A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

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I am used to being rejected by Christians.  Many denominations reject female clergy: “I don’t believe that women should be pastors.”  Many Americans reject the validity of my authority, because Ageism, discrimination on the basis of a person’s age, is culturally normative: “You’re too young to be a pastor.”  I seem to fail to fulfill visual expectations daily, even though for our Traditional Worship I wear a traditional alb robe and the liturgically appropriate broad stole, a symbol of my ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church: “You don’t look like a pastor.”  For too many Christians, yes, some even in my beloved United Methodist Church, I am too female, too young, and too weird looking.

The one catalyst for rejection that often goes unnamed (although not entirely), but routinely felt is that I look like I might be a lesbian.  I have a very short haircut, maintained every two weeks like clock work by the town barber.   I wear flamboyant clothing, and atypical shoes.  All right, let’s be honest; I wear shoes that literally stop traffic and regularly having people make comments, take pictures, and reel when they find out that I’m not a stripper, but a pastor.  That is the honest, brutal reality.  Now I could grow my hair out; it used to be past my hips in length.  I could wear more sedate, normative clothing, and I could trade my platform boots with seven inch heels for serene flats.  But I won’t, because my outward appearance is about expressing my vibrant personality, my joy for life and God’s people, and the playfulness I have with fun footwear.  I know all too well how people’s attitudes, conversations, and affect towards me shifts when they learn that I am heterosexual.  I have developed a keen awareness and sensitivity to how people act around and towards me.  I pay attention, and I pay even more careful attention to how others around me are being treated.

I have confronted a young man beating his girlfriend in public.  I have confronted children bullying other children.  I have stopped meetings when adults were getting out of line and hurtful towards each other to call out and censure such behavior.  I am fiercely protective of those that are being hurt, because I have spent a lifetime being hurt because I am too female, too young, too weird, too lesbian looking, too…

I have never witnessed bullying, rudeness, intolerance for difference, and hateful affect like I witnessed at this Called General Conference, and I saw it from all sides.  I saw it from Christians!  People who supported the Traditional Plan, but just as equally in people who supported the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan.  We have become a snarky, hateful people all the way around.  It is very seldom that I am at a loss for words, but countless times I was so shocked and outraged by the behavior of not only delegates, but especially observers like myself.  Those who gathered to be present and witness the events like me had to register for a name badge that read “Observer,” but few just observed.  Many from all ends of the spectrum interfered, bullied with displays, verbal outbursts, and hateful posts on social media.  This included lay persons and clergy.  Shame on us.

I was not the slightest bit surprised that Called General Conference deteriorated into the chaos and pain-filled anarchy it did.  I have been here since midnight on Friday, and every day since.  I have watched as more and more people attended and their behavior brought shame upon our denomination.  Just when I thought I had seen, heard, and painfully experienced it all, yesterday happened.  In order to “encourage” delegates to support a Hail Mary attempt to pass the One Church Plan, a clergy person from my own Annual Conference attacked me.  I sat stunned, as if my face had been slapped, my gut punched, and my painful experiences co-opted for rhetoric, to hear that we should “eliminate all the divorced.”  Following it up with a call for those of us who were to surrender our credentials, meaning that I should stop being the clergy God called me to be and whom the United Methodist Church ordained me to be.

Yes, I did not mention that yet.  I am divorced, not once, but twice.  I am not proud of this, nor am I proud to be able to claim to have survived the irrational shame and self-loathing that accompanies when your spouse commits adultery.  I have yet to officiate holy matrimony that ended in divorce in eleven years, and I hope and pray with all that I am that I never do, but I know the statistics, and I know the likelihood that I shall.  I tried to hold it together after those words inviting even more condemnation, rejection, and hatred towards me rocked outward at the speed of sound to the whole delegation, the entire dome arena, and into the internet via live-stream all across the world.  I managed to hold it together long enough to move to the section where others from the Virginia Annual Conference were seated observing, but as I lowered my fractured form to the seat, my pain, hurt, suffering, heartache, and tears erupted.  I was so ashamed to uncontrollably weep in public, to let the attack hit me and not nonchalantly bounce off my iron exterior, but the truth is my divorces have hurt me, changed me, and fractured me in ways that no words can convey.  I have been attacked and forced to defend myself for this before, but after all that I had experienced at Called General Conference, I broke.  I am breaking again as I compose this.

We have become a people of perpetual pain, and we perpetuate it on others.  We are not content to disagree, but must lash out, strike back, and harm those that do not agree with us.  Progressives and Traditionalists, Liberals and Conservatives, Heterosexuals and Non-heterosexuals alike.  Shame on us.  All during the course of the anger and rudeness of Called General Conference, I yearned, prayed, and awaited the intercession of our leaders of the highest office.  I wanted our bishops to call us into account, teach us to do no harm, and to speak and act in a different way, a Christ-like way.  Instead, there was silence.  Instead, some instigated behind the scenes, in their media outlets, and in their participation of displays for the side they aligned with most.  I thank God that my bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference was not present, because I did not have to witness her complacency, yet I highly doubt she would have ever allowed that.

When I reflect on all I observed, the atrocities in Christendom I witnessed, and the attacks I personally suffered, I doubt that any plan passed would have been sufficient to gloss over and overcome the sinful ways we act towards each other in our Church.  Shame on us.  Our failure to be an obedient Church was made manifest long before the first plenary vote yesterday, and long before the first legislative vote the day before.  United Methodists of all walks, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, socio-economic class, political affiliations, and status in the Church have been acting this way for so long that we accept it as acceptable.  Shame on us.  None of us would be willing to stand before the Risen Christ and act and speak like this to him, therefore it should never be done to another person.

We are broken this day in many ways, but we were broken before Called General Conference convened, because we have allowed ourselves to perpetuate the brokenness through our words and deeds towards others.  Christ does not want to hear snarky comments about those he suffered and died to save.  Christ does not like our Facebook statuses attacking others and their beliefs that are diametrically opposed to ours.  Christ does not retweet our one hundred and forty characters of snide attacks upon our “enemies.”  Christ does not deem our blogs of outrage and attack as righteous.  Christ does not think it is ok to shame people, attack them with words and visual displays, to label them with pejorative terms, and be inhospitable towards them.   Christ does not accept our ways as his own, but repeatedly calls us to accept his ways for our own.

After a long, hard and frankly beyond painful look in the mirror of United Methodism, here is what I know… I am ashamed of how we act towards each other.  I am ashamed to have been present at such a hate-fest on all sides, ON ALL SIDES.  I am ashamed that I allowed that irrational, unwarranted, and unrighteous experience to be internalized and shame me, when I know that I am forgiven, loved, and free because of the sacrifice of my Lord and Savior, the blood of the cross, and God’s abundant grace for me.  I am grateful that no one can steal my faith.  I am grateful that my faithful following of Christ Jesus supersedes any stance, position, or affiliation in any denomination.  I am grateful that today I go home to my people: Crozet United Methodist Church of the Virginia Annual Conference.  I go back from this exile to a place where I am never too anything, but too blessed beyond measure.  I go back from this wilderness wandering of the dark side of United Methodism to a place where the best of my beloved denomination is visible, audible, and tangible every day, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I am going back to where the grace of God and love of the Lord are for all, FOR ALL.

As the pastor of my church, I am more committed than ever to preach, teach, live, and embody the truth that: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  I return to live this out with more passion, fervor, commitment, and authentic me.  I know that there are United Methodists, clergy and laity, who go back to their church home to do the same, and so I hope.  For now I hurt and hope, and on Sunday, I will lay that hurt on God’s holy altar, and leave it there.  It cannot stop me from being the United Methodist Christ demands.  “The Lord is my portion” and my hope is in him alone (Lamentations 3:24).

 

10 responses »

  1. I cried when I read this, Sarah. How awful for us all. As a divorced and remarried person, I stand with you. And I hear Jesus say, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Peace be with you. Our prayer group will pray for us all this evening. ❤️

  2. Sarah, I am shocked and dismayed at what you witnessed at Annual Conference. That should not have happened. Your List of rejection comments are people’s unfiltered reaction to you. Your radar I so sensitive that witnessing bad behavior shocks and pains you. I’m sorry that you experienced that. You list of reasons people might reject you. Over time that list might get longer. In my opinion, people who know you, love you! Focus on that! John

  3. Thank you Sarah for being so insightful. For all of us who hold dear to openness, to inclusiveness, and the love of all people, we must remain focused toward that goal. Your words bring me hope in the face of troubling times. God bless you

  4. Thank you for being you and sharing your heart. So sorry that you were attacked personally in that way and had to witness such rude behavior by so many Christians. Praying that God will continue to soften our hearts and minds.

  5. The first time I saw you getting out of your car in our Church parking lot I said “She personifies joy!” You continue to do that and show us the heart of Christ and teach us how to love everyone! Thank you for being you! We love you!

    • I cry Sarah, as I read this…and as you know I am not a religious person in any way. But I am a good person who has known you since you were a child and know you to be a good person, too. I think you should give the christians at United Methodist the heave-ho and come to Culpeper to start your own church. You could call it The Joy of Worship Church. Culpeper is a small, but very open-minded community. Anyway, those who know you love you very much and wish we could take you into our arms to comfort you, as your words comfort others. Connie Pope
      Oh, and Sarah, please never stop dressing as you do…we just LOVE YOUR SHOES!!!

  6. How very sad for all of us as Christians that we could treat one another in such a cruel way. Regardless of ones stance on these difficult issues, we cannot allow our strong opinions and feelings to cause such hurt, that is NOT what Jesus taught us! and our opinions & feelings are just that and NOT the Word of ZGod. J too, am ashamed of us as Christians and am so sorry you were dragged through the muck.

  7. Sarah, your brother Phil is a member of my congregation. Thank you for your words and thoughts. They were very inspiring.

    Frank
    Senior Pastor
    Oak Grove UMC
    Chesapeake

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