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?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

How to Protest Same-Sex Marriage

To: Christians in the United States who oppose same-sex marriage

As legal barriers to same-sex marriage continue to topple, I thought about the term "marriage" and what that word means to you. Having once been a conservative Christian, I can empathize with the angst you feel as this instituion you hold as sacred is subverted by our federal and state governments.

But...wait a minute. Why is a sacred institution--some of you would say a sacrament--certified by secular government anyway? Should Christians with a traditional view of marriage even care how secular government defines marriage?

With this in mind, let me offer you a form of protest that would go much further than hunger strikes, political activism, or online petitions. Or even better than refusing mail that has a stamp with the photo of a well-known gay activist.

If you are married, immediately divorce or have your marriage annulled. If you are single and plan to get married someday, don't bother with a marriage license. Get married in your church in the eyes of God.

I'm not kidding. If you wish to show those who disagree with you that you are serious about your commitment to traditional marriage, do what I suggest above. Separating your marriage from any involvement with the State immediately sets you apart from what the State defines as marriage.

Another benefit to this form of protest is that it shows your opponents that you do not care about government entitlements to married people. It shows that you are willing to sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of your principles. It's one thing to tell same-sex couples not to marry because it is sinful. It's quite another to be willing to walk in their shoes by denying yourselves the rights that you currently hold.

Protesting same-sex marriage in this way wouldn't change my mind on the topic, but you would earn my respect. It would show me that you are willing to live out the principles that you believe, and that your commitment to Christ and his kingdom (as you see it) far outweighs your rights and privileges as a straight person in the United States.

Sincerely,
Kevin

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Saturday Christians

"Don't speed through today to get to Easter Sunday. Allow the work God does in and through the darkness to get done." – Scott Emery

Saturday is the day of Holy Week I can relate to the most. It’s the day after everything falls apart but before the happy ending. For me, Saturday represents the Shadow of Christianity. Even though I believe the God of Love exists, the reality on the ground still devastates. There is so much evil, so much injustice, so much horror, and so much non-love.

Throughout history, there have been institutions and people who identify as Christians binding the wounded and shining light in the darkness. But that Shadow—damn. Just as often (dare I say more often), they have been silent or have enabled or have perpetrated the very evil that Christ came to overcome.

The Problem of Evil contributed to the gradual death of my childhood faith. It was an earnest faith, but it was one that I sought to control. Eventually, I found myself wrestling not only with the Problem of Evil, but also my sexuality, scientific data, and the dark side of church history. I lost the wrestling match, and limped away like Jacob. All seemed lost. I was a loser of the faith, one of those types of seeds in the parable that didn’t make it to full growth.

Still, I cling to hope. Hope that all is not lost. Hope that Love exists and grows and expands. Hope that the God of Love is there. My hope is nurtured not when I hear loud worship or fiery preaching or persuasive theology. My hope is nurtured when I see moments of human vulnerability, kindness, empathy, and tenderness. At this point in my journey, faith looks a lot more like hope than belief.

When hope is all you have left, then you are a Saturday Christian. Good Friday is over. Sunday is yet to come. But as Scott Emery implies in the quote above, we need to travel through this darkness. Put another way, we need to have our immature faith wrenched from our white-knuckled grip. Only then can resurrection come. As a Saturday Christian, that is my only hope.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bridges over Troubled Waters

In Portland, Oregon, twelve bridges span across the Willamette River, which divides the city into East and West. Portland has many nicknames (City of Roses, Stumptown, Portlandia, Rip City) but one of the more common ones is Bridgetown.

My first memory of Portland was when my partner and I drove into downtown via the Burnside Bridge. It was around midnight, and we were finishing the third full day of driving from Ohio. We were exhasted and cranky, but I'll never forget seeing that neon Made in Oregon sign with the throwback font and the galloping white stag.

That move to Portland is symbolic of my own spiritual journey: over the years I've transitioned from a conservative evangelical worldview to a much more progressive Christian agnostic worldview. The symbolism doesn't end there, however. More importantly, that vivid memory of crossing the bridge reminds me of my specific calling as a bridge builder.

What exactly is bridge building? First of all, let me emphasize what it is not. Bridge building does not mean compromise. When you build a bridge, you are building a bridge to a person. You are saying: I may disagree with you on x, y, z, and more, but you and I are more than our opinions and ideas. We are both image-bearers and bonded together in our humanity. It means finding a connection. Common ground. Bridge building is one of the many incarnations of Love.

But I realized something, just recently. In the greatly diverse and mysterious Body of Christ, we are all bridge builders. Personally, I feel called to bridge the gap between progressive Christians and those who I call "potential allies" - those who have honest questions, doubts, and fears regarding faith and sexuality. But those I who I would label progressive activists are actually bridge builders too. They are building bridges with people that no one else could reach--they fiercely stand in solidarity those who are marginalized by society, by the church, and by other power structures that most of us struggle to see. Still others build bridges with those who have suffered horrific abuse from family members, church authorities, spouses, acquaintances, and strangers.

Recently, there has been talk of many Christians abandoning the "evangelical" label once and for all. As someone who abandoned that label years ago, I welcome this news. However, as necessary as it may be to leave the label behind, it still leaves many others feeling caught, abandoned, even betrayed. It takes someone with a unique calling to build bridges across this divide.

Across the spectrum of what we label as Left and Right there are multiple divides. I believe we each have a unique calling to stand in one (or more) of these multiple divides. I also believe these divides are symptoms of our world's Chaos, rather than the cause of it. Divides are inevitable and often necessary. But as we struggle againsts the "principalities and powers" of this Chaos, let's not forget our own specific calling to build bridges to people across the divide we find ourselves. In that sense, the church can be a spiritual Bridgetown.

What about you? Do you feel a specific calling as bridge builder? If so, to whom?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Enough

I haven't written in quite a while. I haven't gone to church in quite a while. I find myself ill-equipped to climb the Mountain, which seems to get steeper and smoother, with fewer footholds available.

The Mountain represents the person I want to be, or at least the characteristics I think I need to have in order to be a person of worth.

There are plenty of voices that cheer me on. But the chorus of voices who tell me that I'm Not Enough have all but silenced the other voices. The Not Enough chorus, although their voices come from a variety of locations, chant in unison. The phrase "sphere of influence" is apt, because the voices come from every conceivable direction. From the Right (conservative Christianity), from the Left (progressive Christianity), from above (privileged white American men), from below (the marginalized and justly angry), and every other 3-dimensional direction. It's eerie how such disparate voices can combine so effortlessly to say the same thing loudly and clearly: you are Not Enough.

*****

Another Sunday morning. Another day skipping church. Another day not writing. So I decided to try something.

On a piece of paper, I wrote down as many Not Enoughs as I could. Then I cut each Not Enough into a small strip of paper. From the kitchen I grabbed a bowl, a big glass of water, and some scissors. Finally, I grabbed the color-changing Glade candle I use when someone asks me to pray for something. (I don't really have it in me to pray anymore. Instead, I think of that person and light a candle for them.)



I lit the candle, and placed the first Not Enough strip into the flame. At first, the paper burned too quickly and once or twice I almost burned my fingers. After about the fifth or sixth try, I was getting the hang of it. I placed the strip of paper not into the flame, but very close to it. The paper ignited quickly, but the flame danced across the strip of paper slower than before. It gave me a chance to reflect briefly on the Not Enough that was burning up.



I'm not going to pretend that it was a life-changing experience, or even that I felt all that better afterwards. But it was something. It was church for me today.



*****

Next Sunday I want to try it again. Next time, I want to think about each Not Enough a little longer before I burn it. I want to reflect on why I think I'm Not _____________ Enough. I don't want to give up trying to be _______________. But I want to give up feeling stuck because I'm not ______________ enough.

My Not Enough list: not kind enough, not loving enough, not empathetic enough, not smart enough, not brave enough, not strong enough, not intersectional enough, not Christ-like enough, not queer enough, not talented enough, not giving enough, not forgiving enough, not good-looking enough, not muscular enough, not thin enough, not athletic enough, not thick-skinned enough, not hard-working enough, not open-minded enough, not quiet enough, not successful enough, not calm enough, not patient enough

In what ways do you feel you are Not Enough?