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Recently, while a group of us were weeding our garden, I mentioned to one of my neighbors that a weed is just a plant that grows where we don’t want it.
There are times when I have struggled to locate myself as a gay man within the Christian church. And by times, I mostly mean my whole life.
I have wrestled with my own body. I have joined others in calling my desires, and my very self, wounded and broken and, in the process, ended up with deep wounds. I have tried to wedge myself into performance of gendered cultural norms and heterosexual expectations in a way not dissimilar to Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in attempts to fit into the coveted glass slipper.
In this wrestling, I’ve had to face the question: “What if there just isn’t any room for me here?” It’s a legitimate concern in a world shaped the way that ours is. It’s a question that for many LGBTIQ people, has led them out of the church, and for some has led them to flee their homes and countries for their very lives.
And here the language of agri-culture helps me explore the dimensions of culture that lead to the kinds of normativities that leave people truly questioning our own legitimacy as human beings, members of society, and of the body of Christ.
See, agriculture; cultivation, is a method of preferential treatment and selection for desired characteristics. It’s a technology predicated on predictability. The problem with a tightly controlled, predictable agricultural system is that it can never account for the unpredictability of weather patterns. Selecting (or even genetically engineering) seeds against a fungus or pest may work for a while, but when the fungus reproduces thousands of times within a single growing season of a tomato, the rate of adaptation is always in favor of the wild over the agricultural. It’s allowing for multiple aberrant traits that ups the chances for future survival of a species.
Similarly, culture develops and shifts in ways that promote security—family structures, economic systems, gender norms, models of healthcare, educational systems, politics, language, state borders, racial group identifyers—all can function, in varying ways, as means of shaping persons in a way that maintains stability among a shared group. Stability may feel good, but it’s not the same thing as viability.
And perhaps this is why the story of forbidden love–love that crosses beyond prescribed sensibilities–is so compelling to us: it taps into the wildness of desire—the deep longing to be seen and known in the particularity of our personhood, understood in the matrix of our relationship to but not defined by our cultural identity markers.
In the Ancient Near Eastern world, the various cultures developed systems of ritual sacrifice that were meant to restore order and relationship between humans and the divine. These rituals were predicated on the notion that people generally did not fit into right relationship with God and must, through violent means, be made fit in order to maintain the desired order needed for these early societies to exist.
The God of the Bible shows up within this matrix and spends the vast majority of the Bible trying to approach people who are afraid of God. Later, when these people initiate ritual sacrifices, God goes to great length to tell the people that God despises these sacrifices and wants them to use their energy caring for the people that their society rejects as being outside the norms of their systems.
Finally, God becomes human, so as to approach us on our own terms—there really is no greater story of forbidden love: the holy God who becomes human to be with humans. And this too, is not accepted by society; by religion; by the cultivating forces of empire. That God offers blessing when there is no sacrifice is so offensive that Jesus must be killed and then his offensive love is normatized by interpreting his death as necessary sacrifice to uphold the cultural and religious norms of exclusivity.
Through Jesus, God made the radical declaration of making the world sacred. Like a tailor custom fitting clothing to our human bodies instead of urging us to conform to the dimensions of manufactured clothing, God unwound the concept of the garden until every thing in all creation was neither weed nor wheat, but all beloved creation, drawn close to God through Christ.
It is human culture, rather than holiness that needs so much to be protected and maintained. Culture is maintained by the technology of predictability; of hierarchy; of normativity. Holiness is bestowed as an extension of love unto that which is beloved—that which seen for what it is, is welcomed into relationship with God who cannot be harmed or undone by any evil–not even death itself. Thus the words from heaven in Peter’s vision in Acts which led to recognition of God’s blessing on Gentiles as well as Jews: “Call no thing unclean that I have made holy.”
At the liturgy that I attend at my Episcopal church, our community gathers around the table during Eucharist. For the last several months I have been having the imaginative vision of the table having wheels. In this vision, each week, as the people gather around the table, it begins to roll around to the edges of the circle, and each time it comes to someone who is on the far edge of the circle, the entire congregation shifts our positions so that we recenter around the table and those people who had been marginalized during the previous formation.
Of course the table never completely comes to a stop. Each time the community moves in response to the table, the table identifies who has been left on the edges of this new configuration and, moving again towards the edges, pushes us into another iteration of the dance. In the Episcopal liturgy, we ask the Spirit to allow the bread and wine at the table to be for us the Body and Blood of Jesus, so that we can be the body of Jesus in the world. I believe that this vision of the table is, in essence, about the presence of Christ leading us to move to the edges of what we call sacred and reclaim the whole of creation as holy; as God’s beloved.
In this logic of the God who moves towards us, I never have to ask if I there is room for me at the table, because the moment there is not room for me at the table is the very moment in which God brings the table to meet me where I am already located. When the congregation pushes me to the edge, the table finds me and Jesus calls me blessed.
Grace this abundant is repulsive to the normative logic that governs the cultures and societies that have so shaped our religious understanding. It is as unpredictable and as adaptable as a blight, mold, virus, or fungus.
It is like abandoning the well weeded garden to collect a feast from among the fields of weeds. At its heart, this grace is not about making the weeds into cultured specimens. It’s about blessing the wild tenacity of the weeds that lets them thrive despite the herbicides, the cultivation, and the lack of irrigation.
It’s a reclamation of holiness as blessing and gift rather than categorical requirements for cultural conformity.
So what about Christian formation? Indeed! What does it mean to be formed like Jesus, who went around blessing those who didn’t meet the religious standards? What does it mean to follow the whole of Romans 12 and not just an “us vs. the world” understanding of verse 2? If we read that whole chapter, it becomes evident that the working definition of holiness is one of generosity, compassion, and movement towards others with grace rather than hostility.
These days, I don’t wonder so much about whether or not there is room for me at the table. I’m learning to care a lot less about whether or not other folks believe there is room for me at the table. I know, in a deeply tangible way, that the table has found me—that the person of Jesus who is present in the celebration of the table, has already moved toward me and called me blessed.
Instead, I find myself joyfully munching on bread and wine and wondering where that wandering table is going to lead me next, and who God is going to declare as holy that will shock my own cultured sensibilities.