I couldn’t express in words how alone I felt knowing that I would not experience Communion for some untold amount of time. So I wept. I wept bitterly as they attended to me with their loving, compassionate presence.
I attended church alone.
We had been told beforehand that this was to be our last in-person service for a long time. Those of us in attendance sat far away from each other and refrained from shaking hands, hugging, or touching. My children were not the only ones missing from our gathering; there were no children present. The absence of the children only added to the somber anxiety that fills the air of every room these days.
Lent is always serious and sober, but this year it felt like Peine Forte et dure and we are all Giles Corey; each day adding painful weight to our chests. Though it is almost September, I feel like I’m still waiting for Easter. Perhaps I have always been waiting for Easter but now I am more fully aware. Either way, this is a long night we are all living through.
Our church celebrates Communion every week. This is at the core of our theology and, given the egalitarian nature of our tradition, it is sometimes the only consistent belief and practice between our various congregations. As is our custom, I got in line and walked toward the front of our church where our pastors and laypersons alike stood with the bread and juice. We all stood far apart from one another in line – further proof that things had changed.
My theology is quite different from my fellow parishioners. I spent a decade in the Roman Catholic Church and when I left I brought Transubstantiation with me. For me, the bread and juice are the body and the blood of Christ. When I eat, when I drink, I consume Christ and bring Christ into my body.
Next in line for the bread, I bowed deeply at the waist like I have every Sunday for years and years. I mouthed the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
I wasn’t raised Catholic. I became Catholic when I left the religion of my youth – the religion of my family. I was raised Pentecostal. When I left the Pentecostal church I brought mysticism with me. My rote prayer became unintelligible as my thoughts became ineffable. My whispers were of a language that has never been used to colonize, never been used to do harm.
I stood up straight and stepped forward six feet.
“The body of Christ, broken for you,” Allison said as she lifted the plate and I bowed my head.
“Amen,” I replied as I took Christ into my hands.
I stepped six feet to the right where Kalie held the chalice. Kalie, like Allison, was part of our pastoral team. Both of these people have ministered to me so much and it gripped my heart that they were the ones to present the body and blood of Christ to me on such a significant Sunday.
“The blood of Christ, poured out for you,” she said as she lifted the chalice and I bowed my head.
“Amen,” I whispered as I dipped the bread and moved it to my mouth; careful not to drop a single drop or crumb. As I walked down the aisle toward my seat I crossed myself, as always. I could feel hot tears streaming down my face and wetting the collar of my shirt.
I remembered the first time I received Christ as a Catholic. The countless times I received the Eucharist in a war zone as a soldier – how my hands shook so badly in those days. As I chewed I recalled living and working in D.C. as my life fell apart around me. I recalled attending Mass daily for years in D.C. – how my hands trembled worse in those days than when I was at war.
At Vanderbilt Divinity School, while working toward my Master’s of Divinity, I learned that a Sacrament is something physical (substance or act) which is made Holy through human works (i.e. the Words of Consecration). My theology requires that those human works be done in community. Specifically, the Words of Consecration have always been said either by a Priest or alongside a Clergy person. The Bread has always been presented to me. The Chalice has always been held before me.
By the time I reached my pew I realized that I would not be able to receive Communion for the foreseeable future. Through war, desperation, tragedy, and catastrophe, Communion had always been my solace. After this day, I would not be able to partake of the Sacrament until the threat of the pandemic passes.
There were times in my life when uttering my responsorial obligation took every ounce of will left in my soul. There were times my heart could not authentically agree with the Words. There were times in D.C. when I was so hungover, or still a bit drunk from the night before, that my head would throb with every step I took toward the Host. No matter, the Eucharist was always there for me.
As we received the blessing in the Benediction, I gripped the pew in front of me. Allison and Kalie made their way to me immediately, and we stood six feet apart. They asked if I was okay. I opened my mouth to reply, but was unable to speak and just began to sob. I couldn’t put to words the deep feelings of loss and grief that pressed against my chest. I couldn’t express in words how alone I felt knowing that I would not experience Communion for some untold amount of time. So I wept. I wept bitterly as they attended to me with their loving, compassionate presence.
I finally said enough for them to understand my grief. Thankfully, I did not have to say much. I have been in Community with them both long enough that they know my theology and my relationship with this Sacrament. Kalie reminded me of the Priesthood of all believers. Allison bore witness to the truth that this sacred meal is timeless. They both promised to pray the Words of Consecration via telephone or video messenger any time, day or night. They told me that they loved me. They told me how sorry they were for my loss. They told me that they would continue to journey with me moving forward.
The next Sunday, I logged onto our church’s livestream. As Micah played piano to an empty church and a camera, I started mixing flour, oil, water, and salt. I kneaded the dough and cooked it in a skillet as I prayed the Lord’s Prayer in concert with our pastors, Thomas and Allison who were at the church, and with all of the other congregants who worshiped safely at home.
I donned my stole in my living room.
I bowed low and prayed, rote words at first and then in unintelligible words, as is my practice.
I held the Chalice, a juice glass from my cupboard.
I held the bread, broke it, and spoke the Words.
“This is my body…”
And for the first time, maybe ever in my life, I understood.
A lifetime ago, while stationed in Iraq, my supervisor was stranded at a base separate from us for three solid weeks. His absence created a number of obstacles for our finance team including our inability to officially close our business day. Each day that we conducted business (much like tellers at a bank), we were risking burying a mistake deeper. I was very afraid that balancing our money with our paperwork was going to prove impossible when he finally returned. Every few days, he would call and I would express my anxiety over this compounding problem.
“Don’t worry, Le Buhn,” he would say confidently, “I have an Ace up my sleeve.”
“Well I should hope you do,” I’d reply anxiously, “because I’m the only one distributing cash here and that means any screw-up will have MY name on it!”
We went on like this for three weeks. When my supervisor finally returned, I had conducted over 1,000 transactions and distributed well over 100K dollars without balancing my paperwork. I was terrified.
“So what’s this secret Ace you’ve been keeping up your sleeve?” I greeted him nervously.
“I’m looking at him,” he replied, “let’s get to work, Ace.”
A couple of hours later, my computer work, my paper work, and my cash, were perfectly balanced. In three weeks, over all of those transactions, I hadn’t made a single mistake. I was dumbfounded. My supervisor just laughed – he’d believed in me all along.
Now, dear friends, we are facing a most uncertain future. A pandemic has grabbed hold of the world and divided us into those who are petrified and those who are oblivious. Deforestation and wildfires have likewise choked the very lungs of our most sacred planet while a cruel and hateful government has worked tirelessly to support polluters and sell off precious land to a rich and powerful few. This government and the Canadian government continue to wage war on Indigenous People. People of Color are demonized, marginalized, oppressed, and erased while greed, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy seem to grow bolder, louder, and more violent. Our siblings in the LGBTQIA+ Community are targeted by hateful theology and heinous laws and our Trans siblings – especially our Trans siblings of Color – are murdered; stolen from us. ICE agents steal our neighbors and deny families safety after they’ve fled war and violence only to find their children stolen from them by the very government they hoped would save them. Our police forces continue to murder Black people with impunity and our prisons enslave our family members, neighbors, and friends. All the while, our planet grows hotter every year and our government works hard to make the problem worse.
There is so much to be afraid of and at present we can’t even meet together. We can’t enjoy the comfort of each other right now and it tears at my heart to think you may be scared or lonesome – because I’m scared and lonesome too. But I’ve got an Ace up my sleeve.
I don’t know what the future holds for this world, but I know the world is better off with you in it. And I don’t know how our respective religious institutions will respond to the coming trials but I know it will do so with you bravely speaking Truth with steel in your spine and thunder in your voice. Yes, there is much to be afraid of, but I’ve been in community with the future for the past three years and I can say boldly that tomorrow’s clerics are the bravest people I have ever met. As this world spins wildly out of control, you’ll be there – speaking Peace and Justice until the world bends to your demands. When suffering enters our world you will be there bearing witness when everyone else turns away. When our Elders tremble, you will be there to hold their hand.
You’ve taught me about Love. You’ve taught me about Grace. You’ve taught me about Justice and Equity. You’ve taught me about God. Together, our voices will cry out “Thy Kingdom Come” until the lion lies down with the lamb and the rocks say, “Amen!”
I never thought my final semester at VDS would end without me having the chance to look into your faces and thank you for your presence in my life. I never thought it would end without my thanking you in person for how you held me when my son and wife were in the hospital. I never thought it would end without me memorizing the details and contours of the Divine in your smiles but here we are – alone now, still reeling from the storm and looking anxiously toward our futures. Perhaps I’ll still get that chance, but even if I don’t, I will not succomb to my fears. I know that our future is secure because I know just how powerful you are.
You see, I have an Ace up my sleeve. This world is dark, but you are here and I could never despair of a world with you in it.
I love you, I am with you, I am forever grateful for you, and I have believed in you all along.
As an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere.
I met Pam when I was buying a car a number of years ago. I had worked for weeks with the salespeople and, after jumping through a lot of hoops, I was finally ready to sit down with the finance manager, Pam. She was a lovely person, in her early forties, with dark brown hair, olive skin, and very intense eyes. Somehow, within ten minutes of being in her office, she began to tell me about her life. I hung on her every word.
She had been part of an arrangement for marriage in her country of origin and moved to the U.S. about a year before they were to be married. He was very domineering and aggressive but she liked him – in time she began to love him. She was much more pious than he was so they had a lot of conflict over remaining sexually abstinent. He pressured her to have sex with him while they awaited the marriage ceremony. As a white, American man, it is not possible for me to understand nor capture the dynamics between men and women in her culture so I will not attempt to do so. What was clear to me as a listener is that she felt that she lost some of her agency in navigating this issue and she ultimately agreed to have sex with him prior to their marriage.
Then she found out she was pregnant – that’s when the abuse began. He badgered her to get an abortion and she vehemently refused. So he began to threaten her. He told her that he would kill himself if she didn’t terminate the pregnancy, he would publicly ruin her in their community; a community where women are punished for having children outside of a marriage. This abuse was non-stop and he would break things and punch holes in the walls. She was afraid. And she loved him. So she terminated the pregnancy.
Then he left her.
We need to talk about abortion for a number of reasons, but mostly because there are lives at stake. For most of my life I was extremely conservative on this issue. I grew up Pentecostal which is to the right of most fundamentalist, evangelical churches. As my experiences grew more diverse, my perspective on abortion followed. This issue is the issue for so many “single issue voters” that we have to address it openly or we risk endangering more lives and building a government where catering to this one issue is all that extremist politicians have to do in order to gain power. I don’t want to, but we need to talk about abortion – because I don’t want women like Pam to die.
Before I begin, I want to put my cards on the table. I believe that the human activity of abortion is a tragedy. Every time. My belief that life should be preserved, cultivated, and endorsed is inextricably bound up with my religious identity. As a result of such a belief system, I hold that all efforts should be made to prevent the antecedent conditions that result in abortions: like rape culture, lack of sexual education, lack of access to contraceptives, toxic theology that inhibits people from using contraceptives, desperate socio-economic conditions that affect women of color at widely disproportionate rates, systemic white supremacy which (among other things) reduces the bodies of black women to objects that must be exploited and controlled, etc. Similarly, as an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere. Let me explain:
It seems to me that most positions regarding the abortion debate in America do not proceed in a way that allows for the dissenting view to change their mind. Since before I was born, hard lines have been drawn on the issue of abortion or reproductive rights, and groups have been established on either side. Even the language we use around the topic is an identifier as to which camp we belong.
For instance, if someone begins a discussion by presenting the differing sides as “pro-life and pro-abortion,” I already know which side they are on; they’re on the side that actually believes there are people who are “pro-abortion.” Hint: no one is pro-abortion. Exactly zero people make their New Year’s Resolution to get as many abortions as possible. I’m not sure any of this language is useful anymore. Once the lines have been drawn, very few people are likely to switch sides and anyone who was going to switch likely has already. If we are going to get anywhere on this issue, and we really need to, then we have to examine what’s at stake for these differing positions and what can be accurately stated by each side.
The Left has made the mistake of dismissing the Right’s claims that a fetus is a living human being. I do, however, understand the reason that they’ve dismissed these claims. The Right has been notoriously hateful (especially the “christians”) and abusive toward women who have received abortions. They have, at times, been violent. The vast majority of those on the Right who have not been violent have been complicit through their silence and thinly veiled approval of the bombing of abortion clinics and the abuse of women walking into Planned Parenthood, the dehumanization of women and the assault on their agency and autonomy. But the evil committed by the Right does not necessarily negate the validity of their claim, though it may negate their moral standing. Their claim, that life begins at conception, is a theological claim that cannot be proved or disproved. This is a tension that we must hold.
In response to this tension, the Left has committed itself to changing the narrative; they choose instead to talk about “women’s rights,” and “women’s autonomy.” Now, given the historical and present dehumanization of women by men in power, I believe women’s rights, autonomy, and agency is something that we should talk about loudly and often. But it should be noted here, that to a person who genuinely believes that a fetus is the same as a baby, the mother’s body is not the topic of conversation. They believe they are talking about a separate body that is connected to, and dependent on, the mother; that is not the same thing. To them, talking about women’s rights is non-sequitur.
My suggestion is that the Left should begin its argument from the assumption that the Right is correct about life beginning at conception. I know that sounds antithetical, but hear me out. The research by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute that has spanned the globe for over 15 years has produced unmatched data on the rates of incidents of abortion that must be recognized. Key findings for the purposes of this post are:
- Rates of incidents of abortion are not changed by the legal status of abortion.
- The number of women who die during the abortion procedure is correlated with the legal status of abortion.
- Rates of incidents of abortion fall when access to sexual education and contraceptives rise.
What that means for the issue of abortion in the United States is that overturning Roe v. Wade will not mean that abortion rates would fall. In fact, abortion rates are lower now than they were pre-Roe v. Wade. What making abortion illegal would do is increase the number of women who die as a result of receiving an abortion. Women like Pam.
If we assume that life begins at conception and every abortion is a lost human life, making abortion illegal would result in more human deaths since the number of abortions would not change but the number of mothers who die as a result of receiving abortions would rise. For this reason, the “Pro-Life” position of working to overturn Roe v. Wade is falsely named; it would result in more death. Pam’s pregnancy would have ended still, but Pam would have died too.
This is the reason the Left should disengage from the debate about the beginning of life. In fact, they should concede this point in order to win the argument. The Right says, “Life begins at conception,” to which the Left should respond, “but it does not end at birth.” A genuinely pro-life position is one that must advocate for access to safe, legal abortions.
In their attempts to stop legal abortions, the Right often targets organizations like Planned Parenthood. De-funding Planned Parenthood has become a way for GOP politicians to score quick points with their conservative bases for a generation. But this is anti-life given the facts that are spelled out in the above cited study.
Planned Parenthood provides safe and legal abortions which preserve lives (again: since the number of abortions is unchanged by legal status and more mothers die when abortion is illegal – resulting in a net loss of life (fetuses + mothers)). Perhaps most importantly, Planned Parenthood offers sexual education and contraceptives to women of all walks of life. Access to sexual education and contraceptives are directly correlated with reduced rates of incidents of abortion. To put it another way, the best thing a person who wants to end abortion can do to achieve that goal is protect the funding of Planned Parenthood!
While the Right has been calling themselves “Pro-Life,” the Left has been actively working to preserve life and protect life by keeping abortion legal. While the Right has been calling themselves “anti-abortion,” the Left has been actively reducing the rates of incidents of abortion by increasing access to education and contraceptives. For this reason, the Left is truly the “Pro-Life” position while the Right, if they had their way, would actual be responsible for more abortions (by decreasing access to sexual education and contraceptives provided by Planned Parenthood et al), and more dead mothers (by making abortion illegal). The Left should abandon their attempt to change the conversation and should instead turn and face the Right and beat them on their own terms.
In my experience, however, the more religious factions of the Right are not moved by this empirical data. They either dismiss it outright or they respond by saying that abortion is immoral and should therefore be illegal. This is an entirely different argument, however, as what is moral and what is legal rarely overlap. Racism is immoral though it is entirely legal. Sexism is immoral and legal. The dehumanization of the poor is evil and it is the backbone of: capitalism, prosperity gospel, red-zoning, gerrymandering, “right to work” laws, city ordinances targeting unhoused people, the war on drugs, “three strikes and you’re out,” the private prison industry, and the list goes on and on.
The other argument the Right makes is that women who get abortions deserve to die, therefore their deaths should not be factored into the equation. Ordained Evangelical ministers have argued to my face that these women’s lives should not be their concern – the concern of ministers. When I’ve told them the stories I’ve listened to, when I’ve told them about Pam, they responded with mistrust – they didn’t believe her. They discredit her story and her in order to hold on to their ideological position, their hatred. This kind of hatred cannot be argued against intellectually; it must be confronted theologically.
Just as any position that advocates for making abortion illegal must not be called “Pro-Life,” but must instead be called “Pro-Punishment,” or “Pro-Death,” for the sake of accuracy, any person who is not advocating for the preservation of life, even the life of a teenage girl who got an abortion or for Pam who was coerced into the pregnancy and forced to have an abortion, must not call themselves a “Christian,” for the sake of accuracy. They must instead accept that theirs is a position of retribution, and is therefore the opposite of our self-sacrificing Christ.
In conclusion, I believe the Left has given too much ground to the anti-choice movement by dismissing the theological claims at hand. The facts are clear, though one must read beyond the abstract of the study. Regardless of when life begins, overturning Roe v. Wade would result in more deaths – with the same number of aborted fetuses and more dead women. To advocate for the deaths of these women by making abortion illegal, even though it would not save even one fetus, is not “Pro-Life,” it is not morally superior, and it certainly is not like Christ. If the Right is truly Pro-Life, they will end their campaign for retributive death and join those of us who are actually trying to stop abortion – by focusing their efforts on fighting the systems like rape culture that produce unwanted pregnancies, keeping abortion legal, and funding Planned Parenthood so that more women can have access to education and contraceptives. What happened to Pam is a terrible tragedy. It would have been a greater tragedy if she had died.
If God’s suffering results in our suffering, then we are obligated to ease the suffering of each other. Perhaps then, we can ease the suffering of God.
After I said farewell to my sweet friends one afternoon, I happened to glance into an art exhibit. There, surrounded by haunting paintings of naked women gazing at distant explosions of light, was a man. He sat at a small desk and plucked away at his computer, alone. My feet began moving me toward him, toward the exhibit, toward the paintings. I felt drawn to that room like the women in those paintings were drawn to the explosive lights on the horizons of their worlds.
As I walked in, he greeted me warmly. “Welcome, sir. My name is V, please let me know if you have any questions,” he said.
“I’m Michael. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I replied.
I walked up to each work of art and took in as much of the beauty and horror as I could stand; as much as my imagination would allow me to. I asked him what he thought the explosive light represented. He said he wasn’t sure, but he noted that all of the women in the paintings were facing the explosions and gazing at them. I wondered aloud if they were watching the end of the world.
As V and I began to talk, I learned that he is a graduate student and picked up the gig in the art exhibit as a way to make some extra cash. I told him that I am a student of Divinity and I want to someday be a chaplain. He was perplexed by my response, and asked me what a chaplain does. As I moved to another painting I told him of my work. I explained that I accompany people who are suffering. I told him that my job is to witness their lives and to be present with them during their hardest days. Then he asked me why I want to do this kind of work – why would I want to be a chaplain?
I told him that I believe in a suffering God. I am a Christian and, for me, that means I worship a God who came to this Earth in human form exactly once. If the life and execution of Jesus tell us anything about God it must be that God suffers. I believe that the world suffers as a result of God’s suffering – not the other way around. If God’s suffering results in our suffering, then we are obligated to ease the suffering of each other. Perhaps then, we can ease the suffering of God.
“I wonder if that is why Jesus so often aligns himself with the oppressed, with the poor, and with the suffering. He said that what we do to the prisoner, the naked, the hungry, is what we do to him. For me, that means that when I encounter suffering people, I encounter God,” I said as V stood up and walked over to me.
We gazed at the painting for a few minutes more.
“Maybe it’s selfish of me,” I continued, “but I am moved by the suffering of others. It makes the ground I’m standing on Holy when I look into their eyes. It gives my life meaning to be there with them in the hellfire of their lives.”
“Are you moved by my suffering?” V asked abruptly.
“It’s why I walked in here.” I replied.
“My name is Vincent,” he said, with tears on his cheeks.
“It’s an honor to meet you, VIncent.” I said, as tears raced from my eyes.
Quite suddenly, the ground we were standing on became holy. We embraced, and said goodbye.
“These failed institutions may own the buildings we once worshiped in, but they don’t own the Truth. They don’t own our Faith. They don’t own our rituals, and they damn well don’t own us.”
When I was 14 years old I was masturbating… a lot. The fundamentalist evangelical culture that I was raised in drilled it into my head that this was a surefire way to end up in hell. I would go to the altar at church, weep and beg for God’s forgiveness – and within 24 hours I’d be guilty again. Twice.
Worse than the shame and guilt was the loneliness of living with the secret. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t talk to my pastor because he was my dad. I couldn’t talk to my dad because I was 14. I couldn’t talk to my youth pastor because he worked for my dad and I couldn’t talk to my friends because I had a reputation to uphold. I was the leader of the intercessory prayer group and I even preached youth revivals in the summer. I was trapped and ashamed and I had nowhere to turn.
So one Wednesday afternoon, I took the train to Chicago and made my way to St. Michael’s Catholic Church. I was far enough from home that I didn’t have to worry about seeing anyone I knew and no God-fearing Pentecostal would ever be caught dead in a Catholic Church anyway so I might as well have been on Mars. As soon as I walked in the door there was a queue of people waiting to enter the confessional. When it was finally my turn I entered the confessional, ready to unburden my soul.
I explained to the priest that I was not Catholic, but needed someone to talk to. In the movies, priests in confessionals always listen no matter who is confessing and this priest did not disappoint. I wept as I told him of my inability to control myself despite my deep desire to please God. I told him of how ashamed I was of my hypocrisy.
“First of all,” the priest began, “I hear you weeping and I don’t think I’ve ever met a boy as young as you who wanted to please God more than you do. God is not mad at you, son. He must be so very proud of who you are. And don’t worry so much about this sin. It sounds to me that you are mostly guilty of being a teenage boy. That is not your fault. When it happens, ask God to forgive you if you feel you’ve sinned and then go on with your day. This is a part of growing up and you are just adjusting to new hormones and instincts as your body changes. You are loved. You are forgiven. God is proud of you and your church is lucky to have you.”
“And give your dad more credit,” he concluded, “You should talk to him. I’m sure he will understand more than you think he does.”
It was Ash Wednesday.
Five years later, I attended an Ash Wednesday Mass at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I walked up to the front when they administered the ashes and as the priest smudged my forehead he said, “Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I remembered the confessional from five years earlier and the way that day changed my perception of myself. I remembered that liberating redemption and my heart leaped. The ritual felt ancient and sacred and the ashes felt holy on my forehead; not because I’m a sinner, but because I’d been redeemed.
I eventually left the Pentecostal church I was raised in. I left as a licensed minister with a full time gig as a youth pastor in the very church my father once pastored, though he had long since moved on to a different congregation two states away. I left that tradition for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason was because I felt that they were incapable of distinguishing between their culture and their doctrine. It seemed to me that their cultural orthodoxy was identical to their definition of piety and I found that to be dangerous. It proved dangerous when President George W. Bush waged war on the LGBTQIA+ Community via the “Marriage Amendment” and the evangelical church-world celebrated and rallied for a change to the U.S. Constitution that would only serve to ostracize and marginalize an already marginalized people. I was confused. How could the world “know us by our love,” if we were supporting a gesture of intolerance and hate?
It seems as though I left just in time.
In the 2016 Presidential election the white evangelical church sold its gospel for political power and supreme court justice seats when over 80% of them voted for the most godless president we’ve had in recent memory – and they did so while praising the name of Jesus. Even after he praised white supremacists who murdered an activist in Charlottesville, they support him. The Roman Catholic Church has just begun to acknowledge the systemic war they waged on children around the world and they will never be able to right what they have wronged. The Mainline Protestants are having an identity crisis right now as the United Methodist Church just voted to exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ Community instead of loving them. Conservatives in virtually every Christian sect have been anti-Semitic, homophobic, white supremacists, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, abusive colonizers, and the list goes on and on. So why the fuck should we bother with any of it at all anymore? Why bother with religion or ritual when it has failed us at every turn?
It’s a legitimate question, and one worthy of substantial consideration. Some have chosen to walk away entirely; chosen not to bother with it anymore. Many needed to walk away in order to preserve themselves and I hold these siblings in my heart and pray that they find nourishment for their entire beings in the ways they want and need to find it.
Others have wrestled with this truth for centuries since the birth of the Christian institution and its first failures. When the ancient Christians sold their gospel for political power under Constantine, the Desert Mothers and Fathers fled the cosmopolitan cities and embraced God in solitude, silence, and stillness. When the American Protestants bent the Holy Scriptures to defend and uphold chattel slavery in the Antebellum South, black and brown enslaved people cried out to a God who liberates and sets the captives free. They cried out to a black Messiah who was murdered by the State – who defeated death itself so that ALL may go free! Like Daniel in the lion’s den, while the Church has persecuted the Queer Community throughout history, queer folks have exalted a God of Love who courses through their veins and calls them righteous! And while the Church has attacked trans-folks and even rallied to police where they can use the restroom, our trans siblings have boldly stood like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – refusing to bow to a hateful god but insisting that there is another, higher, mightier God who cannot be contained in a binary but exceeds all human understanding. These failed institutions may own the buildings we once worshiped in, but they don’t own the Truth. They don’t own our Faith. They don’t own our rituals, and they damn well don’t own us.
The witness of the oppressed is the tradition I seek to follow now. They have led by example all along. As Millenials leave church en masse (pun intended), as the evangelical world and the UMC mortgages its future for points in a culture war, we find ourselves in a diaspora of sorts. We are homeless for now, but we are not alone. We have each other, and the witness of the saints who have gone before us (and died at the hands of oppressors, may they rest in power). We must learn from their example if we are to carve out a path in this wilderness.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I will once again stand in line for ashes. This time I’ll be on the steps of Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee in protest of the anti-Queer legislation they continue to push and the white supremacists symbols and statutes they continue to live by and venerate. This time the ashes will be mixed with glitter as the ritual of Ash Wednesday grows to reflect, and shine, and TESTIFY to the lives and witness of the Christians pushed to the margins by those who used the Gospel for their own pursuit of power. And later in the evening I’ll meet with the faith community I belong to as we dine together at Christ’s Table and conspire to live out God’s Kingdom here on Earth!
And perhaps, on some Ash Wednesday in the future, the institutions that have failed us and failed to execute the Great Commission will humble themselves and join us in repentance. Perhaps, someday they will “turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But if they won’t, we will mix them with glitter, smudge them on our foreheads, and declare that Christ is Lord!
It didn’t seem to matter to him whether the man was good or evil, guilty or innocent. He cared only for his feet.
It was June, and summer in Iraq was merciless. The air reminded me of a car that had been baking in the hot Arkansas sun all day long, trapping the heat that smacks the face of the unfortunate soul who has to open the door. Only there was no window to roll down, no air conditioner to turn on, and 130 degrees of misery that beat down on SPC M and I from above and rose off the rocks beneath our feet. We sat in quiet agony as we waited impatiently for the helicopters to arrive to take us on our way out of Iraq and back home for a couple of weeks of R&R.
The boredom of slowly cooking on the rocks of the flightline was interrupted by two military police officers as they escorted a prisoner across the rocks toward the holding area for passengers; toward us. The man’s hands were bound and he had a bag over his head which completely concealed his face. His clothes were dirty and torn and he was barefoot. Under each arm was the hand of an MP as they controlled his every move, guiding him across the rocks.
I held my breath. I had never been this close to an enemy combatant. Was he responsible for all of the nights I had been woken up by rockets and mortars crashing into our camp? Did he know who had ambushed us two weeks before? Did he sing praises to his God when our soldiers were killed in those blasts? Would he be happy to know that I had been wounded? Was it an answer to his prayer? In the midst of these questions I felt my heart starting to race. My breathing quickened, making up for the moments I held it. One question rang louder in my mind than all of the others; would he be flying in my helicopter?
I began to imagine scenarios in which he broke free from his restraints, removed the bag that was over his head, and tried to fight the MP’s mid-flight. Were they trained for that? He was getting closer now and I prayed he would be on the other helicopter; helicopters always fly in pairs (except medivacs). What if he broke free and charged me? What if the young MP’s, desperate to restrain him, foolishly shot at him on the helicopter and accidentally killed me?
Nonsense. God has a plan for my life.
What if he is really important? What if he is barefoot and blindfolded because he is a “mob boss” for the Shiite Militia? What if he has people waiting to shoot our helicopter down? I looked over to see what SPC M thought of this development. SPC M had his nose buried in his duffle bag and then abruptly stood up and started toward the prisoner.
He walked briskly across the rocky flightline and knelt down in front of the barefoot man. He lifted the man’s shackled ankle and slid a flip-flop onto his foot. Then he lifted the man’s other ankle and slid another flip-flop onto his other bare foot. Then he stood up, turned around, walked back, and sat back down next to me.
I don’t remember which helicopter the man flew on, but I remember how much easier he walked across those rocks with flip-flops on his feet.
I’ve thought about that day every day since it happened. I was so afraid of that man that I had failed to notice how gingerly he walked over those jagged rocks with his bare, shackled feet. I was so concerned about my own safety that I never considered the pain in that man’s body. I never asked myself why I was afraid of a man rendered powerless by shackles; the tools of domination. SPC M, on the other hand, saw the same man I saw and responded to his need. It didn’t seem to matter to him whether the man was good or evil, guilty or innocent. He cared only for his feet.
Perhaps SPC M had a different perspective because of his experience of living in America as an immigrant. Perhaps he was less keen to villainize a person simply because our government deemed them “criminal” in their own country. Perhaps my privilege, my whiteness, and my American birth made it easier for me to see the brown man in custody as a threat. Or maybe SPC M was a different kind of Christian. My Christian identity caused me to view Muslims as my natural enemies. His Christianity caused him to give away his shower shoes to a barefoot, blindfolded man in shackles. His faith wouldn’t let him demonize another human being. I want my faith to be like his.
Love is who God is – how could it be any different for us?
While I was working as a manager at a movie theater, I asked the new manager, Tim, if he had a girlfriend. I did not ask him in the privacy of the manager’s office, I asked him in front of a handful of employees as we were closing the theater for the night. I only asked him because I had a girlfriend and we were in the middle of a fight – I was looking for advice and I was trying to connect with Tim.
He said that he did in fact have a girlfriend but asked if we could talk about it later since he was busy working. I tried to hide how much I’d embarrassed myself but one can only wait for the blood to drain from the face once it has flowed to the cheeks. Tim was cool and just kept training an employee on the proper cleaning of the popcorn machine.
A few days later Tim asked to talk with me in the office. Our general manager was there and I could tell she had been included purposefully. Tim explained that he did not have a girlfriend, that he’d lied when I asked him publicly if he did. He laughed and said he didn’t know why he’d lied, that he’d been out of the closet since middle school, but somehow when I asked such an unexpected question he found himself lying.
I felt terrible. I apologized for putting him on the spot, for asking such a private question so publicly, and for being so presumptuous with someone I had only just met. Tim was gracious and generous in his forgiveness and I left that meeting with a genuine appreciation for how kind he had been to me. Before I left the office, he mentioned that he knew I was a youth pastor and extended an invitation to discuss or debate with him the finer points of homosexuality in the Bible.
I was 19 years old and deeply entrenched in a fundamentalist evangelical church that taught that “homosexuals and lesbians” (as though people could be identified solely by their sexual orientation) were out to “destroy America with their gay agenda!” This is no exaggeration. This position may not have been held by everyone in our congregation but it was certainly the consensus of the majority.
I had never been convinced of a “gay agenda.” Back then I did believe that homosexuality was sinful, but I also knew that I was sinful. Surely, same-sex attraction couldn’t be sinful since we can’t willfully be attracted or not-attracted to someone. So I held the belief that sex acts between people who were unmarried was sinful whether homosexual or heterosexual. This allowed me to believe that queer folks could be christians, that they could go to heaven, and that they weren’t out to “destroy the American family;” they were just born with a heavier cross to bear. There are plenty of problems with this theology, but perhaps the most obvious problem is that it damns all queer people to a life without sexuality simply because of the way that they love; the way that they exist in the world.
A couple of weeks later, I was invited into another conversation in the office by the general manager, Jeni. She told me that Tim had begun to worry that I was uncomfortable working with him because of his sexual orientation. He told Jeni that she should cut his hours if I was uncomfortable. He didn’t want me to lose any shifts since I had been there longer.
The truth is, I probably was uncomfortable. The culture I had been raised in demonized people in the LGBTQIA+ Community. I didn’t know how to be around someone who was out. But my respect for Tim’s gesture and the way he treated me far outweighed my prejudice and homophobia. I told Jeni that Tim was a damn good manager and I would be glad to work every shift alongside him. As I left the office I choked back tears. While I had been judgmental, arrogant and homophobic, Tim had been gracious, merciful, and Christ-like.
Tim and I became very close after that. I looked forward to working with him and we spent hours laughing together, talking, and learning about each other’s lives. By the time I left that job I knew Tim. I knew about the ins and outs of his love life, the ups and downs with his family, and his plans for the future. He knew my girlfriend (who later became my wife), my struggles with the exclusivity of the church I belonged to, and my ever present financial woes. I never did accept his offer to “debate” the Biblical texts about homosexuality. Instead, I got to know Tim and I learned about God.
The last time I saw Tim he was dropping a deposit off at the bank I was working at. He was managing somewhere else and, I’m sure, doing an amazing job. He really was a gifted and natural leader. He was worried about his car that day because a light had come on informing him that he had a tire that needed air. He was clueless about how to fix it so I tried to explain what he should do.
“Can’t you just fix it for me?” he asked.
“Of course.” I said.
We drove to a nearby gas station and I inflated his tires to the proper pressure. He didn’t get out of the car to pretend he wanted to learn and I found that delightfully charming.
When he dropped me back off at work he parked his car, got out, and hugged me goodbye. As he drove off I smiled and I reflected on the course of our friendship. We had come a long way since we first met. I said a small prayer for him. I prayed that God would keep him wherever he goes. That God would help him find love that was fulfilling and that God’s love would protect Tim and preserve his beautiful heart.
It was then that I realized I loved Tim. I loved him just exactly the way he was. When I prayed that he’d find love, I did not mean with a woman. I envisioned a man who could love Tim the way Tim wanted to be loved romantically. When I prayed that God would preserve Tim and keep him, I did not want God to fundamentally change him into someone who was heterosexual and then preserve that imaginary version of Tim. I wanted God to preserve Tim exactly as he was; as a gay man and a wonderful friend to me.
This realization was a seed that, over time, grew into a revelation for me. If I loved Tim just as he was, then God must love Tim even more perfectly. God, after all, is Love. And Tim is queer. Imagining Tim as numerically identical to himself without his queerness is the same as imagining me as numerically identical to myself without my relationship with my wife. I would be fundamentally different absent that relationship. In fact, I find that trying to define myself without naming the people I love is impossible! Go ahead and try it. Try to explain who you are without naming your partner, your children, your parents, your friends, your chosen family, or your loved ones. I’d wager that you cannot do it.
Love is who God is – how could it be any different for us? And if God is Love, how could he despise the Love in us? That would be a self-loathing God.
This week, the third largest christian organization, the United Methodist Church, voted to officially exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ Community from their fold. In doing so, they rejected the very essence of so many of their members, their clergy, and queer folks everywhere. They called into question the morality of our siblings existence by assaulting their Love.
In response, I want to say publicly that Tim and countless other queer people have enriched my understanding of God through their work, their presence in my life, their love, and their most courageous existence. I will never eat at a Table where they are not welcome.
To my LGBTQIA+ siblings, and especially those in the UMC, I love you. I need you. I am not me without you being you. Thank you for enriching the world I am so honored to live in. I’m with you, wherever you go.