Feb 282012

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about hell. I suppose that’s an odd way to start a blog post, but there it is. I don’t know when I was first introduced to the idea of hell, but I can remember from a very early age being aware of the fiery pit I’d be thrown into if I was bad. Funny, as I write that now it occurs to me how similar my childhood image of God was to Santa Claus: a sort of old white guy in the sky, making a list of who’s naughty and nice. Only, instead of being given either a favorite toy or a bag of coals, I’d get eternity either in the clouds or burning in a fiery pit. After a junior high visit to a Baptist church camp, I think I must have prayed for Jesus to come into my heart about 500 times, afraid that if I didn’t pray the right way or ask for forgiveness for each and every sin, I’d be destined to hell. I could go on about this process for a while, and how my views of heaven and hell (and transcendence, for that matter) have changed over the last few years, but I’m more concerned at the moment with talking about the implications of telling someone they are going to hell.

I had a friend ask me recently if I’d been aware of the conversations going on in the PC(USA) about comments that were made at a recent conference of people who gathered to talk about the inception of a new Reformed body. The problem, the speaker asserted, is not about a lack of clarity or divisions in the church, or ineffectiveness. The problem is that “people are going to hell…I wonder who is ready to be a servant and a partner and a soldier in an army that is advancing against hell?…Will you devote the rest of your life to be part of such a church?” (The Presbyterian Layman, vol 45, No.1/Jan/Feb 2012).

Now, I’m not entirely certain about the full context of this quote; but, from what I can gather as one of the members of the offending denomination from which members of this conference wish to depart; and, considering a big part of their frustration is about the PC(USA)’s changing ordination standards (opening up the way for LGBTQ people – including those just like me – to be ordained), I think it’s safe to assume that I am likely one of those headed to hell. I, and a whole lot of people who, at least to me, seem to be faithful, with a genuine concern for how to maintain unity as a body in the midst of an ever-changing world. So, while I can happily disagree with the gentleman’s implication that I am going to hell, I am deeply troubled by his claim and his language.

On one hand, I am frightened by the militaristic language that calls for a charge against hell, because I wonder about who that army is going to fight against. More troubling, though, is how easy it is to dehumanize a person (or a group of people) who is demoralized in such a way. If I am able to write someone off as immoral, hell-bound, then how am I able to see them as my neighbor, or as part of the body of Christ with me? How can I listen to them, protect them, advocate for their basic human rights? What’s more, if I see them as bound for hell, and I see my job as a soldier in the war against hell, what’s to keep me from doing all I can to make sure they are not able to follow through with their “agenda,” to do all I can to prevent them from equal access to jobs, safety at home and work, to having a family, and being part of a faith community?

After a while, being told that you are going to hell starts to wear on you. Hearing time and again that you are what is wrong with the world starts to wear on you, starts to dig in, bury itself in your gut, in your bones. You carry it with you; if you have kids, you pass it along, they carry it in their bones. You start to recognize that the laws and policies of the world were not written for you, that “equality,” is a relative term. Whether alienated because of race, class, sex, sexuality, gender identity, it seems that for too long the tendency has been to simply cut off the limb found to be most offensive, or to set up barriers that make sure we don’t actually have to interact. If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Gregory of Nyssa states that:
“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. It is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me….The establishment of the Church is re-creation of the world. But it is only in the union of all the particular members that the beauty of Christ’s body is complete.”
This notion of being a body is fundamental to the Christian experience. Being a body, though, is difficult, particularly when the realization of it opens our eyes to the fact that we are no longer able to dehumanize the “other,” or to send them to send them to hell. It’s messy, and it involves opening up to the notion that the Spirit might move in ways we do not expect.

Stranger things have happened.
Feb 272012

So, this blog is in part supposed to be a sort of Lenten practice. As today is Sunday, and a feast day, I like the idea of just sharing a poem. It’s a favorite of mine, by Wendell Berry.

Do not Be Ashamed

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine round about you,

and behind you will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty:

you misread the complex instructions,

you are not a member,

you lost your card or never had one.

And you will know that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

Though you have done nothing shameful,

they will want you to be ashamed.

They will want you to kneel and weep

and say you should have been like them.

And once you say you are ashamed,

reading the page they hold out to you,

then such light as you have made in your history will leave you.

They will no longer need to pursue you.

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach.

Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked,

say to them: “I am not ashamed.”

A sure horizon will come around you.

The heron will begin his evening flight from the hilltop.

Feb 252012

A couple of weeks ago, one of the MSW (Masters of Social Work) interns whom I work with told me about a conversation she’d had with her classmates about me.

“I told them that you were in seminary, and about the work you want to do [with sexual minorities and the church], and they all kind of just looked at me and asked, ‘But….How is that even possible?'”

I don’t know if her classmates are religious and didn’t understand how someone could be queer and in the church, or irreligious with the same question, but I chuckled a bit when she told me the story. There are so many people for whom “religious” and “queer” are mutually exclusive adjectives; and, in today’s climate, sadly, this makes sense. To put it simply, church is not a place where most LGBTQ people feel safe. Even as I write that, I feel the weight of it: for many sexual minorities, church is not a safe place.

I recently read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited for the first time, which was first published in 1949.In the first chapter, Dr. Thurman tells the story of meeting a Hindu principal of the Law College at the University of Colombo in Ceylon. After coffee, the Hindu man stops and asks Mr. Thurman basically to justify how he can be a Christian. He talks of the slave trade, and how many of the slave traders were Christians, quoting Paul, who gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. He talks about the segregation, lynching, and burning of Black men and women. He closes with this challenge to Dr. Thurman:

“I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a trader to all darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” (pp 14-15)

I do not wish to draw too close a parallel between the experiences of marginalization felt by people of color in US history and sexual minorities (primarily because I think drawing too close a parallel loses the nuances of the varied experiences of oprression, but I’ll get to that in a later post), but I have asked myself more than once if, by staying in the church, I am am a traitor to the people who have been abused by the institutions that use their claim on Christian “values” to condemn anyone who does not fit the mold. Why stay? Why be a part of an institution that, by-and-large has made it abundantly clear that I am not welcome? Maybe I’m just stubborn, or oblivious, or incredibly naive (I’m sure I’ve been called all three). I guess I stay because it still seems worth it to me, and I can still maintain a hope in something that transcends all of the junk that people shout “in the name of Jesus.”

During my first year of seminary I took Greek and two semesters of New Testament. Every time I translated a passage I felt as though I’d been given a gift…that’s really the best way I can explain it. Each time I translated a passage and learned about the context of the stories, and the people who wrote them, I found myself amazed by the message of liberation that was woven throughout. And then….well, I thought about what had been done in the name it.

I think I stay because….well, I am stubborn. I stay because I recognize that I, and the many justice-seeking people I’ve met in the church, believe that there is still potential to turn this ship around. I stay because I have seen and felt for myself the transformative power of love in a faith community. I stay because I cannot in good conscience let the only voice proclaiming the words of Jesus be a hateful one. I stay because I cannot, even in the darkest moments of my doubt, keep from believing that I am loved, and that part of being loved is to share that love.

Just as oppression makes a theological claim, so too does love. Not the kind of trivialized, greeting card, 2-Dimensional love that is laced with good feelings and artificial sweetness, but the kind of love that gives a person who has been pushed down time and again the strength to stand up, even in the face of the person who has pushed them down. It’s the kind of thing that refuses to be reduced to social status or skin color or sexuality or gender identity.

Martin Buber wrote that, “We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction, and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”

What better response to the hatred and oppression that is done in the name of religion than to love powerfully? I stay in the church because I believe it still has the potential for this kind of re-orienting love.

Feb 242012

I’ve always been ambivalent about blogging. I should probably just go ahead and put that out there. I love the idea of reading people’s blogs, but I’ve never been really sure about how I feel about the idea of my blog. This could be for a number of reasons. First, well, what would I have to say that people would actually want to read? Second, growing up queer in East Texas, I learned at some point to keep my cards close to my chest, not to reveal too much about myself to anyone, lest I slip up and unintentionally out myself. Secrecy became for me a means of self-preservation, and it served me well. A public blog in many ways goes completely against this need to keep myself from saying something that would be better left unsaid.

In the last month or so, though, I’ve come up with some responses to these reasons for not writing. First, well, if no one wants to read it, no one has to read it. Seems a bit obvious, but I’m not always the quickest to come to realizations such as these. My response to the second point, however, is not so simple. In fact, it’s what finally got me to start writing, and in many ways it’s the heart of this blog. I’ll get to it, but need to give some background info first…

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to intern with an organization that serves LGBTQ+ youth. Teenagers have the opportunity to meet other youth who identify as LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning), and to get to know adults who are either LGBTQ+ identified people themselves or straight allies. My role there is as a “seminary intern,” which has been kind of an experiment, as I’m the first one they’ve had. They have Masters of Social Work students every year, but the seminary thing is new. My time working with these youth has been one of the most formative experiences I’ve had in my life. Hands down. Time and again I find myself inspired by their ability to recognize and articulate things they see in the world around them, in a world that has not been kind to them. I’ve seen the power of a place where people can let their guard down and build community with other people whose experiences of alienation relate to their own.

My experience at the organization has also sensitized me to the atrocities that are committed against other youth like those I know. Last fall, for instance, I read the story of a transgender teenager from Detroit who was brutally murdered and dismembered; her mother had to come in and had only a torso to identify her child. Then, a few weeks ago, I read this article in Rolling Stone Magazine, about a school district whose intentional silence on matters related to all things LGBTQ led to a suicide epidemic, with nine students taking their own lives in a span of less than two years. For the people leading the charge on the matter, any form of tolerance for LGBTQ+ is a means of promoting sexual behavior between people of the same sex. Discussing the matter, they felt, would lead kids to try out sexual behavior and turn straight kids gay. It will likely come as no surprise that these people are led by their religious convictions. After reading the article, I realized that I could no longer in good conscience remain in the church and stay silent. For too long now the assumption that in order to be a Christian one must be socially conservative and adhere to a strictly defined socio-political agenda has prevailed. For too long the church has burned it into people who fall outside of a rigidly-defined norm that they are less than, that they aren’t beloved children of God. As a lesbian, socially progressive Christian, my hope with this blog is to offer a counter voice to those in the church whose claim on moral authority often comes down like a boot on the necks of those who disagree with them.

The inspiration for the name of the blog came from a few different sources. The first is Ezekiel 37:1-14:

 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of theLord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the LordGod: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

I’ve had this text swimming around in my head a lot lately, and I think about that sense of hopelessness that is conveyed in the Valley of Dry Bones. It is so dry that not even a fly buzzing around could find a bite to eat. I think about the people I know who have been disinherited by churches that clung so tightly to an interpretation of how God works in the world that they felt justified in expelling people from their spiritual home. I think about the church as a whole that seems to be dying under the weight of arguments about who’s in and who’s out. This passage is a reminder that we cannot hope to bring anything back to life without the Spirit of God. This means we have to allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable to the movement of the Spirit; we have to be willing to acknowledge where we have caused harm, and to engage in honest dialogue with one another (even when it is difficult).

Another inspiration for the blog title comes from a poem by Andrea Gibson called “The Madness Vase”

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables.

Said if I could get down thirteen turnips a day
I would be grounded, rooted.
Said my head would not keep flying away
to where the darkness lives.

The psychic told me my heart carries too much weight.
Said for twenty dollars she’d tell me what to do.
I handed her the twenty. She said, “Stop worrying, darling.
You will find a good man soon.”

The first psycho therapist told me to spend

three hours each day sitting in a dark closet
with my eyes closed and ears plugged.
I tried it once but couldn’t stop thinking
about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet.

The yogi told me to stretch everything but the truth.

Said to focus on the out breath. Said everyone finds happiness
when they care more about what they give
than what they get.

The pharmacist said, “Lexapro, Lamicatl, Lithium, Xanax.”

The doctor said an anti-psychotic might help me

forget what the trauma said.

The trauma said, “Don’t write these poems.

Nobody wants to hear you cry
about the grief inside your bones.”

But my bones said, “Tyler Clementi jumped
from the George Washington Bridge
into the Hudson River convinced
he was entirely alone.”

My bones said, “Write the poems.”

Back to the second reason for my ambivalence about blogging: I’ve always been a bit frightened by the idea of sharing my story in an open forum. However, I’ve had the privilege over the last few years to study with Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, who has convinced me and a number of other students that our stories are worth telling. In telling our stories, even painful stories, and in hearing those of other people who have been knocked around, we remember that we are not alone.

We are not alone.

In her book Gathering Those Driven Away, theoethicist Wendy Farley states that she sometimes feels she “cannot bear for Holy Scripture to be despoiled by those who would deceive us about the great beauty we offer the body of Christ. I refuse to allow ‘the tradition’ to degenerate into a cultural conservatism forgetful of the great cloud of witnesses that sing of the tenderness of incarnate love” (p 15). As I begin this journey of…whatever it is, I resonate with this quote. We who desire to counter the voices of hatred and oppression that hide behind doctrine and tradition are these bones. We have been thrown together, clattering as we were tossed out. And yet, in the pain of being abandoned or forced out of faith communities, we found each other. The clattering of bones being tossed out instead becomes a clattering of bones coming together and recognizing that we have company in this mass of those who have been driven away. Clattering like this is hard to keep quiet; it demands to be heard and recognized. Clattering like this refuses to believe that we are not all worthy of love, dignity, and safety in our homes, schools, at work, and in our places of worship. It is my hope that clattering like this is contagious.

Any one wanna make some noise?