God or “whatever”

I have frequently heard liberal preachers speak of religious inclusion and at some point in their discourse, they offer up a list that goes something like this: “whether you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever.”

Whatever? I know many Christians who would take issue with anyone who called Jesus a “whatever.”  There is a great deal of privilege that goes with being able to reduce every faith expression from the vast expanse of unnamed, or personally unfamiliar in the Western religious experience down to a “whatever.”  It is the same impulse I believe that lets the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” actually have traction among the some of the religious “nones” (those who are unaffiliated despite acknowledging a spiritual force.) Now, as a writer, I fully understand the casual grammatical placement of the word “whatever” here, but I’m more concerned with the intention behind the use of the word and the telescoping in a list like this from familiar to foreign.  I believe it is worth asking ourselves if we really are committed to inclusion if we’re not willing to complete the list…or at least to try.

Monday night, I was in Pastoral Care class at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, listening to a great lecture and interaction with our esteemed professor from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Herbert Anderson.   Class was focused around how stories fit into our idea of pastoral care and what story telling, particularly the God story can mean in the pastoral context.  As a Unitarian Universalist who is in no way exclusively bound to the Bible, I was acutely aware of the Christian framing of this whole scenario: God, Jesus and the Bible applied in a deliberate way for healing, but regardless of my own spiritual framework, I still got a great deal out of the class.  I explained to a classmate afterward that I took this as just one mechanism for applying communication in a pastoral way.  I may or may not use Biblical scripture; it may or may not come when someone is in crisis.  No matter what, having the ability to help someone connect a shared human narrative to a lived experience can be a valuable tool.  But I was also reminded by another classmate that in some other traditions, this business of “pastoral care” is not something that one needs to learn or do as a separate skill.  In many ways (as it has been communicated to me by some of my Jewish colleagues) religion is the story; God is the lived experience; ‘pastoral care’ is entirely what it means to be a religious leader.

Whatever

My broader point may not be entirely clear yet.  This class was, by the professor’s admonition, Christian focused and framed.  But even in stripping away the Christianity, we must be mindful of where this understanding of a religious practice comes from because it may sit completely outside of the way and purpose of another faith tradition.  This is the ‘whatever.’  It would be so easy to say of pastoral care practices that they apply to all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, whatever…when in fact that is not the case.  But then our modern sense of ironic, tongue in cheek, media scripted humor says that we have an ‘out’ when we get to the end of our specific knowledge and our bulleted lists: Whatever. I say that if we reduce each other, even those we do not know about to ironic, witty or worse, snarky reactions and careless dismissive bucket phrases, we are as good as saying to them “you don’t matter and I don’t care.”  We face a similar dilemma in the LGBTQQI2S world; in an awkward attempt to create inclusion, we have created a trap for ourselves by attempting to reduce our beautiful tribe of gender fluid, sexuality affirming humans to a labeled container that will always be too small.  Coming back to religion, I’m well versed in the origins of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I’ve all too often heard liberal religious folks use it as a bucket to mean “all those other faiths that I don’t have time enough to find out about or are too ‘out there’ for me to wrap my head around but I think they should be mentioned somehow because I want to protect my liberal cred.”

So what is the solution?  First, we in the progressive/liberal traditions need to take our religion more seriously and not be afraid of asking those around us who may not believe our way, or may not believe in anything at all to give us the respect of acknowledging that we do take it seriously.  We’ve all heard the talk of “recovering Catholics,” “bitter ex-Baptists” and “former Mormons” and their situations and feelings are real; but so are our feelings about a life that is shaped and guided by our faith in positive ways.  Common respect.  Second, we need to be careful of making light of those who come from more conservative camps than we do.  Although I think teaching creationism in school is dangerous work, particularly if it is the only thing being taught, I do not think parodying it is the answer.   All parody serves to do is bully the ones we don’t agree with into submission.  We will get much further in coming up with real solutions to keeping schools out of the battle over religion by understanding and being able to actually communicate with those from whom we differ.  We don’t have to learn how to be Evangelical or Pentecostal, but we do have to learn how to live along side those whose beliefs differ from our own.

Finally, I would ask that we make a commitment.  A commitment to real inclusion where when we get to the end of the list we acknowledge that our experience is limited…or better yet, that we don’t speak in lists at all.  Rather, we speak always of the greater body of faith traditions and expressions and that we don’t single out our personal practice as somehow standing above or first in line.  Real inclusion means everyone is at the table and that miraculously, no one is served last.

I will take your faith seriously and not mock your faith in any way whether it be by exclusion, assumption or dismissiveness or invalidation.  My faith is not yours…even if we share the same practice and tradition…nor is your faith mine…our faiths are personal and our experience of community and spirituality are unique…as are each of our stories and each of our lives.  We all own the freedom to live our faith as we feel necessary.

I will take time and care to speak of all spiritual practices with sensitivity, awareness, intention, Grace…whatever.

Pundit

It must be nice up there.  It must be nice to be able to look wryly at our cultural missteps and loosely identified foibles and chuckle.  It must be nice to say (from afar) “gosh, that one sure got the short end of the stick…ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…”

Yes, lawdy, it must be nice to sit up there with your degree and your opportunity and maybe even your own story of overcoming adversity and poke fun at po’ l’il Mississippi.  The only problem is that there is nothing nice about this:

Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity at 35.3% of total population … and ranks last in the most number of categories. These include highest rate of child poverty at 31.9%, highest rate of infant mortality at 10.3% lowest median household income at $35,078, highest teen birth rate at 71.9 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 and highest overall rate of STDs. Phew. (Policymic/ What’s the Most Screwed Up Thing…/ Chris Miles/ http://www.policymic.com/articles/64665/what-is-the-most-screwed-up-thing-about-your-state-check-this-chart)

When it is so closely tied to this:

Mississippi’s Black population was 1,111,856 in 2011 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The actual percentage of African Americans in Mississippi was 37% which makes it the largest percent of African Americans of any state in the country.(Blackdemographics.com/ http://blackdemographics.com/states/mississippi/)

What’s a pundit to do? For one thing a pundit could acknowledge that taking pot shots at serious failings in our culture is a dicey business.

It is clear from Chris Miles’ piece, “What’s the Most Screwed Up Thing About Your State” that we spend too much time with our tongues in our cheeks.  It is impossible to speak clearly and you will surely bite your tongue.  I think it is unfortunate that he didn’t include that Mississippi often ranks lowest or next to the lowest in education (Huffington Post/ 2011.) But maybe that would be just putting insult to injury.

I am not saying that its not okay to be funny; that is what social commentators do sometimes.  But this might just be a bit like making that tired joke about Asian drivers without being Asian.  Humor is something that is born out of some degree of truth; the best comics in the world will tell you that the biggest laugh is when you are genuine and authentic with your material and with your delivery.  But there is something brittle and a bit haughty about this piece.  I imagine people who work in cubicles reading this over their first morning coffee and having a laugh because they come from Ohio or Utah…or they had a significantly longer commute getting to Manhattan than 30 minutes.  However, I was once told by a comic that the best barometer of humor is whether or not you could tell the joke to the person who is the butt of that joke and they would still laugh.  Somehow, I don’t think Mississippi would be laughing at this at all.

Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.

Heartbreak

1379273594000-AP-Charlotte-Police-Shooting-DeathI wept on BART this morning.  Reading the news on my phone as most people do, I read the story of Jon Ferrell, the former football player who was shot in North Carolina over the weekend.  I am numb to these stories.  Not to say they don’t register in me as deeply troubling examples of a twisted culture, but I have lived most of my life with news of black men being killed for one reason or another.

At that same moment, a black man came on to BART with his little boy.  The man was dressed in a fashion that (per my previous post) would probably have women clutching their purses, had he not been accompanied by a 6 year old; he wore a football jersey, sagging jeans, baseball cap, many tattoos, etc.  The man and his son sat down and the boy immediately began to read from Dr. Seuss to his dad. The man encouraged him to read it aloud to understand each word and if he had trouble, he didn’t just give the answer but gave him ways to figure it out.  And when they finished that book, the man pulled a ‘grown up’ book out of his bag, opened it to a page and asked the boy to do the same thing.  The boy struggled with the bigger words, but again, the man encouraged him.  The entire time this went on, the man had his arm around his son.

I remembered a similar scene some 43 years ago, with my own dad on the New York City subway, reading Dr. Seuss and being encouraged to figure out the words and when I had questions being asked to think about the answers instead of just expecting to be given the answers.  We were not rich and lived in the pre-fashionable Upper West Side.  My dad, in those days attired himself in what would have been considered the 1970 equivalent of hoodlum gear: large afro, African chain, daishiki print shirt, black ankle boots, etc.

And then I thought back to Jon Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and I realized that this beautiful scene of a father lovingly nurturing his son in the art of thought and engaging his world could end with that same father standing by a grave wondering why someone would have assumed that this beautiful and gentle creature who he had so carefully filled with curiosity and knowledge…why someone would assume that because he was wrapped in brown packaging that he was less worthy of living.

Every morning I walk through the armies of broken and searching black men in downtown Oakland.  They have narrowly escaped being targets of fatal gun violence, but they have not escaped being the target of our country’s institutionalized fear.  They live on the periphery, bonding and surviving any way they can.  Some are on drugs.  Some are looking for the next person to take from what they don’t have the opportunity to earn.  Some are genuinely angry.  Some are just heartbroken.  They didn’t start this way.  I wonder how many of them sat with a parent embracing them as they learned to read, never knowing that they would end up reading about their brothers being gunned down just because someone was afraid of the color of their skin.

Hipster or Hoodlum?

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There is no such thing as a “micro” aggression.  Aggression is a state of being….much like being pregnant, either something is aggressive or it is not…even a little aggression is quite simply aggression.  There is no place in my world for aggression of any kind.  To that end, I would like to share with you some aspects of my world that of late have been reduced by thinkers in the world of ethics to the realm of “micro” aggression.  If one receives a steady diet of “micro”…when do they add up to “macro?”  The specific aggressions I’m talking about (and many more) loom large for me and for people who walk in my similar skin and social location.  Other aggressions present similar challenges (I immediately think of fat phobia in our culture.) Let’s call it what it is: aggression…and it is ugly.  To paint a clearer picture, I thought I’d pose a few questions from my own catalog of not so micro aggressions to consider:

What is it like to wear sagging jeans, Timberlands and a hat and go unshaven for weeks at a time, and be seen as a hipster and not a hoodlum?

How does it feel to not have it assumed that because you are  studying to be a minister, you are a Baptist?

What is it like to never had to explain your hair…not your hair style, but your actual hair, its texture, color and quality?

How does it feel to have portrayals of yourself in the media that don’t automatically include RuPaul and Wesley Snipes in a dress?

What is it like to never have to talk to a perfect stranger in a social setting about the size of your penis?

How does it feel to never see the word “rape” in a woman’s eyes when you walk down the street?

What is it like to never be asked if your skin color rubs off.

I wonder…

My better world will not be based on assumptions of any kind, but will allow me and anyone who is ‘othered’ in our society the daily dignity of self expression and a safe environment, physically and emotionally in which to grow and thrive.

Bless the world y’all.

8.5% – An Open Letter to Linda Harvey

jesus-facepalmThank you Linda Harvey of the conservative Christian organization Mission America for giving me the fire to write this.  You and I do not live in the same world…and I’m glad.

Dear Linda Harvey,

Yes, indeed, I have decided to come out to myself as straight. I find women sexually desirable and beautiful and powerful. I totally and completely want women in my life as partners and companions. I think that the union between a man and a woman is Divinely inspired and should be upheld as a God given right.  But quite miraculously, I am a big enough human in my heart and an enlightened enough person to realize that just because I have strong feelings for women, it doesn’t negate the fact that my feelings for men are stronger.  I also think that the union between two men or two women, regardless of their gender identity is a God given right as creatures with a conscious and free will (also given to us by God.)  This is what separates us from animals (because I know you want to go there and compare my sexuality to bestiality…which is a manifestation of your sick mind and not mine.) This is also why we call it “sexual PREFERENCE” and not “sexual DICTATE.” God gave us two things in this question: sexual expression and free will.  Even if God did give us the Bible, and I won’t challenge those people who live by The Word, God also gave the Bible hundreds of authors and interpretations; clearly even God is not not willing to make the wild spectrum of our feelings and emotions simply black and white.  Gay and straight aren’t a binary.  The only ones who decided that human sexuality was built on strict opposites were physicians in the 19th century who were driven by colonial politics and society and a healthy dose of fear.  Linda, if you want to live in a world that is black and white; a world where you are willing to ignore that yellow and red and pink and purple exist…that is your choice.  But I resent anyone who would tell me that the sky is blue and corn is yellow just as much as I would resent anyone telling me that male/ female, gay/ straight etc.  are strict and unmalleable  opposites. So yes, indeed Linda Harvey, I am fully willing to come out to myself as straight…but only about 8.5% straight; the other 91.5% is 100% gay male queer.

Adam Dyer

To my Readers: What’s you’re percentage?  There is no scientific test for this.  This is a question for your heart and only you can tell for sure.  You might not ever want to act on it and it doesn’t define who you are but if you ever looked at someone of the same sex and found them attractive, I’d say give yourself 2% and celebrate…because you’re probably 100% normal…whatever that is.