What we don’t know

“Becky, we think you don’t know what’s been happening in your home when you aren’t there.”

Sharon, my neighbor, told me this story with deep sadness and after apologizing for not having told me sooner, while also apologizing for “stepping in where maybe I don’t belong–maybe this is none of my business…

…The other day the boys came in the house from your house and went into Jon’s (her son) room. It was Jon and Jake (another middle-school kid who hung around our neighborhood once in a while) and Adam (my son).” She said, “I was putting away laundry out in the hall and Jon’s door was open a little. I heard Adam say, “My Dad hates me!” and the way he said it was just heart-breaking. And then Jake said, “I know, man. My dad hates me, too.” And Jon said, “Shut-up Jake! You don’t know what you’re talking about. Your dad doesn’t hate you, he’s just being a dad. Adam’s dad really does hate him.”

Sharon, wagging her head and looking at me with sorrow in her eyes said, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

Sharon was right. I didn’t know what was happening in my home when I wasn’t there. That day, once I knew, I knew I needed to act. I needed to change things. I needed to protect my sons. I needed to stop thinking I was able to hold everything together and I was the only one being harmed by my husband’s anger. Once I knew his anger wasn’t being directed only at me but at the kids too, my responsibility to the kids was clear.

I don’t beat myself up about not knowing. None of us know what we don’t know until we know it.

Sometimes we think we know because we know something else. But seriously, we can’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

I have a friend who didn’t know her husband was sexually abusing their daughter. She didn’t know until she did know. I have a friend who didn’t know his wife had been carrying on an affair for years. He didn’t know until he did know. I have a pastor friend who didn’t know the administrative assistant was embezzling money. She didn’t know until she did know.

I didn’t know what was happening in my home when I wasn’t there because what was happening when I was there was different than what was happening when I wasn’t, and because my boys didn’t tell me  and because I didn’t even think to ask (even though maybe I should have).

Jake thought he knew what Adam was going through because he thought it was the same thing he was experiencing at home. But then Jon set him straight with the charming candor of fourteen year old boys, “Shut-up, Jake! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Today I’ve been thinking most of us who are white people need someone with Jon’s candor right about now. “Shut-up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Before we weigh-in against athletes taking a knee in prayerful protest we might be wise to acknowledge we don’t know what we don’t know about being dark-skinned in this country because we don’t have dark skin. The only way we can possibly begin to know what we don’t know is by paying attention, listening, and turning off our preconceived notions about how much we think we know. We need to be humble enough to listen when our neighbors tell us what they’ve seen and experienced even if what they tell us makes us uncomfortable and means that we need to change things because now we do know.

Maybe there are a whole lot of us who don’t know what’s happening to our neighbors here in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Maybe it’s time to hold off on knee-jerk reactions and to be very quiet instead to listen well to those who, with sorrow in their eyes and truth on their tongues, tell us what they know, so we can begin to know it, too.

Maybe, when we really listen, we’ll be moved to bend our knees in contrition, to say, I didn’t know until I knew but now I do. And then, arm in arm we can stand up and begin to do what’s right together.



It was one of those calls that comes out of the blue. A local therapist introduced herself and explained, “One of your church members, Connie Smith* has been seeing me for some time now. She asked me to call you. Would you be willing to join us for one of her therapy sessions in the near future?” When I asked what it was about, she said, “Let’s just wait until you are here to talk about that.”

The call left me curious and anxious because Connie came to the church at the invitation of a couple who had recently left the church in a huff without being honest about why they were leaving. They managed to sow seeds of dissention as they went. What kind of ugly bomb was about to be dropped at my feet? How was I about to be blamed this time for something out of my control? (I was suffering from PTCSD- post-traumatic-church-syndrome from ugliness at my prior congregation).

I’ll come back to Connie’s story but for now, I’ll let you stew momentarily, as I did, wondering (and worrying) what in the world Connie needed her minister to visit about with her therapist.

The Godsquad, the church youth group I spent my favorite hours of every week of every year I was in Junior and Senior High with, used to belt out these words from scripture with far greater enthusiasm than musicality:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and anyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He who loveth not, (clap, clap, clap) knoweth not God for God is love. Beloved, let us love one another first John four seven and eight…” Repeat ad nauseum ad infinitum.

When I left the Godsquad for college, though I was raised in a mainline congregation, I was what anyone would describe as a religious conservative. Heavily influenced by my Grandma Zahller, who, due to Multiple Sclerosis lived in an apartment in our basement, my deep faith, nurtured and nourished at church, included a lot of Grandma’s legalism.

Over time, with serious study of the Bible, nurturing relationships with professors and classmates and eventually colleagues; with travel, the accumulation of life experiences, and ongoing reflection and introspection my mind was changed on many things.  God kept working at prying my heart open wider and wider to see God’s love revealed in folks I previously would have considered outside of God’s grace.

In the midst of the conflict and ugliness in the congregation I served before serving Connie’s congregation, I was overtaken by the question, “What would happen if a church decided to make loving one another and all the ‘others’ beyond it, its highest aim? What would happen if I, as a pastor, made love my mantra?”

When I interviewed with the congregation where Connie became a member, I was exhausted and dispirited from the dysfunction and conflict in my current congregation coupled with my own heartbreak swirling around my recent divorce. Connie’s congregation too, had been through a heartbreaking season of divisiveness. The search committee interviewing me for the job asked, “What about gay people? What about gay marriage? Would you perform one?”

I told the story about my own journey to a broader and more inclusive faith. I told the story of my respected colleague and friend whose faith was palpable and whose pastoral skills and love for God were contagious. I shared how that colleague coming out to me was the beginning of my transformation. I told them about reading Mel White’s memoir, Stranger at the Gate (Penguin Publishing Group, 1995), and how it helped me sort through the Biblical and theological baggage I had carried with me over the years.  I told them I had never officiated a gay marriage or commitment ceremony, but was ready and happily willing to do so. I also told them, “I understand this is still a controversial issue and this congregation has just been through hell. I understand you simply want and need some time to heal. I also understand that God’s love extends to all God’s children and it’s not our place to erect barriers to anyone who wants to share that love of God in full fellowship with us. So here’s what I’ll tell you, I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the inexhaustible love of God. I’ll pray that I will not be asked to officiate any marriage here until this congregation can fully share the couple’s joy.”

I was called to be the church’s pastor. Time passed, conversations among the elders and others, Bible studies etc. took place and when Peg and Nora came to worship on the recommendation of a minister in the town from which they recently moved, our congregation welcomed them with arms wide open. It wasn’t long before both held positions of leadership and service. They loved God and God’s people. That they were in love with each other was never an issue, in fact, their love increased our congregation’s love, because love is like that—it multiplies and expands. Love is love is love.

Later on, talking with a friend about how over time my mind had been changed and God had extended my understanding of the breadth and inclusivity of God’s love, I admitted I still struggled with the whole idea of people being transgender. “I just don’t get it.” I said. “I have a hard time seeing it as somehow, ‘normal.’” I told her I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I  knew I needed more understanding so when the time came to be welcoming and loving like God is welcoming and loving I’d be completely ready. I told her a classmate’s handsome husband had transitioned a few years earlier and I had been “weirded-out” by it. My friend said she’d loan a book to me. Jennifer Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (Broadway/Doubleday/RandomHouse) did for me part of what Mel White’s story did when I was working on coming to a better understanding of homosexuality.

Boylan’s book was on the back seat of my car when I pulled into the parking lot at Connie’s therapist’s office. I’d been driving around with it on my back seat for three or four weeks because I kept forgetting to return it after I finished reading it.

“Connie has something she wants you to know about her but she’s afraid to tell you because when she has told other pastors in other churches she has been ostracized and not allowed to remain in the church.”  I turned to Connie, thinking, pedophile? Murderer? Former felon? I said, “Connie, I don’t know what you’re about to tell me, but I promise you, whatever you tell me will not limit God’s love for you, nor will it limit your welcome in our congregation.” Connie, looking very nervous asked her therapist to tell me.

“Connie is transgender.”

So, maybe you saw this coming. I absolutely, sure as shootin’ at the time did not.

“I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the love of God.” Isn’t that just like God to take such good care of Connie that God prepared me just in time to be able to say, without hesitation, “Oh! Connie, God loves you so much.  You are loved and you are welcome. You are part of our congregation. You are God’s beloved daughter and I am glad to be your pastor.”

What would happen if we were to expend our Christian energy loving others extravagantly like God loves? What would happen if we quit squandering our Christian energy and tarnishing Jesus’ good name by narrowly drawing lines and boxes around who’s in and who’s out of God’s grace? What would happen in this weary, broken and fragmented world if we just let go and let God’s love fill us and flow through us, like it flowed through Jesus who opened his heart, his life, his arms wide for all of us?

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is love is love is of God.




*I change names and some details to protect confidentiality.


I met a church member for lunch in mid-town today. She waited patiently while the parking meter and I conferred. Relieved as I was not to need change, which I’d forgotten, I got flustered when I couldn’t find the slot for entering my debit card in the new-fangled meter I parked behind. When I finally figured it out, inserted my card and removed it quickly as instructed on the little screen, the screen flashed back at me, “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.”

There were way too many waits. Before long my lunch companion and I had the giggles.

Waiting doesn’t always evoke giggles. Waiting can be hard.

Waiting for an eighteen year old who thinks she’s grown up already to grow up already,

Waiting for an addicted sibling to hit bottom,

Waiting for the divorce process to run its’ course,

Waiting for the results from the biopsy,

Waiting to hear back from the interview,

Waiting can be hard.

My birth mother waited 25 years hoping one day she could tell me she loved me and explain why she placed me for adoption. All she could do back then was wait. Adoption laws have changed and the internet has made virtually obsolete old state laws about confidentiality in closed adoptions.  But back then, all she could do was wait. Wait to see if I would contact the adoption agency looking for information.

When I looked it was for medical information. Thinking we might try to start our family while serving in Zaire, it seemed prudent to find out whatever I could about my family history. Maybe I had sisters who had already borne children. Maybe there were risks and complications I should be aware of before blithely becoming pregnant at the equator with limited medical care.

The social worker sent a form. “On this page please write about yourself. We have learned that birth parents are more willing to share information when they know something about the adopted adult seeking information.” What was I supposed to write? One page, no identifying information. I wrote my whole life story in three paragraphs and sent it by air-mail from France where we were in language school. Then I waited. Two weeks for the letter to make it to Omaha. At least two weeks to get a return letter from the social worker. When it came, all the medical information was updated. It had not been difficult to find my birth mom and she was happy to provide the requested information.  At the end of the form was a note, “your birth mother would like to make contact with you. Are you willing to exchange letters, through our agency, without sharing any identifying information? If so, we can begin the process even as you file the appropriate forms with the Secretary of State.”

Several weeks later our mailbox at Language School was filled with a fat manila envelope, filled with a long letter and many, many photos of people, “your Aunt Alice,” “your Aunt Ruth” “your Grandma” “your sister” “your sister” (but, none of my aunts were named Alice and my Aunt Ruth looked nothing like the woman in that photo and my beloved grandmothers had both died, and I had brothers, not sisters). I was disoriented by suddenly having a whole other family besides my own whom I had known all my life.

We had to wait a long while to meet each other and then to become more than strangers to each other. I was overwhelmed. I needed time. My birth mother was patient with me. She waited until I was ready to know her better.

Waiting isn’t easy, but, so many times in life we simply have to wait. We can’t control other people. We can’t control all the circumstances and moving pieces of our lives intersecting with the lives of others. Paul, the Apostle wrote to the Romans, “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” Sometimes it takes God awhile to get all the pieces lined up for that good to come to pass. Sometimes, when we get in too big a hurry, we throw monkey wrenches into the ways God is working. Getting impatient can backfire on us.

Sometimes I try to fix things, resolve things, and settle things before it’s time. I was working on doing just that about something earlier this summer when, on a Sunday in front of the whole congregation, while singing our closing hymn in church, the heavens opened and I heard the trumpets sound as a bright light shined down on me in the sanctuary. (Ok. It wasn’t like that at all). It was just the third verse of an oldie-moldy hymn spoke to me as if directly from God’s mouth to my ears. We were singing  “Take Time to Be Holy” when these words were God’s words directly to me, “Take time to be holy, let him be thy guide, and run not before him, whatever betide; in joy or in sorrow, still follow they Lord. And, looking to Jesus, still trust in his word.” ( W.D. Longstaff, 1882).

And run not before him… Sometimes the word of the day is “wait.” “Wait,” “Wait.” “Wait.” “Wait.”

Folding up a blanket

Folding up a blanket. She was folding up a blanket. It’s such a normal thing to do I almost didn’t register what she was doing. I’d just done it myself a couple days earlier.

Last week I stayed several nights with my son and his love in their apartment. Adam cleared amplifiers and instruments out of his small music room to make room for an air mattress for me. On his desk, next to a happy red lamp was a “welcome Mom” note and a little painted nativity inside a gourd- a welcome gift for me.  I went to the Twin Cities for a quick, unplanned get-away when a weekend retreat for the church was cancelled at the last minute. The cancellation freed up my week and gave me time to rest my world-weary soul before fall programing begins in earnest at the church.

On Friday morning I folded up the blankets Adam and Elektra gave me to use, and I put them away in their living room. I rolled up my sheets and pillow cases and pillows.  Pulling the plug on the queen-sized air mattress, I was happy. It served me well enough, but it was a lot lower to the ground than I remembered it being when I used it last five years ago. As I put away my temporary bedroom I looked forward to sharing a king-sized bed at the Hampton Inn with Mike that night after he flew in for the weekend. The air mattress and pump, sheets, pillows and pillow cases all fit nicely in one big rectangular bag that I tossed into the trunk of my car before spending the day exploring the city with a cousin, also world-weary, whom I hadn’t seen in too long.

Two concerts, two art exhibits, sight-seeing, a little shopping (I had never been to IKEA before), long walks drinking in early autumn beauty, plenty of good food, time to finish a good book uninterrupted, time to repair some broken jewelry and to patch the elbows of a favorite jacket, sitting Zen meditation with Adam one morning in a beautiful Zen center (a first for me), a blazing fire pit on a beautiful evening, time alone, time with both Minneapolis offspring-sons, time to walk relaxed and hand-in-hand with Mike; it all added up to a wonderfully refreshing week.

Yesterday morning Mike and I didn’t make the bed, we just closed the door behind us and checked out of that Hampton Inn and put our bags in the trunk of my car. Instead of hopping on the freeway we took the longer, but more scenic, route through the city to wend our way to worship and later brunch with Jackson before hitting the highway for home.

Crossing town, we were stopped at a light when to my left I saw the young girl folding up a blanket. She was maybe 13 or 14. She had a long black pony tail. She and a young man were on the cement stoop in front of a business. The porch was small, maybe eight feet long and four feet wide across the front of the building. Another woman, just a little older looking, with a pock-marked face and her own long black ponytail stepped to the stop-light before waiting there for the others to join her.

The young girl was folding up a blanket. Maybe I wouldn’t even have noticed her if I hadn’t just folded up my own temporary bed two mornings earlier. I looked at them for several seconds before it registered with me, they slept on that stoop! Her blanket, folded first into thirds and then neatly rolled into a tight tube, would go with her wherever she was going to spend the day. They had no king-sized bed waiting for them at home, no temporary room for the night, not even an air mattress to soften that hard cement stoop. No cheerful red bedside lamp to read by late into the night. No window shades to draw to keep out lights from passing cars and the stares of strangers.

Our traffic light turned green and we drove away.

The girl folding her blanket went with me to worship. She was there when we prayed and when we communed. She, along with my suitcase and other bags, came home with me, too. She’s here, on my mind and in my heart. She was folding a blanket and it looked like a perfectly normal thing for her to do.

But, how can it be normal for kids to be homeless, sleeping on cement stoops and folding their blankets there the next morning for all the world, for tourists like me, to drive by and to see?

When did I see you homeless and pass you by, Jesus?

When did I see you without a bed and not offer you so much as the air-mattress packed in the trunk of my car as we drove by?

I left home for a few days because I was world-weary and I came home feeling more whole but carrying a kid with a long black ponytail folding a blanket.

We can’t continue to drive by and let that be normal, can we?