This is not an easy blog for me to write because it’s coming from a place in me that is really confused and daunted by struggles that feel much bigger than I am and require a much wiser soul. I’m not sure wisdom comes without the struggles for which we find ourselves ill-prepared though. So, I take comfort in Richard Rohr’s statement: “you learn how to recover from falling by falling!” – hence, the title of his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The book and a daily meditation by Rohr was a timely recommendation from a friend, who perhaps sensed that I’m struggling with my own shadow. What I mean is that I’m starting to painfully see beyond my own persona or carefully constructed images of myself. While built from very real qualities in myself those images have often served to hide or overcompensate for other real qualities in me that I deemed unacceptable and thus pushed into the nether regions of my psyche – where they have only come out in unconscious ways, inflicting injuries but allowing me to pretend I’m not responsible for those injuries.
Such unconscious living is why I believe personal and spiritual growth ultimately requires us to face our own shadow. Maybe this reveals a thread of truth in the sin-dominant theology of my younger years, but it is very different from that experience in that now “salvation is sin turned on its head and used in our favor.” In fact, Rohr unconventionally goes on to say: “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you. Otherwise, it will only return in new forms.” How often have we seen that play out in our personal lives, our churches, and our societies? Let me say right now, this process is taking a whole lot of inner work, and Rohr says, “Before the truth “sets you free,” it tends to make you miserable.” I can vouch for the miserable part, and I hold fast to the promise that the truth will set me free.
I believe that freedom and spiritual wholeness will come only when I learn how to simultaneously hold these contradictions and paradoxes within myself lovingly in my hands and heart, recognizing the dark and the light are part of the same whole. In a sense, it’s daring to reconcile and embrace all that is within me. I’m reminded of a dream I had some months ago where a successful artist gave me some paintings she’d made for me – as I looked at them, I was disappointed to see that each one had a hole in the canvas or some other “blemish.” But then I found myself wondering whether the holes in the canvas were intentional and meant to add to the beauty and meaning of each piece. I woke with the challenge to view the holes in myself as possibly adding to my value rather than detracting from it.
Of course, such a process doesn’t stop with me, for such wholeness must also recognize and accept the same paradoxical nature and holes in the canvas in other people and even institutions, like the Church. If I wasn’t uncomfortable and confused enough already, now I really am. Because now I’m faced with what to do with the pain inflicted upon me by others. I’m not questioning forgiveness. I’m questioning how to live in relation to those people and institutions that continue to hurt us.
For instance, I’m fortunate that I have never been suicidal as a result of the Church and professing Christians’ hurtful responses to my being gay. I’m very fortunate that I’ve not experienced the extreme rejection that other LGBTQ persons have experienced in their church relations. I’m also fortunate to know many people who have dared to speak out on behalf of us – working diligently for inclusion in the life of the United Methodist Church and other denominations. Yet, at the same time, I have experienced the truth in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I have become painfully aware of how official denominational policies have tied would-be healing hands by threatening the livelihood of clergy who would dare to live by a higher Law than that of the church. Those same denominational policies give prejudiced people a platform from which to judge and exclude, thereby perpetuating fear and hate toward LGBTQ persons. Personally, I have felt angry, hurt, and misunderstood by those who deem me unfit to be around their children, who question my right to publically share my testimony with my partner, and who criticize my calling to openly advocate for sacred conversations regarding LGBTQ persons.
Up until now, whenever I’m asked why I’ve stayed in the Church despite its treatment of LGBTQ persons, I have expressed my desire to see the journey of transformation through, to live out a commitment to this beautiful yet broken family because, well, we’re all broken. Such commitment resonates with the journey toward wholeness and reconciliation I spoke of earlier.
But there’s also something new stirring within me – a growing awareness that true reconciliation requires both parties to search their souls and be moved by the other. And so, I realize what happens at the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church may be pivotal in my future commitment to this institution. I’m just not sure I have it in me to keep investing in an institution that refuses to acknowledge its own shadow and do its own soulwork to be in right relationship with me and a whole group of people eager to love and be loved. This stirring is not easy for me to admit or look at, while on one hand it is commensurate with the very healthy notion of walking away from those relationships that have become more damaging than life-giving for us, it also smacks of conditional love and ultimatums. Yet again, let me share an insight from Rohr: “It is interesting to me that very clear passages describing both God’s conditional love and also God’s unconditional love are found in the same Scriptures…the only real biblical promise is that unconditional love will have the last word!” Perhaps only the Soul knows how much we can take and what our lesson to learn is, for some it might be to give more with no promise of return and for some it might be to pull out and give elsewhere.
Read more from Renee Sappington at her blog.