Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Stop...be 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 die...in 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*/

Saturday, June 18, 2011

First things first...

This feels like starting over.

In truth, it's more like a new chapter in an old story....

I started blogging in 2004, after my quest to become an ordained Lutheran minister imploded (for financial reasons, not for any question of orientation). At the time, I had plenty of reasons for being anonymous - and so I actually ended up with two anonymous blogs.

One dealt largely with the recovery of faith and the maintenance of sobriety in a post-seminary, post-church life; the other dealt with the increasing awareness that since the Church Universal didn't want much to do with me, there was no longer any reason to hide my sexual orientation in church closets. (I'm hardly objective in my judgment here, but I truly think there were a number of good pieces scattered among the flotsam and jetsam; some of it may get cross-posted here.)

It is now seven years later. I am a vastly different person than I was, in many ways. I care about some things much, much more than I ever did; and some things I used to think were absolutely central to life and faith now are, well, not so much so.

Back in the wild and crazy 1960's, there were advertisements for a brand of cigarette in the US called Tareytons. The ads featured characters with a blackened eye, supposedly from being hit in the eye by a fist, and their slogan was "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch."  The images smacked of loyalty and die-hard resistance to change. The "Unswitchables" and "I'd rather fight than switch" became advertising icons of the period.

It seems that, late in life, I've become the Anti-Tareyton Man - because in many things, I'd much rather switch than fight, these days. For instance: if your church believes that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," as much of the United Methodist Church does, good for you. I'm not going to fight you, or join your church with the intention to change it from the inside, or any of that variety of nonsense. The phrase "leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them" comes to mind. I read that piece of Good News somewhere and it sounded like sensible thinking at the time. (It still does.)

The same goes for those who believe the words "journalism at Fox News" is a valid concept (and not simply an oxymoron). Ditto those who still believe in "trickle-down economics," or those who believe that Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh really are telling the truth. If you're there, I am almost certain that there is nothing I'm gonna say that's gonna change your mind. (You can tune me out and go someplace that won't annoy you now.)

I am also a product of the 60's, where speaking-up and speaking-out was enshrined as a virtue and a commandment by people like Pete Seeger, Peter Paul & Mary, and a whole lot of protest literature and music. And my experience is that if I try to internalize all of the evil I see and just ignore it, I find myself tied in knots with lots of unpleasant thoughts whirling in my head. That's never a good thing.

So this will be an experiment - writings about life, faith, and sometimes even politics (eeek!). I cannot predict what will come out of this, but I find it particularly appropriate to end this first post with the same prayer that each of my previous blogs began with:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.   
(Lutheran Book of Worship, page 137)

Amen, indeed.