Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ask Seek Knock and Vocation

Last week, a friend sent me an email with a question about the "ask, seek, knock" passage in the Bible (it appears in Matthew 7 and Luke 11, if you want to look it up real quick). Her question revolved around someone telling her that if she didn't receive what she asked for she didn't ask for the right thing, which led to some questions about some professional pursuits of hers. 
I hadn't realized, when I was answering her yesterday, that today's assigned Gospel reading was the Luke 11 version of the saying.That coincidence prompted me to look at what I sent my friend. What follows is an edited version of my answer to her:

First, I think a lot of first world Christians make the mistake of taking a verse or two of the Bible and then misapplying it. We might be misapplying it because we're out of a cultural context or we might not be reading enough text around the verse and expect the verse to apply to whatever we want it to apply to on it's own. There are sometimes socio-economic reasons for the misapplication, too.

I think this "ask, seek, knock" verse is one of those verses that gets misapplied for all those reasons. This passage appears only in Matthew and Luke.

In the Matthew account, it is part of the extended Sermon on the Mount, which includes the beatitudes and the Lord's prayer. Luke places this teaching right after teaching the Lord's prayer. In both cases, We're seeing Jesus in his usual mode of discussing the present-and-coming Reign (Kingdom) of God (as the Lord's Prayer asks for the Kingdom to come), while Luke's concern for the Holy spirit is also evident. (" . . . how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.")

So I'm not sure Jesus it talking about asking for a career or a car or a boyfriend, no matter what honorable reasons we might give God for asking for those things. ("Oh God, if only I had a car, just think of all the ways I could better serve you and the community!") I think we have here Jesus talking more about asking, seeking, knocking to see the Reign of God, where the poor are blessed, the mournful are comforted, the naked are clothed, and we receive our daily bread.

I understand how we get confused. The parable Jesus tells just before the ask-seek-knock passage (in the Luke account) is about a neighbor who bangs on the door in the middle of night, asking to borrow some bread for unexpected guests. The persistence of the neighbor is rewarded, eventually. And maybe there's something to that for those of us wanting a particular career---persistence not only in asking for it but also working for it.

But one commentator I read also points out that while we often associate God with the person who has already gone to bed for the night, Jesus is really saying that God is at least as good as the one disturbed in sleep and better. In the context of Jesus' larger message, however, I'm led to think that Jesus is really talking about seeking God's Reign. Ask to see God's reign, seek it out, knock on the door of God's Kingdom and we see it. Be persistent in the desire for the Holy Spirit, and God will not deny us.

But asking for something else, not getting it, and then thinking it's some kind of fault on behalf of the asker . . . well, it's not a wrong assumption, I guess, because the asker is seeking for something Jesus never promised.

It's also a little bit like treating God like Santa Claus. If we ask and receive, we were good, if we ask and didn't receive, we were naughty? It's God as magician and praying/asking correctly as incantation. A good number of American Christians seem to believe in this, I don't.

On the other side of the question, however, is the question of vocation or calling. If I'm called to be a ________, why aren't I more successful at it?

I think I can only talk about this from my personal experience.

I have an entry in my journals, from 1985, where I declared (in rather pious terms) that I felt the calling to be a performer and that this was a calling from God. Over the years, I'd let that go, not finding a way to pursue it in the way I felt called to. Realizing I was gay, I didn't believe I could pursue "Christian theater" (yeah, that was an interest at the time) and because performance is so dang expensive to produce, I turned to something else I'm fairly good at: writing. I think writing is, indeed, part of my calling, but for several years, I focused on that exclusively. I reconnected with performing in grad school, but even then I didn't take it seriously.

To be honest, both writing and performing have sometimes seemed like really frivolous callings to me. Mother Teresa had a serious calling. I felt like I didn't. But finding that journal entry from 1985 again, it hit me and hit hard. Well, shit, that's still it.

So I've put more energy into performing the last three years. It's difficult, it's full of hit and miss, I don't make a living at it. I'm also the most content I've been in a long time.

I think the thing about vocation is that we think that if God is calling us to something, we'll be successful. Of course, that depends upon definitions of "success." What I've come to realize is that following God will not necessarily make us successful in any kind of terms that includes a nice house with a swimming pool. I mean, it may, but that's not the point. I think we get confused about following our calling whenever we forget that to follow Jesus is to follow someone who ended up on a cross. On top of that, several of his first followers also ended up on a cross or were beheaded or fed to lions or in other unwelcome situations. The point of following a call isn't success. The point is the following. The following, the journey, whatever you want to call it, is the reward.

Which is all probably cold comfort, but I really believe it. The peace I've had since giving up making excuses for why I'm not performing seems like some sort of confirmation. Not that there aren't obstacles and frustrations and real fear and failure. I suspect it takes an awful lot of peace to be able to follow Jesus into a confrontation with lions.

So, whatever you're called to. follow that calling, recognizing the obstacles and dangers therein. Follow the calling with an eye and ear turned toward why you've been called to this task. (My own calling is currently being tested and refined by this). Do what you have to do to keep living indoors and eating and follow the vocation. I promise no bed of roses, but I think you'll find some sort of peace and maybe even some sort of success in that following.

Just be ready to have all your definitions of success turned upside down.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

I Don't Want to Talk About Abortion

Let's start here: I'm a gay man. I will never be pregnant, nor will I ever cause a pregnancy. For this reason, I feel it necessary to tread lightly on a subject like abortion. An unplanned pregnancy is not something that will have direct impact on me.

Still, much is being said about abortion and most of it seems overstated, stated in terms that suggests that one answer fits all lives, or is based purely upon ideals and wishful thinking. And since so many of the people talking about it are men, who might be affected by an unplanned pregnancy but don't bear the physical consequences of it, I find the urge to add my voice. I do presume to speak for anyone, but hope I speak in solidarity and compassion with some. Not everyone will agree. Obviously.

A link that has been passed around on Facebook actually covers a good deal of what I would say, so I'll start with pointing you to this blog by Eric Folkerth.

The rest are my rambles, in no particular order.

Abortion is a Serious Matter

I do not hold with people who treat abortion as an inconsequential thing. My limited experience shows that women who find themselves in the situation of considering one understand this, but I also understand that some are a bit more cavalier about it. I think it is a serious matter to be considered carefully.

I say this not to induce guilt one way or the other, but to recognize one thing: Sex and sexuality are powerful. Even in non-procreative circumstances, I think it is full of vulnerabilities and emotional consequences. That sex can also cause a new combination of genetic material to come into being, this is mysterious and awesome and full of wonder.

At the same time, the fact that this happens is also just a matter of science, and often accidental, even when two people are trying to conceive. It happens every day and is ordinary and often full of flaws. It is fragile and many, many embryos "die" before the end of the first trimester.

I think we begin to make a fetish of the embryo when we treat it as something to be protected at all costs. It is not a person. It has potential to become a person, yes, but I cannot see how we can count an embryo as a person.

So somewhere between an accident of science and an occasion of mystery, there is a big room full of careful consideration. I do not advocate for capricious choosing of abortion. Neither do I think choosing one is murder.

The Bible is Not Clear on the Subject

Pastor Folkerth covers this pretty well. What I would say further is that the writers of the Bible, in a pre-scientific age, and had different notions of what even caused a pregnancy, much less when life began.

For one thing, so much depended upon the man. If you read the sexual prohibitions in the Bible, you will see things against a man "spilling his seed." That's because the best "science" of the day assumed that a man carried the seed for new life in his semen, and that a woman was merely the field in which he planted it---hence all the talk of a woman being "barren," an agricultural term for a field that could not produce good crops. It was assumed that that the "seed" was good. They had no way of knowing that semen actually contained numerous little swimming "seeds"---or not.

In that worldview, it was all about protecting the semen and "spilling" it (via either masturbation or "pulling out" before ejaculation) was tantamount to wasting heirs or descendents. This why the Roman Catholic church still has prohibitions against masturbation and condoms.

So, if we really wanted to have Biblical, pre-birth, "life protecting" legislation, we'd be focusing a whole lot more on men and their semen.

Otherwise, what Pastor Folkerth says about the "breath of life" is what I understand, too. I'll also back up his comment that saying life begins at birth is also problematic. What I would add is that part of living as a religious person is accepting some ambiguity about things. These things are not either/or.

Laws Restricting Abortion Mostly Affect the Poor

I think I can state this simply: A rich and powerful woman---or the mistress of a rich and powerful man---will always have access to safe abortion. Always have.

This is why I've said that if legislation is not a "war on women," it is certainly part of a war on the poor.

I'll leave that to be somewhat self-evident.

Women Get Pregnant in Many Awful Circumstances

I get the impression that most of the "pro-life" people think that women are just out having fun, getting pregnant, and not wanting the responsibility that goes with their actions. Even when I listen to women who are advocating for stricter abortion laws or abortion prohibition seem to be very far removed from situations like these:

Women are raped. Women can get pregnant via rape (which seems ludicrous to say, but apparently you have to say it). Carrying a pregnancy to term does not redeem the rape. Neither does an abortion. The rape remains a traumatic, life-altering event. Whether choosing to terminate or carry to term a pregnancy conceived in rape, the choice is fraught with many landmines, many laid in the very specific circumstances of a woman's life. How anyone can say that a woman who is pregnant under this circumstance must give birth is insensitive at best. A woman may, in fact, have the emotional and personality traits and support system in place to carry such a pregnancy to term. But however a women chooses, my immediate compassion is with the woman making the decision, not the embryo that some would place as more important.

Girls are forced into situations way beyond their control. There is such a thing as "survival sex." This may take form in prostitution, but it may also be just what a girl (or woman) has to endure to keep any hope of surviving to something beyond her current life. Homeless girls, poor women, women and girls who are geographically or emotionally cut off from protection . . . Is there no compassion for their choice to not want to bring a child into their situation?

Also, men have a history of violence. Not all men, of course, and there are any number of men who will and have stood by the women they've gotten pregnant. But there are also men who don't want to be a father and will do things like punch a woman repeatedly in the uterus until she miscarries---or worse. I'd much rather a woman trapped with a violent man (for whatever social, emotional, economic reason she may be trapped) to have the option of sneaking away to a clinic before he learns she's pregnant.

In short, we have to stop imagining unwanted pregnancies in situations where a heartwarming solution can be had. The world isn't that friendly. We've somehow gotten to the place where some people feel more protective of an embryo than of the fully formed person carrying it. It's easy to transfer all our happiness for our friends or ourselves over a pregnancy that we want, it's easy to think that because you wanted a baby everyone does, it's easy to think that "everything will work out fine" because it did for you or someone you know----but for this kind of thinking I have two words: Stop it. We have to look at real situations, real lives, in short, reality. We have to stop guilt-tripping women into decisions because of our ideals or wishes.

Men Need to Take More Responsiblity

I don't know how this can happen, and I'm certain it's not through legislation. But all those Facebook memes about stop telling girls to not get raped and start telling boys not to rape? That sort of thing is a good place to start.

We need to cultivate a society where sexual experience is not the mark of manhood, where talking (or worse, forcing) a woman (or another man for the gay men out there) into sex is not some sign of masculine prowess, where fatherhood is treated as some kind of achievement. Because sexual experience just makes you sexually experienced, talking someone into doing something they don't want just makes you a bully, and paternity, despite some individuals' specific experience, is remarkably easy to achieve.

I've toyed with all kinds of ideas for how to legislate male reproductive abilities in a way that corresponds to legislation that legislates women's reproductive choices. So far, I have nothing. But the fact that men have the "power" to procreate without the physical wear and tear (and thanks to modern medicine, we've forgotten just how dangerous pregnancy can be for a woman---read some history on mortality rates for women giving birth even a century ago), without the financial burden of medical care, often without the financial burden of caring for a growing child (despite laws in place to hold men accountable through child support payments).

I honestly don't know the answer to this problem. Other than to say to my heterosexual counterparts: Cultivate some responsibility already! (And those of you who have---you know who  you are---thank you. You are the real men of the world.)

I'm sure there's more to be said---the internet is full of people saying it. And I don't like talking about it.

But to sum up: Have more compassion for the person---the woman---who is fully formed and in crisis than for an embryo. I'm not pro-abortion. I recognize it's sometimes misused (as when parents choose to abort because they learn their embryo or fetus is the "wrong" sex---these stories particularly trouble me). But it is not a one-size fits all situation. And I'm convinced it is not the same as murder.

But let's keep the procedure available and safe for those who find it to be the best choice for their situation. And love the women, no matter what. Because, no matter what, their decision---either decision----will be with them a very long time.