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Solidarity in Shame, Hope for Healing

As a white person, I cannot really know how a person of color feels in a white supremacist country like the U.S. As a man, I cannot really know how a woman feels in a patriarchal society.

As a gay white man, I do share at least this much in common with many women and people of color: a deeply embedded sense of bodily shame. Perhaps together we can deepen our collective hope for healing.

I’m tempted to insist that everyone lives with some degree of alienating shame (I think that’s a useful way to read the biblical story of the “fall” in Genesis 3), but the more modest scope suffices to make this point: far too many of us internalize hateful messages and quickly find ourselves awash in self-loathing. Left unaddressed, shame can lead to isolation and depression, or it can spiral outward in gestures of aggression, hostility, and even violence.shame

Witness Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this past Sunday morning. In addition to being a Muslim, he was perhaps secretly gay. If so, what he did still qualifies as a “hate crime” – a crime rooted in his own hatred of himself. Shame, in other words.

LGBT people confront toxic comments at nearly every turn; many of these are hard simply to shrug off and forget. Some of them linger, tempting us to believe their poisonous lies and be ashamed of who we are. We’ve heard some choice ones over the last few days, which are just particularly virulent illustrations of a daily reality. Consider these:

  • The Lt. Governor of Texas apparently believes people like me actually deserve to be shot and killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He tweeted a Bible verse shortly after the massacre in Orlando: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).
  • A supposedly Christian pastor in Arizona rejoiced that there were “50 less pedophiles in the world” but then added this: “The bad news is a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit children into their filthy homosexual lifestyle.”
  • Another supposedly Christian pastor in Sacramento, California, preached the very morning of the massacre that he was sorry more of us didn’t die. He later added this: “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.”
  • And here’s just one international example: a popular meme on Russian social media this week declared that “50 faggots were killed in a bar in the United States. Fortunately no human beings were hurt.”

It’s not that each of these absurdist, nearly melodramatic outbursts or even all of them together are too much for any of us to take; we’ve learned how to be strong and we’ve cultivated a good deal of resilience over the years. No, it is rather how each of these can trigger a lifetime of painful memories that start to build up like plaque in the arteries of our souls – all those times of being called a sissy in grade school, or “devil’s spawn” by a pastor, or a cocksucker in high school, or a fucking faggot on vacation in a gay resort, of all places.

I’m describing here what people of color keep trying to get white people to understand about racist microaggressions, and what women keep trying to get men to understand about sexist objectification, patriarchal dominance, and the cumulative effect of being leered at for years and decades. Jessica Valenti wrote about those leers just recently in the New York Times. She describes their lasting imprint rather poignantly:

For me, it’s not one particular message or adolescent incident that bothers me; it’s the weight of years of multiple messages and multiple incidents. It’s the knowledge that this will never be just one day, just one message, just one hateful person. It’s a chipping away of my sense of safety and my sense of self.

All of these moments and incidents and stray comments burrow deeply into our psyches and sit there, festering in a toxic soup of internalized revulsion and bodily shame. Most of us scarcely realize how many of our daily interactions and even dearest relationships wind up coated with layers of that acrid brew.

No one can heal from all this shame alone since isolation is itself a symptom of shame’s corrosive effects. Only by sustaining deep relationships of mutual love and respect can any of us hope to retrieve for ourselves and among others the joy and dignity for which God makes us all. This is what makes churches and gay nightclubs alike so terribly important. No, these have never been perfect social spaces, not by far, but they have been vital venues where we can start to forge relational foundations for healing.

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In this age of increasing religious and cultural pluralism, we need to work across old boundaries and in new communities far more diverse than we have yet seen or perhaps even imagined. The diversity itself will contribute to the healing we seek. Indeed, we must create spaces where women, people of color, the sexually queer and the queerly gendered, and white, straight, men can all do the hard work together of building a different kind of world — a world in which no one need turn to violence, not as a first nor even a last resort to find some relief from the debilitating weight of bodily shame.

Yes, easy access to guns was the proximate cause of the Orlando massacre. But I suspect and I am quite convinced that its deeper source was Omar Mateen’s unbearable alienation from his own bodily goodness, a spiritual malady from which far too many of the rest of us still suffer.

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Congress to do something about that.

[I have written more extensively on the difference between guilt and shame, and how this matters for Christian faith and social transformation, in my book Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy. Portions of the commentary above are adapted from that book.]

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Matter Matters: The Fire in the Belly of Christian Faith

I’m a Christian for many reasons. Chief among them is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. But that sounds too abstract. Let me try to be clearer.

Every scrap, every jot and tittle, every tiny bit of matter matters in the grand scheme of divine reality, which includes everything, absolutely every tidbit of every last chunk of everything. Reflect on that in your own life and don’t stop when you come to something you think is trivial, silly, dirty, shameful, fleeting, self-indulgent, gratuitous, or unworthy. Everything matters. Matter matters, absolutely.

Or try this: ever stumbled on 40-year old baby clothes in the attic? Do you have a “junk” drawer full of ostensibly meaningless artifacts of a history about which no one knows anything? Ever find some photos that took you a moment to identify and place?

Matter matters. This peculiar grounding in matter for Christian faith came vividly to light this past weekend when the gorgeous and quirky little mission congregation where I have been affiliated since 1992 suffered a devastating fire on Saturday night.

The carpenter-Gothic gem of West Berkeley was built in 1878 and has lived through every earthquake since then, as well as 1960s Black Panther breakfasts in the parish hall, an MCC and an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation, Head Start and after-school tutoring programs, pioneering liturgies, ridiculously ambitious fund-raising schemes, scrappy communities of Gospel resilience and hope, and not a few moments when everyone wondered whether we would survive.

This fire is certainly not an end for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, but yet another beginning. But that’s not my point here. I invite you to look at, contemplate, and reflect on the photo posted here of Good Shepherd’s interior post-fire.

This photo breaks my heart and it re-energizes my hope. That confluence of grief and hope sits at the very heart of Christian faith and it shines forth from this photo. Notice the Eucharistic Table still standing there, bathed in light from the opening of the (sadly, tragically, horribly) destroyed stained glass window of the Good Shepherd.

The stained glass was destroyed but not the light, and it shines on the Table. For more than a century – for 134 years to be exact – that Table has borne witness to a truly astonishing and peculiar claim: God brings forth life from death. That is the kernel of the Gospel. We don’t just remember the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus at that table. We remember as well the promise of new life, of resurrection – of bodily life. Matter matters.

Both must be proclaimed, both the memory of pain and the hope of life. The former without the latter leads only to despair; the latter without the former leads only to utopia (literally “no place”). Christians live in that peculiar space in-between, that liminal space between sensible despair and ludicrous hope. Christians place a table in that space, and we share bread and wine there.

Good Shepherd has stubbornly and gracefully provided a witness to that Gospel claim in countless ways over the last 134 years. We have done so very rarely with platitudes or slogans. Good Shepherd “sheep” have been diverse, coarse, down-to-earth, and nitty-gritty in their spirituality – precisely what Jesus would expect. (The now-destroyed Good Shepherd window bore witness to all of this in the wonderfully eccentric “sheep” portrayed in it; we’ll just have to reproduce and update those markers in that window’s next iteration.)

I was sorely tempted over the last few days to deny how deeply saddened I am by this fire. I didn’t want to grant that much significance to a building. After all, the Church (with a capital “C”) is not physical structures but people.

Of course that’s true, but there’s more. Places, neighborhoods, buildings, sidewalks, stained-glass windows, baptismal fonts, altar books, historical records, and linens – all these things matter. Matter matters.

I share here just a few of my own memories of why the Good Shepherd space matters to me and I invite you to offer your own memories of your own spaces that matter in the comments. Let’s create an online tapestry of why matter matters. Just a few of my hallmarks:

  • Baptizing my godson, Louis Peterson, at the font that stood beneath a lovely stained glass image of an angel playing a violin;
  • The baptism of Paula White under that same violin-angel; she was baptized as an adult, and she actually plays the violin;
  • The day when James Tramel was released from prison, where he had been ordained, and stood beneath the Good Shepherd window with his faith family;
  • The blessing of the union between the Rev. Kathleen Van Sickle and the Rev. Barbara Hill back in the 1990s – a service designed by the congregation and approved by the bishop;
  • Passing the latest newborn baby around the congregation during a service, as if the baby belongs to everyone – which is true;
  • Ringing the bell in the tower on the first anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks with Berkeley Fire Department representatives present; that tower originally served both the church and the surrounding neighborhood as the fire tower (graceful irony – that tower survived this fire!);
  • Overflow seating in the tiny narthex on an Easter Sunday morning as the building itself tried its best to accommodate joy.

Matter matters. All these memories and so many more are firmly attached to the fading wood, the yellowed glass, the unraveling carpet, the warped floors, the uncomfortable pews, the wheel-chair ramp, the pulpit that so many preachers have gripped with white knuckles, the nails in the beams where Christmas greens were hung, the Easter flowers were draped, and the Pentecost banners were tied…

Yes, matter matters. But so do the memories, which no fire can destroy. That’s the Gospel. Nothing is ever lost. All is bathed in the light of promise.

I am not grateful for the fire; I am grateful for the way its grief has reminded me of what matters.

(If you are so inclined, we Berkeley sheep of the Good Shepherd could use your financial help. Go here to make a secure online donation)

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Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2

We can do anything we want with this planet since Jesus is coming back soon.
Round up gay people in a corral and let them starve to death.
People without health insurance deserve what they get.

Are those “Christian” statements? Why or why not? Each of them was made in various forms and more than once by a self-professed Christian. How do we discern what qualifies as “Christian”? Do we discern it based on what we say or by what we do or both? What if what we say doesn’t match very well or at all with what we do?

I still have a magnet that mom put on the refrigerator in my childhood house. It reads, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I didn’t quite get it when I was young; it annoyed me as a teenager; and I still have it. I believe that magnet is deeply theological.

I take that magnet message as a clarion call for Christians to prioritize how they live in the world as the basis for evangelism rather than how well we parse our doctrines. These days, I don’t see any point in trying to persuade people to believe in God or to follow Jesus through rational argument. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Creating communities of radical hospitality and compassionate service is the best evangelistic magnet at our disposal – and not because doing so might fill our pews but because it’s the right thing to do and God has called us to do it.

Conversely, the worse thing we can do is exactly what too many Christians have done for too long: make intellectual assent to doctrine the gatekeeper for belonging. While some people may be argued into belief, most people are loved into it. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

As promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet reminds me that how we live is the best witness to what any of us want to say.

So why then bother with creedal statements at all? Let’s just throw great parties with great food!

Why? Because after two people have fallen in love with each other, they eventually need to talk about their relationship. Because after spending time in the regional park with my dog, I want to talk with someone about the plants, the terrain, and the climate. Because after organizing a neighborhood watch group, I want to talk with my neighbors and find out who they are, what they care about, and how I might be a better neighbor.

The creedal history of Christianity is of course complex and vexing. But I do believe our ancestors in the faith still have something to say to us today about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and what in the world we think we’re all doing. The following are just some of the ways that I continue to experiment with how to think about, treat, and address the classic creeds of Christian faith.

An Impromptu Tag-Football Game at the Family Reunion
There’s no official football field, so the family members take a cooler, a beer bottle, a diaper bag, and a sweatshirt to mark the four corners of the playing area. Someone brought a ball, people are divvied up into teams, and the fun begins. Someone keeps score, but no one really cares who wins. The diaper bag might get kicked out of alignment once or twice, someone might howl at this, but it’s all in good fun. Creeds provide the parameters of the playing field on which we think and talk about God among family members.

An Improvisational Stage Play
Theatrical actors pay careful attention to the stage cues of a director, both in scripted plays and in improvisational moments. Quite remarkably, the most scripted of plays can be performed in various ways depending on the director. Likewise, an improvisational performance relies heavily on directorial assistance. Creeds provide a loose script for faithful actors, and variances in the performances can prompt profound insights. No one performance is exactly like any other. Creeds are cues, not scripts, but they are important.

Open Source Software
Those of a certain age will remember that “software” meant ordering a product from a company that arrived in the mail on a disc. Load it to your hard-drive and it will do what I was designed to do. Open source software by contrast provides basic coding for doing something, but the end user can change the code and adapt it for particular needs. There are limits to what can be done to open source software, but they are vastly different from discs. Creeds suggest theological programming directions and functions, but both pathways and outcomes are in the hands of end users.

My Grandmother’s Recipe Cards
In her own handwriting, my maternal grandmother made recipe notes like “use some butter around the size of an egg or so,” or “stir until it looks like the color of our backyard field in September” or “toss in some salt; stir; taste it; add some more if you like.” This stands in stark contrast to the narrative and instructions one finds in Cook’s Illustrated. Creeds provide general directions, hints at how to proceed, and room to toss in one’s own flavor. I am profoundly grateful for grandma’s recipe cards for that reason, just as I am for Christian creeds.

In the end, what we think and say about God matters. It matters just like what we think and say about the people we love matters; and what we think and say about the environment matters; and what we think and say about our communities matters. All of this matters not because someone will judge us when we get it “wrong” or reward us because we are “correct.” It matters because we want to enrich and deepen our relationships.

I believe the most magnetic, attractive aspect of the universe is God – and it’s reflected in a loving embrace, a brook in the park, a moment of solidarity in the neighborhood. If Christians don’t live this magnetism, there’s no point in evangelism.

Be attractive. Then let’s talk.