Human Condition, 2020 – Part I

I started the day
with a poem
which got interrupted
by something,
important,
that got
interrupted,
which then was
interrupted
by something
important
that got interrupted
by something
else,
important,
leaving me
late to
where I was
supposed
to be.

Several
interruptions
followed. 

And then came
more
important
interruptions
stacked
one
on
top
of
the
other.

Facing west,
late (again)
to the next
important thing,
the sunset
stretched orange
across the
full
sky,
interrupting
my hurry,
leaving me
breathing,
with my poems
tucked neatly
in my pocket
til there is time.

 

The Not Cult of Not Celebrity

History has forgotten
those I admire
most. Even I
can’t call
their names.

People of the daily
who because it
needed to be done
tended wounds,
spoke truths,
opened doors to
hungry people,
appreciated beauty
and found it often,
lived lightly
on the Earth,
flinched not while
challenging
brutality,
or flinched,
but remained
steadfast anyway,
sang with abandon,
died when
it was time.

Deeds undocumented
by any textbook.
No image
for posterity.
Nothing left counted
by the common
measures of man.

They who mended the world
over and over again,
alive in the not-known.

Questions in Advent

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year.*  We immerse ourselves in the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the journey of his life. We are called to pause and reflect, even (and especially) amid the Christmas marketplace chaos.

Advent is also an excellent time to reflect on the questions that guide us. Productivity gurus tout the magic of goal setting. Cultural conditioning instructs us to know – and proclaim our knowledge of – all the answers.

But I learn a lot from sitting with questions. A couple have travelled with me for many years: how can such joy and such suffering exist simultaneously in our world? And how ought I to live in the face of this dissonance?

I expect to grapple with these questions as long as I have breath in me.

Others are more transitory, such as – how do I live into and love the work of this moment? what words and actions can I usefully contribute in this cultural climate? what exactly is that cultural climate even anyway?

Those who listen to me regularly know that I consider all time holy. Yet each season carries that sacredness in a different manner. The rhythm of Christian life offers us the continual discipline of lifting our spirits and opening our hearts. It also gives us time to reflect, to discern, and to grow in wisdom and understanding.

I invite you in these early days of the Christian year, in this sacred time of waiting and hoping, of rejoicing and contemplation, to spend some time with your questions – or, if need be, to work on figuring out what questions you might journey with in the days, months, and years ahead.

May you find blessing in that journey.

Amen

(*my sermons, never especially long by conventional standards, are particularly brief during Advent because Beloved has a tradition of glorious extra music during this season. Consider this a sermon outtake 🙂)

 

Community-Developed Knowledge

At the end of an article* in the fall issue of the journal n+1, sex worker Lorelei Lee notes:

“This essay could not have been written without community-developed knowledge. Any mistakes are my own, and anything I got right is the result of living, working, and thinking in coalition with hundreds of brilliant people in the sex trades.”

(*that outstanding article, Cash/Consent, is preceded immediately by another insightful piece entitled The Evangelical Mind by non-practicing evangelical Adam Kotsko – and the mere juxtaposition of these two pieces, let alone their thought-provoking content, is a sharp move)

I’ve been reflecting on the notion of community-developed knowledge since I read the piece several days ago.

I’ve always had a thing for epistemology (the mechanisms of knowledge production) – and this concept is right at the edge of what is wise and what is problematic in our world today.

For the most part, we have ceased to grant collective authority of knowledge to central figures – whether those be individuals or institutions.

Diffusing power in this way can be a good thing.

However, in our knowledge processes, we have fallen prey to (a) the market-driven cult of celebrity and (b) an overly uncritical willingness to accept sources that simply reframe what we already believe, regardless of whether they are rigorous or merely speculatively profit- or attention-driven.

I don’t know exactly how Lee defines community-developed knowledge, but I hear the potential for a useful corrective to these problems.

Community-developed knowledge is meaningful when it centers the experiences and expertise of perspectives often excluded from discussions of ‘what is known.’

Community-developed knowledge is generated not by a single human savior source, but by collectively sharing in work, commitment, and respect.

Community-developed knowledge can be geared to reject shallow trade in convenient sound bytes that erase nuance, instead weaving insights gathered over time through living and learning (both formal and informal).

Obviously, it can also go wrong, so that homogenous communities of relative power simply reinforce problematic ‘knowledge’ about others and the world – but that’s an ongoing risk no matter what.

We work with and within the world as it is.

Go Fourth

I cannot celebrate a
country so relentlessly
rich in willful
oblivion concerning the
suffering upon which
it was built
back then

Back then
meaning centuries
decades
yesterday

Back then
meaning
an hour
ago

Today I celebrate instead –

the open hearts of so many
genuine kindness found in passing
radical solidarity with exiles from domination’s favor

the art of rejoicing at beauty
those who give in to the weighty gifts of mutuality
good books

days spent in honest work
the courage of witness in the face of power
friends who think with me

this one ripe peach

In the Shadow of Honky Tonk Central

Half a crowded block
away I heard him

Tourists seeking
downtown drinks
and country covers
no match for his
volume:

“WHORE!”

That much
I caught
before sight
of the pair

Her head down,
with what?
fear, shame,
or the sure
certainty that hope
has no place in
hell here

His body vibrating
with noisy rage

Yet together
they walked,
breaking stride only

beside me,
ignored with effort
by every single soul
especially the sidewalk cop
bouncer taking no note of my
desperate wish that he would
fix things
send this man
on his way 

as he keeps
smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

Rage in a torn green t-shirt

They are dirty, lean, distant
even in the crowd

A world within some
private
compelling
hell

I have nothing to offer
No answers
protection
dollar bills
wisdom
magic
not a useful thing
except to stop and stand
praying that
he will not turn again
she will cross the
street and
go
away

Knowing the feel of fists
I can’t leave and
can’t do a thing
but choke on
dry words of fervent
pleading

Go
away

Either one of
you

East
North
or
an angled move
with the light
and the crush of
people
oblivious by intent

There I stand
feet leaden
muttering silent
prayers as –
finally –
gravity tugs him
toward the river and
she turns
swallowed in neon
and vanishes
into the night.

Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Same Old Questions

I’ve been pondering what to say about the recent/ongoing controversies around the president and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The problem is that there’s really nothing new to say. These are the same old questions of power and ethics.

However, the lessons remain important – and never more so than during Holy Week, so:

The critically important voices of women of color are massively underrepresented in public discourse in our culture. May we listen and learn from them, recognizing and respecting that those voices are particular rather than monolithic.

White imperial capitalist patriarchy perpetually reacts with violence to challenges to its ill-gotten hegemonic power. The intensity of reaction generally mirrors the intensity of the perceived threat. This power is unambiguously harmful to people and the planet.

Cultural pluralism is one of the greatest gifts of life in the contemporary United States. In that context, religious differences ought to be a site of blessing and respect. May we who are not Muslim hold Muslims in our hearts as our friends and neighbors.

Our lives are suffused with holiness — of time, place, and being. We must actively, daily choose to grasp that reality, to live that way rather than drowning in the transactionalism of contemporary society, that system of dominance that reduces all worth to that of economic production and consumption.

Let those of us who claim an ethical principle of living, rooted in religious faith or not, do our best to embody compassion, justice, respect, and love in ways that reject exploitation, dehumanization, and commodification of all living beings and the whole of Creation.

That is the work of living in this age.

We do this work and walk this path together.

Amen

On Betsy DeVos and the Special Olympics

The controversy around public funding for the Special Olympics this week points to several critical enduring themes in contemporary cultural discourse, most of which have been glossed over in the commentary I have seen.

Some of the critical points that I – as a currently-non-disabled person who has long tried, personally and professionally, to be an ally in disability rights and inclusion – identify —

1) The desire by the current administration to defund the Special Olympics is rooted in the grand vision of privatization.

The goal of privatization – in the global scope of hegemonic neoliberalism – is wresting all matters of significant societal concern from the public sector (which is perpetually at risk of democratic engagement for the good of all) into the private sector, whether that is corporate or not-for-profit. Privatization renders all matters of life susceptible to control by corporate wealth.

In the current climate, every move made in the public sector toward privatization – a process explicitly in place since the Reagan administration and in motion in certain sectors since well before – is a capitulation of public interest to private corporate accumulation of wealth and control.

The current administration is more shameless and bold in this process, but the process reflects an ongoing bipartisan agenda in which government is co-opted for private interests rather than serving the public good.

2) The Special Olympics has long been controversial in disability circles because it is easily cornered into the narrative of participating in and selling itself through an appeal to pity from non-currently-disabled people and to segregation of people with intellectual disabilities.

That line of critique is usefully and splendidly summarized here – https://bit.ly/2uvEdG6 (with a hat tip to my friend Jacob Bouma-Sims for ready reference on the link).

(* and if I could create a foot-stomping .gif here, I would do so with an image of stamping out the word “Special” as a euphemism for “disability” – an argument related to that below in 5) )

3) It is worth noting that there is not a monolithic disability voice about Special Olympics (as there is not in any community) – so that there are those who appreciate all of the opportunities and the sense of community that it offers. In a world where justice is often elusive, we do give thanks for moments of material mercy that make an immediate positive difference in the lives of some people.

4) Regardless of one’s opinion about the Special Olympics itself, let us be clear that the impulse for defunding Special Olympics comes from 1) not 2) – and that the neoliberal influence upon our cultural, political, and economic relationships is unredemptively harmful to the well-being of us all (including that tiny percentage of people whose bank accounts flourish but souls atrophy under such a regime)

5) regardless of one’s opinion about the organization itself, the Special Olympics folks produced a useful bit of research back in 2003. Their multinational study found that the biggest barrier to the full inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in society in the U.S. and around the globe is . . . wait for it . . . the negative, stereotyping attitudes of people WITHOUT intellectual disabilities in the U.S. and around the globe.

You got that, right? The biggest barrier to inclusion is our bigotry.

Rather than seeing our diversity as a great gift (God’s gift, for those of us of faith), we stigmatize people across a violently-enforced hegemonic norm of cultural power.

People who hear me preach (in one forum or another) recognize this as a recurring theme in my work – and one that is no less true here than in matters of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or any other form of discrimination.

Let us devote ourselves to understanding the complexities, to standing up to the forces that would reduce all forms of human and ecosystem interaction to commodification, and to creating a world that revels in and uplifts our rich human and ecological diversity as a gift (God’s gift) and the source of our most enduring strength and joy.

Amen.

On the UMC and the Real Way Forward

Well, let’s give up on the illusion that I’ve been able to maintain any significant degree of professional (or personal) distance from the whole UMC situation.

The things I have said that have been meaningful to people have not come from that place anyway, so I’m just going to talk about pain and promise as I understand it. I have written elsewhere of the depth of my lifelong personal connection to the UMC, so I won’t rehash it here. 

Like so many issues, this battle is situated in a particular setting, but reflects a much larger cultural struggle between those who seek to widen the circle of care and belonging and those who seek to preserve their own power for their own benefit.

So . . . as it turned out, yesterday as the global body of the UMC gathered for its final day of General Conference, I had agreed to be a part of a 5-hour community conversation hosted – of all places – at East Lake UMC, a congregation to which I belonged at the time God called me to seminary.

The folks at East Lake and their brilliant pastor have never been anything less than 110% supportive of me and my calling – and the group gathered yesterday were community-engaged folks from all over the city, BUT STILL. . .

I drove over there mumbling about how it was the absolute LAST F—ING PLACE I wanted to be on that day.  And that was the God’s honest truth.

I walked in doing my feeble best at a game face and after registration turned and ran into my friend and brother, Ali. He innocently said “Hey! How are you?”

I promptly started crying and mumbling uttering incoherent things. Ali, baffled but enduringly kind, just hugged me, a perfect gift of peace in a wrenching moment.

It was a shaky few hours, but I was lifted up – as I always am – by the kinship of good people, some of whom knew it was a hard morning and others who didn’t have a clue.

meandli.jpg Me, hanging in there, and Ali

I took a couple of breathing moments in East Lake’s sanctuary, which I consider the most beautiful traditional sacred space in the city (go ahead, fight me).

The smaller stained glass windows that feature the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents are my favorites. They sit in what used to be my line of sight when I sang in the choir there and I would often go at other times and just perch in front of them.

stainedglass

The lessons of those parables remain as important as they always have been – perhaps all the more so. And the shattered shards of East Lake’s beautiful current altar setting felt especially fitting.

meandaltar

After East Lake, I moved on elsewhere to  a difficult but restorative conversation with someone with whom I’d had a conflict – and then on to drinks with good, hurting UMC people, followed by conversation with good, kick-ass queer clergy friends.

It was the people who made the difference. Therein lies both the pain and the promise.

For many of us, church is family.

Yes, you can worship God anywhere because God is everywhere.

Yet worship in isolation nearly always tends toward our cultural narrative of self-preoccupation, this noxious attachment to ego gratification and capitalist manipulation of desire.  

Following Jesus – as with other religious traditions – is (blessedly) a communal endeavor.

No wonder the rejection hurts so much for so many people, including me.

It cuts to the deepest parts of the safety we find (or ought to be able to find) in family and community.

It is a devastating refusal of the God-given gifts we offer into family and community.

We are formed in faith and then violently ejected from its circle of care.

It is a sinful, human-driven, patriarchal-power-rooted, grievous misinterpretation of holy Scripture.

(okay, now please DO NOT oversimplify any of what follows. Hear it through before you decide what you think I’m trying to say)

I was given this UCC emblem when I was installed as pastor at Beloved Community Church. I’m not a big accessories person, so it mostly stays in a drawer. I took it out yesterday and slipped it in my shirt pocket before I went to East Lake.

uccpendant

Its weight there served as a tangible reminder of where I have landed – and how I have found a place to use my gifts and honor my calling.

I was trying to say something last night in a text reply about my adopted church and accidentally wrote that the UCC had adopted me.

And once I wrote it I knew that phrase got to the heart of the matter.

The UCC adopted me and loved me. (ain’t nothing perfect, but hopefully you can grasp the grace extended there – that’s the point).  I have learned that one does not have to be a United Methodist to be a Wesleyan. 

To those outside of such a relationship of love and care –

LGBTQIAP CLERGY AND LAY PEOPLE OF THE UMC –  I completely get why you would choose to stay – especially if you feel a particular calling to do so.

I also fully understand why you would leave (that’s what I did  – and it was utterly necessary and second only to coming out as a liberating action in my life). If you need help figuring out where to go, I’d be glad to help. I’m partial to Beloved of course, but not at the expense of wanting people to find places that truly resonate with their spirit – that is my primary commitment.

If you stay, please send out those who leave with your blessing as they seek to follow God’s call on their lives.

If you stay, please understand that you are in an abusive relationship. No matter how good your congregation is (and there are some fantastic UMC congregations locally and globally), as long as it remains in the UMC connection, it is not autonomous.

The relationship of the UMC to LGBTQIAP people is abusive.

So stay if you need to, but protect yourself.

Protect yourself.

Please.

Because you are loved fully by God and God wants your wholeness and your well-being so that you may walk in your calling, so that you may be God’s hands and feet in the world.

If you ever need safe space to talk, pray, grieve, or just be, let me know.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC CLERGY – I begrudge no one the necessity of making a living.

I am heartened by the solidarity and care I have seen expressed over the last couple of days not just by the usual bold souls, but by people whose positions make it harder to make those affirmations publicly. I dearly hope that you have glimpsed God as you have pushed the boundaries of your own courage.

Please remember that there is no neutral here. If you do not side with the marginalized, then you are siding with the oppressor. And when you compromise for the sake of unity, you are compromising the lives of LGBTQ+ people within your congregations (and there are more than you know) and far beyond those walls.

Please remember that in the days ahead and let that knowledge be reflected in your actions.

And if anybody is looking for an exit strategy for themselves or their churches, I’d be glad to connect you with good people not only in my denomination, but in other affirming denominations and with good non-denominational folks who can talk about their experiences.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC LAY PEOPLE – Many of you are dedicated allies in the struggle for justice – and many of you are hurt and angered by what has happened.

You too have the choice of staying or leaving. If you are leaving and you need a place to land, I’ll be happy to talk to you about progressive churches in the area, including but not limited to my own.

If you stay, please take care of your hurting queer church folk – and please understand that your hurt and anger are a fraction of what they are feeling. Be there for them, but don’t make it about you.

The heavy lifting of change in the days ahead remains with you. If you don’t change the UMC, it will not change.

That must be an active process. You all will have to organize and act to match and surpass the organizing and action strategies of the WCA-types.

Otherwise it will get worse and not better. It may get worse anyway. We do not control the outcome, but we do control our own efforts.

It’s up to you.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN THE UMC – please just go sit down. If you (or not you personally, but your church) are satisfied by the triumph of homophobia and transphobia in the UMC, I don’t care to hear about it. I think you’re wrong and causing great harm to vulnerable people (which is a sin), but you probably already know that and there’s no point in our discussing it.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN THE UMC – yes, we are more progressive. Some of us are handling our solidarity and shared pain on behalf of our UMC friends and neighbors with grace and skill. Others of us are being rather heavy-handed in our too-blatant efforts at recruitment or expressions of superiority. The first is good. The second, not so much. If you’re struggling with the difference in your efforts to reach out, give me a holler and maybe together we can figure out a way to word it that sounds loving not sheep-stealing or smug.

I have been writing throughout this experience from my own pain of exclusion from the church of my deep roots, so I have an odd insider/outsider dynamic that informs what I say – and that gives me some legitimacy to speak into the conversation (I argue – not all agree). When in doubt, try love and leave it at that.

Concluding lessons as I see them –

The pain is real.

The situation is heartbreaking.

The call to solidarity can take many forms. We are one body in Christ – and there are many ways we can be one body and in solidarity with one another. Those relationships can be – and I’d argue should be – more creative than those we’ve devised in the past.

Justice for the oppressed matters more than unity.

Oppressors are very skillful with the gathering, hoarding, exercise, and manipulation of power. Those who would dismantle oppression need to be equally sophisticated – though more ethical – in their relationship with power.

People make all the difference.

None of us is free until all of us are free.

The work to enact God’s transformative justice and God’s abiding mercy in the world goes on.

Amen