The following is a sermon I gave this morning at Allen's Neck Friends Meeting in Dartmouth, MA. I read the news yesterday of West Hill's Friends Church and Northwest Yearly Meeting and it weighed heavy on my heart. I've included a recording of my sermon this morning as well, if you'd like to listen as you read along.
So, I’ve been having a hard week. I’ll lay it all out there for you, a little bit about my week. In the heat of this summer that in Boston really came out this past week; it was really hot up there. I finally dug out my cute summer dresses, shorts, and t-shirts. My cute summer dresses didn’t fit, my shorts didn’t fit, nothing fit. My summer clothes don’t fit this year and it's really depressing to look in the mirror and think… wow, I just don’t fit. I don’t know if any of you have ever been there, have had that happened, but it really got to me.
Concurrently I found out earlier this week some other not so great news. I had led a pilgrimage to Italy in June with an organization, with another co-leader, and I found out this past week that even though it had been a fantastic great experience, I wouldn’t be able to lead it next year, because it doesn’t fit with the schedule of my residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital for chaplaincy. The organization needs to do the pilgrimage a month earlier and my residency goes through the end of May, and it just doesn’t fit. And even though I know that its not about me, I know I did a great job over there in Italy, I know that I had a great time and my participants had a great time, and my co-leader really wants to lead it again with me, it still brings up all these feelings of inadequacy, of anger, of sadness that it just doesn’t fit into my schedule for next year.
So I’ve been wrestling, I’ve been holding these two things this week and I’ve found that this feeling of not fitting has just risen to the surface. And it’s a terrible, haunting feeling full of anger, sadness, and unworthiness. It’s really gotten to me this week.
Alongside all of this personal struggle, this week also reveled the news, actually yesterday, Saturday, that West Hills Friends Church in Portland Oregon was released from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Mark Pratt-Russum, the pastor of West Hills wrote this in a blog yesterday, on Saturday:
“It was about 24 hours ago that I received news that my Quaker meeting, West Hills Friends, was "released" from our yearly meeting. Our meeting has affirmed same sex relationships, and has valued our LGBTQ Friends as full participants in the life of our community. Just recently we preformed a same sex marriage ceremony for two of our beloved members. Our position on this was deemed "shattering" to our yearly meeting two years ago. After a two year process of bringing us back into compliance with the policies of our yearly meeting (which deems same sex relationships as sinful), the yearly meeting elders made the decision to let us go. As a pastor at West Hills Friends this breaks my heart. Over my five years in the yearly meeting I formed some relationships (especially with fellow youth workers) that meant a lot to me. Yet, that is just a fraction of my heartbreak. I am thinking about the young people in the Northwest Yearly Meeting who received the news yesterday. I am thinking of all the LGBTQ Friends who received the news yesterday. My heartbreak is with them.”
To Northwest Yearly Meeting, West Hills Friends didn’t fit. They didn’t fit the theological, sociological and political mold that Northwest Yearly Meeting, an evangelical, pastoral yearly meeting held as a standard for its monthly meetings. West Hills Friends Church and many many members of Northwest Yearly Meeting feel the that feeling of rejection. Of not fitting in, that terrible feeling full of anger, sadness, and in this case disappointment.
I’ve been reading lately several books by Brene Brown. She is a researcher of shame and vulnerability. She has written the well known books “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “You thought it was just you: but Isn’t.” She has been featured on TED talks and Oprah. In Brene’s research she talked to a lot of different people about shame, about vulnerability, but also about fitting in and belonging. And she talks to them and she hear their stories of their feelings and emotions that were evoked when feeling like they didn’t fit in; they hadn’t belonged. Brene writes “Fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging… Belonging is something else entirely—it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are.”
West Hills Friends Church could have tried to fit in. They could have played the game, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” They could have written a statement condemning their past actions and been allowed to stay in the Yearly Meeting. They could have been brought “back into compliance with the policies” of the yearly meeting. But they didn’t because they didn’t belong; they weren’t welcome as who they really are.
Yet a big difference between fitting in, or not fitting in and not belonging is that when you don’t fit in; when you feel like you don’t fit in, like in the case of my summer clothes, or being replaced on a trip because it doesn’t fit my schedule, there is often a sense of shame; a feeling that there is something wrong with me. The deep occurrence of self-loathing or of being mean to myself interferes with my ability to love.
Not belonging is different. Not being accepted because you have been true to yourself completely is of course painful, anger and sorrow filled; but does not imped your ability to love. Matt Pratt-Russum, that same pastor of West Hills Friends Church continued his blog entry writing “[Northwest Yearly Meeting] PLEASE know that YOU ARE LOVED. Please know that regardless of this decision that West Hills Friends isn't going anywhere. Please know that we will continue to love you, to support you, to acknowledge the light of God in you. “ He continues extending that love to others inside the yearly meeting and outside of it, “If you feel rejected today, know that you have my acceptance. If you feel alone today, know that you have my companionship. If you feel angry, know that you can yell with me. If God feels distant, I will inhabit that place with you, and pray that God's presence will return. If you feel like you need to talk [here is] my phone number, [my facebook page, my] email. This isn't a time, at least for me, to respond to the actions of the yearly meeting. This is a time to love those who are hurting and most vulnerable. Let's be there for them. Let's make sure they never doubt that YOU ARE LOVED. “
Brene Brown also writes about love: “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we [must] nurture and grow.”
I meet monthly with a group of women for discernment and clearness. It was my turn yesterday to bring my struggles to that space, to share and then to listen as they prayed, reflected, and held my feelings of not fitting in. They encouraged me to buy new clothes that fit. They encouraged me to love my body as it changes with age and to shift my view of my body from enemy to gift. These women cried with me over the loss of my work leading pilgrimages, celebrated with me the joy that this past trip embodied for me and helped me cultivate hope that new possibilities would open up. As I live into my love of chaplaincy work; as I live into a life of ministry in many different ways, ways that invokes who I am with pure authenticity, there will be some things that fall away, some for only a time and some forever. Yet by living authentically, I create the space to love, to love my self, my body, my calling, my life. I open up the space to belong.
So today I pray for the people of West Hills Friends Church, for the people of Northwest Yearly Meeting, and of all the LGBTQ Friends and their communities around the world who feel heartbreak by what has happened. I pray for the people who feel that they don’t fit in, that something, that they feel that there is something wrong with who they are, and I pray that there is space for them to love themselves and feel that they belong. I pray that for each and every person affected God calls them to be fully who they are; calls them to live authentically; calls them to love, to love in the face of brutal challenge. So that with that love space may open, miraculous space of healing, of transformation, and of belonging.