crossing the lines |tyler schwaller|

[This is a letter I wrote to the bishop of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church after a speech in which I talked of my faith as someone who is gay. It received no response. I share it for those interested in truthful conversation beyond the UMC’s continued practices of either outright rejection of LGBTQ persons or of glossing over our presence.]

June 10, 2015

Dear Bishop Trimble and Members of the Appointive Cabinet,

Greetings to you in the name of Christ who has set us free.

In just a two minute speech at Annual Conference, the text of which is included below for your reference, I offered a witness with consequences that I know extend beyond the parameters of a debate and vote on Action Item 106. While I am not typically so presumptuous as to imagine myself as the subject of high-level conversations, I also know that you take your responsibilities seriously…

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How did we get here?

Thank you Becca, Will, and all the others for leadership and also to our Bishop for not blocking it!

We Your People, Ours the Journey

ashes Beloved friends and colleagues (Jamie Michaels and Cynthia Good) gift me with sackcloth and ashes in an act of repentance Thursday morning. Photo by Beth DiCoco, NEAC Communications

The New England Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church experienced a watershed moment this week– so many watershed moments that it’s clear this is not a moment, but a movement. I speak not only of the passage of an Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of our denomination, but of the whole way of doing Conference. Our agenda took significant hits, with some important presentations and actions cut and some significantly restricted and rushed, but this was because we took time to listen to one another, to tell stories and hold pain.

Most of the time at Conference was spent in out-of-order witnessing and truth-telling, circle process conversations about our identity as Methodists (and for some of us, about…

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After being away…

I have not posted here in several months. Packing and moving from an older house converted into two apartments into a large apartment house with 231 apartments, trying to get unpacked while simultaneously celebrating Christmas, and then being laid up for several weeks with viruses — all that and my writing came to a grinding stop.

My cousin and I agreed today that getting old is hard! But I am challenged by these quotes:

“The answer to old age is to keep one’s mind busy and go on with one’s life as if it were interminable.” –Leon Edel

“To insist on living until we die may be one of life’s greatest virtues.” –Joan Chittister

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Inside the Fog

 The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. (Exodus 13:21 NRSV)

A figure like the movie version of the Ghost of Christmas Future points its finger toward the fog and I enter it. I find myself climbing a mountain, above timberline, like a mountain from the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. My hips and legs work fine and I can remember the pleasure that comes when your legs can lift your body in such a steep climb.

I come to a slightly level, though uneven, spot partly covered with some kind of soft vegetation like moss or grass. Throughout this brief experience, I am enveloped in the fog, my pillar of cloud. There is no visibility in the area around or below this mountain — in fact, no visibility beyond about three feet from where I am.

Thus I can see neither the beautiful vistas that might be around me, nor the potential dangers that might frighten me and cause me to lose my footing. My focus is limited to the here and now, the steps and resting places of the present.

But I am in the pillar of cloud and the assurances comes:

“You’re exactly where I want you to be.”

I must keep remembering Abraham who went forth in faith to a promised, but unrevealed, land that God “will show you” sometime in the undefined future.

© Aug.1996

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Jim Taylor: Freedom of Religion Can Go Too Far

Jim writes:

“When religious rights conflict with criminal laws, they contend, religious rights take priority.
“I disagree….
“As an individual, [Canadian Prime Minister] Harper may attend any church he wants. He may practice his beliefs as rigorously as he wants. He’s free to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. He’s also free to believe that two plus two equals five. And if he wants to run his personal finances on that belief, he’s welcome to try.
“As prime minister, though, he must set personal beliefs aside. When he’s governing the country, he must not apply flawed mathematics to national budgets, he cannot ignore scientific realities, and he should not base foreign policy on a 2000-year-old text which asserts that God gave a particular piece of real estate to the descendants of Jacob, forever and ever.”

Read the whole article here:  http://edges.canadahomepage.net/2014/08/24/1833/

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Walking the Tightrope To Avoid Depression

I  walk a tightrope between overwork and depression.

As long as I maintain the balance, I have a great life! If I have too much stimulation I become exhausted, but if I don’t have enough I feel anxious.

This problem began with being seriously burned when I was 12 months old, and I am going into detail about this in the spiritual memoir I am writing. One result was my compulsion to check the gas water heater as well as the doors over and over every night, when I was in elementary school. Back in those days, if there was any diagnosis or treatment for OCD, we didn’t know anything about it.

Fast forward many years to my first year in seminary in 1963. There were only four women admitted to Boston University School of Theology that year. I had already gone through a lot to find a seminary that would admit me.  Sometime during that year I was suffering from headaches, and when I went to the doctor, he asked,

“Wouldn’t you rather stay home?”

Naturally that infuriated me, but I didn’t have the guts to blow up at him. He prescribed Librium, at a strength that I later discovered was a pediatric dose. The nature of the name of the drug made me suspicious, but he insisted that it would help my headaches, and it did.

Later, when I had crying spells and complained of being “unloveworthy,” I took advantage of the pastoral counseling available at Boston University. The style of counseling in those days was non-directive client-centered therapy. At our first session the counselor suggested that my issues related to my burn. I brushed that off, and he never raised it again nor insisted that I deal with it in any way. So I continued counseling for two years, often with very little verbal exchange, and I got better.

Fast forward many years again when a combination of my husband’s health problems and our financial setbacks made it difficult for me to sleep as worries seemed to circle and circle a drain, pulling me down with them.  Talk therapy had become passé and wasn’t covered by insurance, so I saw a psychiatrist. We tried some different medications and found that Lexapro helped. I still take that medicine.

And now, having had one stent put into a coronary artery less than a year ago, I developed symptoms again –shortness of breath and pressure in my chest. When a battery of tests proved that there is no blockage present and no valve problem, but that my blood pressure spiked during the procedure, I went back to my primary doctor to tackle the blood pressure issue.

He asked if I thought my anxiety played a part in my symptoms. I had had a fear that my symptoms might be “all in my head,” and I dreaded any such suggestion. I was afraid that if I said “Yes,” I would receive no treatment for blood pressure that had spiked as high as 196.  That probably was not the case, but I didn’t give him a straight answer and I did get a new medicine to add to what was already prescribed.  So that’s where I am now. I have read of others having problems with both anxiety and heart problems and the difficulty in sorting that out.

Now, in spite of learning better during my own graduate education, and in spite of the publicity about Robin Williams, I still fear the stigma I expect to experience when people know I take medication for generalized anxiety.

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Thoughts on Creation

Reflection on Chet Raymo, “Borne on a sea of vital dust,”
The Boston Globe, June 9, 1997:

You — Creator of the cosmic imperative
toward chemical complexity,
biological bounty, and
vital variety;

You — Poet of the litany of life,
delighting in life’s diversity,
restoring life’s resiliency,
protecting life’s potential
abundant animation of atoms;

You made me host to millions of gut bacteria and airborne microbes!

When the storms come, is anything lost?  Is it not all restored again to the One – the Oneness of creation, creativity?  Who am I as an individual in the stream of the cosmic imperative? I am the host to millions of gut bacteria! Is this why I exist? Not my only reason for being, but reason enough to keep me humble in the vastness of creation.

Maybe we are not the only biological species with whom God enjoys intimacy! But we seem to be the only species that has forgotten who we are as God’s creatures, the only species that has tried to usurp God’s place, position, power, possibilities, and work, — and thus the only species needing redemption.

Did you ever see an elephant try to be God?
Or a dog try to be a man and usurp the role of a human?
Does a bird try to be a rabbit?
Or a whale a horse?

Yet we try to be God.

According to astronomers, every atom in my body was forged in a star. I am made, they insist, of stardust. I am stardust braided into strands and streamers of information, proteins and DNA, double helixes of stardust. In every cell of my body there is a thread of stardust as long as my arm.
Chet Raymo, The Dork of Cork    

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Refocus from Discouragement to God’s Resume

Questions on my author Facebook Fan Page this month were from folks who are discouraged with the evil all around us and/or discouraged with the bad name that Christians are getting so that others do not want to claim the name of Jesus. I said I would weigh in, which I can do only by telling of my own experience. It is important for us to stay in touch with the things going on in our world, but not to let them suck us in. 

I have found that the most effective way is to refocus on God by reviewing God’s “resume!”  Review God’s resume by sitting quietly and reflecting on your life and on specific instances of God’s presence, God’s action, and God’s help in your life.

The more trouble you have refocusing on God, the further back in your life you should go, even to your infancy —  and then back beyond that, to God’s acts in history and in creation itself!

This kind of prayer focuses your mind on God, attacks worry, and builds trust in your heart.  I know.  I’ve tried it many times.

When I was having radiation after cancer surgery, I was told by the staff that after it was over, I would be depressed – not might be, but would be. The main reason for that certainty was that for five days a week for six weeks I would be seeing medical providers and having treatments at the hospital. Suddenly all of that would be over, my body would be weakened from the radiation, and the reality of having gone through cancer treatments would finally sink in. This would not be the kind of clinical depression that needs ongoing medication but would be another part of the treatment and healing cycle.

Well, I did get a little bit depressed, and according to my own efforts to control, I “allowed” myself a certain length of time to be depressed. When my depression didn’t lift when I wanted it to, I talked with my pastor.

He said simply, “Praise Him!”

“How weird is that?” I thought to myself. “How is that going to help anything?”

But I began to follow his advice. I had memorized the first few verses of Psalm 103 as a child, and I began to pray that passage whenever I felt depressed or blue:

Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me! Bless God’s holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits, who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases, who redeemeth thy life from destruction, who crowneth thee with loving kindness and tender mercy, who satisfieth thy mouth with good things so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me! Bless God’s holy name!

Using that prayer of praise and thanksgiving speeded the end of my post-treatment depression. How much more does thanksgiving bring joy and peace into our everyday lives!

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Earth and work and heat

and sex and growth and weeds

and then:


Out of the dirt made of earth and sweat,

Out of the hope and trust and labor,

Comes the harvest promised to those

who live and love and bear fruit in God,

in loving surrender to the creative purpose,

with humility, humus, earthiness.


They shall go in and possess the land

in peace and joy and freedom,

in harmony and humility

with all of creation.

© 1996 Nancy R. Smith


(See also Fall/Fire, Winter/Wind, and Spring/Water in the series “Seasons”)


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How I Gave Up Water and Apples and Joined the Dance!

Matthew 28:16-20, John 14:18, 20, 26, John 15:4, 11

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, but it is often ignored or scarcely mentioned in many protestant churches. The Trinity is among my favorite mysteries, along with the Incarnation, Resurrection and Pentecost, but that was not always the case for me! I didn’t pay much attention to the concept of the Trinity until I was middle-aged. Today I invite you to join me in the dance with this Mystery!

Mystery implies a sense of awe, an understanding that we are in the presence of something that is bigger than us, beyond us, — something that transcends us. And so it is when we speak of the Trinity. In Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith Robert Farrar Capon has said that our attempt to describe God is as foolish as an oyster trying to describe a ballerina!

Our human thinking tends to lead us to what is considered the heresy of modalism – understanding God to be in three forms, or modes – kind of like a science fiction shape-shifter! This is a comparison of the unity of God like H2O and the trinity of God like ice, water, and steam, an analogy I heard as a child. Or likening the Trinity to an apple with three parts – seeds, flesh, and peeling. These were not at all satisfying, even then, and my response was “So what?”

In my middle-age I was surprised and delighted to discover the Mystery of Dance! I learned that the concept of Trinity comes from the Greek word perichoresis, which means “revolving” or “circling around.” It comes from peri, meaning around and choresis, meaning dancing and comes from the same root word as choreography. Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson elaborates:

“God is not a singleness but a communion, a living fecundity of relational life. For God to be is to be in relation, this is the primary characteristic of God” [and] each of the three divine ‘persons’ [of the Trinity] dynamically circles around, pervades, and interweaves the others in what some theologians call a dance of divine life” [1]

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, articulated it in a most interesting way, as explained by 20th century Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B:

We are the People of God, dancing on pilgrimage….

The great Church Father St. Gregory Nazianzus, in the fourth century, gave us a Greek word to describe this marvel: perichoresis. The word literally means “moving around.” It’s how the Greek theologians in the early Church described the dancing in the Trinity. It’s the sign that God’s love is so full that it can’t stay still.

Some of these Fathers of the Church even said that God’s love was so great that it had to break forth. Creation itself, they say, is nothing but God’s love looking for more things to love….

But the next marvel is also incredible. God wanted to come down and swoop up all of that creation into the dance of love, the perichoresis. And … why God becomes one of us…. God’s love and God’s life swoop down and that God somehow wants to pull up all of creation, including us human beings, into that dance, God’s inner life….

That’s why the next marvel is even more wonderful. The mission of Jesus Christ is handed over to us human beings. What a risk Christ took! He’s telling all of us that’s the Good News; that we have to dance to the right tune (a love song, actually), we have to be a part of and eventually share totally in the dance of the Trinity. [emphasis added][2]

As this understanding of the Trinity developed, it came to include the concept of  interpenetration – the mutual indwelling of each Person of the Trinity with each other. Donald G. Bloesch describes it this way:

[God] is capable of having fellowship with humanity because he has fellowship within himself. He is capable of caring because he embodies love within himself…. He is a gregarious God, seeking to include man in fellowship with himself….[3]

Unlike a single Person or a Couple, a Trinity leaves room for us, as C. S. Lewis explains:

The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.[4]

The doctrine of the Trinity is not clearly stated in the New Testament but it was part of the life and experience of early believers. The early church’s experience of God was as One and as Three. This is powerfully and mysteriously expressed in the Gospel of John:

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you..…you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. ….the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  (John 14:18, 20, 26) Abide – that means “pitch your tent” —  in me as I [pitch my tent]  in you…. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:4, 11)

Shaun McCarty, S.T. wrote a little book which totally changed my understanding of the Trinity and has brought me joy ever since I first encountered it: Partners in the Divine Dance of Our Three Person’d God:

We best reflect their divine life and activity when we live as they do, as “partners” in the divine dance—in spiritual community with them and with one another.

By “spiritual community” I mean the experience of … a unity-in-diversity engaged in mutual dialogue and selfless love…. This is an invitation to become partners with our three-person’d God in their divine dance. [emphasis added] [5]

This understanding of the Trinity invites us to celebrate God with great love and joy!

What is more hospitable than the invitation to dance, an invitation to intimacy? ….the dancers and the dance are one—and the whole world needs us to dance and to invite them out on the floor with us, all hearing the same music and responding to it in our own ways. Or is it that the whole of creation is dancing and we’ve just caught the music?[6]

We are invited to Dance and, equally important, commissioned to continue to invite and include others in the Dance of God’s Divine Life and Love until the prayer of Jesus is fulfilled that we all become one and Joy shall be full!

Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost, where worship settings often include fiery-colored streamers and helium-filled balloons. Perhaps next year, our Trinity celebration should include round dancing!



[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson and Julia H. Brumbaugh , “Trinity: To Let the Symbol Sing Again,” http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/SFS/an0599.asp
[2] http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Jun1999/feature1.asp#F4
[3] Donald G. Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 13
[5]Shaun McCarty, S.T.,Partners in the Divine Dance of Our Three Person’d God (NY:Paulist Press, 1996, p. 4-5)
[6] Shirley Cunninghamat the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation Residency in 1990



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