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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hurt People Hurt People

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany - Companions of Our Lord     

It's been over a decade since I found a home in the Episcopal Church and -- almost immediately thereafter -- got involved in ministry with LGBT people. As society's attitudes about sexuality have evolved and congregations have become more willing to acknowledge the diversity in their midst, this has shifted from providing "safe spaces" off to the side for our folks to pray and socialize as their whole, authentic selves, to actually getting whole faith communities to weave universal welcome into their mission and identity.

What I haven't yet offered up here is how I came to be an Episcopalian in the first place. At the tender age of 18, I was a member of the Antioch young adult group at a Roman Catholic parish. Caught up in the emotion of a retreat, I shared with a trusted friend, and a priest, the secret that I was experiencing same-gender attraction. Despite being assured that this would be kept confidential, I got a phone call (from a nun, no less!) several weeks later saying it would be "better for the others" if I wasn't around. "Some of the parents have concerns," she explained, without elaborating.

I did not actively attend church again for over ten years. I was in church, because I worked as a paid musician here and there, but it felt like a job and I was an outsider there to perform a service, not a member of the community.

At some point, I went to hear my friend Jennifer sing at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood, N.J. The denomination meant nothing to me at the time. We were both raised in the days of the Baltimore Catechism, and my CCD classes left me with the kind of "us-and-them" mentality that meant there were only two kinds of churches you needed to worry about: the Roman Catholic Church and Everybody Else. But that visit -- where the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong preached about the nuances of sin in a way I had never heard -- set me on a new course. When 9/11 devastated our area, I found myself delivering donations to another Episcopal parish, with a partnered gay priest. Okay, I get it. I said grudgingly. I went back a few times, ended up on a committee or two, and was received (a service for converts, very similar to confirmation, where you formally commit yourself as an adult member of the church) a few years later.

It should not be a surprise that my area of ministry quickly ended up being to other LGBT people. I have now worked in diocesan ministry for nigh unto ten years, and on the national level for about four. The most profound thing I have learned is -- as traumatic as my own experience was -- it was peanuts compared to what some of my brothers and sisters have experienced at the hands of the church. And, in the ecclesiastical equivalent of PTSD, the collateral damage of all those individual little wars reveals itself on a regular basis, even (aye, maybe especially) among leaders of the movement.

I have witnessed spectacular displays of distrust and hostility (some of it richly deserved) leveled at institutional religion, and sometimes laser-aimed at the unfortunate soul who naively identified as a member. In my official capacity, I attended a memorial for a man I had never met, and my expression of gratitude for his decades of service was lost when a complete stranger, learning what group I was there to represent, proceeded to publicly lambaste me for ten minutes about events that took place in that organization while I was many miles away attending grammar school.

I have also seen it -- heartbreakingly often -- among our own: we shoot accusations like arrows from the safety of our Facebook chairs, far enough away to avoid getting splattered with the mess. Too often, people all theoretically working for the same cause fall into predictable opposing teams, mess with one of us, you've messed with all of us, or something like that. Simply disagreeing with a person’s ideas or interpretation of an event is immediately labeled as bullying, slander or worse, and decades of toxic history are dragged out yet again like some kind of dystopian yearbook to prove... what exactly?

It is contagious, this; I have been guilty of it myself, which I deeply regret. I can get caught up in the need to avenge wrongs that had nothing to do with me. I have walked away from conversations and shut myself off from further contact with people who seem to be repeated triggers. And I have, truth be told, contemplated frequently whether the rate of progress, which feels downright glacial at times, is worth the emotional toll. Maybe I should just fold my tent quietly, dust myself off, and walk away. What’s another ten years in the desert?

In trying to atone for and heal from my own contribution to this malaise, I keep coming back to a conversation I had with a friend about her troubled son, whose treatment of her ricochets between intense devotion and blinding rage. The words that entered my head, which I wrote on a napkin while she was describing one such encounter, was:


Now if you are not "hearing" that in your head, maybe you recall seventh-grade English and how much fun it was to diagram sentences:

Or, to put it another way: "Hurt (adj.) people HURT (verb) people."

The one thing LGBT people almost universally have in common is that we have all been -- at one time or another -- treated badly. As children, we got mocked for being different or strange; for not liking dolls when we should, or walking funny. Later, we may have been rejected by family members, passed over for jobs, kicked out of churches, or accused of being immoral and a danger to children simply because the gender that turns our head, or that we claim as our own, is not what others expected it be. I have yet to meet the person who avoided it totally, although it is getting better, thanks be to God!

The Velveteen Rabbit
illustration by William Nicholson
Public Domain (1922)
Those of us who are doing inclusion work are -- by definition -- revisiting those old personal hurts, over and over again; either by talking other people through them, or trying to explain to potential allies how it feels to be a person like us. We don't have the luxury of shutting those bad memories in a box and celebrating the happy, well-adjusted person we became, safe to pursue career and relationship goals by nature of the progress the church and the state have made. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is our scars that will make us “real” to those wounded hearts whose trust we must carefully earn.

Perhaps this is the gift that we carry to the altar. Maybe we sacrifice "moving on" in order to build the church and the world where others may someday do so undamaged. If that is so, then we must acknowledge what that costs, and the attendant dangers.

This means we can, if we're not careful, see our present circumstances only through the scratched lenses and battered, taped, frames of the past. We are liable to interpret the words and actions of others as if we were back in that awful place we fought so hard to overcome, particularly when we find ourselves under stress. In that dark world, allies can easily be mistaken for tormentors, and that puts us at a higher risk of inflicting further wounds on them, if we can’t see their vulnerable spots past the scales on our own eyes. Trust me, I know there are some people who just manage to push your buttons, but in the heat of the moment it is easy to confuse the person and the issue; what is really their damage and what is just our own stuff, coming back to haunt us.

It also means we can become so used to victimhood that it has become too comfortable, or too scary, to give up. We have fought hard to achieve wider acceptance, but with equal rights comes equal responsibility. It is good that we are different, and it is important and wonderful that we are survivors, but it doesn’t make us "special" in the sense that we should continually expect to get a pass for bad behavior because of it. We find it exhausting when others do it; we should learn to recognize it in ourselves.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

So what next?

As a souvenir of that fateful weekend, I have -- shoved into the top of a closet -- a grocery bag full of palancas, letters of affirmation from other Antioch members, parishioners and others that I received on the retreat. The word palanca is Spanish for "lever" and the purpose is to give someone a spiritual "boost" through prayer or encouragement. So this is my palanca for you, 21st-century style:

If any of this struck a chord with you, I invite you to play the video below, eyes closed if you want, and think about your own experience while you listen. Hold up the hurts you’ve endured, and the hurts you’ve caused, and allow yourself to feel forgiveness, given and received. Think about what you might say or do differently next time. What if you shared one of these vulnerabilities with the person who causes you the most angst, and asked them to share one of theirs with you? What would your relationship be like after that?

That song was composed by Gregory Norbet, a former member of the Benedictine monastery at Weston, Vermont. It is a working farm in a rustically beautiful setting, particularly in autumn, and has been a "go-to" place of refuge for my entire life.

The pond at Weston Priory
We can… you and I can… build that place of sanctuary for each other. We can learn to help each other heal from what has happened to us, and be the palanca, the lever, that helps them accomplish what they otherwise could not. We can have the grace to ask for forgiveness when we screw up (and we will screw up… I know I will) and know that it is offered with sincerity. We can know that it is okay not to always be perfect, and not always be right, and not always have the last word.

We can do this, aye, we have to do this. We are called to be a force of good in the world, are we not? How can we take that on with so much distrust and resentment underfoot? We need each other on this road, flaws and all, and we can get there much quicker if we learn how to bring out the best in one another, instead of the worst.

“Jesus Consoles the Women”
 from Clarence Enzler’s Everyone’s Way of the Cross

Christ Speaks:

How often had I longed to take the children of Jerusalem and gather them to me. But they refused. But now these women weep for me, and my heart mourns for them-- mourns for their sorrows that will come.

I comfort those who seek to solace me.

How gentle can you be, my other self? How kind?

I Reply:

My Jesus, your compassion in your passion is beyond compare. Lord, teach me,help me learn. When I would snap at those who hurt me with their ridicule, those who misunderstand, or hinder me with some misguided helpfulness,those who intrude upon my privacy – then help me curb my tongue.

May gentleness become my cloak.

Lord, make me kind like you.


Adaptions of this post:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bloody Sunday: Irish Rocker Spotlights Church's Role in Anti-Gay Russia

 I wrote this for Walking With Integrity.

Last spring, I wrote about a young woman named Dannika Nash who quoted the Macklemore song "Same Love" in some frank advice to the institutional church on behalf of milliennials. In a nutshell, she warned that if the church forced her generation to choose between it and their support of LGBT rights, it was going to be disappointed in the outcome. Her basic message was one that research clearly shows is shared by many in her generation, 30% of whom do not claim any faith affiliation at all. She implied that - for them - music and other aspects of their culture fulfill a social-consciousness need that religion does not.

Macklemore, classified as a rapper, was not afraid to call out the genre's reputation for homophobia and misogyny. In January of this year, he performed "Same Love" at the Grammy Awards while Queen Latifah witnessed the marriages of thirty couples, including some of the same gender.

I heard a song recently in my truck which caught my attention because the chorus starts out with the phrase "take me to church..."  Not only is this unfamiliar subject matter for popular music (for reasons explained above, I expect), but a Facebook buddy and his friends use the expression "go to church" as a euphemism for their favorite pastime (kayaking over waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest), and I thought he might get a chuckle out of a song that features that phrase.

Video for Hozier's "Take Me to Church"
(CAUTION: Violent Imagery)

Hozier at SXSW 2014
Used under Creative Commons License
 Some rights reserved
It wasn't til I got home and read more about it that I understood the song's topic is no laughing matter.  Having only half-heard the words while driving, I discovered upon closer examination that Andrew Hozier Byrne (who goes by his middle name), a 24-year-old Irish man, is not asking to be brought to a religious institution, at least not the ones he knows.  Describing his experience as "Every Sunday's getting more bleak / A fresh poison each week"  Hozier (or at least the protagonist in the song) is -- like Ms. Nash -- eschewing life in the pews for a "religious experience" of another kind, in his case a lover.

What caught my attention, however, was the subject matter of the song's video.  It depicts -- in brutal honesty -- the abduction of a gay couple in Russia by a vigilante gang.  The connection to the lyrics was not immediately clear, but -- if you know a little background on what's going on there -- it starts to make sense.

For at least the last 12 years, anti-gay sentiment in Russia has been ramping up. Attempts to hold pride marches in Russian cities have been generally meant with political opposition and/or violent protests.  The country's Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have all spoken out against the observances, with the Grand Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin encouraging flogging for the participants in the Moscow Pride of 2006.

"I always stand by the song and the point that the video made, so it’s never a chore," Hozier, who is not gay, told the London Evening Standard. "The song is about loving somebody, and the video is about people who would undermine what it is to love somebody."

Journalist Jeff Sharlet, whose books C Street and The Family document the degree of control a cadre of evangelical Christians have over Washington, traveled to Russia this fall in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics and painted a stark picture of gay life in the country which appeared in February's GQ.  Sharlet describes the growing hostility towards gay people as part of a larger social unraveling: Russian civilians, encouraged by their government and religious institutions, have taken matters into their own hands.
"There's a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their 'interrogations' online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God's Will ) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims."
In the article, Sharlet describes shoot-ups in bars, rapes, beatings, and computer surveillance, (even on the part of private citizens).  Readers learn the measures to which people will go to survive, and the lengths others will go to tear apart the lives of complete strangers in pursuit of some dystopic fever-dream. We meet two families that live together symbiotically, presenting as heterosexual to the world as a cover for their actual same-gender partnerships.  Sharlet talks to both targets and perpetrators, attempting to help readers decipher what is behind the fear and violence.

The Duma in 2013 passed an "anti-propaganda law" which makes it illegal to communicate about "non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors. Of course what constitutes "propaganda" can be broadly interpreted to suit the occasion, and one could be punished for doing anything something as simple as holding hands anywhere "where children might see."  Victims of vigilante violence are laughed at or punished if they seek help from law enforcement.

Western Connection (AKA, Why We Should Care)

If the rationale of "protecting the children" sounds familiar, it is because it is the same mantra used to justify anti-gay laws in Africa, and -- lo and behold -- some of the same American evangelical voices, including Scott Lively, are taking at least partial credit. Lively is currently the target of a federal lawsuit under the Alien Tort Act for crimes against humanity, due to his involvement in getting Uganda's "Jail the Gays Bill" passed.  He toured that country in 2009 with several other Americans, stirring up anti-gay fear at a series of rallies.  He employed the same tactics in Russia and called the passage of the law there "one of the proudest achievements of my career".  His enthusiasm was shared by the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer.

Most American clergy, not unaware of shifting public opinion, are more nuanced in their positions on LGBT issues, sometimes head-scratchingly so.  Televangelist Joel Osteen told Larry King "I believe homosexuality is a sin, but I don't want to preach about it." Jim Wallis of Sojourners (who is frequently described as a progressive) drafted and circulated a letter to Barack Obama in favor of a "religious exemption" to the President's executive order on discrimination by companies holding federal contracts.  A number of the large, venue-based churches like Hillsong NYC, attempt to avoid the topic altogether.

But we can't not talk about it, so long as crises as large and terrifying as the one unfolding in Russia continue to happen, and as long as there are places in our own "civilized" country where people think belonging to a church makes it okay for you to be a bully and want that enshrined in the law.  For those of us who believe there is a place for everyone at God's table, the recent string of domestic victories should not be mistaken as a sign that we're anywhere near done doing justice work. The "religious freedom" laws being introduced in various quarters are a clear sign of that.

Nor can we rest on our laurels while we know that hurtful things are being done in God's name anywhere in the world. The one thing our Savior didn't abide well is hypocrisy, and the YouTube generation is reminding us of that by voting with its feet.  Perhaps if they saw our churches witnessing to the pain being inflicted in the name of religion and how this conflicts with the Gospel we know, they'd be more inclined to stick around.

An adaption of this article was reposted on believeout.com on August 8th, 2014
"Millennials, the Church, and LGBT Global Social Consciousness"

Friday, July 4, 2014

While God is Marching On


It intrigues me that, eleven-score and eighteen years ago, we thought the unfettering of church and state was important enough to start a war over*, and yet we're still arguing about it.

This week's Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations the right to (as near as I can figure it) choose a religious denomination and govern themselves according to its tenets feels completely counter to my understanding of what the Founding Grown-Ups had in mind.  Despite the fact that those holding the pen were all white (presumably hetero and cisgender) males of privilege, I have preferred to believe that they envisioned a place where one person's beliefs would not be imposed upon another, even if it would take far beyond their lifetimes to get there.

Flags inside All Saints: Worcester
Thus the idea that we are now enshrining  a corporate entity with the trappings of a church, and allowing even one opportunity to envelop all its employees under the beliefs of its leadership is troubling.  Precedent is like a leaky roof; you will have quite a mess by the time you find all the unexpected places the proverbial rain water has traveled.  I am waiting for the first time a Jehovah's Witness boss tells an employee (s)he can't have a blood transfusion.  How do you think mandatory Hijab Fridays would sit with those who are celebrating this ruling?

And America yawned. All this is playing out even as an unprecedented number of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, particularly among young people.  The reality that someone's very real health care needs are conceivably now under the control  of a belief system to which they don't even subscribe should be causing a much greater ruckus than it is.

My only hope is that this ruling can be exploited in positive ways as well.  For those of us whose faith mandates generosity, kindness, fairness and justice, are we now free to impose these values on our employees?

Earlier this week was the feast of Harriet Beecher Stowe. As we celebrate Independence Day under not only the clouds of Hurricane Arthur but this troubling ruling, I strongly encourage anybody whom I have not already badgered into it to watch this sermon, given on that feast in 2012 by the Right Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, on the floor of the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church as it met in Indianapolis.

In the face of rising disengagement (brought on in no small part by the extremist rantings that unfortunately manage to dominate the public's perception of what it means to be a person of faith), Curry encourages us all to similarly push the limits, but in a positive way.  All of us putting up a hand and politely interjecting "I'm a Christian, too, and I don't agree with that at all!" is the only way we can respond to those who view the church (and the synagogue and the mosque) as a monolithic entity who believes it can and should be imposing its values on even those who have no association with it.  We can and should be refocusing the message back on charity, compassion and community, particularly for those who society deems "the other" or "not good enough" and with the strong underscore that we don't expect you to subscribe to a restrictive dogma to be worthy of those gifts.

NOTE: Yes I am aware that is not all the Revolutionary War was about.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

And Goodnight, Mrs. Pruden, Wherever You Are

Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden & Jacob Riis - Prophetic Witnesses to the Social Gospel

A few years ago, I saw one of those cartoony Facebook postcard thingies that said something to the effect of, "Love is wonderful; you should tell someone that you love them every day. But love is also terrifying and confusing, so when you tell them, scream it in German!"
Wilma-Jean Bland Pruden
When I heard that anecdote, I relished sharing it with my friend Wilma Pruden, because -- among her many talents -- she prided herself on being fluent in that intimidating language.  However, she did not need to resort to Teutonic rants to command respect, either from those who knew her well or -- as it sometimes happened -- perfect strangers. 

My favorite Wilma story took place in a setting that was far from our normal stomping grounds: in a "healthy food, fast" franchise that was catering, at least at that moment, primarily to the gym-obsessed male denizens of Chelsea.  For the uninitiated, visitors to the Muscle Maker Grill make their selections at the counter, but the food is then brought to your table.  The young man working the register, after taking Wilma's order, politely asked, "May I have your first name?"

Wilma, just as politely, replied, "No, you may not."  
Our server looked stunned.  Clearly this had not been included in the training; perhaps women of bearing did not typically frequent this stretch of Eighth Avenue.
Sensing his confusion, she went on to explain, "Only people I know call me by my first name. You and I have not even been introduced. You may call me Mrs. Pruden."

The employee, bless his heart, dutifully keyed "MS. PRUDEN" into the register.  After two-and-a-half minutes, he knew better than to argue.  And, if Wilma was tempted to school him in the correct uses of Mrs., Miss, and Ms., she chose instead to let it go.

I don't tell that story to make Wilma sound haughty or uptight; her tone throughout this whole exchange was completely cordial.  It is simply an example of a woman who knew there was a right way to do things and treat people, and she was not afraid to point them out.  She was no less exacting in her standards for her own conduct than her expectations from everyone else, and while we kidded around about her legendary ire, she also had a rich sense of humor and loved to laugh, especially at herself.  
For several years, Wilma and The Archwarden shared responsibility for managing our now-former parish in the absence of a full-time rector, and I looked forward to ribald stories about what Wilma did or said during their epic meetings.  And during our years of "leading" our church youth group and making basement-music with the Archwarden's late father Henry, I could also count on her husband, (whom we all know simply as "Doc") to share similar tales with his trademark smile.  He is as easygoing as Wilma intense; a balanced partnership that helped them get through medical school, four children, and now a new generation to love and spoil.

We lost Wilma today.  I'm still trying to get my head around that. My heart aches for Doc and their kids, and all the lives that will have to adjust to the hole left by her formidable presence.