Lent 2015 Week 1: Water

During the season of Lent, I am practicing as the Artist in Residence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. Each week, I’ll post a brief reflection on my work with the week’s theme and my own artistic process.

Water

Each of the past two Saturday’s, while most of the continent has been hit hard by cold winter weather, we who live beside Puget Sound have been lavished with warm sunlight to mark our slowly lengthening days. And for the past two weekends, I have taken to the water.

Hearing water rake and curl past bow of boat, slipping through changing hues of gray and green and blue, slows me down–takes me out from linear tick of time, and into a melodic, syncopated keeping; a cycle of belonging that invites me to hold and be held by the world in holy ways.

As I contemplate the readings for this week’s practice of Lent, I am–of course–flooded by the imagery of water. In the creation narrative of Noah’s family and the flood, God establishes a covenant of belonging with humanity and all creatures of the earth, promising to provide for and not destroy us with rising waters. The author of 1 Peter ties the ancient flood with the rite of Baptism, by which we are joined with Jesus. And Mark’s gospel tells of Jesus’ own baptism, where God proclaims the belovedness of Jesus.


And so, for this week’s piece, I wanted to create something that spoke to the wholeness of water–the connection of water with every living thing on earth, our participation and belonging to the belovedness of Jesus through the waters of baptism, and the complexity of our human impact on the water cycle around our blue planet.

I’m also keenly aware of the way in which water invites my body to slow down–to know my belovedness, belonging, and connection to the world in deeper ways. I wanted this piece to invite an actual interaction with water. Moreover, I wanted the piece to require human participation in order to work.

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By creating a fountain that doesn’t run on electricity, the viewer cannot experience the activity of the water cycle without literally being drawn into the action of the fountain itself. While the global water cycle is propelled by solar warming, air flow, evaporation, precipitation, the aspiration of plants, condensation of atmospheric moisture, and countless other factors, still, human participation in the water cycle cannot be denied.

There are over 40,000 large, human-built dams (40 feet or taller) shaping the world’s waterways. And it’s estimated that somewhere around 60 million people have been displaced by these projects–this, of course, doesn’t tally the impact on other species. (These stats are widely reported by various bodies, but I’m drawing info from http://www.internationalrivers.org/)

And while our ambitious water projects often provide electrical power and can hold back water, allowing room for agriculture and cities, time itself is on the side of water. We know the power of floods and mudslides. Dams give way. Levees are allowed to fall into disrepair. Zoning permits allow developers to build homes where geologists have warned of impending erosion. 

From the flotilla of trash in the Pacific Gyre, to the sterile rivers of Appalachia turned green from copper mines, we shape the water cycle. We also plant riparian buffers, welcome back Salmon to their ancient streams, and are moved by compassion to respond to our global neighbors devastated by deforestation, desertification, agricultural erosion, and drought. Insomuch as we are participants in damaging the water cycle, we also have potential to participate in its repair. But doing so may require us to slow down, consider the whole before rushing to another technological solution, and commit ourselves to faithful, actionable repentance.


For my creative process on this piece, I kept circling around the biblical creation narratives of an ordered world emerging out of watery chaos. There’s the Genesis 1 account of a world formed by God hovering over water. This is followed with the story of the great flood. Later, the infant Moses is launched out on the waters, the nation of Israel flees slavery through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and the desert wandering people of God cross into abundance by moving through the waters of the Jordan river (I’m aware that these accounts can be told in ways that disregard the fate of Noah’s neighbors, the drowned Egyptian army, or the invaded inhabitants of Palestine–yet these people too are connected in this water cycle).

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The echoes of these and other Ancient Near Eastern accounts of worlds emerging through water birth are brought to bear in New Testament accounts of Jesus’ baptism which becomes sacralized in our understanding of Christian identity and our participation with God in the ongoing creation/wholeness-making of the world. But our belovedness offered in Jesus is present in the earlier Genesis account, where God places the rainbow as a sign of covenant in the sky.

In the piece, above the baptismal interaction of participants, water, and leaves, a small lantern hangs watchfully overhead. Inside it, a rainbow of sea glass is immersed in water, illuminated by a flame; human waste, transformed by water, represents the symbol of a God who remakes the world on our behalf.

I wanted to hold these things together with the ecological realities of water and our planet. My idea was for a fountain made up of elements that would break down, and that is powered by the actions of those who encounter it. I wanted to communicate the beauty of what was happening in the given moment, while also drawing attention to the experience of impermanence. The piece is built in place, meaning that the form that is encountered is only an iteration of these particular elements.

The elements: stones from the garden pathway at St. Paul’s, cups made of clay, a rain chain of rolled Madrona leaves, harvested from the fallen branch that forms the upright structure of the fountain, and water, that with enough time and interaction, can transform each of these elements, freeing each to become something else in the community of the world.

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Part of the beauty of sacramental theology is that the actual actions of participants matter. We are invited by God’s Spirit to know and live into our wholeness-making participation in the watery life of the world.


Our lives depend on water–the particular molecules filling our bodies and surrounding us in the air, and the regional and global cycles. And, we are active participants in a biological, geological, and hydrological communion. Each molecule is wholly water, and altogether, the coming together and breaking apart of hydrogen and oxygen, mirrors our own coming together and breaking apart as parts of the whole community of life on earth.

My hope is that through interaction with this piece, entitled “Water Cycle” participants will be invited to experience their bodily participation as prayer/action–a sacramental sign/act that opens their imagination to participating prayerfully in all of their life’s movements within the water cycle. In this way, the piece is meant to echo baptism–a holy birthing and reordering of our life in the world; an invitation to be taken up in the belovedness of God and flowing as holy, embodied persons, participating in the life of the world.

Like the shape of a cresting wave–“Water Cycle” can be felt and experienced only while it is being expressed, but even in that moment, it is being transformed into another iteration–just as whole, beautiful, and sacred as the one that is disappearing. I want participants to slow down and feel something of the connection between the wholeness of the part and their participation with the whole. In this way, the art is not the sculpture, but the action and the elements coming together to birth a deeper, unfolding mystery.

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Risk and Wordlessness: Learning Love and Justice

For the most part, I write when I feel compelled to write. And I have spent a lot of time feeling compelled to write, working with words to distill and dispel; to shape the stuff of my deep convictions into communicable bursts of meaning.

So it’s with some reluctance that I have been giving myself to a kind of unknowing that has meant fewer words in the last several months than I am used to inflicting on the world.

I’d like to say that it has something to do with playing more. Or something to do with praying with my body on a boat, afloat and pressed by wind, back and forth across the waters of Puget Sound. And that is true. I think it also has something to do with being soul-quieted by profound experiences of love.

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There is so much that needs to be said about the world around us. But more than words, we need deep, abiding experiences of love.

Loving, grieving, and risking, are three sides of the same coin. The love-grief-risk act is one done with our bodies. It is kindled in the tender power of our flesh. And this action is played out when we make/believe—daring to risk our bodies on the imagination of meaningful connection with others. To move towards love is to pray the prayer of our bodily vulnerability.

We constitute justice and reconciliation, healing self and world, when we accept the invitation to participate in the playful re-creation of the world through a social imagination based on loving attachment to those who are other than what we know and expect. That is to say, we change the world when we let ourselves be loved and, in so doing, learn to love.

But to love and be loved, we must grieve the loss of what we wanted and didn’t get, what we had that died, and what we never believed we could really have. And to love, we must risk saying yes to falling head over heels for something that we know will eventually end in one way or another. To love is to say yes to the invitation to play each time the invitation is extended.


In the wordless places of the last few months, I have been shocked—nay, flabbergasted—by the capacity of my body to hold such sorrow and pleasure. Deep belonging and grieving go hand-in-hand, each opening up more space for the other. We can never explore these vast spaces on our own.

In ways I could never imagine, I am become brother and lover in the arms and hearts of those who love me well. And this expansion of my heart is opening space in me that makes room for more creative peace-making justice than mere indignation or sorrow ever could. Such opening precedes language—unfolding room within me and for me in the world, in ways for which I am still acquiring language.

One way that this imagination is beginning to emerge, and that I hope to write more about in coming months, is that I am growing into a sense of identity rooted more in belonging than in the narratives of ownership that dominate what it means to be a white male in this culture. As I am listening to where I belong in conversations about being human and humane, I don’t have to define the terms of the conversation (an explicit strategy of debate, legislation, and legal ownership), and can, instead, listen to the pattern language happening around me and then playfully engage with where my experiences of hope and love are inviting me to grow my piece of the dialogue.

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I don’t expect this post to make a whole lot of sense to most folks. Like I said, I’m playing on the edge of the capacity of my words right now. What I can say is that I feel personally happy and loved, profoundly grieved at the state of our world, and persistently hopeful that we can, by loving/grieving/risking, grow our capacity to say yes to the kind of play that repairs the world.

Right now I know these things mostly through the feel of the pull of wind against sails straining the till in my hands, through the tender touch of lips and strong hands, and through the joy of falteringly chorded songs sung with those who have become my family.

And words too, are a bodily experience, existing first in throats, and lips, and tongues before landing in ink or pixels. I believe that the words will continue to grow, I feel them in the way my body is learning how to love.

To write about justice, I must first allow experiences of love to open space in my life where I can risk loving deeply, with my whole self, so that my words belong to my bodily life, bearing wit(h)ness to grief and hope. Only then can words lead to any kind of justice.

So, You Want to Come Out: The Most Important Step You’re Going to Take

Contrary to what it sounds like, coming out is not a one-time event. No one wakes up, realizes they’ve been living in a closet that is far too dark, lonely, and small, and then just pops open the door and sashays out, once and for all.

Oh, that it were as simple as setting up your phone camera on a shelf for your video of the moment you tell your mother that you’ve always known you were a lesbian.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good coming-out video as much as the next person. I’ve cried through dozens of them through the years. And my hunch is that the reasons we make these videos are similar to the reasons we watch them. For folks who have lived much of our lives in closets constructed of fear and shame, there is hope in seeing the faces of people with the courage and vulnerability to declare that they are human beings worthy of love and acceptance.

The closet constructed by persistent heteronormativity and homophobia in society works to erase LGBTIQ faces from history, family, schools, workplaces, leadership, faith communities, and public life. Coming out disrupts these norms, making our faces visible. And the courage to be seen, by ourselves and those around us, is fundamentally about reclaiming our right to have faces.


If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the non-conforming gender performance, hairstyle, body language, makeup, or clothing of someone who identifies in some way as LGBTIQ, you should know this: It’s not about you!

As people, our bodies and lives do not exist to make other people comfortable. The closet metaphor works for me, because closets are places where people keep sweaters–objects that can be wrapped around one’s own body to insulate from what feels uncomfortable in the world. But LGBTIQ folks are not sweaters.

So, coming out is, at it’s core, a way of claiming proof of our existence in the world.

This is why we march in parades, phone-bank for civil rights, volunteer for HIV-AIDS relief organizations, fight racism, misogyny and other kinds of oppression, dress in drag, perform burlesque, make youtube videos, lead in religious communities, join GSAs, and build robust and welcoming families of choice. We live full, complex lives that celebrate our gender and sexual orientation as a wonderful part of who we are, and namely, we get to be seen for who we are in community.


The most important step in this coming out process is always the same. I know that’s a big claim, but hear me out.

It’s the same step that you will have to take to come out to yourself, to your friends and family, at your workplace, on the bus, at school, in your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. In fact, you’ll have to take this step inside of yourself every single step along your journey of coming out of the closet and living courageously in the world.

The most important step is having the courage to believe that you deserve to be seen and loved.

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If you’ve lived in the closet this long, you know something about fear and the courage it takes to survive. You’re already a hero in my book, for finding the resources within yourself to seek some measure of safety in order to make it in a world that says you do not exist.

Coming out is difficult, and you should do it in your own time, when you are ready for it. But know this: you are worthy of being seen and loved and you already have the immense courage it takes to take this step, and the one after that, and the one after that.


Right now, you may not feel like you have that courage. And that’s okay. I know that you exist in the world. I am proud of you for even thinking about this step of coming out.

Sometimes, when we’ve lived our lives behind the door that society holds shut to conceal our existence, we begin to believe the lie that we don’t deserve to live and be seen–to be loved for who we are. And it’s nearly impossible to start loving ourselves in this situation.

To get there, I want you to stand in front of a mirror and look at your face. Say, “You are beautiful. You are loved. I love you. You are welcome in this world.” I know, it’s going to seem hokey the first 300 times that you do this, but you need to hear this–from yourself.

But really, we don’t start loving ourselves out of nowhere. We are social creatures and our personhood is developed in relationship. This is why, to keep growing, you’re going to need to come out at some point. If there’s one person that you are out to who is supportive, talk to them. Let that relationship remind you that you have a face; that you are worthy of love and respect as a person in this world.

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And if you don’t have anyone that you are out to, know this: I love you. You are beautiful. And you are welcome in this world. I will hold onto those words for you until you are able to look at yourself and say them with confidence and sincerity. If you’re in (or near) Seattle, get in touch–we’ll get coffee. If you’re farther away, same thing (we’ll just need to Skype).

Just know that you are not alone. You are no one’s sweater. You exist; you have a face; you are loved and deserve to be loved for who you are.

Happy Coming-Out Day. Today, and every day that you decide you are worth living for.

You are worth living for.

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