Inaugural Address

. . . we, body and soul, are good, as God created long, long ago, and keeps creating every moment of every day

Welcome to the inaugural post on The Naked Theologian!

I began a blog in this space some years ago, while I still lived in Richmond, VA, where I pastored the Metropolitan Community Church. Then it was called “Robin Gorsline’s Blog.” Later, in keeping with my commitment to the importance of social change—promoting justice and equality for all—I changed the name to “Make Love. Build Community.”

I still believe in that truth—the more love there is the stronger the community, and it is up to us to do the loving and building—but it’s time for another change.  Despite the new title, this blog is not a nudist blog, in the sense of focusing on nudism, or as many call it, naturism, and related activities, although I, and maybe others of my friends, will appear naked here and I will sometimes talk about nudity.

Robin standing hands open by Wayne
Photo by J. Wayne Higgs

I have claimed the mantle of The Naked Theologian because I am a theologian and I spend many of my days naked (and would like to spend all of them this way)—and because I believe that our world desperately needs to accept and celebrate the gift of our bodies, our “creatureliness,” in all their wondrous God-given varieties.

As a theologian, poet, and citizen who cares about healing the world, I want to help overcome body- and sex-negativity, including white racism and supremacy and male supremacy, hetero-supremacy, ableist supremacy, ageist supremacy, in my own nation and around the globe.

I especially want to do this for and within faith communities, certainly in my own beloved Metropolitan Community Churches—because I believe that distortions of religious teachings, especially in my faith tradition, Christianity, have been the greatest source of body-and sex-negativity and related social ills.

I also am taking a stand here as a 71-year-old cisgender gay man (who often feels gender queer), whose body is far from buff and who has suffered for most of my post-pubescent life with feelings of inadequacy about the size of my genitals.  When I first felt a call to claim the moniker of The Naked Theologian, I reacted negatively, saying to myself, “You can’t do that, you don’t have the body for it.”

But as I prayed, and discussed it with my husband and several friends, I came to understand that this wrinkling, “small-packaged,” somewhat overweight elder body could be one God will use to convey the truth about the beauty of every divinely ordained human body (which is every . . . body).  I pray that through this blog more and more people will stop judging not only the bodies of others but perhaps most importantly their own.

Adam and Eve in Eden nakedThe more we can stop dividing people into categories—based not only on gender and gender identity and race and sexuality, but also on age, ability, body type, ethnicity and national origin, religion, dress (including undress), and how well we, they, measure up to restrictive, even punitive, advertising and fashion standards—the more peaceful we will be, as individuals and as societies.

The biblical vision of Eden keeps calling to me. I have in my mind’s eye, in my heart of faith and love, in my soul, a video of the first humans and birds and four-legged and creeping creatures, as well as the flowers and trees and running and still waters, sky at night and day—all parts simply enjoying life together.

I believe the patriarchs used, and continue to use, one part of that story as a way to create control, through the suggestion of body shame between those whom they named Adam and Eve. Somebody had to stop all this freedom—things would get out of control and pretty soon people would be deciding, for and by themselves,  all sorts of things, including when they wanted to be naked and when they wanted to be dressed (as in when temperatures dip or the sun feels too hot or just wear favorite cloth on a special occasion).

The Dinner Party large view
The Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago

It is not a formal theological text, but the artist Judy Chicago’s untitled poem which accompanied her installation “The Dinner Party” expresses much of what I believe is the true message of Eden. Her artistic vision has been criticized as incomplete in that the installation—a table with place settings for 39 significant, powerful women—not only has only one Black woman, Sojourner Truth, represented, but also unlike the other 38 whose portrayals focus on their vaginas, Truth is shown without her genitals and with three faces. Still it is a powerful artistic statement about the centrality and power of women in our world.

The Dinner Party Emily Dickinson
The Dinner Party, Emily Dickinson

Chicago composed this untitled poem which I have long admired and considered almost a personal credo, even though it perpetuates the gender binary (the art and poem were shown for the first time in 1979).

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

As I begin this phase of my blogging journey, my prayer is that we learn to live free and easy, knowing that we, body and soul, are good, as God created long, long ago, and keeps creating every moment of every day.

Naked in Philadelphia

I am going on an adventure—riding my bike in Philadelphia—on September 9, 2017.

No big deal, right? Where’s the adventure? Philadelphia is fairly normal as cities go, mostly flat I am told (at least in the part where I’ll be riding), with many interesting sights.

But I am not going on just any bike ride. I will be riding with hundreds of others for the ninth annual Philly World Naked Bike Ride.

Yes, I, and hundreds of others, will be riding bikes in Philadelphia without wearing clothes. And others will be riding with some clothing—it is a “bare as you dare” event.

20170408_151340I love being naked. I recently spent four days at The Woods, an LBBT-friendly clothing optional campground in Pennsylvania, and I reveled in being naked OUTDOORS all day every day. I spend most of my days at home writing while naked (Jonathan likes me to wear a t-shirt when he’s around, so I do that in the evenings and weekends).  I wish I could be naked outside in our yard.

What is the point of this event?

Organizers claim it is part of a global movement to promote fuel conscious consumption (ride your bike more, your car less), positive body image (every body is beautiful), and cycling. World Naked Bike Rides happen in many places each year. London’s version is famous, and there are others in Britain and Europe, but many people say Philadelphia does it best in the U.S.  Of course, in parts of Europe public nudity is accepted as normal.

Fuel conscious consumption is a way of focusing on how we use energy—so we can reduce our demand on finite natural resources and do our part to preserve the planet for future generations. Can we walk more, and ride bikes more, and use public transportation more often?

Philly WNBR 2017 posterPositive body image is, for me, a deeply spiritual issue. As a Queer theologian who sees the divine in all creation, I value every single human body (as a vegetarian, I also seek to value the bodies of other species).  Mine is 70 years and counting, definitely not muscled and hard, with body parts that many would not rate highly.

Indeed, for years, I did not value my own body, especially my genitals which are small. Taking my clothes off whenever and wherever I can has helped me feel a new affection and gratitude for the body I have been given, and even to validate myself for taking care of it. Of course, I could exercise more, eat less, lose ten or twenty pounds, tighten my abs, build my shoulders and biceps—but overall I am in pretty good shape for a guy in his elderhood.

The good news is that the World Naked Bike Ride, no matter where it is, encourages and celebrates all bodies. Going to Philadelphia this year is a spiritual pilgrimage for me, just as holy as going to church, going on retreat, praying by myself and with friends.

Robin bike
I “love” my step-though (not just for girls) bike!
And I am glad to promote cycling. Deciding four months ago to go to Philadelphia pushed me to buy a new bike and start riding. I have been riding two or three times each week since early July in Greenbelt where we live. Riding for an hour or so—up some hills as well as down and on the flat—is a time of centering and joy, as well as some good exercise. I feel better for riding. I wish I saw more cyclists on the streets. In Philadelphia, I imagine our nakedness will draw attention, and that may help encourage a few folks there to get on their bikes.

And who knows, maybe reading this post will encourage you?

World_Naked_Bike_Ride_-_ZaragozaI even have room on my bike rack for a second bike, so feel free to let me know you’d like to join me in this adventure. Or meet me in Philadelphia!

I encourage comments, as always (and if you are interested in joining me in Philly, you can write me at RevDrRobin@comcast.net ).

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.

Gratitude or Grief? It’s Both

thanksgiving-day-spread-700x340
hdlatestimages.com

Most of us are soon to celebrate the national holiday called Thanksgiving. It is probably as close to an official religious moment as we have–just about everyone gets into the act, generally by overeating. It is a feasting day when people gather for a sacred meal (even if they do not have religious or spiritual feelings). It is a day of gratitude for what we, as a nation, have received.

But is it celebrated by all? No.

Homeless people may be left out, despite the efforts of many good people to make sure there are public feedings. And like other days when the majority of people gather with family and friends, there are people whose solitary lives are made more painful by their being alone on Thanksgiving Day.

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje
Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

There is one other group that may not be celebrating, or if they do, may see the holiday differently. They may even name it Thanksgrieving (my old friend and mentor, Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley CA, introduced this term to me many years ago).

Painting of the first Puritan Thanksgiving by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914) wikipedia.org
Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
wikipedia.org

In our national mythic lore, the Pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated the first Thanksgiving. And they invited the local natives to join them. Of course, without the aid of the natives there would have been no thanksgiving meal. So it was right to invite them.

But I also know this: over time, native peoples, those who lived in and on this land before any Europeans arrived, became victims rather than invited guests–in their own land. In colonial days, it was often local skirmishes and animosity between a community of European settlers and the local tribe that led to attacks and killing on both sides. And even when there was no physical violence, the settlers often violated the natives by seeking to impose their culture and religion on those they viewed as “heathen” or “savages.”

Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com
Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com

But as the United States–the nation created by and for immigrants from other places–grew and prospered, large campaigns of relocation and terror began. Native people were killed, slaughtered, in large numbers, through blood shed in battles, and through starvation and disease. Some of the latter loss was not intentional, created by the strains of disease brought to this land that the natives were unable to resist. But there were also deliberate poisonings, too.

Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890 education.nationalgeographic.com
Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890
education.nationalgeographic.com

Scholars have struggled for decades to figure out how many millions of native peoples were lost. Many use the term genocide, or holocaust, to describe what happened. Estimates of the original native population vary widely, as do estimates of those who died. In 2014, the US Census Bureau said the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race was 5.4 million, about 2 percent of the total population. Estimates of the original population range from 10 million to 50 million. Clearly, whatever number you accept, the population has been decimated.

Even so, as the national history is commonly told, and observed and celebrated, this day is a happy one.

But it brings terrorizing memories to native victims. This is the most painful part of the holiday for me. As we gather around the festive table, laden with all sorts of good food, I can hear screams of dying Cherokee, Ojibway, Nez Pearce, Cheyenne, Sioux, Powhatan, Monacan, Algonquin, Ottawa, Kiowa women, children, and men. . . . and hundreds of other tribal nations.

wikipedia.com
wikipedia.com

And as a vegetarian, I also hear the screams of turkeys (so many call it “Turkey Day”), and pigs, and cattle, all slaughtered so we can celebrate what we have been given. We also are thus again, as in the case of the native peoples, celebrating what we have taken, namely the lives of others.

Thanks. Grieving. Indeed.

Let us face the horror of what has been done, let us feel the pain in our hearts and souls, and then let us ask forgiveness . . . before and as we give thanks.

What’s Sex Got to Do with It?

imageI am ordained clergy in a Christian denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches, that exists because of sex.

Thus, it may not seem unusual that we are having a three-day virtual symposium entitled, “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit.”

And yet, this is the first such planned, intentional conversation ever in our mostly Protestant global denomination that arose in Los Angeles 47 years ago to serve the spiritual needs of lesbian and gay Christians.

Rev. Elder Troy D.Perry
Rev. Elder Troy D.Perry

In 1968, when Rev. Troy Perry issued the invitation in The Advocate for people to come to his home for the first service, people were regularly arrested for having same-sex sex and for dressing “against” their gender (butch lesbians, femme gay men, transexuals, e.g.), and many attempted suicide in the face of losing family and jobs. Troy himself was not arrested, but he did attempt suicide. And in his autobiographical account of the founding, tells of going with many others to bring friends and lovers home from jail. One such incident sparked the call in his heart to start a new church. Twelve people showed up on October 6, and things started rolling.

imageThat’s why I say we started because of sex. Sex is at our center as a gathered faith community. If men were not having sex with men and women with women, we would not exist. Just in case you are wondering, we still are having sex.

imageBut the truth is that in many, if not most, of our churches, you would not know it. We don’t talk about it much. We’re just like the rest of the Church, in denial.

One reason we keep quiet about sex is that we have tried hard to be accepted by the larger religious establishment. That has worked, somewhat, but we are still barred from membership in the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches, too.

imageAnother reason is that many of our people are still fighting internalized homophobia and shame. LGBT folks are not exempt from the various forms of body shame that infect so many people, and we all have to cope with the same air of negativity and judgment about same-sex love that everyone else has had to breathe.

imageThose factors are undergirded by the general sex phobia of Christianity. Why our larger faith is this way seems strange–Jesus is not recorded as saying anything negative about sex (or even same-sex sex), and even cares for several people who are sexually active (remember the woman accused of adultery?).

In the first two sessions yesterday, the first day, we heard some of our history in the U.S. and some of the challenges we face in other parts of the world today. We also delved into approaches to “deconstructing heteronormativity” (sadly I missed most of this session).

imageAnd in the third session, about 30 of us conducted a moderated, open discussion of the question, “How do we bring sex to church?”

Implicit in that question is that it is desirable to bring sex to church. I surely agree.

imageBut that is not by far what many Christians, in MCC and in other groups, ordained or lay, would say. And for many who would agree, it would be to be sure that people only had sex in marriage and for many of them only for the purposes of procreation. And they would not think that a group of LGBT folks ought to be bringing our perverted sexual lives anywhere near church.

imageSo the first line dividing many (I hope all in MCC are on this side): sex is good. The second might be that there should be more of it. But even before that would be the reality that God is the author of sexuality and that God’s design is rich and varied and not under the control of self-appointed, or even biblically anointed, sex police.

Could this be your church?
Could this be your church?

This symposium is touching on all this, and more, and pushing boundaries all over the place, and is the most exciting religious/theological event I have attended in a long time.

Such is the power of sex. Thank God!

[Note: this last picture, taken at the renowned Opera House in Sydney, Australia, is too white for my taste–I want my church to be far more diverse–but I had a hard time finding a picture of a large group of naked people. And it is pretty cool anyway–all those wondrously naked bodies simply enjoying being alive! If you click on it, you can appreciate the diversity of bodies.]

The Destination Is the Journey

I am listening right now for the words to come, trusting that there is something that needs me to say it, write it, today. Unnerving to realize I am not totally in charge of this process, that a greater force, and a more intimate one, plays an indispensable role–without which whatever I type or pen will lack some essence of life.

road in autumn lightIt is one thing to string words together in an artful way, and something else far more rewarding when they sing with soul. I imagine even technical writing, if approached with humility and openness, can sing at least a little–even if it is the goal of such writing to be in total control through the mind.

I don’t want my mind to be in total control, I don’t even want total control however it might come, even though it is tempting at times. The ego wants so much to be in control, but that means severing or at least limiting a relationship with God, among others, and I don’t want that.

dark roadMy relationship with God is built on the willingness to remain open to what comes, to be willing to experience all that life offers, and to trust God to guide me through in ways it is good for me to go.

The destination is not an ending point, not a place. The destination is the open, trusting journey that never ends.

St. Mary’s Wilderness Journal #1

St. Mary's Wilderness sign
wanderingVirginia.com

It was a mostly wet couple of days with the trees, rhododendrons, and creatures of St. Mary’s Wilderness in the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia. But of course God, or Great Spirit as our native teachers in this land might say, is present no matter the weather. So I learned some important lessons–and I am grateful I went, despite, or  perhaps because of, some real challenges. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of the challenges and lessons, or medicine, as Native people might say, I received. Here is the first installment.

I drove from Maryland into Virginia on Tuesday, September 29–after talking to the good folks at REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.), my gurus about outdoor life, about how to put up my tent in a downpour–only to discover when I arrived that torrential rains, almost blinding sheets of moisture at times, made it impossible to hike in and get a camp set up that day. So I spent an uneventful first night at a motel in Waynesboro.

Lesson: Sometimes with nature it is best to lie low, recognizing that the forces of the universe are greater than me.

2015-09-30 09.08.01
author photo

Wednesday dawned dryer–meaning not raining–so I headed off to the wilderness, and found my way to the Bald Mountain Overlook at Mile 22 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There I parked my car, loaded the pack on my back (did it really weigh sixty pounds?), and walked up Forest Service Road 162 for about a mile until locating the Bald Mountain Trail. Down that trail for most of a mile–pretty steep at times, hard on my right knee, but still a usable trail–across a creek twice until I came to a lovely small clearing in the woods very near the creek. Due to the rain, the creek was running strong and I knew I could use it as a water source (with filtering, of course).

2015-09-30 09.08.57Setting up camp took several hours. I had not done this entirely on my own before, so it took awhile. Several hours later, however, I had a tent erected, sleeping bag unfolded, a tarp in an adjacent area as a place to sit near the creek, and a bag of food hanging in a tree.

St. Mary's Wilderness Pilgrimage 085
author photo

Lesson: in putting up the tarp and the food bag, I realized I needed to have asked more questions to the good folks at REI. Where to put the tarp would have been a good start!  As to the food bag, I realized I had just nodded to the nice man at REI when he told me to toss a rope line over the limb of a tree where the bag could hang. I knew why to do it–keep the black bears and racoons from ravaging your food–but I was not sure how.

After a little thought, I realized I needed something heavy on the end of the line to toss over the limb. And I needed to find enough of an opening in the dense forest growth where I could toss the line without becoming all tangled in the wrong place. Finding a good spot (and it did work, ultimately, very well), I tied my Swiss Army Knife to the end of the line. That went over the limb just fine but given the force of my toss it just kept wrapping around the limb! I could not reach the end now. Ouch. And what about my knife? I was going to need that again!

I don’t know the physics of this (I don’t know the physics of anything really), but I was able, standing on the ground, to loosen the looped line on the limb enough to get it to unwind and come down. I untied the knife and put it in my pocket, and realized, somehow with my limited capacity for things mechanical, I needed something bigger and heavier than the knife for the end of the line. I tied a small, zipped bag of useful items  (whistle, compass, lighter, etc.) to the line and did another toss. Perfect. Whew!

St_edited-1
rhododendron, author photo

There is more about this line and the bag for a future post, but for now I will conclude by patting myself on the back for getting things set up. And I decided that since the rains had not yet returned (but they were coming, to be sure), it was time for a small hike sans pack.  How good it would feel to explore without that weight!

Lesson: Take a break and enjoy the beauty around you (rhododendron everywhere). .

More to come, as this pilgrim’s progress continues . . . . (maybe even a poem).

Once More, into Wilderness!

2014-09-10 13.42.33
A memory of my tent site in Yosemite last September–it will look very different this week in St. Mary’s Wildernness!

St. Mary’s Wilderness here I come!

It’s across the continent from Yosemite National Park, the vegetation and scenery are quite different, and the peaks are lower, but this 10,000 acres of eastern beauty in the George Washington National Forest is calling to me to repeat a little of the Vision Quest in that western gem I experienced one year ago.

This time, I will not have the onsite guiding hand of Tomas Pinkson, blessed shaman extraordinaire, but I remember much that he taught. And most of all, I remember his wisdom, and that of Gerald May and many others, about the power of wilderness to heal, empower, renew, and (re-)orient us. There is, as Tomas and the native peoples say, medicine here that Great Power has for me.

St. Mary's Wilderness sign
wanderingVirginia.com

On Tuesday, September 29, I will get in my car and drive into western Virginia, park my car in a designated parking area and hike a mile or two, I hope, or maybe more, seeing the sights, and finding a place to pitch my tent. I will be looking for a water source, too, although like any good wilderness hiker/camper, I will filter all water before using.

I am not on this adventure to hike as much as I am to find a spot in the wilderness for solitude, to sit and meditate, talk and listen to the trees and admire whatever may yet be blooming (probably not much) or beginning to show fall colors.

I go to reconnect with my siblings of the forest, wildlife yes (hopefully friendly) but mostly trees and other vegetation. I draw great strength and solace from the faithfulness of trees and shrubs and other plants who live without human aid.

St. Mary's Wilderness Liming_Sites_Map
csm.jmu.edu

Indeed, one of the complications about this is the need to be sure those of us who venture into these sacred grounds do not unduly disturb their living. The goal in the wilderness always is to leave no trace of our presence.

This brings to mind one essential spiritual practice, namely to listen and absorb without pressing our own agenda. When we walk and sit in the wild without having to make it ours we can learn that we are not the center of the universe. It is then we begin to receive the gifts that are there for us.

I discovered last year at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite that if I look with truly open eyes and listen with truly open ears I can learn much–about myself, yes, as well as about the world, and certainly about those whose space I was sharing. There is a richness, a depth to this learning that can only be grasped in the midst of wilderness; no book, nor even picture, can convey its integrity and power the way actual presence does.

trails.com
trails.com

It may seem strange to write about this seeking of solitude on a blog focused on building community. But for me, solitude is a re-charging of my batteries and a re-orientation to my soul, so that I have energy and clarity in community building work. It also is a reminder that community is more than human.

2014-09-11 14.56.57That reminds me of my “brother tree,” from Yosemite (pictured left), who said to me, “You do not need to see me, but you do need to remember me, to learn from me.” So I go into the national forest here to keep alive that memory and to learn from his siblings in the East (you can read about my brother here). I realize that this will most likely become an annual pilgrimage, not to Yosemite probably most years (expense and currently much fire damage) but to some part of wonderful wilderness to reconnect with my spiritual roots in God’s earth.

In the lush forest growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness I do not expect to see many specimens like my brother. He grew, like his neighbors, out of the hard mountain granite; some grew stronger and taller but many were stunted and twisted like him. That any survive let alone thrive still amazes me. The tenacity of spirit is a badge of honor and an example of courage for all of us.

St. Mary's Wilderness
An opening in the lush growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness everytrail.com

At the same time, not even this place of beauty is immune from the hardness, even harshness, of nature. Hurricane Isabel did much damage in St. Mary’s Wilderness in 2003, leaving reminders of how fragile the wholeness of nature is. And much of the area was the scene of heavy mining for iron ore and manganese into the 1960s. Fortunately, designation as a national wilderness area in 1984 is helping reverse, in nature’s own good time, these impacts. I hope my presence is healing, too, not just for me but for all who call this home.

I check my list of things to do before I leave and things to take with me, and try to fit everything neatly for a balanced pack. I remember that I am a pilgrim on journey on land where others move and have their being, and pray I will be open to all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the medicine that will bless me.

Repent, and Celebrate

Jonathan acting head shot
My husband, Dr. Jonathan Lebolt

God has blessed me with the love of a Jewish man, and through him to connect in ways with Judaism that otherwise might never have happened (although the priest most influential in my adolescence and young adulthood was clearly most in love with the Hebrew Bible).

I worshiped in temple last week on both days of Rosh Hashanah and am doing so this week for Yom Kippur. These are very meaningful times of reflection and prayer for me, a declaration of the new year and an opportunity to let go of habits and attitudes and behaviors that get in the way of living the full life God has for me in this new year.

L'Shanah Tovah
Good New Year, sometimes with u’metuka (and Sweet). card-images.com

This sequence is so much more satisfying than the one I am used to as a U.S. Christian–beginning with Advent that portends (and even offers) great spiritual depth but is then overcome by secular Christmas and the hoopla of New Year’s Day and the well-meaning (but for me often ineffective) efforts of resolutions. Three years ago, at the first night of Rosh Hashanah, in a very crowded Jewish Community Center in Richmond, I received a holy message to change the focus of my life’s work. I have not been the same since.

biblia.com
biblia.com

Perhaps I find the Jewish practice more spiritually satisfying because it is not about marketing products and holding parties but rather about introspection, fasting, and self-change.

Self-change . . . the element missing from most of our public life, and probably private life, too.

Certainly, we don’t often hear national political candidates talk about self-change–either for themselves or for our nation. Instead, we hear them promising to make America great again. I just know that means someone else outside our nation is going to have to change. For us to stride the world, as in the time of Reagan for example, means someone else is going to have to stand down. We are the good guys, and you better get out of the way.

Many are critical, even dismissive, of President Obama, because to them he seems weak. He, in some modest but important ways, wants to run things in the rest of the world less and work more with others. I am grateful for that. It is certainly unusual in a U.S. leader.

Indeed, nations and their leaders are notoriously lacking in self-reflection and the desire to change themselves. First, they have to admit errors (but I don’t think President Obama is very good at this either).

jimmyong77.com
jimmyong77.com

As a nation, we have yet to really make amends to African people who were dragged here against their will and forced to do all sorts of things, or to Native Americans who were already here and were routinely pushed aside and even butchered so we could have our land. Both peoples still bear the scars and pay the price, as, of course, do the rest of us in other ways. This Yom Kippur, we could atone, but I doubt we will.

The United States is not alone in this. Europe still acts as if what various nations did in Africa, South America, and Asia was just fine.  Israel doesn’t seem to understand why Palestinians might be angry for being forced from their homes and land, in 1948, and now, too. Russia certainly is not over bullying behavior with neighbors, and Lebanon’s Arab neighbors do not hide their desire to maintain that nation as their fiefdom.

But what about us, you and me? Am I ready to change? Are you?

I will speak for myself (I hope you feel free to write and share your own thoughts for yourself, if that would help you).

My big change this year, now and over the next twelve months, needs to be in focusing–as in, I need to focus. I am accustomed to hard work but usually on agendas set by someone else or by society. Now, I need to take my own agenda, my own call and vocation, seriously enough to focus on it and move forward.

I am nowhere I am now here
mountainmovingmindset.com

This means learning to be organized, to set goals, to write regular hours, to listen and be alert to the prompts I receive from God (often through others), to invest in my vocation as a writer and teacher/workshop leader/ minister.

Pretty prosaic, huh? But life-changing nonetheless.

I repent of all the times I did not do this, when I was sloppy, disorganized, unfocused, distracted, not trusting God’s desire for me but living to get by without too much strain. And I ask God’s help to move forward in new ways, to learn new daily practices, to discern priorities better, to not say “yes” to every request, to be prepared to speak up with my truth and even gracefully to take some heat for it sometimes.

Of course, there is much else for me to repent–being rude to people, not caring enough about my loved ones, not always eating well, not getting enough exercise . . . oh my, the list goes on too long to bore you. One thing I really appreciate about Yom Kippur is its focus on ethical lapses, not about doing ritual things right in the synagogue but living right–and how it is about both the individual and the community).

Yom Kippur empty plate starting a good cleanse
blackgayjewish.com

The good news is that for Jews the ending of the ten Days of Awe, teshuvah (reflection, repentance, return), on Yom Kippur, while the holiest of days, is also a day of celebration–commemorating God’s forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf.

I repent of it all, and will celebrate at the end of the fast this evening a new, lighter (from carrying less remorse and guilt), more focused me. I also pray for repentance for our country (and how I have not always helped make us a better nation), and a true celebration of independence from all that holds us down as a people.

May you repent as is right for you, and also celebrate! Blessing to all! L’Shanah Tovah!

A New Name for this Blog: Make Love. Build Community.

I started blogging in 2009, wanting to share with the church community I was serving as well as any others in the wider public who might be interested in the musings of a pastor, theologian, and social activist in Richmond, Virginia.

faithAt the time, I used my longtime signature closing, “In faith and hope,” as the name of the blog. Six years later, no longer pastoring but still theologizing and engaging in activism, and now claiming my vocation as a writer, I want to put a different label on these reflections.

hope sproutI have come to see the great problem in the United States, and throughout the world, as the failure of community. We are, the human race, a much-ravaged people in most every corner of the world. There are bright spots, of course, places and communities where people work and live together for the greater good, but I see a quickening, widening, and deepening trend of being torn apart.

don't shoot I want to grow up

The signs are everywhere: increasing violence in the Middle East as well as on our streets; wars in the name (often falsely labeled) of religion on the rise; the failure to overcome historic oppression to constructively engage and build the power of Africa as well as African Americans; the widening gap between rich and poor people as well as among first, second, and third world nations; the failure of the justice system to really deal with problems it probably cannot solve even as we keep tasking it with that work; the weakness of international structures to make any real difference; the continuing resurgence of totalitarianisms all over the globe; public officials in our nation self-righteously defying the law to deny rights to others and politicians vying to be the most insulting to groups of voters. This is by far only a partial list; one more, though: the failure of our national political system to address serious issues at home and abroad.

Palestinian boys dressed in uniforms of Palestinian security forces and holding plastic toy guns

The failure of community is directly traceable to our failure to grasp and use the power of love. I share the view of Teilhard deChardin that the physical structure of the universe is love, indeed it is the entire structure, meaning that there is an underlying desire for union among all beings. But with a terrifying perversity, we are laying waste to that promise. Just as we are despoiling the ecology we call nature, we are destroying the deeper ecology of love. These two movements are inextricably intertwined, both cause and effect.

IDF soldier and Palestinian woman and children

Ironically, it is love that will save us. The very thing we misuse, under use and abuse is the solution.

Thus, I have decided to rename this blog to more directly embrace the great task before us. We have to make more love in order to build more and better community.

Making love is usually a polite way of saying we are “having sex,” or being sexual, with another person. Sadly, this way of speaking limits love to the encounter between two (or occasionally more) people, usually in private behind closed doors involving intimate touch and genitals.

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But the love we desperately need more of is out in the open, in groups, in whole nations, between and among communities. We as individuals have to be committed to making love everywhere we can–sharing our deepest humanity and care and nurture and compassion and kindness not only with partners but with siblings and parents and children, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, opponents, even enemies, perhaps most with those with whom we disagree. And we have to include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick in our definition of making love.

There already is more than enough love in the world. The problem is that we are not using it. We have locked most of it away, for safe-keeping I guess, or maybe because we are afraid to really let it loose in the world. Too much might change if love really guided us.

Make-Love-Give_Design_final_fullcolor_04We might have to share some of what we have so that everyone, including ourselves, could have more. That is really how love works. The more you share the more you have. But it confounds our limited human understanding; we think about love the way we think about money. If we give too much away, we won’t have enough.

I am choosing to challenge this stingy view of love. I want to make lots of love, and I want to do it with you, my readers. I am a witness for love. But more than that, I am a lover. I want to be your lover, and for you to be mine.

Make love to Uncle SamOh, I am not divorcing my wonderful husband of 18 years. And I am a monogamous kind of guy when it comes to sex. But I am an advocate for free love.

It is not that love is free exactly. It does come with a price. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that in order for love to grow we have to spend it, and trust that more comes.

But it is free in that it is available to all, for the asking, for the taking you might say. But that implies that you have to be aggressive and grab it. The reality is that it comes to you. But you have to be open, you have to want love. You have to, as the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich said of God, “allow” it into yourself.

How to build communityBut even this is not quite right–because our entire being, each one of us, all of us, has more than enough love inside. So in some ways, we have to allow it out, we have to open ourselves not only to receive the love “out there,” but also to share the love “in here.”

This is more introduction than I planned. So I had best stop. There are many blog posts ahead in which to say more.

For now, let me say this: I am here, writing regularly, to help us to Make Love. And to Build Community.

Make Love. Build Community. The life you save may be your own, and surely if we do it together we can save each other, and the whole world.

Make Love. Build Community. Say it a few times.

Then go do it. Wherever, and whenever, and with whomever, and however, you can.