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.

Fear Not

MMXIV, c’est fini!

Truthfully I’ve never been one for the end-of-year apotheoses that Bloggers Aplenty are feverishly typing in order to post before the earth turns ever so slightly into the future. This is even moreso the case now that I’m done with a year that has been a melange of hope and despair (as every year is, if we’re honest). Is it honestly helpful for me to recount publicly the things that have happened that I like and that which I dislike? Probably not–most of that information is useless, anyway.

But here’s something perhaps a bit more useful: what I’ve learned.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. The best $2000 I spent this year was on my therapist, who led me through a confusing and life-changing time of emotional integration and self-compassion that’s enabled me to name and understand the people and processes that have been shaping me in good ways and in not-so-good ways. I called an abusive relationship what it was. I learned to listen to my heart. I stopped letting people and events from my past live in my head rent-free. And I think I learned a little bit more about discernment–do we ever figure that out, though? Mostly I just learned to be kind to myself.

Don’t be afraid to establish boundaries. After the blowouts in Ferguson and New York I got an unwelcome crash course on the ugliness that can come out of others when we refuse to take the earplugs of privilege out of our ears and attempt to square what is happening in the world with what we believe about humanity. Between the worship of the American Imperial Cult of Violentia, the devaluing of people’s lives because of their skin color, and the refusal to acknowledge that the System Is Fucked Up, my block button got some much-needed exercise. And that was okay. If one is bringing bigotry, hatred, racism, violence-worship–violations of the baptismal covenant, all of them–into my personal space, one is violating a boundary and I reserve the right to refuse to consent to that noise.

Don’t be afraid to shut up and listen. In fact, this is crucial, and pertains to the last item. I learned that sometimes it is Not My Job to speak about everything, because God raises new voices from unexpected places to be prophets, people whose experience allows them to speak to, well, that experience. I can speak all day about LGB issues. Not as much about T issues, and certainly not at all about the black experience in America. That’s why I yielded the floor to my friend Broderick to let him preach powerfully and prophetically about Ferguson and New York. That’s why I’ve done my best to signal boost, listen, and learn about the realities of white supremacy in America. And I have needed to be silent and listen because I have a role in the aforementioned Fucked Up System about which I need friends like Broderick to teach me so that the Good News I allegedly proclaim can really be Good News for everyone.

Don’t be afraid to own your mistakes. I’m in a new field this year, social work, which is admittedly one I don’t know a lot about. I’m learning how dependent I am on the ministry and accountability of others. I’m learning that, in some ways, I’ve still got a lot of ego sewn into my work clothes and I’m trying to slowly pull that out one thread at a time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But how can I improve in living out my calling without admitting I’ve failed and relying on the God who used a bunch of hard-core failures to turn the world upside down? It seems failure is exactly what God requires–not failure for its own sake, but failure unto learning.

Don’t be afraid to lack answers. It’s cute that it took me five years of seminary and a year in the trenches to figure this out, and I am still becoming more comfortable with that. “I have no idea where I’m going,” prayed Thomas Merton, and I find myself coming to that prayer over and over again in recent days. Because I don’t. I have my own well-crafted plans, ones which I am fairly sure are so perfect that they can’t help but have God’s stamp of approval. Of course, God is at least so kind to refer to them as “adorable” before she brushes them off the desk and gives me something else entirely. And the plans which God actually gives me are the ones that require the difficult but life-creating work of owning mistakes, shutting up to listen, honoring boundaries, and asking for help.

Because none of us are in this alone, and only together can we get anywhere, wherever that may be.

Traveling Mercies

I spend a lot of time in my car.

My intrepid Nissan Altima has seen many, many miles of the American countryside during its time in my care, the lion’s share of which it has suffered during my daily commute. I haven’t vacuumed the floorboards in a while so there’s a fine layer of road grit and leaf litter spangling the black upholstery abyss.

A few articles linger on my back seat–a CD wallet, a small cardboard box containing the “Insanity” workout DVDs (unused, naturally), stray mass bulletins that never found the recycling bin, and a binder from a conference I attended last summer.

The back seat of my car runs the risk of becoming that one forgotten room in the church building where the husks of summer vacation church school programs go to die. In some ways it’s like my car itself has become a church building–or at least it’s become the thing I wish a church building can be.

I’m at my most human and unguarded while driving, after all.

In the course of my commute I can run a traffic-induced gamut of emotions spanning all degrees from rage to elation depending on how the turn onto Old Bridge Road from 123 is going to go. Everyone knows about road mania in Northern Virginia–we live on the roads, we work on the roads, we rely on the roads to organize our family lives. Pedestrian-accessible? Nonsense. And not even with public transport is the stretch of highway between DC and Richmond really navigable for those poor souls without vehicular means.

So we spend hours on end in our cars, living a significant portion of our life behind the wheel–I clock at least ten to fifteen hours a week driving. It’s only natural that bits of my spirituality seep in through the cabin air filter.

I wish that I could be as ecstatically open with my feelings toward God as I am with my feelings toward the beloved child of God who–bless their heart–just cut me off in their Land Rover in the middle of a left turn. Glory! But perhaps that’s some of what the Psalmist felt when they wrote “blessed is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

But the truth is, even with an hour-long commute in one of the worst traffic areas in the country, I love to drive.

My adventures have taken me to cities and seas, to monasteries, mountains, and myriad wild, wonderful places; to truck stops and dive bars and dance clubs; to weird little antique shops in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of I-44 in Missouri that consisted of nothing but porn shops and Churches of Christ.

I’d stop on the side of the road to instagram sunsets and valleys and the accidental waterfalls that leach out where the water table hits the giant scar gouged into the earth to construct I-64 west of Lexington. Sometimes the beauty would pull a tear or several out of my eye.

II.

When I came out I put a lot of miles on my car.

Quite unsure of what I was to do and, in hindsight, oozing shame and terror, I took off in my gold 2002 Chevy Prizm with a peeling clear coat and peeled out of the driveway.

I spent many balmy autumn Kentucky evenings driving a circuit that took me out southwest of my college town, over the Kentucky River palisades, by a Shaker community-turned-museum, around to another much more liberal college town where my first job was–I’d stop and buy liquor just to bask in irony, because I worked for a tea-totaler baptist church–back up US 27 and into Wilmore.

In my car–not church–I felt for fleeting moments as though I could get away from the things that were holding me in thrall, and that if I widened my spiral around my town enough I’d eventually run into a monastery where I could dramatically crash my car into a tree, throw a robe on, and make it into the chapel just in time for mass.

If I spent the rest of my life running, I reasoned, I’d never actually have to become a whole person. And so I ran for a solid three months.

When I finally stopped running long enough to sit still and heed the perplexed voice of God wondering aloud what the hell I thought I was doing, I kept driving. I traded the Prizm for the Altima in the following spring, during Holy Week. And I kept driving, a fresh car with new memories, playing a Beyoncé CD on repeat.

Somewhere in all that time spent in my car, my car became a church. There’s an icon of Christ the Teacher in my console and a St Benedict medal hanging from my rear-view mirror. More than once there’s been a black leather bag with a phial of God’s blood and a hunk of God’s flesh in it on the seat next to me, ever so gingerly placed (and buckled in).

In addition to giving Jesus a ride, I gave a stranger a ride too; they’re the same thing, after all. I shared meals with friends at the Parkette. I blasted dance music in parking lots. I took the Eucharist to darling people. I forgot to take the Eucharist to someone (ask me about that later). I swore like a trucker and got mad. I had long, hard conversations. I wept and I guffawed. I drove to go see a moonbow at 3AM the night before I had to preach for the first time in years. And then I packed up all the crap I could fit and drove–not ran–home to start a new job in a new field as a new person.

III.

A car might be a means of grace. It’s not so patently ridiculous–if God becomes bread and wine to feed God’s people, if God is blowing everywhere and filling all things, then surely she can use metal and vinyl and upholstery and glass and gasoline to be a sacred space.

Whenever I had to make that long slog from my parents’ home in the DC suburbs to my college town–when I was still running, in other words–my dad would always pray for traveling mercies. In fact, dad still prays that whenever we take a trip together, or when I’m off for a trip by myself.

Maybe it wasn’t that he was praying I’d get there safely, though perhaps that was a part of it. Perhaps he prayed that I’d be able to hear the voice of God amid the road noise and Beyoncé beats.

IV.

When I mentioned packing all my crap into my car and driving home, what I failed to point out was that said trip was actually my second haul from Lexington to DC in a month’s time.

During the beginning of November last year, I wept in my Altima during a conversation when told by an administrator from my seminary that I was under disciplinary investigation by my conservagelical seminary. Someone had reported statements I had made on my blog regarding my identity and support of queer people. That same administrator–in the same breath, almost–told me that my calling and identity were sacred gifts that nobody could take from me.

Later that month I was in a Red Robin bar when I got a phone call from my dad, who was audibly shaken. My godfather had passed away. We knew Fletcher was going to pass for a while—he was in his late nineties and had lived the kind of teeming, abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s gospel—but even when one expects these things, one is never quite prepared for the lurch.

A hurried missive from the bar—I was trying to keep it together—went to my field placement mentor to ask for a bye for the following Sunday. With her blessing I went home and threw together my clericals, cassock and surplice, and some other odds and ends of clothing so I could leave first thing in the morning to make it to the funeral.

There wasn’t a lot of music on that trip; mostly road noise and a smattering of Beyoncé songs from the CD still in the dash. The next morning we sullenly dressed, piled into the car and set off on our way. Dad prayed for traveling mercies before we backed out of the driveway; between Dumfries and Fredericksburg I remember numbly saying my morning office to myself in the back seat of my dad’s hybrid, the ceiling too low for my enormous head, the plastic rectangle on my clericals digging into my throat and pulling whiskers that I hadn’t had time to trim.

I didn’t weep until the frigid Sunday afternoon when we buried Fletcher in Danville, while we were singing “In the Garden.” I remember hiding my face behind the half-sheets of paper with the lyrics on them while the guardsmen’s captain hassled the presiding pastor about the funeral taking too long.

We ate at Wendy’s later, mom, dad, and I; we didn’t say much.

Fletcher baptized me and set me on my journey, and I suspect that he’s surprised by the turns it’s taken since I was a rotund little thing in the baptismal waters. He was responsible for my dad’s meeting Christ, and in that mystical communion-of-saints way, my own. And more besides.

Fletcher was the kind of man who prayed for traveling mercies, and I suspect that he still does. And I pray to St. Fletcher sometimes, too, because he didn’t just pray for traveling mercies; he lived them.

I Have Called You Friends

A recent afternoon adventure took me to a Hindu temple for the first time, namely, the Siva-Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland.

The one thing we never talked about in seminary was how to appreciate another’s religious tradition. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; we were taught to appreciate it in order to dismantle it and win people over to evangelical Christianity. And here I was, watching men and women and children worship in an effusive whirl of saris and songs and delicious food.

And I, doing my best to be reverent and not knock anything over, found myself joining in silently, using what prayers I knew: “Come, Heavenly Comforter and Spirit of Truth, blowing everywhere and filling all things…” And there was joy, and beauty, and a tasty meal afterwards.

Because Abraham’s kids all live on the same block, it’s easy enough to engage in those conversations that drag us into the realm of the spiritual; it’s easy to live on the borders of faith when we all claim religious descent from a tribe of kooky Levantine nomads. What about those traditions that are simply not-of-this-floodplain?

The impulse of conservative religion is to dismiss another religion’s traditions as “demonic idol worship,” or perhaps with the more genteel othering of “false teaching.” On the other hand, the impulse of liberal religion is to blur the outlines of each tradition’s understanding of the deity. “Jesus Christ was an avatar of Vishnu,” one well-meaning ecumenist may say; “Allah is another name of Yahweh,” says another.

Perhaps the same Christ who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” also dances on the back of ignorance, or brings mountains of medicine (his own flesh and blood?) to heal those to whom he is devoted. But Christ is not Shiva nor is he Hanuman, and I have no desire for him to be because Siva and Hanuman deserve their own share of the collective unconscious’ airtime.

On the contrary, however, that’s not to say that those traditions don’t give me new ways of imagining Christ, or of understanding his work in the world. In that sense I’m not a theological liberal, because at the end of the day Christ remains unique, but I’m not a theological conservative either, because I would hope that I have the openness of heart as a follower of Christ to be able to embrace other people for whom the Christ I know and follow is still a stranger–even with enough humility to learn from their traditions.

Perhaps there are many paths to the Christ who is reconciling the world to God in his body. But that is not for me to say, because at the end of the day the language I have been given for the divine is that of the Christian story in which Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” That’s what I speak in; that’s what I know, what fits like a beloved pair of jeans. But neither is my faith threatened by the faiths of others; in fact, the devotion of another can (and does!) fan the flame of my own devotion to Christ.

For me, Christ is a scrappy Jewish peasant with a penchant for wonderworking, who gave his followers his very life in a sacred meal and called them–called us!–his friends. The greatest goal, the uttermost thing, “the only thing worthwhile,” says St Gregory of Nyssa, “is becoming God’s friend.” And Jesus has called us friends. Not devotees or followers, not servants or disciples, but friends.

That being the case, I think it only fitting that those of us whom Christ called friends in turn go outside of the perimeter of the Christian tradition to find those other people whom God is calling into friendship with God, with enough openness to embrace God’s friends wherever they can be found. That, friends, is sharing good news: “you are a friend of God.”

As a Christian, I’ve got no issue attending a seder or sharing prasadam–whatever is offered as hospitality is offered to the Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” and whose capricious weaving together of all creation means he might show up here and there in naught but calligraphy, or elsewhere with breasts, or perhaps a tail or blue skin, or even on a chalkboard somewhere as a mathematical formula. A shocking suggestion, perhaps–but is it so shocking that the trickster Holy Spirit would use whatever means are at her disposal to make friends with all people?

Maybe we should be shocked at the work of the Holy Spirit.

Winning Words

I still remember my old way of talking about the work of God.CRUCIFXN

It’s a way that many in the American South speak about God’s work–“Jesus suffered and died a gruesome death that you rightly deserve in your place so you don’t have to.” No, something says in our gut, that’s not quite right. Could God be so ugly?

Not a small number of people have refused to speak about God like this. The idea behind this language itself originates in the late middle ages with St Anselm of Canterbury, and the idea is completely foreign to God-talk of the pre-Reformation Church.

But even then, the ideas hang heavy and heady in the imagination of disenchanted people for whom this was the bread and butter of a religious imagination that strove to remind them how worthless they were in the sight of God–as if God were doing us some cosmic favor and saying, “you owe me one.” And so some words still throb with a certain pained beauty–at the communion this morning we sang “How Great Thou Art,” which has that problematic line,

and when I think that God, his son not sparing,
sent him to die; I scarce can take it in–
that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
he bled and died, to take away my sin.

When my voice breaks with hidden tears as we’re singing, the faithful are queuing up at the altar rail to eat our glad-burden-bearing God.

Take, eat; this is my body broken

But this hymn doesn’t have to be read like that or sung like that, as if it were a celebration of a God gleefully beating his son into a pulp to get out of doing the same to us. No; here is poetry, here is a picture of the way God works in deep and radiant mystery. And I, singing it, do not have to reject the poetic cradle for this mystery.

Drink this, the cup of the new covenant in my blood

In the divine poetic, Jesus gladly bears the burdens of being human–perhaps even demanding that we cast our burdens on him lest we believe for a second that we are excellent enough to hide behind our effort. And he dies to take away sin by allowing himself to be plunged into the worst that humanity has to offer and dragging those things down to the grave whence they came.

We proclaim his death until he comes again

For Christians, anyway, the Cross is where we see God in God’s true incomprehensible form. It is no miracle that the God of life would rise from the dead; the real miracle is that God would die in the first place, identifying utterly and totally with God’s creatures in the process. The God who dies is a God who is for us, who feeds us out of the fruit of a divine sacrifice, whose broken body is reconstituted in the body of a broken and suffering Church that bears witness to a God who is for us up to and beyond death.

Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia

I hate what this hymn does to me. Every time I sing it I’m reminded of the men whose favorite hymn it is, of their witness to the power of a new-thing-doing, life-out-of-death God, a burden-bearing God, a world-inverting God. And so I weep, not for sadness, or nostalgia, or even the joy of having the burdens of human brokenness taken off my shoulders. I’m not really sure why I’m crying. Perhaps it’s just the utter weight of beauty, a burden itself heavier than stars and lighter than air.

E’er She Calls

prayer-card-good-shepherd-prayer-for-vocationsI entered seminary five years ago under the impression that I had been called to ministry.

The call was real enough. I have been so told, and that calling has been tested and affirmed in community as well as my episodes in own journey. But I imagined when I “answered the call” that the process of so doing would somehow set me on a path whereupon all the divots and bumps of the human journey would be smoothed out, such that I could soar through my education, catch my diploma midair, and gently spiral into a cushy landing as an associate pastor under commission in the United Methodist Church.

Needless to say, such isn’t the case five years later.

Interestingly, what prompted my decision to enroll at ATS was my chance encounter with Romans 8.1, which came at the end of a long struggle against my perceived call to ministry. Near the end of my undergrad career I was faced with it, as I had considered for some time what it was precisely that God wanted me to do with my life. I heard the verse–“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”–and I wrote in my journal, “I can’t not tell people this.” I took this as a cue to enter into seminary towards a life as a professional proclaimer of non-condemnation, as I imagined the ministry to be.

It’s a real gas that such a verse would be the key in my vocation’s ignition, which had been silently simmering below a seven-year melange of high school finding-of-thyself, classical music training at evangelical college, and internalized homophobia. The priceless pearl of truth that I thought I had to share with the world–that there was now no condemnation–ended up, at the end of seminary, being the very thing that I needed to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

But then, how would I be able to proclaim it if I didn’t live it? And having lived it, indeed, how can I not proclaim it?

I had the benefit of an excellent field placement mentor during seminary who often pushed me on this issue of calling–why do I feel called? Thanks to her prodding, I’ve turned this over in my mind for a long time. I certainly have my commission on ministry and bishop’s interview answers–that this is a calling I have been led to through prayer, participation in the sacraments, growth in community, &c.–but I also sense deep, abiding pull that I can’t quite put into words. It’s as if the vortex of God’s dance of self-giving love has sucked me into it in this particular channel for living out my death and resurrection. I feel like I can’t not do it.

Is that a complete answer? Probably not. There’s only as much as I know to this point; what will be revealed in the future remains clouded in God’s unboundedness.

But my sense-of-call isn’t because I think I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t a pastor, or that being a priest will suddenly shuffle everything in my life into a manageable order, or that being a priest will finally get others to respect me, or even that being a priest will finally get God to love me. Those were all things I thought at one point or another during seminary. And a lot of people in discernment and formation think these things, if we’re being honest. Because God calls humans, baggage and all, to baptismal ministry, and from there on to ordained ministry. I can’t not do it because this is the path, one, that God has called me to whereupon I’ll work out my salvation, and two, because I’ve chosen to answer that call. We’re always free to say no to the call.

But I’ve chosen to say yes to it, to set out on the journey of testing and fanning it into flame in a community, knowing that I will hurt, and I will suffer, and I will celebrate, and I will hold others. Because Christ has hurt, suffered, celebrated with, and held me. But all along the way I will tell people that they are freed from condemnation, because God has freed me from condemnation in ways that I could only experience by walking out the journey of formation and discernment. It’s my hope that I will be a faithful witness to that unconquerable God-is-for-us love each time I share love and welcome and food with them.

In that, my vocation ceases to be about me at all–because it’s only ever truly been about the Caller and Her beloved people.

The Desired Family

A couple of days ago my friend Alan posted on hir blog a striking reflection on Luke 8.19-21. The gist of Alan’s argument was that Jesus did not come to protect so-called “traditional” family values, but rather through his ministry created a new sort of family relationship that was not tied to bloodlines and family structures but rather whether one was within the desire (thelema) of God–that Jesus’10447055_657248383161_7838373164928455718_n teaching deconstructs prevalent notions of family that existed in the Greco-Roman world and persist to today. God’s reign does not only bring shalom to heteronormative middle American nuclear families, but to those of us whose families look a little weirder than normal.

The myth of the nuclear family still pervades Western imagination. Even in the gay rights movement what we essentially see is a retrofitting of the nuclear family myth to include same sex parents as opposed to the expected opposite-sex pairing of mom and dad. The same sex parents adopt or have children through surrogacy in order to achieve the required 2.5 broodlings, and perpetuate the familial structure that has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of I Love Lucy. That’s the kind of family the media feeds us, the kind of family that makes it into a prime time sitcom spot (even though I adore Modern Family).

Many of the arguments for inclusion from the Christian equality activists–bless them!–even seem to focus on including this kind of family, without really considering whether the image of family that their activism endorses is really appropriate for the ones on whose behalf they speak.

But what about those families that aren’t quite as normal looking? What about those families that don’t fit the expectations of popular imagination? What about those families I like to describe as “post-nuclear,” whether by accident or by choice? Childless couples? Single adults? Close more-than-friends, not-quite-couples? Monastic communities? Non-custodial parents? The mentally and physically disabled? Extended relations all gathered under one roof? Celibate LGBTQ couples?

We frequently use the term “family” in a sort of quasi-nostalgic way when we speak of our work “family,” or our college “family”–what we typically mean is our incredibly close friends, but we use an image-caked word to conjure exactly how close they are. We mean people with whom we share life in common. In the economy of thelema that Jesus’ preaching advocates, it seems as though the sex-soaked bonds of genos and patria are being dissolved in favor of a vision of family that rests in shared life in common, where a community can be a locus of soul-making and bestowing blessing upon its individual members–and moreover, a community where we can respond to being desired by God by communally desiring God in return.

I know this is the case for me–my family is queer all on its own, though I’m the only person in it who identifies as queer. I’m a divorced, gay, non-custodial parent who lives 1,200 miles distant from my kid, born the old-fashioned way in my previous mixed-orientation marriage. My experience of what “family” is has been redefined by virtue of accident and geography, and it is decidedly non-traditional–but I’m still my child’s father by blood, her dad by choice, and our relationship is such that it opens deep wells of love within me that I’m never quite sure are there until I hear, see, or touch her. It’s astoundingly difficult and yet this “family arrangement” pulls riches out of my soul I didn’t realize lay buried under my own fears and doubts about whether or not I’m still her dad at the end of the day.

In the household of God it’s as if we are still living under one roof, and in that space I find us both in the divine thelema, living as family together with my blood relatives as well as those brothers and sisters, those with whom I share not blood but an experience of living in the divine desire. Together our love for Christ and belovedness by Christ grafts us into a gene-transcending family tree. And that familial space becomes an environment in which we can indeed grow into the full stature of the maturity of Christ, for whom “family” meant an unwed mom, a foster dad, petulant half-brothers, and a band of friends who loved him in absurd and beautiful ways.

I think in some ways it is a calling to embrace a queer way of doing family, because the witness of a queer family tells the world that shalom is not just for the socially privileged, for the normal, for the regular. The beauty of divine desire is that it embraces the weirdnesses that we all carry with us throughout our life. And my concern in all of this is whether or not our churches will be inclusive enough to recognize the way that divine desire is already knitting people together into divine families, weirdnesses and all. Perhaps one day they will; until then, we’ll keep on being family.

Pride and Pentecost

The fact that Pentecost is occurring on the same weekend as one of the largest Pride events on the east coast isn’t lost on me.

Pentecost is a weird spoke in the wheel of the year, but it’s an amazing one all the same. As the Orthodox hymn for the feast goes, “Blessed art Thou, Christ our God, Who didst make the fishermen wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them didst draw the world into Thy net. Lover of humanity, glory to Thee.” There’s a deep, deep transformation at the heart of the Pentecost experience, a great reversal–interesting that Luke, who is so interested in the Great Reversal, is the one who preserves this story for us: utterly unqualified people become the voice of God, calling the nations back into God’s fold.

Pride celebrations in June were begun in an effort to commemorate and celebrate the beginnings of what has come to be known as the “gay civil rights” movement, in particular the Stonewall Riot of 1969. As one telling of the story goes, the riot began when several patrons of the Stonewall Inn were being hauled away under false pretenses by police–they had done nothing wrong, other than celebrating who they were in the company of friends. As this was happening, someone shouted, “don’t just stand there, do something!” The ensuing chaos became the spark that enkindled a major wave of LGBTQ activism, identity-claiming, and fighting for equal protection under the law. No longer would people like me accept mistreatment for something they have no control over.

The whole Stonewall story sparks my imagination of the events of Pentecost, which need not be rehashed. Could it be that the prompting of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles as tongues of fire and sent them out in the streets, as if the Spirit were saying, “don’t just wait here, do something!” And can’t Peter’s message to the crowd of people from all over the Mediterranean basin be summarized in similar words–“don’t just stand there, do something!”

Both Pentecost and Pride are seasons for owning identities. Pentecost sees catechumens being baptized and candidates receiving their holy orders as together they join in calling the world into the Ekklesia of God. Pride sees a celebration of people who are striving towards integration, called out because of their identity and difference from what was considered “normal.” Pride is fundamentally about finding comfort in the “counter, original, spare, strange” ways that make queer folk unique.

Could it be that, in the Spirit’s movement, we might see a little bit of Pentecost amid all the rainbow flags and Mardi Gras beads? Sure, Pride is not without its excesses and debaucheries (then again, neither is Mardi Gras, which is rooted in Christian tradition anyway). But it provides a rare opportunity for the Church and the LGBTQ community to share a common pool of experiences, images, symbols, and metaphors. Pentecost was, after all, that glorious moment when the languages that broke humanity apart at Babel were transcended by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps one of the tongues being given to the Church now is that spoken by God’s queer kids.

Both seasons seem to be grounded in an experience of the life-giving spiral of pain and triumph. Peter was not ashamed to stand up and speak out in the face of castigation and judgment; neither were the men and women at Stonewall ashamed to stand up and speak out. And like Pride, Pentecost is that time where we get to be proud to be the Ekklesia of God, to open ourselves to a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, and let that renewed awareness propel us to works of piety and works of mercy in our mission to transform the world with the love of Christ. And maybe, just maybe, the invitation stands open for us to listen to ways in which LGBTQ folks are preaching the Gospel in new tongues to us Christians, as the Spirit once again empowers the voices of those whom others have dubbed unqualified.

Stumbling through Silence

I attempted to have a retreat day today.

I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.

After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.

And then I hit a wall.

Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.

Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?

Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because  it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.

There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.

Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.

In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.

Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.