It’s a word we usually use for the horrific, all the atrocities, the truly abhorrent – “unspeakable.”

I remember very well watching the Merchant Ivory film Maurice many years ago when the young, gay Oxford student (or was it Cambridge?) was sitting in his Greek tutorial. As the students sat there dutifully translating Plato, the tutor suddenly interrupted one of them and said, “omit reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” (We all know what that was!)

I was an out and, I thought, proud gay man when I watched that film. But that scene made a lasting impression. What I do (or want to do) is “unspeakable,” really? I can think of lots of other things that qualify for that description – suicide bombers, genital mutilation, genocide, starving children – but two people of the same sex loving each other is not among them.

There’s one more thing I would add to the list of the truly unspeakable, and Christians will celebrate it this weekend: the Incarnation of God’s Word.

Both Christian theology and Christian worship tend to be rather wordy. So much so that it’s easy to forget that those “shepherds abiding in their fields by night” did not rush to Bethlehem to find a doctrine. Or that those three eastern sages didn’t follow a star from their distant homeland in search of a book or an institution. The angels who startled those shepherds and the star that guided those sages announced instead the birth of a flesh-and-blood human being.

John’s gospel declares that God’s Word made all that is. But when that Word wanted to get our attention, it chose human flesh to do it. When God “speaks,” the speech is flesh; wonderfully, beautifully, irreducibly unspeakable.

To be clear, I love words. I love speaking and I love writing. But there are some moments, some things, some occasions that simply defy speech. They are quite literally “unspeakable” – not because they are horrific, but because they transcend entirely our verbal skills. I mean: the gentle touch of a lover; the soft embrace of an elderly parent; the poignant weight of a dog’s head resting on a lap; that twinkle in the eye; children skipping rope; the taste of freshly whipped cream on the tip of a tongue.

To that list I would add this: the incarnate word of God.

I will continue on in my vocation as a theologian by speaking and writing lots of words, but I will try always to say that what matters most cannot be spoken. It can only be lived, encountered, touched, and loved in the flesh. That’s what this weekend is all about.

For some years now I have tried to break out of my prose world at least once a year and try my hand at verse, hoping that perhaps poetic speech might evoke better the remarkably unspeakable moment that Christians try to celebrate at Christmas. Poetic speech is, of course, still speech. But it does carry a bit more potential to transcend the prison of words than prose does.

I believe the Occupy Wall Street Movement does something similar. It’s one thing to write letters to Congress. It’s quite another to pitch a tent and incarnate one’s protest. Perhaps Christians can learn something from that impulse, which is actually quite ancient. When John declared that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Greek means more literally, “pitched a tent among us.”

With all of that in mind, I offer here my 2011 attempt to break free of prose, even for a short while, and pay homage to the unspeakable. With this offering come my very best wishes to all for, at long last, peace on earth and good will among all people in this holiday season!



Few have been this preoccupied with tents

since you recklessly pitched one among us.

I would have chosen something more stable,

not quite so porous and vulnerable,

safe, secure, readily significant,

and missed the whisper of evening breezes,

the restless susurration of canvas,

and that one appearing in the shadows,

light flinting off flesh in a fading sun,

fireflies dancing in the night,

rousing my longing

to step into your own

luminous darkness.


I Would Choose to be Gay, with God’s Help

I don’t know whether being gay is a choice; and neither does anyone else. So why does this matter so much in our faith communities and for our social policies? Why in the world should the most important things about us be the things we did not choose?

The answer to those questions is at the heart of our worst moments as human beings. Africans didn’t choose to have darker skin, but Euro-Americans enslaved them anyway. Women didn’t choose to be born as women, but men have ensured their second-class citizenship for centuries. I didn’t choose to be born white and male, yet untold benefits attach to my skin color and gender identity.

What about sexuality? Polling data consistently show that most Americans would support full civil rights for lesbian and gay people if sexual orientation is not a choice. That’s probably why Newt Gingrich recently insisted, in characteristically bizarre fashion, that being gay is a choice, just like choosing celibacy to be a Roman Catholic priest. (Read about that here.)

What, exactly, is Newt’s point here? If his point is that we should deny civil rights to people who choose certain ways of life, is he suggesting that we should deny civil rights to Roman Catholic priests? That is, of course, ludicrous. So why is it not equally ludicrous for lesbian and gay people?

Poor Newt isn’t the only one confused about this. Evangelical Christians have been shifting their rhetoric on sexuality over the last few years. Many of them now admit the possibility that being gay or lesbian is not a choice but rather something like a congenital birth defect. (Here’s just one example.) We shouldn’t condemn those born with a heart murmur, or Down’s syndrome, or autism, or (alas) a sexual orientation to people of their same sex. Oh, those poor people; they deserve our pity and compassion.

But I don’t want anyone’s pity for being a gay man. There’s nothing pitiable about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. To the contrary, I think being gay is really quite fabulous – everyone should try it!

I may have born this way (nod to Lady Gaga) or I may have made choices along my life’s path that made me this way. But it really doesn’t matter. Given the choice, I would choose to be gay all over again, and always with God’s help.

So what does God have to do with this and why am I writing about this now, in this holiday season? Newt’s latest comments may have spurred me on, but this topic is actually perfect for Christmas, and here’s why.

Christmas is the celebration of God choosing to embrace humanity by becoming one of us. Now, this is at least peculiar if not downright queer. Why in the world would God choose to do something so outrageous?

The answer is deceptively simple and profoundly life-changing: God loves us. More than that, God desires us. God is rather crazy about us. God can’t get enough of us and everything else God made. God is totally into what God created. God is so into it that God decided that becoming one with us would be a great idea. Divine desire compelled God to do the unimaginable: become human.

So I want to thank Newt Gingrich for clarifying that Christmas is all about choice. It’s about God’s choice to live in solidarity with us. It’s about our choices to live as authentically as we can in light of God’s love and deep desire for us. It’s about the amazing choices that God and humans make to join earth to heaven in a vision of thriving and flourishing life for all on this planet.

Yes, Newt, choice matters. You might think about why it does when you go to midnight mass on December 24th. Because of God’s truly peculiar choice, we see God’s glory in the flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).