The “Religious Liberty” quiz on Huffington Post, and why I wrote it.

Dear friends,

Over the past few days my blog has seen an increase in traffic driven by my latest post on Huffington Post’s religion section. (Found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-determine-if-your-religious-liberty-is-being-threatened-in-10-questions_b_1845413.html ) That post made the leap from the religion page to the front page, has been shared nearly 5,000 times on Facebook (edited: now about 12,000 times), and has been picked up by other sites. Thank you all for the shares and for your blog visits, emails, tweets, and words of encouragement. I’m humbled.

I wrote the piece on my iPhone last week while sitting watching the Republican National Convention with my partner. That is not to say that this is an anti-Republican post. Not at all. (I know some wonderfully inclusive Republicans and some of the rhetoric at the DNC on this frustrated me just as much.) It’s just to say that was the occasion for its writing.

You see, my partner and I are marrying one another this November at her UCC church in Boston. We are blessed by the fact that our marriage will be recognized legally in both our state of residence and the state in which it is performed. More importantly, it will be recognized by our church. It will not, however, be recognized by the federal government. The question of whether it will be soon, and whether it will be in more states, is causing an increase in calls of “religious oppression” from anti-gay religious folks.

Getting married two weeks after the presidential election, in a year when debate over equal marriage is more divisive than ever, adds a whole other layer to the stress of wedding planning. It means that every quip about equal marriage feels like a referendum on your own upcoming marriage. (And really, between the catering and the invitations, I already have more than enough to think about.)

That’s why watching the RNC, every slight about “real marriages” and “real families” cut us to the quick. And every reference to “religious liberty” used to deny my partner and I the rights we deserve just offended me. My partner and I are religious people who love God. We love the church. And we love Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the fact that our neighbors, and our Christian brothers and sisters, were claiming that they were the oppressed ones here, was not just offensive; it was ludicrous.

My partner and I want basic rights. And our basic rights do not intrude on anyone’s religious liberty. How that has become so convoluted, I don’t know. But those who would use religion to claim they are being victimized by the rights of others, are being intellectually, and religiously, dishonest. No one is forcing churches to marry gay couples. Any clergy member will tell you that they are legally free to deny marriage to any couple for any reason with impunity. They know that, but they spread false fear to their communities in an effort to deny the rights of others. Meanwhile, our own church, which blesses our marriage, is being denied equal legitimacy under the law by the actions of these religious groups who attempt to withhold legal recognition from the marriages other religious groups bless.

So here we were, sitting in our living room, watching politicians say that the marriage of a minister and a seminarian would destroy religious liberty in America. And it’s so offensive, so painful, and just so, so false. This is the stuff that used to make me want to drink. Now it just makes me want to fight harder for my rights, and the rights of my partner, and the rights of all of us…because, gay or straight, this is about all of us.

That’s how the quiz was born. Because it’s important for the ones who have oppressed others for so long to understand that they, in fact, are not being oppressed. I know what oppression feels like. I grew up gay in the Bible belt. I was bullied in the name of religion. That’s not what “religious liberty” is about. THAT is oppression. And I’m thankful that, finally, my own religious liberty is being taken seriously by more and more of my fellow citizens. I hope the quiz helps more to be able to realize what “religious liberty” really means.

God bless you all.

Rev. Emily C. Heath

Lent, Mud Season, and Making Room for the Mess

The other day I stepped onto my driveway and my duck boot sunk down in mud deeper than my ankle. I knew it was the start of mud season here in Vermont, that mythical fifth season between winter and spring when mud covers everything. Our dirt roads turn to mud, our shoes are coated, and our pant cuffs show tell-tale signs. The mud gets everywhere.

I didn’t know about mud season until I moved here two years ago. People explained to me that the ground freezes so hard in the winter that it’s still not thawed when the piles of snow start to melt in early spring. The water has no way to go back down into the ground, so it stays on the surface, mixing with the dirt and making a mess of everything.

That’s fitting for Lent, which most years conveniently overlaps the mud.

In Lent we face the parts of our spiritual life that are the messiest, thickest, and the most inconvenient. We often find that even if we can hide the mess from others, we can’t hide it from ourselves. Like mud, it gets everywhere.

It is the mud season of our souls. The time when when look deeply at what’s inside of us, and start to find the places that we are trying to keep frozen and impenetrable to God’s grace. We all have them. They’re filled with fear, anger, prejudice, resentments. It’s easier when we keep them hidden and frozen because we know that once they see the light and start to melt we won’t be able to control the fallout. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to really dive head first into Lent. Deep down we know that letting God into the deepest parts of our soul can make things messy.

It’s not surprising that Christians are so wary of the mess. We learn it from the very institutions dedicated to nurturing our faith. In the church we often prefer the neat, bright, and convenient to the reality that life is messy, and hard, and imperfect. We err on the side of keeping the surface clean, rather than digging deeper.

It’s why we don’t talk about the hard stuff in many churches. It’s why instead of having honest, life-changing, deep discussions, we often dwell on what’s easy to agree upon, or what is so inoffensive to anyone that it is uninspiring. We don’t talk about addiction, or depression, or economic justice, or inclusion of LGBT people, or any other topic that might cause division, even though there are many for whom talking about any one of those things would be a lifeline. Instead we create a church culture that is the spiritual equivalent of keeping up appearances.

People have come to believe church is a place where we want you show up in your Sunday best, rather than with mud on your shoes. I think that’s one reason churches are a lot more packed on Easter morning than on Good Friday, or any other day than Lent. We’ve taught church goers that we know how to find God on the best of days. But we rarely talk about how to find God on worst of them.

Which is why maybe we need the mud. Maybe we need the mess. Maybe we need the season where on the surface everything looks like it’s going to hell, but deep down we’re opening ourselves up to something new.

I’ve never seen a thriving church that hasn’t at some point in their life together been willing to risk letting God’s grace disrupt everything. They heard about the members they would lose. They heard about the donations that would dry up. They heard the cautions. And then they did it anyway. And new life sprang up.

I’ve often found that the most vital churches are the places that do Lent the best. They’re the places that don’t shy away from acknowledging the messiness of the spiritual life that, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about it, we’re all experiencing anyway. They become the churches that journey with parishioners as they go through their own spiritual mud seasons. And those parishioners become the ones who turn that place into something vital. Something life-giving. Something that has a lot to do with Resurrection.

I’ve been watching the people around where I live. They’re Vermonters. They’re used to things being messy. And so they also know what happens when the earth thaws, the water recedes, and spring breaks forth. This time of year sweetness comes in the maple syrup being cooked down from sap in sugar houses, and new signs of life come as nature wakes up. They know that after things get messy, they get good.

It’s taught me a lot about what Lent can be for the church. It can be the time hearts thaw the way the earth does, old barriers to God’s love melt away, what’s unknown is allowed in, and new life emerges in us all.

It can get muddy, but God can do incredible things with that mud.

New blog at Huffington Post: Separation of Church and Santorum

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.” –Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum’s quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it’s a strong pronouncement of Santorum’s displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It’s enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in “shambles”) I’m surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is “antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square.” And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

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