Beginner’s Mind

And so we reach the dusk of a stressful day of Facebook arguments, boundary violations, writing building use request letters, exploring possibilities, dreaming, aching, and spending time with friends. Though the day has been transformative in some ways, mind-bangingly frustrating in others, and ultimately the opposite of an “off” day as it was supposed to be, I have learned. And I have unlearned.

The interesting thing about my seminary education is that it robbed me of learning, scrubbing off my patina of erudition and the sores of “having all the answers”–that unique plague of Western Christendom. To be sure I learned information: verb conjugations, literary forms, pastoral skills, and so on–but putting that information into practice necessitates letting go of my grip on what I think the right answers are, being led from the “correctness” that glows like ugly orange industrial sodium lamps into the flaming sunlight that is “truth.” I no longer have all the answers. I have what I believe, sure, and I have the Christian tradition in my blood and my education as my means of framing my relationship with God, but the more I grow the more I see my own beliefs as being smudged reflections of Truth. Truth is not a parcel of information to be meted up; truth is a Person who draws us into his wild dance of creation and resurrection.

Living in the gritty waltz of grace is something that takes unlearning. It takes what the Zen masters call shoshen, that is, beginner’s mind–a mind free of preconceptions, of answers, and of self-assurance, and one that is radically open to the new learning that dancing in the great gracious rhythms of Christ will provide. And so I make my evening prayer tonight as I do every night: “let what mattered stick, let what didn’t matter fall away, and open my heart to the dance again at dawn.”

Guest Post: It’s Not Just, “I’m Beautiful”

Hey darlings! Today’s post is a guest post by one of my favorite people: Sarah. I had the good fortune to cross paths with Sarah and Lindsey on several different occasions in the great churning ether that is the Internet; first on Gay Christian Network, then via our mutual friend Heidi Weaver, who is the boss lady of LOVEboldly. Sarah and Lindsey and I finally met in person a couple of weeks ago over overpriced chocolates and vodka cranberries near Metro Center in downtown DC, and in person they exude every bit of grace and dignity that comes across in their writing. Sarah and Lindsey have a unique and beautiful calling as an LGBT couple who are living out their mutual calling of celibacy in a committed and covenanted relationship, which has drawn both praise and ire from all angles of the LGBT-Christian conversation–nevertheless, these two have borne the joys and challenges of accepting their callings with grace I only hope to emulate. Sarah and Lindsey blog about their story at A Queer Calling. Today’s post is by Sarah.

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I always begin the Christology lecture in my freshman Intro to Theology course by performing a brief Google Images search for the term, “Jesus.” I do this as a means of segue into discussing how diverse our own mental images of Christ can be. You can probably imagine the variety of pictures my students see projected from the classroom desktop. We find traditional depictions of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sacred Heart, and the Pantocrator icon interspersed with modern depictions of Jesus laughing, playing soccer with children, or welcoming souls into heaven—and there are always a few irreverent images too (a smoking Jesus with a gun???). This exercise has never failed to produce insightful discussion, so I thought doing something similar in preparation for this guest post might relieve my writer’s block…and as it turns out, my first couple of search results for the phrase “body positivity” were scarily close to what I had supposed they would be: a photo of women with different body sizes proudly modeling underwear, and right next to it a set of “before and after” shots of a woman who had lost a significant amount of weight.

Daily, we receive conflicting messages about how we should view and treat our bodies. We hear from medical professionals, nutrition experts, and even the government about dangers associated with unhealthy food choices and larger body sizes. The diet and fitness industries take this message to another level, training us to believe that we’re fat, lazy, wastes of space unless we’re as toned as Jillian Michaels. But oppositely (some will disagree with me on this), we hear an equal abundance of “Love your body!” messages, especially from women’s organizations, the fat-positive movement, the eating disorder recovery community, and various nonprofits aimed at building self-esteem and healthy body image in young girls. We get both types of messages both in the media and in daily life. Within a single hour-long dinner, I’ve heard both, “You’re beautiful just as you are” and, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” from the same friend. It’s little wonder that many people find themselves perplexed about what “body positivity” even means. I’ve never considered myself particularly good-looking, but I certainly don’t see myself as unattractive, and I have many friends who would say the same about themselves. Does body positivity require being able to say, “I am beautiful and I love my body no matter its size”? Does it mean making “healthy” changes in order to adjust one’s body size or improve physical abilities? Or is it something else entirely?

Perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing body positivity, but I feel that I have a certain degree of competence in this area just from lived experience. On my own blog, I’ve shared openly about my struggle with bulimia (link: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/27/encountering-the-mirror-of-erised/), and though I don’t see body dysmorphia as a cause of my eating disorder, in addressing the condition I’ve necessarily had to explore questions of body image. In the world of eating disorder treatment and recovery, it is assumed that a people dealing with these conditions have severe body image disturbances. In many (though not all) cases, this is true. One doesn’t spend more than an hour in a residential eating disorders facility without hearing, “I’m fat and ugly,” or “I hate my body.” That’s why anorexia and bulimia treatment programs usually involve a significant amount of activities designed to increase body positivity or at least get clients thinking about body-related beliefs. Seven years ago during one of my stints, I spent many a day drawing pictures of my body, evaluating magazine ads for the messages they send about acceptable body types, constructing body positivity collages, discussing the impact of Barbie dolls on self esteem, writing letters to my body, and so forth. A Christian treatment facility where I once received treatment actually had us searching the scriptures for positive body image messages, and therapy groups often ended up being informal proof-texting sessions. As a result I’ve never forgotten Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Though I participated fully in treatment (while admittedly being a terrible patient at times), I don’t think any of those activities had even the most miniscule of impacts upon how I viewed my body at the time, or how I view myself now. Ultimately, I’ve come to see most of them as impractical efforts at putting a Band-Aid on a wound that requires far more than superficial healing. You might be stopping at this point to suggest that maybe these exercises just weren’t the best for my situation, or to remind me of how in the last paragraph, I admitted that body dysmorphia was not a factor contributing to my eating disorder. But the truth is, while I’ve never wanted to change my body in any serious way, I’ve never acquired the ideal sense of body image either. I don’t think too many people have, even most who claim absolute, unmarred love for their bodies…even therapists specializing in eating disorders. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t had a bad body image day at one time or another—whether it’s brought on by general insecurities about size, a clothes shopping excursion, a critical remark from mom, or a vague sense of, “I’m not feeling so confident this morning.” Such days are part of life, and there’s nothing that will make them go away permanently. There is no silver bullet for forcing a person to believe that he or she is “beautiful,” and even if there were, I’d not be convinced that it would bring about true “body positivity.”

As I see it, the presence of body positivity does not necessarily indicate the absence of occasional body negativity. Body positivity does not require thinking you’re beautiful—as the old adage says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing wrong with having a sense of neutrality about one’s body. Unlike body acceptance campaigns would like us to believe, “I look okay,” and “My body is alright,” are not dangerous words. They are not the same as, “I hate myself.” To me, body positivity means being able to accept the limitations of one’s body, whatever those may be. Not everyone can be thin, or even “normal” as far as weight goes. I’m still working on accepting that after years of damaging behaviors, my body is currently larger than it has ever been, and despite workouts and healthy eating, that’s probably not going to change much because my metabolism is so irregular. I believe that sometimes, body positivity can involve standing up for oneself when a medical professional uses one’s body size to assert, “If only you ate better and exercised more, you wouldn’t have the health problem you’re currently experiencing.” At the same time, body positivity can be expressed in seeking help and support, or listening to a doctor’s unpleasant-yet-true words of advice about living more healthily. It can mean deciding to alter one’s body for any number of reasons, or contentedly accepting one’s body for what it is despite external pressures to make changes. But most importantly, body positivity is accepting oneself as a beloved child of God, created in his image and likeness. It means approaching Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist with awe and wonder, treasuring the intimacy we experience with God as he enters our bodies and uses his own to bring us to wholeness.

Body Image and Eating Disorder Resources:

Something Fishy (link: http://www.something-fishy.org/)

Grace on the Moon (link: https://www.graceonthemoon.com/home.html)

Eating Disorder Hope (link: http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/)

ED Bites (link: http://edbites.com/)

About Face (link: http://www.about-face.org/)

The Body Positive (link: http://thebodypositive.org/)

Finding Balance (link: http://www.findingbalance.com/)

New ID (link: http://www.newid.org/)

Rock Recovery (link: http://rockrecoveryed.org/)

My Body Is Ready

Let’s talk about bodies. I was reflecting this weekend with a colleague of mine on this issue via Twitter; I stated to my friend that I wanted to focus my lenten discipline on honoring my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit this year. In that moment something struck me: the Christian story has at its core the salvation of humanity through work done in a human body, and the human bodies through which we spend our days are the means by which we work out our salvation.

And so I want to spend the next few weeks writing about my body. And your body. And all the bodies with and through which we touch, feel, weep, dance, ache, make love, and pray. Through all of this I want to keep in focus the idea that I stated above: that salvation is ultimately an embodied experience, and that our bodily movements through the dance of life are enfleshed theology–or rather, that we can read our bodies with an eye to the way God works with them and in them to bring about God’s demesne.

Body positivity is something that I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I grew up as a fat kid and, while childhood obesity is in some spheres a thing to be laughed at and treated as adorable and endearing (Chunk and Honey Boo Boo come to mind immediately), the reality is that for many kids the issue of body negativity is a spectre that rises at too young of an age. Yes, there are systemic issues that keep young bodies addicted to processed sugar and fat, extreme portion sizes, and a sedentary life. I look back on my own childhood and realize that I would have smacked myself had I known what I was doing to my body.

But the reality is that my body is what I have made it, imperfections and all. And I am all for taking care of myself by the time-tested means of eating right and exercising, and to be sure this is self care that we can and should all be engaging in. However, the issue is that those of us who have subpar bodies are told that our bodies are subpar by a culture that idealizes one particular type of body with some bizarre narrative that suggests that we can have a different body. Even if I did eat flawlessly and exercise every day, I will never have the body of Ryan Reynolds because I am not Ryan Reynolds. I am Nate Craddock, and the only body I will ever have–regardless of its composition–is that of Nate Craddock. We can change our body composition but we cannot change our body, because we have been given this one incredible gift through which to experience the wonders of creation.

Furthermore, when we begin to work on our bodies, we subtly begin to treat our bodies as our enemies–this is especially prevalent in the gay male culture with which I’m familiar, but I’m aware of this issue across social distinctions. We seem to dissociate our idealized future bodies, the bodies which those so inclined among us can craft after a long season of hard work and perseverance, from the bodies in which we must do that hard work–almost as if we get to turn our old body in for a new one when we’ve worked hard enough. And we fight with our present body, continually beating it down and treating it with disdain, when in reality it is this same body that we are cultivating. When we run into the difficulties of living an enfleshed existence as we work on getting healthy (and the struggle is real, believe you me), we begin to blame our bodies for their own inefficiencies.

Body positivity doesn’t mean baptizing unhealthy lifestyle habits and dietary choices as good, because mistreating our bodies by such means seems antithetical treating the temple of the Spirit with its requisite dignity. For me, body positivity means loving the body I have in this present moment. As I sit on my couch writing this I notice everything I hate about my body–my chest, my knock knees, my gut. But I also realize I am using this body with all its imperfections to process and to write about itself, and I accept the body that I have as a beautiful creation, one which can be disciplined and changed through hard work and attention but nevertheless the one body in which my soul will ever dwell.

Are there things I would change about it given the opportunity? Absolutely. But before I can begin to change anything about it in good conscience I must first recognize that my body as it is in this moment is a holy icon of the presence of God, a God who exists not in the future or the past but in the present moment expanded to eternity. Because this flesh is the flesh through which I have been given the opportunity to work out my salvation; this body is what was baptized, this body is what consumes the Mysteries, this body is what will bless and pray and weep and dance, and this body is what will be raised on the eighth day.

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Postscript: I admit that I am writing from a cis-male perspective, and I know that my experience is not going to be the same as the experiences of my trans and genderqueer friends. For those who don’t share my experience, I want to know: what does body positivity mean for you?

My First Death Threat

I got my first death threat from a complete stranger tonight. I suppose this is one for the scrapbook.

Oddly enough, the death threat was not from a bible-beating Christianist, as I expected when I first read the words of the threat. Rather, it was from a fellow gay man who accused me of associating with the wrong sorts of people–viz., people who hold a side B perspective on the issue of homosexuality, and people who are knowingly in mixed-orientation marriages. According to this individual’s reasoning, because I associate with these people and support their dignity, I am  weak; I am betraying the legacy of Stonewall and contributing to the denigration of the LGBT population.

Do what now?

If it’s not already obvious, I’ll go through the rigmarole of once again publicly affirming my side A orientation and my full support of LGBT equality in both civic and ecclesiastical arenas. But at this point I’m tired of laying out my stance. I simply want to love and be loved–and this desire to love and be loved flows out of the core of my identity as one beloved, as one sealed as Christ’s own forever. Interesting that I am in the sole possession of a God-man who spent most of his time with “the wrong kind of people.”

I am baptized. I am under oath and seal to affirm the dignity of all humanity, even those with whom I disagree. And because of my baptismal identity and my participation in the eucharistic feast, I am obligated to embrace those who disagree with me. I am obligated to meet them at table and be fed by our brother Jesus. And I hope that, God willing, when I become a priest, I will offer them the same bread of hospitality and life-giving embrace that Jesus has offered me. I continued going to my conservative seminary even after coming out because this was a reality that we held to as more significant to our community than our varying opinions on human sexuality (and, believe you me, mine were way different than the better part of the student body). But I was embraced there, I was beloved, and not once was I ever treated as less-than because of my sexuality or my opinions regarding inclusion and equality.

One of the benefits of a high Eucharistic theology is the realization that, at each Eucharist, we join at table with all who have ever dined there throughout history, many of whom did not understand the dynamics of sexual orientation and had no basis by which to relate positively to God’s gay kids. Will we agree? No, we probably won’t. But–I come back to Wesley once again–if we cannot think alike, may we not at least love alike? In the economy of the Eucharistic Feast, all are equalized, all distinctions are leveled out–the mighty are put down, the lowly are lifted up, the hateful are given to loving, and the hated are given to belovedness.

And so I will speak for dignity–I will speak for the dignity of those who hold side A and those who hold side B, for the dignity of those who know what they believe and for the dignity of those who believe nothing, for the dignity of those who have been at home in the Church their entire lives and for that of those who have had their homes ripped away from them at the hands of the Church. I will speak for the movement of embrace. I will speak to end memories and to create a new reality for those who can remember nothing but division and exclusion. I will speak until my (presently non-existent) partner and all brothers and sisters and I can dine at our Brother Jesus’ table in peace with Phil Robertson and Gene Robinson, with Sarah Palin and Rachel Maddow. Because our God is the God who destroys the dividing wall of hostility, making out of the oppressors and the oppressed a new people whose name is Beloved. Because our God is a God who would rather die than see us continue to hurt each other.

Because our God is the god who says “no more!” with his last breath, and “I make all things new!” with his breath after that.

Unbeliever

Yesterday after my article on Queer Voices was published on the Believe Out Loud blog (which I still can’t believe happened, to be honest), I was contacted by an acquaintance from college who wanted to discuss with me the scriptural arguments against homosexuality. I declined politely. By the end of our email exchange he assured me that “as much as I wish we had a common faith, I don’t think that’s possible, so I must love and pray for you as an unbeliever.”

For a minute I wanted to punch him in the throat. Actually, for several minutes. For several hours. And I was fuming about it internally while I was in the midst of helping serve a funeral.

Of all the insults and denigrations of my humanity I’ve suffered in the past–faggot, queer, cock sucker, and worse, many of which I received before I had even come out–this somehow stung the most. I’d rather him simply have called me a “fucking queer” and be done with it. But no, he called me an unbeliever. And I was instantly reminded of everything that drives me absolutely crazy about Christianity in its present form: one’s relationship with Christ is, in the eyes of many who claim that name, is determined by your opinion on secondary issues. The fact of the matter is that one’s opinion on homosexuality is just that–an opinion!–and it has precious little to do with one’s relationship with Christ, even less so their salvation. But that is for another article.

“Unbeliever.” That word still rings so cacophonously in my ears, because I’m so un-used to it. I’ve never been called that in my life. I was baptized as a baby. I went to Sunday School, Church camps, VBS, Chrysalis/Emmaus weekends, Christian college, seminary! I was that kid, who perhaps called others unbelievers, but of all the abuse I suffered at the hands of my peers one thing was for certain, my faith in Jesus Christ was an integral part of my identity that could never be taken from me. I’ve experienced first hand the transforming love of God. It is that love that will not let me go. And I was reminded this as I received the precious body and blood of Christ in the eucharist during the funeral.

And as the love of Christ washed over me in that holy moment, in the presence of the new saint whom we were commending to God and the innumerable saints there gathered at the table with us, something very strange happened. I realized that I am indeed an unbeliever.

I do not believe in the God who judges people based on outward opinions and voting habits. I do not believe in a God whose love is stymied by theologies, even if they are woefully bad. I do not believe in a God who is capriciously malevolent. I do not believe in a God who loves all the right people and damns the rest. I do not believe in the God whose self-proclaimed prophet called me an unbeliever.

I believe in a God who slipped into skin and walked among his children. A God who ate with all the wrong people and welcomes them still to his table. A God who would not let death be the final word. A God who reaches across time and space to call his kids home, a God who runs to them with open arms, who heals broken hearts and binds up wounds. A God who lays down his life and does not hate. This is the God in whose presence the idols of dogma and right-or-wrong thinking crumble into pieces. This is the God whose love destroys us to raise us to new life. This is the God I know. This is the God whose final Word is Jesus Christ, and still Christ speaks today.

There is an amazing painting by Salvador Dali entitled Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina that depicts the assumption of the Imagevirgin Mary. This painting embodies everything about why I am still a Christian: from the zygote at the bottom of the painting, the body of Christ, the blessed Mother ascends, and in the presence of her and her son all of reality breaks down into waves of divine presence like fabric billowing in the wind. Everything loses form; but in the center of the painting is the Crucified Christ suspended in mid-air over the Eucharistic altar. Mary draws all the world into intercession before her son.

It is a great irony: I find that as my soul has grown, it no longer seems to have room for dogmatic right-or-wrong thinking. There is only room for the Christ whose death and resurrection brings new life to the whole world, whose presence nourishes, sustains, and unites us in one body under his headship. And as my soul stretches, that becomes the only thing I’m capable of believing at all. It’s perhaps possible that my soul will never stretch big enough to grasp the mystery of Christ, but I can only begin to take in that mystery by getting rid of all the non-essentials in order to make room for it. And if that means unbelief, so be it.

Queer Voices

I’m reminded several times a week that both a sizeable and vocal portion of the Christian world considers the coexistence of homosexuality and Christianity within the same person to be at best an interesting conversation piece, at worst an aberrant abomination. I think this largely has to do with any number of stereotypes floating around in the evangelical imagination; namely, that gay people are mentally unstable nymphomaniacs who are responsible for destroying society. All we want is sex and approval for our sex lives, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Therefore to claim both one’s God-made sexual identity and to claim one’s participation in the life of Christ is an insoluble paradox: you can’t be both.

Oh, for the love of Christ.

The Christian community desperately needs to realize that they have by and large misunderstood what homosexuality is. Far from being the histrionic hump-fest that haunts the imaginings of sweaty Southern Baptists, homosexuality is at its best another beautiful expression of the ability of human souls to knit one to another for life. Yes, there is a sexual aspect to it. No, it is not what people imagine. James and John, who were recently married on the tarmac at a Maryland airport, are assuredly not living out Jerry Falwell’s worst nightmare; in fact, I cannot imagine a marriage, a union of souls in holy vows to each other unto an imminent death, that better ennobles the institution in a world where Kimye is a thing.

Face it, friends: Scripture has naught to say to such a holy covenant as that of James and John. Does it have words against predatory and promiscuous same sex behavior? Absolutely. And it has the same words to say against predatory and promiscuous opposite sex behavior, but instead of going after the real enemies of a consumer-driven sex industry and the enslavement of both adults and children therein, the Religious Wrong would rather fight against a man and his dying husband who have the audacity to challenge the status quo because their souls have knit. We as a people are woefully inept at getting our priorities straight. But how do we get our priorities straight unless there is someone to point them out?

I think that is the role of the queer voice. Queerness is otherness, to stand on the outside and look in. The role of the prophet in Israel was a queer role, for it was the prophet who stood against the status quo and preached, prodded, and threatened Israel into getting their priorities straight. And it was these same prophets who were preached at, prodded, and threatened into shutting their mouths, because nobody likes having the status quo challenged.

I find myself at a curious intersection, and at an astonishingly opportune time to embrace my queer voice: my identity is rooted in the world of privilege, that of the white, male, educated, middle class, Anglo-Saxon protestant. And yet my identity, by virtue of me being gay, especially a gay Christian, is at the same time rooted in a world that stands outside the expected “norms.” The gay person’s voice is one that comes from outside the world of privilege, echoing alongside the black person’s voice, or the immigrant’s voice, in a call for those ensconced in the status quo to consider how their words, actions, and patterns are contributing to the walls of hostility that divide God’s children one from another. The position I am in is one of needing to transform my privilege into a means of giving voice to the experiences of a gay man, and furthermore to do so in such a way that the message I proclaim strikes at the extant forces that maintain and strengthen injustices in the world.

To speak with my queer voice means saying no! when people accuse my gay brothers and sisters of being sex-crazed perverts (or worse). It means saying no! when someone is bullied to the point of suicide. It means saying no! when a couple who loves each other with a holy love is denied rights. It means saying hell no! when the Scriptures are twisted and misread to tell us that we are abominations, unworthy of love (or even life)!

Let us not forget that those who claim to be Christian ostensibly worship and follow a man who was an outsider, who was revealed in the wisdom of God not as a friend of the powerful but a friend of the outcast. Jesus was a homeless man from the sticks who dined with “untouchables” and got himself killed over a holy love that said over and over again, “no, all humans are worthy of dignity.” God revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth the outsider because the outsider matters to God. So God stood with the outsiders. And today, God still stands with the outsiders; his voice is a queer one, because to listen to it means relinquishing one’s claim on authority, on comfort, and on being right.

Symbols

I’ve been asking a troubling question of myself over the past few months: why am I still a Christian?

On the tail end of a seminary career, serving at a parish–now is probably not the best time to appear to be reconsidering my identification as a Christian. I’m not reconsidering my identification, so everyone relax. To be honest, much of my discomfort is not with Christ himself but rather with the forms of Christianity that are predominant in American society. Much has been made about this by other progressive Christian writers, and many of their judgments are accurate: Christendom is tragically alive and well in America, and so frequently the good news of Jesus’ triumph over death is twisted through the dark arts of punditry and apologetics into an instrument of torture for people who don’t conform.

Adherence to a certain doctrinal statement becomes the measure by which we separate the pure bloods from the mongrels, allowing us to encase those who are unlike us in the psychological concentration camp of “conscious eternal torment” so we can gloat alongside a God whose love is clearly limited for those who think and do exactly like him. A God who doesn’t seem to care about those outside the “in crowd,” or even a God who would destine half of his creation for destruction for his own glory. Such a God is no loving Father; such a God is a crazy drunk uncle at best, a narcissistic monster at worst.

I stopped believing in that God around my second year of seminary.

But I still believe in God.

I’m still a Christian because I believe in the uniqueness of Christ. I’m not a Christian because I feel as though Christianity is morally superior, or politically advantageous, or some kind of hypermetanarrative that explains every particle in the universe. I believe in science; I believe in the cultural conditioning of certain moral strictures; I believe in one commandment: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And I believe that the uniqueness of Christ and the uniqueness of his commandment is embodied in the language of signs and symbols that have been handed down in the Christian tradition through the past millennia. As Tillich asserted, a symbol is a sign that participates in the thing which it represents. And so for me the symbols like those of Virgin Theotokos, the Eucharistic Feast, the Crucified God, and the Risen Christ are all symbols that speak to and participate in the reality of a God who loves us madly and wants to live with his people. Our creeds are a symbol of our shared tradition. Our liturgical colors, feasts, and fasts are symbols of the opportune moments in which God acts in history. Jesus himself is a symbol of the creating, redeeming, and sustaining God.

And that same network of signs and symbols as a means to understanding God is what gives me cause to believe that those who do not think and believe exactly as we Christians do will still find themselves awash in the love of a gracious God, because each person is born into a time and context with a pre-established network of symbols. I do not believe that all symbols equally point to a loving God; obviously a network of religious symbols that glorifies violence and self-aggrandizement can have nothing to do with the true God. But I do believe that God will both work within a present network of symbols, or even work in spite of those symbols, to reach all his children with his parental love.

The symbols of the Christian tradition, chiefly the symbol who is Jesus Christ, point to and participate in that kind of God. And that’s why I’m still a Christian, even in spite of the Christian family who is both maddening and endearing in spades.

Hooks

My field placement supervisor often repeats to me a saying that she picked up from her spiritual director: “you can’t hang a picture on the wall without a hook.” What this means–or at least, what I’ve gathered that this means–is that one can’t grow unless you have people, influences, instabilities, and idiosyncrasies that give us some kind of resistance. Not unlike the necessity of resistance in developing physical strength, these resisting factors–or “hooks”–become, in the hand of the God the resistance that will cause us to grow spiritually and emotionally.

One of the hooks upon which I’ve been snagging my sweaters recently is, ironically, the hook of other people like me, who seem to identify with certain elements of my identity and speak out in ways that make me immensely uncomfortable. People speaking out of hatred, out of prejudice, out of utter ignorance. People who have chosen to sacrifice love on the altar of being right. People who imagine that they are speaking in love, but don’t realize that the love out of which they have chosen to speak isn’t a genuine love for the Other, but rather a love for a worldview that they cannot bear to see challenged by opening their eyes to new possibilities. People who seem to have a monopoly on the Spirit of God, yet won’t listen to her speaking. People who seem to be genuinely jerks.

The hilarious aspect of all of this is that it’s easy to frame this argument from an “I’m a gay man being upset about conservative Christians being mean to me” perspective. And I’m sure that’s the angle many of you, dear Readers, were assuming that I was presently taking. Indeed, that has been a source of upset for me in the past few months; I won’t lie. To see people trampling the name of the God of Righteousness and instead sacrificing to their self-made God of Rightness–this wounds me deeply, and I still find myself uncomfortable in churches where I have yet to build up relationships of trust. I get uncomfortable when people sit down at a table next to me in a restaurant and begin a bible study–I fear the things that will be said, the laments made over the state of our country, the blame piled upon us gay people whose only crime is our existence.

The issue is, however, Christians are not the only one speaking out of a fundamental need to be right; no, there have been voices from the LGBT community speaking with such lack of charity towards others of differing viewpoints that I have trouble aligning with them, even when I agree with them. What a handful of leaders in the LGBT community who have come out of a conservative Christian milieu have utterly forgotten is that the journey from rejection to acceptance is a journey of healing and a journey of reconciliation and it cannot be rushed. I began to support equal rights for LGBT people after years of being virulently homophobic as I was wrestling with my own sexual identity, and that was before I even came out. But even then it was a journey, a journey of getting to know others made in the image of God, a journey of finding those hooks and hand-holds along the rocky and twisting path that enabled me to climb upward step by tentative step towards a life of love.

But even as I mention a journey of reconciliation, I must point out that the journey of reconciliation is NOT a journey to rightness. More harm has been done in the name of being right than I care to admit; statements like “love the sinner, hate the sin” are indicative of this kind of attitude, and it is precisely this kind of attitude that makes the deeply-wounded teen struggling with identity decide to swallow a fistful of sleeping pills. If a word spoken in service of the God of Rightness results in death, it is not a word spoken in love.

Perhaps the God of Rightness is today’s Molech, into whose sacrificial fire we throw our friends, our family, our sons, our daughters, our loved ones. I stopped believing in this false god long ago, when I chose to stop sacrificing those dear to my heart on his bloody altar. The thing is, both sides of any debate seem to love serving this particular abomination.

What is hammer that will tear down his image, the wet blanket that will put out his sacrificial flame? Love. Love transcends differences of opinion. Love turns the need to be right into a need to be righteous. Love is that power that says “I relinquish my say as to whether x is a sin or y is an incorrect assertion. I choose to embrace you and affirm you regardless of my own opinions.” And I think love requires the radical trust that the God of Love, the God of Righteousness, will deal with each of us on God’s own terms, and those terms will be simple.

“How well did you love?”

Somatic Reflections

I got a tattoo this weekend.

It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and it’s certainly not anything I rushed into. After years of thinking about it, I finally got up the nerve to design my ink and find an artist. And so on Saturday afternoon I had the words “Благослови душа моя Господа” inscribed into my chest in black ink: “O bless the Lord, my soul.”BNZsBS0CQAElgB1

My decision has raised a couple of eyebrows, but it’s also garnered a watershed of support from friends. Why would I do something like this? Well, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s been almost a year since I came out and walked through the ensuing divorce. And the last year has been a journey of healing and re-centering of my identity that I really never expected I’d ever face in my life, and undoubtedly it has been one of the most challenging and yet uplifting periods of time in my life. As I’ve mentioned previously, when the bottom dropped out of my life and nothing seemed to be immune from falling into the abyss, the only thing that remained was the presence of God, and the only thing that I could do was bless the Lord.

Why Russian, then? I owe the fact that I’m still alive and in my right mind today largely to a dear friend of mine, an Orthodox priest who is a fellow Slavophile. So my choice of language is a tacit tribute to his ministry and to the Orthodox spirituality which he showed me that helped me maintain my grip on sanity.

In a certain sense, this tattoo has a sacramental character: an outward and visible sign of an inward transformation. I am not the same person I was a year ago. I was then still living in fear, and indeed to escape that fear I had to enter into the depths of it and live it out. A lot of my old ways of thinking, of knowing, of living died when I finally let go of the fearsome grip I had on my tightly constructed facade and stepped out into the light of day. Stepping into that light meant letting go of safety; it meant letting go of the lie-founded patterns of hiding and shame that I knew, and instead embracing the day-brilliant and flaming truth of God. It was another conversion, part of the life-long conversion to the image of Christ in me. And as I continue to put old ways of thinking, those childish ways, behind me, I will continue being converted to Christ. The call of the Church is to embrace this conversion and facilitate it–not a conversion to any way of political affiliation, dogmatic assertion, or social obedience; no, not at all. The conversion that the Church must recover and facilitate through her mission and ministry is the conversion to live as the glory of God, humans fully alive and living fully in the divine light unto which Christ leads us daily.

And that’s something that should cause a soul to bless the Lord.

Stupid Dreams and God’s Will

The will of God for us is to do the work that lies in front of us.

Another seminary semester is drawing to a close, and it has been beyond fruitful. I have grown spiritually in the past four months perhaps more significantly than I’ve grown over the past four years. My private journal entries belie this in shocking, colorful fashion–the swears and tears, scribbles and scratches, all testimony to a soul undergoing continued transformation. I wouldn’t say there was a single pivotal moment, but rather a series of themes that found their way woven throughout the semester–leitmotifs, if you will, whose subtle recurrences pointed me in the direction and sent me along the path of the risen Lord.

To attempt to encapsulate them all in one blog post is futile, but I want to take some time to write my way through them as I process them. I have the added benefit of getting to see these themes come to life in short order as I begin field placement next week.

The one theme with which I want to begin my chain of reflections is the theme of the will of God–specifically, the finding and doing thereof. One of the wisest voices at the seminary is a godly woman named Marilyn Elliott (in my opinion, she should be the seminary president, but that is for another post). At a daily mass a few weeks ago her homily stressed the sentence that began this post: the will of God of for us to do the task that lies right in front of us.

Marilyn told a story about a trip she and some friends took to hear wisdom from another wise and godly woman, expecting to hear something earth-shaking. Instead, they were told the exact same thing that Marilyn told us in her homily. And it was a let down.

So often–and this is the peculiar curse of seminarians and those preparing for ministry–we become awash in dreams of grandeur. We want to do “a great thing” for God, whether that is missionary work in Africa or feeding the hungry masses or fighting for equality or so forth. Is very easy to become intoxicated with one’s own dreams and put words in God’s mouth, calling our ideas his “will.”

But this isn’t how Jesus worked. Remember that wonderful chapter in Mark’s gospel: when Jesus worked, he paid attention to that which was right in front of him–a bleeding woman, a little girl, the “hidden ones” of society. But the bleeding woman realizes that when Jesus looks at her, she is no longer hidden. She is no longer an anonymous body in the crowd of people pressing in around him. Because Jesus paid attention to her, her face and her identity were revealed to the world through him. She was made whole in body, spirit, and society.

And Jesus didn’t start that day off thinking about healing the sick and raising the dead, I suspect. No; he simply went about his day and did precisely the task that was in front of him. He had no seminarian aspirations. He simply did what happened to him.

Can we as Christian leaders do what happens to us? Or is our vision so clouded with our stupid dreams that we baptize and call “the Lord’s work” that we don’t see the task that’s right in front of us?

Guilty as charged, my journal reminds me.