord, hear our prayer.

Amen

On Finding Our Foundation

May 12, 2016 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

My foundations are a little shaky these days. A little crumbly and in need of shoring up. Or in need of discarding, maybe; in need of abandoning as foundations at all and building anew, since I feel like I’m mixing sand and mud into concrete as fast as I can and throwing the muddled mess at the foundations of my politics… and the foundations of my religion… and the foundations of my religious politics… and it’s not sticking like I’d hoped.

Yes; my foundations are a little shaky these days. A little crumbly and in need of reconsideration, because, I suspect, they were built on shifting ground. Or over moving water. Or smack dab on a sinkhole, and WHOOSH, one day the ground moved. Trembled. Dropped out from underneath me. So I wondered where I’d built my life and how to find stability. How to be sure of my footing. Where I might find a solid base.

It’s just… they seemed like such good foundations. America! The Church! They said such pretty things. And they meant well. I just know they did. I was told they were worthy of my trust, and they sure seemed to be. They worked so well for so long. Or they didn’t, but I didn’t notice because I believed what they said about themselves, which amounted to the same thing for me.

Give us your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Please understand I feel ridiculous saying this, but the whole Donald Trump thing had me feeling adrift and bewildered, a little hopeless and kind of unnerved, not to mention weary and wary and afraid. Not because of Mr. Trump himself, necessarily. Not really. Even Optimistic, Pollyanna, “Practice Gratitude” Me understands there are Trumps in this world who will make false promises, bully and belittle the marginalized, take advantage of people who are hurt and angry, and then use those emotions to rally vocal masses to spread hatred and exclusion as though those are solutions and not the Very Core of the Original Problem. Yes, I know there are people like Trump in this world and in our country; there always have been and always will be and they will try forever to find public footing and to be in fashion. So no, it’s not Trump himself who made me feel jittery and queasy and on edge. It’s the fact that I thought America was better than this. More open. More welcoming. More likely to Triumph over Terror than to buy into it. More interested in extending a hand than closing the golden door. More eager to seek solutions based on loving our neighbors as ourselves and more likely to understand, in the end, that everyone is our neighbor.

My foundations are a little shaky these days. A little crumbly and in need of shoring up. And I’m embarrassed to admit that one of my foundations was apparently the Way I Perceived America to Be. To be shaken by a Trump type, after all, makes this Uncomfortable Truth clear; I built a part of my life and a part of my understanding and a part of my world on the idea that America is on a constant, upward trajectory toward Inclusion and Equality and Justice for All — and that even the leaders I disagree with are at least well intentioned — instead of accepting and practicing my responsibility to Beckon the Huddled Masses and Practice Global Citizenship, to Welcome the Stranger and move us on that trajectory with whatever Small Engine I possess.

America as a Savior! America as a Redeemer! America as a Comforter and Healer, I thought. Maybe not consciously, but thought it, I did.

I was wrong.

In God we trust, we say, but it was America herself in whom I trusted.

Instead of Love.

And I was wrong.

Yes, my foundations are a little shaky these days. A little crumbly and in need of a fresh start. Everything is a jumble and a mix and a muddle, and I’ve had a little trouble knowing where, exactly, to plant my stakes and my feet. Turns out, it’s not politics or nationalism. That’s not the foundation. And it disappoints me to tell you as a Good Christian Girl it’s not the Church, either.

No, it’s not.

Sadly, the foundation isn’t the Church; though, as someone who loves Jesus, I once thought it was, and I idolized her in the manner I was taught. Worshiped the Church. Believed everything she told me, including that she should be my ultimate authority and I subject to her each and every whim, whether or not it matched what Love Incarnate had lived and breathed and etched on my heart.

The Church, though, is made of humans. And humans are made of mud and broken ribs and divinity and magic and mess. We are quick to anger and slow to forgive and unspeakably kind and generous. We are transcendent and terrible. Shaky and stable. As likely to be territorial and vicious as we are to be welcoming and warm, and God knows we’re unlikely to tell you truthfully which we’ll be on any given day since we don’t always know ourselves.

The Church, it turns out, is like a family. Some of us have great ones. Unbelievable! Wonderful! We couldn’t imagine life without them! And some of us have to escape horrific abuse. Most of us live somewhere in the middle where our churches and families are filled to the brim with people who mean well and don’t, who are charitable and cruel, sometimes simultaneously because they’re complex and complicated and unfathomable in method and motive, and beautiful and brutal, too.

And so the Church cannot be our foundation. It simply can’t. There are too many shifting tides and moving trajectories and muddy motives. Too much determining Who’s In and Who’s Out, as it’s always been for time immemorial. Too many endorsements of the Crusaders and the Trump types. Too much focus on yoga pants. Like any structure that wields power, we can participate in it; we can value beautiful bits and precious pieces; we can allow that it’s worthy of our time and investment because, when used well, it spreads compassion and kindness. And it’s still not foundational. Which means when it Screws Up Royally, it doesn’t need to shake us. Because our foundation comes from someplace deeper. Someplace stronger. Someplace less likely to pulse and sway and collapse with every tremor, every storm.

It’s true that my foundations have been a little shaky these days. A little crumbly and in need of reevaluation.

And the more I live with that, the more I think… isn’t this great, friends? ISN’T THIS FANTASTIC? To learn that our foundations are crumbly and broken? To learn in time to build someplace stronger? THIS IS WONDERFUL. This is AMAZING. That we have this chance to discard the chaff and grasp the wheat; to let go of what does us No Good and find Sustenance.

We get to dig deeper. We get to find truer truth. We get to suss out what Makes Us Real like the Velveteen Rabbit before us. We get to look for Kindness, and learn Gentleness, and seek Faithfulness, and practice Patience (which is the worst), and learn to our bones that, at the end, these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But, friends, the greatest of these is love. The greatest of these is Love.

This is our foundation. That we love each other. Deeply. Wildly. Wonderfully. Well. Love made flesh and dwelling, still, among us.

I am neither leaving America nor the Church. I am simply recognizing they are no longer my foundations. They are no longer my sources. They are no longer my idols, worthy of worship or blinding loyalty, and I will push them and question them and challenge them as such, standing on a firmer, deeper, broader foundation which is all that’s left when the other foundations fall.

My foundation is Love. My foundation is in the God who goes by the same name. My foundation is in loving my neighbors as myself, and recognizing that everyone is my neighbor. My foundation lies in sitting in the mud. My foundation lies in living honestly. My foundation lies in waving in the dark. And in holding hands when we’re lost and alone and cold and afraid. And my foundation lies in waiting for the dawn with you. Waiting, always, for the dawn which is coming which is the same to me as Love itself.

Sending love to you, friends, from the new foundation, firmer and free,

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On the Pub and the Church and Doing a New Thing

February 3, 2016 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

I’m sitting at a pub in my little Oregonian home town tonight because a) it’s Whiskey Wednesday, b) my friend, Bubba, is working and can point neophyte me in the right whiskey direction (Basil Hayden Bourbon, y’all), and c) I’m trying to talk two of my favorite girlfriends — a pastor and a spiritual director — into running a spiritual formation retreat with me. It’s a good night, in other words, full of things that feel holy like water, whiskey and women who teach me how to love bigger and brighter and better and who think I’m awesome even when I fail completely at those things.

The music is loud in the pub — something with steady drums and the occasional tambourine, all ballady and wistful — and people in jeans and chunky sweaters are deep in conversation with friends, turned in toward each other and leaning forward to listen well. This place is community and it is a kind of church, too, in the Greek tradition of ekklesia, which was never about the building and always about the assembly of the people. A coming together for unity and common purpose.

My friends and I talk about the things we believe and how revolutionary and practical they seem. Like that we’re all unique and valuable, weird and wonderful, and wildly, desperately worthy of love. We perch on high stools at the rough-hewn wood bar, and we talk about calling and purpose and what it really means to love God and each other and how to invite those who have different ideas about God into our midst, to be our community, too, without the fear that we’ll try to coerce or convert them. We swirl ice in our glasses and talk about magic in the mess and finding God in the muck and mire and how we might reframe struggle as a worthy and rich place to meet Love and meet each other and meet ourselves. 

At the end of the night, I pay my bill which is clipped to a clothespin. I thank Bubba for the whiskey, and I hug my friends. I walk away with excitement about doing a new thing, and reminded that my purpose is to be the pub to people. I was told as a child with my Christian friends that we needed to learn to be the church, and that’s true in the idyllic definition of it; that Greek definition, which is a gathering of people whose goal it is to love and listen well and allow Jesus to infiltrate our hearts and minds and souls. It’s just that it’s hard these days to think the church is doing that very well. So for today, I’ll keep this pub in mind and welcome strangers and lean in toward my friends, believing we’re not separate and are, instead, a wild, weird, wonderful community, worthy of great grace.

With love,

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(Psst… more coming soon on the retreat! I’m over the moon.)

On Sunday Afternoon

November 8, 2015 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

IMG_7372IIMG_7367tIMG_7381IMG_7365‘s Sunday afternoon in November and the leaves are in a rush to vacate the trees. It’s like they’re mamas and they have urgent errands to run and important places to be, and the kids couldn’t find their socks again so now they’re late to arrive on the ground, unlike all the other leaves who seem to have it together and arrived much earlier, so they’re running to catch up. “Here are your socks, Kid Leaves, now go, go, GO!” and dozens of leaves spiral for the earth to win the relentless race against time and themselves.

The sky, gray and overcast already, is growing demonstrably darker, and I can hear distant thunder rumbling cautiously, trying to decide whether it ought to approach us or not, like we’re wild animals and unpredictable, even though we stay in our cages when it comes around. The thunder is probably right to be wary of us, and brave to come as often as it does.

It’s not usually my place to notice such things, having little time to stop and watch the sky. But it’s Sunday afternoon and, with the exception of the laundry tumbling round and round in our modern magic machines, All the Things I should be doing are on hold.

I’ve been rushing lately like the leaves and rumbling a little like the thunder, on the go rather constantly with places to be even though I don’t always feel brave enough to venture there, and, as a result, I’ve had hardly any moments to sit watch over my world. To act as gatekeeper and guardian. To find the missing socks. And so I find myself today wanting to hug the earth and rest my head in the mud and sit quietly, watching the sky and season change around me. I am, quite literally, in the calm before the storm, since storms are on the way always, and I am, just for this minute, at peace.

I’ve been wanting to write to you about prayer, friends, for quite some time — the rote record and strict structure I believed prayer was, versus the calmer and quieter and louder and freer way it’s turned out to be — and I meant to try again today, but every time I start to write it, I end up waylaid, falling beside the ocean or intercepted by the sky. So I’ll tell you this, instead: the back path to my house is muddy today, and it makes the feet of everyone who walks it messy. Those who enter my house that way inevitably track in mud and mess, but they bring magic and mirth in equal measure, and I greet them with gratitude and grace because all who arrive that way are my people.

I thought for years that prayer was a front door experience, and that I ought to arrive at God’s door via the conventional method, knocking politely, dressed pristinely, and wondering whether I’d be admitted, instead of tumbling through the back with twigs in my hair and dirt under my fingernails, having wallowed in the mire and rather enjoyed the mess. The older I get, though, the more I find people like me — those uncomfortable with the formality of the foyer — arriving at the back door, flinging the it open with enthusiasm and forgetting to shut it behind us in our hurry to reach the kitchen which is bright and boisterous and a little bit grimy.

Someone throws a pot of water on the stove while others rummage for the tea and honey, and we hand around a half-full bottle of whiskey to warm us while we wait at the big farm table that always has room for one more.

The storm comes and scatters leaves, which rush and rest and rot and are reborn, and we are, too. We are, too, friends, as we sit and swig around the table and swing back and forth on the pendulum from human to divine, fabulous and fallible and still somehow made in Love’s own image.

On Flip-Flops, Flailing and Faith

October 9, 2015 in Beth, But Seriously by Beth Woolsey

I should’ve known better than to wear flip-flops. Especially the kind with the higher, wedgy heel. It’s just that they were $0.99 at the Goodwill, had never been worn, and were in my size. What’s a girl to do? Still, I should’ve known better, flip-flops not being what they used to be… or my coordination, either. One or the other was to blame.

Either way, though, I tripped. Or, if not exactly “tripped,” what with nothing in my way to actually trip over, I at least managed to stumble, failed to catch myself, flailed wildly out of control, and, in no time at all, found myself face-down in gravel on the side of a winding road with a perfectly gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean.

I will tell you what; that view of the white sand and the raging waves dashing themselves relentlessly against the rocks, spraying foam into the azure sky is just as pretty whether you’re upright or ass-over-teakettle, friends, so feel free to take it in from any angle. They’re all good.

I was walking with girlfriends on the road with no sidewalk but with a plentiful gravel shoulder, and we’d just finished hanging out at a popular beach to celebrate a 40th birthday, so when I bellyflopped on the ground, I had both plenty of rocks to break my fall and passers-by to witness my rad walking skillz. I managed to embed gravel in my hands and in my knees and press some into my chin, chest and thighs for good measure, because the Bible says if you’re going to do something, you should do it to the best of your ability, and I’m a biblical girl.

I don’t know about you and how you are at doing stupid things in public, but I am, like, an expert at it. An expert who practices and practices and practices and keeps practicing because practice makes perfect, and, not to brag, but I’m getting damn close to being perfect at Stupid Stuff. So not only did I biff it like I meant it – GO BIG, friends! – I also assessed the heck out of the damage to my body once I’d completed my swan dive. With my belly resting on the rocks, my body just a touch bruised and bloody, and my brain a little bit giggly at finding myself spread-eagle in my swimmers, I sat up and checked out every part of me for damage, and, just like a small child who plays at the beach all day and finds sand in all the places later — all, “Oh my gosh!” and “How did this get there?!” and “Mom! CHECK THIS OUT!” — I found gravel down my top and up my inner thighs. WAY up, guys. Way, way up in there. It was amazing, y’all, the places that gravel traveled. That gravel was not kidding around.

Now, my friend Heidi implied I maybe shouldn’t have been looking for all the gravel in all the places in front of all the people walking by, but it wasn’t like I thought about it before I did it. Geez, Heidi. That is NOT how to perfect doing Stupid Stuff, after all; you definitely don’t think first. You just do Stupid Stuff, and it becomes second nature. But Heidi also said when those nice people across the street asked if I was OK, I probably shouldn’t have laughed with delight and hollered across the road, “I’m good! I just have gravel in all my bits! Like, ALL my bits,” while I sat facing them with my legs apart, brushing the rocks off. I mean, no offense to Heidi or anything, but she could use some How to Do Stupid Stuff lessons. Obviously.

It was a little while after the fall and after the assessing of the damage and after brushing off the gravel before I noticed my friends had their hands out, offering help up, but I eventually reached out for them, too, and we hauled me up together and washed me off and moved on, a little more battered and bruised, but in a good way, if that makes sense. In a good way, because I wasn’t sitting alone, after all, and I had a beautiful view while I sat in the mess, but also friends to give me a hand when I was ready to see it and accept it.

I got a message recently from Emma, except Emma isn’t her real name, so we’ll call her Not Emma, instead, like we tend to do around here. When Not Emma wrote, this is what she said:

Hello Beth!

I just saw this post on Humans of New York. They’re telling stories of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, etc. The last sentence is what got me, and made me think of you…

“This is the man who inspired us to begin helping refugees. We met Father Stratis back in 2008, when refugees began arriving on the island from Afghanistan. We ran a minimarket at the time, and every day this priest would come in to buy juice, croissants, and other supplies to hand out. Eventually we began to follow his lead, and soon we were working side by side. I always joke that God punished me for my atheism by sending a priest to be my best friend.  He was always pushing us to do more. The phone never left his hand.  He was always looking for new ways to help.  He died last month, but even in his final days, he was searching for diapers from his hospital bed. His final post on Facebook said: ‘God is love, without asterisks.’” (Lesvos, Greece)

I just… am a little lost. With faith, or lack thereof, and what do I teach these small children that I’m supposed to be in charge of? I wasn’t raised religious, but I want to find my spirituality now, and honestly don’t know how. I love love love the way you approach it, and it opens my heart to the idea of believing in God and having faith. But often when I try to become involved in a religion, I find so much of it makes me uncomfortable and is off-putting. Then I back away again. Where do I start?? Is it too late for me to find faith that God is Real and Love, the kind of faith I would have if I had learned it from the beginning? So if you could just have all the answers for me, that would be great, thanks.

Oh, and one more question. How am I supposed to pray?

Not Emma

Bear with me here, friends, and Not Emma especially, because I know there are people better equipped to answer these questions without starting with a convoluted story about getting gravel in her bits, but you asked me, so you have only yourself to blame.

I’m going to leave your question about prayer for another day, because I’m sitting again by the ocean as I type this, and the day is misty and overcast with the sun peeking through in fits and starts; the breeze is gentle and the temperature mild, so I’m going to risk walking again by the ocean soon, even though I fell the last time, which, I suppose, is one answer for how to pray, after all.

The question that really captured me, though — the one that stopped me in my tracks and slayed me because I I so resonated with the heart of it — was this: “Is it too late for me to find faith that God is Real and Love; the kind of faith I would have if I had learned it from the beginning?” 

I responded, I admit, a little selfishly to your question, because I thought “uh oh,” and “oh no,” because I was raised with faith from the beginning, and I am just a mess, friend. A MESS. Full of faith and doubt and fear and grace, and if you’re looking for more certainty than chaos, I’m not your girl. Not your guru. Not your guide, you know? After all, I, like you, know what it is to ache for “real faith” and wonder if I’ve found it. To think, perhaps, it’s too late, and I’ve missed that boat. To hope that God is Real and God is Love more than I always know it. But I choose it, anyway, over and over; to have faith in the mystery and the magic and the mess. To have faith in the mud and the muck and unreasonable mercy, which are all, in their own way, magnificent.

So I thought I couldn’t answer your questions at first, lacking all the answers as I am, even though I know you were kidding about that part, but then I biffed it on the side of the road, and realized I could answer, after all. It’s just, instead of answering from a place of having faith figured out, I’m going to have to answer spread-eagle in the gravel, a little battered from the fall.

My answer from the gravel-strewn ground is this: it’s not too late, Not Emma.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind that’s messy and full of doubt and strange moments of grace.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the pursuit of a Love too deep and wide and high and vast to fit into the boundaries of men.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind with questions that lead to answers that lead to far more questions than you thought possible.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean a faith that hopes and perseveres, then quits entirely, and hopes and perseveres again.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind of thing that isn’t content to exist simply inside of rule books and manuals of conduct, but must spill out to help ease the suffering of others and be with them in their longing and pain, to provide what comfort you can.

It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean a catalyst to mercy and justice for those who are marginalized.

The truth is, I used to expect different things from faith, like for it to be clean, and linear, and never trip me up in my bargain flip-flops. Faith, I thought, was like new sidewalks in safe neighborhoods with manicured lawns, and I had a responsibility to wear my sensible shoes, tightly laced, rather than skirting the rocky shoulder of a winding road with giddy, goofy friends and wobbly steps.

Now I understand that faith is a long road, rockier than I ever knew, full of waypoints, and parts that are tricky to traverse, and the occasional bench for resting, and I don’t always know how my next steps are going to work out. But the view, Not Emma; the view from the rocky shoulder on the winding road! It’s wild out here and rough and raw and beautiful and so worth exploring, even though we don’t have all the answers.

We expect a lot from faith, don’t we? We expect or we seek the near-perfect communities whose ideologies match well with our own, instead of looking for faith among a messy people who think differently than each other and are trying and failing and still trying anyway to love each other well. Listen; we’re not wrong to want our family of faith to already be good at inclusion and kindness and gentleness; our hearts long for belonging, after all, and God knows we each need solace. It’s just that we’re all to some degree each of the people in the story above; at times sitting wounded on the side of the road, at times picking dirt and darkness out of places we didn’t know it had managed to creep, at times needing a hand up and help brushing ourselves off, at times offering it and hollering the “are you OK’s?” from across the street.

You asked, Not Emma, where to start — where to begin looking for faith — and I’m here to tell you, you’ve already begun. You’re already on the road. It’s just that it’s rocky out here, and there’s sometimes flailing and falling involved, but the good news is, you’re not alone.

You asked, Not Emma, what to teach your small children because you want to find your spirituality now and you don’t know how. Oh, girlfriend, I have been there. HOW I have been there. But might I suggest to tell them just that? That you want to teach them? That you don’t know how? And invite them, perhaps, to the gravel road with you, as fellow travelers who are wise and capable of scouting the route alongside their mama? Tell them, maybe, what you told me — that you hope God is Real and God is Love, and that you want to go questing together. What an adventure, Not Emma! Looking for Love together!

I wish I had a tidy conclusion for you here, but I have an ocean to walk beside, so I’m signing off for now. More soon, Not Emma and friends. More soon. But for tonight, know that I’m thinking of you by the ocean shore, and I’m waving in the dark,

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