Thursday, December 31, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Seven

Here, as we begin the second half of Christmastide, we're met with the changing of the calendar.

How are you doing with your New Year's resolutions?

Honestly,  I don't put much stock in making them, myself. It's a bit of a joke---no one expects anyone to keep them. No one seems to really expect anyone to lose weight, watch less television, eat more vegetables, clean the bathtub . . .

But there is the pull of a new year, it seems to me. At least on me. I want to have something to say about the turning of the year, the fresh start it supposedly presents. I find myself wanting to claim some agency in how the next year will go. Foolishness or determination? (Not that these are mutually exclusive categories . . . )

Earlier today, I went to my oldest journals to see what I might have resolved in years past. I only made it as far a January 1, 1986. (30 years ago!) In one sense, it was disheartening just how little I've changed in 3 decades. There were things in that entry that I could say today (although I'm a better writer with a more subtle understanding of God's place in such things---I cringe at the piety in my earliest journals). I can, and a little bit do, read this entry as a sign of just how little progress I've made in a lifetime.

On the other hand, it's a reminder that there are some core hopes and dreams in my being that remain to this day.

I hesitate to get too specific too publicly. It quickly gets personal. It also can appear naive and easily ridiculed. To me honest, reading that 30 year old journal has left me feeling a little tender and I'm not quite ready to be open and vulnerable about it. (Anyone who knows me or has even noticed my blogs wouldn't me surprised.)

That journal entry was also written about 10 years before I reconciled my faith and sexuality. There are real ways that coming out derailed some of those hopes and dreams. There are ways that, had I been straight or resolved to remain closeted, I wouldn't have set those dreams aside for a time. (There are also ways that redirecting those desires also strengthened my skills---so the God's work of redemption is present even in the derailment.) 

Here, in the middle of Christmastide, I'm left to think about the ways I am, myself, certain things incarnate. There are longings that go to the marrow of my bones. They are  not completely unfulfilled, either, but they still stir. I have more to do.

I don't know how it is for you. Some of you may be nodding your head along with these words. Some of you may have no earthly idea what I'm on about.

Here are resolutions, however, that I believe will always hold true, will always need repeating, will always be met with failure and will always be worth picking up at any time.

I resolve to be more open, more loving, more gentle, in the imitation of who I understand Christ to be.

I resolve to open my eyes wider, to see and experience the Image of God in the people I meet. Yes, even those people doing those things.

I resolve to be more courageous, to do the difficult thing. (Being gay remains a barrier. Sometimes, so does being a Christian. Somehow, I need to make this be less so.)

I resolve to set more specific goals and follow better priorities.

These all tie in neatly, of course, with the unspoken specifics. It's what I have today.

So long, 2015. Come along, 2016.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Six

Here, in the middle of Christmastide, I find my thoughts turning to serious questions, spurred in some part by concerns I read from LGBT Christians online.

What do you do if you just plain don't want to be gay?

I wonder if this might not be a more pertinent question for those of us who are white and male. A while back, I came across a journal entry from 20 years ago wherein I related an incident at a worship service. I was newly out, not long out of seminary, not pursuing a church career of any kind. One of the worship leaders, to whom I was out, asked if I would be willing to do something or other in the service. He then joked, "I don't know of any rule that would bar you from doing that."

It was a harmless joke and not on me, but it struck me enough to journal about it. It brought home, in a real way, how my coming out was going to change my life. For the first time, there would be barriers to goals. As a white male, I'd never been seriously told I couldn't do anything short of giving birth.

Recently, in talking to my spiritual director, I confessed that I couldn't precisely say I was glad I was gay. This was in the context of my prayer life. The last time I'd been deeply, passionately in prayer was over 20 years ago, when I was deeply, passionately praying to have these desires taken from me. When, in the depths of those prayers, I felt the Spirit turn my prayers around on me and reveal to me that being gay was not an issue with God, I felt immense relief. I could stop that struggle! I could stop that particular wrestling and get on with my life! It was a great release to find I didn't have to somehow stop finding men emotionally and sexually attractive.

But was I glad to be gay? I admitted to my spiritual director that I didn't know if I could say that. Furthermore, having the most deeply passionate prayer I'd ever prayed essentially denied has left me a little uncertain about how to pray ever since. It's not that I don't pray at all, of course, but nothing has ever come close to the focus and energy I put into those prayers to be "released" from my "homosexual tendencies."

For some people, discovering they're gay is not only about finding freedom (there is that!) and fulfillment isn't always found in joining the Pride Parade (even if those are fun!). For some people, discovering we're gay alters our deepest hopes and dreams.

At the end of my seminary career, I knew I didn't want to pastor a church. Everything about that feels like it would eat me up. It would a self-destructive career path. At the same time, until I came out, I thought there might be other church careers for me. Coming out made those look impossible without staying deep in the closet. I met a few gay clergy and other church professionals and their lives looked like something I could not do.

So I've spent the last 20 years trying to be "secular" in my career goals. It has not been what you would call fulfilling and I was just telling the priest at my church that something still feels unfulfilled in the area of vocation. Options have opened up greatly in recent years for LGBT folk in church work, but now I have an age barrier. I'm not sure what the near future is going to hold for me.

Other people, I've discovered, have different disappointments. Any aspirations I entertained for marriage and family were mostly desires to make my parents happy. For other people, I discover, this is an enormous grief in their lives. The desire for a marriage and biological children had been a big part of what some gay folk had pictured for their adult life. For us in the United States, gay marriage may be possible, and adoption is becoming more common, but this does not fulfill some folk in the way that . . .

Well, here's what I suspect some are grieving. It's the desire to have a "normal" life. Let's face it, heterosexual folk get to marry, have children, and there's next to no barrier to it for them. At least that's what it looks like from outside that apparent normality.

Of course, some heterosexual marriages are opposed by family and society, whether it's for crossing class or racial lines or because of some other concern within the families. Of course, some heterosexual marriages do not produce biological children. Of course, there are any number of barriers to "normal" in anyone's life. I've spoken to more than one married person who "had it all" and expressed deep, deep loneliness in it all.

That's not always easy to see when you're fantasizing about an idealized life. In our fantasies, the white picket fence never has peeling paint.

I have nothing to offer but my own experience in these things. When I came out, came to realize God was not condemning me because I had crushes on men rather than women, my questions about life changed. Instead of "how do I stop being attracted to men," I realized the question could be, "if this is the circumstance of my life, how do I live faithfully?"

Given these circumstances, how do I live faithfully? This question is not only about faithfulness to God, but also the the community in which I find myself. It's not a simple question with simple answers. I have answered it with more than one failure.

Am I happy I'm gay? I don't find that a useful question. I'm content with being gay. Despite feeling a few ways that being gay has derailed my life, I'm content that this is my way of being in the world and it even opens up the world for me in some ways. It has certainly been a way into recognizing how other minorities move in the world. Being gay has been my doorway into compassion and empathy.

Would I be happier straight? I find it impossible to answer, of course. I've known enough unhappy straight people to know there are no guarantees, even when you fit the dominant paradigm.

Beloved of God, whatever your sexuality, gender, or race, all you who have heard the call of Jesus on your lives and want to live faithfully, let us turn away---repent!---of these fantasies of what we'd rather have in our lives. Let us instead look to the incarnate reality of our lives and work with God in where our gifts and skills might better reveal the Reign of God at hand.

Jesus was not born into any ideal or even "normal" reality. Neither are we. All the same, let us look for the faithful way forward.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Five

What do you do when you don't get the true love, much less the five gold rings?

This is, more or less, the question that prompted me to blog this Christmastide on queer perspectives. I keep coming across LGBT folk who are single and miserable about it, to the point of depression and self-destructive thoughts.

I suppose I know something of these thoughts, although mostly through a haze of memory. After I came out at the age of 31, I went through a pining period. I longed for a partner. I did personal ads in the paper (as one did at that time) and tried meeting men in social groups. Mostly, I was met with disappointment, either in the men I met or in the disinterest some men showed in me. Some of this was quite painful and a few tears were spilled along the way. A few years into this, I came to realize that I was putting my own life on hold, somehow thinking that I couldn't make my life until I had someone to make it with me. I was afraid to make any choices for fear that it would somehow lead to not leaving room for Mr. Right. I realized this was a particular kind of nonsense and started doing things like applying for grad school and making other forward-moving plans. Eventually, I began to wonder if I actually wanted to find Mr. Right, since I began to find other things more important to attend to than dating. Where I am now is that I lead a fairly contented single life. Occasionally, I run across someone I'm interested in---and then I'm Very Interested. But this seems to happen about once every five years so unless one of these men I'm Very Interested in finally returns the interest (so far, no go), it would seem I'm not likely to end up in a marriage anytime soon. More importantly, I'm not filled with dread at the idea of continuing on alone.

But that's me.

What do I have to say to people who are filled with dread with the idea of continuing on alone?

Beloved of God, I have a couple of things to say, one of warning, one of encouragement.

First the warning: Beware of making anything in life an idol. This isn't only about relationships. It's about career, about lifestyle goals, about accomplishments at the gym----anything.

Let me try saying it another way: Life has multiple disappointments. They'll come in many guises. I'll relate one of mine.

Had I been born in another place besides rural Texas, I might have been a dancer. I had no idea I had an interest in dance, other than my occasional rapt attention to a PBS special I might stumble upon. I do remember watching some things on TV that involved dance, whether more show-dance as on a variety show, or a documentary about ballet. But there wasn't anything even remotely resembling a dance class in my community. I had nothing but the TV to suggest I might be a dancer myself, and that all took place in far away places that may as well have been Oz or Neverland. It never occurred to me to even think about it.

Perhaps that interest in dance led me to pursue theater at college. My junior year in high school, we did get a theater class and that sparked the performer in me. When I got to college, it turned out theater majors were encouraged to take a Modern dance class for P.E. credit. I took the class and loved it. But by then I was 19 years old and everything I knew about dance was what I learned about ballet on PBS---and those shows said you had to start when you were six years old. I didn't even have a very clear idea that what I was taking was different from ballet, I just enjoyed it and eventually fulfilled all my P.E. credits with dance classes, never even considering it could be something more in my life.

Long story short (and cutting out some key elements), in my mid 30s I started going to local dance shows, eventually started taking a modern dance class, and realized that this was something I more than just enjoyed a little bit. And for sure, by your late 30s, it's too late for a dance career.

And I have real sadness about this.  It's a real loss, a real grief in my life. Living in a city now and seeing kids who attend the local High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, I always, consciously, have to deal with my feelings of envy and regret. What might my life have been like had I had some of the opportunities these kids have?

Well, what can you do? You grieve, you move on. I'd long put a lot of energy into writing and in some ways the bit of dance writing I've done has been a redirection of those energies, but it'll never replace the actual dancing I wish I could have done.

This does not make my life a complete waste.

And here's where I start with the encouragement (or at least I hope it is encouraging).

I could make dance an idol, a part of my life that is more important than any of my other abilities and opportunities, but I don't believe that something unfulfilled is the totality of my life.

I believe in a God of redemption. This is not only some eternal salvation of a soul---I don't think the Bible is even talking about that most of the time it speaks of salvation. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor's question, "What is saving you now?" What is giving me meaning to get up tomorrow and the next day?

It's not that I'll suddenly, at age 52, get an audition with Bill T. Jones. It's that I have stories to tell and am writing them down. It's that I have friends who I can sometimes help and in helping them find meaning in my own life. It's that there is beauty in small things every day, from a wild flower invading the crack of a city sidewalk to a spectacular sunset. It's that there are pleasures besides dance that I can actually still experience.

These are the things that keep me from despair. I experience these things as redemption. I receive these things as gifts from God and they are what save me.

About the time that I realized how much I really did love dance was the time that I also had to give it up. Granted, I was given opportunities to perform in a few dance shows and even still, when I make performance art pieces, movement is usually integral to the piece, but dance simply could not be the center of my life.

This is not so for every hope for our life. The hope for a partner does not have to go away with age. The desire for knowledge or education does not have to be given up. I still hold out hope that I'll still write more short stories and maybe longer pieces, too.

But whatever disappointments come, I believe God will enter them and offer redemption. God can and will redeem those disappointments. They may always be disappointments, but they need not crush us.

The five gold rings are not the only Christmas gift to be had. I hope you find delight in the gifts you find before you.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Four- Holy Innocents

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is another odd day in Christmastide, another horrific story of death during the season of Incarnation.

There's much to say about this brief episode in the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel. There's the question of historicity---Herod apparently was known for going on killing sprees, even within his own family, all to preserve his power, but there's not much to support this specific event ever happening. There's the biblical scholarship around Matthew's need to connect Jesus' story to the story of Moses, if not the whole of Israel. The flight into Egypt, the one chosen child surviving while his peers are slaughtered---these are parallels with stories in the Pentateuch. The emphasis on fulfillment of prophecy feels, to me, like a conflation of Hebrew prophecy with Hellenistic oracles, but I've not researched that enough to feel confident about it, but put it out there in case someone more knowledgeable can enlighten me in the comments below.

Today, however, I'm thinking about one phrase I use above: all to preserve his power. Herod has taken extreme measures---killing all baby boys under the age of two---to makes sure there isn't one among them that will usurp his power.

First, I want to offer a word of caution about over-sentimentalizing words like "innocent." Yes, the children slain by Herod's men were not guilty of any crime punishable by death. Still, I'm writing from a tradition that also has things like Psalm 51's confession that we are "sinners from our mother's wombs." The focus should not be, I contend, on the ones slain, but a caution for the ways we exert and maintain power.

I saw it here in Houston this past election cycle. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was placed on the ballot via questionable means (any time equal rights are up for a vote, it should be questioned), and was defeated in no small part due to rich, predominantly white, Christians who ran a fear campaign against transgender people---specifically trans women, really. The rallying cry was "no men in women's restrooms!" This showed not only a fundamental lack of understanding of who trans women are, it showed a ferocious resistance to learning. More to my point today, however, it was a way for these rich, predominantly white Christians to maintain their status and power in society. Make no mistake, trans folk were the overt target, but the entire LGBT population was the victim as we are once again left without local protection under the law. It was an exercise of power to maintain power over LGBT people.

We saw it in the 1980s as AIDS began ravaging the gay community. The nightmarish wasting of human life was initially met with indifference, derision, even laughter by people in power. Do not pretend for a moment that this wasn't a way of maintaining status and power in a society that would not recognize the humanity of the LGBT population. Infants to Herod or gay men to Reagan, what's a few killed here and there if it maintains the status quo?

Not that we in the LGBT community are innocent ourselves of these power plays. How often has the predominantly white, male leadership in LGBT organizations ignored the specific plights of LGBT people of color, or how often has the T in LGBT been thrown under the bus in the name of advancement in status for, again, the predominantly white, male power structure?

I'm tempted to go on with the ways that other power structures allow police and vigilantes to kill young black men and boys without legal consequence, how women of color are targeted in specific ways by powerful political and societal forces. They way all women are still denigrated and subjugated by a patriarchal power structure that remains difficult to erode.

Power is no small problem and more than boys under the age of two are victims of it.

But I leave it here, today. These are my thoughts as I read the second chapter of Matthew this day. Let us be mindful of where the power lies, where it is used murderously, where we hold it, where we silently participate, all to maintain what power we already have.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Three - St John Evangelist

Sundry thoughts on the Feast Day of John the Evangelist . . .

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For a season wrapped around the infancy narratives of Jesus, how queer is it that the Gospel that we commemorate in the 12 Days of Christmas doesn't have Baby Jesus? 

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This feast day is meant to celebrate the Johannine Literature of the New Testament, that is, the books of the Bible that are attributed to John. These include the Gospel According to John, the three Epistles of John, and Revelation. 

Let's do some myth-busting up front. 

No one really knows for certain who wrote these pieces. People who not only took Koine Greek but actually learned it mostly say that for sure Revelation is written by someone different than the other four pieces. All of them have similar imagery, primarily light and dark, true and false, but apparently Revelation isn't as well written, in the Greek manuscripts, as the others. It is fairly undisputed that they all come from the same mindset, a "Johannine Community," but it is uncertain who actually put pen to parchment here. 

Some would insist on at least the Gospel the letters be from the hand of the apostle, John. This is far from certain, also. They are all some of the latest writings to be included in the New Testament and as such, an eyewitness to the events seems unlikely unless you allow for unusual life longevity for the author. 

There are books full of arguments on all sides of this question, if you're interested in learning more. The above is enough to either make you stop reading or continue on in curiosity. 

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I've come to not like the Gospel of John very much. I'm much more a Mark kind of guy. Mark's Jesus seems a bit caught up in situations that he can't quite get a handle on and ends up on the cross. John's Jesus is very much in control, never having any doubts about the sequence of events. John's Jesus knows he's headed to the cross but that it's going to be okay. I relate much better to Mark's Jesus. 

Having said that, I admit I would not do away with John's Gospel. I would not have a religious life without the opening paragraphs of the Gospel. "In the beginning was the word . . . and the word became flesh . . . the light shines in the darkness . . . " That's good stuff. 

I also would not want to miss out on the story of Lazarus and Mary's confrontation with Jesus at his tomb. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" I relate to that! I would not want to lose the story of the prostitute about to be stoned. "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." My life would be poorer for not having the Passover/Maundy Thursday speech from Jesus. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another." 

And the epistles likewise have some great lines (and a few opaque ones, too, but that's reading first century writing for you). 

So while I find the "high christology" of John off-putting, I do believe we should keep the writings around. Well, I'm on the fence about Revelations and all the nonsense that has spun out of a 19th Century misreading of it. But it can stay, too, if you promise to read Barbara Rossing's book as a supplement to it. 

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So, Jesus and John were lovers. 

Or so some say. Many believe the "beloved disciple" referenced in John's Gospel to be John himself and the intimacy shared between them was romantic. 

Note that the Gospel that some would say hints at a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene also is used to say that Jesus was in a gay relationship. Either Jesus was polyamorous or John was a sensual writer, leading us to read our own projections into the text. I recognize those are not mutually exclusive propositions. 

I err on the side of caution when extrapolating from any given text about someone's sexual behavior or even desires. Oscar Wilde's sexuality is pretty well documented. Abraham Lincoln's a little less so. Jesus? For those who are even comfortable with thinking of Our Lord and Savior in sexual terms, it seems to me the field is pretty open for making any number of arguments. 

Personally, I feel pretty okay thinking that a fully human Jesus knew sexual desire and had erections. Who or what prompted those erections? I'm less comfortable speculating. I don't feel like I even begin to have enough information on this. 

Am I offended by the notion that Jesus might have been gay, might have been in love with one particular disciple? Not particularly. I just don't feel any real need to defend one way or the other. Am I offended if you do believe Jesus was gay and had a lover? Not at all. I know how finding ourselves in the Gospel story comforts and encourages us, indeed can save us. I'd rather you relegate this belief to your own set of interpretations rather than as a fact of history, but then I can't control everything.

As an act of imagination, empathy, compassion . . . I think it is definitely worth thinking on, meditating on, seeing where your emotions go if you consider these things. I feel that works for a pairing with Mary Magdalene for that matter. I think it is worth considering our feelings around sexuality and Jesus and how those feelings might be wrapped up with either a misguided notion of "purity" with regard to sex or else an objectification of sex and sexuality---not that those are the only options of how our feelings might get tangled up when thinking on such things.

If the notion of a gay Jesus and John as his lover is new to you or if you're curious about some of the thought behind this notion, type in John, evangelist, queer, and theology into you nearest Google machine and you will find some good resources with references to other sources.

But I'll be over here believing that someone called "the beloved disciple" makes him a sexual partner to Jesus with the same fervor that I believe Brutus had a lot of sex partners in the crowd when he started his speech, "Romans, countrymen, and lovers!" [Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Act III Scene II]

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The queerest thing about the Gospel of John is how different it is from the other three. I already noted how John gives us the most in-control Jesus of the lot, but the whole book is almost entirely it's own entity. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all clearly share sources and influences, in some cases down to very near verbatim parallels. John doesn't even use the phrase "the good news," which is a central theme for the other gospels. 

Some scholars will tell you this makes John's Gospel the least likely to reflect the life of the historical Jesus. A few scholars will say the Passover/Last Supper in John is the most historically accurate of the four stories. 

Setting aside for the moment the people who would say Jesus was not a historical figure at all (a worthy discussion, perhaps for another time), the fact of the matter is that there is precious little we can know for certain about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. We have only a handful of documents that might have had contact with first person, primary encounters with him. 

Which is why I find much of interest when reading the gospel accounts, but ultimately always come back to the core teachings. On this Third Day of Christmas and the Feast of John the Evangelist, I leave you with this one:

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." [John 13:34]

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Two - The Feast of Stephen

Each year, I'm taken with the arrangement of the church calendar, that the First Day of Christmas, we remember and celebrate the Incarnation of God, followed by the the Second Day of Christmas, the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian to be martyred for his faith in scripture.

It's as if to say, here is God in the flesh, and here is just how fragile flesh is.

But perhaps I get ahead of myself.

I just reread the account of Stephen in Acts 6-7. It's a short time to get to know him and what we know of him is mostly short phrases. He was "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit," and also "full of grace and power, [and] did great wonders and signs among the people." As with Jesus and the prophets before him, this seldom goes over well the religious leaders.

Most of what we know about Stephen is in a long speech he gives before a Jewish council, and what he tells us is that he knows his scripture. He knows the history of the Hebrew faith to that point, and he highlights the way that all the patriarchs were denied their authority along the way, and how Kings David and Solomon decided to move God from a tent into a temple, but that despite such a great house, God does live indoors. In so doing, Stephen indicts the council as being part of the tradition that endlessly works to limit God.

As I say, this does not go well for Stephen. According to the law, he is dragged outside the city as a blasphemer and stoned to death. Echoing Jesus on the cross, Stephen remains secure in faith and prays for the ones who stone him.

As a gay man, I read this story with a modern eye to where the religious authorities and councils continue to learn the scriptures but fail to see the wideness of God's mercy. We who are LGB or T and have heard the call of Christ have stood before similar authorities and councils, have asserted our faithfulness, have shown ourselves in the history of salvation, and we have been met with violence.

This call to follow Jesus is not something to be taken lightly, neither is it something to be received with fear. Stephen showed us that as well. The call to follow Jesus is the call to enter the Beloved Community, the Body of Christ, where we are not ourselves alone, but part of something much bigger than we ourselves could ever be.

Can it be scary? Yes. We probably all have stories of holding back a prophetic word for fear of persecution. Sometimes it means letting go of old ideas we might have had about ourselves and the world within which we would move. There may be grief. There may be sadness, hunger, want.

But also love. Remember always the love of this life in Christ. Rejected, condemned, and shamed, we know a Love that is greater than all that and in fact we proclaim it is a Love that casts out fear.

What's at stake is this: The Good News that all are welcome in the Household of God, which is not in any one house made by human hands and ingenuity, but lives among us, sanctifying our flesh by taking on that same flesh. What's at stake is our freedom, our forgiveness, our redemption, our very abundant lives.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Queer Christmas Day One

I made this video last night for my Facebook friends, but decided today to use it as the beginning of the Christmas blogging.

Speaking of Facebook, some postings in a group for LGBT Christians have been on my mind, and so this year I've decided to address my Christmas blogs to the larger LGBT Christian community. My straight readership are certainly welcome to read along and I suspect you'll find some things that apply regardless of sexuality. This is just where I'm feeling the need to focus this year. Hence the title of Queer Christmas.

I have no plan, no idea where this is going to go. So you may want to check in for a train wreck.  I promise it will be a train wreck offered with love and good will.

Merry Christmas. May you find God in Flesh with you this season.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

#AdventWord #Receive

One of my dear ones stopped by my office earlier this week with a gift bag of surprise for me. There are things I will unwrap tonight, after Christmas Eve service, but she warned there was one thing in the bag that might have potential for breaking or spilling.

Being who I am and my predilection for fulfilling certain potentialities, I looked among the tissue paper and found this glass jar with water. The note tied to it explained that it was water gathered from Texas summer storms and blessed with salt and moonlight. There was one more line that was reflective of my sharing with her about what goes on in my spiritual direction sessions.

It is a decidedly specific gift that crosses spiritualities and beliefs. In this gift, she has given me not only something of herself but also something of myself.

This is sacred. This is holy.

What more could one hope to receive? 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

#AdventWord #Reflect

As we get to the end of the year, people naturally start reflecting on the past year, the changes that came to their lives. The media are all making end of year lists, best and worst of this or that. I don't need to over-explain this.

I asked m Facebook community about their big stories for this past year, specifying either personal or in the news. To my surprise, they all went very personal. There were wonderful things---one visited eight different countries, one painted a mural, one is creating a garden, another knitted 350 caps for a children's charity, one rededicated herself to her art, another got a new kitten. Joyful and forward looking things.

Of course, there were also very hard things in the thread. Parents died, marriages dissolved, a child in rehab, a job in jeopardy.

Happy or sad, all these things could be dividing lines in a life. There was before this and now there is after this and everything has to change, or at least adjust.

I've also been thinking about news stories of this year. Some only need a name or phrase to bring to mind the stories. Mother Emanuel. Sandra Bland. Paris. ISIL. Other stories, more joyful, also come to mind, like the Episcopal Church, a body with a history in slave trade and racism that prompted the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now has it's first African American Presiding Bishop. Marriage equality became the law of the land. I could go on, but all of these feel like dividing line stories, if not for the whole world, then for significant communities.

Another related word comes to mind, however, and that's "retrospect." There may have been any number of things that happened that we will not reflect upon as the calendar turns over to 2016 but years from now they will have grown in significance. A person you met, someplace you volunteered your time or talents, an ordinary day at work that had that one incident you didn't even notice at the time.

All of which to say, I think it's a fine and worthwhile thing to take some time in the coming week to reflect upon what has happened in the world the last 12 months, even better if it spurs you toward some positive action.

Let's not nail the lid too tightly on the year, however. There is room for the Spirit to move in all our circumstances, big and small, to bring us to revelation, redemption, freedom, forgiveness, grace.

Yes, that. Let us reflect on this past year in the light of grace.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

#AdventWord #Pray

Today's word felt very abstract, hard to illustrate without resorting to cliche. I took a few other photos, none of them really felt "true" to me.

Than, last night, as I walked under the Southwest Freeway on my way home, I saw this wall, with the marks of moisture seeping through some seams, some sprigs of greenery growing out of others . . .

I don't know why this feels like "pray" to me. I've tried to explaining to myself and started to write some of those explanations.

But perhaps it is better to offer the image and let you come to your own conclusions, if it moves you to think about it at all.

Monday, December 21, 2015

#AdventWord #Experience

I've often said I'm an experiential theologian. I can only bear witness to what I've experienced. Granted, what I've experienced is colored and explained, to a point, by the theology under which I was raised.

I do know that what I experience and name "God" or "Holy Spirit" are what other people call by other names---if they have these experiences. I know people who would not name anything in their lives with words that would suggest anything having to do with religion. There are other people who move through the world along a spectrum of experiences and the naming thereof.

Me, I do like to touch things and have some concrete evidence. I also have a short list of instances that tell me that "concrete" isn't how the Spirit moves. Pneuma---breath, wind, spirit---is a little hard to wrap your fingers around, and yet I would testify that Pneuma has wrapped around me a time or two.

Give half a chance, I'd totally stick my finger into Jesus's wounds. I wouldn't hesitate. Not given that chance, I know Jesus calls me anyway. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

#AdventWord #Look

I was taught, and do believe, that the first job of any artist is to look. This is broadly defined to include all the senses. A musician or sound artist has to listen, but the concept remains the same.

I have an artist friend who taught "looking" something like this: 

What color is the sunset? 
Yes. What else? 
Yes. What else? 
Blue and orange! 
Yes. Is that all? 
Is that a streak of green? 
Perhaps. Would you expect green in a sunset?
No, not really. 
Before you can paint a sunset, you have to see all the colors, even the unexpected ones.

Perhaps more than look, an artist has to see. There is a qualitative difference of really taking in the details, to notice the intricacies of what one is looking at. Where looking ends and seeing begins, I couldn't really tell you, but you'll know when it happens. Imagination kicks in, analogies form, art and science take shape under the attentive looker's gaze.

The Christian's eye, perhaps all religious peoples' eyes, need similar training, the ability to slip over that line between looking and really seeing. The turning of the head that sees the Reign of God at hand, the gaze that melts blame into compassion, the scrutiny that finds the Imago Dei in the eyes of an enemy---these are the kinds of skilled looking that a life of love and grace can develop.

Look. Pay attention. The fallen leaves are more than brown.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

#AdventWord #Hope

I have seemingly endless tiny bits of information in my head.

Very, very few have footnotes or citations.

I remember of a culture, somewhere not European, that thought of the future much differently than we do. We speak of the future as being out there, in front of us. This culture thought that was ridiculous. If it was out in front of us, we would see it coming.

But we don't see the future coming. It is always full of surprises. It sneaks up on us from behind.

(Here's where I would name the culture if I'd retained that information. If someone knows, I'd love to see it in a reply below.)

I think of hope as something that is in the future. Indeed, thanks to Jurgen Moltmann, I think of hope as the thing that pulls us into the future. (Specifically, thanks to his Theology of Hope--I do remember where I get some information/ideas.)

I don't know if something from behind can pull us forward, but maybe I'm just mixing metaphors.

My point, I believe, is that hope doesn't always come in announced. Sometimes, you have to look over your shoulder to see it.

These last days of advent, may you be surprised by hope.

Friday, December 18, 2015

#AdventWord #Prepare

Last night, I started preparing my dinner with a little olive oil and onion in my cast iron skillet.

I wasn't certain what was coming next. Eventually, I added other things and had a meal.

I'm not a foodie, and I don't use recipes and I eat mostly to live, not the other way around.

But I do like to prepare my own meals, though. I don't do it as often as I wish I did, but I prefer doing it myself. I just don't always know what I'm going to end up with until it's all over.


Preparation is a big theme for advent. John at the river is a big figure in this season, shouting "Prepare the way of the Lord!"

Practically no one was prepared for the Lord that showed up. A lot of people were watching for the Messiah, but they didn't recognize the one that showed up.

They all started with basic things---The Torah, the Prophets. But they kept adding their own expectations until what they got was unrecognizable to them.

My meals are way more predictable than Jesus turned out to be.

I think this is worth remember as we think we're preparing: We are not prepared for the Reign of God. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

#AdventWord #Desire

Evagrius Ponticus wrote, "Often in prayers I kept asking God for what I thought was good. I repeatedly made personal requests, unreasonably coercing God. I was not able to trust God's providence to work things out for my best interests. When I got what I sought, I was sorry I had insisted on my own desires. Things did not turn out as I had imagined." [from By Way of the Desert, by Bernard Bangley, p. 356]

I'm somewhere in Evagrius' quote, even if I can't name what I've gotten that I've sought, but certinly things have not turned out as I had imagined.

No joke, my advent prayer has been, "What do you want?" 

I discern no explicit answer, but I'm reminded of how my spiritual director doesn't particularly value the word "progress," but rather wathes for "movement."

The prayer itself is movement.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

#AdventWord #Invite

"Invite" is a hard word for me just now, particularly in a church context.

Here in Houston, an equal rights ordinance, which would have given individuals a local mechanism to fight discrimination in employment, housing, and other services (rather than, literally, making a federal case of it) was defeated on a ballot in large part due to some churches running a scare tactic campaign specifically against the trans community.

I can tell you that people on my Facebook feed who are non-religious do not see your church as different from the churches that did this. There were clergy who made public statements in favor of the ordinance, but they're not seen as representative, particularly since they didn't have the power (authority or money) behind them to turn people to vote in favor of the ordinance.

A few years ago, I sat in a church meeting trying to explain to a group of white, middle class, heterosexual people why making a public statement of welcome to the LGBT community was important. They weren't officially against LGBT people, but to make a statement of welcome made them squirm a little. "We already say we welcome everyone." I said, "So does the church that fights to block gay rights." One said, "I don't see why we have make changes because some others are acting badly. Why do we have to make changes because the LGBT community won't give us a try?" I said, "You can sit there and feel defensive and like its up to the people beaten up by the church to try one more, but you're still not getting it. People who are not religious don't get that we're going to be any different from their past experience if we don't say something different up front."

I recently followed a thread on Facebook, about a non-Christian friend who went to a funeral, expecting to memorialize their friend who was also not a Christian. Someone in the deceased's family had taken over the funeral, made it a Christian service, and the preacher used it as an excuse to talk about hell. I don't even know if that's literally true, but that was the received message. The thread was full of people who had been through similar experiences. They were all furious at the church and who could blame them? The death of their friends were used as a recruitment tool. The came to remember a friend and grieve in community and were told they were outside the right community. I cannot believe any of these people will ever find a church anyplace but a manipulative, fear-mongering place, using religion for all the worst reasons.

A Christian friend of non-European descent recently had a thread about a local, liberal, "welcoming" congregation who had advertised a program that made it sound like they were using non-European traditions as something exotic. It was very "othering." My friend rightfully felt as if his faith and spirituality was made "not-normal" and the new cool thing to try as a path to God. (We Americans excel at this.) Something that was designed to bring in new people quickly was seen as designed to bring in white people who found other culture's ways "cool" or "exotic" or perhaps the key to opening up this whole spirituality closet. His traditions were seen as something that could be adapted to the dominant paradigm. His traditions were not something to be entered into on their own terms, but colonized again by people who see themselves as the norm.

These are the sorts of things Jesus was talking about when he railed at the religious authorities of his day: You make your converts and then you make them more damnable than you are yourself!

And frankly, I'm part of the problem and I don't know what to do about it.

But invitation is more than "come into our place so we can make you like us."

And for an invitation to have any sincerity behind it, it has to sound different from all the other places issuing the same invitation but have a bait-and-switch plan behind it.

So, Christians, please be aware of what invitation you're making. Have a real assessment of what you're inviting people into. Be real about where your community is going to fail in meeting people who did not grow up in your tradition.

I hate to sound cynical, but to pull in another advent theme, your invitation better have some preparation behind it.

Because your church doesn't appear any different from the ones in the media, scaring people, decrying whole communities, damning everyone outside their walls.

You don't look any different.

I can't say that enough.

We don't look any different.

And our invitations often look like an invitation to be beaten up. Our invitations look like invitations to be ridiculed and frightened. Our invitations look like an invitation to beat your head against a brick wall.

Christians, we have to do better if we really believe we offer the Reign of God among us. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

#AdventWord #Listen

The only place I use earbuds is at work. I do fairly isolated work in a cubicle and so i get to listen to the local NPR station or music all day, but I have to use earbuds so as not to disturb my neighbors.

I don't like them, really. I don't like the way they cut me off from all the other sounds around me. I often don't know someone is trying to talk to me on their first try. It works the other way around, too, when I try to talk to a coworker.

I especially don't like them outside of work. I've tried using them in public and I realize that they can be useful for people who tend to draw unwanted attention. I don't begrudge anyone their use of them, but I really prefer to hear what's going on around me. I like the random noises and snippets of conversation on the bus, while walking downtown. To have in earbuds while exploring the bayou is really missing the point, it seems to me. How can I listen for the unexpected that comes if I'm always programming my ears.

I'm grateful for the earbuds while I'm at work, but if I'm ever there alone, I take them out and play the music out loud and I can still hear what is going on around me (and there are still plenty of noises to hear at a university, even if you're the only one in your office).

There's so much sound in the world. Some of it is revelatory. I like to listen.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Queer Theology Synchroblog 2015 My Queer Place in the World

I am a Christian. As such, I believe our corporeal being is as important as our minds and souls. I do not hold to the notion that our body is just a shell for our spirit but that one shapes the other, weaves around each other, is one identity. I can speak of having a hand, a foot, a spirit, a mind, but they are not separate from my whole person. Remove anyone and the whole is diminished.

I am a gay, cisgender, white man. All those words are important to how I move in the world, how I am perceived by others, how I’ve been socialized to act---for good and ill. I believe the Reign of God comes nearer when I am able to break free of those perceptions and hence expectations. I believe the Reign of God comes nearer when these things that have shaped me are useful for the betterment of other people’s lives.

I am a performance artist. My body is my medium. As such, I’m comfortable being in a variety of settings performing actions that may seem odd in most contexts. I’m not a shocking performance artist. I don’t use blood or other bodily excretions in my art. I’m not sure what I have to say with those things. Maybe someday I will. I do not rule it out. I feel a lot of what I might say with blood or piss has been said, often brilliantly by others. Until I find something unique to say in that fashion, I’ll try not to copy. I’m not a blood and piss sort of guy anyway. 

I am a gay, cisgender, white, Christian man who is a performance artist writer and lives as part of a community of faith. As such, I do not understand my body to be my own but as part of a larger body. This also plays into my decisions about what I present as an artist. I do not censor myself because I think it will cause offense, neither do I seek to give offense. Whether going along with or against my larger body, I consider my place among them and what damage or healing I may do to them when I perform.  (And I may find doing damage is the right decision, but it is a decision made carefully.)

I am a writer with a theological education. As such, God stuff is often tightly wound about what I do as a writer or performer. I am made in God’s Image and I think on this as I present my work, whether that is on the surface of the work or not. It often is not the presenting issue, but scratch the surface and eventually you’ll find the Imago Dei as driving idea.

I am a gay white male with a theological education and so I have often found myself on the edges of many communities. This is my strength and my loneliness. In the community of performance artists, I suspect I’m the repressed gay Christian who won’t show his penis. In the community of believers, I suspect I’m that suspicious performance artist person who may one day drop his pants to make a point. Neither is wrong. I’ve been an artist model and would do so again, given the right circumstance. I have nothing against nudity. But as I note above, my body is not mine alone and I consider my place in the larger body and need compelling reason to break community code. I love my community. They are worth more to me than any shock value, even if shock may have value.

I am queer wherever I go. I’m a queer Christian who is spiritually fed by abstract and expressionist art, by dance and sound art that doesn’t tell stories. I’m a queer conceptual artist in that I sometimes tell linear stories. I’m a queer gay man in that being gay is not the most important part of my identity and will assert it most loudly when I feel it is being disregarded. I’m quiet and reserved and on the edge of nearly every community I can claim. This is sometimes by choice, sometimes not, often by calling. As I often tell people when I’m asked why I write or perform: I would stop it if I could.

Artist Statement: My work concerns, broadly, compassion and its limits. My voice has been called “quiet” and “gentle,” hard sells in a world of “loud” and “rough,” but I’ve embraced the terms. I persist in the certainty that the culture needs alternatives to the shocking and violent. I do not see this as a retreat from reality but rather an effort to shape it. 

Neil Ellis Orts is the author of the novella, Cary and John and sometimes makes performances as Breath & Bone/Orts Performance. 

#AdventWord #Accept

The above is a picture of a former junk drawer (with vestiges of that use) that now houses my glucometer and morning prescriptions. (My evening prescriptions I keep in the kitchen, so I know which are which without having to think too hard because no one wants to do that.)

For the first 43 years of my life, I was healthy. When I went to a doctor for something and the nurse asked what medications I was on, I could say "none."

Then in 2006, I had a clogged artery and a short list of prescriptions that goes with that.

Then, in 2013, I had a cyst on my pancreas, the removal of which pushed me into diabetes and a longer list of prescriptions that goes with that.

It seems like a small thing in the face of life-threatening health concerns, but the hardest adjustment for me was that I now had a list of medications that I would be on for the rest of my life. When asked what medications I'm on, I have to pull out a list to make sure I name them all. I use a large chain pharmacy in the 4th largest city in the nation, and the pharmacist can still call me by name.

I take a lot of prescription medications.

And yet, here's the thing I have to confess: I've been on the edge of something really serious and life-threatening and all I have to do to follow up is take pills and test my blood sugar twice a day. I had a completely clogged artery on my heart that a skilled doctor was able to open with a stint and not open heart surgery. I had a mass on my pancreas that was not pancreatic cancer.

The grace within these events is more than I can sometimes think about.

I have found it hard to accept that I have to fill prescriptions every month (oh for the days when the instructions were to use until all were gone!). I also find it hard to accept that for some reason, I've been given relatively small consequences to really big scary things.

But grace is like that. My acceptance has little to do with it. It's just there. When I remember it, I thank God.