On Tokenism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve been meaning to write this reflection for months. The idea came into my head when Jake Dockter started tweeting various Christian conferences about the diversity of their speaking lineups. Jake’s questions focused on why so many conferences tend to headline older white fathers. If memory serves me correctly, one particular conference he pointed out had over 30 speakers where only 4 were women and not a single speaker was clearly non-white. Then a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post discussing why it matters when white people don’t have black friends. I figured now is a good time to write down some thoughts on tokenism.

If you’ve ever been the minority in any context, chances are reasonably good that you been tokenized in one way or another. As one-half of a celibate LGBT Christian couple, I often feel like I’m a minority within a minority within a minority. I wonder why people value diversity, especially when it seems that “being diverse” seems more about filling a dance card with people who are different from one another than it is about being inclusive.

I think we hadn’t been blogging for more than a month before we received our first inquiry about whether we would consider a speaking engagement. We were thrilled at the possibility of speaking because that particular organization has a reputation of hosting a wide array of LGBT Christian speakers. We could appreciate how our being a celibate couple would offer a different perspective than other speakers who were invited. However, we’d hesitate before accepting an invitation to speak at an event for any organization wanted to promote our way of life as the “answer” for LGBT Christians. The first approach is about being inclusive while the second approach strikes me as checking the “diversity” box.

I don’t want to be anyone’s “LGBT Christian friend.” I can always tell when I’m in that role because I shift into having to educate other people more often than usual. It’s exhausting. I can respect the fact that because I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about what celibate living might look like for a lay person, many people are interested in hearing my thoughts on celibacy. Yet I cringe every time I hear someone say, “This is my friend Lindsey, an LGBT person living celibacy.” Even other celibate LGBT people can weaponize Sarah’s and my stories to say that anyone is capable of living a celibate vocation.

I hope that more people can begin to see tokenism for what it is. Tokenism happens when we are interested in checking off a box. Once someone has a gay friend (or a black friend or a hispanic friend), then he/she can stop making efforts. I’d contend that being inclusive is remaining open to letting one’s friend circle grow and stretch through conscientious engagement with the world.

I don’t mind being someone’s first LGBT friend. I consider myself to be a worthwhile person to know, and if my new friend hangs out with me for any length of time, then he or she will likely realize I have other awesome friends. I didn’t consider any black people among my circle of real friends until I lived with my black roommate during my sophomore year of college. Chris and I had a habit of going out for chai tea and playing cribbage whenever we were stressed about anything, but getting to know Chris as my friend helped me respond better when other black students I knew tried to increase my awareness of social injustices facing black Americans. As Chris and I sipped chai tea, we had a natural place to share our lives, to ask questions, to listen to each other, and to grow as human beings. Getting to know each other helped me do the hard work of reflecting on my experience of whiteness and made it easier for me to build friendships with people that have very different experiences with regard to race and ethnicity. My friendship with Chris and working through my own experience of race and ethnicity helped me be more inclusive because I could see some social structures a bit more clearly. One reason why I feel so adamant that people not represent Sarah’s and my stories as absolutely representative of all LGBT people is I know for a fact that our stories are different from those of most other LGBT people.

Our friendships with people different from us cause us to think more deeply about our own experiences, enabling us to empathize with each other. When we learn this empathy, we can move beyond tokenism and into a more naturally inclusive way of living.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: The “What Ifs”

It’s Saturday again! We hope you’re all having a nice day.

Quick announcement: if you’re planning on attending the next Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland, Oregon, early bird registration ends on October 3. We attend the conference ever year, and it’s always a fantastic experience.

Now, onto our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week, Sarah wrote a post on vocation and grief. Sarah pointed out that all vocations are good, but none allow a person to do everything (e.g.. being married means one cannot be a nun). Our question for you: do you ever experience grief over what your vocation is not? How do you cope with the “what ifs” that can arise when one thinks about the limitations of his/her vocation?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Do celibate partners “complete” each other?

We’ve been approached by many people who wonder why our relationship began in the first place and why it’s not “good enough” for us to live as celibate singles. Frequently, people assume that we’re together because it’s the best way of coping the loneliness of celibacy. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for those who have met us in person to suggest that we are absolutely perfect fits for one another. We addressed the loneliness question a while ago; today, we’d like to share briefly about perfect fits and the idea that partners should “complete” each other.

We have a lot of fun together as we embark on one adventure after another. We’re reasonably confident that sharing our lives enables us to become our best selves. We are confident that Lindsey empowers Sarah to do things that would otherwise be impossible for Sarah, and vice versa. We love working as a team through thick and thin. Nevertheless, we are also certain that neither one of us could ever meet all of the other person’s needs.

When we tell the story of how we met, we reference that we fell into a pattern of sharing life together easily and unexpectedly. Our friendship continued to grow where we found ourselves naturally supporting each other across many areas of life. We’re grateful for the ways that we stretch and push each other to be better people.

But stretching to share life with another person doesn’t complete anyone. In many ways, sharing life introduces new challenges. No matter the level of sexual activity, every couple encounters problems that affect each partner differently. Relationships require adjustment when the lesser-affected person chooses to opt into a new way of life. Even the seemingly benign choice of sharing life together creates a rippling of change where all of a sudden little things really matter. People in committed relationships have to compromise, adapt, and embrace never-before-considered opportunities. Not only that, but they also need to learn to recognize instances in which certain needs can’t be met within the context of the partnership or marriage alone.

We think it’s especially problematic, to the point of being deeply spiritually harmful, when partners believe that they can or should be able to complete each other. We think this for several reasons, one being that such an approach to committed relationships risks isolating the couple from their friends, geographical community, and faith community. Leah Libresco at The American Conservative wrote an insightful article in July 2014 on problems with marital completionism, stating the following:

Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other.

Few partners will be in danger of making a complete retreat, utterly emotionally self-sufficient as a dyad, but aiming at this goal is as destructive as achieving it. Spouses in this situation are likely to sell their friendships short, failing to rely on them, as the theatre-going wife does.

We couldn’t agree more. Whether a relationship is a marriage or some other kind of committed partnership, it’s curious that so many 21st century westerners (particularly Americans) assume that the goal of doing life with another person is finding total satisfaction in that relationship. It seems unlikely to us that many partnerships that strive for such will actually become islands unto themselves, but even attempting is a recipe for destruction.

We struggle to understand why the completionism model appeals to couples in the first place. It’s rooted in our culture’s myth that romantic love is the solution to most of life’s major problems, and that there’s one special person somewhere in the world who is meant for each of us. Many churches help to perpetuate this myth by upholding marriage as an ideal state of life for Christians and emphasizing “the two become one flesh” to the point of shaming married people who seek out support and love from the community as individuals. But our question is, why is this arrangement desirable? It’s possible that more people than not see marital completionism as an expectation. People learn from their churches and the broader culture that most aspects of married life should be exclusive to the two partners, and this becomes a goal for the couple — sometimes unconsciously. Still, we wonder why more people aren’t challenging it.

Though our relationship is not a marriage, we see regular evidence of marital completionist ideology in our interactions with folks who are interested in learning more about how our relationship works. We get questions like, “How can celibacy possibly be challenging or sacrificial for either of you? You have each other,” and, “Why are you experiencing a problem with x, y, or z? You’re going to love each other no matter what.” It’s true that our life as a celibate couple differs in many ways from the lives of celibate singles, and that we’re always going to love each other no matter what comes our way. But we don’t complete each other. Being in a loving relationship does not mean that we have all the resources between the two of us to face every possible life issue that could arise. It also doesn’t mean that having each other is or should be “enough” to prevent loneliness, sadness, boredom, or frustration. We feel so strongly about this that when other people tell us, “You two fit perfectly together like pieces of an incomplete puzzle,” we are quick to remind them that even small puzzles usually have more pieces than two. We never would have found each other if either of us had been looking for the person who would make us perfectly happy. To quote from Leah’s article again:

In the meantime, they’ll be missing out on the best part of marriage—the presence of a partner in the ongoing project of becoming better versions of yourself. The spouse you pick shouldn’t be the one who makes you happiest, but the one who makes you more kind, prudent, and generous, and to whom you can give the same gift. You join to grow, not to accommodate the desires of your present self.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is just as true for celibate partnerships as it is for marriages. Though we do bring each other a great deal of happiness, our relationship works not because we bring pleasure into each other’s lives, but because we are better people together than we are apart. Sometimes, one of us is not at all happy with the way the other is posing a challenge in a given moment. It’s a ding to the ego. Spiritual growth can be painful as well as joyous, and we’re willing to stand by each other through all of it as well as reach out to our friends and community during good times and bad. As we see it, marital/partnership completionism stands in the way of growth toward unity with God, and this does no one any favors.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Mid-September Links of Interest

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve found several interesting articles, blog posts, and videos. We also realized that it’s been a while since we last linked our readers to what we’ve been reading and discussing at home and with friends. Today, we’re giving ourselves a break from writing, and we encourage you to check out the following if you haven’t already:

We were excited to find this six-minute video featuring several people who have chosen celibacy or sexual abstinence for varying lengths of time and for many different reasons. We enjoyed the diversity showcased in the video, and we’re happy to see that these kinds of stories are being told.

Last week, Melinda Selmys at Spiritual Friendship wrote a thoughtful post on misconceptions about the transgender community.

This article from Inside Higher Ed was published in July, but we’ve noticed that it continues to generate discussion amongst our friends. It gives a brief overview of what’s happening at two Christian colleges that have won exemptions to Title IX.

Speaking of Christian colleges, Julie Rodgers wrote a blog post about her recent move to Chicago to take a job at Wheaton College. Though neither of us attended Wheaton, we related to Julie’s reflections on her own experience as a freshman there:

I was recruited to play basketball and I had to sit out the second half of the season because I failed fitness class. I failed fitness class because gay Christian angst (along with doubt and despair) made getting up for an 11am class feel impossible. My perception was that I was the only student on campus that wasn’t memorizing entire books of the Bible while taking 18 hours of upper level coursework and leading early morning discipleship groups. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I hadn’t been alone. Now, after a decade of being shaped by God’s grace, I’ve been given the opportunity to tell students in similar places they’re not alone either.

Speaking of the gay Christian angst Julie references, Stephen Long at Sacred Tension wrote a compelling post a couple of weeks ago on this topic.

If you’re interested in reading or participating in discussion on Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian (which we reviewed a while ago), you’ll want to check out this invitation to dialogue that Rachel Held Evans has issued to her readers.

Yesterday, Lindsey found an insightful post at Swinging from Grapevines titled, “Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving the Church.” It offers a millennial’s perspective on why members of the millennial generation are becoming uninterested in and disengaged from faith communities.

If you live near the University of Notre Dame, you might want to consider attending the Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity colloquium on October 31 and November 1, 2014. It’s free and open to the public, but attendees need to register.

Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic, will be released soon. We’re super excited to review it. In the meantime, read Eve’s series of book extras that she’s publishing on her blog. They’re all tagged “Gay Catholic Whatnot.”

Because we’ve had a couple of recent posts about wildlife and respect for God’s creation, we wanted to share this opinion piece by Richard Conniff. Our favorite quote from the article:

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

And continuing with that theme, within the past week the Wildlife Center of Virginia has released two of its rehabilitated bald eaglet patients. You can see the videos here.

That’s all for today. Have a blessed Wednesday!

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Grieving What My Vocation Is Not

A reflection by Sarah

When I was in college, I listened to vocations speakers frequently. Every talk I heard emphasized how God calls people to their vocations because he cares about our happiness and our ability to use our gifts to serve the world around us. The speakers stressed how vocational discernment shouldn’t be terrifying since God is speaking to our hearts, and all we need to do is listen and obey. Since vocations are gifts given by God, they emphasized, there is no need to be frightened by the prospect of discerning vocation.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on that time in my life. I remember how terrified I was of discerning vocation despite all of those reassurances. What would happen if I made the wrong decision? Surely there were people who were supposed to have been married but who entered monasteries. Likewise, I thought, there must be married people who have experienced a call to monasticism, but chose marriage instead. What would happen if I turned out to be one of those people who would make the wrong choice? Would I be miserable because I hadn’t properly discerned God’s will for my life? The vocations speakers that I heard sounded so incredibly peaceful and full of joy when talking about what God had called them to. I thought, “If they are so happy, then they must have properly and perfectly discerned God’s call. They are so lucky to have discerned their vocations correctly.” As I recall these thoughts now, I see that I had an underdeveloped view of vocation and discernment at the time. I’d assumed that if a person was happy in his/her vocation and had discerned what God’s will truly was, then he/she would never experience any grief over what might have been if things had turned out differently. I was naive enough to think that once I figured out what God was calling me to, he would remove any inkling of desires for a different way of life. While I’m absolutely confident that doing your best to follow where God leads will ultimately lead you to joy and union with God, I believe now that grief along the way is frequently part of the process.

I’ve heard people suggest that because there is a significant part of me that desires to be a mother and to have children, that it would be better for me to leave the committed celibate relationship I have with Lindsey and seek out a heterosexual marriage. Sometimes it’s even been suggested that Lindsey is selfish for preventing me from finding a husband and marrying. I find these notions ludicrous for several reasons, but two in particular. For one, the people who make such comments are not considering the likelihood that, as a lesbian, I would be miserable in a heterosexual marriage even if that marriage did provide me a way to become a biological mother. However, there’s a deeper reason that I find these comments troubling. They imply that vocations should be able to meet all of our desires for every good and holy thing. If you desire something and it is a holy desire, this line of thinking asserts an automatic belief that God is calling you to it. I think this idea is hugely problematic.

No matter what vocational pathways we take, following Christ costs us something. We all make choices that prevent us from making other choices. [Economists are able to talk about "opportunity cost" with good reason.] When a person decides to pursue a vocation to marriage, that person is giving up the possibility of entering any kind of celibate vocation (unless his/her spouse reposes and their children have become adults). When a person decides to enter a monastery, he or she is giving up the possibility of being married and raising a family. We make choices and do our best to allow God to lead us rightly. That’s the nature of discernment. Both celibacy and marriage are good ways of life, but neither enables a person to do everything. At this point, the question is, “Is it okay for a person to grieve what his or her vocation is not?” Is it acceptable for a married person to grieve aspects of the celibate life that he/she will never know fully in this lifetime? Is there something wrong with a celibate person who is experiencing sadness over not being married or having children? I would argue that not only is this sort of grief okay, but that it’s entirely normal.

I think one of the reasons I didn’t settle into a celibate vocation earlier than my late twenties is that I spent years pondering how God could be calling me to a way of life that would bring me grief as well as joy. In having to choose just one way of life, I’d certainly miss out on something great found in a different vocation. If any one of those vocational pathways would involve sadness over aspects that were not a part of that particular pathway, how was I supposed to experience the deep and profound joy all of the different vocations speakers referenced in their talks? I came to see that taking the plunge into any vocation has its risks. Once you give a vocation a try, you risk finding out that it fits…or that it doesn’t. It was a huge risk for me to say that I was committing to celibacy, especially after having been in non-celibate relationships. It was an even greater risk when I decided that I was going to commit the rest of my life to a celibate partnership with Lindsey. I can’t get over how much we experience joy, both as individuals and together.

Nonetheless, I have to be real about the fact my vocation is not just joyous moment after joyous moment after joyous moment. There are times when I feel the emotional pangs associated with sensing that God is not calling me to certain things I’ve felt somewhat drawn to in the past. For me, the one that is especially trying is knowing that I will never be a biological mother. There is a part of me that absolutely aches with desire to carry a child in my womb. Some days it’s very hard to cope with that reality. But I’ve realized that not all of my desires — even for good things– are what God is actually calling me to. I don’t think it’s bad that I have a strong desire for motherhood. It’s not a problem to be remedied. The fact that intuition tells me I would make a good mother does not mean that my call to celibacy is less real. It also does not mean that my relationship with Lindsey is going to end because I’m not getting everything I could possibly want out of life, or that Lindsey and I should try to brainstorm solutions for me to become a mother.

I believe that if you experience this kind of sadness, it’s healthy to sit with the feeling and allow it to be. Another lesson I learned in my 20s is that life isn’t about being happy. It’s about seeking union with God, and that search involves the entire spectrum of emotions.  Sorrow, frustration, anger, and grief are not maladies to be cured. When I find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed because of what my vocation is not, it’s beneficial to pray about what it is and can be as Lindsey and I continue discerning throughout our lives together. It’s also helpful to be thinking about other ways I can direct my desire for motherhood. My greatest comfort is in knowing that Christ and His Holy Mother are here waiting to embrace me anytime I’m grieving over anything at all…and knowing it’s okay to let them do just that.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Friendships and Diversity

Good morning, everyone. We’re finally caught up on comment responses again and will continue to work on email responses today. We’re always glad to hear from you.

Here’s our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week, Lindsey wrote a post on the difference it makes when people are open to having diverse groups of friends. This post focused specifically on how much more common it is for straight, cisgender people to have LGBT friends than it is for white people to have black friends. We are now asking you: what factors have an effect on who makes up your closest circle of friends? How do you think diversity within friend groups impacts our ability to understand experiences different from our own? Is there anything a person can do to avoid unintentionally limiting one’s circle of friends to those who have similar backgrounds? Does openness to developing friendships with diverse groups of people necessarily mean pursuing “token” friendships?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Our Wild Ride Together

One of the things we appreciate most about each other is our mutual love of learning. Before meeting, our intellectual and leisure interests were markedly different with rare surprising areas of overlap. But since the beginnings of our friendship, we’ve gravitated toward sharing aspects of our individual lives that we never would have thought possible. Being able to join and participate in each other’s fantastically nerdy and fun avocations has enlivened both of us. It has been like the transformation of plants in springtime after the first rain showers of the season arrive. Neither of us could have imagined that due to Lindsey’s frequent discussions of engineering design, wondering “How is this made?” would become second nature for Sarah upon encountering objects of all kinds. Likewise, we never would have thought Lindsey might develop an interest in the theological basis of Christian social action movements after engaging in hours of conversation about Sarah’s research. Sometimes, our different personal interests don’t pique each other’s curiosity at all. Lindsey will probably never convince Sarah that American Pickers is anything other than boring, and it’s unlikely that Sarah’s knack for painting or sewing will ever rub off on Lindsey. One never knows for sure, though. A couple of weeks ago, we spent some time on a day trip together reflecting on one of Sarah’s hobbies that, over the past two years, has become a rather unexpected aspect of our shared life.

Having grown up in Eastern Kentucky, Sarah has always been passionate about wildlife. In childhood, Sarah fell in love with all creatures inhabiting the surrounding area. Some of Sarah’s best memories are of sprinting outdoors in bare feet to get a closer look at a snake, turtle, or lizard that Sarah’s dad had found in the backyard…or of catching a red-eyed tree frog to hide in the basket while Sarah’s mom was removing laundry from the clothesline. Every time a member of the family found an orphaned baby animal, Sarah would insist that it not be left to fend for itself. Over the years, Sarah’s family provided care for dozens of reptiles, birds, and small mammals. Sarah still remembers being twelve years old and mourning for a week over the death of a hatchling grouse that was impossible to save. This love for all kinds of wildlife has never become less important. Whether it’s using a broomstick and cat carrier to rescue a young opossum stuck on a fire escape or getting a late start on work after coaxing a reluctant cicada out of the apartment complex early in the morning, a typical day for Sarah almost always involves an interaction with our city’s wildlife.

Very soon after the two of us met, Lindsey learned of Sarah’s interest in wildlife. As we each found out about what brings the other joy, this item arose frequently in conversation. Within the first two weeks of our friendship, Lindsey knew that Sarah had taken a course for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation volunteers, and that eventually Sarah hopes to become more active in supporting the local wildlife center. Lindsey had never been particularly interested in wild animals before meeting Sarah, but long before we decided to pursue a celibate partnership we sensed that Sarah’s enthusiasm about creatures great and small was a beneficial topic for us to discuss together. In no time at all Lindsey was asking Sarah, “How does one safely rescue an injured eagle? Why do migrating songbirds crash into windows of tall buildings? What are you supposed to do if a duck has nested on your roof? Is it possible to save a snake that has swallowed something inedible?”

Later on as we moved in together and began to conceive of ourselves as a family, we had many conversations about the choices we had made individually with regard to donations. We talked about organizations, causes, and ministries that we value, and ultimately came to one mind about which of these should receive support from us jointly. At that point, Sarah introduced Lindsey to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. While not exactly local to us, this wildlife center is one of the nation’s most successful, and a trip there and back from our city can be undertaken within a day. Sarah explained to Lindsey the significance of this organization’s work, and we decided that as a family, we would sponsor two education animals: Buttercup the Black Vulture and Ruby the Red-Tailed Hawk. Something about these two birds resonated deeply with both of us. Sarah has always had a special interest in creatures that most people consider unattractive and nonessential to a healthy ecosystem, so a vulture in particular seemed an appropriate animal to sponsor.

Over the summer this year, we learned that the Wildlife Center of Virginia would be holding some open house dates. Sarah was thrilled at the opportunity to visit over Labor Day weekend and immediately registered the two of us. Lindsey was eager to welcome this new experience, but had some doubts. Even as we headed toward Charlottesville on that Saturday morning, we both knew that Lindsey wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of spending one whole day of a three-day weekend learning about veterinary equipment and animals kept for educational programs. But all that changed as soon as our tour of the facility began. First, everyone present for the open house listened to a presentation about the Center’s history, intake process for animal patients, and rehabilitation approaches. Albus the Eastern Rat Snake introduced himself to us. Under most circumstances, Lindsey is terrified of snakes. But Albus brought a mysterious sense of charm that calmed even the most squirmy, snake-fearing children who were present.

Albus the Rat Snake

Albus the Eastern Rat Snake

Next, we were given the chance to see some of the outdoor enclosures where the Center’s education animals live. A volunteer explained each animal’s story to us and provided some education on the roles they all play in Virginia’s ecosystems. Both of us were excited to meet them, especially Buttercup and Ruby.

Ruby the Red-Tailed Hawk (Unfortunately, we couldn't get a better photo of her.)

Ruby the Red-Tailed Hawk (Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a better photo of her.)

The Center describes Buttercup as a “charismatic black vulture,” and they aren’t kidding. Buttercup is so friendly and imprinted on humans that he rushes to the front of his enclosure anytime visitors come. We took a short video of this.

Any doubts that Lindsey may have had about driving all morning to visit a vulture quickly melted away.

Buttercup the Black Vulture

Buttercup the Black Vulture

Even Sarah was surprised by what we saw inside the Center’s hospital facility, which was the final part of the open house tour. The level of care offered to the animals at this place is superb. Neither of us was aware of how much effort employees and volunteers put into creating and implementing nutrition plans and exercise regimens for each patient. We also developed a new appreciation for the challenge of keeping wild animals wild so they can return to their habitats after receiving needed care. By the time we were ready to leave, Lindsey was saying, “I have to get these people to come to the school where I teach and give a presentation. There are so many engineering design connections I could make with the students!”

Since our visit, Sarah has been thrilled to see Lindsey’s enthusiasm over International Vulture Awareness Day. We celebrated this year by wearing our “Keep Calm and Carrion” t-shirts and sporting our “carrion bags.”

Carrion Bag

Lindsey probably never thought we would say this, but we cherish the ways in which Sarah’s love of wildlife have opened new spaces of enjoyment and interest for Lindsey as well. Vultures and the like are now part of our regular conversations around the dinner table and during long drives. What we’ve learned and continue to learn from this experience is the importance of giving both of us space to be ourselves as fully as possible. This gives us equal freedom to explore new areas of life together, and also freedom to say, “No thanks,” when one of us has an interest that the other feels no connection to whatsoever. It keeps us open to the millions of possibilities that life together affords us. And it makes every day we spend together a truly wild ride.

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Why It Matters When White People Don’t Have Black Friends

A reflection by Lindsey

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen my Facebook feed full of reports about happenings in Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of aggressive policing and racial profiling. Even though I have limited time available to read many of the stories, I can’t help but see some of the comments. The lack of empathy I see has startled me. But when I stumbled across findings from the Public Religion Research Institute that reported three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends, the tenor of the conversation began to make more sense to me.

People are funny when it comes to how they respond to those who are different from them. I say “funny” because it’s a curious phenomenon. In many ways, we seem to be frozen into egocentric ways of relating to people. As an engineer, I am often amused by the joke, “The world does revolve around me! I choose the coordinate system!” However, I think the joke has more than a grain of truth when we consider our social spheres of interaction and influence. We often choose our friends from people who are most like us. We build our circles of friends from people near us who have things in common with us. The fact that so many white people are able to create such homogenous circles of friends should show us that we’ve somehow managed to create social structures where white people can avoid meaningful and equitable interactions with people of color.

I care about this stuff. I really do. When I was in college, I read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. This book stuck with me like oatmeal can stick to your ribs. I still have vivid memories of how, statistically speaking, white people have a much larger monetary asset base than black people. I think I remember that part so well because I was a college student at the time I read the book, and I was just starting to become independent of my parents financially. It’s a bit sobering to look at more recent statistics. Few things get under my skin like inequality does. While I’m certainly no expert on social justice, I do try to be exceptionally mindful of my expectations and assumptions about people having access to resources.

To be honest, I was surprised when I first saw the headline. I went to college in a university that draws an incredibly diverse population. I haven’t done any kind of formal analysis of my Facebook friends list, so I wouldn’t say that I have an especially diverse friends base. I do try to do my best to shut up and listen when a person who has a different life experience than mine wants to share some of his or her story with me. Some things I’ve learned, time and time again from virtually all my friends, are that context matters, stereotypes hide any number of important observations, and it’s not that hard to look at how society has structures that perpetuate inequalities. [Nicked and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is another book that really drove home the latter point.]

When I think about the importance of knowing someone, I consider the stories told around increasing acceptance of LGBT people. Many straight people have had to stop and reflect on their views surrounding LGBT issues after finding out that a co-worker, friend, or child has come out as LGBT. It’s a lot harder to think without empathy about LGBT related topics when you start associating them with real people that you actually know.

Let me be extremely clear: I do not believe that we should equate the experiences of LGBT people with the experiences of people of color. Looking at the headline that 75% of white Americans do not have any non-white friends, I wondered about the effects of social organization. It’s a lot easier to make claims that like, “Racial profiling is simply police doing their job,” if you’ve never gone out shopping with a black friend. It’s a lot easier to doubt that virtually every black household briefs its children about what they need to do if they are stopped by the police if you’ve never sat around the dinner table with a black family. It’s a lot easier to suggest that jobs go to the highest qualified person if you’ve never known a person who has “white-washed” his or her resume. I decided to talk about the LGBT community because I know many white people who have discovered that they actually have a good number of LGBT friends unknowingly. When people have LGBT friends, they tend to reconsider their views about social problems affecting the LGBT population. However, I’m afraid that it’s much easier for those who are straight to find themselves in friendship with those who are LGBT than it is for white people to find themselves in friendship with people of color. Part of the reason why I think white people have comparatively homogenous circles of friends is that we tend to socialize in already segregated environments. Churches are often the worst place to try to diversify one’s friends base; Divided by Faith is so named because 11:00 AM on Sunday morning is often the most segregated hour of the week.

Relationships matter. Our relationships with one another make us human. When we have relationships with people who are different from us, we learn to see our commonalities as people as well as our salient differences that set us apart as individuals. We develop empathy skills that allow us to hear stories that challenge us to see the many faces of oppressive social structures. We tune our abilities to say, “That’s not fair!” and work for positive changes.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Living amidst Theological Tensions in a Faith Community

We’re going to be addressing a reader’s question in today’s post. A reader asked us:

How do you reconcile the fact that, if you remain in a conservative tradition, you will likely always be surrounded by a church body made up of people who disagree with you?

This reader zoomed in on how LGBT issues have a way of dividing Christian congregations. However, as we thought about our response to this question, we decided to zoom out and answer the question more generally.

The natural first question is, what makes a Christian tradition a “conservative” tradition? From where we sit, there can be an uneasy alliance between blindly accepting certain norms and allowing oneself to be shaped by the wisdom contained in a Christian tradition. Every Christian tradition has a theological core that gives it form and structure. When traditions keep this theological core at the front and center, we generally encourage people to listen to what is being said much more closely.

The theological core of a Christian tradition acts as a spine. The human spine not only gives the body form and structure, but it also permits a person to move. Nerves activate muscles where ligaments pull to move the bones. Without the neuromuscular structure, the skeleton does nothing. When Christians ask questions of, “How does this Christian tradition guide my life given my unique circumstances?” they act as nerve cells in the system. Christians sense when their tradition should be able to offer them guidance. That these questions exist is a good thing. If the tradition guides the response, then the person seeking answers should be able to connect back with the theological core. Our questions should guide us towards Christ. To say it another way, questions should help us grow in our faith. As children of the Church, we’re always growing.

Sometimes, theological tension acts as a muscle pair. Living a Christian life frequently requires finding the narrow way of Christ. “Conservative/progressive” language is one way of to describing this tension in some congregations. Often, conservative approaches seek to preserve what is while progressive approaches want to imagine what can be. Every Christian lives amidst this tension when imagining the possibilities for his or her own life while trying to conform to the likeness of Christ. Therefore, the two of us welcome it when people disagree with us based on their best understandings of our tradition’s theological core, especially when they remember that we are also children of God who are worthy of respect. Theological tension can remind us to sit longer with God to discern the way rather than jump headlong into assuming that God is always saying “Yes” or “No” to everything we want to do.

At other times, theological tension occurs when people are unwilling to consider some questions in the first place. If Christians dismiss questions outright, they also dismiss the possibility that those asking the questions are authentically seeking Christ. Additionally, sometimes people fail to reference the theological core of their Christian traditions. It can be all too easy to let a soundbite like, “Well, the Bible clearly says…” or “The Church has always taught…” prevent deep engagement with how a Christian tradition could guide a person through periods of difficult discernment. This kind of theological tension gets old quickly, especially if Christians haven’t really thought about the implications of what they are saying. We can certainly be compassionate because we know that in theological conversations, we’ve made our own ignorant comments at times and likely will again in the future. However, we hope that people would be open to thinking about how Christ welcomes all sorts of questions and about how core theological concepts can provide helpful guidance in diverse situations.

For our part, we choose congregations that are well connected with the theological core of our Christian tradition. We love being in congregations that teach people how to incorporate this theological core into daily life. Relative to our own vocation, we do not believe that we have all the answers. We have no interest in policing everyone’s orthodoxy or inciting that some Christian traditions need to “get with the times.” We believe that people’s theological beliefs matter; as Christians, we’ve definitely thought about what theological issues are most important for Christians to hold as common beliefs. Nonetheless, we know that different people are going to come to different theological conclusions across a wide range of topics. We respect other Christians who are making a good faith effort to connect with the core of their theological traditions. And we recognize that every person is capable of making mistakes as we seek help living into the fullness of what God has called us to. It’s easier to deal with disagreement when you can appreciate the earnest efforts of everyone present.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Unappreciated Parts of God’s Creation

Good afternoon, readers. We’re getting our post out a bit late today. Thanks for your patience, and as always, for your support and engagement in lively conversation.

Here’s today’s Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Today is a day that is very special to us: International Vulture Awareness Day. We learned about today from our favorite vulture, Buttercup — an education bird we sponsor at the Virginia Wildlife Center. Last week, we had the privilege of meeting Buttercup at an open house. He’s a very charismatic and lovable bird. Nonetheless, meeting him reminded us of how many parts of God’s creation go unappreciated. We can especially relate to this as LGBT Christians. Next week, we’re going to write a post about our adventure visiting the wildlife center, and for today’s question we ask you: what parts of God’s creation do you think are most unappreciated? Why are they unappreciated? What can be done to encourage greater respect and care for these parts of creation? (And if you feel so inclined, you can also comment about vultures specifically :) ).

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.