Saturday, November 15, 2014

Discipling/Disciplining

Disciple and discipline obviously have the same roots. One who is a disciple follows the discipline of a teacher or other leader.

I feel terribly undisciplined. I was telling this to an artist friend a few months ago and she said, "but you're always producing something, you must be disciplined enough to do that work."

True enough, I suppose. I publish some writing regularly (my novella Cary and John published this past summer, a short story in a new anthology, a dance preview this week, and a few pieces out to journals here and there). I've done a lot less performance this year (took a break, haven't quite broken the fast), and yet I'm directing a very short play to go up with some one-acts at the university where I work and plotting other things for next year. These things don't just happen without actually exercising some sort of regular practice. I suppose that much is true.

But it feels haphazard. The writing is often in short snippets (on the bus, primarily) and the performance-making is often interrupted by more than my own taking a break.

But of course, what's on my mind is more than my creative endeavors.

Prayer. Charity. Sleep and other rest. (I'm writing this even as I should be in bed.) Reading, even study. Heck, laundry and dishes.

But mostly prayer.

I like to think I'm a disciple of Jesus, a follower of this master teacher. And Jesus spent some time in prayer. It's how he discerned his Father's leading. Or so it seems at least some of the time.

And, you know, Jesus ended up pissing off powerful people and getting killed.

Recently, as I'm making feeble and failing efforts for a more disciplined prayer life, I find the most honest prayer I have is, "I'm a little afraid of you and what you might lead me into" and "I kind of don't trust you."

It's a prayer form that I know I can't stay in for very long. I know this will get me no where. And, in fact, I find myself already shifting it to "show me what you want" and "help me trust you.:"

But it's a start, yes? It's a place to re-enter a discipline that once, honestly, gave me life and hope and freedom. I'm hoping that re-entering this discipline (however feebly and failingly) restores some of that life, hope, and freedom.

All of which to say, I think we enter where we can, where our honesty and integrity require us to enter. There may be better or worse ways to do this, but we do it as we're able and maybe that's not a wrong way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Good to Come, Better to Go: An Encouragement to Queer Christians

This blog post is offered as part of the 2014 Synchroblog event, sponsored by QueerTheology.com.

Some years ago, I was in a church council meeting, and I guess we were talking about evangelism or some related topic.

At that time I was working in retail, among predominantly unchurched and nonreligious coworkers. I'd never hid my church life, neither did I ever press my coworkers about their faith or lack of it. This kept the workplace pleasant but sometimes also led to religious conversations that I didn't instigate. Once in a while someone would say they might try church again someday, and I'd give them the worship times at my congregation, but that's usually as far as it went. I might hear attitudes of disdain for all things religious or I might experience some mild bemusement that a gay man would be so religious, but overwhelmingly, most just didn't perceive a need or interest in church attendance, much less membership. Church simply wasn't a concern for them.

I related most of this at that council meeting and then asked, "Most of you have secular jobs, surely you have unchurched colleagues. What do you hear?"

I was met with blank stares. Understanding that some work environments allow for religious chitchat more than others, it became apparent that most of my fellow council members hadn't even thought about having conversations like this at their work.

+ + + + +

At another council meeting, we were discussing possibly steering the congregation toward making a public statement of welcome to LGBT folk, thereby joining a network of congregations that did so. It was not the first time we'd had this conversation and the man cover question/resistance to it was, Why do we need to make a specific statement about gay people? We welcome everyone!": 

That night I pushed back a little bit harder than usual. I said, "Do you see any news items about gay rights? Who is blocking gay marriage? Who is protesting pride parades? It's not secular organizations, it's religious organizations and churches. Unless you say specifically, 'LGBT folk are welcome here,' you look no different from any other church that is protesting the gay pride parade.:" 

One member asked, "Why is it our responsibility to do something for them if they're going to judge us before they even try us?" 

I replied, "You can sit there and feel defensive about being judged unfairly all you want, but your defensiveness doesn't change the fact that you are indistinguishable from the Westboro Baptist Church unless you make the first move." 

While that congregation eventually did make a public statement of welcome, it was a year or more after I had left it. 

+ + + + +

More recently, there was a gathering of clergy at which they were to discuss how to talk to the "nones," the growing demographic of people who claim no religious affiliation. They hit upon the idea that maybe they could get a panel of "nones" to answer questions from the gathered church leaders. 

There was one problem: None of the people planning the event knew anyone who didn't already go to church. 

Eventually, they got together a panel (thinks in part to one of my clergy friends who is active in her community, beyond her congregation's campus), but the point was driven home---Christians and Christian leadership aren't very proactive in getting to know anyone who isn't already one of us. We want people to come to church, but we aren't very good at going to them. 

Oh, and another thing? Almost half of that panel turned out to be queer folk. 

+ + + + +


We who have been condemned by the institution and nonetheless can't help but answer the call of grace, can't help but respond to the Good News of the Reign of God manifesting at hand are a sign and a wonder to those who want nothing to do with religion. And yet, we have the experience of knowing why someone would not want to be part of the church. We have experienced first hand the ways the church does not work.

When I think of the gifts LGBT people might bring to the church, one is this understanding, this awareness that not all things that come out of the Christian tradition are helpful, that some are downright harmful. Hopefully, we maintain our unchurched friendships better than most Christians, hopefully we listen with more empathy and care to the stories of those bleeding from wounds inflicted by the church. Hopefully, more than most, we are able to listen without offering platitudes or prescriptions for overcoming those hurts---hopefully, we know that it is the working of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the Body of Christ, not the arguments of other Christians who have had a better time within the church.

I say "hopefully," because it is so easy to become complacent once we are "in." Really, that's what is happening in the stories at the top of this essay. It's easy to become so involved in church life that we become salt without flavor, light hidden under a basket. I've been there and if you've been part of the church for any length of time, it's possible you have, too.

So my call to you this day is that if you recognize yourself in the people who don't have conversations with "nones," or if you want to be defensive and have the wounded make the first move toward reconciliation----Turn away from this behavior. The Reign of God is not found there.

Coming to church, and inviting others to come to church, is good and we shouldn't stop. I'm just saying we can't stop there. We have to go out among people not like us and be that sign and wonder that is in our power to be.

____________________
[ My novella, Cary and John, is now available on Amazon.com or from the publisher.]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Questions About Gender and Sacrifice

Here's a thought that I'd like to investigate more, but after months of it bouncing around, I have to come to grips with the fact that I'm never going to research this, so if you need a thesis or something, feel free to use it and run with it. Just let me know when it's done because I'd like to read it. (Or if this research has already been done, I'd like to know that, too.)

Some months ago, I read a devotional where the point was the wonder about how God gave up His (pronoun used intentionally) son for the better of the whole world, how much God loves us to sacrifice His son for us.

This is not new, obviously, but it strikes me as a view that is falling out of favor. It almost felt archaic.

Then I noticed it was written by a man and I started thinking about gender expectations of children (adult children, primarily). Generations and generations of men raised sons to be warriors, sent them off to war, expected that some would be lost to a "greater cause."

(And in this paradigm, I could argue that the fact that Jesus did not present as a warrior-son is the subversive aspect of the Gospel stories, but that is a rabbit-trail I'm not here to follow tonight.)

Then I think of Jesus on the cross, abandoned by God and most of his male friends (not all). God the Father leaves the child to cry out "why have you forsaken me?" but Mary the mother stays at the foot of the cross.

Which led me to thinking about stories about children being killed by their parents. Medea came to mind as perhaps the most well-known story from antiquity about a mother killing her children, and in a thread I started on Facebook, someone pointed out the parallels with the Mexican legend of La Llorona; both mothers kill their children to spite an unfaithful husband. There are Biblical stories, like Jepthah's daughter, and I came across a grisly custom in entombing still-living children in the foundation of a castle to appease gods and keep the castle safe. In a very superficial, cursory survey of these stories, I can't tell if there is a pattern that outlines gender expectations and gender archetypes. Is there a pattern in reasons for killing a child that suggests fathers kill for one reason, mothers another? Is there a pattern for the age of the children being sacrificed? Other patterns in this rather morbid topic?

Back to Jesus. This notion that God sent His Son to die a horrific death doesn't sell so well anymore and I'm not sure I buy it. I think the cross is hugely important, but I'm not convinced it's a sign of God's love that Jesus endured it. I think it's a sign of our resistance to the Reign of God. I'm therefore intrigued by people who still are buying that part of the story, or that subtext to the story. God really loves me, so God sent a child to die for me. There's a factor in there that I find uncomfortable. And I wonder if we would have formulated the subtext thus if we had stronger Mother images for the First Person of the Trinity.

In closing, I'm going to leave with a few lines from the very fine writer Andre Dubus and his oft-anthologized story, "A Father's Story."  Without telling too much of the story, I'll just drop these lines the main character says to God:

 " . . . I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons' pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter, and if You had, You could not have borne her passion." 

Do with that as you will . . . I hope someone does this research for me . . .

____________________
[ My novella, Cary and John, is now available on Amazon.com or from the publisher.]

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Confession and Privilege


If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [I John 1:8-9]

I think some of what I've been thinking about lately was said better at this blog. So go read that, if not now, then after you read this, or soon. It has, in fact slightly shifted some of what I wanted to say.

To reiterate his salient (to this post) point: being born into a system that privileges you does not make you bad. It just makes you privileged. A lot of people want to get defensive about this term, privilege, insisting that they're not racist, and that's the thing---privilege is not intentional, it just is. Racism may or may not be unintentional but privilege definitely is.

And the above blogger's post helped me clarify that. But do read his post for other good thoughts.

There is a common belief among American Christians (and beyond, no doubt) that the way forgiveness works is that it takes confession. That is, in order to receive God's forgiveness, we have to confess our sin and ask for forgiveness.

I would never say confession is bad, in fact this post is really about confession. I do not believe, however that God's forgiveness is contingent upon our confession. I believe forgiveness is the state in which we live. We are forgiven. Full stop. Abundant grace.

What does require confession, I will assert, is repentance. Let's define that term briefly. Repentance is, simply, turning. Turning away, to, whatever. When Jesus is calling for repentance in, say, the first chapter of Mark, I would argue that Jesus is asking us turn away from the systems of the world and toward the Reign of God, which is right here, at hand.

And one of those things we need to turn away from is privilege in all it's forms, whether it be white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, or automobile privilege (as in the link above).

But a good many of us don't like to think we're hurting anyone. We don't like to think we're part of the problem. We know that racism is bad and we don't want to be bad. So we tend to protest that we're not racist or even privileged because that seems awfully close to racist (again, see above link).

Here's the thing, though: without confessing our privilege (or racism), we're never going to make real progress on this. And without making this sort of confession, the Reign of God, which is right at hand, will be elusive to us.

And for a concrete example of the type of thing I'm talking about, let me illustrate a moment of my own racism and/or privilege ( I think this incident crosses both categories).

Last winter, I was walking home from the bus stop after work and it was already dark. It was cool enough here in Houston to wear a hoodie and I had the hood up. As I walked along, I came upon a lone woman walking. I've made conscious efforts in the past to give signals that I was no threat to single women walking after dark alone, things like crossing the street to give the signal that I was not, in fact, following them.

This evening, reflexively, without thought, I reached up and pulled back my hoodie so my face was clearly seen. Almost immediately, I began questioning why that was my attempt to signal her safety with me. I quickly realized that I was showing that I was white

As if white men don't mug or rape single women walking alone.

While I tried to convince myself I was just showing my face, in the hopes that she'd get that a rapist wouldn't want his face seen, I don't think I can escape that at least some portion of my intention was to say, "hey, I'm white, I'm safe."

One, that's pretty doggone racist. Two, it's my privilege as a white man to assume that I'll be seen as at least safer than a man of color. 

I told a friend about this after the fact and she agreed that it was a racist attitude lingering in my brain, but that depending upon the woman's attitudes and prejudices, she may have actually found relief in my action. This only further illustrates my privilege as a white man, but also illustrates that I'm not the only one who is racist.

As I like to say, it's not so much that anyone of us is racist, it's that the whole system is and we've all learned and internalized the system's lessons.

But as a privileged person, a white male in this culture, I have to make conscious choices to turn away from this sort of attitude. Maybe this winter, I'll still expose my face when encountering a lone woman at night, and maybe that'll be appreciated for a variety of reasons---but that's not really the point. Let's not get too bogged down in the specifics of this example, but recognize a few things in this situation:

1. As a male, I don't often fear for my safety while walking alone at night. In fact, I've very seldom felt afraid to walk alone at night. Women friends report other feelings.

2. As a white male, I'm seldom seen as a threat, either on a sidewalk at night or in store browsing the aisles with my backpack.

How do I fight against this? I'm not sure there is a simple answer. The main one is to speak out when I encounter these attitudes, gently and with humility, because I've just demonstrated that these attitudes still live within me.Googling things like "how to combat white privilege" can be a great start for more ideas. And of course, one of my practices, as outlined in this blog before, as a religious person, is to notice these instances and remind myself, over and over and over, that every human, however they look, whatever my ingrained attitude about that look, is made in the Image of God.

One last thing I want to say about privilege is that we need to recognize that it's slippery, dynamic, shifting according to circumstance and combinations of social, cultural, and physical categories. I experience a pretty good amount of privilege as a white male. I also lose some as a gay male. A black male may have some privilege when compared to a black woman, but a white woman generally experiences some privileges over anyone of color. A wealthy person generally has more privilege than a poor person, regardless of race or gender. And, depending upon the situation, all these can be reversed, but the system, like the car/bicycle analogy in the link above, will almost always favor certain people, that is white people. The history of race divisions, certainly in the United States, is so strong that we aren't going to blithely get out from under it with simple declarations that racism is over.

If we're going to make progress, we have to continue to confess, no matter how far we like to think we've come, that we have much work left to do. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All Our Children

Arthur Miller's play, All My Sons, has been on my mind this week.

Briefly, the play concerns the revelation that the patriarch of the family, Joe, supplied defective airplane parts to the military during Worls War II. At the confession, he tells his one surviving son that he did it for the family, particularly his sons. With the further revelation that his other, MIA son had sent a suicide letter to his fiance, suicide due to shame over his father's actions, and the men who had died because of the defective parts, Joe says, "I guess to him, they were all my sons."

That's a great human fault. We think in terms of my people and those people. We don't care so much about someone's destruction because they don't belong to us.

As I learned of the unfolding horror that is the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I had the thought, this is going to keep happening until we white people can see every child as our child. 

Mind you, I know plenty of white people who are horrified by this killing. I know white people who love and cherish children of darker skin. Please don't start a hashtag for NotAllWhitePeople.

But let's also be real. Racism is alive and well and however directly or indirectly you want to connect the dots, there is institutional racism on display in the story of Ferguson.

And I don't think enough white people see this killing as affecting them. It's not their son. In fact, it probably, literally, couldn't be. I know that what happened to Michael Brown doesn't happen to white, college bound young men or if it does, it is a great anomaly.

I also am aware of the pitfalls of being a white, child-free man claiming a young man of color is my son. There's all kinds of ways to read that as privileged paternalism.

But still, I say it, because until we all feel the loss of any child as though it were the loss of our own, we're not going to find the outrage to change a system that targets some of our children in America.

I will also say our salvation depends upon it. Not some future, heaven bound salvation, I mean our salvation as a nation even as a planet, right here, right now, in the flesh. Until we hear these stories and feel the grief as if losing our own, we're damned to burn in a hell of our own design.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Unattractive

I saw someone today who I found unattractive. Remembering my practice, I looked at this person and said to myself, "Made in the Image of God."

And I was struck by all the ways I don't desire God. Or, rather, all the ways I desire a god of my own making, my own design, my own image.

The beauty of God is not always pretty and the Imago Dei is not always appealing.

I remembered the love of God, the unconditional grace, which is based least of all upon appearances.

I remembered my baptism.

I remembered how water erodes rock.

A stony heart has many layers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Days Crying Out for Prayer

These days of gang violence in Chicago and Honduras and warring in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and refugees and standard sad things and grief around the world . . .

My prayer life, to be blunt, is erratic. On the one hand, I do pray throughout the day---most often expressions of thanks and awe---but I cannot claim for much in the way of disciplined, focused prayer time. I have had it in the past, but it fell away with some theological crises. I've even said I'm something of a prayer agnostic---It might do something, but I'm not sure what.

But these days cry out for prayer and even as I type that, I don't know what that means. But I've started trying, again, to have focused prayer time. It's not going all that well, but I'm trying.

This morning, I found myself praying for revelation, theophany, really. I found myself praying that this revelation came not from the sky, from sun or moon or stars, but from below, from the dirt, that every blade of grass, every grain of sand, every speck of dust would burst with the glory of God, like the mystics write about. I want gravity to be involved in the revelation, so that we might all know how closely we are held by God. I want the dirt to shine with the things the ancients wrote about---lovingkindness, mercy, slow-anger, redemption. I want theophany out of the dirt so that when our knees give out as we fall in worship, we will know that it is God who holds us, who supports our every day.

I do not know what to do with this prayer. It's full of wishful thinking as much as actual hope. And yet, I wish for a theophany that will bring repentance, a turning from the violence we perpetuate. A turning to each other as the image of God and the expectation to receive lovingkindness, mercy, and redemption, not bullets and bombs.

Prayer does more to change the pray-er than to change God or even spur God to action of some sort. But perhaps, it's still worth praying this sort of prayer. Maybe it, as my more secular friends will say, put good vibes into the air. Maybe it will get God's attention in some way, as written about in the Bible. Maybe it will bring knowledge and courage and heart to be God's instrument in this violent world.

I invite you to join me, if you aren't already leading me.