Coming Out of Good Earth

Today is National Coming Out Day.

I.

One may wonder why LGBTQ people have to “come out” in the first place—well, think of it as a kind of proclamation. There is something different about us that is good and holy in its own right and it is not up to the norms of the prevailing society to give us intrinsic value. That value is inestimably and ineffably given to each of us at the moment of our entrance into this life by the One who calls us out of the dust of the earth and names us.

To come out is to name that we too, with our different ways of loving and walking and seeing in this world, are of good earth. We give voice to the fire in our bones and name the goodness of creation. We claim our blessing: “out of good earth were we made, and good we are.”

II.

For those who would accuse us of celebrating and identifying with “sinfulness,” perhaps studied consideration of what “sin” actually is would be a worthwhile endeavor—so often we call “sin” that which doesn’t jive with our societal norms. Pepperoni pizza remains an abomination, after all.

Yet I’ve grown completely tired of engaging in any conversations around the so-called “clobber passages;” any number of qualified scholarly luminaries have shown time and again that these passages do not provide the right to exclude and “reprove in the Lord” that many so desperately want. I won’t countenance this particular conversation because it’s so boring. Instead I have decided to take the posture of demanding of people the reasons they would seek to exclude and eliminate with the same vigor with which I have been asked to defend my own existence and my own insistence in being part of my faith tradition.

My existence, my belovedness-in-God, my walking in the Jesus pilgrimage is not up for discussion. Nor are my inalienable rights to life, liberty, and equality. Nor are the inalienable rights of those who, for accident of birth into different race or class or nation or way-of-being, have had their rights called into question. My freedom as a gay man is bound up in my black neighbor’s freedom, in my woman neighbor’s freedom, in my immigrant neighbor’s freedom, in my white cis-het neighbor’s freedom (from the fetters of privilege and prejudice!). Until we are all free, none of us is—for we are all made of the same Good Earth by a Good Maker.

III.

To come out is not cheap for many, if not all of us. While I am grateful for the privilege I enjoy of having a supportive family, a network of ride-or-die friends, and connections to faith communities that understand the mystery of the Good Earth, those came part and parcel of walking through a journey of loss. Others are not so fortunate and have either lost everything, including their lives, or are forced into silence and shame by the ungrounded fear that others have of them.

And so today my heart is with those who cannot name the goodness of the soil from which God called them for fear of silencing, rejection, loss of social and financial support, and the very present threat of psycho-spiritual and physical violence; moreover my heart is with those who have come out at great cost to their security and safety. May we all be so brave and so willing to let go of those things that tether us in order to show forth God’s handiwork.

A postscript.

To my ally friends: thank you. Know well that today is -not- the day to come out as an ally. If you must act, do so tacitly by lifting up the stories of LGBTQ people and succoring those for whom coming out has come at great cost.

simmering silences

My lenten practice this year is to be kind to myself, and in so, to better know God.

God is unknowable in God’s essence, but only in God’s energies. That is a tenet to which I have ascribed for not a short time—ultimately to say that one can “know God” is any unfiltered, unmodulated way is flatly wrong (since any of our thoughts, our filters, our metaphors, are ultimately created things). God is knowable only in the darkness between the things that God is clearly not.

In other words, God is audible silence and visible darkness.

I’m not sure why I’m on about this; I think perhaps that the cognitive and emotional effort with which I’ve been pressing into my pastoral, professional, and creative endeavors have been causing me again to ask “where is God in this?” It’s certainly not as though I am making the kind of harried “I MUST FIGURE THIS OUT” attempts at coming to know God that characterized my adolescence, and to be sure I’m quite comfortable with silence and darkness.

I want to be connected to the ground of being in a way that brings me into inner quiet and the balance that the intensity of my personality—a flamboyant enneagram Four with a strong 3 wing, a romantic achiever, a pursuer of ego projects—needs in order to be healthy. I angst a lot, and frequently I try to pass off my groundless angsting as prayer. To be sure it can be that, but I think my rambling and railing can ever-so-gently mutate into a kind of self-flagellation which has precious little to do with communing with the Uncreated Ground of Being and more in common with working myself into an emotional froth so I can feel everything, that is, so I can feel special.

This is the Four’s modus operandi, after all.

This isn’t bad; it too belongs, and it’s part of me, but it is without a locus of immaturity and an opportunity for me to grow. To wit, I want to pray well, and to pray honestly, and to pray in such a way that I am not demanding things of God—although the last time I ‘prayed extemporaneously’ it was as though I was God’s HR manager and I was giving the Divine a gentle but firm talking-to about areas for improvement. I think we have a precedent for this in the Psalms, at any rate, and I believe God can handle it.

But I want to cultivate a spirit of silence, a spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love,” as St. Ephraim the Syrian beseeches, “and let me see my own sins and not those of my brother.” I pray the daily office (not faithfully), I receive the Eucharist (not regularly), and I do my best to live at peace with my neighbor—though my loveable-yet-culpable pettiness shines through more often than not.

I’m attempting centering prayer, known better in the secular world as “mindfulness meditation.” I’m still too new at it to even pretend like I know what I’m doing, and I won’t even bother to rehash the practice here when the term be-Googled yields more information than one could possibly assimilate in several sittings, but my initial inclination is that it is cultivating kindness, in the very least to myself.

I learned the practice first from a seminar led by an Orthodox monk in my pre-death-and-resurrection days, but the practice has come back into my view through my recent quiet exploration of the mystics—Merton (via Richard Rohr) and Julian of Norwich, especially. It’s called the “prayer of the heart,” or “contemplation,” depending on who you ask, but the point is the same: to find silence and to be present therein.

Because the spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love” which I’m seeking is in as much to help be humble, patient, and loving toward my own person inasmuch as it is toward God and my neighbor. I can be phenomenally cruel to myself; I can say things to myself with ease which I would never dream of saying to another human being.

Can I love myself as God does? Most likely not. But to be able to be as gentle, patient, and kind towards myself—for I too am an icon of God—may be within my ken, inasmuch as I am called at obligated by my baptism to strive to be gentle, patent, and kind toward my neighbor. I will fail, and failure belongs as well.

At the very least, I feel zen’d-out, and by millimeters less dependent on my go-to coping skills of stuffing my feelings with drink and food while wallowing self-loathing because of the drink and food. And that’s a kindness, and a mercy.

 

in the indicative

I’m just past the threshold on the opposite end of a long, dark tunnel. The light hurts my eyes. And like a puppy who was abused freshly brought to a caring home at last, I find myself learning to trust, learning to not be afraid of the passing shadows or sudden noises that pervade typical life. When will the other shoe drop in this newfound place of peace and comfort? More terrifying, what if it doesn’t?

For once I am not in crisis mode, as I have been since, oh, 2009. Part of this is simply growing up and entering into a deeper sense of self. Part of this is abandoning the toxicity of a religious imagination that only valued me inasmuch as I could be something I wasn’t. And still part of this was getting out of the situations that held me in thrall to crisis-as-normative.

But there is now a new normal, and the task before me is to learn how to live not out of fear of an imagined shoe-drop but rather to live in contentment and contemplation of the way things have turned out, aware and open to deep joy and acceptance of the things that are. To no longer live in the subjunctive. To give my poor beleaguered limbic system a break.

To wit, I stand on the other side of a series of difficult interactions, decisions, and circumstances that have consumed the bulk of my twenties. Before me there’s a vast expanse of an open field-forest-mountain-range-vineyard laying before me (oh Shenandoah!) and now there are four demesnes that beg my attention—I would lavish it upon them.

I will lavish it upon them, given that I’m now living in the indicative.

I. Relationships. To myself, to the divine, to my family first and foremost. Renewing, strengthening, and propelling my bond to my daughter as she becomes more and more an individual (six going on sixteen, help Lordt). Forging deeper and tighter cables of love for my partner as we prepare for marriage. Cultivating understanding and growth with members of my family system. Inviting friends to dinner. Deploying periphrastic phrases will-he nill-he to make a rhetorical point.

But these chains of love and friendship are the very backbone of my existence as a functioning adult, or so I proclaim. It’s time to square proclamation with the reality of things.

II. Household. Frankly, it’s time to get my financial shit together. I have a pipe dream of somehow, some way, completing an additional graduate degree in the human services—because I’m a masochist, that’s why—and I can’t responsibly do that until, at the very least, my consumer debts and other financial obligations as they stand now are taken care of. I’m working a dream job with phenomenal opportunities for growth, so I have no reason not to do this. I’m even more beholden to the stewardship piece of spiritual development given that I now actually have something to, you know, steward.

III. Creativity. Not only have I neglected this space for too long, I’ve also been neglecting a major part of my soul, to wit, music. Ideas for this opera or that sonata or this dance suite have been kicking around in my head unabated but I’ve lacked either the presence of mind or the energy or the sheer chutzpah to make those ideas become a reality as I hammer away at the block of silence in my workspace.

At the same time, too, words make their way to the fore and fall unrealized into the fulminating abyss of ever-present distraction. Oh Blog, how I love thee! And yet how I have drawn distant, or worse, navel-gazey (and I’m doing that right now, flagrantly). I’d been starving Euterpe* and Erato** for the sake of paying too much attention to Melpomene’s*** call to self-loathing and self-limiting. Such shouldn’t be the case, given the need to practice creation is as much a part of my existence as the need to breathe oxygen. Forgive me, muses.

Though, admittedly there is space for grace here—there’s good reason one in constant crisis can’t be creative. Now my muses can breathe again.

IV. Contemplation. This is perhaps the most crucial to the whole process: learning not to live in the future or the past, but simply in the present, aware of how the world is throwing itself at me, screaming to be observed and appreciated and contributed to in the sheer raw realness of the moment.

For this is not something to be tacked on as an addendum, but a modality through which everything else must be filtered. All exists because in the loving inclination of the Universe’s engine of joy, everything belongs.

And in that I claim that while I cannot live in the future, I am shaped by its unbounded goodness; by the same token, I am not beholden to my past despite having been brought to this place by my very journey through it.

Indicative. Present. Presence. And all is yet grace.

*the muse of music
**the muse of lyric poetry
***the muse of tragedy and emo MySpace pics

#blessed

What phenomenal power is there in the sacred practice of naming the goodness of something? To bless it? After all, blessing—benedicere, bendecir, bénir, evlogeo—at least in the languages I know—literally means “good-saying.”

Goodness is not perfection, goodness is not spotlessness or the meeting of expectations. “Good,” is an earthy, visceral quality: “good” is what one calls the bloody, screaming mess of birth. Good is an orientation towards further creation, further life, further love.

And “good” is what God called each part of existence as God made it. In the way that the poet who put down the Hebrews’ creation myth, it’s as if God is taken aback with the goodness of that which the Word produced: God sees it and reflects, “oh, hey, this is good.”

God names goodness throughout the creation poem, always with a note of surprise, and yet always noting creation’s goodness while it remains unfinished—light without celestial bodies, seas without land, land without life, life without sapience, sapience without wholeness, humanity without community.

To wit, the whole creation is good, even in its imperfections. And that God is constantly improving God’s own handiwork is a comfort, because it frees us from the need to get everything right on the first go, to have everything nailed down. It’s work.

So the poem goes—the divine works at creation in an exhausting process that requires God, upon its completion, to rest, having named the goodness in all God’s work, blessing it, calling it “very good,” turning “tohu wa-bohu” into “tov ma’od” and leaving it in the hands of those bearing the divine image to continue to work.

I daresay that the naming of the goodness of each thing created is integral to its creation, and with that, it is integral to our continued obligation of creating our world. The poem gives us the model: as God names unfinished, unperfected works “good,” so are we given license to name as “good” those parts of our lives that we are yet collaborating with God and with each other to create, even when they are dark or unfinished.

It could be that in those spaces that are imperfect or unfinished we have an opportunity as co-creators with God to be taken aback, saying, “oh, hey, this is good.” And the hard, imperfect, unfinished spaces are work. They take it out of us. They are exhausting. Yet deep down there is, below everything, an engine of surprised joy and self-giving love driving the whole operation, between each of us, in the midst of wale and waste so overwhelming that it pulls our attention from the task at hand.

I say all this to say that the practice of blessing is crucial to our ongoing collaborative work with God in creating the world, because when we are in the midst of imperfection and unfinishedness, there is yet goodness there, because goodness is inherent to the unfolding work.

Though the wale and waste threaten to overwhelm, when we are exhausted from the work of creation, we can look to those unfinished spaces and bless them, saying, “darkness, you are good, and I commend you away from nothingness and towards creation, to the goodness that drives the universe.”

Mother, Make Me

A broken and resolute Florence Welch sings,

Mother, make me
Make me a bird of prey
So I can rise above this, let it fall away
Mother, make me
Make me a song so sweet
Heaven trembles, fallen at our feet

When I was a teenager I used to pray over and over again as I floundered in the throes of hormones and fear, “make me something different, or leave me like this and leave.”

Years later prayers are, “make me more me than ever.” I no longer fear who I am, but rather stand in awe of it.

In the slow, agonizing throes of resurrection I am becoming who I am. That is the only possible way to exist with any shred of authenticity in a world that demands we wear masks, binding ourselves in the shrouds we use to protect ourselves from one another’s wills, demands, expectations, insults, and prejudices.

We hide because the world demands it, telling us who we can and who we can’t be if we expect to live under the world’s bankrupt conception of “peace.” We case ourselves in layer upon layer of falsehood as we pray and pretend, “God, make me successful; God, make me at peace with my body; God, make me straight; God, change me to make me acceptable; God, don’t abandon me in my worthlessness.” The prayers echo in silence.

But we take that silence to mean that God doesn’t care, or isn’t there at all. Can that be true at the end of the day? I say no—I scream it; God is desirous, voluptuous, persistent and perplexing, who, even as we wait in silence, is making all things new, including a core deep within each of us that must be dug out and fanned into brilliant flame. That is who God makes each of us, that part of us that will be raised from the dead in spite of the death of our egos and wrongdoings and defense mechanisms, to make us one with God.

It’s only when we die that we can be raised from the dead. Something will break us, and only when that crack is there and we lay in shards on the floor can we be pieced together again radiant with light and gold.

The frenzied love of a God in the business of raising the dead will have nothing to do with anything but our truest selves. To wit, no one was ever saved by pretending; it could be that the Advocate who leads us into all truth does so by showing us who we are, by showing us how God sees us: of infinite worth, no longer dead but alive. Because this is the only reason I understand humans to exist: to radiate with love, dancing with God, and pulling all the world into the dance alongside us.

A month of Pride is celebrated by people who have lived this poetry—people who have been broken and come back to life, who have torn their shrouds off and experienced what it is like to be wholly, arrestingly real. We, dappled things, are desired, are beloved, are sustained and sanctified by the Ground of All that Is. Queers and Christians alike should know this: we are a people undergoing resurrection, even if we don’t know it is Christ raising us, making us who we were meant to be all along and had lost in the fray. And heaven trembles with joy at the sight.

Mother, make us—make us a song so sweet
Heaven trembles, falling at our feet.

Craving Ashes

A single Facebook status from a friend encapsulated so well why I love today. “Ash Wednesday is great,” she said, “because we look at each other and admit, ‘Yeah, we’re f*cked.’”

I crave Ash Wednesday. I crave it all year, it seems, but especially so when winter is taking final, ferocious swipes at the mid-atlantic as the world wheels away from it and into spring. And I sat at my desk most of the day both begrudging the fact that I’d missed helping out with Ashes-to-Go given a wicked head cold, while waiting for the day to end so I could go get that precious smudge of ash, to pray all those delicious psalms of penitence and confession, and to eat the family dinner again.

I think I needed it more than normal this year, though. Having endured so much in the past few months, in the midst of wrestling with questions of discernment and career and housing—now, today, right this second, rattled by these questions, is why I need to be reminded that I’m dust. And you with me. We’re but dust.

Dust and water, really—the smudged thumbprints on our foreheads are as much remembrances of our baptisms as they are our mortality. Either way, death is inescapable. But if death is inescapable, new life is even less so, because we are dust and living water.

During mass tonight I put the ashes on the rector’s forehead: “Hey, you’re gonna die.” And she turned right back around and did the same to me. Just a couple of sinners, we.

It’s kind of gauche to talk about sin in progressive circles; surely we’ve evolved beyond that. Well, I should hope that we’ve moved beyond the rhetoric of “you’re a sinner and sin is bad and you should feel bad” that roots sin in basic misbehavior, as if the Cross and Resurrection were some kind of cosmic behavioral therapy. Stop being bad, pay the toll, get into heaven, the usual.

But the sweet-sounding liberal approaches to sin—that we fear that “we are powerful beyond measure,” or that we’re simply not holding ourselves and each other in high-enough esteem–ring hollow as well. ISIS is not crucifying children because they fear their own power and aren’t letting their light shine. I’m not harboring grudges and ill-will towards others because of a failure of self-esteem.

When we come to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, there is absolutely no way around it. Sin is real. Sin is not mere misbehavior, or holding ourselves in low esteem—sin is a failure to love in the right direction, mixed with the shimmering darknesses that lie in human hearts, without any means of fixing it on our own.

The great comfort of Ash Wednesday and the whole Christian tradition of penance, ultimately, is that God is at work in us turning our turned-in love back out towards God and towards our neighbor, and rooting out those darknesses. Our slap-bracelet love is given to whip back in on itself at any second, and so left to ourselves we are constantly fighting the elasticity of our hearts. Turning our hearts back out, something that is impossible for us to do, is arrestingly possible for She who squeezed together a handful of fertile black dust and water and gave us a heart of flesh.

I need freedom to admit my own failure to love rightly, to admit my own humanness, to ask for help. And I need the promise of a God who is dealing with it by taking those failures onto Godself and inverting them once and for all in resurrection.

Nadia Bolz-Weber rightly says, “To me, there is actually great hope in admitting my mortality and brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program and allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.”

To be grounded in our ground-ness once again and let God be God, that’s what I needed today. Even as I’m struggling to figure out where “home” is for me among the Church, even as I’m working to live into my calling to ministry, the very basis of all of that is that I am ‘adam, a God-made earthling, a beloved sinner, who has a head cold and eats too much fried food and holds grudges and is in desperate need of bread and wine and welcome and mercy. Who forgets too often and needs to remember.

Like Totally

The greatest of my weaknesses is that I desperately want to be liked by other people. Not just chummily tolerated—genuinely liked for who I am and what I bring to the table in a relationship, professional or otherwise.

There is, floating somewhere with in me, a lingering glob of the sad and surly eighth grader who desperately, desperately wanted to have friends and to be accepted, welcomed even. I’ve since moved on from that—“well-adjusted emotionally” is a descriptor I pride myself on—but whenever I find myself faced with conflict or decisions that could possibly alienate others I tend to freeze. “What will they think of me for saying this? Will they still like me?”

This was brought to the fore by a conversation I witnessed (of all places) on Facebook between a gay friend of mine and a former pastor of his who decided to Say His Peace on my friend choosing to celebrate his committed relationship. I’ve had run-ins with folks in similar positions—you know, the guy who called me an unbeliever, the street preacher, the former boss, the single-minded activist, the ex, and so forth. I say, on one hand, who gives a shit? but the floating glob of corpulent loneliness says, I do! That’s another person! I want them to like me! I give several shits! The major difference now, as opposed to my greener days, is that I accept that feeling and lay it aside (at least, I try to).

Truth be told, I do still wonder what people from my past think about me—more than I should, in some cases. I know I’ve lost friendships, mentors, and opportunities because of my decisions, and each one of those losses seems to take a little chunk of me along with it. Here is where I would give myself the pep-talk of “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” That is truth, but walking out that truth is a challenge for folks like me, who simply want to have their existence acknowledged as valuable and welcomed.

Is it so strange to want to be liked? Is it so rare? I think more of us than realize it want to be liked more than anything. If you’re one of those rare souls who genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of you, I envy you (and, surprise, I want you to like me).

It’s a bearable ailment for a while. It becomes problematic, however, when we start compromising beliefs and boundaries to extract more “like” from people who don’t have the time of day for us—or worse, people who are consistently abusive and have no regard for our boundaries to begin with.

The desire to be liked is an addiction—and a socially acceptable one at that. It just feels too good to get a fix, and getting it feeds that deep place of desire within us that other dependencies don’t get at (alcohol and tobacco aren’t on Maslow’s pyramid, but social needs are right there in the center). I would wager that it comes from experiences similar that have rendered us, in some ways, unable to like ourselves. The challenge is recognizing when seeking friendship and approval from others becomes destructive to one’s own self-interest, where we’d rather let people re-assemble us according to their specifications than simply taking us as we are.

Religious people are kind of terrible about this (I am one, so of course I’m preaching to the choir), and religious communities are especially risky places for those of us who suffer from like-deficiency. The criteria of welcome are frequently so extrinsic—welcome isn’t rooted in a person’s inherent worth, but rather a person’s adherence to a prescribed shape of humanity based on an external belief schema held by the community. God help us if we don’t conform entirely to expectations. Lest anyone read this as a dig at my evangelical history, it happens on the right and the left in spades.

On the other hand, religious communities that get the whole concept of “welcome” and “inclusivity” can be incredible places of integration and healing for people with this particular addiction. We are welcomed as we are into something bigger than ourselves, and the experience of welcome begins to overwhelm the need to be liked (see also: the Eucharist). It doesn’t vanish entirely—does any addiction?—but the fixes don’t seem to do as much, and we can go longer between them, and at some point the desire to be liked is eclipsed by knowledge of our own belovedness. It is painfully rare to find a church that does a consistent job of doing this 100% of the time. In fact, I’d say it’s completely impossible. So there remains the work those of us with this addiction need to do on our own: liking ourselves—or writ more broadly, having compassion on ourselves.

And damn, that’s hard in a culture where everything has a “like” button on it.