I occasionally took personal retreats at an Episcopalian retreat house overlooking Santa Barbara. Mount Calvary was run by the Order of the Holy Cross. As one might suspect with names like that, there were many depictions of Jesus on the cross in sculptures, carvings, and paintings.
One stormy afternoon, sharing pizza and wine in front of a cozy fireplace, one of the brothers and I discussed the ramifications of the relatively recent decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States to ordain women. I was surprised that, despite his liberal views, he opposed women’s ordination. He did so not because he opposed it per se, but because it would interfere with any hope of reunion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. “I’d have no problem with it if Rome ordained women,” he explained.
I considered the many similar objections to the ordination of lesbians and gays in my own Presbyterian Church. The impending reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S., which had split over the abolition of slavery one hundred years earlier, might have been impeded if the more liberal northern congregations had approved ordination of homosexuals.
So the constant cry that ordaining homosexuals would split the church was sounded even more to muster our defeat. (I believe the church would do more to keep its dwindling fold if it banned ordination of boring preachers and belligerent clergy!)
Also fresh in my mind were the recent concerns expressed over the unity of the National Council of Churches in the United States, if it accepted the membership of the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
As I considered all these perceived threats to the church as the Body of Christ, I reflected on the many images of Jesus on the cross in the retreat center. Repeatedly reminded of the brokenness of our Lord, a response to the brother who opposed women’s ordination came to me. I rhetorically asked him, “When Jesus was faced with the choice of doing what was right or keeping his own body from being broken, which did he choose?”
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in our likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
“He learned obedience through what he suffered,” affirms the epistle to the Hebrews, which some biblical scholars assert may be the only book in the Bible written by a woman (Heb. 5:8). But, she explains, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb. 5:7).
This is clearly a different vision of God than the Almighty presented in the Old Testament. This is a God who, out of sacrificial love, leaves the closet of heaven to descend to earth and become like us, “tempted in every way as we are,” willingly living and working among us and dying at our hands—all to bring us God’s Word of love (Heb. 4:15). This is a deity who risks the brokenness of the body to call us home to God.
Many Christians feel uncomfortable with this image of God. They want to believe that God is all-powerful as well as all-loving. Our imperfect world belies the possibility that God is both. If God is both, God may be blamed for either causing or allowing human suffering.
In his book The Divine Relativity, process theologian Charles Hartshorne suggests that, facing a contradiction between an all-loving yet all-powerful God, it would be better to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-powerful than to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-loving. We conceive of God as the best possible entity, and when we think of the best possible person we know, we are more likely to choose the most loving over the most powerful. Even the Superman hero in comic books is not attractive because he is super powerful, but because he uses his super powers for good, in other words, lovingly.
For many years I found this reasoning worked for me. But then it occurred to me that perhaps our understanding of power was distorted, for we think of power in terms of possession and control. In my own loving experiences, I found that my attempts at possession and control had nothing to do with love, nor did they bear any resemblance to the spiritual power I witnessed in others whom I considered more mature in faith.
In his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus’ response to the Tempter’s offering him possession and control of all the kingdoms of every age on earth was, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and God only you shall serve’” (Matt. 4:10). Possession and control do not characterize God’s power. Love is God’s power. Possession and control is worldly power, love is spiritual power.
Process theology understands God as one whose love is persuasive rather than controlling. Biblically there is much basis for that perception. God leads us as a shepherd, challenges us in a prophet, models human life for us in Jesus Christ, influences us as a teacher, empowers us like a counselor, and inspires us as the Spirit.
This and next week’s posts are excerpts from the chapter “Risking the Brokenness of the Body” from my 1990 book Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, published by Harper & Row, with added chapters in its 1998 Second Edition, published by Chi Rho Press. These excerpts fit well the themes of the present season of Lent. Today, of course, I would add transgender, intersex, and bisexual people.
Presbyterian General Assembly, Indianapolis, 1985 (crg)
I have finally read Michael Ford’s most recent “portrait” of Henri J. M. Nouwen. I didn’t jump into it when I received it last summer partly because I needed a kind of sabbatical from Henri for a few of the same reasons I kept my distance in real life. Paulist Press, at the behest of Mike no doubt, sent it as thanks for including some of my thoughts on whether Henri was a mystic.
Lonely Mystic: A New Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen is the most intimate glimpse of Henri yet, if that’s even possible, given his intimate self-portrayals in almost every one of his own books. It may make those who want to see Henri canonized squirm a little, though not because of any illicit affairs or theological heresies or tasteless behavior. He was the consummate “best little boy in the world” that every gay boy and man wants to be, but his calling to a celibate vocation kept him lonely and needy and sometimes, broken.
I read with particular interest the chapter on Frank Hamilton’s close friendship with Henri. Begun as Frank eagerly sought out Henri for spiritual guidance, over many years it transformed to a friendship that I would describe as “soul friends.” I had heard some of the stories recounted in the chapter from Frank himself over a private dinner when he attended my first Columbia Seminary spiritual formation course on Henri. A few other stories are found in Henri’s own books. Btw, I’ve been asked to teach the course again September 17-20, 2020, and I’m thinking I will use this new book as one of the texts, prompting intriguing changes in the content.
Though I resisted the tug of Henri’s emotional needs as well as the spotlight of having a famous friend, I envied Frank a little for the spiritual intimacy he and Henri shared. Yet I had my own life to live as a gay activist and, I hoped, a spiritual guide within the LGBT community, and my notoriety as such even prompted Henri to decline a desire to dedicate one of my books to him, at least, while he was alive. After his death, I dedicated Coming Out as Sacrament to him, an ironic twist in that Henri never came out, though Mike points out that many a gay reader recognized their own experience through his books in his passionate reaching out to others and to God.
Mike asked me to reflect on the question, was Henri Nouwen a mystic? Using Evelyn Underhill’s stages of a mystic, I saw that Henri had experienced all five, though as “dimensions” of mysticism, cyclical rather than sequential. The final stage, union, is debatable. In that context, I suggested Henri might be considered an “unfinished mystic,” never having finally “arrived.” Like the chapters about various events in Lillian Helman’s memoir Unfinished Woman or Rembrandt’s many self-portraits over the years, each of Henri’s books may represent a self-portrait of Henri at that point in time, amid different circumstances, contexts, and communities.
I’ve written before that, in the spiritual life, there is no finish line. And that the greatest spiritual danger is to believe one has “arrived.” There are no “finishing schools” for saints, which accounts for their often eccentric, countercultural, and prophetic ways. For Mike’s purpose, I used as examples Henri’s unfinished books on Adam, his charge at Daybreak (completed by Sue Mosteller, his literary executrix), and the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists,
who came to represent complete union with God. They had taught him the vital (life-giving) importance of “trusting the catcher,” in life and in death. That he never completed this book is emblematic of Henri’s own inability to let go. Instead of trusting, he was always trying to “catch the catcher” (take hold of God).
[Lonely Mystic, 150]
As Henri explained in Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, the flyer is considered by the audience the hero in the trapeze act, as he or she lets go of the bar and does double or triple flips midair before being caught by the catcher. But the real hero is the catcher, whose timing is precise enough to reach for the flyer at just the right time. If the catcher tries to catch the catcher, the latter’s wrists might be broken, so trust in the catcher is key. Henri compared this to trusting God, the Divine Catcher, in life and in death. [Our Greatest Gift, 66-67]
Romantic Age poets saw worth and beauty in an unfinished work. Henri was a great romantic, and an “unfinished” mystic. That is what draws us to his writing—his vulnerability, his incompleteness, his wounds. Like the Jesus he followed, he was in every way like we are.
A couple of months ago, I considered bringing this blog to an end. Faced with the impenetrability of God in Christian mysticism, challenged by Buddhist mysticism and the concept of “no thing,” and only too well aware of my own limitations, I felt it was time to keep quiet, to keep silence. But angels keep troubling my waters, and I feel called to respond. And many of those angels are you, the readers.
“Rend your hearts and not your garments.”Joel 2:13
“We are so damn proud of our humility!” The mother of my childhood best friend said this, though not to me. She had muttered it under her breath at church one Sunday in my mother’s presence, and my mother mentioned it approvingly in a family conversation. I’ve forgotten the context, but there are so many churchly occasions for which it would be appropriate that it doesn’t really matter.
Today many of us will attend, even lead, Ash Wednesday services. Pious sentiment will be running high, a flash flood in the spiritual desert. It will make us feel good to feel so humble. Some of us will have the opportunity to proudly display ashes on our foreheads. People will speak in hushed, gloomy, somber tones as clear evidence of their reverence. Oh, how godly we will be!
I wonder if a more godly sign of penitence for Christians might be to rip up and burn our books of church polity. It could be a way of saying that, as useful an instrument as each may be, they are merely a human attempt to order God’s grace, which spills all over the place like rain and sunlight on the just and the unjust.
Some of us will respond that church rules and laws are good things, they just need reforming. I would think the prophet Joel considered the heart a good thing, too, but he heard God calling us to rend it, to tear it asunder, to demonstrate our repentance. Rending church polities might remind us that we need to repent of our order that has denied the supposed disorderly access to Jesus. Jesus didn’t get along too well with the religious lawyers of his day, who brokered the grace of God according to their own polity, the Law of Moses.
May your grace surprise us with its resistance to pride and prejudice.
I had planned to offer this today long before last week’s debacle of the United Methodist Church continuing its anti-gay policies in its own church polity. I have been grateful to work alongside so many United Methodists on progressive issues, from demonstrating at the Nevada nuclear test site and travelling to Central America in witness of justice and peace to editing Open Hands, a magazine for congregations welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, founded by the Methodist Reconciling Congregation program. I grieve with them today and all LGBT-positive people in every religious tradition and denomination whose polities attempt to refuse the grace of God to LGBT people.
This meditation is found on pages 222-223 of my 2001 book, Reformation of the Heart, daily meditations for Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week. Please use today’s post as you wish, as is advised of every post on this blog. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which remembers Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, undergoing temptations. For a creative variation of this biblical story, see last week’s post.
Christian got tired of hanging out with God in the wilderness and began having temptations to be something more than a mere follower of Jesus.
Turn these stones to “bread,” as in “money,” and with that money enjoy the prosperity you were intended to have! It’s long been believed that those with big houses and expensive cars and material wealth are especially blessed by God. You can’t live by God’s words alone!
See the high steeple of this megachurch: this will be yours—large and influential, popular and spectacular, maybe even global!—as proof of your faith and goodness and success to the world and to other churches. God will surely be tempted to reward you bigtime!
You will have political power if you bow to leaders who join you in abusing and controlling the bodies of others: workers, women, trans people, lesbians and gays, immigrants, people of color, the needy, and anyone who stands in your way. You can have all the power you need to make the world in your image! It will be sweet.
No, Jesus can’t come along. He would never understand. He had a good idea but just doesn’t know how to capitalize on it. You do. You’re better than he is. Remember even he said you’d do greater things than he did. And such a loser! Got himself crucified!
This parable came to me in the middle of the night, as I thought about how much kinder my evangelical, fundamentalist parents were than the evangelical Christians of today. I realize, in their hunger for power, influence, and control, evangelicals have lost their way.
What got me to thinking of this was an opinion piece written by Liesl Schwabe, “Everything I Know about Feminism I Learned from Nuns.” It reminded me that many of the values I now hold and promote as a progressive Christian I learned from evangelical, fundamentalist Christians. Now, I know that many of you may have had quite a different experience, either of nuns and Catholic school, or of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but some of us at least have takeaways from those experiences that may never have been imagined or anticipated or desired by those spiritual communities.
“Jesus loves the little children,” we were taught to sing, “all the children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” In no way does this support white privilege, let alone white supremacy. There are no boundaries or borders to God’s love; we are all God’s children.
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” The vulnerable, deprived, underprivileged, marginalized, and abused alike belong to those whom Jesus loves. And, as process theologian Daniel Day Williams pointed out, it is more vital (as in life-giving) and needful to belong than to believe.
How many times we were taught that Jesus welcomed lepers, children, women, people with disabilities, those with mental health issues, the poor, the oppressed, while, in the words of his mother Mary, “sending the rich away empty” and in his own words calling upon the wealthy to sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor! Jesus was an early advocate of health care for all and a challenger of income inequality.
We learned that Jesus praised the faith of a child, the faith of those outside his religious community, the faith of foreigners, the faith of outcasts.
And, as he was himself dying on a cross, he welcomed a convicted criminal into Paradise, surely a subversion of the death penalty.
Jesus witnessed a God of mercy that too many fundamentalist evangelical Christians have abandoned, ignored, or forgotten.
Wade and I spend a lot of time on our front porch. We each have fond memories of front porches. As a child in Indiana, Wade used to sit with his paternal grandmother on her front porch, munching saltines topped with butter while watching cars and people pass by. My Kansas relatives would apologize that there was nothing to do in their small town, but, as a youth, I loved just sitting on their front porch reading. “Nothing to do” was an invitation to enjoy the quiet, to relax.
My family porch in California was not large enough for chairs or a swing, but Mom used to enjoy sitting on its concrete steps, and that’s how I often remember her as I left for my own homes, whether in New Haven, Philadelphia, West Hollywood, or Atlanta. And it was there that a non-English speaking Asian neighbor left a vase of flowers on the day of her funeral, twenty years ago this week, in memory of their friendship around their gardens.
Wade and I recently had stonework put on our front porch columns followed by new handrails. Wade said it made it look like a new house. The skillful Mexican stone mason’s name is Javier, a variation of Xavier, which, I found in my friend Cleve Evans’ Unusual & Most Popular Baby Names, comes from a Basque word that means “new house”!
Historically, I’ve been told, front porches served to keep neighbors in touch. We too enjoy seeing the kids going to and from school, greeting neighbors walking their dogs (or, in the case of our pastor’s family two houses down from us, their dog and their cat, Luna, who follows along), watching runners and walkers, bicyclists and those riding the trendy scooters filling Atlanta neighborhoods.
Porches seem to be a particularly Southern thing, and so it seemed natural for our new church start, Ormewood Church, to organize “porch groups.” And, in worship, we sit in clusters as we might do on a porch, to facilitate discussion of the question for the day. Btw, I’ll be guest preaching there this Sunday.
I sometimes do my morning prayers on the porch, with coffee of course, and almost every late afternoon Wade or I find ourselves reading or watching something on our tablets, sipping wine and munching chips or crackers. We welcome the occasional neighbor or friend who might join us, most likely on weekends.
What surprises us is that more people don’t use their front porches. Nearby is a very toney neighborhood with fabulous and sometimes wrap-around porches, but when we walk that way, it feels like a ghost town. Maybe they have to work harder and longer to afford their pricey homes. I suggest this as a possible reality, not a critique.
Just as we apply what we learn in school or church or on the job to the rest of our lives, what we learn on our front porches may be helpful as we encounter people and pets elsewhere. Relax. Recreate. Remember. Reach out. Invite. Welcome. Listen. Pay attention. Appreciate our environment. Lift others in prayer. And thank God.
Our front porch, Winter 2019.
Please hold the United Methodist Church in your prayers as it meets in St. Louis this week to discern "The Way Forward" regarding the full welcome of LGBT Christians!
This post marks the eighth anniversary of beginning this blog. Thanks for reading!
You may know that the story of how I come to have a book is sometimes as important to me as the book itself. Cindy is part of our extended family, and every Christmas she gives me a few books that are appropriate to my interests. Given her limited resources, she finds them in bargain book shops, gently used or seemingly unread, slightly damaged or simply unwanted.
This year she gave me Thoughts on Virtue: Thoughts and Reflections from History’s Great Thinkers, Philip Larkin Collected Poems, Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (whose cover boasts a handsome, hunky Icarus in midair), and the Dalai Lama’s An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. The latter’s only wound seems to have been water damage that made the book’s jacket stick to the first pages.
The Dalai Lama is a favorite of mine, so that’s the book I’ve been reading. As is his wont, his teachings begin almost too simply before delving deep into the murky waters of human nature, though he might argue with such a phrase suggesting essence or identity that is unchanging.
Soon I came across a description of contemplation that answers many of its critics:
We must know how to pace ourselves down to the snail’s pace of profound contemplation while also ensuring that we do not forget our neighbor’s problem or that of the fish swimming in polluted oceans many thousands of miles away. [p54]
In this simple way, he reminds us that, though focus is a gift of a meditative way of life, it is always held in context with the bigger picture of a neighbor’s need or our environment’s plight. His “snail’s pace” made me think of a snail I wrote of in the introduction to the third section of my book of prayers, Coming Out to God:
A snail stretched its full length in a strenuous assault, climbing the tall picture window. Inside, those of us on retreat discussed our vision of the future church. A sadness had slipped into some hearts, as often happens the final day of a retreat. The common purpose, camaraderie, and caring intimacy that are experienced at such gatherings inevitably lead one to wonder, Why can’t it always be like this? Our visions of hope for the church painfully reminded us of our place—or lack thereof—in the present church, intensifying our letdown. Yes, we were on the downhill side of our mountaintop experience. Yet the slowly ascending snail, apparently unintimidated by the long vertical climb, offered hope for progress. [p119]
When reading a sacred text, many of us know that meditating on a line or phrase or thought that disturbs us may be as helpful as reflecting on one that is pleasing. And so I soon found my “disturbing” text in the Dalai Lama’s elaboration of compassion:
It is not difficult for us to develop sympathy for a child in the hospital or an acquaintance mourning the death of a spouse. We must start to consider how to keep our hearts open toward those we would normally envy, those who enjoy fine lifestyles and wealth. [p105]
For me, that’s a tough one! The Psalmist had no qualms complaining to God:
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people. …
Therefore the people turn and praise them,
and find no fault in them. …
Such are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
[Psalm 73:3-5, 10, 12-13 NRSV]
Anyone who knows me knows also that I can’t exactly claim that I have always “kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” But still, without impugning them as “evil,” why do professional athletes and performers, celebrities and CEOs live so well, while “do-gooders” scrape by?
Funny thing is, when I started writing this post, parenthetically referring to the depiction of a beautiful and handsome Icarus in the sky on the cover of Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, I hadn’t yet thought that this could be an illustration of keeping “our hearts open toward those we would normally envy.” The myth of Icarus is that he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings that held him in flight. Many of those we envy “fly too close to the sun.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” cried David in a psalm of lament at the opening of 2 Samuel upon hearing of the killings of Saul and his son Jonathan. David had earlier resisted killing Saul when he found him sleeping, despite the humiliation, threats and attacks he had endured from him. The “ideal” king showed compassion.
Even for those who don’t suffer such a comeuppance as Icarus or Saul, the Dalai Lama believes we must hold open our compassion for all who share the human condition:
There is a certain irrationality in responding to injustice or harm with hostility. Our hatred has no physical effect on our enemies; it does not harm them. Rather, it is we who suffer the ill consequences of such overwhelming bitterness. [p111]
Remembering both the mighty and meek suffer may hold our hearts open for our sake if not for theirs.
I’m writing this on the afternoon of Superbowl Sunday from frenzied Superbowl host Atlanta which currently looks like, in the words of a city planner neighbor, a city under occupation: roadblocks and street closings, helicopters buzzing the skies, small planes carrying banners, big planes carrying visitors, sirens screaming at all hours, a heavy and active police and security and first responder presence.
In this context of hyperactivity, Book Review Editor Pamela Paul’s column, “Let Children Get Bored Again,” in this morning’s New York Times speaks all the more loudly and clearly: “Boredom is useful. It’s good for you.” Explaining the potential for constructiveness and resourcefulness in “empty” time, she says, “Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.”
Asserting “Life isn’t meant to be an endless parade of amusements,” she questions “the teacher’s job to entertain as well as educate.”
Christian spirituality author Henri Nouwen critiqued “entertainment” by breaking down the word entertain, which means “to keep between”—in other words, to keep us betwixt and between in constant tension about what happens next.
Ms. Paul reminisces about the days when children were “left unattended with nothing but bookshelves and tree branches, and later, bad afternoon television.” She quotes Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, “There is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.”
“It’s when you are bored that stories set in,” she declares. “Checking out groceries at the supermarket, I invented narratives around people’s purchases.”
This reminded me of how I filled the empty spaces as a ticket taker and usher at a movie theater when I was in college. I thought one of my first books would be Views from a Ticket Taker.
Saturday was a mixed blessing growing up. No school, but I loved school, or at least I loved the structure it gave my day. My dad worked on Saturday, unfortunately. My mom would get up very early to fix his breakfast before work, then return to bed for a little while. …
I remember bouncing with my brother and sister and mom on her bed Saturday mornings, before or after breakfast, and we would sit and visit and enjoy a little time together with nothing to do but laugh and talk and dream. A whole empty day stretched out before us, a day of housecleaning and laundry and reading books (never magazines: early it was instilled in me by my mother that if I had time to read, I should be reading a book) and watching television.
My sister and years later, my brother, would drive Mom to the store to do the weekly grocery shopping, if my father had not done so the night before. (Strangely, my mother never learned to drive.) And I would be left alone, a time I also loved, but also a lonely time when I wished my friends from school were closer. Going to a parochial school meant fellow students were dispersed throughout my then-known universe, the 500 square miles of Los Angeles. …
Saturday was my longest day, a day whose structure I had more freedom to shape than any other day of the week, making me feel sorry for those children today whose free time is overly scheduled by ambitious or well-intentioned parents. Small wonder that my life now consists of a succession of “Saturdays,” having chosen to be a writer. It is a life blessed by more freedom than the lives of others, though it is also fraught with fear, having no imposed structure but my own, and having no assured income, especially when writing something like this book, entirely on speculation. Yet it does stretch my days, it does stretch my life. And it offers me sanctuary to “stand under” (as Camus wrote of it), if not to wholly understand. [pp 12-15]
Reflecting on all this today, I think how boredom may become a sacred time and place, a fertile sanctuary for creativity and dreams, a godly opportunity.
Perhaps it was Godly boredom that led to the Big Bang and the evolution of life and to you and to me.
I offer four meditations from my book Communion of Life that celebrates the gifts of earth, air, water and fire. You will better understand how Celtic spirituality and Celtic Christianity deeply touch me.
Cycle One: Day 1 Earth
Sacred earth :
Holding us fast,
Whirling to keep us steady,
Shifting axis to temper climate,
Yielding nutrients of life.
Holy ground :
A grassy belly cradling us in rest,
A rounded, rocky bosom inspiring dreamers,
A birth canal whose current is destiny.
Grateful, grateful am I,
To stand, to sit, to lie on you,
To ride, to sail, to drive on you,
To look down, to look up, to look out
And see you there.
I remove my shoes in reverence.
Cycle Three: Day 10 Air
The sun’s glory
Wraps around us,
Dives into valleys,
Peaks behind ridges,
Slinks through city streets,
Explodes on beaches
As if through thin air.
The sun’s grandeur
Glows green through branches,
Bounces lavender off irises,
Mushrooms grey above factories,
Canopies blue on clear days,
Gilds with age,
As if through thin air.
The sun’s gospel
Proclaimed to earth’s ends
Baptizing us all,
Just and unjust,
Believer and nonbeliever,
Grateful and ungrateful,
Enlightened and unenlightened—
Immersing us all
In our star’s splashing splendor
As if through thin air.
Cycle Two: Day 7 Water
You live within me—
In my eyes, in my flesh,
In my thoughts, in my movements :
You cleanse me inside and out,
Rinsing each cell,
Flushing out toxins,
Boiling out sweat,
Crying out grief.
Most of me is you.
Before air, I knew you,
Bundled by embryonic fluids :
Echo of primordial waters
Where first were fused
Earth, air, water, fire,
The things that make for life.
As you held me,
Now I hold you,
Precious, unasked gift from eternity—
Cycle Eleven: Day 44 Fire
You have been the center of our dance.
From bonfires ablaze to candles flickering,
Wildly we have swung around you,
Howling, shouting, singing, chanting,
Igniting our passion for uniting
For war, for the hunt, for community, for the gods.
Flame mesmerized by flame :
Our burning, restless insides
Stretch outside unfired clay
For flames of unity, at-one-ment in immolation :
The burning flash of bullets and bombs,
The stinging, fatal wound by carnivores,
The searing of the heretic at the stake,
The burnt offering of sacrifice.
Attacking the enemy,
Devouring our prey,
Excommunicating the stranger,
Slaughtering a scapegoat
Do not make us one.
We are one—
With one another and the gods,
With the enemy, the prey, the stranger, the scapegoat—
In August of 1973 I drove my ’63 Volkswagen through Washington, D.C. on my way to seminary in New Haven, Connecticut. I walked the capitol mall, and as I summitted a rise near the Washington monument, I caught a glimpse of the Lincoln memorial at the other end of the mall just as the sun was setting, and my imagination glimpsed the glory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on its steps intoning “I have a dream…”
Later I would learn that he had begun a very different speech, but the poet Maya Angelou shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and he wisely switched gears and gave a speech he had used to inspire and uplift others on an earlier occasion.
That summer day in 1973, I realized it was the tenth anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, and I literally had goosebumps at the thought, tears coming to my eyes.
I was a twelve-year-old boy in Southern California when that march was held. I knew little of the struggle for Civil Rights that culminated in that march. On that day, I was at a very different kind of mall, Topanga Plaza, one of the first grand shopping malls built in a trend that would sweep the United States. A large store window had multi-level shelves stacked with TV’s facing toward the mall’s interior, and every one of them was tuned to the news coverage of the March on Washington. I knew something very important was happening.
Weeks later, in our doctor’s office, I saw Life Magazine’s coverage of the march with its supersized photos and captions. Soon the film and book To Kill a Mockingbird would tell the story of racial segregation and injustice in the South from a child’s view in a way that could help a young boy like me understand and empathize. In public high school, teachers taught me more—not just about racial injustice in the South, but the de facto segregation in my own hometown of Los Angeles, and apartheid in South Africa.
Exchanges with inner city schools and the Watts riots furthered my education. Our high school principal, an African American, spoke so eloquently, it prompted my desire to write and speak as well as he did. Yet the real estate market practices of the time prevented him and his family from buying a house in our neighborhood—and this in supposedly “liberal” California!
One of the reasons I left the fundamentalist Christian tradition in which I was reared was because, when three black women visited our Baptist Church, I overheard one of our members say to another white woman, “I bet they were here to try that integratin’ stuff, but we showed them they were welcome even if they are Negroes.”
I remember exactly where I was when I learned Martin Luther King had been shot. I was 17, and not yet fully aware of all that he had done and all that had been done to advance racial equality, but, like seeing the multiple television screens broadcasting the 1963 Civil Rights March, I knew something important had happened. My brother had just heard it on the radio and came in the kitchen to tell my mom and me. My first thought was to pray for him, which I did. Then the news came that he had died.
I had been attending a more progressive church, and the following Sunday night, the youth pastor took his turn in the pulpit and read one of Dr. King’s sermons, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The first dimension King described was length of days that allowed a full flowering of a human’s potential. The second dimension was breadth, in King’s words, “breadth by which individuals concern themselves in the welfare of others.” The third dimension, King preached, was often ignored: that of height—in King’s words, “that upward reach toward something distinctly greater than humanity.” We often fail to reach for the spiritual dimension of life. He said of those who fail to reach for that spiritual dimension, “They seek to live without a sky.”
Like all good preachers of the time, King brought his observations together in a homely story:
A wise old preacher went to a college to deliver a baccalaureate sermon. After finishing his message, he lingered on the campus to talk with members of the graduating class. He spoke with a brilliant young graduate named Robert. His first question to Robert was: “What are your plans for the future?” “I plan to go immediately to law school,” said Robert. “What then, Robert?” continued the preacher. Robert retorted, “I must frankly say that I plan to make lots of money from my law practice and thereby I hope to retire rather early and spend a great deal of time traveling to various parts of the world—something that I have always wanted to do.”
“What then, Robert?” added the preacher with an almost annoying inquisitiveness. “Well,” said Robert, “these are all of my plans.” Looking at Robert with a countenance expressing pity and fatherly concern, the preacher said, “Young man, your plans are far too small. They can expend only seventy-five or a hundred years at the most. You must make your plans big enough to include God and large enough to include eternity.”
In my own words, I would echo King’s sentiment in this way: this is our moment to live and shape eternity, to live and shape the divine life of this universe.
That is what I wanted to do when I grew up, in my own small way, as a gay activist in the church and beyond.
Providentially, high school friends invited me to visit a Presbyterian Church whose liberal views they thought I’d like. The first sermon I heard there, the first Sunday of the year 1970, was a recounting of the previous ten years of the Civil Rights movement. Come to find out, the largely white congregation was participating in a program to overcome racism called Project Understanding. Through weekly forums and community outreach, the church hoped to be awakened to social justice concerns, including race, the Vietnam war, Native American issues, the needs of the adjacent Latino barrio, and eventually, even gay and lesbian concerns. It was a “woke” church before its time. The denomination to which it belonged had written a new Confession of Faith in 1967 that called for the reconciliation of races, religions, and nationalities.
It was part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the northern stream of Presbyterianism in America, broken from its southern stream since the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, finally to be united as the Presbyterian Church (USA) here in this very city of Atlanta in 1983. The two denominations literally marched to the Atlanta City Hall as a physical representation of our new-found unity, and there Mayor Andrew Young, himself a United Church of Christ minister, welcomed us.
That’s probably more than you care to know about Presbyterian history, but I tell it to explain how I came to be at the 1983 March on Washington commemorating that first March in 1963. I was there as part of the Presbyterian contingent.
The first congregation I served after seminary closed its worship service joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This dated back to its days supporting the Civil Rights movement. When I tried to edit this song out of the service, thinking of it as a dated relic, the congregation rebelled because it had become about more than black and white, it was about gay and straight, women and men and transgender, it was about every religious perspective, about every category of humanity by which we try to separate ourselves from one another.
In response to my talk, First Existentialist stood in a circle, joined hands, and sang the many verses of “We Shall Overcome.” In the talk, I also included the words of Bayard Rustin, the gay African American who organized the 1963 March on Washington, that I published in an earlier post, “Bayard Rustin Speaks.”
Something that surprised and delighted me when I became a Presbyterian in 1970 while in college was the first question and answer of the Shorter Westminster Catechism, adopted as part of the Westminster Standards by the Scottish General Assembly for use in the kirk (church) in 1647 and by the first Presbyterian synod of the American colonies in 1729.
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.
I had earlier been enthralled with the denomination’s then most recent confession of faith, The Confession of 1967, that confirmed my own beliefs in its call for reconciliation of all regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
But that such an early church document from the seemingly somber and sober Presbyterians and their Scottish heritage could use such words as “glorify” and “enjoy” in relation to God and the practice of their faith pleased me no end!
My Yale Divinity professor and subsequent friend, Henri Nouwen, would write of his stay in a Trappist monastery in The Genesee Diary that his spiritual director, John Eudes Bamberger, challenged him to take as his koan, “I am the glory of God.” He clarified, “In your meditation you can ask yourself, “Where is the glory of God? If the glory of God is not there where I am, where else can it be?” Interpreting the second creation story of Genesis in which God breathed life into the first human being, he told Henri, “We live because we share God’s breath, God’s life, God’s glory.”
The early church teacher, Irenaeus, declared, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Two of my prayers in Coming Out to God, ably edited and encouraged by Alexa Smith, took as their starting point this question about the chief end of humanity. The first may be used collectively with the italicized unison response; the second as a personal prayer.
we glorify your name
and enjoy you forever.
You have immersed us in your world
and baptized us with your Spirit.
We see your beauty reflected
in our community and in your creation:
We enjoy you forever.
We feel your love in the warmth of sun,
the smiles of strangers,
the hugs of friends,
the bodies of lovers:
We enjoy you forever.
We taste your refreshment
of sleep, of breath,
of food and drink:
We enjoy you forever.
We smell your fragrance
of flower and field,
of flesh and flavor:
We enjoy you forever.
We hear your voice
from the winds of nature
to the winds of spirit:
We enjoy you forever.
O Creator, open our eyes
so we may see your goodness.
Sensitize our numbed senses
so we may feel your goodness.
Overcome our blandness
so we may taste your goodness.
Break into our vacuum
so we may smell your goodness.
Unstop our ears
so we may hear your goodness.
O Creator, our Creator,
we glorify your name
and enjoy you forever.
“What is the chief end of [humanity]?
To glorify God, and to enjoy [God] forever.”
And what is yourchief end, O God?
To glorify us, and enjoy us forever?
Isn’t this heretical? At least presumptuous?
Forgive me, God, if I’ve wrongly described your agenda.
But, from the day you made us cocreators in Adam and Eve
and our faces shine with the Shekinah, your glory,
that lit up Moses’ face and made him veil himself.
Why are we afraid to lift the veil
and show ourselves and the world
the glorious riches of our spiritual inheritance?
God, help us lift the veil,
removing all that obscures your glory graciously given
in our creation, redemption, and inspiration.
By so doing, may we glorify you,
our glorifier in heaven,
and enjoy you forever.
*In Christian tradition, “lusts” applies to every manner of greediness: money, power, possessions, etc.
On this upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I’ll be reflecting on how King and the Civil Rights Movement helped inspire and shape my own ministry during Sunday’s 11:00 a.m. “Celebration of Life” for the First Existentialist Congregation (UU), 470 Candler Park Drive, Atlanta, GA 30307. You are welcome to attend!
A few of my posts related to Martin Luther King Jr. and Racial Justice: