Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fecundity of the Barren - A Reprint from Whosoever

Back in my early days of coming out and writing about it, I wrote for the late great internet magazine, Whosoever, a webzine for LGBT Christians edited by Candace Chellew-Hodge. Today, I'm "reprinting" one of my pieces from that time, from the May/June, 1998 issue. I'm doing this because, frankly, I'm super busy with theater stuff just now and this is a way to keep my Wednesday schedule.

I hope the me of 18 years ago still has something to say.

Our history always begins with the barren, with Sarah (Gen. 11:30), with Rebekah (Gen. 25:21),with Rachel (29:31), and with Elizabeth (Luke 1:7). Among those, always as good as dead (Heb. 11:12), the wondrous gift is given. The inability to bear is a curious thing and we know that for all our science the reasons most often are historical, symbolic, and interpersonal. It is often news -- good news, doxology -- which brings the new energy to effect and the new future to birth.

Walter Brueggemann
Prophetic Imagination, p. 76

Professor Brueggeman was not addressing gay and lesbian Christians when he wrote the above, but when this gay Christian read it, it stopped my eyes and made me re-read these words over and over. 


How often does the church condemn us simply because our sexual attraction does not lead to reproduction? How often do they call our loves barren, imply that our lives are fruitless? 


These questions rang in my head as I re-read Brueggemann's words again. A new question then formed. 


What if the Holy Spirit were calling us to a new fecundity, a new way of pro- creating, perhaps re-creating the church? 


I admit that I am more about questions here than answers. I'm trying to catch a vision, but so far it eludes me. Maybe it's already taking place and the vision is trying to catch me. 


Consider this. Go to just about any web search engine and look for "gay Christian" and you'll bring up site after site of individual and organization websites devoted to proclaiming God's love and acceptance of the homosexual. You'll find denominational organizations, from Eastern Orthodox to Charismatic, all trying to find ways to convince their brothers and sisters in Christ that God is not concerned with sexual orientation, but with the knowledge and love of Christ. 


The cynic in me cannot help but point out that some of these organizations may represent a small number of people. After all, all it takes to run a web site is the know- how and a server account. These sites, however, seem to reflect what the newspapers tell us. Just about any denomination on just about any given day may appear in a headline as that body struggles with gay folk in their pews and pulpits. Some denominations are silent on the topic, officially stating only that they will not tolerate homosexual clergy, but they're only fooling themselves, only ignoring the reality of real lives in their midsts. 


Something, it seems to me, is happening in the Body of Christ and we who are gay are in the thick of it. 


There is something in human nature that likes categories and walls. Are you a member of this family? This tribe? This nation? This race? Do you belong to this denomination? This club? This tax bracket? 


Our churches, made up as they are of humans, reflect this nature. There are congregations that are in-bred to the point that each Sunday is a family reunion. There are wealthy "country club" congregations and, across town, congregations made up of the folk who clean their country clubs. It has long been said that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week. I'd be lying if I said I did not battle racism in my heart, nurtured by years of growing up in a small Texas town, but I'd also be kidding myself if I said I would feel entirely at home at any church that didn't reflect my German, Lutheran heritage. As I write this, I am remembering the words of friends and acquaintances who have joined the Lutheran Church because of our theology or doctrines, but feel as if they'll never fit in because they are not of German or Scandinavian descent. 


These walls are some of our biggest sins and I sit here, guilty as anyone. 


Throughout the stories of the Bible, however, we hear again and again the admonition to welcome the stranger, to make a place for the foreigner. As we, the people of God, have failed repeatedly at this directive, I wonder if God isn't raising up a new challenge for the church. As we continue to raise up walls of race or social status, could God be raising a new sign with all these queer Christian groups? 


Queer? Yes. Yes there is an aspect of us that is "different" and "other," but it is an otherness that springs from every family, race, and nation. We come from every religion, denomination, class and status group. 


We are the other that is part of the whole same. 


I am not, by nature, a confrontational person. I tend to avoid conflict where I can. As I began my coming out process, however, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that my very existence in the church was an affront to the institution. My mere being was a conflict for the one place I've always called home. It was a very curious thing that suddenly I, who had always gone to church faithfully, was a threat just because I'd found peace with my sexuality. 


It is a powerful thing, being gay, and it is a power bestowed upon us by the very ones who fear us the most. 


This status of being part of the whole while still being different, however, is a two edged sword. With my coming out and becoming hyper sensitive to all the places that I was not welcome, I had to start examining my own walls and categories. I have to learn some productive ways to struggle with my own prejudices against transvestites and transsexuals, my fear of the homeless people I encounter almost daily, my discomfort with the wealthy. We cannot talk about wanting to be accepted if we are not confronting the boundaries of our own comfort zones. 


Still, possessing the power of the outcast who arises in the midst of the insiders, we are in a position where it behooves us to ask some serious questions and brainstorm some answers. (You will note that I do not offer answers here.) 


How might we, as the ones called non-productive and barren, the ones who are already as good as dead, bring new life into the church? How can we live lives actively pointing to the Good News "which brings the new energy to effect and the new future to birth"?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Random Thoughts on Related Events

1. The Stanford rape case, the source of internet outrage for a week, is related to the mass shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse, news of the next week that supplanted the Stanford rage. Both are examples of a patriarchy that teaches real men grab their twenty minutes of action where they can and not from another man. It's a masculine ideal that is seen as less than wholly to blame for rape and hate crimes because in one way or another the victims of the crime had it coming.

2. Everyone's a tough manly man until they're faced with a prison term or they see two men kissing. Then everyone's delicate sensibilities are shattered to where they can't cook steaks anymore or they have to go shoot up a night club or something.

3. If prison is too damaging a place for a rapist, perhaps it's time to look at our prison system.

4. Was the Pulse shooter (I don't like giving these people fame, others want to name them---I don't know which is the better notion) a deeply closeted and conflicted gay man? I see mixed reports on how his visits to Pulse prior to his rampage might be interpreted. The point is: study after study has shown that the men who are most vocally against homosexuality are also turned on by erotic images of other men. I'd say that well over half of gay men raised in a strict religious setting that condemned homosexuality could tell you stories of internalized homophobia. I grew up in a relatively liberal form of Christianity and I have plenty of tales to tell. I have no surprise to offer at the news that this shooter was at least fascinated by Pulse for some time.

5. These are random thoughts and I have many more. I haven't time for them all this week. Suffice to say, for now, that I do not see these two events as separate. Excuses, justifications, commentary that begins with "this won't be a popular opinion but . . . " are rampant after both. Both events focus an awful lot on the perpetrators and not in ways that say, "how do we be better humans, how do we raise up better men?" but in ways that say, "what they did was understandable and the victims could have avoided their fate if . . . " Rape culture, gun culture, toxic masculinity . . . We have such a hard time talking about these. We have a such a hard time acknowledging these.

But my last random thought that is related to all of this is: Fear is the enemy. Paranoia is the enemy. Jesus taught us this. The Prodigal Son story is all about that. Mr. Rogers' story about about looking for the helpers is all about this. We can't give into the utter bullshit of rape culture and gun culture and toxic masculinity. If we do, we're going to end up being the religious folk who won't help, we're going to start shooting the Samaritan who will take care of us at our lowest, bloodiest point.

When we are feeling our rage and fear and whatever else and are still able to say, That other over there, the one not like me and who, on the surface, scares me a little---that one is also made in the Image of God, then we have some hope for humanity.

But we have to put down the guns. We have to set aside our gender norms. We have to not only look for the helpers but be the helpers.

We have to realize we're the Samaritan, despised and avoided, to someone and we have to help.

Right now, we need help dismantling rape culture, gun culture, and toxic masculinity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando Shooting

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. [Mark 6: 27-33]

I used to try writing songs in my 20s, but I never got very proficient as a musician (never got past a few basic chords on a guitar), and so I moved on to other creative endeavors.

But last year sometime, the above text was part of the gospel lesson one Sunday and the "come away" sounded particularly musical to me that day, and this bubbled up. I imagined it as Jesus to his disciples and I also imagined it today as a lament for anyone who feels or sees the powers of the world destroying our heroes and our hope. Of course, that includes LGBT folk.

On June 12, 2016, a man with guns entered a club in Orlando Florida and killed 49 people and wounded that many and more beside. I had no words to talk about it. I shared a couple of things other people said on Facebook, but I didn't know what to say for myself.

Then this song that I can't play on a guitar bubbled up again. I sat on my couch and sang it for my laptop and posted it for my Facebook friends.

And casual and frumpy as I am, singing poorly and missing notes, I'm going to let this be my commentary on the Orlando shooting. For now.


Come away to a quiet place.
Come away and rest awhile. (2x)

Without joy and full of fear,
With little hope and some despair,
We'll take our grief to a lonely place.
We'll seek our solace there.
Because we still have a little hope
We'll survive what we can't bear. 


In our own nation we are exiles.
Shunned and shamed by our own tribe.
We'll heal our wounds in a lonely place,
Far from home but still alive.
We have no home. But we have breath.
In the breath we will abide.


From our exile, we will arise.
We won't always feel this way.
We'll gather strength in this lonely place,
Strength to face the coming day
When we will die as we love.
Love will have the final say.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Speak Humility Silence Love

My desert heroes, the Abbas and Ammas of the Fourth Century, valued silence. There are endless stories and sayings about this. It was a way to practice humility. It was a way to practice listening---to others as well as for God. It was a path to loving their neighbor.

I'm often quiet in a group. Sometimes it's because I'm trying to practice what my heroes taught, a lot of times it's just that I've grown increasingly socially awkward. We live in a culture that finds silence uncomfortable, even when we're alone. We keep music and television playing so we never have to experience the silence. I'm sure my silence in groups rubs up against that cultural norm and I sometimes perceive that my silent awkwardness makes people uncomfortable. Out of hospitality, another virtue among the monks, I might try to speak more. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it only increases the awkwardness.

Of course there is a time to speak.

We have these collections of "sayings" because they spoke sometimes. Sometimes it was a novice to the desert life approaching an elder, asking, "Abba, give me a word." The abba may or may not have answered the request, but they did often enough to give us a large body of literature.

They might also speak out against something happening that was patently wrong. They were big on not judging (some sayings tell us there is nothing worse than passing judgment), and so when they spoke up, I imagine it was out of some clear call to speak.

I think of people throughout history who have spoken out. Just in the last 150 years of American history, we have the voices speaking out against slavery, for women's suffrage, for civil rights . . . The famous slogan of the Act Up activists in the early years of the AIDS crisis was "Silence = Death." Just yesterday, I specifically asked, on Facebook, for my straight cis male friends to speak up more against rape culture because I'd noticed that on a few threads wherein it was discussed the only people speaking were women and gay men. An awkward but generally useful conversation thread followed.

Sometimes speaking is as awkward as keeping silent.

The point of both speaking and keeping silence is one and the same. It's not to appear the most knowledgeable or to fix the problem at hand or to avoid conflict or to prove rightness or wrongness. If the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor as self, then whether we keep silent or if we speak out, the point is to love.

It won't be an easy, sweet love. Not all the time. When it is, it will be an enormous gift.

And someone won't like it or find it too uncomfortable or otherwise judge you for your effort.

But the point  also is not to be liked and always comfortable and free of conflict. The point is to love.

Whether we speak or keep silent, we will make mistakes. We will love badly. We will fail horribly. We will not find this love to bring a peaceful existence at all times.

And we must find our way to do it. It's the greatest commandment.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Survival Mode

I was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago. It's been quite a learning experience and it's probably a never-ending learning experience. I now have, for example, sugar dips that can alter my mood. I can get pretty focused about finding my next meal, and maybe a little aggressive in that focus. In those cases, I also experience actual hunger---that stomach-growling feeling. Other times, I may not feel the hunger pangs and, emotionally, it's a quite different experience. In short, I get sad. It's a particular sort of sad, a kind of longing that doesn't focus on food. In one case, I was on a bus, on my way home, and what I experienced was an irrational homesickness, a sad, if impatient, longing to be there already, not 20 minutes away. (Yeah, homesickness from 20 minutes away.)

I think this happened a few times before I realized this sadness that was coming upon me was a need for food. When I did realize what it was, I was kind of relieved and I now knew what to do about it. I find a snack (which I've started carrying in my backpack) and I don't feel sad anymore.

So far into my life, this is the closest I can name as feeling like I'm entering into survival mode. It's a sort of desperation to get some morsel of food in me, but it's also an easily remedied desperation. In general, I have the means to find a snack at nearly any given moment.

I see people in survival mode daily in this big city. From my neighborhood to downtown where I work, homeless people are always present. I see them develop survival instincts that I have never needed. From storytelling ability to being able to pick out who is likely to help to being aware of all the places where they can get a meal, clean clothes, medical attention without insurance or money---I see them being masters of getting through each day.

But it's not only disease and poverty that sends our species into survival mode. You can see it in the CEOs drawing seven-figure salaries who are afraid that a living salary for their lowest paid workers would somehow make their life less livable. You can see it in the elected officials who vote for their own raise in salary but won't budge on minimum wage legislation. This is greed, yes, but it's a type of self-preservation---survival mode---that says living well with less, even living quite well with less, diminishes them.

Which, as many things do, brings me to the Desert Mothers and Fathers. These desert monks and hermits developed their disciplines (sometimes quite extreme by our standards but sometimes in response to their current understanding of science and psychology) as an effort to control what they called "passions." They didn't use the word in the way that we do. We speak of passion as something we're really into (a passion for music) or else sexual desire (a passionate kiss that may lead to other passionate activities). For the abbas and ammas, passion was something else. Passions were everyday things that might get in the way of relationship with God and each other.

In fact, the earliest versions of the list we now call The Seven Deadly Sins were originally called passions. Gluttony was hunger that stood in the way of relationship. Wrath was an anger that rose to harm. Lust was sexual attraction that turned into obsession and objectification. Greed and envy were natural desires for personal comfort or attributes that became harmful to others. Sloth was known as acedia, a sort of detachment, not an entirely bad thing, that was magnified into indifference or lack of caring or suffocating boredom. The worst passion for the desert dwellers was pride, which we today might think of as healthy self-esteem but they saw as considering oneself better than everyone else. They really valued seeing other people as being better than themselves.

So, in short, what we might call normal human emotions and even needs, they saw as impulses to be controlled for the good of other people. It was only through this extreme (to us) impulse control that they felt they could fulfill the gospel commandment to love one another as God loved them.

Standing in the way of their ability to control their passions was, as they understood it, the fear of death. It's the fear that if we don't get enough food, enough sex, enough wealth, we will die.

It is a sort of survival mode mentality that they fought against. They fought it by saying, directly or indirectly, "If I do not have this thing, I will not die." (Or, perhaps more typically, "I have already died in Christ, why would I need this?")

I don't know how to convince millionaires to alter their thinking by saying, "If I only made six figures, I would not die." Really, that's not my immediate responsibility. I've never been remotely near a situation where that would be a personal concern and the abbas and ammas also have a lot to say about judging other people.

But over the last couple of decades, I have actually used this mantra when faced with one want or another, something that I knew I didn't need. I'm hardly an ascetic, but sometimes reminding myself what is and isn't a life and death situation----and I've had very few life and death situations----helps me detach from some wants. My success rate is variable. I'm no role model of self-denial. Still it's a tool I have in my toolbox for when I know I don't need one thing or another.

It is true that there are situations where if we don't get certain things, we will die. If I don't get food at specific times, it's not outside the realm of possibility that I could do real damage to myself due to my diabetes. At the same time, when I am feeling my sugar levels drop, I can also keep myself away from panic or aggression by reminding myself, "I can make it home or to this store or restaurant long before I'm in actual danger. I am not in immediate danger of dying."

It seems to me that we all live as if we're, at some level, in survival mode. Whether it's stockpiling wealth or being unable to resist or just put off a purchase until a better time (how credit cards get us into trouble), we all go around not really believing that we can do without some things and we will not die.

Most of us don't always---or even often---have to be in survival mode. What the ammas and abbas were trying to live was an ethos of doing without so that we might open up to love and service.

This ethos, I believe, can still speak to us 17 centuries later.