Sunday, December 25, 2011

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!"

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!"

The Nativity of Jesus

Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading

Luke 2:1-7, 8-20 (Inclusive Bible)

"In those days, in order to assess taxes, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole of the Roman world. This first census took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria. All the people were ordered to go back to the towns of their birth to be registered on the tax rolls. And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to "the City of David" otherwise known as Bethlehem, in Judea, because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David; he went to register with Mary, to whom he was engaged to be married, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her delivery. Mary gave birth to her first born child, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough which was used to feed cattle, because there was not any room for them at the inn. There were shepherds living in the fields in the same area keeping night watch by turns over their collective flocks. A heavenly being of God appeared to them and God's brilliant glory surrounded them; and they were very much afraid. God's heavenly being said to them, "You have nothing to fear! I have come to proclaim good news to you! News of great joy! News to be shared by the whole people! Today in David's City a savior - the Messiah - has been born for you! Let this be a sign for you: You'll find the baby wrapped in simple cloth and laying in a feeding trough." Suddenly there was a multitude of God's heavenly beings who were all praising God and saying, "Glory to God in God's high heaven! And on earth let there be peace on all those on whom God's favor rests!" When the heavenly beings returned to their realm, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go directly to Bethlehem! Let us see this event which God has made known to us!" They hurried to find Mary and Joseph, and the baby, just as they had been told, laying in a feeding trough. Once they saw this, they reported everything the heavenly beings had told them concerning the child. All who heard them were astonished at the words of the shepherds. Mary, however, treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart. The shepherds went away glorifying God and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told."

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (December 25th, 1864)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

I don't particularly preference using the labels "secular," "non-secular," "religious," etc., in terms of music. I feel that music need not particularly carry the designation label of being "religious" in order to speak to us on a spiritual level. Although, something of a more frivolous nature - something like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - may not, in and of itself, have a deep spiritual significance or carry a profound message of theological importance; there is, however, no denying that the need for the human spirit to have times of laughter and joy is as important as is our need to feed our souls. In the same way, anyone who is not moved when hearing a recording of Karen Carpenter's angelic voice singing Merry Christmas, Darling would indeed have to be a very Grinch-like individual! 

Particular songs which carry Christmas seasonal religious messages are referred to as carols so as to designate their unique standing among Christian hymns. Songs such as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; Away in a Manger; Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem; and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, just to name a few, were composed in specificity as distinct Christmas hymns. One popular Christmas carol, however, Issac Watts' Joy to the World, was not originally written to be used as a Christmas carol. Watts actually wrote the hymn as a theological reference regarding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. None the less, it was adapted by Christianity as a Christmas carol and thus it stays in perpetuity

Having spent most of my life in the religious tradition of Southern Evangelicalism, testifying, or giving one's testimony, was a large component of this religious paradigm and the Christmas season was always a major motivator for individuals offering up testimonies. People would stand up in the services on the Sundays prior to Christmas and recount how particular Christmas carols were spiritually significant to their faith journey. Away in a Manger and Silent Night were always the Christmas carols that brought tears to the eyes of the faithful. Courses of "Amen" and "Thank you, Jesus" always followed the singing of these particular carols and the ensuing testimonies which would recount how God had used these carols to "touch my heart and bring me closer to Jesus." 

For a large part of my life Christmas carols, as well as Christmas itself, was not something to which I looked forward. As a small child I did relish the magic of Christmas - the lights and decorations, the presents - as I matured, however, Christmas quickly became something I just hoped to be able to endure. Each year I dreaded the time between Thanksgiving and New Year. If I could have found a genie in a lamp and been granted three wishes, one of them would have been to relieve me of the burden of the Christmas holiday season.  Unlike others who dread the holidays because they do not desire to spend time with their families, for me, this was not the case. What I dreaded about the Christmas holiday season was the societal imprint of heteronormativity which accompanies the season. As a deeply closeted and self loathing gay man, who was terrified (in every sense of the word) of having my secret sexuality discovered, I did not have the freedom to express my innate self in regard to the festivities which surround Christmas as does most of Western/North American heteronormative culture. I did not, nor could not, ask or bring the person to whom I was intimately drawn to my Christmas party at work or to the Christmas parties to which I received invitations. I was not able to share the joy of shopping for someone I loved. There was no one for whom I could place an intimate gift of love under the Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas morning. There was no one for me to kiss under the mistletoe. 

It was the Christmas of my 13th year when I first heard - or remember hearing - the carol whose words were originally composed in the form of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. If I had heard this carol sung either in our church, or elsewhere for that matter, prior to my 13th Christmas, it either did not have any impact on me or else I had forgotten it completely. That Christmas, however, as we sang this carol in the Sunday evening church service just prior to Christmas day, the words washed over me like an ocean wave. The words reverberated in my mind and soul as loudly as did the bells Longfellow had heard on the Christmas day in 1864 when he was moved to write his poem. Longfellow had been deeply impacted by the events surrounding his life in 1864: The United States was still in the midst of the horror of the Civil War and Longfellow had personally been closely impacted by the war as a few months prior to Christmas his son had been killed in the war. Additionally, just a few weeks prior to Christmas, Longfellow's wife had died as the result of an accidental house fire. On Christmas day in 1864, Longfellow, feeling overwhelmed by the depression which engulfed him, had gone for a walk through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. As he was walking he began to notice the church bells of the churches of Cambridge ringing loudly to announce Christmas. As he writes in his poem, Longfellow did not share the Christmas message of Peace in that the Civil War was being fought on bloody battlefields, his son had been killed on one of those battlefields, and his wife had recently died. It was, however, as he continued his walk that the Spirit of the Divine spoke to his soul on that Christmas morning and he began to find a glimmer of Divine hope:

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
'God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!'"

It was at that time that the words of Longfellow, set to music in the form of a Christmas hymn, become my favorite Christmas carol. I am often asked as I share my story "Why didn't you just throw down your religion? What made you hold on to it through out all of those dark years of oppression?" My answer is that I, like Longfellow, had the Spirit of the Divine speak to my soul and although the dark events which surrounded me continued, I somehow knew in my soul that God was not dead and that neither was God asleep. The soft, gentle voice of God spoke to my soul and I knew that no matter what words of hate were hurled at same gender loving individuals from the pulpits of Christendom, God was not pleased with these hate filled expressions in God's name. Although at the time I did not have anyone with whom I could share my hope, I knew in my soul that I was not denounced or abandoned by God. I knew in my soul that I was loved by God and approved of by God. I knew that if there were an abomination it was not I, it was the words of hate wrapped in the name of Jesus - Jesus whose birth we celebrate - which were the abomination. 

At the time that Longfellow penned the words of his poem, he did not know that in a few months the American Civil War would be concluded with the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House in far away Virginia. As I heard the words of Longfellow and felt encouraged by the Spirit of God to hold onto hope, I could not envision a time that same gender loving individuals would win freedoms to join in unions, to be able to live together, in some places, openly, or to, in some places, openly hold jobs and live their lives with any measure of freedom. These things were beyond my comprehension, yet, within my life time, I have seen that "the wrong shall fail and the right shall prevail!" Change is slow in occurring, yet I cannot abandon the hope that more change is on the way and that, with God's approval, justice will be forthcoming. 

My Christmas prayer for my same gender loving family around the world is that you do not give up hope! No matter how dark the time, no matter how oppressive the circumstances, I pray that you may come to know in the name of God who created you, in the name of God who loves you and in the name of God who approves of you; that the Spirit of the Divine may touch your soul, and that you may know that "God is not dead nor doth God sleep!"


"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Walk Like an Egyptian!"

"Walk Like an Egyptian!"

The Season after Pentecost

Lectionary Reading:  Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 (Excerpts adapted from the Inclusive Bible)

When Joseph's brothers saw Joseph approaching in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to murder Joseph. They said to one another, "Here comes the dreamer! Now's our chance! Let’s kill Joseph and throw his body in one of these pits. We'll say that a wild animal devoured him. Then we'll see what becomes of Joseph's dreams!"
Joseph's brother, Ruben, intervened and saved Joseph from their murdering him, saying, "No bloodshed! It’s one thing for us to throw him into a pit in the wilderness, but let’s not murder him!" Ruben's intention was to later rescue Joseph form the pit and return him to their father.
So when Joseph arrived at his brother's location, they stripped him naked tearing off the highly ornamented robe he wore, and picked him up and threw him into the bottom of deep pit. The pit was empty, and there was no water in it.
As they sat down to eat their meal, they saw an Ishmaelite caravan approaching. Joseph's brother, Judah, said to the others, "What is our monetary gain in murdering him and concealing his death? There's no profit in it for us. Why not sell him to the Ishmaelites? He is, after all, our flesh and blood, and this way his blood will not stain our hands." The others were all in agreement.
So, they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for eight ounces of silver and the Ishmaelites took Joseph with them as a slave to be resold in Egypt.

During the time of Egypt's 5th Dynasty, the 25th and 24th centuries BCE; two men worked, lived, and built a life together within their societal paradigm as a committed same gender family. They were both employed as body servants to the Pharaoh and as such, held positions of esteem within Egyptian society. We know this because the two men, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, held to the traditional Egyptian after-life beliefs and provided for their life together beyond mortal existence. They built a tomb in which their joint burial as a couple would occur. They outfitted it in the traditional Egyptian funerary ways by stocking it with all the things they would need to continue their lives as a couple beyond the mortal life, including decorating the walls of the tomb with images of themselves as a family. The image at the top of this reflection of two men in romantic embrace is from the wall of their tomb and is depicting the couple, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, as they appeared in life. In other of their tomb paintings, they are represented occupying the same stances and positions as are those of traditional Egyptian iconography which depicted a married couple. To date, the image is the oldest known image of a same gender couple. The couple’s names are referred to as “chosen names” because at some point during their life, they chose to change the names they received at birth in order to better describe themselves. Niankhkhnum means "joined to life" and Khnumhotep means "joined to the blessed state of the dead,” and when read together their names are translated as "joined in life and joined in death."

The discovery of Khnumhotep’s and Niankhkhnum’s tomb in 1964 astounded Egyptologists and archeologists because prior to its discovery, no tomb had been discovered as being so exactingly representative of that of an opposite gender couple yet the tomb was that of two men. Detractors immediately began to dismiss the evidence of the men being a same gender family and insisted that the men were brothers because, they reasoned, the relationship of the two men, as evidenced in both life and death, was not representative of a “traditional” Egyptian family, and therefore, they could not be a couple. Yet if the way in which they were depicted in the tomb’s hieroglyphs was that of two brothers, then they were guilty of committing incest. Short of hanging a rainbow flag over the entrance to their tomb, the indication of their relationship in representing themselves to the world as a same gender family could not be any clearer. Even the choices of household gods worshiped by the couple were unique in their representation of male sexuality and their pairing of male fertility gods with other male gods.

Approximately 500 years after the passing of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, Joseph, the child of a very non “traditional” family, the 11th son of Jacob, and the 1st son of Rachael, arrived in Egypt after being kidnapped, stripped naked, beaten, thrown into the bottom of a well, threatened with murder, and finally sold into slavery by his 10 older brothers. Needless to say, Joseph's family is NOT the Waltons! If you are looking for an example of "traditional family values," this family, not so much! This isn't the first time I've engaged Joseph's very less than ordinary family arrangement in one of my reflections. Recently in my reflection titled "I'm Getting Married in the Morning!"
( I reflected upon the fact that within neither the Hebrew nor Christian Scriptures is there a single verse which specifically states that marriage shall be between one man and one woman. Needless to say, when examined, Joseph's family is a model of this being the case. Joseph has four mothers. His biological mother, Rachael, is also the sister of Leah, a second of Joseph's four mothers. In addition to being sisters, both Rachael and Leah are the cousins of Joseph's father, Jacob. This convoluted familial arrangement therefore makes Joseph cousins to both of his mothers and his father. As was the case with the fallacy that marriage is dictated by the authority of Scripture to be between one man and one woman, so too is the fallacy that there exists a standard, "traditional" family arrangement instituted by God.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to repeat:

There does not appear anywhere within the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures a diagram, a standard or an implication that there exists, nor has been Divinely instituted, a "traditional" family upon which a model for family is to be established.

This is verified by Jesus within the narrative of the Christian Scriptures. In the Gospel attributed to Matthew (Chapter 22: 23-33) there is recorded a discussion with Jesus by individuals, who in an attempt to trick Jesus in regard to the validity of the Laws of Moses, question Jesus in regard to one of these very unusual, completely non-traditional (by implied Western, Christian paradigm) familial arrangements. Within the narrative, the antagonists of Jesus, relate how the Laws of Moses allow for a woman, whose husband has died but without producing any children, to be passed on to the woman's brother-in-law in order to become impregnated. In this particular passage, the woman is passed not to one brother-in-law, but to numerous in-laws. One Bride for Seven Brothers! The woman has no say so in the matter. As each brother dies, she is handed off to the next brother-in-law as a piece of inheritance property. A conveniently overlooked, and only one of many, examples of there not being within the pages of the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures any paradigm, model, standard or dictate as to what is referred to in the West as the "traditional" family. Just as with the invented-out-of-whole-cloth idea that "marriage is between one man and one woman," the idea that there has ever existed in all of human history a Divinely based standard for what constitutes a family is wholly fantasy, an invention of the heteronormative power majority.

As I began my preparation for this reflection, I kept encountering a very tired homophobic falsehood (one of many) regarding the “Gay Agenda.” Supposedly, one of the items on this fantasy of homophobic minds agenda is “the destruction of the family.” As I hold my head in pain in regard to the complete and utter absurdity, I wonder how this idea could ever be perceived to be possible in that if non-heteronormative, non-gender specific, same gender loving individuals are seeking the legal recognition of their partners as being both a marriage and a family, how then does the construct of a family destroy family?

It is not the legal recognition of the union of same gender loving individuals as being married, nor is it the legal recognition of their unions in constituting families which is destructive. Instead, the single most destructive and intrusive institution in all of human history, which has caused more harm and pain to any definition of family, is the Christian church.

Through its tools of shame and fear, the Christian church has forced countless individuals into loveless marriages. Throughout much of the history of the Christian church, men and women who, having been denied the freedom of developing their innate same-gender loving sexuality entered into, for the sake of safety and appearance, marriages of misery.

The Christian church stood by endorsing the institution of human bondage: slavery. Children were torn from their mother’s and father’s arms, women and men were separated by force, all because the Christian church said that the sale of human beings was blessed by God and the Scriptures.

In the history of the North American west, the Christian church was the accomplice in the destruction of indigenous families. The Christian church promoted and endorsed, for the sake of empire, the twisted theology of Manifest Destiny. As the American empire expanded toward the Pacific Ocean, the Christian church established boarding schools whereby the children of the indigenous peoples of North America were forcefully removed from their families and sent away to be “civilized” by the Christian church. The children were denied their language, traditions, culture and families all in the name of Christian missionary zeal.

The traditional message of the Christian church has been repentance: Because human beings are intrinsically evil from birth, they must repent (turn away) from their sinful natures and turn toward God thereby insuring the eternal salvation of their soul. Yet, the message of repentance has been lost on the Christian church as an institution. The institutional church has lost its soul. The Christian church as an institution has not repented of its sin of destroying people’s lives, of standing by endorsing the sale of human beings as property, of the persecution and death of anyone who questions the power and authority of the institution. The institution of the church has not repented of its sin of denying and, at best, perverting the teachings of Jesus Christ.

If the Christian church wants to remain relevant in modernity, it must cease its insatiable hunger for the power and control of people’s lives. It must “turn from its wicked ways.” The Christian church has become an afterthought in much of the West. Cathedrals have become museums. The average age of Christian clergy in the West is advancing upward as the people of younger generations no longer see the relevance of the institution of the church in either society or their lives. Churches built just a few decades ago to hold hundreds on Sunday mornings are nearly vacant now as the fading refrains of pipe organs and hymns echo off of cold walls and empty pews. The grasping for the control of individuals and the power of being the arbiter of society’s morality will be the institution’s own demise.

Whether the endorsement of slavery, the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures or the persecution of non-gender conforming and same gender loving individuals; the theme has always been the same: Dehumanization. The people of the African continent were deemed less than human so their enslavement was advanced. Indigenous peoples were not “civilized” so the destruction of their culture and lives was justified. Same gender loving people are reduced to animalistic sexual acts – abominations - and therefore their persecution is legitimized. Sexually driven animals don’t have families, therefore, the denouncing of their unions as being non-families is pronounced.

There is repentance needed: Repentance from the sin of dehumanizing the children of God.

Unique family arrangements are, literally, as old as the pyramids. Individuals who did not meet the Western paradigm of "the traditional family" have existed for all of human history. Families can be biological or they can be chosen. Yet, the single defining characteristic has remained constant throughout all of history: People who love one another. 

May you this day, and every day of your life, strive to see every child of God through the eyes of Jesus Christ. For it is in seeing every human being through the eyes of Christ which allows us to be able love all of humanity as did Christ.

Blessed Be.

“Walk Like an Egyptian!” 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Some Of Our Women Amazed Us!

The Third Sunday of Easter

Gospel Reading:  Luke 24:13-35

21 “We were hoping that Jesus would be the One to set Israel free from the bondage of Rome. Besides all of this, today – the third day since his arrest, torture, trial and execution – some of our women amazed us! They brought us astonishing news! Before sunrise this morning, they were at the tomb where Jesus was buried but they didn’t find his body! They returned and informed us that they had seen a heavenly messenger who declared to them that Jesus is now living!”

As surprising as it may sound, because the popular perception is that all gay people are having marriages around the clock as part of our “agenda” to “destroy the traditional family unit,” I haven’t attended very many same gender weddings. Most of the people I know have either already had commitment ceremonies prior to my meeting them, or they are expressing their love for the person they are with by committing to each other without a ceremony. This is because in the vast majority of the United States, for persons of the same gender or for persons of alternative gender expressions, they are not able to have the state recognize the legitimacy of their unions.

The limited number of same gender weddings I’ve attended – which I can literally count on one hand – have been, for the most part, somewhat generic heteronormative imitations of North America’s communal perception of what constitutes a marriage ceremony. Please don’t misunderstand me: It’s not that there’s anything in any way wrong with these ceremonies. They are lovely celebrations of love; it’s just that I’m always hopeful that we, as a community of people who are blessed with a unique gift of God in the expressions of our love, and because of our unique prophetic voices; that we can find it within ourselves to strive to be more than reflections of those who surround us.

The wedding ceremony which I attended yesterday was that exception! I attended the wedding ceremony of two very dear friends who’s marriage celebration surpassed any ceremony of any couple – same gender loving or heterosexual!

I met the brides when were all students together in Divinity school. April was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Cambridge, MA. I teasingly tell people that April is my twin sister! This, for me, is true on an emotional level. We are two people who have shared life experiences; the similarities of our experiences have given us shared outlooks on many things. I met Marie later in my Divinity school experience when she arrived from the Midwest, transferring in from another Divinity school.  Last year I was blessed by Marie when she asked me to go apartment hunting with her to help here find a place to make a home for her and April, who at that time, was in Atlanta working at a hospital Chaplaincy program.

Their ceremony was a unique celebration of not only their love and commitment to each other, but also a celebration of their faith and their faith community. The liturgy which they crafted for their ceremony welcomed into the service everyone in attendance. There wasn’t the feeling of being an audience observing two people getting married. The persons in attendance became participants in their wedding celebration.

April and Marie honored me by asking if I would assist in serving the Eucharist meal. By happenstance, I served the brides the wine after they had received the bread, I was so moved by my love for both of them, as well as the blessing of the service, that I broke down and cried like a baby! I couldn’t get out the traditional words of “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation!” because I was having, what Oprah terms, “the ugly cry!”

For those of us present yesterday at April and Marie’s wedding, we can echo the words of today’s Gospel reading: “Some of our women amazed us!”

As I look back on my life, I am blessed to have many women in my life who have amazed me, most especially my mother.

My mother is a true Southern belle in every sense of the word. She personifies the best qualities of what it is to be a Southerner – hospitable, warm, and caring - while at the same time eschewing those things which are ugly in Southern culture.  Those who would mistake my mother’s gentle way and soft Southern accent as somehow being reflective of a weak person make a grave mistake indeed! My mother may be a Southern magnolia, yet to borrow a phrase, she is a Steel Magnolia!

My mother hadn’t voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since she had voted for John Kennedy (“Why any man that handsome I just had to vote for!”), but yet she voted for President Obama telling me “That other man who was running was just too mean! I just couldn’t vote for someone who is that mean!”

My mother has been the greatest spiritual influence on my life. She has many times told me how when she was pregnant with me, she was sitting in her bedroom reading her Bible when she came across the Hebrew Scripture narrative describing how the mother of Samuel the Prophet dedicated Samuel to God and the work of God. Mother said that when she read that passage, she closed her Bible, set it aside, and placed both of the hands on her stomach and prayed dedicating me to God and the work of God before I was even born.

Mother was, and continues to be, the driving spiritual force behind our family. The first place my mother took me after she brought me home from the hospital as a new born baby, was to our Presbyterian church to have me baptized. I’ve been in church every since. My mother was our church’s secretary and my father was always serving in some capacity or office as either a Deacon, Elder, Sunday School Teacher, or Scout Master, so there wasn’t a time that I wasn’t in church. Yet for all of my mother’s traditional Christian views and strongly held beliefs, she is a thoughtful and reflectively thinking Christian. She is, in her own way, a unique Christian theologian always studying her Bible, reading theological books, and formulating her own theology which is sometimes at odds with the majority held opinions.

Mother’s primary theological belief is “Jesus doesn’t like mean!”  She will not tolerate or accept any teaching, message or sermon which she perceives as being mean saying “Now Jesus doesn’t like mean and that’s just mean!” Meanness, or the lack thereof, is her litmus test of the validity of someone’s teaching, message, sermon or ministry. She believes that meanness is intentional and therefore not something which we are called by Christ to do to other people. Meanness, therefore, is the line for her between the true Gospel message of Jesus and falsehood.

My mother’s seemingly simple theological observation is profound in the world of Christianity. Mean flourishes in that which is the traditional North American practice of Christianity. We’re so good at it that intentional meanness is the popularly held perception by non-Christians of what defines Christianity.

Truly sad.

Mother is correct in her assessment: Meanness is intentional. We have to make the conscious decision to be mean to another person or persons. We have to formulate in our thought processes exactly how we are going to express meanness and then we actually go about intentionally being mean to other people.

Meanness is the intentional infliction of pain. Meanness is the intentional infliction of harm, damage, and degradation of other human beings who we, in our self righteousness, have decided are not worthy of our compassion, our love, our kindness. Meanness is our denying of Communion elements to those who we decide are “unworthy.” Meanness is our decision that some people are not worthy of the love of Jesus Christ, and therefore, we decide it is to be denied to them.

We like to hide our meanness behind a cloak of religiosity, but sadly, the emperor of meanness is not wearing any clothes.  Our meanness is naked and exposed for all the world to see. We like to pretend that our meanness is a necessary demonstration of our disapproval of everyone else’s “sin.” Yet sin, like beauty, is completely in the eye of the beholder. The first rule of ethics is “Do no harm.” The first rule of meanness is “Do harm!”

Jesus said of those who would be the emulators of his teachings “The world will know you  are my followers in that you have love one for another.” A far cry from “the world knows we are Christians because we are mean.”

My mother’s litmus test of meanness may seem simple, yet, for me, it is the encapsulation of the intention of Jesus as to how we are expected to conduct our lives.

My prayer for you this day is that in honor of YOUR mother, you would make the conscious decision to abandon meanness.

There is much healing which needs to be done in our world. In the name of Christ, may our prayer always be, “Let it begin with me!”

“Some of our women amazed us!”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Following Christ in the Closet or...The Real John 3:16 Guy!

(Note: The following is a text of a sermon I delivered Monday March 21, 2010)

Gospel Reading: John 3: 1-17

Following Christ in the Closet or...The Real John 3:16 Guy!

“I want you to always wear the tightest jeans possible and I never want you to do anything that would make you inconspicuous!”
Harvey Milk

The first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States.

Born: May 22, 1930
Killed by an assassin’s bullets: November 27, 1978

In the fall of 2010, there was a rash of bullying prompted suicides committed by adolescent and young adult LGBTQ persons across the United States.

What was so unusual about this particular series of suicides was not so much that they occurred at all

- Because as the Queer community is all too painfully aware, the problem of bullying prompted suicides of young gay people is epidemic –

- The Centers for Disease Control reports that on average 4,440 adolescent and young adult bullying prompted suicides are committed by gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and Queer youth (or those who are also perceived to be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and Queer) each year.

Let me repeat that number: 4,440 on average per year in the United States.

So, then what made these particular five suicides so significant in the fall of 2010?

It was the fact that for the first time, attention on a national scale, was focused on the occurrences and the epidemic problem. The epidemic was, for the very first time, brought to the attention of the American public. It came into their living rooms. The faces of the innocent were seen via television and internet and they became real.

As people began to process these tragic deaths in their own particular ways, the idea sprouted up across the internet and blogosphere that those who would like to remember the deaths of these young people, and also to demonstrate their support for positive action against bullying, would do so by wearing something purple on a particular Wednesday.

The idea was widely accepted and was encouraged nationwide as well as throughout North America, there was, however, one small corner of North America where there was an attempt made by a school official to prohibit students from wearing purple to school on this particular Wednesday.

The Vice President of a local Arkansas school district was so vehemently opposed to the idea that instead of simply voicing his opposition to the notion of students in his school district wearing purple to school, he did so, instead, by using the most vile and ugly words imaginable AND he posed those words on his Facebook page.

Midland, Arkansas School District Vice President Clint McCance wrote:

“Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”

A few brave and offended souls posted comments to McCance’s homophobic rant and to these comments, McCance responded:

“[B]eing a fag doesn't give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself. I dont care how people decide to live their lives. They dont bother me if they keep it to thereselves. It pisses me off though that we make a special purple fag day for them. I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.”

He then went on to add:

"I would disown my kids if they were gay. They will not be welcome at my home or in my vicinity. I will absolutely run them off. Of course my kids will know better. My kids will have solid christian beliefs. See, fags infect everyone."

When a Arkansas newspaper editor posted a critical op-ed piece regarding McCance’s statements, McCance’s response to the editor in justifying his vitriolic words was:

"I have a family to protect."

Compounded by the fact that these words occurred in the midst of bullying prompted deaths across the country

– compounded by the fact that this man was the Vice President of his local school board and by virtue of his position, that the use of such words gave license to anyone in his district to bully at will

– few people outside of Arkansas, however, were aware that this exchange of ugly words had occurred.

That was until LGBTQ bloggers heard of the story and began to publicize it across the country. The horrible words shocked the Queer community and emails, letters and phone calls began to pour in to the Midland, Arkansas school board demanding that McCance be removed from the board.

This went on for over a week and nothing was done by either the local school board or the Arkansas State Department of Education to censure or remove McCance from his job as school board Vice President.

Increasingly angered by the lack of response, the Queer community stepped up their protests flooding both the local school board and State Department of Education with letters, emails and phone calls.

The response the Queer community received was something to the effect: “We’ve heard your concerns, but under Arkansas law, there’s nothing we can do.” The local school board and the State Department of Education took the additional step of publishing the tracking data regarding the protests which they had received.

The data showed that, in comparison, only a few voices of protest had been heard from the citizens of the town of Midland or for that matter from the citizens of Arkansas. On the contrary, most of the responses received from within Arkansas were in fact in SUPPORT of McCance and the statements he had made.

The data further showed that nearly all of the protests calling for McCance’s removal had come mostly from people outside of Arkansas who self identified as gay, lesbian, bi sexual, transgender or Queer. With this data in hand the Midland school board and the Arkansas State Department of Education kind of shut the door on the matter with something approaching an “Oh, well! It is what it is!” type attitude reinitiating the fact that since McCance hadn’t committed any crime, he could neither be censured nor removed from office.

A large segment of the Queer community, although angry (but not altogether surprised) by this reaction, felt a distinct sense of frustration at what we saw as being on our own during such a painful time for our community.

It was in sharing this sense of abandonment that I posted on my personal blogg an article entitled “Harvey the Prophet” in which I quoted from Harvey Milk’s famous Hope Speech which occurred a short time prior to his death in 1978:

“You see there is am major difference--and it remains a vital difference--between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We've been tarred and we've been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It's not enough anymore just to have friends represent us. No matter how good that friend may be.”

I went on to voice my opinion that although we as a community were grateful for the voices of our allies, the occurrence in Arkansas was evidence of our need to speak for ourselves and not to relay on others to speak for us.

The responses I received to my blogg were threefold:

Two thirds where from self identified liberal or progressive straight people (many of whom I knew personally) who responded to me in one of two ways:

1. That since they did not live in Arkansas, it wasn’t there obligation to speak to local matters there and that there were enough problems in their own neighborhoods, towns and cities without the need of going off to Arkansas to get involved in other people’s problems.

2. That how dare I criticize anyone who chooses to speak on behalf of gay people. That they had our own best interests at heart and that I (and the Queer community at large) needed to trust them to do what was best for us. Additionally, I was told that change occurred slowly and that our instance at trying to rush things only made matters worse.

The third group of respondents were from my own community – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and Queer people - who told me that by writing the things that I did that I was “an embarrassment to the Queer community” and that I “needed to apologize to the straight people who speak for us” because, again echoing the sentiments of the second segment of responses, “they have our best interests at heart” and that we as a community “need to trust others to speak for us.”

Fortunately, that was not the end of the story. CNN’s Anderson Cooper became aware of Mr. McCance and internationally publicized his words. With Anderson Cooper highlighting the cause, others then began to voice their outrage – it became safe to come out of the closet – to speak up and demand McCance’s removal from office. The firestorm was so intense that McCance finally resigned his seat on the school board and offered a limited apology – not for his sentiments but for the particular words he chose to use in expressing his feelings.

Flash forward to the earlier part of this month:

The Guardian (UK) Newspaper published an editorial in their religion section titled:

Gay-friendly Progressive Christianity has become a self-righteous subculture: The Christian gay rights lobby adopts the narrative of 'accepting who you are' and diverts the religion towards a flabby liberalism

The writer of the piece went on to say that:

One of worst thing that has happened to progressive/liberal Christianity was when progressive/liberal Christianity adopted “the gay rights agenda.” He went on to say that the acceptance of gay Christianity has created a ministry of “victimization and soft Christianity.” He went on to further state that the elevation of Gene Robinson to the office of Bishop was the single worst thing to happen within progressive/liberal Christianity.

Of the total number of respondents to his article, 57% voiced their support of his analysis.

“All it takes for evil to succeed, is for good people to do nothing.”

You see, from my theological perspective - whether you are gay or straight – especially in that we as theologians, as ministers, as clergy - as people who name the name of Christ –

It is not possible for us to fulfill our prophetic call and prophetic voice from inside the closet.

We cannot, like Nicodemus, only speak to things regarding our Spirituality at night.

As a Queer theologian, it is my belief that as part and parcel of the Divine gift of our unique sexuality, we also have a unique Prophetic voice.

Additionally as those of us who call ourselves Christians – Christ Followers – we are charged by the founder of our faith with the following admonishment:

“You and you alone are the social irritating salt which exacerbates humanity’s blurred moral eyesight and their open, unethical societal wounds. If you don’t discover why God has placed you here – for a time just like this one – to act as an ethical irritant applied to the numb consciousness of humanity, then you are indeed a very sad individual. You have become simply another person who is walked all over by the rest of humanity.
You and you alone light the way for all of humanity. A beacon, built at a great height, perched atop a hill, which cannot be ignored.
No one ever lights a lamp in order to hide it. On the contrary! We light lamps so that we may lift them up high and place them on stands so that every room of society’s home is bathed in glowing light.

Let the great and blinding light of your Godly passion for justice burn so brilliantly before all of humanity that they may have no doubts regarding your ethical and moral integrity especially in consideration of your many noble and praiseworthy acts of kindness, mercy and love! So much so that humanity will say of you: “Praise Abba/Amma God in heaven for one such as this!”

In the Hebrew Scriptures there are two signs or indicators of someone’s having received a true calling as a Prophet:

1. They didn’t want the job.

No one sought out the job of prophet. They may or may not have embraced their call once they received it, but for the most part, they did everything possible to avoid it. They ran, hid, tried to talk themselves out of it, but most never wanted the job.

2. Their calling required of them to never be inconspicuous.

Whether it was Moses confronting the power of government in the person of Pharaoh and then walking around the desert with a veil over his face (I would refer you back to the Hebrew Scripture reading for Transfiguration Sunday)

Or if it was

Isaiah who walked the streets of Jerusalem for three years completely nude and bare footed.

Or if was

Hosea who openly and publically flaunted society’s conventionality by marring a woman referred to as a “prostitute.”

Or if it was

Ezekiel who publicly - in the streets of Jerusalem - baked cakes made from excrement

Their prophetic voices where never muffled in a closet.

Their prophetic calling was always conspicuous.

My charge to you today

- and my prayer for you today

- is that you find total and absolute freedom in your spiritual and sexual expression

- whether you are gay or straight or fall anywhere in-between on the scale of human sexuality

Please prayerfully consider what keeps you in the closet.

What, like Nicodemus, prompts you to be one who stands for Jesus only in the dark?

What is it that makes you uncomfortable about God’s gay, lesbian, bi sexual, transgender and Queer children? All of whom are created in the image of God.

And as an aside: Remember that Nicodemus did eventually “come out” as someone who embraced the teachings of Jesus.

He spoke openly at Jesus’ trail advising his accusers to avoid putting Jesus to death.
And after Jesus’ death, he along with Joseph of Arimathea, approached Pilate, requested permission to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and then he purchased the needed spices and linens to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. In doing so he made himself ceremonially unclean by lovingly and publically anointing the body of Jesus, wrapping it in linen cloth and placing Jesus’ body in the tomb.

Nicodemus became conspicuous!

“I want you to always wear the tightest jeans possible and I never want you to do anything that would make you inconspicuous!”