Sunday, March 31, 2013

Risen 2013

Like lightning dressed in snow, the news struck.

"Do not be afraid . . . "

We've heard this before.

"I know that you are looking for Jesus . . . "

We were followers.

"He is not here . . . "

Death harshly separates us.

" . . . see the place where he lay."

And now we don't even have a grave to visit, to venerate.

" . . . go quickly . . . "

The quick and the dead . . .

". . . Galilee; there you will see him."

Do not raise our hopes!

"Do not be afraid . . . "

Galilee may be closer than you think . . .

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy 2013

Saturday.  .

We know the story. Behind us is death, in front of us is resurrection .

But today is between time.

We don't know how to look at it, how to observe it.

Between grief and joy.

Between disappointment and hope.

Between losing and gaining.

It's ambiguous time, poorly defined, too often ignored with busy-ness.

We can't think about that now, there are things to do.

We live here more than this one days admits.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good 2013

There are things you can't control.

The love you have. The anger you feel. Sometimes they spill out.

You love the wrong people. You get angry at the wrong people. You speak the truth to both.

The Reign of God is among you.

You can't control the need to say so.

Love the wrong people and give them hope.

Make the wrong people angry and they're confronted with how paltry their power really is.

You can only tell them the truth.

You can't control what they do with it.

This isn't how you would like things to go.

You'd just as soon kept on traveling, preaching, touching, healing.

You can't control everything.

Having given us hope, fulfull our every wish.

Having made us angry, you forced our hand.

You can't control everything.

Neither would you be controlled.

You were a problem to be solved.

You had to be taken care of, taken out.

For good.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy 2013

Dirty feet.



Deny Jesus later, but you won't be able to deny these things. They are too real, too sensual.

The idea of a king is ephemeral, slippery, hard to hold.

Take your neighbor's foot and wash it.

Share some bread. Drink some wine.

These actions are solid.

Friends, students, teachers . . . relationships are hard, changeable, deniable.

Remember the wine. Remember the bread. You can return to them.

You'll remember like it was the first time, before the denial.

Your feet were touched by the image of God, as the image of God.

These things will stay with you, come back to you like your favorite scent.

Your dirty feet carry you this far, far enough to be touched, washed, served, loved.

Bread and wine will carry you through the night, through the denial.

The denial, this is not really happening.

You bet your life it is.

(With a nod and/or apologies to Tori Amos.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mel White's Holy Terror

Some months back, I offered to review Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality by Mel White. Shortly after I received a review copy, I started reading it, set it down, and forgot all about it. This week, I received a gentle email reminder about this and I picked it up again to see why I had set it down.

Looking over the preface to the 2012 paperback edition (it was originally released in 2007 in hardcover), I remembered why I set it down. In that preface, White gives a bombardment of attacks on the LGBT rights movement and it was, well, depressing. And for someone like me, who is not so much an activist but is friends with a few. It was a bit like some days on my Facebook newsfeed, only without cat videos and someecards to break up the assault. As a gay Christian, it was all a bit too much anger at me and my subset of humanity, compressed into a small, bitter pill.

I picked it up again and sallied forth, bracing myself for more of the assault. And to read books like this (and from my days as a book reviewer for OutSmart, I've read a handful) is to open yourself up to this compressed assault, an endless (it seems) list of anecdotes about the ways some Christians would really rather I didn't exist.

For some, this is a rallying call, a motivator for activism. To some extent, it does this for me---I live as openly as I can as a gay man, I write for gay publications using my real name and everything, etc.---but in large doses without cat videos, it can also send me into a corner to hide under a blanket, convinced that nobody loves me, everybody hates me, and somewhere, someone is making fun of the shoes I just bought.

I exaggerate. A little. But not a lot.

But there are things I think you should know about Holy Terror that may actually encourage you to take a look at it.

In some ways, this nearly another memoir (after White's earlier book, Stranger at the Gate). White spends much of the book with personal stories about encounters with fundamentalist evangelicals. These anecdotes alternate between fascinating and defensive and sometimes endearingly human.

The parts that are his explanations of the fundamentalist attacks and his responses to them are, I realized, not best for an audience who is gay and accepting of themselves as God's children. Again, some may find it a narrative to rally around, but who would best be served by this book are the straight allies who are also a bit oblivious to the attacks chronicled in this book.

I say that because my own personal experience is that a good many straight allies are content to be passive allies and are not particularly aware of the barrage of ugliness that we, as LGBT folk, hear on a daily basis. It's not that they agree with the ugliness, they simply don't notice it. Or else, they don't have enough LGBT Facebook friends to see all the "shared" stories that I see. What enters their consciousness is easily disregarded as a crackpot statement made by some crazy person and who takes them seriously anyway?

Except we LGBT folk know there are plenty of people who take the "crazy people" (an alarming number of whom have popular radio programs) seriously. We hear the reverberations of those radio programs in casual comments that don't always stick to a straight person's ears the way they do to ours.

I know this because I've found a surprising number of straight people don't know what "Stonewall" is. I've found they may know the actions of Fred Phelps but not his name or the name of his church. I find that too many straight church people think simply saying "We welcome everyone" should be enough to draw in LGBT people.

In a church meeting where we were discussing some kind of outreach to a growing LGBT population in the neighborhood, I was trying to explain why they needed to make a specific statement of welcome to LGBT people and still be patient before LGBT people would start coming because we've been the victims of Christians for too long. I was met with blank stares, showing no understanding. I finally said, "You look like every other church that has ever condemned LGBT folk. If you really are offering an unconditional welcome to LGBT folk, you have to say so, otherwise you're just another church saying 'all are welcome,' which every church that has drummed out a LGBT person has said."

I'm not saying it's a sure thing, but maybe these well-meaning straight allies would be well-served by a compressed bitter pill such as a book like this.

The final section, especially the final chapter, is inspirational. I intend to go back and re-read White's remembrances of being awakened to the words and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. His "conversion," if I may call it that, to the principles of "soul force" (which is also the name of an organization he founded), is helpful, inspiring, and encouraging.

So my recommendation with this book, if you are an LGBT Christian, is to skim the cataloging of attacks on us, pausing to read whatever catches your attention, skipping where it gets too much without a cat video in between, and then read the final chapter carefully.

And then hand the book off to a straight ally who doesn't quite get why more LGBT people aren't trying out their church.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mortality II: Strong, Brave, Weak, Scared

Serious illness is often met with words like "courageous," or "strong." These are qualities that are worth cultivating. They are, I'll agree, virtues.

I find myself wondering what that looks like. There are ways that my education lets me distract myself with questions of "performance." Performance theory, which has to do with all our roles in life, not just what happens on a stage, has me asking questions of myself, "how does one perform 'courage'?" Or "how shall I convey 'strength'?"

Which isn't to say courage and strength are simply poses we strike. They may be, or they may be learned, practiced, embodied qualities, just as learning, for example, good customer service skills. There are authentic performances we give every day.

And I ask myself these questions because I think how we face personal issues like a mass on a pancreas (which isn't cancerous, I remind myself constantly) is or can be some kind of witness or even model to those around us. I mean that religiously and without religion. I do find my faith to give me a certain perspective on this event and I want to "perform" that well. I think courage and strength are part of that witness. I also think it's helpful to other people, regardless of religion, to see a way to react to life-threatening news that isn't simply falling apart. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Because honestly, during that period between hearing "you have a mass on your pancreas" and hearing, "ti's not cancer," I can't say I was completely on board with the strong and brave thing. I don't know that I ever really fell apart, but I definitely had a few days there where I was trying to decide how to live out whatever months/weeks I might yet have. That's scary. And a little infuriating. But then we probably know that fear and anger are often sibling emotions, if not two sides of the same coin.

Mixing metaphors aside, I began to think that there is also a witness in admitting to being vulnerable and scared. To say anything else is, indeed, play-acting, performing in a less authentic sense of the word. As I like to say, denial is a defense mechanism and we sometimes need defenses, but I also know that's not a place to stay. If I'm to be strong and brave, there's a journey to make through admitting that I'm weak, vulnerable, scared.

And really, if the situation isn't scary, what do I need courage for?

In general, I'm doing pretty well. I think. I feel I'm doing pretty well.

But the surgeon has to tell you all the ways things can go wrong and so I know there are ways the coming operation can go terribly wrong. I remind myself all day long that the terribly wrong ways things can go are also not all that likely. I have an experienced surgeon who does this surgery regularly. There's every reason to believe I'll be just another uneventful day in the office for him.

All of which to say: I wish to be strong and brave, even while admitting I'm weak and scared. I want to be truthful about both ends of that emotional spectrum. I swing between both ends a couple times a day.

I also wish, and I'll end on this note, to both warn and confess to the friends closest around that this swinging is going on. They probably already know. They should also know  . . . no, I won't do this in a passive voice.

Friends, you are the reasons I can find the courageous end of the spectrum. Thank you for being there through the weak and scared moments. Forgive me if I happen to swing too quickly between the two ends.

That's all.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mortality (Let's Just Admit This is Part I)

An anecdote from sometime in 2002: I was living in Chicago at the time, in my first year of grad school. One afternoon, I made one of my frequent stops at the downtown Borders Books (r.i.p.), which was this 3 story building of books and music that drew me in not only because I love books and music but also because there weren't that many places downtown with public restrooms (for full disclosure).

I don't know which reason drew me in that afternoon, but I do remember riding the escalator and as I reached the top, I saw one of those cardboard displays (which I later learned as a Barnes & Noble bookseller are called "dumps" by the professionals) with a new release. The title of the book was Where Was God on 9/11?

At that moment, I became an angry, muttering person, the sort you try not to sit next to on the bus.

Where was God on 9/11? Why is this even a question? Why all the angst about how God could have possibly allowed this to happen? Are the people asking this also asking where was God in violent conflicts in Central and South America? Were they asking about the presence of God in the violent conflicts in Ireland? How about any violent conflict you can think of?

I doubted that the author---or the audience for the book---were thinking about any of this. I assumed (and, okay, I never looked any closer at the book, so I could be wrong) that this was a crisis of faith because, horrors of horrors, this happened to the United States of America. How could God let this happen to America? As if horrific things couldn't (or don't) happen on American soil. It seemed, to me, to be the most absurd, self-absorbed question we could ask.

I said in my muttering, "God was where God always is: with the brokenhearted, with the weak, with the hurting, with the dying."

I think it is symptomatic of our general avoidance of mortality, a denial that we're all going to die, that we're fragile and death can come at any time, any place. Yes, 9/11 was an especially large and horrific event. But horrific events happen all over the world and those events don't seem to create crises of faith, at least not for American Christians.

Frankly, I was appalled at American Christians' lack of faith, that because something happened to us suddenly meant God was gone.

I relate this story because I've been thinking a lot about this "why me?" attitude, not so much because I have it---I'm just as likely to ask how sudden death comes to someone else instead of me---but because early in February, just before the beginning of lent, my cardiologist was telling me about a recent CT of my heart. He said everything with the heart looked fine.


"You have a mass on your pancreas." They found it just by accident, caught a glimpse of it while looking at my heart.

When Ash Wednesday came up right after that, I was already ahead of the game. Remember I was dust? I was all over that.

Now, well into lent, I can tell you that this mass is showing no signs of cancer, which is obviously a huge relief. (I'm amused by the few people who, now with this news, are telling me "I'm so glad, because pancreatic cancer is so awful," assuming that I didn't know that already . . .) I will still have to have the mass removed and it's going to be a fairly major surgery, but there's also good reason to believe that's all going to be okay, too.

So, anyway, mortality. For about a week there, I had quit thinking about my 50th birthday still a few months away. I'd started thinking about who might be able to take care of my cat. I started thinking about my library of books and who might want some of them. I wasn't asking, "why me?" I may as well ask why I'm blond, or so it seems to me. I was asking, "if I'm dying, how do I do this?"

(True confession: I started posting pieces of my abandoned theological memoir on Ash Wednesday because I wasn't yet ready to write about having a mass on my pancreas. It was a good replacement activity.)

Then, on the first Sunday in lent, we had this Gospel reading: 

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ [Luke 13:1-5, NRSV]

This has always been a puzzling passage for me. I was disturbed by Jesus' words, "unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Hey, Jesus, that doesn't sound all that grace-full.

But as I pondered that passage after church that Sunday, I felt it had something to do with my own current brush with mortality. I felt it had something to do with another saying of Jesus, how the rain falls on the good and the evil, but it was that "unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did" that had me troubled.

Now, for those more exegetically inclined, I'll first say what follows is completely personal. I didn't do any word studies in the Greek, and I admit I'm curious about what word is being translated as "perish," which seems like a particular euphemism for "die." I can't tell if the NRSV translators got squeamish about the word "die" or if there is some other nuance to "perish" that bears further investigation.

What I do know is that the word "repent" is from the Greek, metanoia, which literally means "change mind" (meta, as in metamorphosis---change shape, noia as in paranoia---beyond or beside mind). So to substitute that with the common, modern understanding of "repent" to mean "feel really badly for sins," we have "Unless you change your mind . . "

Change your mind about what, in this instance? Jesus was trying to tell the crowd that the people who died that they didn't die because they were worse people than anyone else, so I suppose it could be that Jesus was telling them, "unless you change your mind about bad things only happening to bad people . . . "

Okay, but this "you will perish just like they did" business. So how did these people die? They were murdered, apparently ins some kind of ritual sacrifice. Or a tower fell on them. This must have been a shocking way to die, surprising, caught unawares.

So in the Neil Ellis Orts paraphrase, I decided, I'd say, "Unless you change your mind about there being some sort of punishment involved when bad things happen to you, you're going to die just as shocked, surprised, and caught unawares as those Galileans."

This seemed, if not a universal paraphrase for that passage, it seemed to help me in my current circumstance. I resolved at that moment to change whatever part of my mind might be looking for a sin or other evil that accounted for this mass on my pancreas. If I was dying, I would face it with a surety that we all die, that we don't get to pick how we die, and that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God (to steal from St. Paul).

Of course, facing our mortality isn't so neat, easy, and clean as all that. But this story from Luke now helps me, reminds me that death is not surprising, there's no reason to think something terrible couldn't happen to any one of us. And if that is disquieting, I'm sorry. But I believe it to be true, even as I believe it to be true that God remains with us, in our fears, in our suffering, in our dying.

This episode---and let's face it, a big surgery suggests it isn't over, only slightly rosier than first imagined---has me thinking about much more. I believe these are the things I'll spend the rest of lent reflecting upon.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 4 part 3

This is all I have of that abandoned memoir. I admit, looking at this, I lost my way kind of mid-thought. Maybe I thought that was an end of a chapter at the time, but it certainly doesn't read like one to me now. Anyway, this is what I have. I'm going to let it rest a few days (maybe post about something happening in my life right now) and then see if I can find my way forward with this. I'm open to feedback . . .

Chapter 4: If These are my Circumstances, How do I Live Faithfully?  part 3

It occurs to me that I should address the question itself, or the question behind the question. What is faithfulness and why would you want to be faithful to begin with?

In theological terms, there is more than one answer to that question.

Some of us love agony. I‛m convinced of it. Some of us are only happy when we‛re striving for something impossible. I went through it my early twenties, I watched other people go through it in college. I see people going through it now, although I admit not all of it is from a religious impulse. It‛s the agony of the person who constantly asks, "What should I do with my life?" When you have the religious impulse, that question becomes, "What does God want me to do with my life?" Depending upon your understanding of who God is, that question can be paralyzing.

For example, I watched a young woman from my days in Lutheran Campus Ministry leave our small community to a more conservative Christianity because we weren‛t giving her answers for that question about her life and she found a group who did. I understood her. I had also considered leaving LCM because I wanted more concrete direction, more definite commands on how to use the gifts God had given me. Her agony was greater than mine, I guess. Her image of God was someone who was demanding something very difficult and highly sacrificial of her and while I believed God wanted something of me (I still believe that, in a more nuanced way), I also had some sense of God good, kind, not looking for reasons to strike me down for disobedience.

Anyway, this young woman joined a group who did things like take evangelism trips to South Padre Island on spring break, witnessing to the drunken partiers on the beach. It‛s the sort of piety that judges God‛s pleasure in direct proportion to your harassment, embarrassment, and futility. Granted, there are undoubtedly some people out there who will testify that it is because someone ministered to them as they were puking off a pier that they came to Jesus. God works in all sorts of ways. I‛m not saying people shouldn‛t talk to spring breakers about the love of God—if it is, indeed the love of God they‛re speaking of and not a guilt trip about having fun. We Lutherans, however, are more, shall we say, practical. We‛re more likely to bring up the love of God when there‛s a chance someone is likely to hear it. But, as I said, some measure God‛s pleasure by how much abuse you can take from belligerent drunks.

Let me try to illustrate this agony another way. I have another friend, a woman my age who I‛ve known since college. She felt a call to ordained ministry and she‛s been a pastor for many years now. A few years ago, she started becoming disillusioned with her work as a pastor. Maybe it was burnout, maybe it was God adjusting the calling on her life. Whatever it was, she was constantly talking about wanting to go to culinary school. So I said, "Do it. Quit your church and go to culinary school."

She said something about not being sure if that‛s what God wanted, that maybe God still wanted her at this church that was making her a little bit miserable. So I asked her, "So what part of your experience of God tells you that God wants you to be miserable?"

Well, it still took a couple of years, but she did eventually leave her church and go to culinary school. She‛s still an ordained pastor, but she‛s thinking of other ways to minister, and maybe food is a way to do it (and I don‛t care what your background, ministering with food is always theologically sound).

One other anecdote. I once heard a pastor speak to this sort of agonizing we do. He said, "We spend so much time worrying and asking, ‛oh God, what do you want me to do?‛ And sometimes I think God is just shrugging his shoulders and saying, ‛I don‛t know. What do you want to do?‛"

I tell these stories as a roundabout way to address this desire to live faithfully and give a different vision of it. So much, too much of what we‛re taught about God leads us to believe God is demanding and looking for reasons to make us miserable. We believe that if God is going to call us to something, it‛s going to be hard and something completely outside our ability.

I‛ve come to suspect, however, that the desire to do something is the calling. A joy in tinkering with engines is the call to mechanical work. Delight in helping children pick up new skills or information is the call to being a teacher. In my case, finding that I can‛t not write is the call to be a writer.

This is not to say that it‛s going to be easy and this is not to say that your calling is your career. It‛s quite possible that just because you take delight in dancing doesn‛t mean you‛ll be good at it without hours of classes or that you‛ll ever make a living at it. Sad, but true. God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt because God saw Moses had a desire for his people to be free, not because Moses was a natural born leader. The man had a speech impediment and had to get his brother to do most of the speaking.

Of course our vocation is but one small part of how we live faithfully, and really has little to do with morality. What I‛ve tried to do is to talk about vocation in a way that illustrates how our image of God, what we‛ve been taught about God, leads us in how we pursue our life‛s calling. We‛ll either do what we think we should do with a heavy heart, or we‛ll do something that maybe doesn‛t immediately look sensible with a joyful heart.

But in either case, we do it out of a sense of God‛s presence in our life. Or at least in my case. In the cases of several people I know. Whether we buy into the image of a God making odious demands, or of a God curious to see what we‛ll do next, we who experienced God‛s presence are trying to figure out the reason for our existence in relationship to God‛s existence. To speak completely in the first person, because I felt God all around me that day in our backyard, because I find such peace and grace in that experience, I want to respond. There was a time I responded in paralyzing agony. Now, I‛m more likely to respond with a sense of responsibility to the gifts and desires I have.

I want to write stories. I find joy in writing stories. I‛m even pretty good at writing stories. If this is the circumstance of my life, how do I live faithfully?

There remains the murky question of morality, of course, and if we can get past the idea of sin as isolated good and bad acts and see it as part of the matrix of life, this question of living faithfully takes on a different, slightly more complex twist.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 4 Part 2

I'm closing in on what I have left to post from what I wrote five years ago. I accidentally posted the first part of this chapter more than a week ago, so now we're back on track until the end. To find the earlier part, navigate via the Archive link on the right (you'll likely have to scroll down a bit).

Chapter 4: If These are my Circumstances, How do I Live Faithfully? Part 2

It wasn‛t until seminary that I began to understand sin in terms other than simple right and wrong behavior. There are most assuredly more complete discussions of this concept, but here‛s a brief description and illustration of a different view.

Think of good and evil as more of a net. When you‛re in a net, especially with other people, when you move, they feel it on their end of the net. Moving in one direction creates tension for someone you may not even see. What‛s good for me is not necessarily good for someone else. Indeed, what gives life to someone else may cause my strangling death.

This is how it is with us in this world. We try to do good, but sometimes the results are evil for someone else.

Let‛s look for a moment at a more concrete example. Let‛s look at Wal-Mart.

I don‛t like shopping at Wal-Mart. They have put many small businesses out of business. They have a history of treating their male employees better than their female employees. Their business practices tend to exploit the poor of the world, especially in employing low-wage workers in other countries to put goods on their shelf.

At the same time, Wal-Mart has very affordable goods. There can be no doubt that their low prices make providing clothes and school supplies much easier for working class families. Right now, I live from paycheck to paycheck myself and I know that given the choice between a new pair of work khakis for ten dollars at Wal-Mart and twenty dollars somewhere else, Wal-Mart is going to get my business. While I‛m there, I see that I am surrounded by families who rely on that difference in prices to keep their children fed and presentable. Maybe just barely, but if I, as a single person, have trouble eating and living indoors, I definitely can‛t condemn a family of five for shopping where they can get three shirts for the price of one elsewhere.

So, Wal-Mart makes affordable goods available to poor people. Wal-Mart exploits poor people to supply affordable goods. What part of the cycle has to stop first?

If these are the circumstances of our lives, how do we live faithfully?

(still a bit more to come)