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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 6: This Sin’s Not Sexy

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

A note to readers:

In this post I present my own literary and theological reading of some stories from the Bible. For these readings, I am deeply indebted to the work of many other biblical scholars and theologians, some of whom I can name and some of whom I am certain are influencing my readings of these texts below the surface of my thought. For a succinct and accessible look at what the Bible texts actually say about Queer sexuality, I highly recommend the chapter “Doesn’t the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” in Bishop Gene Robinson’s book God Believes in Love.

While my reading is a way to read these texts, there are certainly other ways. I speak with conviction about how I read the text, however, I hope that it is clear that I do not mean to press my reading on others. I hope, instead, that if my way of reading causes you  to wonder about your own way of reading, that you’ll follow that curiosity wherever it leads.

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So, when we start talking about human sexuality and the Bible, it seems inevitable that we start talking about sin.

Now sin gets defined in all sorts of ways. It gets employed rhetorically in even more ways. Is sin a disease of the soul? Is sin a series of actions? Is sin a way of describing relationships that are out of healthy alignment? We can talk about theologies of sin another time. Suffice it to say,

Sin gets around.

To add to the confusion, the Bible is not all that clear about what actions might constitute sin and what doesn’t. For instance, in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christian Bibles call the Old Testament), there’s a boatload of stories and laws (both legal and holiness codes) that can roughly be summed up as saying, “God doesn’t want you to act like the people from other ethnic groups and religions that live around you. Your morality should be distinctive.” Often (though certainly not always), these stories and laws are paired with texts where God is seen as ordering God’s folks to wholesale slaughter entire towns, villages, and nations–men, women, children, animals, etc. in efforts to eradicate the bad influence of these malcontents.

I sure am glad we have the option of just “unfriending” someone on facebook nowadays.

The other side of the coin is that there are all these other stories and even some laws that are mixed in, where God is supposedly telling God’s people that God is sick and tired of their laws and sacrificial systems, tired of their religious piety, and that what God really wants is for them to stop beating up on foreigners and strangers, and to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans. This portrait makes God seem like the type who wouldn’t be all, “murder children” and all that.

So what do we do with the tension of both of these being present in the biblical texts?

A last note about sin before we move on: With these two approaches around what constitutes sin and what constitutes holiness (or human flourishing), it’s also apparent that there’s a struggle to understand how sin impacts the human relationship with God. Some read the Bible and say sin separates us from God. There’s a little support for that reading (and I’d guess, a lot of mommy and daddy issues influencing our reading). Some read the Bible and say that sin harms us in our relationships, but has no bearing of God’s relationship with us. In this reading, sin doesn’t have the power to separate us from God. Textually, there’s a lot more support for this reading. If God supposedly can’t stand to be around sin, then there’s no accounting for all the stories where God moves toward people rather than away from them–especially people who are experiencing shame, isolation, and harm where sin/evil is present (both in their own actions and/or working against them).

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A literalistic reading of the Bible that attempts to lay a chronological, modern historicity over the narratives misses the literary value of the text. These are stories that are complex, textured, and are meant to work like any good story, on multiple levels. They are literary stories that make claims about God.

The collection of writings that make up the Bible span thousands of years, various cultures, and are a sort of extended dialogue of ambiguity. We are handed these texts in collected form and it is ours to wonder, “Who do we believe God is?” and “How should we live in response to these beliefs?”

The stories exist in tension, because, the realities of the people in these stories are much like our contemporary realities–there are tensions in how we understand what it means to be a part of a group with a distinct experience and understanding of the world, and what it means to affirm common personhood of all humans across all groups without reading our own experience of being human as normative for everyone else.

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***Trigger Warning: the following section deals with one of the most violently graphic texts in the Bible. It is the story of a gang-rape that occurs within a system of severe misogyny and xenophobia.

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And then there are stories in the Bible that blur all the lines. One such text is the story of the town of Gibeah. Gibeah is kind of like the less popular sibling city to Sodom and Gommorah. If you aren’t familiar with the parallel stories of Sodom and Gibeah, I recommend reading this helpful study of the text done by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (disclaimer: I have not looked extensively at the ELCIC’s position within the conversation around human sexuality, I just found their treatment of this text to be a good introduction to the textual issues at play).

What becomes clear in reading these texts, especially when we read them in connection with the texts throughout the rest of the Bible that reference them, is this:

The sins of Sodom and Gibeah aren’t at all sexy. 

Indeed, the issue seems quite clear that their sins are hostility and violence against outsiders that manifest in a particularly misogynistic (oppressive to women) ways. That a component of this is same-sex, sexual violence speaks much more to the role of violence, shame, and misogyny in ancient cultures than it comes close to speaking about any sort of homosexual behavior, and it says nothing whatsoever about homosexual desire or consensual homosexual relationships. In fact, the only sexual behavior that even occurs in either of these passages is the violent gang-rape and murder of the woman in the Gibeah story. The context of the story reveals deep systemic cultural sin that starts with treating women as property, and concludes with ethnocentric (values own racial or ethnic group over others) violence against strangers.

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So then, it seems the link between homosexual sexuality and Sodom is more a function of a long history of prejudicial readings of the text that go so far as to have shaped our vocabulary; so that the word “sodomy” reinforces a damaging misreading of these passages each time it is used.

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What’s even more textually interesting to me, is that the Gibeah story is also closely linked to another story about Abraham’s family. While most of the details of the story mirror the story of Lot and his guests in Sodom, there are particular details that mirror the first encounter that Hagar has in the desert with the angel of God.

In Genesis 11, Hagar, a foreigner and slave is treated as a piece of property who is sexually violated by her owners, Abram and Sarai. She runs away into the desert where an Angel finds her sitting by a spring and asks, “where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar goes through this encounter and becomes the first person to name God–saying “You are the God who sees me.”

In this story, God sees the plight of the one who is violated, enslaved, abused and ostracized by those (Abram and Sarai) who are considered, according to the dominating narratives of the text (and often still, by Jewish and Christian religions) to be the righteous ones.

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In the story of Gibeah, in Judges 19, the narrative begins with a story quite similar to Hagar’s. A woman who is enslaved as a concubine runs away from the man who is violating her (he also happens to be a levite, a member of the priestly clan). The woman runs back to her family and the man who owned her follows her, where he is welcomed and treated with exorbitant hospitality by the woman’s father (talk about evil and twisted family dynamics).

Finally, the man sets out with his recaptured wife/concubine (the text goes back and forth on this one, which emphasizes the complete misogyny and treatment of women as property in ancient cultures. Whether wife or concubine, she is given no say in this story.) and they go to the town of Gibeah, which is an Israelite town, but of a different tribe (so same religion but different family/ethnic clan). Here they sit in the town square, just as the two visitors do in Sodom, and an old man who is a resident alien (like Lot) comes up to them.

But here, the stories twist again and the old man in Gibeah echoes the angel in the desert’s question to Hagar, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”

Quickly the text goes back to being an almost identical parallel to the Sodom text, right down to the old man supplying a daughter alongside the woman in the story so that there are two women being offered to the violent crowd who want to rape the male strangers who have come into their town (side note: the Levite man in the Gibeah story also had a male slave with him, so if this were really about homosexual behavior and he’s willing to throw his wife/concubine out to the crowd, why wouldn’t he have just tossed the male slave out to them instead?–Oh that’s right, it’s about misogyny and violence).

After this, the text diverges again. Instead of divine intervention stopping the rape, the man who owns the woman, throws her out into the violent crowd and allows her to be raped to death. He then gets angry when he finds her dead the next morning and further violates her body, cutting it to pieces and sending it all over the kingdom in order to declare war on Gibeah.

Like Hagar, this woman is violated sexually by the man who owns her. Like Hagar, no one from the dominant ethnic and religious group, or even her family, ever speaks to her directly. She is dehumanized and treated as a sexual object to be owned and used.

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Why does the Gibeah story invoke the Hagar story? What theological claim is it trying to make by echoing this text so clearly?

I will venture to guess that it is to make us, as readers, pay attention to the evil done against this woman by a society that treats women as property and uses male normativity in such a way that violently raping a man–treating him “like a woman”–could become the most intense form of shaming possible in a culture (sound familiar?).

This reveals much about the inhospitality that God condemns. The story functions to warn ancient Israel that they are on the verge of becoming as evil as Sodom, which God destroyed. By invoking the story of Hagar, I believe the author wants us to recall Hagar’s words, “You are the God who sees me.” If God sees the plight of the most victimized and oppressed and stands on their side, then Israel should take heed, because they boarder being on the wrong side of God, who sees and sides with those whom the culture and religion reject (a notion that is played out in the New Testament by Jesus, who consistently angers the religious by siding with the oppressed; particularly those from other ethnicities and women).

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So, how does this help us think about the Sodom and Gibeah passages and how they have been used to condemn people in homosexual relationships in our culture?

Can’t we clearly say that these texts are mainly about condemning cultural oppression of ethnic/racial/religious strangers through inhospitality and violence? Can’t we also say that these texts offer a way of pulling back the curtain on the evil of sexual violence, oppressing women, and treating women as objects?

I am thoroughly convinced that homophobia is intrinsically connected to the oppression of women and viewing maleness as normative for humanity (this is, of course, linked in these passages with racism/ethnocentrism and viewing the dominant culture as normative as well–in our context this exists as white privilege/supremacy).

The levitical laws that condemn homosexuality do so on the basis of a “man lying with a man as with a woman.” It’s clear these laws don’t value women as full humans, since they also stipulate scenarios in which proper application of the same legal codes means that if a man rapes a woman, he’s to marry her and they can never divorce–the implications are that she’s damaged property and he’s obligated to provide for her, never mind that she’s essentially being handed over to her rapist for the rest of her life. The implication in a society that views men as human and women as less-human property, is that for a man to lie with a man, one of them is being treated “as a woman” and that’s seen as a problem because it’s debasing to maleness.

There’s no notion within this system of a man lying with a man as with a man (which, by the way, is pretty much how being gay works).

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What’s clear to me is that the texts of Sodom, Gibeah, and Hagar in the desert, all condemn these oppressive and sinful dynamics of societies and religions by exposing them to the reader.

It’s also clear to me that oppression of women and oppression of homosexual people are linked.

I will go so far as to say, until the Christian church confronts the oppression of women and stops using the Bible to justify misogyny, there will be no resolution of the debate about homosexuality in the church. Homophobia is simply another face of the sin of oppressing the stranger, the one who is other, the one who does not fit the dominant group’s definition of what is “normal.”

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That’s precisely why the argument of what is “natural” gets employed. “Natural” is a code word for “my own experience.” That’s why homophobes and homosexuals both employ a born “this way” or “that way” argument. This is also evident in the way that Paul writes in the New Testament about what is “natural.” It seems clear that both then and now, the word “natural” gets employed in this debate as an argument about normativity.

What’s really at stake is the need for people in the dominant group to listen to and believe the oppressed group’s claim to their own experience in their bodies and the legitimacy of their humanity.

Along with male normativity, these ancient cultures have no apparent framework for considering people who are actually inclined relationally and sexually toward people of the same gender. Thus, for them a “man lying with a man” is a violation of their very notion of what it means to be a man (which for them is also mostly what it means to be human).

Thus, nestled inside male normativity, we find heteronormativity, and if we press it far enough, we find norms that define being human in terms of the gender, sex, religion, race, language, class, abilities of the people who are in power and privileged within a given society (speaking of no room, it’s also evident that these systems are typically set up as binaries: Male or not male. In the relgious group or out of it. Native speaker of the dominant language or second language learner. Able or disabled. Adult or child. It’s no wonder that this kind of system also has no room for bisexuality, transgendered people, intersex people, two-spirited people, gender queer people, etc.).

Just as two women getting married will not magically make a heterosexual marriage fall apart, homosexual love and sex does not make the beauty and goodness of heterosexual love and sex any less valuable. There’s not an inherent need for one to be on top of the other (see what I did there?), just like there’s no need for men to dominate and oppress women (or anyone) in order to claim the normalcy or validity of their experience.

———–

The problem underlying the debate about gay sex and the Bible is the same problem that runs through the Bible–there’s the defensive vein that says we need to kill and oppress in order to live the holy life we are called to lead (thus squeezing into boxes typically defined by those with socially normative privilege), and then there’s that other vein that is just as present in the text that says that what we really need to do is stop trying to follow rules for holiness and just stop oppressing people and start treating strangers like guests.  

It’s up to us to choose who we think God is in all this and how we ought to live our lives.

Before we decide, I invite us to sit in the tension of the text for a bit, and then to resolve the tension by intensifying it; by stepping into it the way Jesus did–the way that holds together loving God with loving neighbors (and defines neighbors as those who are outside our norms) in a way that leads to unraveling the oppressive dominant culture (for Jesus, this led to the point that they called for his death).

If we do this, I feel convinced that the questions about who is sleeping with whom will soon be put into proper perspective.

———–

Like the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, this work isn’t sexy. The way I read it, the sin in these stories is about the harmful normativities that oppress people. It’s evident that a key theological claim in these stories (especially Gibeah and Hagar in the Desert) is that while God doesn’t always divinely remove our systems of oppression, God sees and is present on the side of the oppressed–on the side of those that the religious systems and legal codes are working against. And, in these stories, holiness is about dismantling systems of abusive power in a way that allows for all persons to be treated with hospitality, dignity, respect, and compassion. 

Read part 7 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?).

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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.

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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.

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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.

———–

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!”

———–

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.

———–

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.

———–

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.

————

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.

———–

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

———-

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.

———–

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.

Queering the Christian Table Part 2: The B-I-B-L-E

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

words before words:

What I think should be quite clear is this: I see the Bible as very important for the church. I also see the church as far more important than the Bible. It is a document of and for the church. If you are not a part of the Christian faith and/or you do not hold the Bible as important, then this discussion may not be for you.

However, because the USAmerican socio-political landscape is interwoven with people and structures for whom the Bible is important, it is likely that how the Church is reading the Bible is important to society at large.

For this reason, I ask those who do not care about the Bible to allow space for this conversation to take place. While it may be irrelevant to you, it is relevant to many, and we share this planet and the public sphere, so a reasonable, thoughtful, generative conversation about this text that is sacred to many, is of great importance to the public good.

If you do believe that the Bible is important, then this conversation is especially critical, because if this text does have some normative authority for your understanding of the life of the church, your personal life, your spirituality, your ethics, your practice of how to engage the world, then there can be no more important task than critically, faithfully, prayerfully, and communally engaging with how it is that you read this text and, far more importantly, how you listen to the Spirit of God and seek to follow the way of Jesus in relationship to the rest of the human community and the world.

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In my life, I have grown up in the church. Due to the tradition that I was raised in, I was a part of rigorous programs as a child and teenager, wherein I memorized chapters and books of the New Testament. That’s right. Books.

I am extremely familiar with the Bible. This might even be an understatement.

I was also raised by my parents to think critically about how to read and apply the Bible to my life. I was encouraged, within the Pentecostal tradition of Christianity, to pay close attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through scriptures, through other people in the church, and directly into my own life. I have been privileged to have access to 8 years of theological education. I have learned enough Greek to question most people who use Greek in their sermons. I have learned enough Hebrew to respect that it is a capacious and poetic language that plays and puns its way through meaning making within (inter)cultural contexts.

As much as I have wrestled with it, I love the Bible. It is literarily remarkable, ethnographically and historically important,and for myself and billions of others throughout time, an essential con-text through which we have understood our spiritual experiences with the Trinitarian God of Christianity revealed in the person of Jesus within the context of the church.

That said, I have not really found it necessary to articulate how it is that I read the Bible in the midst of affirming both my Christian faith and my personal experience and identification as a gay man. I simply read the bible as a part of my practice of the Christian faith within my church community and as a crucial part of my vocational discipline.

I read the Bible carefully, critically, spiritually, theologically, with other people, in conversation with the traditional interpretive methods of the Christian church, ranging from pre-modern to post-modern with an emphasis on the early church and post-colonial reading methods. I read but don’t emphasize the modern protestant readings because I’ve got those pretty solidly internalized at this point and I’m working to listen to as many parts of the Christian community as I can.

And yet, I now find that I am being asked in many places to name this internal work for others who are wrestling with how to think about homosexuality, Christianity, and the Biblical texts.

———–

And so, I begin with confession. I will name the way that I read the Bible. It is my hope that those who are asking me to discuss homosexuality and the Bible will join me in honest confession about how they are trying to read the text as well.

I believe that this confession will lead us to repent—to turn toward one another–with humility and open hearts to listen and engage deeply.

In my understanding, the Bible is a collection of theological texts. It is also mostly narratives. It is also mostly poetry. These texts are carefully and thoughtfully constructed by a variety of writers from a number of cultures utilizing the literary forms of their times to tell the stories of peoples’ particular and collective experiences with God. In the sense that the writer of Luke-Acts describes about those texts, I think this is true of the entire Biblical collection of writings, they are attempts to bear witness to the truth about humans’ real experiences with God.

Some of these texts present the norms of belief and practice of a given community. Others present exceptional stories for the purpose of challenging, re-interpreting, or countering those norms. Like the church today, ancient communities of people were diverse, there were varying worship practices in different places and times. Sometimes there were significant differences in the same places and times.

The biblical texts reveal the collective wisdom of many communities who have retained the diversity of these narratives and their different ways of speaking of God’s relationship with humanity.

The way I read the Bible, the author-ity of these texts is derived from the presence of God with the people of God as told in the narratives of the texts, and the presence of God with the people of God in the reading of these texts.There is nothing holy about the collection of words—the words point to what is holy—the Triune God who is revealed in the person of Jesus and in the presence of God as witnessed by the Jewish people and the early Christian church.

Any elevation of the text to the same authority of the God to whom it testifies as living and present in the world across communities and cultures throughout time is, precisely, idolatry.

The way I read it, any normative function that the text has in teaching us what it means to be human, to worship God, or live in the way of Jesus, must be understood by moving back and forth between particular passages and the whole of what the collected texts of the Bible claim about who and how God is in relationship with humanity.

We do not get anywhere useful by elevating or neglecting particular texts–instead, we read them only within the fabric of the whole. That said, I contradict myself (“so I contradict myself”). I read the texts that testify to the person of Jesus and the texts that testify to theophanies (moments of God showing up in tangible presence) as far more important than the rest of the text.

For this reason, I hold to the Augustinian hermenuetic of always choosing the reading of a text that increases my love of God and neighbor–because this is how Jesus described the heart of all the law and the prophets, so that seems important enough for me to pay attention to.

And in all this, I try to listen to how these texts have been read by the many communities of the global church throughout time—that is to say, I believe that we do not read the Bible as an instruction manual for life, we read it theologically, in community with the church, with humility and critical engagement, and mostly, with openness to listen to what the living Spirit of God is saying to the church.

And part of listening to God’s Spirit speaking to the church is to listen for the prophetic voice that calls out from unexpected places, scandalizing our notions of worship and right living in order to call us to love the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. To any part of the moral demands of scripture without reading the prophets is the greatest failure possible. The ancient communities found it essential to retain and canonize these texts that contradict and scandalize legalistic worship in the name of practicing repentance of communal participation in oppression and return to right relationship with God through radical hospitality.

———–

So, at the end of the day, I am boringly orthodox in how I read the Bible, and I am also deeply passionate about how I read the Bible.

My hope is that I can sit with folks in real conversation about sexuality and desire. My hope is to hear their confessions of how they read the biblical texts. My hope is that we’ll let the texts be what they are and learn how to talk and eat and dance together with the living God who calls us into life.

Read part 3 here.