Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Peace Love and My Wit's End

I didn't start Crumbs at the Feast to be a place of "inspirational" or even "devotional" writings. At least I've never thought of it that way. I don't know that I could succinctly define what I'm up to with this blog, but after 300+ entries, I must be up to something.

I have my worries about this world. Sometimes this blog is about those worries and sometimes I try to offer ways to think about them. At my best, I've hoped to offer some peace and maybe even a path to love.

But of course, the question always comes up: What does this mean?

As usual, I have to answer via negativa. Peace does not mean smooth sailing from here to the grave. Love does not mean warm feelings for someone dear to me.

I've often wondered about people who live under persecution, people who claim the name of Christ in situations where that was dangerous, life threatening. I've never felt that in my life. I may have occasionally felt slightly ostracized or simply looked at askance for being a practicing Christian, but I've never felt in danger. I've perhaps felt more ill at ease about being a gay man in certain situations and there are certainly places I don't consider going because I'm gay, but I also know it's easy to find my safe bubbles (which can just as easily pop, but I still have them).

Where do martyrs find peace? How do the persecuted love?

I'm ill at ease a lot lately. The political climate in the United States feels pregnant with something ugly and dangerous. If I were a certain kind of Christian, I would be safe. If I were straight, I'd be safe. Since I'm a white male, I can travel incognito for a time, but eventually I out myself, as both gay and the wrong kind of Christian. For the most part, white males are safe.

This does not set my mind at ease. I love many people who are not white males.

I find myself at my wit's end these days. I can't believe what I hear in the news. I can't believe the choices we have for our highest office in the land. I can't believe what I hear supporters of these candidates saying. It's really the supporters that worry me most, because without them the candidates would not be the candidates.

I do not think peace and love means what feel good gurus mean when they talk about them.

I think there are ample opportunities on the horizon and now here to discover what they mean.

If I'm sounding paranoid, I assure you I only mean to sound worried.

I leave you to ponder these words of a poem by William Alexander Percy. It has been set to a hymn tune or two, which is where I first encountered it. These words have always challenged and unsettled me.

They cast their nets in Galilee 
Just off the hills of brown
 Such happy simple fisherfolk 
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen 
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that fill’d their hearts  
Brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
 Homeless, in Patmos died. 
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, 
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, 
But strife closed in the sod, 
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing– 
The marvelous peace of God.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

simul/et

Sometimes, it's hard to tell if we are getting more and more polarized or if the internet and social media just make it appear that way. And maybe that's beside the point.

The last week or two, with violence erupting once again in the U.S., as black men are mistakenly murdered by police and then the retaliatory shootings of cops in Dallas, it seems there's a lot of entrenched ideas about . . . well, everything.

Every conversation about racism is a powder keg, it seems. Perhaps that is built into the situation and it's a situation built, most certainly in the U.S., by white people. And so many white people reading this have already gotten defensive.

I'm not sure I can trace my thought process on this, but one night I was responding to a post on Facebook and observed that for some white folks, we hear the phrase "white privilege" and we worry that this means we're accused of being intrinsically evil and for others of us, we find it a fitting description of something we've experienced.

I worked for several years in retail. Those stories from black people who say they're often followed in stores just for showing up black? Let me confirm them. The very few times that I was told by management to keep an eye on someone, it was a black person. I'd ask why and be told they looked suspicious, which I figured probably just meant black and so I didn't follow them around because I had a smidgen of awareness. Never mind that more often than not, our shoplifters were blond. The point is that when I first heard the phrase "white privilege," it gave a name to my experience in retail.

I've seen a lot of posts in the last week arguing about "Black Lives Matters." I don't know about about you, but when I first heard the phrase, I got it. I understood what it meant. While so many people see an invisible "Only" in front of it, I understood the silent "Also" at the end.

But too many people can't seem to grasp the thought that white people are privileged in this society and that white people can still be good people. We can't seem to grasp that a slogan that lifts up black people doesn't push down anyone else.

Maybe a  good ol' Lutheran slogan us useful here.

Simul justus et peccator.

Simul - et. At the same time - and. We are justified and sinners. Not either/or. Both/and.

It occurs to me that I am both, anti-racism and a racist. I recognize and decry the sin of racism and I recognize that it is part of the fabric of my life, woven into how I move as a white male in a culture built by white men. I can say I have white privilege while recognizing the injustice in the system that gives it to me. I can say that black lives matter while knowing that I have benefited from a culture that has said that my life mattered more.

Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans "that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." I don't think he says this to guilt trip us and I would make all kinds of nuanced arguments about what "died for us" means, but it is fairly central to Christian theology that our salvation comes through grace, before any kind of deserving, without any kind of entitlement. We are justified---saved, if you will---while we are still sinners.

Accepting this takes some measure of humility. I don't want to be a racist, and yet if I reflect upon my meeting of certain categories of humanity---I still have initial reactions based on race. I recognize that is bad, it is a sin. As much and as often as I can, I try to confess that sin, if only to myself and God, and try to move past it.

After some internet conversations, I have mixed hoped about whether these few words will make a difference. Still, I type these words, hoping that they might open a crack for someone to understanding and love for people who are not our enemies.

Perhaps I type these words with the hope given to me by Abba Poemen:

Abba Poemen said, “Water is soft, and stone is hard. But if you hang up a bottle of water so that it drips onto a stone, it will wear it away. Thus it is with the Word of God. It is soft, and our mind is hard, but those who hear the Word of God often open their hearts to the fear of God.”

Simul - et. It is Gospel hope for us as we move forward in these troubled, violent times. Perhaps it is a window through which you can see white privilege and that black lives matter and maybe a host of other things as well.

It's a word that reminds us that we needn't be perfect ourselves before we speak out for justice. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Shooting People

I'm going to tell a story with as few details as possible, because it's not exactly my story to tell. It was told to me, and it haunts me.

Some kids were being a nuisance, getting onto someone's property, doing some damage, minor but still damage on land that was not theirs to mess up. This someone, a woman, was complaining to her neighbor about these kids, about how she'd asked them to stop and they continued anyway.

The neighbor said, "You have a gun, don't you?"

"Yes," answered the woman.

"Well, you know that if they're on your land without permission, you can shoot them."

Thankfully, the woman was appalled at the notion enough to not take the advice. She didn't want to shoot teenagers, she just wanted them to respect her property.

What I heard in this story is that we no longer, as a culture, assume that it's wrong to shoot people. It seems to me we actively look for reasons to shoot people, now. We look at the law for when we can shoot people rather than look for ways to avoid it.

A friend recently posted on Facebook, in response to a horrific family shooting in the suburbs of Houston, about how we "prepare our hearts" to shoot one another.

I think there are so many ways we prepare our hearts for violence these days, from the games we play and the entertainment we consume to the fear and hatred of the unknown that we feed and turn into political movements.

I don't want to ban guns, but I do want our hearts to change.

I don't want to censor anything, but I do want our hearts to change.

This business of shooting people is ultimately a heart issue and if I take anything from the Gospels  and the desert mothers and fathers, my 4th Century Egyptian teachers, it's that we prepare our heart for life, service, love.

But it seems we have much work to do. So many people are afraid and we know that love is hard when we're full of fear.

Still we teach: Love casts out fear.

We have work to do with recognizing the holy in each other. We look at differences and we get suspicious to the point of paranoia.

Still we teach: We are all made in the Image of God.

I keep saying I really only have one or two things to say. These two teachings of the Christian faith are basically it. We are made in the Image of God and when we see some difference in each other, that just may be an aspect of God that we can't contain in our own self---for surely no one of us holds the full Imago. Surely we have to share it, to complement one another. We need to set aside fear and suspicion to learn something of God that we don't find in ourselves.

We have to stop preparing our hearts for violence. We have to stop shooting one another. We have to be brave enough to love even when teenagers are messing up our property.

We have to prepare our hearts for life giving (said with more than one meaning) love.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fecundity of the Barren - A Reprint from Whosoever

Back in my early days of coming out and writing about it, I wrote for the late great internet magazine, Whosoever, a webzine for LGBT Christians edited by Candace Chellew-Hodge. Today, I'm "reprinting" one of my pieces from that time, from the May/June, 1998 issue. I'm doing this because, frankly, I'm super busy with theater stuff just now and this is a way to keep my Wednesday schedule.

I hope the me of 18 years ago still has something to say.


Our history always begins with the barren, with Sarah (Gen. 11:30), with Rebekah (Gen. 25:21),with Rachel (29:31), and with Elizabeth (Luke 1:7). Among those, always as good as dead (Heb. 11:12), the wondrous gift is given. The inability to bear is a curious thing and we know that for all our science the reasons most often are historical, symbolic, and interpersonal. It is often news -- good news, doxology -- which brings the new energy to effect and the new future to birth.

Walter Brueggemann
Prophetic Imagination, p. 76


Professor Brueggeman was not addressing gay and lesbian Christians when he wrote the above, but when this gay Christian read it, it stopped my eyes and made me re-read these words over and over. 

 

How often does the church condemn us simply because our sexual attraction does not lead to reproduction? How often do they call our loves barren, imply that our lives are fruitless? 

 

These questions rang in my head as I re-read Brueggemann's words again. A new question then formed. 

 

What if the Holy Spirit were calling us to a new fecundity, a new way of pro- creating, perhaps re-creating the church? 

 

I admit that I am more about questions here than answers. I'm trying to catch a vision, but so far it eludes me. Maybe it's already taking place and the vision is trying to catch me. 

 

Consider this. Go to just about any web search engine and look for "gay Christian" and you'll bring up site after site of individual and organization websites devoted to proclaiming God's love and acceptance of the homosexual. You'll find denominational organizations, from Eastern Orthodox to Charismatic, all trying to find ways to convince their brothers and sisters in Christ that God is not concerned with sexual orientation, but with the knowledge and love of Christ. 

 

The cynic in me cannot help but point out that some of these organizations may represent a small number of people. After all, all it takes to run a web site is the know- how and a server account. These sites, however, seem to reflect what the newspapers tell us. Just about any denomination on just about any given day may appear in a headline as that body struggles with gay folk in their pews and pulpits. Some denominations are silent on the topic, officially stating only that they will not tolerate homosexual clergy, but they're only fooling themselves, only ignoring the reality of real lives in their midsts. 

 

Something, it seems to me, is happening in the Body of Christ and we who are gay are in the thick of it. 

 

There is something in human nature that likes categories and walls. Are you a member of this family? This tribe? This nation? This race? Do you belong to this denomination? This club? This tax bracket? 

 

Our churches, made up as they are of humans, reflect this nature. There are congregations that are in-bred to the point that each Sunday is a family reunion. There are wealthy "country club" congregations and, across town, congregations made up of the folk who clean their country clubs. It has long been said that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week. I'd be lying if I said I did not battle racism in my heart, nurtured by years of growing up in a small Texas town, but I'd also be kidding myself if I said I would feel entirely at home at any church that didn't reflect my German, Lutheran heritage. As I write this, I am remembering the words of friends and acquaintances who have joined the Lutheran Church because of our theology or doctrines, but feel as if they'll never fit in because they are not of German or Scandinavian descent. 

 

These walls are some of our biggest sins and I sit here, guilty as anyone. 

 

Throughout the stories of the Bible, however, we hear again and again the admonition to welcome the stranger, to make a place for the foreigner. As we, the people of God, have failed repeatedly at this directive, I wonder if God isn't raising up a new challenge for the church. As we continue to raise up walls of race or social status, could God be raising a new sign with all these queer Christian groups? 

 

Queer? Yes. Yes there is an aspect of us that is "different" and "other," but it is an otherness that springs from every family, race, and nation. We come from every religion, denomination, class and status group. 

 

We are the other that is part of the whole same. 

 

I am not, by nature, a confrontational person. I tend to avoid conflict where I can. As I began my coming out process, however, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that my very existence in the church was an affront to the institution. My mere being was a conflict for the one place I've always called home. It was a very curious thing that suddenly I, who had always gone to church faithfully, was a threat just because I'd found peace with my sexuality. 

 

It is a powerful thing, being gay, and it is a power bestowed upon us by the very ones who fear us the most. 

 

This status of being part of the whole while still being different, however, is a two edged sword. With my coming out and becoming hyper sensitive to all the places that I was not welcome, I had to start examining my own walls and categories. I have to learn some productive ways to struggle with my own prejudices against transvestites and transsexuals, my fear of the homeless people I encounter almost daily, my discomfort with the wealthy. We cannot talk about wanting to be accepted if we are not confronting the boundaries of our own comfort zones. 

 

Still, possessing the power of the outcast who arises in the midst of the insiders, we are in a position where it behooves us to ask some serious questions and brainstorm some answers. (You will note that I do not offer answers here.) 

 

How might we, as the ones called non-productive and barren, the ones who are already as good as dead, bring new life into the church? How can we live lives actively pointing to the Good News "which brings the new energy to effect and the new future to birth"?


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Random Thoughts on Related Events

1. The Stanford rape case, the source of internet outrage for a week, is related to the mass shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse, news of the next week that supplanted the Stanford rage. Both are examples of a patriarchy that teaches real men grab their twenty minutes of action where they can and not from another man. It's a masculine ideal that is seen as less than wholly to blame for rape and hate crimes because in one way or another the victims of the crime had it coming.

2. Everyone's a tough manly man until they're faced with a prison term or they see two men kissing. Then everyone's delicate sensibilities are shattered to where they can't cook steaks anymore or they have to go shoot up a night club or something.

3. If prison is too damaging a place for a rapist, perhaps it's time to look at our prison system.

4. Was the Pulse shooter (I don't like giving these people fame, others want to name them---I don't know which is the better notion) a deeply closeted and conflicted gay man? I see mixed reports on how his visits to Pulse prior to his rampage might be interpreted. The point is: study after study has shown that the men who are most vocally against homosexuality are also turned on by erotic images of other men. I'd say that well over half of gay men raised in a strict religious setting that condemned homosexuality could tell you stories of internalized homophobia. I grew up in a relatively liberal form of Christianity and I have plenty of tales to tell. I have no surprise to offer at the news that this shooter was at least fascinated by Pulse for some time.

5. These are random thoughts and I have many more. I haven't time for them all this week. Suffice to say, for now, that I do not see these two events as separate. Excuses, justifications, commentary that begins with "this won't be a popular opinion but . . . " are rampant after both. Both events focus an awful lot on the perpetrators and not in ways that say, "how do we be better humans, how do we raise up better men?" but in ways that say, "what they did was understandable and the victims could have avoided their fate if . . . " Rape culture, gun culture, toxic masculinity . . . We have such a hard time talking about these. We have a such a hard time acknowledging these.

But my last random thought that is related to all of this is: Fear is the enemy. Paranoia is the enemy. Jesus taught us this. The Prodigal Son story is all about that. Mr. Rogers' story about about looking for the helpers is all about this. We can't give into the utter bullshit of rape culture and gun culture and toxic masculinity. If we do, we're going to end up being the religious folk who won't help, we're going to start shooting the Samaritan who will take care of us at our lowest, bloodiest point.


When we are feeling our rage and fear and whatever else and are still able to say, That other over there, the one not like me and who, on the surface, scares me a little---that one is also made in the Image of God, then we have some hope for humanity.

But we have to put down the guns. We have to set aside our gender norms. We have to not only look for the helpers but be the helpers.

We have to realize we're the Samaritan, despised and avoided, to someone and we have to help.

Right now, we need help dismantling rape culture, gun culture, and toxic masculinity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando Shooting


Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. [Mark 6: 27-33]

I used to try writing songs in my 20s, but I never got very proficient as a musician (never got past a few basic chords on a guitar), and so I moved on to other creative endeavors.

But last year sometime, the above text was part of the gospel lesson one Sunday and the "come away" sounded particularly musical to me that day, and this bubbled up. I imagined it as Jesus to his disciples and I also imagined it today as a lament for anyone who feels or sees the powers of the world destroying our heroes and our hope. Of course, that includes LGBT folk.


video



On June 12, 2016, a man with guns entered a club in Orlando Florida and killed 49 people and wounded that many and more beside. I had no words to talk about it. I shared a couple of things other people said on Facebook, but I didn't know what to say for myself.

Then this song that I can't play on a guitar bubbled up again. I sat on my couch and sang it for my laptop and posted it for my Facebook friends.

And casual and frumpy as I am, singing poorly and missing notes, I'm going to let this be my commentary on the Orlando shooting. For now.

lyrics:

(refrain)
Come away to a quiet place.
Come away and rest awhile. (2x)

Without joy and full of fear,
With little hope and some despair,
We'll take our grief to a lonely place.
We'll seek our solace there.
Because we still have a little hope
We'll survive what we can't bear. 

(refrain)

In our own nation we are exiles.
Shunned and shamed by our own tribe.
We'll heal our wounds in a lonely place,
Far from home but still alive.
We have no home. But we have breath.
In the breath we will abide.

(refrain)

From our exile, we will arise.
We won't always feel this way.
We'll gather strength in this lonely place,
Strength to face the coming day
When we will die as we love.
Love will have the final say.

(refrain)


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Speak Humility Silence Love

My desert heroes, the Abbas and Ammas of the Fourth Century, valued silence. There are endless stories and sayings about this. It was a way to practice humility. It was a way to practice listening---to others as well as for God. It was a path to loving their neighbor.

I'm often quiet in a group. Sometimes it's because I'm trying to practice what my heroes taught, a lot of times it's just that I've grown increasingly socially awkward. We live in a culture that finds silence uncomfortable, even when we're alone. We keep music and television playing so we never have to experience the silence. I'm sure my silence in groups rubs up against that cultural norm and I sometimes perceive that my silent awkwardness makes people uncomfortable. Out of hospitality, another virtue among the monks, I might try to speak more. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it only increases the awkwardness.

Of course there is a time to speak.

We have these collections of "sayings" because they spoke sometimes. Sometimes it was a novice to the desert life approaching an elder, asking, "Abba, give me a word." The abba may or may not have answered the request, but they did often enough to give us a large body of literature.

They might also speak out against something happening that was patently wrong. They were big on not judging (some sayings tell us there is nothing worse than passing judgment), and so when they spoke up, I imagine it was out of some clear call to speak.

I think of people throughout history who have spoken out. Just in the last 150 years of American history, we have the voices speaking out against slavery, for women's suffrage, for civil rights . . . The famous slogan of the Act Up activists in the early years of the AIDS crisis was "Silence = Death." Just yesterday, I specifically asked, on Facebook, for my straight cis male friends to speak up more against rape culture because I'd noticed that on a few threads wherein it was discussed the only people speaking were women and gay men. An awkward but generally useful conversation thread followed.

Sometimes speaking is as awkward as keeping silent.

The point of both speaking and keeping silence is one and the same. It's not to appear the most knowledgeable or to fix the problem at hand or to avoid conflict or to prove rightness or wrongness. If the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor as self, then whether we keep silent or if we speak out, the point is to love.

It won't be an easy, sweet love. Not all the time. When it is, it will be an enormous gift.

And someone won't like it or find it too uncomfortable or otherwise judge you for your effort.

But the point  also is not to be liked and always comfortable and free of conflict. The point is to love.

Whether we speak or keep silent, we will make mistakes. We will love badly. We will fail horribly. We will not find this love to bring a peaceful existence at all times.

And we must find our way to do it. It's the greatest commandment.