Sunday, November 20, 2011

Remembering and Giving Thanks

I write these words on Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event to remember our trans neighbors who have been the victim of homicide. Four days from now Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. These two days may seem to have little in common, but for me they are intertwined.

You see, as a privileged, straight man I live in a world where I am often blind to just how deep those privileges run. There is nothing about my gender or sexual orientation that costs me a relationship, an employment opportunity, or the freedom of movement. I live with unfair advantages that were handed to me at birth by sheer happenstance.

To be privileged and advantaged is dangerous, however. It is dangerous to one’s soul to live in such a cocoon, never noticing the price the disadvantaged pay just to be in this world. A soul becomes tough and brittle if it turns a blind eye to the unjust suffering around it. For that reason I will be forever grateful to my transgender friends who I have met over the years, first as a minister, and now as a counselor. Their lives are an inspiration that have helped save my soul.

I am thankful for Rosemary (all the names in this column have been changed) who I first met as Ben. Ben was married and knew that transitioning would be hard on his wife and adult son. He also knew that Ben was a lie, and that Rosemary had to live if there was to be any hope in the future. I admire how hard Rosemary worked to help her family understand what was happening, but even more, I learned from Rosemary that sometimes we have to do things even those closest to us will never understand or support.

I am grateful for my friend, John, who transitioned years before I met him and passes so well no one suspects he was a woman for the first half of his life. This ability to pass effortlessly, though, does not mean John has turned his back on his previous life. He isn’t interested in claiming the title “male” just because society is willing to grant it to him. John is comfortable living with a sense of gender that is bigger than the two options of male or female, and his ability to see beyond an either/or construct of gender helps me see that is a false choice in many areas of my own life.

I marvel at Leslie and her decision to transition from male to female at an age when most people are planning for their retirement. It feels cliche to say it, but Leslie does demonstrate that it is never too late to change your life. As my own advancing years begin to announce themselves in many unwelcome ways, Leslie inspires me to consider that the last half of life could actually hold the greatest challenges and opportunities.

I smile when I think of Cynthia, a college student from a very conservative family. Cynthia loves her family deeply and has tried for years to help them see that her male, biological body has never told the truth about who she is. Their religious objections to her decision to transition have been hard for Cynthia, but those objections have neither dissuaded her nor caused her to reject her family. She lives in the noble tension of following her truth and giving those around her the space to come along at their own pace.

I also smile when I think of Jason, another college student who is transitioning after a lifetime of knowing the dresses his mother tried to put on him never really fit. Jason is a deeply spiritual and artistic person whose faith is a great motivator in driving him toward his truth, and whose art is an outlet to share that truth with the world.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a time to pause and consider those transgender individuals who lost their lives simply because they had the courage to live openly in the world. In thinking of the friends who have been taken from us, however, I find it natural to remember those who are still with us.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for Rosemary, John, Leslie, Cynthia, and Jason. My life is better because of them, and my soul is softer and deeper because it has been touched by them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Resisting the Fixers

A counseling client of mine blurted out in a session one day, “I am not a problem to be fixed! I am not a problem to be fixed!!” I could not have agreed more.

This bright, accomplished woman had spent weeks describing the cruel voices from her past that had convinced her that she was fundamentally flawed. She felt broken under the weight of those condemnations. But suddenly, in a moment of clarity, she recognized that she was a human being with problems, not the problem itself. I wanted to jump up and applaud for her.

There are many forces in this world trying to convince us that we are the problem. We are broken and need to be fixed like a tire that has blown out. Some people seek the fix through religion. Others through therapy. There are lots of fixers in the world eager to start tinkering away on us.

But what if that whole paradigm is wrong? What if the problem isn’t that our souls are weighted with sin, or our bodies laden with lust, or our minds crippled with illness, or our very DNA corrupted with defective genes? What if the problem is that we keep listening to the voices that insist we are broken in the first place?

Those voices come in many different shapes and sizes. Parental voices of shame. Societal voices saying that if we are not normative there is something deviant about us. Scientific voices identifying the myriad of ways our bodies and minds are diseased. Religious voices insisting on our original sinfulness. This last one is particularly interesting to me as a former pastor.

Christianity has played an unfortunate role in undergirding the sense that people are flawed from birth. That seems odd considering Genesis 1 begins with these familiar words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Thus begin the six days of creation. One of the things you may remember about this first creation story is that at the very end, God sees everything that has been created and declares it good. This seems right to us. You take a look at the finished product before you evaluate its goodness. Yet, that’s not the total story of the creation account. On the first day, the very first day, when the text says God speaks light into existence, a kind of blessing is also spoken. “And God saw that the light was good.” Before the earth, and the sea, and the sky, and the vegetation, and the creatures were ever created, God says this is good. This is a kind of blessing, a declaration of the innate goodness of this new beginning.

It is interesting that a religious tradition whose scriptures describe on page one the innate goodness of the creation became so fixated on teaching the innate corruption of it. So much damage has come from insisting that people are inherently corrupt.

The voices pointing out the “problems” of the LGBTQ community are loud and persistent. The religious voices shouting “abomination.” The political voices shouting “you are a threat to traditional marriage.” Even the scientific voices shouting “we used to think you were mentally ill, but now we changed our mind.” Is it any wonder that many gay and transgender individuals have internalized these voices and carry within themselves the belief they are broken?

It takes great strength and much support to resist the voices who insist on fixing those parts of us that are actually quite healthy. In fact, I often think the best thing I can do for people who come to me for counseling is not fix or heal them (powers that I don’t have), but help them rediscover their specific gifts and strengths.

We all have problems. Some of those problems are serious and we need help in dealing with them. But it is important to remember the insight of my client who shouted that day, “I am not a problem to be fixed!” There is a difference between people and problems. Once we figure that out, all kinds of possibilities arise.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Judgment of History

These are strange times. One week the North Carolina General Assembly decides to allow a vote on making same-sex marriage unconstitutional (never mind the fact it is already illegal); the next week Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is officially over.

One day LGBT people are so threatening that we can’t allow them to legalize their relationships; the next day LGBT people are allowed to openly wear the nation’s military uniform and defend the homeland.

It’s all a bit confusing if you are scoring at home.

The truth is, the game is over. The forces of intolerance and bigotry have already lost. A brief history lesson will demonstrate what I mean.

In 1948 President Truman ordered the integration of the military. In 1954 the Supreme Court tore down the separate but equal doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education that kept white and black children in separate schools. Even so, in 1959 Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were convicted in a Virginia courtroom for getting married in the District of Columbia. Their crime? Mildred was black and Richard was white. It would take until 1967 before the Supreme Court overturned all state laws banning interracial marriage.

What is my point? The undoing of segregation laws that denied African Americans their civil rights was an uneven process that took decades. Even so, with the help of hindsight, we can see that the tide of history shifted long before all the unjust laws were struck down. It seems obvious that the same pattern is unfolding in the fight for equal rights for the LGBT community.

When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was passed into law in 1993 it was viewed by many as a progressive solution. Instead of kicking gay people out of the military, they were given the right to hide their identity and stay in uniform. It never worked that way, and thousands were kicked out anyway, but at the time it was presented as a step forward. We laugh at that notion now and celebrate the demise of that unjust law.

In 2000 Vermont was the first state to allow civil unions. This development was viewed by much of the country as an outrageously liberal thing to do. Today, six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage (not counting the brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in California). Today, just over a decade after Vermont’s civil unions law went into effect, civil unions are now considered a poor substitute for the real thing.

So, through what historical lens do we view the North Carolina General Assembly’s action putting the LGBT community’s civil rights up for a vote? The legislators who won the vote are the modern-day equivalent of the Virginia trial judge who convicted Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving by saying:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The forces of intolerance in the General Assembly won the vote, but the tide of history has already started to shift and will view them with scorn and contempt.

All of this historical hypothesizing, though, does not mean I am at peace with the ugliness that has unfolded in North Carolina. Hardly. I’m damn mad about what the General Assembly did, regardless of how confident I am about where this issue ends up in the generations to come.

I am furious because what the General Assembly has done is a direct attack on the genius of the American Experiment. From the beginning, our nation’s founding documents were meant to protect the rights of minority groups. Majorities don’t need constitutions guaranteeing them what they already have. We write constitutions so that the freedoms we cherish will be guaranteed to all people, regardless of how popular or unpopular those people are at a certain point in history.

Do the 90% of straight North Carolinians need the constitution altered to protect their marital rights? Of course not. If you are heterosexual in this state you can get married regardless of your criminal record, how often you have divorced, or how many children you have abandoned. There is almost nothing a heterosexual person can do in this state and lose their right to get married.

So, the General Assembly has decided that the state’s constitution is the place to let the straight majority who have a right to marry that is virtually absolute say to the LGBT minority that what you cannot do now is doubly denied.

What a shameful way to use our constitution. What a cruel way for our leaders to act. They will deserve the condemnation of history that is already unfolding.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Stories of Attraction

When I was in high school I moved with my mother from our small town to the big city of Austin. After settling there I began attending a large, conservative church. And on one of my first Sundays at that church, I took note of a cute brunette who was playing the piano. Her name was Sarah, and she was something of a virtuoso on the piano. And did I mention she was really cute?

Before I knew it I had the first full-blown infatuation of my adolescent existence. Whenever I was around Sarah I would start to sweat, and my tongue would get thick, and my heart would race. When I wasn’t around Sarah I would try to think of interesting conversation starters, something like: “Is it hard to play the keyboard with your hands and push the pedals with your feet at the same time?” Safe to say my nickname was not Casanova in high school.

In time, I worked up the courage to call Sarah and ask her out on a date. To my great relief she agreed, and only later did I discover this would be her first date ever. On the way to the restaurant I got lost and drove for almost half an hour looking for the place, before abandoning the search and going somewhere else to eat. I also learned later that Sarah knew exactly where the restaurant was, but was so nervous she didn’t think to say anything. Yes, to say the least, it was an awkward and quiet evening.

We had a few more dates, but then I moved away and the relationship was quickly over. I later heard Sarah started dating another boy not long after I moved and ended up marrying him. I guess she worked out the kinks with me and decided she was ready for the big time.

Do you know what I remember now, almost thirty years later, about that whole awkward experience? I remember how alive I felt. Being attracted to Sarah was my first experience of what happens to the brain and body when your senses are suddenly on fire. That conservative church was quick to denounce the sins of the flesh, so I was happy they couldn’t read my mind when I was near Sarah. Something tells me excommunication might have been in store for me if they could.

When our senses are attracted to something we quickly find ourselves taking notice. Maybe it is the smell of our favorite dish cooking, or the sound of a melody we love, or the sight of a gorgeous sunset; there are countless examples of our senses being awakened and suddenly we feel drawn to something or someone. And the beauty of it is that each time one of those attractions hits us, we suddenly feel alive.

The attractions that enliven our senses and the attractions that awaken our soul are not completely different. Often times, when our senses are brought life, we have opened a door for soulful exploration. Beautiful art or music or poetry can be the gateway to deeper questions and yearnings. Our souls long for truth: truth about God, about ourselves, and about the world we live in. And more often than not it is through some sensual experience that we find ourselves starting a quest for truth.

The sensual attraction that led me to my wife, KaKi, not only resulted in a loving partnership, two children, and a stable home (on our good days). That attraction also meant I discovered new things about myself and the world because I was in a relationship with a person I loved who was different from me. My heart is bigger and my soul is deeper because I was attracted to KaKi.

This is why the demonization of LGBT people is so destructive in our culture. When the dominant heterosexual culture denounces same-sex attraction they are denouncing a core part of our humanity. Without the attraction being allowed to take root, then love cannot blossom. And if love cannot blossom, then many of our soulful yearnings are denied a primary avenue of expression.

The crime against nature is not that gay people are attracted to each other and express it. The crime against nature is denying LGBT people the freedom to express that attraction and create more love and soulfulness in the world. We are all losers in that bargain.

To have our senses awakened is the surest sign we are alive. And what is the point of living if we can’t feel alive?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What If?

What if almost everything our culture has said about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is wrong? How would that awareness change the culture? How would it change the lives of LGBT folks? How would it change the lives of straight people?

For example, what if the long-held belief by many people that being gay is a choice is wrong? Well, the science suggests that our sexual orientation is not something we choose. Common sense tells us that gay people don’t choose their orientation any more than straight people do. But even conservative Evangelicals are starting to acknowledge this is a lie.

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently told delegates at the Southern Baptist annual meeting that they were practicing a “certain form of homophobia.” Mohler said, when speaking of sexual orientation, that it is “clear that it’s more than a choice” and “and not something that people can just turn on and turn off.”

For those of you not familiar with Mohler, he is no friend to the LGBT community. He is often a spokesperson for the Southern Baptists when they need someone to go to battle for them in the culture wars. Yet, even Mohler is recognizing how embarrassing it is to keep spouting the lie that sexual orientation is chosen. Mohler still thinks being gay is a sin, which makes for a curious theological stance given his belief it isn’t chosen, but he has decided the cultural assumption that being gay is chosen needs to be denounced. Can you imagine the implications when others come around to this viewpoint?

And since we are on the topic of religious views regarding homosexuality, what about the cultural assumption that the Bible spends a lot of time denouncing gay people. What if that is wrong, too? This assumption underlies most of the current political debate in our country. When Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly make their case for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, they don’t quote the state constitution. They quote the Bible. But what if the way they are using the Bible to undergird their viewpoint is flawed?

I won’t even address the fact that using one religious tradition’s scriptures to try to deny a whole class of citizens their basic civil rights is wrong; let’s just take the assumption about the Bible at face value. Jesus never addressed the issue of sexual orientation. How could he? The understanding of sexual orientation in the way modern culture interprets it was developed in the late nineteenth century.

What Jesus does address over and over again that is relevant to this issue is his distaste for how religious leaders try to use obscure scriptures to denounce people considered outcasts. In Jesus’ day it was lepers, Samaritans, blind people, women, and others who were marginalized by the religious authorities of the day. In our day religious and political leaders reach for a few obscure texts to reject LGBT people and deny them fundamental human rights.

What happens when people begin to wake up and see that not only is the Bible being misused in this debate, but it has been turned upside down?

Finally, let’s address the biggest cultural stereotype that has lasted through the ages. What if LGBT people are not sexual deviants who threaten our children and all that is good and pure?

We have a serious problem with child abuse in this country. I get to see the consequences of that problem regularly as a counselor. Few things do more damage to a human being than to be sexually abused as a child.

The problem is that in attempting to address this problem we have pointed in the wrong direction. The Catholic Church’s response to its sexual abuse scandal was to try and weed out gay priests. Yet, the credible social science suggests that pedophiles do not prey on children because they are gay or straight. There is a psychological disorder that exists in abusers that needs to be addressed, but we confuse the matter by suggesting it is an issue of sexual orientation.

What if we started telling the truth about LGBT people when it comes to sex? What if we acknowledge that like some straight people, there are gay people who don’t even care much for sex? What if we accepted that like some straight people, there are gay people who will form life-long relationships? What if we simply told the truth that being gay is about who you love, not just who you want to sleep with?

Yes, what if we let go of the stereotypes and cultural biases that have framed the conversation about what it means to be gay or transgender? The liberation would not just be felt in the LGBT world. We would all be freed from the cruel lies that have destroyed so many families and cost the lives of so many young people.

What if that could happen?

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Beginning of the End

Ben Alley spells the beginning of the end of the Southern Baptist Convention’s condemnation of the LGBT community. Ben is 18, a recent high school graduate from Iowa, and is gay. He is bright, gifted and was temporarily homeless when his father, a Southern Baptist minister, kicked him out of their home two years ago when Ben revealed his sexual orientation. Ben now lives with another family who took him in when his own family turned their backs on him.

I met Ben recently in Phoenix. Several groups fighting religion-based bigotry against the LGBT community formed a coalition and went to Phoenix where the Southern Baptists were having their annual meeting. Faith in America, Truth Wins Out, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists sent representatives to the meeting to present a petition with more than 10,000 signatures asking the SBC to apologize for its treatment of the LGBT community.

Ben joined us for this action. We stood on the sidewalk outside the convention center where we engaged SBC delegates as they entered and left the facility. We sang hymns, held signs and had interesting conversations with delegates. Some were friendly, one even supportive, and several were very angry with our presence.

Then it came time for the press conference. When it was Ben’s turn to speak, he told his story with poise and clarity. He spoke for several minutes without notes. When he was finished, all of our hearts were moved by this young man who had lost his family but not his dignity or courage.

What happened next was the big surprise. We had been told that the Southern Baptist leadership was willing to receive our petition, but we didn’t know what that meant. We expected a member of their leadership team would meet with us for a minute or two, accept the petition with signatures, and that would be it. Instead, we were invited to meet with the President of the SBC, Bryant Wright, and he asked us to sit down with him for thirty minutes. Ben joined us in the room with President Wright.

The first part of that conversation was cordial but predictable. I presented the signatures to President Wright and explained we were asking the SBC to apologize to LGBT people in the same manner the convention apologized to African Americans in 1995. Other members of our coalition also spoke about the damage being done to gay and transgender young people specifically because of what they were hearing from religious groups like the Southern Baptists.

President Wright was polite but firm. He repeatedly stated the Bible gave no room for compromise on this subject and that sexual purity demanded that Southern Baptists continue to condemn homosexuality. He compared homosexuality with the sin of fornication and adultery for straight people. When we pointed out the double standard in that the SBC that very day had voted against marriage equality for same-sex couples, he did not see our point.

Just as the meeting was getting a little more tense, one of the members of our team introduced Ben and shared what had happened to him. President Wright turned to Ben with a softened face. He said that what Ben’s father had done was wrong, that it was not what Southern Baptist families should be doing to their gay kids, and he apologized to Ben.

This was not the apology we went to Phoenix seeking from the SBC. Yet, in some ways, it was better. This was the President of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States apologizing to an 18-year-old because he knew what had been done to Ben was shameful. President Wright was comfortable spouting his unfortunate biblical interpretations at us until he was confronted with the real life story of Ben Alley. The atmosphere in the room shifted dramatically as soon as he had to acknowledge the real suffering of this young man.

Ben Alley is obviously just one of millions of LGBT people in this country who suffer deeply because of religion-based bigotry. But his mere presence and story was powerful enough to turn the President of the Southern Baptist Convention from unapologetic defender of the faith into an apologetic human being. And it took about sixty seconds for that change to happen.

The Southern Baptist Convention and the rest of Christendom have no chance in the face of the Ben Alleys of the world.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

99 Seconds with Bill

The call came at noon on a Monday. Brent, my boss at Faith in America, had a question for me (Faith in America is an organization that combats religion-based bigotry against LGBTQ people). Would I be willing to go on the Bill O’Reilly show tonight and talk about hell?

I’m not sure if this is a joke or a complicated pun. Some people would consider going on the O’Reilly show to be a form of hell, so I hesitate before responding. Brent quickly explains that an Evangelical minister has written a book calling into question a literal hell, and all hell had now broken loose in Evangelical circles. Time magazine had even done a cover story about it, so now O’Reilly wanted to debate the question with a religious leader who would agree with the author.

In a flash I see myself standing before the congregation of First Baptist Church in Pecos, Texas preaching my first sermon at the age of fifteen. The topic? Hell, of course. Only then I was a big believer in it and insinuated in my best Billy Graham impersonation that all those fine Baptists were in danger of going there. Now, a lifetime later, I have seen the damage done by the church’s insistence that God loves us, but if we don’t love God back correctly, we get to spend eternity in a lake of fire. That’s some kind of conditional love if you ask me.

As I come back to present time I hear myself asking Brent why Faith in America would want to put one of their spokespersons on the O’Reilly show to debate hell. After all, Faith in America’s work is devoted to challenging the church’s anti-LGBTQ bigotry, not engaging in the theological skirmishes on cable television.

Just as I say the words, another flash crosses my mind. I start to see the faces of LGBTQ people I have counseled over the years who believed without question they were going to hell. Dozens of conversations with kind, decent people who lived in the spiritual anguish that comes from having religious leaders tell you that hell is in your future because of an attraction you cannot control, or a gender identity that doesn’t match up with your physical body. As soon as those faces finish their parade through my consciousness, I tell Brent, “I’ll do it.”

And so it was that a few hours later I found myself in a tiny studio in North Raleigh about to tape an interview with Bill O’Reilly on hell. In this small room there is a camera, a camera operator named Johnny, and a chair. There is no monitor for me to see O’Reilly; I can only hear him in my ear. It is a surreal environment to try and have a natural-looking conversation, especially about such an unusual topic.

As I wait for the interview to begin, I recall a conversation a month earlier with a man who works with Faith in America to try and get their spokespersons on these kinds of shows. Peter used to be O’Reilly’s senior producer, so he knows the game well. He was giving me and the other FIA representatives tips about how to do these kinds of interviews, but all I can remember him saying is that in a five minute interview, you will only have 90 seconds of air time. “So,” he said, “be sure and use your 90 seconds wisely to make the points you want to make.”

This is the main thing on my mind as I hear O’Reilly’s voice in my earpiece beginning the interview. He wants to talk about Hitler’s fate; he wants to talk about his Catholic upbringing and why his church’s view of hell is more nuanced than the Evangelical viewpoint; he wants to insist that without a hell there is no basis for the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Each of these remarks feels like bait. I’m tempted to bite on every one of them, but I keep saying to myself, “I’m not here to talk about Hitler; I’m not here to debate theology; I’m here to say one thing.” And finally O’Reilly stops his monologue long enough for me to say it.

If you're talking about eternal damnation for people, that is a very psychologically debilitating thing. I see it all the time in my counseling practice. I see good, committed Christians, for instance, gay people, good, committed gay Christians, who have been told they're abominations; they're going to hell forever. It does enormous damage.

It doesn’t feel eloquent, but it is the one thing I came on the show to say and it has been said. Later, after the interview aired on FOX, a friend of mine timed how much of the six minute interview was actually me speaking. He said I got 99 seconds of air time. I guess that was 9 seconds more than I was expecting.

The aftermath has been interesting. Dozens of ugly letters, emails, and calls from Christians across the country telling me I’m going to hell whether I believe in it or not. Two childhood girlfriends who are very disappointed in me. And one desperate gay man in San Diego who saw the interview and called me looking for support in a time of terrible crisis.

Whether or not there is a hell in my future, the man in San Diego made it all worth it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage

In June of 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were married in Washington D.C. Upon their return to Virginia to take up residence there, they were promptly arrested, convicted of a felony, and sentenced to a year in jail. What great crime had Mildred and Richard committed that would bring the force of the law down on them so swiftly and severely? Mildred was black and Richard was white.

The trial judge suspended the sentence as long as the couple promised to leave the state and not to return for a minimum of 25 years. At the sentencing of the couple, the judge gave his rationale for upholding Virginia’s statutes forbidding interracial marriage:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. (Loving v. Virginia, U.S. Supreme Court, 1967)

Eight years later, when the United States Supreme Court finally took up Mildred and Richard’s case, the justices did not quite agree with the remarkable theology of the Virginia judge. In fact, Chief Justice Warren, in stating the Court’s rationale for dismantling interracial marriage bans across the country, made this sweeping statement about marriage:

Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of [humanity],’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is sure to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. (Loving v. Virginia)

The fact that the North Carolina General Assembly is on the precipice of voting to change our state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage shows how persistent bigotry is when it comes to denying marital rights to minority groups. In the previous generation it was racial minorities being discriminated against when it came to the right to marry. In this generation LGBTQ citizens are the targets of the bigotry. In both generations the underlying cause of the discrimination is a perverted form of religion.

The Church has provided the cover for our leaders to deny gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens the right to marry whomever they choose. Laws are not created in vacuums of justice untouched by the cultural values around them. The law is just as impressionable as other institutions in our society. And when the dominant religious power in our country, the Christian Church, states that gay citizens are deviant and must not be allowed to marry, the law tends to be influenced by such majoritarian thinking.

Which is why I believe it is critical for the Church to repent and begin to understand how its own teachings and traditions provide a natural rationale to support same-sex marriage. In Luke 4 Jesus begins his public ministry by returning to his hometown, entering into the synagogue, and making something of a mission statement:

The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

For his mission statement Jesus reaches for the language of the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2). He is calling to mind the period in Jewish history when the exile had rendered the people powerless. Like the prophet centuries before him, Jesus is saying that one of the most fundamental religious tasks is to stand with those who have been excluded and marginalized. Those with no power because of their social status, their physical status, or because of the way they were born are the focus of Jesus’ ministry from day one. He is determined to stand with them, to name them beloved of God, and to dedicate his life to seeing them empowered.

Every generation of the Church must take up Jesus’ mission statement and find those places where people without power are being abused and marginalized. In previous generations the struggle was for women and people of color. In our generation the struggle is to support our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as they seek full equality. Repenting from its bigotry and supporting same-sex marriage would be an excellent place for the Church to start.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death of a Cowboy

Peppy Jack McKinney died on March 18, 2011. He had an unusual name. He lived an unusual life. He was an unusual father.

Dad was an honest-to-goodness rodeo cowboy. He won his first prize money in a roping when he was just nine. He was one of the best high school and college ropers of his generation. Then he roped professionally until his body finally betrayed him in his early fifties. He was happiest on a horse or traveling across the country to a rodeo.

My father had a wardrobe that would make any gay man envious. He had closets full of beautiful shirts, expensive boots and belts with shiny buckles. Before he left for a rodeo, he would spend hours in his bedroom laying out his wardrobe. He took matching colors to the border of ludicrous. He believed it was important that his outfit match the color of the horse he rode.

He was a man of style and charisma. What he wasn’t, though, was a man who cared much for his wife and three sons. My parents divorced when I was eleven and Dad ceased to be a presence in my life.

In my teen years and young adulthood, I developed a strong resentment towards my father. I was bitter about the way he had treated my mother and his seeming lack of interest in me. More damning, Dad’s bigotry became more and more obvious as I got older. He would say terribly offensive things about people of color. Homophobia was not a word he would have understood, but it was a sin he committed regularly. It would be an understatement to say I had little respect for him.

In the course of time, I came to believe my father would never change and I needed to let go of my bitterness towards him. I did this for my sake, not his. I made little effort to stay connected to him, and when we did speak, I worked hard not to let his offensive remarks get to me. My soul declared an emotional ceasefire with Dad and I simply stopped expecting anything from him other than what I had always received.

Then, just a few years ago, something unexpected happened. My brother, Jim, did the most courageous thing anyone in our family has ever done. He came out of the closet in his mid-forties.

Jim’s initial inclination was not to tell Dad that he was gay. He feared, as did I, that our cowboy father would react out of his deep-seated homophobia and reject Jim. This prospect worried him greatly, because whereas I had long given up on a connection with Dad, Jim had worked hard to stay in relationship with him over the years.

In time, though, as Jim came out to the rest of our family and his large circle of friends, he decided it was inevitable that Dad would learn of his sexual orientation. He decided it was best that he be the one to tell Dad the truth. I cannot fathom the courage it took for Jim to have that conversation knowing all that was at risk.

What came next is the one great thing my father ever did for one of his sons. He accepted his gay son. I cannot say that he understood or liked the fact that Jim was gay. I simply know that he accepted him and because of that one surprising act he forged a much deeper bond with Jim. For the first time in my life, I was proud of my father.

At Dad’s funeral I offered a prayer at the end of the service. Here is what I said:

In death we are confronted with endings.
The end of breath.
The end of time.
The end of our best intentions of how to use our breath and time.

Words we wish we could have said or heard go unsaid and unheard.
Things we wish we could have done or experienced go undone and unexperienced.

So, we pray for your grace as we are confronted with Dad’s death.

Give us the grace to celebrate all that was good in him and about him,
and the grace to let go of the rest.
Remind us that your reconciling touch
can reach across the endings of breath, and time, and best intentions.
Bless us with your strength as we move between the celebrating of life,
the letting go of old hurts, and the contemplating of what reconciliation can be in your Kingdom.

And now, O God, as Dad approaches that last great round up, may he feel:
the warmth of a big West Texas sun above him,
the power of a strong horse beneath him,
the comfort of a gentle breeze behind him,
and the certainty of your healing love within him.

When my homophobic cowboy father accepted his gay son and told him that he loved him, a powerful reconciliation began. It gives me hope that such healing can happen in other families. Thanks, Dad, for showing me at the end of your life that there was more in you than I ever believed possible.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Silent Sermon

Psalm 19 in the Bible is a beautiful poem that describes the daily sermon given by nature without a word spoken. The poem begins this way:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

What I wouldn’t give if just once in my life I could write a few lines of poetry as perfect as that.

In 1888 the Gifford Lectures began in Scotland. Lord Gifford was a judge who cared more about religion and metaphysics than the law, so upon his death he endowed a lectureship that has become the most important theological lectureship in the world. Lord Gifford’s sole aim in setting up this series was to prove that God could be known through natural theology without any reference to the miraculous. Over the decades great philosophers and theologians were awarded the Gifford Lectures. People like William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich have all spoken to Lord Gifford’s quest to discover a natural theology based on observation and reason.

Sadly, in ways that might make Lord Gifford spin in his grave, many of these scholars have determined natural theology is a dead end. In 2001, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School was awarded the Gifford Lectureship. Hauerwas declared that the God one would discover through natural theology was not a God he could worship.

And why should we care about any of this? Because right now our world is bitterly divided between those who believe the poet’s universal vision in Psalm 19 and those who believe God and the truth can only be known in our sectarian communities and traditions.

The poet of Psalm 19 sees each day declaring in silence the beauty and power of a creator who is open to all. On the other hand, the world is filled with religious extremists who declare God and the truth can only be known through their interpretation of the Quran or the Bible. We see political operatives insinuating that God and the truth are on their side. Disputes in the public schools often pit people of different faiths and worldviews against one another.

And what I fear is that the vision of the poet in Psalm 19, and the hope of Lord Gifford, is dying. The idea that we can observe the silent witness of the created order, and from that witness deduce universal truths that draw us together, is not an idea that holds much sway right now.

We are paying a terrible price for ignoring the universal truths that are preached each dawn and each dusk. Even the most basic universal lessons are being pushed aside in favor of brutal sectarian aims. Suicide bombers destroy innocent lives in the name of Allah. Smart bombs are dropped from the skies onto the heads of innocent people in the name of freedom. Torture is not only tolerated, but in recent years became a tool of the United States to secure our liberty. How absurd is that? Can there be a more basic universal truth than it is wrong, immoral, indecent, and obscene to torture other human beings?

Of course there are other crucial points the natural world makes to us each day in its silent speech. Surely we can see that the desecration of our water, air, and land is a sin according to the magnificent sermon that comes with the break of day. We shouldn’t need virtually every reputable scientist telling us that global warming is real, and that environmental abuse is the great holocaust in our future. We should simply witness the proclamation of day and night and want to preserve this treasure that has been handed to us.

But truth be known, it is hard for us to hear this sermon without words. Technology has allowed us to fill the night with light, and to fill every silence with sounds, and to fill every empty space with video pixels. We are busy and productive and affluent, but we are also anxious and exhausted and empty. Our inability to hear the silent sermon of nature, and its universal truths, not only means we are committing atrocities against one another; it also means our personal lives are decadent and dead.

In this world ablaze with sectarian violence, and divided by narrow self-interest, and filled with non-stop noise and clutter, there is a way out of our splintered, empty ways. It is through the daily sermon of nature that begins at dawn with a beauty that can move us and a power that can shake us. This silent proclamation is open to all without regard to nation, creed, race, or religion. And if we will stop and pay attention, and recognize the universal truths contained in this wordless speech, we can be healed, and we can be whole, and we can be one.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sodas and Care of the Soul

In 1974, at about noon on every weekday, a science experiment took place behind the Austin Elementary School in Pecos, Texas. My three fourth-grade friends-- Darren, Rodney, and Sanford--would join me at the beginning of the lunch break. Each of us brought our own raw material for the experiment: a soft drink.

Our goal was simple. We sought to determine how high the liquid in a can of soda would shoot into the air after it had been tossed against a wall, rolled down the steps, and kicked a few times. We found our answer one day. Darren opened his can after the aforementioned “preparation” and we watched in amazement as Coke shot all the way to the roof of the two-story building. It was the greatest thing I had witnessed in nine years of life.

If only other explosions were as benign as those created by curious children.

Human beings spend a fair amount of time being tossed around by life. Sometimes cruel and abusive adults are the source of the painful buffeting we experience in childhood. At other times societal biases cause us to feel like we are being kicked down the stairs. And then there are the random hardships like bad economies, illnesses, and the loss of loved ones. Any of these can cause us to go off unexpectedly when the lid to our emotions develops a crack.

Anger, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the things that come rushing out of us when someone or something cracks open an intense wound that has been festering for a long time--sometimes for years or decades.

In my counseling practice many of my clients seek me out after one of these emotional explosions, or to try and prevent one from happening. Some people are surprised by the intensity of their feelings over events from far in their past, events that they may have even forgotten until something jolts them into a painful memory.

But it makes sense if you think about it. Suppressing a painful feeling or experience doesn’t eliminate it. It simply allows for time and events to jostle that hurt until the internal combustion creates a reaction. Often we are shocked by just how strong that reaction can be.

It is important to remember that eruptions of anger, anxiety, grief, depression or other unpleasant feelings are not the central problem. In fact, these expressions are reminders that there is a bigger issue going on that we have ignored or overlooked. Pain can be a powerful teacher if we are willing to search out its true lesson.

Still, none of us want to be ruled by a raging temper or uncontrolled anxiety. So how do we prevent such powerful feelings from affecting our ability to live well and relate to the others in a healthy fashion?

First, we have to talk. Strong emotional reactions can make us feel ashamed and vulnerable. In such a state we tend to retreat into silence. The most important gift we can give to ourselves in those moments is the permission to talk to someone we trust. Simple conversation allows the internal pressure to be released gradually in a way that reduces the chance of a sudden blast.

Second, we should seek community. Isolation is the ally of depression and deceives us into thinking that the best place for us in our misery is separated from others. Yet, it is through connection to people that we care about, and who care about us, that we discover the tonic of love, laughter, and a lighter heart.

Third, we need to nurture our souls/psyche. For some of us this means engaging in religious or spiritual practices that bring us peace and purpose. For others it might mean spending time in nature so that we feel more alive. The recipe is different for each of us, but the result is similar. We begin to feel like ourselves again and more in tune with our inner truth.

A can of soda does not shoot in the air every time you open it. Someone has to shake it first; or in the case of little boys, kick it, throw it and turn it into a rocket launcher. Once that has happened, though, you have two choices. You can open it quickly and watch it head for the roof, or you can do it carefully in a way that defuses its power. I highly recommend the latter approach if you want anything left in the can to drink.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cowboys and the Death of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

I grew up in a cowboy culture. My father was an honest to goodness professional roper, and my most cherished possessions as a small boy were my boots, cowboy hat and toy gun belt.

Legend has it that when I was four, I put on my boots and hat, strapped on the six-shooters, and headed outside without any other clothing on my body. Judge Naylor’s wife drove by our house and I drew both pistols and let her have it in a blaze of fake, naked shooting. She called my mother to inform her of this incident, and my career as the Flashing Shootist came to an end.

My life now feels very different than that West Texas world where men have big hats and women have big hair. A few things remain with me, though. From my earliest memories of being around real cowboys I absorbed a certain code they live by.

First, tell the truth even if it gets you in trouble. A dishonest person was the lowest form of humanity. Cowboys were far from saints, but they were admirable in their willingness to be transparent.

Second, take pride in who you are and don’t apologize for it. Cowboys are independents sorts who don’t put much energy into trying to fit other people’s conceptions of who they should be. Wear what you like, say what you think, and drive whichever truck you feel God has ordained for you to drive. Believe me, no true cowboy would drive a truck just because he thought his neighbors would approve.

Finally, honor the institutions that give life substance. Family, church and community service are just a few of those societal bedrocks deserving of respect, if not support.

I certainly don’t want to idealize the cowboy culture, especially considering the virulent homophobia found in much of it. But the code of truth-telling, taking pride in yourself and honoring institutions that give life meaning remains a part of my self-understanding. In fact, I think these are things that help form a good soul and culture regardless of where you are in the world.

That brings me to the timely and well-deserved death of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The revocation of the Pentagon’s policy that forced thousands of gays and lesbians from the military because they didn’t hide well enough was way overdue. We should all celebrate this civil right’s victory. A great injustice has finally been undone.

In reflecting on what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did to all Americans, not just the LGBTQ community, it struck me just how antithetical this policy was to that cowboy code I described above.

It was a law that not only encouraged, but insisted on lying if gays and lesbians wanted to remain in the military. The policy said if you took pride in being who you are as an LGBTQ American, and lived your life without apology, there was no place for you. And it was a rule that caused many people, military and civilian alike, to have little respect for the institutions that kept such an abhorrent restriction in place.

In other words, our government made it a legal requirement to lie, hide and feel ashamed if a non-heterosexual wanted to serve in the military. That’s the deeper tragedy in this mess. Not only did 14,000 good soldiers lose their careers, but the government institutionalized the very processes that lead to spiritual and emotional death. Lying, hiding and being ashamed are the darkest corner of the closet, and being forced to dwell there will create serious damage to the soul. Any real cowboy could tell you that.

In my counseling practice I see evidence every day of the deep wounds caused by a society that has told my LGBTQ clients they must lie, hide and feel ashamed. I also witness the remarkable healing that comes from those same clients who decide to live as they are and offer no apologies for their beautiful distinctiveness. I pray that the fact the military can no longer enforce “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will encourage other American institutions to reconsider their own shameful history in this regard.

Yes, Church, I’m looking at you. Cowboy up and do the right thing!


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology