I recently started participating in a book study. It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.
We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.
As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”
Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.
Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!
Here’s and idea! Let’s all “hum” in concert!!
I don’t know if it classifies as binge watching, but I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, “Messiah,” in four days. Pretty much a record for me! I have been mulling over various aspects of the program since then (over a week) and can’t seem to clear my mind of it so I just need to say what I think.
I have read several reviews of the program and most of them pan the series citing numerous flaws from ambiguity,poor story lines and character development, to “no deep theological grounding or specificity.” Some of these I agree with and some I do not even while acknowledging that I am by no means schooled as a cinema critic or theologian. I do believe that the program made some salient points regarding the coming of the Messiah – both first and/or second – and our receptivity – historical and/or future – of the Messiah.
The overbearing question throughout the series seems to be, “Who is he? Is the stranger, dubbed Al-Masih (the Messiah) by his followers, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returned?” “Who is he,” is a centuries old question beginning when Jesus asked Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 16:15). Folks through the ages have answered that question in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. With regard to Netflix’s “Messiah,” I believe perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the more relative question is, “Who are we; who am I?” Can we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in “Messiah?”
Are we the prostitute, paid by a high-level government official to seduce Al-Masih as a means to discredit him, who upon experiencing his gentle confrontation of her life, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” and hearing, even in the wake of her deception, the truth of God’s love for her walks away repentant and changed. Are we the agent who deceptively witnesses this encounter and walks away changed – to the point of quitting his job. Are we, am I, like these two — truly changed when touched by the love of God?
Are we Jabril, the young Al-Masih follower who stays true to his belief in Al-Masih even as Al-Masih has seemingly abandoned them in the desert at the Israeli border? Through injury, thirst, and hunger Jabril is sustained by his belief and the dreamy appearances of his deceased mother who had told him, “God has a different plan for you.” It is Jabril who courageously leads the remnant of followers into Israel, and some critics speculate that he is the real Messiah. Did Jabril’s touch revive the apparently deceased Qamar? Or, perhaps Jabril is not the Messiah but simply a true disciple and as Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…” (John 14:12 New Living Translation). In all our claims to be Christian, are we, am I, like Jabril, a true follower of Christ?
Are we Pastor Felix Iguera who was disillusioned with church and ministry to the point of dousing his church with gasoline before it was miraculously saved from a tornado? Iguera experiences a roller coaster of despair, confusion, doubt, and hope only to succumb to his own weaknesses and family frailties. Claiming to be a humble servant and wanting only what God wants, he takes the reins and arranges for AL-Masih to appear on his millionaire, televangelist father-in-law’s show claiming “this is what God wants” Al-Masih agrees, but when he walks away from the appearance Iguera is again in confusion and despair.
When the story breaks that Al-Masih, by his own admission and hard evidence, is a mortal man, Iguera returns to his church and in what seems to be an act of lost faith he does indeed burn it down. This brings me to a question of our faith. If the true Messiah, Jesus, is not the literal Son of God, does that negate his message to the world? Does that mean Jesus was not God’s anointed? Is our belief in Jesus as God’s Word to the world based solely on our belief that he is the literal Son of God? Are we, am I, Pastor Iguera?
Are we Aviram, a hard-nosed, tormented, vengeful, often brutal Israeli agent, who is intent on catching Al-Masih and exposing him as a fraud? Aviram is unwavering in his purpose even as he is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of his past bad acts. He flirts with belief yet remains hard-hearted. Not until he is facing imminent death and tormented by his sin, his “failure to choose goodness,” does Aviram say, “I’m sorry,” as the plane crashes. Are we Aviram — tormented with shame, hardened, and unable to accept God’s love?
Are we Eva Geller, the CIA agent, sparing with Aviram, and equally determined to debunk Al-Masih and uncover his real intent? Eva has issues. Her identity is in her work. She has a strained relationship with her father, grief and guilt over her late husband, is distraught over not being able to have children, and is sensitive about her mother and her Jewish heritage. In her own words to Aviram, “I am as messed up as you.” She too is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of her past which further solidifies her efforts to find “the truth.” Even as she finds evidence of “the truth” of Al-Masih’s identity and suspects that the U. S. government shot down the plane carrying him back to Israel, she appears to continue to run from the truths of her personal life and emotional distress – she remains a lost soul. Are we Eva?
Yes, “Messiah” has spawned questions and controversy among viewers and critics. Of course, Christ, the Messiah, has stirred questions and controversy for centuries. Ultimately the question “Who is He?” is only answered by each of us individually in our own unique way based on our beliefs. In regard to the question, “Who are you/Who am I?” I am drawn to Al-Masih’s words, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” Honestly, answering that question is not easy. “Messiah” offers numerous character mirrors. Do we see ourselves in them, and what can we learn from them?
Lou Anne and I were recently invited to participate in this “Who Is My Neighbor” lecture series. It was a wonderful experience, and we met lots of good, kind folks. Thanks to all those who showed up to warm the room and our hearts. It was a cold, wet Sunday morning outside. After our talk several folks approached me and asked if they could have a copy of my talk. Well here is my prepared script, which doesn’t mean this is exactly what I said, but hopefully, close enough. Namaste!
Who Is My Neighbor?
In thinking about the title for this series, it struck me that neighborliness – who is my neighbor and how do I relate to and treat my neighbor — has been an issue through the ages. After all we know from scripture that on numerous occasions Moses, Jesus, and Paul offered instruction and guidance on neighborliness. When we were first asked to speak today, I immediately thought of the November 8, 2005, Texas Constitutional Amendment Election in which Texans voted on Proposition 2 – the amendment to define marriage in Texas as only between one man and one woman. Prior to that election, I wrote a letter and Lou Anne and I distributed it to our neighbors. My opening statement in that letter 13 years ago answered today’s question: We are your neighbors!’ The “we “ of today’s discussion is the LGBTQ+ community.
Let me say first that our LGBTQ+ community as a subpopulation is just as diverse as our population as a whole. I think this is fairly evident in the “alphabet soup” identifiers. Let me assure you there are efforts afoot to remedy that somewhat cumbersome moniker. If we must label there are other options floating about — DSG-Diverse Sexualities and Genders; GSM-Gender and Sexual Minorities; and the favorite among our younger folks, Queer. For today I will simply use “our community.” Who is your neighbor? We are! Let me introduce you to a few of our folks. (Real folks, not so real names.)
Meet John and Richard—two gay men in a 20+year relationship and legally married for many of those years. Both professionals, one retired. Both Christians attending a welcoming and affirming congregation in the area. One serving on the church board of directors. A visit with them always includes conversations about church, and grandchildren.
Meet James and Sal—a young transgender man and his spouse. Both continuing their educational paths and pursuing their career aspirations while building their dream house. Both active as advocates for our community.
Meet Ron and Rebecca—a straight couple working, operating a business, and raising a family. Both fierce advocates for their gender non-conforming child.
Meet Gary—a middle-aged man with a promising career cut short decades ago by the cruelty of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An advocate for our community, always a charming host, and a proclaimed Atheist.
Meet Betty and Julie—a lesbian couple in a 26-year relationship, married for 12 years. Both retired – a military nurse and university professor with a degree in Religious History. They stay engaged with friends, the publishing industry, and their “kids,” three small dogs, a cat, and a 38 year-old parrot. Christian backgrounds, but with no current religious affiliation, perhaps leanings toward Buddhism.
Meet Charles and Mike—Generation X gay men, medical and tech professionals. Baptist and Seven Day Adventists background. Want no part of organized religion.
Meet Blake and Slade who are queer youth navigating the uncertain and sometimes treacherous waters of school, legal hurdles, and public facilities.
And then you have Lou Anne and me. We have been together for 17 years, the last two legally married. With four children and seven grandchildren between us, we stay quiet busy. Both from the Baptist faith tradition, and only a couple of years ago choosing to leave the Baptist church.
So, our community is diverse and our spiritual/religious beliefs, experiences, and levels of participation are varied. As I share with you today, I can really only speak of my experience, yet from study and visiting with other members of our community, perhaps I can make some general comments about our faith journeys.
I believe for most in our community our spiritual beliefs have been both a solace and a source of seemingly unbearable struggle. From the Bible to the Quran most world religions-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu-espouse beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong-a sin-and unacceptable. Thus in matters of faith and religion, Gender and Sexual Minorities folks are naturally set –up for angst and turmoil.
I know my faith journey was filled with the gut wrenching agony and heart breaking struggle between who I am and what my religion said I should be. My solace came more from my faith and my personal study and interpretation of scripture than from the institutional church/religion. After years of praying, “Lord, please remove this ‘thorn in my flesh,’” trying to be straight and do the “right” things, I finally threw up my hands in surrender and clung to verses such as “For God so loved Brenda. . .,” my adaptation of John 3:16 since I am part of “the world.” I interpreted Mark 12:30-31 “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” as Christ’s command that I love and accept myself. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged as I began to contemplate and embrace the glorious rich mystery and my only hope of glory, Christ in me. (Colosians 1:27). I began to question the doctrines and dogma of “church” and ask just what exactly does God expect of me. I found my answer: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8)
Bolstered by my confidence that God loves me, and that I am commanded to love God, myself, and my neighbor through just, kind and humble actions, I set out on my own personal spiritual journey– a journey that took me away from traditional doctrine and dogma. Honestly, doing that felt so foreign and really scary, and this is perhaps another common element in the faith journey of folks in our community. Moving away from the familiar, even the familiar that was excruciatingly painful is difficult, yet we do it through faith. A faith similar to that expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “Faith is the courage to accept God’s total acceptance of each of us.” Or, perhaps the faith of Martin Luther, “Faith is an active, reckless confidence in God’s goodness.”
On my faith journey I have had a few experiences that I can only describe as mystical – an experience that cannot be explained outside the realm of Spirit. Perhaps this is a third common element in our faith journeys. There are those occasions when God speaks or intervenes in our lives in ways that we could not imagine. These incidents often bring shock and awe, guidance and gratitude. They are mystical experiences that change us and the direction of our lives. I am reminded of Karl Rahner’s words, “The Christian of the future will have to become a mystic—someone who has experienced something or Someone—or he or she will be nothing at all.”
My faith journey took me away from the traditional anti-LGBTQ teachings of my Baptist faith, and I stayed away from church for several years as I was welcomed, affirmed and supported by an inclusive ecumenical community during my initial coming out process. However, I returned to the church when I met Lou Anne. It was not a difficult return for now I was grounded in my faith and spirituality and not religious doctrine and church dogma. I enjoyed returning to the customs of Bible study and congregational praise and worship. As long as the focus was on Christ and serving the Kingdom, I was content. Even though I was removed from teaching and leadership positions after coming out in the “We are your neighbor” letter in 2005, Lou Anne and I stayed in the church. When the pastor began to preach openly from the pulpit against same-sex relationships in the spring of 2015, I felt I had to leave to maintain my sense of authenticity and personal integrity. Today, I have no institutional church affiliation. I am a follower of Christ and a christian (with a small “c”) and a member of the universal catholic church (all small “c”). I am a pilgrim and a seeker on this faith journey.
All of our faith journeys are unique and personal. Some in our community through the pain of condemnation and sorrow of rejection have totally abandoned the church, yet not their faith. Some reject all things “God.” Some proclaim to be Atheists. It is interesting to note that in a Pew Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, issued in May of 2015, that more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (NOTE: Transgender individuals were not accounted for in this particular survey.) A reported 48 percent of LGB respondents identify as Christian, and this is up from 42 percent in 2013. This rise is in contrast to the overall decline in the percent of Americans identifying as Christian that was 78.4 percent in 2013 and fell to 70.6 in 2015. The Pew report also indicated an additional 11 percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions.
Thus 59 percent of LGB respondents identified as people of faith. This high number was somewhat surprising for me and perhaps for you as well given the gay vs. religion paradigm so prevalent in our media and “culture wars.” It would appear that many in our community have stayed in, or they are returning and reclaiming their faith traditions.
So we ask, “Who is our neighbor?” We are all one another’s neighbors. We could argue that with the rapid communication and global connections—economic, geopolitical, and social–supported by our increasing modern technology we are quickly becoming global neighbors. Since we are all one another’s neighbors, let’s be neighborly to one another. Let’s love one another as we seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Welcome to the neighborhood! Or, as we say in our community, the gayborhood.