Friday, December 27, 2013

Light and Shadow (Matthew 2:16-18)

Herod became furious when he realized that the astrologers (wise men) had outwitted him. He gave orders to kill all male children that were two years old and younger living in and around Bethlehem. The age of the children was based on the date Herod had learned from the astrologers. Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
           "A voice was heard in Ramah
                 sobbing and lamenting loudly;
           it was Rachel weeping for her children
                she refused to be consoled,
               for they were no more."

This is a singularly horrible story. It intrudes like a troublesome drunken uncle on our holiday celebrations. A jolting reminder that in the midst of Christmas light and life we can still find human fear and violence. Matthew seems to be telling us that the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows which accompany it. Andy Woffe has commented, "If we are resolved to know the full story of Christmas, the glory and the horror, we must hear Rachel and the women of Bethlehem … weeping for the children." 

At the Christmas eve service of my home church - I work in a regional office - the Rev. Steven Mitchell spoke about the hope of a new world of which the birth of Jesus is a sign. New worlds never simply pop into existence. They are formed out of the glory and ruin of old worlds. The Massacre of the Innocents, as this narrative is called, starkly points to old realities seeking to subvert the emerging new.

I think the same dynamics are at play in the life of gender and sexually diverse people. The closeup of the Poussin's painting highlighting the heel on the neck of the innocent is often an emotional reality as queer people discern our inner compass. The discernment is light to us, yet, with this light comes the potential of shadows from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and church. For some the shadows are only mist, for others the shadows are more solid - heels on necks and Rachel weeping.

On many levels the passage places us on notice that emerging realities come at a price. There is an echo of the scheme by an ancient Pharaoh to murder all the male Israelite children even as Moses is born. Rachel's tears bring before us the picture of Jerusalem laying ruined and empty as Israelite families are taken off in chains to serve in Babylon. Now, Bethlehem becomes the target of a paranoid king clasping power as tightly as possible.

It is an odd picture in which we see Jesus being spirited away to Egypt to escape old understandings and patterns of thinking. It denotes the fragility with which new understandings and ways of thinking come to birth. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents points to the vulnerability of the new as it seeks to gain adherence, the fear and violence of the old as it is displaced, and the shadows that must be transversed by those seeking the light.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vulnerability (Luke 2:6-8)

While (Mary and Joseph) where (in Bethlehem), the time came for her delivery. She gave birth to her first born, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.

I want to draw attention to what is not in this scene, yet our minds place there anyway. I think this colors how we receive the Nativity of Jesus. There is no stable but only the mention of a manger. There are no angels either, although eventually we find them with the shepherds. There are no wise men, nor a star, we need to steal them from Matthew's gospel. While this translation mentions cattle to describe what type of manger served as a bed, there are no sheep, donkeys, or cattle. Luke, the minimalist, gives us only a mother in labor, a husband doing his best, and emerging life. 

It's easy to miss that human history was torn open and the Holy joined our common lot in blood and flesh. So easy in fact that while some of us know better we still turn the blind eye. Such ordinary and dire circumstances do not attract our attention. It is too plain and in need of some print fabric and glitter. Albeit, the glitter should be used sparingly.

I tip my hat to whoever wrote the Gospel according to Luke. The family is completely vulnerable with but a thin blanket between the newborn and the wilds of this world. The infant has an unprivileged beginning which is raw and unsettling in its weakness. Luke holds our gaze on the unadorned as to say if you want to find the incarnation pay attention to the overlooked and uncelebrated. 

Stripped bare of every cliche we might throw into a more robust birth, we are forced to focus on the new born and the miracle of life among darkness and fear and uncertainty. For christians we are asked to see in this wrinkled, bald, and hungry baby the glory and fullness of God. Jesus' birth challenges our notions of the Sacred as impervious and invincible. It reminds us that the Heart of the Universe is as exposed and as susceptible as is any refugee infant.

The scene, however, doesn't only expose, it also invites. It invites us to strip off our facades and our persona and to join the holy family in the sheer ludicrous act of exposed vulnerability. A tough invitation for those who are queer and spent a large part of life shoring up our sense of helplessness in the face of the heteronormative tsunami. 

I wonder what it would be like to be gay without the sanctioned stereotypes through which it is deemed appropriate to be gay. The U.S. television show from some years ago, Will and Grace, played between two poles: Jack the "shallow party boy" and Will the "empathetic professional." Through the female characters, Grace and Karen, we also were taught the appropriate roles of the "fag hag." To be queer is largely to be known through the stereotypes associated with gender and sexual diversity. What would it be like to simply be known as human?

Luke indicates that the Nativity brings with it an unnerving invitation to reconceptualize our notions of the Divine and of ourselves. What if we were to respond to Luke's invitation and strip away the stereotypes, joining the Holy in being experienced in all our fragility, risking brokenness? What of ourselves do we encounter when the guise through which we engage the world is removed? Do we find something, or is there only an aching void? Underneath the costumes we wear is there a true self, a false self, or no self at all? Once the layers are peeled away and we are revealed for all to see is it a Darth Vader moment, or is there something of substance? 

This is the razor's edge of vulnerability. Our true self may appear to some as great substance and there is acceptance. To others our inner self may look more like Vader and we are rejected. This is also the risk of Luke's rendering of the Nativity: the Sacred comes in such a way that we can take great joy, or we can completely ignore the Sacred, as if nothing of import happened on Luke's solitary Bethlehem plain.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Miracle of the Crooked (Isaiah 40:3-5)

     A voice cries out, "Clear a path through the wilderness for Adonai! Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory of Adonai will be revealed, and all humankind will see it." The mouth of Adonai has spoken!
Isaiah 40:3-5

A more traditional rendering of the phrase "and the ridges become a valley" is "and the crooked shall be made straight." While this phrase speaks to camel roads meandering through the deserts, today's queer cannot but take notice of this turn of words that the "crooked" is to be made "straight." One time my spouse was approached by a mutual friend about "straightening" me out. I had no clue if he was addressing my theology or my sexuality, but the implication was clear, crooked is "bad" while straight is "good."

In the world of sexuality much failed effort is put into making the crooked straight. Never tempted to seek gay-aversion therapy myself, a few of my friends have. Their personal experience was of being twisted into knots. It was a reversal of this biblical invitation as something as straightforward as love was bent into a crooked understanding of the "bad" self.

I know this text is not about sexuality, it is about the way home, the joyful release of the captive, and the journey to claim God's gift of hearth and home. Historically it is a call to the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah. Still, for many queer folk the way to wellbeing includes a rather meandering path that is often fostered upon us.

Once I was invovled in a meditation on this passage when the facilitator asked, "What obstacles have you placed on your path?" A good question, but I laughed thinking, "What about all the obstacles placed on my path by others?" Our detractors warn us that they are making it their business to block our progress at every turn. Such mean-spiritedness twists and crooks the path we forge.

I admit, I'm befuddled as to how to respond to the invitation to make the crooked straight when I know any attempt will be met by detractor after detractor. I wonder if our call as queer and allied people of faith is not to the task of straightening the course, but rather to the task of humbly accepting God's presence with us on the crooked, twisted, gnarled, warped, and often jagged trail.

Could it be that as God is revealed through the miracle of straightening, so is God also revealed through the miracle of the crooked? Ed Chan seems to think so, he says of his life as a painter, "One gloomy morning … I decided that the world could be a comprehensible colourful and beautiful place." Which sounds to me like a miracle of the crooked. Note how Chan's crooked road appears inviting, even festive as the group heads toward the welcoming sun. It reminds me of the ending of that guided meditation, when the facilitator said, "Ask for the grace to navigate the twists and the bumps. We walk not alone, but with God." 

Is this not the most subversive out loud and proud protest we can undertake in the face of our detractors - celebrating God's presence on the road which twists and bends before us? 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Comfort (Isaiah 40:1-2)

     "Console my people, give them comfort," says your God. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem's heart and tell it that its time of service is ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from Adonai's hand double punishment for all its sins."

As one born and raised in the christian tradition these words are very familiar this time of the year. The passage is paralleled with the advent of the Christ as a way of emphasizing the new thing God is doing. For me the essence of my faith is the ready reception of newness as given by the presence of Jesus. This passage has brought me much comfort as to the role of God in the unfolding of history.

Yet, as a gay person this very same text which once brought me comfort now leaves me a bit weary. As one who stands among a community that has been proclaimed sinful I take umbrage of the notion that Jerusalem has received "double punishment for all its sins." Historically, we are observing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the seventy years it laid waste until its reconstruction. Metaphorically, I'm afraid we are speaking of a God who acts more like a jealous husband bent on "training" his wife than a loving parent nurturing her children.  Or at least that's how "sexual sinners" have been treated at the hands of those who supposedly speak on behalf of the Divine.

For our detractors its easy to map this passage onto sin and sexual "perversion." But a resistant reading is present.  We who self identify as les-bi-gay-trans-queer-intersex-asexual should hear the emphasis of these verses on healing. "Console," "comfort," "speak tenderly" are the opening verbs not "condemn" or "attack" which is the action ususally directed toward us. 

Into the lives of those who have been told they are the bane of existence the Holy One speaks a tender word of comfort. The time of hate is ending. We have paid double the price for being queer in a heteropatriarchial culture. But the time of hate is ending as same gender marriages become more and more widespread. The time of hate is ending as younger generations embrace the fluidity of sexual expression. The time of hate is ending and the Sacred invites us to take comfort in the approaching dawn of the new day.

As the continuing story of the returning exiles remind us, there is still much work ahead. There will be moments of triumph and setbacks, moments of great joy and utter failure. It  is a reminder to which the photo by Ogden points - that our lives and our liberation are a body of work. Some complete and some working toward completion. However, the new thing is already in our midst and in our lives as the promise of comfort comes to fruition.