My professor said to our class this semester, “You don’t participate in the sacraments because you know completely and understand what they mean. You participate in them to learn what they mean, within the context of your identity”. This is so counterintuitive to everything I was taught growing up. I was taught that if I did not understand something about the Christian faith and know beyond a shadow of a doubt what it meant, then I was immature. There was no room for wonder, curiosity, doubts, or questions and there certainly was not space to bring myself into the mix of their meaning. To hear someone describe the sacraments (communion, baptism, etc.) this way, as a modality of self-exploration and reflection, was mind blowing. It also left me with a sharp question, that lingered in my gut for days afterward. If we participate in the sacraments to learn what they mean in the context of ourselves…then who am I? What is my identity? Does it matter? How much?
Who am I, really? I was raised in a culture that constantly preached “deny self”. Day in, day out, if you don’t feel like you are martyring yourself for your faith then you are simply not walking with Jesus. You are far from God. You are getting in your own way; your brokenness is too much. You are being too much yourself, and not enough like Christ.
The list goes on and on. I remember so clearly that distinct feeling of fear that this rhetoric caused me. Fear that my big, beautiful body and personality would be “too much” and stunt my ability to find a partner, be successful, or be accepted. Fear that people would find out about my attraction to women, or that I would be put-out from my faith community because of this very real part of who I am. Fear that felt like a straight jacket (no pun intended), holding me back in every way from even acknowledging my fullest, truest self – much less living into that identity.
The standards I was taught to reach for, taught to slay myself for, taught to shelter myself for, and taught to even hate myself for all involved God. They all involved a personal faith and a community of “accountability”. As someone who grew up in the tradition of Christianity where you either were a Christian or you were going to have an extra hard earthly life and then burn in hell forever, I chose to tap into the former option and stay on the “saved” side of the line. At least that is what I said, and did an okay job at reflecting, and prayed and wished like hell to actually believe. The goals that I would have slain myself for all, disturbingly, were centered on God. I was taught that while God was somehow strangely obligated to love me because of the limitless love that God has for people, with the same breath I was taught that God did not like me. God wanted me to change. God thought I was selfish, and broken, and useless without Him. (Yes, of course this was also the rhetoric that portrayed God as exclusively male).
*“Accountability” is still a word that triggers me at times, because in my experiences it meant: tell someone who doesn’t “struggle” with the same things as you about all of the bad stuff you’re doing, and then listen to them tell you how bad you are as you continue to feel badly about how you are/who you are/what you are doing.
So, we see the problem. I was asked to lose myself, leave myself, hate myself for a God that didn’t even like me. A God that only loved me because they couldn’t help it, not because they saw my value or what I brought to the table and decided to partner with me in life. God was just up somewhere in the sky, arbitrarily judging things I did and allowing me to experience pain so that I would go running back to God. So that I would hate myself more, to somehow be able to love this distant God more. My only concept of relationship to my own identity was that I needed to turn a blind eye to it, betray it, walk away from it to hopefully, somehow, sanctify it and become a clone of Jesus instead of becoming a truer version of myself.
This isn’t the God I know, now. But it was the only God I was handed then. It is the only God many people growing up in evangelicalism are handed, and it is the God that many people still ascribe to. Maybe I, too, would have been able to hold onto this concept of God, if it weren’t for other things. It can be hard for me to pinpoint a singular element of my experiences or life that caused me to reject this abusive God, and seek deeper connection, love, and truth through who I always hoped, aspired, and knew that God could be. But when it happened, it gave me space, also, to reach deep to seek and find who I hoped, aspired, and knew that I could be.
I can look at the things I have experienced over time and now, being in the context of safer spaces, begin to put pieces of the puzzle of realization and meaning together. I still do not understand my entire identity. I don’t always have the best words, or feel like any words will ever fit best for my experiences and the depths of who I am. But, for now, I know that a part of who I am is someone who sees God differently and more expansively than before. I know that I am not selfish for looking inward, and any “love” that wants me to forget all about my own identity or to willfully martyr myself to receive it is no love at all. I know that my quest for identity is a quest for wholeness, and that I cannot bring wholeness into the world until I have worked to bring it to the deepest parts of myself.
Who do I say that I am? I am still learning. I am learning how important it is to trust myself, and to have faith in my passions. My passions lead me to engage in important projects and crucial conversations that I truly believe will infuse hope and love into the world. I will forever be a student in this school of love and hope that we call life. I will seek first the Kin-dom of God, and work to never again believe that I am but an insignificant blip on the radar of God’s work. No. I say that I am significant and valid. As a queer lady minister (and as every other element of my identity): I am beloved, holy, good, called, and excited to do this work alongside the God that I now know is loving, collaborative, and passionate, too.
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