Friday, April 18, 2014

The Saturday Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bridges over Troubled Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Enough

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

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

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

*****

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

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



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



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



*****

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

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

In what ways do you feel you are Not Enough?



Monday, December 23, 2013

Margi-Privileged

 Driving to work, I caught my reflection in the rear-view mirror...

The dark circles, the wrinkles, the blemished skin, the almost completely-gray hair. Well, at least I HAVE hair. In fact I have an over-abundance of it. On my back, shoulders, and...well...everywhere. Oh well. Another year older. But am I wiser?

I don't know if I'm wiser, but I have learned a lot this year by blogging and interacting with readers and other bloggers on social media. There are too many takeaways from 2013 for me to list. The one that has stayed with me the most is the concept of privilege.

I have wrestled with this word. It makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to own my privilege, because that means I have to be more vigilant of my words and actions. It compels me to be aware of those who have less privilege. It sheds light on injustice, oppression, and abuse. It makes me sad, and who wants to be sad?

The struggle with owning my privilege has been similar to the stuggle with owning my sexuality. As a gay person, I felt the need to guard my words and actions. Now that I am in an environment that is affirming and loving, I don't feel the compulsion to hide.

Here is the irony: part of owning my privilege means that, once again, I am being asked to guard my words and actions.

So, how does someone who has experienced marginalization--someone who has fought a lifelong battle to be open and honest and unashamed--deal with this ironic twist of also having a great amount of privilege? Ah, the plight of the margi-privileged*!

I don't have the definitive answer, but I can share my techniques and experiences with you. Maybe it will give you some ideas.

Don't get hung up on others' anger, tone, or "lack of grace."
When I first came out, I felt like a wounded animal. I had exposed a very deep part of myself to people that I knew would have a problem with it. Although all responded with good intent, some of the less careful responses hurt horribly. Because of the vulnerability I felt, I lashed out in anger. I know that my angry words hurt them, but I needed them to know how their words, however well-intentioned, hurt me. Most people were critical of how I responded, which hurt even more. Now, just imagine how someone who has been a victim of abuse feels when they lash out at their abusers, and are told that their response was "unhelpful."

Remember critique is not the same as personal attack.
I've had to tell myself this over and over again. For example, even though I wasn't involved in the NALT project, I felt that the critique given by some queer Christians (and non-Christians) was harsh. I internalized their critique; I felt that they were criticizing ME because I thought (and still think) that NALT is useful and helpful. But...I have come to understand that they aren't attacking me by disagreeing with me. They are offering an honest critique. Instead of telling people how to critique, the best thing I can do in this case is to (1) urge the people at NALT to listen to the words of their critique, (2) get involved to make positive change, and (3) offer encouragement to them.

If told to "check your privilege" or something similar, check your marginalization as well.
I truly believe that some of the conflict I experience around this issue is that when I'm given a critique, experience disagreement, or feel attacked, I am reliving my own marginalization. So, when this occurs, I check both my privilege AND my marginalization. Am I being marginalized because I do not fit a societal norm? Or, am I getting pushback from someone who is feeling marginalized by me? Could this person be experiencing anxiety and/or pain due to past hurts?

Be the change you want to see.
This has become my mantra. For all the talk this year of fundamentalism, post-modernism, grace, truth, oppression, abuse, tone, privilege, marginalization, and so many others, I can't control other people's reactions, responses, or critiques. The only person I can control is myself. I'm commanded to love; not to instruct others on the way I think they should love.

Use it as another opportunity to run to God.
Often I have felt deflated, depressed, discouraged, and disillusioned with what I've learned, seen, and experienced on social media and blogging. I've often wanted to give up on Christianity altogether. However, I can bring all of these conflicted emotions--including my disgust for Christianity--to God. I bring both my marginalization and my privilege--and all associated feelings--to God.

I can't emphasize enough that these techniques are what I'm trying to do in my OWN life. I don't want to give the impression that these techniques are the solution to conflict, disunity, dealing with abuse and oppression, etc. If anything, I'm writing this to those who are privileged and find themselves confused or frustrated with pushback from those less privileged. Remember that "to much is given, much is required." Remember Jesus, who gave everything--even his life--for all of us. Remember the Kingdom of God, where the first is last and the last is first.

What do you think? Critiques welcome here! I've much to learn.



*Thanks to Karla Keffer for coining this term!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Blessed Are They That Mourn

"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." - Matthew 5:4

When I was living and working in Toledo, Ohio in my mid-20s, I often had lunch at this large, cafeteria-style restaurant downtown. Patrons would load their trays and sit in a large atrium filled with tables, booths, and a lot of potted ferns. The food was lousy, but the big plants surrounding each table made it an ideal place for conversation.

That atrium is burned in my memory. There, I confessed my crisis of faith to my pastor. It’s where I almost came out to who-knows-how-many people. It’s where I sat listening to co-workers talk about “hot girls” and dating, while I parroted the expected responses and tried to change the subject. It’s where I sat alone unable to think straight (let alone pray), mind swirling with doubt, confusion, fear, and disillusionment.

One particular lunch I remember sitting with my friend Charlie, trying to explain those paralyzing feelings of doubt and confusion. I felt safe with Charlie. Charlie was in his early 40s, a handful of inches above 6 feet, bearded, loud, passionate, and extremely kind. He listened to my awkward explanation, and then said: “Do you know that verse ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’”?

"Yeah."

“Mourning means to get on the outside that which is inside,” pointing to his heart.

“Um, OK. What does that mean exactly?”

“I’m just saying that’s what you are trying to do right now. You are in pain, and you are trying to identify and express it.”

Charlie’s words rang true. Part of me wanted to keep those emotions buried, to pretend everything was alright, and to keep playing the part of Kevin Shoop, mild-mannered evangelical Christian dude. But I couldn’t. His words encouraged me not to “rest in the Lord” or stop struggling, but to keep digging.

I struggled internally, in part, because I was wrestling with my sexuality. I knew I was gay, but I was taught it was open rebellion against God to succumb to the temptation. The “temptation” was not only to act on these sexual desires, but to identify as a gay person. So, I slogged through various ways to change my sexual orientation and/or commit to a life of celibacy (fervent prayer, ex-gay therapy, workbooks, Bible meditation, etc.).

During this time of struggle, Charlie’s words would come back to me now and then. “Blessed are they that mourn....” Years later, as I began to understand and embrace my sexual identity, it dawned on me: coming out is a form of mourning. Blessed are they that get on the outside that which is inside.

*************

There is loss when someone decides to come out: family, friends, old belief systems, well-worn masks. We mourn all these losses. We also mourn "lost time"— compassion for the child/person who genuinely thought they were broken and desperate for change. But there is comfort in becoming more whole and authentic. Genuine growth and healing are possible.

Please note: Coming out is no easy task. In no way should an individual be forced or shamed to come out before they are ready. Some must choose between coming out and physical/economic safety. Please see this post for more on this topic.

Today, as a gay man no longer caught up in that specific internal struggle, I’ve had more energy and clarity to focus on oppression outside of my own story. If one is able to open one's eyes and ears to the real suffering caused by social and economic injustice, one cannot help but mourn. We mourn the horror on the daily news. We mourn for the church—for evil done in God’s name in the past and present. We mourn the jarring inconsistency between Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God and the reality on the ground.

A friend of mine recently demonstrated this type of mourning. A woman he knew shared her concern that some Christian churches were beginning to affirm same-sex relationships. She told him, "I'm glad you and I see it the same way, at least." He didn't say anything to confirm or deny her statement, and afterward felt awash in sadness, guilt, and weariness. He was mourning not only his inability at that time to say something, but also the widespread view that so many Christians have about same-sex relationships. Feeling that pain—mourning it—becomes similar to that other beatitude: to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Mourning moves us to cry out to God in our weakness. Hunger and thirst drive us to right the wrongs we mourn from day to day.

I'm convinced that mourning is a discipline. It’s what we do when we have true empathy; when we begin to see with the eyes of God those who are oppressed. Holy mourning inevitably leads to a hunger and thirst for righteousness. It drives us to work toward Kingdom ideals. It also drives us to seek refuge, relief, strength, and courage from God.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

God Questions

These are my core questions about God and Christianity:

  1. Is God an actual person like you and me? Or is God more like a force? OR, is God more like a collection of all of us, perhaps of all existence?


  2. The Jesus who lived on earth over 2,000 years ago: is this same Jesus actually alive today?


  3. Is the Holy Spirit a person? Should it be toward the Holy Spirit that I concentrate my thoughts, energy, and devotion?


  4. To whom or what (or what member of the Trinity) am I praying when I pray to God?


  5. What's the deal with the Bible? How much can we rely on it to be holy and authoritative?


  6. Is Hell, a place of unending conscious torment, a real place?


  7. Will we have individual consciousness after death? That is, will I be conscious as "Kevin"?

How do you answer these questions? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to share in the comments or send me an email!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

NALT, Activism, and Bridge-Building

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tension between LGBTQ/intersectional activism and bridge-building.

Well, not really thinking about the tension. More like deeply feeling the tension.

Ever since I wrote the post about this tension, I’ve experienced more and more anger toward those who I consider activists. My anger comes from three specific frustrations:
  1. Not understanding the benefit to activists’ critiques of the NALT (Not All Like That) Movement
  2. Feeling unheard by these activists
  3. Feeling like these activists are speaking for me and others

The first frustration is something I have to accept. Deep down, I know there are different roles within the body of Christ. I’ve seen the benefit time and time again, both short-term and long-term, of uncompromising activism. Being someone who is conflict-averse, someone who values kindness and patience and bridge-building, I don’t usually like many activists' methods of engagement. I get angry and frustrated and sometimes I act that out. And that’s OK. It’s just a part of being in community with people. They don’t need my approval in order for the Holy Spirit to do good work through them.

This post is an attempt to address frustrations number 2 and 3. My hope is that these activists will understand my views on the issues of alliance and advocacy; that they will understand that bridge-building work is also something that the Holy Spirit uses to do good work; and that others who are doing bridge building work understand that the critiques of activists—while painful—can be extremely useful. At the same time, I want them to know that there are others within the LGBTQ community who know that so many are benefiting from your work. (These phenomena can exist simultaneously, in tension.)

I.

In order to get my own thoughts clear, I created the chart below.

The Welcoming Line divides the sections. The groups to the right of the line welcome the LGBTQ community unconditionally and are moving in the right direction regarding full LGBTQ affirmation and equality. The groups to the left of the line show an increasing level of hostility toward the LGBTQ community, and individuals are not welcome unless there is at least some admission of brokenness or sin. These groups are moving in the wrong direction regarding full LGBTQ affirmation and equality.

Additionally, there is a box below each group that describes (generally) the level of affirmation offered to LGBTQ folks. “Utopia” is where all power structures have been obliterated, and there is no need for one group in power to welcome/affirm another group. All are equally regarded as members in the Kingdom of God.

Now, from this chart, one can see that activists can have valid critiques of each other group, both to the left AND to the right of the Welcoming Line. However, is there another way to view each group?

II.

The image below shows a number of different “audiences” toward which the welcoming groups direct their message and actions.

Each group could speak to each audience in a different way. Realizing the difference in audience, focus, and purpose is where I believe activists could benefit from a bridge-builders perspective.

I realized a while ago that the Marin Foundation is not for me. I don’t actively support or give money to them, because I feel they should be more fully affirming. But in this case, it's not about me: I'm not their primary audience. Their purpose is to build bridges with potential allies, and to show those on the left of the Welcoming Line how their stances and policies hurt individuals and families. They have a different focus than the activist. Most importantly, they can reach and persuade people that the activist cannot.

The same is true of the new NALT movement. NALT goes further than the Marin Foundation in that they are fully affirming of LGBTQ individuals and their relationships. Dan Savage of the It Gets Better movement has used his huge platform to partner with affirming Christians in order to reach LGBTQ youth and other individuals struggling with their faith and with hostility from other people of faith.

I’ve seen much criticism of NALT from activists. Much, perhaps even most, of the criticism is valid. The emphasis is probably too much on making Christians feel better about themselves. There is a lack of diversity in the outreach and leadership. This is a lack of queer influence and leadership. It makes sense, and I hope and pray that those within the movement have thick skin and open hearts. I also hope that activists will become involved in more than just critiquing the movement, but also creating something themselves: whether it be a video, an offer to educate further, or a similar movement. At the same time, try to understand what an amazing step this is and how far we’ve come. My frustration (and my fear) is that so many critiques will demoralize those who are truly allies, and chase away those who are potential allies.

Having said all this, I know that activists do good, important, necessary work. I just wish they understood that others do, too. In the meantime, I hope all of us can find a way to live in this tension of loving each other well despite our differences. I feel like Paul: of sinners (those who do not love well in the tension), I am chief. If you feel my finger pointed at you, remember I am pointing four fingers back at myself.