Sunday, April 14, 2013

The part that remains

First, some background...

On March 18, 2013, a lightning-strike ignited a fire in the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Owensboro, KY, and quickly spread into all areas of the building. Hours later the fire was still burning, and by mid-morning the church had been destroyed. (The photo is from this article on their local paper's website.)

Normally, something like this would be a distant tragedy for us in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. But our pastor at National Avenue Christian Church here in Springfield, Laura Fregin, is one of the mentors to a group of  Disciples of Christ ministers called the Bethany Fellows. And the two pastors at Owensboro - Jake Caldwell  and Rebekah Krevens - are members of that fellowship, and very dear to our pastor. So as the soot and ash were still falling in Owensboro, our church was grieving with theirs.

In the week that followed, Disciples of Christ churches from everywhere sent the Owensboro church copies of the Disciples' hymnbooks, so that as First Christian Church worships in borrowed spaces, they will know that their fellow churches are with them in heart and spirit.

But today, as our Pastor Laura was preaching on life after Easter, the tragedy in Owensboro, and living with many kinds of death and resurrection, an old, old story came to my mind... with a message for our Kentucky sisters and brothers.

For at least a dozen years I have been telling this story, one that I remember from nearly forty years ago. I remembered it from before I ever called myself a Christian; before I came to belief in God; before I could even pretend to have faith.

I don't remember the details any more, despite repeatedly asking folks who might know. All I can tell you is that sometime in the late 1970's, two churches on Glendale Avenue in Toledo were torched on the same night, just about a week before Christmas. (My memory is foggy, but I thought one congregation was east of Byrne Rd., and one was near Green Valley. If you have any information about this, please let me know...)

One congregation's fellowship hall burned down; the other church was a complete loss. Included in the damage were many thousands of dollars of Christmas presents for needy kids, lost in the heat of some arsonist's rage and insanity.

What remains crystal clear for me out of that December tragedy was the image of a TV news broadcast that occurred the day after the fire. One of the pastors was being interviewed by a reporter about the effects of the fire as they were standing in front of the wreckage of the church. The reporter asked the pastor, "How does it feel to know that your church has been utterly destroyed, less than a week before Christmas?"

Unbelievably, the pastor smiled.... and replied, "Oh, no - it's really not as bad as all that."

With a stunned look, the reporter glanced over his right shoulder at the still-smoking remains of the sanctuary in the background, and then back to the pastor. The pastor, however, kept on smiling and said, "No, you don't understand...they destroyed the building, not the church. The church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. "

I can't tell you why or how that idea stuck with me, but it has... for nearly four decades.

Dozens of Christian bloggers I know have published items in the last several years talking about searching for church communities and what "communities of faith" might or could look like. There are an awful lot of people who are searching for what Michael W. Smith would call "their place in this world" - and for a long time, Chris and I were among them.  We're ever so grateful to have found National Avenue Christian and a community of faith that welcomes and accepts us, just as we are. It's a gift beyond imagining, believe me.

One thing I believe that true "faith communities" don't do is what my friend Natalie Lentz would call "worshiping the barn instead of the Savior."  Sadly, I've been a member of more than one congregation who were more concerned with the risk of coffee stains on their carpet than with welcoming strangers into the presence of God and into a circle of faithful friends. In fact, those experiences have led me to believe that the more reverence a congregation puts on its building, the less impressed I am with 'em.

What I remembered, too, is that I've been a witness to several congregations whose buildings have been destroyed since that weekend. Living in Ohio, Kansas and Illinois, there were lots of stories of tornado damage - including a one-year-old church building that was picked up whole by a tornado, and dropped exactly one foot off of its footings - still upright, seemingly intact, but completely unsafe and un-salvageable.

The amazing part in all those stories was that in the aftermath, "the part that remained" became only more enthused, more servant-oriented, and more engaged in the community. They took care of each other, and they took care of their community, too.

I know that doesn't always happen. Sometimes "the barn" is the last thing holding a shaky congregation together - and when the building goes, so does the church.

But my experience is that people of faith focus on the Resurrection, and the rebirth of life and hope - and not on the whippings, beatings, agony and death that led to it. My prayer is that Jake Caldwell  and Rebekah Krevens will be reminded again and again that the church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground.  And I trust that in Owensboro - like it is here in Springfield - it is the very best part.

This message, however, is not just for the church. So many people I know are dealing with pain, loss, and destruction. For each of them, I share this from another old friend in the recovery community tells me: "If it doesn't bleed, the hell with it!  If it doesn't bleed, it can be repaired, replaced, or done without. It's people! People - that's what's important."

In my experience this is true - even in death. Long after life ends, long after breath ceases, long after ashes are scattered...the love that was shared and the memories that were made live on.  I've seen this in the lives of my own parents, and in the life and death of friends across the country who have blessed me with a season in their path.

The part that remains is almost always the very best part.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Serving "a God who will 'goose' you"

I am one of those people who have heard "a call" and thought it was "a call to ministry" - not knowing, at the time, that these were two entirely different things.

I now know that there is "a call to serve" and "a call to ministry," and while the two "calls" might seem similar in some ways, they are also widely divergent in what is required.  Sadly, for me and many people like me, this knowledge comes at the end of a long, worthwhile, yet painful and expensive education - and it's one of the many times that I find myself saying, "I wish I knew then what I know now...."

This reflection was prompted by yesterday's services at National Avenue Christian Church, my home church here in Springfield, MO. The theme of the day was "Looking For A Calling," and the first scripture reading was that classic call from Isaiah 6:8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Here's what I have learned:

One: The Big One: Being "called to serve one's fellows" is not the same as "a call to serve in ministry." One can have a perfectly valid "calling to serve" without having any kind of "a call to ordination."

Confession time: I was actually told this, a month or so before I left the safety of Kansas. One of my classmates at St. Paul School of Theology, Chuck Murphy, who was already an acting minister in the Disciples of Christ, told me flat-out that he felt I should "drop this whole idea of ordained ministry, of being 'in front of people' in leadership, and stick to the calling you already have in the recovery community."  It was good advice, and would have saved me (and my congregation) about twenty or thirty grand if I had listened.

Chuck's point?  I was already serving. I was already ministering.  I wasn't wearing a robe or a stole; I didn't have a pulpit, and I wasn't preaching. But I was already sharing the love of God with God's kids, and doing a pretty good job of it. But I had come to believe that "ministry" was what The-People-Up-Front-Did - and (if I'm rigorously honest about it) I was a little jealous that Chuck was telling me to ditch congregational ministry, while he already was doing it. So I didn't listen.

I know better, now.

In my current church, I see boatloads of people "ministering." I see my friend Susan Wheeler "ministering" every time she prepares food for the homeless at "Bill's Place;"  I see Terry Heitman "ministering" every time he's helping set-up or clean-up for a congregational event. Brad Wadle "ministers" whenever he encourages folks to support the Rainbow Network's work in Nicaragua.  The list would go on a long time, just focusing on my own congregation. 

 Two: Ministry is doing; but it's also showing.
Being called to serve also involves mentoring, and both modeling and encouraging behavior. Yesterday, I watched Terry not-so-subtly nudge folks to help with the clean-up from yesterday's pancake supper; he was serving, but also reminding the rest of us that ministry isn't magic. It's work, and it's work of the whole body. That comes much less from the pulpit, and much more from an invitation from a friend to participate in what's going on right now.

Three: The answer is already in the question. So many times, I can ask myself, "Yeah, but what can I do?" One of my favorite authors, Ted Menten, reminds me that the answer is just a rearrangement of the question:
What can I do?    Do what I can.
I don't need to be able to cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. I don't have to sing like Larry Stotsberry, or be a spiritual director like Tom Boone. I don't have to be able to paint like John Stone, or relate to children with puppets and stories like Louise Jackson. But there's several sides to this "Do what I can" thing:
  •  Maybe I can't cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. But maybe, if I'm interested, I could ask her to show me what she does and how she does it. Maybe it's about being mentored, about being shown what to do. Part of my "answering the call" just might be getting the courage to say, "I sure would like to do what you do - but I don't have a clue how you do it. Can you show me?"
  • Maybe I've got something that I'm already sitting on - a skill or ability that I can bring to the table just as it is. I learned this the first time I served as "worship leader" - what our church calls the person who begins the worship and reads the prayers and the scriptures. Just being able to speak clearly and with some inflection was enough, for that part. I don't have to be Billy Graham or Bishop Sheen or Orson Welles in order to be a good worship leader; it's not a "big" skill but it's a helpful one. Who knew?  
  • Maybe I see a need that others might not see.  A classic case of this: a lady at the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Leawood, KS noted that there was a desperate need for blood donations in the Kansas City area, and UM-COR had a huge population of able-bodied potential donors. But no one in leadership had the bandwidth to organize a congregational blood-drive.  She took it on; now, the UM-COR blood drive is now one of the largest blood-drives in the KC area - all because someone in leadership simply said, "Well, go ahead and see what it would take..."
Four:  I don't know what other people's calling is, or should be. But I do know that guilt or shame should never be a part of it - ever.

True story: A friend of mine is an emergency room nurse. She's very good at what she does; there are a lot of people who are alive today because of her service. Yes, she gets paid for it - but she feels it is also a calling, an expression of compassion in service. (And I agree.)  Yet people couldn't understand why she didn't want to be "the church nurse" or "the blood-pressure checker" on Sundays - and some were quite vocally annoyed that she wasn't "using her gifts for the good of the congregation." She was more than willing to do other things for the congregation - but being a church nurse felt a lot like she was working-at-church after she was done working-at-work. And after a series of well-intentioned do-gooders told her that she was "hiding her light under a bushel" (and other "loving admonishments"), she solved the problem - and simply stopped coming to church. 
Last:  I think the best words on the topic came from Matthew Gallion - this idea that it is not so much "what I am called to do," but "how I am called to be" for the world. A friend of mine often says, "You may be the only 'Good Book' that someone sees today."
There are various posts floating around this week about the minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who had to apologize to his denomination for participating in an interfaith rayer service after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT. 

It's important to note that he was not apologizing for praying for the suffering people in Newtown. The apology was to the rest of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, because it is their denomination's principle to not ever, ever, ever participate in mixed-faith worship services. The LC-MS doesn't even participate with other Lutheran denominations, not even on Reformation Day (a big deal in the Lutheran world.) 
That minister did the right thing, and for the right reason - but ended up having to apologize for his actions. He reminded me of an old quote from one of Isaac Asimov's characters: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right."  I'm sorry he had to apologize to his denomination in order to keep his job. I'm just glad as can be that he took the right action, at the right time.

More than just dust...

It's the first Sunday in Lent, four days after Ash Wednesday. The discussions around churches turn to thoughts of mortality, the fragility of life, and the certainty of death. And, if you were in a church on Ash Wednesday, it's a good bet you received a smudge of ashes on your forehead or hand, with the words of Genesis 3:19 - "for dust you are, and to dust you will return."

I've been thinking about this a great deal since this morning's worship service. Our pastor, Laura Fregin, was also thinking of dust - what kind of dust we are, what we hope to do with our "dust-y-ness."  I agreed with much of what Pastor Laura shared - she and I are often on exactly the same wavelength. But the more I listened, the more a part of me rebelled at another message I've gotten over the years about "being dust." And here's why:

I accept the concept that that I am formed from dust, and to dust I will certainly return.

What irks me is the idea that I've heard, over the years that I am just dust. Or that the important part of me (at least during Lent) is dust.
Now, to be fair, Pastor Laura didn't imply that message at all. My quarrel isn't with her at all!  But it is with priests and ministers who have implied this very idea for year after year, and Lenten service after Lenten service. I just cannot buy it. Not now - and never again.

The God of my understanding has made me into something that is way more than "just dust."

But that statement almost begs the question: what am I made of?

The raw material of what I am is star-stuff; the same atoms and molecules that make up the sun, the moon and the stars. Ninety-eight point seven percent of us are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, nitrogen, and potassium. Then stir in a seasoning of sulfur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, cobalt, copper, zinc and other trace elements for color and flavor. (I shared my original hearing of this idea in an earlier post - but you can also check it out, here if you missed it the first time....)

A whole mess of that hydrogen and oxygen end up as water - a 180 pound person is about 65 percent water, about 117 pounds or about 14 gallons. If one were to just dump in the rest of the recipe into a 20-gallon bucket, one could end up with an slightly stinky slurry that wouldn't resemble star-stuff very much.

But look what happens when God starts cooking the mixture....

Depending on whose estimates one uses, about 600-800 grams of all that stew ends up as DNA - not even two pounds of our hypothetical person. Guided by an unseen hand and a DNA blueprint, that primordial stew ends up as Michael Phelps and Chef Paul Prudhomme and Mr. Rogers and Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Michelangelo and Mother Teresa and The Beatles and dozens of billions of others, including us.

It's what is added to the dust that makes us what we are. The very process of our conception, gestation, and birth marks us as spiritual beings having a human experience; we are the work of God encased in dust, dirt and water.

This concept has become even more important to me because of of the recent experience of two of my dear friends, and an urn sitting in their apartment containing the ashes of their mother, who died way too early, just two months ago.To them, it might seem that the only physical evidence remaining of their mother's life is that urn, filled with fine grey-white powder.  Their grief is still fresh, and the idea that this "dust" is all that remains can be painful to them, at times.

But that dust is not the essence of their more than ashes in an unmarked urn somewhere in Ohio is all that remains of my own mother. Their lives were vastly, incomprehensibly more than just their mortal remains.

My own experience is that my mother's life becomes real and tangible whenever I taste our family's turkey stuffing, or a perfectly cooked lobster, or the hot-breads she loved to snack on at the Northwood Inn. She is present with us whenever her children share her stories, or share the love and care that she shared. Her voice whispers with every gentle rain, and roars right along with every belly-laugh. My mom is also present every time my partner overcomes his innate shyness and engages in conversation with a stranger. He knows my mother is present, because Chris knows from the stories told about her that my mom was rarely a stranger for long. To this day, when he makes the effort to be outgoing, he refers to it as "busting out a 'Helen'."

I was reminded of this recently, when I saw a post on Facebook saying that a physicist should speak at funerals.  The post reminded me that the laws of physics - specifically, the laws of conservation of energy and the first law of thermodynamics - tell us that the energy that was my mother could not be destroyed, nor could it die. All of her energy, every wave of every particle that was my Mom remains in God's creation - not gone, but just a bit less orderly.

In the same way, I believe with all my heart, that my own life is a God-given tapestry, woven from threads taken from my parents, my sisters, my partner, and friends scattered across this country and around the world. My prayer is that long before my life ends, the very best of my own threads will end up woven into the lives of still others, and others, and others. Long after my body is reduced to ashes, blown by the wind across the face of the world, I pray that the gifts given to me by God's kids will continue to be shared, and even the tiniest part the best of of God's gifts to me will go on.

Why do I believe that? Because I believe that faith manages, and love endures - no matter what.

As for the "dust" part?  To me, it just doesn't matter. That's why there will be no casket, no grave, and no stone marker - because I won't be "there."  The dust is simply the end of the human experience - not of the spiritual being.  Simply scatter the dust to the wind, and trust that nature will carry what's left of my physical being to the places where I'm needed most.

Perhaps my favorite thoughts on the "dust" of my mortal remains were penned by Lee Hayes, and sung by Pete Seeger, in a song called "In Dead Earnest."  (You can sing this to many tunes, including the folk tune "Barbra Allen"....)

If I should die before I wake, all my bone and sinew take
Just put me in the compost pile, to decompose me for a while
Worms, water, sun will have their way, returning me to common clay
All that I am will feed the trees, and little fishies in the sea
When radishes and corn you munch, you may be having me for lunch
And then excrete me with a grin, chortling "There goes Steve again!"
The last line is the best - 'Twill be my happiest destiny to live and die eternally."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Infinitely diverse star-stuff

I am an incurable follower of science fiction. I find great inspiration and great hope in science fiction, and I find much of my personal faith reinforced by science-fact and science-fiction.

One example of this is when I hear the opening of the TV series Star Trek speaking of "Space...the final frontier....", and I hear both Scripture and music echoed in my mind.  First, I hear Psalm 19:1:  "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God's hands." Then I am carried back to a church-choir performance of "The Heavens Are Telling" from Hayden's oratorio "The Creation" (here performed by the King's College Singers of Cambridge). Each, in their own way, speaks to me of the grandeur, the beauty and majesty of creation.

Another concept that I have stolen and incorporated into my faith journey is that of the IDIC - the Vulcan concept of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" also first introduced in Star Trek. I saw this image come to life in my faith experience very early on - trusting that the same Creative Spirit that brought us the massive face of Mount Everest also brought us the microscopic beauty of snowflakes and crystalline lattices; and that the immense, lumbering mass of whales and the unbelievable grace and speed of the hummingbirds feeding outside our kitchen window were both the product of the same Creator.

The Catholic priests and nuns of my early childhood told me what the Genesis stories said about creation. But my first real concepts of the infinity of creation came not from religious folks, but from a French oceanographer while watching  The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, as well as the visions of space which came from coverage of the early Mercury and Gemini spaceflights. 

So when Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry's 1966 science-fiction classic, showed us a starship filled with people of every land and race, both on Earth and  alien worlds, I could see on that black-and-white screen the truth of Psalm 133:1 - "How good and pleasant it is when brothers (and even sisters!) live together in unity."

But listening to Matthew Gallion's sermon today on the fecundity and fertility of God, I was struck not only by how amazingly filled-with-life Creation is, but how the stunning fertility and diversity of life is built out of the same simple ingredients. Ninety-nine percent of living matter is made of six elements. Throw in another dozen elements, and you have 99.99 percent of our solar system! Only twenty amino acids, dancing in infinite strands of RNA and DNA, decide whether we are going to become humans or hummingbirds or whales. Out of a very small pantry, Creation has served us an infinite banquet.

As I listened to Matthew this morning, it brought me this last sci-fi metaphor, from the TV series Babylon 5.  This series is the story of a space-station, home to dozens of space-faring races who come together in a kind of interstellar United Nations. In one scene, the Earth-born commander of the station, John Sheridan, talks with a member of another race, Delenn of Mimbar, about the deaths of several members of the station's team.  In the ensuing discussion, Delenn makes the declaration that "The universe knows what it is doing."  Sheridan replies, "I wish I had your faith in the universe. I just don't see it sometimes. "

Delenn continues, "Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are 'star stuff.' We are the universe, made manifest - trying to figure itself out."

In these few words, once again, I hear the Creator reaching out just as Humanity reaches out, and a Divine truth is re-revealed to me through the power of what-is and what-might-be. Matthew's words were working for me in "the thin places" -  not between "the sacred and the profane," but between the reality which I can see and the Reality of which I can only dream.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What I wish I'd written about Chik-Fil-A

I have been responding to a variety of people about the whole Chik-Fil-A drama. And then, via my GCN friend Peterson Toscano, comes a post from their friend's blog which really kind of ties it all together.  This fellow says it so much better than I could, so I'll give you his link, and then paste in his post here. 

For the record: no, I won't un-friend people who treat me (and My Guy) well, even if they still eat at That Restaurant. No, I really am unimpressed with same-sex couples who go to That Restaurant and kiss/make out - it only scares the straight folk who are already scared of us. But yes, this is a bigger deal than you may think.
Comments from flamers, and especially people who want to point me to Those Seven Bible Passages, will be deleted. I understand if someone reading this despises (a) my opinions, (b) my sexuality or (c) anything else. That's OK. I just don't have to tolerate it here. That free-speech thing goes for me/us, too.
The words that follow in italics are not mine, but I wish they were, and I affirm them, and thank God for his clarity.

This post is all I have to say about the Chick-Fil-A controversy. It sums up various posts on the issue and various points made by my friends and I. From now own, rather than spend time debating this issue person by person, I’m going to point people here.

My hope here is to find common ground with those who have disagreed with me on the issue, and maybe to persuade. It’s not to ridicule or to best.

So, in the interest of common ground, let’s start here:  I acknowledge the absurdity of all this debate.

It’s definitely strange to have days-long Facebook debates flare up everywhere over a chicken sandwich. The anger, sarcasm, and hurt feelings on display seem strange or even laughable because most people have seen Chick-Fil-A as just a restaurant with a funny ad campaign. I’ll get into some of the whys and wherefores of that later. But, for now, let’s just say that, yes. It can seem ridiculous to get all worked up over fast-food chicken.

Let’s also agree that this isn’t about curtailing anyone’s rights under First Amendment. The Constitution is a legal document. This is not a legal argument. No one is arguing that Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy should be put in prison, or silenced, or censored by the government. This has nothing to do with government censorship or government abridgment of Freedom of Speech. So don’t worry: the ability of this millionaire to legally spend his millions as he sees fit is not in jeopardy. You need not defend it.

Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of things. Please read carefully. These things have been said before, but not by me, and not all in one place. Please read with an open mind. If you can’t read with an open mind, please leave, take a minute, come back, and try again. If you can’t do that, then please don’t bother. Please read all of the words here, rather than just reading half of the argument and assuming you know what I’m saying. Read these words as they are written. Again, if you don’t want to read my words, then don’t continue.

So here goes:

1. This isn’t simply about marriage. Shocker, right? It’s extremely frustrating that same-sex marriage is the great continental divide. People are judged according to how they stand on this issue, as if no other issue matters. Did you know that a person can be for same-sex marriage and still be homophobic? Did you know that a person can be against same-sex marriage and be gay? We all get categorized very quickly based on the marriage issue and maybe that’s not fair. But here’s what you should know:
- In 29 states in America today, my partner of 18 years, Cody, or I could be fired for being gay. Period. No questions asked. One of those states is Louisiana, our home state. We live in self-imposed exile from beloved homeland, family, and friends, in part, because of this legal restriction on our ability to live our lives together.
- In 75 countries in the world, being gay is illegal. In many, the penalty is life in prison. These are countries we can’t openly visit. In 9 countries, being gay is punishable by death. In many others, violence against gays is tacitly accepted by the authorities. These are countries where we would be killed. Killed.
- Two organizations that work very hard to maintain this status quo and roll back any protections that we may have are the Family Research Council and the Marriage & Family Foundation. For example, the Family Research council leadership has officially stated that same-gender-loving behavior should be criminalized in this country. They draw their pay, in part, from the donations of companies like Chick-Fil-A. Both groups have also done “missionary” work abroad that served to strengthen and promote criminalization of same-sex relations.
- Chick-Fil-A has given roughly $5M to these organizations to support their work.
- Chick-Fil-A’s money comes from the profits they make when you purchase their products.
2. This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t. There is no “live and let live” on this issue because Dan Cathy is spending millions to very specifically NOT let me live. I’m not trying to do that to him.

Asking for “mutual tolerance” on this like running up to a bully beating a kid to death on the playground and scolding them both for not getting along. I’m not trying to dissolve Mr. Cathy’s marriage or make his sex illegal. I’m not trying to make him a second-class citizen, or get him killed. He’s doing that to me, folks; I’m just fighting back.

All your life, you’re told to stand up to bullies, but when WE do it, we’re told WE are the ones being intolerant? Well, okay. Yes. I refuse to tolerate getting my ass kicked. “Guilty as charged.”

But what are you guilty of? When you see a bully beating up a smaller kid and you don’t take a side, then you ARE taking a side. You’re siding with the bully. And when you cheer him on, you’re revealing something about your own character that really is a shame.

3. This isn’t about Jesus. I have a lot of Christian friends. Most of them are of the liberal variety, it’s true, but even this concept seems lost on some of you. Most of them are pro-LGBT rights. Pro-gay and Pro-Christ are NOT mutually exclusive. They never have been, in the history of Christianity, though it’s been difficult at times. It’s not impossible to be both.

If someone is telling you it is, then maybe you should wonder why they’d do that. I see divorced Christians, remarried Christians, drug addict Christians. I see people with WWJD bracelets bumping and grinding on TV and raking in millions to do it. I see greedy, rapacious, vengeful people who are Christians. And these people are accepted in the Church, and the Church does very little to combat them. Sometimes it seems like being gay is the ONLY thing certain modern Christian movements won’t allow. Why’s that, I wonder?

Jesus had almost nothing to say about sexual behavior of any kind. He was too busy teaching more important things. Empathy is at the heart of his teachings. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Remember that? It’s in red. So let’s examine that:

4. If things were reversed, I’d stand up for you.

Please think about this: How would you feel if KFC came out tomorrow and said they were spending money against equality for Asian Americans, or African Americans, or religious people? Really. Think about it. What would you do? How would you feel? How would you feel if, after their announcement, there was a big increase in KFC sales and I was all over Facebook supporting KFC. 

Please stop reading right now and imagine this. I’m serious.

You can stop now because it’s ludicrous. It would never happen.

Oh, I don’t mean the part about KFC being against some group. That COULD happen. I mean the part about me supporting them. Let me tell you something, and you can damn well believe it: I’d sign on for the boycott IMMEDIATELY.

Why? Well, because I believe in equality for all people, that’s why. But also, personally, from the bottom of my heart: because you are my friend, and I don’t willingly support people who harm you for just being you. How could I? How could I, really? But, more importantly for our purposes, how could you?

Seriously, how could you? What has Chick-Fil-A ever done for you? Sold you some fatty chicken at a ridiculous mark-up? Made you chuckle at semi-literate cartoon cows? You mean more to me than KFC possibly could. If I, in turn, don’t mean more to you than a chicken sandwich from Chik-Fil-A–if my life, my quality of life, and my dignity are such afterthoughts to you that you’d not only refuse the boycott, but go out of your way to support someone who was hurting me? if I let this stand, if I don’t stand up to the bullies and if I let my friends egg the bullies on, what does that make me?

Well, it makes me a Chikin.

Yeah, so suddenly it is cause for anger, ridiculous or not.

But I’m not going to stop being Facebook friends with anyone over this issue.

Instead, I will remain. And, when you see my face with my partner’s in my profile, maybe you will examine not simply what your opinions are about gay people, or gay marriage, or the first amendment, even; maybe you’ll  examine not merely your opinions but your values. What is friendship to you? What is loyalty? How important are human life and dignity to you? Are they more important than fitting in with your social group? Are they more important than loyalty to a corporate brand, or a political party, or some misguided church teaching?

That’s why we’re so angry. This is personal for us. There are times in your life when you have the opportunity to stand up for your friends. When you let that opportunity pass, your friends notice. It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, but it diminishes you, and it diminishes the friendship. That’s how it is, no matter what the issue or what the venue.

So stand up. Stand up for us. Do the right thing. You don’t have to agree with us on everything, but repudiate Chick-Fil-A. Unlike them on Facebook. Withdraw your support for them. Join us in the boycott. If you can’t do that, then please ask yourself whether I’m your friend. In fact, ask yourself whether anyone is.

This is all I have to say. If you’d like to debate the issue further, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to go around and around on the same points. If you’re just going to repeat yourself, save us both some time. If you haven’t taken the time to actually read this carefully and actually consider carefully what I’ve said, then I see no reason to waste further words.

The ball is in your court. Again, I urge you to do the right thing.

- Wayne Self
Twitter: @owldolatrous

Follow-up: Just to bring it all home: right now - today - my partner could be fired from his job simply for being gay, here in Missouri. And we could, very easily, be evicted from our rented duplex simply because we are gay. Not "they're gay and they're noisy, or messy, or attract illegal behavior." We could be evicted, as good, quiet, peaceful, rent-paid-on-time tenants, just for being homosexual in Missouri. No justification needed; no appeal allowed. 

It's not just about same-sex marriage.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The real issue: "married" versus "family"

On Sunday, my friend Ted sent me a link to this article titled "The Catholic Church and Gay Marriage," by Father Timothy Radcliffe OP.

Ted, a former Catholic monk, retired University employee and a full-time thinker, philosopher and metaphysician, has been a dear friend of mine for four decades - through marriage and divorce, rich and poor, tragedy and triumph. He has also known me before and after I came out as gay - and both my partner Chris and I count him as a very good friend.

But he likes to make me think...hence the link. (And it worked, as you can see, Ted...)

I have to admit that, as a statement of Catholic belief, the tone of the article is generally gentle and conciliatory. Father Radcliffe clearly says of his profession about gay marriage, "This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same sex civil unions." I appreciate that - if only because it's rarely said by Catholics publicly. And so for this reason alone, I celebrate Fr. Radcliffe's writing.

But the article contains a well-known theme that always guarantees to annoy me:  "Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility." While I appreciate Fr. Radcliffe's tone in his writing, I have to admit that this particular argument really offends my sense of fairness.

Fr. Radcliffe professes, essentially, that God created man and woman in order to make babies. This is why Catholics seem to believe, to be crude, that we were made with "tab-A" and "slot-B" in the Grand Design Of The Universe: because "the purpose of marriage is fertility."  (This is, as I understand it, a variation on the reason why the Church opposes birth-control; birth-control interferes with the supposed "natural order" of Creation's procreation and fertility, and is therefore an unnatural and un-doctrinal selection.)

If you accept this premise, then I admit that the rest of the argument is easy. By definition, gay couples aren't fertile, of and by themselves. And since fertility is the professed root of marriage, gay marriage is therefore logically and doctrinally impossible. It's like the square root of (-1): null, empty, nothingness. A ridiculous concept.

Using their logic, I can see how this would make sense.

However, I can't let this pass without pointing out the gaping hole in this argument in practice. The Church Universal insists that marriage is about "potential fertility;" yet it still allows, endorses, and encourages marriage of people who are patently infertile (or at the very least, desiring to remain childless).

There are men and women who do not want to be parents; men and women past child-bearing years; men and women who are medically infertile - and despite all the emphasis on marriage being founded in fertility, loads of these folks are married in the Catholic Church every single day.

So there's something wrong here. Either fertility is the Church's key rule and guide for marriage, or it's not. As Mark 5:37 says, "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Anything less is hypocrisy - something else of which Jesus didn't think much. As a twist on the old saw goes, if the sauce is good for the goose, it should be good for the gander as well. (Or two ganders, for that matter.)

Now, to be fair: it may well be that the Church may actually give more scrutiny to the union of infertile couples than it might to those who are eager and able to expand the flock. I have no experience or testimony on this topic. That scrutiny, or the lack thereof, is only between the Church and those who choose to be part of that community; I actually have no argument with them on what they choose to do amongst themselves.

However, I do have a problem when the weight of the Catholic pulpit and the resources of every Catholic organization are brought in force into the political landscape to affect those outside their community. The well-documented push by Catholic agencies, priests and their hierarchy against California's Proposition 8 clearly demonstrates that the Church desires to influence and direct much more than just Her own flock. And many gay men and women find this to be unacceptable, Father Radcliffe.

Here's where I land in this great debate. In the tradition of Martin Luther, if I had a hammer, I would nail this treatise to the door of my local Catholic Church, and every church I happened to pass by.

Dear Catholic Church and followers universal:

Keep your religious marriage.

I want no part of it. I, a gay man, do not wish to sully the perceived holiness of your practice with our base and unacceptable involvement. As such, I desire neither your criticism nor your evaluation of the loving bond between my life-partner and myself.

The treatment of "marriage" as a sacrament of the Catholic Church seems to imply that when Her priests say certain words, hold their hands above a couple in just a certain manner, and lead a congregation in certain prayers and scriptural readings, these actions somehow change the relationship between those two persons and their God. The relationship is perceived as sanctified in some special way as a result of these actions and ceremonies.

However, in my belief and practice (as my former seminary worship professor Mark Bangert was fond of saying), "There is no 'zapping' involved" - which is to say that I perceive no fundamental change in the relationship itself as a result of the ritual and practice. I do not perceive any magic that occurs in the marriage ceremony that poofs those-being-married into a heightened state of holiness (no pun intended).

What occurs in religious marriage, I believe, is the acknowledgement and celebration of the relationship in the presence of a loving, caring and accepting God, and the acceptance of that relationship as a committed entity by both the community of faith and the greater community. (I am not saying that my belief should be anyone elses religious doctrine or dogma. This is mine alone.)

Because of this (and many other) differences in belief, I fled the confines of the Roman Catholic community decades ago. In our congregation of the Disciples of Christ, I already have a faith community which would happily perform a ceremony which would affirm and celebrate the loving, caring, committed, monogamous relationship my partner and I enjoy. So we do not need your "marriage," and I am more than happy to leave "marriage" as a religious sacrament to the confines of religious folks.

(Those gay and lesbian folk who are within your religious communities, sadly, have their own much more difficult choices to make.)

Neither Chris nor I could possibly care less about "gay weddings." We have no desire for elaborate ceremonies, ecstasies of floral arrangements, preponderance of tuxedos or taffeta or elegantly-plated canapes or thousand-dollar salmon plates with bits of gold-leaf adorning them. For those who try to justify "gay marriage" based on the economic benefit of the orgy of consumerism that such ceremonies would provide, my thoughts devolve to something just above Gag me with a spoon.  The last things this world needs are programs like Gay Groomzillas or Gay Wedding Disasters airing five nights a week on The Lifetime Network. Spare me. Spare us all, please.

So keep your marriage. I want nothing to do with it.

Here's what I do want, however.

I want a family.

I do not desire to be seen by God-as-I-misunderstand-God, my church, my friends, and my legal/cultural community as just two anchor-less individuals who happen to share the same address, let alone the same bed. I want the relationship I have with my partner to be perceived as a union of individuals of the same sex, which is treated by the law and the community identically to those headed by individuals of opposite sexes.

And here's why.
Because no matter what you, or The Church, or The Law, or The Supposedly-Decent Folk Of This Supposedly God-Loving Community about us may think or say.... Chris is my family. He is heart of my heart, and spirit of my spirit. Period. Paragraph.
Your book of Ruth, chapter one, describes our relationship, Father Radcliffe: But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me." (Ruth 1:16-17, NIV)
(As an aside...please don't try to imply that these words are spoken in The Book of Holy Writ by two "friends" about their "friendship," either. These words were happily quoted during traditional wedding ceremonies for decades, until someone finally noticed the supposedly-disturbing status of their matching genders. We all know what was being written about, here...)

When I have a life-threatening illness, I want my partner to be able to make life decisions for me - not waiting helplessly until a decision arrives from one of my supposedly "real family" members in Ohio. I want him in the emergency-room or critical-care-unit with me, just like Ted's wife would be if he were hospitalized. I do not want him sitting in the waiting room while I suffer alone, because in the eyes of the law and the health-care industry he does not qualify as family.

When Chris and I go to a lawyer to draw up wills, I do not want to have to go through all kinds of extra effort to ensure that we can actually be executors of each others' estate. I do not want to have arguments between my sisters and Chris, or between Chris' parents and blood family and I, over who really deserves to make those kinds of decisions. I don't want to have to jump through hoops to ensure or prove that we are each others' family-by-choice, and not some kind of second-class pseudo-relationship.

I want Chris to be able to be covered by my employers' group health and life insurance. I want him to be able to benefit from our status as committed partners in the same way that traditional married folk do - with tax benefits, survivor benefits, estate law. The 70-year-old man who marries the 72-year-old woman both get these things automatically, despite the fact that it is a very rare Abraham and Sarah who give birth to an Isaac at those ages.

Chris and I do not desire children; neither one of us have ever had that "tug" or desire. But for those of our friends who do desire children, we would like them to be perceived as a family looking to adopt those children, and giving those children the right to be part of a complete and legitimate family unit. And we would like the force of law to support this - not just in the few situations where one might find a quiet corner with one or two quietly-supportive judges to make this possible on a case-by-case basis.

Sadly, Chris and I moved from Illinois to Missouri in April of 2011 - three months before Illinois enacted civil partnerships that would guarantee these civil rights to us. Now that we are residents of Missouri, Chris and I (as committed, faithful and believing followers of Christ) look forward to the day of His return - for it seems that only then (about four hours after Jesus comes back) that any kind of civil partnership will ever have any chance of being enacted in our fair state.

Keep your "religious sacrament of marriage," O most powerful and pervasive Church. Your ritual and ceremonies cannot add a jot or a tittle to our relationship - for it has already been blessed in public and private by God, our family and friends. What I seek is civil rights and equal treatment under the law, which is separate and worlds apart from the religious sacrament of marriage. (The whole topic of "civil union versus civil marriage" and the separate-but-equal legal issues involved will have to be another topic entirely.)

Please, please, please, O brothers and sisters in Christ: just step aside, and let us be a family. For in the end, that's what we really want. It's really what we already are. We'd just like the courts, the lawyers, the hospitals, the doctors, and the banks to know it too, and act upon it accordingly.

As another former Catholic supposedly said, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Your brother in Christ,
Steve Flower

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 silent...and remember

A week from Friday is Veteran's Day in the US, and Remembrance Day for my friends in Canada and Australia.  It's also an "epic date," because it includes the time/date 11:11, 11-11-11. Lots of people are posting about what to do on the epic date. But for me, this day finds me making a confession, and hopefully making amends. I first posted this on my earlier blog five years ago for Veterans Day 2006 - but it's still appropriate...

I am a child of the 70's.  My father was a very Republican, "my country right or wrong" guy in the middle of the Vietnam War and Watergate. I was a stubborn, opinionated, "what the hell did Nixon think he could get away with?" high-school student who would have gladly wrapped himself in the Constitution the way some folks did with the flag. I had no use for the war, the "military industrial complex" or most of the US Government at the time.  And for one summer, I protested the war, the military, and almost every damn thing I could. If there was something to be against, I was against it.

My confession was that I was stupid enough to lump the servicemen and women of the armed forces in with their leadership, in my head and in my heart. I generally despised what I believed was the mindless mentality of the armed forces, and their involvement in what I believed was a stupid war.

That was wrong. Period.

Now my other confession is this: I don't think any more of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan than I did of Vietnam. But my amends is that I'm not about to debate that, today. Because Veteran's Day, and Remembrance Day, is not about national policy, or politics, or posturing or photo ops or sound bites.

It's about the men and the women of the armed forces. Committed, brave, talented men and women who believe enough in what they are doing to live, and breathe, and fight...and suffer, and the service of their country.

It is to remember the sacrifice of soldiers who served, and fought, and lost limbs, and died in the service of their country.  And to remember, support and encourage all the families and friends, who struggle with their loved ones' woundings or who mourn their deaths. That's who we remember, and that's who we honor, on this day.

It is a tradition in Canada and Australia to remember veterans who have served with two minutes of silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (originally, when the World War I armistice was signed). I like that idea a lot. I think it's a tradition that is overdue in the US as well. And that brings me to Terry Kelly and "A Pittance of Time."

A year ago, I heard Kelly's story: 
On November 11, 1999 Terry Kelly was in a Shoppers Drug Mart store in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. At 10:55 AM an announcement came over the store's PA asking customers who would still be on the premises at 11:00 AM to give two minutes of silence in respect to the veterans who have sacrificed so much for us.

Terry was impressed with the store's leadership role in adopting the Canadian Legion's "two minutes of silence" initiative. He felt that the store's contribution of educating the public to the importance of remembering was commendable.

When eleven o'clock arrived on that day, an announcement was again made asking for the "two minutes of silence" to commence. All customers, with the exception of a man who was accompanied by his young child, showed their respect.

Terry's anger towards the father for trying to engage the store's clerk in conversation and for setting a bad example for his child was channeled into a beautiful piece of work called, "A Pittance of Time." Terry later recorded "A Pittance of Time" and included it on his full-length music CD, "The Power of the Dream."
I'd urge you to take a couple minutes to go to Terry's video at the end of this post. I don't mind admitting that I've seen this video a dozen times - and it still brings tears to my eyes.

And on this Veterans Day, I leave you with the words of Abraham Lincoln, whom I hope spoke for us all....
... that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The video is here....

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Really, folks? "A choice".....

My partner's uncle Ken is a reasonable, pleasant man. (At least, from what I have seen. I will have to defer to his lovely wife Joy for confirmation...)

I have had the chance to visit in his home, and chat with him and Joy over lunches at Mexican Villa, a local Springfield diner. Ken is a retired professor and accountant, a fiscal conservative, and yet also a seemingly compassionate man. His blog, The Brown Perspective is a mixture of family history and reflections on curret events and philosophy.

In today's post, Ken talks about choices, and how choice can be defined differently by where one is in the process. He points out how a situation can look like "a choice" or "an unchosen circumstance," depending on whether one is actually in the situation, or merely judging it from the outside.

His first example - the "choice" to be homosexual - is one that is rather popular down here in the Ozark buckle of the Bible Belt. Strangely, however, the only folks who appear to believe that homosexuality is a choice are the ones who stand most to benefit by homosexuality being a choice - Christian fundamentalists.

Let's face it: what person, no matter their level of sanity, would choose homosexuality - especially in this particular neighborhood? Hmmm...let's see...
  • A vast marjority of those who are in any position of power or prestige almost unanimously profess to reject gays - mostly because it's a cheap and easy way to recruit the votes of "righteous folk.".
  • Gays are put down, bullied and abused from their youngest memories well into adulthood.
  • Gays are assured by the vast majority of Christian leadership that their lives and loves are "abomination" and that their only choices are repentance/celibacy/lonely death, or eternal damnation. 
  • Gays receive almost no benefit from joint taxes, joint-property ownership or survivorship, because these are the benefit of marriage, and these benefits are reserved (evidently) to those who are going to support a Godly, child-producing lifestyle. (Never mind that a significant portion of straight couples who do marry (a) do not believe in God or attend church and/or  (b) have no intention whatsoever of having children.)
  • If a gay person ends up in the hospital intensive-care-unit, his gay partner is not allowed to be with him in ICU - because that privilege is reserved for family, and two men (or two women) could never, ever, be a family.   They would much rather the gay person die alone than have that kind of crap going on in a decent hospital.
  • No matter how often it is proved otherwise, the supposed mainstream of America sees gays and lesbians as drug-addled, disease-infested, irresponsible sex-fiends who all want to seduce decent "normal" children into their evil lifestyle.
Oh yeah. Let me choose that. Sign me right up. "Everyone hates us, nobody likes us. Come live in our rainbow world, with Cher, Madonna and Lady Gaga!"  /sigh/  Some choice....

Here's the heart of the issue, however.  If homosexuality is labeled as both "deviant" and a "choice," then all those who don't choose homosexuality have, by definition, chosen rightly. And who doesn't want to be right, right?

This whole process simply becomes another way of creating a "them" for "us" to be against. Who wouldn't want to be "with us," rather than "with 'them'"? Once a group has created a "them," it then becomes even easier to:
  • Exclude "them" from the company of "decent folk"
  • Punish "them" by withholding basic rights from "them"
  • Raise money for any kind of organization which is working to beat back the awful tide of "them"
  • Reduce anyone who supports "them" to simply be "consorting with the enemy."
Now, it's not all gloom and doom.  The perception of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) persons is changing - slowly. The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military ban on homosexuals is proof of this. There are lots of polls which show acceptance of GLBT persons is on the rise. Perceptions are changing - largely because more GLBT people are open about who they are and how they live. (Simply put, it's harder to hate the folks you know.)

However, just days ago, a US soldier made the foolish mistake of (a) posting a question to the GOP candidate debate about whether the candidates would reverse the DADT repeal via a YouTube clip, and (b) in the clip, admitting to being a gay man who has hid his sexuality for years in the military.

To no one's surprise, all of the Republican candidates would roll DADT back onto the books the minute they took office.

But the hideously embarassing thing was this: when they realized this fellow was gay,  the GOP audience members booed an active-duty US soldier, serving overseas in Iraq. (You can read the article, and listen to the video, over here.)

Just for the record: I don't care how holy and mighty you think your God is. I don't care how big the American flag is that you have painted on your house or your bumper or wherever.  I don't care if you own a gun or a business or pay taxes or not. But if you are ever in MY presence, and boo or jeer at one of the men and women who voluntarily serve the US Armed Forces, laying down their lives and their sacred honor for this country, no matter WHO they sleep with... well, you have cut down more hay than you can put up in a month of Sundays.
The phrase "open up a can 'o' whoop-ass" comes to mind.

Also, for the record:  I never chose being gay. Never, ever - not even once.  In fact, I fought it with every ounce of my being. I gave my life to God, to the church, to service of my fellow human beings, prayed, fasted, begged to be "straightened out." After four decades of that, I could only conclude that (a) I was created this way, (b) I was not a Divine "manufacturing defect," and (c) that my job was to be the best human being I could be - exactly as I was made. My partner and I are about as middle-class as anyone could be - church-going, God-loving, respectable residents and citizens.

All we want (really - all we want) is to be treated the same way the rest of you residents and citizens are.

Lastly, and again for the record:  I'm grateful for folks like Ken and his lovely wife Joy, who give us hope that we might one day actually get that wish.

Friday, July 1, 2011

NY Times: "My Ex-Gay Friend" - a response

A number of friends, both straight and gay, have posted or commented on this June 16, 2011 NY Times article titled My Ex-Gay Friend. In it, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a gay man, goes to visit former friend Michael Glatze (pictured) who had once been an active, supposedly-happy gay man, yet a man who has since professed himself to be straight and "ex-gay."

My first reaction was to be profoundly sad; I wanted to see the article as yet another tragic success of the movement to make "gay" out to be (a) a choice and (b) something evil, to be denied. I was all set to say, "Oh, well - that's him, and that's life." But the more I have talked about it, the more thoughts have been rolling around in my head - and a gentle nudge from one of my brothers from seminary pushed this to the top of the list.

Unlike a lot of people, I am not able to dictate what someone should or should not feel - so I'm not going to do that about this. I can only share my experience, strength and hope, and trust that God can do something good with it. For my straight Christian friends, my own answer to Mr. Glatze's question of "why are you doing this?" is simple: my experience is vastly different from that of Michael Glatze, and I think it's important to realize that his experience is not the only one worthy of sharing.

Michael Glatze wrote in his own article, "Homosexuality came easy to me, because I was already weak" - a line which absolutely infuriated me. As anyone who has been "different" knows, the display of weakness when one is different is to try to conform, to fit in, to do absolutely anything to be "a part of," instead of "apart from."

Unlike like Mr. Glatze, I was neither handsome nor sure of my sexuality as a high-school or college student. I was afraid of my sexuality, and fearful of being discovered as different. In the intervening years, I have found that it takes a great deal of personal strength to show up as "one of them," and for decades-on-end I simply couldn't do it. Instead, I tried to fit in - even though I didn't do so hot at it.  I failed at team sports; I failed at my fling at the military as a Civil Air Patrol cadet; I failed in almost every other category of "manly-men" endeavor. But no matter what, the one thing I would not and could not admit was that I was, in fact, "one of them" - a fairy, a queer, a poof, a sissy-boy. You know the names.

So I deny that one surrenders to being homosexual because one is weak.  It was comparatively easy to be "a weak man," as opposed to being "queer." But even when I came out (at forty-eight) it still took a lot of courage, and being surrounded by accepting family and friends, to take those first few steps out of the closet.

Take a look at the author's description of Mr. Glatze's "conversion moment:"
Michael didn’t begin to question his life path, he told me, until a health scare in 2004 that led to what he calls his “spiritual awakening.” That year, when Michael was 29, he experienced a series of heart palpitations and became convinced that he suffered from the same congenital heart defect that killed his father when Michael was 13. (Michael lost both his parents young; his mother died of breast cancer when he was 19.) After tests eventually ruled out his father’s illness, Michael felt that he had escaped death and found himself staring “into the face of God.”...Michael said that he became “born again” in that moment and that “every concept that my mind had ever entertained — my whole existence — was completely re-evaluated.”
I found this fascinating, because it seems to show the success of typical inculcated homophobic teaching - "you gotta get right with God, and that means this queer stuff has to go."  In direct contrast, it was precisely because of my own life crises (physical and spiritual) that I was pushed toward accepting myself as gay - or more honestly, ceasing to deny my own true self as gay.

My life - and my six-year marriage - ended in late 1990 as a result of my alcoholism.  As a result of rebuilding my life, I had to re-evaluate everything about my life, and make some definite positive changes. During that process, one of the men who walked through that abyss with me (a straight man named Bruce) made a point of saying (way back, back in 1992) that at some point I would have to address my homosexuality (something which I'd heretofore thought I had done a good job of hiding). As a clear-seeing straight man, he nevertheless saw in me what I was absolutely unwilling to see in myself.
Forgive a bit of a detour, here...

Facing my sexuality at that stage of my life would have been absolutely impossible - because I had found comfort and community within the structure of the Lutheran Church (the ELCA, for those who know how to slice-and-dice Lutheranism). The people in that church knew I had been a drunk; they knew I'd been a ne'er-do-well (if they didn't know all the details); and they knew I still was a loud and often vulgar critter. But somehow, they accepted me, and included me as "one of the family." I valued that inclusion, and would do anything to protect it.

I also knew - from the small-groups in which I participated at that church - that this "homosexuality thing" was just not something that was gonna fly with this group. In ways that were even unseen and unheard, I knew that homosexual was way beyond the pale - that while they professed that "sin is sin, no matter what," it was clear that homosexuality was SIN, some sort of super-sin that was way out there. 

So I hid it away. A friend of mine from that church kept fixing me up with ladies from the congregation - because "what you really need is a good relationship." (Fortunately, the ladies involved all seemed to endure the fix-ups. Several of them became great companions, and remain good friends to this day.)  I went to prayer vigils and Promise Keepers conferences; sang in choir and led Sunday-school classes and served on church council,  and died a little on the inside each time the H-word was brought up.  I was afraid of what I was, and I was unwilling to risk the friendship (and, to be honest, the approval) of these people by being open and honest about this one little corner of my life. So being "out and proud" was simply not an option.

But back to Mr. Glatze - I'd had those close-encounters with death, well before I had even thought about coming out.  I'd nearly died before I got sober; I'd had even hit some serious physical trouble at one of the Promise Keepers conferences; and had been hospitalized later for chest pains. I knew what it was to be faced with "the end of the road" - and it was precisely my faith in God that carried me through those times, even as I questioned Him about my sexuality.  My real fear, unlike Mr. Glatze, was that I would die, and none of the people I loved and cared about would ever have really known me. The real me.  The "gay" me.  Near-death encounters didn't scare me straight - they just brought closer the time when I hoped I could face God and ask, "What the hell was all that about, anyway? It would have been so much easier if You'd have just let me be honest...."

Here's another vast difference between Mr. Glatze and my own experience: he was a handsome young lad. (Still seems to be, according to his picture.)

I, on the other hand, have always been pear-shaped.  I have never had an athletic bone in my body, and I have always been the physical antithesis of the stereotypical gay guy. In 2004, while talking with my friend Tom about "the whole gay thing," I said, "Why should I bother to 'come out'? I'm 48, overweight, graying, thinning-hair, and not particularly well-endowed. It doesn't matter who I want to sex with! Why should I go through all the hassle?  Because the truth is, whether I'm closeted-and-faking-straight or out-and-being-harassed-by-The-Religious-Right, the bottom line is I'm still gonna be going home alone."

As I remember it, both Tom and his partner Michael laughed at that point...and then Tom kindly pointed out that "homosexual" was not "a lifestyle," a "choice" or an issue of "who I was having sex with". It was simply a word describing my orientation - those to whom I was attracted.  If I was attracted to men, I was gay, period - whether I became some elderly club-boy having sex every night or if I remained celibate (which I had already done for 12 long years, at that point).

That's when the lights finally started to come on, for me. Sitting in Tom and Michael's living room in a Hyde Park apartment, I finally started to see the truth that I'd been hiding from. I was six hundred miles from all the deep relationships that had kept me from seeing truth; and the ministry career for which I'd remained celibate for years was officially over. What was keeping me chained in the church closets?

So when I read Mr. Glatze's assertion that “Homosexuality is a cage in which you are trapped in an endless cycle of constantly wanting more - sexually - that you can never actually receive, constantly full of emptiness, trying to justify your twisted actions by politics and ‘feel good’ language,” I wanted to both laugh and cry at the mixture of pathetic messages Mr. Glatze has seemingly bought into.

My counter-assertion would be that sexuality - regardless of orientation - can definitely be a cage in which I can be trapped in an endless cycle of constantly wanting more - sexually - that I can ever actually receive. (It certainly doesn't have to be that way, of course; endless happy marriages and loads of partnered GLBT folks are proof of that.)

My experience is that sex for the sake of having sex is inherently "constantly full of emptiness, trying to justify twisted actions." In my experience and observation, it does so by first invoking the sense of sexual consumerism that constantly tells the listener that "you are able to do this, you need this, you deserve this, you've got to have this. Screw the reasons for not doing it." That nonsense, and a dose of  ‘feel good’ language,” makes it easy to pervert what should be a very special and (for me) spiritual experience into what it so often becomes, these days.  (Counter to Mr. Glatze, I would assert politics has nothing to do with the identification of sexuality or sexual orientation - otherwise, how would one explain Log Cabin Republicans?....)

I have said it time and again - if you want to see where this nation gets its sexual expectations and its standards for relationships, don't bother looking at the gay community!  Switch on MTV!  Or BET! Or maybe Trading Spouses (if you can stomach it), or the infinitely-insanely-titled Real Housewives of (insert insane city here).  Regardless whether it's boys-n-boys or boys-n-girls, the emptiness in so many casual "hookups" sexual relationships can still be infinitely addictive. And let's face it - casual-sex-as-fulfillment is a lie that sells - regardless if it's Sex In The City, Desperate Housewives or Queer As Folk.  If it didn't, trust me - we'd still be watching Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore...

(I hate to think I'm the first to let you know this - but here it is:  "The Gay Days" didn't get us here.)

I have a news flash for Mr. Glatze.  As he wrote, God loves me more than any man will love me, for sure. No disagreement there at all.

But God will also love me more than any woman will ever love me, too. It's exactly the same.  That's the lie so many ex-gays have bought into - that same-sex love, is somehow, a cheaper and hollower imitation of what heterosexual love is, and so one is encouraged to flee back to "the one True Love." That if having wanton sex with dozens of gay partners leaves me feeling empty and unfulfilled, just go back to women, and it will be all better! 

It's all a lie.

Straight or gay, celibate or Hugh-Hefner-act-alike, anything that I put in front of a relationship with God will seem empty, broken and ultimately useless. That includes sex, alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, working - you name it. It becomes like eating those orange-marshmallow "circus peanuts" - empty and ultimately unsatisfying. But that truth applies to man/woman as much as it does to any other permutation. Just going hetero won't cut it.

And here's the rest of that news flash:  sexuality, as delivered to young minds by most of the media and the Internet, is definitely pornographic - regardless whether it's hetero or homo. Sex sells, regardless of the polarity - and so we get to see a lot of it. Even if you found the ultimate homo-fix-it pill, the porn would remain. It would just switch to whatever the customers wanted.

There's lots more that I would like to address - but there is one sentence in this article that scared me the most Mr. Glatze is quoted as saying, “I don’t think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right.”

This is what sells ex-gay treatment: just do this, and you'll be normal. NORMAL. Your parents won't hate you, your church won't hate you, you'll be just like the rest of us - and the Westboro Baptist people will hate you, no matter what you do. Come with us....don't be afraid...

The problem is three-fold. First, in this statement the definition of "normal" seems to become "homogeneous," like milk - every glass like the one before.  Unfortunately, unless one is a fan of The Stepford Wives, I believe that this idea of "normal" would quickly become a horrific place to live. I am a fan of Star Trek, especially the Vulcan IDIC concept - "infinite diversity in infinite combination." I'm also a fan of the old "Stone Soup" story - where "every little bit makes the big pot better, every little big makes the big bowl good! So bring what you've got, and put it in the pot." When "normal" becomes "where everyone is just like us," I believe we get closer to the road most extremists start down....

The second part is that (again, in my experience) ex-gay or reparative-therapy groups seem to believe that "ignoring residual same-gender attraction, or SGA" is the same as "a cure." For the vast percentage of people who participate in these programs, no one can "pray away the gay." (And yes, that's a whole 'nuther topic....)

The third part, of course, is that contemporary Christendom seems to have a vested interest in keeping "gay" and "normal" in two separate worlds. The concept of  a normal gay Christian is unthinkable to an awful lot of folks, evangelicals and mainstream Christians alike. Homosexuality has become not only the litmus test, but the ultimate definition of "them" and "us" in much of the Christian community. Listen to these sadly-familiar assertions:
  • Gays are destroying marriage! (No...sorry...I'm pretty sure that straight people, including straight Christians, and their 50% divorce rate did that, first); 
  • Gays are corrupting morals! (Really?....from Britney Spears to Bristol Palin, I think that's already what is known as "a done deal"); 
  • Gays are the enemy! (Because it's nice to have a ready-made "them" for "us" to fight against).
My experience - and my message to Mr. Glatze, and to so many others, is this: for many of us, gay is normal. It's different from heterosexual, to be sure - but it's also pretty damn normal. About as abnormal as chocolate is from vanilla....

I now live in one of the "buckles of the Bible Belt" - the worldwide headquarters of both the Evangel Temple and the Assemblies of God are here in Springfield, MO. In their public proclamations, both of these groups seem to have no use for gay folk like me. But I think our neighbors would be quite astonished to find how terribly un-stereotypically-gay our lives are. Take a look with me...

We live in a clean but very un-trendy duplex - no naked sculpture, no glassed-in bathrooms, no granite counter-tops and no rainbow flags flying here, other than the rainbow fridge-magnet (right next to the Serenity Prayer fridge-magnet). The garage holds two well-kept but boring vehicles (a '98 Camry and a '96 Dakota pickup), a trio of bicycles (a mountain-bike and a hybrid-bike for Chris, a neighborhood-cruiser for me), and Chris' Kawasaki dirt-bike. (Admittedly, the garage is a bit too orderly for a typical man-cave; Chris is a neat freak.)  The back deck has only two planters, one with flowers grown from seeds and one with my cooking herbs. Two cats, two bird-feeders. No floral wall-paper, no tassels or frou-frou decorations. Pretty simple, pretty basic.

We go to church. We attend the National Avenue Christian Church, the only church listed as "welcoming and affirming" in the area. And no, in case you're wondering - it's not one of those "watered-down no-such-thing-as-sin and we don't wanna hear none o' that Jesus crap" churches. It is a welcome balance between my Lutheran tradition and the small house-churches in which Chris participated. Along with being welcoming-and-inclusive for a decade or more, they also take the Matthew 25 sheep-and-goats thing seriously - more seriously than a lot of churches I know (they vote with their pocketbooks, not just their mouths). We take communion weekly; we contribute; we will be members soon.

No clubs, no drugs (other than my collection for diabetes and hypertension). Chris bikes a lot, and I am active in the communities of recovery. We watch SyFy and SpeedTV and FuelTV (you know, the really gay cable channels). Our musical tastes run to 80's (Chris) and jazz (both of us); club music not allowed. Unless you carefully paged through our iTunes library, you would miss the collection of musicals and Barbra Streisand.

(I should confess here:  a year or more before I overtly came out, my seminary roommate Tim Maness once commented that I was the only straight man he'd ever known that owned three Barbra Streisand CDs. I don't know whether he meant "straight man" to be in quotes, or not....)

Unless you peeked into iTunes, you'd also have missed the collection of contemporary Christian music: everything from Acapella to Michael Card to Michael W. Smith to Steven Curtis Chapman to Big Daddy Weave and Chris Tomlin, and dozens in between. Music that still matters deeply, to both of us.

But all of that is external baloney, in the end. The bottom line is this: we love each other. Not just sex, Mr. Glatze; not just tab-A-and-slot-B hookups, but love, agape and filios and eros. When Chris went for a bike ride 18 months ago and still wasn't home well after dark, I was the frantic loved-one calling the police, searching wildly, and bursting into tears with relief when he returned safely. Like Mr. Glatze, we both own Bibles, and we read them. Unlike him, however, that passage from the book of Ruth, which used to be so popular at Christian weddings, is still true for us:
Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-1, NIV)
Would we want to be married? Fact is, we already are, in so many ways. Our families and friends accept us, by and large (the exceptions are pretty few).  Our communities and our church welcome us as a couple. And we both believe that God brought us together, and we're not going to mess with that. What more would we want, other than a good party?  Would we want the ceremony? Only if it brought us the rights we are now denied:  recognition as "family" in the eyes of the law,  survivorship, and tax benefits. (But no, we're not moving to New York, or back to Illinois, or any further north than we are right now, no matter what. Not even for that.)

I sure wish Michael Glatze and his ilk would tell me what's so wrong with all that.

(There's more where that came from, but that's way more than enough for now.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theology matters. (Or not.)

Get a cup of coffee - you're going to need it....

First of all, by introduction: my partner Chris and I absolutely love National Avenue Christian Church. As soon as we walked in, we were swept-up in a wave of acceptance and welcome that mirrored our previous church home, McKinley Presbyterian in Champaign. There will be lots more to say about this place, but that's another post.

While pastor Laura Fregin was on vacation, a pair of "dueling sermons" were scheduled. One was titled "Why Theology Matters" by Rev. Peter Browning, professor at nearby Drury University; and the converse, "Why Theology Doesn't Matter," by pastoral resident Matthew Gallion. Both of them defended their positions well - and clearly got me thinking.  I kept wishing I could drag them each down to Panera Bread, buy them a cup of coffee, and talk about where I agreed and disagreed.

This church has a powerhouse preacher in Pastor Fregin, and two great backups in Peter and Matthew - so even if the Disciples of Christ allowed lay preaching, I'd never get the chance to get a word in edgewise with all that talent.  So consider this a sermon-response that will never get preached, from an overly long-playing layman....

First, I am reminded of my first ministry professor, Tex Sample, defining theology as coming from theos  ("god") and -logos  ("treating of" or "thinking about").  So any time that any of us are thinking or talking about God, we are (by definition) practicing theology.  (Even the atheists among us are theologians - wrap your brain around that one!)  Theology, therefore, is the practice not of elderly white men of religious training, but of all of us. 

But what about the next question - yeah, but does it matter, in the end?

I would say that theology does matter - in the same way that a scalpel matters. In the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel can cut out damage and disease, promoting healing and restoration. In the hands of a psychotic, the same scalpel can simply slash, maim and kill. (As my favorite sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, "It's a poor blaster that won't point both ways...")

I found great salvation and acceptance in much of Christian theology, and that saving grace kept me from taking my own life, once upon a time. But having heard the theology of "abomination" for thirty years, I know what it is to be clubbed over the head with others' understanding of God as "the one true way."  As we've seen in a number of teen suicides this last year or so, certain theologies can have the power to kill and destroy.

Here's an example of bad theology that is oft-repeated around the community of recovery: If you want to make God smile, show Him your plans.   

(And please, please, please: don't beat me up about He/Him/She/Her/It/Them...I'm just repeating what's been said, not defending the lack of gender-inclusion. Another topic, to be sure...)

This phrase is often used when someone's plans or hopes are derailed or denied, and the implicit message is often You had plans, but God has a better plan for you, and it evidently doesn't include that specific hope or expectation of yours.  It usually brings a wan smile and a "well, I guess that's just the way it goes, sometimes" shrug. It's also supposed to suggest that God has a sense of humor, which is often left out of many mainstream theologies...

 But listen to the underlying message of that cute little phrase:
God has given you free will, and the ability to make plans and have expectations. But God evidently also finds some measure of delight in setting aside the worldwide challenges of floods, wars, famine and  hunger just so He can step down off His almighty throne,  stick His finger in your particular little mess and stir it up some.
Is that really the way you want to understand the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the universe?

Me neither.

(This reminds me of another truism that I often hear in recovery communities - this one has some more teeth to it, however. 'Religion' is sitting in a church on Sunday morning, thinking about fishing. 'Spirituality' is sitting in a boat on a lake, fishing-rod in hand, thinking about God. Yes, another topic....)

Yet another example: the Hellish suggestion that the destruction of New Orleans in hurricane Katrina was a judgment and punishment by God against the city for its wantonness and sinfulness. That sounds especially good to "righteous folk" and conservative preachers, often followers of Jonathan Edwards (who wrote "Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God" in 1741). Here's the basics of this little "opportunity for growth:"
God loves "good." God hates "evil." Throughout history, God has sent punishment to people, cities and nations that are "evil." God is all-powerful. He commands the earth, sea and sky to obey Him. So if a city like New Orleans is a hot-spot for sin, evil and corruption, God certainly could cause something awful to happen to that city to punish them for their evil. (Yes, it's simplistic - but there are people who have written entire books on this. Cut me some slack, OK?)
There are lots of problems with this.  The most glaring problem for me is this: my understanding is that the part of New Orleans which was most devastated (the Lower Ninth Ward) was also well-populated with conservative black Christian churches, while one of the areas least devastated was actually the area considered Ground Zero for New Orleans' sinfulness - The French Quarter.  If you are going to accept that Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans, then it seems you also have to accept that God's targeting computer for the smiting process needs some adjustment on the cross-hairs.

(And no, I don't accept that understanding of God, either.)

So yes - I would be right there with Rev. Browning that theology, indeed, does matter. What and how we think about God does matter, quite a bit. It defines how we see not only God, but all that goes on in God's creation.

Or does it?...

I had one of those "defining moments" when I listened to two people arguing several years ago. The first person was telling how he was going to do A, B, and C; how he believed in E, F, and G; and how other people should act thus-and-so, and not like the hateful people they seemed to be.

The second person looked across the table at the first and said, "You know what? I don't give a damn what you believe - I only care about what you do.  I don't care at all what you say you are going to do - I only care about what you have done. And so far, your actions and inaction are speaking so damn loud that I cannot hear a single word you are saying." The second person then got up from the table and left. (He apparently thought the discussion was over.)

Chuck Chamberlain, in his book A New Pair of Glasses, wrote something similar:
This certain doctor called me at midnight and he asked, "What's the definition of love?" I said, "It's the same as it is at 10 o'clock in the morning. What the hell're you calling me at midnight and asking me what the definition of love is?"  But he asked again, "What's the definition of love?" I said, "You won't like it." He said, "What is it?" I said, "Action."  To talk about love is like talking about humility; you can't. Action. If you love somebody or someone, you do something for them. You just do it, and you don't make a big deal out of it. You don't make a big deal out of it.
(Chuck Chamberlain, A New Pair Of Glasses, page 131)

I "get" both of these ideas, by the way. No four-year degree or multi-volume treatise from a dead white doctorate-of-religion-or-philosophy required.

Some would say this is action speaking louder than theology.  That's exactly how I have experienced what National Avenue Christian Church does, by the way. They don't tell outsiders that as Christians, they "love their neighbors" - because they don't have to. As a fairly healthy congregation filled with traditional families, they also welcome and accept gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people - period. They don't say "feed the hungry" or "care for the poor" - they do it - through very public and substantial commitments to communities in Haiti and Mexico. The list could go on and on...

On the other hand, some might also say this is, in fact, the epitome of theology - a "show-me" theology that is Matthew 25's do-this-for-the-least-of-these rolled up with John 10's "I have come that they might have life in abundance" and John 13's new love-one-another commandment and Acts 10, with a couple loud choruses of "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" thrown in for good measure.

I won't argue whether it's theology or not. But I like it, a lot.

I can tell you this: I am done arguing whether gays and lesbians are or are not "our neighbors." I am done with listening to people argue Rapture versus non-Rapture, let alone pre-Tribulation versus post-Tribulation rapture. I am done with trying to find a way of describing the relationship of Trinity that doesn't fall into one of the many early Christian heresies (almost all of which I've heard as sermon examples before).

I am done arguing consubstantiation versus transubstantiation while people who love God are denied Communion. And I'm especially done with arguing whether "faith" or "works" are supreme - which puts me at odds with an amazingly huge portion of Christendom who love to argue about this stuff. These kinds of theologies always end up with a group who is "in" and another, much larger group who is "out," and almost always brings pain, hurt and loss-of-faith.

I have found a faith that works - loving works of the people of God,  for the children of God, regardless whether they have signed a statement of faith or said "the Jesus prayer" or confessed their sins or any other man-made limitation on God's grace.  Let this sinner, saved by grace, walk with the-least-of-these on a journey to the Kingdom of God - one that is and always will be a work-in-progress.

/*end sermon-turned-epistle*/