Here, All Dwell Free–The Story of my Ink


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

“I will not abandon you to the grave

nor will I let my holy one see decay.”

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

I needed these words.

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

There is something mysteriously holy about this story.

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

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

“I am more myself in every way.”

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

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

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

——-

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

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

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

——-

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

“Here, all dwell free.”

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Queering the Christian Table Part 15: Gay Dating and Embodied Christianity

To start reading at the beginning of this series, click here

This post was originally written as a submission for the Geez Magazine competition 30 More Sermons you’d Never Hear in Church. Watch the Geez website for these to get published later this year. I actually ended up missing the submission deadline, so I’m sharing it here. I’m deeply grateful to my two sermon writing buddies for their encouragement and feedback.

A year ago, I am on my first date (ever, with a man) since my divorce (after a 4 ½ year marriage to a woman). We’re having dinner, which leads to a walk—to his apartment—where we sit on the porch and talk, and then we get up to go inside. As I walk through the door, he pulls my body towards him for a kiss and I—putting my hand on his chest and stopping him, inches from my face—say, “I don’t think so.”

The next five minutes are a really awkward blur, in which I ask him for a glass of water, to give him something to do while he’s bumbling around the room awkwardly picking up paper plates and talking about what a mess his roommates have made of the apartment, and then I excuse myself to go catch a bus.

Yup.

On the way home I feel my stomach churn. Tears come to my eyes and I wonder what just happened.

How had we had such different experiences of the evening? Was I sending the wrong signals? Did I do something wrong to make him feel like that’s where we were going, that he could just take control of my body like that? And why is there so much adrenaline rushing through my body right now?

———

Rewind sixteen years.

It is the first time I am ever going to preach and it is for a competition. I remember feeling nauseated and trembling in the bathroom of a hotel—my father’s voice telling me, “You’re going to do this!”

It wasn’t his voice inside my head.

He was actually standing there, saying these words to his eleven-year-old son. I remember choking out sobs, wiping my face of tears, and pushing my feelings so far down into my body that I was able to walk out onto a stage, with a Bible in my hand, numb to my fear (of rejection), which is to say, numb to my desire (for acceptance).

Because this is what it meant for a young man to follow Jesus.

———

Weeks after that date, I am on a third date with another man and I am nearly moved to tears. My therapist has recently asked me what I am learning from dating and I realize that in this moment, with this other man, I feel comfortable and happy in my body.

I feel safe, and myself, and whole in a way that is strange and unfamiliar. I see in stark relief, that what I was feeling on that first date out of the closet was un-safe.

My body knows what I am ready for; what feels safe and good and what doesn’t. I hadn’t realized it until too late that first evening, because I’ve spent the better part of sixteen years suppressing every last physical response my body has had when I am around men that I find attractive.

I have swallowed down joy and delight, chased with shame. I have held hymnals in front of my crotch. I have avoided church-picnic football games because I couldn’t trust my eyes not to linger, too noticeably long, on backsides and biceps and sweat-soaked shirts being pulled over heads.

Because this is what it meant for a young man to follow Jesus.

———-

On facebook, the automatically generated sidebar adds are populated topically from friends, wall postings, and search engine queries. In my sidebar, the most frequent combination of ads is for seminary programs and tight-fitting mens underwear. What can I say?

I follow Jesus and I have a body.

And the more that I date, and listen to my body, and feel–my trembling, my tears, my grief, my anger, my comfort, my pleasure—I begin to slowly comprehend that the incarnation, the bodily resurrection, and abundance of life are not some far off promises for heterosexuals and queer folks who can magically master Gnostic asceticism.

Through my own journey I am actually feeling my own body being called back to life—and I don’t imagine I’m the only one in need of such a resurrection.

For me, beginning to date other men has been a spiritual practice of repenting—turning away from self-harm, isolation, shame, and numbing, in order to turn towards authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, and learning to be alive in my own body. As I receive the welcome my body offers, I believe in the bodily resurrection and I am able to make room for that trembling, eleven-year-old, preacher-boy to feel what he feels, and to believe that that is all he has to do; and that’s the good news to which he gets to bear witness.

Queering the Christian Table Part 14: The Crushing Weight of Wielding Shame—A Gay Poet Responds to The Gospel Coalition

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

[If you are short on time, I recommend just scrolling down to the poetry]

When Rachel Held Evans’ latest blog post showed up in my news feed, I figured something was astir. Reading her response to Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s post on The Gospel Coalition website, I was grateful for her responses and I was compelled to read Anyabwile’s original article.

I do not know Anyabwile (or Held Evans). I know nothing more of him than he might know of me by reading my words on this page. So what I am about to write is simply a reflection of what I observe as a broader theme within the Evangelical church that is expressed so pointedly in his post.

I won’t rehash the many other critiques of his post that Evans addresses and links to from her post. I simply want to spend a few moments with Anyabwile’s attempt at “obscene descriptions” of gay and lesbian sex. The following is the excerpt from the post that is meant to induce moral outrage:

We are talking about one man inserting the male organ used to create life into the part of another man used to excrete waste. We are talking about one man taking the penis of another man into his mouth, or engaging in penis-to-penis grinding.

We are talking about a woman using her mouth to stimilute the nipples, vulva, clitoris or vagina of another woman, or using her hand or other “toys” to simulate sexual intercourse.

We are talking about anilingus and other things I still cannot name or describe.

That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage is the gag reflex. It’s what you quietly felt when you read “two men deep kissing” in the second paragraph. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked–and rightly so. That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called “gay marriage” debate.

Now, I just want to spend a moment telling you about my actual reactions to the above passage. Truthfully, I did, indeed, have my hand over my mouth. I nearly had to pick myself up off the floor I was shaking so hard with laughter.

Once I had recovered from my fit of giggles, I sighed a few times and began to feel deep compassion and sadness for the author and the Evangelical community out of which he offers this opinion. And isn’t laughter one of the more ready indicators of the presence of shame?

——

The crushing weight of wielding so much shame is a terrible burden to bear. It is the blade with no handle that destroys the hand that uses it against another.

——

I actually think that Anyabwile is right on this one point: it is high time that the Evangelical church spoke explicitly about sex and its role in Christian formation. I also appreciate his attempt to directly address the issue without resorting to euphemisms about the shapes of plugs and sockets. Coming from the Evangelical community, this took great courage on his part.

But the mechanistic descriptions of sex acts, and body parts disconnected from the emotional spiritual—even just full-bodied—realities of human sexuality reveals so much more about the Evangelical understanding of sex than it does about what actually happens when two men or two women engage in any form of sexual activity. That explicitly describing sex between any two consenting adults is intended to trigger my gag reflex, tells me so very much about the level of shame surrounding Evangelical understandings of sexuality.

If we are supposed to see the acts themselves as shameful (oral sex, anal sex, using sex toys), my guess is that there’s an enormous number of red-faced, straight, married, Evangelical couples who are squirming, because they’re (“not supposed to be”) doing many of the things that actually give them a lot of shared pleasure and intimacy. I’m also guessing there is a large number in the same demographic who are really frustrated because they feel constricted for not being able to fully explore their own bodies together.

——

But my hunch is that it’s not really about the sex. It’s about the gender.

——

This is less about the explicit details of what body parts are inserted where and how people are pleasuring each other. Instead, it is about the disruption of cultural norms that are anchored in a neo-platonic understanding of the forms—a worldview that’s been used to shame women (and men) for that heinous shortcoming of not being man (enough).

It’s less the sex and more the disruption of the gender hierarchy that is so gag-reflex-inducing. That’s precisely why Anyabwile feels upset by “two men deep kissing.” The gender hierarchy itself is built on shame—shaming both women and men about their bodies—objectifying and victimizing women and cutting men of from the vulnerability of their desire and need for relationship and replacing it with the (fear-of-rejection fueled) urge to power-over the person they desire sexually.

This is why Anyabwile’s description of gay and lesbian sex is not poetic or even clinical; this is why he doesn’t even imagine addressing transgender or intersex sexuality. A vivid description of two people of the same gender intimately expressing love with their bodies is just as damaging to the gender hierarchy as the boring ol’ argument about the over a thousand rights (privileges) associated with civil marriage being denied to these same couples.

An aesthetic, reverent, explicit description of LGBTIQ sex lives serves as a poignant reminder of the possibility for equality, mutuality, vulnerability, and holy growth of desire between any two consenting lovers. It has the potential to call out the vulnerability of all men and agency of all women in a way that leads to greater love and better sex for all couples (and just by the numbers, this will mostly help out the straight folks).

The thing that’s gag-inducing about Anyabwile’s description is that it is dehumanizing—it seeks to shame from a place of deep-seated shame, and thus it only succeeds in revealing the harmful system out of which it emerges.

——

For another way of engaging sexuality in a way that embraces humanity and Christ, I’d invite you to check out the blog http://trybestpractices.wordpress.com/. This blogger I do know, and I find the work he’s doing to be refreshingly Christian and humane.

——

For my own theological response, I’ve decided to post three poems.

Insofar as they are mine, they are poems about gay love and desire. Insofar as they are human, they are about lovers, bodies, intimacy, and mutuality.

This is my invitation to those who feel the crushing weight of wielding so much shame: join again in the goodness of the life you have been given.

——

The Forest Need Not Justify Its Existence

We lay here for once as if

our bodies matter

as much as clods of soil;

knots of bone and muscle curl, exhausted,

upon one another, waiting,

in asynchronous gasps,

to lapse into one amending heave.

Stillness grows us older, you

and me observing stealth of hair

moss across the backs and bends

of all our twisted limbs,

rooted through finitude

of kisses sweet and wild.

Here old stories thaw, plots

unraveling through gracious gaps

opened by the fibrous weave,

me, you, me—relaxing us into

the solidity of who we are becoming.

“Have you forgotten the myth of unbelonging?”

I question the heart between these ribs.

The answer (yours or mine?), a sure reply,

wealth of warmth flowing, skin on skin;

salted mouth plying under arm, over rib;

tongue slips quick through wet lips, twists

round areola as if to say

what leg splayed ’cross hip

and genitals, pressed

into generous thigh, have been

pulsing all along:

“With you,

I am always home because

our battles

are for our thriving and

our economy is song

and its rhythm is determined on

these instruments of peace

with which we practice

holding on.”

——

Back

“Churn butter backwards—into cream, into

thick clots scooped in glops back

into milk, warm and grassy on the tongue

or back

to udder, to cow, to

actual grass gradually sloshed back through

four stomachs and slime, past

cow lips into blades

of green to two parts sun and one

part soil—how far back could you

trace the journey of soil?

To rock, to crash of spatial bodies? Stars?

exploded elements in space?”

You

interrupt your scrape, scraping

of knife across toast and ask:

“Where is this going?”

“In! Into our mouths, our

bodies; butter and bread, the wheat,

the salt, the minerals—all

disassembled in our bowels, carried in

our blood, become

our source of cell and synapse.”

(I do know that this is not

what you were asking)

“How far? Can you trace the need

back into desire, to

throat-ached trembling? Back from

breakfast table to bed, piled legs like

eggs on a plate, scrambled in sheets and

pillows?

Back to your back, covered

in constellation of freckles and covered

in my kisses and arms

wrapped round your sides, my hands

pressed against your chest. My calf

nuzzles round your thigh and I

melt

like butter in your starlight.”

“How far back?”

your eyes

look up cross toast at me

and say:

“I can never take you back—

only forward.”

——

You know it was your turn to do the dishes.

I come home, hoping for nothing more than a bite to eat,

a quick kiss, but nothing more—I

do not have the time

for something more (even though I’d like it).

No, this is the one night,

set aside out of seven,

when I sit down,

break bread,

and prey upon the pages

like a ravenous pagan

frenetically parsing nouns into verbs,

words like: pretzel.

You know,

how you pretzel me into the

salt warm scent of your arms,

whiskering into my neck the things

you say you’d like to do to me

if only we had the time.

But I

do not have the time.

The watch my parents gave me stopped

working, or maybe I stopped

winding it, when they

stopped calling me when I stopped

pretending I could pretzel myself

into their approval.

And now I am walking through our front door,

and you know

it was your turn

to do the dishes.

I know that five out of seven nights you scrape

down sides of bowls and break eggs and

roast vegetable kindness that my body

takes in, as greedily and gratefully as I take in

you. You know

it was your turn to do the dishes and

all I wanted to do

was come in, eat a pretzel and write

all the wrongs of my day

into some semblance of poetry.

and even though, you know I’ll love you

if the plates stack high and mold grows

on scooped out rinds of winter squash

beside the full compost;

I will still put out

the trash on Wednesdays even if

we sleep on opposite sides of the bed.

And you will still put out

when I forget to do the laundry.

You know that this

was the one night I had

before the deadline and

you met me at the door with that shirtless grin, as if

there were ever any contest between you

and fifty pages of revision.

You know.

Yours is not the sideways glance

of a lover more interested in getting off than

getting old, and boring, and grey. No,

you look at me with laughing eyes that play

across my brow and

pretzel into my fiercest longings,

knotting me into the softest dough. And I

would drop my clothes, my

prose, my terse idealism

to wrap myself inside

the softness of your mouth, your

gentle-welcome whispered kisses

traveling down my tired body. And you know

it was your turn to do the dishes

and

you did them

anyway.

Queering the Christian Table Part 13: Locating (My Seat : Myself) at the Table

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

Recently, while a group of us were weeding our garden, I mentioned to one of my neighbors that a weed is just a plant that grows where we don’t want it.

——

There are times when I have struggled to locate myself as a gay man within the Christian church. And by times, I mostly mean my whole life.

I have wrestled with my own body. I have joined others in calling my desires, and my very self, wounded and broken and, in the process, ended up with deep wounds. I have tried to wedge myself into performance of gendered cultural norms and heterosexual expectations in a way not dissimilar to Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in attempts to fit into the coveted glass slipper.

In this wrestling, I’ve had to face the question: “What if there just isn’t any room for me here?” It’s a legitimate concern in a world shaped the way that ours is. It’s a question that for many LGBTIQ people, has led them out of the church, and for some has led them to flee their homes and countries for their very lives.

——

And here the language of agri-culture helps me explore the dimensions of culture that lead to the kinds of normativities that leave people truly questioning our own legitimacy as human beings, members of society, and of the body of Christ.

See, agriculture; cultivation, is a method of preferential treatment and selection for desired characteristics. It’s a technology predicated on predictability. The problem with a tightly controlled, predictable agricultural system is that it can never account for the unpredictability of weather patterns. Selecting (or even genetically engineering) seeds against a fungus or pest may work for a while, but when the fungus reproduces thousands of times within a single growing season of a tomato, the rate of adaptation is always in favor of the wild over the agricultural. It’s allowing for multiple aberrant traits that ups the chances for future survival of a species.

Similarly, culture develops and shifts in ways that promote security—family structures, economic systems, gender norms, models of healthcare, educational systems, politics, language, state borders, racial group identifyers—all can function, in varying ways, as means of shaping persons in a way that maintains stability among a shared group. Stability may feel good, but it’s not the same thing as viability.

——

And perhaps this is why the story of forbidden love–love that crosses beyond prescribed sensibilities–is so compelling to us: it taps into the wildness of desire—the deep longing to be seen and known in the particularity of our personhood, understood in the matrix of our relationship to but not defined by our cultural identity markers.

——

In the Ancient Near Eastern world, the various cultures developed systems of ritual sacrifice that were meant to restore order and relationship between humans and the divine. These rituals were predicated on the notion that people generally did not fit into right relationship with God and must, through violent means, be made fit in order to maintain the desired order needed for these early societies to exist.

The God of the Bible shows up within this matrix and spends the vast majority of the Bible trying to approach people who are afraid of God. Later, when these people initiate ritual sacrifices, God goes to great length to tell the people that God despises these sacrifices and wants them to use their energy caring for the people that their society rejects as being outside the norms of their systems.

Finally, God becomes human, so as to approach us on our own terms—there really is no greater story of forbidden love: the holy God who becomes human to be with humans. And this too, is not accepted by society; by religion; by the cultivating forces of empire. That God offers blessing when there is no sacrifice is so offensive that Jesus must be killed and then his offensive love is normatized by interpreting his death as necessary sacrifice to uphold the cultural and religious norms of exclusivity.

——

Through Jesus, God made the radical declaration of making the world sacred. Like a tailor custom fitting clothing to our human bodies instead of urging us to conform to the dimensions of manufactured clothing, God unwound the      concept of the garden until every thing in all creation was neither weed nor wheat, but all beloved creation, drawn close to God through Christ.

——

It is human culture, rather than holiness that needs so much to be protected and maintained. Culture is maintained by the technology of predictability; of hierarchy; of normativity. Holiness is bestowed as an extension of love unto that which is beloved—that which seen for what it is, is welcomed into relationship with God who cannot be harmed or undone by any evil–not even death itself. Thus the words from heaven in Peter’s vision in Acts which led to recognition of God’s blessing on Gentiles as well as Jews: “Call no thing unclean that I have made holy.”

——

At the liturgy that I attend at my Episcopal church, our community gathers around the table during Eucharist. For the last several months I have been having the imaginative vision of the table having wheels. In this vision, each week, as the people gather around the table, it begins to roll around to the edges of the circle, and each time it comes to someone who is on the far edge of the circle, the entire congregation shifts our positions so that we recenter around the table and those people who had been marginalized during the previous formation.

Of course the table never completely comes to a stop. Each time the community moves in response to the table, the table identifies who has been left on the edges of this new configuration and, moving again towards the edges, pushes us into another iteration of the dance. In the Episcopal liturgy, we ask the Spirit to allow the bread and wine at the table to be for us the Body and Blood of Jesus, so that we can be the body of Jesus in the world. I believe that this vision of the table is, in essence, about the presence of Christ leading us to move to the edges of what we call sacred and reclaim the whole of creation as holy; as God’s beloved.

——

In this logic of the God who moves towards us, I never have to ask if I there is     room for me at the table, because the moment there is not room for me at the   table is the very moment in which God brings the table to meet me where I am   already located. When the congregation pushes me to the edge, the table finds me and Jesus calls me blessed.

——

Grace this abundant is repulsive to the normative logic that governs the cultures and societies that have so shaped our religious understanding. It is as unpredictable and as adaptable as a blight, mold, virus, or fungus.

It is like abandoning the well weeded garden to collect a feast from among the fields of weeds. At its heart, this grace is not about making the weeds into cultured specimens. It’s about blessing the wild tenacity of the weeds that lets them thrive despite the herbicides, the cultivation, and the lack of irrigation.

It’s a reclamation of holiness as blessing and gift rather than categorical requirements for cultural conformity.

So what about Christian formation? Indeed! What does it mean to be formed like Jesus, who went around blessing those who didn’t meet the religious standards? What does it mean to follow the whole of Romans 12 and not just an “us vs. the world” understanding of verse 2? If we read that whole chapter, it becomes evident that the working definition of holiness is one of generosity, compassion, and movement towards others with grace rather than hostility.

——

These days, I don’t wonder so much about whether or not there is room for me at the table. I’m learning to care a lot less about whether or not other folks believe there is room for me at the table. I know, in a deeply tangible way, that the table has found me—that the person of Jesus who is present in the celebration of the table, has already moved toward me and called me blessed.

Instead, I find myself joyfully munching on bread and wine and wondering where that wandering table is going to lead me next, and who God is going to declare as holy that will shock my own cultured sensibilities.

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 7: Vulnerability and the Good News of Gay Desire

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

I am convinced that the Christian life is about formation–formation that is never meant to end.

It is a continual unfolding and expansion of our capacity and embodiment of love for God and Neighbor. It’s just this simple/complex: giving and receiving love.

Some might describe this as worship, the “chief end of man [sic!],” or our human telos. I call it the point of our human journey–not a point to be reached, but a point on the horizon that keeps moving out ahead of us even as we grow and expand ever towards it. It is why we remember our baptism, our initiation into the life of Jesus. It is why we celebrate a meal of grace together, to re-member the love we have received and the love we give.

And in the center of all this unfolding and becoming more loving, we have desire. Desire for connection, for belonging, for recognition, for meaning, for attachment, for pleasure. For now, I’ll describe desire as the longing that grows out of our deep needs and drives us past their fulfillment and into the realm of joy. I’m sure this is incomplete, but it’s what I am intuiting right now. It’s beyond hunger or want–it is rooted in our deeply human createdness (or givenness) for com-munion, com-panionship, com-passion–it’s the movement toward being with rather than being alone.

————

Desire has the tendency to be treated with disdain (as in certain types of asceticism) or deification (as in certain types of hedonism). I think of it more as a technology–a technique which can be used for leading us to flourish or to self-destruct. Thus, the importance of shaping desire in order to use its power for increasing life rather than diminishing it.

Sexual desire in particular is very powerful. It is rooted in our need for human connection and intimacy. Physiologically, it is connected with survival of our species and yet, it is so much more than that. Sexual desire can function to lead us into vulnerable intimacy that leads to fuller expressions of love and compassion in the world. Sexual desire, when misshapen, can also lead to objectification of self and others, to relational manipulation, to social oppression, and to patterns of addiction and abuse.

Sexual desire is deeply connected to both pleasure and attachment.

———–

So, how does the framework of Christian formation help us think about shaping sexual desire?

———–

Christian formation suggests the discipleship of desire–that is to say, for those who follow the way of Jesus, we are invited into ways of life that employ our desires to increase our love for both God and neighbor. The measure, then, of whether or not a desire is leading us toward flourishing (holiness) or diminishment (sin), is whether we are becoming more or less loving of God and our neighbors.

Or, as Jesus tells it, “you will know them by their fruit” and “they will know that you are my disciples because you love one another.”

———–

So lets talk about how sexual desire functions.

Sexuality is peculiar. It’s particular. What turns a person on–the particular path of firing neurons that signal pleasure is as unique as each individual’s physiology. This is true.

And.

Sexuality is socialized. Our minds and bodies are impressionable and cultural norms as well as particular social interactions throughout our lives shape us.

And.

There’s probably not a theological need to sort those two dimensions out.

I know, that’s a big claim, but let me make my point. If the measure of Christian discipleship is loving God and neighbor, and a particular sexual expression, whether individually peculiar or culturally pervasive, can be weighed for its ability to lead toward or away from love of God and Neighbor, then, it seems like that’s the place where we should be putting our energy.

The question of nature or nurture about any dimension of sexual desire becomes quite irrelevant in the face of the question: How do I steward my desire to increase my love of God and neighbor?

Within the heart of orthodox Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity–the notion that God exists, internal to Godself, in community and also, that God creates the world for community with God.

Indeed, the kind of community that God seeks with the world is such that God is constantly becoming vulnerable to humans through relationship and commitment in order to bring them near to God (See the biblical origin story of Noah and the flood, where afterwards, God’s covenant with the people is to place a weapon, God’s own bow, in the sky, pointed back at God, making God vulnerable to consequence should he ever do such violence to humanity [I know there’s lots to take issue with there, but it’s the theological claim of the story that I want to hold on to], also see the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming an infant human being in order to live among humanity for the sake of restoring community with us).

These are stories about God’s moving towards us for community by becoming vulnerable. And that’s really what love is about, coming close enough to someone else to embrace them; to lower our guard and let them within touching distance of our bodies and our hearts. I argue that sexual desire is about shaping our need for community into the action of love, with our bodies and our emotions, to draw us into vulnerable space where we truly see and are seen by another.

———–

Commitment to a partner offers a level of security that can serve to increase our vulnerability. This is part of why marriage is so hard–the increase in vulnerability does not guarantee connection and feelings of love–what it does guarantee is a deeper experience of the longing and underlying need for those things. Where love is present, desire is both met and increased, so that when we are vulnerable and loved, we are both satisfied and made more hungry. Thus the point–or telos–of desire, keeps moving out ahead of us, forcing us to make the choice of becoming more vulnerable in community or more isolated in our attempt to hold on to something more comfortable.

By mutually honing desire in a relationship with a partner, both people increase their capacity for vulnerability, developing compassion, empathy, and finding some sense of home while also feeding desire which drives them to search for more (and in the Christian framework, that more is the trinitarian God, reaching out to us in mutual vulnerability).

———–

Theologian Eugene F. Rogers Jr. speaks of God’s desire for otherness in community. He suggests that it is this otherness that draws our vulnerability and relationship and is at the center of committed sexual relationships. For heterosexual persons, this vulnerability to another is drawn out through their sexual desire for those of other gender and physical sex chariteristics than their own. Thus, their desire leads heterosexual people into heterosexual relationships and the vulnerability that leads them into loving relationships that shape them for greater love of God and neighbor.

According to Rogers (You can read his whole argument here), The point of sexual partnership is to expose our vulnerability in order to draw us out of ourselves and into relationship where the harm of sin may be exposed and worked on. He works with the classic definition of sin as isolation and separation from God and others and thus sees committed sexual relationships as a ground for sanctification (restoring relationship with God and others) to occur.

Rogers then asks how such vulnerability can occur in the lives of people who sexually and emotionally desire people of the same gender:

“For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?” (From this article; same as link above)

Essentially, what Rogers is getting at is this: the movement of vulnerability that draws a person into a relationship in which holiness (and I’ll define that as love of God and neighbor) is increased, is born out of the shape of their own desires. Given that such a relationship requires consent and con-sensuality, there are obviously certain relationships that do not fit the bill–the red-herring examples of bestiality and pedophilia and perhaps the less obvious, relationships where the desire (or orientation) of the partners do not match.

———–

Now here, I speak candidly about my own experience. I am not dispensing advice or judgement on anyone who may find themselves in any similar situation.

I was married for 4.5 years to a woman. The details of how and why belong to both of us, and I’m more than willing to speak of my own experience in a face-to-face conversation. My former spouse would have her own story to tell.

What is clear to me is that the relationship taught us both a great deal about ourselves, each other, community, home, vulnerability, and desire. What is also clear to me is that we came to a point where we recognized that because our sexual desires lacked a necessary element of mutual reciprocity, we were unable to call each other into the kind of deep vulnerability that would allow us to continue to move into greater wholeness.

There was too great a gap between desire and fulfillment and we found the honest and loving thing to do was to let each other go, in order to give us both the chance to find someone with whom our desires could be met with enough mutuality to not only open us to vulnerability, but to also lead us into fulfillment that could increase vulnerability throughout our lives.

In a paragraph, that looks somewhat tidy. Over the course of several years it has felt like death, hell, and resurrection–often with all three simultaneously braided into one strand, pulling me forward into acceptance and celebration of the life that I have been given as a gay man.

While our marriage was enough to awaken my desire and draw me into enough vulnerability to heal and accept grace to the point that I could love myself and accept my being gay, it was not the relationship that could feed that awakened desire. This was perhaps the most painful realization of my life–until I realized that there was a mirror truth; not only was I not being fully called out by my partner, but I was unable to fully call her out in her own desires.

Looking back, I see many reasons why I got married. In addition to loving my spouse, I had been told by my culture and my faith that the one way to express my sexuality was in heterosexual partnership.

What had been rightly identified as the need for another in committed relationship, had been narrowly defined in terms of the normative experience of the majority. For people with heterosexual desires who find themselves in a relationship, heterosexual partnership is exactly the kind of relationship in which vulnerability, and thus holiness, can be fostered.

But I am a cis-gendered male, attracted to bodies of the XY persuasion. And a relationship that could not fully honor this important aspect of my humanity was unable to offer the kind of vulnerability that I and my partner each needed and deserved.

It doesn’t really matter why I find myself drawn out in relationship with other men, I simply do. And so the question I face is how to follow that desire in a way that leads me to greater vulnerability and increased love for God and neighbor.

Should it be any surprise that that would look like a committed partnership with someone who can reflect desire back to me with mutuality so that we are both called into vulnerability and wholeness? If my gay desire, when formed in this kind of relationship can lead me to love God and neighbor more fully, isn’t that good news (gospel)?

———–

I believe it would be absurd to suggest a gay relationship is a path to holiness for a straight person. I also believe that it is just as absurd to suggest that a straight relationship is a path to holiness for a gay person. Vulnerability with a partner requires some measure of unquenched desire intermingled with fulfillment of that desire. This is what keeps drawing us deeper into relationship–with a partner, with God, and with others in community. I will be so bold as to claim that Christian communities that push heterosexual relationships on homosexual people are guilty of perpetuating harmful cultural pressures and, more, are hindering the work of God in these people’s lives. It’s as harmful as pressuring straight people to be in gay relationships.

For those who would suggest monasticism as the only option for Christian homosexuals, I would refer you to the Apostle Paul’s advice on monasticism to everyone in the Christian community: He’d rather everybody be monastic, but he doesn’t want anybody to be overcome by their desire, so he recommends for those who want an intimate partner, a commitment of partnership designed to shape that desire towards wholeness and service of God and neighbor (1 Corinthians 7).

Again, what we begin to realize is that the measure of holiness of a relationship has little-to-nothing to do with which appendages are going into what orifices–instead, it’s about how the heart of the person is being led out through desire into greater openness to relationship with another person. This is why it’s about sexual desire as well as attachment–why this still applies to relationships where one or both partners cannot be sexually active due to any number of factors.

———–

And thus, my gay desire is deeply good news.

Because the messages of society and my faith were shaped in a way that reinforced the norms of the majority, I believed, while growing up, that my inability to connect with a woman in the way I was “supposed to” was a deep flaw in my humanity. I remember being a teenager and looking at gay pornography and thinking about the Bible verse that says “no temptation has seized you, except what is common to man [sic].” And I remember thinking, I’m not sure that this is all that common. In fact, I’m pretty sure my guy friends aren’t getting turned on by Ryan Gosling or Josh Harnett [don’t judge my taste, I was in high school].

When I finally began to appreciate that my desires are simply my own, I began to realize that, I too contain the capacity for deep vulnerability and connection–it’s simply directed toward men rather than women. I also began to realize that my desires weren’t the work of evil. If anything, the work of evil was the way that my church, my family, and my society had tried to convince me I was incapable of real love and connection, and to shame me away from the kind of relationship that could lead me into such goodness and the kind of flourishing that would awaken my soul and expand my capacity for God and neighbor.

That my desire has been so resilient, despite a culture and church and internalized oppression that were laid against it, is evidence of God’s deep goodness in calling us into community through desire–and specifically through our sexual desire for mutual love with someone with whom we can spend our lives pleasurably calling each other into vulnerability and wholeness.

Note to readers: Thanks for your patience between posts. I’ve needed to step back from blogging in the last week or two in order to ground myself in the midst of some difficult situations. Ultimately, I think this makes for more thoughtful writing when I do post. I’m grateful to see so many people reading the posts and I’m grateful for the emails and messages. My hope is for this series to help open space for conversations and I’m grateful for any level of engagement you’re able to offer along the way.

Read part 8 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 5: A Queer Story of Curse–or was it Blessing?

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

Sometimes you get told something so often you believe that it’s true.

There are stories so ubiquitous that we take them as inerrant fact and as truth (see what I did there?).

———–

Bubble gum does not take seven years to digest. The repetition of this story does not make it true. It is true, however, that the gum doesn’t digest, it just travels on through, our bodies saying, nope, that’s not food, just as my body did when I swallowed steel balls from a “crossfire” game when I was 5.

I speak from experience when I say, it’s gone in about a week.

———–

The tower of Babel has gotten a bad rap.

It turns out a whole lot of people think of this story as that time when God got angry at people who thought they could build a tower to heaven and so, God messed up their plans and struck them all with different languages to confuse them.

———–

Teach those little suckers to try and mess with me. heh, heh, heh.

———–

But it turns out, that’s not even in the Bible. Go figure.

The story is from Genesis 11. It sits there, squashed in by genealogies that move from the mythic flood to the ancestor of the big-three monotheisms, Abram (he doesn’t get the name change to Abraham til later). Here’s what it says:

11: 1 Now the whole earth [a]used the same language and [b]the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and [c]settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have [d]the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be [e]impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their [f]language, so that they will not understand one another’s [g]speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called [h]Babel, because there the Lord confused the [i]language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

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Now, what is clear in the story is that they have one language (all those footnotes are telling us that this word literally means “one lip”). They are building a tower, and it is a big one. This makes an impression on God. God says, (paraphrase) Check it out, these people are amazing! Here the text says “now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” Here the footnote tells us that an alternate rendering of the Hebrew is that “nothing which they purpose to do will be withheld from them.”

Even without that juicy alternate translation, there’s no clear language here that this is any kind of retributive judgement from God.

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I have this distinct memory of being rather small and swimming in a large pool. I remember jumping in and swimming to my dad. Before jumping I demanded, “you stay there, don’t back up!” My dad, of course said, “Okay, I’ll stay right here.”

My dad, of course, backed up. When I came up for air and grabbed hold of his arms, 1/3 of the way across the pool, he said, “Look how far you swam!”

I wailed in protest, “You backed up!”

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If we assume that God is angry at idolatrous people, or that God is fearful about losing power to these ambitious little creatures with their talking and tower building, then yeah, Babel looks like God sure showed them.

But if we read the text believing that the God who just went on and on, waxing poetic about making a covenant with every last living thing on the planet right after the flood, we might begin to believe that this God is more like a proud and cunning mama who wants to see her child ride the bike down the street without training wheels, and who, to the child’s great consternation, lets go of the back of the bike, just to see how far the kid can go on their own.

In this version of the story, we read it that God says, wow, these people are doing awesome here, at this rate, they can’t be stopped, I wonder how much more they could do if they were challenged. Now, how can I make that happen?

Here, God is a bit more of a trickster, conniving a way to get them to go outward and explore, blessing them with different languages so that they’ll go and become a whole bunch of wonderful people in really different ways all over the world.

Somehow, this seems to fit with Abram’s narrative that comes right after–you know the one about how God wants to bless every nation.

This gets reiterated by the author of Luke-Acts in the narrative about Pentecost, echoing the Babel story, when it says the people heard the disciples speaking and each one heard the gospel in their own language. The miracle is not about bringing them back together to hear the same language. The blessing is that the good news comes to them in all their particularity.

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Now I know my reading doesn’t have all the textual support in the world to make it the only way to read this passage. Thank God for that.

That’s also just damn good writing–way to go, ancient authors.

We’ve been handed a story that seems like it could be saying two totally contradictory things. As readers, we’re being asked to wrestle with the ambiguous narrative and wonder about the character of God–to question what kind of relationship we believe God has with humanity. Now that’s good storytelling.

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As we move into looking at how we, as Christians, understand human difference, it’s important that we listen carefully to what others tell us about their lives. It’s also important that we listen carefully to what’s actually going on in the Biblical texts as well. To honor the ambiguities, and more importantly to respond to the inherent wondering that resides in every Biblical story–wondering about who God is in relationship with humanity.

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I remember praying the same prayer every night of my life from the age of around 8 or 9 until I was around 20. “Dear Jesus, please forgive me for my sins, take this [attraction to other boys] away from me, and don’t send me to hell.” I heard these words and the ideas that shaped them so frequently, I took them inside me and believed they were inherent truth.

I was thoroughly convinced that my own sexuality–my experience of the world, and my particular expression of desire for affection, attachment, and relationship with other people–was a curse.

Sometime in my early twenties I began to be opened up to the ambiguity of what was really there. I began to question deeply and wonder who God is in relationship with humanity–in relationship with me; just as I am in my own body.

A few years ago, I finally recognized that when I read the text of my life and my experience in my body, the story is gorgeously ambiguous and because it is a damn good story, I have to make a choice about who I believe God to be.

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I think God is a lot like my dad in that pool.

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I think my being gay is part of God’s way of being delighted with who I am in the world and inviting me to live out the fullness of who I am in all my particularity. I believe this, because I  believe it is in keeping with how God has been showing up in the world for a long, long time. I think God likes a good story, and thus, refuses to give us a clear cut picture of benevolence. I also think God honors our sorrow by not definitively righting every wrong. It’s a way of inviting us to participate, of calling us out of one unified narrative and challenging us to live fully in all the ambiguity of being diverse people in the world.

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Sadly, that other reading of my life’s story doesn’t go away. Like oppressive historical readings of the biblical text, it lives within me and is still at play. Part of the work of wondering who God is in the world; participating in relationship with God, is to allow the narrative of God’s loving-kindness to hover over and within us, contradicting the voices of shame, violence, oppression, and curse.

Read part 6 here.