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.

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Who Runs the World? – International Women’s Day

As a cis-gender, gay male who writes a bit about intersectional oppression, I tend to take something of a pragmatic approach to engaging the queer fluidity of gender within the reality of intersecting local and global social landscapes that have, throughout time, proven to devalue the personhood of those on the feminine end of the human spectrum.

That was a really long sentence to say, I feel committed to wrestling with how best to celebrate women today (or any day).

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Back in November I was flying from Seattle to Baltimore to attend the American Academy of Religion conference. On the plane, I was doing some long overdue personal life homework, reading bell hooks’ book feminism is for everyone.

I have to say, that while I live in Seattle, write this blog, and enjoy a certain amount of liberty to express my personal engagement of gender with ease, I am not without self-awareness on a day-to-day basis of how I come across as a gay man. I am aware that there are ways that I move, dress, inflect my voice, and present my body that transgress the expected norms of someone with my genitalia. In other words, I know how to work my male privilege and “butch it up” in order to be heard, safe, or granted access. And doing this comes at a cost to my humanity and the humanity of those whose bodies cannot access that male privilege.

So, when I boarded that plane in November–hell, when I packed my bags–I was making deliberate choices to embrace, as freely as I was able, the feminine parts of myself. Given the freedom of a week away from my workplace and normal routine, I felt less of a need to guard my behavior. All that is to say, I was looking pretty fabulous and allowing myself, in public, to move and act with the kind of freedom in my body that is often reserved for my time with close friends. This is something I’ve been actively working through and I had decided to use this time as practice for caring for myself through caring less how others perceive me (this also has a lot to do with my INFJ personality type which often leaves me more aware of external social dynamics than of my own inner world).

In the middle of all that, sitting on the plane, I took notice of the flight attendant noticing me. The attendant appeared to be about a decade older than me and, given their choice of uniform and engagement with social norms, I’m presuming they engage the world as a woman. As she pushed the drink cart down the aisle, she stopped it just behind me so that she was standing parallel to my right shoulder. I had pulled out the airline magazine to check the price of a whiskey, which I intended to mix with seltzer water and the peel of the organic blood orange I had in my bag (yup, I did that), which meant that the bell hooks book was lying on my seatback tray, the cover in clear view.

Glancing up, I saw the attendant look from the book to me and then, quite literally, bend halfway over and turn her head sideways to look more closely at the cover of the book. I really didn’t think much of the little interaction–I passed her my piece of plastic, she gave me my beverage, and the cart was pulled farther down the aisle. It wasn’t until an hour later that I really started thinking about what was happening.

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The drink service was over and we were somewhere over the Midwest, when the attendant was walking briskly up the aisle. Without breaking stride, as if she were reaching into a row to turn off a light over a sleeping passenger, she slipped two small bottles out of her pocket and dropped them, without a word onto my tray and the tray of the man sitting next to me. Startled, we noticed that they were duplicates of our earlier drink orders. The stranger next to me shrugged and said, “okay.” And that’s when my mind kicked into high gear.

What was going on? Why did we, out of everyone on the plane, get free refills of our overpriced airline booze, delivered without a single word from this woman? I couldn’t help but fill in a narrative inside my head.

It started with questions–was it because of the book? Well, of course it was! But why? What experience had this woman had that led her to interact with me in this way? Was it that a person presenting as male was reading about feminism? Was it that a gay man seemed to give a shit enough about women to read a single book? She had no idea how I was engaging with what I read, for all she knew, I could have hated the book and been reading it as a requirement for some sort of class.

And what about the booze for the other guy? Did she assume we were together? Was he benefiting for being feminist-adjacent? Or was his simply placation booze–a sort of hush money for the hetero-man so he wouldn’t say anything protesting his neighbor’s free lunch?

I had no real way of answering these questions, but I settled on her gesture being somewhere on a spectrum of solidarity to gratitude–a metaphorical fist bump, meant to reinforce behavior that she saw as beneficial in the world. Who really knows what she was thinking/feeling?

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It took some time before I could explain in words just what I was feeling. Why was it that I felt both perplexed and annoyed by her kind gesture?

As I tried to explain it, weeks later, to a friend, “I don’t get a cookie just for being decent!” That my action was noteworthy at all fills me with a measure of grief. You see, I have a vested interest in the well-being of women in the world–not because I experience intersecting oppression because of masculine normativity; not because I have a mother, sister, and nieces that I want to see loved and celebrated and treated with every human dignity; but because every person is a person and deserves to be treated as such in society and community.

My celebration of women must play out in my day-to-day activities in the world–standing up to oppression, cultivating compassion and curiosity, and seeking diverse human flourishing–these things are acts of theo-political commitment; a joining with God in calling good every member of our global community. This commitment is a reassertion of my belief that governments and policies may grant privileges in the name of rights, but the right to be treated as full persons is a foregone conclusion given the very existence of our breathing bodies in this world.

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So how do I celebrate? Do I use words like “strong” and “fierce” to name the goodness of women–words that derive their power by their apparent unexpectedness given dominant perceptions of women? Do I use words like “beautiful” and “vulnerable” to describe myself and other masculine bodies in order to counteract the narrow definitions of masculinity that I believe reinforce misogyny? And can I find a way to celebrate the dignity and humanity of each person while acknowledging the particular and shared cultural experiences we each have of navigating gender and bodies that are different and similar to one another?

Yes. I do all these things–and more. I laugh and play and thank God for the goodness of the masculine and feminine in all of us–for all the gorgeous ways we engage these dynamics within and outside of ourselves, and for the ways that our bodies lead us into our engagement with the world. I do all this with the tenacious commitment to stand against oppression in any form, and so, I celebrate the women in my life; women whose bodies are faab*ulous and women whose bodies and ways of navigating gender contradict social expectations. I celebrate the feminine within myself and the masculine as well, and I seek to live in a way that allows me and everyone else to engage gender freely, as a means of bringing the gift of our own personhood into community in the world.
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*Female Assigned At Birth (a term noting our cultural tendency to enculturate and enforce strict gender norms on the basis of genitals from the time of birth)

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.

Microaggressions: What They Are and How We Deal

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

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

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

Peace.

 

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

Introducing video Q & A

As mentioned in the above video, I’ll be shifting a bit of my content in the coming months. You can continue to look forward to reading my longer pieces, but I’ll also be offering short videos where I’ll be interacting with your questions, and having conversations with guests. In order for this to work, I’ll need your help–your questions, your ideas for videos, and perhaps, even your willingness to make a video with me at some point along the way.

To give an idea of what I’ve been up to and what kinds of questions you might want to hear me engage, I’d invite you to check out the audio from a recent panel that I was a part of for the website, thankgodforsex.org. These folks are doing excellent work around opening conversation in which people can begin to name and work through experiences of religious sexual shame.

It was a pleasure to be invited to take part in the panel and it helped me realize a bit more of the impact of simply speaking together about the topics of sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, shame, desire, and the church. Thus, my finally making the leap into video–because it’s not enough for us to just write and read about these things from either sides of our screens, we need a conversation, and this is one step closer to that goal.

For now, I hope you’ll check out the audio link above (the panel discussion starts about 15 minutes into the first audio track) and that you’ll submit your questions and topic ideas for videos in the comments below.

Peace,

Daniel

Queering the Christian Table Part 18: Learning to Live in Loving Kindness–God’s Gift for Those Feeling (a)shame(d)

This post is a part of the series “Queering the Christian Table” you can start reading here.

For me, the biggest surprise of 2013 has been this blog.

When I started it up a year ago, I did it as a way to force myself to write on a regular basis, and I structured it is such a way that I thought would keep me from getting bored—by rotating topics thematically throughout the month.

It was a good plan.

My whole life I have made great plans. Seldom have any of them ever taken me to the places I expected. Often I have been more disappointed and delighted than I could ever have predicted. Just so, last March, when I began to put words to the idea of more room at the Christian table, I didn’t realize quite what was beginning.

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I wrote that first post as a way of beginning to lay claim to the idea that I am already sitting at God’s table. The Christian idea of a God who gathers us at a table by the invitation of Jesus is alarmingly good. Despite all the vast harm and evil carried out in the name of God by the Christian church, there’s the undermining presence of this human person—Jesus—who dares to share precious food with people whose very lives fall entirely outside the dominant cultural paradigms of acceptability.

Typing out that first post, I was trembling my way towards a declaration that we are all humans sitting at this table. What is clearer to me now than it was then, is that it is not my task to make room for myself or anyone at the table.

Mine is simply the job of stating the obvious: we are already here. We have already been welcomed to the table.

My work in writing this series of posts has been to reiterate the welcome to those of you who have come out—to me, to your families, to your churches, to your friends. Because we all need to hear it time and time again, I will keep on saying, “you are welcome at God’s table.” And my other task, one filled with irony, humor, heartache, and compassion, is to say to some others at the table, “Hello! We’re sitting right here! Would you please pass the potatoes already?!?”

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In the past nine months, I have fretted in the light of my computer screen—typing, deleting, re-typing, saving and discarding drafts, and finally clicking “publish” time and time again. I did it for me and I did it for you. There were many times when I felt incredibly brave and also incredibly timid. And there were times when I didn’t know if what I was writing was helping anything or if it was too obvious to warrant being said. Nevertheless, I have written words that I have felt were needed.

Because I still need to be reminded that the welcome of God’s kin-dom is not limited by the smallness of our imagination, I will keep on writing.

Because of encounters with and emails from you that have reminded me that not everyone is a part of a community where they feel both safe and essential to God’s family, I will continue saying what seems simplistic and obvious.

Because of conversations with people who were courageous enough to ask me to coffee or lunch to talk about how to better engage this conversation in their churches and communities, I will stay in the conversation rather than insulating myself in the safety of communities where I am assured of my safety and belonging.

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To be sure, there are times when I feel like I am poking a bear.

I hesitate to write or speak too provocatively, because it is easier when people like what I write, feel slightly challenged but not too uncomfortable, and click “subscribe” rather than writing me off for good.

And at the end of the day, like everyone, I want to be liked.

And it is all too easy to avoid saying the straightforwardly honest and difficult things when we think we will receive some kind of approval for our nicety. But the truth is, that kind of acceptance is lonely and void. It’s the acceptance of the closet—not the acceptance of God’s table.

See, God’s table is predicated on God liking us already.

I don’t need to butch it up to come to God’s table. In fact, there’s nothing I can or cannot do to come to God’s table, because God’s table has come to me. This is the point of the incarnation and, thank God, the point of this whole Advent/Christmas season—that God becomes vulnerable and human to come to be with us in our vulnerable humanity.

This is the core distinctive of the Christian faith—that we do not ascend or transcend. Instead, God is delighted with us and descends to live with us and bless us. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus who freely shares meals with every kind of person.

In contrast to life in the closet, where acceptance is based on suppressing my difference in order to make others comfortable, life at the table is enriched by all the particularities of my humanity that I bring and offer in community.

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Quite honestly, this is a hard pill to swallow. When my facebook page explodes because large numbers of USAmerican Christians are making a martyr out of one reality tv star’s racist and homophobic remarks, I want to crawl under my covers and hide.

I want consequences for Phil Robertson’s bad behavior. I want consequences for Christianity’s bad behavior. Yet I am welcomed to the table by the same Jesus who opens his table to such hooligans.

And much to the chagrin of the Phil Robertsons of the world, Jesus welcomes this hooligan, too.

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Each week I participate in a liturgy where I recite ancient words of the Christian faith. I make the sign of the cross on my body, even though I hate so much of what that sign has been used for.

Both the creed and the sign of the cross were taught to me in a Pentecostal Bible college, by an old, white man who graciously attempted to teach me Greek for 5 semesters. He also taught history of the church and, in order to pass that class, required me to memorize and recite the creed—a collection of ancient words which includes the affirmation:

“We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism.”

These words are not a claim that we are the only ones at this table—instead, they are a reminder that we are not the only ones. Instead, we are a small gathering of something much bigger, and more expansive. Those of us who gather together in our particular churches with those we can stand to be around are not the only ones that God is gracious enough to love.

Instead, we confess each week that we are not alone at the table, but that God offers kindness to us and to those we despise. For me, the sign of the cross that we make across our bodies is a sign that we accept that our tendency is to do violence to others and that we will not be governed by the urge to return violence for violence. Instead, we scoot to the side and make more room at the table, acknowledging that violence most often emerges out of a fear that there is not enough to go around.

But ultimately, we sit at a table that is God’s and not our own. And God’s table is already as queer as the entire world. The Christian monotheistic claim of one God who loves the entire world is offensive. And, mostly, it is offensive to us. It is offensive because our capacity for love is so small.

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My response to Phil Robertson and others in the Christian church who can’t believe that Jesus would make room for me, a gay man, at his table, is to say:

“There is room here for you as well.”

Because, ultimately, I am convinced that my urge to dissociate myself from the Phil Robertsons and the Mark Driscolls of the world is, on some level, connected to my urge to dissociate myself from the parts of me that I think are not acceptable. It is easier to try to call them to account for cruel words and bad behavior than to face the parts of me that are selfish and scared and unkind.

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Now, I think there is a difference between what I don’t like about them and what they don’t like about me. While I have a bit of trouble articulating this distinction, I think I can most adequately talk about it in terms of feelings of shame and feelings of being ashamed.

When I do something harmful to others—when I lash out, say something unkind, or (whether out of ignorance or malice) take part in someone else’s oppression (see racism, subsidizing slavery with my shopping, etc.), there is a natural consequence that occurs when I am called out on this behavior—I blush. I feel guilty. I wish I had known and done better.

Feeling ashamed, I want to hide my face.

On a good day I may apologize and try to make amends with those I have harmed. On a bad day, I may make excuses and non-apologies. I attempt to save-face. This is the feeling of being ashamed—I messed up, I feel stupid/guilty/defensive/humiliated, and I know that I have to either make amends or justify my behavior.

Feeling shame is a different thing altogether than feeling ashamed.

Shame is when you are given the message that you are wrong. Shame is not about your actions, it is the internalization of a message of harm that says your humanity—your very personhood is flawed/unacceptable/bad. Shame happens through acute traumas like rape and verbal/physical/emotional abuse. It also comes from the violence of systemic oppression by means of stereotypes/silencing/discrediting/limiting access.

Shame is when someone else wants to hide my face.

Feeling ashamed is what you feel when you have done wrong to others and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling shame is what you feel when wrong has been done to you and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling ashamed is an important social emotion that is connected to empathy. It is rooted in our ability to understand our impact on others and then learn to treat them in the way that we would like to be treated. Feeling shame is toxic. It’s what happens when people reject their own feelings of being ashamed and project them on someone with less social privilege. Shame is the second-hand smoke of someone else’s bad habit of exhaling their feelings of being ashamed instead of learning to stop doing the harm that created the smoke in the first place.

When someone feels ashamed and then repents, the feeling of being ashamed is transformed into reconciliation. When someone feels ashamed and then rejects that feeling and pushes it off onto the person they have already harmed, that feeling turns into shame. It is then the difficult work of the person who has already been harmed to do something with that shame.

Shame is a powerful feeling that, being rooted in the feeling of being ashamed, feels bad. The problem is that shame is the feeling of being ashamed that has been wrapped up and handed to the wrong person. For the recipient of this dirty package, the feeling of shame follows the event of having been harmed by someone else.

So, the person who feels shame feels it while they are trying to make sense of having been harmed. So, often those who are harmed internalize the message of shame and believe the lie that they deserve to have been harmed because they are somehow inherently bad or wrong.

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In the conversation about LGBTIQ folks in the Christian church, my hunch is that there are multiple layers of this ashamed/shame game that are going on.

And as a Christian gay man, it may surprise you that I bring up the opening of the New Testament book of Romans at this point in the discussion. However, I think we read far too little of Paul’s letter when we have this conversation.

In describing the weighty judgment of God on those who try to limit access to God’s grace, Paul asks, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Indeed, the offering of welcome at God’s table is an invitation to those who feel shame and to those who feel ashamed. God’s judgement for both parties is the surprise that they are both welcome at God’s table.

And so, I can only conclude that my role, as I sort out both feelings within myself, is to receive the loving kindness of God and trust that it will lead me to offer loving kindness to others. Again, my response to those who would hand me a bundle of shame is to make the sign of the cross, open myself to receive the loving kindness of God, and offer them the same loving kindness.

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Over the last few months I haven’t posted a lot of my writing here, but I have been writing nonetheless.

I’ve been busy writing lectures, grading papers, and applying to a doctoral program. In the midst of all this writing, I’ve turned to sci-fi as a place to rest and renew my imagination. There, in Season 6 Episode 17 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I stumbled across this beautiful reminder:

In the episode, Lieutenant Commander Worf has come across an group of Klingons who live in exile after being captured in war—a group destined to remain in hiding because of the cultural shame their very lives bring to themselves and their families (for Klingons, death in battle is a source of honor). Worf has come with hope that he might have found his own father there among them—though, given the Klingon culture, if his father had been found alive there, it would have meant complete dishonor.

When asked by one of the exiled Klingons what he would have done if he had found his father, Worf replies: “If I had found him here, I would be glad to see him. There is no room in my heart for shame.”

And isn’t this the truth of the goodness that we are each searching for? For LGBTIQ Christians, we have often believed we were exiled in shame and yet someone has come looking for us—someone who is glad to see us; someone in whose heart there is no room for shame.

As we learn to not take on the package of shameful feelings, this will mean learning to give and receive the loving kindness of God. This will also mean that our brothers and sisters who have done us harm will no longer be able to easily pass off their feelings of being ashamed to us. Which means they will have to learn how to deal with feelings that don’t feel good–that is, they will also need to learn to give and receive the loving kindness of God that invites us all to repentance.

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For me, as a gay man at the Christian table, shame looks like the internalization of the message that I must prove that I belong here. It comes from believing the insistence from others that they get to define the parameters of the table. That insistence is a misdirection of shame, meant to absolve their feeling of being ashamed for fencing off God’s table.

Thank God, this table doesn’t belong to us. My role at the Christian table is to abandon the fight to define ownership of the table, and accept my place as a deeply beloved and cherished guest at God’s table. My being here has nothing to do with deserving or not deserving to be here–I am here because I belong here.

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As I look forward to the coming year, I am eager to continue writing in this space. I know that I have need for you and the conversations that are to come as we learn to laugh, play, and live in the loving kindness of God.

Peace,

Daniel

Queering the Christian Table Part 16: National Coming Out Day and John 11

This post is part of the series Queering the Christian Table. To begin reading at the beginning of this series, click here.

My Coming Out Story

There’s a genre of writing, videos, and songs dedicated to telling peoples’ experiences of coming out of the closet. Some emphasize the long process of coming to love and accept oneself and begin to be honest with the world on the outside about who you are on the inside. Some of these stories focus more narrowly on a particular happy, funny, tragic, or terrifying moment when we first told someone that we were [Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, etc.].

Some people, myself included, have several of both kinds of stories. There are even a few folks who don’t have a distinct coming out story because they were able to grow up in homes where they were loved and accepted for who they were in a very open way—I’ve even heard stories from people who’s coming out was their own realization about themselves and that when they told friends and family, the response they got was something like, “yeah, we’ve always known that. Didn’t you?”

I have stories of coming out to myself, my former spouse, my classmates, my sister, my friends, my teachers, my parents, my boss, my coworkers, my church, my landlord, my students, my HR director, people on the bus, my trainer at the gym—GOOD LORD, I hope it’s clear: coming out is a reality that we deal with every day.

Whether or not people make assumptions about my sexual orientation from how I present myself, talk, dress, behave, who I am with, or how long they have known me, I can never just assume that people know that I am gay. And the reality is that LGBTQ people, to varying degrees, are always in a process of coming out of the closet.

The slant of the floor in the room we call society is angled in a way to slide us back behind that door.

Coming out to my parents was the hardest time for me–that is, after coming out to myself. The acute anxiety, the stress, and the tears surrounding my coming out to my parents is bundled up tightly into a weekend in July when I was 27. The process of receiving messages of shame from society, the church, and my family began at birth and, like the process of coming out, never stops. In November, I will have been coming out of the closet for 29 years.

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When I was an adolescent, I was a part of a church program where we did quiz-bowl-style tournaments on the Bible. Oh yeah.

In order to do well with this, I would sit on the floor of my closet, with an extension cord powering a desk lamp, and I would memorize chapters at a time of the new testament. In this same closet, I furiously scribbled depressing poems that I hid underneath the carpet and padding that I had pulled up from beneath the baseboards. I hid my writing as deep in the closet as I could. This was after my mother had found a hidden file on the computer where I’d written a poem that caused her to ask me if I had ever thought about suicide.

There, on the floor of the closet, with the door shut, I would sometimes turn off the lamp and just listen to the sounds of the house all around me; listen to the dull sound of my breathing and heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay. I cried as I begged Jesus to forgive me for being attracted to other guys. I would sit for hours at a time in that dark space beneath the hangers filled with church clothes.

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I wish that I could say that while I was sitting in that tiny room behind the louvered doors, I memorized John 11 and began to hear the voice of God calling me to come out. But the story is never that simple.

It’s only years later that I have learned that Jesus was also weeping with me on the other side of that closed door.

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A lot of folks have used the reference to Jesus healing people with leprosy as a way to talk about how “we’re all broken” and the church can love gay people while condemning them to hell because Jesus loved sinners and lepers. Hmm. I could talk about what’s problematic here for about six ways till Tuesday.

Suffice it to say, there’s the problem of equating people with a medical condition, and then, equating sexual orientation (something everyone has, by the way) with something to be cured.

But somehow, even though death is kinda seen theologically as more closely tied to sin—as the enemy of God, defeated through the resurrection life of Jesus, we’re somehow more accepting of death. For this reason, I want to turn to the story of Lazarus as a way for us to talk about how Jesus loves LGBTQ people.

Because death, unlike disease (and even taxes, thank you very much, tax-evading CEOs), happens to everyone, it’s less likely to be wielded by the church as weapon of heteronormativity. And yet, the Christian narrative is that death’s annihilation of life is no match for God—God will not stand to let death cut off relationship between God and humanity in the person of Jesus. Holy Saturday is a reality that holds open a space of death, grief, and sorrow, and God’s Spirit hovers and honors that place of abandonment, witnessing the vacuum, even as God strains toward resurrection.

I do not know why, in John 11, Jesus lets his friend Lazarus die. The people ask him this very question.

I do not know why God allows churches and families and cultures to oppress people who experience their sexual orientation in different ways than the majority.

I do know that Jesus weeps outside of the graves of those he loves and Jesus weeps for those held within dark closets where they are told that there is no space for them to be authentically alive in the world.

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In John 11, Jesus is confronted and asked why he let Lazarus die. Jesus is moved to tears and demands that the tomb be opened. Jesus calls his friend by name, saying, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus comes out, alive, it disrupts the order of things and the religious leaders want to see Jesus killed in order to preserve religious and political norms of power and stability.

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For those in the church who view homosexuality as a sin, there is a burden of proof laid against them—if God takes care of sin in Jesus, then why is it that we do not see people able to change their sexual orientation, no matter how ardently they pray and follow Jesus? Could the church treat homosexuality (indeed any sexual orientation) less like a disease (sin) and more like death (a given reality of being human, and a natural part of life that is being mediated by God)?

If so, let’s wonder together about the story of Lazarus and how Jesus works with death to bring about more life. Sin and death are God’s enemies when they each cut off relationship with God and others. When they function this way, they are enemies of loving God and neighbor. And yet, death is also a natural order of the cycle of life in the world.

Certainly sexuality can be twisted is selfish hateful ways (see: rape, incest, sexual addictions, pedophilia, sex trafficking) and certainly sexuality can be a place of intense pleasure, connection, love, and relationship. In the story of Jesus, when death encounters Jesus, it is catalyzed into resurrected life—into restoration of relationship. Jesus lets death happen (to those he loves and to himself) because it is natural, but he doesn’t allow death to cut off relationship, instead he enters the space of grief and, through it, gives life.

When churches, families, and culture keep people in the closet through shame and fear, it is an oppressive act of twisting a person’s sexual orientation against them and colluding with death against another human being–it’s twisting a natural part of life and using it to cut off authentic relationship. Jesus bears wit(h)ness to this death by weeping, demanding that the closet be opened, and calling each of us by name, saying, “Come out!”

For LGBTIQ folks to better love God and neighbor, we need to be able to live honestly in relationship with God and neighbor.

For heterosexuals in churches, families, institutions, and society to better love God and neighbor, they need to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus at work to bring LGBTIQ people more fully alive. They need to learn to celebrate this life rather than oppressing people back into the closet.

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Of course, in John 11, the religious folks wanted to kill Jesus for messing up the norms of death. They didn’t have the imagination to believe that if Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life he might be able to bring them back to life as well.

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On this National Coming Out Day, I want to say to those still in the closet:

I don’t know why society, the church, or your family wants you in the closet, and I know that it feels like death, but I stand in the confidence of divine love, on the other side of that door, and I cry with you. And when you are ready, I will say your name and echo Jesus’ words, “Come out!”

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Know that you are dearly loved for who you are, that your sexuality and your sexual orientation are natural, and the only thing bad is that there are people who will work to use them against you. And while it is painful and hard to live with that reality, there is a deeper reality of you being able to be authentic and fully alive in the world. And that authenticity and life is worth so much more than the cost of every single time will you come out to someone.

Much love, and we are waiting here for you on the other side of that door,

Daniel