Thank God for Sex

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Microaggressions: What They Are and How We Deal

In the past I’ve written a bit about my experiences of microaggressions. I’ve decided to make a few videos talking about microaggressions and share them here. This first set of videos focuses on what experiencing a microaggression against you can feel like, the impacts, and how I work to care for myself during and after the situation.

In the future, I’ll be putting together videos about recognizing my own microaggressions against others (I touch on this in the second video down below) and how I try to address this in myself and systems/communities. I’m also hoping to do a couple of conversation videos with folks around how we experience and grow in relationship by working through microaggressions towards and from one another.

For now, here are the first three videos. I’d love to hear feedback from you if these are helpful, if you have your own resources that you want to share, and if you have questions you’d like me to respond to.

Peace.

 

If you find these videos helpful, feel free to pass them along as you see fit.

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.

——-

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?

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.”

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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 12: Should the Church Offer Tough Love or Fierce Love to Queer* people?

To Read the series from the beginning, click here.

I grew up hearing a lot about “tough love.” This was basically supposed to mean that if you love someone, you are willing to speak difficult truths to them; you’re willing to hold them accountable.

In practice, I’m not sure I saw a lot of that. What I feel like I saw a lot of, and what I often have the impulse to do, is to use the idea of tough love to justify pushing somebody else to behave in a way that I find appropriate.

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Instead of tough love, I want fierce love. I want curious love. I want love that won’t look away.

—–

I’ve received a lot of great comments on this blog. I’ve also had some amazing in-person conversations. Many folks have been supportive, grateful, challenged, and have graciously offered back their own challenges to what I say. That feels like loving community.

I’ve also received a few comments that I haven’t approved for posting. It’s not that I don’t want conversation with people who disagree with me, but I’m choosing to hold open a space for myself and others to speak to the experience of being an LGBTIQ person who is a Christian. We can walk into a church anywhere in USAmerica and hear people who will tell us we are wrong. I don’t need to personally provide a forum for that opinion in my own little corner of the interwebs.

—–

There are some folks who feel compelled by their Christian convictions to “speak the truth in love”—to offer tough love back to me and other LGBTIQ folks. I appreciate the willingness to follow through on what feels like an ethical obligation of their particular belief system. However, I happen to think it’s built on a faulty ethic (more on that later).

That said, I don’t really need someone to tell me what a conservative Christian evangelical reading of the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I’ve read and heard that in about a bajillion places (and at some point in my life, I’ve probably personally said most of the things that you would say on that front).

If you would like to pray for me, I’d be deeply grateful for your prayers, particularly, I hope you would pray the Lord’s prayer with me.

—–

More than tough love, I’d like to see some fierce love.

—–

This is my own understanding of fierce love:

Fierce love is not a tool that is used relationally, instead it is a relational category that extends out of the lover. When I talk about fierce love, I’m talking about the trajectory of the lover being “for” another person. So I’ll use the term “fierce love” to mean “the person who is loving fiercely.”

Fierce love persists. It does not give up wanting goodness for the beloved. It does not assume that it knows best, but seeks to listen, to pay attention to where life is happening, and to invest in seeing the person who is loved flourish.

In order to do this, fierce love is always open to wonder, always curious, always pushing the beloved to grow and celebrating the places of growth that emerge within the life of the beloved.

Fierce love pushes itself to be an appreciator of the particularity and nuance of the person that it loves. Instead of seeking to see the beloved become some ideal form, fierce love surrenders to the unfolding complexity of who the beloved is and will continue to become.

—–

Fierce love fights for the caterpillar to have space to pupate—fights to adjust their own parameters of reality to appreciate the ability of the same beloved, fuzzy worm of an insect to become an iridescent, winged, master of the wind.

——

To some, this may seem like I am arguing for love without morality. On some front this is true.

Morality offers some measure of safety and predictability to relationships in the world. And fierce love is certainly disruptive of safety and predictability.

On another front, I would push back and say that love is itself the key to a functional morality—but it must be fierce love—love based on awe, wonder, vulnerable curiosity, and appreciation of the differences of others.

As a Christian, my understanding of morality is shaped by my understanding of holiness, which is to say, my understanding of flourishing human life that honors all creation by always growing more in capacity to love God and love neighbor. Moreover, I believe holiness/flourishing mean that we grow to understand every last enemy is really a neighbor that we simply haven’t had the curiosity to ask their name, and bear wit(h)ness to their life.

This kind of love is dangerously costly. It will leave us all gasping for breath. It also helps to lift the crushing weight on our chests that keeps us all from really breathing.

It is the kind of love that says let a field grow to ripen with both wheat and weeds (and perhaps the secret is that the weeds have their own usefulness too—that when the climate changes, they’ll be what survives and become the crop we start growing on purpose to fill our dinner plates).

—–

In the end, the story of how I have experienced tough love at work is this: If I see you doing something I think is harmful and I don’t follow through on my convictions and try to help you see the light, then I’m responsible if something bad happens (in the conservative Christian world this means I’m responsible for you going to hell).

That’s a terrible burden to bear. Terrible enough that it could make me treat you pretty horribly in effort to assuage my conscience.

The story of fierce love is also a pretty incredible thing to bear, but I think that it may be less of a burden, and more of a cost—it’s the persistence of staying present, even if I disagree with you. Challenging you, sure, but more, asking you why you are doing what you are doing; bearing wit(h)ness to your process, and fighting with (on behalf of) you to see you flourish in a way that is authentic and honoring of who you are (especially where you are different from me).

That’s not an easy thing to do. It demands imagination, and hope in the face of despair, and being able to remain present in the middle of other peoples’ pain and suffering. It means me saying “I’m sorry” a lot as I miss you at different points along the way and overstep my bounds.

It means getting angry when you can’t be angry for yourself, and hoping when you can’t hope for yourself. It means listening louder than I speak.

This is what I am striving to do with my life. That I don’t always do it well doesn’t mean it’s not worth attempting.

—–

And what’s so queer about fierce love? Why do I find it important to a conversation about Christianity and sexual orientation?

I believe that the intent of tough love from many socially conservative Christians toward LGBTIQ people has been to see holiness worked out in our lives. However, I believe that those who have offered this tough love have not stopped to thoroughly, prayerfully, theologically, or biblically consider how they define holiness.

Without first asking what the purpose of holiness is, any attempts at a holiness based morality will fail to bring about holiness, because it will not be dynamic or responsive to the reality of particular human lives.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment of the law of Moses, he said that it was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. He quickly added that the second greatest commandment was like the first one: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If all of the law and prophets are completed in these two commands, as Jesus suggests, then the definition and purpose of holiness seem clear—to increase our love of God and neighbor so that it is holistic and so that we value others equally. These commandments demand that we take seriously our bodies, our entire human lives. Not only our own, but those of other people who are different from us.

If tough love from conservative Christians is meant to aid LGBTIQ persons in growing in love of God and neighbors, then let’s evaluate it by its fruit. It instructs us to believe that the particular ways that we experience love and desire is distorted and wrong (namely because it is not directed at people of the opposite gender which is how straight people experience their own sexuality). It then tells us that to honor God, we must avoid intimate relationships with the very people who are most able to allow us to enter the complex vulnerability that will open us up to grow a deeper capacity for love.

So, if the message of tough love, that God doesn’t approve of same sex intimate love, is supposed to engender a greater capacity for love of God and neighbor in LGBTIQ people, well folks, it’s not working. The intent might be great, but the actual impact doesn’t correspond to the intent, because the whole project fails to take seriously the reality that LGBTIQ people are in fact different (this is why acceptance has nothing to do with “seeing everyone as the same” but actually requires seeing and respecting our differences).

If we are to follow the commandments that Jesus offers as the whole point of holiness, then we must love in a way that takes seriously our own lives and bodies and the lives and bodies of other people who are different from us.

And it seems simple to say this, but it apparently needs to be said: other people know their own lives and bodies better than we do.

—–

In contrast to tough love, I believe that fierce love demands far more of the lover than the beloved. It is shaped on the love of a God who interrupts the cycle of human violence and demand for sacrifices and over-accepts our violence to the point of letting us kill God, in order to show that this God is a parent who can accept our wildest sinful rage—the ultimate failure of love, to take a life; that God can absorb our relational failure to love and somehow still remain and draw us up into life and relationship without the need for self-protection that would mean cutting us off.

The scandal of the gospel is that God forgives our sin in the moment while we are doing it, not after we repent of it.

God’s love is so much better than ours that it scares us shitless and we’d rather make God small and petty and demanding (more like us) so that we can think of ourselves as playing on God’s team when we are being small and petty and demanding.

And God forgives this too. God becomes small with us. God sits in our petty, demanding, and even hateful places, and loves us. Because God knows that we can’t give love if we don’t know what it feels like to receive love.

And this can be frustrating to see God loving other people who, in their smallness are inflicting harm on us. But it’s important to remember that God is on everyone’s side. God wants us all to grow in our love for each other, so God gifts us with grace and invites us to love others that we don’t believe deserve the credit of love.

God is steadfast, offering loving kindness when we don’t believe we deserve it and eventually (sometimes over a lifetime and perhaps, for some, only in eternity) we are able to receive being loved, internalize this love, and offer it in kind to others.

—–

I believe that this kind of love—love that is curious, that seeks to know and be with the beloved, to offer love in order to build capacity for love is the kind of love that conservative Christians could be offering LGBTIQ people—but it can only happen when they have grown to accept the degree to which they are loved. Moreover, as a gay Christian man, this is the kind of love I hope to offer the conservative Christian community—especially when I experience them as handing me an unexamined morality that does not offer me life or love.

It is my hope to follow Jesus in remaining present, persisting, forgiving even when others do not ask for forgiveness, and practicing my own love of God and neighbor so that they may experience what fierce love feels like, so that they too may be overcome with grace and grow in their capacity for love.

What’s probably most scandalous to these folks is that much of my capacity to accept the love of God comes when I accept the love of my community, believe that I am beloved, and open myself up to the kind of intimate love that leads me into vulnerability and openness—which for me is love with someone of the same gender.

That gay love might actually be God’s way of building my capacity to love in the world is a beautiful, complex, queer part of the gospel playing out in my life. I can only testify to what I have seen and heard.

—–

I am not really saying anything new. I’m basically rehashing an ancient poem about love:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but

do not have love, I

am a noisy gong or

a clanging cymbal.  And

if I have prophetic powers, and

understand all mysteries and

all knowledge, and

if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but

do not have love,

I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and

if I hand over my body so that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

Love is patient;

love is kind; love is not

envious or

boastful or

arrogant  or rude. It

does not insist on its own way; it

is not irritable or resentful; it

does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but

rejoices in the truth.

It bears

all things, believes

all things, hopes

all things, endures

all things.

Love never ends.

But as for prophecies,

they will come to an end; as for tongues,

they will cease; as for knowledge,

it will come to an end.

For

we know

only in part, and

we prophesy

only in part;  

but

when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 

When I was a child, I

spoke like a child, I

thought like a child, I

reasoned like a child;

when I became an adult, I

put an end to childish ways.

For now

we see in a mirror, dimly,

but then

we will see face to face.

Now

I know only in part;

then

I will know fully,

even as I have been fully known. And now

faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and

the greatest of these is love.

——

*Note: Given the title of this post, I want to state again how I am using the word “Queer.” In some uses (like the end of the title of this post, I’m using the term Queer in place of LGBTIQ, as I think it’s a more inclusive single word than “gay” to refer to a range of people with very different experiences. I also use “Queer” as a verb (like in the first word of the title of this series), meaning to show a broader spectrum of perspectives on something, namely to open up space for a multiplicity of particular perspectives, particularly highlighting the experiences of those who are marginalized around sexual orientation. Neither of these uses are intended to co-opt the word Queer by those who identify themselves as queer or gender queer. If my use of this term seems problematic, I’d love to hear about it, as my own use of the term has shifted with time and I use the word queer for myself, along with gay, while also identifying as a cis-gendered male.

 

Queering the Christian Table Part 11: Jesus is Coming to Dinner

To read the series from the beginning, click here.

“I’ll always love you. . . no matter what.” “There’s nothing you can ever do to make me stop loving you.” “I love you so much that I have to tell you, what you are doing is wrong.”

On the surface, these are the kinds of words that are meant to reassure—to convince the hearer (or speaker?) of the sincerity of love for the other. And yet, we almost always say what we mean—especially when we don’t mean to.

Most often, these words are offered in a moment when the speaker is feeling something like this:

I really think that you are wrong about something (and I feel really uncomfortable around you),

or

I strongly dislike your behavior,

or

I know I’m supposed to love you. Can’t you see how good I’m doing at loving you even though you clearly haven’t earned it?

The subtext that comes through when these words are spoken, especially from a parent to a child, are not the promised, unconditional love—instead, it’s the subtle promise of acceptance—delivery on the affective, relational, and emotional/physical feelings of being loved—only under the conditions of acceptable behavior.

————

I have to tell you, I don’t really think that Jesus ate with people described as “sinners,” in-spite-of their sin. I think he ate dinner at their houses because he enjoyed being with them. I’m not saying that he enjoyed being with them because he saw the potential for how he could change them once he pronounced “go and sin no more.”

I’m saying, he fucking couldn’t get enough of being around these folks.

————

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as sin. What I’m saying is, there’s no such thing as sin separating us from God. If God couldn’t bear to be in the presence of sin (as a lot of really crap theology has claimed), then Jesus cannot be divine—which, last time I checked is, like, the number one heresy in the Christian faith. For real, you can go look it up.

See? Still a heresy.

One story that get’s hauled out to brow-beat this notion is the double creation accounts in Genesis. We’ve all heard some wild-eyed interpreter suggest that God couldn’t stand the sin of Adam and Eve and thus kicked them out of the garden. This reading is only possible in an overly-literalistic (mis)reading of the passage, presuming actual individuals named Adam and Eve in an actual garden, with an actual talking (and walking) snake, with an actual flaming sword blocking their way.

That is a way to read the Bible. It’s not a way that takes seriously the multiple ways the story is told, the highly constructed literary forms, the deeply metaphoric language, the puns in the names of the characters, or the clear etiological nature of the story that make it abundantly evident that it is a theological story, making theological truth claims about the nature of God and origins of sinfulness and God’s original movement towards us to reconcile our relationships into something good.

I’d invite literalist readers to take the text seriously, and see that as soon as people sin, God comes to find them and have a conversation with them. The theological claim that starts in the first story in the Bible is that God looks to hang out with people who sin. And this shows up again and again through the narratives and then, finally, Jesus comes and hangs out at dinner with sinners.

———–

I hear frequently (mainly from Reformed folks) that, “of course we are all sinners.” The inference is that my homosexual love and relationships are inherently sinful, but it’s okay, because they aren’t perfect either. Another way of saying this is something like, “Well, we are all sexually broken.”

What this amounts to is a sort of cheap justification of the “love-you-in-spite-of” language wrapped in the false humility of a staged confession. The reality is, that at the end of the day, while they may admit that they have failures of love that amount to sin within their heterosexual relationships, they believe that homosexuality in and of itself is inherently sinful.

There are even people who take this approach who would say that it’s alright to have a homosexual relationship, because God knows that we are sinners and will love and forgive us anyway.

It’s the old and worn out, “Jesus loved the lepers” routine, in which we claim love while reifying social stigma against a group of people.

————

Believe me when I say that I have been formed sexually by trauma and a culture of misogyny and heteronormativity. I’ll be the first to admit that my desires are not entirely my own.

We are, all of us, shaped people.

We have experiences that some describe as “brokenness”—pain, addictions, recovery, fetishes, turn-ons, turn-offs, ways we are open to love and ways we are shut down to love. These are a tangle of sin and redemption at work in all of us.

So if, when you say that we are all “sexually broken,” you mean we are all complexly formed and in need of a lifetime of learning how to grow into greater vulnerability and loving relationships, then yes, I am all about that.

But we must be willing to recognize and name with some specificity, the ways in which the language of “sexual brokenness” has been applied socially against LGBTIQ people both historically (sic!) and contemporarily. The “brokenness” of queer sexuality has been the focus of great effort to “fix” an inordinate number of people. It is a stigma, that is laid against the core of a person’s sexuality and used as a label of “less than” what is considered normative (a particular, narrowly imagined cultural brand of heterosexuality).

So the confessional claim of “I’m broken too,” by heterosexuals, holds about as much stigma for them as the term “white trash” holds for me as a white person.

What I mean to say is, it is a label that seems negative, but it doesn’t actually dismantle the privileged position of the person against whom the word is used. Because heterosexuality is privileged with acceptance, cultural celebration, and normative status, the label of “brokenness” or “sexual sin” never condemns heterosexuality itself. Just like calling me “white trash” doesn’t stick in the same way that racial epithets leveled at people of color do, because the white stereotypes don’t take away my white privilege, while the parallel words used against people of color actively reinforce my white privilege.

To use the language of “brokenness” in this way is as shallow as claiming that because white stereotypes exist, then white privilege doesn’t exist and it’s okay to go on defining social norms in terms of white-makes-right culture.

Because in reality, the societal stigma remains, because you’ve failed to distinguish between my actual “sexual brokenness” and my sexuality itself. Heterosexual privilege, in this scenario, is the exemption card of societal acceptance of heterosexual love, which allows the terms “brokenness” and “sin” to really mean very little when applied to straight people and be quite harmful when applied to queer people.

LGBTIQ persons have experiences of people attempting to drive out “demons of homosexuality,” being subjected to electroshock therapy, being systemically legally oppressed, being kicked out of homes, churches, families, clubs, schools, workplaces, bars, government agencies, hospitals—all for simply being who they are as sexual persons. This is not true in anything like this systemic way of oppression for heterosexual people.

To think the words “broken” or “sinful” in this case could mean the same thing to straight and queer people is like thinking the sound of 4th-of-July fireworks could possibly mean the same thing to a sheltered child of USAmerican suburbia and to a child living under USAmerican bombings in Baghdad.

————–

For the (mostly Reformed, straight) people who use this argument, the very notion of being a sinner is not so dangerous. They see the Christian life as one of being complete sinners who are complete saints because of the finished work of Jesus in the world and in our lives. So, for them, the words “sinner” and “broken” don’t coincide with “going to hell.” But instead fit into the matrix of “forgiven and welcomed by God.”

That’s all well and good and easy to internalize if you are heterosexual and have been handed the message by your culture and it’s dominant, Evangelical view that heterosexual relationships are inherently good, designed by God, and blessed.

But what if you’ve been told every day that your desires, the way that your body responds sexually, and the people that you love are inherently evil and that as a result you are going to be eternally separated from a God who loves others but hates you and is going to send you to be tortured forever?  The language of “yeah, we’re all broken sinners” feels a little flippant and wholly inadequate for contradicting the messages of oppression and shame.

————

So, I’d like to talk frankly about where I see some of my own sexual brokenness and sin in my own sexuality.

As a gay man, I have 28+ years of messaging that I have received from my family, my culture, and my faith, about what is normal and good in terms of sexuality. I have the same number of years of messaging from those same sources about what is wrong, and abnormal about what I have known about my own sexuality (with some conscious understanding for at least 20 years).

I am a sexually broken man. I have believed so many lies about myself, about my body. I have tried to contort myself and my desires to fit something that I am not. I have been told that loving people with the kinds of bodies I desire is evil and can only lead to pain, and eventually hell. I have hated myself. And all of this has prevented me from deep vulnerability, relationship, and intimacy with someone who could more fully awaken my desire in a way that would grow my capacity to love God and my neighbors.

In my attempts to be what I was told was normal, I have done harm to myself and the woman that I was married to. I have also, in the midst of this, loved well, lived passionately, asked deep questions, grown my desire, and expanded my capacity to love God and neighbor.

So does this narrative contain brokenness and sin? Yes. Absolutely. Does any of it have to do with my sexual orientation? Well. . . that’s a harder question.

Of course it has to do with my sexual orientation—specifically, I will be so bold as to name it as sin that I have been shamed by society, my family, and the church on the basis of my attraction to other men.

The harm inflicted on me and other LGBTIQ people, in the name of God, morality, and normativity (here’s looking at you, “natural law” deists, masquerading as defenders of “Biblical marriage”) is reprehensible. It has been a roadblock to the good news (gospel) that God delights in my sexuality and wants to use my sexuality to draw me into deeper relationship with God and other people—that God enjoys being around me.

————

What I am saying is that the “I/God love(s) you, in spite of your sin/sexual brokenness” line is not good news for me as a queer person. What it really is, is another way of saying “expression of your sexuality is sinful.” But more, it’s a way of reinforcing the unquestioned normativity of society by labeling my sexuality itself as sinful, wrong, broken, ab-normal.

So if you say homosexual sex is a sin, well, you’re going to have to do better. Come up with a definition of sin that can stand up theologically, that is formed relationally, and that is bursting not just with compassion, but with Jesus’ passion for hanging out with people labeled “sinful.”

A robust definition of sin must include and address the societal systems that oppress some groups by privileging other groups. It must address what sin is, how it functions, and what it does to our relationships. Finally, it must be met with a definition of redemption/gospel that accounts for a God who both creates LGBTIQ people and who consistently shows up to hang out with the people who get labeled as “sinners” and who also tend to be the groups of people that are oppressed within their cultures and societies.

————-

The more work I do on my white, male, able-bodied, educated privilege (and believe me that list could be a lot longer), the more I begin to realize that societal systems that sort us into privileged and oppressed are designed to distance me from the reality of my own humanity, which is the core out of which I can draw empathy and see the humanity of others.

So often, we cling to social categories that allow us to villainize/reject another group of people in order to distance ourselves from the possibility that we might be villainized or rejected. This is the dynamic that keeps various oppressed groups fearful of one another and that keeps privileged groups blind to conscious knowledge of their own precarious privilege.

What would it mean for you if, whether privileged or oppressed, you could believe that God actually enjoys you for who you are? —actually moves toward you with loving kindess and appreciates you with (rather than in spite of) all your shortcomings and convoluted sexual development and how that’s integral to who you are?

What if the things that you think of as your shortcomings are part of your giftedness in the world?—that you need not leave off your own peculiarity (queerness?) in order to be loved or lovely?

What if each of us truly believed that we are welcome in the world? Would we be more free to truly enjoy being with each other without the need to either pretend to ignore difference or label someone’s difference as a sin/brokenness, simply recognizing and appreciating that they are different from me?

What if our definition for humanity was big enough to encompass all the people that God seems to enjoy hanging out with?

Read part 12 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 4: And God Plays Fierce

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I have realized that I am surrounded by incredible people. There are so many people in my life who are deeply thoughtful, compassionate, imaginative, soulful people. I’m not idealizing. Some of these people I can’t stand to be around. Others I can’t stand when I am away from them. Either way, it seems that I do a lot of falling over and these are people who meet me on those grounds.

Something these folks seem to hold in common is some capacity for play.

——-

What do I mean by play?

——-

In play, especially in games, we collectively agree to the process of playing together. Some of my young friends have been known to pull me into imaginative play, usually involving dinosaurs, crocodiles, or some other predatory critter. They or I will be charged with eating or being eaten. I recently walked into a friend’s home and promptly had my heart eaten by a fourfive-year-old dinosaur. The only appropriate response to such an action was to collapse onto the floor.

But it never ends there. I have to get back up and be eaten again. That’s how the play works. There are agreed upon rules that I will die but then I get to come back to life and we go on from there.

The game can’t work if we’re both the most powerful dinosaur. It’s also no fun if we’re both just herbivores. We need a little friction and some opposition to keep it going until we dissolve into giggles or gasps or time out to recover. And then we can come back for more.

——-

I must confess that I don’t always know how to play. Sometimes in play, I just want to quit–to die and fall on the floor and not get back up.

——-

This is a dangerous place to be.

Namely because that’s when a five-year-old dinosaur will pile drive you in the chest.

Play is all about the timing, checking in, seeing if everyone is good to play or if somebody needs a break. Play can intersect with competition, but it’s different in that the goal is the game; the goal is enjoying yourself and the other players.

In play, I have to let go enough to lose my inhibitions and I have to be attuned enough to speak up about my needs and pay attention to how others are feeling.

And this is why children’s work is play. And this is why, when we forget how to play with others we have forgotten what it means to live.

This is perhaps, also, why some of my friends who are parents have suggested that most of parenting is parenting yourself.

——-

When I die, I want a grave marker that reads, “Doesn’t play well with others.”

——-

When I am playing with my young friend, I can stay dead for about two full seconds, and that’s my window. Beyond that, I’m in for any means of wild resuscitation he can design. And when I am done and need to take a breather, I say so. And after a little protesting (that lets me know I am being enjoyed by my friend) he lets me go–but not for too long, because he knows that playing is what’s important.

This friend’s older brother is seven. He and I play UNO and he knows that though he can win quickly, he doesn’t enjoy it when the game is over fast. He’d rather start with more cards, not play all his draw-twos and wilds at once, go the least expedited route, because he’d rather keep playing together–enjoying himself and me–than win.

I cannot help but believe that when it comes to understanding and living a thriving/abundant life, these lessons of play have everything to do with it.

I believe that God delights in us–that God engages us for the purpose of enjoying us. That is to say, God plays with us.

Play is not just about fun–play includes breathlessness and scraped knees and delirious laughter and collapsing and needing to take breaks and checking in with the other person and protests and winding up a sweaty mess piled across each other on the grass.

——-

And God plays fierce.

——-

God plays the long game; in it, not to win, but to keep in the game with us for as long as we are able. Squee [gender neutral pronoun] is self-regulated and capacious enough to take our most vicious dinosaur blows and let us kill God–if that’s where we are at and what we bring to the game. Squee will stay with us in the death, hearing our lament, and will also, inexplicably to us, draw us back up into resurrection–because it’s about being with us, being able to take all of the us that we bring; in all our joy and sorrow. And it’s about persisting to play with us.

This is what Sabbath is for. It’s a reminder that God delights in us and wants us to thrive and enjoy ourselves and each other–to live the life we have been handed.

Our conversations about sexuality and sexual desire aren’t a battle. They can be play, too. If we enter, not to win, but to enjoy one another, then the game is changed. The point isn’t to convince or persuade in any way that would (re)solve the conversation. The point is to keep the conversation going; to increase and prolong pleasure; to draw out our enjoyment of ourselves and one another in whatever state we are in. It’s a play-full conversation that can actually make us more whole, more alive, more human.

This is terrifying–namely because this is what sex and intimacy is all about–it’s about increasing desire and enjoyment of self and the other. Sexual desire and sex are specifically focused locales of human sexuality, but sexuality is at play any time we are in relationship, sexuality is engaged with play.

That’s why it’s easier to have a battle about sexuality; to try to win the argument; to try to declare ourselves the supreme winner who is forever unchallenged and can never be questioned. Because that feels safer. Because if the conversation is about play, then it means we need other people who are genuinely different in order to keep the conversation going. We become dependent on others to engage our hearts and imaginations.

When we are exposed to those who are different, we are vulnerable and open to questioning and intensifying our own desire and we risk falling and scraping our knees and we risk intimacy. We risk enjoying ourselves and others immensely.

This kind of play is not safe. It pulls us into the matrix of death and resurrection. It demands that we allow others to call us to the edge of ourselves so that we can find life in places where we have been promised death.

———-

Conversations of sexuality in the church have often been loaded with shame and death. Countless people have been sexually abused by church leaders, by family members, by spouses, by friends. Other people are shamed and condemned by their own churches and families for their sexual desire for people of the same gender.

In these situations, desire is shut down, frequently by twisting play into coercive abuses of power. Tapping into peoples’ deep human pleasure and sabotaging their enjoyment of their own bodies. This is the work of evil.

Given the reality of this landscape, when we attempt to have conversations about sexuality in the church, if we start from the position of competition–of moving toward a decisive end–we have already sided with death. If God seeks to play with us; to keep us in the game, then we must engage this conversation as a part of the game. We must be in it for mutual flourishing of all persons and that means we need enough difference (and differentiation) to keep the play going, and we need to surrender to what the play might ask of us–namely what it will ask us to face of our own sexuality in order to increase our own enjoyment of ourselves and each other.

Finally, if we are to play with God in the conversation of sexuality, then we must play with the aforementioned dynamics of death. We must courageously wail and lament the abuse and injustice. We must repent of our participation in our own diminishment and the abuse of others. We must take breaks and fall apart. We must heal and be moved with compassion at the pain in ourselves and others. We must repair and return to the game, sometimes pulled into it by those around us, before we even know we are able.

Mostly, we must honor our own “yes” and “no” and honor the “yes” and “no” of others. Play calls us into the game for enjoyment–it is not competitive coercion that seeks to find an answer. It is not about dragging in an opponent just to knock them down and declare myself a winner. It’s about staying in the game with them long enough that the tension of their difference calls me to the edge of my own desire and leads me into greater enjoyment of the life I have been given.

——-

Play enters sorrow as the invisible thread of God’s Spirit, persisting in death, until we are ready for the resurrection that is already secretly at work within our own capacity for desire.

——-

Mary Oliver says,

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

This too is play. It is the slow play of bearing wit(h)ness to the ache that is delight destroyed. It is essential to repair and the starting place of any hope for joining God in resurrecting delight in our sexuality.

We need to listen to the places others have been shut down, because it helps us access the places we have been shut down. Our liberation is intertwined with one another and the thing that we fear; being vulnerable about our own pain and shame around our sexuality–especially with people whose own desires and ways of understanding sexuality are different from our own–that’s the thing that, if engaged as play, can lead us into a fuller story of resurrection.

———-

Finally, we need to play. UNO. Dinosaurs. Whatever.

———-

Re-creation is a primary means by which we participate in the repair of the world.

———-

In thoroughgoing play–I’m talking the silly stuff–we practice how to be with others and enjoy ourselves and each other, thoroughly in our bodies in a way that gets around the messages of shame and competition. Play pulls us down to the ground of our being and puts us in our bodies–the location where we hold shame, self-contempt, fear, and sorrow. By getting us into our bodies, play pulls us into the walking graveyard where we have buried our desire and reminds us that these bones can live.

If you’ve forgotten how to play, I’d recommend five-year-olds, garden sprinklers, and heart-eating dinosaurs as a place to start practicing.

Read part 5 here.