acceptance, Being Fully Human, Bible, diversity, domestic violence, glbt, inclusion, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, st. lucia, stories, tension in the tank

Tension in the Tank

Barbara Lee AuthorI write today a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to read a blog or two because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual life.

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

Living a good life offers us another option: a life of accountability; a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure; a spirituality that challenges us to do our best, to not take what we have for granted, to take risks, to set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your journey fresh and vital?

Tension Within

Tension comes first of all from within. It is the feeling that stirs us to act when we hear about disaster relief efforts, world hunger appeals or abuse prevention programs. It is the feeling that moves us to volunteer for Family Promise, attend the Summit on Diversity, pack our bags and go on a pilgrimage. It is the feeling that makes us restless when we fail to take time to reflect, to meditate, to pursue our own chosen path.

Tension also comes from living a life that’s not always easy, not always comfortable. Not of us is spared from tribulations and trials. We have known and will know difficulty, hardship and pain. We can choose to let those experiences weaken and defeat us, or we can use them to discover strength, resolve and resiliency we never knew we had.

Does God Love “Those People”?

Tension also comes from other outside forces. Let’s be honest. One of those external sources of tension for many of us is living in a conservative part of the country. In my first year of seminary I had a disturbing experience. No. I had many disturbing experiences. This was among the worst.

The professor asked what we would want someone to know who walked into our church. “We are friendly,” came one answer, “this is a place of worship” came another. “God is here” was followed by “the location of the bathroom”—that might have been tongue in cheek. Then someone said, “God loves you.” Ooh. Hey. Wow. “How does that sound?” asked the professor. “Do we want people to know God loves them?” “Yes, yes,” we all affirmed. Whew, one question I could get right.

Then that young guy with dark hair who always sat on the far right side of the room stood up and said—this actually happened—“Wait a minute. Can we really say that God loves everyone who comes to our churches? I mean I’ve read my Bible and it seems pretty clear to me that God loves some people and he’s really upset with others. I’ve heard you talking about welcoming drug addicts and prostitutes and homosexuals in church and I think God must hate that. I just don’t think we can say God loves ‘those’ people.”

I was dumbstruck. After all, at that time I was the minister at Extended Grace where our whole reason for being was to go out of our way to embrace “those” people. People who had been told or shown that they were not welcome. People who had come to church seeking grace and instead found gatekeepers that would not let them in. Gatekeepers who thought they had the right and the responsibility to impose their truth on other people.

The Real Consequence of Shutting Doors

Of course, when we shut doors, we are merely locking ourselves in, and stopping our own journey forward. Most of us have been disillusioned by institutions that claim to have God all wrapped up in a tight little box they call “truth.” We long for a deep relationship with the ultimate reality that is beyond human description. We seek truth in a way that is not bound to human dogma, or to the boundaries of gender, race, background, ability, or orientation.

And to do that, we pursue Open Inquiry, radically opening ourselves up to possibility and wonder. Seeking to connect the body, the mind, and the spirit with science, nature and art. What truth can be found comes not just from knowledge, but also from feelings and intuition. The truth is not “out there” but right here: in me, in you, in community, in our relationships to each other and to the world. This is a quest that finds us swimming with catfish: the catfish of ambiguity, the catfish of uncertainty, and the catfish of doubt – important companions on any journey worth taking.

Stories Add Tension to the Tank

Another source of tension are the stories we hear and the stories we tell. Stories are formative, whether they come from Aesop or Grimm or Greek mythology or scripture. They tell us something about the world, something about who we are, and something about what we can or should be. They add tension to our life and challenge us to be more fully human.

Many of the stories I heard growing up were in the Bible. Now we can criticize the indoctrination we received and the lack of choices we were presented with when we were children, but the truth is there is no culture in the world that does not teach children through story. Those Biblical stories, like Esther that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, still add tension to my life. These stories don’t teach me about science, nor do they teach me about God. They teach me about being human. Story after story illustrates human beings trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Human beings who sometimes succeed in being good and gracious and just. And human beings who fail miserably at those tasks.

There is something to be gained in stories from all cultures, all traditions and all religions. Because when we explore the stories, in context, and with an eye and an ear geared toward new awareness, stories challenge us to be more than we are, to be more fully human. To live a good life. In the story is the excitement about what we have been and what we could be. Stories add tension to the tank.

Your Visiting Catfish

In that way, I hope that this blog also adds tension to your life and, even though the image isn’t particularly flattering, I hope that you think of me as your visiting catfish. Yes, you find here words of comfort and support in a world that is so often hostile and full of fear. But I hope my words also discomfort you. That they challenge you to face your own shadows, to squirm in the reality that we are not being all that we can be, not doing all that we can do.

We are all human beings with different backgrounds and different lenses through which we see the world. And no matter what our vehicle of Open Inquiry it should add the tension to our life that we need in order to make a difference, to motivate us toward the good, toward being part of healing each other and healing our world.

Out of Our Comfort Zone

When was the last time you intentionally did something outside of your comfort zone? That was difficult or frightening? It is in daring ourselves to do what we haven’t done before that we discover new talents, new abilities and begin to develop new muscles.

I stepped firmly outside of my comfort zone when I traveled to St. Lucia last week. I was there to be interviewed on a local radio station. The interview itself went very well and afterward one of the people who heard the show called me as soon as it was over and invited me to come to the International Women’s Day event to be held later that day. I was glad to be there and met some wonderful, inspiring individuals.

But in the midst of all of the motivational speaking and calls to action regarding domestic violence and other abuse so often suffered by women – particularly women in developing countries – there was the continuation of the myth of a male God. These good hearted women where finding encouragement in the midst of adversity by relying on a Father God who would love them, never desert them and who had created them perfect and beautiful.

And I so wanted to interrupt everything to say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? Stop looking for some Almighty Male God to love you and give you permission to be the amazing beautiful people you are! See that beauty in yourself! See that there is nothing out there that isn’t in here! Claim your own perfection and know that you have the credentials to do so!” Of course doing so was out of the question. It would have come across as arrogant, ignorant and rude. Any opportunity to have a positive impact, to plant a seed would have been lost.

Radio St. Lucia

There was even more tension when I answered the invitation to be a guest on Radio St. Lucia – the national broadcasting network. Having been lulled into a false sense of security in my first radio interview, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of conservative rhetoric that was going to be thrown my way. The host was far more confrontational. He didn’t like Interfaith to begin, he didn’t like masturbation, and he really didn’t like (or more importantly understand) homosexuality. He said things that were both antiquated and offensive.

Then people started calling in. Offering many of the same challenges to my faith and my perspective. There was even one guy who called in to say, “Why do some people like to have sex with animals?” Seriously! And in the midst of that kind of tension, I was propelled to find new ways of containing my emotions in order to find a way to connect and communicate.

After the fact, I learned that Radio St. Lucia sees itself as an outreach of the church, seeking to reach those who are homebound, as well as the unchurched and the unsaved. The feel the threat of Islam and Rastafarianism. Can you believe it? At the end of the interview, I was longing for the rampant liberalism of my very conservative hometown in Grand Haven, Michigan!

So I have decided that this is my challenge in the coming days. To finding a way to craft that message in such a way that it can reach out and touch people where they are now, affirm them, and challenge them to grow in a way that respects and honors their starting point so that my words do not become adversarial roadblocks, but tools that anyone can use to propel their journey forward.

A Spiritual Life is a Life of Tension

Whatever our path, we should not be content to sit on the EZ Boy recliner of life in inactivity and passiveness. A good life, a spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths and philosophies as equal and valid and challenges societies that favor only one path, where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

For all of our advances, our world is still a place of violence. We do not live in harmony and tranquility but in a place where wives are battered and parents abuse their children. Where the earth is plundered. Where competition is glorified and losers are humiliated. Where our international relationships are full of conflict and fear and the construction of war systems that virtually assure mutual destruction. Violence is a core structural element of our lives.

Today as people who seek peace we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because the good life does not call us into a place of relief. It calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension.

This work isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do. The challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives. Prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other.

Hmmm… sounds a little fishy to me!


acceptance, beign fully human, belonging, Christian Mysticism, coming out, Compassion, gay, gender identity, glbt, heterosexual privilege, homophobia, sexual orientation

Heterosexual Privilege

Coming Out DayIt is a gift that we are talking out loud about those things that used to only be shared in secret, in darkness, in the closet. I’m guessing that I wasn’t the only one raised with the teaching, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” What an incredibly destructive teaching. To condone hating on one hand and to label people as sinful on the other.

When I was doing campus ministry at our Muskegon Community College, I met with a professor of philosophy. The college had recently been in the news for refusing to allow a drag show to take place on its campus. The professor welcomed me and told me he hoped my presence would have a positive impact. He shared with me that in the past year, a young student of his had come out as gay to his Christian parents. They responded to his disclosure by telling him he “should kill himself.” He did.

The LGBT community has far too often been the victim of violence – both physical violence and spiritual violence. Too often anti-gay rhetoric masquerades as a message of God’s love and the power to overcome obstacles, giving rise to self hatred and encouraging intolerance. When people arm themselves with the weapon of misinformation that perpetuates intolerance and preserves heterosexual privilege, the fruits of their labor are suffering, self-hatred and wasted gifts. There is much to be angry about and much to lament. And there is also much to celebrate.

You know, as a heterosexual, I had the privilege of never having my own sexuality questioned. I also never had anyone reduce me to my plumbing or ask me how I “do” it. I never had to “come out” and worry what the consequences would be. I also never had to live with internalized homophobia that would make me question whether every person’s reaction to me had something to do with my sexuality.

One of the saddest stories I lived through was when a gay couple stopped coming to Extended Grace. When we finally connected weeks later, I learned that one of the men had been refused a hug by a young college women. He felt she was rejecting him because he was openly gay. What he didn’t know was that she had been raped on her college campus while walking home at night earlier that week. She wasn’t letting anyone hug her. A heterosexist, homophobic society conditions human beings to expect rejection even where that rejection doesn’t exist. And when that happens – everyone is hurt.

I know I will be more aware in the days to come and I hope those of you who share my heterosexual privilege will be, too. Think about what the world would be like if we would all live as our most authentic self. Then work for a world in which everyone is not tolerated or accepted, but where everyone is celebrated and encouraged to be fully who they are.


acceptance, Being Fully Human, Bible, Compassion, gender identity, glbt, heterosexual privilege, homophobia, sexual orientation

Learning Life’s Lessons

National Coming Out DayI am grateful to my mother for all the things she taught me. I am grateful to my fifth grade homeroom teacher, my seventh grade English teacher and my high school media production teacher. But some of the most important lessons, the most interesting and discussion-worthy lessons I ever received came from another source. For teaching me the things no one else wanted to talk about or even knew how to talk about, for discussing them with compassion and honesty and frankness, for keeping a sense of humor while providing me with profound insights, for all of that and more I am grateful to … Phil Donohue.

Long before talk shows became a series of loud, embarrassing family fights and blatant attempts to shame and humiliate guests and studio audience participants, Phil was exploring the nooks and crannies in our society no one else seemed to be giving any attention. Did he ever exploit people? Did he sometimes work the ratings? I’m sure he did. Maybe you never liked Phil, yourself. But to me, as a kid just trying to figure out her own identity, Phil Donohue always seemed sincere and genuine. He cared about people, and he introduced me to a whole lot of people I learned to care about, too.

It was Phil who talked with gay men, and lesbian women, and people who were having operations to change from one physical gender to another. He didn’t talk about them. He didn’t talk down to them. He talked with them about their realities – and he listened. And in doing that, he taught me to listen. It is in listening to the real stories of real people that I have learned so much and have felt so much and have grown so much.

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. Whether you are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or an Ally, spend some time this week listening to the stories of others who have experienced homophobia and a society that continues to support in overt and covert ways “heterosexual privilege.” There is much we can share and so much more we can learn!

acceptance, alone, Being Fully Human, belonging, community, family, purpose, self esteem, social isolation, social media, social trends

A Family of Choice

Barbara Lee High SchoolEighth grade was excruciating for me. I was raised in a family, as most of us were, without having a lot of choice about those relationships. People were just there to connect to or not. School wasn’t that much different. The only thing that mattered was geography and because I lived in a certain place, I went to a predetermined school. Because we moved when I was in second grade, the kids I went to school with all had previous relationships with each other and I struggled to find a place I belonged. That only worsened as I got older. By the time I got into sixth grade I wanted more than anything to just disappear or even to be hit through no fault of my own by a runaway train – which would be quite a feat in Fruitport!

I was a desperate for community.

The need for community is in our blood. Human beings throughout all of history have formed themselves into clans and tribes. It is only in our relationship to others that we define who we are. It is in community that we find our identity. It is in community that our sense of esteem grows, that we gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

We all need a place of belonging – perhaps now more than ever, as we struggle with the realities of broken community, fragmented society, and disrupted family systems. If we don’t find it, we live more and more in isolation. We experience more and more emotional, spiritual, and social brokenness.

For me, the gift of community finally arrived in ninth grade. That was when I got the courage to try out for a play. And I was cast. And life changed. The group of Upstagers at Fruitport High School became my first family of choice.

You Are Not Alone

A family of choice is a community you belong to because you want to. A place in which you feel at home – or in some cases much better than at home. Relaxed, happy, confident. A place where we discover we are NOT alone – that we share similar thoughts or enjoy similar activities with other human beings. If we are lucky, we feel so comfortable that we show a side of us that doesn’t normally come out as we negotiate the complexities and demands of our every day lives. If we’re lucky, we play.

As we choose to be members and friends of this community, we also receive the gift of being accepted by the community. For unlike our parents, our siblings or even the people sent to the same school as us, a family of choice receives us not because in some sense they have to, but only because they want to.

Families of choice are nothing new. I think of the group my grandparents met with once a week to play bridge and other card games. Or the bowling league my father participated in for years. One of my friends grew up where there were regular neighborhood block parties. My mother found a family of choice by joining Weight Watchers. And back then all of us went to church.

But today those opportunities can no longer be assumed. Sociologists speak of having three places: the home, the work environment and one other place. The other place was often church or a civic club, or a group gathered around a sport or a hobby. Then a few years ago a sociologist wrote a book called Bowling Alone and called attention to the fact that we are becoming more and more isolated in our society. More recent reports show that social media, while providing an easier way to connect, is ultimately leading to more social isolation as we post or tweet in place of face to face communication.

Community Means Better Health 

In the early 1960′s some remarkable research was conducted in the town of Roseto near Bangor where the rate of heart disease was far below normal. Roseto was a town of 1600 Italian-Americans. Every home in the town had three generations living in it and the sense of community was very tight.

Teams of medical researchers spent time in Roseto trying to determine why the rate of heart attack was so much lower than nearby Bangor. Was it diet? No, Rosetans shared a typical American diet. Was it genes? No. Other Italian communities had heart attack rates similar to the national average. Was it healthy habits? No. Rosetans smoked as much as people in neighbouring towns and exercised as little as people in neighbouring towns, and met the  national average for obesity and high blood pressure. Was it the physical environment? No, there was no significant difference between Roseto and neighbouring towns. Was it a short term statistical anomaly? No, the trend held up over a fifty year study.

In the end health officials did eventually track down the secret to good health in Roseto – ready for it: it was simply a close sense of community, with very strong bonds of family and friendship. The head of the research team wrote in his report: “In terms of preventing heart disease, it’s just possible that morale is more important than jogging or not eating butter.”

Interestingly, the initial research team predicted that the health benefits would diminish as successive generations ‘Americanised’ and lost their tight knit sense of community. Today, over 50 years later, this prediction has proven sadly accurate.

Social Trends 

When we face the realities of isolation and the brokenness in our own lives, in our own families and in the very fabric of society, we find we need more than ever to find a place of belonging. Equally important, if we don’t find a way to include a third place as part of our life, we run the risk of finding a third place as an escape from our life.

Some of the latest trends in society have been identified by a futurist with the wonderfully playful name of Faith Popcorn. She identified a number of social trends and three of them very specifically speak to what C3 is all about and why we are positioned to be a highly sought after family of choice.

First, is Anchoring. Anchoring is reaching back to one’s spiritual roots in order to take what was secure from the past and use it to be ready for the future. Here at C3 we regularly celebrate our own roots while also exploring the roots of different traditions and ideologies giving us tools to both deepen and expand our spirituality in order to feel secure when tomorrow is so uncertain.

Second is Clanning. Clanning is the act of belonging to a group that represents common feelings, causes or ideals. Clanning is how we validating our own belief system. My friend Reed Schroer talks about being a weirdo and the need he has, not to give up being a weirdo, but to be in community with other weirdos. Here in West Michigan, many of us find ourselves as the anomaly. There are plenty of places that our beliefs and attitudes would not be accepted. But here, in this community, we are united by a common mission, vision and set of values. We have found our fellow people!

The third is Egonomics. Egonomics points to the fact that to offset a depersonalized society, we crave recognition of our individuality. So even as we find those things that bind us together in common community, we also want people to see us as the unique individuals we are. And that is one of the things we do best. Here we recognize and deeply honor the individual spiritual journey and we let people be who they are. True community is not a melting away of individuals into a common, lumpy soup. It is the deep valuing of each individual as a unique expression and incarnation of the life force.

Families of Choice Aren’t Perfect 

But families of choice are not perfect. They come with the same pitfalls as any relationship and may show the same dysfunctional patterns of any family system. I didn’t suddenly get self-esteem and emotional healthiness because I was accepted in the community. We carry into our relationships of choice all the things we learned and are in the relationships we didn’t choose. There is the same danger of selling our selves short, living out old scripts, and being less than our authentic selves. There is the same danger of trying to control and change others, of not allowing them to be their authentic selves.

As we continue our journey we will need to be patient and gracious with each other. And we will be urged to continue doing our own work to deepen our own authentic identity, because when we become more whole and integrated individuals ourselves, then we naturally seek to bring that same depth and wholeness to our relationships as well.

When I led Extended Grace there was a gentleman who became part of my leadership team, but that took three years to cultivate. The first six months he attended Extended Grace, he did so in his car in the parking lot, too frightened to come inside because of the rejection he had experienced in other communities. As we find that we are no longer alone, we will naturally reach out to invite others to join us knowing that there are lots of other people out there who are also desperate for a place to belong. And as we invite others to join us, we will need to remain aware that others will come here with their own baggage and history and we need to meet people where they are and invite them to participate only as they are able.

We are community when we share our stories with each other, when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, and when we take time to listen to and honor the stories we are told. For every story you are offered, every story I am offered, is a gift.

 An Investment

When you find a family of choice, it is time to begin making an investment there. We spend years setting aside money for our retirement. Investing in relationships and in the health of this community identity reaps similar benefits. When life is hard and pain is real, the skills we learn by living in community and the network of relationships we build will provide us with the comfort, the security and the joy we need.