Skip to content

Notice To Visitors

Visiting my parents’ church at Christmas – or really anytime –  is a problem for me.  Let’s just say it’s complicated. There is too much history, too much spiritual violence that I have witnessed and experienced in my time there. I cannot shake the full-body feel of distinct unwelcome in the space, with the people, and in the liturgy. My coping strategy of attending other, more welcoming churches has become more difficult over the years; my parents seem to understand less and less why I would go to a church other than theirs, even as I become less and less willing to do so.

Earlier in December I attended a retreat with members of one of my “families of choice” on the occasion of one friend’s birthday. We spent a day of creative reflection at the North American Cultural Laboratory in Highland Lake, NY, thinking about work we do in our own lives for social justice, and how we can live more fully into that hope. On the bathroom wall something caught my eye: Henry Miller’s “Notice to visitors,” which he posted on the front door of his Big Sur Home in the 1940s. It is playful and irreverent, welcoming and engaging yet honestly clear in setting the boundaries essential to his continuing his creative practice.  I know little about Henry Miller, other than that he wrote overtly (hetero)sexual books that were banned in the US and that he was a lover of bisexual Anais Nin. Queer perhaps in the political sense. But I was particularly surprised that he offered this closing to his notice:

Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. In the midst of darkness there is light. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. He said a mouthful. Light, more light!

At the time I mused at Miller’s behest for  “more light” and especially wondered why I had never seen, or perhaps never noticed, reference to this quote in any MLP writings over the years. I wondered about the relationship between his desire for more light and ours. But what resonated most for me in the context of the retreat was that first bit: Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. This is often the reality of social justice work – since our work in the PCUSA formally began in 1974, how many General Assemblies, how many Sunday School conversations, how many presbytery meetings did we attend, only to witness little perceptible change!

And for all the change MLP has ultimately achieved in recent years, my parents’ church appears unaffected. Its “notice to visitors” is some kind of unspoken Ozzy and Harriet code of white, straight, well-to-do with a thick frosting of denial, which becomes less and less tolerable to me as society and even the PCUSA move on. This year I found the pressure to attend my parents’ church turned up by an invitation to our family to light the Christ candle Christmas Eve. I agreed to go, and to participate by leading a responsive reading based on John 1.  Before the service, we went to the vestry and spoke with the pastor. He did not remember me, which was sadly a relief to me.  A dysfunctional church family that echoes my own, outness so readily denied or forgotten, for appearances’ sake. I figured I’d better not remind him. I tried not to dwell on it but then I saw the children’s ministries director who lied to us when our youth choir director died of AIDS complications in 1984. I cannot escape the haunting reminders.  I stood there in the chancel reading from John 1, my queer body inhabiting the space where homosexuality had been condemned in the wake of the 1991 General Assembly, my very existence an act of resistance. It should not be this way after so much has changed in the national denomination, but it is as if nothing happened here.

But then there was the gift of this very queer text I had before me to read. The Word, once introduced to me as Biblical “proof” of the Trinity in confirmation class, at the time only raised more questions than it answered.  I had the opportunity to consider the text from a very different perspective when I took a class on Gnosticism in college and compared John to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. We asked what is the relationship between the Logos (Word) in John, Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs, and Gnosis (Knowledge), for which the Gnostics are named? How does John’s “I am the Light of the World,“ compare with the Gospel of Thomas’s “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all.’”  I remember thinking at the time that Jesus “comes out” with these “I am” statements throughout John, revealing himself to a world that doesn’t get it. In the Gospel of Thomas, this is a matter of life and death: “if you bring forth what is within you; what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

The gifts of the text from John kept coming.  Proclaiming “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” evoked my retreat with my family of choice and Henry Miller’s Notice to Visitors. And so I read the mysterious words of John 1 with the full force of these layers of meaning built over the years in different communities.  I knew these meanings were not shared by this church family, and the gulf is not likely to be closed. I could do my best, even if it gets us (k)nowhere.  Light, More Light!

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014

Donna Riley

What Child is This?

On December 17, 2014, my small More Light PC (USA) congregation, in the middle of Advent, hosted a service of prayer, poems, preaching, and music. Over 150 people came; normally, this is a pastor’s dream: People are coming to church!

But the people gathered because the purpose of the service was to address the lack of justice for Black and Brown victims of violence; the widening gulf between the police and the community; and the undeniable truth that all citizens do not have equal protection under the law.

I was sensitive to my role as a White pastor; I provided some opening remarks to set the proper tone (we gather in honesty, but not to demonize police; we will emphasize that Black lives matter, but also embrace a view that all lives matter), and then proceeded to hand over the pulpit to a wide-ranging group of persons, a vast majority of whom were non-White. Our local interim Police Chief spoke; a representative from the Ohio Student Association, who have been at the Justice for John Crawford movement spoke; local poets offered powerful, heart-wrenching pieces addressing the fears and experiences that make them weary and wary. It was a powerful event, and a local choir provided music that brought the people to their feet. Hugs abounded, and people lingered in the sanctuary having conversations and planning future actions together.

Sitting in my office 12 hours later, with strains of Christmas carols streaming from the church secretary’s radio, I began thinking deeply about why most Sunday’s attendance is one-third that night’s. Church, when it is done correctly, imbues people with a sense of ownership, of community, of belonging, of purpose. But so many people see religion as superfluous or unnecessary in their lives. Yet, they hunger for the very things the Gospel promises: justice, love, compassion, mercy, and grace.

The twelve days of Christmas have passed us by, a season in which we come face-to-face with the mystery of the Incarnation. God made flesh. The Emmanuel; God with us. Are we showing that in the Church? Are we living as though God dwells in us and among us? Or are we scurrying off to our separate corners? If we are worshipping, do we dare worship with those who do not look like us or think like us? Do we acknowledge the inherent racism, misogyny, homophobia, and able-ism of our music and worship? When we confront the Incarnation, do we think only that God looks like “us”? Do we understand that the Incarnation means that God looks like everyone we see? Do we comprehend the incredible diversity of the Body of Christ? When we look in the manger, do we ask, “What Child is This?” and see every child, every color, every gender, every orientation?

I hear so much about the dwindling numbers of congregations. I have attended more workshops and roundtable discussions, more seminary courses and pastor’s retreats on the subject than I can count. Yet, the answer seems clear. The role of the contemporary Church is not to proselytize; it is not to put butts in the pews; it is not to rack up baptisms and membership numbers. The role of the Church today is to throw open the doors, to invite people in, and provide them a space to speak, to be heard, to be loved, to be included. For too long, we have segregated ourselves in the Church, by race and denomination, by theology and mission. And people have grown tired of it. What I saw that night shows me that people want more than Facebook posts with #blacklivesmatter; they want connection, discussion, and honesty. This is where the Church must be: at the center of these conversations; this is what the Church must do: act like we really believe the things Jesus said.

I’m looking at this thing we call ministry, and I am asking what child is this? What is the good news we proclaim? What is the hope we offer? Who is this Jesus we present, we emulate, we love, we follow? Dearly beloved, if he is not a champion of justice, a lover of people, a listener of stories, and a preacher of hope, he is no longer relevant. But we know better, because that is exactly who Jesus is; let us have the courage to be so as well.

The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice, GLBT rights, and multifaith dialogue. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College. 

Why Trans* Rights Should Matter to the Church

My coming to faith and my coming to consciousness about gender identity have strangely run in tandem. I came out as bisexual in 1995 at the age of 19, but felt somewhat unsettled by the “T” in our LGBT alphabet soup; I had a difficult enough time understanding how I could be attracted to persons other than women, so wrapping my head around “being born in the wrong body” was just too much. I had no frame of reference, so I defaulted to the comfortable binary of “us” and “them.” Over the years, as I was sometimes not fully accepted by some gay men (who thought I only had one foot out of the closet) or by certain heterosexual women (who felt distrustful of me because of my open attraction to men), I began to understand what it was like to be an outsider, even within a community of outsiders. I befriended trans* persons who also felt the sting of ostracism from the community. In developing deep relationships with trans* persons, I began to realize that I had internalized a lot of cultural assumptions about gender, especially as it relates to sexuality: we are either male or female, gay or straight, butch or femme, top or bottom. Even the term “bisexual” reflects an “either this or that” approach. (From more information, read my fellow MLP blogger Donna Riley’s excellent piece “Bisexuality 201.”)

Similarly, being raised as an atheist, it took the suicide of my schizophrenic brother—and my own version of a Damascus Road experience—to realize that Christian identity can be much different from what our culture portrays.  It took me some years to realize that not all Christians are literalists; not all followers of Christ are homophobic; not all church communities will cast you out of the vineyard if you believe in a woman’s right to choose, if you regard all persons as made in God’s image, or if you dare question the authority of Scripture. Not all communities are like this, but finding those that are not can sometimes take a good deal of work. From the ages of twenty six to thirty one, I searched for a spiritual home, finally finding a church community filled with people who were giving God—and organized religion—one last chance, a place where the phrase “not that kind of Christian” did not need to be spoken because it was simply understood. I found a community that nurtured my call, and supported me all the way through ordination. After a long journey, I am blessed to be a UCC pastor serving a More Light PC (USA) congregation in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

But not everything is hallelujahs and amens. In Ohio, it is still legal to fire a person because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Amazingly, I see more and more people in the State—people who still have rather conservative social views in other areas—coming around regarding the inclusion of GLB persons. Sadly, though, I sense the same sort of cultural uncertainty about trans* persons as I personally felt in my early twenties. I know empowered, forthright trans* and gender-fluid persons who are willing to educate and inform, but I also know of their fatigue. I know that they feel as though their gender identity is almost always guaranteed to be a topic of conversation (replete with rude, invasive questions) nearly every day. As a person who has a seemingly endless supply of privilege (I’m White, Christian, male, educated, and in a “traditional” relationship, as I’m married to a woman), I feel called to use my voice to help bring change to those areas in which I wield influence.

Inclusion of trans* individuals and couples is central to following the Gospel. Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:28 that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). While we should not use this passage to dismiss the gender identity of any person, we should see that God is directing us to see what unifies us as persons. The call to Christian life is a call to see that all are created by and called to fullness of life by God. Further, we confess that God creates human persons in God’s image: “male and female God [elohim] made them.” The Hebrew word elohim is fluid, being used both to designate singular or plural and male or female (see, for example, 1 Kings 11:5). It does not seem too great of a stretch to think that God’s own image can include a person who has one set of sex organs and another gender identity; it is does not seem too much to think of God as being intersex, a reality that will unsettle many, given the recent discussions regarding Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ self-described girlfriend (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/michael-phelps-scandal-portrayal-intersex-people.) And, at the risk of sounding too bold, it may be time for us to consider that if God is to have any gender identity at all, God most certainly is gender-fluid.

In the end, the interesting theological questions take a back seat to the very real, immediate, and pressing need for the Church to be present in the suffering of trans* persons. We are called by God to address issues of injustice, to affirm the inherent dignity of all created in God’s image, and to be a people of hospitality and radical love. Conversations about trans* inclusivity are difficult, and require education and patience, but it is essential that we who are allies engage and don’t leave the task solely to our trans* siblings. For tips on how to be an ally, see GLAAD’s excellent resource: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies


This Advent, let us challenge ourselves to think about how to make room in our own inns; let us acknowledge that the Holy Family is not typical, but is unusual: a woman who has not been touched by a man; a human father ready to adopt a child not of his seed; and a child who will grow up with a sense of having two dads. This is not a Hallmark card; this is the tough reality of family being complicated. God is in the business of bringing people together, of challenging us to love in radical ways. Advent and Christmas can be an especially lonely time for trans* persons, so the need for loving, affirming, and supportive church communities are legion. Let us enter into the fullness of congregational life, flinging open our doors and calling in all persons made in God’s image, and knowing that the blessings come with seeing God more clearly when we do so.  

 

The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice, GLBT rights, and multifaith dialogue. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.

 

Featured Holiday Image: Courtesy of www.pdxqcenter.org

Believe is an Action

and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord (Luke 1:45).”

visitation-ecv

The tragic killing of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu and the attempted murder of Shaneka Thompson in Baltimore, amidst the world-wide call for justice by the #blacklivesmatter movement has left many people searching for hope. Isaaiyl Abdula Brinsley’s actions are being interpreted as retaliations for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and used to justify a power contest between the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and New York’s Office of the Mayor.   As difficult as these incidents are to comprehend, we cannot afford to become distracted from the fact that we (all of us) are the hope for justice that we seek.

In the gospel of Luke, between Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary and her Magnificat, lies a verse that is often overlooked in Advent readings. The words are spoken by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth said “and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord (1:45).” Because of what Mary believed, she took action – making haste from Nazareth to Zechariah’s home in a Judean town in the hill country (1:39) until it was time to go to Bethlehem with Joseph to be registered per the decree of Emperor Augustus (2:1-7). Mary’s belief-turned-into-action changed the world. Mary gave birth to her firstborn son; the one the angel said would be called the Son of the Most High, the one we know as Jesus Christ. As the darkness of Advent becomes the light of Christmastide, Luke 1:45 begs the question, what would happen if we believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to us by the Lord?

What if we believed that every valley will be lifted up, that the uneven ground will become level and the rough places a plain (Isaiah 40:4)? What if we believed that good news will come to the oppressed and liberty proclaimed to the captives (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18)? What actions would we take if we believed what God has spoken to us through our talents, and passions, and gifting – particularly with regard to the witness that #blacklivesmatter? We, in our multiply unique and necessary ways are divinely equipped to be agents of justice, light, hope, compassion, and empowerment. It is the work and witness we are called to as followers of Jesus Christ. Blessed is she, and is he, and are we who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to us by the Lord.

Ours is not a passive, rocking chair, any day now kind of hope. Turning what we believe into action, we will continue to strategize, and march, and protest. We will continue to have hard and honest conversations with our co-laborers, our children, our allies, and allies in training. We will remember and recite the words of great writers, poets, musicians, and artists of our past and our present to affirm that the work before us is difficult but necessary and doable. We will pay attention to how the narratives of victims are told, noting who gets the verbs “shot,” “executed,” “murdered,” or “died.” We will memorialize the names and the circumstances of the fallen; the Black men including the same gender loving and the Black cis/trans*/queer women. We will uplift the families who survive the victims, and hold each other accountable to preach, and pray, and protest for the powerful to be brought down from their thrones, and for the uplift of the lowly (Luke 1:52). We will do these things because we believe in the fulfillment of what has been spoken to us by the Lord. Racism, abuse of authority, mockery of justice, and hegemonic hypocrisy cannot and will not conquer hope, for nothing is impossible for God. God is calling us to become agents of justice.

As the details of officers Ramos and Liu’s deaths unfold, let us mourn the unnecessary loss of lives unfinished. It is a lie that Black and brown lives matter only when uniformed in blue. It is racist to expect hyper-articulated outcries for Ramos and Liu by the Black community when Darren Wilson is let off the hook with no remorse and a handful of police officers don “I Can Breathe” tee shirts in mockery of Eric Garner’s life. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us remember that Brinsley’s senseless violence began with the attempted murder of Shaneka Thompson, and that our prayers are needed for her recovery. Her attack cannot be overshadowed by grandstanding, war declaring union leaders whose real fight is with elected officials.

Amen I say to you, the Lord’s word will be fulfilled. Good news will come to the oppressed. We will participate in delivering it. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captives. We will participate in the proclamation. We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes. The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all we who believe shall see it together. #blacklivesmatter #adventofjustice

Eric A. Thomas is a Board Member of More Light Presbyterians. He is completing the second year of study towards the PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity at Drew University in Madison, NJ. He is the Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY and a Candidate for Ministry under care of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.

Photo credit: “The Visitation” by Enedina Casarez Vasquez for Visitation House, San Antonio, TX. Please visit www.visitationhouseministries.org

The Luminous Darkness

Psalm 139:7-12

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.


It is dark, and getting darker every day.

And the darkness is luminous. In 1965, Howard Thurman wrote a book with the title The Luminous Darkness. A prolific writer, mystic, theologian, and pastor of a multicultural church created in 1944 in San Francisco, he asserted that segregation was sinful. He came to terms with the darkness of his own skin in the light of a society who vilified and dismissed him for its hue. Howard Thurman found beauty there where many could not, just as he did under the canopy of his favorite tree in the darkness of the night. His Black skin was no trap, no burden—but a conduit to the welcome wisdom that God is also God in the dark.

I borrow his lovely metaphor to suggest that as we stand in the darkness of Advent, in the liminal space that is the longing and waiting for the new thing God has promised and that the world has yet to perceive, we are called to appreciate the darkness. I know well, and have experienced the dark times of not knowing which end is up; I have seen the shadows of oppression, of seeing brothers and sisters walking in controlled and contrived darkness called injustice; and I have swayed in the thick and palpable night of wondering why, as an African American woman, my enough was never enough, and why my gifts seemed hidden to the eyes of the dominant culture. I have come to embrace the darkness of forging a new and beautiful thing out of the scrambled mess of bad circumstance and concrete evil.

Yet, I write today not as a victim, but as one born in the dark. I speak today as one who sees well in the darkness, and whose eyes are trained to see luminous gifts in the night, who has sense enough to thank God for every circumstance. I am utterly convinced that God is up to something in the darkness of our lives, in the womb of our own souls and being. There is something gossamer and brilliant about the night in God, and in the promises that only come in the dark.

This Advent season asks questions of us. It asks something of us as we enter this time together, into a dark abyss where we are thoughtful and discerning, discourage and overwhelmed, cognizant of loss, loneliness and despair. Some want nothing to do with this darkness. We spend our time instead longing for the light. The longing causes many of us to close our eyes, to steel ourselves, and to wait for the light, hoping the joy of Christmas will wash over us, and at least distract us from our thoughts or disappointments.

Still, Advent reminds us that we stand waiting in the dark.

I am here to assert and declare that our waiting is invited to be more than standing still, but to watch, fight and pray to find wholeness, and to see that the valley of the shadow of death holds as many lessons for us as streets paved in gold. The lessons are for such a time as this.

We are in a time in history where the voices on the bottom are speaking, where the poor are asking for equity through resources; where the earth is groaning from the terror of being ravaged for its resources without regard for accountability and responsibility; where transgendered men and women are asking for intentional safety in the streets and in their homes in the midst of murders that rarely make the news; where dark people whose voices are often unheard and diminished are asking for solidarity with hands raised saying quietly, I can’t breathe… Is it not time for us as brothers and sisters in Christ to look within and check our stance in the world? What is our posture? It is time to speak with our privilege and see where we stand.

Are we always standing in the light? Are we always sitting in comfort? Is our comfort at the expense of not knowing others, or in relying too much on those 1 or 2 Black friends—that some have on cue to produce when they are called racist—to pull us through the circumstances that are unfamiliar and foreign? Do we hear of the deaths of all those born in the dark, only to dismiss them as something that just happened, and rush to the light to feel safe?

Jesus is the light of the world, yet he dared to be in the dark with those who had no choice but to dwell there.

I contend that there is no mistake in our being placed in this time of longing together. This is where community is made, right here in the dark. I am convinced that we together are walk alongside each other until we see the light of God, and produce it for ourselves by our commitment to peace, justice and righteousness.

You see the gift of living into the darkness is preparation. The gift of darkness is about skill-building, honing and learning from current circumstances. The gift of darkness is in knowing that God is everywhere, and that God is shown to be brilliant and luminous in the dark times of life. In the dark, we cannot discern difference, the kind that leads our eyes to hate and vilify one another. In the dark, no one’s eyes can tell them who to dismiss, and our senses become heightened. We reach out for hope and find strength with those others of us who dare to be in the dark night of our lives. The brilliance of stars are thus because they are on the backdrop of a dark and dynamic universe. God is speaking!

How else might we hear the voices muffled by the weight of oppression but to be still in the dark and appreciate its gifts? Where else but in the dark might the metaphors kindle hope and understanding, and welcome transformation? How else might we recover our connection and relationship to those we’ve called thugs who simply deserve to die? Where might we see the luminosity in the darkest of faces in elevators, walking down our streets, in hoodies with dimmed countenances—so that we refuse to name them as automatic criminals? In this night, God is inviting us to be as people of faith so that every person might claim Black lives matter, and that they should not end up face down on asphalt, dying because society named them as evil before we’ve even come to know them.

There is no inherent evil in the night, nor in melanated skin, or in a little boy playing with a toy gun in the park. When God made the heavens and the earth, the light was not presented as a correction to the dark. The light was spoken into existence out of blackness. I contend that the dark is where God begins God’s work with us. It is but the chalice where the sacrament of communion with God occurs.

When we welcome this opportunity in Advent, we become like writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston understood the gift of her life to be immersed in luminous darkness. She wrote in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, “It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

We have a choice. Let us look for God in this dark night. We can rush through this time, and fill our lives with distraction and artificial light, or we can use these long nights to heal, to dream, to love, to imagine, to carve and create ourselves into a better likeness of who God created us to be. You are invited to dance, renew relationships, discard bias, and welcome liberation in Advent, and be reconciled to the gift of the dark.

Jump in. The darkness is fine, and we shall be with God.

Rev. Kelle J. Brown (2017)  is pastor of the Church of Mary Magdalene, a church for and led by homeless women and their families, and is currently completing her D.Min at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Her research is focused on “Solidarity as Discipleship,” and she believes the work of MLP offers meaningful ways for the church to live into authentic discipleship by way of profuse hospitality and extravagant inclusion of all God’s children.  Kelle lives and works in Seattle, Washington.  She is most proud of her daughter, Indigo, the joy of her life, and lives by the following quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Building Gracious Space in the PCUSA: Shared Service

God alone is Lord of the conscience,
and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men
which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.
(Book of Confessions, 6.109, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-3.0101a)
 

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—to tell the truth, the Church Universal—has struggled for generations over interpretation of Scripture, each specific disagreement roiling the church. The Protestant emphasis upon personal relationship with God in Christ through reading the Bible has been the foundation for one controversy after another. The most recent is over the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people among us.

For most of this time we had one solution to the challenge of holding together when we disagreed on God’s will for us: we shared in service to others. I have participated in this, as you have, I expect.

For example, four or five times, I joined the More Light Presbyterians Rainbow Corps, traveling to New Orleans to work with other Presbyterians under the auspices of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. All us volunteers were Presbyterians from across the country from all kinds of churches.

When we gathered in the morning for prayer and directions from our site leader for the day, what mattered was your skill in carpentry or strength of back or willingness to learn and follow orders. It didn’t matter that I am a bisexual person or that my partner assigned to measure and cut dry wall with me is certain that Romans 1:26-27 settles any questions about God’s judgment of LGBT people. We could build common ground by building houses.

This is only one instance of how we have tried and tried in the PCUSA to build gracious space by commitment to sharing in what we all agree upon: service in Christ’s name to those in need. To everyone’s dismay, the decades-long exodus of churches and the enclave mentality of left and right suggest that this has not worked particularly well. Why?

Here’s my answer: in the midst of our shared service, we fail to share ourselves with each other.

One of the memories of MLP Rainbow Corps I most cherish was the year we were assigned to demolish the inside of a ruined home with a group of Presbyterians from Burlingame, California. We Rainbow Corps volunteers were intentional in wearing t-shirts that declared we were from More Light, known as the LGBT group in the PCUSA. After several hours of pulling nails—that was my low skill job—and other tasks, the whole crew sat down together for lunch.

We shared from our sacks and we cautiously shared of ourselves. It turned out their church is a pretty conservative one. Conversation was superficial at first. Then, questions were asked and we all answered them honestly from our hearts. Tough situations some of them faced, like a gay grandchild, were shared. How Scripture informed our faith was offered and received respectfully, if not with agreement.

This was freedom of conscience in action. Our shared service in Christ to the needy brought us together. Our shared respect for one another as Christians and Presbyterians prompted us to delve below the surface of casual conversation. I like to think that our conversations that week in New Orleans helped keep that Burlingame church in the Presbyterian fold. God knows.

One way to encourage that conversation is to provide service opportunities that prompt serious conversation in sensitive areas of disagreement. For example, most Presbyterian congregations are in areas that struggle with the problem of homeless youth. Research shows that a large percentage of those homeless will be LGBT youth, often shunned by their religious family and their church.

Why don’t Presbyterians, who disagree on Scripture’s word regarding LGBT people, work together in service to the homeless? Might the plight of the homeless spark deeper conversations? Curbing bullying and support for LGBT asylum seekers fleeing criminalization in their home countries are two other needs that offer the church gracious space for sacred conversation.

Shared service is good. It’s a start toward being the church together. What we need to add to it is the respect for one another assumed in the PCUSA tradition we call “freedom of conscience.” With this, shared service to the needy becomes a fertile gracious space in which we build together the PCUSA of the 21st century.

 

Other Posts in the Building Gracious Space Series:

Getting to wonder

Building Trust Through Kindness

Weeping

Forgiveness

Shared Feelings

Bisexuality 201

“There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”                        – Hamlet

Bisexuality has been too long oversimplified in the Church. We had some deep discussions within the Family, in our own LGBTQ+ people-of-faith circles, but censored ourselves in front of non-ally straight folks as we presented to Sunday School classes or testified at GA, so as not to confuse them. (As we used to say, it’s not that bisexuals are confused. It’s that I’m bisexual; you’re confused.) In our attempt to simplify matters, there are some things we just didn’t talk about in church.

Identities Defying Categorization

For example, too often we let a one-dimensional Kinsey Scale of sexuality suffice to describe  the range and variation in our human community. By now even most Presbyterians have probably learned to place same-sex attraction on one end of a scale, and opposite-sex attraction on the other, and to think of bisexuality as somewhere in the middle… but there are other less linear dimensions of sexuality we don’t discuss. For example, Fritz Klein expanded Kinsey’s work to consider not just sexual orientation but also affectional orientation, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies whether they are acted upon or not, social preferences, and self-identification. He recognized that these experiences change over time for individuals. You can take a Klein quiz here; be warned that taking this quiz might provide multiple new perspectives on your sexuality.

Bisexuality is a sensibility that can hold multiple truths; you might score one way on sexual orientation, and another way on affectional orientation, and this multiplicity is accepted as part of who we are. This brings us to a second oversimplification: presenting (or not correcting) a definition of bisexuality as attraction to “both” sexes or “either” gender, which problematically reinforces the gender binary.  But as several bi bloggers have recently reminded us, the “bi” in bisexuality has long been about resisting binary constructs. In the case of Kinsey or Klein we defied categories by positioning  between, as simultaneously neither and both “homosexual” (attracted to genders like our own) and “heterosexual” (attracted to genders different from our own).  The quintessentially queer potential to radically re-define heterosexuality as attraction to multiple genders other than one’s own is intriguing indeed.  Why couldn’t we talk about this in church? In reducing bisexuality to attraction to “both” genders, we have set limits on our own understandings of how God has created us, and failed to extend full welcome in particular to bi+ and trans* folks.

I say bi+ because, as with trans*, in efforts to broaden or blow up restrictive categories, multiple related identities have proliferated into a bi+ family of identities, including ambisexual, omnisexual, pansexual, fluid, and unlabeled. This is in addition to reclaimed labels some bi people use like dyke and queer, as well as related but distinctly not-bi labels like heteroflexible, homoflexible, bi-curious, and questioning.  Bi+ people hold every type of gender identity including trans* and cis-gender identities. Churches may find it challenging to stay up to date with new labels and no labels, but the starting place is to get to know the bi+ community.

Challenging Mononormativity

There is something about this potential to love people of any (or at least more than one) gender that puts some monosexuals into a promiscuity panic. This is so even though many monosexuals have the potential to love individuals with, say, any eye color, but no one assumes that means they are interested in a hazel-blue-brown menage a trois.

Because there was (and still is) a stereotype of bisexuals as promiscuous (with judgments following), we did not question the mononormative  narrative. But can we go there for a minute? What does the Church have to say about polyamory or other post-mononormative relationships? Let’s be clear: research on sexuality and monogamy suggests a broad swath of folks regardless of sexual orientation both aspire to and successfully practice monogamy, and at the same time there are also members of all sexual orientations who choose instead to make polyamorous commitments, who are monogamish (mostly monogamous; faithfulness means honesty but not exclusivity), or who make monogamous commitments but fail to keep them (i.e. cheat). The three cannot be morally equated because while the latter is a betrayal and breach of morality, the former two are commitments that entail explicit and exacting ethics deserving discussion in faith communities.

So why bring all this up in a post about bisexuality? Because this dance we have been doing, this “love me, I’m not like the other bisexuals, I’m monogamous,” is itself biphobic.  Psychology studies have generally not found increased rates of non-monogamy among bisexuals but a recent study interestingly found differences in attitudes toward monogamy.  As a blogger discussing the findings noted, these data don’t mean bi people are incapable of practicing monogamy (in fact large majorities of bi  men and women in the study reported practicing monogamy), but it does suggest that  “the same flexibility that allows bisexuals to defy societal constraints on who they can love also allows them to defy social constraints on how many they can love, and how. Their attraction to both sexes may be just an additional impetus for questioning the monogamy norm.” And as we know from Klein, this questioning could take many forms along different dimensions from theory to practice, and from affectional to sexual.

As it happens, queer theology has already gone there, decades ago. For example, Presbyterian and Professor of Christian Ethics Marvin Ellison put it this way in his book Erotic Justice:

Some marriages make room for additional sexual partners. Others thrive only by maintaining sexual exclusivity. Although justice requires relational fidelity, the precise requirements of this fidelity cannot be determined in advance (86).

The sexual ethic Ellison puts forward of justice-love — based on the substance rather than the form of relationships — is as challenging as it is liberating:

Living comfortably with change and ambiguity requires maturity and a willingness to delight in difference and novelty. It also requires confidence in our collective ability to make meaningful moral distinctions and responsible choices. Religious communities should not be policing people’s sex lives, but rather educating them about this real world of sexual diversity and expanding their moral imaginations (88).

Can we face the ambiguity demanded of us? Do we have the moral imagination to comprehend how polyamorous partners can develop highly principled faithful relationships, or how monogamish couples might reflect Rita Nakashima Brock’s observation”that human needs are met in a variety of ways”? It’s complicated, yes. But we owe it to our community to be honest with ourselves and the Church. It is not enough to leave it at “I’m bisexual; you’re confused.”

 

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014

Donna Riley

A life-long Presbyterian, ordained deacon, and bisexual woman, Donna Riley served as the first webspinner for Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns starting in 1995, as a member of the national boards of PLGC and MLP from 1997-2005, and as Co-Moderator of MLP from 2003-2005. She has been a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA, Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York City, and Treasurer of the Western Massachusetts House Church. Since 2001 her day job has been teaching engineering at Smith College, the first US women’s college to house an engineering program. She will be spending the next year in Washington DC and looks forward to reconnecting with the Open Doors chapter and More Light churches in the area. She is currently working a federal government detail in Washington, where she is a member of Church of the Pilgrims.

Bring Many Names

The Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, is one of the best known and most loved prayers in all of Christendom.  At a time when an unmarried, pregnant teenage girl was justifiably distracted by her circumstances, she takes time to give thanks to the Creator.  It is an amazing act of spiritual maturity that I’m not sure I would have been able to pull off, if I were in her shoes.  Luke 1:46b-55, records the Magnificat this way:

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I wonder how different the Magnificat would sound, if Mary lived in our post-modern time.  Would Mary have been so quick to refer to God using strictly masculine pronouns?  How much more expansive would this amazing prayer have been if Mary’s perception of the Holy One had not been so limited?  I like to think that a 21st century Mary, unbound by 1st century cultural restraints, would have chosen language that reflected a bigger, more inclusive, view of God.

I get that viewing the Creator as male has dominated the culture since well before Mary’s time.  It is the view that most of us, of a certain age, grew up with and it is still the predominate view of the vast majority of our fellow sisters and brothers in the church.

But what do we lose when we assign a specific gender to God?  I wonder what perspectives we deny ourselves when God is seen as a man?  I believe we lose the possibility of viewing God in a manner that is affirming to all of Creation.

Viewing God as “Father”, “King”, “Lord”, etc. can be valid expressions of the Divine, however, these views are often used to justify a patriarchal world view that marginalizes anyone who isn’t male.  Throw in the fact that many who view God in this manner often have no issue with seeing the Creator as white and heterosexual and, Houston, we have a problem.  Witness the sexism, racism and homophobia which still run rampant in our society and in the church.

The full nature of our Creator is far beyond our seeing.  To limit our view of God to a specific gender or race places us in a box which blocks us from receiving God’s abundance and allows us to deprives ourselves and others the totality of our Creator’s grace and mercy.

This Advent season, let us sing a new, 21st century version of the Magnificat.  Let us sing to the glory of a God who is beyond all comprehending.  Let us sing to God bringing many names.

Bring many names, beautiful and good,
celebrate, in parable and story,
holiness in glory, living, loving God.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Strong mother God, working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation, genius at play:
Hail and hosanna, strong mother God!

Warm father God, hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled:
Hail and hosanna, warm father God!

Old, aching God, grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,
glad of good surprises, wiser than despair:
Hail and hosanna, old aching God!

Young, growing God, eager, on the move,
saying no to falsehood and unkindness,
crying out for justice, giving all you have:
Hail and hosanna, young, growing God!

Great, living God, never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:
Hail and hosanna, great, living God!

Bring Many Names: Words: Brian Wren
Words © 1989, revised 1994 by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188.

 

Nathan Sobers is a Ruling Elder in the PC (USA), and the Co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians national board of directors. He and his husband, Michael Kuntz, live in Seattle where Nathan is currently completing a Pastoral Internship at Lake City Presbyterian Church.

A Lesson Learned

Ten years ago I volunteered for a marriage equality non-profit in Connecticut called Love Makes a Family (LMF).  I was a passionate Divinity School student eager to stand up as an ally for LGBTQ rights.

As part of my work on LMF’s Speakers Bureau, I attended a workshop that trained us as public speakers and advocates for same-sex marriage in the state.  One of the exercises was to come up with a 30-second introduction to ourselves that communicated why we were advocates for marriage equality.  I thought this would be a simple exercise.  I thought the hardest part would be squeezing as many reasons for supporting LGBTQ rights into my 30 second spiel as possible.  But as I tried to jot down ideas, I quickly discovered I didn’t know what to say.  No, wait.  That’s not quite right.  I had a good idea what to say.  The problem was that I didn’t know how to say it.

Time ran out, and my speech was not ready.  But, thankfully, others volunteered to stand up and tell their stories.  At first, I didn’t listen with full attention, but kept working on my own speech in my head.  And then my attention was seized by the story of one man, whom I’ll call Bill.  Bill and his partner had wanted to marry for some time.  But that was no longer possible because his partner was not a U.S. citizen and had recently been deported.  His partner’s chances of gaining admittance back into the country were slim.  If Bill had been able to marry the man he loved, he never would have been deported.  International travel wasn’t financially possible for him, and he wasn’t sure how their relationship would survive.  His voice quavered as he told this story, and everyone in the room was shaken by the reality that Bill and his partner would never have the life together that they so longed for.

He sat down.  Another person stood up to speak, and then another.  I listened with full attention.  And with each story I heard, I learned the most important lesson any ally can learn.  When I had started writing my speech, I made the giant mistake of thinking it was my job to speak for the LGBTQ community.  That’s not my job.  Bill’s story is not my story.  It was my job to listen, to learn, and — only then — to speak from my own experience about why I fight for justice for LGBTQ persons.  So I stood up and told my story.

My name is John.  I am a heterosexual man in love with and married to a woman.  I have never felt uncomfortable holding my partner’s hand in public.  I have never questioned whether my parents, friends, or church will approve of our relationship.  I have never worried that moving to a new state with different marriage laws could complicate how my partner and I are able to care for one another and our children.  And I advocate for LGBTQ rights because no one should have to worry about these things.

 

John Anderson
 
John Anderson is a stay-at-home dad and a scholar with a Ph.D. from Loyola University Chicago and a Masters from Yale Divinity School.  He has taught at numerous colleges and is published in the Journal of Religious Ethicsand in the book, Queering Religion, Religious Queers.  John is passionate about bridging the gap between the academic study of theology and the church, and teaches and leads discussion groups in congregations whenever he can.  He is especially interested sexuality education as a ministry of the church and is a certified facilitator of Our Whole Lives, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.  John lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his family.

National Committee (NC) of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

Friends,

As some of you may know, the National Committee (NC) of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has made a serious commitment to address racism and to begin by making anti-racism a part of each of our meetings.

At our most recent NC meeting in September a new group of members brought new life to an effort for us to take a look at our own whiteness. The awful grand jury decisions of recent weeks has caused us to realize that now is the time for us to step up and do what we say we want to do on this matter. It’s time for us to march in solidarity with our African-American sisters and brothers.

Please join me in DC for the Justice for All March (#justice4all) this Saturday, December 13, 2014. Let’s meet at the corner of 14th and E at Freedom Plaza at 10:00 a.m.and join the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Akai Gurley, the mother of Tamir Rice, the family of Trayvon Martin, the Reverend Al Sharpton for this gathering and march to the Capitol. Look for me with the PPF banner.

Email me at fritzg@presbypeacefellowship.org if you’re planning on coming so we can be on the lookout for you.

peace always,
Fritz

Rev. Fritz Gutwein
Associate Director
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship