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

QCT 22: Holiness and Sexuality: a Law or a Blessing?

“There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.”

-Mary Oliver

photo (1) A brief backstory:

I grew up in the Deep South, and with my grandparents, played in the river made famous by the eponymous funk sound of Muscle Shoals.

A few miles from my childhood home, my friends and I would climb the freestanding monolith in Georgia, recalled in Dr. King’s speech–a rock once a sacred site for Native Americans, then a gathering place for the klan, and, by the time of my childhood, carved up with visages of confederate soldiers, brought to life nightly with a laser show and fireworks coordinated to the strains of the battle hymn of the republic.

I went to school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, learning to drive my roommate’s stick-shift in strip-mall parking lots and on winding river roads.   And in these places, I learned to read the Bible and sing gospel songs.

My family was a part of the Assemblies of God –a denomination of churches that, on the whole, are fairly conversant with broader evangelicalism. However, we were in the southeast, and with the rotation of people through the various churches in each town, there’s a long history of influence from the Wesleyan Holiness strains of Pentecostalism which developed in the late 1800s from lower Appalachia to Florida, that filtered over into the churches of my youth.

Now, I didn’t go churches that forbade makeup and jewelry, but some of them had in decades past, and I knew folks who did worship in such places.

And no, we didn’t handle snakes–though I did get my undergrad at a university in the one denomination to ever officially endorse the practice (albeit, only for a short period). 

And yes, I have actually been in a snake handling service (but that’s another story).

So, one of the hot debates in a lot of these Pentecostal churches was whether or not sanctification happened with salvation, as a part of baptism in the Holy Spirit, or as a distinct third event. For the uninitiated, sanctification is a word that literally means to be set apart. Another way of thinking of it is, to be made holy.

There was even a sub-debate over whether or not sanctification was ongoing or complete (meaning once it happened you no longer sin). Thankfully, whether from intellectual honesty or the legacy of charlatan evangelists throughout the 70s and 80s, most folks had abandoned the notion of complete sanctification by the time I joined the conversation.


Why have I given this backstory? Because it’s the doorway through which I entered a conversation that gets thrown down most any time Christians of different stripes try to sit down at the same table.

What to do–if anything–with the thing called sin? Or, framed in the positive, what is holiness and why does it matter?


For those Christians who put weight on the usefulness of scripture for understanding what God is up to and what that has to do with us, this sin/holiness question is complex.

In philosophical terms, there’s the issue that’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma–a Greek question that goes like this: is a thing virtuous/good because the gods say so or do the gods say so because they recognize the thing to be virtuous/good in its own right?

Early monotheists altered the question to a singular God. And I like to remember it through the lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella–“do I love you because you’re wonderful, or are you wonderful because I love you?”

What does this have to do with bickering Christians? Well, it comes down to what shapes our thinking as we read the Bible–that fantastic collection of fragments of ancient texts, spanning thousands of years and dozens of cultures, that we confess as essential to how we understand the narrative of God’s relationship to the world and humans in particular.

So, when we read these stories we see people interacting with God, and we see the category of something called sin (connected to evil) which is sometimes seen in opposition to righteousness/justice and sometimes seen in opposition to holiness/purity and sometimes seen in opposition to healthy relationship (with God, other people, and land & animals).

And when we read about sin, we can generally agree that it is portrayed as a bad thing. Where the Euthyphro Dilemma comes into play is in this question: are the ways of living proscribed in the Bible good because God says so or does God say so, because they are inherently good? The opposite question also applies–are things labeled sin bad because God says so, or are they inherently evil and God just points that out?

Why does this question matter? Well if something is good or bad because God says so, then God is preserved as God, the source of everything–but we run the risk of a capricious deity, and we have to always wonder if we are in favor or not. But if a particular thing has inherent goodness or evil and God is just pointing that out, then God is subject to a greater governing principle and thus, not God.

Pro tip: this is why they call it a dilemma.

And this is where Biblical theologians annoy the philosophers in the room by deferring to a literary answer. We look to the narrative and ask if the dilemma we’ve created seems to be the narrative point of the text or not.

That is to say, what claims does the story make about the character and actions of God in relationship to this whole good vs. evil — holiness/righteousness/relationship vs. sin thing anyway? What do God’s actions reveal about the nature of God’s character and relationship with humanity, and what does that tell us about how God might be interacting with us around good and evil?


Now, there are lots of people who believe that the Bible tells us precisely how to live; that it clearly and definitively spells out what is sin and what is holiness.

In order to live and navigate our contemporary world and whatever culture they live in, these folks have to make some judgments and abstractions–otherwise they would simply remain neutral about modern birth control, stock market regulations, race relations, masturbation, genetic engineering, water boarding, and about a bajillion other things the Bible doesn’t even come close to mentioning.

And even though the Bible was written in a variety of completely different cultures in vastly different time periods than our own, there’s enough narrative data along with a rich legacy of interpretation, that we can make inferences about the character of God and the general shape of what makes good or evil.

But, the real question is whether or not we are doing this work 1) consciously and honestly, 2) unconsciously, thinking we are just reading the Bible and doing what it says, or 3) we are following someone else (usually our churches, authors, pastors, and media personalities) who says that they know what is right or wrong on either the first or second basis.

No matter which of the three ways we are doing this work, we are doing it within our own particular languages, cultural systems of meaning making, personal biases, and communities. I guess it’s obvious that I distinctly favor at least attempting option 1 (being honest about how we are doing this) rather than insisting on “a plain view of the text,” which I see as tantamount to the Olympics of self-deception.


And right smack in the middle of this conversation is where the conversation about LGBTIQ sexualities lands in the church.

We’re talking about culturally defined categories and identity politics that involve relationships and sex acts. And we’re trying to navigate these contemporary issues using a play book of text ranging in age from 1800 to 6000ish years old.

And so, we have to be honest and say that no one “just reads what the Bible has to say on the matter.” photo (2) The fact is, there is no singular Bible to read.

We all read translations that are compilations of thousands of fragments selected by highly skilled humans on committees (selected by biased publishing houses) making decisions about which fragments to go with, and how to convey ideas behind words that they know have multiple possible meanings.

The word homosexual didn’t emerge in English until the last 200 years, and it didn’t show up in English Bibles as a means of translating a few different untranslatable concepts until even later. There are many books written about the few verses into which we read the word homosexual in some contemporary English Bibles. Anyone who wants to make a claim condemning to hell (or endangering lives and/or limiting the civil rights of) a few hundred million people on the basis of six-ten verses should probably do some research first.

What is clear is that these verses talk about sexual acts and relationships between humans who were considered the same gender in whatever cultural understanding surrounded those things in their ancient contexts. These relationships and actions, as they were understood in their own time were certainly at least as different from modern western ideas about LGBTIQ sexualities, as contemporary sexualities among people of same genders in various cultures around the world are understood today.

That said, I think that these few verses, along with long church histories prohibiting same-sex activities and relationships in many cultural expressions rightly justifies the need to seriously ask the question: what is good and what is evil when it comes to contemporary LGBTIQ sexualities?

Rather than running from the question my conservative Christian siblings ask, I am moving towards it with them. I actually want to intensify it by taking it back to the question of holiness–when it comes to any expression of human sexuality, what do the character and actions of God, revealed in the person of Jesus and written about in scripture, tell us about what is good and what is evil?

Rather than a heinous conflict tearing apart churches and families, I want a rigorous con-frontation–I want us to sit down and face with one another the deeper question, the question that pulls us back into the whole arc of the Biblical texts and points us back towards the person of God.



So, I come back to the narrative of holiness from my childhood.

I grew up in a context that communicated about holiness, largely in terms of sanctification–of being “called out” and “set apart” for God. What was less clear to me was the answer to the follow up question: set apart, to what end?

The doctrine of sanctification/holiness–of living free from sin–seemed to have two main goals–1) getting into heaven and out of hell and 2) holiness brings glory to God.

Under point one, God is captain of team holy and sin is kryptonite. God can’t stand sin because it makes God super mad, or sad, or jealous and God literally cannot keep himself from either annihilating us or punishing us for eternity for sinning.

This view can also lead to some of the creepiest atonement theology options out there. So in this one, God seems to be held hostage by sin, only capable of one option, destroying the ones he loves. Penal substitution theory steps in here to suggest that God does come up with the solution of killing Jesus so he doesn’t have to kill us, but most adherents say he still will kill us if we don’t practice holiness, because, darn it, sin is just so powerful that God can’t take it.

Okay, so you know what I think of that option–it’s resolved the Euthyphro dilemma by saying God is subject to a higher principle–thus not God.

Under point two, where holiness brings glory to God, the Euthyphro dilemma could go either way, but tends toward a capricious God who calls certain things good, tells us to do them, we do them, and God goes on a power trip.

Here’s the snag with both of these problematic understandings of holiness: they aren’t baseless. An argument can be made for each based on Biblical texts.

The question remains, what do these interpretations say about the character of God in relationship to humans and does it make coherent sense of the bigger arc of biblical narratives and particularly the gospel stories.


Another way of tacking into this wind would be to go back to those churches I talked about before. What’s going on there, that holiness could be defined in hairstyles and handling snakes?

Well these high-walled communities are defining who is in and who is out based on practices rooted in the biblical texts. Their definition of holiness is different in degrees but not in direction from the ones explored above.

Where glorifying God (and/or staying out of hell) is defined by pleasing God through appropriately holy behaviors, it matters very much which side of the line you stand on. If you do the right things (whether it’s on your own or the result of God’s work in your life) you are in. If you do the wrong things, you burn (or in more gracious theologies, God annihilates you, or, even better, God’s not happy with you, but shows grace anyway, because, ya know–Jesus).

As I’ve intoned before, this view holds God hostage to sin. God’s holiness is either like the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, furious over sin, or God is a cosmic bubble-boy who must be protected from the weakest of all contagions.

If holiness is defined by what it is not–defined merely in terms of being called out or set apart from something–it ontologically requires the presence of evil in the world. This doesn’t appear to hold up to the narratives we have.

The very first story mentioning sin in scripture is immediately followed by God coming to look for and commune with the people who sinned, with God providing a way for them to live and be cared for in the midst of the fallout of the consequences for their actions.

The creation narrative is a theological text making a claim about who God is in relationship to people who do things that aren’t good. The story tells so little about the nature of good and evil, but tells much about the character of God.

If holiness is rooted in the nature of God, what does it say about what is holy when God moves toward and provides for those who have done what is wrong?


image What follows is my attempt to show how I am trying to make sense of the question of sin/holiness in the narratives of Christian scriptures.

The Pentateuch invites us to follow the stories of a people that grow out of God’s covenant with Abraham–a covenant to constitute a tribe of people who would become a blessing to every people group on the planet.

It’s a narrative that begins right after the origin story of the flood and the Tower of Babel–a story that can be read as God cursing humans for avarice or as God responding to avarice by blessing humans with diversity of cultures to increase their differences and develop contexts for greater interdependence. And there are ways we can follow the arc of the Pentateuch and reimagine what holiness might look like, had the people taken God’s covenant with Abraham seriously.

The holiness codes and the sacrificial system of law come after the people refuse God’s invitation to meet with all of them on the mountain–instead sending Moses in their place. Their elaborate legal system for bringing about holiness reads like a sectarian response to the ten words offered by God on the mountain–ten words traditionally understood as being about loving God and loving neighbor.

Should we assume their theology was always sound, and trust their versions of history, claiming God ordained the massacre of children so that they could take their land? Or could we not also read that God was faithful to them in spite of their bloody ethnocentrism and genocide?

And shouldn’t we interpret the holiness codes through the reforms of the prophets who said God detested the sacrificial system and found it worthless–instead desiring hospitality for the poor, disenfranchised, and immigrants?

And, at last, what do we make of a God who comes to live with sinful humans? It certainly seems like Jesus can stand to be in our presence, not only without annihilating us, but with genuine love, kindness, friendship, and blessing.

Again, there seems to be something in the character of God, where God moves towards those on the wrong side of the Bible’s own holiness codes. This gets repeated at Pentecost when God’s Spirit begins the relentless movement of blessing towards all nations. Mirroring the blessing of confusion originating at Babel, there is a further blessing of every nation when the good news of Jesus–God with us–is heard in every particular language.

Of course, this move by God threw the early church into chaos about how the law applied to those outside the law; those hellions from Romans 1 with their categorical sexual immorality–the Gentiles.

So what does all this say about God’s holiness? Is holiness actually less about policing our borders and more about moving past our own boundaries to bless those not like us with love? What seems apparent is that God’s holiness, when played out in our lives, looks like the fruit of the Spirit–that laundry list of relational categories that lead to blessing others rather than separating ourselves from them.

God’s holiness appears to be transgressive, offending our definitions of holiness.

Instead of being a pure sample that must be preserved, holiness as blessing acts like yeast, inoculating everything it touches. Holiness makes holy; calls things that are not as though they were; steps into places where people need connection and offers fullness of relationship. Holiness is not proscribed by a code, it is recognized by it’s fruit.

In this accounting for the texts, we don’t resolve the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead, we two step with it. We say that the stories we hold sacred tell us that, far from being capricious, God is relentless, moving towards those who do wrong, forgiving and making holy through a relationship of blessing.

So, what is holy is what is made holy by the faithfulness of God’s love for those who do wrong. Or, like one biblical writer said, God credits us with righteousness.

In some sense, we might imagine God getting fed up and saying, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” But apparently, God has a thing for all creation and moves towards us with love–offering holiness that makes holy in relationship.


So what does this tell us Christians who are tied up in knots over gay sex?

I think we need to pay attention to how we have been shaped by our culture. We call weapons peacemakers. We are more offended by being called racist than we are by our own racism. We use politeness to deliver discrimination. We blame victims for the crimes perpetrated against them. We treat abominably those we accuse of abominations.

In short, our imagination of holiness appears to be shaped by our own impulse to be viewed as blameless.

While we use the Bible to justify our stance on holiness, we need to renew a biblical understanding of holiness rooted in what the narratives tell us about the character of God–as revealed in Jesus–as a movement towards us of blessing.

When we catch on to what the Holy Spirit is up to, we might realize that holiness is not about us getting it right to please God, but that it is God’s pleasure to bless us with relationship. In this paradigm holiness is measured in fruit, not compliance.

This shifts the conversation.

For those who view gay sex as sin, their work is not to be separate, but to offer the blessing of holiness through loving relationality. The requirement of holiness is to join the activity of the Holy Spirit, to transgress our notions of holiness in order to bless and make holy–to be evident through increased love. In this view, God’s grace and holiness are sacrament–those gifts that make sacred– freely given in relationship through Jesus.

And the work for LGBTIQ Christians and their allies is the same–to bear fruit in keeping with repentance–to grow in our capacity to move towards otherness in relational posture of blessing.

If, indeed, God is like Jesus–moving towards us where we are trapped in the competitive, zero sum game, where we demand death to preserve the purity of our system, then holiness is not about separation, but about blessing that is offered in relationship to those we see as wrong.

Jesus’ parable of the yeast is genius because it speaks to the viral spread of holiness-suggesting that holiness is not diluted or polluted, nor does it displace what it encounters–instead, holiness works with whatever it encounters and finds a way to bless and name goodness–this is the movement of a creator towards their creation.

In this interpretation, we are faced (both turned towards and given faces) by a prodigal God who is consistent in character, bringing provision and feasting with those who are on the wrong side of holiness codes. This God’s project is to bless, making good and complete until all things are brought into completion, reconciliation with God and made holy.

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.

QCT 19: Be Careful Little Gay What You Say

This is the 19th post in my series “Queering the Christian Table.” You can start reading from the beginning by clicking here.

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I am careful with my words.

It’s an irony to me that my post that has received the most attention on this site is the one that received the least editing.

When I sat down to write the post entitled “Why my humanity isn’t beholden to SCOTUS,” I didn’t spend 4-6 hours writing it, like I have most of the other posts in this series. Ultimately, my anxiety around last year’s supreme court cases was so high, that I realized, if I was to get any sleep the night before the big announcements, I had to put some thoughts down on the page.

So, I did something that I do not regularly practice—I clicked publish on a piece that I hadn’t carefully scrutinized to make sure it said exactly what I meant to say. Without thinking through the counter-arguments or attempting to understand the intricacies of my potential audience, I participated in that rare, human act of saying a bit of what I was both feeling and thinking in the moment.

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Okay. So, what’s the big deal? I wrote a post without a lot of editing and people responded favorably. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe years of writing, revising, editing, copy-editing, and learning grammar paid off with a relatively decent bit of writing on a hot topic.

Swell. Now get back to editing, kiddo—those posts don’t write themselves, you know!

But wait a second.

Wait one, hot minute.

Wait seven months and let this REALLY sink in.

It may be that there is something more to this story than meets the eye.

Why am I so, damned, careful with words?

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Growing up gay, as the son of Pentecostal Christian ministers in the deep south, I learned early on that not just words, but looks, mannerisms, timing, and presentation all matter. What I communicated through my speech and through my body could keep me in favor or could (at best) mean a fall from grace or (at worst) leave me at risk of expulsion, physical harm, being sent off to a program to “fix” me, or worse.

I learned to be a professional reader of those around me in my religious and cultural communities. I understood what was necessary for my survival and I carefully navigated the space between what I perceived as their expectations and the reality of my desires in a dangerous social climate.

I vividly recall being called to the front of the church to be prayed for, people placing their hands on my body and head and praying loudly. I remember prayers for God’s presence to be in my life. I also remember prayers “casting out demons” and prayers for God to rid me of sin. I remember being asked, again and again, if there was anything in particular that I wanted to be prayed for in my life.

I developed a code of sorts—the safe words—the kinds of things respectable and holy people ask for: “more of God,” “to be closer to Jesus,” and “to deal with unforgiveness.”

That last one, in particular, was my golden ticket—technically, I was repenting of a sin, but it was the kind of sin that proved just how humble and good I really was.

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In reality, all of these phrases were code for: “God take away my sexual desire for guys and please don’t let anyone find out about it.”

In a tradition know for it’s “words of knowledge” when some older church member or traveling evangelist would interrupt a church service to proclaim (usually while using a microphone) that God was telling them about someone’s sin (and that someone needed to come forward and repent), I lived in terror of being found out.

It turns out that either God was not speaking to those people, or God did not care to call me out for being gay, because it never happened.

However, the possibility of such a public exposure became a seed of shame that would grow across the hillsides of my soul like the invasive thickets of kudzu that sprawl across the clear-cut hillsides lining southern highways.

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And so, I grew careful. I came to present myself as what I thought the people around me wanted and needed me to be. And, through the pervasive singularity of one privileged reading of the Bible, who I thought God wanted me to be.

Even writing this series, I wrestle this gorilla of shame that plays its narrative out in my head. Can I say the words that bring me life? Can I simply express how it is that I wrestle with my faith? Is it okay to not seem reasonable, approachable, friendly, and safe for people to ask their questions (even the ones that are painfully offensive or judgemental)?

I worry about these things. I am careful. I measure out my words.

As a blogger, I shred perfectly reasonable paragraphs into readable snippets. I over-explain vocabulary. I modify, modify, modify—to make sure that I am leaving space for dialogue, and multiple perspectives, and generous interpretations. I try to stay open to dialogue and conversation. I’m willing to publish any comment that doesn’t come across as overtly belligerent.

This is not all good or bad.

I am realizing that many of these skills developed as I used my natural gifts and personality to forge a way to survive a childhood where I did not feel safe to be me in my own home, churches, faith, and society. And while I don’t need these skills for the same level of survival, they still serve me well as I navigate a church and culture that does not always feel safe.

Sometimes it is wise to be careful.

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So, I’ve grown careful with words—taking care to not offend what I perceive as the limits of acceptability from those around me—from institutions and churches; from family and friends. But in so doing, I have allowed bits of myself—my voice, my particularity, my story—to be stuffed aside; I have swallowed so many words—so many of MY words—often out of hope that by making other Christians comfortable, I would remain safe, and they would stay in the conversation longer, instead of either walking away or asserting their privilege and kicking me out the door.

But that is no gospel. At best it is collusion. It is sabotaging my vulnerability.

There is something valuable in vulnerability—in speaking my own words as they give expression to the strength of my feelings—that is so desperately needed in this conversation about sexuality and the church.

It’s the particularity of my life—the reality of my faith and my sexual orientation and the ways in which I experience the presence of God leading me in the way of Jesus—that, I believe, needs to be told.

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And I think that vulnerability is some of what came into play with the post about the SCOTUS cases that was responsible for leading a large wave of you to first read this blog.

I desire to be human-sized. I want to be able to be seen and loved for who I am, not for my ability to live up to real or perceived expectations about how well I stack up to someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, cultural gender norms, or personal hang-ups.

But in order to contradict the shame that drives this tendency to be over-careful, I must risk.

I must risk that, yes, there are still many in the church, society, and my family, that do not want to hear what I have to say; that do not want to believe that my experience of God’s grace in my life is real; that do not want to face what is would look like for them to accept such radical goodness for themselves.

And, to be sure, there is also the real risk of danger.

There are places in my own city, state, and country where it would be unwise and unsafe for me to speak openly and honestly about being gay and what I believe about God and the Bible. There are countries in the world—places like Russia, where the world is tuning in to see the winter Olympics—where simply speaking openly about being gay can lead to imprisonment, suffering violence, and death. As driving-while-brown in most of the U.S.A. means higher risk of being stopped by police, using a public restroom-while-transgender still runs the risk of extreme violence and murder in the “Land of the Free.”

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As a white, cis-gender, gay man, I face very low risk of these dangers living in a city like Seattle. But I do run the risk of losing the privilege of my ability to speak to power in Christian institutions and the church.

And here, I cringe. It has come to this.

The carefulness, that as a child allowed me to survive real danger, now only keeps me isolated by helping me maintain privileges doled out by a system that I don’t want to support.

I am making a choice.

I am not walking away from the church.

But I am not going to diminish the story of the gospel that is playing out in my life by only using words that make privileged, religious folks feel comfortable. That’s simply not the purpose of my life.

I am not trying to burn any bridges. It’s just that what I see Jesus doing in the various gospels looks like love and truth telling. And as a human who is practicing how to follow Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor, the best thing that I know how to do is to say what it is that I have seen and heard.

In the gospels Jesus is constantly tripping up those who maintain privilege through tight control of following restrictive interpretation of scriptures. Jesus seems to have a thing for abandoning loyalty to power through privilege by loving those who aren’t able to achieve privilege—women, the poor, the disabled, foreigners, those considered sexually immoral.

And incidentally, it’s those folks that Jesus often points to as the people who teach us what it means to love. Through his actions, Jesus seems to identify right worship of God with love, by spending time with people who were not allowed into the central temple courts to worship. In doing this, he stands in alignment with the Old Testament prophets who essentially declare that God doesn’t give a shit about maintaining religious standards of holiness if you are treating the poor and resident aliens like shit.

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When it comes to talking about the place of LGBTIQ people in Christian institutions and the church, I have perceived (and explicitly received) the message to “slow down” and allow a careful conversation to unfold. I’ve heard that the church needs more time to discern what to say about all this–as if we had no kerygmatic model to follow in applying the ethics of Jesus to contemporary situations. But the truth is that I and all the other people who make up the church (LGBTIQ and otherwise) are alive right now, in this span of time, and we are responsible for how we bear witness to the gospel right now (communion of saints not withstanding).

If the gospel has any merit whatsoever, then–as, basically, the entire history of the global church proves–no matter how badly the church royally screws things up, God is still capable of continuing to be present in the world.

And thank God for that.

So, no, I don’t think passing protections for LGBTIQ people who are objects of violence at higher rates, or allowing same-sex marriages, or ordaining LGBTIQ ministers is going to be the downfall of society or even the church. In fact, I think that those things would contribute to the unity of the church (a pretty important theme in the Bible, at least for Jesus and Paul), provide protection for a group of people who experience violence (important to the OT prophets), and bear witness to the rest of the world that–hey!–God really does love everybody.

And guess what? Even if we completely mess this one up, we’ll have found a way of destroying the church by loving people instead of by slaughtering them by the millions or destroying entire cultures, or enslaving people, or justifying our destruction of the earth–You know, when it comes to ways of destroying the church, I think we’d be raising the bar quite a bit.

And yeah, even if we’re wrong, I think God can help our great-grandkids sort it out.

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It turns out that I have one life that has been given to me. So, I am not going to buy the false promise of some semblance of privilege in the church by playing the game of keeping people comfortable. As a man with a lot of privilege, by opting out of this trap, I allow myself space to engage where my actual privileges are oppressing others in ways distinctly different but not disconnected from my own experience of oppression.

I am going to continue to do my best to enjoy the life I have been given and to glorify God with my life by following the way of Jesus and learning to grow in love and bear wit(h)ness to the truth of God’s goodness playing out in the world.

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Will I continue to edit my posts? Yes. I am still a writer. But I get to choose how to use my skill to shape words to tell my own human story, rather than the one I have been led to believe will get me a piece of the false-acceptance pie.

My goal is to allow my carefulness to be full of care for myself and for you my readers, by singing the one song I was born to sing.

That song is bold. It’s also a bit snarky.

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This doesn’t mean that I don’t want a conversation.

I want a conversation that is real–where you get to be real and where I get to be real; where we all get to be respectful and extend the lavish hospitality of the God we claim to follow.

This is the kind of conversation that is gritty and tough, not with laying down the law, but with laying down our arms and being vulnerable with each other. It’s the kind of space where we can be honest about the harm that has been done in the name of God and we can be curious about what we all have to learn about loving in a way that might, in some slight way, reflect the life and teachings of Jesus.

It means facing the eviscerating goodness of what God’s acceptance for us might look like if God is good enough to accept those that we deem in the wrong.

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It seems to me that when it comes to extending love and full communion, Jesus was lavish, rather than careful. Thus, why I’ve invoked the song the title of this post alludes to. It’s a little ditty-of-terror taught to Christian children that goes like this:

“Be careful little mouth what you say, be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above is looking down with love, so be careful little mouth what you say.”

It goes on like that, switching out “mouth what you say” for “ears what you hear,” “eyes what you see,” and “hands what you do.”

Now, not even addressing the horrible conflation of personal action and being acted upon in the shaming of small children, this tune gets at the core of the problem plaguing this conversation.

We have a hard time understanding a God who loves us, has boundaries, and doesn’t need to shame us for being the very things that God ostensibly created: human beings–wildly different, flawed, perfectly precious, human creatures. Quite frankly, a God who burns people in hell for believing that God is more loving than God actually is, is no God worth giving a shit about.

Such a system actually worships hell, because it sets up hell as more powerful than God’s capacity to love and forgive whatever might need to be forgiven.

It seems to me that the conversation needs to turn from whether or not it’s okay for LGBTIQ people to be at the table, to how can we stop beating each other up and love each other and love the rest of the world in the way that Jesus taught.

That the Christian church in USAmerica and in many places in the world is a less safe place for any group of people than the general society, is a testament that the church is already off its rails. Instead of panicking about how to grow the church or protect the church, I hope that we can learn to love in a way worthy of even being called a church that belongs to Jesus.

Such a church sounds pretty reckless; far from careful; yet far less of a danger to itself and others. It’s a church that identifies with Jesus–a church that stops chasing privilege by doing religion “right.”

That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of.

Introducing video Q & A

As mentioned in the above video, I’ll be shifting a bit of my content in the coming months. You can continue to look forward to reading my longer pieces, but I’ll also be offering short videos where I’ll be interacting with your questions, and having conversations with guests. In order for this to work, I’ll need your help–your questions, your ideas for videos, and perhaps, even your willingness to make a video with me at some point along the way.

To give an idea of what I’ve been up to and what kinds of questions you might want to hear me engage, I’d invite you to check out the audio from a recent panel that I was a part of for the website, thankgodforsex.org. These folks are doing excellent work around opening conversation in which people can begin to name and work through experiences of religious sexual shame.

It was a pleasure to be invited to take part in the panel and it helped me realize a bit more of the impact of simply speaking together about the topics of sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, shame, desire, and the church. Thus, my finally making the leap into video–because it’s not enough for us to just write and read about these things from either sides of our screens, we need a conversation, and this is one step closer to that goal.

For now, I hope you’ll check out the audio link above (the panel discussion starts about 15 minutes into the first audio track) and that you’ll submit your questions and topic ideas for videos in the comments below.

Peace,

Daniel

Queering the Christian Table Part 18: Learning to Live in Loving Kindness–God’s Gift for Those Feeling (a)shame(d)

This post is a part of the series “Queering the Christian Table” you can start reading here.

For me, the biggest surprise of 2013 has been this blog.

When I started it up a year ago, I did it as a way to force myself to write on a regular basis, and I structured it is such a way that I thought would keep me from getting bored—by rotating topics thematically throughout the month.

It was a good plan.

My whole life I have made great plans. Seldom have any of them ever taken me to the places I expected. Often I have been more disappointed and delighted than I could ever have predicted. Just so, last March, when I began to put words to the idea of more room at the Christian table, I didn’t realize quite what was beginning.

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I wrote that first post as a way of beginning to lay claim to the idea that I am already sitting at God’s table. The Christian idea of a God who gathers us at a table by the invitation of Jesus is alarmingly good. Despite all the vast harm and evil carried out in the name of God by the Christian church, there’s the undermining presence of this human person—Jesus—who dares to share precious food with people whose very lives fall entirely outside the dominant cultural paradigms of acceptability.

Typing out that first post, I was trembling my way towards a declaration that we are all humans sitting at this table. What is clearer to me now than it was then, is that it is not my task to make room for myself or anyone at the table.

Mine is simply the job of stating the obvious: we are already here. We have already been welcomed to the table.

My work in writing this series of posts has been to reiterate the welcome to those of you who have come out—to me, to your families, to your churches, to your friends. Because we all need to hear it time and time again, I will keep on saying, “you are welcome at God’s table.” And my other task, one filled with irony, humor, heartache, and compassion, is to say to some others at the table, “Hello! We’re sitting right here! Would you please pass the potatoes already?!?”

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In the past nine months, I have fretted in the light of my computer screen—typing, deleting, re-typing, saving and discarding drafts, and finally clicking “publish” time and time again. I did it for me and I did it for you. There were many times when I felt incredibly brave and also incredibly timid. And there were times when I didn’t know if what I was writing was helping anything or if it was too obvious to warrant being said. Nevertheless, I have written words that I have felt were needed.

Because I still need to be reminded that the welcome of God’s kin-dom is not limited by the smallness of our imagination, I will keep on writing.

Because of encounters with and emails from you that have reminded me that not everyone is a part of a community where they feel both safe and essential to God’s family, I will continue saying what seems simplistic and obvious.

Because of conversations with people who were courageous enough to ask me to coffee or lunch to talk about how to better engage this conversation in their churches and communities, I will stay in the conversation rather than insulating myself in the safety of communities where I am assured of my safety and belonging.

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To be sure, there are times when I feel like I am poking a bear.

I hesitate to write or speak too provocatively, because it is easier when people like what I write, feel slightly challenged but not too uncomfortable, and click “subscribe” rather than writing me off for good.

And at the end of the day, like everyone, I want to be liked.

And it is all too easy to avoid saying the straightforwardly honest and difficult things when we think we will receive some kind of approval for our nicety. But the truth is, that kind of acceptance is lonely and void. It’s the acceptance of the closet—not the acceptance of God’s table.

See, God’s table is predicated on God liking us already.

I don’t need to butch it up to come to God’s table. In fact, there’s nothing I can or cannot do to come to God’s table, because God’s table has come to me. This is the point of the incarnation and, thank God, the point of this whole Advent/Christmas season—that God becomes vulnerable and human to come to be with us in our vulnerable humanity.

This is the core distinctive of the Christian faith—that we do not ascend or transcend. Instead, God is delighted with us and descends to live with us and bless us. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus who freely shares meals with every kind of person.

In contrast to life in the closet, where acceptance is based on suppressing my difference in order to make others comfortable, life at the table is enriched by all the particularities of my humanity that I bring and offer in community.

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Quite honestly, this is a hard pill to swallow. When my facebook page explodes because large numbers of USAmerican Christians are making a martyr out of one reality tv star’s racist and homophobic remarks, I want to crawl under my covers and hide.

I want consequences for Phil Robertson’s bad behavior. I want consequences for Christianity’s bad behavior. Yet I am welcomed to the table by the same Jesus who opens his table to such hooligans.

And much to the chagrin of the Phil Robertsons of the world, Jesus welcomes this hooligan, too.

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Each week I participate in a liturgy where I recite ancient words of the Christian faith. I make the sign of the cross on my body, even though I hate so much of what that sign has been used for.

Both the creed and the sign of the cross were taught to me in a Pentecostal Bible college, by an old, white man who graciously attempted to teach me Greek for 5 semesters. He also taught history of the church and, in order to pass that class, required me to memorize and recite the creed—a collection of ancient words which includes the affirmation:

“We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism.”

These words are not a claim that we are the only ones at this table—instead, they are a reminder that we are not the only ones. Instead, we are a small gathering of something much bigger, and more expansive. Those of us who gather together in our particular churches with those we can stand to be around are not the only ones that God is gracious enough to love.

Instead, we confess each week that we are not alone at the table, but that God offers kindness to us and to those we despise. For me, the sign of the cross that we make across our bodies is a sign that we accept that our tendency is to do violence to others and that we will not be governed by the urge to return violence for violence. Instead, we scoot to the side and make more room at the table, acknowledging that violence most often emerges out of a fear that there is not enough to go around.

But ultimately, we sit at a table that is God’s and not our own. And God’s table is already as queer as the entire world. The Christian monotheistic claim of one God who loves the entire world is offensive. And, mostly, it is offensive to us. It is offensive because our capacity for love is so small.

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My response to Phil Robertson and others in the Christian church who can’t believe that Jesus would make room for me, a gay man, at his table, is to say:

“There is room here for you as well.”

Because, ultimately, I am convinced that my urge to dissociate myself from the Phil Robertsons and the Mark Driscolls of the world is, on some level, connected to my urge to dissociate myself from the parts of me that I think are not acceptable. It is easier to try to call them to account for cruel words and bad behavior than to face the parts of me that are selfish and scared and unkind.

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Now, I think there is a difference between what I don’t like about them and what they don’t like about me. While I have a bit of trouble articulating this distinction, I think I can most adequately talk about it in terms of feelings of shame and feelings of being ashamed.

When I do something harmful to others—when I lash out, say something unkind, or (whether out of ignorance or malice) take part in someone else’s oppression (see racism, subsidizing slavery with my shopping, etc.), there is a natural consequence that occurs when I am called out on this behavior—I blush. I feel guilty. I wish I had known and done better.

Feeling ashamed, I want to hide my face.

On a good day I may apologize and try to make amends with those I have harmed. On a bad day, I may make excuses and non-apologies. I attempt to save-face. This is the feeling of being ashamed—I messed up, I feel stupid/guilty/defensive/humiliated, and I know that I have to either make amends or justify my behavior.

Feeling shame is a different thing altogether than feeling ashamed.

Shame is when you are given the message that you are wrong. Shame is not about your actions, it is the internalization of a message of harm that says your humanity—your very personhood is flawed/unacceptable/bad. Shame happens through acute traumas like rape and verbal/physical/emotional abuse. It also comes from the violence of systemic oppression by means of stereotypes/silencing/discrediting/limiting access.

Shame is when someone else wants to hide my face.

Feeling ashamed is what you feel when you have done wrong to others and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling shame is what you feel when wrong has been done to you and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling ashamed is an important social emotion that is connected to empathy. It is rooted in our ability to understand our impact on others and then learn to treat them in the way that we would like to be treated. Feeling shame is toxic. It’s what happens when people reject their own feelings of being ashamed and project them on someone with less social privilege. Shame is the second-hand smoke of someone else’s bad habit of exhaling their feelings of being ashamed instead of learning to stop doing the harm that created the smoke in the first place.

When someone feels ashamed and then repents, the feeling of being ashamed is transformed into reconciliation. When someone feels ashamed and then rejects that feeling and pushes it off onto the person they have already harmed, that feeling turns into shame. It is then the difficult work of the person who has already been harmed to do something with that shame.

Shame is a powerful feeling that, being rooted in the feeling of being ashamed, feels bad. The problem is that shame is the feeling of being ashamed that has been wrapped up and handed to the wrong person. For the recipient of this dirty package, the feeling of shame follows the event of having been harmed by someone else.

So, the person who feels shame feels it while they are trying to make sense of having been harmed. So, often those who are harmed internalize the message of shame and believe the lie that they deserve to have been harmed because they are somehow inherently bad or wrong.

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In the conversation about LGBTIQ folks in the Christian church, my hunch is that there are multiple layers of this ashamed/shame game that are going on.

And as a Christian gay man, it may surprise you that I bring up the opening of the New Testament book of Romans at this point in the discussion. However, I think we read far too little of Paul’s letter when we have this conversation.

In describing the weighty judgment of God on those who try to limit access to God’s grace, Paul asks, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Indeed, the offering of welcome at God’s table is an invitation to those who feel shame and to those who feel ashamed. God’s judgement for both parties is the surprise that they are both welcome at God’s table.

And so, I can only conclude that my role, as I sort out both feelings within myself, is to receive the loving kindness of God and trust that it will lead me to offer loving kindness to others. Again, my response to those who would hand me a bundle of shame is to make the sign of the cross, open myself to receive the loving kindness of God, and offer them the same loving kindness.

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Over the last few months I haven’t posted a lot of my writing here, but I have been writing nonetheless.

I’ve been busy writing lectures, grading papers, and applying to a doctoral program. In the midst of all this writing, I’ve turned to sci-fi as a place to rest and renew my imagination. There, in Season 6 Episode 17 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I stumbled across this beautiful reminder:

In the episode, Lieutenant Commander Worf has come across an group of Klingons who live in exile after being captured in war—a group destined to remain in hiding because of the cultural shame their very lives bring to themselves and their families (for Klingons, death in battle is a source of honor). Worf has come with hope that he might have found his own father there among them—though, given the Klingon culture, if his father had been found alive there, it would have meant complete dishonor.

When asked by one of the exiled Klingons what he would have done if he had found his father, Worf replies: “If I had found him here, I would be glad to see him. There is no room in my heart for shame.”

And isn’t this the truth of the goodness that we are each searching for? For LGBTIQ Christians, we have often believed we were exiled in shame and yet someone has come looking for us—someone who is glad to see us; someone in whose heart there is no room for shame.

As we learn to not take on the package of shameful feelings, this will mean learning to give and receive the loving kindness of God. This will also mean that our brothers and sisters who have done us harm will no longer be able to easily pass off their feelings of being ashamed to us. Which means they will have to learn how to deal with feelings that don’t feel good–that is, they will also need to learn to give and receive the loving kindness of God that invites us all to repentance.

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For me, as a gay man at the Christian table, shame looks like the internalization of the message that I must prove that I belong here. It comes from believing the insistence from others that they get to define the parameters of the table. That insistence is a misdirection of shame, meant to absolve their feeling of being ashamed for fencing off God’s table.

Thank God, this table doesn’t belong to us. My role at the Christian table is to abandon the fight to define ownership of the table, and accept my place as a deeply beloved and cherished guest at God’s table. My being here has nothing to do with deserving or not deserving to be here–I am here because I belong here.

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As I look forward to the coming year, I am eager to continue writing in this space. I know that I have need for you and the conversations that are to come as we learn to laugh, play, and live in the loving kindness of God.

Peace,

Daniel