Thursday, February 28, 2013

Response to Tim Challies' Post

I hate writing things like this, because (1) I hate that spiritual and sexual abuse happen in the world, let alone in the church, (2) I don't feel smart enough to engage in debate about ANY topic, and (3) the neo-reformed movement is one big TRIGGER for me personally.

I'm writing a very quick response to this article because I feel I need to speak up for victims of abuse, and against those who (unwittingly) perpetrate it and silence these victims.

My response is this: Mr. Challies, you have unfortunely provided a textbook example of how to use the Bible--via prooftexting--to defend almost ANYTHING.

  • You use John 13:35 to silence dissent
  • You use I Cor 13:7 to tell us to "believe the best" and "hope all things" for SGM (Sovereign Grace Ministries); but not for the victims
  • You use Prov 18:17 (somehow) to tell us we should believe SGM because they "stated their case first" (which I still don't understand)

Your article does not represent the Christianity that I choose to believe. I understand that you probably believe I am NOT a Christian; most of my family identify as neo-reformed believers, so I am familiar with the theology.

That's all. For any who are reading this, please take action and tell Mr. Challies what you think (via twitter). More importantly, let this be a call to take any action you can against spiritual and sexual abuse of any kind, whatever that action looks like in your world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 6:7-15

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Honestly, I’m running out of steam on this Gospel blogging project. I will keep going, but I can’t force an earth-shattering epiphany with each passage that I read. The tension that I’m trying to keep during this project is the balance of (1) skepticism about the authorship, historical truth, and inerrancy of the Bible, (2) willingness to wrestle with the text, and (3) allowing it to be a “change agent.”

Summary of Matthew 6:7-15
Jesus provides a short prayer template in contrast to the long-winded type that the religious leaders use to impress God and others. He also urges us to forgive those who wrong us, so that God will forgive our wrongs. Otherwise, he won’t forgive us our wrongs. [!!]

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 6:7-15
Jesus continues challenging the conventional religious wisdom of the day. Regarding prayer, he mentions those who go on and on when they pray, thinking that God likes to hear long prayers.

Interestingly, he also says “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” Last week, on a Facebook community of which I am a member, someone asked a question regarding prayer. This person mentioned a relative who had some really bad health problems. The question was a good one: What is the purpose of praying for this individual, if God’s not going to change his mind? That’s been a question of mine, too. Unfortunately, this passage doesn’t seem to answer that question at all. All he does here is provide a template for prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) as a contrast to the outward piety of the religious leaders.

The Contemporary English version that I’m using for this project has some slight variations to how I’ve learned the prayer. Listed below is each line of the prayer, followed by my own thoughts:

Father in heaven, help us to honor your name
Takeaway: help us live our lives in such a way that gives you a good name here on earth

Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you, as you are obeyed in heaven
Takeaway: build that perfect kingdom (described by Jesus) here on earth

Give us food for today
Takeaway: meet our needs

Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others
Takeaway: forgive us for not living out the kingdom life; we are empathetic to others who don’t do it either, because it is really difficult if not impossible

Keep us from being tempted and protect us from evil
Takeaway: keep our eyes fixed on building this kingdom; protect us from the evil in this current world—including the evil done to us and the evil we may to do others purposefully or unintentionally
In the two verses immediately following this prayer, Jesus tells his followers the forgiveness axiom:
Forgive others --> God will forgive you
Don’t forgive others --> God will not forgive you
Horribly, these verses are often used to shame others into forgiving their abusers. I think one needs to always keep in mind the context of what Jesus is doing during this whole sermon, which is contrasting the hypocritical actions and motives of religious leaders with something that is much more lasting and profound.

What goes through my mind as I read are the slices of conservative evangelical theology that attempt to exalt these words to the level of God, and then mold and twist the words into some sort of consistency with their current viewpoint of salvation via a “personal relationship with God.” (I admit it’s hard for me not to do that, either.) What I tend to forget is that this text was written almost 2000 years ago. Because of the time we’ve had as a species to learn more about our universe, we know so much more about the world around us (including the biology, chemistry, and psychology of human beings) than the authors of the Bible.

The question that we are left with is this: What principles can we take from the Bible, knowing what we know now about physical reality? This is a question that many Christians are taught never to ask. I’m going to continue to ask it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Social Justice, Dirty Jokes, and Jesus

Last week, I had an interesting three-day span:

  • Day 1: Wrote about something way out of my comfort zone (feminism) that I had been journaling about for weeks. Compared it to living as a member of God Kingdom.
  • Day 2: Laughed uproariously while trading dirty puns with a few friends, each raunchier and sillier than the last.
  • Day 3: Wrote a post about Jesus as described in a passage in Matthew.

Living these three days in succession represents something I’ve been working toward my whole life: integration.

Much of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity teaches about having “two natures”: a sin nature which we inherited from Adam, and a new creation which we are given by God because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. I was “born again” at a very young age, so ever since I was a child I believed that I had two personalities: Bad Shoopy and Good Shoopy.

I’m not a theologian. My knowledge of Christian theology is limited to what I learned in church and in Christian schools (high school and college). I won’t cover the theological concept of the dual nature of a Christian. As always, I will simply share my own experience.

By emphasizing this duality at a young age, I started out (by definition) broken in two. Everything about me (without God) was bad. Therefore, I reasoned that any thoughts, conversations, or actions that did not focus on God were expressions of my sin nature. I came to the conclusion that my humanity was my sin nature.

Side note: Is it any wonder that kids, in Sunday School, always answer “God” or “Jesus” when they don’t know the answer to a question? They are “safe” with those answers even if they are incorrect!

When I realized that I was gay, there were more fractures. To survive, I developed behaviors and patterns that I thought would make me more acceptable to those around me. The part that was hidden, the Shadow, did not go away. It only continued to grow.

I’ve wrote on this blog before about the Jungian concept of the Shadow in this post. Here is an excerpt:

The Shadow is a true part of ourselves that we hide in response to something that shames us, usually in childhood. It’s important to understand that not all of the “shaming” activities that form this Shadow are necessarily unhealthy. For example, a child could be screaming and crying in a restaurant, or being loud in a movie theater or library—and a parent will tell the child “no” or “be quiet” or “you shouldn’t do that.” The child learns that this is bad behavior, and compensates. That “bad behavior” in a sense becomes a part of the child’s Shadow.

I do encourage you to read the whole post. However, it is sufficient to explain that the work of becoming whole is learning how to integrate this shadow into our conscious being.

What exactly am I trying to “integrate” then? My sexuality, for one. And not just my sexual preference, but the reality that I am a human being and therefore a sexual being.

Additionally, I am integrating the part of me that felt shame for having fun. Being a fundamentalist Christian in good standing is serious business and serious work. There is no time to be human; “being human” is equated to wallowing in the “filthy rags” of our sin nature.

Ultimately, what I’m integrating is my humanity. I am human being; not a fundamentalist robot incapable of doubt, happiness, anger, and rational thought.

I spent a great deal of time reclaiming my humanity and losing some of the false innocence of fundamentalism. Today, I can think and talk about God, work toward social justice, and revel in dirty jokes—all beautiful, shameless, truly human activities. Real connection with others is possible. THIS is the closest I’ve been to the life I’ve always wanted to live: Authentic. Vulnerable. Fun. Meaningful. Integrated. Whole. Like the youth pastor of today’s younger generation says: "I’m a free bitch."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 6:1-6

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 6:1-6
Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t do good deeds, give to the poor, and pray to God in order to get attention. Do these things privately and receive your true reward from the Father.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 6:1-6
In chapter 5, Jesus was comparing current practice of the Law to what is actually required in God’s Kingdom. It seemed that Jesus was making an example of the religious leaders--showing his listeners that they are not the example of holiness to follow. If any of these leaders were listening, they would be pissed.

In chapter 6, Jesus seems to be pivoting from impossible commands (whew!) to the concept of humility. Jesus describes how not to be humble by providing two examples of show-offs: those who give to the poor and those who pray in order to be seen.

Ooooh, snap. Without a doubt, Jesus is taking direct aim at the religious leaders and exposing them for what they are: hypocrites.

Besides humility, the other thing that strikes me about this passage is the talk about rewards. Jesus mentions rewards in each of the six verses. I break it down this way:
Give to the poor/pray in public --> Reward A
Give to the poor/pray in secret --> Reward B
Reward A = Public praise, accolades, and exposure
Reward B = what?
The concept of rewards in Christianity always makes me a little squeamish, specifically because I used to be a John Piper enthusist in the late 1990s. Back then, when I was still following a conservative evangelical path, I read a few of Piper’s books. My best friends were all about the Piper. The Piperian concept of the day was Christian Hedonism.

My understanding of Christian Hedonism is as follows: the motivation for us to live a good life is to get as many rewards as possible in heaven. It is an attempt to make "spiritual selfishness" a virtue. God uses the self-preservation he created in us as the primary motivator to do good things.

That's how I understand the concept, anyway. If anyone wants to add, clarify, correct my understanding of Christian Hedonism in the comments, please feel free!

My reaction to Christian Hedonism was one big MEH. It didn’t answer the questions that haunted me: Why is there so much evil in the world? How can anyone, let alone a loving God, send human beings to a place of eternal torment? Why am I gay; and for crying out loud, why won't God change me after years of begging? Unless it provided concrete answers to these questions, I couldn’t care less about these "rewards."

Today, Christianity makes sense to me mainly as a vision of a kingdom. Not a kingdom with an authoritarian theocracy, but a kingdom where there is no fear, no shame, and no injustice; a kingdom with a foundation of love for (and connection to) each other. The text says over and over that “the Father will reward you.” What does the Father exactly give as a reward? In other words, what is Reward B?

You may have a different answer, but the reward I am inferring from this passage is something that is both transcendent and iterative. It is hard to put into words, but I will try. I believe it must be a sense of joy, peace, and meaning. These “feelings” are only reinforced as one sees progress toward a more loving and more just world (thus the iterative part of the reward). It’s a reward that soothes an ache deep, deep inside the human heart that longs to matter. This is my sense of what the reward must be. I’m not saying I am currently experiencing these things. What I am experiencing is a hope and vision for these things.

To be fair, maybe that is what Piper was trying to articulate? You don’t know how much it pains me to write that! I have so much Piper baggage...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Learning To Be a Feminist

TW: Abuse

I started this blog about a month and a half ago in order to (1) document and work through some of my own spiritual questions and (2) practice and improve my writing skills. I expected to find other LGBT bloggers, and I have found some lovely people who write about the topics of spirituality and homosexuality. An unexpected (and very positive) outcome has been exposure to bloggers writing about a topic that wasn’t in my sphere of consciousness: feminism.

Note: Many of my favorite bloggers who write about this topic are listed in the Recommended Reading section, and I will add to it as I discover new writers.

I was introduced to many of these writers when Tony Jones wrote a blog post wondering why more women didn’t comment on his blog. Many women DID comment on that particular post. (For full context, read the blog post and comments for yourself.)

At first, I thought that the commenters critical of Tony were unfair. I was also very surprised. I had no idea there was a problem with gender inequality in the emergent church movement. I was new to Tony’s blog and new to the emergent movement; in fact, I had not been moving in any kind of Christian circles for years. The churches I went to in the past were conservative and taught that women should not be ministers or even deacons. Men were to be the head of the household and the spiritual leaders of the home. I just assumed the emerging church was all about equality.

I’m not quite as naïve now. Even though equality and diversity are values in the emerging church, that doesn't necessarily mean that these values are always being put into practice. I’m grateful for that post of Tony's and the ensuing discussion, because it was the springboard to my own awakening to the feminist cause. The post gave me a chance to read the blogs of the commenters, from the most critical to the most supportive. From these blogs I discovered even more writers.

I've read and learned so much over the past few months. At this point, however, I don’t feel qualified to write deeply and profoundly about feminism with any amount of confidence. (Still so much to read, learn, and experience!) I can share with you, however, a few of the concepts and values I have been trying to apply over the past few months:

Engage with Humility

I was born with advantages that many others don't have in our society. Simply being male and white and American gave me unearned merit in a world that often mistakes appearance and wealth as virtues. I’ve come to learn that this unearned, societal privilege doesn’t inherently make me a bad person, but it does mean that I have more to overcome in order to understand and support those who have not had the same privileges. Therefore, I approach this topic with humility and as one willing to listen and learn.

Understand What May Trigger Negative/Painful Feelings

I’ve learned from reading feminist writers that there is much work being done to bring healing to those who are victims of abuse; these writers and activists also work tirelessly to prevent this type of abuse from happening again. Christian writers are especially mindful of this type of abuse in the church. Related to abuse, a trigger was a concept I didn’t understand at first. I saw the initials TW and had to ask someone what it meant (Trigger Warning). I’ve read some heartbreaking stories about abuse. I’ve also seen insensitive and judgmental comments: some inadvertent, some proud of their ignorance.

As a gay man, I’ve had my own experience with triggering words. Three years ago I wrote a very long coming-out letter to my family. I poured my soul into that letter. (I plan to share more details about my own coming-out process, why I used a letter, what my follow-up was, etc., in another post.) A couple of family members wrote me back with language such as “choose” and “lifestyle” and “open rebellion.” Those words were definite triggers for me, and I responded hastily and angrily. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret that anger because it was authentic and allowed them to better understand my boundaries on the issue. But the words, and the attitudes behind them, were definite triggers for me. To this day, these family members think I overreacted, and it’s very difficult for them to understand why their words hurt me so badly. Although it isn't as traumatic as someone who has gone through abuse, my own experience helps me to better understand the anger involved with triggers.

Understand That Following Jesus Goes Hand-in-Hand with the Feminist Cause of Equality

Helping victims of abuse and preventing future abuse is fairly obvious Kingdom-building work. Further, the Kingdom of God does not "rank" members based on whether they are male or female, Jew or Greek, etc. In fact, Jesus was harshest against those in power, and worked tirelessly for the poor and oppressed. Working to make God’s Kingdom a reality on earth (as it is in heaven) means working against the earthly power structures that put people of one race and gender above everyone else. Feminism is not just working against abuse, but against those more subtle forces that unjustly elevate one group of people over another.

Above All, Listen

I still have a lot to learn, but I will keep listening and engaging. If that means getting embarrassed because I stick my foot in my mouth, so be it. If it means I am misunderstood once in a while, so be it. If I feel like I have to "walk on eggshells" once in a while, so be it. What a miniscule price to pay for the greater good of healing for the oppressed, tearing down unjust power structures, and making real progress toward reconciliation!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 5:27-48

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 5:27-48
Jesus continues comparing the Law taught by religious leaders with how one really ought to live.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:27-48
It is the first week of Lent, and what better way to feel one's utter inadequacy than to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount!

Jesus' sermon started with the beatitudes, and how the world needs to see and experience those who practice them. The next portion of the sermon began in vs. 17: “I did not come to do away with [the Law and the Prophets], but to give them their full meaning.” Throughout the rest of this chapter, Jesus provides a teaching from the Law and then shows how much further one needs to go with it: “...better than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law” (vs. 20).

It dawned on me as I read through the remaining verses of Matthew 5 that Jesus, by starting each command with a teaching from the Law, is showing how the religious leaders of the day don’t even come close to the holiness and perfection of God. So while these impossible commands are meant to crush and to haunt, how much more crushing and haunting are they to the religious leaders of the day who felt they had all the answers? For any Pharisees who might have been listening, this must have been like a slap in the face. Easy to see why these guys did NOT like Jesus.

For example: Jesus says that a married man commits adultery even if he thinks about wanting another woman. He tells us to poke our eye out or cut our hand off if we need to, so that we won’t disobey this law.

Each teaching Jesus gives seems to be more absurd than the last. Someone would actually need a lobotomy in order to obey these commands. With this context in mind, I am beginning to suspect that Jesus is using hyperbole to demonstrate the impossibility of keeping the Law.

Over and over, Jesus brings up a current teaching and shows how inadequate it is.

  • Want a divorce? Divorce papers don’t matter. You are guilty of sin if you divorce, and so are those involved in remarriage.
  • Are you swearing an oath using God’s name so you’ll be sure to keep it? Bad news: this is from the devil. You should always keep your promises without fail in the Kingdom.
  • Have you been wronged? You won’t receive “an eye for an eye”: instead offer your wrongdoer even more of your time, money, resources, and energy.
  • Love your neighbor and hate your enemy? No good. Love your enemy. Pray for anyone who mistreats you.

Again, I can’t help but think that these words of Jesus would have enraged the religious leaders. I wonder what those who were following him at this point were thinking? Were they convicted of their own inadequacy? I wonder if they also felt a little bit of vindication that the religious leaders were also short of God’s expectations? I have to admit that those are the two reactions I’m having to this chapter!

Even though it is a bit clearer what Jesus is doing here, I don’t want to blunt the sharpness of his words. Jesus says in the last verse of the chapter: “you must always act like your Father in heaven.” Impossible. Ludicrous. What other possible response can one have but “God have mercy?”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Losing Innocence

Y2K. Remember that? In hindsight, it was such an innocent time. Before 9/11 and the Dick Cheney decade, our biggest collective anxieties were the Y2K bug, Bill Clinton’s sexual purity, and the end of the Tech Boom. For me personally, it was the year I finally stopped trying.

Without going into too much detail or nuance, I spent the 1990s fighting against my own sexual orientation. My weapons were prayer, psychological counseling, Bible reading, church-going, confession to pastors, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, a stint in reparative therapy, personal vows of purity, and good old-fashioned teeth clenching. When I made it to the year 2000 with my virginity intact (success!?), something finally snapped. At this point, the image I had of God was a statue of a man with a smile on his face. Sure, he “loved” me (represented by the smile), but he didn’t move. He wasn’t alive. He was powerless to change me. Anything I said to him fell on his hardened, stone-cold ears. It was the year 2000, I was getting close to 30, and I just didn’t fucking care anymore.

2000 was the year I lost my “innocence.” I’m not going to get all TMI on you here, because it’s really not necessary. The point isn’t: I lost my virginity. The point is that I finally gave up trying to find the god I had cobbled together with shards of evangelical logic and then petrified into stone.

I mourned. Once in a while I tried to recover some of the broken pieces of the statue I threw away. But it was gone.

I didn’t wake up one morning with an image of the “real” God in my head. I didn’t miraculously feel that the “real” God was alive, radiating light, love, and truth into my soul. I didn’t feel Jesus’ “arms around me.” I felt alone and sad and in desperate need of real human contact. So I found it in any way I could.

I experienced the consequences of intense, sustained shame about my identity as a gay man in the following ways:

  • Authentic relationships were almost impossible
    • I hid something very core about myself from others, making it that much harder for others to get to know me and for me to get to know them
    • I felt unworthy of any true love or relationship because of the identity shame, so why bother?
  • I eventually expressed the repressed longing for love and affirmation with destructive and self-destructive behavior
    • Anonymous, unsafe sex
    • Manipulating and lying to others in order to get love and affirmation (often, again, through sex)

My own beliefs about sex are different now than they were in the 20th century. Sex in itself isn’t wrong or dirty or sinful. It’s a strong, natural desire and a very real part of our humanity. Just like anything else, sex can be used to wield power over ourselves and others. I personally do not subscribe to the traditional evangelical rules about sex, because they are incredibly rigid and simply another gateway to shame and, inevitably, destructive behavior. What I can get behind is a code of sexual ethics with the foundation being the Golden Rule. In fact, why does it need to be any more complicated than that?

It was a good thing for me to lose my innocence. I was putting childish things behind me, and smashing my stone-faced, smiling idol to bits.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 5:12-26

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus continues teaching his followers about Kingdom life, and his directives seem to get more ludicrously impossible by the minute.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus is continuing on the theme of life in the kingdom of God. In the last section Jesus talked about some specific attributes of kingdom dwellers.

Kingdom is such a weird word to use today, isn't it? Maybe "country" or "world" is more applicable to today's language. Kingdom, like so many other words, carries unintended baggage. I will try using the word country in this post and see how it goes....

Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light to describe the citizens of God's country (Any better? Meh.), and the value they can bring to the rest of the world. As a young church-goer, this was a familiar passage to me. The more familiar the passage, the easier it is for me to associate it with something with American conservative evangelicalism. In that culture, being salt and light in the world meant two things: (1) witnessing (proselytizing) and (2) behavioral holiness. Relationships were only important in that they provided an "in" to persuading someone to accept Christ as their lord and savior. Holiness was defined by whichever church, denomination, or authority figure was currently in charge. Both of these activities made it difficult to express or experience love.

When I see Jesus' words now, I look to the previous verses to understand what salt and light actually look like. People who practice the beatitudes have more to offer our broken world than a gospel tract or zealous demonstrations of self-righteous indignation over "behavioral sin."

In the next section (vs. 17-20) Jesus pivots to something grave and, quite frankly, soul-crushing. He says that unless you obey every single command in the Law, even the least important ones, better than the Pharisees and Law teachers obey them, you will never get into the "kingdom of heaven." Excuse my language, but: fuck. I wonder if that's what his followers were thinking at this point, too?

Part of me wonders if this is just Matthew showing his intended audience that Jesus REALLY respects the Law, therefore providing yet another piece of evidence that he is the Jewish Messiah. But even if that is the case, it seems these types of Jesus teachings - the "impossible" commands - are meant to break the spirit. What other response do we have, but God have mercy? For that matter, what other response can we have to the horror we see in the world today, but God have mercy? What other response could we have when we realize our own riches compared to those who are starving, tortured, oppressed, and enslaved, but God have mercy?

Here's where my thoughts are leading: the impossible commands are a poetic symbol of death and resurrection. Jesus teaches us to obey impossible commands. We cannot fulfill them. We "die." Yet somehow, in that moment of humility, we are raised up again to try to do the impossible. To try to build God' country. To my Jungian mind, this makes sense. This provides meaning and purpose to life.

Could it be that the reason the Christian religion has survived (in some form) throughout the years is this example of brutal poetic beauty? Of these symbols of life and death and meaning?

Back to the text. In the next section (vs. 21-26) Jesus gives us even more impossible commands. In this country of God, which frankly is looking less and less appealing, you will stand trial if you (a) are angry with someone, (b) call someone a fool, or (c) call someone worthless. (In the latter case, Jesus actually says "you will be in danger of the fires of hell.") He goes on to say that if someone is angry with you, you should not do anything until you make it right with that person. Furthermore, you'll be dragged to jail if you do not, and "will not get out until you have paid the last cent you owe."

OMG Jesus! Give me a freaking break! More impossible standards of living in the country of God, more harsh penalties for not living and breathing perfection. This sounds like an Orwellian nightmare.

So yeah. This is all pretty spirit-crushing stuff. At this point, I'm not going to try to offer any "answers." I already made the point about "brutal poetic beauty" and while that still applies, it doesn't make reading this stuff and struggling with it any easier. I think that's the point. The Bible isn't meant to be read passively.

Stay tuned. Lots more to come. Things could get ugly!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Existentialist Post-Modern Gay Christian Agnostic

Last month I wrote a post about what it means to be a Christian Agnostic. Since then I've expanded the label a bit further. Why? Let me explain by defining each word.

I consider myself an existentialist in the sense that I choose my own path and my own meaning. Whether or not the choice is actually mine to make; whether or not my choices are pre-ordained or being controlled by a outside entity; whether or not the atoms and molecules that comprise my being and the environment around me produce a definite and unchangeable path: I cannot say and will not argue. (Another reason for choosing the agnostic label.) For me, being an existentialist means taking responsibility for my own choices, and taking ownership of what I want my life to mean.

I started with existentialist because not only do I take ownership of my life’s meaning, I take ownership of any labels and how they are applied. Post-modern can mean different things to different people. For me, it means questioning (not necessarily rejecting) everything about God that I learned as a child. It means deconstructing what it means to be a Christian, and whether or not the word Christian even applies. It also means deconstructing any words or concepts that I once accepted at face value. (See here and here for my posts on the word compromise, which is an example of taking a word and redefining it to mean something better than it has come to mean. You could even say it is an attempt to “redeem” the word.)

My sexual orientation is a sexual attraction to men, but it also goes a bit deeper than that. Because of the intense shame associated with this part of my identity, it became a huge shadow. As part of my journey, as a major life task, I’ve had to integrate this part of my identity into my whole self. Being gay also has provided me with two incredible gifts: (1) being gay gives me the privilege and responsibility of being a member of a community which is striving to be integrated into society at large and (2) being gay has provided a glimpse of how I’ve been born into privilege in every OTHER way. I am a white, male American without any worries for my physical needs. My only point of experiential empathy for those who have been oppressed is being a part of the LGBT community.

Being a Christian was the most comprehensive part of my identity from birth until deep into my 20s. Every member of my family identifies as an evangelical Christian. I went to church, attended a K-12 Christian school, went to Christian college, worked for Christian employers, and later, saw Christian psychologists and went to a Christian-based ex-gay group. I attempted to reject God and Christianity, but I eventually found that I could not. It was too much a part of my identity. Therefore, I’ve chosen to integrate it into my worldview. My journey is all about living out what it means to be a true Christian, a true follower of Christ, as opposed to being a Christianist. I choose to relate to God and the world through Jesus and his teachings. It’s who I strive to be.

Perhaps this is a cop-out, but I include this term in order to be intellectually honest. I don’t know who or what God is or even if God exists. If God does exist, I have chosen to relate to God through Jesus. This act is my “leap of faith.” The term also refers to my own attempt at intellectual humility and openness. I don’t want to be so closed-minded that I’m not able to change when new evidence comes to light.

I consider this blog an expression of what I am and who I am becoming. No doubt it is all a bit self-indulgent! I share all these stories and details, however, so that I can reach out in honesty. My hope is that these thoughts inspire you to think critically about your own labels, your own beliefs, and how you define your own meaning of life.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 5:1-11

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 5:1-11
Crowds of people are now following Jesus. He begins to talk to them about the Kingdom of God, starting with who is "blessed" and why.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:1-11
For this series I’m reading the Contemporary English Version, which is a version of the Bible I’ve never read. Like most evangelicals, I’m familiar with the Sermon on the Mount and what is called the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they that (blank), for they shall (blank).” The CEV words it like this: “God blesses those people who (blank); they (blank).” It’s a little jarring, but that’s probably a good thing.

Even with the new wording, the structure remains the same. As a technical writer, my first instinct is to take this text and create a table with two columns: Directive and Outcome. (A software engineer might convert them to IF-THEN statements.) I hesitate to frame it this way for a couple of reasons. First, the story of Job shows that good behavior doesn’t always mean happy outcomes. (Life itself is a stern teacher of THAT lesson.) Second, I’m looking at Jesus’ teachings as the description of God’s Kingdom. The teachings are counter-intuitive to how the world operates, including (especially?) religious institutions. Currently we don’t live in the Kingdom of God; although, I do recall that somewhere in the Bible it says the Kingdom of God is being built in our hearts. That’s good news. I think that’s why the phrase “be the change you want to see” has resonated with me. In other words, live as if we are currently residing in the Kingdom of God on earth.

On to the text. The directives that resonate most with me are:

  • God blesses those people who are humble
  • God blesses those people who are merciful
  • God blesses those people who make peace

I see great value in these virtues and actions. I can also see how they can be used by people in power to coerce people into submission. Perhaps that’s why the Bible gives many warnings and frowns to “false teachers.” What is remarkable is when you see these traits of humility, mercy, and peace-making being practiced by people who are whole. I don’t think Jesus is speaking about people who are submissive to the point of being disengaged. He isn’t lauding those who find it easier to submit to the teachings of a certain pastor or denomination than to practice authentic self-reflection and truth-seeking. That kind of submission can seem like humility or peace-making, but with whom are we making peace? With whom are we being humble and merciful? Certainly not those who disagree with said pastor or denomination! The three people I think of most when I consider these beatitudes are Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Mother Theresa. Each was a strong and intelligent person; each committed to justice, mercy and peace. They were also humble in that they were unwilling to display violence in word or deed.

The directives which didn’t resonate with me at first, but are starting to gain some traction, are:

  • God blesses those people who depend only on God
  • God blesses those people who grieve
  • God blesses those people who want to obey him more than to eat or drink
  • God blesses those people whose hearts are pure
  • God blesses those people who are treated badly for doing right

Let me tackle the first one. I honestly don’t know what it means anymore to “depend on God” let alone “depend only on God.” I think, for me, there is still so much baggage associated with that phrase. The first meaning was depending on God alone for salvation from hell. But it was also a mantra that I used often in everyday life. In my small world, depending on God meant that I asked him to give me strength to do homework, to not masturbate, to do my daily devotions, to not feel socially awkward, to witness for him on the street, to “fix” my “broken sexuality,” to win a race at a track meet, to feel better about how I looked, and so on. It was so vague and so behavioral. So, at this point, I still don’t know what it really means to depend only on God. Depend only on God for what, exactly? I think I have a mental block for this one.

Moving on to people who grieve and people whose hearts are pure: I can understand grieving in the sense that there are some awful, awful things in this world. In addition to our own existential sadness and dread, we have various pockets of hell on earth: poverty, violence, diseases, war, cruelty, betrayal, horror. Yeah, this one I completely get. There is too much about which to grieve. I am glad that the outcome is that they will find comfort! It gives me hope that the people who suffer such atrocity in this world, no matter who they are, have something better ahead of them.

As for hearts that are pure: that seems to be hearts that are authentic. Again, this resonates. How can we really connect with and love each other if we aren’t able to be our authentic selves? Even in my fundamentalist days, when a “pure heart” meant sexual purity only, I had a sense that Jesus was speaking of something deeper than physical lust. The outcome of this directive is especially interesting: they will see him (God). So the outcome implies that a pure heart is also an authentic longing for God and God’s Kingdom.

As for those people who want to obey him more than to eat or drink: I can understand this in the sense that I want to see justice done in the world. I want to do the things that bring this idea of God’s Kingdom closer to reality. But similar to the first beatitude, this one carries some baggage. “Obeying God” can mean so many different things according to who’s around you!

The last two verses of the passage have to do with being treated badly, being insulted and slandered, because of Jesus. I think anyone reading these verses wants to think that it is they who are being treated badly. People hate me and misunderstand me and tell lies about me because I believe (blank)! I think the Western culture (the Christian culture in particular) has made a kind of fetish with martyrdom. Even though Christians make up the majority of the population in America, and every single American President has been a professing Christian, we still have a sense that we are persecuted. Yes, there are mean and hurtful people out there; but persecution is going a bit far. Plus, Jesus and the prophets were persecuted by religious leaders of the day more than any other group. Honestly, since Jesus lived and died, there has been so much atrocity done in his name that it’s very difficult to pinpoint when someone is being treated badly because of actually following Jesus, or for more nuanced reasons. My opinion? The blessing is for those who are actually doing the work of Jesus—such as helping the poor and oppressed—and being treated badly for it, rather than those who are treated badly because they are trying to sell a worldview.

Now that I’ve written more about the other beatitudes, I have an idea about the first one (the one about depending only on God). Perhaps it means depending only on God for doing all these things that are necessary to live as a true citizen of the Kingdom of God? Maybe? The outcome is: “they belong to the kingdom of heaven.“ Thoughts on this still spinning around the ol’ noggin….

Whew. I had a feeling once I reached the Sermon on the Mount, these blog posts were going to get denser. I hope you find some good in reading these posts, but more than that I hope it inspires you to read the Gospels for yourself.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'm Sorry

Dear D. and A.,

I have a lot I want to say to you both. For a number of reasons, I’m choosing to say them to you publicly. First and foremost, I want to say that I’m sorry. I'm sorry for leaving the online LGBT alumni community out of anger and frustration. I'm sorry for unfriending you. Anger in itself isn’t wrong or bad, but giving up on you and the community was a mistake. You've not been perfect (no one is!), but you've been authentic and you've shown grace ever since I've known you. You've been honest and you've done your best to listen, learn, facilitate, and lead. I was wrong, and I hope that you will consider allowing me to come back to the online community.

Since this is a public letter of apology, let me provide some details. D. and A. are current, active members of an LGBT alumni group for a liberal arts Baptist university in the Midwest. (D. is also a founding member of the group.) I don’t remember exactly how I found the group—perhaps I was on a Google binge—but I remember being surprised to see the name of my conservative Christian alma mater and the LGBT acronym in the same description.

I entered the site and found many personal stories of men and women who struggled with their sexuality and faith. Each story had similar themes of doubt, struggle, and shame; but each story was unique. Some fully embraced their Christian faith; some had rejected it completely. All of them shared openly about their struggle and wanted readers to know that they weren't alone in their struggle.

Browsing through the site, I found an address for the group and composed an email. I wrote how thankful I was to find the site, and shared a bit of my own struggle. The next morning I received a reply from D., who encouraged me to write my own story for the site and invited me into the community on Facebook. I accepted the invitation and was connected to the group of people who had shared their stories online, along with others who were also graduates and a few more who were current students at the university.

The group had two primary goals. One goal was to provide a safe space for LGBT alumni (and allies) to connect. The other goal was to reach out to the university and nearby community to create a dialogue around LGBT issues. It was the first experience I had with LGBT-affirming believers reaching out to other believers. I thought that this outreach was (a) extremely courageous and (b) extremely hopeless. Remembering the voices from my past about the "abomination of homosexuality," I had no interest in going anywhere NEAR non-affirming Christians. The stories of attempted outreach that D. and A. would share in the group sounded horrible to me, but they saw progress and hope. I was too blinded by my own hurt to see what good it would do. What I didn't realize was that the outreach efforts weren't necessarily meant to change minds. They went in order to reach LGBT youth who are inundated with messages of shame about their sexuality and/or gender. It was important to become visible, to make their voices heard to those who were hurting, suffering, or even considering suicide. To reach those who feel there is no hope and no alternative. All these efforts were being done before gay bullying and suicide were being reported in mainstream newscasts. D., A., and others were reaching out before Dan Savage started the "It Gets Better" campaign. These people were literally doing the work of Christ.

As D. and A. (and other members) continued to reach out to the university, the online community itself (on Facebook) was active and engaging. My favorite part of being in the community was the camaraderie and support from others who knew what it was like to struggle with the shame and fear of being gay while growing up evangelical or fundamentalist. There were those who shared their excitement with finding a new love, and those who shared the heartbreak of a relationship ended. Often the community was the only place some of us had to share these stories. There were those who asked for prayer because they were ready to come out to family members. When they did come out, most (unfortunately) dealt with rejection, anger, and even disgust. A few did experience family members willing to give grace, and we celebrated those occasions.

Here was also a place for us to feel safe enough to lash out at God; sometimes we lashed out at each other, too. There were heated discussions, arguments, and a few grudges. There were antagonists, peacemakers, theology students, atheists, moms and dads, and snarky hipsters. We were a group of people broken, hurting, and healing. This group encouraged me and challenged me to be authentic. Authenticity may come easily to some, but those who grew up surrounded by a conservative evangelical environment know how difficult it is to actually "be yourself." It was a necessary part of my journey to experience the feelings that I had suppressed for so long. Many of these feelings, particularly anger, were finding an outlet within this group.

At a particularly dark point in my journey—a time when I wanted nothing to do with God (or god or higher power or whoever the hell he or she or it was)—I lost my temper and wrote something particularly mean-spirited toward someone in the group who had irritated me. Very soon after that, A. wrote me an email, asking that instead of using the public forum to curse the guy out, I needed to email the guy personally and hash it out. I read that email in a state of fragile defensiveness. My reaction was one of intense anger. I had been judged! I was being shamed for expressing my feelings! This is just like being in church!

Of course, he had done nothing of the kind. As a facilitator, he was doing his best to help create a safe place for everyone, not just me. He thought it was more appropriate for me to say these things in a personal email, not in front of the whole group. Even if I disagreed with him, he wasn’t shaming me. He wrote his feelings to me in an email. And he didn’t threaten to expel me, either. He just told me what he thought.

But I was having none of that. In my anger, I promptly replied to A.’s email and copied D. as well. I’ll show them. I told them to take down my story from the public website. After I clicked Send, I unfriended both D. and A., and removed myself from the Facebook group.

D. replied quickly and asked me to reconsider. He asked if he could please keep my story up on the website, and if we could still be Facebook friends. I told him that he could keep the story up, but that was it. I never contacted him or A. again. That was over a year ago.

Today, I’m writing this letter to both D. and A., and sharing it on my blog as part of my confession and part of my story. Why publicly?
  1. I want people to know the great work they are doing.
  2. I want each reader to know that if you, too, find yourself on a similar journey--a journey where you are leaving shame and fear behind--you are going to experience some dark places. Anger is going to be a reality, and sometimes you may find yourself using it against the people who most want to help and support you.
I also want to tell D. and A. this: that I am truly sorry that I lashed out at you and that I treated you and the online community with such disrespect. I would like to come back, if you’ll have me. I would like to be Facebook friends again, too. Having traveled through this dark patch, and undoubtedly with more dark places to go, I’d like to have you both (and the community) as allies and friends; not as people I’ve pushed away out of misplaced hurt and anger. I’d also like to be a part of the work you are doing, to reach out to those who feel that everything about them is somehow wrong. I hope you can forgive me; and whatever you decide regarding a return to the community, I want to thank you for all you’ve given to me personally and all the work you do for others.

Update: Well that was fast: apology accepted! So glad to be a part of the group again!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Compromise, Power, and Trust

In a post last month, I gave some initial thoughts about the concept of compromise:

Compromise seems to imply giving up in the sense that (a) we give up something in order to “get along with” or “move forward with” someone else and (b) we quit fighting and bow to another’s wishes or demands. We give up. We quit. We lose. And in our heated, competitive culture, losing is not an option.

I wanted to dive further into the concept, so I checked the dictionary. Here’s the history and definition of the word:

Middle English, mutual promise to abide by an arbiter's decision, from Anglo-French compromisse, from Latin compromissum, from neuter of compromissus, past participle of compromittere to promise mutually, from com- + promittere to promise.

In other words: two or more parties who promise mutually to abide by some agreement. In order to do that, the parties must arrive at some level of trust that each will abide by that promise. Without trust, there can be no true compromise.

Recently, this concept of trust and compromise was demonstrated by the recent friendship of Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, and Shane Windmeyer, the executive director of Campus Pride. In his article, Windmeyer describes Cathy as a kind man who has a “devout belief in Jesus Christ and [a] commitment to being ‘a follower of Christ’ more than a ‘Christian.’” He explains how they have been able to share a dialogue, still disagreeing on most issues but coming to a “mutual respect.” Windmeyer also claims that Cathy showed him certain financial information from 2011 and 2012, not available to the general public. He says that “the most divisive anti-LGBT groups are no longer listed” as organizations that Chick-Fil-A financially supports.

Soon after Windmeyer’s article was published, Huffington Post published a counterpoint article by Jamie McGonnigal (founder of McGonnigal explains his skepticism with this alliance, bringing up some fair points: why did Cathy only share this information only with Windmeyer, and not to the media at large? This quote especially is worth noting:

[W]hy would Dan Cathy choose to pursue only Shane Windmeyer and Campus Pride instead of larger, further-reaching LGBT organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)? Is it that Cathy thought Shane seemed like a nice guy, or is it that winning over Shane could open up lucrative opportunities on college campuses?

What troubles me about the situation is not the friendship or the dialogue—what troubles me is the imbalance of power between Cathy and Windmeyer. As much as I want to believe the whole situation is on the level, I cannot help being a little suspicious. CEOs don’t attain high levels of power by being pushovers. They know how to get what they want, and to get people to do what they want. It’s difficult not to think that Shane is being naïve; that subconsciously he was flattered by the CEO’s attention and access to “private papers.”

Which brings me to that question Christian subculture loved to ask (especially in the 90s): WWJD?

My impression of Jesus is someone who, while loving and kind to children, the poor, the oppressed, and the “sinner,” had little sympathy or patience with those in power. It seems that those who are in power (if they want to follow the Jesus way) have a HUGE responsibility to those that Jesus loved and ministered to. Despite the glowing characterization that Windmeyer gives to Cathy in his article, Cathy’s actions seem to be similar to the typical Christianist, with deep ties to the network of organizations and politicians that comprise the Religious Right.

I could be wrong though! The guy might actually be sincere. Maybe he is struggling internally. Maybe he knows that discriminating against LGBT people is wrong; maybe he’s like those that the Marin Foundation is trying to reach. Maybe he is someone who has a hard time reconciling what he thinks he SHOULD believe with what he instinctively thinks is more like Jesus. McGonnigal suggests the relationship was formed because Windmeyer is a “nice guy” and Cathy saw a chance to take advantage. Unfortunately, that’s entirely possible. I agree with McGonnigal that Cathy’s actions would have been more noteworthy and a sign of real change if he had reached out to more prominent LGBT organizations. But would they have listened? Would they not have “punished” him for not going far enough? The point here is not whether or not Cathy deserves such scorn; the point is that the safest option for Cathy to reach out at all was Shane Windmeyer.

Perhaps this story is more about Windmeyer and less about Dan Cathy. Perhaps (in response to McGonnigal’s fair and probing questions), Windmeyer was the kind of person that Dan Cathy could trust. It’s definitely a heartening takeaway from this story, and a model to follow for those who are looking to build bridges. STILL, because of the imbalance of power in this particular relationship, the prerequisite of trust is much harder to obtain. Perhaps Windmeyer and Cathy achieved that trust; however, the imbalance of power makes it much more difficult for those observing from the outside to buy it.

Doubt and skepticism about this story is healthy. Common ground must be real ground. In this story, I can see a reason for hope and a reason for suspicion. McGonnigal is convincing, revealing troublesome signs of Shane being used as a pawn by a slick CEO to garner good PR. It’s very possible there could be a bit of both (good intentions and questionable motives) going on at the same time. People are complex.

Wherever the reality lies on this spectrum, I still see a lot of good coming out of it. Even if my worst fears are true about Cathy's motives and Windmeyer's naïvety, it’s still a heartening sign of progress. The story still provides the hope that civil dialogue and common ground is possible when two people come together to forge a relationship. True common ground can only be found in a relationship built on trust. If Windmeyer and Cathy can at least make an attempt (whatever their motives may be), how much more likely is it for us to build bridges and forge relationships with those around us?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 4

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 4
Jesus fasts for 40 days in the wilderness and then is tested by the devil. Afterwards he comes back to Galilee and asks four fisherman to join him. He begins preaching about God’s Kingdom and healing the sick. News spreads quickly about Jesus and many come to see him.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 4
Immediately after Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit (who came upon Jesus during the baptism) leads him to the wilderness so the devil could test him. I can’t help but wonder if Matthew is being literal here about the Holy Spirit’s reasoning, or if he is merely moving the story forward. I also wonder what it felt like for Jesus to be “led” by the Holy Spirit, if indeed this was the case.

In any case, Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights while there. Jesus had to be very disciplined to do this. He must have had great passion and motivation. I wonder what he was expecting to happen? What did he want to happen? Did he start walking toward the wilderness without any preparation, or did he bring something to hold water? Did he bring anything else with him? These are the little details that I get hung up on when I’m reading these stories.

The story of the devil’s three temptations of Jesus is well-known to me. I remember the evangelical exegesis of the three temptations: each temptation represented one of three categories: (1) lust of the flesh, (2) lust of the eyes, and (3) the pride of life, as described in I John 2:16. This verse states that all three categories are based in this current world—how the world is now—and do not come from the Father. These categories make sense, especially because Jesus, in stark contrast, preaches about God’s Kingdom after his ordeal in the wilderness. More on that topic shortly…

After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee. (Matthew points out that Jesus heard that John the Baptist was imprisoned.) Jesus goes specifically to “the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,” and in so doing Matthew brings out another one of his proof-texts for Jesus being the Messiah.

This area, which was near Lake Galilee, is where Jesus starts to preach about the Kingdom of God. Matthew first describes (briefly) Jesus’ calling of four fisherman: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew describes the men as immediately going with Jesus once called by him. Perhaps this is a nod to Jesus’ persuasive power, or it is a description of the immediate willingness and obedience of the four men. Perhaps both.

Matthew next describes Jesus going all over Galilee, preaching in Jewish meeting places about God’s Kingdom. He also mentions for the first time that Jesus heals the sick, including those with demons, those who were “crazy,” and those who couldn’t walk. News spread about Jesus and large crowds began to follow him.

It seems to me that Matthew is telling the story as if his readers already know most of the logistics and details. I am vaguely aware that stories like these would be passed orally from generation to generation. Specific details may change according to who is telling the story. I wonder how much of the writing of logistics is purposeful, and how much is Matthew simply breezing through in order to get to the “meat” of the book which is (a) to prove Jesus is indeed the Messiah and (b) to explain Jesus’ message about God’s Kingdom.

The next few chapters of Matthew document the so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” with contains much of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. I’m looking forward to it, even if I feel a bit intimidated on how to actually blog about it! My approach is simply to continue sharing my real-time thoughts.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Thoughts on the Bro-nomenon

There’s nothing in the current zeitgeist that scrapes my nerve endings rawer than the “bro” culture. At best it’s cringe-worthy; more often: Goodbye, Lunch!

I’m not sure exactly why these words and concepts fill me with such intense scorn. No doubt I am projecting. I’ll leave that question to the psychoanalysts.

Some specific words, phrases, and examples have been swirling in my mind lately; I have to get them out of my system! Join me as I do some immersion therapy into some of the current language and features of this unfortunate phenomenon:

The Bro Code
Could this have started it all? Thanks a lot, Neil Patrick Harris. (Still love you NPH!)

Think “Isn’t it Bromantic” or “Caught in a Mad Bromance”

Man Cave
Room or area where a man can be a man. I guess.

Actually, this is a term used against the bro culture. Implies a condescending attitude when explaining something to someone, usually from a man to a woman.

Read this and (literally) weep. Notorious mansplainers. Being a technical writer, I’ve had to work with these guys before. (Ironically, I’ve experienced it less often in the Pacific Northwest than when I lived in the Midwest.)

Man Up
For some reason, a favorite of many ultra-conservative women politicians. Great song in Book of Mormon, though.

Bros before ‘hos
Yuck. Just yuck.

Highlighted in the documentary Mansome. (AV Club gave Mansome an F, once again saving humanity from utter ruin.)

Old school: Dane Cook. New school: Daniel Tosh. New school is ironically misogynistic (but light on the irony).

There can be no better example than Mark Driscoll; he is the platonic form of the brovangelical. For an antidote, follow the pitch-perfect satire of Acts29Pastor on twitter. (Also see: Mansplaining)

Men’s Magazines
Long version: Helping men live by the Four Rules of Manhood: (1) Get buff, (2) Be aggressive in business, (3) Get hot women and satisfy them in bed, (4) Buy expensive clothes and accessories. Short version: Helping men be dicks.

Spike TV
Explosions and shit.

Axe products
Buy our products to be like the guys you see in Men’s Magazines. (See: Men’s Magazines)

Men’s Workout/Diet Books
Seriously, have you ever read one of these books? Any useful information must be filtered out from the constant reminders of the Four Rules of Manhood (See: Men’s Magazines)

Men’s Cookbooks
Possibly even more hyper-heterosexual than Men’s Workout books. Cooking doesn't make you gay! It makes you more of a MAN!

Sports Journalists
Watch ESPN Sportscenter or any Sat/Sun morning football roundtable. An interesting subculture. Mostly beta males who either (a) desperately want approval from the alphas (athletes) or (b) are insanely jealous of the alphas and work hard to discredit and embarrass them.

I feel like there is a lot more out there that I missing. What other examples of “bro” language or culture have you experienced? I would love to see them! Put your examples in the comments below or on the Facebook page!