Oct 272012

I went to a conference today in Washington, DC as part of a movement within the PC(USA) called the NEXT church (www.nextchurch.net). NEXT Church was started a couple of years ago by people within the denomination who were interested in finding ways to connect and look forward as a body amidst ongoing turmoil and fractions within the church. Since then, the movement has gained momentum, and, though still in its infancy, it’s cool to see energy and excitement behind seeing where the Spirit is calling us to go.
One part of today’s gathering (which included awesome worship, time for fellowship and getting to know new people, as well as conversations about where we feel called as a body) was a presentation on Church Leadership, innovators in the Church, and the need to re-examine our current understandings of how we do things – to explore alternate definitions “leadership” and “church” from those to which we have grown so accustomed. New ideas should be sought not from those in the center of the goings-on, but from those on the margins, who aren’t as bogged down in “the way we’ve always done things.” This makes sense – if we continue to seek water from a single, stagnant source,eventually that source will dry up – if only from exhaustion. While we may have to go a bit further, or take a bit more time to get water from another source – it’s worth the effort to bring new ideas to the table.
On the drive home, I thought about this a bit more, and I realized that it’s not only that those on the margins have new or fresh ideas, but also that those on the margins know why they have come to the table in the first place.
(I’m coming back to this, but bear with me as I digress . . .)
Last month, I had the chance to be with a good friend for her wedding weekend. While at the rehearsal dinner, I asked a one of the bridesmaids (with whom I was having a delightful conversation) about why she and her husband decided to get married. In reply, she told me a lovely story about the day they got engaged. I smiled as she told me the tale – both because it was a good story, and because it didn’t really answer my question at all – my smile came with the realization that most straight people aren’t asked why they decided to get married. For most straight folks, getting married is just what you do when you hit a certain point in your relationship. You meet, you date for some period of time, you get married, you have kids . . .
I won’t try and speak for all queer folks, but I’d venture to bet that many non-hetero people who make the decision to get married are asked at some point the “why” questions: “Why did you decide to get married?” Sometimes the questions I’ve been asked include: “Why, if you know it doesn’t make any difference legally, did you decide to get married?” or, “So, why was it important for you to get married?” or, “I just don’t get it – why would you even want to get married?” (It varies a bit, but the idea behind the questions is often basically the same.)
One of the things that was most definitive for my partner and I in making the decision to get hitched is that it was very much a decision – we made the decision that ours was a relationship worth fighting for, and that our desire to make a commitment to one another in front of other people was not only about celebrating our relationship as good and just, but was also a means of holding ourselves accountable to the commitment we made. We wanted to do it publicly. We made the decision to address head-on, as much as we could, the wedges that would try to work their way between us – laws that don’t protect us, people who don’t understand us (and will sometimes repeatedly ask us to explain ourselves), a lack of acknowledgement by those, even within our families, who don’t agree with our “lifestyle” choice.
Many LGBTQ people decide not to get married, and with very good reason – the institution of marriage is one that has been used to perpetuate and restrict gender and class norms, to treat women as property, and hold them in their “place.” For my partner and I, the decision to get married was one we made together – we both, in mutual respect and care for one another, felt it was the best way for us to be intentional about bringing our separate lives into into one life together.
Now, back to the Church . . .
For many LGBTQ people, the experience of “church” has only reinforced the idea that they are morally inept, or fundamentally unnatural. Arguments against laws ensuring the protection of LGBTQ people, or marriage equality, come most loudly from those churches who see queer people as a threat to the sanctity of . . . well, so many things! The decision for many queer folks to reject Christianity comes because they can no longer remain in a system that refuses to honor their full existence. Those who choose to leave do so in large part because they cannot respect themselves and remain in an institution that is actively working against them.
I think it is essential that those who have decided to remain as active parts of the Church, despite having been pushed to the margins by congregations or denominations (women, people of color, queer people), ask themselves if there is anything to be gained from a tradition that has, for much of its existence, refused to make room for the full humanity of all of its participants, because of its insistence on meeting the needs of only those who most “look the part” of how a “good Christian” should look.
I am often asked, particularly by LGBTQ people, why I choose to be an active part of the Church: “Why would you stay in an institution that refuses to recognize your full humanity?” or, “I just don’t get it – how can you stay there?” “Is there anything to be gained from the Christian tradition?” (It varies a bit, but the idea behind the questions is often basically the same.)
My answer to this last question is, without a doubt, yes. If anything, my feelings about this grow even stronger the further I get down this road. My decision to stay active in the Church is rooted in the conviction that it is worth fighting for. By “the Church,” I mean the places where God’s love is expressed and felt, where the bellies of the hungry are filled, where people go home at the end of the day feeling less alone and alienated in the world, where people are willing to stand up and fight for one another’s right to health care and education and safety in the home.
The Church is where our assumptions about the world and one another go to shatter — it is the prophetic voice that refuses to be silenced in the face of injustice and hatred and violence. It is the place where we are able to move outside ourselves, even for a moment, and see Christ in everyone – even in ourselves. Not only that, but it is the place where every single voice matters – where we make harmony with the songs of our individual hearts, singing with longing and hope and trust that we are more when we are together.
It’s exciting to hear people in the denomination talk about the need to look to the margins for new and innovative ideas about how to live into where we are being led by the Spirit. Only, it’s important that we not seek the insight of those on the margins simply because we need to add a little flavor to the ideas we’ve been chewing on for fifty years – we may get a little spice for a while, but eventually we’ll end up with the same cud in our mouths. To truly change how we’re being fed, and feeding others, we need to seek the insight of those on the margins who make the decision to come to the table, because these are the people who know why they are there. Even more, perhaps we need to recognize that it’s time to build a new table – one that is built collaboratively by all those who want to move where the Spirit is leading.

Oct 232012

Been reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week, so it seemed appropriate to share one of his most famous poems.

Lectionary: Epiphany 5C: Isaiah 6:1-81 Corinthians 15:1-15
Isaiah 6:5: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!'”

“Who am I?,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer –

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

March 4, 1946


1 Cor 15:1: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain”

“Legacies” – by Nikki Giovanni

her grandmother called her from the playground
nbsp;   “yes, ma’am”
nbsp;   “i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old
woman proudly
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
she said
nbsp;   “i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
nbsp;   these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Oct 092012

This blog entry is part of a Queer Theology synchroblog. To get more information on what a syncrhoblog is; or, specifically, on this synchroblog, see this post.  Below is my response to the theme of “The Queer God”: “What does that phrase mean to you? How is your God queer? How does the queerness of God inspire, impact, etc.? If you want to you could also write about the queer Christ.”  Other participants in the synchroblog are in comments below.

I should probably start this post with a confession.  Several years ago, when I first became acquainted with Marcella Althau-Reid’s seminal text The Queer God, I stepped away frustrated.  At one point I can remember asking myself: “Why does God have to be queer?   How is this not taking one particular group and elevating them above other marginalized groups?  I don’t need God to be queer for me to recognize that I am one of God’s beloved children.”  Honestly, the notion of understanding God as queer was a shock to me, and to my understanding of God’s movement in the world.

Another confession: in large part, this shock stemmed from a deep-seated anxiety about my own identity – it was a fear rooted in my homophobia.  Though I had already come out of the closet, there still lingered beneath my conscious thoughts the notion that God’s love was something that was not available to me.  My frustration with the idea of the queer God was rooted in the fact that I did not think of myself as lovable enough to be mirrored on the face of the divine.  I knew somewhat that God loved me, and that Jesus (in some form) stood in solidarity with me; but, I kind of figured that I was on a sort of lower-tier of the kingdom of God.

I’d be lying if I said my journey to believing that I am a beloved child of God was an easy one.  In many ways, it’s been a knock-down-drag out match – kind of like Jacob wrestling with God, refusing to let go until God granted Jacob a blessing; only, instead it was God refusing to let me go, wrestling with me until I recognized and received the blessing that I am beloved.

In her book Gathering Those Driven Away, Wendy Farley states that “Christ wanders in solidarity with our bondage…Hungry, tired, dragging a mournful chain, he wanders among us, making visible the chains that bind us.  It is like a dream image.  It does not matter what the chains represent: guilt, suffering, grief, oppression, or any of the indignities with which life afflicts us.  This weary man drags his chain with us – but his face is graceful, hauntingly beautiful…Christ is present in outrage, the union of divine and human in moments that have become hopeless.”(p 139)

The queer God is present in solidarity with us as we feel the weight of the world and our own sense of fear and self-doubt.  The queer God allows us to recognize that we (no matter who we are) are loved and cherished by God, even when our own self-loathing threatens to keep us from doing so. For me, understanding the queerness of God allowed me to see ways in which God was moving and acting in my life, through my own understanding of self, even over and against what I’d previously understood to be true.  It empowered me to see the manifold gifts people bring to the table, to see the Spirit moving all around me.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not talk about the ways in which the queer God also serves as a reminder of how far we have to go.

Theologian Mark D. Jordan states that conversations about the Body of Christ get kind of uncomfortable when talking about parts of the Body that don’t quite fit with our understandings of what the Body should look like.  “The big business of theology has been to construct alternate bodies for Jesus the Christ–tidier bodies, bodies better conformed to institutional needs.  I think of these artificial bodies as Jesus’ corpses, and I consider large parts of official Christology their mortuary” (Mark D. Jordan, “God’s Body,” in Queer Theology, Re-Thinking the Western Body, ed Gerard Loughlin, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p 283).

Historically, religion, theology in particular, has tended to envision Christ in terms of the main cultural assumption of what is deemed “beautiful,” and those whose appearances don’t fit with that picture: racial minorities, women, people with physical or mental disabilities, LGBTQ people, and many others have all fallen to the wayside as the church has worked to define its existence in relation to God.  Because we see Christ as “holy” or “pure,” we tend to envision him along the lines of what we see as “pure” in society – a sort of a “boy-next-door” Jesus.  When we envision God in this way, we constrict our understandings of God’s movement in the world – we define where and how (and through whom) God is manifest.  We sell God short.  We sell ourselves short.

Fourteen years ago this week, Matthew Shepard was taken from a bar, beaten within an inch of his life, and left hanging on a barbed-wire fence.  He died several days later, on October 12.  His crime?  Being himself, refusing to hide behind expectations of how he should dress or act, who he should love.  His death was a wake-up call to the realities that out queer people faced, and it has prompted hate crime legislation for crimes committed against against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  This legislation was a big step; but, it was just a step.

Last October, 19-year-old transgender woman Michele/Shelley Hilliard was murdered in Detroit.  It took a few days for her body to be identified because she was badly burned, and because her torso was all that remained after the killing.  I’ll say that again – her torso was all that remained after the killing.  I think about her mother, having to go in and identify her child’s mutilated, burned body, and the horror that she went through in that moment when she was shown the body. This attack was brutal, and haunting . . . and it didn’t make it to the front page.

When we allow ourselves to align God only with the powerful in society, or with those who are deemed the most desirable, we write ourselves right out of the history of God’s work of redemption in the world.  We hold up an idea of what we want to be, based on a faulty set of standards, at the sacrifice of who we are called to be as children of God.

The queer God calls us to see God on the face of Matthew Shepard as he waited for death, to see God on the face of Shelley Hilliard as her body was being torn apart.  The queer God is unapologetic and unrestrained in holding as beloved every single living being.  The queer God shocks us and amazes us because the queer God refuses to be bound by what we deem to be holy, or beautiful, or lovable.  We must root ourselves in love, and in the conviction that the love that is extended to us is the love that splits the heavens open.

Shocking?  Yes.

Easy? Not at all.

Essential?  Undoubtedly, yes.


Other participants:

the Anarchist Reverend shares his thoughts on the Queer Christ over on the Camp Osiris blog.

Peterson Toscano shares “The Lost Gospel of Thaddeus.”

Shirley-Anne McMillan writes about Mother Christ.

Adam Rao shares why he is not participating in today’s synchroblog.

Kaya Oakes writes about God, the Father/Mother.

Brian Gerald Murphy talks about A God Bigger Than Boxes.

Clattering Bones writes about The Queer God.

Daniel Storrs-Kostakis writes writes about An Icon of God.

Jack Springald writes about Avalokitesvara and queering gender.

Oct 072012

Today is the 14th anniversary of the night Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead. I’m tempted to write more, but want to leave it with this poem, written by Leslea Newman, as part of the October Mourning project.

Matthew Shepard’s beating and death brought a lot of attention to hate crimes against LGBTQ people. While attention has been raised, and the Matthew Shepard Act against hate crimes has since been passed, we still have a long way to go. More on that in a later post. . .

The Fence
(that night)

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

We were out on the prairie alone
Their truck was the last thing he saw
I saw what was done to this child
I cradled him just like a mother

Their truck was the last thing he saw
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
I cradled him just like a mother
I held him all night long

Oct 032012

I’ve had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Katie Cannon this semester, and one component of the class has been to examine shifting approaches to research in the social sciences. Today we discussed a new way of understanding how the whole process of research changes when the one doing the research recognizes the ways in which the particulars of who they are (race, class, background, etc), play into now only how they view others, but how they are viewed.

One thing that came up today was the idea of “going native” – the situation in which a researcher is so embedded with a particular culture that their scientific data is considered flawed – their objectivity is lost. While part of me laughs at the idea that we might truly be able to be objective in a situation in which our whole goal is to observe people, another part of me got caught up on the language around “natives,” and how often “native” translates as “savage” and how often that allows us to dehumanize people. And, well, this led me to write the poem below.

Theo-ethicist Carter Heyward talks about the experience of connection found in the gaze between people weary with the weight of existence. I know it may be a bold assumption to make, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that there are moments when we are all weary with the weight of existence.  Life is hard, and it is heavy.  We live in a divided world, a divided country, a divided church.  I’m grateful today for all of those moments, all of those gazes I’ve shared with people where we’ve allowed ourselves to trust in the space between us, to acknowledge that we are weary, or ashamed, or scared – even just that we are confused as all get out with the madness of the world.

I think we can only find that space of trust if we allow ourselves to be seen, to take the chance that in the moments of vulnerability we might find a connection to someone or something beyond ourselves. It means putting aside (or at least holding at bay) assumptions we might make about others, and acknowledging assumptions they might make about us. What if we saw not only the gifts people bring to the table, but also recognized the gifts we have to give? What if “going native” about building relationships with others and learning more about ourselves?  How would it be if we stepped into every interpersonal interaction we have with the expectation that we can learn from one another something vital about how to live in the world?

Let us go native.
     Let our research be the quest
     for the good of all humanity.
Let us humble ourselves.
Let us redefine research.
Let us recognize and admit:
     we do not have all the answers.
Let us recognize:
     we all have something to learn.
     we all have gifts to offer
Let us continue to imagine,
And to work for a world
     in which all people have the opportunity
to take responsibility for their lives.
Let us take risks.
Let us pray
     that we might be
     so embedded
     in our research
          (read research: the quest for the good of humanity;
          read humanity: every living person)
that we lose the line
     between the “researched”
     and “researching.”
Let the recognition that someone has
     “gone native”
          be one
     that is made
not by the outsider, but
     by the “natives.”
Let us re-define native.
Let us celebrate the power in
     that kind of relation.
Let us continue to dream.
Let us get to work.