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. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Practice for a World on Fire

I've written about this practice before.

I feel like I want to make it an assignment for you. Yes, you. And I know, you're not my student, I'm not your teacher, there is no enforcement for this assignment. It's been my practice for a couple of decades, though, and whatever else, I believe it to be helpful. After a week of news about migrant children at the southern U.S. border (and the ugly things said about them in some media outlets), about the Middle East turning bloodier, it seems, by the day, about jet liners shot out of the sky to further one political agenda or another---apparently to bring about even more war?---I want you to think about this and do it and believe it:

Look at people you don't like, who frighten you or make you angry or are simply not like you. Look at them. Not necessarily in the eye, that can be creepy, but look at them. Say to yourself, "Here is the Image of God." That may be all you're able to say. If you can say it, say to yourself, "I love them." That will vary from day to day, but if you love God, this is where it plays out. Love that person. If you can't love them today, at least say, "Here is the Image of God." Maybe tomorrow you'll be able to love.

I'm not even asking you to say anything to them. You're probably not ready for that. But look at them and see the Image of God. Think on what that might mean, what that might tell you about God. Today you may not love them, but if you love God, you will one day.

You may want to say, "here is Jesus." Again, you may not be ready for that. Start where you can. Your heart may not be ready. 

That's it. That's the practice. If you don't particularly believe in God, or you don't believe in Jesus, translate into whatever you love. These are the words I have, the faith I have. My heart is hard, but these words are wearing it down, like water on stone. After a couple of decades, there is hope I might love someday.

But if we don't start today, the world is without hope. The world feels very full of hate right now and we need to find the strength to love. I honestly believe this practice will build that muscle.

+ + +

This morning, at church, my congregation, St Stephen's Episcopal Church, had a meeting about how we might address the border crisis. We're talking about things like hands on help, influencing U.S. policy, and even engaging in international policy to the best of our ability. SSEC has connections to Honduras, so this is personal. 

I'm prayerfully entering into discernment about where I fit into this, if I do. This feels big, and it's in my backyard, so to speak. Houston is still several hours drive from the Rio Grande Valley, but we're talking about children who have traveled the length of Mexico to get here. What's another 6-8 hour drive? Houston, and all of Texas, will feel the impact of this event. If God has blessed these United States, it's for a moment such as this.

Right now, I'm aware of what I don't know. There's so much to learn. I left that meeting with pieces of papers with information and websites for more. I'm already overwhelmed, but the room was full of people. I'll have to trust that we will buoy each other up. 

Pray for peace. Practice peace. Remember you are made in the Image of God, and so is the person next to you.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

That Which Actually Is

The last post didn't really get at everything I wanted to get at. I got sidetracked by some railing at people who want to deny my existence. But there's something more underneath that.

Some years ago, there was some discovery that put something in the Bible or tradition in question. It might have been the James ossuary, the burial box with the disputed inscription suggesting that it belonged to Jesus' brother, James. It seemed to me, at the time, that a great deal of effort was put into denying it's authenticity. By that, I mean, there was a lot of effort put into defending the tradition that Jesus was the only child of Mary and the mention of Jesus' brothers in scripture were referring to male relatives, not actual brothers as we think of them today. While the scientists and scholars were investigating the thing, so much print was spent on saying how it had to be a fraud. A quick Google on the topic tells me that the authenticity remains mostly in dispute. And that's a bit beside the point.

What I remember thinking was: so if this is a real thing, what does that mean to Christianity? What does it mean with regard to biblical scholarship? Just how much does it change the life and message of Jesus? For me, who has little at stake in the tradition of Jesus being an only child, it didn't really affect my understanding of the Christian faith but was all kinds of fascinating for the part of my brain that grooves on "historical Jesus" information.

But the even larger question is: why is new information so threatening to faith? From heliocentrism to climate change, we want to deny information that challenges nothing except for, possibly, some analogies told in a mythological way for purposes other than scientific education. Certainly, there is nothing that is central to the Gospel challenged by this information.

I remember the urge to get defensive and it still rises now and then. People I loved taught me things and it feels like a betrayal to realize they were not completely on target on all things.

But knowledge is accumulative and dynamic and sometimes we're just wrong. It's useful to practice humility around the things that "everyone knows."

But this is less about scientific facts than it is about people. And here's where I come to some basic presumptions I have about people, chiefly that we are made in the Image of God and as such God works self-revelation through the people we encounter. This is messy and uncomfortable and can deeply disturb your notions about God, particularly if you want to subscribe to the god who is unmoved, unmovable, static through all time and space. I would ask, however, that you consider the messy, uncomfortable God who lets go of power and empties self and dies shamefully in deepest humility (Philippians 2).

So you walk into a room. There are people of all shades of skin, from light pink to dark brown, there are male and female and some that fit neither category comfortably, there are gay and lesbian and straight and bi and asexual.

Judgments rise immediately, how they're different from me, how they're broken, how they're unpleasant or not.

What if I looked at a person, an image of God, and looked for what God was self-revealing to me in the moment?

What if what I initially saw as damaged was the vulnerability of God?

What if bad choices were showing me the freedom of God/

What if survival of brokenness and bad choices were showing me the redemption and restoration of God?

What if all this led me, as it apparently did for Jesus, to have compassion?

I'm not saying I do this. I'm not saying you can watch me in every situation and see me putting these questions into action. I am vulnerable, free, and broken, too.


But back to the many recent attacks on LGBT folk (I forgot, last time, the Oklahoma politician who agrees that it's acceptable to stone us).

There are gay people. There are people whose bodies do not match their gender identity. It is mysterious and not easily explained. It is surprising, even. But we are made in the image of God, as surely as straight folk, and even as it befuddled and upset and surprised this farm boy from central Texas, it has also expanded and deepened my understanding of who and what God might be.

We have this relic from the past. What might it tell us about  our history and can we ask that question before making judgments based upon doctrine?

We have these people before us. What might we see of God in them and can we ask that question with compassion and without moral judgment?

These are questions, I believe, are crucial if the church is going to have any claim to Good News in the future.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Being That Which Supposedly Doesn't Exist

It feels like the LGBT community has been under attack recently from a few different directions.

Here, in Houston, our City Council recently passed an equal rights ordinance that gives LGBT people protections in employment and housing and such. This is an advance and a victory, but leading up to the council vote, there were hours and hours of testimony, some of it very painful for LGBT people to hear, most of it made up out of fear and misinformation about LGBT folk. After the ordinance passed, there have been petitions circulated to bring this to a vote in November as well as death threats against our lesbian mayor.

This week, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, made reparative therapy a platform item for Republicans. This "therapy" has been debunked and decried by every credible psychological authority, and yet it here it is again. How much does one thing have to fail? It's laughable and yet wearying. It's a reminder that so many people still think we're sick and in need of fixing.

And of course, the Southern Baptist Convention has been so predictable in their addressing of LGBT people that it defines banality. The SBC was particularly hard, it seems to me, on the T of LGBT. They basically said trans folk don't exist.

All of this comes from people who don't deal well with ambiguity in general. I get how hard it is for them to conceive of a woman with male characteristics and vice versa. I was there at one time.

It is troubling that everyone from the people issuing death threats to the people not believing trans folk exist are using religion as their cover story. It's very troubling to a religious sort like me.

But really, the problem with all of these situations is that people of faith want the Bible to explain and give rules about everything. They have a hard time appreciating the the subtleties of real, deeply engaged Bible study (which is more than memorizing a few verses here and there).

I react in particular to the assertion that "there's no such thing as trans" because I've heard the accusation that "there's no such thing as gay Christians." I suppose the Christian trans folk I know from my church are even less "existable" to these people.

Except I'm right here, real as can be. As are the trans people I love. And unlike the alcoholic analogy that Rick Perry would have us buy, we all are healthier and build better relationships when we are honest about being LGB or T. It seems impossible that the governor of a state would not know anyone LGB or T (and the rumors persist that he's "known" a few, but then so have so many anti-LGBT politicians), but  if one takes a little time to get to know LGBT folk, you quickly learn that we are much better off having reconciled ourselves with our identity. Meanwhile, the reason an alcoholic goes to AA is because alcoholism is demonstrably harmful.

And it's not as if every straight person has it all together. I mean, seriously. Do you even skim the headlines?

What I'm trying to get at is that all this is wearying and hurtful. It can wear a person down to be constantly explaining that you're real, that you exist, that you're not going to eat anyone's children.

And wouldn't it be nice if all these people of faith who don't believe in us would just take some little time to get to know us? 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Creative Inciters and Helping Others

I took on the task of reading and reviewing The Art of Helping Others by Douglas C. Mann. As a writer and performer, I was intrigued by the title and the author description as a working artist.

Up front, I'll say I found it a hard book to get into. In fact, I had to read the first chapters twice, thinking maybe I'd read them too inattentively the first time, but even on the second read, it felt like slogging through. It all felt a little familiar and yet vague. It was Mann's personal story of leaving a music executive job to be an artist/missionary. It's personal history without feeling terribly personal. Yes, there are some stories that are potentially vulnerable, but it all felt as if it were told as if from a distance. It's something I puzzled about as I read it. It seemed a singular achievement, although not the kind you want to repeat.

It was around chapter 5 that things began to cook and the rest of the book was engaging. I'm always aware that my experience may not be someone else's---after all someone has made young vampires in love a bestselling genre and I've no clue why---but if you find the rest of this review to spark your interest, I would say skim the first and head as quickly as possible to the middle.

At the heart of this book, it's not a book about art or art-making, which was a little bit of a disappointment to me, but not much of one. Mann is using his experience as an artist---and the inherent risks involved in following that path---as a template for what he is calling all Christians to be. The term is uses is "creative inciter," a term that is broadly enough defined to make it accessible, I believe, to non-artists (if such exist, but that's another argument to be had).

The notion is that we find creative ways to enter into lives, find unusual ways to reveal grace or call for justice or generally bring in the Reign of God. He talks about this requiring sacrifice and that "dying to self" thing that comes up once in a while among Christians. He even relates an amusing conversation he had with a book executive about how books about "dying to self" just don't sell. He also relates how someone inviting him to "come die with us" was the way he heard the call to leave his lucrative executive job. He makes a decent case for that needing more foregrounding in Christianity, how that can be a compelling invitation for some people.

There is a section where he tries to make a case for asking "why not?" rather than "what if?" Mann seems to find some profound difference between the two questions that I didn't grasp. He found one more motivational, whereas I find them to be about equally so.

I do like that at the end of the book, he gives us a few paragraphs about different organizations that he sees as creative inciters. I will refer to those, as I'm always looking for networks to plug into (which I find difficult as a gay, Christian, creative type). I've only visited a couple of sites so far, but will explore further.

It's clear Mann has a great concern for others and has put that into practice, through his art and through his other lifestyle choices. That, at the very least, is admirable. 

In the end, I do find it hard to give The Art of Helping Others more than a lukewarm review. It could be boiled down to a really good article, but perhaps the pieces that didn't engage me might be fascinating to others. If you're intrigued enough to give it a try, there is a sample of the audio Book on Noise Trade. I would at least recommend giving that a try.

Meanwhile, I'm going to be watching Mann's website for a bit. I think he's on to something. I'm not sure this book is the best he has to offer. As a choir director use to prod us, "that was so good, it should be better." I'm hoping Mann eventually gives us the "better."

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Legal stuff:
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Resurrection 2014

Here's the thing: even though we call it Good Friday, we teach it wasn't just an ironic twist. We know it was a real death, a horrific state execution, by one of the cruelest forms of execution that the world has ever known. We do not teach that the suffering wasn't really suffering, that the blood wasn't really bloody, that the grief, disappointment, and anguish were misspent emotions.

We teach that all that pain and darkness can be redeemed.

At least, at our best, that's what we teach.

It was not, in the end, "all good." It was not merely that we couldn't see the big picture, that we couldn't see the plan, didn't have enough faith. This horrific, cruel, bloody death was real and worthy of grief.

But this "all bad," in the end, does not stay in lament.

Child of God, every dark thing, every hurtful thing, every grief-making event of your life is not an illusion. If you're paying attention, you know it's not "just a bad day" that we ironically call "good."

But, Child of God, holy Image of God, what I would tell you is that within the community of the beloved, in closed rooms and broken bread, the possibility, even the promise, of redemption may be revealed. When it is, it will be surprising and it will not seem nearly as real as the suffering, but it will be there and it will bind up your wounds and open your mouth with the sweetest Alleluia! 

Resurrection will catch you, astound you, and you will not be lost.

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!