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.
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 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.
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.