Transcript from “Remember the Light”

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***Text from a sermon delivery at Calvary Baptist Church (Washington, DC) on 11/13/2016.

Good morning, Calvary.

It’s good to be back.

I think that it’s especially important today that we welcome our neighbors. If this is your first time here, then welcome. I hope that during this service you find a moment of peace.

The last time that I was asked to preach, it was LGBT PRIDE, and the tragedy of the Orlando shootings had just taken place. Today, I am assigned the Sunday after one of the most contentious and negative Presidential elections in US history. Now, I am not saying that there is a causality between inviting me to preach and unwanted events, but the facts seem to speak for themselves… It’s ok to laugh a little. God can handle our joys and sorrows.

While I know that you came to hear guidance about the election and world events, I can only offer you reflection in the form of a story…

Late this past Summer, I took a hastily planned trip to Panama. Landing in the capitol city, my travel companion (Chelsea) and I had no clue what was in store for us. A few days into the trip, we were invited on an overnight hike up a volcano to capture a sunrise view of their most gorgeous valley.

We accepted the invitation with vigor, already beginning to imagine the story and pictures that we would be able to share from just such an unplanned adventure. #facebook

The evening of the hike did not go as planned, otherwise this story would be really boring.

My inaccurate setting of an alarm clock led to a frantic scramble to throw myself together to meet the bus to the base of the volcano just in time. Sweaty, heart-pacing rapidly, I attempted to calm my nerves by breathing deeply and preparing myself mentally for the beauty that was surely mine to behold come morning. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the base of what can only be described as nothing. Stepping out of the bus we were immediately met with darkness, stillness – a complete void. My eyes attempted to adjust, which was impossible as a flurry of flashlights began to light and dance around me. Chelsea took at quick selfie of us to mark the occasion, while chuckling at the fact that we had made it, and that we must be crazy.

Ready, set, go! Our pace was jovial yet firm. Having survived a few distance races in my past, I immediately set my mind to determining a timed pace – giving myself some grace as my last trip to the gym had been WELL prior to the beginning of the summer. I found a pace that suited me and marked my time confidently that all was well and right in the world. The course was appropriate for a night hike, shifting gravel, but even. We jaunted along chatting with our compatriots.

Our confidence and ease were folly, however. About 15 minutes into the hike, the path took a sharp turn for the worse. Even gravel gave way to a sudden incline covered in loose boulders. As if learning to walk as toddlers, we slowly edged from one stone to the next. Every step made uncomfortable sounds as each stone would shift upon being touched. Already tired, my focus shifted to renegotiating my pace, while navigating the now treacherous path. An hour later, I looked up and realized that I was the slowest member of the group, and, but for the distant sway of another hiker’s flashlight, I was by myself.

Unlike the many camping trips that dotted my life, hiking in the jungle was strange. One’s eyes never truly adjust exactly to the darkness of the jungle. My visual range was limited entirely to where my camping lantern flashlight shot its beam. The only other light made immediately available to me was the occasional peek of moon and stars that would poke through the canvass above my head. And, it was quiet, deadly quiet.  Normally, I relied heavily on sounds around me to gauge my location and access to others. In the wild this is very wise counsel.

But, the Panamanian jungle was different. It was silent. There were no birds or insects chirping. I heard no presence of water cascading nearby, and most fear-inducing, I could not hear the presence of my compatriots climbing the mountainside.

The thick of the brush and trees was staggering and oppressive. And, as the path seemed to narrow and turn, then widen and turn, then narrow and turn; I became increasingly aware that I was not secure. I called out to the void, “Chelsea!!!” …there was no echo. I paused, thinking that, maybe, my movement was preventing me from listening and hearing others. There was nothing.

My new, temporary religion became praying for God’s singular help in this moment, while soldiering onward and upward. I was convinced that at some point there would be a change in landscape, path quality, or access to others.

Hours past. The sweat that persistently caked all over my body began to feel like fresh ice packs pressed onto my wet skin as the temperature continually dropped. Worse, my legs and feet began to tingle with pain that was slowly creeping up my body. My mental state deteriorated from concern about making it to the top – to concern about making it through the whole endeavor.

To my delight and reprieve, Chelsea made great efforts to lag behind a handful of times to make sure that I was ok. She was also struggling with the same soul-crushing experience, but eventually her pace would bury mine and, again, I would be enveloped in the void.

When it became apparent that I had no chance of making it to the top, and having devoured my last snack and water rations, I finally just stopped, and sat down. I watched the last remnants of a thunder storm that had developed below me as it dissipated out to sea. Laser beams of daybreak began to shot through the clouds and straight into the side of the mountain. The brush around me came alive with waking flocks of birds and insects that swarmed around my cold, moist forehead. Pain reached my neck from my toes.

I began to cry…like ugly, gross, snotty crying.

Oddly, the tears felt freeing. I asked myself questions about what was really happening in my life. And somehow in the complete clarity of the moment, the answers came flooding in my mind, heart, and soul.

I dwelled on my responsibilities, my dreams, my family, my victories, and my failures. There was no way to avoid it, because there was no technology to distract me, and no other person to help process my emotions. Just tears and pain as I began to think about God.

In his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, Professor Arthur C. McGill attempts to give meaning to a scriptural understanding of suffering as gleaned through the interpretive lens of theology. McGill defines theology preliminarily as, “…disciplined and responsible thinking about God as revealed and worshiped in Jesus Christ.” (22)  He continues by clarifying in poetic terms that theology is diverse and inclusive for all Christians of varying levels of expertise. It does not matter whether one has graduated from seminary or is a Panamanian coffee grower. Ultimately, the measure of good theology is its openness to understanding God in new and challenging ways.

Living into this openness makes us aware of our existence in the darkness of our world. In McGill’s account, darkness breeds a need for power, power creates violence, and violence is the root of suffering.

We live in the darkness, and believe that God is our light.  And, because God is the Creator of all that we know, Christians are obligated to share what is revealed to us, which for some may be the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, but I think more relevant is that God, the parent, is love and that love is for everyone, even for “unbelievers”.[1] There is nowhere better for a Christian to demonstrate the love that is God, than in periods of intense suffering.

Right now, it feels like God has abandoned some of us into the darkness, we are seeing increasing and intense violence, and we are suffering. If you are LGBTQ+, a woman, a member of basically any non-white community, disabled, poor, middle class, the list goes on, then the words and beliefs of our new President, may feel personal, violent, or at minimum threatening to our freedom and equality.

No doubt, we have all heard the phrase, “God (or Jesus) only gives us what suffering we can handle.” It is a truly lovely sentiment. The idea that whatever one is experiencing at some unknowable point shall pass, and one will be stronger as a result.

Except, that is not always true. I look around this sanctuary, and I see and know a lot our pain as a community and some of us individually. I see many scarred and bent hearts that still throb with pain anytime we are reminded of that which we have lost. It is the oppression of the darkness. So, we might turn to God and call out into the void, “Mother/Father God, why am I forsaken? Where are you?”

Returning to my Panamanian adventure, once I had gained enough courage, I stood up and began my lonely trip down the mountain side. As I did, I began to dwell on the nature of God. What came flooding back to me in my vulnerability was surprising. I saw this vision of God that at once was both beautiful, but also challenging. I didn’t see God as this protector of my soul, but rather an interconnected presence – something both divine and apart from me, but also to which I was eternally linked.

When I presented this case to my professor and colleague Dr. Gregg Hunt, he challenged me to look into the theology of panentheism – or the idea that challenges our notion of God in the Trinity of God, Jesus, and Holy as something other than a singular, static individual.

My study presented me with many questions that I hope might give you some peace in this season of intense and unknowable change. See, I think that God is something other than the character that we have drawn, and in this mystery, we can ask and ascertain God’s design for humanity more holistically, if we give ourselves the freedom to examine our Creator.

What if we defined God in the wrong terms out of habit or tradition? In reconsidering the divine attributes of God we honor the paradoxical nature of God that sometimes we cannot understand in great moments of suffering.

Let us consider, maybe, our God is a God of:

  1. Holy love—vs. pure transcendence. God’s holiness—God’s supreme otherness does not isolate God from creation, but rather expresses itself in love for and involvement in creation. At the same time, God’s love isn’t a soft love, but costly and demanding.
  2. Dynamic constancy—vs. immutability. Rather than say that God isn’t subject to change, it is truer to say that God is constant, steadfast, and faithful even as God does new and unexpected things consistent with God’s divine purpose.
  3. Unconquerable passion—vs. impassibility. Rather than say that God is invulnerable to suffering, it is truer to the gospel to say that God is a God of passion who enters freely and fully into the suffering of the world, taking that suffering into Godself and thus conquering it (prophetically in Christ, and fully in our hope for a second coming).
  4. Liberating power—vs. omnipotence. God’s power is not oppressive, domineering power, but empowering power that promotes human freedom, inviting trust-filled, covenantal response. God’s “power unto salvation” is the disarming power of self-giving love by which we are freed for God, not freed for ourselves.
  5. Inexhaustible wisdom—vs. omniscience. What ultimately matters isn’t that God “knows everything” (God as the ultimate Google). The idea of God’s inexhaustible wisdom has to do with the infinitely practical nature of God’s knowledge, understanding, discernment, and judgment and the action that flows from them. It also accounts for God’s capacity to respond to all that occurs in the course of human history. God is the “master of plan B.”
  6. Unconstrained presence—vs. omnipresence. God operates under no necessity to be present everywhere, always, and in all things. This would approximate universalism. To speak of God’s unconstrained presence is to affirm that the freedom with which God is present wherever, whenever, and however God chooses (1 Sam. 5:21; Jn. 3:8).
  7. Grace-filled goodness—vs. perfection. The quintessential nature of God’s righteousness isn’t seen in the infinite distance between the Creator’s perfection and creaturely imperfection; it is seen in the mercy by which God makes goodness possible in us (Jer. 31:33; Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13)
  8. Triune oneness—vs. simplicity. Reflection on the triune nature of God in the history of salvation, necessitates that the idea of God as Pure Essence give way to a sense of the interpenetration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an eternal community of self-giving oneness and love. [2]

These descriptions of God don’t sound like a divine being measuring out an allotment of suffering to match our capacity to survive it. I think that it is challenging to consider these ideas, but I am not entirely convinced that God lives within us, as much as I am convinced that God is everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we might have made an idol out of creating and cleaving to an idea of God as something functional for humankind alone. Label it as Post-Modernity, or hubris, or tradition, but I don’t see a God in scripture who is ever transfixed on each of our individual human experiences, as much as I see a divine Creator who has formed us in God’s image and now expects us to treat each other and this world with compassionate humanity.

Don’t worry, I still believe that we worship and follow a personal God who does care about our existence. It just captivates my imagination to recognize that we are all part of God’s divine creation, and there is nothing that we have to do, or create, or control, or even choose to be granted that right. God is everything, so that we don’t have to be anything.

It is a gift that we have to offer others, too. To be free to know that suffering will always be part of our lives, but that suffering never prevents us from being exactly who God wants us to be – created, loved, and connected. It’s a miracle, rare throughout human history, and it’s open to everyone, not just a certain race, nation, or people – or even strictly to believers like us who strive to understand a divine and complex God.

As we move forward a revised nation in an era of suffering, fragmentation, hatred, and moral failure. I think that it is imperative that we dwell ever more on the nature of God. This means that we should aspire to re-center our community in the heart of God – not situating ourselves at the center of God’s creation, rather orienting ourselves toward the pursuit of truth, service, and sacrifice which can only be resurrected in us when we love one another, love the stranger, love the unbeliever, and love those we may think deplorable.

Help us God! Help us God! Help us God! We need your light!

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 33.

[2] Taken from notes provided by Dr. Gregg Hunt of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Transcript from “Welcome and Affirm” Sermon by Ben Mann

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***This is a rough transcript from a sermon delivered to Calvary Baptist Church, DC on Sunday, June 12, 2016. A recording will be made available soon via http://www.calvarydc.org***

Good morning.

Let me start with a BIG thank you. I am overwhelmed to be standing in this pulpit today.

For years, I have admired the many people whom have assumed it. Men and women sharing their messages of hope and change, challenge and progress, but still with a heart for the values and traditions that have been markers of our Baptist and Christian experience.

For those of you who are visiting, welcome. We hope that you feel a warmth and connection to this place and to my fellow members of this community. For in the long arch of our history at Calvary, we are known to be somewhat quirky and diverse and fundamentally human.

If we miss welcoming you in the fashion in which would make you the most comfortable, I apologize. We are not perfect. But, we are traditionally a place in Baptist life where experimentation in what is possible is acceptable. AND, we hope that you will catch glimpse of that today.

SO, thank you for weaving me into the narrative of Calvary.

I want to start out today by inviting you into what I affectionately call a courageous conversation. I wish that I had developed this term, but it is a buzzword among my professional colleagues to mark the beginning of a politically incorrect dialogue. It means that I want to bring up a topic that might make you uncomfortable, and I am hoping through honesty and compassion that we might find a measure of understanding together on a tough or challenging difference between us. It is a way of setting expectations. I want to be courageous in what I share with you, and I hope that you will be courageous in receiving it. Can I count on you?

Today, we examine one of the letters in the Christian texts of the Bible written by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16.

Now, to some, including myself, it is strange to marry the idea of discussing Paul’s letter in Romans with what is already positioned as a sermon on welcoming outsiders. Paul was not always a lover of whom we might classically label as “the other”. In particular, it seems to many observers that Paul has a woman problem. In the sense that Paul could be read to have a problem with women… It is after Paul who gave us classic quotes, like”

“As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

– 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

YIKES! Knowing my audience here, and identifying myself openly as a feminist, it is Bible passages like this one from Paul, which sometimes turns my stomach. And for those of you who relate to that sentiment, I beg you to wait just a few moments, before passing judgement on Paul. This is, because I have a theory that Paul might just be a bit more subversive than we give him credit.

Just before the section of Romans 16 that we read earlier is a wonderful opening passage of welcome. Like many do so well in the Bible, Paul lists a series of friends and partners whom have been part of his ministry and success. It is a regular Oscar acceptance speech, “I want to thank my manager and producers, my family and my friends…” Only for Paul, it’s more a reflection on the goodness of the men and women whom have stood by him through prison and travel, and whom have been hospitable to his journey.

What draws my eye to this section of Paul’s writings is his references to women.

I didn’t grow-up in the type of Christian culture or community that embraced the full value of women in the Church. This was ironic as the lion share people who informed my growth in the faith, as well as those who continue to do so are disproportionately women.

And, while women have come a long way in shattering the stained glass ceiling of the church, there is much that we do not discuss or recognize about their role and influence in the Bible and in church history.

I find myself often turning to the work of theologian Bernadette Brooten out of Brandeis University. Her dense and convincing work suggests that as early as the first translations of the Bible that the role of women was consciously diminished. She argues numerous accounts where characters of the Bible may have undergone literary sex changes – in other words she points to evidence in the original manuscripts where a person now recognized as a man in the Bible was originally noted to have a woman’s name. Strange.

For some, this is the beginning of a courageous conversation.

Which is to say, that it can feel threatening to question that the very gender of the people about whom we read could be inaccurate. Please, hold onto that thought in your future readings of the scripture.

For me, in reading Paul, having this knowledge makes me more cautious and sensitive when I see women who have made it into our Bible.

If you turn to Romans 16:3, we are introduced to a woman named Prisca (Priscilla) and her husband Aquila. This isn’t the first time that we have met them. And, in fact, Priscilla and Aquila get credit about 7 times throughout scripture. They are recognized by many scholars to be among the original 70 disciples that sprang from Jesus’ ministry, and are often called 1st century missionaries.

By Paul’s standard of recognition they are clear headliners.

What is dynamic here, and in most translations of the Bible, is that Priscilla gets top billing over Aquila. In the patriarchal society of the first century, it would have been strange to introduce a husband after his wife, which is why we see Paul return to this pattern of husband-before-wife introductions just 4 versus later.

Could Paul be signaling something for us here? Is this a code?

We know a little bit about Priscilla. Some say that she was, the true leader of her household. Others say that she may have even held a church office, such as pastor. And, there is some evidence to suggest that she may have, been the original author of the Book of Hebrews, although that has been a long-lasting debate. Regardless, unlike many women we experience in the Bible, Priscilla has not become a caricature, and unlike Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians, she certainly was not silent.

It is almost as if Paul wants us to know something that he could not express in his own context, but that he wanted us to remember Priscilla as she was.

Is that possible?

I press-on for more evidence.

Something else about this opening caught my attention, is where it states, “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss.” Now, the Holy Kiss is not something that we practice today. Our closest approximation at Calvary is our weekly Passing of the Peace. Whether or not you enjoyed that particular element of our service, in the first century, the Holy Kiss was actually an important element of worship.

Beyond just a warm and moist greeting, it was actually seen as an intimate act to display unity within the body of Christ. Modern commentators, mostly conservative, tend to fixate on the fact that the kiss was only expressed between same-sex individuals. In other words, only men-kissed-men, and only women-kissed-women. ON. THE. MOUTH. HUH. Let’s pause just a moment and imagine how that would have gone over here this morning?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve often wanted to kiss some of you, but I am not sure that I would have felt closer to God as a result. What is more interesting is that as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries, so just one century removed from the invention of the Holy Kiss, church fathers began to attack and dismantle it, until it became a far lesser expression of worship, except in references like Romans 16.

Part of what fueled their attacks was the level of intimacy and vulnerability expressed in this act of worship. I contend that Paul understood this vulnerability, and purposefully placed the order to Kiss in this welcome. He could have easily said to welcome Priscilla et al with shouts joy or acts of service, but instead he picks an act of particular significance and unity, while simultaneously lifting up his female counterparts. The mystery of his motivations is certainly worth further examination.

The remainder of verse 16 in Romans is a less-than-casual lecture about the necessity of our reflecting our true faith in community. We are extolled to boldly live what we know to be true and all that we have learned. We are to identify good and evil, and to avoid smooth talkers, as it were.

 

What I read out of these verses is that we should look for opportunities to be truly unified, to look for the Priscillas or Aquilases in our lives and to greet them into our worship with a level of expectation that we are living as righteously as we know how. And, maybe, we should kiss more?!?

There is one community for which I would say that the Kiss is still very much a form of worship. And, that is within the LBGTQIA community. LGBTQIA stands for… (queer).

Calvary has been an open and affirming church of the queer community for some time now. This week is a Celebration in DC called Pride, and Calvary has been actively engaged in many of the elements of that celebration.

Pride is a season in the annual calendar that recognizes queer advancement in society through our history, our progress, and our future. There are many Pride celebrations that occur all over the world in large and small communities, and in most places they are an act of subversion to the common culture.

There is a spirit of flamboyance and open sexual and gender expression weaved throughout the celebration, and an over-emphasis on welcome and inclusion. I guarantee that as I walk down the streets of Pride today that I will welcomed by strangers with kisses. Because in the queer community a kiss is to say, “I know you, I see you, we are the same; whatever you are, I am; and, the fight that we share to be wholly ourselves can only be won together.” Or, “I think you’re really cute, and this might be my only opportunity to kiss you.” Regardless of true motivation, it is an act of both public subversion, yet personal unity with the community.

What is tough for me about celebrating Pride through the Church is part of why I wanted to welcome you into our courageous conversation. Because as welcome as many of us feel to be queer and part of this amazing Christian community. We, also, need you to be more our community and our protectors against those who would diminish and dismantle our history from that of the church. And, given the horrific events in Orlando yesterday, maybe, we just need you to protect us!

More specifically, I call upon the Church to pay attention this Pride to a homelessness crisis happening right under our noses in DC. Combating homelessness has been a vanguard service both of Calvary and sister churches for centuries. And yet, today, 40% of homeless youth in DC identify as queer.

I’ll say that, again,… That is an astounding percentage, and a reflection of a culture of rejection by the Church, in which Christian parents all over America still embrace the idea that to convert their sons or daughters to some pretend version of “straight-ness” they must first throw them to the streets. My brothers and sisters, by all measures, and certainly by what I read in Romans 16, THAT IS EVIL!

I believe that we can find a bigger, better welcome for these children, and all children who question with wonder who they are. It will require the courage for us to reject boldly what we know to be false. Which is to say that Calvary will stand against a rampant wave of homophobia that pervades our country and openly mocks the spirit of Christ that we claim within us. We cannot, we should not, we will not ignore the actions of those so-called parents who cast out their children out of the convenience created by false teaching.

OUR action doesn’t need to be proclaimed with bravado and fanfare. Instead, we should examine the very nature of how we treat the queer community from this pulpit and in Sunday school for students of all ages. And, while I would love for you to go home today and call your homophobic family and friends in a fit of outrage, I would settle if you would stand up to people telling gay-bashing or queer-diminishing jokes in your workplace. Or, maybe, if you didn’t invite people who QUOTE “just don’t get this whole transgender thing” to the party. Or, maybe, if you were just a little less concerned with whom I am dating – or not dating – or whom you may know that you think that I might date.

All your queer Christian brothers and sisters want is a Romans 16-style unity. We want to build you up. We want to build up what we know to be righteous, and we don’t want to suffer the fate of our early church mothers and become buried in a translation of our history that does accurately reflect the love and respect that we had for our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

So, if no one has before, welcome to our community, we accept you as an Ally! And, when we show up to this community, scarred from the rejection of those proclaiming a false god, consider welcoming us with a Holy Kiss!

AMEN.

Baylor Rapes

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When I attended Baylor University at the end of the 1990s the traditional means of communicating pride or announcements for the school was to purchase boxes of simple white chalk and run all over campus to spread the news via sidewalk. There was fierce competition for the most visible spots. The artwork was often crude, but if one was clever then surely the attention would be garnered and people would show-up for the music festival, sporting event, or student body election.

I share this quaint story to follow this picture, because there are many traditions at Baylor, although not chalking, that need to change. In my opinion, the most important of these is a modern, conservative, Christian environment of protectionism that would rather duck and cover and “pray away” issues, than face-up and address them in charismatic, transparent, or proactive ways.

Recently, my beloved alma mater has come under fire for its lack of adequate, or even any real attention paid to multiple reports from victims of rape on campus – all women – whose voices have been tamped down while the university administration works with a third party law firm to apparently determine a course forward. The administrative side of my head has compassion and sympathy for the fact that the University faces such a complex problem. I, too, would want to gather more information and make informed decisions. But, I do not have patience for the style, tone, or timeframe with which the University has selected to express their position. In long emails and brisk “no comments” to the media and Baylor family, President Ken Starr has essentially said, “Dude, we know that there’s a problem, but we’re getting to it.” [Paraphrasing]

Just yesterday the AP reported that the State of Texas is going to allow Baylor to continue its campaign of secrecy surrounding the apparent investigation that it is either now or intending to pursue. Unfortunately, for the image of Baylor this is not an isolated method of handling “problems”. The most classic case being the active cover-up of a student murder by his fellow star basketball player (look it up). That sad choice by the University resulted in so much pain and suffering, and the termination of a several administrators, including the President. Despite such an obvious lesson, Baylor continues to believe that its own righteousness far outweighs public and transparent justice, and has repeated this policy of denying and ignoring human dignity when it comes to numerous issues, especially for students and the Waco, Texas community in which it is situated.

The real questions at stake for me as a burgeoning Christian minister, and a member of the Baylor Christian family, of course, is “is this Christian”? How are women served by such pretentious and minimized efforts to not only identify what has happened, but to commit to and then live into changing a traditional culture? Where is the justice? These are question for another time and place. But, unlike the chalked sidewalks of the Baylor campus, they cannot, nor will they be, washed away.

Inclusion: hope

One of the greatest joys and honors in my life right now is to serve as President of Queer For Christ- DC (QFC). QFC is a local, social network of LGBTQIA* Christians who like to socialize with one another around the fact that we are all Christian, and we are all queer. If you don’t understand, I apologize. It is a weird fact in 2016; however, but in most environments, even in “the big city” – to quote this Oklahoma boy, there is still a real disparity both externally and within the church around inclusion of our various identities.

It’s not that we don’t have safe spaces at many churches, because we do. Many churches proudly wave rainbow flags or advertise their “Welcoming & Affirming” status, but this doesn’t necessarily filter to the experience of living an “out life” within the church community.

As a result, QFC and several peer organizations have garnered a strong participant and fan base. We couldn’t be more pleased. The aspect of the group that I admire the most is the fact that we often represent and live-into the very unity that is lacking in inter-denominational life between different churches. We have members from nearly every brand of Christianity, and not once have we broken down over the divides that often plague the work and efforts of our various church bodies. We agree to love and embrace each other and find space to serve together purely based upon the fact that we are present with one another. It is a dream realized!

Now that being said, we also have a many issues. And, in a spirit of unity, vulnerability, transparency, and to inspire a conversation, I would like to share them. The biggest elephant in our room is that, despite many thoughtful and intentional efforts, we have failed to attract many women, and only a modest racial and ethnic mix of people into our group. Yes, like many LGBT and church groups, we have fallen prey to a white, cisgender male normative. Why? We are still diagnosing.

We have attempted partnerships with outside groups, forums to discuss sometimes uncomfortable issues, Bible studies that talk directly to this issue, changes in schedules, and placing our events in different environments so as to be inclusive to different interests. We have surveyed those active members who are women, or from various racial or ethnic backgrounds, within our community about what attracted them to the group. We have invited diverse individuals into leadership. The results have been underwhelming.

What has been a growing trend, however, is the criticism. I periodically receive the occasional rant from a friend attempting to shame me for representing a group so “obviously biased against” non-white, non-cisgender people. My stance generally is not let the criticism get to me, and to offer that anyone willing to change our trend within the group is welcome. On the other side, more recently, I have started to hear internally from members who, as discouraged as me by the lack of change, see value in soldiering on and making use of the asset that we have versus crafting the asset that we want. This is also hard for me to digest as I think about the type of network that I want to lead and grow.

I realize that it’s bad form (even as a new blogger) to leave a piece open ended, but I am honestly at a loss. What do I do? Embrace what seems to “work” or push for “change”? How do I appreciate what I love about this organization, yet hold it accountable and help it dream of something more? All ideas are welcome.

 

In Defense of my Brother

A dear friend of mine received some troubling news this week.

In the middle of the day he received a horrible text. It was from his mother. It asked him a question that most sons never want to hear. I am only paraphrasing, but in summary, it read, [Do you think that you are going to Hell, because you are gay?]

Startled by the choice of words, coupled with the delivery and timing of this message, my friend was thrown for a loop. His mind raced back in time. He searched through a dozen awkward conversations, then a million unrealized ones. He thought about all the Christmases and family reunions, the birthday messages and Sunday afternoon calls, the trips home to celebrate weddings, births, and graduations – the mourning of family members too soon gone from this world. He connected how during these moments of laughter, sorrow, and love that no one ever asked him the questions that one is asked by family. Who are you dating? Where do you like to hang out? Who are your friends in that picture that I saw online?

*Swoosh* *Ding* My friend forwarded me the text.

Me: Are you ok?

Brother: [I don’t know what to do.]

Me: [Just do what you need to do.]

Brother:[I’ll deal with it later.]

Me: I’m here for you.

Tucking his phone away, my dear and justifiably upset friend returned to his work.

Few people in life should be so lucky as to have a friend like mine. He is among the kindest and most generous people that I’ve ever met. He is a first-choice confidant, while still offering healthy perspective when he thinks that I am doing something stupid. I am overwhelmed by the way that he helps people – mostly in subtle ways. He veils his love for humanity in sarcasm, but just below it is a heart of gold – no, platinum! When I am blue, when I am happy, when I don’t know what to do with myself, he is the remedy phone call. When we have missed each other for several weeks, we mourn the time, and when we find the moment to connect, it is always a parade of tales about the boys, the dates, the hilarious moments, or hard choices that we had to make. And, even if he was only half of these things, he is my brother, and I would still love him.

*Ding* An email arrived in my inbox. Having a few hours to process the morning’s event, he had decided to write a letter. He sought my counsel.

Immediately, I opened the attachment. Dear Mom… It was a lovely note. He talked about wanting to hear her and thanked her for her opening the door. He shared where he disagreed with her, but offered her love and kindness. He stated his belief in God’s salvation for his life. And then, he spoke bravely, and for the first time, about the boy whom he had recently come to adore. This boy adored him back. Actually, he was a noble man – a grown-up, whose character and values reflected those of my friend. My friend was happy and full.

[Please, Mom, come into my joy!]

He sent the letter.

*Swoosh*Ding*Swoosh*Ding* Swoosh*Ding* Three texts in a row. This can’t be good. A series of Facebook messages from Dad. [How dare you?] [Here is where you are wrong.] [We don’t condone your choices.]

It is hard not to resent ignorance. I find it especially hard when it is a proud surprise. And, perhaps one of the hardest things for me to hear is, “I am your mother/father, and I love you, but…” It doesn’t matter what follows the “but.” Because love is actually one choice and one direction. You either choose to love somebody and you move forward, or you choose to hate someone and you move backwards. It is a delicate, critical, and tough choice, which is why it does not always work.

“I would love you, but I am afraid.”
“I would love you, but it requires me to change.”
“I would love you, but I would rather believe a lie from a stranger than accept the joy of my own son’s freedom to love as he was designed to love.”

It is madness, and I hate it. My temptation is to blame something or someone. This is a human behavior, so there has to be a reason. Where is the pattern? How were they raised? Look at Fox News or their church. I just can’t. I am so tired. See, because my friend’s story is my own. And, it is the story of so many whom I adore. Not just LGBTQIA folks, but so many of the disparaged and easily shunned.

When do we get to stop climbing this mountain of doubt in our ability to be fully human and fully loved by Christ? How can I be seen both as a child of God and queer? I am so tired.

Fortunately, my battle cry is written for me. In Romans 8:38-39, the holy scripture reads, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

AMEN. See, I don’t need; my friend doesn’t need; 40% of homeless youth (who are LGBT) don’t need; the LGBT people in Russia don’t need; your gay friend at work doesn’t need; nor, does the lesbian who teaches your student everyday need your approval.  We are the wonderful and perfectly formed creations of God. We are recognized by the same Creator and the same Judge whom has promised us that he will never fail us. And, if you refuse to share the banner of Christ with us, then surprise, you are on the outside.

My brothers and sisters, I welcome you in, but you better pick a better lifestyle. Why? Because, my read of scripture is that God doesn’t have time for your exclusion, and if nothing you can do will separate me from God’s love, then in the words of a modern day prophet, “Bye, Felicia!”

Go in Peace.

 

 

 

Are you poly?

Part 1: Sexual Ethics & the Church

As I sat in my first public board meeting recently, a newly-minted Member of the Gay Christian Network’s (GCN) Board of Directors, I was prepared for anything. Or, so I thought.

GCN had endeavored, especially over the course of the last three years to become a home for diversity. The organization’s public stances supporting both conservative and liberal relationship practices – called Side A and Side B, as well as its intentional welcoming of straight allies, including conservative parents and their viewpoints, was already seen as somewhat controversial. There was a significant effort to incorporate broader issues within the annual conference’s agenda, which included keynotes and workshops representing a range of viewpoints and experiences. Even our board had diversified significantly, no longer being a stronghold for primarily white, male, gay representatives.

Now, there is still much work to do, but I am struck with how far the organization has come. So, naturally, I was saddened when the first question raised of the Board was from a woman from the Northwest part of the United States (let’s call her Jenny) who rose to share her story of being actively discriminated against for being Polyamorous by volunteers/staff at the conference.

Please, allow me to explain.

For those unaware, and before you start Googling, being Polyamorous is a sexual identity in which a person shares serious romantic connections with people of any gender and is involved in some form of long-term relationship with one or more people. In other words, said person is in love with many people. It is one of a few growing social phenomena where monogamy is not the end purpose or result as people accept their full sexual identities. Even though it sounds a bit like polygamy, such as that which might be found in the Bible (see 2 Samuel; Genesis; or, Judges), it actually is a bit more postmodern than that. Instead of the relationship being in the form of one relationship with multiple partners, it is rather focused on individual connections developed between different people over time. Sometimes these relationships are developed within a community, but not necessarily. It also differs from bisexuality, which connotes a desire for monogamy.

All cards on the table, I am not a sex expert, sociologist, medical doctor, or mental health expert. In addition, I am only beginning to receive training in pastoral care. So, if you are confused by my description, I can relate. I have had minimal interaction with the polyamorous community; thus, my study of this community is only a little over two weeks old.

For my part, returning to the setting of the Board meeting, as I listened to Jenny explain her situation, it was heartbreaking to me to hear that she had been excluded. The whole purpose of GCN, and, especially the conference, is to bring people of different backgrounds together in the love of Christ, to examine our lives together, empower each other to live fully into the creation of which we are designed, and to recharge with a host of activities and social interactions. It is a simple formula, which is always complicated to create, but the results have been transformational to many people’s lives.

It turns out in Jenny’s case that a great deal of bias had been exposed. Most of this bias stemmed from a misunderstanding of Jenny and several of her peers whom were in attendance.  They sought to gather and discuss issues related to their lives as Christians, but others saw them as attempting to bolster an agenda. This misunderstanding quickly devolved to fear on the part of several volunteers and staff who thought that a willingness to embrace Polyamorous relationships openly at the conference could signal political and social fights inside and outside of the organization. A perfectly valid fear, as similar moves to be inclusive had resulted in such fights.

The Board listened, offered apologies for the poor experience at the conference, and asked that, in partnership, if Jenny and others would be willing to educate the Board and staff further on the experience of being Polyamorous. An appropriately human response in my opinion. Jenny agreed and the matter was resolved for the moment.

Afterward, as I heard my fellow Board members express their concerns and desires to address the situation better in the long-term, I found my mind wandering to think about various scenarios. If we openly allowed discussion of non-monogamous ideas and theology, would there be a cost or a benefit. Was the risk worth it? How did I feel about the idea of polyamorous relationships? Did it matter how I felt in contrast the to my bigger desire to see that all people felt welcome to the conference and Christ’s love?

I hate to admit that I don’t have adequate answers to these and many more questions. My mind runs to the political risk, while my heart beats to support Jenny and her peers. It is an awkward struggle that I feel a need to control. And, maybe, that is the ethical lesson for this post, do we need to control, especially control over the sexual identity of our communities, or should we live into an ethic that promotes more freedom of choice? It is a gray area for sure.

As this blog series develops, I hope to examine and share lessons that I learn. I look forward to finding more human stories and their connection to God. Along the way, I hope to discover ways to talk about sex and sexuality within my faith community. I hope that you will join me and share the experiences of discovery in your life. If not, then at least, I hope that you will not judge me for being curious and open to the lives of others. Regardless, let’s learn how to be better humans together!

 

Loving My Enemies

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My run-in with infamous anti-LGBT activist and fellow human Kim Davis…

A little less than a week ago, I was returning home to Washington, DC after a third consecutive year of attending the annual Gay Christian Network Conference (gcnconf.com). It was another powerful year of inspirational and forward-leaning workshops and keynotes, some of which I was able to lead for the first time as a recently minted seminary student and member the organization’s board.

Among the keynotes at the conference was my friend, mentor, and colleague, the Rev. Allyson Dylan Robinson. Rev. Allyson challenged my 1,499 fellow LGBTQIA Christians and me in attendance, to not only embrace the fact that we had been victorious in the “Culture War”, but that now was the time for us to show more grace to those over whom we had been victorious than we had been shown before the war had started. It was a challenging and controversial call, not only because of its claim of victory, but the way she pin-pointed a fault in our human nature, which is to look for opportunities to accumulate power for ourselves – not to serve a greater purpose.

I was inspired. Many were inspired! It was a simple, clear message, delivered masterfully. Rev. Allyson would even remark to me later that it was perhaps the greatest preaching experience of her 12 year career. A fantastic description of the experience, and certainly a remarkable moment propelling her forward in our mutual work to bring meaning to our fellow queer Christians’ lives.

As I sat in seat 26C on my American Airlines flight connecting from Charlotte to Washington Reagan National Airport, I glanced up and instantly recognized infamous Kentucky County Clerk, and national icon of the Religious Right, Kim Davis as she passed me boarding the same flight. It was reported later that she came to Washington as part of a political group to attend the State of the Union Address at Congress the following evening.

All the oxygen left my body. Here within the touch of my hand had been a woman whose sole employment now was to openly mock and fight the rights and recognitions that so many of my friends and I had fought earnestly to achieve. I attempted not to stare, instead looking down, then left, anywhere that would allow me a personal moment to process this event. My enemy was ever present, and I didn’t know what to do.

Tray tables went up, engines roared, and soon we were in the air. I got up to use the restroom – an activity I have volunteered to do on a plane maybe twice before, but it was the only way to catch an innocent glimpse of her, again. My eyes panned back and forth searching for her. I failed. I returned to my seat morbidly curious and unsettled.

Not knowing what to do, my next logical move was Facebook. Downloading the in-flight internet service, I quickly posted a frantic alert to my list of friends about the seemingly absurd situation in which I found myself. Friends commented, laughed, yet provided no immediate thoughtful advice on how to handle myself.

Finally, I began to pray. Asking God for a reason why I was living in this moment, looking for wisdom. Should I find her? Should I say something? Do I just continue to gawk at her? Do I leave her alone? The questions rushed through my head, unanswered. Then I thought about Allyson and the Golden Rule. I reflected on other times where other people of some power or celebrity had crossed my path, and how in some cases I interacted, but only when welcomed. But, this felt different.

I finally resolved to meet her. And as the captain announced our decent into DCA, I hatched a plan. I would walk to about mid-way down the sky bridge and wait for her. I would wave her down and say… Oh my God, what would I say?!? The oxygen left my body, again. I began to run scenarios through my head. Keep it simple, Ben. Tell her how you feel. Three seconds.

The plane landed. I grabbed my carry-on and I sped out into the sky bridge. I counted to myself while I examined each face that departed the plane. Deep breath. She de-planed in front of me, wearing what I think was a nude-colored dress over-laid with a thick winter coat.

Waving my hand in the air. “Hi, Miss Davis? Can I take a picture with you?” She agreed. We leaned in for a selfie – the most modern human activity of which I can think. I quickly stated, “Miss Davis, my name is Ben. A lot of what you’ve done has hurt many of my fellow LGBT Christians and beyond, but I want you to know that I offer you the Peace of Christ.” I extended my hand so as to shake hers.

Blank faced, either from being stunned or afraid, she lightly grabbed my hand and said, “God bless you.” She quickly turned and walked away to a waiting group.

I shook for about 3 seconds, collected myself, and resumed my exit from the airport. As I went to meet my checked bag in Baggage Claim, I filtered and posted the picture on Facebook with only the quotes of my interaction with Kim Davis above it to my private friends list. It was a viral hit among my friends, and with each like or friendly comment, I felt like something interesting had just happened. I had achieved something, but I didn’t quite know what it was. The overwhelming response was immediately positive. I was brave, courageous, and had lived-into my Christian principles, said many. I had inspired others and been true to myself and to the greater good of humanity. That felt good.

However, the story didn’t end there. With each acknowledgement from friendly voices, suddenly came something dark and unexpected. As the news of the event spread due to my friends sharing of it, I started to receive personal messages and public comments about people’s disgust with…me. I was called a brazen self-promoter; a hypocrite; a secret conservative; disloyal; hurtful; and, most onerous to hear, of a low character. Not being a regular public commentator, or accustomed to such personal attacks, these comments – mostly from friends really HURT. I soldiered on, and tried to ignore the comments, but they nagged at me, and a few hours later, wanting to avoid the stress of hearing that I was a bad person, I deleted the post.

Many friends reached out with curiosity for my reason for doing so, and I posted about the event, again, this time without the picture, saying that I had not wanted to deal with the hurt I had apparently and inadvertently caused, and that I wanted to find a better way to express myself than a momentary response. An attacker and friend posted that if I had any conviction that I would have left the original post up and stood by it. A perfect catch-22.

In my work at Cook Ross, I daily remind my clients to express and embrace their humanity and that of those around them. My colleagues and I are paid to give people good reasons and better strategies to treat each other with honor, respect, and, hopefully, love. In fact, our founder Howard Ross instructs us to go out and fall in love with our clients. This is not unlike the instruction of Jesus Christ whom I have professed faith in since I was a child.(See Matthew 5, preferably in the NRSV.)

I fell in love with humanity a long time ago. And, that love doesn’t waiver just because someone denies my friend a marriage license, or calls me or my friends faggots. It doesn’t change for the person who tells me how proud they are of me, or the one that tells me that I lack any integrity. My love for humanity is open and inclusive. It is a hard, daily struggle to see goodness in all that God has created.

I love Kim Davis. I love my friends and family. I love my community. And, I love those who would choose to tear me down. If you don’t approve of my message or the tactics by which I choose to share my story, I still love you. And, ask anyone whom I have dated, I don’t throw that word around very much. It is, however, what I feel in this moment. Maybe, tomorrow I’ll be cranky or mad, but in this moment, I feel free to speak my truth. And, I want to offer you this same freedom.

My prayer for you, my reader, is that you will find the same love from God that I have found. That it will heal you in the places of your humanity where you find yourself discouraged, flawed, or damaged. Take courage and know that someone out there loves you.

Go in peace.