Tuesday morning, I woke up to oppressive drizzle, both within and without.
I got the preliminary UMC news Monday evening. Most of those around me say they inwardly knew that the United Methodist special conference on LGBTQ+ inclusion would end in a reaffirmation of the so-called traditionalist plan, but now with penalties for ordination boards and clergy who diverted from the Book of Discipline. I guess I didn’t inwardly know that; probably because I’m not as entrenched in the denomination, I had imagined change could actually come.
Though the most final decision hadn’t been made at that point yet, the news Monday evening came as a hard blow, but the kind that knocks you out cold. I couldn’t feel anything at all, in a quiet shock curled up on the couch, blankly holding my phone. I knew this wasn’t good, that it would catch up to me all at once when I least expected it later.
(Later came yesterday afternoon, as it turns out. Mercifully I was sitting on my bed wrapped in a towel after getting out of the shower, and not somewhere public. I rocked myself, naked and heaving sobs, wondering if the physical exertion of weeping could actually turn me inside out.)
But Tuesday, I woke up waiting for the bottom to fall out. I got back from a meeting mid-morning, knowing that if I were to stay in the house the whole day, I would be a disaster unto myself. I needed a long drive.
On a whim, I googled in the maps app “wool and fiber” and the name of a shop came up, a little over an hour away. I checked the website, which looked like maybe it hadn’t quite been updated since 2005, but no matter – the drive was the point. Even if I got there, and there was nothing, it would have been worth it.
So I drove north out of Houston, and an hour and a half later pulled into a tiny town off the beaten path, with a glorious looking white-steepled church in the center. Parked my car, got out in the rain and walked across the street to the shop, with a couple of nods and “hellos” from passerby on the way in.
Lo and behold, there was actually a shop, run by an aging couple who reminded me just a touch of the couple from the old movie “Babe,” her being from Britain maybe, and there was wool everywhere, in mail slots on wall shelves, on the floor, on the table, and racks of yarn. It was the kind of place that was charming and quaint, but on accident, not commodified charm. The place had a timelessness to it, like every wool shop I’ve been in my whole life. There were drop spindles, and wheels, carders, a bag of cashmere roving, In the middle was a beautiful pearl-colored shawl on a bust-form, bags of colored wool gathered around the base as if kneeling before a queen.
The owner came to talk right away, seeming a little surprised to have a visitor at all, and apologizing for “the mess” which somehow mirrored the daily state of my soul. I told her I loved the mess. She brought me a handful of baby camel wool in a honey color, softer than breath itself. I swooned and handed it back. She asked me what I spin. A few minutes later, she had a giant bag of Rambouillet wool. “Just sink your hands into this!” she says. I’m basically in love at first feel.
“Can I make you a cup of tea, dear?” she asks, and then, “You’ve had a long drive. The bathroom is around the corner in the back, if you need it. Don’t mind the floor clutter on the way.”
She made me green tea with local honey in a mauve mug with stenciled sheep on it. I wandered, opening bags, asking questions, smelling everything (because wool has its own smell). The prices were amazing; I’m not sure how they made a profit, most of the wools being imported from England and Italy. There was not one ugly thing in the whole place. Her husband typed away on his computer at the table, adding a comment here or there to our conversation.
It was everything.
I didn’t know how deeply the UMC decision would affect me. After all, I’m not clergy per se, and the church I worship with has been honest from the get-go that their commitment is to the local congregation and we’ll act accordingly.
But the decision came bearing the load of a dozen other church heartbreaks for me.
It came with baggage from my time at Duke in the divinity school, where my first year orientation kicked off my time at Duke with Richard Hays reading the homosexuality clauses from the Book of Discipline.
It came with church firing baggage over race from when I was a pastor’s wife and baggage from being that wife in general.
And beyond me, it moved me to think about the church across time (because, church history nerd), and landed me in a grief over the general church shittiness throughout all generations, the ways it’s been and is complicit in so much dehumanization and devastation. Even in the creeds now on Sunday mornings, I abstain from saying the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the father and the son,” stopping at father, remembering the eastern church. I get why folks walk away from the church and never come back.
In the midst of the worst anguish yesterday, it wasn’t the UMC that angered me as much as my home church, where most everyone is white, and where men alone serve communion, preach or teach, are elders, and so on, where no one is openly gay and sexualities are gossiped about if folks are living together. To be there when I’m home visiting family is the most complicated of experiences, an ironic cocktail of emotions from gratitude for the good gifts they gave me and genuine love for the people, to disgust and grief and quiet anger, the wondering if the Spirit is there at all, the general sense that no one there actually knows me, who I am, what I’ve done, who I can be. They don’t know my power or that the Spirit has rested on me. They don’t know that they are even responsible for some of it.
I am reminded of the ways one injustice triggers so many others which linger in memory and experience.
Tuesday, I felt like an exile – like, even knowing that this congregation I love is loving me, welcoming me, holding me in the midst of this, with a pastor who is a rockstar, and even knowing the majority of my UMC clergy friends are also lamenting, I felt a deep sense of alienation, one I have felt before but which also felt fresh and new, and both the remembering and the newness increased the pain. I have wondered anxiously if even now, things will change, or will the disappointment be fleeting and UMC life go back to “normal” because the gravity of inertia is so much and acting with justice so costly to those entangled in denominational systems of oppression. Will the gospel actually be lived in response this time? Will my pastor friends actually leave everything to follow Jesus? Will I? To hope, to trust, is a challenge. I’m both ready for radical and also know that’s asking so much.
And then I drove into this tiny town, soaking wet like something the cat dragged in, and walked into this tiny wool shop, a stranger, and was met with soft and warm kindness, this delightful woman who offered me beautiful experience of pleasure after beautiful experience. Touch this, feel this, delight in this. Have you ever seen such a thing? Take care of your body, here have some tea, tell me who you are, open all bags possible and smell all the wool you’d like.
Leviticus was nowhere to be found, but beatitude was everywhere.
I bought a lot of wool. I wanted to take her with me, to remember her priesthood to me in that moment, a shepherd in an unlikely place, like Christ in her leaving the flock of 99 to come find me, the one who was languishing outside the city gates, wandering the valley of the shadow of death alone. Her hospitality was a feast of beauty in the presence of my enemies. As I left, she said, “Come back soon. The kettle is always on. Sometimes, there’s even shortbread!”
And I am desperate for the church to be like that, the body and blood like shortbread and tea, the table open always because human beings are beloved, strangers at the door perhaps a surprise, and kindness everything.