Bruce Jenner and the Gender Box

In light of Bruce Jenner's recent interview, and the many diverse and complex questions it brings up, Level Ground is hosting a screening of the interview and a conversation about gender identity. If you live in the LA-area, please join us on Wednesday, May 6 at 7pm.

More details at the end of this post.

Finally, a big thank you to Neville Kiser for getting the conversation started here!


If you were sitting at home on your couch two Fridays ago like I was, you probably watched (or heard about via the Twitter grapevine) the provocative Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner.  In the interview, Jenner famously revealed that, “I am a woman,” and said that his whole life has been building up to this moment.  Near the end of the two-hour, ABC broadcast, Jenner also said something that surprised me: “I’m saying goodbye to the people’s perception of me and who I am.  I’m not saying goodbye to me, because this is who I am…I’m not this bad person.  I’m just doing what I need to do.”

After pondering this for a few days, it dawned on me that Jenner – who is 65 years old – has been living with this secret largely because of one little box that was checked the day he was born.  The box on his hospital medical records and birth certificate that indicated which gender he was.  When it came to little Bruce, the doctors looked at his genitalia, and within seconds, checked one of those two boxes: male.

When you stop to think about it, this is actually a profound, extremely important, life-altering decision.  Not to mention the first time any of us are judged solely based on our physical appearance.  And what’s even more shocking?  Bruce didn’t make this decision himself; someone else made it for him.

Think about this for a second: the first category that every one of us in human existence is forced into is because of another person’s perception of our physical self.  A decision suggesting that how others see us must determine who we are.  But is this who we truly are?

Does being defined as either male or female actually embody all the varied mysteries of each and every person in the world?  And more important – as in Bruce Jenner’s case – what happens when you grow up and realize that who you were perceived to be physically at birth, was a lie?  Or as photographer Mariette Pathy Allen once put it,

“What do you do if the person reflected in the mirror, is not the one who lives inside of you?”

Milton Diamond, professor of anatomy and reproductive biology at the University of Hawaii wrote, “Nature loves variety.  Society hates it.”  To this day, I can think of no better, fewer words to sum up how we humans typically treat difference among us.  Particularly when it comes to the Transgender community.

Since the mid 1960s, scientists around the globe have recognized the varying manifestations of sex as it relates to gender identity.  Rather than two conventional genders with their anatomical differences, many anthropologists and sexologists often speak of the possibility of almost ten or more separate concepts of gender with regards to the human species.  Author Deborah Rudacille, in her fantastic, groundbreaking book, The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism & Transgender Rights, even goes as far to argue that there could be as many as 16 different gender types.

When I first stumbled onto this research I was baffled by it.  But fascinated, too.  If there really is so much complexity, so many nuances, so much we really don’t know about who people are on the inside, then why is there such a desire to define it?  Why, throughout the ages, has gender so often been confined to the binary debate of being either male or female?

To be clear, I’m not asking ‘why’ human beings feel the need to categorize or label themselves, as this can be very healthy in the development and maturation of how we come to know and define who we are.  Which is precisely what Bruce Jenner was aiming to do in his interview with Diane Sawyer.  He wanted the world to know which box he would check if he was given the chance to check it again himself, today: female.

After hearing Bruce utter those heartbreaking phrases near the end of the interview, “I’m not this bad person…I’m just doing what I need to do,” it made me hope for the day when gender isn’t just some fixed, binary category defined for us at birth.  But rather, it should be a fluid, ever-changing and ever-evolving mystery that differs significantly from person to person.  No matter if you identify as Transgender or not.

This is what I believe Bruce Jenner was fighting for last Friday night in that Diane Sawyer interview.  Not just the right to call himself a woman; but the freedom to not have to choose between just two gender boxes.

At least, not at birth anyways.

Our Children: Gay Christians Can't Afford to Be Divided

If you are gay in this country, you are more likely to be alienated from your parents and traumatized by your upbringing if you were raised Christian. The more Christians you were surrounded by—the more "Christian" your community was or is—the more likely you are to experience shame and alienation from God.

This is common knowledge among gay Christians. But it should shock us; it should shock all Christians.

Christian children—our children—should be the ones most likely to trust in God's unconditional love for them. They should be the ones most at peace with themselves and their community. They should be the ones who have known all their lives that God created them out of love and sustains them in every moment through His love.

In this post I'd like to call “traditional” Christians (for lack of a better term) to seek to serve gay people, especially those in the most desperate circumstances. And I'd like to call “progressive” Christians to make space for "traditional" Christians. To serve alongside us, and help us to serve. This will require both groups to move past judgment and fear, into humility and solidarity.

All Christians have a special responsibility to those harmed by Christians—people harmed in the name of the God who is Love; people who suffer abuse in the name of the Prince of Peace. Gay Christians often perceive an even stronger responsibility to “our children”: young gay people in Christian communities.

This may seem like an area where Christians (including gay and same-sex attracted Christians) from a wide variety of traditions and denominations can easily find common ground. Even if you don't believe in gay marriage, for example, you can give shelter to homeless teens. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, not a document known for its progressivism on sexual ethics, writes that Catholics must avoid “[e]very sign of unjust discrimination” against “men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Mantilla-and-communion-rail Catholics, Latin Massers and people who pray the rosary outside abortion clinics, should all agree that nobody should be hungry, homeless, beaten, rejected, or shamed because they're gay.

Gay and same-sex attracted people in the “traditional” churches may even have special opportunities to love and serve the neediest of our children. Two friends of mine who are living in a celibate partnership have noted that just as Christian marriages can't remain private—the married couple's love flows outward, whether through procreation or through service to the church community or both—so celibates must find ways of looking outward, offering hospitality. The hospitality of a childless household can be more radical: When I was living by myself I sometimes took in homeless women for a night or two, including women I had just met. My friend asks the provocative question: “Do we have so many homeless LGBT teens on the streets because there's nobody living celibate hospitality who can take them in?”

And yet common ground is always conflicted ground. If more people who accept the historic Christian sexual ethic seek to serve gay people, rather than shaming and rejecting them, serious challenges will arise. The “traditional” Christians—straight, gay, or “other”—will often have to learn good old-fashioned acceptance of how little we can change another person's beliefs or way of life. We will have to serve in a way which respects the other person's autonomy. If we try to serve gay people in order to open their minds to our beliefs, we will serve poorly; the focus will still be on our own agency and the changes we hope to effect in others, not on God.

And people in progressive churches will need to stretch too. They'll need to acknowledge how much “traditional” believers are already doing: Many people who work directly with homeless kids, for example, don't follow a progressive party line. As they've done with so many other issues, such as prison reform, progressive churches and ministries will be working alongside those with whom they disagree. What will you do when someone who accepts the Catholic sexual ethic wants to serve gay teens? How can volunteer training, for example, respect differences in belief while making sure everyone is willing to serve those whose choices they don't approve? This year's Gay Christian Network annual conference was a great place for me to talk through these questions and experience what it's like to stand on our common, conflicted ground.

The challenges are real. I don't want to see two camps of currently-comfortable Christian adults fighting about who does a better job of serving gay youth, while treating the teens themselves as talking points. In the best-case scenario adults from across the denominational spectrum come together to listen to our young people, learning to serve and love them even when we think they're heading in the wrong direction. (There is no Christian so progressive that she always agrees with the behavior of teenagers.)

I accept the historic Christian sexual ethic. I also accept the Christian ethic of welcome, of love of the stranger, of unconditional love. And this ethic of love is a matter of our children's survival.

Compelling Love: Doing Our Best as Allies

A couple of months ago I had an opportunity to watch the documentary film Compelling Love along with some friends as part of the Level Ground Film Festival. I have to admit that I was surprised by the film. In film school, I was taught to never rely on talking heads when telling a story, but in this film, “talking heads” is one of its greatest strengths.

The film allows individuals of varying sexual orientations and gender identities to tell their own stories about how they have tried to move beyond tolerance. After the film, we listened as Trista Carr, one of the interviewees in the film, explained how each person featured in the film had the opportunity the edit their own segment, which is atypical for most documentary films. The director, Kurt Neale’s trust of each individual helped accentuate his belief in the importance of compelling love, which, as he states,

“Is the experience created when truth and grace collide. It occurs when people are truthful in expressing their stories, values, and beliefs, yet willing to receive with grace those who differ, offend, or stand positionally “against” them.”  

One of the stories that touched me the most was that of John Carswell. John’s emotional story centered around his sister and the close relationship that they once had. He shared how much he loved his sister, but when she eventually told the family that she was a lesbian, he thought the best thing he could do was tell her how wrong she was. I watched as John cried tears of regret over having a lost a relationship that was very dear to him, all because he thought he was doing the right thing.

I can relate to John’s story on so many levels. I know that I have alienated gay friends in the past because I thought they were wrong and I had been taught that the best thing I could do as their friend was to tell them so in order to save their souls. My ideology could not make room for people who were gay and might be Christians, or people who were wrestling with their faith due to the contradictions they had seen in religious talk of love versus misunderstandings clothed in bigotry and hatred. The irony of it all was that as a Bible-believing, Bible thumping, single Christian woman, I was sleeping around with a man that I thought I loved. The very same religion that was teaching me that homosexuality was an unforgiveable sin, was the same religion that would say I was committing a sin. So there I was, wrestling with how someone like me could ever throw stones at anyone, whether it be a gay person or a liar. I was shaken by the contradiction in my own definition of love. Peter Fitch in his book Learning to Interpret Toward Love states that typically in Christian circles:

"Theology sets the standard and people ought to be encouraged to meet it. Something in me believed right from the start that this was exactly the wrong way to pastor people. Instead, it seemed to me, my job was to encourage people to receive the love of God exactly as they were. No matter what they were working through, no matter how many addictions or issues, it was always the same: help them understand that God loves them now. There is nothing that needs to happen before they begin to feel His love."

Because of my own experience with God’s grace, I began to see that his love does not have qualifiers. Jesus never told anyone that he would not eat with them--except the Pharisees. It was this change in ideology that also began to change my heart. And as my heart began to change, so did my questions.

Was sex really a sin? Why should someone be shamed and ridiculed when they were born with a certain sexual orientation?

While I am on the road to resolving some of these questions in my own heart, I still wrestle with others. But I still feel as though I am in the same state as John Carswell. As someone who desires to be an ally, how do I go back and repair those relationships with LGBT people that I may have alienated in the past? John’s tears that he cried in the film for wanting just to speak to his sister again are the same tears I cry for the many times that I told someone that they could not sit at my table because of who they loved.

The film uses the table as a constant metaphor throughout the film, asking the question: “Who is the person that sits across the table from you?” In other words, who is the person that disagrees with you or whose opinions offend you.

I could say that the people who sit across from me are the ones who think like I used to think. The ones who condemn LGBT people and say that Jesus does not love them because of who they are. Those opponents do offend me, but the people sitting across from me that make me weep are those like John’s sister. I wish I could take back words I’ve said and exchange them for an embrace or a gesture, letting those who I once called friends know that even in the midst of my questions, I hear them. And just as Compelling Love has demonstrated, their stories matter. For now, maybe the best thing I can do as an ally is to extend the same grace and compelling love that Neale so poignantly portrays in this film.

Becoming House Guests

A few years ago I went to an exhibit at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. I deeply resonated with the artist’s work, and I decided to contact him. Rather than interpret his work for myself, I thought it would be interesting to develop an interpretation of the art through dialogue with the artist. While I had ideas about what his sculpture meant, I knew that encountering the man himself would deepen my understanding of his art.

artist John Frame

artist John Frame

After emailing him and waiting a few days, I was surprised to see a response in my inbox. It turns out he was willing to meet and was interested in our conversation. A week later, we walked through the Huntington together past the desert gardens and sat under a tree in the middle of a field. At the point where our small talk started to wind down, and before I could say a word about his art, he asked me,

“So what are your filters here? How do you see the world? I find it always better to get it on the table, because then we know where we are and can have a real conversation.”

I was surprised at his question, and after we discussed our starting points what unfolded over the next few hours was rich conversation about religion, violence, and art and an invitation to have dinner with him and his wife at their mountain studio (how do you say “no” to that?). What had started as an exercise in interpretation had blossomed into real conversation—all because we were both willing to be frank about our beliefs and open to one another’s experience.

Leaving the library my new artist friend's openness had made just as strong an impression on me as his art. A month later, I spent the weekend at their cabin. He gave me a tour of the studio, I held works in progress, and we continued our conversation over a good meal. Late into the evening, as we were discussing art criticism surrounded by books and a warm fireplace, it dawned on me: I wasn’t a stranger—I was his honored house guest.

Looking back now, I know that the road to this room was important: being open to others changed a routine museum visit into a much richer experience, and I now want to have that same kind of radical openness and curiosity with others. And the truth is we don’t need a trip to an art museum to see the strangers around us with new eyes. If we could only put aside the filters that constrict our world, we would see standing before us honored house guests, people with stories mapped by the same scars and longings we carry in our own hearts ready to be discovered if we would only ask.

My Choice

Sitting here in Pasadena has me wondering about all that has lead me to this point in my life. All the choices rush into my mind, both the right ones and the not-so right ones.

Some choices were made out of cultural norms. One must not do anything to damage the family name, an Asian value.

Some choices were made out of faith; “I will follow you anywhere, Lord." This choice meant working in the pastorate that my sister, brother, and brother-in-law were similarly pursuing.

And finally, as all LGBTQ people understand, some choices are simply made out of fear. One must stay in the closet so as to not be ostracized.

My choices were limited growing up in a faith-based home. I struggle with using this synonym rather than “religious” because I believe my parents and overall family structure was attempting an honest pursuit of the Maker. I saw my mom adopt disenfranchised children and witnessed my dad give generously to family members who were in dire straights back home in the Philippines. Our household was to be a place of faith, compassion, and love... As long as you meet a certain set of criteria. All choices must be made within THIS interpretation of the Word of God.

This interpretation meant that I had to hide. I pushed my liking of men into the deepest crevices of myself. I could appreciate a woman’s beauty but men were the subject of my attraction. I knew that the male form was intriguing from the age of five and could verbalize the word homosexual in reference to myself at the age of twelve. What’s a twelve-year-old boy to do? What’s a nineteen-year-old young man to do when he chooses to come out to his family with the guise of wanting/trying to be straight? What should this young man do with the year of abstinence required by the bible college to which he applied? Keep pushing it all down. Keep pushing “the choice” to be “that way” down. My option (notice the absent “s”) was to hide.

Hide. Hide and be a good son. Hide and be a good Christian. Hide the immorality so that you can fit in at church and serve the Lord’s people. Hide so that your follow Christ followers can be comfortable and fit you into their framework of who God is and isn’t and what He has formed versus what the other guy has formed. My choice was to outwardly practice holiness and inwardly let my “sin” express itself. Until one Sunday, another choice presented itself.

It was near the end of service at this unnamed church.  Everyone was standing up as was the norm with Sunday coming to its crescendo. I heard the Lord’s voice within my soul and He said that I still love you and want you to serve me. I still accept you. It was all I needed to hear. I COULD SERVE HIM. I could fully live as a gay man and walk out my faith with Him. I left that church and meandered for a bit until another piece of the puzzle came into play and I met a pastor named Nick and found a new church home. I was finally given an arena to live out another set of choices that were previously unavailable.

I have new choices now. The choice to carve out an authentic identity. The choice to be courageous. To share my story.

I am an avid photographer and while taking in LA Pride last summer I saw a young heterosexual family with their beautiful baby girl. I snapped a picture and didn’t realize until afterwards that the baby girl was wearing something that would rock me. Her parents had decided to put a rainbow sweatband on her arm. As I was processing the photo, I realized that this girl is growing up in a much different world than my own. She’s going to have choices and her parents are going to be okay with however she chooses to authentically live out her identity. She may or may not become a person of faith, but she at least will be able to choose whom she will love. She won’t have to waste any years, at least that’s my prayer anyway.

Conflict As Opportunity

I hate conflict. I hate lying in bed, sleepless, revved on the adrenaline of anger. I hate obsessing over accusations and defending myself in my mind, coming to a verdict, and then doing it twenty more times. I hate falling into the despair that accompanies conflict, the despair that makes me a grim presence.

But I need conflict. The church needs conflict. Here are four reasons why.

1. It is part of the price we pay for relating to people who are different.

I love Emma Goldman’s sentiment that “If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!” Similarly, if the Jesus revolution doesn’t bring together rich and poor, black and white, male and female, L’s and G’s and B’s and T’s, and even liberals and conservatives, then it isn’t the banquet of God.

Difference will mean conflict. The alternatives are: a) get together with people as much like me as possible to minimize conflict, b) use force or coercion or shame or guilt to silence the people I disagree with, or c) betray myself, and don’t say what I think. Ultimately I don’t want to do any of these. So as difficult as it is, I realize I need to accept conflict.

2. Sometimes it is our critics who tell us the needed truth about ourselves. 

Once, I was in a small Nicaraguan town, Cara del Mono, trying to learn about the poor. I wanted to write about my experiences and submit the story to my hometown newspaper. Because my Spanish was rudimentary, and the accent of people was different from the one I had learned, I asked the local Irish priest to translate for me as I spoke to a couple of residents. He said something like, “No, I won’t translate for you. You’re not committed to these people. You’re just using them for a story that will make you look good and then you’ll move on. If you were actually doing anything for them that involved some self-sacrifice on your part, I might consider it.”

While harsh, as I look back on my nine months in Central America, his words to me were the most transformative. They caused me to take a hard look at myself and examine my deepest motivations. I’m grateful that he had to courage to speak so straightforwardly.

Sometimes our critics are the people who have obsessed over our faults and can describe them most accurately. Although it’s crucial to limit our exposure to negativity, and ground ourselves firmly in God’s love and grace, it is a missed opportunity to not listen to our critics for the sake of our own self-knowledge.

3. The pain of conflict can motivate positive change.

I’m tempted by author Chad Kultgen’s cynical sentiment, “people don't change, they just have momentary steps outside of their true character.” As a pastor I’m constantly trying to engineer change, but truth be told, I rarely achieve it in myself let alone others.

The pain of conflict is one of the few levers powerful enough to move us. In relationships of importance, I realize that if I don’t face my part and change, the relationship will suffer. Or, in relationships of permanence, I realize that if I don’t change the pain of conflict will be ongoing. Since, as I said at the beginning, I hate conflict (and love relationships) conflict inspires me to change.

I tend to go through life protecting myself against conflict: deflecting criticism, insulating myself against judgments, radiating vibes of defensiveness. But I’m learning that if I can face it and even invite it, conflict is one of the most powerful tools to help me grow up.

4. It is as we go through conflict, and learn the ways of peace, that we are a light to others. 

Some Christians seem to think we have a morality hotline to heaven. In this view, the way we bless and serve the world is by giving the “right” answer on topics like abortion, gay marriage, divorce, drugs, and war. But I suspect few people are holding their breath for the church’s pronouncements. Others seem to think that we offer a “get out of hell free” card. But few people are looking for that either.

What is destroying the world is conflict. We follow the example of a man who faced conflict and redeemed it. He did that through practices of truth-telling, suffering, grace-giving, patience, and forgiveness. As we learn those practices, and learn how to transform conflict into an authentic peace, I think the world will be interested. But if that is going to happen we’ve got to face into it. We need to see conflict as an opportunity.

Image: "Jesús en casa de Anás Museo del Prado José de Madrazo" by José de Madrazo Agudo (1781-1859) - http://www.museodelprado.es/uploads/tx_gbobras/P03912.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A Gift From Those Who Suffer

Some who suffer have no gift to give. If suffering leads to suicide, no gift has been given.

If suffering leads to hopelessness and to giving up, no gift has been given.

If suffering leads to a sense of worthlessness and self blame, no gift has been given.

(Perhaps you know of exceptions.)

However, someone who has suffered or who is suffering can give hope to one who is trapped in a pit of despair. Someone who has been traumatized by rejection and ridicule can save the life of another victim.

Members of the LGBT community (and their churches and support groups) have saved lives and prevented suicides. Many who have suffered have given life and hope to those who are suffering. To some, this is their mission, even part of Christ’s mission.

Suffering is not a gift; however, because of suffering and then inner healing, some have become agents of healing. The LGBT community does this really well. It’s like seeing Jesus in action.

Our suicidal world

If the LGBT community is in the business of support, healing, and suicide prevention, then there is a bigger challenge. We live in a world that seems to be moving toward unintentional suicide. Changing the direction of that movement is complicated. It will require a movement and a community.

Who understands more about suicide that the LGBT community? Who is more open to change and diversity than the LGBT community? Can the LGBT community start this movement? Can it bring into the movement the faith communities that have been so hostile, yet are beginning to change?

If not us, who? If not now, when?

What do we need to learn about making the world safe and healthy?

What’s our next step? Who can help us?

What Do You See? Reflections on Trans Day of Visibility

Last Tuesday, March 31st was the International Transgender Day of Visibility. In light of this, I want to talk about the concept of visibility and why it isn’t obligatory.

Fear has been a huge part of my experience as a trans person as I believe it is central for many people within this group. When I first started college I was able to decide if I was going to continue to talk about being trans or if I was going to let it quietly exist.

[I intentionally choose not to use the phrasing, “be open about being trans/hide my identity" because being openly trans is different than being openly gay. The stakes are higher and I think it's crucial to acknowledge the difference in visibility for trans and LGB people.]

In college, I chose to be quieter. I cleaned out my facebook history, mostly. I’m sure that one could still easily find evidence of my trans-ness, but not without some digging. I choose to bring it up only occasionally, and mostly just with close friends. Ever since my voice dropped and my gender presentation became more concretely male, I have found that it has been easier to brush off people’s questions that are based on hearsay.

I can feel the activists cringing:

“But what about educating people!”

“But what about creating a safer world/campus!”

“But what about trans rights and trans visibility and putting a face to the idea!”

I hear your point. But the thing is, I’ve been there. I was very out—for two absolutely hellish years of high school. It was a necessary thing because if I hadn’t been so visible, I would have vanished - emotionally, spiritually, even physically.

But now there is more to my life than being a tool for education, awareness, etc. Being trans is not my identity; it is one part of my entire identity. I enjoyed working to create awareness and knowledge, but I don't want my life to singularly consist of a topic that is most often very painful. While there were a lot of really amazing conversations that happened, when I started college, I chose to actively step away from the Visible Trans Person role.

I am enjoying existing as a person without constantly having a still-controversial label slapped onto me by strangers. I like not wondering what's behind people's stares. I prefer “Why is he wearing that?” instead of “What kind of surgeries has he had, or will have, or won’t have.” Sometimes I do still talk about being trans but most often with my close friends. Those  that I trust and that I choose to let in on some of the more personal facets of my life.

Yes, being quieter is partially a product of  fearing what will happen to me if word gets to the wrong person. I worry about being hired less, fired more. I worry about experiencing further sexual or physical harassment. I worry about having to overly explain myself everywhere and I worry about how much that way of existing drains me. I worry about going to school in a county where I am not legally protected. I worry whenever someone with any kind of authority gets a glance at my ID that still has an “F” at the bottom. I worry if they will notice and treat me worse because of it.

But mostly my choice to be less vocal about this piece of what makes me, me, is just a personal preference. Trans Day of Visibility is a powerful and important day. One that makes me feel less alone. But it’s not a day or an action that I am obligated to be a part of simply because I am trans. Visibility is a choice and a process that I will have the gift and burden of exploring for the rest of my life.

Same God

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it looks like to be in relationship with people who see the world in a totally different way than I do, especially those who confess to have faith in the same God as me.  This has been a challenge for years, as I grew up in evangelical environments while often secretly holding views that strayed from the accepted or maybe loudest spoken position. Even in my family, chosen and biological, there are many who don’t jive with my way of seeing the world.

As I ponder this quandary in spaces where I deeply care about the people (while reminding myself that underneath what I see as their deeply rooted pathologies is the goodness of a human made in the image of God, who has the same capacity for good and evil actions as I do in each moment of each day), I also foolishly read Facebook comments and blog post responses. I want to rend my clothing, dress my head with ashes, put on sackcloth, and wonder how in the hell God can redeem such heartlessness and fearful hatred.

The go-to image of Pharisaical behavior comes to mind as I was told by the head of the Christian Coalition in Washington State that I was "going to hell because of my views on the queer community and its much needed presence in the Christian community.” Oh yeah and this happened during a community course at my more liberal seminary in Seattle. I remember thinking, “God, if how this person speaks of you is true about you then I want no part of you.” And in turn I was immediately reminded by my father, who I think often wonders if I am truly saved, that at the core of God’s nature is a bottomless pit of love for humanity and that I know better than this person how I have seen God work. This story/event is a marker that brings me back to the core of my worldview.

My theology begins and ends with the love of God. All of humanity bears this image of God. This God who so loves the WHOLE world that God seeks its salvation. And in turn I am called to love all with the graciousness and lavishness of God. The same graciousness and lavishness that led Christ to the Cross, Teresa of Avila to have visions, Martin Luther King Jr. to fight against injustice, and Anne Lamott to become sober and healthy step by step.

Value the Value

by Jenell Paris Professor of Anthropology at Messiah College and Level Ground Theological Advisory Board member

“You need to value the value more than the value from before.” Elena wrote this sentence that is less than elegant in construction, but brilliant in wisdom. My class assignment required her to break a cultural norm and then reflect on why people conform to norms, and what it takes to change them. Students take food off strangers’ plates, breach personal space, walk the wrong way up stairs, and use umbrellas indoors, and then reflect on what it might take to shift entrenched social problems such as poverty, gun violence, and digital distraction.

Elena pointed out that change is often more complex than unilinear movement toward something good. Often, two or more treasured values are at stake, and in order to change, we must value the new value more than we value the value from before.

"Let’s break these norms, and see what happens."

Each semester, a student or two writes about Christian treatment of LGBTQ persons, and whether conservative or liberal in their theology, the recommendation is the same: treat others well, with respect, and love—the way we would want to be treated.

Easier said than done, in part because so many values are at play. I was at a gathering of diverse Christians, talking about conflicts over sexuality in the church. Things went predictably awry, with personal accusations, raised voices, and intentional misrepresentations of other points of view. The Bible! Moral absolutes! Truth! God’s standards! These things were all in jeopardy, it seemed. Lowering one’s voice, or listening for extended period of time, seemed like unaffordable luxuries: more important to judge quickly, decisively, and loudly.

 "Elena pointed out that change is often more complex than unilinear movement toward something good."

New kinds of gatherings, and new groups of friends, are coalescing around a new purpose, to promote reconciliation, bridge-building, and listening across difference. The same concerns are at stake, but also some new ones: the value of listening to people’s stories, honoring irreducible differences (which does not require affirming them), and demonstrating compassion, mercy, and kindness. At one of these gatherings, a young woman said to me, “I’m just letting you know, I’m a little more conservative than most of the others. It’s how I read the Bible. It’s just where I’m coming from. But the more important thing is this work, bringing people together to reflect on faith and to live Christian unity in real friendship.”

Among competing values, this woman found a clear priority. She valued the value of reconciliation more than she valued the value from before.

 "Lowering one’s voice, or listening for an extended period of time, seemed like unaffordable luxuries."

I’d like to assign the “Cultural Norms Project” to the church more broadly. The norm is to pick a position, defend it, and, as a show of the strength of one’s faith, block out fair and nuanced consideration of other views. The norm is to put ideas and theologies first, and people second. Let’s break these norms and see what happens. Then, let’s reflect on what it takes to bend this distorted arc toward reconciliation.

A Little Light To Call My Own

As many of you may know, I recently moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has been a move of many firsts.

It’s my first time moving somewhere without knowing what I would be doing upon arrival. It’s my first time living in someone else’s “home”—my girlfriend lived here for 5 years prior to her time in LA. It’s my first time establishing friendships without the support network of a school. It’s my first time living in the south—admittedly this was terrifying to me.

The most surprising first has been readjusting to an environment that isn’t predominately Christian. I thought this would be wonderful. I have been living in almost exclusively Christian communities since I was 18—starting at a Christian college and then a year later enrolling in seminary. To just be a person in this new place was hope.

Being in a new place allows me to be whoever I want to be. Finally, I thought, I can be gay and not concerned with protecting that part of myself when I meet someone new. And this has been true. More and more as I settle into this place I find myself protecting that part less and less.

While I don’t have to first identity as gay anymore, I also don’t have to identity as a Christian. And now I am finding myself protecting the Christian part.

What does it mean that I desire to selectively be a “Christian?” What does it even mean to identify as “Christian” anymore? These are the questions I am left with after moving. I have quietly asked them before but I have never been more acutely aware of them then until now.

My mom called me the other day and asked me, “Where are we supposed to go to ask the hard questions, Chelsea? There is nowhere for us to go.” I have had numerous conversations with friends at seminary trying to make meaning of our faith after having it put under a microscope. Many of us are no longer satisfied with pat answers about who God is and what it means to “follow Jesus” but that doesn’t mean we are comfortable with the questions either.

One of our board members is always encouraging the Level Ground staff to define what it is we mean by the faith part of “faith, gender, and sexuality.” This journey has forced me to recognize my current answer—which I have known for a while—I don’t know.  I’m not sure I ever will.

I run from the label “Christian” but find myself showing up to the Episcopal Church down the street, craving to be with people who believe it’s possible to redeem this tragic world. I love being in a place where no one cares what I do on Sunday morning, but I miss having people that will spend hours talking with me about hard stuff—whether or not heaven and hell are real, what salvation really means, and our other conundrums of faith.

I am living in the in-between. I may not know what it means to be a “Christian” anymore but I’m still captivated by the person of Jesus. And maybe that’s ok. For now, not knowing is what defines my faith.

Level Ground has never had a statement of faith and that’s part of what I love about who we are.  We strive to be a place where it is ok to ask  hard questions and it’s also okay not to have all the answers. We are here to learn to be together and to love one another despite coming from all different walks of life and definitions of “Christianity” and “faith.”

For all you who are curious, doubtful, angry, wandering, hopeful, or anything in-between, it is my hope that there is room on level ground for all of us.

“Life is a gorgeous, broken gift. six billion+ pieces waiting to be fixed. love letters that were never signed, sent to where we live.

But the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard is that I don’t have to have the answers, just a little light to call my own.

Though it pales in comparison to the overarching shadows, a speck of light can reignite the sun and swallow darkness whole.”

-Sleeping at Last, “Emphasis” (thanks to our friend Sleeping At Last for the beautiful cover image as well!) 

Defined By Love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets In midnights, in cups of coffee In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about love? How about love? How about love? Measure in love

Seasons of love Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned Or in times that he cried In bridges he burned Or the way that she died

Seasons of Love, Rent

How does one measure a year or a life? 

As the above lyrics speak to one of the clearest ways to see the content of ones live, to see how all the little moments combine to become a beautiful life and to see the thread of love as it flows through that life. Love sometimes is hard to reach, especially for those who have suffered rejection and pain, whose lives have not held much external love.

Sometimes that internal well of love is at its last drop. But that is the beauty of love, love can permeate a life with just a small drop, one simple act of kindness and love is powerful enough to be the catalyst of change. In the musical RENT the above lyrics were originally written for the funeral scene as a summation of the loving stance in which the character Angel lived, and how her life continues transforming the other characters.

Angel, a cross-dressing street performer with AIDS has many reasons to resist love. She is living with AIDS during the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the disease was a death sentence for most people. But even in the midst of the seeming horror of AIDS, Angel is a person with a huge heart and filled with a zest for life, she radiates love wherever she goes. She is the agent of change within the group. Angel is the emodiedment of love. She knows her time is all borrowed and that all she has is this one and only moment right here in front of her and so she chooses love.

This is the truth that we all hold but rarely acknowledge; all we are guaranteed in life is this one moment sitting before us. As we are three weeks into the New Year let's remember to take stalk of how we have lived in our previous moments and how we will choose to live in the moments we will be given. When thinking about this newly unfolding year what would be it like if we all chose to be more loving? More including of those who are different than we are? Or just simply choosing to listen instead of speaking? What does it look like to choose to define our lives and our moments by love?

Together At The Table

This past weekend Level Ground was in Portland, Oregon for the Gay Christian Network Conference. We saw old friends, made new ones, ran a great workshop, and had the privilege of hearing our board member Jeff Chu share this message as the conference's opening keynote. We are so grateful for his friendship, wisdom, and courage as our board member and friend. Jeff, we are incredibly proud of you!

It's a long message, but worth every single minute it takes to read!

Opening Keynote Gay Christian Network Conference Portland, Oregon January 8, 2015 Re-posted with permission from Jeff's blog.

At my house, we eat family-style.

In a Chinese family, the table is perhaps the most important space we have. It is where we gather. It’s where family dynamics, in all their mess and dysfunction and beauty, play out. In a family-style meal, you see the diversity of our personalities and the drama of our lives echoed in the narrative of the food. In the story of the Chinese family table, a complete meal balances salty and sweet, sour and spicy. You need to mix textures: from the slightly slimy, chewy resistance of pickled jellyfish to the even-geriatrics-can-eat-it softness of pillow-like steamed tofu to the crackle of the fried chicken’s skin or the prawn cracker traditionally served with it. You won’t like everything, but Grandma puts it on your plate anyway. As a kid, you eat it all too, sometimes under duress—there’s a traditional threat that, every morsel of food and every grain of rice you leave behind in your bowl, that’s how many pockmarks your spouse will have.

The table is a microcosm of our larger lives, a place where we both see our good manners and our bad. The table is where we see power dynamics—gender roles and occasional attempts to defy them, silent children growing into adults with voices and then fading back into old folk who get the best food but rarely the best listening. The table is where we celebrate—when my cousin got married a few months ago, there were 150 people at the church but 350 showed up for the wedding banquet. It is where we mourn—after my grandfather’s funeral, I remember feeling a little odd about that, as if we were saying, “Well, he’s dead but we’re not. We still gotta eat.”

The table is where we live in fear of failure and humiliation. Failure means a particular thing at my table. It means not having extra food. Why would they eat with abandon if they have to count the pieces of meat and wonder if everyone has had enough? This is all about my internal standards. That’s my guilt.

At the table, I learn the meaning too of another kind of failure—the one we call shame. If guilt is internal, then shame is external. If guilt happens in privacy, then shame is public—and among my people, shame happens at the table, often in unspoken, insidious ways.

At the table, I learn that my voice isn’t valued. It doesn’t even sound like it’s supposed to—one relative said to me at dinner once: “Huh, did you know that you talk like a girl?”

At the table, I learn to hide my truths and guard my secrets. I hear how they talk—or perhaps, worse yet, how they don’t. How they invent euphemisms or erase those who don’t fit their norms.

At the table, I learn how it feels to have people be ashamed of you.

At the table, after coming out to my mom, I see the flipside of not keeping secrets. We’re at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, and I’d just told my mom about an hour before. My dad and sister are there, but they don’t know yet. By providence or chance—depends on your theology, I guess—we get an incredibly hot waiter. My mother looks at him and at me, and bursts into tears. I realize: She thinks I am making a pass at him. I realize: She thinks I have some kind of gay magic—we, this hottie and I—and something is happening. Which is awesome, ridiculous, and mortifying. I was just trying to order lasagna.

At the table—in preparation for it, in meditation on it, in fellowship around it—I learn better lessons and unlearn damaging ones. If it’s true that in the things of this earth, we see glimpses of the new one, and if it’s true that as Christians we are called to work toward the model and the manifestation of the new heaven and the new earth, what will the new family table look like? What does it mean to sit and eat and drink? What kind of table has God prepared for us—and how does God prepare us for it, meal after meal, day after day?

Over the next days, we’re going to build a little community here. Imagine a ginormous table around which we will talk, laugh, cry, maybe debate a little and, I hope, share stories a lot. I’m no pastor, no theologian—maybe another day, you’ll get exegesis. I just want to chat with you about what’s been on my mind. I want to think with you about what we bring to this table, to this community, and what the implications of that will be.

Let’s start with my fears. We don’t have time to talk about them all, you’re not my therapists, so just highlights. For one thing, I’m really nervous about public speaking and really nervous to be in front of you tonight—I’m a writer, not a talker. If I knew how much talking the release of a book required, I might never have done it. So I ask your grace and mercy in advance.

Since I am just meeting most of you for the first time, I suppose I should tell you about myself. As I said, I am no pastor, no theologian. I’m just a layman and a simple pilgrim, an asker of questions and a collector of stories, somehow lucky enough to ask questions and collect stories for a living. I am an Oregon Ducks fan; God willing, Monday night is going to be awesome. I’m married—my husband, Tristan, is a lovely, weird, Catholic white boy from Texas.

I am Asian of the Chinese and specifically Hong Kong persuasion—if I had a superhero name, it would be the Yellow Peril. I grew up in a devout Baptist family. My great-grandfather was a missionary, my grandfather a preacher, my grandmother a Bible teacher at a Christian school. My uncle is a preacher, my dad and uncles and great uncles and aunts mostly deacons. In our world, a real prayer is a long prayer, and church isn’t just church—it’s a culture. Once, I asked my dad, “Why is my mother having such a hard time with all this?” He said, “You have to understand: We’re not just Christian. We’re Baptist.”

I live in Brooklyn, New York, where I attend Old First Reformed Church. I’m also an elder there, which I can barely say with a straight face. It’s a miracle that I still find myself in church on Sunday let alone at an elders’ meeting. I think it reflects God’s twisted humor that a congregation out there called me to the eldership, but hey-ho. We believe in a God who uses all things, don’t we?

I am a first-timer at this conference. But I’ve known about GCN for years, well before I profiled it in my book. Years ago, I did what I know many of you did: I Googled “gay Christian” and ended up on the GCN site. I’d click around the message boards and read and read, puzzling over all these people who seemed so much sure about their faith as well as their sexuality. I wondered whether I could ever be like them. GCN was a small but important way station on my journey, where, unbeknownst to them, many people offered me the gifts of their very examples. So it’s especially humbling to stand before you today. Thank you to all you builders and dreamers, especially Justin, for what you have meant not just to me but to so many others over the years. Your work has been life-saving and life-giving.

So. My fears. My fears then and my fears now are not so different: As in so many areas of my life, on GCN, I was a wallflower. Don’t be fooled by the fact that I’m up here instead of sitting in the farthest chair in the back row. What is this fear? I say I want to be known, but then I worry about what would happen if you did really know me. I fear a confirmed diagnosis of my impostor syndrome—that the last article I will write will be the first that the world calls out as the worst, that the last thing I said will be the first that cements that I’m actually a charlatan. I fear rejection, which is largely what I have known in the church. I fear humiliation, which is largely what I’ve felt in Christian communities. I fear disappointing people, which is largely what I think I’ve done to my family and some friends.

I remember, in college, in my evangelical fellowship group, I’d go to meetings and feel like the biggest fake in the world. Lots of times, the group’s geekier members would sit up late with their very own copies of Grudem’s Systematic Theology—you all have one, right?—and I didn’t know what systematic theology even was; the dumber among us would read John Piper, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter of “Desiring God.” Well, during worship time on Friday nights, people would be singing four-part harmony, and I’d be one-man cacophony. I was a closeted gay boy, dating girls and doing my best to conform to what was expected of me—by the people around me, certainly, but also, by extension, by God. Especially during the open prayer time, when people would share their requests aloud, I was just on a different wavelength. The way it would work at my fellowship is that, after the person said their prayer request, we’d have this awkward silence while 99% of us engaged in a season of fervent silent prayer that the Holy Spirit would pick someone else to pray out loud. Eight centuries later, someone in the group would say: “I’ll pray for that!” So one night, this freshman, on fire for the Lord, was just beside himself, crying his way through his prayer request. I will never forget him asking the group to lift him up “because I didn’t share Jesus with anyone this week.” Well, this guy is all crying, and people are murmuring their understanding all around us as if this was their pet sin too, and several of them said, “I’ll pray for that!” Not only had I not shared Jesus with anyone that week—I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to kiss boys and not let on to my girlfriend and finish my history paper. And I thought, “Who is going to pray for THAT hot mess of a request?” And how could I fit in, if that was the guy’s biggest problem? How could I be his brother, if that was the sin he struggled with? Who could understand my issues? I didn’t feel sympathy let alone empathy—I didn’t know how.

So I hid. I hid my questions about my faith and about my sexuality. I hid my fears. I hid my hopes. At times, I’ve cried.

Some people say honesty flourishes in our media now, especially with user-generated content, Facebook statuses, tweetstreams, and blogs and in the confessional essays that we find on the Internet. That may be true. But honesty and vulnerability are different. It’s an enormous, and enormously important, difference, one that has much to do with risk and with the fears that I just talked about. So here is my question for you:

Can this place, this table, this microcosm of church that we’re making here, be a place of vulnerability? People will tell pieces of their stories, honest to God, but can we go beyond surface sharing? Can they share with you the parts that will make you uncomfortable or that will trigger your “judgment” reflex—because, gay and/or Christian, I know many of us have strong, well-used “judgment” reflexes—and will you receive that information with empathy? Can this be a table where one of us confesses pain at not sharing Jesus and another shares conflicted feelings about wanting to kiss boys—and we receive both with mercy? If not, why not? What are we afraid of?

Can I still have confidence in your fellowship, for instance, if I share with you, unshakeable Christians, that some days, as much as I love Jesus and especially the idea of Jesus, I wonder if I’m not actually an agnostic? Other days, I feel like I cling to belief with little more than my spiritual fingernails. As I’ve taken my book on the road, at almost every reading, I’ve been asked for my conclusions. “So does Jesus really love you?” they say. I say I didn’t come up with that title—my agent did—and I think it’s maudlin and cheesy and I wanted something pretentious and literary. Anyway, is there still a place for me if I tell you that the answer to that question, some days, is that I’m not sure? What do you feel if I confess that my faith is at times less a reality and more an aspiration? I know I’m not the only one here with this question—thank you, Eric Andrew, who tweeted the other day: “#GCNConf – not sure a nearly agnostic has a place.”

Conservative, can I tell you about how, in the past, I sought temporary refuge in some sexual relationships that, even now, I don’t entirely regret—and not just because they were a part of my journey here? Can you receive that admission without a silent tsk-tsk?

Liberal, can I share with you not just my profound respect for gracious voices like those of my friend Wes Hill, who wrote Washed & Waiting, and Lindsey and Sarah, the wise, celibate women behind the blog A Queer Calling, but also my envy for their brand of faithfulness? Can I tell you that I wonder whether I am spiritually weaker than they are, and why my faith is so small? Can you receive these thoughts without smug condescension or some silent diagnosis of unreconciled self-loathing? Can we not just empathize with their callings but also genuinely seek to understand them?

Can you hear me when I tell you that sometimes the black clouds hover over my soul and I wonder whether it is worth it to go on? And then I feel like a horrible person, devaluing the love all around me, which makes me wonder all over again? Can you believe me if I say that often it has nothing to do with my sexuality? Can you hear me?

Will you celebrate with me when I tell you that my decision to stop lying about my sexuality—to be not just honest but also vulnerable about this aspect of my being—has pushed me closer to Jesus? Can you wish God’s blessing on my relationship with my husband, seeing it as a force for potential good in our lives, even if you hold different views about marriage and sex?

If you are Side A, can you regard Side B without pity? If you are Side B, can you look at Side A without judgment? If I told you that I’m Side C or Side M or Side Z—or if I were to refuse to opt for sides or labels, because they vex me—could you meet me there too?

Can we create a community without litmus tests, just a shared pursuit of Jesus, and will we welcome the quote-unquote alien with all his fears and her disappointments and messed-up, marked-up human roadmaps and interpretations of Scripture?

A quick aside: Two days ago, we marked Epiphany. I was reading about the visit of the Magi, and I was thinking about how, if a trio of astrologers like them showed up at our churches today, most would either turn them away, calling them crazy, or invite them in with that “welcome” that means keeping a close watch so that the heathens don’t disrupt things. But from the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, he subverted our norms. From infancy, Jesus welcomed outsiders, Gentiles, the uncircumcised. As NT Wright puts it, the takeaway of the Epiphany story, which he says is “not the kind of cozy-picture-book story we have created for ourselves,” is this: “Come to Jesus, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”

“Come to Jesus, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”

Can we offer each other that same generosity and welcome? Can we walk alongside each other, by whatever routes we can, without you judging the gift I picked out or me criticizing your route?

Can you hang on with me when I quote someone like NT Wright but then confess that clarity almost always eludes me when it comes to the Scriptures, that the idea of having anything near all the answers seems like a fantasy to me, and in fact I have a hard time with those who act like they do, regardless of where they are on the theological spectrum?

Can you not think me crazy when I say that my faith has been sustained by moments that I call miraculous—and, when I’ve needed it, something I interpret to be that still, small voice of God?

And finally, will you honor me with your trust? This person whom you haven’t met before but who also claims to try to do his best to follow Jesus? What can you give me of your story? Will you risk it with me? Can we make ourselves mutually vulnerable?

Friends, I think I know the answers already: No. No. No. No, I don’t think we can do these things, not all of them and not all the time. Our fears are too great—for some pastors, it’s a loss of financial stability or the large congregation they’ve built; for some believers, it’s a sacrifice of the façade of certainty; for most of us, worry about the “other” or being “wrong.”

And then I have to say yes, we can do these things and in fact we must, because the church is a sick institution that is too much human and not enough divine. We can do these things, because on my better days, I believe our God, who makes the impossible possible and the human divine. On my better days, I believe in a Jesus who knows our relational shortcomings intimately and more than makes up the difference and can redeem even our worst tweets. On my better days, I’m confident that the Holy Spirit can inhabit me in my brokenness—not queer brokenness, not gay brokenness, not Chinese brokenness, not American brokenness—just all-around human brokenness—and make me—and all of us— whole again. Our hope in God provides an antidote to the fear in me.

The church I have known is a place where a lot of people languish. We may dress down these days in church, but we’re still all buttoned-up—and spiritually, we suffer. Sometimes I wonder to what degree we are even making ourselves vulnerable to God—which would seem to be a prerequisite to spiritual growth—when, more often than not, we’re not making ourselves vulnerable to each other. We don’t nurture each other aggressively. We don’t cultivate or honor or talk enough about the kind of intimate friendship that so many of us would benefit from—and I am not talking about sexual intimacy. Patient friendship. Gracious friendship. Risky friendship.

The church I hope for—the table I long for—is a place where we can be known. It’s a place where we stand equal before Jesus and with each other, all of us sinful beings, on the level ground that Isaiah speaks of. It’s a place where we can bring our scars and sorrows, our stories and our doubts, our huge questions and our otherworldly aspirations. It’s a place that does not act surprised at the gravity of sin in the world, that does not resort to puffed-up outrage at slights, that feels no need to defend itself. We have spent too long in costumes and closets, unseen and unknown. And we have paid the price for that. But will we risk even more, revealing our hearts to each other? Friends, would you do that with me? Can we build this kind of church and this kind of table here?

My book, if I am going to be totally honest, is not that vulnerable. It sometimes irritates me that people call it a memoir, because other people’s stories take up many times more ink than my own and the book is less about my own trajectory than those of hundreds of people who gave me glimpses of their lives. I criss-crossed the country to learn—this adventure was and has been incredibly personal—but any conclusions in the text reflect maybe 0.1% of the learning and processing I’ve done.

Truthfully, I didn’t know then how to be vulnerable. I’m a private person. What glimpses I give you of my self in the book are carefully worded and edited. They’re not untrue, but they’re also not totally open or, if you knew me then and know me now, truly vulnerable.

I’m still growing in this area of my emotional and spiritual life. Vulnerability is something that I have slowly learned at the table—at the book-signing table, where readers pried open my heart by opening theirs; at the panel-discussion table and the reading table, where audiences asked me bracingly candid questions that I could only dodge at the cost of my authenticity; at kitchen tables of people who hosted me on my book tour; at the office tables of pastors who, stung by my critique of them as being called to be shepherds but behaving like sheep, wanted to discuss what I meant by that; at my own dining table at home, where I often answer Facebook messages and emails from readers who write with heart-wrenching testimonies and questions—always, questions. Sometimes it has been the proverbial two steps forward and one step back; I’m always going to be one of those writers who read the comments sections, and this may dismay both groups, but the folks who comment at Christianity Today and the Huffington Post are more alike than they’d ever want to be—ready to dismiss your value, your intellect, your faith, your lessons learned, with the little daggers of their words. When that happens, sometimes you cry. Sometimes you doubt your own value and your own intellect, your faith and your own lessons learned. Sometimes you grow a little more scar tissue. Sometimes, though, you grow a little more beautifully vulnerable, remembering the conversations at the other tables—the ones that built trust and with trust, built vulnerability.

I’ve been mulling, too, in my own wrestling with Scripture, the many times the table appears in the Bible. Sometimes it is a literal table, such as the acacia-wood table in the Temple, veneered in pure gold, where the priests placed the bread of presence. This wasn’t meant to suggest that God needed to eat, of course. The bread—this quotidian item, this everyday foodstuff—represented God’s provision for the people of God. It commemorated the manna that kept the people going generations before. It foreshadowed the daily bread that Jesus told us to pray for. It symbolized God’s constancy.

That constancy, that confidence, is there too in the 23rd Psalm, where a table unexpectedly appears. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered what a weird little poem the 23rd Psalm is, at least in its English incarnation. If you wrote something like it and gave it to a poetry prof who had never read it before, I don’t think you’d get an A, because in our modern context, it’s that odd. After we emerge from that super-melodramatic valley of the shadow of death, suddenly we have David praising God, saying, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” But this is on the face of it a vexing verse, because this seems like the worst time for a banquet, as the enemy armies are massing. It is also slyly funny and kind of confidently snotty. God is saying, Okay, enemies, you want to take me on? Fine. But first, we’re going to picnic. And the way the verse points not just to God’s provision, but to God’s overprovision—these aren’t a soldier’s MREs. This is a full-on feast; the Septuagint renders the last verse differently, giving us a clearer sense of what’s in that cup: “Your cup,” says one translation, “was supremely intoxicating.” Is pre-battle any time to get wasted? But I guess if God is the one who’s buying the wine and doing the pour, who am I to argue?

Psalms are conversations with God, and this psalm affirms faith and aspires for redemption. David uses a motif that ultimately reappears several times in Scripture—in Ezekiel, for instance, and in Revelation, always referring to God’s eventual triumph. In reading and repeating it, we nod at God’s present-day provision and hope for God’s ultimate reward. These promises, these ways in which God calls for our trust, are relational investments that help cultivate vulnerability.

As I reflect on the table, this place of conversation, that I hope we’ll build together here, I realize that, for some, in earthly terms, we’re building at the wrong time. So, at our table, I’m thinking that we have to leave some empty chairs. I’m not suggesting anything like saving a chair for Jesus at Christmas dinner—and apologies to you if your family does that, but you have to admit it’s super-cheesy. We’re going to save seats for those who didn’t make it here, for those who will re-join us in another life. We’re going to save seats for Tyler Clementi and for Leelah Alcorn and for thousands of others who were taken from us too soon, whether by persecution or circumstance or—let’s just say it—murder.

We’re also going to save seats for those who haven’t made it here yet. And I want to be clear that “made it here” is no judgment about what strain of theology, what hermeneutic, is correct, beyond the strain that says every human being is beloved by God, that every person, no matter their orientation or identity, has inherent dignity.

We’re going to save seats for sisters and brothers like a friend of mine in the South, who can’t even imagine being among us. I posted a request to my Facebook friends asking them to send wisdom, prayers, and owls as I was puzzling over what to discuss with you all, and he started chatting with me, so I asked what came to mind as he read my post. Here is what he said to me:

“I am in the closet still so I may not be the right voice. Some days I find myself barely hanging on, and other days I feel like I can make it. It is lonely and no one around here knows. That just fuels the loneliness. If I allow myself to dwell in that place too long I will find myself depressed and honestly wanting to find a drug to make me straight and in my town’s eyes normal. I wish I were there,” he said. “I wish I could be a part of something. I know many would look at me with pity for staying in the closet, but there is more to this journey than being with a man. It is protecting my family and hopefully being a voice of truth for those who would never hear it.”

So we’re going to save seats for those like my friend, who cannot be here themselves. And we are going to honor their lives and listen for the echoes of their stories in the stories of those who are here. We need these ghosts in our conversation.

The word “conversation” is beautiful. It is not, primarily or mainly, about talking. It’s about the dynamic we create when we’re with others—speaking, yes, but also being silent, the ebbs and flows, the rises and falls, the momentum and the moments of stillness. Conversation’s Latin roots literally mean “to keep company with.”

For me as a journalist, the biggest gift is a conversation—the opportunity to keep company with someone else, to walk alongside him for an hour or a day, to talk and to observe and to experience life from her perspective for a bit. I got into this business because I thought I liked writing. It turns out that I don’t like writing much at all, not for publication anyway. It is, at least for me, a hideous, gut-wrenching, teeth-gnashing experience that I would recommend to others only with severe caveats. But though I am deeply introverted, I do like the reporting part of my job—the conversation part.

Sometimes, someone will ask me, “Who is your favorite person you’ve ever interviewed?” I’ve interviewed a lot of people over my career, first at Time Magazine and then at Conde Nast and now at Fast Company. Most people expect me to answer with the name of a famous person: “Britney Spears,” or “Halle Berry,” or “Tory Burch.” And while I had fascinating conversations with all of them—take “fascinating” as you wish and we can talk details later—they were not my favorites. My favorite people to interview are those who invite me to the kitchen table and into their lives. It’s not just what they say, but also how they say it and the experience of keeping company with them, whether for five minutes or for five hours. It’s creating a shared memory, like the farmer in Rwanda who could not have been more delighted when she lured me into her chicken coop and laughed as I walked in all the chicken shit. It’s the mixed-orientation couple I write about in my book—the husband a pastor and the wife an architect, who invited me into their home for several days, who baked fresh bread and shared it with me after we sat down for breakfast and read their customary psalm, and told me their stories with a bracing candor about their journey with Jesus, their sex lives, their insecurities, their joys. It’s the Georgia dad I also write about, a former Christian counselor who faced a crisis in the life of his family after his wife came out as a lesbian; toward the end of my time with this bear of a man, he was bent over, crying. “Jeff,” he said, “in all these years, nobody has ever asked me for my story.”

In my dream world, nobody would ever say that. Every person’s story matters—because every person matters. Each story has elements that are extraordinary. And though I didn’t realize it when I entered journalism—because discerning one’s call isn’t something that happens at one moment or even in one season but constantly and repeatedly—I think part of mine is to help amplify voices that aren’t often heard, to help people believe that they have a part in our broader conversation. In their differences from my own experience, diverse voices illuminate something about the richness of humanity. Even the pain is instructive—perhaps more so than the delight.

I know there has been concern in past years that GCN keynoters have often not come from the LGBT community. And I’m honored and humbled to be standing before you as a gay man. But my voice is just that—my voice, one small voice. Your voices—your hundreds of voices, diverse and distinct, squeaky and deep, broken and halting, mellifluous and melodious—are what matter. Your voices make the table what it is. Your voices, your stories, your experiences, your choices of what to bring to our conversation—of how to keep company with one another—will define these days.

The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we will keep company with one another in deep and profound ways. We will listen to the loud voices, but even more so we will keep our ears open for whispers. The conversation won’t always be easy. But if we do it right, it will be powerful and it will help us grow. If we focus on the bread of the presence of God, which we have done nothing to deserve and yet receive with the promise of more, it will transform us and our conversation. If we cry out for Jesus-like justice yet hold on to a tenor of grace—and that is not an either/or—we will build a table that enriches life. Can we build that here?

Finally, friends, some thoughts on community. Is there anyone who has written as powerfully as Dietrich Bonhoeffer on what it means to be a community of Jesus? In his book “Life Together,” he writes that “the fellowship of the table has a festive quality. It is a constantly recurring reminder in the midst of our everyday work of God’s resting after His work, of the Sabbath as the meaning and goal of the week and its toil. Our life is not only travail and labor; it is also refreshment and joy in the goodness of God. We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us… Through our daily meals, He is calling us to rejoice, to keep holiday in the midst of our working day.”

I love me some Bonhoeffer, but I was not thinking about Saint Dietrich and his highbrow musings on meals the other afternoon, when in the midst of a really crappy writing day, I realized that it was after 2 o’clock and I still hadn’t had lunch, and as I dug out a spotty banana and a single-serving bag of Pirate’s Booty, I was not philosophizing on the joy of the goodness of God or thinking about how to make a little holiday in my mouth.

Here is the truth about what Bonhoeffer writes, though: The aspiration is true and noble. Every meal is a new opportunity. Every time we break bread together, that companionship is another chance for community—for building our shared lives together. I choose the word “companionship” intentionally, because it actually means a person you break bread with—its roots are com- (with) and panis (bread). Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner is an invitation to go a little deeper, to be a little bit truer in who we are and who we aim to be—not just individually but also, and perhaps especially, collectively. When Bonhoeffer juxtaposes the struggle of daily life and the festivity of the family meal, he’s not suggesting that we pretend that there is no pain. I believe he’s compelling to do exactly the opposite—without the pain, you don’t fully appreciate the joy. And our call is to bring all of ourselves, baggage and scars, to the table and to reframe it, reexamine it, reimagine it.

A final word-geek moment. Community comes from “communis,” Latin for “shared by many.” Put another way, it means “sharing a spirit.” It’s such a powerful concept, especially in the context of the sacred. It’s such an important word, too, for our faith, coming as it does from a family of words with such resonance for the Christian life: community, communal, commune, communion. We return again and again to the table. We fail and then we confess our sins against God and each other, we rest in the hope of God and then we do it all over again.

The work of a community is hard. Being in community is hard. Community means longsuffering. Community demands patience. Community requires asking for forgiveness and granting it. Community begs repeatedly for understanding. Community tests our bonds and then it tests them again. Community demands justice for its members, but doesn’t always agree on what justice looks like or how to achieve it. Community pushes our human limits. Community survives only by grace. Community cannot thrive without grace. Community is grace manifested and personified and multiplied.

Community needs grace because I will use the wrong pronoun.

Because I will fuck up.

Because I will offend somebody because I just said the f-word.

Because someone else will be offended that somebody was offended because I just said the f-word.

Because we will resort to outrage, because outrage is easy and compassion is hard.

Because sometimes I will just be annoying.

Because sometimes I will not do the hard work of understanding your motives or sometimes will actually willfully misunderstand what you are saying.

Because then we have to start over again, sit down again, remind ourselves that Jesus calls us to be companions again.

This is the messy business of community. This is the hard work of faith. Living out the love that Jesus calls us to is demanding. So demanding to the point of being counterintuitive and definitely not human. So demanding that sometimes I really don’t like it, even if I need to do it.

I have come to realize that there is in my life a major obstacle to community, one that doesn’t seem to stray very far from me. That obstacle is me. It is my ego. It is my baggage. It is my flawed personality. It is every ounce of me that claims to be unique in a way that makes it impossible for anyone to understand me and my pain. It is narcissism and self-pity and anger and gracelessness. It is my own form of American exceptionalism. I think of the many times that I have whined about loneliness. But often, I have nobody to blame but myself. I push the other chairs away from the table, and then I wonder why nobody comes to sit with me.

Perhaps for you, your obstacle is a desire for comfort—even though Jesus never promised comfort in his community. You can be comfortable if others think pretty much like you. Perhaps for you, your obstacle is just laziness—it’s easier not to think. I can see how if you don’t look toward the margins, then pretty much they don’t exist for you. I can understand that, just as some people like to expand their pictures by drawing some more—a little more crayon here, how about some colored pencil there—for others, their favorite implement, the tool they use to tidy up their image of the world, is an ever-present eraser.

In every one of these cases, the problem is perspective. Whether your spiritual drug of choice is self-absorption or false comfort or erasure, the problem is shortsightedness—narrow vision. In every one of these cases, the problem is a failure to see the reality—indeed, the complexity—of our families, our communities, our world.

The tougher, more humbling route is to confront the complications—and this is something that I’ve learned very powerfully in my own life, through circumstances I never expected. A few of you may have read or heard a story I wrote called “The Meaning of a Meal.” If you have, well, you’re going to hear it again. I want to share this story with you, because it is a story about community. It is a story about eating family-style. It is a story of relationship. It is a story of imperfection. It is a story of a work-in-progress. But above those things, it’s a story of my mom and me.

To give you some background, my mother and I have had a fraught relationship. I love her to the depths of my being. Nobody gives hugs like my mom. Nobody makes fried rice like my mom’s. But nobody else has written me letters like my mom’s, which quoted Bible verses I’m sure you’ve all heard, which don’t need repeating here. Nobody else challenges me in quite the same way. Nobody else annoys me like she does. If there were such a thing as an emotional physicist, I would invite her to examine this relationship. How can two people, two objects, simultaneously be so close together yet so far apart?

THE MEANING OF A MEAL*

For lunch today, I had some steamed spareribs over rice. The ribs have been in my fridge for over a week—and not a word from you, food-safety hardliners. My stomach’s not just fine. It’s also full, and so is my heart. My mother cooked these ribs when she was visiting, and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

I don’t know how to make ribs like my mom’s. Part of it is, I think, that something tastes better when someone else has cooked it, and that’s especially true if that someone else is my mother, by far the best cook in our extended family. I love my grandmother, but anything she may try to tell you about those culinary genes being passed down is a lie.

Another part of it is her secret sauce, some elixir containing Shaoxing wine, black-bean sauce, salt, white pepper—maybe sesame oil? I can’t remember. I’m sure she has told me before. “It’s easy!” I hear her say. She would probably add that, as usual, I just wasn’t listening. I could ask her for a more precise recipe, but she’d just sigh. She has almost no recipes written down—they’re all in her head.

A third part of it, though, was something that has nothing, really, to do with the food itself so much as what the food represented. Last winter, she emailed me to ask whether I might like for her to come to New York “and cook a dinner for you for your birthday.” When I read her words, my heart leaped into hyper-speed and I broke out into a sweat. She hadn’t been to visit in years, not since my boyfriend and I moved together and not since that boyfriend became my husband. She had met him only once, and that meeting was, to be generous, awkward. She didn’t come to our wedding, but some months later, she sent that email.

Food is, in our family, so many things. It is what we fight about; we started taking cruises together partly because there isn’t any argument about where to have dinner. It is our most beloved group activity; one of the indelible memories of my childhood is sitting in my aunt and uncle’s laughter-filled kitchen in Hong Kong, late one sticky summer’s night, a plastic sheet on the table covered by a quickly shrinking mound of fresh lychees and a quickly growing pile of peels and pits. It is the thing we can always talk about when we have nothing else. If I am at a loss for something to say to my mother, I can always ask her—and genuinely, because I always want to know—how to cook a particular dish of hers.

For my mother, food plays a specific and important role, saying things that she cannot. Even the paraphernalia of mealtime has significance. When she arrived in New York, one of the first things she did was to pull a gift out of her bag: an antique pair of ivory chopsticks. Everyone in our family has a pair, inscribed in red with our names. These were for my husband. She told him that it was my job to figure out where to get the inscription done. I reminded her that it was also her job to help me come up with a Chinese name for the white boy.

Also note that she never asked if she could come visit; the question was whether I wanted her to come cook a dinner. We took her for other meals while she was in New York—Koreatown, where she happily picked at a whole fried fish; dim sum in Brooklyn Chinatown, where her face radiated delight at a simple plate of fish balls; our friend Adam’s restaurant, Lunetta, where she dove into a huge and fragrant bowl of mussels. But those other lunches and dinners were appetizers and desserts. This trip was about one meal.

Eleven friends joined us, dear and patient people who have played their own supportive parts on our journey and who knew that this meal wasn’t just about the food. That Saturday, it turned out that my mom had prepared a dish for each one of us. At 5:30pm, they began coming out of the kitchen: first, the starters—freshly griddled scallion pancakes, spring rolls, and seaweed-wrapped sticky-rice balls with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp. Then, the mains: Scrambled egg and tomato—always a homey crowd-pleaser. A half-dozen types of mushroom, braised with abalone. Big piles of Chinese greens, dressed simply in oyster sauce. Slivers of pork tossed with crisp triangles of two kinds of tofu. Two chickens, one steamed and one poached in soy sauce. Shrimp stir-fried with a multicolored medley of vegetables. Two whole black bass, steamed with ginger and green onions. A beef stew, with big, gooey chunks of tendon. Those spareribs.

This was her gift, her gesture of lavish love, her way of saying that she’s trying. She started cooking more than twenty-four hours before the first guest arrived, standing and stirring and chopping and tasting until her arms and legs ached and her own appetite was gone. She wanted nothing more than for us to stuff ourselves silly—to simply receive.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. It was one visit, one big meal and several smaller ones. We ate well. We were all on our best behavior, and we got along. There was some laughter. Nobody cried. It doesn’t mean that we agree on theology or politics or that she’s going to run for president of her local chapter of PFLAG. It means she’s working hard—and so are we—to love as best we know how. In some ways, it was a big event. In others, just baby steps.

There is, I suppose, a lesson in the way she cooks, something that I want to try to remember as we keep walking forward alongside each other: In my mother’s kitchen, nothing happens quickly. You plan. You marinade. You stew. You wait.

Then, eventually, you feast.

Two postscripts:

First, my mom came back this past summer, and she cooked for us again, and it was a little bit easier than the time before. For one thing, Tristan and I weren’t as mean to her this time—we invited fewer people.

Second, my mom’s name is Grace. And it has been one of my great joys to watch as she seeks to live out her name, hard as that may be. She teaches me so much. And I hope I teach her a little something. We may not share the same theology, but we are community in that we share a spirit and we are companions as we repeatedly try again to break bread together. We may quibble about whether she is accepting my husband and me, affirming us, tolerating us. These semantic questions, while primary to some people, are not primary to me or to Tristan. What’s primary to us is that we are in relationship—difficult, painful, costly relationship. Beautiful, life-giving, wonderful relationship.

I laugh with my mom about something stupid and then I get pissed off at my mom about something silly, and she laughs with me about something silly and then she gets pissed off at me about something stupid, though she would never use such coarse language to say so. Is it because I’m gay? Maybe. But really it’s because she’s my mom and I’m her son, and that is what parents and children do. That is what families do. And then we sit down at the table and we break bread together, and then we do it all over again. And again. And again. Through the pain. Through the joy.

Before I close, I want to say something to the many parents at this conference: Thank you for being here, for loving your children as best you know how, for venturing outside your comfort zones. Thank you for the ways in which you have stretched and in which you will continue to stretch. Thank you for being bold enough not to settle for easy answers, to hold the tension. Thank you for being at the table with us. Also, I’m jealous of your kids. I wish my mom were here. I so wish she were here.

To all of you—I want to make you a promise, and I hope you will promise each other the same thing as we continue throughout these days: I promise you my presence. I will give you what time I can. I will listen more than I talk. I will ask more questions than I offer answers. I will honor your stories. I will open myself to your voice. That means I will hear not what I want to or what I want to respond to, but what’s important to you, what matters to you, what you are really trying to say, even when you are struggling to find the words. If you need one, I will give you a hug—and I just want to explain that this is a really big deal and a limited-time offer, because I am not a huggy person. I will strive for the state of grace that the poet Miller Williams, who died last week, describes this way:

Have compassion for everyone you meet

even if they don’t want it.

What appears bad manners, an ill temper

Or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears

Have heard, no eyes have seen.

You do not know what wars are going on

Down there where the spirit meets the bone.

The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we let others see where the spirit meets the bone and help heal the wounds. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has the grace of the Gospel as its magnificent centerpiece. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is made of rough-hewn humility, nailed together by a Jesus who has given us the ridiculous freedom to be wrong and yet still be made right. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we love especially when it isn’t easy, allowing us to be vulnerable, inviting every voice to join the conversation, pushing us meal by meal toward community, toward communion. Can we build that kind of church, that kind of table? I think so.

And at that table, we’re going to eat family-style.

“The Meaning of a Meal” was originally published on Medium in August 2013

Living Fully, Living Freely: Truth

“Whether you’re transgender or not, most of us get to a point in our lives when we can no longer lie to ourselves.” 

Laverne Cox puts it well; we all hide big truths from ourselves. Everyone is dragging something around and around and around until we can’t take it anymore, and we snap.

Not in a bad way. There is a type of breaking down that involves re-shifting the very foundation of your life and this is only caused by powerful realizations of truths that you have never let yourself look at before. Most of the time we lie to ourselves about these foundation-rocking truths because we are terrified of shaking the foundation. Nobody wants to overhaul their lives because of the cost that they perceive to be outweighing the benefits.

This exact thing happened in my life, almost four years ago.  I was fifteen and I was miserable. I denied that I was struggling with a deep, deep depression being caused by my intense denial of the fact that I am transgender. Refusing to deal with the root issue — that I was living life in a body that I didn’t identify with — was causing the crippling lows of my depression which I was also convincing myself was “a normal existence,”

When I ask my close friends what the greatest fundamental change is between me then and me now, it is that I am authentic. It is that I am myself. It is that I am happy. I suddenly have energy to give to the world instead of hiding myself. Why? Because I stopped lying pointlessly to myself. I shook the foundation. It involved a huge amount of trust in myself. Trust that I could figure out how to pick up any broken pieces along the way towards a better version of myself — one without the hiding.

It felt a lot like a high ropes course I did once. In one section, we did this “leap of faith” where (hooked into a harness, you know, so we wouldn’t die) we would jump from the top of one fifteen-foot wooden pole to the top of another. There was just enough space to land both feet on it, and it was a distance of about a foot or so in-between the two pole-tops. The jump looked daunting at first, but once I was flying through the air, I knew that there was no turning back. As I landed, I realized that it wasn’t as impossible as I had thought it was before I leapt.

What would happen if you tried to take a leap of faith with yourself? What are you denying about yourself? What is true about yourself? And can you stand to lie anymore?

Does Sexuality Have A Color?

A couple months ago, I went to a special screening of the film Dear White People. I was particularly excited about this screening because it was for college students, and as a film professor, I am always eager to find out what millenials think about issues related to race. The majority of students in the room were African American, with a few Latino students sprinkled in between. Being that the university hosting the event was a predominantly white institution, I was curious to see how this particular demographic of students would respond to the film. From the very beginning, the crowd was quite responsive, cheering and clapping during the parts that resonated with their own experiences of being minorities on campus. I recently have had several conversations with colleagues and friends about the current generation's views on race, so it was refreshing to see that students were, in fact, aware of and vocal about the challenges and disparities that still exist when it comes to race in America.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the reaction of the crowd when the character, Lionel Higgins (played by Tyler James Williams), a socially awkward student writer, was hit on by the editor of his school newspaper. As he leaned in for a kiss, the group reaction turned from collective affirmation of identity to a collective "Nooooooo!" I was pulled out of the movie for a moment, and I couldn’t help but think to myself -- “Is this still the reaction to homosexuality in 2014?"

I thought we were at least somewhat past this by now. Particularly in California and particularly at an art school. Was the crowd's disapproval because they had not let go of the idea that Williams had grown up, that he was no longer the young Chris Rock in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris? Or was it because the editor was white and they weren't keen on this interracial union? There could have been many reasons for the outcry, but I couldn’t help but wonder if their reaction was because Lionel was gay, and the kiss had just made that reality visible. The crowd could talk about race, but a man's sexuality would have to stay out of the conversation. 

For me, their reactions were simply a symbol of the ways in which my particular faith community has maintained a level of ambivalence toward the LGBTQ dialogue and how that might be affected by race. I once read a quote that "The church might be the most homophobic and most homotolerant of any institution in the black community." I have seen this play out in my own church context. Having grown up in the black church, I remember seeing gay men sing and lead choirs in church. Their talents were celebrated, however, their sexuality was rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone accepted. My naive mind would want to believe that their omission was an indication that all people were accepted and loved regardless of their orientation. Many black church denominations were founded on principles of social justice and equality, so it seems that even gender discrimination would not be tolerated. But all too often, the silence has been more an act of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

As I make my foray back into the black church as an adult, I realize that even in 2014 the conversation still seems to be missing and I’m having a hard time reconciling my interest in bridging the communication gap between the faith community and the LGBTQ community, and respecting the legacy of the black church. For people like Lionel in the film, what does it mean to be a black, gay man on a predominantly white campus? And how can the black church speak to that context in a way that brings healing? While I don’t have the answer to those questions, I would love to see more theology that digs even deeper into the complexities of faith, gender and sexuality, while still including conversations that wrestle through a hermeneutic centered in a racial and ethnic identity.

Safe spaces for dialogue need not only be in select circles. They are just as necessary in a movie theater as they are in a community of believers.

"You Belong" This Christmas

The shoe salesperson looked unusual to me. Bright blouse, long skirt, high heels. Very, very large high heels. And an Adam’s apple, or was it? Broad shoulders, or maybe shoulder pads? I would never ask, but I couldn’t help but wonder, What are you?

I ask the same question at Christmas, but with a different tone. A baby born of a virgin. A baby who is fully human and fully divine. What are you?

We’re taught to ask this question of Jesus with a spirit of wonder, appreciating the mystery that is beyond human understanding. Jesus doesn’t fit our categories of how babies are born, what human beings are, and what God is. We learn to appreciate Jesus’ disturbance of taken-for-granted categories, because we know we have a lot to learn. In worship and prayer, we lean toward that learning, that growing, that discipleship.

When it comes to people who don’t fit socially normative sex and gender categories, (and many other categories such as race and ethnicity, as well), the tone of the question, “What are you?” is not one that is appreciative of mystery. We can recognize commonalities, perhaps, between our own responses and those of people who first encountered Jesus. Some asked, “What are you?” to Jesus with hatred and violence, as Herod did. Others seemed respectfully curious, like the wise men. Some were afraid, like the shepherds.

Social norms exist for a reason; they let us know what to expect, what things mean, and how to navigate our social world. When people cross categories, break norms, or create new patterns, this is often, by its nature, disturbing and confusing. We need to be mindful, then, of how we nurture our instinctual responses. Hatred can shift to love, curiosity can shift to friendship, and fear can shift to trust, but these shifts are far from automatic. These are spiritual disciplines, nurturing the capacity to experience rapid social change, and cultivating respectful and humane responses to all people of the earth.

Jesus’ parents must have been perplexed by his conception, birth, and destiny. They may not have understood what Jesus was, but they knew who he was. In choosing to birth him and raise him, Mary and Joseph said, in effect, “We know who you are: you are our son. We know where you belong: you belong with us.”

What righteousness it would be to extend such a response to all boundary-crossing, identity-confusing, norm-breaking persons. To acknowledge all that we don’t understand, but nurture and cultivate what we know full well: that each person is, indeed, a person, and that each person belongs to the whole. Recognizing the interconnection between each and all of us, is the seed of such righteousness. As Nelson Mandela said, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other - not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

When Jesus Came Out

Was Jesus treated as someone to be avoided or punished because of what he did and said and because of who he was? To ask the question another way, was Jesus queer?

This is a retelling of Luke 4:16-30 from the perspective of an imaginary eyewitness.

When Jesus Came Out

We had high hopes for Jesus. He was a good talker. He made you think. However, he was different. Some would say “weird.” He definitely “had his ways.”

He didn’t follow the lifestyle that we’ve followed for generations.

When a child doesn’t “fit in,” it’s the father’s job to make sure the kid straightens up.

That didn’t happen with Jesus. To be frank, we’re still not sure who his father is. As he was growing up some kids would shout, “Hey Jesus, who’s your daddy?”

We’ve heard he’s done some miracles, but why isn’t he home raising a family?

He’s almost 30; he’s not married; he goes around with other men.

It makes you wonder.

He spends time with people who are better left alone. We don’t want our kids hanging out with him. He’d be a bad influence on young minds.

I remember when he came back to Nazareth after he’d been wandering around. He’d developed a reputation, but not one that I’d want a son of mine to have. Nevertheless, we didn’t ask him any embarrassing questions. We let him take a turn at reading the Bible as we gathered to worship. He picked a reading from the prophet Isaiah. It was about the Messiah – just a short reading. Then he sat down, the way rabbis do when they start their teaching.

We all looked at him. We didn’t know what to expect. He shocked us more than he’d ever done before. He actually claimed that he was anointed by God to bring good news. He was saying that he was the Messiah!

He certainly didn’t live or act like the real Messiah would. We were stunned! We just sat there. Someone threw down the challenge.

“If you’re the Messiah, do a miracle. Heal my sick mother; turn these rocks into bread, jump off that building without getting hurt.”

Things were getting nasty. Then Jesus made it worse.

He started talking about how God cared about and helped the unimportant people and the ones who are not part of our people – the ones who don’t follow our laws, who don’t believe what we do, who don’t have an acceptable lifestyle.

That did it! A riot started. We were ready to kill him! That would have been justified; however, in the turmoil, no one took charge. Jesus walked through the crowd and left.

We haven’t seen him since. We hope he stays away.

He’s not “our kind.” He’s not going to have a successful life.

- - - - - - - - - - -

  1. What is your gut response to this narrative retelling? (shock, anger, intrigue, fear, relief, etc.) 
  2. What sits well and what sits uneasy with you? Where do you sense these reactions are coming from? 
  3. How is Jesus’ "coming out" in this narrative similar to (or a metaphor for) coming out as LGBTQ?

If you know other passages that could be read as “coming out” metaphors, or that speak of God’s inclusive love, please share them.


Luke 4:16-30 (NIV)

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Note: Luke 4:18-19 is from Isaiah 61:1-2

The Angry Lesbian Trope

“I'll take all the angry lesbians and send them straight to hell.”

I was in Old Town Pasadena doing some shopping last week. 'Tis the season and all that. As my friend and I walked into a store some hipster transients playing their ukuleles by a storefront conveniently belted out the above line right as we passed in front of them.

Now, that could have been completely coincidental, but I'm unconvinced. They weren't singing before we passed them.

Let's look at the angry part of this equation: I may have been scowling. Or frowning. Shopping isn't my favorite activity but society tells us we have to wear clothes so I will do my part as a citizen and comply to such a request. Or, perhaps I was deep in thought. I'm on the prowl for a skinny black tie and I may have been thinking about which of my flannel shirts such an accessory would match. I can tell you I wasn't “angry” until I heard them play that little ditty.

I'm bothered by the whole notion that we think someone can “look” like a lesbian. I was wearing chucks, skinny jeans, a v-neck tee, and a snap-back. Those people were probably jealous of that hat, honestly. It's pretty cool. My friend has short hair and was wearing a beanie. Neither of these outfits make us “look gay.”

I once stood in a taco joint late at night with another friend who got hit on while we were waiting for her food. After my eye roll reaction she exclaimed, “What? I just obviously look straight.” Newsflash, my dear friends: sexuality is not an appearance-based characteristic. It just isn't. Using some stereotype to categorize people into assumed groups simply because they are wearing flannel, or because their hair is cut a certain way really cheapens the experience of getting to know another person.

Before I learned about the horrendous practices of Urban Outfitters towards LGBTQ people and quit shopping there (more info. here and here), I found out people like to go into that store and play “hipster or lesbian?” You look at a person and decide solely based on their appearance if you think they are a hipster or a lesbian. It's pretty self-explanatory, really. This alarms me deeply.

  1. What gives people the right?
  2. What makes people think those are mutually exclusive categories?

They could be both! You will never know because you're deciding what you think based on a shirt and a haircut. It's also annoyingly reductive, as if the only thing about who I am as a person that I'm trying to express through my appearance is that I want to settle down with a nice lady and adopt some kids in the future. Not to show my love for my favorite band. Certainly not because I like the way shades of green bring out my eyes. I would never layer a button-up shirt and a cardigan because the evening SoCal weather is a little chilly.(If this message is still unclear, please view this helpful video.)

The angry lesbian trope exists because we're constantly getting bombarded with assumptions and stereotypes that make moving about our day much more difficult than it needs to be. I should be able to buy a tie without someone live-narrating my appearance through song for me, because there is not a spectrum of gayness contingent on the contents of one's closet. My flannel addiction doesn't make me any more or less gay than a woman who wears a bow tie.

I don't know why ridicule seems to be the first line of defense against people who don't dress like us, or look like us. Maybe because we won't have to understand things if we destroy them? Because someone is obviously jealous of my Derby Dolls snapback, they feel it necessary to condemn me?

I think Janelle Monae says it best with, “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”

That person in the snap-back is gay, Christian, sarcastic, a rock climber, a wonderful cat-sitter, and a film buff. But you won't know that just by looking at my shirt.

As for sending the angry lesbians to hell, well... I'm pretty sure I met Jesus and His kingdom more fully the moment I came out than any time before.

The Fight or Flight Response

Level Ground had the pleasure of working with Reverend Shari Brink during the NYC Road Show last month. We are honored to share with you her reflections on what it looks like to practice living in difference within her denomination, the Reformed Church In America.

May you feel inspired, hopeful, and encouraged to practice such staying power within your own communities, congregations, and families. 

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In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term “fight or flight response” to describe a reaction that we human beings have in common with the animal world.  It describes our instinctive reaction to either “fight” or “flee” in the face of a threat to our survival.  He described the actual physiological response that causes, say, a cornered cat to scratch and hiss or a gazelle to high tail it away from a lion.  

I’ve been thinking about the ways we human beings experience some version of this when we encounter people who are different than us.   It’s easy – especially in the midst of any form of difference that could be a source of conflict – to respond aggressively (“fight”), to withdraw (“flee”), or perhaps even to simply “freeze.”

There is a reason so very few churches are truly diverse and inclusive.  It feels threatening!  Encountering diversity is challenging, including differences in our deeply held views and beliefs about right and wrong.  We know all too well how warring factions can respond to differences over political issues like healthcare or immigration, or to religious issues like the interpretation of scripture.  And we’ve had plenty of bad role models.

Recently, I had the privilege of experiencing a positive model.  I had the opportunity to participate in a Reformed Church in America conversation among people who hold widely divergent views on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Though far from “pain free,” we didn’t fight, none of us fled the room, and all of us felt listened to.  It sounds like a minor miracle, right?!

It caused me to think again about the practices and ways of being with each other that help us understand each other more deeply, to not fight, to not flee and to not freeze.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Listen deeply to others without preconceived ideas about what they will tell you.  Be willing to let go of caricatures based on what you’ve always been told and engage your curiosity about the real person you’re talking to.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable and share your own experience.  Life has taught you some things.  Make sure you give people an opportunity to understand what it’s like to be you.
  • It’s ok to take a point of view AND to listen to those of others.  We can do both.
  • Make room for others to continue to disagree with you, knowing that their conscience has been formed based on a lifetime of experiences.
  • Don’t use language that is inflammatory.  Listen for how they speak about their own experience and speak for yourself in ways that honor who God created YOU to be.
  • Imagine yourself as in a circle with people who have a wide range of experiences and points of view.  There are rarely only TWO sides.  Arrange your chairs to reflect this.

What would you add?  What helps you to stay in a difficult conversation?

God has given us the wonderful gift of being a diverse and inclusive community of God’s people.  Let’s enjoy what we have… and continue to expand and deepen it!

Sexuality is Spiritual: Healing the rifts between Religion, Sex and Gender

Any time I hear religion, sexuality, and gender, I always want to round out this holy trinity with its ever present fallen angel: trauma. Religion and trauma. These words should not go together unless the word healing is in between them. Too often when it comes to sexuality and gender the word causes fits between religion and trauma more readily.

I hear these words and I think about:

  • My students who have been rejected by their parents for being LGBT because their parents’ faith tells them it was the right thing to do.
  • Parents who show their LGBT children unconditional love and must therefore leave their church communities.
  • Clergy who have lost their communities, ordination, and/or pulpit for coming out as LGBT, defending the rights of LGBT people, or simply presiding over a liturgy blessing the love of a same-sex couple.
  • Those who have died from AIDS and have been denied a religious ritual that honors their lives and their sacredness.
  • All of the LGBT people who hear microaggressions (short statements of discrimination) that are religious in nature. “You’re a sinner!” “You have a demon in you.”
  • All who have been sexually abused by clergy: women, children, men.
  • Women who have been denied ordination because of their gender.
  • Women who have been abused by their husbands and stayed because they are counseled to be long-suffering and honor their marriage vows.
  • Transgender people seeking to find the God who created them as transgender.
  • A young woman who has been raped and blames herself because of her past sins.
  • An unwed mother rejected by her church – the very community whose support she will need most when the baby arrives – because they view her actions as against the word of God. And yet, the young father remains in the choir.

 

And I also grieve.

Having been traumatized in the context of a religious community, I know the holy combination of grace and prayer upon the darkest re-livings of that trauma. I know the strength that the right words can create within me when spoken in a solemn and sincere outreach to the divine. I know that it is only God that truly understands the intricate interweaving of my pain. I crave ritual that can name the pain and harness the traumatic energy in worship to the divine.

Sexuality is spirituality. “This is really about that" These are the words of Rob Bell in his book Sex God trying to name the ways in which our sexual lives manifest our spiritual hurts and how our spiritual hurts manifest in our sexual lives. When we are spiritually healthy and connected to our God and we honor ourselves, then we also honor our sexualities and each other.

When we talk and we disagree about issues of sexuality and gender how do we do it without wounding, rejecting, shaming, and separating? How do we do it in a way that cherishes the family of God and our inclusion within it? How do we show the kind of love for our neighbor that our faith teaches us to show?

We don’t have to agree, but we do have to use our power and authority in relationships with softness and grace when we disagree. We need to be aware of the impact of our words and theologies. We have to love as we challenge one another to see our perspectives across our differences. We have to walk together on level ground with the humility that we are the creation and cannot fully know the creator.