Monday, September 22, 2014

Filters That Distort

PLEASE NOTE:

This post is a very personal reflection on depression, spiritual abuse, and filters through which we process information and interactions with others. It is not a critique of how people engage online or in person, nor of anyone else's spiritual journey, theology, or behaviors. My experiences should not be universalized and should not be used in an attempt to silence or critique others.

I’ve been feeling really depressed lately.
Oh GREAT! Another blog post talking about depression. Another crybaby looking for sympathy. Another white dudebro complaining about how hard life is for him. BOO HOO. WANK WANK.
Be that as it may, if I can’t be honest and vulnerable about my own personal and spiritual journey, what’s the point writing and sharing anything at all?
You don’t get it though: your pain doesn’t matter. Jesus doesn’t love YOU; you are too privileged. He came to save those who are oppressed, not those who already have easy access to power. Sure, you may be gay, but let’s be honest. In terms of oppression, white gay men are the least oppressed of all oppressed groups. Hell, straight white women are more oppressed than gay white men. So fuck you and your "pain."
Why I do tell myself these things? Why do I filter every direct criticism—and every criticism toward anyone that looks like me—into a criticism of my worth as a human being? Why am I so threatened, personally, by even indirect criticism?
Because you are used to being coddled in society as a white male, and any threat to your power means that you will feel threatened. Embrace the discomfort, you asshole.
I actually think that is true. But I think there are two other reasons at play; for me, anyway.

The first reason is that I suffer from depression. I hate to admit it, because it sounds like an excuse. But it’s true. I’ve been taking medication for depression for over 20 years. I now take two separate pills for depression and another pill for anxiety. I’ve experimented with not taking the pills, and the results have been bad. Physically, it feels like a thick, heavy sludge of hopelessness.

Even when I take the medication daily, the heavy sludge comes and goes. When it comes, I don’t know how to get rid of it except to just wait it out. The sludge is sitting there right now.
OK fine, you’re depressed. So are people who have had to struggle against so much more than YOU. People who don’t have access to healthcare like you do. People who have no supportive family or friends to help them through. You don’t get a cookie for admitting your mental illness. Shut up about your own problems and get to work in the Kingdom of God, you piece of shit.
The second reason is that I’ve suffered years of subtle spiritual abuse. Now, to be clear, I have a loving family who never, ever abused me spiritually, physically, mentally, sexually, or otherwise. Spiritual abuse occured because of the systems in which I grew up—the Christian churches and schools and universities and workplaces. I heard the message loud and clear: you are not OK. I heard and internalized this message even before I knew I was gay.

To make things more complicated, I was both blessed and cursed with an especially keen sense of what other people wanted. This awareness became my coping mechanism. Using this awareness, I shaped my thoughts and actions to match up to what I thought was expected of me. I was a quick learner. The more I got the affirmation, the more I craved it. I was more “OK” when I received that affirmation, so I molded my thoughts and actions to match up to those who were willing to give the affirmation.

Coming out was the most subversive and courageous thing I’ve ever done in my life, because it went against every coping instinct I had. It opened the door to a journey of healing and wholeness. That journey is taking me to a place where being OK, despite criticism and non-affirmation, is possible. It’s allowing me to dive deeper and find my true self, instead of hiding behind the masks that I manufactured according to others’ specifications.

Unfortunately, I’m far from there. I’m still coping. I’m still manufacturing masks. I’m still threatened by criticism.
Of course you are. Another idiot male threatened by criticism. You’re just using these arguments to garner pity for yourself. But you know what? You don’t deserve pity. You don’t deserve being loved and affirmed. White men are loved and affirmed every day for merely existing. Just shut the hell up.
And I’m still haunted by voices. Today, though, as I try to make sense of and integrate a Christianity that is focused on social justice, the voices use different words. They have different priorities and expectations. Unfortunately, the voices still sound the same—and the thick, heavy sludge is still there.

I know these aren’t the real voices. The voices I hear and the things I read are filtered through my experience, my pain, and—yes—my mental illness. I understand this from a cognitive distance. It doesn’t help the way I feel. And at this point, I don’t know what to do about it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Crushed by Sin


Like other white Americans, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson shocked and angered me. It then reminded me of past injustices, left me feeling and acting defensively, and finally left me broken.
  1. I was shocked that an unarmed man was shot and killed.
  2. I was angered that such injustice and violence continue to happen against people of color.
  3. I was reminded that this type of violence and oppression is a devastating reality of U.S. history.
  4. I became defensive—how could I be responsible for sins of the past? Why are people of color angry at me and others who are only trying to help?
  5. I was left broken, feeling cursed with the "sins of the fathers, visited upon the third and fourth generation." Intentional or not, I participate in this oppression in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.
********************
This morning, my brother-in-law and I were discussing the concept of "sin." He mentioned how sin in the Bible is almost always characterized by a path--a path to destruction--rather than specific actions. Jesus, in contrast, is described as the path of Life, or simply The Way. Repentance from sin is a turning away from that path of destruction to The Way of Life.

Framing sin and repentance in this way, the concept of sin becomes so much more apparent and real. Somehow, white-centered Western Christianity became obsessed with individual "sins" and behavior modification. The fight against sin has been waged against flesh and blood, rather than what Paul describes in Galatians 6:12 as "principalities and powers."

When it comes to racial inequality, it makes sense when the Bible talks about the inevitability of sin ("for all have sinned")--both sinners and the sinned against. This helplessness against sin also makes sense when we realize that we live with the consequences, namely the "principalities and powers" that were constructed before we were born. But, as the Bible teaches, it doesn't make us any less guilty. Thus: sin truly is a curse.

The concept of sin being passed down is also illuminated in the Genesis creation myth. The writer of Genesis provides a metaphor for a sin committed in the past, dooming not only the ones who commit the sin, but also all of their descendants. The theological tradition that I absorbed was one of sin being passed down individual to individual, almost like a genetic trait. However, I now view sin as inherited oppressive societal structures, which are solidified by each generation that continues to ignore it.

At this realization, how can we not help but feel powerless? How can we not help but feel crushed by the weight of the sin of past generations, not to mention the sin that is perpetuated daily by its denial? How can we not feel crushed by our own intentional and unintentional participation? No wonder the origin of sin in the Bible is said to be a serpent—a wily creature that confounds and deceives.

I share these personal epiphanies about sin with you, not because I am the first person to come up with these ideas. (Far from it!) I share this with you because it is where I find myself: broken and unable to fix the problem. For me, it is the time for mourning, sackcloth and ashes, and lament. It’s this utter helplessness that brings me back to the concepts and teachings of Jesus, and the hope of the goodness and wisdom of what the Bible calls the Holy Spirit. Finally, I am driven to listen closely to the prophets of this and past generations, who have led and continue to lead us to fight the principalities and powers that violently and heartlessly tread on the least of these, and eventually curse us all.

Listed below are a few articles from modern-day prophets that I've read recently. Required reading for those of you who want to know more!


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Vision

The past 12 months have been a year of upheaval for me. There have been significant changes and challenges at work that have prevented me from writing and engaging as much as I’ve wanted to online and on this blog. I also haven’t felt the same spiritual energy and excitement I found a year ago. I’ve stopped attending church, in fact. I’ve also decided to take a year off of competitive tennis. And on Twitter and Facebook, I have been at times frustrated, infuriated, apathetic, defensive, and vindictive with people. I lost the thread of my story and the path of my journey.

Through various conversations at work, at home, and online, it finally hit me: I have no vision.

A vision is not meant to describe a current state of being. A vision is meant to stretch, challenge, and lead the way forward. Lacking a vision, is it any wonder that I feel confused, fearful, defensive, and reactive?

At the moment of realization, I started thinking about such a vision. I dug deep, beyond thoughts, into what I was feeling—both negative and positive. I wrote a draft, talked through it with my partner. I asked for guidance from friends. I lit a candle and sat in silence (this is how I pray). I made more edits and finalized both a vision and guiding principles. This is how I want to engage with family and friends, at work, in my community, and online.

I want to be very clear: the vision and guiding principles listed below are mine alone. I do not and will not expect others to live up to my vision and guiding principles. There are so many moving parts in the Body of Christ. It would be unfair and foolish for me to judge others on the basis of my own call.

Vision


Listen. I will open my ears and heart to actively listen and respond to those who share their journeys, challenges, struggles and cries for help, giving precedence to those who are marginalized by oppressive structures and systems in society and in the church.

Amplify. I will amplify the voices of those who are marginalized. I will not use those who are marginalized to amplify my own voice.

Speak. I will actively seek my personal hero’s journey. I will follow the path of this journey whenever and wherever I find it. I will speak up and share this journey in order to encourage and empower others, and to enable true connection.

Do Better. I will continue to grow and move forward by applying that which I have learned by listening, amplifying, and speaking. I will learn from my mistakes rather than give up because of them. I will be willing to change.

Guiding Principles


Honesty. I will be honest about my story and journey. I will be authentic in my engagement with others, including (and especially) when we disagree. I will honor (not deny) my thoughts and feelings, and communicate them using the other guiding principles.

Kindness. I will be kind (not necessarily “nice”) in my interactions with others. I will see God’s image in each individual before engaging. I will have compassion for myself and others.

Humility. I will be willing to accept and admit error. I will not engage with arrogance nor with negative humility (i.e., false modesty).

Patience. I will have patience with those who ask questions honestly. I will have patience with myself: I will not panic if I have nothing to share—the sharing will come eventually by following the journey.

Courage. I will not be afraid to stand up to those who use power to abuse and silence others. I will push through fear and tell my story.

Receptiveness. I will assume positive intent. I will be open to criticism and disagreement. I will be willing to engage when asked or challenged. I will not take disagreement personally.


Do you have a vision and/or guiding principles that have helped you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter/Facebook!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Between God and You



God is loving you when you try and fail.
God is loving you when you get angry and lash out.
God is loving you when you get it so, so wrong.
God is loving you when you are misunderstood.
God is loving you when you realize they were right about you after all.
God is loving you when you give up.
God is loving you when you try yet again and fail.
God is loving you when you are mocked for trying.
God is loving you when you are confused.
God is loving you when you get it right, and forget why you did the right thing in the first place.

God is loving you when you hate God for not being who you thought God was.

Between God and you there is nothing but love.
There is no space for anything else.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Hero's Journey

"Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." - Luke 17:21

Last week, I took a much-needed vacation. Because I live in Northwest Oregon, I didn’t have to go far to "get away from it all." Those of you who live here or who have visited know the breathtaking views of the Columbia Gorge, Forest Park, and Mt. Hood. Packing water bottles, beef jerky, granola bars, a Hikes Near Portland guide, and the book Awakening the Heroes Within by Carol S. Pearson, I was ready for a week of hiking and solitude.

If you are interested, you can view some highlights from these hikes!

The peaceful, live-giving atmosphere was the perfect setting to dive into Pearson's book. In Awakening the Heroes Within, Pearson asserts that every human being is capable of taking the "hero's journey." Simply put, the hero's journey is the call to true Self. Pearson describes twelve archetypes that have been coded into humankind's mythology, history, literature, art, and culture since ancient times. These archetypes give us a roadmap for the hero's journey: to go beyond Ego, find our Soul, and bring this treasure back as true Self. It is when we discover our true Self that we are able to transform our world.

What a great book to take on a long, beautiful hike! The physicality of walking the rocky, steep paths further solidified the concept of journeying. Pearson’s book was also the perfect follow-up to Speak, by Nish Weiseth. In Speak, Weiseth reminds us that each of our stories matter, and that we find true connection only when we share and listen to each other’s stories. The story is the journey.

II.

A key element of the hero's journey is the slaying of dragons. Today, there is a real evil--a dragon--that lives among us and breathes fire. This dragon is the structural oppression that has come from years of a patriarchy that values certain people above others. Like many mythical beasts, this dragon is cunning, vicious, and seemingly impossible to slay. Like the Hydra, it has multiple heads: racism and sexism are perhaps the strongest, most well-developed "heads." The dragon is cunning in that is convinces people it doesn't exist. It often uses otherwise well-meaning people to achieve its ghastly destruction. It enslaves us, and turns us against each other. Even those of us who are aware of its existence disagree on how the dragon should be slayed, and the dragon gleefully uses this confusion and dissension against us.

The ideas from Pearson and Weiseth are so vital, because they prepare us and encourage us to take the journey we ALL need to take in order to gain the wisdom to collectively slay this dragon.

We are overcome with contradicting voices: from family, friends, co-workers, employers, community, social media, news media, church, advertising, and from within. You must do this! You mustn't do that! You must speak up for the oppressed! You must be silent and allow the oppressed to speak for themselves! You aren't good enough! You are focused on the wrong things!

This is where I find myself stuck recently; and, if I’m honest, where I’ve found myself stuck over and over again: paralyzed by the din of conflicting voices.

Growing up and throughout my twenties, I was told that a core part of my identity—my sexuality—was broken. I was given this message directly by the church, and indirectly by society as a whole. The voices discouraged me from taking my journey. However, I could not HELP but heed the call to the journey. It was either that or die.

The voices may be well-meaning; they may even be speaking from their true Selves and from the wisdom they have gleaned from their own journeys. However, in the end, you must take your own hero's journey. If you do not, you will not have the ability to transform your world and slay the dragon. You will not have the discernment needed to filter through voices that come from hurt, malice, or opportunism. You must first find your story, live your story, and then tell your story. Taking the hero's journey not only gives you the ability to find, live, and tell your story; it also allows you to do what's most important: listen to other peoples' stories, connect with them, and build with them. Here is where true solidarity, true connection, and effective collective action can be achieved.

To that end, I must find, live, and tell MY story. Anything different would be powerless against the dragon.

In a later post, I want to provide a visual to flesh out these ideas more fully. In this visual, I'll show what a hero's journey can look like, what archetypes are at play, and what archetypes can be most helpful to those on the journey.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Opportunity Missed

Recently, TIME published an article from Sierra Mannie who asked white gay men to stop appropriating the culture of black women. While some understood and agreed with the overall message of the piece, many others (including some of my friends) took offense to it. As you might guess, the blogosphere produced a number of passionate responses of agreement and disagreement.

For me, I cannot think of a more perfect introduction to intersectionality, a term developed by law professor Dr. Kimberl├ę Crenshaw. I’ve always found the term to be awkward and overly "academic," but the concept behind it is a good one. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I would suggest starting with the Wikipedia page and then read a couple of excellent articles here and here.

In Christian terms, it’s a practical tool to help us follow the Golden Rule.

Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, author, and speaker, puts it this way:

"But when we only pay attention to and promote stories that we personally find relatable and affirming, we blind ourselves to the ways in which we are cutting ourselves off from, silencing and marginalizing others. It's easy to think that only ├╝berprivileged people need to think intentionally about connecting with and creating space for marginalized voices. But those of us who straddle the line between privilege and oppression need to be equally vigilant in this area. We can be blinded by our single-minded vision to raise our own voice and in doing so, ignore and oppress those who have even less of a voice than we do."

I believe that is the concept (and opportunity) that many white gay men missed: while being oppressed in their own right, they are at high-risk for being blinded to others unlike them who are also oppressed. Instead of listening to this woman’s story and experience, many simply responded in defensiveness. An opportunity for learning, connection, and a step toward reconciliation was missed.

While I have experienced some significant marginalization in society and in the church (I am a gay man), I also have an enormous amount of privilege (white, cis-gender male, U.S. citizen). Additionally, the acceptance of gays, lesbians, and same-sex relationships has increased and gained momentum in the U.S. in the past decade.

As someone with this mixture of privilege (a lot) and marginalization (some), I feel called and equipped to be a bridge between the two. Let me provide an general example. Often, those who are only just coming to terms with their own privilege have a lot of questions and experience a mild-to-moderate amount of shame, distress, and panic. Those who are marginalized often feel bombarded by the same questions and concerns by these folks. While the person of privilege may have honest questions, the onus really isn’t on the marginalized person to provide soothing words of comfort! However, some of us, including myself, have the experience to be a bridge between those so marginalized that they do not have a significant voice in our society, and those who are struggling to understand their own privilege and the existence of significant systems of oppression. To put it more simply, I do have the time and the energy to answer these questions, to provide education, and to amplify the voices of the marginalized to the ears of those more privileged than I am.

I think a lot of the angst and tension between activists and bridge-builders can be explained by this misunderstanding of roles. Activists are marginalized people and their allies standing in solidarity, moving the conversation forward in the public sphere, and challenging the status-quo. Bridge-builders are marginalized people and their allies providing the way forward for those who are willing, yet still searching, questioning, and integrating their own experiences and shadows. Because we are equipped for different roles, we experience disagreement in methods, tone, strategy, and even purpose.

In the end, we are all reliant on the Holy Spirit to guide us in love. May we listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow with courage. May we trust the Spirit to work in others as well, even if it looks strange and unsettling to us. May we always be open to critique, and may the Spirit give us discernment. And may we not miss another opportunity to celebrate our intentional diversity in the Body of Christ.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Guidelines for Being an Ally

I have always craved structure and rules. Rules gave me targets to reach in my Christian and academic pursuits. If I could read my Bible and pray for 30 minutes a day, then I would be a good Christian. As early as elementary school, I learned how to study and take tests in order to obtain the highest grade, regardless if I actually learned the material or not. I was that kid who scowled at the other kids who were less than respectful to the substitute teacher.

Soon, though, life got messy. By the time I was in high school, I was asking questions like: How does this Holy Spirit thing actually work? How am I supposed to live in the power of the Spirit and not the flesh? Should I just go limp like a marionette and let the Spirit pull the strings?!

To what end am I reading my Bible and praying for 30 minutes a day?

What is the actual moment of “saving faith”? What moment in time was my name written in the Book of Life? And if God predestined my soul to its eternal fate anyway, why does it matter if I do the quiet time routine?

As a young man coming to terms with being gay, I tried to navigate all the rules about sex and sexuality. Praying in a locked bathroom: I’m sorry God, I promise this is the last time. Then, later: Please don’t let me be gay, God. PLEASE. Still later: Help me to find my fulfillment in You as I sexually abstain.

Eventually I abandoned the rules of evangelical theology and the rules of evangelical behavior. There were too many questions and inconsistencies, and it was too hard to live up to the expected behavior. Abandoning these rules was important not only for my mental health, but also for my spiritual growth.

These days, I look toward the person of Christ and rely on the Spirit of God in a very non-rules-oriented way. God is too big; creation is too complex; human beings who bear the image of God reflect this complexity. I find value in the practice of Christianity through the teachings of Christ regarding love, justice, and mercy.

Lately, though, I’ve feel like I’ve been bumping up against a new set of rules. I’m not talking about guidelines for ethical behavior, such as the Golden Rule (or the Platinum Rule, which I believe is implied in the Golden Rule). No. I’m talking about hard and fast RULES of thought and behavior. Rules that dictate language. Rules that dictate discussion and interaction with others. Some rules are simply understood; others are explicitly recorded and practiced.

The best example I know regarding this type of rule-based practice is a chart titled Rules for ALLY CLUB (found here). This chart is intended for those who wish to support the marginalized and oppressed, to communicate the need of lifting their voices and letting them be seen, rather than taking center stage as an ally.

I understand the intention. I also understand that hyperbole can be used as an effective teaching and communication tool.

It still bothers the shit out of me.

So I decided to do something about it. I have created a companion piece Rules for ALLY CLUB called Guidelines for Being an Ally. As a gay person, I need people from all walks of life to not only be supportive, but knowledgeable about the struggles facing the LGBT community, and how these struggles intersect with other marginalized people and groups. I believe the Guidelines below communicate a more reasonable (and kind!) approach toward those who wish to support, learn, and love.

Rules for ALLY CLUB Guidelines for Being an Ally
You do not talk in ALLY CLUB. Actively listen to those who are marginalized and oppressed.
You DO NOT TALK in ALLY CLUB. Amplify the voices of the marginalized and oppressed.
If a marginalized person says STOP, the argument is over. When there is disagreement, do not continue to debate the point of disagreement if the marginalized person does not wish to do so. The voices of the marginalized should take precedent.
Ganging up on marginalized people and/or their blogs with a bunch of your privileged buddies means you’re out of ALLY CLUB. If marginalized people come after you in droves? YOU’VE FUCKED UP. APOLOGIZE. DON’T EXPECT TO BE FORGIVEN. Be ready and willing to apologize if a marginalized/oppressed person takes offense, even if you feel misunderstood. Be willing to hear stories, frustrations, complaints, and challenges with thick skin and open heart.
If you ping a bunch of marginalized people with the same bullshit “honest question, guise!” then you’re out of ALLY CLUB and automatically inducted into TROLL CLUB. Do as much education and research on marginalization and oppression as you can before asking questions. Reserve your questions for those with whom you have established trusted relationships.
No “what about me,” no “but privileged people don’t have perfect lives, either.” Wrestle with your own privilege with trusted advisors later; when acting as an ally, focus your attention and energy on the marginalized and oppressed.
If you fuck with marginalized people you do not get to say when the argument is over. It’s over when the marginalized people you fucked with say it’s over. If you’ve deeply hurt a marginalized person (intentionally or unintentionally), actively and willingly listen to the reasons why.
If this is your first time reading a social justice blog run by a certain group of marginalized people, DO NOT SUBMIT SHIT. Always favor listening and learning over speaking and teaching, especially if you are new to a community.


We need strong, uncompromising voices to lift up the marginalized and oppressed, and we need those who will listen and amplify our own voices. But I truly believe we ALSO need to understand that human beings are complex. There is a time for anger and powerful action, but surely—SURELY—there is also a time for patience and kindness.

What do you think?