Separation of Church and Hate.

We spent much of the weekend observing the protest and counter-protests in Charlottesville, gobsmacked at the horrific spectacle of white nationalists marching in ostensible opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee but actually in grudgingly-admitted shifting social landscape of our country.  Peter Cvjetanovic, outed via the process of “doxing” via social media as the frothing-with-rage torch-wielder that has become a vitriolic icon of bigotry overnight, casually explained he was a white nationalist but not a racist: “White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”

Let’s consider that for a moment: “We just want to preserve what we have.” What does that look like? Why does it sound a stone’s throw away from what I hear in churches that regularly affirm themselves in verbiage as a welcoming place, when the old days of health and vigor and attendance are spoken of with wistfulness and an attachment to a return to those days as the only accepted form of progress?

We have to confess the sin of hatred and racism and bigotry, in its many forms but one consistent flavor: it’s a bitter, implacable feeling of assigning blame for change and societal alteration to anyone and anything that can be identified as other. As a white, cisgender male, I’ve consciously and unconsciously taken advantage of tremendous privilege on this front my entire life. As a gay and disabled man, I’ve learned a lot about otherness and discrimination since January.

That’s not this post, however, despite my desire to rail about it. That’s a story for another time.

I got home from church about 11 yesterday morning. I was frustrated. I opened up Google Images and dove through the pictures of Charlottesville on Saturday. And I started playing a game with the close-up photos of the story.

You can quickly play a game of looking for over Christian Imagery.

Check this out. The three organizers of Saturday’s rally. What’s around Heimbach’s neck?

I found steely resolve in the images of clergy gathered in counter-protest. I found myself deeply, gravely disturbed by the crosses and crucifixes on flags, around necks, carried high and occasionally alit by a marching population of racists.

Outrage is the appropriate response to this, as Christians. It’s possible to be physically peaceful and empowered by righteous anger at the same time, and now is the time to carry that banner if there’s ever been one.

The image at the top of this post is intentionally provocative. It took me a long time to embrace Christianity as something I wanted for myself and the world because of grievous mistrust, because of the appropriation of both faith and culture as hyper-effective weapons of hate.

And it’s still happening. The voices are getting louder. Last week, we were assured our 45th president had God’s permission to wage war, if it came to that. Those gathered in proclamation of hatred in Charlottesville on Saturday surely believed God was behind them, if not in their pockets.

What do we do next? Proclaiming love isn’t working. I refuse to be made an agent of hate by this.

What’s the best outcome we might be able to hope for, a month, a year, a decade out? Is prayer our only option? Because today, it doesn’t feel like enough.

Amputease: the Furnace of Rage.

I’m tired of being angry.

For those just joining us: I lost my left leg below the knee to a massive bone infection in January. It was my “good leg,” after damage to the right last year. Over two months of hospital stays, some surprising love from people I’d thought lost (and betrayals from those deemed stalwart) and half a year of recovery, I have my prosthetic and am slowly learning to make this work.

I can’t believe how much anger I have in me about this. I keep trying to find meaning or to balance all of this out with some sense of gentility or purpose.

I’m not there yet. I need to find a purpose for this anger, first. It’s not going away on its own.

It’s really not cute, either. I used to be teased for my redheaded temper; now it’s more like a norse berserker. I’m channeling this energy into the gym and I’ve gotten strong, even as I’ve gotten less peaceful.

I worry every day about breaking something irrevocably. I worry everyday that that something will be me.

 

The Promise of Heaven, The Sanctity of Earth: Sermon, 7/30/17

 

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

My sermon at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mercerville, NJ, Sunday, July 30, 2017.

Regular and real updates to resume shortly. But for now–here’s what I preached:

Mustard seeds to great shrubs. Yeast to leavened bread. Hidden treasure. A pearl of great value. A net cast into the sea and a bounty of fish, with the best of the catch sorted out for our baskets. We’re to understand our treasures in the kingdom of heaven as the best of what is new and old, appreciating what we have in new ways while finding altogether fresh blessings not yet imaginable by us in our mortal time spent here on earth.

Okay. Okay, I get that, there’s also the unspoken and yet implicit portion of today’s gospel: the kingdom of heaven is available for all of us, right in front of us for us to claim, and yet we also must acknowledge its profound value and indeed, its steep price.

What will the kingdom of heaven cost us? What does becoming a disciple of Christ require? Is there a price tag attached to this that we may not be ready to face? What are we prepared to trade for salvation?

I ask myself this a lot lately, as I struggle with even the most basic elements of faith. I can’t decide right now if I’m angry at God, if I’m trusting of him, or if I’m just a disfigured cripple shouting at the rain. Yes, I’m afraid I find myself staring at what’s left of my body these days and sometimes wondering if there even is a God, or if religion is just a complex board game I don’t quite know the rules of, but I’m trying to play along just in case the cool kids notice me.

That’s hard to say, and it’s got to be hard to hear, knowing my current occupation and the path these last few years have set me on. The kingdom of heaven sounds like an incredible prize at the end of this life, complete with an incredible cost. Why then, does it seem some of us pay more than others? Is God like my therapist, charging us on a sliding scale? If this is real, and my faith and deep want of belief trusts in my best moments that it is—what is the high price of heaven, and how do we make its cost count in our time here?

All we know for sure is that this will remain a bit of a mystery until we breathe our last and life eternal reveals itself to us in that next moment. And the nature of worship, of glorifying God, of our quest to be the best disciples of Jesus Christ we can be, is to make sense of this life. What we’re doing while we’re here has to matter. And here’s where I get a little frisky and scary in my assessment:

This life of ours is not a test.

And perhaps what we’re being told in today’s gospel reading is that there is something so inscrutable, so mysterious, so complex and cosmic in the kingdom of heaven that our time is best spent…not contemplating it. But contemplating instead our time here, with one another. And how to best heal one another, to brighten this bleak and bleeding world. The kingdom of heaven is an unsolvable riddle for a reason, a trailer to a movie that we can agree we all want to see, even if we don’t completely agree on the plot. And so, we’re best to consider it as the hereafter, a grace note after this life, but never to give it more importance than the here and now.

This is the only way I can make sense of today’s gospel, really. It’s the only depiction of heaven that I can draw both sense and comfort from; I don’t see any version of life as a series of trials that gives way to heaven that makes sense given the path I’ve walked—pun intended—over the last two years. If I was to envision our time on this planet as a preamble to heaven, complete  with messages from god therein, then I suppose I’d take what’s happened to me—the loss of my limb, disfigurement, deformity, disability, a promise of more amputations to come, a constant blanket of pity and loss tossed over me like so much existential napalm—were I to look at this life as a message from god in that sense, I’d think he’d be telling me to die. To leave this place, because there are more worthy of this life and more able to enjoy its bounties.

But that is not why we’re here. And I don’t believe god did these things to me. She is present as we suffer, but he does not cause the suffering. We’re not rent asunder as some sort of lesson in his eyes, to appease her. The New Testament makes short work of those parts of the Old Testament, making it clear that even our god is capable of evolving and softening and becoming kinder and broader and deeper in his understanding of herself and of us.

And I know I’m swapping pronouns of gender, because I’m pretty sure god does that all the time. When you embody everything in creation, why limit yourself to one fixed point of gender identity? That seems so…boring. And God is many things, hurtful, confusing, playful, infuriating, dynamic, quizzical, and awesome…but god is not boring.

There’s a terrible movie that I’ve been mulling over regarding today’s gospel. Pay It Forward came out a decade and a half ago, and it was supposed to be a movie that solidified Haley Joel Osment as a movie star after the Sixth Sense. Yeah, so much for that. Anyway, a young boy in the Las Vegas suburbs devises a system by which he helps three people, and in turn, they help three people, and so on and so on. The catch is that it has to be a method of help that costs something, that requires real effort and thought.

His first two instances of help happen quickly, and then the movie plods on with his mother and his teacher falling in love and a whole bunch of other fluff that feels awfully hallmark movie-sequel. And then, in the third act, he witnesses a classmate being bullied by a larger, brutish kid. He’s terrified. And he takes a deep breath, recognizes his fear, and steps in between his friend and the bully.

He expects to take a beating. Instead, the bully flips open a switchblade and ends his life. And two minutes later, the movie ends. Haley Joel Osment dies and then the movie ends! At the time, I found the film shockingly cynical even as if seemed rote and shallow; what a cruddy way to send us into the lobby!

But I think of today’s gospel. I think of the moments where I’ve changed for the better amidst some of this awesome loss of the last year and a half. And one thing is true, and constant: what comes easy doesn’t stay.

And that, perhaps, is what we’re being teased and taught about the kingdom of heaven here. We’re going to face moments in this life that will terrify us beyond imagining, that will destroy us in ways we can’t even consider. But the trick of this life is to make that hurt count, to find a sort of painful progress in how we love and support one another. The kingdom of heaven awaits us, but we have to be ready to for it to hurt like hell as we gain admission.

And maybe, in helping one another, in taking on each other’s pain and loving and living for one another, we find more and more of that heaven, right here on earth.

At least, I like to think that’s so. God bless all of us as we find our path and love one another in new and transformative ways.

Allies. Sanctuary. Perspective.

So it’s been a year and a day since the Pulse massacre.

I am tired of only seeing the LGBTQ community engaged around issues of murder and marginalization. It’s why Pride month, as a whole, is difficult for me, as a gay man, as a (not too) youngish person, as a man in a wheelchair, as a Christian, as someone who considers himself too smart for his own good; it’s just one more conversation about representation and intersectionality and yes, we need to keep it going, but the circular nature of this is daunting.

I’m tired of talking. I’m ready for action and out of patience for anything but.

That the national environment has devolved into a horrifying petri dish whereby violence against the queer is perhaps more welcome than at any other time in my adult life is bonkers. I want to use harsher language, but “bonkers” calls it out while also applying a level of absurdity to it. And it is dangerous and absurd at once; how did we let this happen?

Hate grows in the hollows where love has left. It also grows in the spaces where we don’t rage against it. Where we say nothing, or choose not to explicitly proclaim our love, our perspectives, our passions. We talk a lot about Proclaiming Christ. And as a Christian, proclaiming the Good News and meaningfully sharing in the possibilities of salvation is prime amongst our goals in life on this planet. Jesus didn’t stutter; calling attention to injustice and fighting it, and using our actions to provide voices/defense/love for the marginalized, is what Jesus did. That’s the model. Period.

So are we doing that? Am I doing that? Not as well as I can, frankly. It bothers me. And I blame it on healing, I blame it on the chair, I blame it on having to pick a lane. But I don’t blame it on fear, and laziness. I should.

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers said this morning: “How did Jesus move? He moved in solidarity with the crucified class.” From where I’m sitting, LGBTQ people sure as hell qualify. What are we doing? Are we doing it better than this time last year? How many martyrs does it take?

I lose my cool more than a little when I watch the awful social media debates about brown and black and their presence on the pride flag; is that an argument that matters? No, because the real argument is one of inclusion, and why this conversation has come to the forefront; LBTQ POCs have been separated and had to carve their own communal identities away from what might be considered the primary stream of overall engagement for the entirety of the movement. Visibility is a gigantic step towards acceptance. We owe it to ourselves to not lose ourselves in a fight that divides and shows off our worst. We have real enemies to challenge and combat. At the same time, I owe it to myself to talk about faith, losing my limb, and the LGBTQ community’s space to improve for people with disabilities. It’s coming. Not today.

If you want to be an ally, do it. Proclaim it. But like being a Christian, it’s a contact sport–what comes easy doesn’t stay, and if you’re not giving something up to gain something else, it’s plastic and cheap. Protection, representation, listening, advocacy: if you’re doing it right, there’s a cost. Shouting the word “sanctuary” doesn’t create a safe space. Stepping between hatred and a victim does that.

Are we willing? Are we able? Does our covenant require this?

Yes.

Rock Stars, Rock Bands, Choirs.

I’ve never done well as a solo act.

…that pun was way funnier in my head.

I’m still on leave from work as my body heals, but I stopped in on our Diocesan Convention last night, just to swap hugs and see people I’ve missed for a long time. This job changed my life; I hemmed and hawed about staying home and letting myself be away until I was actually back on the job, but ultimately, the personal connections with the hundreds of people gathered there are a sizable chunk of what got me through this.

Anyway, this last day has been a solid echo of the best reminder during this period of loss: I didn’t survive this on my own, or for my own edification. An army’s gotten me through it. This isn’t my story; it’s shared between all of us. And that’s my favorite thing about church: that we’re not alone in this, ever. We’re each other’s mirrors, lessons, stepping stools, shelters, and elevators into something grander than ourselves.

I’ve always had a little bit of a pack mentality; I blame it on choir. When I learned to sing, it was always as part of a large group; you learn to appreciate what your voice means as part of a whole. I’ve always been a little envious and suspicious of rock stars; I suspect they learned at the same formative age to use their voices differently, to build them to stand out. Rock bands are somewhere in the middle. But you can see this level of interactivity and personal growth cascade on through people as they interact with one another at different points in life–it’s how we lead, carry ourselves, and carry one another.

Soloists are a whole different thing. But still, you come back to the whole.

And boy howdy, am I ever looking forward to being back as part of this whole.

Pity as Part of Faith and Apart from It.

Last night, I attended a service in a church for the first time since the loss of my leg.

While not my home church, this was a church full of people I love; it’s a place in which I feel comfortable and welcome. And, as I adapt to life in a wheelchair, it’s a space I knew I could navigate. I’ve been working hard; my upper body strength is insane, I’ve been trained well by my occupational and physical therapists. And physically and mentally, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since my first surgeries in November 2015.

I was ready. And yet…

I’m comfortable with the image of me in a wheelchair; I’ve gone so far as to piece together a likeness in Lego, which I think is pretty good, if I do say so myself. As I venture out into the world and reclaim the daily activities I’ve lost, I run into people with a very different image and memory of me. Last night, a man came up to me; our first conversation was in spring 2014, after a major work event in which I bounded across a room and up a flight of stairs to fix a tech problem. He’d referenced that event multiple times, and that moment, in talking about me in rooms in which I was to be introduced. I loved the story and I loved being seen that way. And last night he came up to me full of love and concern, and put his hand on me and told me how sorry he was that this had happened. And we talked for a while, and I felt very loved by and connected to this remarkable man.

What I have trouble adjusting to is that first look I get, time and again, as my friends and colleagues adjust to this new situation of mine. It isn’t just pity that I’m feeling or sensing, but that’s the part of it I suss out as hurting the most. It feels like I lose my agency all over again in those moments; I’ve recontextualized myself as far from helpless, but when you see a relatively young person in my altered state for the first time, helplessness floods into the picture. And then I feel the need to compensate and prove myself, all over again, as the machinery above my neck is working in its most spectacular fashion.

A big chunk of that is on me, but I also feel a sharp new lesson on the nature of charity and pity; we’re called not only to help those who are in need, but see their strengths and gifts as well, and be glad for the presence of these bounties. I need to get better at that, in both myself and others.

After all, isn’t that the basic definition of honoring human dignity?

Ash Wednesday/A Return.

Why are we here, anyway? Isn’t that the big question? Isn’t that what we’re constantly trying to find signifiers for, taking deep breaths and reaching out for answers? What are you trying to teach me today, Lord?

I disappeared for six months; for good reason, if any such thing exists for a writer, I suppose.

In the fall, I was diagnosed with Charcot’s, a relatively rare disease associated with diabetes, in which the harder tissues of a limb start to collapse in on themselves. Sometimes it’s stoppable via plates and screws; sometimes, infection sets in and eats the host alive. I got very unlucky with my particular course of the disease, and lost my left ankle and foot on January 10, my 35th birthday.

There’s a lot more to talk about on this subject; for Lent, I’m taking on finding new and positive ways to talk about this and help others fight this disease and the particular qualities of awfulness I found myself with. We can’t ever really slay one another’s beasts, but we can sure as Hell re-forge the swords we’ve used and toss them between each other as we fight. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Ash Wednesday is a dear day of the year for me. In 2014, it became my favorite professional day, as I got to see the man I work for, the Bishop of New Jersey, go out to the Trenton Transit Center in the morning and offer the imposition of ashes to commuters as they headed to work. It was one of those days that sticks to the impossible-to-clean parts of your brain; Chip Stokes was in his element, in his purple cassock, engaging people from all walks in conversation, offering ashes and blessings. Conversations were had with people who were curious or had walked away from the church at a prior point; I watched my bishop genially educated a trio of young men on their way to school who wanted to know more about this ritual and sacrament. I watched, and I learned, and I felt the meaning of the day.

Or so I thought.

We have these “before and after” experiences that change us. I think my limb loss counts. Before 2015, Ash Wednesday was a day of proclaiming faith as Lent begins, a reminder of what and who we’re committed to as disciples of Jesus Christ. On the other side of two terrifying trips to the edge of death, the heady reminder that we come from dust and return to it makes today a much more sobering experience.

But the other side of that is that God desires us to be here, as we desire Him; you can’t kill us. We’re eternal, even as parts of ourselves, the corporeal parts, fall away, out of sync with one another in their perfect imperfections. I’ve never felt so certain that my youth is over; I’ve never been less scared of death. And that’s the meaning of this day.

It’s not quite a proclamation of faith to me as it once was; Ash Wednesday is a demonstration that we’re here as material beings for only a short while, and we have a mission ahead of us. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and we have work to do and kindnesses to share.

And for the next forty days, I’m working hard to put compassion out, on blast. That’s the goal. Lent this year is about what we take on instead of give up.

I’ll be writing every day. I hope you’ll join me in reflection, in prayer, in sharing.

To be continued.

Comics: My First Church.

The mess of comics as evangelical anti-LGBT propaganda has reared its fanged, pop-culture swaddled head this week.

I’m mad about this for two reasons.

I say that, before I became an Episcopalian, that theater was my first church. This is not quite true. Theater was my second church.

Comics. Comics were my first church.

I like stories. I think that’s no small part of what we love about church, too–that’s what led me into comics.  I was four, and my dad handed me a Green Arrow comic bought at a deli. I’m not a Green Arrow guy–but I was hooked. Fast-forward ten years to my first part-time job at a comic book store, where I dove deep into the world of comics beyond superheroes, and read the work of Neil Gaiman, took in and outgrew the stories of Alan Moore, and then settled into a deep love for Strangers in Paradise.

A friend recommended this comic to me because I wanted something non-superhero, and this fit the bill. It was the story of three friends in love with each other, with evocative, adventuresome art. I fell in, picking up a new issue every month it was published, right on through to the end of the book ten years later.

I re-read the entire series during my month in the hospital last year, and as with anything we fall in love with as teenagers, our adult lives color our perceptions differently. One of the three main characters, David, is in love with Katchoo, a rough-and-tumble beautiful woman with a past. During a confrontation between the two characters in an early issue, David reveals, casually, that he’s a Christian. And Katchoo, through furrowed brow, snarls at him: “You’re a Christian?” This free-spirited artistic woman, our everybody-loves-her protagonist, spits that word out like it’s the new C-word. It’s an instant source of anger and mistrust. It devalues David in her eyes. He is devious at best, weak at worst. And as a reader, as a teenager, I felt the same. It made me like him less, because of the horrific cultural context of what I perceived, as a kid, as modern Christianity.

And then something funny happened: I won’t spoil it, but David’s arc in the book is one of redemption, one of walking the walk and talking the talk, and of allowing his actions and love to speak for him. His faith is mentioned again later by other characters, but is exhibited by him solely in his behaviors and deeds. Of the three main characters, David is the one I really ended up connecting with–which hurt like Hell in the long run.

Gang, you need to read this book.

I’ll talk more about faith and comics later this week, but it was a nice surprise to find, in something I fell in love with two decades ago, a seed of something really whole and open and positive about the faith I came to love later in life.

Comics can be great. They can teach us amazing things about ourselves, which is one of the high marks of art. Strangers in Paradise is proof of this.

Culture, Comandeered

Yesterday, George Takei brought to attention a whole new series of anti-gay propaganda in comic book form, created by a hyper-conservative evangelical sect. It attempts to appear couched and nuanced, but it’s not. This is hate, packaged in an attractive and palatable form.

And of course, Christianity is cited in the above article as the source of this hate. “Why do they have to label Christians like this?” a friend asked this morning.

Well, the dirty truth of it is that those of us who want more from our faith than hatred are getting our butts kicked by louder, more hateful voices, who are willing to fight dirtier and better with marketing and the adoption of cultural tropes and trends.

The time is long behind us when simply being good Christians was enough of an example to quell this sort of disastrous rhetoric.

We have to get better at this game, and soon. I won’t let my faith be used this way. I won’t let my comics be used this way either.

Get Loud.

I have a new piece in The Guardian today. About everything this last year, the health, the ignorance, the lessons, the amputations, all of it.

It’s the most difficult piece of writing I’ve yet to produce. I’m happy to have this out there and I hope it makes a difference for someone.

Our vulnerabilities make us powerful; we’re only as sick as the secrets we keep. Truth turns our wounds into lessons. And then we must find ways to amplify those lessons.

Thanks to The Guardian-US and Kira Goldenberg for believing in me for this.