Call Me Caitlyn and Why We All Need to Transition

You may have noticed that I rarely write a post about a news topic while it’s still in the news cycle. The truth is, my laziest self is pretty talented at reflecting back, in more eloquent ways, the thoughts and feelings of those that I see and hear around me. But it’s the deeper, slower work of listening to myself that doesn’t come quite as easily.

Aside: I think that part of the slowness of this kind of work is my personality. By Meyers-Briggs typology, I’m a great big NF smack between an I and a J–for those who don’t know what the letters INFJ mean, just know that it means I am great at feeling all the feels, that I know with my gut way before my head, that I have strong opinions about what I feel and know, and that all this input from other people wears me out. On my best day, I’ll throw myself into oncoming traffic to save a stranger that I love on principle. On my worst day, the world makes me depressed and I want to play all the minor chords at the same time–but I still want my 3-5 besties to be with me and look into my eyes and see my soul while I wallow in being morose.

I find that, while my heart breaks over what I intuitively know to be a deep, complex topic, it takes me a while to feel how and why my heart is breaking, in order to speak into the conversation.

So, I hope you’ll forgive me for dragging up last week’s news, but I have some words to say about our conversation around Caitlyn Jenner.


I have the awkward privilege of the embodied reality of having lived some stretch of my life with the following identities: a white, home-schooled, conservative, Libertarian/Republican, Pentecostal Christian, with Feminist leanings, from the Deep South; a closeted, Emergent Christian, environmentalist, married to a woman, attending Seminary; a divorced, gay/queer, Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, instructor of theology, student of post-colonial theory, community garden-instigator, visual artist.

And these are just a few of the ways that I could describe some aspects of who I am and have been.

Basically, people are complex. Thank God that we change and grow–becoming dynamically different day by day, and becoming more ourselves in every way.

Our deepest creation myths tell us we are dust–of the earth and of stars–clay into which the breath of God in-spires, giving us life. We are malleable.


Contrary to the notion of human progress, every generation does not stand on the shoulders of the one before it. We inherit advantages and disadvantages, but each human, and each generation has to do its own work to learn to hold in our own bodies the wisdom passed down to us by others. While our genes might turn off and on various markers in our bodies that track the trauma, attachment, health, and heartache of our ancestors, it is up to each of us to, across the span of our own particular lives, learn how to love and be loved.

This is a huge reason why I participate in an organized religion, because it helps me catch the rhythms that teach my body how to trust goodness, to grow in compassion, and to love with wisdom rather than harsh judgement for myself or others.

We are beings who are good and beloved and are also in the process of growing, unfolding, and becoming ever more of who we are. It’s difficult to talk about this without falling into the patterns of classic liberal progressivism–the notion of “getting better.” And yet it’s important to wrestle with.

I know that there are some (most often on the liberal branches of the USAmerican tree) who hold (or are characaturized as holding) a pop-psychology of radical self-acceptance that goes like this: as long as you aren’t harming anyone else, whatever you do is okay. And it’s this over-generalization that terrifies the shit out of others (mostly on the conservative branches of the USAmerican tree) who say, “hold the phone! At what point does autonomous choice trump morality and justice?”

Some examples of this paradigm might be in the areas of self-harm and death with dignity. Should those who self-mutilate be blindly applauded for making their own choices about their bodies, or should those around them seek to reach out and be present with these people who appear to be in some type of pain? Should people with terminal illnesses be prevented from choosing a peaceful death or put through months of prolonged pain in order to preserve the sensibilities of those who are unable to stomach a valuation of life in terms of quality over longevity?

Other areas that are less stark, and perhaps more complex–recreational drug use, working in the manufacture of assault weapons, investing in stock market funds run by exploitative banks, engaging in BDSM sexual activities with consenting partners, driving cars fueled by petroleum, eating fish from depleted oceans, praying for people without their consent, playing three hours of Call of Duty or Candy Crush Saga.

You get the point. We live our lives, for the most part, without ever considering or evaluating our own actions by this metric. Yet, when pressed, all of us have some deep-set personal instinct about what is okay or not, healthy or not, “normal” or not, leading to a better way of life or not. It’s just that we rarely scrutinize our own choices, presuming our choices to be, by default, in keeping with the trajectory of our bias about what is a good way to go about humaning on this planet.


Where am I going with all this? What does this have to do with a celebrity’s transition from a public identity as Bruce to Caitlyn?

Well, the reality is, a personal experience of gender transitioning is far outside most our human experience. So it’s a lot easier to scrutinize than open ourselves to personal growth spawned from empathy.

What’s a lot closer to all of our human experience is the awkward feelings that arise in our own bodies when we feel like we don’t quite fit into a present cultural narrative about how people with our genitals are “supposed” to feel, act, talk, move, love, or be in a given moment. From the kid with a penis who cries after falling down, to the adolescent with a vagina who wants to slam a fist in anger at being dismissed as less-than, we’ve all had some experience where our outsides weren’t allowed to match our insides; where we had to stuff something down in order to be allowed to stay in the room, at the cool table, or on the team.

And while it’s often appropriate to learn to not harm ourselves or others as we feel and express our powerful emotions over this game of fitting-in, the models of what’s culturally considered “healthy” can be deadly when people who experience discrimination, rejection, and mistreatment are taught to bottle up these feelings because it’s either not alright to express their outrage, or worse, there’s a silent pact that society’s made to pretend there is nothing about which to be outraged.


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So, there are some (radical feminists and conservative Christians among them), who would suggest, patronizingly, that “the work” for transgender people is not to change their bodies, but to come to accept and love their gender identity even if it is different from what their bodies say about their gender. This tends to spring, on the feminist side, from radical acceptance of bodies, shunning fat-shaming and social requirements for women to be objects of desire. And on the conservative Christian side, it tends to spring from a certain gender essentialism, which insists upon a direct connection between genitalia and cultural norms associated with gender categories.

I find both of these positions problematic. For instance, It’s rare to see even my anarcho-feminist friends promote the radical acceptance of non-normative eyesight (other than, perhaps, certain discourse circles around disability and blindness). We have a sense of what a functioning eye is typically capable of, and we don’t hesitate to use technologies of lenses and lasers to modify the state of our bodies in order to have what we consider a better way of life.

And it’s just as rare to see conservative Christians take a vocal stance against non-necessary male circumcision of newborns. To believe so much in the essentialist nature of genitals, it’s really difficult to understand how painfully disfiguring the genitals of helpless newborns is not seen as a crime against humanity and God (again, there are some religious folks, like members of Christian Science and the Sikh faith, who would take exceptions to this issue. And of course there are arguments to be made about religions and cultures that practice genital mutilation–among these arguments, I’d chime in that if you want to cut your own junk, go for it, but let the kids decide for themselves.).

It’s rather arrogant to insist that we know what someone else’s personal emotional work is in relationship to their experience of their own life in their own body. It’s also foolhardy to assume that all transgender people 1) can afford, and 2) choose to undergo the difficult process of physically transitioning their bodies to any extent. There are as many experiences of gender identity as there are people (I apologize to those of you who have been looking for some kind of shorthand for this conversation).

Moreover, we live in a society where transgender folks who don’t have the privilege of “passing” as cis-gender regularly get assaulted for trying to use the bathroom appropriate to their gender identity. In this context, it is our society that demands bodily transitioning in order to “pass,” because we are too uncomfortable with the implications of a female with a penis or a male with a vagina–never mind the existence of people with both and neither express types of genitals, and the presence of varying percentages of XX and XY chromosomes in most of our bodies.

If we would like to hold a public conversation about gender identity and body autonomy vs. conformity, may we do so with compassion, curiosity, playfulness, and sorrow. May we listen to others’ stories with an ear for how they invite us to re-examine our own stories. May we turn hearts toward our own bodies and question our own ways of navigating the ways society invites us to shut down our own experiences of dissonance between what we feel and what is expected of us in regards to cultural definitions of gender.


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Yes, there are particular mental health concerns specific to folks who are transgender. However, it’s too easy to think higher rates of suicide and depression have to do with a problem inside these people that needs to be fixed or a problem with their bodies that can be surgeried away.

There is a problem with our society.

There is a problem with parents who reject their children; with churches and communities that turn people away; with medical schools and mental health programs and seminaries that never breathe a word in their curriculum about LGBTIQ realities; with bros so insecure with their own place in the masculine pecking order that they measure their own penises by beating or raping men and women who use restrooms with the wrong stick-figure on the door.

There is a problem. Our experiences in our bodies do not match the idea that we have of ourselves as a society.

We need to be transfigured by a radical honesty that allows for us to feel and grieve and enter the space of growth that is opened up when we bring into the public light of relationships, the ways that we harm one another with labels.

We are, and are becoming, able to love more openly and completely. We do not let go of the notion that there is a better way to be human–it’s just that we’re saying it’s the way of vulnerability, of being awake and alive to our own experiences, and of being humble and curious about our own role in the suffering of others.

We can learn to love. It is an internal identity and it is lived out in our bodies. May we have the courage to lead one another by example into the manifold communion of this great pathway of love.

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

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

-Mary Oliver

photo (1) A brief backstory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This shifts the conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

QCT 21: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

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


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

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

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

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


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

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.”

Weeks like last week make me feel painfully stuck.

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

“From the table in the corner

They could see the world reborn

And they rose with voices ringing

And I can hear them now!

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On this lonely barricade at dawn.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone.

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken

There’s a pain goes on and on.”

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your sacrifice was for.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more.”

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

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

So what are we to do?

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

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

 

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.”

 

QCT 20: Surrendering to Vulnerability; Non-violence Starts at Home

This is the 20th post in the series Queering the Christian Table. To learn about the series and start at the beginning click on the tab at the top of the main page. 

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I have been writing for a year about Christian hospitality, exploring what it means for God’s table, spread throughout our world and our local communities, to be a place where all are welcome. I have been writing about the practice of love and compassion as taught and lived by Jesus.

Ultimately, I cannot see a way to read the gospel accounts of Jesus and come away believing anything other than that he was radically committed to compassion and modeled what it looks like to love neighbors relentlessly and to love enemies until we recognize them as neighbors.

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I recently had the opportunity to hear Bernice King speak of her father’s legacy and the King Center’s commitment to advancing the practice of non-violence. While I was deeply moved by her connection of this aspect of MLK’s legacy to the gospel, I was just as deeply saddened by her omission and erasure of Bayard Rustin from her telling of events. While he was not the only one, Rustin, an African American Gay man, was an essential figure in convincing MLK to give up personal weapons in his home and to take non-violence from being a tactic of the civil rights movement to being a core principle and way of the movement.

It is hard to imagine history having much memory for this one Baptist preacher named Martin, had he not made that shift from clinging to personal protection, to the radical surrender of attempted defenses that invited and demanded justice from his oppressors.

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Over the past few days, I have seen articles condemning, erasing, and forgiving Fred Phelps–the civil rights lawyer turned anti-gay protesting preacher who just passed away.

For me, the story of Matt Shepard’s death came at such a formative stage in my life and the deep memory of how helpless I was to protect myself from such hate is held together with the faces of the men who beat Matt to death and the church members who showed up at his funeral to declare that he was in hell.

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And then, this week, a mudslide killed a dozen people and more are still missing, only miles from where I live. And, as I drive across the bridge over the Duwamish river and see the mountain over our city, I tremble to think of the human loss that will certainly happen from a wall of mud that will fill this valley when she erupts.

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And I remember again that we are each so fragile and so small. There is nothing we can do protect ourselves or the ones we love from this fact.

As someone who was sexually abused, I know something of the vigilance born out of the inability to protect myself. I, like many survivors, am one of the fiercest protectors of those that I love and those who are vulnerable. It is a gift born out of recognition of danger, and it is a defense that can help us soothe the aching truth that there is little more to being human than learning to grieve what we have lost and learning to love despite the fragility of our connections to life and one another.

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The practice of non-violence is not, by any means, unique to the LGBTIQ community. However, it is certainly a Queer practice within a culture that has normatized the right to “stand your ground”–a “right” that disproportionately dehumanizes black bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies–people who do not hold the genetic lottery ticket that birthed them into a position of social prestige.

Within a social system of deep inequity, there is a long story of harm that has written itself across our individual and collective stories. Our bodies are marked with the gut aching realization that we cannot protect ourselves from harm. Some, who have enough privilege to hold out belief in self-preservation, cling to their right to self-defense like it was a concealed weapons permit or a constitutional amendment, or a divine command to reserve communion only for those who are in the club.

But the reality is that we are, all of us, fragile; all of us are marked in some way by the memory of not being able to stop some harm against our personhood. And how we respond to that reality is the marker of whether we will open ourselves up to love or attempt to protect our fragile state of numb survival.

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I hear a lot about scandals in churches. For a solid twenty years there’s been a growing panic in USAmerican churches about whether or not our congregations can survive a culture that’s growing complex enough that people are willing turn to less abusive sources in order to get their spiritual needs met.

I’m convinced that the only role for the church to legitimately play in our society is to follow Jesus in the difficult practice of laying down our self-defenses, learning to grieve and suffer with those who have known violence in our social system (and at our own hands), and through radical non-violence, learn how to return to life.

By learning to retell our stories through the narrative of vulnerable surrendering love that, through compassion, releases the right to our callouses of defensiveness, we become people, gathered at a table–all of us equally dependent on sustenance and compassion from a God who loves our fragile bodies and stories.

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The deep need of some in Christian churches to defend against what is unknown or feared, comes out of an understanding of holiness that has been devilishly twisted by the completely understandable lack of confidence in the goodness of God.

When people who have been harmed are unable to grieve that harm in order to recover and learn to be vulnerable again, then they will mount remarkable defenses in order to convince themselves that they are going to be okay.

When it is apparent that your God lets evil wreck your life, it’s an understable response to try to redirect lightning bolts at someone other than yourself. This is a natural trauma response but it’s not Christian theology.

The Christian story is that even if you are God’s one and perfect son, you will still be killed unjustly.

And the Christian story is that following Jesus means radical acceptance of the stranger, knowing full well that such acceptance requires vulnerability that will cost you everything. The Christian story also claims that you can only really start living when you embrace this ghastly path, where you will learn to let your heart break with compassion while holding the impossible hope that somehow God can bring you (and perhaps even the church) back from a place of certain death.

The Christian God does not prevent harm.

There is no easy way around this. Our confession is that God enters the reality of the human situation and offers compassion and love that opens a space in the middle of death so that a fragile and vulnerable life can flourish.

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This path begins with grief. It begins with naming our inability to protect ourselves from the harm that has been done to us. It begins with the kindness and self-compassion that bears witness to the mystery of our survival (especially when there are others who have not survived). And we grow these capacities by receiving love from others who see our faces. This is the way of God who becomes human to live with us in our human places.

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Once we learn to breathe through waves of grief, then we can learn to surrender to the tender and tenacious life that grows out of vulnerability.

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I do not think that this way of Jesus is disappearing in our society.

I think it is happening in therapists’ offices, foster homes, gay bars, community gardens, AA meetings, and yoga studios. It’s happening like yeast, culturing its way through dough. And I think it can happen in churches too, when we cultivate practices of vulnerable hospitality rather than patroling our borders, and participating in the industrial defense complex that prevent us from surrendering to the vulnerable love that is the source of resurrection.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

QCT 19: Be Careful Little Gay What You Say

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

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I am careful with my words.

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

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

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

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

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

But wait a second.

Wait one, hot minute.

Wait seven months and let this REALLY sink in.

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

Why am I so, damned, careful with words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not all good or bad.

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

Sometimes it is wise to be careful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am making a choice.

I am not walking away from the church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thank God for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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