Songs of the South — Two Vignettes on Southern Manhood

fatherI wanted to share these two poems as a brief vignette.  They both speak of my own struggle to make sense of what it means to be a good southern man as I learn to let go of patriarchy but also embrace the strength, graciousness, and respect which are also often embodied in our cultures’ idea of being a good southern gentleman.

I am thankful for the examples like I described in these earlier posts of how we can find new ways of living out what it means to be a good, southern man less bound by patriarchy and its oppressive patterns while also embracing the gifts manhood and masculinity produce.

 

Unheeded Restraining Order

 

manhood circle“I asked you not come,”

I whispered to her

while my heart lay open,

aching and broken on the table,

all ground gone from beneath my trembling feet.

Like the rabbit in the corn field

behind the house we later shared

when it was spooked by one of our howling dogs,

I had turned tail,

Trying so hard to run,

to hide in the solitary space

of my little rented room

that sat unseen in the bright California sun

sheltered beside the three orange trees

I liked to sit by and read

on warm spring days.

 

I was no rabbit, swift-footed and sure.

I crept away slow hoping to go unnoticed,

manhood definitionhunkering down like

some bear returning to his cave

holing up at the first winter chill.

She would not let me be,

would not let me slumber in secret.

Despite my hiding, she saw me.

She sought me out

and when she found me,

it was you I saw.

 

I told you not to come,  heartache,

I banned you from beneath my roof,

remembering how daddy went to work

every day but one

even when sick.

“Don’t come”, I thundered

because I wanted to pull it together,

to man up, just like him.

atlasMen after all, I remembered, fix things.

They aren’t broken.

Like daddy, I wanted to carry the world

heavy upon my strong shoulders.

I would handle it.

 

But, grief, you came anyway

and when I saw you,

like that clothes-strewn, hidey-hole of a room

we hide away from the guests.

I wanted to shut the door,

to hide you, never to be seen again.

 

Yet it is into you she walked when she strolled in,

and it is you I saw in her autumn eyes.

Is it any wonder?

After all, for all my talk of wanting, like him,

to carry it all like some shimmering globe upon my shoulders,

Atlas shrugged.

I remember seeing that globe

come rolling off from his back

with a noisy crack

splintering into a thousand glittering shards

dusting my floor like fresh-fallen snow,

when,

Wild Turkey on his breath,

voice cracking on the phone,

he fall apart before me.

 

southern storm warningWhen I told him then “don’t call me back drunk”

how much was I not wanting that poison on his lips

and how much was I wanting to take that sight of him

shattered and broken

into that room with you,

so that you could stay hidden from my view.

 

But now as I sit

braced for the cold

looking back at that day

as across a sea of years

once blown by tempest

but now still as a mirror

reflecting the morning sun

I know her coming was a gift.

I had to see you in her eyes, to see me in mine.

I had to hold you, though your pieces cut, to let go.

I had to watch you eclipse my sky,

for sitting in your shadow,

my pain and anger fell like orange leaves upon October ground.

And it was the water of those tears in my eyes,

the wind from the curses and whimpers upon my lips,

which grew the seed of beginning again

budding into the laughter and smiles

that now grace my face

which, with those waters, is now lit by amber sunrise.

 

All Souls Cafe

coffeeshopIn a quiet coffee shop they gather,

Allison Kraus piping over the speakers.

 

“Water please,” the first to sit mutters

as his disheveled form plops unceremoniously.

His rasping voice continues “it is at least free.

“I’ve been on better times”, he whispers.

“Life has not been good to me.

I almost couldn’t make it here.”

cafe 2

He barely sits, nervously moving,

eyes racing, with the look of one on the run.

“It just isn’t working

each time I think I have found the one

through my fingers it streams

a handful of sand and sea”.

 

Across the table, goateed and fedoraed,

head high, shoulders erect, sits another.

Bold, courageous, eyes bright, radiant aura.

“Let me help you, my brother,”

he says confidently, no cracking voice

clear and crisp like spring rain,

while he flashes out a shining card.

 

coffee shop 2“Things may not be easy,” he says,

“it hasn’t come together yet, to be sure.

But you see I’m just on my way.

Of dreams I will never be poor

and with them I will lay

a path to a bright tomorrow.”

Credit card in hand, he pays

a meal for them both,

bought on borrowed hope.

 

He passes across the table a bright colored

hard backed book, dogeared by years.

Its pages open, when their eyes turn outward…

The bell sounds, footsteps falling from the door.

Looking they both see him, dark clad.

His laugh like an ocean roar

yet with eyes focused and sad.

 

spiritual practice journalHe pulls a seat back, ever studious, each move measured.

Leather book, with golden pages, he carefully lays

between them. “I have my own Word,”

he says, “with not a single trace

of the uncertainty of your empty dreams”.

He gestures, finger outstretched,

at his goateed companion’s open book.

 

“I always wonder why you don’t take that damned collar off,”

the dreamer speaks, “its white seems so stifling

and the heat is too strong for black.

You need a touch of color, like me”

 

His laughter is like robin’s cry in morning

and the whippoorwill at even-time

 

cafeAnd so the dreamer and visionary,

the failure who cannot provide,

the man of God on holy mission

gather to have another meeting of the minds.

 

Looking in this soul cafe,

as always, my heart trembles

hoping, fearful, ever wondering

which voice shall have pull

which path shall be my way

whose word is my truth?

 

 

Remembering the Closeted: Cowboys Who Secretly Frequently Are Fond of Each Other

Remembering the Closeted: Cowboys Who Secretly Frequently Are Fond of Each Other

cowboys in love

Yesterday I shared some about closeted queer southerners who were related to some of the rural communities in which I pastored, and lessons that experience continues to teach me about the current climate we face here in the south.

I want to continue to share about some closeted queer people who truly transformed my life.  Closets truly touch a special place in my heart, for the first queer people I knew in my adult life were closeted.

I remember a young man I will call Jack.  He befriended me based on our similar interest in country music, hiking, camping, and spirituality.  Like I did at a later point in life, he had a hat kind of like the cowboy hat I used to wear he would wear wherever he went, and walked with the swagger of a would-be cowboy.  I remember the first spring break I was at college, he asked me to ride with him up the North Carolina mountains.

cowboys in love 2]Jack tried to be a good friend to everyone around him.  In fact, it was his advocating for me that allowed me to get a job at the college radio station, where for three years I was a DJ.  There I cultivated my radio voice which taught me how to speak clearly, passionately, and from the heart, a key skill for me later as a preacher.

Yet also there was something different about Jack.  He would get close to men he was friends with and things would get complicated.  Years later, when I was pastoring in this queer-friendly church in Robeson County, I heard from Jack and he admitted all those years we worked together, hiked together, had coffee together he was queer.  He was fighting hard to hide it, knowing the rejection he would get from the school.  He was even trying through counseling to change it.  Ultimately, he realize it was simply who he was – who God made him to be.  I don’t know where he is relationship wise now, but at that time of speaking with him, he now not only wore his cowboy hat, but had roped himself a cowboy and was quite happy with his life.

To me, Jack’s life reminds me of the humorous song a southern queer preacher friend of mine shared with me at the Queer Easter Brunch she and her wife host most years:

Though a little irreverent, the point of this song is that being gay does not mean not being masculine or manly.  In fact it is only funny to us because of our cultural stereotype that men who are truly men cannot love other men.   Yet many strong men, deeply in touch with all the characteristics our culture would call masculine —  physical and emotional strength, ability to show up and take the leadership in solving problems in tough situations, being the traditional southern gentleman who is there for his community, his family, his nation – also deeply love other men. For me, Jack is one of the first people in my life who broke open my stereotype as a straight man and showed me this.

soldiers in love 2Later on in life, I found other men whom I came to know as a pastor who furthered this lesson.   I  remember a soldier I will call John who fought for his country boldly, courageously, and confidently.  He went to war, believing in his heart his fighting in the name of our country would keep safe young people like his nephews and like the young people he mentored in our church in Fayetteville.  He showed a strength of character very few people I know would demonstrate.  I saw him show strength and courage to as he returned from war, deeply emotionally injured.  My good friend Chuck Fager, who for years worked with the Quaker House of Fayetteville working to call our country to peacemaking rather than violence, introduced me during these years to the idea of “moral injury” – that good people, with conscience, cannot engage in war or violence of any kind without walking away deeply broken.  So John came back broken emotionally, turning to the bottle.  I witnessed him show the strength of character as a good Christian man to face his pain and through therapy, pastoral counseling with one of the pastors of our church in Fayetteville, and also through Alcoholics Anonymous to find sobriety from alcohol and inner healing from the costs of war.

soldiers in love

To me, his example shows what my own father taught me years before.  True strength is found not just in doing what is right but also being willing to admit your mistakes and work to change.  It comes, as some of my mentors in chaplaincy later would teach me, in being man enough to admit your heartache, and pain.   It takes courage to admit your brokenness and seek the help to become whole.

I remember, too, two men I will call Dylan and Gary.  These two men were active members of two churches where I pastored in Eastern North Carolina.  One was a very deeply southern man who was no nonsense, close to his family, and about as lily white as I am.   gay coupleHe could point in his neighborhood to all different places different of his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and ancestors had worked the land, built homes, and worked with their hands.   His partner Gary was Native American, an Ojibua Two Spirit, from Michigan who grew up most of his childhood in the mountains of West Virginia.   Though just as southern in his own way, down to a deep West Virginia drawl, Gary was also deeply in touch with his First Nations or Native American culture.   He would often talk to me as pastor in the same conversation both about what the Holy Spirit (whom he called “Mother”) spoke in his heart as he prayed and also what he felt the earth was saying to him in the signs of bird feathers, the light of the sun through his trees, and the animals along his path.

In how both, in very different ways, expressed a deep faith in Christ – Dylan, in his hands-on, let me serve you by fixing things and being present, not ashamed to be a traditional southern gentleman; and Gary in his strong commitment to never compartmentalizing any of whom he was: both Native American and southern US citizen, both Christian and First Nations in spirituality, both Two Spirit and gay, both embraced by earth mother and ancestors as well as the Holy Spirit present in all people and Christ’s saints.    And both chose to embrace these various sides of themselves fully.

To me, this reflects the lesson such strong southern men who are gay teach me.  For, though I can talk about our traditional pictures of manhood, these strong southern men who happen to be gay also teach us that ultimately these stereotypes and ultimately unsustainable.

Southern writer bell hooks, a feminist philosopher born in and shaped by the hills of Kentucky, artfully describes how our traditional approach to manhood not just in the southland but throughout western culture, damages men of all sexualities and gender identities in her book The Will to Change:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

“Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term “masculinity”) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”

gay couple baby

“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”

These strong men of faith who were queer, even though closeted, taught me a great deal as a straight cisgender man, how to live into being a strong, Christian man in ways that are not the patriarchal mold I grew up with.  Though there were strong male role models to me as a young man growing up, most of them lived out their masculinity and their faith in highly patriarchal ways which treated children and women as if they were not full of the intelligence, strength, and wisdom which I have seen women of strength and faith exemplify.   Growing up I saw in the church of my childhood, in my family, and in the community in which I was raised the ways in which that patriarchal approach to life truly harmed others and came not out of true strength but a fear and insecurity, like a deep wound in the heart of those who prop up that system of control and abuse known as patriarchy.

The model the community and church of my childhood taught me to bring into relationships – of the strong male who was the head of the household – simply didn’t work in my relationships.   Looking back I can see how even used in as loving a way as possible, that model ended up deeply hurting women and children in the church and community in which I grew up.  I can even see pain it caused my own mother when I was coming up, and my sisters.

In my first (and as of yet only) marriage to my late wife Katharine, I never intended to be the bossy, closed off patriarchal male that was modeled to me by so many men in my childhood but it is amazing how these early models shape us.  I found myself falling into those patterns again and again, much to Katharine’s pain and my own shock.  That model, exactly as hooks suggests, taught me to close off from my own emotions, to act in ways that alienated me from someone I loved rather than built a bridge.  And also it drew me to act unintentionally in ways that had a sense of power over rather than collaboration with my then life partner.

It took a lot of work to get to the loving, mutual, collaborative relationship we both shared by the last several years of her life.  But it is in part the example of just such loving queer men I described so far.  I think, for instance, of the couple I am calling Dylan and Gary above.

gqy caring fof sikDylan and Gary had been together far longer than Katharine and I.   Both were so different and accepted each other just as they were.  They at times picked about these differences, but always with a playfulness that showed that beneath the laughing was a true and faithful love.

I can also remember the oft-repeated scene of being near one of them when they called each other at the end of or beginning of Dylan’s workday.   Almost without fail you could see Gary’s face get a big smile and his eyes dance like a little boy on seeing his first county fair.   And then you would hear it:  “I love you more”.  “No, I love you more.”  “No, I love you more”.  And that would continue until one of them had to get off the phone.

And love they had.  Love they still have.

What was striking to me was the ways in which they loved each other selflessly.   Gary had multiple sclerosis and in the time I knew them had multiple health problems shake his independence, breaking his heart.  Years of this had preceded my meeting of them.  Dylan was always a loving, dutiful, caring partner.  He always made sure to make sure his partner’s needs were met sensitively and caringly, although not without at times good natured ribbing.  I never saw him ever act as if the love and care he sometimes had to give Gary to help him through his health crises was ever a sacrifice or in ways that seemed like pity.  It never shook his respect for them, and clearly he didn’t think of the time, energy, and heartache involved.  He simply loved his partner as he loved himself.   As the writer of Ephesians says, Dylan loved Gary as his own body, as the Living Christ loves all of us without thought of cost or sacrifice.

the-marriage-of-the-soul-to-god_thumbI cannot begin to even explain what examples like theirs did to teach me about how to be a man in a relationship with a woman.  There was not “head” of the household in their lives, for both were equal and both loved with all they had.  I learned how to love with respect, admiration, and a heart to learn from my partner as an equal through the examples of queer folks like these two.  I learned also how to be there when, some years later, my late wife’s health began to turn.  Their example prepared me to be by her side without thought of cast or sacrifice when sometimes I had to care for her needs in ways neither of us would have ever imagined.   To make space to embrace her in all of who she was when her life changed bit by bit every day as he health worsened.

After Katharine passed, I was shocked to find myself discovering time and energy to spend with friends, pursue passions, try new things, care for my health, I simply could not find the last few years of her life.  I realized at one point what happened – I had spent so much worrying about being there and caring for her that, taken together with the emotional toil my chaplain work produced, there was nothing left at the end of the day after caring for her.  But while she was with me, I never noticed.  Why?  I had learned the lesson these egalitarian couples like Dylan and Gary taught me.  I learned to never view it as a sacrifice to give the best I had for one I loved.

It is funny, as I begin to explore relationships again, I find their example and how it helped free me in my relationship with a woman as a straight man to be fully present in that relationship, fully myself, and the best partner I could be, I find myself thinking more like these men’s example taught me to about relationships than how my southern upbringing taught me.

I look for relationships of mutuality.  I look for a partner who I feel is a true equal, who needs no one to be their “head” but instead look for someone who can, together with them, build something defined by no other rules than the love and commitment they will share with me.   I find myself looking for a relationship which, though straight, has been queered by these examples.

And I am so thankful.  For as hooks notes, the power of patriarchy is not only crushing for women and children, it also crushed my own soul and robbed me of my authenticity.

And so I am ever so thankful for this strong queer men who taught me new ways to be a man in our world, ways that respect and value the voices of the women in my life, ways that are not bound by the crushing structures of patriarchy but open to creating new ways for relationships, for friendship, and for building a life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Orlando, spiritual reparations for LGBTQ people

I normally highlight southern voices, but I feel that this voice of faith raises concerns that need to be a part of our conversation as people of faith in the south-land as we talk about the fallout from the Orlando massacre.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

===

One of the encouraging responses I have witnessed in the wake of the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando is the admission of guilt on behalf of some churches and religious leaders, recognizing that the perpetuation of our theological messages about LGBTQ people over the years has bee

Source: After Orlando, spiritual reparations for LGBTQ people

Celebrating Queer Saints: Remembering the Closeted

Remembering the Closeted: Living Beyond the Face of Life-Threatening Fear

One of the things about remembering the queer people who shape our lives is the fact that, far too often, those who are queer in our midst live much of their lives unseen and unknown.

lumbee pow wow

A Pow-Wow in Robeson County, NC held by the Lumbee tribe. Pow-wows are traditional celebrations of tribal culture for Native American tribes.

I saw this first hand when working on an innovative church start in rural North Carolina, Church of the Painted Sky.  This church was focused on celebrating the beauty in all God’s creation – present in all of nature and in all the diverse ways people are shaped: people of all races, genders, gender expressions, and sexual orientations.  As such, we welcomed queer people there in this deeply rural area.

What I saw in the lives of these queer friends and neighbors struggling to be faithful to their own faith, while also to discover and become faithful to who they are in their deepest selves, was often heart-breaking.   They found the gracious space The Church of the Painted Sky gave them as life-giving, providing them room in which to breathe and be, in the midst of a community that was oppressively rejecting.  Yet even the most vocal and faithful members of that church lived in real fear.  What if their involvement in this church, their outreach to the hurting around them, allowed others to know they might be queer or to wrongly think they were queer (as we had both straight folks such as myself and also queer people active in the life of this small church)?   Some knew, living in NC in a day when, as today, there were no legal protections for those who were queer from being kicked out of their apartments, being fired, or being denied medical care in NC law, people simply thinking they were queer could mean unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare.

lgbt protecitonIn fact, there were members of that fledgling, struggling, loving community who had faced just such threat put in action.  I remember being heart-broken to meet a number of gay and transgender youth both homeless and on the brink of homelessness in rural Robeson and Hoke county (and later, while working in Cumberland County, NC, in two other churches, also there).  A number of our church members made the choice to attempt to help some of these young people find places to stay, at times within our own homes and at times in the community.  I, too, took some of these young queer folks pushed out into homelessness into my home for awhile too.

But even for those not yet facing imminent homelessness, the fear was real and deep.

People did not just fear homelessness, unemployment, and lack of access to healthcare.  They also faced a fear of death. This continues to be a living reality for queer people and other minorities in the south-land.  We saw this recently in the horrific shooting of queer people, mainly of color, at Pulse night club in Orlando.  Many who live in the comfortable bubbles of tolerance which exist in metropolitan areas like my own Triangle where I now live in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill are of North Carolina, cannot imagine a world in which anyone would be killed for who they are.

trans lives matter 2015

But the power of abject poverty to produce fear, a fear that seeks scapegoats for whom to blame our suffering, scapegoats we feel must be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and of exclusion, is stronger than we comfortable city liberals often realize.   Last year I was heartbroken, but not shocked, to hear news that within walking distance of where the Church of the Painted Sky once met, just over the county line from its old place of worship, a young black boy was hung, lynching style, from a swing set.  While serving in Church of the Painted Sky and other queer-oriented churches in NC, I heard again and again the stories of trans women of color raped and killed outside historic gay bars even in our more metropolitan cities here in North Carolina.

Yet even before these facts came to light, I saw day in and day out while pastoring in rural North Carolina the constant emotional abuse faced by queer people and people of color.  I saw too those cast out of their families.  I remember being heart-broken to hear a woman in an abusive relationship with a man of her same ethnicity, Lumbee (a Native American tribe in Eastern North Carolina), who remained in it despite the abuse simply because her family told her they would disown her if she dated the man who loved, supported, and treated her well “outside the race”.   She felt pressure to stay in this abusive relationship because of the way in which the knife’s edge of poverty led her family and community to embrace the fear of the other.  Her emotional and physical bruises which she carried every day were the cost of this.  And also I saw this in the lives of those like the homeless youth I mentioned already who were cast out of their families, with no place to go, due to their sexual and gender identity.

scapegoat.jpgWe see this drive to push people back into closets, to make scapegoats of those who are different, raising its head again here in North Carolina, in the passing of House Bill 2.  In a deeply mean-spirited way the passing of this bill puts pressure on those whose gender expression does not fit the patriarchal mold of “good southern men” and “good southern women” our culture has placed upon us – not just transgender people, but also cisgender folks like myself who (unlike me) do not easily conform to gender norms.  This law also creates barriers for those fighting in this state to extend southern hospitality to people in the school, the workplace, and the community by creating barriers to legally confronting employment and housing discrimination, and discrimination in the schoolyard.

scapegoatThis same giving into the fear faced by those who feel they live on a knife’s edge, the fear that seeks not the healing of community  but a scapegoat to blame and castigate can be seen in the movement throughout the south to pass similar laws which target queer people, transgender citizens, and also immigrants.   Put them in closets, we say.  Push them in so far.  In my next few posts I want to share about some once-closeted southern queer souls whose example helped free my straight soul.

In the meantime, I want to share a poem of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s and a poem I wrote as a song of the south which express the call to create a world where people can truly live, free of fear, no longer pushed into closets.

who am i 2

by Deitrich Bonhoeffer

 

“Who am I?  They often tell me

who am i 5I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.

 

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as through it were mine to command.

 

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

 

who am i 3

Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing

My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

 

who am iWho am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me like a beaten army

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

 

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,

Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

who am i 4

 

Rebel Cry  

by Micah Royal

barns Honeysuckle_2

“The south will rise again”

whispered in winds thick with smells

of honey suckle and jasmine

joining barns, creeks, church bells,

and watermelons

casting a kind of spell

shaping the landscape in

my childhood mind when hells

like slavery, Jim Crow,

and poverty weren’t known.

dinner-table-lwatermelon

I heard “the south will rise”

as a promise of grits,

cornbread, tea, pecan pies,

at tables all can sit

affirming our shared ties,

a re-union as fit

as a sight for sore eyes.

Then, at twelve, I was hit

by news of a black man shot

in the name of the rising south.

hate crime Trayvon Martin

That south which filled my sights

was falling, not rising, then:

falling into hate and fright

based on folk’s shade of skin,

if who they love was deemed “right”,

forgetting that the true sin

is not those whom we fight

but in not letting them in.

With waving flags, guns ablaze,

we plunged b’neath where we can raise.

martin luther kingsit-in-greensboro-record

My heart sank til I heard

a Georgia preacher’s dream:

children unencumbered

by hate of color or creed,

from whom a new south is born.

Now I know that south’s rising,

rising beyond fear and scorn

of those different, with wings

of a new morning for all

without more dividing walls.

Yes, the south will rise,

will rise again

rise with justice

rise with equality

rise with shadows of hate forgotten.

carolina sunrise

Daily Devotional: When God Brings a Keg

As we continue to celebrate the lives of queer saints, I want to share a sermon I preached some time ago which hits on the need for people of faith to learn to embrace their own sexuality and their bodies.   One of the reasons for the fear, misunderstanding, and discrimination against queer people is how many straight cisgender folks like myself are brought up learning to fear and distrust their own emotions and sexuality.  They feel being sensual is somehow shameful or dirty, rather than a beautiful God-given gift.  If they cannot embrace the sensual side in themselves, it is hard for them to learn to embrace and accept the sensuality others have which is different than their own.

As a cisgender straight man who for years mainly ministered within the queer community, I can say that one thing Pride month taught me is how I needed to lay aside the shame about my own body, my own sexuality, my own sensuality which years of “True Love Waits” talks and sermons maligning people in ways that were slut-shaming taught me.  This sermon, among other things, celebrates this and also affirms the beauty of queer relationships and people.

May it bless you this Pride Month.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

When God Brings the Keg

Our Gospel reading comes from John 2

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, wedding at cana 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

I want to begin by sharing a short video:

I can relate to this video because of my experience in college. I was a pretty strict religious guy in college… I did the whole “True Love Waits” thing, and stuck to it. And in part because of trying to stick the straight-laced faith I grew up with, and in part because of having a family member who was not just an alcoholic but at times an angry drunk when he drank, I would not really touch the stuff.

So I was that guy in the video, standing around puzzled while others partied.

Because of this, like a lot of religious folks, I found this whole story about Jesus a little embarrassing. Like many I had grown up with this picture of faith as a life of discipline, constantly working hard to do the right thing. Which usually meant sacrificing pleasure, choosing the narrow road few went by, however painful. Sacrifice. After all, didn’t Jesus call me to take up the cross.

serious kegBut here we see Jesus’ first miracle, which you would think would be the one to sort of picture what his ministry and his work was all about. And what does Jesus do? Jesus goes to a party. And, as important as I still think a designated driver is, Jesus does not seem to go as one. This is why later in the Gospels when Jesus is criticized, it is for drinking and partying too hardy … unlike his cousin John the baptizer who never touched the stuff & his criticized for being too rigid. No, Jesus was known to have a drink. Here Jesus went one better: Jesus not only had a drink at the party, brought the keg. Jesus’ first miracle is bringing the keg of wine to the party. Not only is it bringing a keg, but turning the barrels of holy water, which are about the size of a beer keg, into strong wine, the kind you bring out at the beginning of the party when folks are still sober or on a light buzz, not the cheap stuff you bring out later.

In fact Jesus doesn’t bring one keg … he brings six. Six kegs of strong wine to a group of people who’ve already drunk enough.

What can we make of this? What does it teach us about our lives and our calling?

The first thing this shows me is that Jesus did not come to call us to sacrifice.

In fact Jesus tells us this in the Gospels.

Later in John, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus repeatedly says things like “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7).

I don’t know about you, but for years the opposite message is what I heard: that if you want to follow God, it means choosing suffering, choosing sacrifice. It means giving up the celebration, giving up the joy, giving up the career you love, the life your family wants. I’ve seen people sacrifice caring for themselves, for their families, in the name of this sacrifice, all because they believe that is what God asks of them.

And I don’t know about you, but I have seen the innocent condemned based on this belief that Christian life is all about sacrifice.

I remember having a man, heart-stricken, come to me as I served in a church in Los Angeles, saying “Here’s the thing, I love God, I love this church, but I also know I’m gay”. The message he had been given was that in order to please God, he had to sacrifice who he was, sacrifice his sexual orientation, be something he is not, and live without love and alone. That Jesus, not the thief, was the one who had come into life to steal, kill, and destroy who he was.

I remember seeing a young lady told she had no faith and that is why she was not healed – that her disability was a sign she was not a believer. That preacher and that church lived out sacrifice, not mercy. They taught Jesus came to steal, kill, and destroy who she was.

I am heart-broken to recall a young person struggling, feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, having a church respond that “we don’t want someone like that here”, because they saw sacrifice, not mercy ruling the day.

I think that Jesus’ miracle shows us that God’s focus is not sacrifice. God’s call is not for us to deny who we are in order to serve God. Instead as it says in Ephesians 2, verse 10, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do “

Turn to someone and say “You aren’t junk; no, you are God’s handiwork”

Turn to someone else and say “God doesn’t call you to deny who you are, because you were created in Christ Jesus”.

In Jesus’ first miracle, Jesus blesses the very things in our lives so often we are told to sacrifice in the name of religion.wedding at cana Jesus blesses celebration, pictured by the wine and the party. Jesus shows us being filled with God’s presence ought to cause you to enjoy life, to celebrate – drawing you closer to others, helping you see the joy in each moment. For some people, this might not mean lifting wine, because for them that bottle might very well be the very thing that causes them to become so broken they cannot be present in the moment, truly enjoying others, truly embracing life. I know that family member whose drinking made me decide to turn away from the bottle at one point in my life later decided that, for himself, he had to give up the bottle not to sacrifice a good, full life but in order to find it. Now after working through some of my experiences stemming from that relative’s drinking and from my own experience of legalistic religion I can have a drink from time to time in celebration. What is important is not the bottle, but the fact that Jesus is showing us that being able to drink deep of the joy and blessings in life, and doing so with others, is part and parcel of the life he brings. Our faith ought to awaken us to the depths of joy in our life. This is a part of what we have been talking about by saying that God becoming flesh and blood in Jesus not only is a promise of salvation, but a picture of what it makes possible: that in your life, however unique or seemingly ordinary, God is already breaking forth every day in big and little ways if you have eyes to see. So in you, in your every day life, God can also become flesh and blood so that through you others can find more fully the healing, the hope, and most of the joy and celebration in their own lives every day.

Also, though we often fail to notice it in this passage, Jesus is celebrating sex through this miracle. After all, what follows the wedding party but the wedding night? For many of us, we have learned from the church the opposite message – to be ashamed of our sexuality. How many gay, bisexual, or transgendered folks have heard from the church over the years that their sexuality is a curse, their love an abomination, and their relationship a pathway to hell? Even many straight couples I’ve worked withas a pastor over the years have told me stories about how mixed messages in the church calling for them to sacrifice led them to feel ashamed of their sexuality, to struggle to really celebrate intimacy with their spouse.

But in celebrating this miracle at a wedding, Jesus is blessing sex as a beautiful gift. Jesus is showing sexuality to be a beautiful gift with the power to draw people together in ways that are healing and life-giving. I thank God that this miracle is here, because we know so little about Jesus’ own sexuality.

Turn to someone and say, Who you love is a gift. Love can never be an abomination.

In her book Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, Ann Rice imagines this scene as being the marriage of a young lady that Jesus had been smitten with to someone else, and coming after Jesus, having confronted his own sexuality, chooses to forsake marriage for a life of singleness, because he knows that, headed to the cross, he cannot be there for a wife or children. This is the traditional understanding of how Jesus expresses his sexuality: by choosing a life of singleness. Yet some scholars point toward some writings in the early church that suggest Jesus might have had a wife, as other rabbis did, to suggest Jesus was married. Still others point to the text at the end of John where Jesus entrusts his mother into the hands of the beloved disciple, traditionally the apostle John, as a sign that Jesus was bisexual or gay and had a loving partnership with another man.

The Bible is not very clear on whether Jesus was single, was straight and married, or gay or bisexual and in a committed same-sex relationship. I think the reason why is that any of these paths can be paths of holiness, where we allow God to become flesh and blood in our lives. By not telling us clearly which path Jesus is on the Bible makes room for us to imagine each of these paths as paths in which God can be made flesh in our world. Being single can be a way we experience our sexuality, and do so in a way that is healing and life-giving if we are ones called, whether for a time or for life, to singleness. Straight couples can and do reflect the life and love of Christ when they let Christ-like love rule their relationships. And I have seen so, so many same-gender couples whose sexuality is turned into a portrait of the love of Christ in how they allow their sexuality to help them find true, deep meaningful love through which they build a life together that reflects the life of Christ.

love is loveThis means that following Christ does not mean denying who you are in terms of your sexuality. Instead it means accepting it, whatever it is, and asking not how can I get rid of this but instead how can I be true to this in a way that reflects the love of Christ? There are a few people who, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, will determine the best way for them to be true to who they are in Christ is to be single, whether for the moment or long-term. Most others will find Christ showing them how their sexuality can be a gift which binds them together with others, in relationships whether same-gender or opposite-gender, that call out the best of who they are and help them learn how to love another selflessly as Christ loves us and gave his life for us.

Turn to someone and say Love can never be an abomination, because the Bible says against love there is no law.

In closing, I want to ask you to listen to the words of a Bon Jovi song, which illustrate the central truth of this passage to us.

Week in the Word: My Marriage Isn’t Biblical, and Thank God!

In our week in the Word feature, I try to lift up an emerging southern voice of faith speaking about progressive values and, failing that, a voice speaking from a progressive faith perspective directly to issues we are facing here in the south-land.

This week’s word comes from an anonymous author, but it could easily have been written by a southerner, as the issue of  patriarchal assumptions and how they can be damaging is a key issue here in the south-land.  I am not the only southern person I know who has stories of seeing women and children horribly damaged by families and churches in which people’s attempt to defend traditional marriage or traditional gender roles led to women feeling stuck in abusive marriages, couples not feeling free to have the openess to their emotions & gifts which can lead to vibrancy in life and relationships, and both young boys and girls growing up with unrealistic expectations of how life ought to be in order to “man up” or “be a lady”.  Please feel free to share insights, thoughts, and reflections.

I want to invite you to email me at micahbroyal@yahoo.com or comment on my Week in the Word blog posts if you see a good message to share in this feature as well.

Here is the message for this week, taken from http://youngclergywomen.org/marriage-isnt-biblical-thank-god/

One of my namesakes is a woman who spent decades trapped in a miserable marriage.  Her story is one of the reasons I often refer to the 1950’s as “the decade of lies.”  Society forced her to lie, pretending that her husband was a good father, that he would never hurt anyone, that they were happy together.  She had nowhere she could go, and no resources to enable her to leave, and of course divorce was nearly unheard of at the time.

After her first husband died, my namesake had a brilliantly happy, but very brief, second marriage, which was tragically cut short with her second husband’s death from cancer. And yet she never gave up hope, and she shared that hope with others.  Specifically she shared it with my mother, who was mourning the end to her own first marriage. My namesake’s perseverance when all seemed dark shone like a beacon, and I was named for her in the hopes that I would share her perseverance, but not her history.

Mom also spent my childhood (as her mother had done for her) drumming into me that I needed to be able to be independent.  She learned early that disasters do not arrive on schedule. I grew up on stories (not just from my mother) of women who suffered because they lacked the tools to be independent, whether those tools were money, connections, education or simply the right to own property in their own name. Having been named after one of those women, to say that my view of “traditional marriage” (when that phrase implies a lack of equality between partners) is negative, is a stunning understatement. I know too many stories of those battered and abused (physically and otherwise) by this system to view it as a cultural value or a folksy tradition.

And when people refer to “Biblical marriage” as something to be aspired to, my reaction is stronger. When I read the Bible I do not find it filled with marriages that function as good examples to the modern-day world. The majority of marriages in the Bible were not anything like what we experience in first-world countries today. The women did not choose their own husbands and many had no ability to own property, decide their own futures, or leave abusive situations. Polygamy and concubinage were rampant in Biblical times, and women were married off very young. Judges chapter 19 is only one Biblical example of how little women were valued in that culture. If you ever wondered what would have happened to Lot’s daughters if the angels hadn’t stopped him…. (Go ahead, read it, I’ll wait.)

But that’s not the only terrible example. Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister so she could flirt with his customers to improve his business deals, at least twice. King David’s life is filled with troubling marriage narratives, Bathsheba’s being the most memorable, and Abigail perhaps the most positive (though she clearly had no choice in her husbands). Ruth married Boaz quite openly as the best option to avoid starving to death. Dinah, Joseph’s little sister, was married off to her rapist and then her wedding feast became a massacre. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, had to resort to seducing Judah under false pretenses in order to receive her economic rights as a widow. The heroes of the Bible, the people we look up to as spiritual examples, are very often flawed and broken in the more earthly aspects of their lives.

There are vanishingly few marriages of the Bible which, if we met them today, we would still call good examples. Mary and Joseph had a relationship built on trust (after a little angelic intervention). Hannah’s husband Elkanah loved her dearly, despite her barrenness. Zipporah saved Moses’ life, and he had a good relationship with his father-in-law, though we know little else about their marriage. Many other marriages we know very little about; though the people in them may be good people (Aquilla and Priscilla) we know little or nothing about their unions.

If my marriage were Biblical, how would it be different? My husband would make all medical decisions for me, as my grandfather did for my grandmother.  We still have the paintings of shrunken heads she made, in an effort at therapy, because he wouldn’t let her see a psychiatrist.  My husband is, thank God, not a violent or abusive man, but if he were, and our marriage were Biblical, no one would ever be able to step in on my behalf, and I would not be allowed to leave.  Obviously I would not have had any choice in who or when I married, that would have been decided for me and I’d be informed when convenient.

There are certainly verses in the Bible which can tell us what a good marriage should look like. Ephesians 5:21 and following tells spouses (both spouses!) to be subject to one another. And while Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 can be applied to friendships as well as marriage, the theme of interdependence, rather than dependence, is shown again. Jesus exhorts us again and again to love one another as God has loved us- that is to say, wholly and sacrificially. Yet mutual interdependence is not a theme that appears often in conversations about “Biblical marriage.”

I was married in a Christian church, I was raised in the church and am now a pastor; my husband shares my faith and was also raised a Christian.  Yet, we both give thanks that our marriage is not “Biblical.” We are full and equal partners. I do not aspire to follow in the marital footsteps of Dinah and Abigail and Bathsheba, I don’t want to share their history. But perhaps, if greater blessings even than I have now are heaped upon me by God, I will grow to share some of their perseverance.

Daily Devotional: Pursuing Connections that Make Us New, Not Conflicts That Tear Down

As we continue to reflect on queer rights and the value and worth of queer people in our midst, I found the following devotional in which I talk about some of the ways in which ideas and thinking has been changed.  One of my one convictions as one who has had my own prejudice I had years ago against queer people eroded by deep friendships with people who are queer, so that I have been active in the fight to recognize queer rights, is that we who are allies and activists must find ways to creatively engage others about the need to recognize the intrinsic worth, rights, and value of queer people.

This is a lesson of Pride month.   I hope my devotional helps you embrace it more.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

Luke 20:1-18

Here as Jesus is teaching, religious leaders attempt to question Jesus in order to trap him before the crowds. They ask where he got his authority to teach, as he did not go through the priestly or rabbinic schools. Jesus asks them where John the Baptizer got his authority. Not wanting to publicly disparage that popular figure, but also not wanting to endorse him, they say they don’t know. Jesus says if they can’t answer him, he doesn’t need to answer them.

Here we see Jesus dealing with individuals confronting him only in order to prove what they have already made up in their own minds, not seeking true dialogue or understanding. This sort of interchange happens so often in our communities. You can pick an issue – how to understand a pet doctrine of the church, whether to support gay marriage or carbon footprint reduction laws – and there will always be some who go into that conversation with an agenda. When they converse, they don’t really listen and hear the other’s perspective, but show up with their talking points wanting to only “win” the argument.

Jesus can see these few are wanting to relate in this way, a way that brings no true connection or transformation but only the smug reassurance that you are right and another is wrong. Jesus decides to opt out of that game. Jesus knows the sort of power plays and manipulations such arguments bring, so he simply bows out. My dog is not in your fight, folks.

Choosing not to take part in such back and forth in this case is a powerful example. If we are honest, many of us are tempted when we confront someone whose views we see as dreadfully wrong and perhaps even damaging to others to swoop in and join in the tit for tat.   Elsewhere Jesus does engage in some debate, but he is modeling for us to be bible_study_groupdiscerning and to realize that such a tit for tat may make us feel superior to others, smug in our self-righteousness, but it rarely changes minds. The reason it rarely does so is often in such situations we are all so quick to spend our time while others talk thinking about our response, we rarely hear each other. Instead of truly connecting and coming to know another’s experience and have the one we are talking with connect with us in the same way, we often talk past each other. We end up often not even answering each other’s beliefs and experiences, but constructing straw men and straw women versions of each other that respect less each other’s own experiences but our own preconceived notions.

Recently on “This American Life”, they did a segment on studies into what actually can transform people’s perspectives on important burning issues (see http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/555/the-incredible-rarity-of-changing-your-mind). In the piece, they found that what changes our perspective is not debating issues, providing proofs, but real living encounters with other people with different views, encounters in which a true connection occurs.   Some findings later question the methodology of some of the studies “this American Life” explores, but its basic premise – that it is encounters with others where a real connection between people occurs, not just intellectual arguing, which brings real change of perspective – I think is true to our lived experience.

I remember being a preacher in a conservative evangelical denomination, then called Worldwide Church of God but now renamed Grace Communion International. I knew what I knew about what the Bible said about homosexuality. Then I had a parishioner who was gay come out to me and tell me of his struggle, with his experience that being gay was a part of who he was that could not change, as well as his experience striving to live by the dictates of the church in regards to not having romantic relationships with men he was attracted to even though it made him painfully lonely, and his experience being rejected by people in church. Those sessions talking with me caused a real connection with that man. No longer was being gay an “issue” – it was a face, a name. And when I found that the well-worn dogmas and interpretations I quoted to him didn’t fit his actual lived experience at all, it forced me to re-examine my beliefs. I found that modern scholarship doesn’t find homosexuality as such condemned in the Bible, but certain specific sex acts which, in an opposite gender context, are also condemned without condemning all straight relationships. I found there were no verses condemning gay relationships that resembled marriage at all, and in fact some verses that might be understood to describe positive models of same-gender love. I found that scientists found same-gender relationships in all kinds of animals, as a natural biological variance just as much normal as height or eye color. I found social scientists say there was nothing any more pathological about one’s sexual orientation than one’s handedness, and the only negative mental health situations coming from one’s sexual orientation were based on trying to suppress or change it.   This connection with this man led me to other connections with people, including some family members and neighbors, who shared the same story. It transformed my perspective. God used that experience, that relationship, to transform me from an opponent of gay rights, to a friend, ally, and advocate for LGBT people.

I think that Jesus’ example shows us the need to avoid becoming caught up in proving who is right, and to not feel the need to give into other’s desire (or our own) to debate in such a way. I think Jesus models for us instead seeking this genuine human connection which will transform us and others in ways we cannot anticipate or expect.   That move can be challenging, and frightening, but we can trust our Mothering Holy Spirit to guide that experience to be life-giving for us and others.