It’s Been a Hard Summer

I met with my spiritual director on Monday for the first time since June. I was a bit self-conscious about the meeting. You see, I spent about 6 months in a spiritual formation intensive…the Ignatian Exercises. I’ve shared a bit about this before. The exercises require a lot of focus and energy. By the time I got to the end I was spent. I don’t think that I could have gone one week further.

Then…nothing.

I found myself in a dry and desolate place where the heavens were steel. I have lost all motivation to do anything. I was running. No more. I was writing. No more. My job has lost all appeal. I just don’t feel like doing anything.

When I went to meet with my director I felt like the high school kid who didn’t have his homework done. But, I couldn’t say that my dog ate my prayer time.

He told me that these kinds of feelings are not unusual for folks after they go through the exercises. They’re not expected. But, not unusual.

He was incredibly understanding and non-judgmental.

The encouragement he offered was helpful. Take time to breathe. Realize that God is not absent. I agreed with that. Even though I haven’t been actively spending time in so-called ‘prayer,’ I have experienced God’s presence. I realize that regardless of my condition, God is present.

So, this is kind of a response to his encouragement. Here I am….writing.

Blessings.

I’m Human. Things Have Been Hard.

I’ve got to share that the last 3 months have been rough. I don’t know why. Things were going great as I worked my way through the Ignatian Exercises. Then…Lent. The Exercises took on the texts of the last week of Jesus’ life. Then, the crucifixion. Everything went dark. All of my experiences prior to this had been wonderful. Then, the heavens became bronze.

That’s where I’ve been for the last few months.

I want to share a journal entry from 7/8/14. Please know that I am not usually very open with my feelings. I’ve been ‘bitten’ for this more than once. But, I don’t think that I’m alone.

“Still wish that this sojourn would end. I feel so much shame & anger that life suck.

Is this all there is?

Internal suffering that just won’t end?

I look for peace & solace in the written word & in drink.

Yet, both are selfish.

Or, so I’m told & told & told…

There’s no peace for me with people or stuff.

God seems far off & somewhat aloof.

I do wonder sometimes if there truly is a God.
But, then I can’t believe that this life is all that there is.

I remember past experiences where God seemed to be real.

Was the God? Or, just my mind?

The prophet Albus Dumbledore once said, “ Of course it’s all in your mind! That doesn’t mean it’s not real!”

In my mind I can travel to distant lands. Hell, I can travel to distant galaxies

I can imagine the multi-verse. Fairies, gnomes and other mythic creatures fill my senses with withes & sounds no other person can sense.

So, why am I held hostage by this life filled with “reality”? When will I actually believe & act on what I see as reality?

Thoughts for a Wednesday Morning

hd-nebula-wallpaperAll of us go through periods when the light seems to be far off and obscured. We spend time in introspection wondering what ever happened to the joy and innocence that existed so very long ago. Anger, frustration, hurt and shame seem to be constant companions. How in the world did my life turn out like this? This question is one that I’ve been asking myself. Why have I taken every opportunity to shoot myself in the foot? I look in the mirror and really don’t like the person staring back at me.

I approached God about this. “Why,” I asked, “haven’t things ‘worked together’ for my good?” Now, I know that some will ask me why I’m counting lemons when there are so many cherries around. So, yes, I’ll concede that not all things are a downer. But, those things are external. What I’m talking about here are the internal things. The feelings and emotions, thoughts and dreams that make us human seem to have fallen in the desert where they shrivel and die.

Then God began to show me the flaws and imperfections, some deadly, that existed throughout the Cosmos.

Tectonic shifts, volcanic activity, super-novas, meteors and asteroids crashing into planets and each other. The universe is a very dangerous place. Yet, look at the beauty that can spring forth from these ashes. Beautiful islands and majestic mountains are created by the natural ebb and flow of the earth’s molten core. Great nebulae expanding out from some great cosmic explosion. From these new stars or planets may even be birthed.

Then God said, “I love all of this! The forces, great and small, that work together to create and recreate reveal the life that I have shared with all things. Yes, some of the forces destroy. Yet, even in death there is the seed for new life. You are no different. With the darkness and struggle you find yourself in is a spark that promises creation of new things.”

Has this changed how I feel? No. It has, however, given me something to consider. Perhaps, in time I’ll be able to fully embrace who I have become and not mourn the loss of innocence. Perhaps, not. That’s tomorrow’s concern. I’m having enough difficulty dealing with here and now.

I really don’t know if any of this makes sense. Or, if it’s just more ramblings of a mad man. But, I suspect that I’m not alone in all of this.

Matthew Walsh and American Privilege

flag_art_rainbow_flag_1978_nov-1331pxA friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article written by Matthew Walsh entitled,  “This is my homophobic rant against Michael Sam.” He asked me to comment on it. So, being the easy-going, un-opinionated person that I am, I decided to accommodate that request.

On first reading, I found so many holes in Walsh’s position that I almost decided not to bother. It would be like going to a carnival and playing a game of ‘Throw the Bean Bag through the Hole and Win a Prize’ with holes 24” in diameter. I’m going to win that giant stuffed platypus every time.

But, then I began to think that perhaps I should. There are many misconceptions about the way in which Michael Sam presented himself to the world. This has tended to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many people. Questions arise about the propriety of Sam ‘coming out’ to excessive media attention and hoopla. Then, of course, there was ‘the Kiss.’ I could just see Tony Perkins throwing up in his mouth a little. So, I decided that it might be helpful to share a little critique of Walsh’s article.

In a word, Walsh’s entire article rests on one word, privilege. Privilege is what those whose worldview is considered the ‘Norm’ exercise. That means that there is a tendency to view everyone and everything through the lens of that privilege. For those of us who are white and protestant that means that everyone is viewed as the equal. At least to a point. We think that since we and our forebears were able to carve out a life that seems normative…we can usually find a job, buy a house, purchase food and clothing for our families, and pretty much speak our minds freely and openly… then EVERYONE can. That leads us to view those who seem to be whiny about having few opportunities, hunger and lack of clothing or shelter should just get their act together and get a job. We also tend to think that these ‘others’ are simply lazy and looking for handouts and some kind of ‘leg-up’ in order to take what is ours and spend it on expensive cars and gadgets. Of course, it couldn’t be because there is a real need. If only they’d get off of the collective, lazy asses and help themselves. After all, this is the land of opportunity.

The problem is, that’s a fallacy. All people don’t have equal opportunity. There are cultural and class biases that blinds the privileged and keeps a foot on the neck of those who are not. Our opinions become the norm against which all other worldviews are measured. Because we compare everyone to ourselves, we don’t listen to what these ‘others’ are saying, let alone try to empathize with them.

So, let’s take a look at some of Walsh’s statements.

He wrote that he is not a “bigot, and…not ‘homophobic,’…I generally carry about my day very much unconcerned with [their] sexual proclivities,” he somehow felt the “need to be a voice of reason amidst this whole spectacularly ridiculous charade.” Why? What made him think that he alone could possibly be the only voice of reason?

Privilege.

In the article Walsh goes to great lengths to equate being gay with “sexual habits.” Stating that, “what you do in your bedroom is between you and whoever you do it with.” He appears to be taking the high road and conceding that gay sex is OK, but please, I don’t need to hear about it. And, he’s correct. It is no one else’s business. But, he totally misses the point. Being gay is NOT about having sex. It’s about whom one is as a person. There are many LGBT people who state that when they were adolescents and the hormones started kicking in, they felt attraction to people of their own gender. This became their identity just as it does for heterosexual youths. It was not something they chose, but the very fabric of whom they were as people. Note, this has nothing to do with the bedroom. But, people like Walsh make that unfounded leap when speaking about gays. For them, being gay is all about what happens in the bedroom. It can’t possibly be about caring people who simply want to be open about who they are. Therein lies the greatest challenge and fallacy that we privileged people need to deal with.

The other main point of Walsh’s article had to do with the ‘big deal’ everyone was making about Sam. After all, how many people who are drafted that late have ESPN show up at their house? Let’s see…I can count them on no fingers. The media painted the event as ‘historic.’ And, the privileged just shook their heads and wondered why? What makes this slightly above average athlete special?

On the surface there’s really nothing special about Michael Sam. In fact, it’s probably unlikely that he’ll even make the Rams’ final cut. I agree with Walsh that “Sam is a small, slow, middling prospect.” There are certainly better players who could have been the center of media attention. But, that’s not the point of this event. People of privilege don’t have a clue about what it’s like to be marginalized in society. Whether it’s race, poverty, gender, sexual orientation or nationality, white America doesn’t see any disparity. But, I haven’t read any news stories about a young man committing suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge because a secret video was made of him kneeling beside his bed praying. Nor, have I heard tell of a teenager who was assassinated in a school classroom because he was part of a before-school Bible study.

By coming out and standing in front of the cameras, Sam has shouted that it’s OK to be different. Young people who wrestle with their very identity have a positive example of someone who is like them. Someone they can look to for encouragement. If events like this can help one person, young or old, to accept and embrace who they are, then the attention given Sam was worth it.

Finally, Walsh and others think that the attention given Sam is indicative of some kind of anti-Christian movement in the culture. They site Tim Tebow as their poster child of the growing persecution of the religious. To that I just say Poppycock! No one has taken anyone’s right to practice, nor speak about, their religion. As Hemant Mehta wrote recently, “…a lot of conservative Christians…also felt the media’s positive reaction to Michael Sam was unfair given that everyone trashed Tim Tebow because he was a Christian! (Don’t even bother trying to point out that Tebow was pilloried for not being a very good player and that his religion had nothing to do with it.)” Had Tebow been able to lead a team…any team…to success, no one would have cared about his religion. If Brett Favre or Dan Marino had chosen to kneel and give thanks it would have been fine. But, Tebow was a hack. That’s why so much attention was given to his religious practice. There was nothing else to talk about!

We have choices that must be made. We can take a stand for human dignity, or we can dig our heels in and try to hold on to our privilege. I truly believe that this so-called battle over LGBT rights is over. Now, it’s just a matter of letting the cleansing breeze of God’s Spirit carry away the smoke. It is simply unethical to demean and diminish people for being born a certain way. Until that happens I’m sure that we will continue to see people like Michael Sam portrayed as pioneers who forge trails into new and uncharted cultural territory.

Matthew Walsh…not a homophobe? Yeah, and Donald Sterling’s not a racist.

As always, feel free to leave a comment. How have any of you experienced privilege, or lack of it?

More on My Journey with Ignatius

ignacio1I had promised some months ago to share some of my experiences with the Ignatian Exercises. However, the Exercises took away most of my writing time. Now, with my new work hours, I can take a moment to share a bit.

Over the past 6 months I have experienced prayer and contemplation in new and refreshing ways. Perhaps the most dynamic way has been to visualize and ‘enter in to’ the various stories that Ignatius used for prompts. He chose stories from the Gospels and encouraged others to imagine themselves in the stories. I was encouraged to ‘walk’ with and ‘talk’ with Jesus, the disciples, Mary and others. I found this to be an incredibly potent tool in learning to know Jesus as friend and brother. And, for the most part, the images were vivid, full of light and full of hope and joy.

The past few weeks, though, have been spent contemplating the Passion story. Almost immediately I sensed a change. Where there had been light, there was now darkness. Earlier I had clear images and experiences. Now, the images were obscured, as if a dark cloud was between me and the other participants. Before I had sensed joy. This turned to hopelessness and fear.

I shared these things with my Spiritual Director. I was concerned that I was missing something. Or, that my own shortcomings were a wall separating me from fully experiencing the stories.

He said that this was not unusual since the stories, themselves, were of a different nature. In them, Jesus was separated from others. He was pulled away and arrested. He stood alone before the Council and Pilate. Beaten and dragged away to be crucified, he was alone. On the tree of crucifixion, he was abandoned.

Then he was dead.

Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Mary and some other women were present. I looked on and felt the despair. They had all hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was going to restore Israel and reign over God’s kingdom. Now, all they had was a lifeless corpse. Hopelessness; fear; shadow; darkness; cloud; doubt.

I felt doubts creep in. Didn’t Jesus say that his followers would do greater things than he? He healed the sick and raised the dead! Where is that happening? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand? Where is it? Why can’t I experience God’s presence throughout each day? GOD! WHERE ARE YOU?

I’ve read where pastors have asked these same questions. And, not having adequate answers, have left the faith entirely. After all, if we can’t hear it, see it, touch it, taste it or smell it…it must not exist.

However, that was not my experience. I know that God is not afraid of, nor hurt by, our doubts. In fact, I think that God encourages them. It’s easy to say, “I believe.” In fact, many in the Church look at doubts as obstacles to belief. They say that they will lead people astray or hinder their experience of God. I have found, though, that it’s much better to embrace them. It’s harder yet I think better, to doubt and still believe.

I suddenly realized that I had experienced these same feelings. Rather than the images and experiences of being in the story, I had been experiencing the actual emotions of those who lived through it. In the desolation of my prayers and in the depression of my days and in my doubts, God had allowed the reality of these stories to become my reality. I was not an observer, or even a participant. I had become one with the story.

I don’t know where the next stage of the exercises will take me. I am sure, however, that Jesus will continue to meet me and continue to say, “Come…follow me.”

What have been your experiences in your life’s journey? Have you encountered yourself revealed in someone else’s story? How are you writing your own story?

A Response to my Friend

BibleA couple of weeks ago I shared a blogpost written by Benjamin Corey . It was basically a critique of the way in which many people in our Western, particularly American, culture read and interpret the Christian Bible. A very good friend of mine commented about that posting:

“It seems that you have shared a number of articles about what Christians are not doing right. They take scripture here or there to justify something or to maybe judge. The article you shared once again is telling people to understand what is being said in scriptures based upon the times and how they were written. So, I am asking the question, how do you use scripture to reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?”

As I reflected on this, I realized that this is not just one question, but two. First, he is leveling an accusation that I am antagonistic toward Christians. The question seems to be, ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’ The second question is, ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

I responded to him that I thought that these were valid questions that would require further reflection. What I’ve written here is that response.

Question One: ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’

Actually, my friend, I’m not. As I’ve grown older I have found that I’m not nearly as sure of the things that I thought, felt and believed earlier in life. Back then it was easy to be absolutely sure of myself. I knew that God had created the universe. I was convinced that anyone who did not accept and believe the Christian Bible as we in the West accepted and believed it were wrong and in danger of eternal punishment. The foundation of my world view was set firmly in a patriarchy. And, I had no doubt as to my eternal destiny as a child of God.

Then, the doubts started to seep in. I learned that others who were not a part of my ‘tribe’ were not the evil, depraved creatures that I had been led to believe. Many of them were hard working, family-loving people simply trying to get by in life. Many others were devout believers in God, but not in the same way that I was. Still others diligently searched for God in other cultures and settings. I saw women who were gifted to lead and teach. These people were able to stand before God and others in confidence. Were the things that I had held up as ‘gospel truth’ able to stand in light of these observations? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know, however, was that things I continued to hear week after week from the pulpit were quickly becoming incongruent with my life’s experiences.

So, I became a seeker. I needed to find out if my thoughts were, in fact, opposed to the ‘orthodox’ position that those around me embraced. Or, was there hope in this cloud of doubt.

I entered Ashland Theological Seminary in the fall of 2006. (That’s a whole story in itself. I’ll save that for another time.) I didn’t know what I would experience there. I only knew that it was the place I needed to go. The next five years took me on a journey that changed my life and my way of thinking and believing. I learned that it’s ok for followers of Jesus to think! Imagine my surprise. I had been trained, or better, indoctrinated to believe that everything that came out of the mouths of church leaders was to be accepted. After all, these men were God’s anointed shepherds. To question them was to question God. I also learned that there is really no one…let me say again, No One, who can know totally and with certainty what God thinks, cf. Isaiah 55:8-9,

8    For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

One cannot read the text ‘simply’ and understand the mind of the writer, let alone the mind of God. Especially, when one is reading a translation of a translation. These texts were written millennia ago in cultures and languages that no longer exist. I learned that we cannot take these texts out of their social and cultural context and place them directly into our culture in the 21st century. What this led to was an understanding that the playing field of orthodoxy is a very large one. As long as one is able to keep the ball from going completely across the boundary line, that person must be considered orthodox.

With this being said, my intention in sharing the kind of material I do is to present other views of orthodoxy. Rather than attacking the church, I offer a different opinion. I’ve shared many times on Facebook that I like to stir things up. I want to stretch people’s understanding. Is what the predominantly white, male-dominated evangelical church’s view of God and scripture the only viable one? Obviously, I don’t think it is. Simply put, I want to give people an opportunity to think.

Question two: ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

The simple answer to this question is, I don’t. At least, not in the way it has been pursued by most evangelicals. I don’t knock on doors. Nor, do I ‘cold sell’ to people. I’m not going to assault strangers and begin to ‘witness’ to them.

What I am going to do is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that I have,         (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). That reason, or explanation, is based on personal experience. Lofty, theological vagaries don’t help. What good is it to speculate and theorize with people who have no interest in the text to begin with? However, no one can take away nor refute what I have experienced. Like the beggar who Jesus healed, when questioned by the authorities, responded that all he knew was that before he was blind, now he could see. It is our life with God that speaks. A statement attributed to St. Francis sums this up. “Always remember to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does this say, then, about my approach to using scripture to “reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?” I’m not sure that’s the right question. This question diminishes the scripture and makes it a users’ manual of sorts.

How to get someone ‘saved.
Step one: The Roman Road.
Step two: The Four Spiritual Laws

A more accurate question would be, what is the purpose of the Scriptures? Is it history? Science? Myth and fairy stories? Or, is it what it claims to be…the inspired Word that is living and active in the world? I think that the text provides us with a glimpse into the heart of God. It allows us to see how people have related to God and one another over the centuries. And, it gives us hope that we can share in these experiences as we grow to know this Person. That is what I share.

Ok…So What?

The fact is, I don’t know everything. (Surprised, right?) In most things I’m most likely mistaken. As I’ve written before, I follow the theology of Snoopy. This allows me to be myself as God has made me. I am extremely confident in my ability to be wrong.

I can be friends with people for who they are as God has made them. It doesn’t matter what their politics are or their station in life. I am not concerned about their sexual orientation or their view of science and the cosmos. I love and accept them as they are. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that to love God and our neighbor summed up the entire Law?

Yeah, I disagree with people. Sometimes with vigor. But, that doesn’t diminish them. That elevates them to dialog partners. Like I wrote above, I am a seeker. By definition that makes me someone who is not afraid to go places that are unfamiliar, and perhaps, uncomfortable. It opens me up to opinions that are different than those that I hold. For me, this has been freeing. I don’t have to fear other opinions and concerns. I’m pretty sure that God’s not afraid, either. My friend, this life is a journey, not a destination. To hold lightly to what we think and believe, yet to hold tenaciously to God makes the journey a good one.

The Wise Men…Who Were They?

wisemenOne of the stories that has become part of our holiday season is the story of the Magi. It’s been romanticized to the point that the story we tell today bears little resemblance to the story written by Matthew. It now has three kings from the East bearing gifts to the infant Christ. They have even been given names! Tradition in the West has graced them the monikers Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. They are depicted as riding their camels across the desert ‘following yonder star.’ In some places, even the crèche has them standing around with the shepherds and animals. It’s a nice story. It’s a warm and emotional story. But, it’s not the story that Matthew tells.

Matthew’s story is one of international interest. It also has touches of courtly intrigue and deception. It starts with the statement, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” The writer doesn’t give us a time frame for this. It’s just sometime ‘after.’ Later in the chapter we learn that Jesus may have been as old as two years. But, that’s a story for another day.

The Magi were most likely astrologers from the region we now know as Iraq. These people had a relationship with the heavens that has been lost to us today. At some point they recognized some new celestial event. They called it a ‘star.’ Through their training and practices they discerned that this ‘star’ hailed the birth of a new king of the Jewish people. Perhaps they were sensitive to this because there was still a fairly vibrant Jewish community left from the Babylonian captivity half a millennium earlier. In any case, they thought that a new king of the Jews would be in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, so they loaded up their caravan and headed west. It’s highly unlikely that there were only three Magi in the caravan. And, they would have been traveling with an armed escort as well as servants and supplies.

They arrived in Jerusalem and began asking where the king was. Well, of course they were directed to Herod the Great. They told their tale to Herod, who was not happy about this. Matthew tells us that “when King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” I can understand why Herod was disturbed. He was ruthless in his pursuit of power and prestige. He spent millions building cities and edifices for the glory of his name and legacy. He was probably the greatest builder of his day. He was also a man who would not hesitate to have someone’s throat cut if he thought they were a threat to his position. Caesar Augustus is reported to have said that it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. This was the person to whom the Magi reported. The rest of Jerusalem would be upset and worried if Herod was upset and worried. No one knew what he might do, but they all knew what he was capable of. And, there was the problem of Rome. As a vassal state, Palestine could come under Rome’s scrutiny if a new ‘king’ suddenly appeared on the scene. As we see from the end of the gospel, claiming to be the ‘king of the Jews’ did not have a great retirement policy.

Anyway, Herod had his people figure out that the new king would be born in Bethlehem. He sent the Magi out to find him and report back his location. At this point Matthew states that the “star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Apparently, after the star originally appeared, they must have lost sight of it. They knew it was about the Jews, so they traveled there. But, now, having left Herod’s presence, the star reappeared and they could not contain their exuberance. When they found the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying, they “bowed down and worshiped him.” They presented the child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Royal gifts for a royal child. As they slept that night, the story reports that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They decided to return to the East by a different route and left.

Now, I could stop here. That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell. But, I think that there are some things to be learned about God and God’s love for humanity as a whole. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that God chose to announce Jesus’ birth to those who were marginalized in society. Those who had no voice or who were considered unclean or ‘outsiders.’ First, the choice of Mary and Joseph to be parents. They were not upper class folks. Joseph was a craftsman and Mary was a child herself. Second, the shepherds. These people could not even testify in court because their word was considered to be as worthless as their vocation. Third, the gentile Magi. Not only were they outsiders, they worshiped the heavenly host and other gods. They were idolaters! Yet, God chose these people to welcome the Word of God into our world. The Magi used their own, dare I say, God given talents to discern what God was doing in the world. Pagan astrology and knowledge led them to worship Jesus. After they came and bowed before Jesus and worshiped him, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. What I found interesting was that we are not told how they happened to receive this dream. In the two instances where Joseph received divine instructions through dreams, we are clearly told that “the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” There’s no such caveat in the Magi’s dream. Could it simply be that the writer did not want to reveal such a close association between the God of the Jews and these gentiles? Perhaps. Or, could it be that there was another way that dreams are communicated to people other than God? I’m not speaking of something dark or demonic. But, perhaps something natural, that because of their training and practices, the Magi they were sensitive to? God works in many mysterious ways.

How should this inform how Christ-followers should respond to others? We see that God seems to prefer communicating with the poor, the marginalized and the ‘other.’ The wealthy, powerful and privileged are left on the outside wondering what’s going on. The ‘other’ includes those who do not think nor believe like ‘we’ do. And, apparently, that’s OK with God! Perhaps we should take a lesson from God and learn that God is accepting of all people wherever they live and whatever they happen to think and believe. They do not need to become like ‘us’ for God to love and accept them. If God can ask the Magi to join in God’s plan for the world and send them on their way in peace, why can’t we?

Reflection on the Incarnation

Hand of GodThe past month and a half has been a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. The Ignatian exercises have taken me on a journey in which I’ve been compelled to visit my humanness in the light of God’s grace and mercy. Some of what I’ve experienced has been in the realm of Darth Vader…the Dark Side. As I’ve sat with Jesus and allowed his gaze to penetrate into the depths of my heart, I have realized my complete identification with the whole of humanity and the world. I am no different than anyone else. I am not exceptional in relationship to any other member of God’s good creation. We are all part of the whole that God called ‘tov me’od’…very good.

As I began to live with my own humanness, which includes all the crap that I’ve done to myself and others, I had a palpable awareness that God was smiling. Far from what I have been taught by people, that God is angered by our shortcomings and failings, I felt complete acceptance. I began to realize that through God’s pitching God’s tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God learned first-hand how frail we are. Compassion and empathy grew within God’s heart and God really and truly has become our advocate through Christ. How this all works I haven’t a clue. What I do know is that God is glad to be with us…no matter what.

This morning as I was contemplating the Incarnation, I was directed to consider the world and all of its inhabitants. I thought about the nearly 7.2 billion people who inhabit this planet. We all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other perceived differences are part of God’s shalom community. We are, in some way, related one to another. So, my thoughts wandered to those who are lonely. (In a world with more than 7 billion people the idea of loneliness boggles my mind.) In that context, we have failed the lonely. I think of the young man whose struggles with his sexuality ultimately cause him to give up and take his own life. We have failed him. The young woman who experiences separation from all, including herself, so that she turns to cutting in order to feel anything. We have failed her. To the other young woman who is afraid of the New Year holiday because she may be alone. We have failed you. I see the bodies of young children being buried because they did not have the necessary food and water to survive. We have failed them. I feel the pain of the homeless people freezing on our city streets. We have failed them. I view the sectarian violence that destroys lives and mars the image of God in each person. We have failed them.

Then, I wonder…does God feel failure, also? Has the reality of the Incarnation allowed God to feel and experience the depths of human depravity and inhumanity? I begin to glimpse a sliver of God’s compassion. I see that God…Emmanuel…feels empathy for/with us. Is there hope, then, that the failure can be turned to triumph? As I reflected on this, I heard that inner voice that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Christ say, “I am forever human. I know the way that we should go. Compassion, love, justice. Always seeking the good and illuminating the bad.” (NOTE: NOT condemning!) “Embracing each person, community and culture as expressions of God’s own image.”

With that, I wish for all of us to experience and celebrate the Incarnation of God at this time of year. I think that the folks who think that there is some sort of war on Christmas need to walk away from that. Rather than shouting, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas,’ I would encourage us all to BE the Christ in Christmas.

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 2

orkut_friends_for_ever_scraps3This is the second part of a series about the possibility of women and men building ‘best friend’ relationships. As I reflect and write about this topic I find that it continues to morph and grow into something more than a simple yes or no can address. Yes, there will be a part three. And, at this point probably a part four. We’ll see where God takes us.

Last week I began writing about relationships between women and men here. Particularly, on the possibility of them being ‘best’ friends. I stated some of the common objections to these relationships. And, I began to deconstruct some of those objections as having their origins in a particular, privileged male view of sexuality. I pointed out how this view demeans and silences women, as well as reinforces the image of how poor, weak men are bound to be ensnared by the sexual wiles of women. I feel that view of sexuality is pretty much crap talk. I’m not about to go along with any position that unfairly labels women as sluts or gives men a pass on their own, personal faults. What I am going to do today is try to unpack some of the issues regarding cross-sex relationships.

When I was a young boy most of my best friends were other boys. We played in the woods and climbed trees. We raced bicycles and played baseball. We prided ourselves as being true ‘He Man Woman Haters.’ However, I knew who the fastest kid in our class was. And, she could beat any one of us boys in a foot race. When teams for kickball were chosen, I tried to make sure she was on my team. In the classroom I spent more time with the girls because they were smarter than most of my guy friends. It always helped to be on their team during spelling and math contests. Many times outside of class boys and girls played together. (That is, as long as the girls didn’t want to play house. Yuk!) The point is kids know how to be friends with anyone, regardless of gender. But, something happened as we got older. Our bodies began to change. Hormones started messing with us. Parents and other adults started telling us that boys and girls needed to start preparing for marriage. Physical pressure, peer pressure and social pressure built to the point of bursting. I’m surprised anyone survives this! All of the sudden…the innocence is gone. Now, we have to learn a whole new way of relating to one another. The girl who once was one of my best friends has become a sexual object. Not because we chose that path. But, because others defined it for us.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. In this series I’m not addressing casual or professional acquaintances. These relationships are viewed as completely necessary and acceptable by most people. I am writing about the possibility for women and men to have relationships in which their hearts are knit together. In which they become kindred spirits who support and encourage one another. In essence, they are best friends in every sense that implies. However, they remain just friends.

Impossible? I don’t think so. Let’s take time to look at some of the issues.Please note that these are serious issues. Many good people and relationships have been shipwrecked because of them. So, I do not take them lightly. I do, however, want to place them within a context that may, perhaps, shed some light on them and offer hope to people who may feel lost and hopeless.

In my last post I shared a video clip from the movie, “When Harry met Sally.” Billy Crystal’s character said that it was impossible for women and men to be friends because ‘the sex part’ always gets in the way. I think there’s some truth in that statement. Whether it’s always an issue, I’m not sure. I do know that in many cases physical attraction and desire are potential deal breakers. I don’t want to belittle this issue, but I think that we need to understand that ‘the sex part’ is totally natural. As I wrote before, we are sexual beings. However, we tend to obsess over this. Especially, in the purity culture, sexuality is whispered about or it is ignored. This sentiment seems to have its roots in how the early church incorporated the Christian scriptures and Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. That view divides the unseen ultimate concept of things from their physical representation on earth. The physical is always something ‘less than’ the ultimate, non-physical reality. The church began to understand that the spiritual reality, therefore, is something to be sought after. The physical, or the ‘flesh,’ was something to be despised. Spirit=Good; Flesh=Bad. However, the folks who wrote the First Covenant did not seem to view humanity like this. Theirs was a wholistic view of people. It looked more like this: Flesh+Spirit=Soul. This view honors the whole person. We can accept and embrace ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s Good Creation. I truly believe that grasping this is the first step in freeing ourselves from the prison of shame and false modesty. That freedom is necessary for openness and friendship to be established between women and men. Freedom can be won when a person admits and owns their sexuality. When I confess that, yes, I am attracted to this person, I don’t have to hide it or deny it. I can embrace it. After all, this ‘sexual’ me is part of who I am…who God has formed me to be. By not giving into shame and obsessing over my human nature I don’t empower it. I can simply admit that it’s there and move on. I do not have to gratify it. It took me a long time and some monumental failures to learn this. And, it wasn’t until I realized that one of my best friends is a woman that I began to understand that embracing who I am is one of the greatest safeguards against pursuing ‘the sex part.’

There is another potential hazard that I think is vital to understand. It is, perhaps, even more important than this one. But, you’ll have to wait for part three for that.

How do you feel about your identity as a sexual being? Is it possible to accept and embrace ourselves as whole persons and share that with others?

Remembering Grandpa Tom

TomThis past weekend I got to know my paternal grandfather a little bit. I never did meet him before he died in 1959. I was just a wee lad and he lived in another state. My dad never talked about him much. He and my dad’s stepmother had divorced and Tom left dad with her. I don’t think dad ever really forgave him for that. The story was that Tom was an alcoholic and pretty much not good for anything. At least, that’s the version I was told.

I have spent much of the last month since dad’s passing sifting through papers, photos and other bits and pieces of his and mom’s life. This past weekend I finally got to the boxes of pictures and old letters. Scribbled on the lid of one box, with black magic marker, was “Tom.” In that box I found a treasure. There were photos of a young child in clothes that would definitely get him beaten up if he wore them today. Tom was born in 1897, so the styles, especially the dress styles, were…well, something to behold. Think of Ron Weasley at the Hogwarts’ Yule ball in The Goblet of Fire. There were a few family photos showing Tom with his parents and siblings. All of these image revealed the family standing rigid and straight-faced as if the camera was a firing squad. Then, I found a couple pictures with Tom and his first wife, Mary. That marriage did not last long. His second wife was named Goldie. My dad came into this life as the consummation of this union. Unfortunately, Goldie passed from tuberculosis when dad was just 6 years old. I don’t think that Tom ever really recovered from that. It seems that the loss of his beloved Goldie was the beginning of his downward spiral into the maelstrom of alcohol and forgetfulness. Tom did remarry, I think for Bill’s sake, but as I wrote above, that did not last nor end well.

Tom relocated to Florida where he pretty much fell off the grid. Perhaps, he thought that the further he could run from his past the better he would feel. He found employment on various farms helping to harvest citrus and other fruit and vegetables. These years have been erased…at least for me. Perhaps one of Tom’s siblings kept some information that has been passed on. But, I really don’t have any contact with any of  them. What I did find, however, was a stack of old letters and other correspondence from the last few years of Tom’s life. Most of the letters were written by Tom to one of his sisters in Ohio. These letters, dated between 1956 and 1959, revealed a man who was lost and reaching out to the only people who could connect him to a happier existence.

Tom was a simple man. The letters were penciled on small note pad type paper. The hand that drew the characters was not steady. Maybe from drinking. Maybe from handling something as foreign as a writing instrument. It was obvious that his education was not a high priority when he grew up. The spelling and grammar were at a grade school level. He was ‘shure’ glad when the ‘wether’ was nice and his ‘cocial security’ check arrived. The content was simple. He asked about his sister’s life and condition. And, he replied with reports of his health and the current weather conditions. I found out that my dad had been writing to him, as Tom wrote that he had received letters from Billy. Funny, Dad never mentioned that. From these letters I learned that Tom had to have a leg amputated 4 inches below the knee. He considered the repercussions that the ‘wooden leg’ he was getting would have on his life. I don’t know why the leg was removed. I think that the cause was a work related injury because he mentioned disability checks. But, that’s only conjecture. In letters dated form 1958 I learned that Tom had throat cancer. His frustration at getting straight answers from doctors was quite evident. (I guess some things never change.) At one point he wrote that he was convinced that he did not have cancer, but a ‘toomer.’ And for that, he was getting ‘treetment’.

In all of the letters there was an almost desperate longing for relationship. Although he put on the façade of someone who was independent and was taking care of himself, he ended the letters with pleas for his sister to answer the letter quickly. Or, he wrote for his sister to tell Perl, his brother, or Billy to please answer his letters. It was as if he was shouting, “Sis! Please tell someone…anyone…to talk to me, listen to me…touch me!” As the summer of 1959 unfolded, Tom’s health took a turn for the worse. I found a couple of letters from Tom’s doctor stating that there was nothing more that they could do for him. The best treatment they had was simply palliative, or comfort care. Late that summer my family and I were in Maine on vacation. It was there that dad received the call that Tom had passed.

We packed and returned home.

Tom’s sister made all of the arrangements to have Tom returned to Ohio where he finally found peace lying next to his mother in a small cemetery on a hill in the countryside.

I still don’t know Tom. I’ve learned a little about him. But, just like the word ‘tree’ is not actually a tree, these mementos are not actually the real man. There is so much that I don’t know about my adopted family. People I will never know…places and events that have long since escaped memory. I have few ties with the past…the legacy of humanity. I have embraced my place as one grafted into this family tree. Thomas Lester Helbert is the name of my branch.