Archives for February 2012

Grief

This post is a little more personal than I usually get, but it’s been on my heart and I hope maybe it will be helpful for someone else to read.

Most of the time I try to stay really positive about my queerness and being trans*. I am thankful for my experiences. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I wasn’t queer and trans*. But there are other days where grief washes over me. It’s not something I often talk about because when one talks about stuff like this it gets twisted. So let me be clear up front: I am thankful for my queerness. I do not regret transitioning.

But there is still grief. The reality is that when I came out and when I transitioned I lost a lot of people and things that I love. When I came out I lost most of my friends. Some outright said they could no longer talk to me or be in my life. Others were more subtle; they stopped calling or returning emails and the silence did the rest. I had to walk away from a church and a job that I loved. My relationship with my family was changed forever (and some of my extended family no longer speaks to me). That’s a lot of loss.

I miss having a connection to the past. I can’t go back to the church I grew up in; the church where I first felt a call to ministry, where my leadership gifts were nurtured and challenged, where I was baptized. I can’t go back to the church where I first served as a pastor. I can’t go back to my college. And sometimes that really sucks.

I hate that all of the photos of me with my sister as a baby are hard for me to look at because they were from before I transitioned. I hate that I don’t have any photos of me with my grandparents as my true self. (And I hate that they didn’t get to see the person I am now.)

For me coming out as queer was easier than coming out as trans*; I felt like I was able to retain more contact with the past. But when I came out as trans* so many ties got cut. And people don’t really get it unless they’ve been there. Coming out as trans* isn’t the same experience as coming out as a LGB person. When you come out as LGB you still look the same as you did before. Your childhood photos don’t out you (well, at least not in the same way). I’m not a person who destroyed all of my old photos, but I also feel weird about displaying them. There’s a tension there. Probably the hardest part is wanting there to be photos of me with the people I love, but realizing that some of those people died before I was wholly myself so there will be no photos.

Some days I feel the grief of not knowing how to move through the world; of still learning what it means for me to be in this body. I am still shaking off the shame and discomfort of my old body and learning to lean into this newly resurrected one. I don’t know how to be a brother to my siblings (especially when they still see me as their sister). I don’t know how to be a son or a friend. Some of the things I used to do in a female body now get me pegged as sexist (like holding doors, defending people, etc.).

There is grief and loss that can’t be easily explained and never goes away entirely. And often when it’s brought up it gets dismissed. Today I am grieving. I am feeling the losses in my heart and it feels like there in a weight on my chest.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I would feel this grief on Ash Wednesday. The day when we remember our mortality. But on the other hand I have internalized feeling like dust for a long time. So maybe instead I should remember that I am made of the same stuff as the stars.

Organic Leadership

I recently finished reading Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are (Shapevine) by Neil Cole. This is another book that is really good about diagnosing the problem but not very good about offering solutions.

Cole is an advocate of what he calls “organic church”. It’s along the same lines as house churches, or cell churches. The idea is a network of smaller groups that reproduce quickly. I was hopeful that his ideas might be more applicable to what we’re doing with House of the Transfiguration than books that are about launching large and growing fast. I really appreciated his thoughts about the failings of the institution of the church especially as they relate to leadership. He has harsh words for hierarchy and the ways that institutions work to keep the status quo. He says,

“We need to stop reinforcing the hierarchical structure in the church and start reinforcing Christ’s headship. We need to empower every person in the body to do God’s work, not just the leaders. If leaders simply ignored their positions and titles and functioned out of the authority Christ gives to all of us, we would not only still be leaders, we’d be better ones. I believe that if we began to do this, we would not need to dismantle the old structure immediately but would, instead, transform the true church from a relational point of view. We will simply infuse the body with the life of Christy, and the old structure will not be as relevant or as important as it once was.” (page 94-95)

I also think the following is a powerful message; here he’s speaking about other agencies who are taking on the work of the church: “The essence of the church is lost when she farms out her responsibilities to other organizations. The world today looks at the church wondering what relevance she has. The only use they see for the church is performing the sacerdotal duties of preaching, marrying, burying, baptizing, and passing around wafers and grape juice. How sad! The church was once a catalyst for artistic expression, social change, and the founding of hospitals, schools, and missionary enterprise, but today she has settled for providing a one-hour-a-week worship concert, an offering plate, and a sermon.” (page 116)

I appreciate that Cole generally uses inclusive language when talking about leaders; he refers to women in leadership, which is not something a lot of evangelical books do. I do think he talks too much about Satan (I’ve written before about why I think Satan is too easy) and of course only uses masculine language for God.

My overall problem with this book is the lack of practical examples of what organic leadership should look like. There’s lot of Biblical references and some stories, but not a lot of nitty gritty here’s how this works. And maybe that’s because there isn’t a set formula, but for those of us who agree with Cole’s diagnosis we’re still left without much of a sense of the cure.

A Meditation on “We Take Care Of Our Own”

I unabashedly love Bruce Springsteen. He’s got a new single out and I think it’s wonderful. Take a listen, and really pay attention to the lyrics:

It’s written as a lament. A story of the United States gone wrong. But I also read this as a tale of the church gone wrong. Toward the end of the song he sings:

Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where the hearts, that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea

Isn’t that the church’s job? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about? Where are our hearts running over with mercy? Where is our message of the love that won’t ever forsake? Why aren’t we giving people work that will set their hands and their souls free? This is what it’s supposed to be about.

This is the kind of community I want to be a part of. This is what I want to be creating in my own life and in the lives of others. But I want it to be even bigger than the song: Not just taking care of our own, but taking care of everyone.

But I guess in some ways that is the call of the Gospel, realizing that everyone is our own.

A Review of “7”

I just finished reading “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” by Jen Hatmaker. In it, Hatmaker decides to pick 7 areas of her life and over the course of 7 months tries different experiments to change those areas. For instance, in her month focusing on clothing she chooses 7 articles of clothing and wears only those for a month.

There is a lot that I really liked about this book. It’s an interesting concept (I love these human guinea pig books) and she does a lot of really powerful things. I got a lot of ideas to try in my own life and with the youth I work with. She provides some great information about how excess consumption affects the larger world and hits hard on the mandate that Christians have to do something about all of this.

There were so many moments where I was thinking, “Yes. Finally someone is speaking truth to power in the Evangelical church” (This book is decidedly written for an evangelical audience). I am happy that she called out consumerism, the shallowness of a lot of churches, the way churches spend money, and more. I loved her thoughts on churches stepping up and adopting kids, giving away half of all the money they bring in, serving their community and more.

Hatmaker is writing from a privileged life. She is definitely upper middle class and assumes her readers are as well (or at least solidly middle class). And that I think that’s what made this book really uncomfortable to read. There wasn’t any class critique but there were a lot of mentions of “the poor” and “the homeless”. While she talks about serving and giving things away there wasn’t a call to change the system that keeps people poor.

There were some weird racial things in the book as well (although these were more understated). Throughout she talks about her families plan to adopt two children from Ethiopia and seems to be fixated on the fact that they will be brown skinned with different textured hair (and while it’s important to know how to care for your childrens’ hair the emphasis on it made me uncomfortable). And in one instance, when someone critiques her for wanting to adopt she seems unable to understand his critique. She says he is drunk and it’s only because he’s drunk that he’s saying such things. However in her recounting of his dialogue she reveals the man is Puerto Rican and says that he is telling her that it would be like her family adopting him, which she thinks is completely strange. To me his argument makes sense and is one every white family thinking about adopting a child of another racial background needs to really wrestle with and think about.

In another part of the book she talks about the refugee community and makes sure that the reader knows that they are kept in poverty not because they aren’t hardworking but because there is a language barrier or they lack practical skills (with the unspoken assumption that it’s not like those OTHER homeless people. The ones living under the bridge.). Again, weird class stuff.

And of course there is the dig at a transgender person as she says they had to explain to their kids why there was a “man in a dress” when they went to feed the homeless. Instead why don’t we talk about the fact that extremely high portions of unhoused people (especially youth) are queer. And they lack housing because their religious families kicked them out. Why don’t we have a conversation about how transgender women of color are the most at risk for poverty and violence? I guess that doesn’t fit into an evangelical book.

She embarks on these experiments but then is able to immediately pick her life back up after they are over. Which, on the one hand, I get. How many of us are really willing to completely overhaul our lives? How many of us are willing to sell all we have and give to the poor? But there is a constant push pull in the book: Here is what God demands of us, but I’m not going to do that. And I guess I would be more okay with it if she would just state that up front. I am not going to sell all that I have.

I think what made me most uncomfortable was how insidious the lack of class critique can be. In this world the white, privileged folks get to give away lots of stuff and feel good about it, they get to adopt children from Ethiopia, they get to feed the homeless in the park, give up their shoes, and then go out and buy a new pair of shoes. And not work to overthrow the unjust system that is keeping people without housing and health care.

What I worry this book will do is have a bunch of other people doing experiments to make themselves feel better without actually changing the system. And maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe if lots and lots of people would do these experiments we WOULD change the system. But there still needs to be a sustained understanding of class critique. We need to root out our internalized classism and racism. I think once again of the quote by Paulo Freire on charity: “In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty…True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.” And in this book there is a lot of, “Oh, look how much we’ve given away to those people who really need it.”

I am glad she is raising these questions. I was challenged while reading this book to think about my own excess. But I am still uncomfortable with the outcome of the book. I am uncomfortable with the individualism of the American church. She states in her conclusion that she doesn’t want to guilt anyone and doesn’t want to prescribe a way forward. But honestly, don’t we need to start making some bold and prophetic statements? As Stephen Colbert said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” But taking it even further if we really care about the fact that people are kept in poverty than we need to stop thinking of them as “the poor” and instead actually be neighbors with them. She talks about her church going out to serve food to the homeless but doesn’t talk about whether or not they would be welcome on a Sunday morning. Or what barriers there might be to unhoused folks making it to a service.

I a lot of ways I am very thankful for this book. I am thankful someone is taking on this consumer culture from within the evangelical tradition. I know it takes a lot of courage for an author to put herself and her family out there like this: To reveal their own finances, how and where they spend money, their own excess and I applaud that honesty. But I am afraid that the things left unsaid will allow a culture to continue that keeps people in poverty because we don’t understand systemic oppression. I am afraid that a book like this allows people to get off the hook because there aren’t any prescriptions for what we should do next. I am afraid that this book doesn’t challenge a white evangelical subculture to really examine privilege and racism. This conversation can’t stop here. And the traditional individualism of the evangelical church hasn’t equipped churches to really talk about what it means to live in community or to be community. That’s something we’ve got to start talking about if the systems of the world are going to change.

Luke 4 Lent Reflection

This is the reflection I offered at House of the Transfiguration yesterday. It’s based on Luke chapter 4. It’s a short reflection as our services are discussion based. But I thought I’d share it here.

I love the progression of this passage: The full of the Spirit experience of being baptized followed by 40 days of fasting. Then temptation and the announcement of his ministry. There’s a lot to unpack.

It is said that Lent is observed to commemorate the 40 days that Jesus spent in the dessert. In order to be like Jesus we are to also abstain from something for 40 days. Some folks fast, some give up chocolate or Facebook. I must admit I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with Lent. This idea of denying the body makes me anxious. As a trans* person I spent years denying the existence of my body; I spent years thinking my body was sinful or shameful. I don’t want to internalize those messages anymore. So what is the healthy way for me to observe Lent? In the past I have added a practice: More reading, more prayer, and that seems better for me.

Joan Chittister in her book on the liturgical year says this about Lent: “It is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it. It is the call to prayer, to liturgy, to the co-creation of the world. It is about our rising to the full stature of human reflection and, as a result, accepting the challenge to become fully alive, fully human….”

And that resonates. Jesus fasts, then denies all of the temptations to power. He refuses to take the role of the emperor and provide bread for himself, he refuses to take control of the nation and be a political king, he refuses to have himself lifted up. Instead he claims that he is called to preach good news to the poor, preach the release of prisoners, and the liberation of the oppressed. He understood the heart of his calling and was unwilling to be swayed from it.

What is our calling? Do we know what it means to be fully alive and to be involved in the co-creation of the world? What if we spent lent figuring out how we can be involved in the release of prisoners, the liberation of the oppressed, and preaching the good news?

Can we use Lent to root out the places that are keeping up from being fully alive? To rest up for the work ahead. To go deep into the remembrance of our baptism and get ready once again to pick of the mantle of our calling. We can best speak truth to power if we are centered and able to tap into the Spirit.


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Weekly Roundup

In case you missed anything this week:

On Monday I wrote about Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”.

On Tuesday about the Rolling Stone article on Queer Youth Suicide.

On Wednesday I wrote about Satan being a too easy excuse

On Thursday about Uganda and the “Kill the Gays” bill

And on Friday I rested! ;)


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Uganda and the “Kill the Gays” bill

The “Kill the Gays” bill is back in Uganda and it seems like this time there is a much greater chance it will pass. We need to be making major noise about this bill.

I have been remiss in writing about it. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, feeling like there wasn’t anything I could do, feeling like signing a petition wasn’t enough. But once again this is a situation where religious hatred (from Americans) is being exported and people are dying and are at risk of dying in even greater numbers. We need to get educated and get moving.

This article talks about how deep the ties are between this bill and American Republican Christians.

This is another article about the bill. The comments also provide other ways to get involved.

Here is another article about the reintroduction of the bill and how people are cheering for it.

By all accounts they are going to try to pass this bill fast and there seems to be a lot of support for it (this is different than the last time it was introduced. This time it is MUCH more serious). It’s important that as religious leaders on the left we say something about this. Once again, our silence has allowed people on the right to control the discourse and to export extreme hatred and violence. We cannot be silent on this issue.

On twitter @wthrockmorton & @MelanieNathan1 are two people who are really following this story, writing articles, and tweeting about things as they are happening as is @kristinrawls and @jfburroway. If you want to be kept up to date, follow them. Also follow @frankmugisha from SMUG (sexual minorities Uganda).

Get yourself educated, tell everyone you know, contact the state department, contact the White House, sign the petitions, contact the UN’s human rights department, contact the UN High Commissioner for human rights, donate money to SMUG (if you want to donate to SMUG, please do so directly through Frank Mugisha (listed above) or Melanie Nathan), speak out against exported religious right rhetoric: Do something. We cannot be silent. We cannot wait.

Satan Is Too Easy

I’ve been reading more books that are evangelical in nature lately. Like I’ve said before there just aren’t many (any) good church planting books written by progressives. So you take what you can get. Currently I am reading a book on leadership in non-hierarchical communities and only 50 pages in I am finding a lot of value. Except the author keeps talking about Satan.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about Satan in my life. From the popularity of C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” onward there is a lot of energy being spent on what Satan is up to. Generally Satan is attacking Christians, trying to keep them from doing good work, trying to gain a foothold in their lives, etc. But here’s the thing: Satan is too easy.

If I am struggling with temptation it’s a whole lot easier for me to say “Satan was tempting me” than to admit that sometimes my most base nature is to be a selfish jerk. Satan allows me to externalize. Satan allows me to put the blame outside of myself. Satan is a nice scapegoat.

I’m sure some people will say that my dismissal of Satan means I am at risk to be led astray, but my dismissal is actual a desire to take responsibility for the crap in my life.

I know I can be selfish. I know there are times when I know what the right thing to do is and I don’t do it. I know that I can harm people with my words, harbor hatred and anger and more. I also know that I am doing those things. It’s not something outside of me, it’s me. And when I can take responsibility for something, then maybe I can also change it. It’s too easy to say “the devil made me do it” and then just continue to do it anyway.

It might be easier to blame Satan, but I think I prefer the hard work of actual conversion. I prefer rooting out ideas and behaviours that are harmful and changing them. That, to me, is the real work. And it’s definitely not easy.


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Rolling Stone Article on Queer Youth Suicide

This article has been getting passed around a lot in my circles (major trigger warning for suicidal ideation, suicide, bullying, harassment, homophobia, etc.) I’m not sure if it’s getting a lot of play because this area is 30 minutes from where I currently live, or because it’s printed in Rolling Stone or what, but I wanted to offer some thoughts.

The story is a harrowing one: An epidemic of bullying ignored by school officials that leads to multiple suicides in the course of a very short time. It describes an atmosphere of terror.

First off, I have seen some folks passing around this article and saying that this is the reason we need to get gay marriage legalized (or at least hinting that if we could just get gay marriage legalized it would help these youth). No. Just no. These are two separate issues and by conflating them you make it so that gay marriage will bring in this mythical era of tolerance and good will. It will not. Telling youth, “well, at least you’ll be able to get married some day” is not helpful if they aren’t sure they can make it until tomorrow. So please, I beg of you, stop doing that.

Second, a small band of fundamentalist Christians have hijacked an entire, large school district with their hatred. This is the church’s problem and we need to be the ones to fix it. This is not the time for silence. This is not the time to play it safe or to worry about offending those folks who might not “be there yet”. Honestly, I don’t give a fuck about those people anymore because these kids are DYING. You want me to care about making someone uncomfortable when a teen has felt that their best option is suicide? Oh hell no.

Third, this also isn’t just about adults “helping” these youth. It’s not about making more “It Gets Better” videos, or being out and proud role models (although I do think those things help, for sure). Instead it is about empowering youth to be their own change agents. Find out what they need and make sure they are able to do it. It certainly needs some adult push but only because our systems are so ageist as to think that youth don’t know what they need and can’t articulate it.

Teachers and parents in this particular school district need to stand up and be counted. They need to be vocal and visible and present even if it costs them their jobs. I know it’s easy for me to say that as I am not a teacher, but sometimes there are things more important than stability.

Christian leaders need to be vocal in their support of queer youth. They need to be putting out an alternative message and they need to get over their fear of upsetting people. People on the left have been afraid for too long and the religious right has trampled all over us because of it. While we try to “build bridges” and “cross gaps” people are dying. Get a backbone.

Youth need to have safe spaces to gather to talk and plan. (This is one instance I wish I had a car. I would drive out to that area every week and be a resource if I could.) I’m glad that there are more GSA’s starting up, but I think having groups outside of school would be great as well.

One of the reasons Caidin and I founded Camp Osiris is to be a part of doing this work. There are so few places (although thankfully more every year) where youth can get together to talk about their sexualities and gender identities in a place that also takes their faith journey seriously. And one of the things I think is really different about Camp Osiris is our commitment to empowering youth to change their own communities. We don’t want to just provide a safe bubble (although that is important) we want to give tools so that when those young adults go home they are equipped not only with skills but also with emotional reserves to make change in their world. Our work as directors has been about so much more than just planning a camp, instead it’s been about figuring out how to listen to young adults and to give them what they need. We have some wisdom to impart, but more importantly we have access to resources that we want to make available. We’ve found the camp to be one way to do that. It’s also been important for us to do this in a faith based setting. While not all young adults are religious, most of the bashing comes from religious people, so those young adults that are religious need to have a place and people to help them reframe their spirituality from a queer centered, queer positive perspective.

We have got to start having a different conversation for queer youth and young adults. As people are coming out (and transitioning) younger and younger there need to be structures in place to protect them. They need access to resources. Christians need to be vocal about their support and about letting youth know where there are safe places to go.

We need to be putting money into resources for young adults. There needs to be housing and shelters for those who need to get away from abusive families. There needs to be more queer books in the libraries of schools and in the public libraries. There needs to be more money and scholarships for youth for camps, conferences, and retreats. We need to get safe space kits into classrooms, facilitators who can teach about bullying to teachers, etc. etc. I’m not saying that no money needs to go towards marriage equality, but my guess is that, as a community, we are spending at least ten times on marriage equality what we’re spending to support our youth. And that’s something that can’t be allowed to continue.


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Rise of Christianity

This is a review of The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force …. by Rodney Stark (link goes to my Amazon affiliate site which helps to power this site and other ministry).

I first heard about this book when I attended a Jesus Seminar event at my church. They recommended it as a book written by someone more theologically conservative that came to the same conclusions they had about what cause the rise of Christianity. I was fascinated by the discussion at the seminar about the reasons Christianity became so popular and so I put Stark’s book on my list.

It’s a different kind of a book. Stark isn’t a historian nor a theologian; he is a social scientist. In this book he sets out to explain the rise of Christianity by applying different social science theories to the early Christian community. The result is an interesting picture of what would have caused the community to grow at the rate it did.

I should state a couple of things up front: Stark isn’t the best writer and the in text citing of sources is annoying to say the least. The book is also mostly a collection of essays and papers he has published elsewhere and so there’s not a lot of flow. However it’s only 215 pages in the paperback edition and I found it to read pretty quickly. I also appreciated that he really doesn’t get into theology, he sticks to the social science premise. His reason for this is “But modern social science relegates doctrinal appeal to a very secondary role, claiming that most people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until after conversion.” (pg 14-15 emphasis in the original)

I don’t want to just recap the book, as I find those reviews boring, instead I want to draw out some of his conclusions and apply them to modern Christianity and talk about the things they brought up for me as I am in this process of planting a church.

Stark focuses on a couple of reasons for the growth of Christianity. One is the Christianity mostly grew out of social networks. He doesn’t believe that there were mass conversions of people; instead he sees a slow but steady growth rate. People who were close to one another converted and as more people converted, their social networks converted as well. He brings up a couple of really interesting propositions:

“Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.” (page 18)

Basically, people convert because their friends and family are converting. The key, Stark says, to maintaining growth is making sure that social networks remain open. Which is pretty similar to what the folks who are advocating Missional church are saying. If we take new converts out of their social networks, then growth stops.

I should pause for a second to say two things: One, I don’t believe in conversion as it’s normally talked about. However I do believe there is something beautiful in this Jesus story, particularly as it informs praxis. And two, the whole idea of “getting people into our church/network/etc” makes me feel a little gross. However as I think about my own context I think about the folks I know who have been told that God doesn’t love them, that the church doesn’t want them, and that they are condemned, and yet who desperately do want to be a part of a worshipping community. Those are the folks I want to “convert” (in the sense of creating a place where they can experience a God of love) and I want them to be able to tell their friends/family/chosen family about the space they have found. So when I talk about conversion and social networks I am talking about it in that sense.

Stark also says that Christian community grew because Christians took seriously the command to care for the sick and by doing so they were able to survive plagues and epidemics in larger numbers than were the folks who either had no one to care for them. He thinks that not only did Christians care for the people in their own communities but that they cared for the “pagans” (his word) as well and that some folks were drawn to Christianity because of that.

One of the things that I found the most interesting is his claims that religious groups that demand more from their members have a higher success rate. He says this is because the people who are involved really want to be there and so they put their time, energy, and money into the community. The higher standards also keep out those who would just come along for a free ride. (Although the higher commitment level of the community allows them to do more for those outside the community.) This runs really counter to a lot of the “seeker sensitive” movements that try to require nothing at all of their members.

There were a lot of other interesting insights in this book, but these are the ones that stuck out for me especially in thinking about this new community that we’re forming. It fits in with what I’ve been thinking about discipleship, about the high priority of action and praxis, and about social networks. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.


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