Sneaker & Stained Glass Revelations
Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
What has surprised me most in this past week are the sounds I am not hearing. For the past month each day (other than rainy ones) the air has been reverberating with cicada songs. Some days the decibel was almost unbearable – especially for those of us who live with our house windows open in warm weather and couldn’t get a moment of reprieve! And then this week, on Monday and Tuesday as Simon and I walked to his final days of school for the year, it was eerily quiet. Here and there a cicada would buzz or chirp – but for the most part, the absence of their song was deafening. It has been so quiet this week. I can once again hear birds chittering and chirping and the ka-thunk of cars bouncing over the drainage cover on the road as they pass.
I can’t say I really miss the cicada brood…not after having them dive bomb at my face while mowing the lawn, or swarm me while I was using our trimmer as they mistook the buzz of the machine as a song for them, or having to use a stick to flick them off my trash can so I could put it back in the garage on trash pick up days, and there was that one that was flying clumsily towards me squallering only to drop dead at my feet. No, I won’t really miss this season in many ways. And yet, I hold gratitude in my heart for the experience of it and for the things it helped me learn.
Early on in the cicada season I was curious – excited to see them emerging, to watch them change in color as they hardened into mature beings, and to learn about their different eye colors. I loved the way light glanced off their wings as they flitted around in the early morning filling the air with little bursts of magic. I was less excited to accidentally step on them barefoot and feel the squish – but it was early in the season and I didn’t know yet that wearing my sandals would be essential for a month. I was also a bit arrogant about them – confounded by what the purpose could be for the life of these creatures who only emerge for a short while to breed and die.
What a waste I thought.
And then I thought about it some more.
These creatures were not only alive for a month to breed and die. They have been living, growing, thriving, and preparing for this experience for 17 years out of my line of vision. That portion of their living was no less valuable or meaningful just because I wasn’t privy to it.
As a queer person who spent the first 21 years of my life “in the closet”, this was a delightful realization to hold. What a gift to remember that the value of living isn’t only based on the joy of coming out and the life that happens once the space to claim and celebrate one’s identity is explored and embraced – there is also authentic meaning and value present and growing in the quiet, hidden, and less celebrated seasons of life.
I knew this truth as a younger person. In high school it was very clear to me that the depths of who I knew myself to be was not apparent to those around me. I also knew that the queerness within me that was hidden from the sight of others was fearfully and wonderfully made, even though the idea of it was feared and despised by many people around me.
And so I lived in the tension of simultaneously learning to love while being taught to reject my authentic self. In that space of tension, I turned to art. Art has the capacity to put mixed messages, hidden meanings, and transparent truths on display for everyone to see, while also offering a safe haven and shelter.
For those that take the time to explore, learn, and see what is offered in a piece of art – they are invited into a space of connection with the meaning and gift of expression put forth by the artist. For those not ready, willing, or able to see or hold the message being offered there is still a gift of beauty, composition, and perhaps a question to sit with as they encounter the piece. This ability of art to both expose and shelter was a balm to the weariness of my spirit.
I had the chance to explore the craft of stained glass in high school. There was much to love about stained glass – crisp compositions, bold lines, the bright and beautiful colors of the glass. There was also much to be disgruntled by in practicing the craft of stained glass – broken pieces, splinters of glass slivers, soldering iron burns. It was a process I both loved and dreaded. The saving grace for me was always the moment at the very end, when the last piece had been soldered into place, cooled and you could lift the finished piece to the light and see it in its intended (or at least hoped for) glory!
It was in stained glass that I made my first piece of art that I knew held underlying meaning for me personally. I will show it to you here…
I secretly named this piece: My Beautiful Prison. It was a name I didn’t share with anyone until many years later when I told Becky about it. And yet, as I cut each section and placed them in to the whole I knew I was pouring the tension of beauty and struggle that my queer self was experiencing into every moment of this piece. It was a gift to have others see it and enjoy the beauty of it with me, even though they had no idea what they were seeing. I knew; and it was a tremendous relief to me to be able to showcase the goodness I was experiencing.
The edges are not smooth. The solder isn’t applied in even strips. The pieces are not cut precisely leaving gaps and odd angles in moments. And all of those imperfections make it all the more meaningful and beautiful in my eyes. It is authentically itself.
This piece came back into my mind while we were in a worship committee meeting the other month. We were planning the Letters from Prison series that we just wrapped up last week and then decided to make space for a Pride service today and I immediately remembered My Beautiful Prison and knew I was ready to share it with you all. The only problem was, I had no idea where it was.
A few weeks later, I went to Virginia to spend some time with my parents to support them as my mother was undergoing recovery from eye cancer surgery and preparing for surgery for a broken arm. I arrived late one evening and went directly to bed. The following morning I woke up and as I walked out into my parents living room I saw this catching the morning light as it was hanging on display in one of the windows. My dad had been cleaning out his garage and had found it, repaired the hanging hook which had broken, and then hung it in their living room for a season. There it was, just as I was seeking it.
Where could I run from your Spirit? The Psalmist asks of God. Where could I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in Death, you are there. I could fly away with wings made of dawn, or make my home on the far side of the sea, but even there your hand will guide me. Your mighty hand holding me fast.
Psalm 139’s reminder and assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from Love has long been a gift in my life. This is good news to the ears of a young queer kid hard at work attempting to reconcile their authentic internal journey with the dismissive messages surrounding them while clinging to the earlier verses of the same Psalm:
O God, you have searched me and known me! You are acquainted with all my ways.
This is good news for the one striving hard to believe in and celebrate the later verses:
You created my inmost being and stitched me together in the womb of my birth. For all these mysteries I thank you – for the wonder of myself, I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
This is good news to my aging ears, still learning to lean into life with the love of the ever-present presence. Still striving to be full of gratitude, curiosity, and praise for the wonder and mysteries of God’s creation.
Mysteries which sometimes reveal themselves in unexpected ways. Just the other day I saw a picture of my two sisters and myself from many years ago. Here it is…
We were helping my dad replace the roofing on our house and apparently he had moved the ladder, temporarily stranding us on the roof. You can see us here pleading for him to bring it back! What struck me most about this image, upon seeing it this year, was my sneaker. Here is a picture of my ultimate favorite pair of shoes from childhood. I liked these shoes so much, I bought them twice! When I saw them this year it finally dawned on me that those blue, pink and white sneakers are the colors of the transgender pride flag! Turns out I was authentically expressing and celebrating my non-binary transgender identity before I had the words or framework or even a flag to represent it. My innermost being knew and celebrated that I was fearfully and wonderfully made!
Recently on the Inclusive Mennonite Pastor’s Facebook group one pastor asked the group to speak to ways that Queer Theory is Good News for straight and cis people as well. I didn’t have a lot to add to that conversation at the time, but the essence of the question has stayed with me.
What is it that the lived experience of LGBTQIA+ folx bears witness to that is good news for all?
So, so much.
A queer understanding of life and love is expansive, it stretches the imagination especially beyond binaries, honors authenticity, is curious, validates hurt and brokenness, knows about resilience and healing, values connection and relationship, embraces friction and fluidity, makes space for joyful mystery, and unabashedly celebrates and embodies the wonder of creation.
This is good news for every-body!
A journey of authentic and expansive life and love is for everybody. God’s love is woven in and through each and every one of us whether we realize and celebrate it or not. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
This is about your body – so wake it up – shake your arms – move around a bit and place your hands over your heart, or on your head, or wherever feels most grounded to you and say with me: I am fearfully and wonderfully made! Again…I am fearfully and wonderfully made!
May your soul know it well. May we each celebrate the persistent presence of that love within us today. May it move us to love ourselves generously and to love each other expansively!