Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Skittish Kitty

Mocha came home with me nearly three years ago. I’ve written about her here before. She was dumped at my vet’s office. While there, she met my Scotty, and they fell into deep friendship.

While she was a love-bunny with Scotty (now departed this earth), she has never become relaxed with me in these three years.

She will be affectionate when I am sitting on the sofa … if she comes of her own volition. And she cuddles with me in bed … when she chooses to do so.

But when she is sitting around and I make a move to touch her, she runs. She may be sitting on the heating pad I made for her. But if I move to love on her, she runs. She may be lying on the bed when I come into the room … but she runs if I move down to love on her.

I wonder how long it is going to take before she trusts me. I have had her here for three years … giving her nothing but love and safety and tenderness. And yet something in her past makes her skittish.

Of course, I'm not just talking about cats here. I wonder if God is asking the same questions about me.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Passion Sunday Challenge to the Church

Without a doubt, my experience of this Holy Week has been shaped by a sermon that my friend and blogging colleague Elizabeth Kaeton shared with some of us this week. It's a sermon that Briallen Hopper (a student at Yale Divinity School) preached last Sunday, on the day called Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Ms. Hopper blogs here at the Huffington Post.

Dan Savage posted it here. He wrote: Briallen's heartbreaking "mashup of an It Gets Better video and the Passion of the Christ" gave me hope.Here is the sermon.

My text today is from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 31.

“Thus says the LORD:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.
Thus says the LORD:
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.”

It’s been thousands of years now,
but Rachel is still weeping for her children.
She’s still refusing to be comforted.
But she’s not in Ramah.

Right now Rachel is in suburban Minnesota.
Her son Justin bravely came out at age thirteen and endured merciless bullying for two years.
He killed himself last August.
Rachel found his body.

Rachel is also in Indiana.
Her son Billy was called a fag at school.
His classmates told him to kill himself.
And so he did.
Rachel found his body too.

Rachel is in California,
Where her son Seth hung himself from a tree in his backyard
After being sexually tortured at school.

Rachel is in Texas.
Her thirteen-year-old son Asher shot himself in the head
When he was tormented for being gay.

Rachel is in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Her son Tyler jumped off a bridge
After his college roommate secretly filmed him having sex
And outed him on the internet.

Rachel is in Wisconsin.
Her son Cody felt unsafe at school
So he tried to form a gay-straight alliance for Safe Schools.
Before he could create a safe space for himself,
Cody was gone.

But Rachel is weeping for more than her dead sons.

Rachel is also in New Haven.
Her daughters go to Yale.
They are hardworking, talented women.
They have been called sluts.
They have been raped.
Last year,
when one of Rachel’s daughters was raped by a classmate,
The daughter went to people in authority for help.
Traumatized and fearful,
She told her story over and over.
But nothing was done,
And now she sits in classrooms with the man who raped her.
Rachel’s daughter will survive,
But the damage will never be undone.

When Rachel’s daughter told her mother what had happened,
Rachel held her and they clung to each other and wept together.
And Rachel knew that even though her daughter was still alive,
The trusting, joyful girl she used to be
was no more.

Rachel is still crying.

We know these stories.
We read them in the paper,
And we see them close to home.
We know that Rachel and her children are nearby.
We know they might be in this room.
But it’s hard for us to know what to say or do
After reciting this long litany of loss,
And registering the endless hurt.

Sexual violence, sexual damage, and sexual shame.

They invade our bodies and pervade our culture.

They wound us
and haunt us
and dissolve our spirits in nausea and nothingness.

I grew up in a church that had a rich vocabulary for describing sexual darkness.
As young people growing up in the church,
We knew vividly the damage and sorrow that sexuality could cause.
Of course, the church was also the one doing the sexual violating,
and shaming.

That is why I am no longer there.
That’s why I am a liberal Protestant.
But sometimes I worry that mainline Protestantism
doesn’t know how to talk about this dark side of sexuality.
Our language about sexuality is so resolutely cheerful.
When it comes to straight sexuality,
Our main message is that sex is good.
We’re not like the evangelicals with their chastity rings
And their abstinence education and their crazy hangups.

And when it comes to gay sexuality
We just want to make it clear that church is a safe and happy place,
And we signal that in the language for our stances on LGBT issues.
The Congregationalists are “open and affirming,”
the Baptists are “welcoming,”
and the Methodists are “reconciling.”
The Episcopalians talk about “Integrity,”
and the Presbyterians say “More Light.”

We love to talk about welcome,
Even justice.

But “Justice” cannot do justice to the stories
Of the people who come through our doors
Reeling with pain,
Trapped in cycles of trauma,
Covered with scars and bruises in their spirits or under their clothes.

Sometimes when I think about all the children who are bullied to death
Because of their sexuality,
And all the vulnerable people with no one to protect or defend them
From rape and sexual abuse,

I get angry—
Especially because I know that when Rachel and her children come to our churches
They sometimes feel that they are welcomed and affirmed,
But only on condition that they are normal and happy.
They are welcome to be gay or lesbian or bi or trans,
but they have to be relatively unscathed by their experiences with homophobia.
They are allowed to be a rape victim or a sexual abuse survivor,
but they have to have gotten over it.
They have to move on.

When I think of Rachel and her children and what they require,
I think of what should be written on our church signs and banners:

“East Rock Methodist Church. Welcoming the Disconsolate.”
“New Haven Baptist Church. We Mourn with those who Mourn.”
“Grace Presbyterian. A Weeping and Wailing Church.”
“First United Church of Christ. God is Still Weeping.”

So far this has been a sermon about lamentation:
About being aware of sexual sorrow
And making space for it in our congregations.
I think this is urgently important,
But I don’t want to stop there,

Because the Scripture doesn’t stop there.
In the words of Jeremiah:

“The LORD said:
There is hope for your future:
your children shall come back to their own country.”

Or, to put it another way—
In the words of Harvey Milk—

“You gotta give ’em hope.”

But giving hope isn’t easy.
For some people, it doesn’t get better.
Their pain is never going to be fully healed in this life.
For years or forever,
They will be too wary to get too close to people.
They will wake up in the dark with racing hearts,
Reliving their nightmare.
Their children will remain dead until the Last Day.
What does the church have to offer them?

In addition to creating space for suffering,
The church needs to provide strong narratives
That show people how devastated God is by their suffering,
And how lovingly God sees them.

The church needs to make sustaining religious meaning for people dealing with sexual damage.
And the phrase that came to me as I was thinking how to do this,
Inspired by liberation theology,
Was “a preferential option for the gays.”
Or maybe, “a preferential option for those who have suffered sexual violence.”

The idea of a preferential option for the poor comes from Catholic social teaching.
It reminds us that on the last day
We will be told that whatever we did for the least of our brothers and sisters,
We did for Christ.

The doctrine of the preferential option for the poor reminds us
That through their vulnerability, the poor are identified with Christ.
I believe that those who have been sexually hurt.
Are also closely identified with Christ.
I believe the beauty of God’s love is uniquely revealed in them.

As we near Passion Week,
I want you to think about the Passion Story in a new way.
I want you to imagine Our Savior
As a thirteen-year-old American boy.
For a few years now he has found the courage to tell the truth about who he is.
Everyone at his school knows that he is different.
There are a few people who hang out with him,
Who love him and who look up to him and love to repeat the things that he says,
But most of the students avoid him or spread rumors about him.
And there are groups of students who follow him around at recess and after school,
Telling him why he’s wrong,
Trying to get him in trouble,
Trying to set traps for him.

He feels isolated from his family.
His religious community doesn’t support him.
Sometimes the stress is too much, and he has to go away by himself
To just pray and try to find the strength to go on.
It’s clear that he isn’t fitting in.
He’s a source of disruption in the school.
Kids have created a facebook page to mock him.
Graffiti about him is scrawled all over the bathrooms.
Something has to be done.

A teacher sends him to the Principal’s Office.
The Principal says:
“What do you have to say for yourself?
Is it true what they say about you?”
The boy says, quietly,
“If you say so.”
The Principal says,
“Look, I don’t think you’re a bad kid,
But the other students seem to think you’re strange,
And a lot of the teachers have trouble with your lifestyle.
Personally I don’t have a problem with who you are,
But don’t look to me for any favors.”
And the Principal sent him back out into the hallway.

This happened on a Friday.

It breaks my heart to tell this next part, but I know it’s true.

After school, a group of students were waiting for him.
They gathered around him and beat him up.
They kicked him to the ground.
They smeared him with lipstick they’d stolen from their big sisters
And they called him Queen of the Fags.
They wrote it on his forehead.
They tore off his clothes
And they flipped a coin to see who would get his ipod.
When the boy stumbled home hours later
It was getting dark.
He went into the house.
No one was home.
He found his father’s gun
And then he went out into the garden in the backyard and sat down,
Too tired to move.
He texted all his friends,
Hoping for a word of encouragement,
But none of them replied.
He was alone.
He clutched the gun, and in a broken voice, he prayed,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I don’t want to do this.
Show me another way.”

I don’t know whether this boy lived or died that night.
But here’s what I do know.
I know, in the words of Isaiah,
quoted by the Ethiopian eunuch,
That in his humiliation, justice was denied him.
And I know that in the words of the Psalm,
This boy is the stone that the builders rejected.
And I know that if he is alive, he is in our church.
And I know that if he has died, his family is in our church.
I know that his story is not something to be ashamed of
Or silenced
Or gotten over.
His story, and the story of all who have suffered like him,
Is the story of Jesus.
It is the foundation of the Good News on which we build our lives.

Here is our hope:

“The stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone,
And it is marvelous in our eyes.”

If necessary,
Let us tear down our churches
And rebuild them on this story,
This broken body,
This cornerstone.

I am awe of this sermon.

And if you've been reading my blog for a while, you also know I was that kid in the Principal's offfice, suffering that betrayal. The fact that I am still alive and pretty healthy (emotionally and spiritually) must surely be solely by the grace of God.

I applaud her challenge to our church. Can we be as honest as she wants us to be?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Good Friday 2011

“Are You Alright?”

“Are you alright?” That’s the question that one of our ministers asked me this Good Friday evening as I left the nave.

NO! I am not all right!

Our liturgy encourages us to move deeply into the days and seasons of the year.

I got home on this Good Friday at about 5:00 p.m. I had a couple of hours to dwell with the meaning of this day.

Part of my Holy Week discipline is to pay attention to this man called Jesus. By the time I get to Good Friday, I love this man deeply. Love who and what he is.

I had time to think about that young man, Jesus, and what his life meant. How he cared for people who were sick or suffering. His courage in challenging the secular and religious authorities. How he was the gift that God gave to the world. And how the state and religious leaders executed them for their own reasons.

Then I went to the Good Friday liturgy tonight. I listened to the readings, the Scriptures. Including the very long reading (John 18:1-19:42) about how this Jesus loved his friends, then was betrayed, tortured, and executed by the state.

How can one hear that story and not weep?!

And on this night we call “Good Friday,” we listen to the story of how he is executed by the state.

We’ve attended to the many stories of this amazing man.

How could we not be devastated when he is led before the civil and religious authorities, betrayed by his friends, and executed?

So … yes … I was sobbing in the Good Friday liturgy.

I stayed in the nave trying to get it together. But still … by the time I reached our ministers in the narthex, I got the question: “Are you ok?” I suspect they asked that question because my face revealed that I had been weeping, sobbing.

NO! I am not ok! Our long-ago ancestors encountered the best human ever … and they executed him. I am not ok. I can not be ok. How can anyone be ok in the face of that realization?

Sitting there in the church, stripped of all the paraments … stripped of the altar linens … stripped of the reserve sacrament and sanctuary candle … stripped of virtually every sign that gives us hope, I was deeply mindful of the despair that Jesus and his followers must have felt on that long-ago night. The death of all hope. The utter desolation they must have experienced.

How in the world could anyone in the church be “all right”? How can any Christian be “all right” on this night? The night when God died … and hope died. On that long ago Friday … and through Saturday … there was surely nothing but despair. Our liturgy lets me share in it – lets me immerse my soul in it.

And I think that is an important experience – the experience of that utter despair. That deep grief. The desolation of a man who used to call God “Daddy” -- now crucified and asking, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

For me, it is difficult to experience true Easter joy without first descending into that utter place of desolation, that deep abyss of loss and despair on this Good Friday.