Thank God for Sex

If you haven’t made your way through the internets and over to the site thankgodforsex.org, allow me to offer this plug.

Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers and a team of great folks have been putting together a bunch of resources addressing issues of sexuality, gender, and shame that have emerged from what’s come to be called the purity culture of Evangelical Christianity in USAmerica. However, the resources and stories you’ll find on the website speak not only to shame from this particular context but from a wide variety of contexts. Whether you or someone you love has experienced shaming messages about gender or sexuality from church, school, family, or culture (pro-tip, it’s always all of the above), you should check out the site sometime.

Also, while you are there, you can listen to the audio from a couple of panels that I was on. The first one (where you can hear me talk about the Bible and gay porn) was about religious sexual shame, and the second (where you can hear me talk about atonement theology and masturbation) was about singleness. Both can be found by clicking here.

While you are there you can watch interview videos of folks telling their stories of the messages they received about sex, sexuality, and gender, and how they are engaging grace and goodness to live into authentic, healthy sexuality.

 

I did one of these videos as well. You can watch it below and you can see the videos of others by clicking here.

I’d encourage you to share thankgodforsex.org as a resource for those who might find it helpful.

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I’m available for conversations related to any of my work that appears on this blog. If you’re interested in sharing a story or getting together for a cup of coffee in person or via skype, let me know. 

I’m also available to speak in forums, churches, classrooms, and conferences about my experiences and theological approach to conversations about LGBTIQ persons in the Christian church. 

You can contact me directly by sending a message in the form below. If you want to make a public comment on this post, scroll on down to the box at the bottom of the page that says “Leave a Reply.”

 

An Open Letter–Apology to Conservative Evangelicals Upset About Worldvision

It’s come to my attention this week (read, my Facebook feed exploded) that, just in case there was any shadow of a doubt cast by Fred finally stepping offstage, the Evangelical right still find the gays–to use the technical, theological term– “eww, gross–don’t-let-them-work-near-us-feeding-poor-children-or-their-cooties-will-send-us-straight(s)-to-hell!”

So, with that clarified, I realized that I haven’t fulfilled my end of the social contract.

And, as is the fashionable thing to do, I was left with no choice but to apologize, in an open letter, to no one in particular, who wouldn’t be reading my blog anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s standard interpretation for Matthew 18 reconciliation protocol these days.

Penitence

Here goes:

Dear Sirs and Madams,

I am sorry. I have let you down. You have responded with swift fury and fervor by canceling your support of child sponsorships, following the way of Jesus, who made certain the fish and the loaves came from a heterosexual boy’s lunch sack before feeding the hungry multitudes. And how have I responded? I haven’t even been on a decent gay date lately.

While Worldvision has said that it would be okay with employing legally married partnered LGBTQ persons rapidly back pedaling on employing legally married LGBTQ persons, without making any statement whatsoever about its theological judgement of such relationships, I’ve moved no closer to my own gay marriage that might justify your moral outrage. I realize that I have let you down.

Unfortunately, my celebrity husband, Rufus Wainwright, is already taken, and I’ve been a bit busy this week grading papers and getting my garden planted (to be sure, I am planning to donate some veggies to the food bank–but don’t worry, I’ll let you know which one so you can withdraw your support of my gay Broccoli).

I really want to do my part to support your outrage, but it’s a tough dating scene out there for a seminary trained Christian looking to get gay married AND gainfully employed at a non-profit, doing good as a means of destroying Christendom.

Again, I’m sorry. I’ve let you down, and I know better. That homosexual lifestyle of mine isn’t going to destroy society all on its own–I’ve got to work it! I’ll try harder next week.

In the mean time, you keep fighting the good fight. I wouldn’t want to see you slow down enough to wonder why you can’t seem to enjoy that the God of the universe doesn’t want to smite humanity.

Also, just so you know, I’ve heard that between 3 and 10% of the kids sponsored, even through straight-family-friendly child sponsorships are probably gay as well, so watch yourselves, even if you switch teams, you still might be sponsoring a little lesbian, and Jesus might not forgive you for that.

Peace,

Daniel

QCT 20: Surrendering to Vulnerability; Non-violence Starts at Home

This is the 20th post in the series Queering the Christian Table. To learn about the series and start at the beginning click on the tab at the top of the main page. 

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I have been writing for a year about Christian hospitality, exploring what it means for God’s table, spread throughout our world and our local communities, to be a place where all are welcome. I have been writing about the practice of love and compassion as taught and lived by Jesus.

Ultimately, I cannot see a way to read the gospel accounts of Jesus and come away believing anything other than that he was radically committed to compassion and modeled what it looks like to love neighbors relentlessly and to love enemies until we recognize them as neighbors.

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I recently had the opportunity to hear Bernice King speak of her father’s legacy and the King Center’s commitment to advancing the practice of non-violence. While I was deeply moved by her connection of this aspect of MLK’s legacy to the gospel, I was just as deeply saddened by her omission and erasure of Bayard Rustin from her telling of events. While he was not the only one, Rustin, an African American Gay man, was an essential figure in convincing MLK to give up personal weapons in his home and to take non-violence from being a tactic of the civil rights movement to being a core principle and way of the movement.

It is hard to imagine history having much memory for this one Baptist preacher named Martin, had he not made that shift from clinging to personal protection, to the radical surrender of attempted defenses that invited and demanded justice from his oppressors.

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Over the past few days, I have seen articles condemning, erasing, and forgiving Fred Phelps–the civil rights lawyer turned anti-gay protesting preacher who just passed away.

For me, the story of Matt Shepard’s death came at such a formative stage in my life and the deep memory of how helpless I was to protect myself from such hate is held together with the faces of the men who beat Matt to death and the church members who showed up at his funeral to declare that he was in hell.

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And then, this week, a mudslide killed a dozen people and more are still missing, only miles from where I live. And, as I drive across the bridge over the Duwamish river and see the mountain over our city, I tremble to think of the human loss that will certainly happen from a wall of mud that will fill this valley when she erupts.

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And I remember again that we are each so fragile and so small. There is nothing we can do protect ourselves or the ones we love from this fact.

As someone who was sexually abused, I know something of the vigilance born out of the inability to protect myself. I, like many survivors, am one of the fiercest protectors of those that I love and those who are vulnerable. It is a gift born out of recognition of danger, and it is a defense that can help us soothe the aching truth that there is little more to being human than learning to grieve what we have lost and learning to love despite the fragility of our connections to life and one another.

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The practice of non-violence is not, by any means, unique to the LGBTIQ community. However, it is certainly a Queer practice within a culture that has normatized the right to “stand your ground”–a “right” that disproportionately dehumanizes black bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies–people who do not hold the genetic lottery ticket that birthed them into a position of social prestige.

Within a social system of deep inequity, there is a long story of harm that has written itself across our individual and collective stories. Our bodies are marked with the gut aching realization that we cannot protect ourselves from harm. Some, who have enough privilege to hold out belief in self-preservation, cling to their right to self-defense like it was a concealed weapons permit or a constitutional amendment, or a divine command to reserve communion only for those who are in the club.

But the reality is that we are, all of us, fragile; all of us are marked in some way by the memory of not being able to stop some harm against our personhood. And how we respond to that reality is the marker of whether we will open ourselves up to love or attempt to protect our fragile state of numb survival.

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I hear a lot about scandals in churches. For a solid twenty years there’s been a growing panic in USAmerican churches about whether or not our congregations can survive a culture that’s growing complex enough that people are willing turn to less abusive sources in order to get their spiritual needs met.

I’m convinced that the only role for the church to legitimately play in our society is to follow Jesus in the difficult practice of laying down our self-defenses, learning to grieve and suffer with those who have known violence in our social system (and at our own hands), and through radical non-violence, learn how to return to life.

By learning to retell our stories through the narrative of vulnerable surrendering love that, through compassion, releases the right to our callouses of defensiveness, we become people, gathered at a table–all of us equally dependent on sustenance and compassion from a God who loves our fragile bodies and stories.

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The deep need of some in Christian churches to defend against what is unknown or feared, comes out of an understanding of holiness that has been devilishly twisted by the completely understandable lack of confidence in the goodness of God.

When people who have been harmed are unable to grieve that harm in order to recover and learn to be vulnerable again, then they will mount remarkable defenses in order to convince themselves that they are going to be okay.

When it is apparent that your God lets evil wreck your life, it’s an understable response to try to redirect lightning bolts at someone other than yourself. This is a natural trauma response but it’s not Christian theology.

The Christian story is that even if you are God’s one and perfect son, you will still be killed unjustly.

And the Christian story is that following Jesus means radical acceptance of the stranger, knowing full well that such acceptance requires vulnerability that will cost you everything. The Christian story also claims that you can only really start living when you embrace this ghastly path, where you will learn to let your heart break with compassion while holding the impossible hope that somehow God can bring you (and perhaps even the church) back from a place of certain death.

The Christian God does not prevent harm.

There is no easy way around this. Our confession is that God enters the reality of the human situation and offers compassion and love that opens a space in the middle of death so that a fragile and vulnerable life can flourish.

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This path begins with grief. It begins with naming our inability to protect ourselves from the harm that has been done to us. It begins with the kindness and self-compassion that bears witness to the mystery of our survival (especially when there are others who have not survived). And we grow these capacities by receiving love from others who see our faces. This is the way of God who becomes human to live with us in our human places.

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Once we learn to breathe through waves of grief, then we can learn to surrender to the tender and tenacious life that grows out of vulnerability.

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I do not think that this way of Jesus is disappearing in our society.

I think it is happening in therapists’ offices, foster homes, gay bars, community gardens, AA meetings, and yoga studios. It’s happening like yeast, culturing its way through dough. And I think it can happen in churches too, when we cultivate practices of vulnerable hospitality rather than patroling our borders, and participating in the industrial defense complex that prevent us from surrendering to the vulnerable love that is the source of resurrection.

Matt Shepard Meets Fred Phelps in the Afterlife

I wrote the following piece almost two years ago. I was in a poetry class trying to write a persona piece in the voice of Fred Phelps.

Ultimately, I was never able to make the piece work, but eventually I wrote this as monologue in the voice of Matt Shepard. I wrote it, imagining that Matt was there to welcome Fred’s soul as he crossed into another plane. What words would he offer this man whose life has become synonymous with words of hate both from and towards him?

When I saw this post by Brandon Wallace, I thought about this and figured I would share. The thing that became so clear to me as I researched Fred for the original persona piece was that this is a man who needs to grieve–and man who made a life out of sabotaging grief.

I can hardly conceive of a more Queer or Christian thing to do than to graciously face grief with someone who has harmed you out of their own self-hatred. I think we all need to give and receive compassion like this. If I had the resources, I would organize an angel-wing demonstration of compassion for Fred’s funeral. I want to live in such a world of radical, fierce forgiveness. Until then, may we cultivate imagination for such a reality.

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Matt Shepard Meets Fred Phelps in the Afterlife:

“Come here, old man. Sit down on this bench and rest your arms.

You’ve been carrying those goddamn signs so long, I know your

shoulders have to be dying for a rest.             I know, it takes a while to get used to—

after thinking you’d be alone forever and now all these people,

but sit down on this bench. There’s something that you need to see.

 

There—behind the family and the casket, across the street.

You can just start to make out the faces—they’re all here for you. They’ve

been carting around those big-ass wings for years, to all those funerals.

 

It was for the families, sure; to let them grieve, but

mostly is was, then, like it is now, for you. Just look at their faces.

Crying tears of relief, anger, forgiveness                    every one of them opening

their arms, like mine, spread out on that fence, just

waiting for you           to recognize you’re welcome in this world.

 

The fellow there in Dorothy drag—next to the soldier—his sister

didn’t speak to him for thirteen years after he came out. She said,

it was an abomination that he loved another man. But when

her husband started beating their child, her brother’s lover insisted

that she come to live with them. She’s the one who painted white

the wings worn by the little girl holding Dorthy’s hand.

 

I couldn’t really believe it when I got here. I had thought the pain would

end with death, but on either side of that doorway, we all have to reckon

with our grief. Sometimes it’s too much to face in a single lifetime and

we lose our voices protesting what we cannot understand and sometimes

it’s only tears that wash away the bloody mess that hides our faces from the world.

 

Rest. A sea of angel wings has been waiting to sweep you

off your feet. Still your voice and let your heart be ravaged by the swollen

chords of grief your yelling throat has sought to silence.”

Who Runs the World? – International Women’s Day

As a cis-gender, gay male who writes a bit about intersectional oppression, I tend to take something of a pragmatic approach to engaging the queer fluidity of gender within the reality of intersecting local and global social landscapes that have, throughout time, proven to devalue the personhood of those on the feminine end of the human spectrum.

That was a really long sentence to say, I feel committed to wrestling with how best to celebrate women today (or any day).

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Back in November I was flying from Seattle to Baltimore to attend the American Academy of Religion conference. On the plane, I was doing some long overdue personal life homework, reading bell hooks’ book feminism is for everyone.

I have to say, that while I live in Seattle, write this blog, and enjoy a certain amount of liberty to express my personal engagement of gender with ease, I am not without self-awareness on a day-to-day basis of how I come across as a gay man. I am aware that there are ways that I move, dress, inflect my voice, and present my body that transgress the expected norms of someone with my genitalia. In other words, I know how to work my male privilege and “butch it up” in order to be heard, safe, or granted access. And doing this comes at a cost to my humanity and the humanity of those whose bodies cannot access that male privilege.

So, when I boarded that plane in November–hell, when I packed my bags–I was making deliberate choices to embrace, as freely as I was able, the feminine parts of myself. Given the freedom of a week away from my workplace and normal routine, I felt less of a need to guard my behavior. All that is to say, I was looking pretty fabulous and allowing myself, in public, to move and act with the kind of freedom in my body that is often reserved for my time with close friends. This is something I’ve been actively working through and I had decided to use this time as practice for caring for myself through caring less how others perceive me (this also has a lot to do with my INFJ personality type which often leaves me more aware of external social dynamics than of my own inner world).

In the middle of all that, sitting on the plane, I took notice of the flight attendant noticing me. The attendant appeared to be about a decade older than me and, given their choice of uniform and engagement with social norms, I’m presuming they engage the world as a woman. As she pushed the drink cart down the aisle, she stopped it just behind me so that she was standing parallel to my right shoulder. I had pulled out the airline magazine to check the price of a whiskey, which I intended to mix with seltzer water and the peel of the organic blood orange I had in my bag (yup, I did that), which meant that the bell hooks book was lying on my seatback tray, the cover in clear view.

Glancing up, I saw the attendant look from the book to me and then, quite literally, bend halfway over and turn her head sideways to look more closely at the cover of the book. I really didn’t think much of the little interaction–I passed her my piece of plastic, she gave me my beverage, and the cart was pulled farther down the aisle. It wasn’t until an hour later that I really started thinking about what was happening.

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The drink service was over and we were somewhere over the Midwest, when the attendant was walking briskly up the aisle. Without breaking stride, as if she were reaching into a row to turn off a light over a sleeping passenger, she slipped two small bottles out of her pocket and dropped them, without a word onto my tray and the tray of the man sitting next to me. Startled, we noticed that they were duplicates of our earlier drink orders. The stranger next to me shrugged and said, “okay.” And that’s when my mind kicked into high gear.

What was going on? Why did we, out of everyone on the plane, get free refills of our overpriced airline booze, delivered without a single word from this woman? I couldn’t help but fill in a narrative inside my head.

It started with questions–was it because of the book? Well, of course it was! But why? What experience had this woman had that led her to interact with me in this way? Was it that a person presenting as male was reading about feminism? Was it that a gay man seemed to give a shit enough about women to read a single book? She had no idea how I was engaging with what I read, for all she knew, I could have hated the book and been reading it as a requirement for some sort of class.

And what about the booze for the other guy? Did she assume we were together? Was he benefiting for being feminist-adjacent? Or was his simply placation booze–a sort of hush money for the hetero-man so he wouldn’t say anything protesting his neighbor’s free lunch?

I had no real way of answering these questions, but I settled on her gesture being somewhere on a spectrum of solidarity to gratitude–a metaphorical fist bump, meant to reinforce behavior that she saw as beneficial in the world. Who really knows what she was thinking/feeling?

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It took some time before I could explain in words just what I was feeling. Why was it that I felt both perplexed and annoyed by her kind gesture?

As I tried to explain it, weeks later, to a friend, “I don’t get a cookie just for being decent!” That my action was noteworthy at all fills me with a measure of grief. You see, I have a vested interest in the well-being of women in the world–not because I experience intersecting oppression because of masculine normativity; not because I have a mother, sister, and nieces that I want to see loved and celebrated and treated with every human dignity; but because every person is a person and deserves to be treated as such in society and community.

My celebration of women must play out in my day-to-day activities in the world–standing up to oppression, cultivating compassion and curiosity, and seeking diverse human flourishing–these things are acts of theo-political commitment; a joining with God in calling good every member of our global community. This commitment is a reassertion of my belief that governments and policies may grant privileges in the name of rights, but the right to be treated as full persons is a foregone conclusion given the very existence of our breathing bodies in this world.

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So how do I celebrate? Do I use words like “strong” and “fierce” to name the goodness of women–words that derive their power by their apparent unexpectedness given dominant perceptions of women? Do I use words like “beautiful” and “vulnerable” to describe myself and other masculine bodies in order to counteract the narrow definitions of masculinity that I believe reinforce misogyny? And can I find a way to celebrate the dignity and humanity of each person while acknowledging the particular and shared cultural experiences we each have of navigating gender and bodies that are different and similar to one another?

Yes. I do all these things–and more. I laugh and play and thank God for the goodness of the masculine and feminine in all of us–for all the gorgeous ways we engage these dynamics within and outside of ourselves, and for the ways that our bodies lead us into our engagement with the world. I do all this with the tenacious commitment to stand against oppression in any form, and so, I celebrate the women in my life; women whose bodies are faab*ulous and women whose bodies and ways of navigating gender contradict social expectations. I celebrate the feminine within myself and the masculine as well, and I seek to live in a way that allows me and everyone else to engage gender freely, as a means of bringing the gift of our own personhood into community in the world.
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*Female Assigned At Birth (a term noting our cultural tendency to enculturate and enforce strict gender norms on the basis of genitals from the time of birth)

Here, All Dwell Free–The Story of my Ink


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In the year following my divorce, I found myself wrestling with ways to shape words around the excruciating experience of life unfolding out of a place of death. In sorrow and lament, the day before my then-spouse moved her belongings out of our home—a space where I would remain—I used ash to write these words across my walls:

“I will not abandon you to the grave

nor will I let my holy one see decay.”

I reached back for ancient words—a psalm of both promise and lament. I needed the chiastic structure of Hebrew poetry to hold the weight of naming the truth of death and its being taken up and transformed into life. In the words of the first line, there is an acknowledgement of God’s presence in the reality of death. In the second phrase, the one who is dead is renamed—called holy, and God lays claim on them, promising to intervene against ruin.

I needed these words.

I needed images, and story, and a place to lay my grieving heart.

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It was during this time that I was reading a book entitled, Here All Dwell Free by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. The book is her close reading of the fairy tale of the Handless Maiden, in which she offers a spiritual and feminist reading of this ancient tale as a story by which we might begin to tell our own stories of redemption.

I experienced it as nothing less than a story of gospel.

During the same time that I was reading this book, I was writing an icon of Julian of Norwich that I would give to Jocelyn as a gift of blessing upon our divorce. Like the maiden in the story, Julian is a strong woman who, out of her own spiritual journey offers spiritual care to those around her. In my mind, I can imagine Julian’s anchorage doorway lentil marked with the same words as the cottage in the fairy tale, “Here all dwell free.”

This is the icon of Julian, which has found its way back into my care while Jocelyn has been traveling abroad.

The full story of the Handless Maiden can be found in collections of the Grimm fairytales. The story, however, has existed in many cultures with a number of variations. Its persistence speaks to the compelling engagement with questions of human (and particularly, feminine) agency.

In the story, the daughter of a woodsman is bargained off to the devil and—though versions differ on the plot points—eventually escapes with her life, but loses her hands (usually as the result of a male relative’s desire for self-preservation). She finds herself, eventually led by an angel into a garden where she eats fruit from trees belonging to the royal family.

This eventually lands her married to a prince who, out of love, fashions for her a set of beautiful, though non-functional, silver hands. Somewhere along the way, the prince goes off to war and leaves the maiden who is pregnant with child. Letters are sent back and forth between the two, but are intercepted by the devil and through confusion, twists, and turns, the handless woman is forced to flee for her life with her new child—whom she names “filled with grief.” Upon returning from battle, the prince learns of the devil’s trickery and begins searching for the woman and child.

Meanwhile, she has been led by an angel into the woods, to a cottage which, over the door, is marked with the words “Here all dwell free.” It is in this place that she learns to care for the child on her own until, one day, the child’s life is at risk. In the moment of need she is told by the angel to reach out and rescue the child, and in that instant, as she acts out of love, despite the impossibility of the situation, her own hands of flesh are re-grown.

The chiastic mirroring structure of the story is poignant. Where her own father removed her hands to save his own life, the woman re-grows her hands through the act of saving her child’s life.

It’s only after this transformation that her husband finds her living at the cottage in the woods where she declares herself to be the maiden, but no longer in need of the hands he had fashioned for her. And it is from there that they begin their life together as a family.

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There is something mysteriously holy about this story.

There is something of gospel in the notion of life unfolding; re-growing, through the increase in capacity to love in the very place where harm has wreaked havoc in one’s life. I could not escape the sense that this woman was a picture of human thriving—of becoming more whole.

A phrase I had scribbled in my bedside notebook, months before, returned to me:

“I am more myself in every way.”

What other way is there for humans to live into the phrase that the bible’s genesis account places in the mouth of God, upon gazing at all of creation—“It is very good.” Irenaeus famously said it this way:

“The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Learning to tell our own stories along the arc lines of stories that move towards wholeness is the heart of spiritual practice. We lay claim to that which we are becoming and that which we do not yet fully see. It is an entryway into life that only comes through the full acknowledgement of loss and death, and through the movement to give and receive love in the places of greatest harm.

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As a man who has carried in my body the anguish of family and religion that flung the word “abomination” like an arrow at my soul, I know something of the sensation of being cut off from my body and my agency in the world.I know something of what it means to be bargained off as a sacrifice for the sake of self-preservation by social and familial units that are supposed to exist to offer protection and blessing. And I know, only in part, some of what it means to have to flee in order to have space for feminine agency to flourish under a culture of harmful norms of masculinity.

Growing up gay, I was led to believe that the wounds I bore were a result of my difference, rather than a result of the harm inflicted on me by those who could not bless my difference. I desperately sought ways to live in that world—wholeheartedly loving and engaging as best I could. This led me into a beautiful and complicated relationship with a dear woman who, through our marriage and divorce, offered me the space and experience of grace necessary to face my deep wounds and awaken the deadened limbs of my human desire.

When I married, I never could have imagined divorcing. Primarily, because I had no imagination for my own human flourishing—I had no vocabulary for my own humanity being “fully alive.” I had grown up in a culture that taught me the best that was possible was to accommodate the harm I had endured—to learn to manipulate my silver hands in predictable ways, and forget about the desire to feel my own skin lead me into my work of love in the world.

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When I began to believe in the goodness that might lie ahead of me, it did not alleviate the sorrow. Indeed, the grief of grave and abandonment have never been eclipsed, simply met with just as much fullness of life and love. I cannot explain such goodness. I can only following the arc-lines of a narrative that draws me further into the story.

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As I approached my 29th birthday, I began to contemplate what it would look like to mark my body—to lay claim to myself in a way that said:

“I belong to me. My life is my gift in the world and this is the trajectory upon which I am set.”

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So this, is the story of my ink. It is a story of marking my body with a promise to myself and a commitment of the kind of audacious love which I hope to fail towards accomplishing during my time in this world.

The tree is reminiscent, in shape, to a tree of life—but its roots and branches have not yet touched, as I am still, yet unfolding. It is a hazel tree—to go with the hazelnut on my wrist—the seed and fruit on my outstretched hand never disconnected from the source at my heart.

The tree represents the place where transformation and re-growth occurs, and the hazel grows fractally, always becoming more itself in every way as it extends into the world. Traditionally, the hazel tree is associated with wisdom and thin places where the spiritual breaks in as a source of life in the world.

In Celtic myths it is associated with the source waters of life, and it is said that seven hazels stand over those waters, where their nuts drop into the water and are eaten by salmon, and those who eat the salmon are gifted with wisdom.

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Over the tree are the words from the fairytale of the handless maiden,

“Here, all dwell free.”

For the tattoo, I debated for months about the punctuation of this phrase.I realize that tattoo punctuation is a topic of great debate. As someone collegiately trained in English grammar and linguistics, I can make a clear case for and against the comma. For such a short phrase that stands alone, the comma is not essential. Indeed, many versions of the fairytale itself do not include the comma.

However, given my own story and the realities of living in this world as a gay man, I know that existing freely is not something that is simply given in any particular social setting or relationship. Thus, including the comma, I am making a declaration of my own agency to act out of love and extend to myself and others the human freedom I deserve and require.

While I cannot say with certainty how I will be received by others, I am assured of my welcome in the world and within my own skin. I chose to emphasize the placedness of belonging for myself and the open handedness with which I seek to love others in my life. Written across my heart, these words are a prophetic call and promise to all the parts of myself and my desired stance to all who wander within reach of my limbs, that here, all dwell free.

This is an impossible confession of love that promises to expand and break my heart, and yet, I know it to be true that my capacity to love can be expanded even in the places of greatest breaking.

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Finally, the hazelnut on my wrist came from one of the 14 ecstatic visions of Saint Julian of Norwich. In her vision, she sees a hazelnut in her outstretched palm and asks God what it means. God responds that just as Julian sees the hazelnut in her hand, God sees the entire world, exactly as it is—and God loves the world exactly for what it is.

After choosing the hazelnut and the hazel tree, I then learned of a Welsh saint named Melor (also called Melorius), whose hagiography (story of a holy person) shares mythic origins with the story of the handless maiden.

Melor’s parents were rulers somewhere in Britain or Wales around 500 C.E. and his uncle, seeking the throne, had the boy’s parents put to death. To keep him from inheriting the throne, his uncle cut off Melor’s right hand and left foot. However, the people of the kingdom loved the boy so much that they fitted him with a silver hand and a brass foot.

There are multiple versions of Melor’s silver hand re-animating, several involving hazelnuts. In one of them, the boy is out in the woods with a companion foraging and when his companion places a hazelnut into the silver hand, it becomes animated and begins to function fully, like a human hand.

On my wrist, a hazelnut--where the stories of the Handless Maiden and Saint Julian of Norwich's vision come together through the story of Saint Malor.

When I came across the story of Melor, I was astonished and pleased that, somehow, my intuitive connection between the handless maiden and Julian of Norwich seemed to have circled back around through this third story of regrowth and blessed givenness of humanness—in a way, its own chiastic mirroring and intensification.

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While I was designing the tattoo, I wrote this song as a persona piece, telling my own story through the story of the Handless Maiden (who I call the Lizard Handed Maiden, since the regrowth of her hands does seem to be the most important plot point of the story).

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For all that this tattoo is to me, I owe a debt of gratitude to the following people, both dead and alive. I am grateful to have my story witnessed and my body marked by each of them:

Don Bowdle and Sabord Woods: For introducing me to the ancient literary structure of chiasm.

Julian of Norwich: For her conviction to love and offer herself to the world and model the vocation I find I myself drawn towards. “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Gertrud Mueller Nelson: For introducing me to the story of the handless maiden. For your gift of reframing the world through liturgical arts and thoughtful spiritual engagement with stories of gospel. And for the personal kindness that extended to a dear one in my life when that person was in need of a compassionate witness.

Saint Melor: Because whether or not they’re historically accurate (whatever that means) the stories about you bear truth about what restoration can look like when we give and receive love in a community.

The hazelnut trees of West Seattle: For offering me the opportunity to witness wild fractal growth firsthand and for giving me a chance to grow to trust that a place can bring forth nourishment where I did not expect it.

Phil Nellis: For your beautiful artistry in designing the tattoo. Your work communicates lightness and gravitas with the sincerity of one who knows what it is to suffer both sorrow and love. And for the enjoyable collaboration around my finicky insistence about the growth structure of wild hazelnut trees.

Suzanna Fisher at Damask Tattoo in Queen Anne: For your speed, skill, and excellent work as an artist, translating Phil’s work beautifully and adding your own touches. And for your guidance on finding the font that spoke to the spirit of the tattoo.

Ashley Van Otterloo: For listening to me process and reading my ramblings while I was designing it.

Jesse and Jeffrey Batstone: For helping me process through things as I was changing my mind to put the hazelnut on my right wrist—a choice to step into my own balance and boldness of offering myself and the fruit of my heart into the world.

Jarred (my therapist): For bearing kind and compassionate witness along the way with me as I have been filled with grief and have experienced deep-rooted unfolding of growth.

Jocelyn Tidwell: For more than words will ever say; for modeling what it is to embrace life more fully and love more open handedly than the vast majority of humans I have ever encountered.