Take Me to Church: Finding Space in Grief for the Life I Have Been Given [QCT 23]

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to the music video to the Hozier song, “Take Me to Church.” I still haven’t forgiven her.

Artistically, it’s delicious. Anyone haunted by anthemic spiritual music should get chills the first time Hozier-Byrne riffs a phrase of amens. And his decidedly provocative lyrics call for an embodied theology that takes the human condition as seriously as the incarnation makes it out to be. Really good stuff.

Enter the video. [Trigger Warning: Disturbing Violence]

It’s a stark visual exploration of experience of finding love and belonging amidst a culture that demands secrecy, isolation, and fear through intimidation and violence that is too frequently enshrined in religious values.

That’s a very clinical way of saying it wrecked me in a way that was too close for comfort.


Next, enter the Lebron James commercial featuring the song, that aired while I watched the last Seahawks game.

“I’ve got to look up that song,” said my friend. To which I replied, “I have a link to it somewhere. It’s amazing, but the video is REALLY disturbing.” Truthfully, I couldn’t remember anything about the content of the video. I’d pressed it out of my mind, but the music had brought back my strong reaction, and all I knew was that it had been a source of disruption.

Then I watched the video again.

I’ve written a good deal about grief in my process of coming out, in wrestling to find my voice in the church, and in taking my place at the Christian table. But this song, with it’s arresting melody and hookline dug into me in a different kind of way.


I started this fall with a pilgrimage of sorts, walking for four days, by myself, along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was my first solo backpacking excursion, and I decided to walk as a way of exploring and unpacking the grief that I’ve found as the landscape upon which my life of faith has unfolded and found me flourishing.

It’s a strange thing to describe–walking as prayer; grief as a journey into a bodied experience; locating faith in wilderness. And this is a true gift: when the world offers up strange moments where our lives open up to us with clarity, if not with ease.

In the mirror of mountains and rivers, of deserts and oceans, we catch glimpses of how our spiritual and psychological selves are not disconnected from our human experience of being creaturely selves who are a part of a whole world that is, itself, subject to devastation and repair.

If there is any redemption worth pursuing, it must be in body; it must deal with the messiness of breakdown, lovemaking, aging, injury, hunger & thirst, interdependence, isolation, and deep connection to the earth. And this is something of what “Take Me to Church” is all about.

It’s about asking the deep questions of God, our religions, our communities, and the world–questions about belonging. Is there room in your cosmology for my body–my human experience? Is God found in places where our bodies open up to one another to offer shared love and mutuality or in places governed by fear of transgression that overflow into acts of violence in word and deed?

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I’ve lost so much life trying to protect myself from people and communities that were supposed to be protecting me–supposed to be offering a space where I could be a member of the community, growing into the flourishing life of God’s work and play in the world.

And there is much to grieve. On my third day of hiking I crossed three mountainsides of skeletal trunks of fir trees, bleached white with decades under relentless sun and wind, following a fire. The ground was hot and dry; rocks exposed by erosion that raked away millennia of forest soil.

I wept as I touched the desiccated bodies of the unburied dead, still lingering across the hillside. Each excoriated tree, a hollow memory of billions of needles synthesizing sunlight and carbon into a massive gathering of life that offered life, now lost. And though these mountains will recover, it will not be in my lifetime–not by the measures of soil inches or canopy, raised 200 feet towards sky.

But there are Doug Firs, as old as I am, and three feet tall.

Though small, they, along with marmots, lichen, and songbirds, are feeding on the nourishment wrought from grief, to offer back a way towards another iteration of thriving forest. And this, too, leaves me weeping.

The grief is real and the life is real. They aren’t exactly linear or causal in relationship, but the reality is that they hang together in a history that is not the way I would like to have seen it unfold. Loss and life do not cancel each other out in some cosmic equation.

In the narrative of Christianity, resurrected bodies carry wounds. And hope born out of grief is always marked by body’s memory work of facing death–which is another way of saying, life that is pulled through the abandonment of death, while gaunt and trembling, is a holy force, not to be trifled with.


As I have wondered about the space opened up in me through my brief time in the wilderness, I am realizing the recognition that I need the reflection of the landscape to speak back to me the unspeakable spaces that live within my body, where I have struggled to draw nutrients for my life of faith out of a soil eroded of capacity to feed me what I needed to thrive.

One myth that the song “Take Me to Church” challenges, is that God is encapsulated in the thunder, earthquake, and whirlwind of churches that espouse a theology in which God is at war with human peculiarity. Instead, it insists that God is present with us, in our bodies and our bedrooms, moving towards us in all the failings and flowering of our humanity.

In my own life, I’ve encountered a God who is gracious enough to weep with me after the wildfires of well-meaning people who have employed theologies to try to strip away the parts of me they deemed unfit in the ecology of God’s community. This is not to say that the church has been devoid of goodness for me as a gay man. It is just that the goodness has come primarily as a counter-narrative of redemption within a broader landscape of devastation.

Rather than attempting to weave gold from straw, or overhaul the entire system to try to make do, the slow trek towards life begins (from my perspective), with attunement to the acres of grief inside of me and feeling the space opened up by loss of what should have been present. It is in these spaces, these gaps of abandonment, where life is pulled out of us through our bodies for the life of the world.

I do not yet know what these words mean. But I know that I am in the slow work of growing a forest. Or perhaps of simply witnessing the forest being grown in the space that grief is reclaiming from narratives of death and violence that I have experienced in the church. And this kind of space feels capable, at last, of offering room for me, in my body, to be welcomed into the sacred communion of the giver of life.

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This is the 23rd post in the series “Queering The Christian Table.” Feel free to browse through older posts or start at the beginning by clicking the tab at the top of the page

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The Self-ish Question around Compassion Fatigue

I’ve been wrestling a question for a while now. In a lot of ways, it has become the question.

The question is also the reason for a bit of radio silence around here lately.

In July, I began my journey towards getting a doctoral degree. It started with ten days of intensive classes and has continued with reading, writing, and unpacking the questions I want to wrestle with in the coming few years—and what I want to explore in this educational journey is a question for all who are trying to vocationally create a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world; it is the question that I have come to wrestle with in the last year:

Can I have the kind of life I am working to see that others get to have?

Or, the question behind the question: Can I really offer others “the good life” if I am operating from a place of over-expenditure? Implicit in this second question is a resounding “NO.” Perhaps I can do some good for some people for some amount of time, but eventually I will implode or explode and I’ll end up doing more harm than good.

And so, the question behind the question behind the question: What kind of practices do I need to develop for myself to be rooted in a life of wholeness, from which I can offer assistance to others who are growing in wholeness for themselves?

This is the only way I can see to be able to make a sustained and substantial difference in the world, and it is a way in which I am not well versed.


 

Given the religious context that I grew up in, there’s an internal script that plays in my head, emotions, and body, that tells me to try to rescue everybody else and think of myself as merely instrumental in that crusade. It’s the equivalent of running around the depressurized airplane assisting others with their oxygen masks until, blue in the face, you collapse.

For me, there was a shitstorm of popular theological concepts gone awry, meets family dynamics that set me up to have a tiny something of a savior complex.

First, you have a lousy notion about kenosis—the idea of self-emptying—that comes from a scripture that is actually about how Jesus isn’t just human but also divine, talking about how God moves towards humanity. In some places, this idea gets twisted up (in most worship music, for instance) and the messaging becomes that God wants humans to empty ourselves of self for the sake of carrying out God’s work in the world. It’s kind of like we forget that Jesus already did the whole Jesus thing, so we don’t have to do that.

Then, when you lay the whole rid-yourself-of-a-self fiasco on top of a version of Christianity that believes God’s not capable of loving us enough to really forgive us, so he has to let his son/self be murdered to satisfy something (honoring God’s sense of justice, paying off the devil, protecting God’s incredibly fragile purity. . .—take your pick), and even then, God still doesn’t really forgive us, and needs to burn most of us in hell or annihilate us—well, it’s easy to see how growing up in that environment, it might be easy to get the impression that your only purpose in the world is to selflessly rescue others from the hell, to which your capriciously angry God who loves them so much, just has to send them.

[Yes, I know that sentence was impossible to read, but it’s okay to skip it and move along. You got the general idea.]

And so—if you can’t tell from my snark—while I no longer believe this mishmash of doctrines makes any sense, and I have other ways of interpreting and thinking about these concepts, the years of feelings, anxiety, and practiced, moralistic self-abasement live in me.

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When I open up Facebook or the news and see horrors, social injustices, and pain, from Ferguson to Fallujah, I sorrow. I see heartache and pain and harm and I want to do something to bring healing into the world. I see my privilege and how insulated I am from so much suffering, and I feel the weight of guilt. This injustice has to stop–so, obviously, it must be my responsibility to stop it all.

And in my day to day life, at work, with random acquaintances, I feel moved to help others. I feel compassion. I want to be responsible and steward my own life well for the sake of the community of which I am a part. I hear other people’s problems and stories, and I swallow down my own feelings to listen to them–because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right?

[If you happen to be privy to hearing me process aloud things from my internal world, you should take that as a sign that you are one of a few who are deeply loved and who get to experience the baby-steps of my practicing different ways of being that honor my self. I’m grateful, and I probably owe you dinner.]

But if I just keep trying to give without having a deep rooted source from which to draw, I will run dry. And being resourceful, I can make shit up. I can intuit and instinctually get pretty far—whether it’s working to address serious social problems or showing up relationally with people around me. But at some point along the way, I find myself burning out, getting beyond my normal level of introvert-needing-to-recharge tired, and getting to the point where I feel overwhelmed by all of the sorrow of which I am a witness in the world.

It’s in these moments of compassion fatigue where I begin to have great understanding for the many ways I choose to dissociate, self-soothe, and escape.

Some of this is an ethical problem that is a direct result of technological access to information. I am regularly exposed to acute horrors and insidious, systemic injustices that extend far beyond my own community. More, my community is stretched beyond a number of people that I can truly care for, and yet, I do care about each and every person I come in contact with. Without an off-switch or a Sabbath, it is nearly impossible to say no to the persistent litany of trauma that demands to be grieved–and if not grieved, lodged in our bodies and souls until it overtakes us.

A crucial part of having a self is having a “no.” When children learn that they are separate persons from their primary caregiving parent, it is usually connected with the idea of “no.” No is a way of resisting and declaring the boundaries of my self in the world. When I am flooded with messages that having a no is not okay, I eventually shut myself down or I rebel against those messages.


In my case, I also grew up with the sense that my sexuality, my orientation, and my core desire for connection with other people was deeply flawed. The religious context I grew up in told me that my developing self was certainly not okay—not okay for God, not okay for society, and not okay to bring into relationship with my family or friends. And, believing my self was deeply unsafe, it seemed reasonable to believe I should lose my self and beg God to take over my life to be a hollow instrument for bringing about something good in the world.

But the big flaw with this notion is that suggests God doesn’t really loves anybody for who God created us to be. This God just cares about us as pawns in a cosmic pyramid scheme where as a prospective target we are deeply desirable, but the second we are on the hook, we are meaningless, except as a means to the end of the next person to be recruited.

This, as opposed the God of the Bible who moves towards all creation with delight, calling us all good. And in Jesus, God continues moving towards us for relationship, to stop us from harming one another, and to offer us blessing so that we can flourish and have full and complete lives.


And here I am now. Staring down my 30th birthday in a couple of months and realizing that there are places in my body, in my mind, and in my emotional landscape, where I am still trying to save the world from an angry God who doesn’t care about me, and doesn’t particularly like some really important aspects of my humanity. To the extent that I live by those scripts, I am trying to please that God (and really, lets be honest, my parents and childhood pastors) who can never be pleased, by annihilating myself for the sake of rescuing others. And those scripts also keep me from the kind of compassion that might be useful in bearing wit(h)ness to the actual lives of other people.

When I don’t get to have a self; don’t get a “no;” don’t get a way to step back from legitimate compassion fatigue, because I am fused to pleasing a capricious God and rescuing others, then I will inevitably miss seeing the personhood of those I am trying to help. Because I think of myself as an agent of God, part of God’s Missio Dei, then I set myself up as the one best able to help another with whatever is happening in their life. I refuse others the dignity of their own agency and humanity—I deface them, and in so doing, I also deny the God who gives us all selfhood. In doing this, I set my own, hollow, self-annihilating self in the driver’s seat, like a tantrum throwing two-year-old who MUST keep wailing because they don’t know if their unpredictable mother will come back into the room.

When I don’t have a self, I collapse others and God into my vacuum and try to control everything else, because I have no central self to know or love.


And this is why I breathe.

This is why I pay attention to my breath.

This is why, when I am putting a restless six year old down for bed, I lay down on the floor next to his bed and breathe deeply.

I can only offer a stable presence in the world if I receive the gifts of my breath and my body and the life I have been given. I can only help my small friend find his own center in his own body, by first locating myself and practicing what I hope to offer him.

This is my question. The question at the heart of my questions: How do I practice having a self and enjoying the one life I have been given?

Because, in the end, we are not so different from trees. I can chop an apple tree down to make a table from which to serve people food, or I can tend the tree—prune it, protect it, feed it—and it can produce fruit for years to come; fruit to feed people and seeds enough to grow a forest.

From Fight Church to Bronies: Reimagining Masculine Spirituality

During the last several weeks I’ve been seeing three-a-day movies at press screenings for the Seattle International Film Festival (Siff). Besides serving as slim justification for my lack of posts (obligatory genre requirement, fulfilled), this random factoid will provide context, later on, for why I am posting about Bronies.


Before I get there, however, I need to back up a few steps. There’s a disturbing phenomenon that I’ve seen and heard in news stories about the growing trend of “open carry” demonstrations in public places. I am deeply disturbed by groups of people–usually composed of Southern, white, men (like myself)–carrying loaded assault weapons into crowded public places (and–spoiler alert–some of these groups have been making violent threats against women. I wonder how they feel about immigrants and equal workplace protections. . .?).

To be honest, this behavior doesn’t surprise me. It is a predictable outcome of a culture that has operating definitions of rights (and righteousness) as well as masculinity, that grow from a deeply rooted fear of what is different.

It is fear, and the frail attempt to control what is unknown, that drives us to arm ourselves against our neighbors. Couple this culture of fear of others with a fear of a God who will damn us to hell for getting anything wrong and, well, it sets us up for one hell of a shitshow (pardon my technical theological language).

And yet, at the same time, there is much good in our world. There is a growing tide to expose and prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. There are cultural shifts, changing institutionalized oppressive norms that protect abusive masculine power structures that have allowed for a range of wrongs, from domestic violence to unequal pay.

And so, it is no surprise, that those with male bodies and male identities are feeling the pressing need to beg the question of what kind of masculinity we will cultivate in ourselves and in one another.


As I mentioned, I’ve been gorging on cinema at Siff. And to tell it true, my taste in film runs a little bleak. Give me a depressing documentary about one woman battling a terminal illness while trying to complete her life’s work to save ancient cultural artifacts that are being destroyed by a climate-change-denying despot who is eating children for breakfast while poisoning water through fracking (all accompanied by a gray piano soundtrack) and I’ll swoon.

So, when I saw, on the schedule, a documentary called “Fight Church” I knew I couldn’t miss it. This film follows a number of Evangelical Christian pastors who run “ministries” centering on teaching boys and men mixed martial arts and cage fighting. The film would be less disturbing if, like snake handling church, these ministries were aberrant oddities of a tradition, rather than a fairly predictable outgrowth of this subculture–with estimates of around 700 of these ministries around the USA (as compared to about 40 snake handling churches).

What I saw in the film made me cry–particularly one scene in which a young boy who was being trained to fight and, after being hurt, was told by his father and minister that what was happening was good and that he was not hurt–Trauma? Check. Brainwashing? Double-check.

I think what’s so heinous is not just that this is happening, but that it is happening in the name of Jesus; this violent masculinity, which its practitioners described as being about protecting, battling “the enemy,” and converting people “through whatever means necessary,” reeks of contradiction to the gospel of Jesus, so how can it be a useful model of masculine spirituality for Christians?

(Also,–spoiler alert–news reports this week say that one of the pastors featured in the film has been accused of multiple instances of sexual assault of women and men in his church. No, no one is surprised by that.)


In contrast to using strength to aggressively inflict violence in a competitive system predicated on winning through inflicting harm, I believe that masculine strength can be used in other ways.

One model that seems like it would be helpful for evangelical males is, ya know, Jesus.

But since that doesn’t seem to be working out all that well, perhaps St. Francis–tamer of wolves and fearful people seeking self-preservation, might be of assistance (no really, go read the story of St. Francis and the wolf. I’ll wait).

There’s a prayer from the early part of the 20th century that captures the spirit of St. Francis, so much so, that it has been called the prayer of St. Francis. It’s also noteworthy that it became popular in The United States during and following WWII–a time marked by fearfulness, deep racism, and the rise of nuclear-backed global military domination.

One version of the prayer goes like this:

O Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light, and
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I
may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are awakened to Eternal Life.

I make mention of this prayer, because it came to me this evening as I watched, out of curiousity, my first (and second) ever episode(s) of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

You read that correctly.


The reason for my excursion into the land of Equestria is that, today at Siff, I watched another documentary entitled “A Brony Tale.” For the unaquainted, a “Brony” is typically a male between the ages of 15 and 30 who is a fan of My Little Pony. Though the etymology is debated, most people think of it as a combination of “bro” and pony.

When I first saw a preview for this film, I knew that I had to see it. I had heard of Bronies before, but had never been motivated enough to research and see what they were all about.

But the truth is, I have a deep fascination with fandoms of all types. I don’t understand them whatsoever. I’m as geeky about my favorite shows, films, music, and games as the next person, but I’ve never felt so swept up by them that I would don a t-shirt, draw a picture, write fanfic, or go to a convention.

I guess the closest I’ve come is in my love for Wendell Berry. If there’s a BerryCon out there somewhere that I haven’t heard about, someone please tell me–though I’m sure I’d have to find out by letter and it would be held somewhere in the foothills of Kentucky–and only accessible by riverboat.

But I digress. Back to Bronies.

Before watching the film, I didn’t know what to expect, other than that, like with most online fandoms, my stereotype was that they would be pretty socially awkward. This was somewhat true–but no more so than the every day kind of awkward that we all participate in (see: Daniel making small-talk, Daniel walking toward a stranger and trying to figure out who will pass on which side, etc.).

The thing that stood out to me the most along the way was that all of these young males shown in the film have come to a place where they have taken a stand against the type of isolating masculinity that they were handed as boys. Moreover, they found that they resonated with the values of friendship, cooperation, and community found in this show aimed at very young females (Of course, much could be said here about which characteristics we socially encourage on a gendered basis).

Out of their embrace of the imaginative world of the ponies, these men are artistically and enthusiastically reaching out and forming communities with other men (and some women), wherein they are celebrating values around cooperation, creativity, playfulness, and growth through making mistakes and learning together. In some sense, it’s as though they’ve picked up that society neglected to teach them these things and so, they’re going to where those lessons can be found and learning them now.

I really don’t know what to say. After the film, I couldn’t stop smiling. On discussing it with the friend sitting next to me, he confirmed that he also realized that he had been smiling through the whole film. I really don’t know the last time I smiled through an entire film.

What was it that impacted us both so much? Is it the strangeness? The bizarre factor? Or perhaps–could it be–the Bronies, like St. Francis, are on to a different way of holding a masculine identity that finds male strength–not in violence, but in working and playfully imagining the world in the direction of greater peace?


I know, it’s a hard sell to suggest that we replace fight churches with Bronycons. But I’m pretty sure that it would make the world about 20% cooler.

As I watched the story of a young man who had served military tours in Afghanistan speak of how, on his return, drawing ponies helped him through depression–as he spoke of internalizing the mothering presence modeled in Princess Celestia, and I saw the tender aliveness in his eyes, I could do nothing else but break into a smile as I witnessed the beauty of transformation. The resourcefulness of these young men–to go out and find what was withheld from them by a destructive version of masculinity–is breathtaking.

So, when I got home, I searched “My Little Pony episodes” and got a result for episodes 1 & 2 from season 4. Watching them, I began to piece together the mythology of the show, particularly the recap of the history of a trickster character named discord–a dragon who’s chaos-making is stopped by the ponies’ commitment to mutual support  and cooperation, through the magic of harmony. And that’s when these words swelled up in me:

. . .Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony. . .

What is going on in USAmerican masculinity–particularly in Christian churches, that we define thriving as violence rooted in defensiveness and fear that boisterously denies our human fragility? What would it look like to embrace the full range of our emotions, to be honest about our inability to protect against harm–even to name where we have been harmed, and reach out to build a community that celebrates our dependence on one another, thus enabling room for recovery?

I believe that the Bronies may have found some of that, and I’m quite of fan of their fandom.


I have a photograph that I have lived with for the past decade. It is of a cosmology mural on a wall at Mitad del Mundo (literally, “Middle of the World;” a park at the equator) in Ecuador. It is a spiritual landscape containing sacred condors, mountains, ancestors, and a ladder to the sky. And in the center is an image of an indigenous man who is tied to a stake, and next to him another man–a conquistador–is about to kill him. Next to these two men stands a third man–a priest–reading from an open Bible. It is a picture of conversion at any cost.

This legacy of violence is the natural unfolding of a Christian spirituality paired with masculinity that is defined by fearful assertion of strength over and against others who are different; who we don’t understand.

But after my afternoon with the Bronies and Saint Francis, I re-imagined that image in a way that I had not considered in ten years of its weight on my conscience.

What if the priest was there to convert the conquistador rather than the victimized indigenous man? What if, failing to convert the violent warrior, he placed his own body between the other two, in community with the other man who was also unable to stop the violence on his own?

And where is Jesus in this picture? Where is Jesus in the fight churches, in the peewee football clubs, in the open carry demonstrations, in the ROTC programs in impoverished communities, in the frat houses and the board rooms? And could it be that healthy masculine spiritual identities might be better modeled after a My Little Pony fandom than rhetoric derived from the violence of the crusades?

I never imagined that was a question that I’d be asking. But then, I’m often surprised at where God’s Spirit is working in the world.

 

 

QCT 21: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

This post is a part of the series entitled Queering the Christian Table. You can learn about the series and read earlier posts by clicking the tab at the top of the page.


I’ve begun to wonder about the topic of Christian unity. I wonder if there’s any hope for a common table. It’s a bizarre notion that seems to take up a large portion of the attention of the New Testament. I wonder about it when I hear about things like the World Vision Debacle-palooza that was last week.

I also wonder about it when I pass the large number of independent Pentecostal and Bible churches that crowd random corners in my neighborhood of West Seattle. I wonder about the people who worship there–places that feel so familiar when I pass them, that I can almost hear the syncopated drumbeat matched with the on-beat clapping of the white, Pentecostal churches of my childhood.

I wonder about people in the scandal-ensconced mega-church just down the road from me. I wonder about the Anglican Mission in America churches as I make my way to my progressive Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church.

I wonder, because each week when we circle the table, my congregation offers thanks and confesses, “You have made us one with all your people, in heaven and on earth.” And I want so desperately for that to be true.


“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.”

Weeks like last week make me feel painfully stuck.

So, when, as I was looking for a good karaoke song, I came across this old favorite from Les Miserables, I listened to it about a dozen times trying to understand what it was articulating about how I feel in this particular moment.

“From the table in the corner

They could see the world reborn

And they rose with voices ringing

And I can hear them now!

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On this lonely barricade at dawn.”

While the “culture wars” often feel like the invention of television, radio, and internet news outlets seeking content to fill space in order to drive traffic and generate marketing revenue, there are weeks like last week when there are real casualties of all this fighting.

When 10,000 plus people are willing to abandon not only financial support of children in poverty, but ostensibly some sort of relationship with those children and care for those particular children’s well-being over what is likely at most a potential few dozen LGBTQ folks’ ability to earn a paycheck supporting the system that is supposed to be helping those kids, I am indeed left with “a grief that can’t be spoken.”

I don’t want anyone, on the right or left to use my existence as an excuse to inflict more harm.

And that’s where it hits me hardest. It’s really easy to think that I am the source of this divide. As a Gay Christian, when I pull up a chair at the table and somebody else pushes their chair away (or 10,000 people simultaneously push their chairs away), it’s difficult to not believe that there is something wrong with me. And even when I can manage to hang on to the reality that they are making their own choices, in this moment, it’s hard to look at the 10,000 children who are impacted and not just play the numbers game and say, well, if my not being at this table will keep others from doing harm to these kids, then maybe I should just throw myself under the bus.

And yet, I believe in the power of the gospel to welcome everyone to the table–and that has to mean that there is room for me here too. That’s a really hard thing to hold on to when there are so many on all sides of this issue who are dismantling the table to turn it into a barricade.


I never quite understand when I see others abstain from taking communion.

I know that they have deep convictions and personal reasons and I respect those and I am very willing to hear their stories and give them all the space they need. But I cannot afford to pass up on a place at the table–it is far too precious a thing for me. You see, I was told all my life that I was unworthy to be at the table–not just in the way that we all need grace, but in the way that my very presence at the table was damnable; that the act of my eating and drinking at God’s table was illegitimate.

But something happened–something that I can only explain as good news. I realized that Jesus was present at my table. That I did not have to come to God’s table, but that God came to mine. The message of the gospel does not begin and end with Jesus dying for our sins. It begins with Jesus coming to live as a human and be involved in our lives and it ends with Jesus, after we violently rejected him, coming back to life and asking us to live with love and generous compassion, offering our voices in witness to God’s kingdom unfolding like the leaves of an ever expanding table into every corner of the world.

And as someone whose experience of the table has often been that God has prepared it for me in the presence of my enemies, I lay claim to that hospitality of God with all the wild abandonment I can muster. I go to the table because I, and people like me, have been barred from the table and I need to hear that I am welcome in the world. Yet, when I come to the table and my presence becomes the excuse for others to leave the offering of God’s unconditional hospitality, I find myself wrestling with a sort of survivor guilt.

“Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone.

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken

There’s a pain goes on and on.”

 


And in this space, as I sit down at the table and hear the deafening screech of thousands of chairs pulling away, because I love the church and seek for the unity of the church so that we can get on with loving the entire world as we were comissioned to do, I am tempted to walk away.

There are many others who have done this–and for such good reason. Some LGBTIQ folks have found ways to God’s table by going to churches that accept us fully and celebrate our place at the table and, in so doing, often break communion with others in the Christian faith, in their denominations, and sometimes in families and local communities.

Some have navigated the tension by staying in the closet and remaining in churches that would reject them if they were honest.

Some have come out in such church communities, but have chosen to remain celibate or try to do something to change their orientation in order to become acceptable to their community and that church’s definition of God’s design.

Some have internalized the message that they are not welcome and have left the church entirely.

Some believe they are welcomed by God, but see that their faith community has too small a conception of God’s grace, and in order to allow that community to grow at its own pace, have left that community out of broken-hearted compassion.

Some have come out to their churches and families and been disowned.

Some have so internalized the lie told to them by the sound of the screeching chairs of rejection, that they have seen no other route than to take their own lives.

I believe that God weeps with all of us, on every side of these tables, wondering when we will remember the first message of the gospel–that God loves us enough to want to come and live with us; that God comes to our tables, wherever they are, turning them into God’s own table and it is our gift to offer seats to everyone we come in contact with.

“Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more.”

There is no need for further sacrifices. The violence we do to one another in the name of protecting God, the Bible, Christianity, marriage, whatever–it’s rooted in the same violence that drove us to kill Jesus. But the scandal of the Christian faith is rooted in the implausibility of the resurrection. God accepted our violence and the death we offered and replied first with silence, and solidarity with human suffering, and then with resurrection, offering forgiving hospitality that promises to transform the world.

Other Christians don’t need to crucify LGBTIQ people in order to come to God’s table. We already crucified Jesus and we don’t need to go down that road anymore. And LGBTIQ people don’t need to sacrifice ourselves by accepting the violence of a church that can’t accept the love of God for every person in the world–Jesus already did that.

So what are we to do?

We return to the table. We accept the grace we need. And we offer prayers of lament for those who push away. Right now, that’s the best that I can manage. I cannot make others realize that there is grace here. I cannot make anyone feel the love of God that is opening up the world as a place of welcome.

The words of this song ring so true for me in this moment, because these folks in the church who are pushing away LGBTIQ folks are not my enemies. They are beloved children of God. And I hate to see any of us throw our lives away on barricades, trying to protect a God who needs no protection–a God who moves with hospitality through death in order to welcome us into ever expanding life.

 

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)