Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Day Seven 2014

I try not to make a big deal of New Year's Eve, and yet I can't help but get a little bit reflective at the end of a calendar and the start of a new one.

There are things I want to change (always), things that were amazing and gratitude-provoking in the past year (always), and disappointments in the past year, too (always).

But I honestly don't have anything I want to share with the internet tonight. I had a full day which ended with some good friends and that's enough.

It's about to turn into 2015. I will spend the first hour or so with my cat, reflecting and praying.

Happy New Year! Peace and blessings on us all!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas Day Six 2014

I just deleted another long, rambly post. It was about troubling news in the media with a side of concern for some friends' troubles and transitions.

All I really want to say on this Sixth Day of Christmas is that a part of our Christian theology of incarnation is that we, as the church, as the Body of Christ, also embody the presence of God for each other.

All I really have to say today is that we need to pray for one another and check in on one another and do what we can with our hands and feet and minds---all signs of God's gracious love.

No geese here. Just a hope that we can learn to be a little bit of Jesus for one another, bringing hope, healing, and release. In short revealing the Reign of God among us.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Day Five 2014

Fiiiiive Gooolden Riiiiiinnngs!

There are a lot of complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. I've lodged my share. I just barely participate in it myself these days.

I watch the few children in my life and I remember the giddiness of Christmas and the hope of what we might get from Santa. Figuring out that Santa shopped at Sears, their annual Wish Book catalog was left around the house, open to pertinent pages.

Christmas was such a mixed thing for me. I got some things I wanted, of course. Other things were close to what I wanted, but the off-brand version (never got a Six Million Dollar Man action figure, but had some dollar store action figure that had a name I no longer remember). Then there was the year that my parents apparently were busy and did all the Christmas shopping at the local John Deere dealership at the last minute. They had a line of toys, all modeled after the latest in tractor and other farming equipment. Granted, we played with those for years afterward, but in the moment I was somewhat crushed. These were not at all what I wanted for Christmas.

My Facebook friends list is diverse enough that I have friends who had rather privileged childhoods and speak fondly of Christmas memories and also friends who speak of "that one Christmas" when they had a gift. Singular.

If there was ever a holiday to highlight class differences, it's the secular Christmas. Rooted in the story of the Wise Men, I get it and even kind of like the idea, but that it becomes a thing that creates such starkly different childhoods among kids in the same city seems unfortunate. At best.

As noted above, I have participated in this holiday's most commercial side and there's a part of me that doesn't mind the commercial side, and I even wish I had the means to participate in it more fully. But I am of many minds about this. The Christmas Eve service at my church has become the important Christmas observance for me, but all around me, I see this other piece of the observance, the excitement over products and their accumulation. I feel outside of it and yet swimming in it, disdaining it yet wishing to participate more fully in it.

Someone today posted on Facebook that the five gold rings in the popular carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," were ring-necked pheasants, a reasonable theory given all the other birds in the first half of the song. Googling about the web, I find this theory is out there and there is also some disputing it. The earliest illustrated version of the song, in a children's book, shows jewelry, but that was still a few centuries after the earliest recorded version of the song. Who knows what the first singers meant, the first listeners understood?

And so we come to a favorite theme of mine, I suppose. Without this becoming about "the reason for the season," for there are quite possibly a number of reasons for the season we now call Christmas, I'm always mindful of how meanings change over time. Within my lifetime, personally, Christmas has become less about gifts and much more about "midnight mass"---something I knew nothing about in my rural Texas Lutheran childhood. Historically, we don't have much in the way of evidence that Christmas was even observed before the 4th Century. What did it mean then? Gift giving was a part of the pagan winter festival of Saturnalia, so just how much does gift-giving have to do with the Matthean story of Wise Men anyway?

Another friend posted on Facebook about the need for capitalism to be tempered with humility and empathy and civility (actually the friend of a friend's words---I might have chose another three or more words, but these work for me). I think these are words to hold close when thinking about things like gold and Christmas and gifts and commercialization the "reason for the season."

This was intended to be a quick paragraph or two. Well, I often say this blog is the unedited me, and my free-association got the better of me, as it often does. Here at the almost halfway point, I hope your Christmas season is joyful, and that any happiness comed from something deeper than material possession. I also hope you maybe get a little something you wanted for Christmas, too.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Day Four, Holy Innocents 2014

Random disconnected thoughts today.

Four calling birds or murdered toddler boys? On the fourth day of Christmas . . .

You will notice that the Christian calendar does not go in narrative order. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents happens after the wise men leave Bethlehem, but we don't celebrate the arrival of the wise men to Bethlehem until January 6. Don't let this confuse you.

According to the Wikipedia page for Holy Innocents, there is disagreement about whether this was a historical event. The Gospel of Matthew is the only extant piece of literature to mention it. The writer of Matthew is very concerned with fulfilling passages from the Hebrew scriptures, so he may have told this story to reference Rachel weeping for her children. The counter argument is that the Greco-Roman world practiced infanticide with some regularity, so a puppet king murdering all the boys under the age of two in a small town would not catch the attention of a general historian like Josephus.

We don't know how many boys were murdered. The story doesn't say. In a small town, how many infant boys under the age of two would there be? A dozen? A few dozen? Not that a low number lessens the horror of the situation.

If this event never happened, what would the writer be wanting to tell us with this story? If this is myth without factual basis, what should we look for? I'm not going to do a lot of exegesis here, but these things come to mind.

The Jews generally had a higher regard for the life of infants than the larger culture. Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind (or so the scholarly consensus goes), and so a basic message might have been that Herod, Hellenized Jew that he was, colluding with the Roman Empire to maintain his little bit of power as king of the Jews, was a terrible person, sinking so low as to practice infanticide like those Romans did. It may serve as a way to show the readers to what extent Herod had assimilated to the conquering culture.

There's also the Matthean concern that Jesus be seen as the new Moses, come to set his people free. Matthew is full of parallels with the Hebrew scriptures, and an escape into Egypt follows the pattern of Israelite history. The dream that come to Joseph, the father of Jesus, also parallels the dreams Joseph of the many colored coat had. 

Right off the bat, we see how dangerous Jesus is. This story is a bit of foreshadowing to the trouble Jesus would have with authorities, both secular and religious.

This is a very short episode in the Matthew gospel, so it's really about the accumulated effect of all these episodes that helps Matthew communicate to us who Jesus is---chosen of God, Anointed (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek).

But taking this episode on its own, we might think on a few things. Remember the people who are caught in the cross hairs of Empire machinations, particularly the children. We might take some time to reflect on how we assimilate to the ways of Empire to maintain our personal power. We might notice and take seriously the ways that just the appearance of Jesus on the scene threatens the status quo, the power systems. We might reflect on the ways we are threatened by Jesus.

That's what I've got for now.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Day Three, John Evangelist and Apostle 2014

There is much about the Bible that is uncertain. It is a gift.

Today, the calendars of many western church bodies recognize John, Evangelist and Apostle. To be honest, it's an idea that is recognized, more than a certain person.

There is the tradition, of course, that John, the beloved apostle of Jesus, wrote the Gospel According to John, the three Epistles of John, and Revelation. Koine Greek scholars will tell you that the Greek in Revelation is not as well written as the Greek in the Gospel and epistles, so most are pretty sure "John of Patmos" is not the same John, whatever the tradition might say. The authorship of the other pieces with "John" attached is questioned, although there seems to be likelihood that these were all products of a "Johannine Community," That is to say, there was a community that identified with someone named John, perhaps founded by the apostle, perhaps not, but used poetic language and lots of symbolism (particularly light and darkness) in their understanding of God and Jesus.

(As a side note, let me say a bit about the "Gospel of Judas," which was published a few years ago, and how that gospel had Judas being cognizant of his cosmic role in betraying Jesus. There was much talk about how Judas was really a hero, doing God's work for the salvation of the world, etc. There was also general acknowledgment that it was a gospel written later than the canonical gospels. My thoughts at the time was that this very likely didn't tell us anything about the historical Judas and I wished the conversation would turn from that aspect of the gospel Much more interesting to me was that there was a community, however small, that told this story to each other and understood Judas---and the crucifixion of Jesus---in this way. But I digress.)

There are people for whom it is very important to believe that the authorship of the gospel, the epistles, and Revelation are all from one person, the beloved disciple, John. It was, perhaps, what was taught to them by a beloved pastor or Sunday school teacher, and to have the authorship questioned is to question these beloved people in their history, the people who played foundational roles in their faith.

I sympathize with this. No one wants to learn that everything you thought you knew was wrong (Note the influence of comic book hyperbole on my writing. But again, I digress.)

One of the things I struggle with is transmitting to people who are not theologically trained how to read the Bible with reverence and spiritual insight without needing the Bible to be all the things we may have been told it was in Sunday school.

For me, the benefit of this understanding is freedom. We are free to read the Bible, to wrestle with it, to argue with it, and still find within it the Good News of the Reign of God come near.

I realize that some of what I do in this blog is what was once called "de-mythologizing" the scriptures. It's not really my intention to do that completely, as I think we need to approach the bible with a more mythological mindset. It was written in a time and place that was saturated with myth and the symbolism and slant-told-truth (a poetry reference) that myth brings us.

But myth requires interpretation and we tend to want reportage that leaves no room for interpretation. Just the facts, please.

We cannot, however, read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" as strict reportage, a piece of cut and dried fact. It is full of theology and philosophy of the first century Greco-Roman world. Is there truth to be found within this language? Certainly. But it's not the truth of "a car crash occurred on Loop 610 at 5:43pm this afternoon."

(By the way, I made that up---I don't know if there was a car crash anywhere on Loop 610 today. It's an illustration to get to a broader truth.)

This is such a bigger issue than can be covered in a blog post, but if you're the sort for whom it is important to believe everything you're beloved teachers told you in your youth, I want to gently and with as much love as possible tell you that they were doing the best they could with the information they had. We all are, and we're all wrong sometimes.

And maybe the authorship of all these Johannine pieces of literature are not from one pen, from one person. We still receive them as scripture, handed down through the ages. If you were the sort to study the history of interpretation, you'd find that the understanding of these scriptures has changed through the centuries---sometimes for the better, sometimes for horrific worse. (The Gospel of John has been cited as a source for justifying antisemitism, for example.)

That there is uncertainty in this history, for me, gives me the freedom to wrestle with what these scriptures mean for me---for us---today. We can study the way words were used in the time they were written and gain insight to what they meant to the first people to hear them, but only to a certain extent. We ultimately need to find the key to the scriptures for ourselves, for our time, for the love of the world as it is today.

No matter who wrote it, we can all benefit to ponder these words:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  [I John 4:7-8]

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Day Two, The Feast of Stephen 2014

What's on my mind this Feast of St Stephen is simple and difficult.

I'm thinking about how Jesus was killed by power plays between religious authorities and Roman government, but Stephen was stoned by angry religious authorities alone.

It may be unorthodox to not focus on the saint on his feast day, but I'm really thinking about the religious authorities, their resistance to the New Thing that Stephen was telling them about, even though he put this New Thing into the broader history of their religion.

I don't know if my religious education puts me in the category of a religious authority, but I do know that I am resistant to changes in religious thought and practice (even as there are people in the news with some regularity who say I deserve to be stoned for changes I do want, indeed changes that I represent, but that's another story).

While this has nothing to do with Stephen directly and is a few chapters before he gets stoned, I can't help but think of this passage:

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God! [Acts 5:34-29]

Gamaliel had a point and a cool head about him. He points out that some people, with as many as 400 followers, did not have lasting impact, so don't get all excited about these Jews who were saying weird things about Jesus. It'll pass, or it won't, but God will sort it out.

I'm uncomfortable with this, since I can think of a few religious movements that are lasting longer than I probably think they should. And I can think of a few that came, did their damage, and disappeared.

The point is, as a follower of a tradition that says God makes all things new, worships a God who is always working on a new creation and surprising us in our status quo, I owe it to my brothers and sisters in faith to not stone them, even only metaphorically, if they bring in some crazy new idea. Question everything, I think that's still fair instruction, but questioning shouldn't devolve into stoning.

So I remember Stephen today with the remembrance that he was part of something new and it upset the apple carts of the religious authorities, who could have been more open, or at least less violently reactionary, to something new.

May we all be found not violently reactionary.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas, Day One, 2014

It's after 2:00am on Christmas Day. I've been home for about half an hour after a very fine Christmas Eve service at St Stephen's Episcopal Church.

I have said, more than once, that I have an incarnational theology. This is the night to ponder this.

Before the service proper, our choir gave us 30 minutes of wonderful music, which I may say more about in the next day or two. When the harpist played a low note, the long string vibrating at that bass frequency, I drifted to a notion that I have about resurrection, that it's like sound, maybe even like music. We like to think that sound is immaterial, and it is, to an extent. It passes through walls like a resurrected Jesus. It will also shatter crystal or rattle the frame of a car.

The Hebrew scriptures tell us God spoke us and everything around us into being. "Let there be!"

And there was. There is.

As I listened to harp and guitar and marimba and mixed voices, I pondered how we're all just the voice of God, the vibrations of God's vocal chords, spoken, maybe sung, into existence.

Of course, we're all solid and we can't pass through walls, but then maybe that's just because the walls are the wrong frequency. Or we are. We're discordant notes, the wall and me. We don't harmonize very well. 

These are fanciful thoughts, or mythological thoughts. It's just a way to think about this existence, this incarnation, this flesh, through which we experience everything. Even "spiritual experiences" have a bodily experience. We feel it in our gut, or in our heart. We tremble or we faint. Everything is experienced in the context of being embodied. We aren't free floating elements.

At Christmas, we pause to think specifically about how God became like us, living on our frequency, sounding like the sound that clashes with walls. Or viruses. Or bullets. Or speeding, crumpling cars.

The higher notes of the harp tonight, they were so delicate and fragile, and therein lay their beauty.

We're like that, you and I. More fragile than we like to think about, so easily overpowered and stopped by louder noises all around us, but still the lyric and song of God's throat.

Let there be. And you are.

Let us sing with God this song of creation. Let us raise our voices so that walls and bullets and viruses and plane crashes and IEDs and more cannot be heard as loudly as the life we have.

Peace, good will to all. People, sing it with the angels!

Peace, good will to all!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lessons, Carols, Memories

Today was a long church day. I went to the usual 10:30am service, but it was not a Eucharist. We saved that for an afternoon visit from the bishop, so the morning service was a "lessons and carols" service. Lots of singing, congregationally and chorally, I'm generally an all-Eucharist, all the time kinda guy, but this morning's lessons and carols service was full of many memories.

I saw the text for this piece in the bulletin, to be sung by the choir. I think I've heard a different tune with this text and so was cautiously excited to see it there. Luckily, it was the tune I knew.
I first heard this piece when I was in seminary, 20 years ago. I think I was there during a bit of a golden era for the choir. There were some amazing voices in it and so I was able to blend in and sound not half bad. Our choir director, Russell Shulz, was so great with us, pushing us and making us better. It was my primary creative expression during seminary (with the exception of the occasional liturgical dance) and I loved the people I breathed with to make beautiful music like this.

Of course, I also thought of friends like Jeff, Pat, and Kathy, all of them no longer singing in any earthly choir. Bittersweet, to be sure, but the sweetness was worth the loss. I trust I will sing with them again someday.

And to speak on the text for just a second---it's a lovely twist to take what we've traditionally said was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil---an apple tree---and redeem it as a metaphor for Jesus himself.

I'm weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest awhile
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

+ + + + +

We sang, congregationally, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus." It is one of those moments of culture shock from joining a new congregation and a new denomination. They don't always use the "right" tune for the hymns you love. It's fine, the tune that's in Hymnal 1982 is a fine tune, but lacking for me. If you want to know the tune I know and can sing with more gusto, you should turn in the Lutheran Book of Worship, which you no doubt have at hand, to hymn #30. I just did and sang it for myself. Sometimes we have to meet our own needs, particularly the ones steeped in nostalgia. 

I couldn't find a YouTube version I liked enough to post, however. Search at your own peril. 

+ + + + +

My Episcopalian family can rock "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People." The tune is correct, anyway, and the tempo was perfect. It needs dancing, but, well, neither Lutherans nor Episcopalians are all that keen on that expression of worship, so whatevs. I still grooved on it. It's also a great paraphrase of Isaiah 40

This video probably isn't the best version of it to be found, but it has the organ and bongo combo that works better that you'd want to imagine. If only there were dancing! 

+ + + + +

One of the lessons was Isaiah 6:1-11. It's the calling of Isaiah to the role of prophet. He protests, "I am a man of unclean lips!" Boy did that hit home. The last couple of weeks has had me wondering about what kind of hubris does it take to keep a blog anyway? That God still calls Isaiah somewhat encourages me to keep at this, stumbling, trying to figure out what God would have me say through all this typing I do. My "unclean typing" maybe will serve something someday somewhere.

Obviously, this rather light-hearted post has nothing to do with that tonight. But it was something I heard in today's lessons. 

+ + + + +

Another danceable hymn is "People Look East." Of course, we didn't dance it. Well, I did a little bit where I stood in my pew. I do wonder if I would let loose if people would join in or if I'd be escorted out. The world may never know. 

Although I've sung this plenty of times in Lutheran contexts, my earliest memory of it was at seminary, which was an Episcopal campus, so I guess it's fitting that several of these carols sung at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church bring to mind seminary days. 

My first encounter with this one came in the form of, I believe, a quartet of Episcopalian students, all men as I recall, turning east at the appropriate moments and other bits of silliness. It was almost like a dance, I guess, so no wonder it made an impression on me. 

Here's some Presbyterians singing it. If nothing else, it proves the Presbys don't dance, either. 

+ + + + +

Another lesson was Zephaniah 3:14-18. The thing this brought to mind was when I was in college and writing songs with my best friend, Dean. I did lyrics and Dean did the music. I did a paraphrase of this. I seem to remember taking a challenge to write a lyric based on whatever I opened the Bible to. Or using something from a book that no one really talked about much. Anyway, all I remember was that it started with "Sing and shout! Rejoice everyone!" It had some odd rhythms and we somehow tricked our former high school choir director to sing it in church one Sunday. 

I haven't seriously tried to write a song in a very long time. That's probably okay. 

+ + + + +

The second half of Luke, chapter 1, was read. A friend posted to Facebook this evening, wondering how people read Mary's song and not expect disruptions and such from God? How do they read the upside down world of Mary's praise and still hold "conservative values" as a desirable thing? 

Well, there is that, isn't there? 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.  

Do bankers and Wall Streeters read this as only allegorical and not pertaining to them? Well, it's worth remembering that to a large population of this planet, I'm one of those powerful and rich, too. But if nothing else, it should bring about some sort of humility in claiming material wealth as blessings, no? 

That little virgin had some troubling things to sing. I admit, I don't know completely what to do with her. 

+ + + + +

Those are my main thoughts this last Sunday of Advent, 2014. The rest of the day was fine, too. I've been in a terribly grumpy mood of late. This day was filled with good music, good friends, and good memories evoked. The news has been full of terrible things of late, things to be taken seriously and not to be ignored. 

But was a blessing to be reminded that some of the best things in the world are not reported by news sites, but can be found in breathing prayers and songs and less serious things with friends (even despite the lack of dancing). 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Anyway, Rejoice

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [I Thessalonians 5:16-18]

This is a blog of obligation. I wanted to write something for every Sunday in advent, and I even had some ideas, but it's been a rough weekend and I'm not feeling like following through.

But I'm confronted with the above verse from this morning. Circumstances aren't that important in the grand scheme of things.

So, anyway, rejoice.

It's that Sunday in advent, actually. Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of advent. We rejoice especially this day as we're halfway to Christmas and the Lord's coming. My priest this morning told us that Paul wrote the above to the Thessalonians because they were expecting the return of Jesus immediately, but it was getting to be a long wait and some people were dying and what did that mean? Paul was basically saying, Jesus will take care of that and it's not for you to be anxious about.

So, anyway, rejoice.

I made a note of something else my priest said. Discernment brings conflict. She's referring to decisions we need to make as a congregation and how we're not going to agree, and cited historical incidents in the life of this congregation of other such moments of discernment. I also heard it personally, as a warning and lesson about some things I'm trying to discern (always trying to discern) and how I feel more combative than usual. I'm seldom combative. My default setting is to avoid conflict. I don't know what this means. Discernment goes on.

So, anyway, rejoice.

I've been asked to do something I don't want to do, potentially a big commitment. It's a good and maybe even necessary thing to be done, but it makes my stomach hurt. Also, I'm in conflict with someone I love very much. I don't feel very good about myself.

So, anyway, rejoice.

Moods come and go. Rejoicing is the work before us. Sundays, we do liturgy---the work of the people. But always, we have before us rejoicing and prayer and thanksgiving. It's our daily work. Some days, the work goes better than others.

So, anyway, rejoice.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Today, we heard from Isaiah 40 and the appropriation of it by John the Baptizer.

It's a mixed message to my eye. Prepare the way of the LORD, to which we might reply "Yes, come, Lord Jesus." Then there is all this talk of people being grass, withering away in a day.

Well, the Bible isn't the book if you want soft-pedaled encouragement.

Yet, Isaiah 40 starts with the words, "Comfort, O comfort my people." I tend to latch onto those words, some of my favorite in all scripture. The hard stuff was hard (even double than you deserved!) but now God calls to us, tenderly.

Isaiah was talking about the end of exile. John used the same words to talk about the coming of Jesus. Long waiting was over, both proclaimed.

Both were proclaiming the end of the wait to the latest generation of waiters. A lot of grass had withered away in the waiting.

I tend to be in the group of people who, while waiting, call out with the psalmist, "How long?"

We wait on the coming of the Lord, for the word of comfort, for the release even as we feel the withering coming on in our bones. Yes, we wait.

But with John, we also prepare. We smooth out some rough spots, make a road easier to travel. In reading the Isaiah passage today, I realized the English translation doesn't really make it clear if the "way of the LORD" is for the LORD's traveling or for our traveling. Perhaps it's clearer in the Hebrew, but I'm pretty sure we're always expecting that it's a road for God's approach. Tonight, I'm wondering if it's preparation for weary travelers to have easier access to the "glory of the LORD."

In this way, it seems to me, we are all, with John, forerunners for a meeting with God.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus, who claim some encounter with the Good News, are likewise called to lead, I think. Or that's what's on my mind tonight. In what ways do I serve God by making a rough patch smoother? In what ways do I go before Jesus (can a follower of Jesus go before Jesus? ah, language and its tensions!) and prepare the way for a weary traveler to meet my Lord?

Perhaps this is not something we can know. This morning we also heard these words from 2 Peter: " . . . that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." Waiting and fulfillment are not on our schedule, but the promise is there and anyway keep about the work of preparing a way for a meeting between God and people we may never know.

Comfort is not out of reach.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Once Again, the Imago Dei

EDIT: I wrote and posted this yesterday in a bit of a rush of anger and immediacy. In a cooler head, it's clear I'm addressing white people, and the language is definitely about black people, which can become objectifying. Still, I'll let it stand as another piece of me struggling with racism and my own assumptions and privilege. -neo

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. [Ecclesiastes 4:1]

As a boy, I was taught to be afraid of the black boys at school. Not relentlessly, not in even particularly forcefully or in relentlessly fear-inducing ways. But the lesson was there. 

I know I'm not alone. 

I know this lesson is costing the lives of black boys and men and the news is full of it lately, and the lives are lost without consequence to the takers. 

Today, it was decided that there was no need to prosecute a a NY police officer for using lethal force against an asthmatic who couldn't breath. 

I've written before: stop being afraid of each other. 

If you've read many of these posts at all, you know how central the Imago Dei---the Image of God in which we all are made---is to my theology. 

I know this little blog just isn't going to change the world and I know that anything more that I have to say on it is not going help. 

Still . . . it's what I have in this minute. Stop being afraid of one another. Search each other for the Image of God. 

Here, I did a Google image search on "groups of black men." Here's a screen shot to help you. Look at these men (and some boys) and pray over each face, each body: Here is the Image of God, here is God's own child and worthy of respect and honor. I will no longer default to fear when I meet the Image of God.

It feels so weak to the the enormity of the problem. But do it.

 (I do not know any of the men in this picture or even the source of any of the pictures. If the owner of any of these pictures would like this removed, please let me know at neilellisorts at yahoo dot com and I will comply immediately. I simply did not want to speak in the abstract this time. Also, to see a larger version of the image, you can click it and it will expand.) 

Sunday, November 30, 2014


 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ [Mark 13:32-37]

It was impossible for me to hear this passage this morning in church without thinking about the current hashtag being used in social media, #staywoke. I'm not always savvy about how and where these things begin, but it appears to be in reference to the debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, and how the shooting of Michael Brown wakes us up again. It is an imperative to not fall asleep again, a cry about the the importance of vigilance. (It has also been misused and abused by some would-be wits out there, but if you look it up on Twitter, just be aware that some people are not on board with this. I started to say some people need to be ignored, but that's sort of like falling asleep again, no?)

It's the first Sunday in Advent, the season of watching, waiting, expecting, dreading . . . We like to think of it as the season preparing us for the baby Jesus, meek and mild, but we also like to fool ourselves. Yes, we are waiting for our Savior. Yes, we are waiting for the Christ to come and set us free. We don't do very well with expecting the Christ to also set free those other people over there, the ones we maybe don't like so much or maybe we just don't think deserve to be free as much as we deserve to be free.

The dreadful thing about this Christ is that there is no freedom in him until all are free.

I admit, I have a hard time even imagining what that could possibly mean or look like, but I believe it is true. And while I can probably run down a few ways that I am bound and chained and restricted, stepping outside of my circumstance now and then I find there are surprising ways that other people are chained, ways that other people are restricted that I've never imagined.

Worse, there are ways that others are bound that benefits me.

The Reign of God breaks in when that system is broken.

Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook, "All change is perceived as loss." I clicked "like" and pondered it longer than most Facebook status updates. The Reign of God breaking into the world, into our systems and our social norms, will find some people losing. Not lost, but losing in ways that right now probably seem unlikely and afterwards inconsequential. Power, wealth, status . . . some will lose these things when the Reign of God breaks in. But none will be lost.

The thing about the Reign of God, I've come to believe over the years, is that it is not a one-time, end-times sort of scenario. It is happening right now, right here. We have to repent of our power-weatlh-status hunger and see the abundance that we all can share. We have to stay awake and see the ways the humble power of the Incarnate God moves among us. We have to stay awake, #staywoke, to see where our loss is our salvation, and the salvation of others.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 2014

Psalm 95
1 O come, let us sing to the Lord;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

I find it a somber Thanksgiving Day, really. The news out of Ferguson, Missouri, and the resultant conversations and non-conversations have left me in something of a lamenting mood more than a thanksgiving mood.

And so I am thankful I have been called to a religion that has a deep tradition for both.

In a bit, I'll be picked up ant taken to some friends' home, where I'll eat and be thankful for them, and for the abundance in my life they are and more broadly represent.

And I do have an abundant life.

Navigating the world of abundant blessings and deep sadness is, it seems to me, today, a good definition for a life of faith.

May your thanksgivings be many, your laments few, and may both move you into the world.

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014


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

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 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 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


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. 

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."

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.


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!  

Friday, April 18, 2014

Just Another State Execution

What else do you say?

Jesus wasn't the first or the last person to die on the cross. It was a Roman Empire way of dying. It was a non-citizen way of dying.

Religious and secular power had a part in his execution---but he's hardly the first or last to lay claim to that combination, either.

At Passover, a child asks: "why is this night different from all other nights?"

We Christians might ask: "why is this execution different from all the other executions?"

We'd do well to remember that it isn't, that any execution is a sad, painful, shameful way to die.

Can God redeem even this? 

  + + +

I would invite you to click here for a story about an art piece that I find appropriate for entering the scandal of the cross. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Something about friends and ritual and prayers and thanksgiving. Bread and wine and dirty feet washed clean by your master, your servant. Something about humility and betrayal and the order of things.

Something about loving like Jesus the night before he dies.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I just got out of a lecture by Doran Larson, a professor at Hamilton College (the lecture was at the University of Houston-Downtwon). He is promoting a new initiative, the American Prison Writing Archive. He has edited and published a book of prison writings, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America.

I purchased his book afterward and so I have no idea what I have in my hands now. He said the writings are a chronicle of life inside the largest prison system in the world, a system that has a population larger than Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States (hence the title of the book). This is not a book about innocence, but about human suffering. It is also, as he said, a chance for prisoners to be seen as something other than their crime.

It's a true and terrible thing that we tend to define people by the worse thing they ever did.

Believing in grace, I need these stories to remind me of the humanity behind every awful action we're capable of perpetrating. Perhaps you do, too.

The online archive is a site for the essays that couldn't fit in the book. As it's brand new, they're hoping for volunteers from across the nation to help transcribe the scanned essays, so the essays are searchable. Not that I need one more thing to do, but I hope I'll be able to help do at least a handful of essays. If you're interested, you might want to contact Dr. Larson, which you can do from the American Prison Writing Archive site.

This being Holy Week, of course, I flashed upon the arrest of Jesus---although sadly his incarceration was too brief for him to take up pen and write anything. But Paul did, when he was incarcerated. There are others. Last century saw some significant writings from the incarcerated Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a grand tradition among Christians (and other relgions) for writing from prison.

Of course, we tend to think of all those men as innocent. Again, this book is not a book of innocence, but of suffering. The American prison industry is huge, larger than any other nation on earth, much larger than other nations we tend to think of as being under a police state.

And we treat our prisoners poorly. The other reason Dr. Larson named this book Fourth City is because he said there was, across the nation, a similar culture exposed in each letter, a language with it's own idioms, an internal logic for how to move through the culture. Our prison system is, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate urban sprawl, spread sea to shining sea, a city of corruption and violence.

Did you know prison officers have a lie expectency of 59 years? They die young not from violence, but from hypertension and related disease. It's not only the prisoners who suffer.

It seemed fitting to hear this lecture on the Wednesday of Holy Week. It seemed fitting I pass a tiny bit of it on to you.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Breaking Into the Cycle

Jesus asks us to turn around, turn away from the patterns of the powers that be. It feels like it gets harder to do. We live in a world where it's increasinly hard to buy a shirt or shoes and know for certain that no one was exploited in the transaction. Slavery is alive and well, whether as domestic workers held hostage for lack of citizenship or sex workers shuttled about to gratify anyone with the cash and the urges no one taught them to control. We eat what we want and what we want is often junk.

And we enter these scenes, wearing the work of corporations-who-are-people, thinking we're free, thinking . . . someone has to do the dirty work . . .

This is the cycle and pattern and web of our sin.

Speaking out against these powers are what got Jesus killed. I'm certain of it. And those of use who have never been so much as threatened . . . perhaps we're complicit . . .