Wholeness in My Soul and Body

[Note: This post was prepared 6-8 months ago, but due to technology issues I have been unable to publish it. Please know that this blog is about far more than my, or your, being naked, but through it I am claiming and celebrating my naked soul and body.]

by Robin Hawley Gorsline

On two successive days —a Sunday and Monday—I spent time being naked with other naked people. 

The first event was the inaugural meeting of a group in the D.C. area (what is locally called the DMV: District, Maryland, Virginia) called Christian Gay Nudists (CGN). We met in a private home in Langley Park for more than two hours, sharing stories of personal experiences and ideas about nudism and our religion. I had been invited by my friend Darryl Walker, founder of the group, to share some perspectives on the topic as a way to generate discussion. We had no shortage of conversation! 

The second was a visit to a clothing optional club operated by the Maryland Health Society. The club is named MAHESO (as in MaHeSo) and is located in Davidsonville, MD, not far from Annapolis. It is a rustic facility with an outdoor pool, trails, picnic area, and spaces for camping, RVs and a few cabins—and on Monday, so peaceful. 

Robin-in-the-woods
Adventure in the woods–the t-shirt says, “Queerly and Fabulously Made”

The combination of the two visits enriched my soul. Some years ago, I wrote in this space about my decision to publicly proclaim my love of, and commitment to, nudism (or as it sometimes called, naturism). See these posts if you are interested: Naked in PhiladelphiaNaked in Philadelphia Part 2Inaugural Address How Mature Is It?  My engagement since then has been less than consistent. I am changing that.

It was a pleasure to be with the five other men at CGN and I felt especially happy the remainder of the day.  I felt happy the next day too and I experienced serenity at a level far deeper than I have in a long, long time.  

Sitting quietly at Maheso, chatting with my friend Michael Hartman (who is a member and drove us there) and floating in the pool, eating lunch outdoors and walking on some trails after lunch—all while completely, gloriously nude (okay, I had shoes and socks on for the trail walking)—I just grew more and more peaceful. I think I have a new understanding of the Hebrew word shalom, which means not only peace but also wholeness. 

Skyclad at MaHeSo

This wholeness is what nudism manifests in me, in my soul and body, united and unashamed. I have come to believe that when God sees me, as God does all the time, I am seen not with my clothes on, not with my defenses and masks in place, but instead as the naked, vulnerable child of God (and Robert and Jessie Gorsline) that I am. 

God loves me just as I am, an out-of-shape, wrinkled, arthritic elder who is less than steady on my feet and more bent down than I would like. That’s who God sees and loves and is always trying to get me to pay attention not only to God but also to my own self, my inner self where God resides. 

As I write this some weeks later, I still feel this shalom, and I realize it is why I so want to go out today to work nude in my garden. Working in the soil, with the plants (both weeds—the plants that are out of place in my realm but are still living beings—and the ones I do want to thrive), is a place, a cathedral if you will, of divinity for me, a place where I experience God very directly. 

The same is true when I go walking in the woods—again, I want to be naked, like the trees are naked, vulnerable, yet standing and proclaiming their natural beauty.  And it is true when I leave my home to walk or drive to the grocery store and go to meetings and certainly to church—engaging the communities I cherish, places I also find and share God. 

Sadly, I must satisfy myself to be nude as I write this and generally in my home, except when it gets too cold. We try to keep our thermostat down in winter to save energy and money, something I want to change, at least in my study where I spend much of my day.  However, even if I am not nude “out there,” I know God knows who I am and how I really look. 

Sharing my nude joy outdoors

Still, I have decided to be a nude-vangelist wherever and whenever I can, believing that I have been given good news to share with the world. I wish I had the courage to truly be a street nude-vangelist by standing on the corner or at the Metro station unclothed with flyers about the joys of nudism, but I do not. For one thing, I am not ready to spend my days in jail, nor to create trouble for my husband and my larger family. 

But please know this: when you meet me, I am nude in my soul, and I really want to be bodily nude with you and you with me—because I want to be whole, I want you to be whole, and I want us to be whole together.  Of course, I will do nothing that violates your bodily and spiritual integrity. 

Note: I have many interests–anti-racism, Palestinian liberation, queer theology, sex and gender justice, fate of the planet among them–and I am returning to this space to write about many of them, but, fair warning, you can be sure that I will be nude-vangelizing at times here and elsewhere. I hope you will subscribe to this blog or at least check in from time to time. We can create a new world, we might call it Eden, together with the God (or Higher Power, or Universe, whatever your term or concept is) of your and my understandings. 

Let Us Have Gender Freedom . . . and God Sees that It Is Good

The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

Stripping Down

We are called to be a priestly people.

In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.

Queer Virtue book coverIn her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:

A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred. 

This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.

Robin clergy collar less smile Sept 2015 smaller3_edited-4There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.

I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.

I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.

Robin with longer hair and beard (cropped)_edited-1I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.

Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.

That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.

 

 

A Life Worth Living

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all of us . . . .

[This is the first installment in a series focusing, as I prepare to turn 70 in October, on what is so far the second half of my life, the 35 years that began in 1981, with looks back at earlier days as they affect the later ones.I am hopeful that this serialization of my life may provide some of the components of a memoir of a life rich in faith, hope, joy and love.]

Thirty-five years ago today–August 23, 1981–four people sat around a makeshift table to eat pizza and birthday cake. The occasion was the first birthday of Marjorie Elizabeth Gorsline, known then, as now, as Meg.

The setting was the second floor apartment of the Gorsline family–mother Judy, three-year-old sister Emily, Meg, and me, known as Daddy to the girls and Bob to Judy–in married student housing at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. We had arrived two days earlier, driving from Milford, MI, so that I could take up seminary studies.

Our furniture had yet to arrive, so we borrowed two chairs from kind neighbors for the adults and a milk crate on which to put the pizza box and then the birthday cake. Emily sat on the floor and Meg in our laps (and often on the floor), a great dining adventure for us all.

Meg & Kevin Party 015
Just about my favorite picture of Meg, from a wedding shower in 2009.

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all four of us (and a third daughter, Robin, who would arrive 16 months later)–a huge life-change for me to come about one year later that would over the course of that following year throw all of us into new and often painful, and, for me at least, often joyful and sometime frightening, and ultimately fulfilling territory.

But for now, all we knew was that we had left our Midwestern roots for the storied East. Judy was seeking a job to provide financial stability, Emily and Meg needed to be enrolled in daycare, and I had to get ready for classes.

What had caused all this change in our lives? I had felt a call to ordained ministry, having grown dissatisfied with the limits of political life. It was near the end of my first term as a Republican member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, as I was seeking re-election in 1978 (a few months after the birth of Emily), that I had begun to discern disquiet in my soul about the vocational direction of my life. After an easy electoral victory, I told Judy that I was feeling pulled toward ministry.

As ever a wonderful helpmate, she encouraged me to talk with our priest, Rev. Jacob L. “Jake” Andrews, at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where I served as a lay leader and she an active communicant. It took me a couple of months before I gathered my courage and went to sit with Jake in his study at the church, a sanctum I had visited many times over the almost 20 years he had been our spiritual leader.

Jake said, “I wondered when, or if, you would recognize this. I am relieved and glad.” I shed a few tears–but not too many, because he was a Bostonian by birth with a quiet demeanor who seemed often to be embarrassed by displays of emotion. And then he began to help me chart a course that could lead me to seminary in the fall of 1981.

As it happened, Judy had grown tired of teaching fourth graders and was happy to contemplate possible new career paths. So both of us looked ahead with eagerness to a new journey together.

Before we would leave, she became pregnant again. I did not receive this news, initially, with gladness, having been convinced that she and I, both raised as only children (I had two older half-sisters but had not been raised with them, and Judy was truly an only child), would do best with one child.

But Judy, raised by unhappy, perpetually quarreling, mutually distrustful parents, felt she could not risk Emily being consigned to the sort of lonely, emotionally bereft childhood she had ensured. We had talked about all this, and I thought we were still debating the issue. But she, by then 39 and worried about her ability to bear another child, had decided on her own to stop using birth control.

When she told me she was pregnant just after Christmas in 1980, I was stunned and angry. I felt deceived. It was in some ways the forerunner of another, even more jarring time, when one of us would feel that way about the other.

But as I watched Emily grow excited at the prospect of a sibling (especially when we were able to tell her she would have a little sister) and saw the bloom of pregnancy and joy in Judy, I too was overtaken by happy anticipation.

And of course, this baby, named after Judy’s beloved Auntie Marge and my favorite older cousin, Elizabeth, turned out to be a delight, the greatest sort of joy any parent can have. At her birth, I loved my three women.

So on this day, I especially celebrate Meg, whose intelligence, wisdom, beauty, grace, and courage remind me so very fondly of her mother even as all of it is, of course, the mark of the particular embodied gift of God she was on her very first earthly day and all the rest since and into her bright future. There is none like her. She is her own person, beautifully, wondrously so.

[There is more to tell about our journey to, and our life in, Cambridge, and beyond; stay tuned for the next installment of “A Life Worth Living.”]

 

 

It’s National Redemption Time

en.wikipedia.com
en.wikipedia.com

Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty?  How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?

These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.

This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.

Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.

face2faceafrica com
face2faceafrica com

Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?

Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander amazon.com
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
amazon.com

To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today.  The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.

Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.

The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”  

boston.com
boston.com

Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?

It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.

Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.

ejvictorsofa.tk
ejvictorsofa.tk

We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.

And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.

It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.

Happy Lent!

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent. As such, it is usually seen as a very solemn day, a day of judgment, a day of accepting ashes as a metaphor for life. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from dust you come and to dust you shall return. . . .”

ash Wednesday dust filled hands stmarkscatholicchurch com
stmarkscatholicchurch.com

This is very dry, one could start coughing for the dryness in the throat.

But what if we thought of this time as rich and deep, a time for exploring real stuff, soul stuff, heart stuff. What if we gave up something really real for Lent, not just television or chocolate or drinking wine or going to the movies, but something really important? What if doing so created some real happiness in our lives?

Fear is a choice patriciapattypat blogspot com
patriciapattypat.blogspot.com

What if we gave up fear for Lent? Every time I feel fear, I will take it out and look at it and say, “Okay, I have to careful but I don’t have to avoid doing important things, things I want to do, out of fear of how someone else will react or judge me.”

Or gossip? Every time I am tempted to talk about someone else’s foibles or stupidity, I will remember to look in the mirror and see my own. Then, I have a better chance of being whole and humble and pleasant to be around.

stingy-fist  pastorburden com
pastorburden.com

What if we gave up stinginess for Lent? Whenever a homeless or street person asks me for help, I will give them something. I can carry change or dollar bills deliberately, maybe protein bars, too (not a substitute for financial help but a statement about being fed) in preparation for the opportunity to give away some  of what God has given me. Giving creates happiness for the recipient and the giver.

What if we gave up shallow political talk for Lent? This one may be for me. I say I am really tired of “horse race journalism,” the tendency of most our media to report not on substance and issues and positions on important public questions but on who is ahead and who has the most money and who has the momentum or who just committed the latest gaffe. But I can’t seem to stop reading it–it is like gossip in that it becomes addictive. Life would be better if I ignored it entirely–I could really have some fun every day if I gave up shallowness.

I think you get the idea. Go deep for Lent, and seek out a new way of being that can bring contentment and even joy.

And it might be good to remember these words from Isaiah, who knew a thing or two about living a soulful life.

Do you think God
    wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
    as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
    and sit in ashes?
Is this really what God wants
    on a day of worship?

I’ll tell you
what it really means
    to worship God.
Remove the chains of prisoners
    who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!
Share your food with everyone
    who is hungry;
share your home
    with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don’t turn away your relatives.

Then your light will shine
like the dawning sun,
and you
    will quickly be healed.
Your honesty[b] will protect you
    as you advance,
and the glory of God
    will defend you from behind.
When you beg God for help,
    God will answer, “Here I am!”

Isaiah 58:5-9 Contemporary English Version adapted

And if Isaiah’s words seem heavy to you, if you think they are just one more thing to do, one more obligation, remember this: liberating others helps to liberate us, too. And that can feel really good–not to mention that you don’t have to wear ugly clothes and sour expressions.

This is a time for self-change, a time to clear the decks for new life that is coming. Yes, I mean Easter and Pentecost and Passover and Spring and the movement of God in the world.

new life 2But do you not know that new life is always coming? God is always on the move in the world, in you, in me, through you, through me, in and through everyone.

So, have a holy Lent, but don’t let it be hard and ugly and an uphill battle. Go joyously into it, know that God already has gifts for you and that as you give up something that lightens your load you will be able to receive what new gift God has for you.

Drop that thing you are carrying that is not feeding you and open your hands and arms to receive the bounty of God.

And have a Happy Lent!

A Pilgrimage Home

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness
flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5
pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map
simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map
potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.

Love Is the Deal

Most of my life I have been fascinated by politics, probably accurate to call me a political junkie, avidly reading the latest tidbits of commentary, polls and the like.

Some of this is tied to the fact that I have been an elected official, albeit at the relatively low level of local and county government in my native Michigan. I also served as an aide to a U.S. Congressman and a State Senator. My undergraduate degree is in political science. I was sure, in years long ago, that I wanted to make my way in politics, and dreamed of being a U.S. Senator, maybe even President. [Note: There used to be a picture of the county seal here, but the county’s office of corporation counsel asked me to remove it, fearing that someone could think its presence constituted an endorsement by the county of this blog. I guess they have little better to do with their time than worry about a lowly blog by a former county official. But I have complied, to save them filing suit or taking some other such, in my view, unnecessary action, and to save the taxpayers further burden.]

I have not abandoned that interest entirely (though no dreams of elected office remain!), but I am finding it less and less satisfying. The shift began in the late 1970s when I perceived the inadequacy of the political system to solve some really basic problems in our world, at the very time I felt a call to ordained ministry (I went to seminary in 1981, graduating from the Episcopal Divinity School in 1985). 

Episcopal Divinity School group circle
lonestarparson.blogspot.com I found this picture on Google, connected to a blog that calls EDS “Satan’s Seminary” (that will be for a future post!)

Neither politics or religion have all the answers, of course. Both create problems as well as offer solutions. This is probably because each is a human construct managed by human beings. I say this without denying the role of divine inspiration in religion, and sometimes even in politics.

5.0.3
magnificat.ca

There is one thing however that I do not find in politics generally, and especially today, and that is love. Love is at the center of my life, because I believe it is at the center of all life. I agree with St. John of the Cross, who said, “There is nothing better or more necessary than love.” One of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Richard Rohr, has written about this extensively in, among other places, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self

Richard Rohr 2
Richard Rohr OFM en.wikipedia.org

Neither they, nor others, nor I, mean so much the feeling or sentiment of love (romantic love, Hallmark card love, etc. (although this can be very good and indeed wonderful) as we mean the active engagement with others. all others, in mutually respectful, caring, holistic relationship. 

In the political realm, I guess this makes me a liberal. I do not doubt that conservatives love other people, but their politics seems mostly devoid of it. Love requires a largeness of spirit, and certainly a focus on things in addition to money, the national debt, and the latest outrages.

hunger
sites,google,com

Speaking of outrages, there are many in the world, and they are not limited to beheadings by ISIS and shootings by extremists (“Islamic” or otherwise). How about the fact that tens of millions of people in the world go hungry every day, and yet there is enough food to feed everyone? That is an outrage of grand and preposterous proportions! 

So love. I am in search of how I can help grow the quantity and quality of love in the world. I believe it can be done best, maybe only done, in community–hence the name of this blog. 

Obama's tears
nationalreview.com

Which is where politics could come in, and religion, too. Both are fundamentally communal. But I am having a hard time finding much love in what passes for political discourse, even among Democrats. Maybe love is at the root of what they say, but they do not use the word very much (President Obama’s tears when speaking about the children killed in Newtown demonstrate love). The only Republican running for President who comes close is Governor Kasich of Ohio (and he is not doing very well in the polls!). 

John Kasich
Governor John Kasich businessinsider.com

I believe in the responsibility and power of the vote, I will never stop voting, but my criteria are clear: the more loving you sound and act, the more likely I am to vote for you. And it is possible that in some contests, if I cannot sense any love, I will leave the ballot blank. 

Of course, I find it difficult to find much love in what passes for religion in many quarters these days. The good news is that, unlike politics so far, we are not required to live under the rule of a religion (although many have tried and will continue to try to make it so). 

tough love not easy but worth it
pinterest.com

And by the way, love includes “tough love,” but by that I do not mean being a tough, macho-like guy (or gal). Tough love means, to me, telling the whole truth no matter the cost. Much of the time, the hard truth is not the aggressive- or militant-sounding one, but the quiet one, the clear analysis which shows that solutions are more complicated than building walls or denying rights and livelihoods to whole groups of people. 

In that vein, consider this post an installment payment on “tough love” for my country and the world. 

I encourage you to join the love campaign; let me know how you are promoting love in the world. Together, we can grow love until all the unlove is cast aside.  

 

 

 

Celebrating the Baby Born to a Good Jewish Couple

I sang what was for me a new verse to an old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” last Sunday.

O come, O come, O Adonai, who came to all on Sinai high,
And from its peak a single law proclaimed in majesty and awe
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!

O Come O Come Emmanuel NCH
from New Century Hymnal; vs. 3 is where Adonai is used.

It was for me the first time I had heard in church this term for God, Adonai, which I often say and sing during Shabbat services in the synagogue.

As one-half of an inter-faith couple, and as a pastor/theologian acutely aware of the deep links between Judaism and Christianity (links so often abused by Christians and understandably denied by Jews), I am always grateful when a connection between these two faiths I cherish is made.

Research about the origins of the verse (and the entire hymn) revealed that they are based on an ancient seven-verse antiphon that was in use, according to some scholars, as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, these seven verses, known as the O Antiphons, were in regular use in Rome, as part of daily preparation at vespers for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, each one using a title that the faithful attribute to Jesus:

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

o_antiphons_advent_4
blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com

Interestingly, some see in the first letters of the titles, taken backwards,  a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,”  which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be [there].” But scholars do not believe this was the intention of the original writers.

Moreover, from an interfaith perspective, this interpretation is tricky at best: Jews would never use the term Adonai to refer to Jesus. Thus, although I was excited when I sang this verse in church, I became concerned as I did this research to think we Christians, or some of us, might once again be appropriating, or misappropriating, that which is not ours.

Jewish Jesus
theguardian.com

What is undeniable is that the birth of Jesus is a Jewish birth. He is dedicated, circumcised, in the temple as a Jewish boy/man. He goes to temple at age 12 and converses with the rabbis. He never calls himself a Christian. Nowhere in any holy text do we find an indication that he intended to start a new religion.

I want to think, and pray, more about how to be sure that these Jewish roots are not lost or ignored–certainly at Christmas but also throughout the liturgical and spiritual year of the Church. I want Christians to stop using the Hebrew Scriptures to proof-text why they believe Jesus is the Messiah (and really only value those Hebrew texts that they claim do this).  And please do not read this as an endorsement, or repudiation, of Jews for Jesus (any more than Rabbis engage in the arguments between various sects claiming to be Christian).

At this very moment when Christmas overwhelms our culture–of course, much of Christmas as it is enacted culturally has little to do with Jesus or any other faith–and creates a situation where our Jewish siblings can feel claustrophobic, it is vital that we give thanks to God, to Adonai, for the historic and contemporary ground of our faith in Judaism.

Let us celebrate the birth of this Jewish baby who grows up into a beautiful Jewish man and rabbi, from whom we continue to learn and grow spiritually!

Let us celebrate the One who is with us, and is coming yet again.

More Dark, Less Light

Hanukkah party Mishkan Torah 2015
Hanukkah party at Mishkan Torah, Greenbelt MD, 2015. Author photo

We celebrated Hanukkah these past days, including a party offered by the religious school at Congregation Mishkan Torah last evening (the final night of this eight-day feast). I say we celebrated it for past days, but not eight because I could not find our menorah until time to light the third candle at home!

Christmas tree
heart.co.uk

In ten days, we will fly to Michigan to celebrate Christmas with our extended family. In between, we will observe the winter solstice on December 22. Muslims will observe Mawlid, the birth of the prophet Mohammed on December 23 to 28 (depending on the branch of Islam). Then there is Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and of course New Year’s Day.

This is a time of year marked by celebration.

Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because of the centrality of lighting menorah candles each night (beginning with one the first night and then adding another each evening). And Christmas is marked by bright lights as well, on Christmas trees and on the exterior of many homes and other buildings. This surely is a reflection on the star that guided the magi from the East to the stable in Bethlehem. Both of these holy times are dear to me, and I know to many others as well.

winter_night_snowflakes_merry_christmas_sky_hd-wallpaper-1613250
imagesbot.com

But light is not central to two other celebrations, namely the winter solstice and Kwanzaa. In fact, they are really celebrations of darkness.

I cherish darkness–skin tones to be sure–but more, too. I value the dark of night, I value being in the dark, meaning not being sure of exactly where I am or where I am going or what is around me. I have a feeling this is not how many, probably most, people feel.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use “dark” to describe something good. Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people’s minds . . . without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 54)

I don’t meant to suggest, any more than Taylor does, that there is never danger in the dark. But in a world where terrorists randomly kill and behead people and fly planes into tall buildings, police shoot people even as they lay dying,  and people drive cars into crowds to express their frustration–all in broad daylight or on well-lighted sidewalks and streets–I am not convinced that being in the light is all that much safer than being in the dark.

fire in darkness
myinnermystic.wordpress.com

We can learn from the dark. Do you realize that if you are outside at night and you shine a light on something that you will see it in some ways better than without the light, but at the same time that the light will block out what is around the object and around you? Light actually limits the range of your vision.

That limited vision is reflected in white racism and white privilege, too–many of us are conditioned to not really see the darker-skinned people in our midst as full members of the human race. If white, or light, is the norm, is the preferred coloration, we devalue our siblings and all the richness, truth, and beauty of their divinely created humanity.

starry night sky in winter
vi.sualize.us

And at this time of the year, in the northern half of the globe, we are given the opportunity to slow down, as the plants and trees and many of our fellow animals are doing, and rest, letting go of our need to see everything and be everywhere. I am not a big fan of cold weather–and really dislike snow–but I do value the opportunity to burrow into the cocoon that is our home and feel enveloped by darkness that is longer each day.

Of course, we have moved into a more urbanized area than our former neighborhood in Richmond, and the porch lights of neighbors, perhaps 100 feet away, seem perpetually on–but still I have the great joy of taking Cocoa out for a dark walk at 10 pm or so (most people do not leave their exterior lights on and the tree-covered walkways of our two-hundred-plus acre co-op are wonderful for walking). I also cherish going out before sunrise to walk with him. If you do this, perhaps you too notice how much more clearly the bare trees stand out against the night sky. They are a great joy to my soul.

Close-up of a family celebrating Kwanzaa
kunm.org

I don’t want to stop celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but I want to put more emphasis on the Solstice and Kwanzaa–I want more balance in my life, and that means more dark, less light.

Spiritually speaking, I take my cue from the Hebrew writers of Genesis. Creation started out as void and darkness, and then was given more shape by the creation of light. But the light did not erase the darkness, and both were judged to be good.

May it be so in my life, and yours.