The call was real enough. I have been so told, and that calling has been tested and affirmed in community as well as my episodes in own journey. But I imagined when I “answered the call” that the process of so doing would somehow set me on a path whereupon all the divots and bumps of the human journey would be smoothed out, such that I could soar through my education, catch my diploma midair, and gently spiral into a cushy landing as an associate pastor under commission in the United Methodist Church.
Needless to say, such isn’t the case five years later.
Interestingly, what prompted my decision to enroll at ATS was my chance encounter with Romans 8.1, which came at the end of a long struggle against my perceived call to ministry. Near the end of my undergrad career I was faced with it, as I had considered for some time what it was precisely that God wanted me to do with my life. I heard the verse–“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”–and I wrote in my journal, “I can’t not tell people this.” I took this as a cue to enter into seminary towards a life as a professional proclaimer of non-condemnation, as I imagined the ministry to be.
It’s a real gas that such a verse would be the key in my vocation’s ignition, which had been silently simmering below a seven-year melange of high school finding-of-thyself, classical music training at evangelical college, and internalized homophobia. The priceless pearl of truth that I thought I had to share with the world–that there was now no condemnation–ended up, at the end of seminary, being the very thing that I needed to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
But then, how would I be able to proclaim it if I didn’t live it? And having lived it, indeed, how can I not proclaim it?
I had the benefit of an excellent field placement mentor during seminary who often pushed me on this issue of calling–why do I feel called? Thanks to her prodding, I’ve turned this over in my mind for a long time. I certainly have my commission on ministry and bishop’s interview answers–that this is a calling I have been led to through prayer, participation in the sacraments, growth in community, &c.–but I also sense deep, abiding pull that I can’t quite put into words. It’s as if the vortex of God’s dance of self-giving love has sucked me into it in this particular channel for living out my death and resurrection. I feel like I can’t not do it.
Is that a complete answer? Probably not. There’s only as much as I know to this point; what will be revealed in the future remains clouded in God’s unboundedness.
But my sense-of-call isn’t because I think I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t a pastor, or that being a priest will suddenly shuffle everything in my life into a manageable order, or that being a priest will finally get others to respect me, or even that being a priest will finally get God to love me. Those were all things I thought at one point or another during seminary. And a lot of people in discernment and formation think these things, if we’re being honest. Because God calls humans, baggage and all, to baptismal ministry, and from there on to ordained ministry. I can’t not do it because this is the path, one, that God has called me to whereupon I’ll work out my salvation, and two, because I’ve chosen to answer that call. We’re always free to say no to the call.
But I’ve chosen to say yes to it, to set out on the journey of testing and fanning it into flame in a community, knowing that I will hurt, and I will suffer, and I will celebrate, and I will hold others. Because Christ has hurt, suffered, celebrated with, and held me. But all along the way I will tell people that they are freed from condemnation, because God has freed me from condemnation in ways that I could only experience by walking out the journey of formation and discernment. It’s my hope that I will be a faithful witness to that unconquerable God-is-for-us love each time I share love and welcome and food with them.
In that, my vocation ceases to be about me at all–because it’s only ever truly been about the Caller and Her beloved people.
A couple of days ago my friend Alan posted on hir blog a striking reflection on Luke 8.19-21. The gist of Alan’s argument was that Jesus did not come to protect so-called “traditional” family values, but rather through his ministry created a new sort of family relationship that was not tied to bloodlines and family structures but rather whether one was within the desire (thelema) of God–that Jesus’ teaching deconstructs prevalent notions of family that existed in the Greco-Roman world and persist to today. God’s reign does not only bring shalom to heteronormative middle American nuclear families, but to those of us whose families look a little weirder than normal.
The myth of the nuclear family still pervades Western imagination. Even in the gay rights movement what we essentially see is a retrofitting of the nuclear family myth to include same sex parents as opposed to the expected opposite-sex pairing of mom and dad. The same sex parents adopt or have children through surrogacy in order to achieve the required 2.5 broodlings, and perpetuate the familial structure that has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of I Love Lucy. That’s the kind of family the media feeds us, the kind of family that makes it into a prime time sitcom spot (even though I adore Modern Family).
Many of the arguments for inclusion from the Christian equality activists–bless them!–even seem to focus on including this kind of family, without really considering whether the image of family that their activism endorses is really appropriate for the ones on whose behalf they speak.
But what about those families that aren’t quite as normal looking? What about those families that don’t fit the expectations of popular imagination? What about those families I like to describe as “post-nuclear,” whether by accident or by choice? Childless couples? Single adults? Close more-than-friends, not-quite-couples? Monastic communities? Non-custodial parents? The mentally and physically disabled? Extended relations all gathered under one roof? Celibate LGBTQ couples?
We frequently use the term “family” in a sort of quasi-nostalgic way when we speak of our work “family,” or our college “family”–what we typically mean is our incredibly close friends, but we use an image-caked word to conjure exactly how close they are. We mean people with whom we share life in common. In the economy of thelema that Jesus’ preaching advocates, it seems as though the sex-soaked bonds of genos and patria are being dissolved in favor of a vision of family that rests in shared life in common, where a community can be a locus of soul-making and bestowing blessing upon its individual members–and moreover, a community where we can respond to being desired by God by communally desiring God in return.
I know this is the case for me–my family is queer all on its own, though I’m the only person in it who identifies as queer. I’m a divorced, gay, non-custodial parent who lives 1,200 miles distant from my kid, born the old-fashioned way in my previous mixed-orientation marriage. My experience of what “family” is has been redefined by virtue of accident and geography, and it is decidedly non-traditional–but I’m still my child’s father by blood, her dad by choice, and our relationship is such that it opens deep wells of love within me that I’m never quite sure are there until I hear, see, or touch her. It’s astoundingly difficult and yet this “family arrangement” pulls riches out of my soul I didn’t realize lay buried under my own fears and doubts about whether or not I’m still her dad at the end of the day.
In the household of God it’s as if we are still living under one roof, and in that space I find us both in the divine thelema, living as family together with my blood relatives as well as those brothers and sisters, those with whom I share not blood but an experience of living in the divine desire. Together our love for Christ and belovedness by Christ grafts us into a gene-transcending family tree. And that familial space becomes an environment in which we can indeed grow into the full stature of the maturity of Christ, for whom “family” meant an unwed mom, a foster dad, petulant half-brothers, and a band of friends who loved him in absurd and beautiful ways.
I think in some ways it is a calling to embrace a queer way of doing family, because the witness of a queer family tells the world that shalom is not just for the socially privileged, for the normal, for the regular. The beauty of divine desire is that it embraces the weirdnesses that we all carry with us throughout our life. And my concern in all of this is whether or not our churches will be inclusive enough to recognize the way that divine desire is already knitting people together into divine families, weirdnesses and all. Perhaps one day they will; until then, we’ll keep on being family.
I attempted to have a retreat day today.
I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.
After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.
And then I hit a wall.
Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.
Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?
Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.
There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.
Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.
In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.
Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.
Earlier this afternoon I was absent-mindedly flipping through Facebook, as I am wont to do on lazy spring Sunday afternoons, and I saw a set of photos someone had posted of the beautiful planter garden that they had put together on their Washington DC terrace apartment with their impossibly handsome fiance. I flopped over on my borrowed bed and buried my face my borrowed duvet cover and let out a Tina Belcher-esque moan: he’s successful; I’m not.
Facebook has become something of a source of frustration for me in the last couple of weeks because it reminds me of the manifold ways in which my life has taken a different direction than many of those in my peer group. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is something that an increasing number of twenty-somethings are experiencing. I’m not sure where I expected to be as I approached my twenty-sixth birthday, but four months to the day away from it I’m fairly positive that living with my parents and scraping by with my overnight non-profit job and sleeping on a borrowed mattress was not it.
It used to be that I had dreams–plans, ambitions even. It’s not that I don’t have those dreams anymore, because I certainly do, and I still have a vocation and a path that I’m walking. But they’re vastly different from the dreams of the wide- and wild-eyed teenager who left home at seventeen years old to become a composer. For the first time–this is a big deal–I don’t feel like I’m running from anything (that’s an entire post on its own).
But having this trajectory is not an antidote to those feelings of, “could I have done better in a STEM field? Could I have done better if I had stayed and finished out my PhD? Could I have done better if I had made different decisions about my life?”
The answer to those questions, I think, isn’t a yes or a no. I could have done differently if I had gone to this school or taken that degree or done that internship–but ultimately living in the realm of possibilities and regrets is not going to help me find the satiety that I need in this present moment. Part and parcel of my current vocation is to be both mindful and thankful of the place I am in right now. Those things I find myself envious of are often things that I know would be toxic to my own vocation and identity. And so the cognitive distortion of he’s successful, I’m not, remains just that: a cognitive distortion, not grounded in reality at all.
And so my answer to those questions of, “could I be the one with a handsome fiance and a kickass apartment in Washington DC and a six-figure salary if I had just done things differently?” is “yes, at the cost of who I am in this moment.” I am not that person. And I accept the fact that I am envious of them. It’s okay.
Because I’m not that person, and I have a life unto which I’ve been called to live. And it’s a good life, successful even, because I have a roof over my head and food on my table, which is more than an uncomfortably large number of people have. Moreover I have a job, and a career trajectory, and the support of a loving network of family and friends across the country and the world who are holding me up and walking with me into my calling. The person that I am in this moment is precisely the person whom God needs me to be. And to live into the calling of God is success in its own right, not on the terms of Facebook.
(Even though I’d be able to throw some awesome dance parties on a terrace like that.)
“God, according to Luther, is found first on a cross, beaten and dead, not as a masochist but as a bearer of what is, a God who takes on our destiny of death in all its forms…God is found in the despair of the cross. God is found in our many deaths, bringing possibility out of nothingness.” – Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair
“In the tomb in body, in Hades in the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and seated at the right hand of the Father, you did circumscribe all things, oh Christ, yourself uncircumscribeable.”
Belief escapes me
despite the six-figure paper hanging on my wall
despite having mastered divinity
despite my theological pedigree
after twenty five years of a journey
towards truth and light
through clouds of tears
and crooned Hillsong
prom songs to Jesus and
three years at the school of
“eruditio et religio”
that left me gutted
on the altar of religion
I am no closer to enlightenment
than I was as an infant
Belief escapes me
despite new ways, new traditions
despite the muttered creed at mass
despite orders and hours
the cross drawn across my chest
where a heart that is more fear than faith
more anxiety than awe
beats through the service
afraid of what has passed
desperate to get to the one part
that makes sense
that part where we eat
because when we eat
the crunching of christ’s body in my mouth
for a split second
drowns out the people shouting
and the warmth of his blood in my throat
melts the frozen daggers
placed there by gatekeepers
and doctrine watchdogs
belief still escapes me
and i wish
that I could call myself anything but Christian
that I could simply be swallowed in the sea of nones
but my wild hope that at the end
Christ will still welcome me
despite loving other men
despite doctrinal impurity
despite failure to love my neighbor
and my unwillingness to see
the scintillating realness
of a world held together by love
stretched dyed and dead
is the one thing standing
between me and oblivion
I’m an awful christian
(if I even am a christian)
but I’ve got the wild hope
of a mouth-foaming
It is Lent, and we draw closer to the cross.
I’m something of a rebel at heart—not because I seek to overthrow anything, but because at the core of my heart’s understanding of the way this world has turned out, it is already overthrown. There is something grossly amiss with the world, and I think it only appropriate that those who call themselves servants of a breathing, dying, rising God adopt a perspective of rebellion against the rule of death, not by denying it wholesale, covering it over in the platitudes of Mickey Mouse religion, or worse, constructing a simulated reality out of the duck-faced, over-filtered, symbols that float through Western society divorced from meaning.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Andrew Root’s book The Promise of Despair, the essential premise of which is that the darkness of death against which we rail is the very context in which we see the ultimate reality of what holds the universe together, the Crucified God, the One whose heart bleeds and dies over a world in thrall to death. The One whose death swallows up death forever.
One of my understandings of the sacrament of the Eucharist is that it is an affirmation of and participation in the overthrowal of the world by the death of Christ, the final defeat of the darkness that persists in those dark corners of the world. I harp on this at length but it is something worth harping upon because in the Eucharist we taste the crucified, dead God and welcome him into our bodies to raise us with him. The taste of dry bread and tawny port is the taste of death that’s been turned inside out–it’s a flavor that cries, “life!”
There is nothing more real than the Eucharistic meal, as far as I understand it. By that I mean there is nothing so closely connected with the founding and final order of things as a perfect love poured out into the most basic of human functions–breathing, eating, and drinking. But as basic as those functions are, there is something else that makes the Eucharist real: it acknowledges despair, that force which bakes and breaks us, presses and pours us. The liturgy of the Eucharist encompasses the whole of human experience.
Could it be that in consuming the bread and wine we become more real because of our participation in these symbols? I think so–and what a reality it is, a reality that is more real than the death-bent world around us, a reality in which victims and oppressors are reconciled to God and thereby to one another.
But there’s something to be said for the desire to continue living in deathly fantasy. As much as I know my reality, my destiny, is to be bound up and reconciled in the body of Christ to my wrongdoers and the ones whom I have wronged, there is yet a desire to allow the wall of hostility to linger just a little longer. That deathly pull makes me say, “no, I don’t want to dine with those people.”
If I am to accept the reality of my belovedness, I must accept that I will ultimately have to be reconciled to the people who pulled their World Vision sponsorships because of people like me. I will have to be reconciled to the single-issue voters and toxic pundits that continue to see folks like me as a blight on society, unworthy of the name “beloved.” I don’t want to embrace those people right now. I want to shield my heart from being ground further into a pulp, and so I resist reconciliation. In those moments I want the specter of death to keep me apart from those people.
Holding on to deathly fantasies may give me some sense of protection now, but as with everything, that protection is false; it too is burned away by the warmth of Real Food, along with everything else that Love destroys in the process of saving us from falsehood. But the good news is that our wounded memories will, in the presence of reality-shaping love, become a source for a wildly hopeful future in which my heart will be changed–and their hearts, too–so that at long last I can embrace my estranged brothers and sisters as Esau did Jacob.
And out of that wild fountain of hope comes this, a hope down in my bones: when at the last Death and Hell are swallowed up, hatred and bigotry will go with them, and we will finally live.
[Warning: Pulp Fiction language ahead! Also I know the title of this is “The Man God Loves” and I use that as this is a personal reflection from a cis-male perspective and it’s also a play on a song title. I don’t mean anything more than that.]
As I’m writing this Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of “The Man I Love” is playing on Spotify. In a bizarre way I somehow feel as though the lyrics could just as easily speak of “the God I Love,” especially the line I’ll do my best to make him stay.
I have trouble trusting God. I have trouble trusting in God’s goodness and his welcome, especially in a world that continues to be peppered with personages and prophets who pander to pedantic impieties and utilize the message of God to denigrate the humanity and realness of others.
I know that those people do not speak for God, and that my heart and life have already been spoken for by the God who suffers rejection and death for the sake of welcoming all into that God’s own divine demesne.
But sometimes the voices of those who cry “no!” to God’s children are louder than the dying voice of the God who cries “no!” to the pattern of suffering and death. The lie weasels into my thought processes: have I done something to drive God away? Am I still worthy of grace, despite all my darkness? And so I find myself doubting God, as though I cannot be found behind the nagging shadow of my own imagined unworthiness, listening for God’s dying whisper of tetelestai, listening for the rustle of linen in the resurrection tomb, listening for the footsteps of the myrrh bearers, and hoping that I too will find myself eating fish on the beach with the God I love. The voice inside me nags, “maybe I haven’t done my best to make him stay.”
I wonder if God ever sings “I’ll do my best to make him stay.” The reality is that God hasn’t gone anywhere; the issue at work here is my own human forgetfulness. This is why the Sacraments are so utterly important–we remember our baptism, we remember our participation in the death and resurrection, we remember the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we remember our forgiveness from sin, and we’re even set apart to help the world remember its belovedness in the other sacraments. The great grace is that I am spoken for whether or not I can hear the echoes of those realities in my mind’s ear. There’s nothing I can do to make God stay because God has never left, and will never leave. And the grace upon grace is that I can taste the realness of love in bread and wine, feel the embrace of the loving God in the arms of those whom I know love me, in their words, in their smiles and acts of service.
Even though the glow of those holy moments in which I knew God’s presence has faded, the grace of God is such that I can still see the glow of God’s presence in those people who bear God’s image. The light of God in these acts, in these glances, strikes me like purging flame, burning away the grime over my eyes and welcoming me once again into the light of God’s countenance.
And I am an image bearer of God, and what more, the final word has been spoken regarding me: beloved. And I’m willing to wager on a God whose arms are stretched far enough to embrace a world that has forgotten the God it loves. We are the world God loves, even though we’re probably going to screw it up on the way to making that love a reality for all people.
But praise be to a God who can’t get enough of us darling, forgetful fuck-ups, who joins us in the pit of despair and transforms that place of destruction into a fountain life and light and uncomfortable grace that demands we do something with it. And what’s even crazier is that God actually trusts us to bring the world back to life with him. A God who never leaves, and who does God’s damnedest to help us remember.