Whose view of God should I make an effort to understand or even hear about? Is there really such a thing as “us” and “them”? What does it mean if the teachings I was raised with are fallible? Over time, the boundaries between my faith and the faiths of others have gradually been redrawn.
Understanding my own calling
I grew up in a denomination and a time in which very firm lines were drawn between us and people of other churches, much less other faiths. Yet since the age of three and a half my best friend was Kathy. Kathy was a good Catholic; she went to Catholic grade school and high school. Although we were best friends, there was always a question, a worry. Would she be saved, or because she was Catholic, would she, sadly, end up in hell? I can’t say for sure if it was ever said directly that it would be the latter, but it was clear enough from what I heard in church that it was something to worry about. I never understood that, except to assume that it was well-founded.
From the time I was around 3 years old, I also knew I wanted to be a pastor. Of course, it was made clear in my church that I couldn’t because I was a girl. There were even Bible verses to prove it! I scored better than any of the boys in my Sunday School or confirmation classes. What was it about being a girl that made it impossible for me to be ordained?
I applied for and got into a church-sponsored junior college, declaring that I wanted to do counseling in the church. What did that mean? Nothing, really. It was the only way I could think of to get in and start the process. There my eyes began to open. I nearly failed the freshman class on the Bible, but had begun to learn about how the Bible came to be, how things were not so clear about women in church leadership. Suddenly there was a possible glimpse of hope. As tensions simmered in the denomination I was raised in, something else was beginning to brew in me.
Until this point the boundaries that restricted me had been external; they were what the world and the church were telling me. That began to shift.
Losing internalized boundaries can feel like losing our identities
Being one of three women in a student body of three hundred studying theology was very challenging. My advisor told me he didn’t know what to do with me. Sexist and dirty jokes were quite common in class and elsewhere. There were no female faculty members. Only once in my four years was there another woman in a class with me. I felt like I was losing myself.
The consistent message I had received of not being able to be a pastor included the underlying assumption that women were somehow less. Less worthy. Less capable. Less acceptable. Less forgivable. Less loveable, even for God. I began to question: what if the boundaries I had faced were well-founded after all? What if I couldn’t do this? Eventually a new denomination formed out of mine and the ordination of women was approved. At the same time, it slowly became clearer that I had internalized the boundaries that had been taught to me. They were me.
Spiritual practices for self-acceptance
While all of this external and internal shifting was happening, a professor asked me if I would be interested in trying individual confession and forgiveness. I had been yearning for something more. With his hands on my head, hearing, “Jane, I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” there was no getting around that it was true for me. This remained a practice of mine for several years. I began to see that I could be accepted and loved by God. Almost out of necessity I hung on to the insight that God’s grace had to include everyone or I could still be in big trouble. There was no telling what God’s limit might be.
Individual confession and forgiveness is still useful at times, but it was no longer enough. A gift I gave myself for my 40th birthday was Spiritual Direction. As I have over the years shared my story, both past and present, with my Spiritual Director something else has become clear. There is a difference between guilt and shame. Confession and forgiveness was helpful for guilt, real or perceived. It did very little to ease the shame that had become a very real part of me through the Church and society. It wasn’t about what I had done wrong, it was about who I am.
When I received the call to Trinity Lutheran Congregation in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, all of these dynamics were in play. Grace was opening up to me more. I was no longer as filled with shame and came to see more and more the bigness of God. It made sense that if God can accept and love me, God must be able to accept and love pretty much everyone.
Building relationships with interfaith neighbors
The grace I was learning to live into and the true bigness of God has been well-timed. (The Spirit knew what She was doing!) Cedar-Riverside is home to the largest concentration of Somalis outside of Somalia, hence its nickname, Little Mogadishu. At the same time that my understanding of God’s radical grace has grown, so has our congregation’s involvement with the East African people in Cedar-Riverside. While their lives and mine have been different I know from experience some of what they experience as immigrants in the U.S, not belonging or even being wanted.
As I have been with the people of Cedar-Riverside, as Trinity has come to know the members of one mosque in particular, as I have listened to their stories and heard and experienced the deep faith of our Muslim siblings, I have come to see and know deeply that God’s grace and love do, in fact, cover everyone. We are each trying to understand in our own way how God works in this world and how we can relate to God.
Now I understand that each faith has their own lens. The Lutheran lens I use to see God works for me; it is my home. But the lens of Islam works just as well for my Muslim friends and colleagues. It’s kind of like the story of the blind person and the elephant; we each come to know a certain quality of God, but it’s never the whole picture. The more I listen to and talk with Sharif, Wali, Fayo, Ayan, Nadifa Abdirahman, and all of the others, the more my understanding of God grows, the bigger God and God’s grace become. In a recent conversation with the Imam of Dar Al-Hijrah we both learned that our faith journeys are in many ways very similar.
Minneapolis has recently allowed the outdoor broadcasting of the Adhan, the Call to Prayer. A few weeks ago as I walked down Cedar Avenue I was stopped in my tracks by what I could only think of as a heavenly sound. It was echoing off the high rises and being blown around in the wind. Over the traffic noises surrounding me, it sang out. At first, I didn’t know what it was. Was Palmers Bar playing some kind of chanting? That didn’t make sense. Then it hit me, it was the Adhan, calling out to the community that it was time to pray. I waited and listened until it was done. It called me, too, into a prayerful moment, in my own fashion. I knew once again how big God and God’s grace are and how grateful I am for the journey so far to come to know this.
My faith journey continues. I don’t have it all figured and I still have moments when doubt and shame are very real, at times overwhelming. But hearing the Adhan and even singing “Chief of Sinners, Though I Be” as we did in my childhood church have taken on a new depth that includes the unimaginable bigness of God and God’s grace. It turns out that God’s grace and love really are radical and unlimited. Who knew?
I know this now: listening has been key to the whole process. Being listened to deeply has kept me centered. Listening to the people of the neighborhood has opened Trinity and me to the lives in Cedar-Riverside. Listening to God has informed our presence and participation in the neighborhood. Listening may be the most difficult practice of all, but it opens up new worlds.
Questions for reflection:
- What were some of the limitations or teachings about faithful boundaries you were raised with? Do you still see them in the same way now?
- What were turning points in your own faith journey or leadership path?
- How do you relate to neighbors who do not share your faith? Has that changed over time?