Saturday, January 23, 2016

On the Uses and Limitations of Labels

"The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." [Mark 2:22]

A few things have me thinking about labels. Some of it comes from having just read Drawing the Line by Carrol Clarkson, wherein language and how it is used gets discussed quite a lot.

A lot more comes from this being an election year in the USA.

I recall when I first starting coming out as a gay man. Obviously "gay" was a word I knew, but never wanted to apply to myself. When I my faith and sexuality finally met on friendly terms, I had to start to think about what that word meant as applied to me. I had some notion of what it meant to other people (and I learned more as I came out more!), but how did it apply to me? I decided, more or less, that it simply meant that I was physically, emotionally, sexually attracted to other men. Beyond that, I could claim possession of some of the stereotypical attributes (disco, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, modern dance) while deciding that I was not going to fit into other stereotypes (drag, Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, interior decorating). I also learned that there were sub-subculture labels that I didn't know before that fit me (bear), and then I had to decide how that label settled on me.

As a young man, I wore the label "conservative" very comfortably. I knew I was a Christian and the conservatives were the ones who most easily and comfortably wore that religious label, so I went with it. Throughout college and into seminary, I also found myself not quite going all the way with that label. I kept trying, but then ended up hanging out with the liberal kids. In the end, I found myself saying things like, "all my liberal friends think I'm too conservative and all my conservative friends think I'm too liberal." (This may still be happening today, come to think of it.)

Then, as I came out, came to understand sexuality slightly (who ever fully understands it?) better, I began to feel my views on all sorts of things shift. This shifting continued happening until one day, at a stoplight on Koenig Lane in Austin (I think the Guadalupe intersection---yes, this is one of those kinds of memories), I sort of startled myself and said, "Oh my goodness, I'm a liberal!" Twenty years later, I still wrestle with what that actually means.

As you might sense, I find myself explaining my terms a lot. When I say I'm a "German Lutheran farm boy," I find those things all bring up images with which I may or may not identify. When I say I'm a "middle aged, gay, performer and writer," middle aged is easiest to understand and it still has some argument attached to it (but, seriously, I'm sorry---I'm not going to live past 100, maybe not even very close to it, so I'm safely middle aged and, equally sorry, so are a lot of you wanting to argue the point).

As this political year begins to heat up, it's interesting for me to watch people on the right argue about whether a candidate is a "true conservative" and people on the left wring hands over what to do with the word "socialism."

And somewhere in all this musing about labels, the words of Jesus, quoted at the top of this post, came to mind. Obviously, it's not a direct application, but let me see if I can help you across my synapse jump.

Some years ago, a friend (who shall remain nameless) really latched onto being a liberal. The title became such that it felt to me like she was reading any and everything labeled "liberal" so she would know how to be the liberalest. I began to make jokes like, "if someone would label televised puppy executions as liberal, she'd be all for it."

I see this sort of thing happen with other labels. I've seen people come out as gay and then try to learn how to "be gay," like studying how to play a role in a theater production. There are ways that the dominant culture still, after 50 years of "women's lib" and sexual revolution, tries to teach us how to be men or women---"real men do this, real women do that."

And here's the thing. All these labels are useful. They help us communicate who we are, some of the ways that we move in the world.

On the other hand, while the labels are there to help us define ourselves, the definitions are not there to shape us. I mean, of course the labels shape us to some extent. Saying "I'm a Christian" or "I'm gay" has an accumulative effect on me and it shapes me. But the moment that I start start looking for all the ways that I can fulfill those labels, I can begin to lose myself, too. Is there a gay "orthodoxy" that says I must make such and such choices, must present in this or that way? Yes, there is. Can I become so doctrinaire as a Christian that I lose sight of loving my neighbor and start denying the Reign of God at hand? Absolutely.

The labels, like the Sabbath---or even more broadly, the Law---are there to help us. They are helpful to us. But we are not there to help the labels. They can only define us so far. To serve the labels in that way is to make them idols, molding ourselves to their inanimate dictates.

I believe we are freer than that. I believe we have to be freer than that.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


I do grow weary of being a divisive presence in the church.

Today, the primates of the Anglican Communion sanctioned The Episcopal Church for allowing people of the same sex to marry in the church. Setting aside that I don't expect to get married anytime soon, I still find it hard not to take this personally.

But let's be clear on something.

I'm not the divisive presence.

I'm here in the church, seeking unity as much as anyone who has heard and yearned for the idealism of "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all."

I have prayed with Jesus his prayer "that they may all be one."

Look, I'm sorry I'm gay. I'm sorry I want to assert the fully humanity of all LGBT folk. I'm sorry that this is icky for a lot of you.

But I'm not telling anyone they can't come to the table, fully who they are, in full dignity of one made in the Image of God. I'm not telling anyone they can't have a voice in any church body because they support everyone's access to the blessing of the church.

I'm not the divisive presence here, not by my own making.

It's heartbreaking because I've come in contact with a  young man in an African country who relates how hard it is just to get medical advice that is particular to gay and lesbian folk. It's against the law for doctors to offer information or medical attention to someone who needed LGBT specific help. I wonder how safe it is for this person to even seek information through a Facebook group, even as I'm glad he could access that resource.

For this reason, I cannot easily say "makes no difference to me." I mean, I can---my life is not immediately impacted by this news. I and the congregation where I worship will carry on much as we have for some time.

But here's the thing---I do believe this young African man and I are connected and I can imagine how much it would mean to the LGBT folk of his and other nations to have a religious authority speak up for them. (Let's be real, I can imagine that because it wasn't too long ago that I didn't think I'd live to see it in my own nation---so there's hope for change!) I actually to believe that we share in one baptism and one Spirit.

These things matter, these divisive decisions matter because the violence, spiritual and physical, that is enacted on these LGBT folk in the shadow of this sort of decision is on the hands of the church, on the hands of these decision makers. They have authority and it matters how they exercise it.

Of course, there's so many ways the church has forced division through the centuries. Just two American examples leap to mind. I do not believe Richard Allen wanted to create the AME Church. I do not believe Troy Perry wanted to create the MCC fellowship. Those are just two American examples of the way a patriarchal imperialism has forced people, for their own spiritual well-being, to create divisions. But neither of them were a divisive presence, either!

Sometimes I look at how this is true of Christianity the world over and I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said, " . . . you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."

We have to do better. We have to see the expansive love of God, not just for us, but more so for those we are not like. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we're all made in the Image of God and that maybe the thing that is different in the other person is the part of the Image of God that you need to see, respect, love. The strangeness of God is real and it is in all of us. It's hard, so very difficult, but we must learn to love the difference.

At the very least can we start to have enough self awareness that when we tell someone they are not welcome here that it is us who is being divisive?

I feel myself ranting a bit, maybe less coherently than usual. These things make me angry and I don't know what other recourse I have but to spill it onto the internet.

Primates of the Anglican Communion---your actions and your reasons behind your actions matter. This will affect people under your care. Their wounds, spiritual and physical, are yours to answer for.

I pray other authorities will rise to take up your slack.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Not Especially

There's a thing I do whenever I'm the one leading the prayers of the people that I don't think I've ever really talked about before, but it came up at lunch after church this past Sunday and I found myself expressing myself in this way:

I said, "I take deep theological exception to the word esprcially."

Until that moment, I hadn't fully realized how strongly I felt about it. Now that I've realized, of course I have to spill it out into a blog.

Those of you who don't have a "prayers of the people" moment in your church service, this may not mean anything to you. But to those of you who do, please consider my argument.

Among the petitions, there is always the one that is a variation of, "We pray for all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit" and then we list the people in the congregation who are sick or otherwise hurting.

Of course, the word that links the petition and the list of names is especially.

We pray for the sick, especially Joe, Maria, Juan, LaShell, Hannah, and Otto.

The thing I will do when I lead the prayers of the people is change especially to among us.

Because I have some issue with the notion of praying for all the suffering in the world but then asking God to give special attention to those we know. It's like helping only those we love while letting people we don't care for suffer. It's not part of Jesus' teaching to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. If you help only those you like, how are you different from anyone else? We're called to a different standard.

At the same time, it is absolutely meet, right, and salutary that we should pray for those we know, those who "belong to us" in that broad congregational way that we belong to each other. There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying for those in our midst, who we can call by name, and bring their concerns before God.

And so, I will pray, "We pray for all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit, among us we pray for Joe, Maria, Juan, LaShell, Hannah, and Otto." Because these people are among us and we belong to one another, of course it is right to pray for them in their time of need. It is also language that is expansive enough to include, as we will at my church, friends of ours who are not members or may not even live locally, but are dear to us, who "belong" to us, who are therefore "among us," even at a distance.

It's a subtle shift from asking God to give them priority among the suffering of the world. but, yes, I can be that picky about the language of the gathered people of God. I think it matters. I can see how you may think I'm being overly semantic about this and honestly, this is not a hill I'm willing to die on. I'm not going to make demands about this.

But I do ask that our prayer writers consider this. I do think precision in language matters, particularly when it's the language allegedly of the an entire congregation. Do we pray especially for these people just because we know them? Or do we pray for those among us because we are given to each other to care for, including the spiritual care of praying? I believe how we consider these questions can shape how we think about ourselves and our mission to the world.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Epiphany 2016

"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." [Matthew 2:2]

Matthew tells us about a star that appeared in the sky at the birth of Jesus. It caught the attention of magi from far off lands and they had to come see what it was about.

Setting aside how the religious and imperial powers were after Jesus right from the start (and that's nothing to sneeze at), here's what I think Matthew was a little big after in this story.

So, your Caesar had a star appear at his memorial games? Cute. Our Messiah had a star at his birth.

Your Caesar became a god after his death? Quaint. Our Messiah we declare divine from his conception.

You may think that comet at the games was a sign of Caesar's ascendancy to godhood, but we declare to you a God who descends in humility to live among us.

Much is made of Matthew paralleling Jesus with stories of the Hebrew patriarchs, but here I think he's also comparing this infant to a Roman warrior-statesman and not in a favorable fashion. The pagan magi may represent the eventual spreading of the gospel to gentile peoples, but the star is all about elevating a Jewish infant over a Roman hero.

This is the kind of God we're dealing with. The One that surprises from the lowly, the One that usurps the powers of this world with humility.

This is the star that shines brightest in the night sky. To mix gospel metaphors, this is the light that shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

Blessed Epiphany to you. May you find the Epiphany light shining on you.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. [Isaiah 60:1]

Queer Christmas Day Twelve

I said when I started blogging this season that I didn't have a plan. Coming to the last day, I find that is more true than ever.

Even as I typed that, I began to wonder if we like plans too much. We either try to control every step of our way or we turn loose completely of all control and trust "God's plan."

I suppose that's why, as I mentioned earlier in the season, that I like Mark's gospel the best. You get a sense that Jesus is up to something, knows what he's about to a certain extent, but also that things get caught up in all this trouble with the Roman and religious authorities and the next thing you know, he's sweating blood in a garden, asking for this "cup" to be taken from him. (Really, compare Mark's Jesus and John's Jesus on this. John's Jesus is so much more certain, and almost mocks the notion of avoiding his crucifixion. "This is why I came!" But I digress.)

I've jumped straight to lent, haven't I . . . .

Christmas. Day twelve. I have no twelve drummers drumming or even a single little drummer boy to offer today.

If you look over my blog, over the years that I've typed in here, you'll see, I think, that I basically have two main points that I make over and over.

One: You and every human you meet is the Image of God. You are a miracle, a sign of God's infinite variety of expression. No one is quite like you and it is the thing in you that is different that makes you holy. No matter what anyone says, if they're not telling you that you bear holiness in your being, they are lying to you.

Two: The Reign of God is at hand. It is right here. From Jesus' preaching, we don't need to think that in the Reign of God that there are no hungry people, no grieving people, no poor people, but that in the Reign of God, they will be fed, they will be comforted, they are inheritors of something greater than riches. What's more, there are peacemakers, there are merciful ones, there are even a few that are pure of heart. There are times when all of these are one person, maybe not all at once, but there are moments. This is when the Reign of God breaks in. It is as near as feeding a hungry person.

These are the miracles that the world needs right now. More than virgin births and midnight angel choirs and a star brighter than all the others in the night sky, we need these miracles of kindness, compassion, sharing.

This is as much of a plan as I have to offer: Be a part of Christ being born anew, everyday, into a world that needs Christ as much as ever.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Queer Christmas Day Eleven

Today, as far as the secular world is concerned, the holidays are over. I'm going back to my job at the university, many of you never even had a holiday break. I imagine downtown Houston will be devoid of Christmas decorations.

And maybe many people are glad it's all over. For many LGBT people, the holidays are particularly stressful. They don't bring cheer but tension-filled get-togethers of obligation. (Okay, not just LGBT people, but that's been my focus here this season.)

Possibly all LGBT people have had to endure a subtly (or not so much) demeaning interaction with family, old friends, workmates . . . maybe not this season (I've been lucky!) but in Christmases past and the potential exists in the future.

But it's no longer in the immediate future.

Today, shifting back into "ordinary time" (as the Roman Catholics would have it), we may be experiencing the regular stuff of life, but I would invite you to keep with you the knowledge that it's still Christmas. Even if no one else around you acknowledges this with you, perhaps a secret day of Christmas will help you recover from the stress of the days just past.

I would invite you to remember the Incarnation of Christ---and how this sanctifies and makes your own flesh holy.

I would invite you to do something, even the tiniest thing, for yourself as an eleventh day of Christmas gift. Something that will bring you some bit of delight. A piece of candy that you don't have often. A drink from the coffee shop that is more than you usually allow yourself. Put on your most comfortable shoes. You know what will help you celebrate Christmas. Let this little pleasure remind you of blessing of your physical self.

I would invite you find a moment to look yourself in the mirror at some point, remember that the Christmas story tells us that God took on flesh like yours, looked no more or less extraordinary than you do right now. Be in awe of this. Tell your reflection "Merry Christmas."

Silly things, perhaps, but something to make you smile, to help you redeem Christmas in these last days.

Do it today. Repeat tomorrow. Christmas is almost over. Don't let it pass without some bit of wonder and joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Queer Christmas Day Ten

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. [Isaiah 9:2]

In Isaiah's poetic, prophetic vision, he sees Israel in Babylon as a people who are in perpetual night. Without moon or stars to guide, they have lived in deep darkness.

And Isaiah is bringing them hope. A light is shining on them. There is promise for a new day.

For Isaiah, it is the promise of a new child born, a child who will grow into a mantle of authority, not a warrior king but a Prince of Peace. 

Centuries later, Christians began to understand Jesus is the one Isaiah was talking about. Whatever Isaiah was speaking of in his time (and he most certainly was speaking of something in his time---prophetic speech is almost always addressing a crisis immediately at hand), the new sect known as Christianity heard Isaiah's words and agreed, "That's our Jesus."

It is a hope and promise that has been grasped at in many times, places, circumstances. There are so many situations in the world right now, today, wherein we could reasonably read Isaiah's words and reply, "How long, oh God? How long?"

We Christians, at our best, understand that the Prince of Peace that we celebrate in these Twelve Days, is not a monarch of imposed dominion. This is not the Pax Romana, held in place by military might and public crucifixions. This is the Prince of Peace that passes all understanding. It is the peace of one who can hang on a cross and pray for the one holding the hammer that nailed you there.

I'm going to confess that I'm about to say something that in certain contexts trivializes the deep suffering of people in bloody war zones, but it also addresses the anguish that LGBT people who live in otherwise normal, quiet situations---with the exception that if they were out to family or church or workplace, their life could be turned upside down.

It is not a place full of light. It is not a situation of peace.

And yet, just very recently, I counseled a young person who wanted desperately to stop hiding and come out to their parents, to live in that dark place for a while longer. They had expressed uncertainty about how their parents would receive the news, that the parents were not generally supportive of LGBT concerns. I counseled to remain closeted until they knew they could afford their own living arrangements, that they could support themselves, because parents do still put kids on the street for coming out and street life can be another kind of darkness to endure.

I hope I counseled well. I hope the time this young person still needs to remain closeted will not do permanent damage to heart, soul, or mind. I hope that when they do come out, the parents will prove the worry was for nothing. Understanding the freedom I felt when I came out---and all the ways that freedom has cost me---I also understand that freedom sometimes must be delayed. I hope this young person gets that and is able to take action that keeps her well.

LGBT Christians, I think, hear the words of Isaiah in some particular ways. We receive the promise and the hope that shows up unexpectedly---and is still in the future. Many of us have lived in great darkness. Many of us have known a great light.

Let us remember, Beloved Children, that we will walk out of darkness, we will experience the light. Whatever internal warring we might experience, let us remember it will not always be that way.

Let us remember we have the promised Prince of Peace.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Queer Christmas Day Nine

Oh come all ye faithful . . . 

Queer Christians have to vet this invitation. Queer Christians have to poke around websites, search for key words plus pastor's names. Queer Christians know that "all ye faithful" may not include them. It's useful and important to know what church leadership has said about LGBT issues before setting foot inside a church's door.

Spiritual abuse is real and queer Christians are intimately familiar with it.

So, if you are a gay, lesbian, bi, or trans Christian, this may or may not mean you are active in a religious community. I've been very lucky, I've always lived places, since coming out, where I could have Christian fellowship despite being gay. This is a luxury not afforded to all queer Christians (or to all Christians, really, but I'm speaking in the context of the the United States).

And yet, you can do web searches for queer Christians of every stripe and find organizations, however small, that seek to draw together and give solace to LGBT Christians of that stripe. Orthodox to Evangelical and every kind in between, there is a Christian group for your type of Christian.

At least on the internet.

Isn't it a wonder that there are any queer Christians at all? We may take comfort and strength when Paul says at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans, "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." But can we take that to the local congregation and be fully welcomed in full knowledge of our queerness?

I am curious about what assurances get LGBT Christians through their doubts when we hear from the dominant voices of religion how wicked we are.

In my novella, Cary and John, the story of David and Jonathan plays a part in one man's coming to terms with the fact that he loves another man. For me, personally, it never worked fully but I've heard enough references from other gay Christian men that I know David and Jonathan give some queer Christians peace and it made sense in my novella to use it that way there.

For me, it was Acts, chapter 10, the follow-up to Peter's vision of "unclean food." It wasn't the vision that convinced me, but the way the Spirit prompted Peter to apply it. When Peter met a Gentile who exhibited great faith in Christ, Peter applied the words he heard in the vision: "‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane." It was not circumcision or any other purification act that made the Gentile clean, it was his faith.

I'm sure there are other stories that have given queer Christians assurance and peace. I've also seen queer Christians who have, to an extent, understood that their queerness is innate and unchangeable but still have periods of crushing doubt about their relationship with God.

In the end, the voice calling "come all ye faithful" is not the voice of any church authority, though when it is, it's nice to hear. Ultimately, we need to hear the Holy Spirit calling us, "joyful and triumphant." I can't predict when or how the Spirit will get through to you. I can pray this blog post might do it, or at least erode, just a little bit, the wall that keeps you from hearing.

Beloved child of God, queer or not, in a congregation or not, your faith has made you clean. Do not believe any other voice.

O come all ye faithful means YOU.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Queer Christmas Day Eight The Holy Name of Jesus

 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [Luke 2:21]

According to Jewish custom, the eighth day after birth, a male child was to be circumcised and officially named. We commemorate this event (recorded in exactly one verse in the Bible) on January 1, the eighth day of Christmas. It was once more commonly known as the Feast of the Circumcision, but as society became more squeamish about thinking too much about the penis of the Incarnate God, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus has become more accepted. (I'm speculating, really, but how far off from the facts can I be?)

It's an uncomfortable day, really, and not only because it sort of forces us into thinking about the Holy Penis or the ridiculous numbers of relics purporting to be the Holy Prepuce (Foreskin). In the most positive take, it makes Jesus fully human, genitals and all. At it's least positive, it can be a focal point for patriarchy, emphasizing not only the humanity of Jesus, but his maleness.

It's impossible to know what the writer of Luke's gospel had in mind by including this incident in the story of Jesus. (As a seminary professor was fond of saying, "We can't ask him. He's dead.") Most scholars focus on the fulfillment of Jewish Law---Jesus came from a good Jewish family who kept all the customs of their faith and nation. This in turn is sometimes turned into an example of how Jesus "fulfilled the law" to make room for the new covenant (a stretch in my estimation).

(An aside---a bit of trivia I remember from seminary days, which I can't back up with the exact word, is that the Hebrew word we translate as "covenant" has at its root the verb "to cut." As circumcision of males was the main sign of belonging to the Hebrew covenant with God, another professor pithily observed that to be Jewish was to literally "cut a deal" with God.)

To focus on the name of Jesus more than on the penis of Jesus, here's some quick facts:

Jesus is, via a couple of language translations, the same as Joshua and was a rather common name for boys. So much for the uniqueness of the name. The spin I would put on this, however, is the way that God comes into the ordinary. In all the angel decrees about what to name this child (whichever Gospel you read, whichever person is ordered to name the child Jesus), we're not given some exotic or even eccentric name. It's the sort of name any good Jewish family might choose for their son. I find this in keeping with the general "lowliness" of Jesus and his family. They did not come from wealthy or otherwise privileged people.

In fact, in the following verses, when Jesus is presented as the firstborn male and so dedicated to God, Luke tells us that they offered a sacrifice of "a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons." If we look at the Leviticus source for this custom, we find in the 12th chapter, "When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons . . . " Luke tells us they provided the offering of poor people, who could not afford the sheep. 

So Jesus comes from people of limited means, given a name that he could have found on any keychain rack in any gas station in Galilee.

And this is the name that the second chapter of Philippians says is the name above all names.

I believe we queer Christians have to pay special attention to these reversals in the Gospel stories. This was a family of nobodies. They were not rich in the Jewish community and certainly had no status in the Roman Empire, but they were chosen by God to usher in a new covenant, one that did not require actual cutting but which promised good things to those deemed unworthy by society.

Obviously, this is not only a message to the LGBT person cast out by family and society, but it is important that we find ourselves in it. Looking back on previous posts in this "queer Christmas" series, it's important to find the intersections of all these messages. If we look to the exaltation of Jesus in Philippians chapter 2, lets not miss the first part of that story, the humility of Jesus and the "emptying out" of all the power he could claim in order to serve humanity. In modern parlance, check your privilege, whatever it is, as you claim your place in God's Reign, but do claim your place.

Claim your full humanity, your full fleshiness, as Jesus is shown to have via stories of his circumcision and, eventually, crucifixion. Claim your full inclusion in the community of saints, however ordinary your name or class.

Ultimately, today isn't only about the penis of Jesus or his name. It's about the ordinariness of our lives and the way we are welcomed into the Reign of God.