Reflections on the Gay In Christ Conference

A number of writers for Spiritual Friendship recently partnered with Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life to put on an academic conference titled Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity. The presentation topics ranged from exegetical frameworks to trans issues to discerning vocations to rehabilitating the Church’s concept of eros, all with the hope of urging church leaders toward greater understanding, compassion, and pastoral action.

Like any conscientious graduate student would do during midterms, I ignored all my responsibilities and jumped on a plane to Indiana. Here are three brief reflections as an attendee:

It matters who is speaking

A large majority of the presenters were themselves queer, so when they spoke about anything that would impact LGBT people’s lives they did so from a position of deep personal investment; they all obviously cared about how the Church talks and behaves toward sexual minorities because they have all suffered from the far-too-prevalent ignorance and bigotry that has already done so much damage.

For instance, having the person presenting on trans issuesactually be somewhere on the trans spectrum makes an enormous difference. I know, wild. As bad as many Christian conferences have been about addressing LGB concerns, they have been unequivocally worse when it comes to respecting and learning from trans people. Melinda Selmys’ talk was thus a remarkable breath of fresh air, and future conferences must take note.

Rhetoric and posture are close to the heart of the gospel

Let me keep picking on Melinda for a bit. As important as it was that she was speaking on trans issues while being on the spectrum herself, it was equally important how she adamantly made it impossible to universalize her story. She spoke openly not so that the audience members would think they had a firm grasp on trans experience but rather so that they would become more aware of just how little they knew and thus be more capable of (and passionate about!) learning from trans people.*

Melinda typified the posture of all the speakers, who proved that how we speak about these topics truly reflects our commitment to the gospel. Language of the “culture war” was absent, along with any alarmism or arrogance. Although the church was called to greater unity and public witness, this was done not by suggesting it become some inward-turning enclave but rather by urging it to conform more into the body of Christ who is and always has been for the world. I see countless people trying to defend “truth” with language and rhetoric that seem entirely uninterested in communicating the reality of Christ’s love (and thus in all actuality abandoning the truth they’re trying so desperately to defend), so to witness presentation after presentation that spoke truth in such a way that it encouraged the audience toward more profound displays of openness and service was a revelation.

There is so much beauty to be found in the Church

Even as someone who spends a decent chunk of time thinking about and living into the goodness of a traditional sexual ethic, I have to admit that the fever-pitch yelling of the broader “conservative” Christian demographic sometimes makes me doubt there actually is an abundantyes somewhere beyond the cacophony of no. The visions cast by the various speakers powerfully testified to that yesand called the Church to repentance for shackling it to suffocating millstones of legalism and hypocrisy. (As Ron Belgau said in his talk, “Most Christians’ sexual ethic is neither Christian nor ethical.”) It has been a long time since I’ve been so concretely hopeful, and many of the attendees (and speakers) voiced a similar joy.

To catch such a clear glimpse of the beauty that can be found in the traditional ethic made the prevailing homophobia and self-protecting laziness that so often “passes” for it immensely more grotesque and upsetting (as if the devaluing and endangering of sexual minorities wasn’t already enough). As the ideas from the conference begin to disseminate and find a wider audience, I pray people’s hearts would be changed.

The conference wasn’t perfect,** of course, and everyone involved would agree there is much room to grow, but it was certainly a move in the right direction toward a more faithful witness of Christ’s hope for the world.***

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* I say this as someone who has much to learn, myself.

** For instance, the speakers were (with one exception) all caucasian. This is a problem with the LGBTQ conversation as a whole, but the Church should ideally be working ahead of the curve on this one.

*** I would be the absolute worst if I didn’t bring it to everyone’s attention that, for Halloween, Eve Tushnet wore a squid hat. There now exist photos of a squid devouring Eve’s head while simultaneously, it seems, reading Infinite Jest. And the world is a better place because of it.

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A Short Prayer: The Middle East

Every week at my seminary there is a time during the chapel service for “prayers of the people.” I was asked to write a brief prayer for the unrest in the Middle East.

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Loving Lord, God of the oppressed, today as a community we pray for the Middle East, and yet at the same time struggle to know how to pray, how to speak when confronted by the sheer enormity of pain being experienced by individuals, families, communities, and nations so many miles away. But even though we can only stammer and groan, empower us to draw near to you and cry out, full of the Spirit.

Merciful God, protect those who are vulnerable from the raging wildfire of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and their horrifying anger. May those who are fleeing find refuge, and those who are unable to flee be spared violence. We mourn the slaughter of Christians and the loss of worshiping communities all over Iraq as a shroud of silence falls where bells and holy liturgies have proclaimed your presence for 1800 years.

We pray, as we have been for many months, for Syrians, notably those now fleeing the border-town Kobane, whose lives have been torn apart in the ongoing civil war and ISIL encroachment.

We pray for the Gazan families trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of rubble and chaos, and ask especially that young Palestinian men would not be consumed by hatred at the unchecked injustices and thus turn to violence that will only perpetuate the cycles of destruction.

We pray for the Bedouins and African refugees, increasingly threatened by prejudiced land laws and xenophobic policies.

We pray for those in Israel, that they would not have to live in fear but also that their leaders would not use their fear as pretense to occupy and oppress others.

But we thank you, God, for those blessed examples of vibrant faith being displayed in the midst of the darkness, for moments of grace, compassion, and humanity.

For those of us from the United States, we ask forgiveness for the ways our nation has contributed to the plagues of instability and violence that characterize vast swaths of the Middle East, and we repent of our sinfully short memories that so quickly absolve us.

Lord, do not let our prayers be reduced to a holy anesthesia that numbs us to the suffering of others, that too easily satisfies our sense of responsibility, but may our prayers instead increase our capacity to embody a just expression of love and grace.

May our partial awareness of the suffering around the world not cause us to grow weary, but may we be inspired to serve those living here in Los Angeles with a greater passion and dedication.

And may we all look more like Christ as we pray this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen

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Poem: Silentium

If you’ve read a decent chunk of my posts you’re probably very aware of themes such as grief, darkness, and the silence of God – both because I talk about them a lot and because you made the grave mistake of reading a decent chunk of my posts and thus suffered the consequences.

I will write more about Psalm 39 eventually as I think it is one of the most important chapters in the Bible, but for now, a poem. It is meant to be read alongside the psalm, organizing the verses into seven sections loosely based on the Catholic sacraments – outward expressions of inward graces. There’s a bit more but Foucault is like so over me trying to explain the text’s meaning.

Here’s the Psalm. And here’s the poem:

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Poenitentia 1-3

A prayer dies burnt
in my throat
and utterance erupts into hot ash,
yet no voice rebukes this
purifying wildfire.

Baptismus 4

Through stirred glass I see
the angel of death hover
over these healing waters.
I crawl deep beneath the riverbed
and hold my aging breath.

Confirmatio 5-6

Surely I am what you made me;
no more than a flexed-lung away
from returning, undone,
to the mud of apathy,
a more honest crown.

Eucharistia 7-9

My lips fear solitude
as your harvest moon gently arcs.
If only eyes grew teeth and tongue,
for I have nothing but groaning desire
and the taste of my own souring blood.

Ordo 10-11

The birthright of dust-eaters
mountains over my shoulder;
commissioned to carry out
the apostolic ministry of
growing bone.

Matrimonio 12

I never grew into a son,
and the children of your favor
shall not wed strangers.
So shattered feet, lead me home;
shuttering eyes, lead me home.

Unctio 13

I paint the sky with incense
and beg for a salve
of lightning
to pour over me,
blessed and final unction.

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Album Review: I Am Only Me by Kevin Marble

I had the immense pleasure of being a sophomore the year Kevin Marble matriculated to Wheaton College with his guitar and harmonica in hand. Over the next four years Kevin became somewhat of a famous figure at Wheaton, known for providing killer acoustic shows whether on campus or around a campfire. People would request personal favorites and the crowd would sing along, Kevin’s talent for penning clever lyrics and hummable melodies making it easy for listeners to pick up his songs and remember them.

Kevin’s first album, What Are You Afraid Of (which you can download here), was a cleanly produced selection of twelve songs showcasing his considerable talent as a multi-instrumentalist alongside guest vocalists and the occasional string accompaniment. Throughout his debut effort Kevin proved more than capable of crafting engaging arrangements that accented his rewarding lyrics, and I was interested to see how he would move forward.

Two years later, Kevin has released a six song “live” EP. Recorded in one afternoon –  just Kevin, his guitar, his harmonica, and the occasional guest backup singer – I Am Only Me is a warm throwback to all those up-close-and-personal shows during college (without the added benefit of being able to meditate on how much his harmonica holder looks like headgear).

Really though.

Really though.

The EP opens with the mid-tempo “Maybe Not,” a surprisingly catchy reflection on the difficulty of moving on, even from something that may or may not be love.

The two standout tracks, for me, are “Wide Open World” and “I’m Alive,” the former a quiet meditation and the latter a folky celebration of life. In each track Kevin’s earnest vocals convey all of the requisite emotions and then some.

After repeated listenings, I only find myself mildly disappointed in one track, “I’m a Fool For You,” the slightly-predictable quality of its lyrics seem out of place in Kevin’s notably clever body of work. Still, that’s more a testament to Kevin’s higher standards than anything.

Overall, I Am Only Me is an intimate and enjoyable EP that is perfect for the summer months. The fact that it’s free makes it even more irresistible. So do yourself a favor and become acquainted with the wonderful Kevin Marble; you won’t regret it.

The EP drops July 1, and you’ll be able to download it from his NoiseTrade page here.

Finally, here’s a video of the first single from I Am Only Me. Check it out!

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Obituary

Andy was the one who taught me how small my world really was.

He was the one who would walk next to me on the crowded beaches of Cape Town and point out all the undercover cops, the meth-heads, the gang members; the one who would tell me stories about prison and street-life, about the seemingly endless movement between the two.

He was also the one who made me feel most at home. As a skinny-white-kid intern at a South African rehab center for homeless and ex-con addicts it was pretty obvious from the start that I was out of place. But Andy laughed at my stupid jokes, initiated conversation, and treated me like I belonged there.

One time we were talking about golf. “You know Matt,” he said with his colored-Afrikaans inflection, “I am really sad I don’t have my golf clubs anymore. They were nice golf clubs.”

“Dude, I didn’t know you played! How did you lose them?”

“Well, a lot of them broke on this one guy’s head.”

“I… that’s… that’s unfortunate. Nice weather today, yeah?”

“Yes it is, I love the sunshine!”

This other time I was stuck in traffic on my way to work (the city was still finishing up road construction for the 2010 World Cup… in late 2012), when suddenly Andy came out of nowhere and jumped into the passenger seat. “I knew you would drive by here! I started walking later than normal and I thought to myself, You know, Andy, Matt is always late to work, so he is probably going to show up here soon! And here you are! Do you have any good music for this beautiful morning?” So we car-danced and talked about Jesus as we waited in traffic next to the glistening waters of False Bay.

Today I learned that Andy recently killed himself.

I know very little about the last year-and-a-half of his life, the nineteen months that have passed since we celebrated his graduation from the intensive rehab program. For me, the Andy that just died is the Andy who sent me a text message on my final morning in Cape Town reminding me that God was good.

For me, the world just lost a boisterous laugh, a quick smile, and a curious mind. His stories are what sparked my initial interests in studying alternative societies and helped me become aware of the unfathomably complex lives of those who I had never been able to see through my cataracts of privilege and apathy.

I’m not surprised by the news; the reality inhabited by all the clients I got to know in rehab is one thoroughly teeming with the possibility of death, and Andy had more than his fair share of demons.

But it still stings.

There was so much hope in him when he hugged me goodbye. He was the one who was making it, who was finding a way out from the crushing weight of meth-addiction, who was helping keep the ever-encroaching cynicism at bay.

For me, the Andy that has left us is the Andy who would not want his death to cause despair or cast doubt on the faithfulness of Jesus, that glorious friend about whom he loved singing “Hy’s ‘n Wonderbaar Heiland Vir My[1] every morning.

It seems crass to try and end with some tidy “takeaway.” There is no such thing. I am simply left with a deep sadness at Andy’s death and a deeper gratitude to have known him, however briefly, during his life.

I can only hope to honor him by living more passionately into the truths that his friendship began revealing to me, so that all people might be seen and all people might know love.

Meager as that is, I pray it is enough.

Miss you, brother.

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[1] “He’s a Wonderful Savior To Me”

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Before the Dawn Comes

I wrote this last year for Holy Saturday

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I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to live in that nauseous limbo between the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, to wake up with the image of a limp and bloodied messiah (though maybe…false messiah?) etched into my vision without the healing salve of resurrection to bring significance and peace to the roiling ache.

How quickly would my trust and devotion bleed out of me to join the crimson mud beneath the cross of the dead man? Would I flinch at every little sound, just waiting for the soldiers or violent crowd to begin their search for the remnants of the incendiary prophet’s followers? And if they came to my door, what would I say? Would I bathe in a desperate mixture of tears, doubt, and denial so the angel of death might pass my miserable self by?

Would I despair?

Would I allow the dark current to pull me under?

Would I be able to keep living in a world suddenly and viciously rendered absurd?

I don’t know. It seems like the only honest answer that could be given on a day of lightless uncertainty.

But then: pulse. movement, speech, rumors, hope appearance touch restoration new-life.

And there is no going back, no undoing of this stark watershed of history. We now live in the irrevocable abundance of the resurrection, flushed with the infinite wonder of redemption.

Redemption – the miracle in which darkness augments the beauty of in-breaking light, suffering produces a hope that does not disappoint, and doubt becomes an invitation to venture trembling fingers into eternal scars of love.

Holy Saturday is a day to dwell on silence. For me, it is a day to confront my fear of silence, my anxiety that God has left me on my own to muddle through life. And yet, the resurrection has come: the hushed cosmos erupting into endless praise for what God has done.

I’m reminded that even in the tortured silence of Holy Saturday God was moving to break the chains of separation and dissolve the power of death.

So when I find myself wounded, sitting in a too-quiet room with a disquieted mind wondering why or why not, I can cling to the comfort that such doubt is not a shameful, disturbing departure from Christian life but is and always has been a part of our history. The question is, though, whether or not I will be faithful and keep my eyes and ears open even in the midst of the intense darkness or struggle because I have the promise that God has not, will not ever, abandon me and that some day, whether tomorrow or in eternity, I will see what beauty he was working in and through me and will be in awe of it all.

Easter Sunday doesn’t dismiss the anguish of Holy Saturday, but gives it purpose and direction. The resurrection doesn’t negate the suffering of life, but gives us the strength to declare that even in the throes of our suffering there is hope and the beauty of redemption; tear-choked voices can find a song, bruised feet can learn to dance, and weary hearts can beat with passion.

Peace, friends.

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A Letter to My Freshman Self

Hey everyone. Sorry I’ve been silent for the past couple months (for reasons I’ll explain later). I hope to begin writing more regularly, and the first thing off the assembly line is this post for OneWheaton’s blog relaunch (which can be seen: here). Anyway, it’s like one of those letters you write to your future self when you’re 16 saying, “Please don’t become a feminist!” which then becomes really awkward to read because you’re so aware of how sad you would have made your younger self. Only the reverse.

Though it’s pretty specific in its address, I hope this can serve as an encouragement to any young person just beginning to wrestle with what it means to not be straight. Well, I hope it encourages everyone else, too. Enjoy.

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Dear Freshman Matt,

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m not going to send you the winning lottery numbers for the next five years. Please. You should have thought about the possibility of receiving letters from your future self before you signed the Community Covenant.

Also, you’re gay.

Surprise!

Hear me out. If things run their natural course, you will finally admit to yourself that you aren’t just “too mature to notice girls” right before sophomore year. (And really? You believed yourself for so long?!) By the grace of God you will somehow muster up the courage to talk about it with the small group you co-lead, and you will almost pass out. But you won’t, and as you finish speaking you will be surrounded and hugged and rejoiced over and loved and loved and loved. And so your life will change.

Junior year you’ll start going to counseling, thinking that you may still be able to become straight. You will become a lot of things because of your semi-weekly visits – more confident, more gracious, more reconciled to yourself, happier, generally less insane – but you won’t become straight. Yet by then you won’t really care because you will have discovered something greater: joy.

Things will mostly get better from there, and by the time you’re me you’ll have graduated, lived abroad in various countries, become fluent in spanish, formed deeply profound friendships, started seminary, and never felt more alive. Oh, yeah, seminary. That International Relations thing isn’t going to work out for you.

Feel free to follow the exact path I did. I mean, it worked out for me, so you should be ok.

But here’s what I wish I had been told when I was you, five years ago, taking my first excited steps onto Wheaton’s campus:

1) Your attraction to men doesn’t make you a monster. It doesn’t make you less of a man, it doesn’t mean you’ll never have close friends, and it certainly doesn’t mean God loves you any less.

Don’t waste away like I did trying to be “normal.” You will hate yourself for years because you just want to be “normal,” and it will always seem out of reach. But life is never “normal.” In a few years you’ll stumble upon Stephen Holmes’ blog, and he will remind you that following a murdered Messiah is not normal, believing he rose from the dead is not normal, and basing your life upon that reality is not normal.

You want to be “normal” because you want to know that your attractions don’t single you out, don’t set you aside for a life of isolation. I get that, and they don’t, but there’s something more to this: what I’ve come to realize is that all I really wanted was to know that I was human, like everyone else. I’ve always been so jealous of people who don’t seem to have experienced the terror of feeling inhuman, of harboring difference in their bones. And yet I’ve become a more compassionate, humble, loving person because I had to wrestle through it, had to fight to believe that I could be loved. I wish I could spare you that pain, but I imagine you’ll tell me that it would all be worth it to learn how to love better. And you’ll be right.

2. Take full advantage of Wheaton, for it will be your saving grace. There will be moments of frustration, but you will leave 501 College Ave. thankful beyond words. Get to know your professors. Do it! Your friends will make fun of you for it sometimes (the godless philistines!), but the wonderful men and women you befriend will constantly challenge, console, and inspire you. They will never let you fall into self-indulgence or shallow self-pity, and will model lives of passionate, intelligent faith. I still talk with them regularly. They were, for me, the primary instruments God used to drag me out of despair. You’re only an undergraduate for a brief time, don’t let it go to waste

And did you know that, outside of college, counseling costs like a billion dollars an hour? I know. So get going, dude. All the cool kids go to the counseling center, anyway, and the receptionist is the nicest lady ever. Within those walls you will gain incredible clarity, and the lies that were choking you will slowly begin to fall away. I promise you, being gay is hardly one of your biggest problems. Counseling won’t “fix” you, but it will give you the space you need to be totally honest with yourself, and you will be changed.

Oh, and during your senior year you will help found this totally radical group called Refuge, a community for non-straight students. Really, though, it’s just an excuse to hang out with crazy friends and laugh until you begin to lose vision. Don’t miss the chance to join it when it comes around.

3.  This is the most important thing I have to tell you: never stop pursuing God. I could say so much here, but I’ll try to be brief: through all the pain, all the aching, all the uncertainty, the feelings of abandonment, the meltdowns in Gold Star chapel, the exhilaration, the silence, the madness, the beauty, and the awe – through the ups and downs of simply living life – you will find that God is very, very good and worth following no matter the cost. You will fall in love with him in a million thrilling ways, and he will be what holds your life together and makes it all coherent, somehow.

Never forsake him. You will have to ask yourself a lot of difficult questions about how your faith shapes your sexuality and vice-versa, and I promise that the answers won’t always be easy. But ask those questions. I still do, and continue to find the grace to carry on and thrive because God daily proves himself more faithful and more wonderful than I think possible.

***

Know this: you are so much more than your sexuality. It’s important, for sure, and I understand that it can often feel like the biggest, most terrifying part of you. But it’s just one strand in the web of your life. A few years from now you will be sitting in a room of friends as the night wears on, laughing, yelling, trading stories and jokes, and you will be suddenly struck by how whole you feel. Everyone in that room will know that you are gay, and none of them will be thinking about it. Because you’re just Matt, their friend and brother, and they love you. And you’ll smile to yourself because, how strange, you finally believe it.

It’s worth repeating because I still need to hear it myself: God loves you. Your friends love you. And you are worthy to be loved.

Blessings.

Matt

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