Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts on Sandy Hook

Sara Hess died more than thirty years ago. I am not over it yet. She lived next door to my childhood home and was one of my mother’s closest friends. Sara had five children, she played the organ at a local church and was the kindest person in my little world. To this day when I try to picture human kindness, Sara Hess’s face comes to mind.

Having attended and presided over hundreds of funerals in my life, it is curious that Sara dying of cancer when I was thirteen holds such a prominent place in my memory. I imagine it has to do with my age and the circumstances surrounding the death.

Sara’s illness and decline caused me as a young boy to confront certain hard questions for the first time. How could someone so good be struck with such a cruel disease? How could doctors and clergy be powerless in the face of this grave threat? But most importantly, what words could I say that would ease the heartache my mother was experiencing?

The day of Sara’s funeral is etched in my mind. The most vivid memory is of my mother walking in the cemetery having to be held up by my brothers as her grief overcame her. I spent the rest of that day actively searching for words I could say that would make the pain less for my mother. I never found those words and felt ashamed about that failure.

It does not take a therapist to see that a young boy searching for words to comfort a grieving mother might be a good candidate for the ministry. By the time I was twenty I was already serving as the pastor of a small, country church. Shortly after taking the position, a tragic death occurred. The mother of twin babies took her own life leaving the grandparents to raise the boys. 

Sitting in the living room with this couple that was mourning the sudden death of their daughter, and contemplating the prospect of raising two babies, I once more felt the overwhelming need to find the right words to say. And, again, I failed. 

The good news is that after spending many years as a minister, and now as a counselor, I have had countless opportunities to sit with people who have suffered a terrible loss. I am now an expert on what to say in such circumstances. Do you want to know the secret? There is nothing to say.

On December 14, 2012 we suffered a tragic loss as a people when twenty children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We have been through these mass killings too many times as Americans, but there was something about the fact that most of the victims were six-year-olds that made this event even more horrifying. Such violence and madness makes us physically ill and emotionally distraught at the realization of what the human species is capable of doing.

In the days since the killings there have been many words spoken. Traditional and social media outlets are ablaze with updates, speculation, accusations, policy proposals, name calling, political posturing and various expressions of outrage. I am having a hard time tolerating most of it. Oh, I am heartened to see that people across the political spectrum are in agreement that something must be done to stop these mass shootings. What previously seemed like empty rhetoric might actually lead to something constructive this time. I pray it does.

For me, the consolation this week has come from a dead philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein said almost a century ago, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I take him to mean that there are limits to what language can express and achieve. There are things that are beyond words. And in the face of such moments in life when we feel compelled to find the right words to fix a situation, or take away the pain of someone we love, we would do well to be silent.

So, I have spent 700 words to say there are no words. It is time for me to take my own advice and shut up. It is time to grieve.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Ultimate Move

I have called fifteen places home in my life. Six apartments, four parsonages, two dormitory rooms, one rent house, my parents’ home, and the house my wife and I own now. Yes, it was not until the fifteenth residence that I could say I owned the place. Well, actually, some mortgage company in New York City owns our house, but they let us live in it from month to month.

The thing that jumps out at me about having lived in fifteen places is that there have been at least fourteen moves. Which surprises me because after every move I have uttered the words, “I will never do this again.” 

People make moves in life for a variety of reasons. Some folks move not because they choose to, but because they have to. I have seen that reality in trips overseas to places like the Republic of Georgia. I visited an abandoned Soviet military base where thousands of refugees were living because they had been driven from their homes by the conflict between Russia and Georgia. I’ve also seen it on a trip to Zimbabwe. The cruel government of President Robert Mugabe has so shattered the Zimbabwean economy that thousands are moving to South Africa and other neighboring countries looking for work. Do they want to leave their homes? Of course not. But they have no choice.

All of which makes me reflect on the immigration debate in this country. There is a tremendous uproar about undocumented people and what we should do about them. But what I don’t hear in this so-called Christian nation is much discussion about the forces that drive people to leave their homes, risk their lives to travel to an unknown country, so that they can work jobs that few of us would be willing to do. I hear a lot about the threat of terrorism, and how unfair it might be if we let a few of these people into our community colleges. But I don’t hear many of our moral watchdogs talking about what drives people to risk so much to come here. And that disturbs me. 

For most of us, though, we make our moves in life of our own volition. The first big move many people make is when they leave home for college. Where we go to school and what we choose to study make a statement about what is important to us. Later, career moves also reveal something about our needs and desires. We might move far from our original home to chase a job opportunity that is right for us. Or, we might sacrifice money and prestige to go to a place that fits the needs of our family better.

The common thread I see running through all of these moves or changes is that we are usually seeking safety and comfort. We select a school based on whether it feels like the right fit for us. We might move a thousand miles for a job that provides a more comfortable lifestyle for our family. Human beings have a fundamental need to find places that feel right, that feel safe, and we will go to great lengths to discover those places.

So, some people make moves or changes because forces beyond their control compel them to seek survival in a new place. And many of us make moves or changes in life because we need to find the safety and comfort of the right place. But there is another move we make that has little to do with having our survival and safety needs met.

This most dangerous move calls us to risk rejection in order to do what we believe is right. It calls us to push beyond our normal comfort zone to do what is just. It calls us to choose a path that others might deem foolish in order to create what is fair. What am I talking about when I describe this ultimate move in life? I’m talking about LBJ signing civil rights legislation even though he knew it would cost his party the South for a generation or more. I’m talking about the kid in school who risks his social status by befriending the outcast. I’m talking about LGBTQ people and their straight allies challenging the homophobia that permeates families, churches, schools and legislative corridors. When we reach the place in life where our need for survival and safety no longer trumps our hope for a more just and fair culture, we will have moved to higher ground. 

The great Stevie Wonder once wrote:

Till I reach my highest ground
No one's gonna bring me down
Oh no
Till I reach my highest ground
Don't you let nobody bring you down (they'll sho 'nuff try)

Yes, Stevie, they will sho ‘nuff try. May each of us keep moving toward the high ground where justice for all is more than a slogan.

Monday, November 5, 2012

And a Child(ren) Shall Lead Them

I am like many parents in that I am biased about my kids. I think my children are cool, interesting people who make the world a better place. To say that I love them would be a preposterous understatement. 

I also know that listening to people ramble on about their “youngins” is as interesting as going to a friend’s house for dinner and being subjected to the 500 slides from last summer’s amazing trip to the Grand Canyon. “Oh look, there is my Aunt Bonnie riding a donkey down to the canyon floor. Isn’t that just the greatest thing?” No, it isn’t. Great for you and Aunt Bonnie, maybe, but for the rest of us it is just tedious.

So, I am aware that what I am about to say risks producing a Grand Canyon slide show effect on all of you. I am going to tell you something about my kids, but not because I want to brag on them and have you join me in celebrating their specialness. I have bigger fish to fry here than mere sentimentality.

For the last 12-15 years of my life, civil rights for the LGBT community has been the central social issue for me. It’s not that other issues/causes are not important, but my energy and time has been primarily focused in this direction.

What that means is that many times over the last decade I have been bitterly disappointed. The words and actions of political and religious leaders, as well as family and friends who do not believe in equal protection under the law for the LGBT community, have often angered me and left me despondent. It is easy to give up hope that the world will change when 65% of your neighbors in this state vote to amend the constitution just so the discriminatory law forbidding marriage equality gets doubly re-enforced. We get it already--you don’t want the queer folk getting married. How many pieces of legislation do you need to pass to make your damn point!

This is where my kids come into the mix. My son, Stephen, is a junior at Appalachian State University. When he was in high school he was a terrific baseball player. He gave his heart and soul to the game. For that reason it would have been easy to label him a typical jock, but he wasn’t.

During his senior year Stephen took a Creative Writing class and had to produce a short story. He wrote a poignant tale about a gay high school student living in a conservative world where it was dangerous to come out. For a straight, 17-year-old boy who spent most of his time in the homophobic sports world to write such an insightful piece moved me tears. The compassion and wisdom Stephen demonstrated in creating that story gave me hope.

My daughter, Allie, is a senior in high school now. She is a fierce and proud ally for her LGBT friends. Last year she had to write a paper in school about a civil rights movement in U.S. history and she chose the Stonewall riots as her topic. I will never forget her delight when she learned it was the drag queens who led the way in standing up to the discrimination and abuse foisted on the LGBT community by the New York police. Rain or shine Allie goes to Pride every year and marches. The passion and resolve she demonstrates in her advocacy work gives me hope.

Yes, my kids are cool, interesting people and you would be lucky to know them. But that is not why I risked showing you the family “slide show.” Maintaining hope is the most important of all human achievements. It may also be the most difficult achievement. The forces working against equality for all people are powerful and too often successful. The temptation to give in to despair is a struggle to resist. The example of my kids, and thousands like them across this country, provides me that precious hope, makes me want to fight intolerance and helps me combat the snare of cynicism. I am grateful.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Getting the Full Picture

There is a photograph of my wife and me that I love. The picture sits on a table in our bedroom so I see it daily. In the photo I have my arm around KaKi and we are standing in a park late in the afternoon. Her head is nestled against my cheek and she has the most beautiful smile. What makes it even more special is that the picture was taken by a dear friend who was hosting us for dinner on that particular evening. 

There is another truth connected to this picture that doesn’t quite fit the perfect scene. Sometimes when I look at the photo I am reminded that a few hours before it was taken KaKi and I had one of the worst fights of our marriage. I’m talking top three blowouts in our twenty-six years together. Lots of raised voices, tears and hurt feelings accompanied this battle. Then, we had a dinner date to get to, ended up walking to a park afterwards, and our friend took a picture so special that we have displayed it in our home for years. Go figure.

Is the picture a fake because it fails to reveal the pain and anguish of that day? I don’t think so. The affection the photo captures is real. Maybe we keep it on display because it reminds us that for most of our marriage such closeness has been our truth.

But the picture is incomplete. Only KaKi and I know the back story to it, at least until now. If you were to look at it you would never guess the acrimony we had displayed towards each other just hours earlier. Funny how on the same day one can have a worst moment, and a best moment, bumping up against each other.

Many snap shots tell an incomplete story. Thirty second political ads can explain why a candidate is the devil, or almost a saint, but rarely do they tell us a truth that has depth. Bumper stickers can make us laugh out loud, or want to jump out and drop kick the person’s car, but there usually isn’t much substance to the one liner on the bumper.

Other snap shots we take come in the form of opinions or assumptions we make about others. Usually these internal pictures have been shaped by experiences we have had with people from a particular group. So, we might think “all religious people are narrow-minded zealots” because our experience with religion is of that sort. Or, we might say “Republicans could care less about the needs of vulnerable people in our society” because of the actions of the General Assembly this past year.

There is no question that many religious people are judgmental and cruel. And, the actions of the Republicans in the General Assembly this last year have done real damage to a lot of folks, especially the LGBT community by putting the marriage amendment on the ballot.

Yet, it isn’t a complete picture. I know a lot of people of faith who are inclusive in spirit and fight for the rights of LGBT people. I also know Republicans who work hard within their party to change hearts and minds about the homophobia that has overtaken many in the GOP. If our snap shot of religion and Republicans is not big enough to include these kinds of people, then we need to broaden our lens.

I hope for the day when many in the heterosexual majority also begin to see more than a surface view of their LGBT neighbors. I laugh sometimes when I hear broad generalizations like “gay men just want to have sex all the time” because I think of gay men I know who have not had sex in years and don’t seem much interested in it. Or I think of straight people I know who have few boundaries on their sex lives. Finding out someone is gay or straight really doesn’t tell you much about the person’s sexual appetite, or anything else for that matter.

In an information-based culture we are able to learn a little about a lot of things in a matter of seconds. We take constant snap shots and form quick opinions. Our failure to look beyond the surface to what is behind the picture not only limits us, but does harm to those we quickly categorize. We are all losers in the process.

I’m grateful for the picture in my bedroom because it tells me something more than my beautiful wife has a lovely smile. It reminds me that on one of our hardest days we still had enough love for each other to take a photo that is real and full of warmth. Knowing the whole story transforms the meaning for me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Different Kind of Support

Traveling in a foreign country is always an illuminating experience. Some years ago my minister friend, Nancy, and I were invited by a bishop in a small eastern European country to come visit him. The bishop, Albert, knew that Nancy was gay and that I worked closely with the LGBTQ community. Having met Albert years before, we knew he was a progressive sort. What we didn’t know was how openly he could safely discuss matters of sexuality and gender identity in his conservative world. We soon found out.

After we had been in the country for a week, Albert asked for a private conversation. He said he had a delicate situation on his hands and needed our help. A young man in the church had been coming to Albert for counseling about his gender identity disorder. This person thought he might be a woman trapped in a man’s body, but had no one to talk to about it except the bishop.

Albert knew that Nancy and I both had experience working with transgender people. He confessed great compassion for the young man’s struggle, but also said his church and culture were not ready for an open conversation about such issues. He wondered if we would meet with the young man and Albert would serve as the translator.

When Joseph entered the bishop’s study he looked frail and embarrassed. We greeted him as warmly as we could given the fact we did not speak his language and he did not speak English. After some small talk we ventured into asking questions about Joseph’s struggle with his gender identity. The more we talked the more Joseph realized we were sympathetic to his plight. He opened up to us and explained his dream was to travel to England or Canada and have gender reassignment surgery. This did seem like a dream given the fact Joseph had acknowledged earlier that he had never even dressed in women’s undergarments because he could not afford them.

When Joseph departed the three of us lamented that there was not something more tangible we could do to help him in his distress. Then I had a thought. Here was a young man who believed he was a woman, but he had not ever worn women’s clothes. It seemed like a basic first step would be to help Joseph find some clothes and see how comfortable he was wearing them in private. So, I blurted out, “Let’s go to the store and buy Joseph a bra and some panties.” Albert and Nancy looked at me strangely, and I realized we were about to venture off the map in terms of traditional caregiving. However, they finally agreed there was little to lose.

When we arrived at the department store Nancy and I headed for the women’s clothing section and Albert went in the opposite direction. Not only was he a well known figure in this town, but he was still wearing his clerical uniform. Apparently he decided it wouldn’t look good for a bishop to be seen shopping for lingerie.

Nancy and I began gingerly picking our way through the bras. We quickly realized we had a problem. Joseph was tall and very thin, not a description that would fit either one of us. As I held one bra up to Nancy and asked if she thought it would fit, she turned red and said, “How would I know? Does it look like I have ever fit into a bra that size in my life?!” At the very moment I was holding the bra up in front of Nancy, Albert came around the corner and saw what was happening. He let out a audible yelp and ran  the other way.

In the end we decided on a bra and panty set that we thought might fit Joseph. He seemed grateful for the unorthodox gift and we later put him in touch with a therapist who could provide additional support. 

It is easy to forget that the private struggle gay and transgender people endure is not just an issue in our country. All over the world there are LGBTQ individuals living in much more repressed cultures who have few safe places to discuss their situation. In the battle for universal human rights, compassionate people like Albert, and brave souls like Joseph, need all the support we can provide. Even if that support is sometimes of an unusual and lacy variety.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Drinking Tea with Your Demons

Poker players call it a “tell.” A change in behavior or demeanor that gives a clue as to what kind of hand they are holding. I suppose some tells are obvious (a huge grin on the face, bouncing up and down excitedly, throwing one’s cards down in disgust), but most are far more subtle.
I think of this dynamic often when one of my counseling clients gets close to talking about their pain. When the tears start to flow from someone who is naming their deep grief the tell is obvious. 
It is hard for us to get that close to our pain, though, so we develop ways of warding it off. Humor is a tool many of us employ to avoid talking about our wounds. Changing the subject quickly is another tell. I have a friend who can speak about her emotional suffering for about ten seconds and then quickly says, “Well, that’s enough about that.” I know at that point she is finished with the subject regardless of how much more I say or ask.
All of this makes sense to me on one level. Who wants to feel the depths of their grief, anger or shame? Who wants to get too close to their worst fears or losses? Those things hurt like hell. Swimming with hungry sharks sounds more appealing.
On the other hand, avoiding or denying our deepest wounds doesn’t seem to work in the long run. Fears can overtake us. Anger can become unmanageable. Emotional disconnection can become a way of life because of our unattended suffering.
So, what to do? Two stories from ancient religious traditions come to mind that may offer a different path toward healing.
There are many versions of the Buddhist story that goes something like this. Mara, the demon personification of doubt, fear, temptation, etc. was constantly trying to distract the Buddha from reaching enlightenment. When the Buddha would notice Mara lurking nearby, he would not run from him or fight him. Instead, the Buddha would have tea prepared and invite Mara to sit with him. In other words, the Buddha did not deny the presence of fear, pain and temptation. He acknowledged those realities and asked them to sit with him and talk. 
It reminds me of the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days. During that time of testing the devil appears three times. In each case Jesus does not run from the devil, or fight him, but engages him in conversation.
What a different way of approaching one’s suffering. Inviting Mara to tea, or engaging the devil in conversation, are metaphors for how we might learn to acknowledge our deepest pain. And the reason I like these metaphors so much is that it is harder to feel like you will be destroyed by something or someone with whom you can drink tea.
A person I care about very much, who I will call John, keeps teaching me this lesson. John was like many people in the LGBTQ community who kept his orientation hidden for decades. Revealing his secret seemed certain to destroy him. Then, finally, he invited Mara to tea and looked his fear squarely in the face. John came out, and now years later, confesses it was the most important step he has taken toward his own healing.
Then, recently, John had to face a powerful demon. Alcohol had caused him problems on and off again for much of his life. In recent months the addiction had gotten a stranglehold on John and was undermining everything he cared about in life. But John did the smartest thing imaginable at that point of desperation. He entered into a treatment program and started a 30-day conversation with his alcohol problem. Now he has two months of sobriety under his belt and a sense that life can be good again.
John is no different than any of us in that he suffers. What does make him different is that twice he has been willing to confront his fears and problems in ways that many people will not. His courage and wisdom in doing so are an inspiration to me.
We can run from our pain, thrash at it with unhealthy addictions and behaviors, or invite it to tea. Only one of those approaches leads to peace.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Church at Its Worst

The church saved me when I was a teenager. Maybe that is why my heart breaks each time the church does something like push the passage of Amendment One.
By the time I was approaching high school I was a depressed, lonely kid who had already started drinking and hanging out with older people who were into more dangerous substances. Then I began playing softball with a group from a local church and the youth minister made a big impact on me. I accepted his invitation to come to a Bible study. That’s all it took. I found acceptance, support and a lot of love. Within a year I had gone from a lost kid with no direction to one who was clear he was going to spend his life as a minister.
More than thirty years later much has changed for me. The way I think about God, the world and most other things is very different than the ideas taught to me in that West Texas congregation. After working inside the church as a minister for most of those years I now work on the outside as a counselor. One thing remains unchanged, though. I am grateful that those good people took an interest in me and gave me a direction when I desperately needed it.
That is what faith institutions do at their best. They welcome in lost souls. They give hope to the hopeless. They provide support and nurture. They remind us to be our best, loving selves.
Amendment One is an example of the church at its worst. The overwhelming number of people who voted for the amendment in the rural counties of our state were largely following the teachings of their churches. They were being committed to the faith as it has been taught to them. So, my issue is not with the folks who went to the polls and voted for this travesty. My issue is with the way the church continues to betray its own values when it comes to major civil rights issues.
The church not only was late in embracing the equality of all races, it led the way in this country in reinforcing the crimes of slavery and segregation. The church not only was silent about the unequal treatment of women in our society, but remains a leading force in maintaining patriarchal systems. And the church not only accepts the blatant discrimination against LGBT citizens, but provides the ammunition to blast such good people with weapons like Amendment One.
The church at its worst disregards its own teachings about inclusion, hospitality and welcoming the stranger in exchange for a distorted notion of purity that says anyone who is different is deviant and must be excluded. Then it goes a step further and says not only must those who are different be excluded from the church, they must be excluded from acceptance anywhere in society. How cruel. What a mockery of Jesus‘ spirit and teachings.
I know I am painting with a broad brush and ignoring the fact that many people of faith, and courageous clergy, fought against Amendment One. Their voices may not have won the day, but history will smile on their efforts and celebrate their attempt to articulate a different vision of faith.
I am also neglecting to name the truth that in all the great civil rights movements in this country people of faith were involved in leading the way. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others who changed this nation in the fifties and sixties were motivated chiefly by their understanding of the Christian tradition. In that tradition they found the truth that justice and equality for all are virtues worth fighting for.
Right now, though, in the aftermath of our state voting discrimination into our constitution under the direction of church leaders, I cannot think about such things. I am hurt and grieving. I am angry and bitter. The church that took me in when I needed support as a teen has led the way in rejecting thousands of people simply because of who they are. Some of those people are my friends and family. 
So what do I do when an institution that gave me life and direction becomes the source of hurt and rejection for so many others? Do I turn away from it? Do I face it with fury and cast every stone I can get my hands on? Or do I try and remind the church that the enormous good it has done for me and so many others must be done for our LGBT sisters and brothers too?
I’m not sure. I want to say the latter, but I’m really pissed off right now. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Absurd Vote

We learn early in life how painful it is to have our worth determined by a vote. On the playground, when the two most talented kids got to pick the teams, it was agony to be the last one chosen. Especially if the phrase “Do I really have take him?” corresponded with the selection.

School dances were another nightmarish, social setting if you spent the evening lingering in the shadows wondering if anyone would approach you. Nothing feels quite as Darwinian as a middle school dance where the cool kids select each other for partners and the rest of the crowd prays that a hole will open in the floor beneath them so they can disappear. 

There is a finality to a vote that can produce agony or relief. I know. I have been voted on many different times.

In my former life as a Baptist minister I went through this process repeatedly. Baptist churches are democratic in nature. The entire congregation is allowed to vote on the minister. No bishop or other hierarchy can tell the people who to take as their pastor.

I went through this process more than half a dozen times. As a young minister still in graduate school the small, country churches would have “preach offs” where they would invite several student ministers to preach and then take a vote. I lost a couple of those and won a couple. Losing always felt like an indictment on my abilities and would cause me to question my future potential.

Later, when I began applying for jobs in larger churches, the process shifted. I would meet with search committees who would take an initial vote on my worthiness to be considered by the entire congregation as the candidate for the job. On two occasions churches that I thought would be a great fit for me decided otherwise. I didn’t even make it past the search committee part of the process. They voted and found me lacking.

On five occasions I was voted in as pastor of a church. There was great relief each time that I had been deemed worthy and granted the position. Yet, even on those occasions I sometimes became aware of individuals who had voted against me (usually because they told me so). It never felt good to hear someone announce “I didn’t vote for you because I didn’t think you were the right person for this position.”

Playgrounds. School dances. Job hiring experiences. These are just a few of the many settings in life where we feel a vote or judgment is being taken about our abilities or qualifications. There is anxiety when we are put in this position. There is pain when we are rejected. There is sweet relief if we are selected.

On May 8 the state of North Carolina will take a vote that creates this dynamic a thousand times over. In fact, several hundred thousand times over. By seeking to amend the state’s constitution to make marriage between one man and one woman the “only domestic legal union” recognized in North Carolina, a clear message is being sent.

If you are in one of the 222,832 domestic partnerships, the state is voting on whether your relationship should have any legal recognition. If you are the child of one of those partnerships (89,537 such couples do have kids), the state is voting on whether you deserve the same social safety net as other children. If you are one of the estimated half million LGBT people in North Carolina who loves someone of the same gender and hopes for the opportunity to marry that person, well, you already know that is illegal. But on May 8 the state is taking a vote so that your love will be permanently condemned in our constitution.

If it is scary and painful to be voted on in the playground or a job interview process, can you imagine what it feels like to have an entire state asked to vote on whether your relationship, children, and love are worthy of acceptance? To say this amendment is cruel is an absurd understatement.

As a citizenry we should vote on leaders, bond issues and referendums that affect our common life. We should never be asked to vote on whether whole groups of people are acceptable and deserving of equal rights and responsibilities. Yet, on May 8 that is exactly what we are being forced to do.

So, go to the polls and stand up to those in our society trying to divide us and demean us. Stand up for those whose relationships, children and love are as sacred as any others. But most of all realize that regardless of the outcome on May 8, no person’s value or importance will be determined that day. Some things just can’t be decided by a vote.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Right Side of History

Several times a week I am asked the question, “Do you think the constitutional amendment can be defeated on May 8?” On days when I am optimistic and have felt the energy of the movement to reject this discriminatory amendment against marriage equality, I say "yes."

When I think about the fact every other Southern state has adopted some form of this legislation, I hesitate and remark "it will be a difficult thing to defeat." So much for being a person of firm conviction.

But when I step away from the poll numbers, headlines of the day and my own sense of optimism/pessimism, I feel a clear answer deep inside my soul. I believe the struggle has already been won.

It is crucial in a country that values equality, freedom and human rights to be on the side of those virtues whenever a significant social justice issue is up for grabs. We have learned that lesson repeatedly in our history. The forces that sought to deny women and people of color their dignity, humanity and rights are now viewed shamefully.

Yes, we keep coming to this place of tension as a people whenever a minority group points out the blatant discrimination of the majority denying them the very same rights the majority takes for granted. We argue about it for years, fight battles in courts and legislatures, quote the Bible and the Constitution, but then the inevitable happens. The voices for justice and equality eventually win the day.

Why? Because we are Americans.

The greatness of our history is not rooted in our military conquests or economic power. The beauty of America is first and foremost our belief that every citizen deserves an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At its core the vote for or against marriage equality on May 8 is about these values we cherish. Other issues like religion, the nature of human sexuality and the history of marriage are not inconsequential to the discussion, but they are of secondary concern.

The real issue is what kind of people we are and what we cherish. We are people who care about the suffering of those treated unjustly. We are a people who cringe when unfairness is revealed in our democratic systems. We are a people who rejoice when any group anywhere in the world gets a taste of the freedom we bathe in every day in this land.

Does my belief that the arc of American history bends toward justice guarantee anything about the vote on May 8? Not hardly. Too often the majority in this country has clung to its privilege to the very last minute before being forced to relinquish it and allow others an equal slice of the American pie. That is why we must not rest in our efforts to defeat the constitutional amendment.

Regardless of what happens in this particular vote, though, the handwriting is on the wall. Polls demonstrate that more and more Americans find the discrimination against LGBTQ citizens unacceptable. State and federal courts are beginning to strike down laws that show a bias for the heterosexual majority. Even professional athletes are making public service announcements denouncing homophobia.

For me, though, the shifting of the tides is most obvious in private conversations with those I do not expect to be understanding or tolerant. For example, a conservative Christian husband recently told me he has discovered his wife is a lesbian and he knows this is the way God made her. Such moments suggest to me that the heterosexual hegemony in this country is crumbling.

It is not clear which side will win the vote on May 8. One thing is obvious, though. The votes for marriage equality will be on the right side of history and will reflect the very best of American values.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Phony War

There is a war on religion in this country. If you doubt it, just ask Newt Gingrich. Or listen to Rick Santorum. They are convinced that President Obama (you know, the guy who is either a devout Muslim or a godless secularist) is out to destroy the Christian faith because he thinks health insurance should cover contraception.

Oh the horror of the President’s radical views. First he insists that pre-existing conditions should not be used against people seeking insurance, and now he believes women have the right to control their reproductive destinies. The walls of churches everywhere are shaking with the force of such cruel legislation.

I’m weary of this phony war. I understand that people have strong disagreements on issues related to their faith. This has always been the case and always will be. In a country that celebrates the freedom of speech and the right to dissent against authorities, such arguments are part of the landscape.

What strikes me as ridiculous is the assumption that these debates are between the people of faith vs. the vile unbelievers. Obama, Santorum, and Gingrich are all Christians. Obama’s biggest crisis in his 2008 campaign was connected to his church membership. Mitt Romney, still the presumed leader for the Republican nomination, also is a person whose faith is a central question mark to his potential candidacy.

So, let’s set aside this false dichotomy and start telling the truth. The Christian faith comes in many different flavors. Just among the four politicians mentioned above you have two conservative Catholics, a progressive Protestant, and a Mormon.

But to give you an idea of how broad the religious spectrum is in this country, did you realize there are more than fifty different Baptist sects in the United States? Just in that one tradition (which is my own, so I feel free to air the dirty laundry), the Baptists have disagreed with one another so vehemently that they felt the need to divide dozens of times.

So when we argue about issues like women’s reproductive choice, or the rights of LGBTQ citizens, can we at least stop framing it as an argument of the believers vs. the non-believers? The reality is that some of us are deeply motivated by our faith to stand up for the rights of women and LGBTQ people. After all, I follow the teachings of a man named Jesus of Nazareth who stood by the outcasts of society before the authorities killed him for it.

What really gets me peeved is not only when politicians suggest their view of faith is the only correct one, but they want the courts and legislators to favor that view against all others. Which is exactly what is happening in North Carolina in our struggle against the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The two primary arguments made against same-sex marriage by politicians in this state are that it changes an institution that has never been changed and it is unbiblical. The first point is patently false as the definition of who is allowed to marry whom has changed numerous times throughout history. The second point is even more disturbing.

Those politicians have apparently forgotten these key words from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Legislators may be motivated by their faith in shaping their views, but they are not allowed to deny an entire group of citizens basic rights because they think the Bible demands it. Doing so favors one religious view over the religious convictions of people like me who believe marriage equality is what God wants for this world.

The problem for the conservatives who oppose marriage equality on religious grounds is that when you deny them the biblical basis of their argument, which is what happens in a court of law, there is nothing left to their position. We have seen that now twice in the federal courts in California.

When Federal Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, he noted that the lawyers representing the state’s referendum outlawing same-sex marriage had not made a case. Months later when a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides, the proponents for Prop 8 still made no constitutional case to support it. Could it be the problem is there is no good constitutional case to deny millions of Americans the right to marry?

If the only point the opponents of marriage equality in North Carolina are going to make is that the Christian tradition demands marriage be reserved for heterosexuals, then we have a problem. I am a Christian who believes just the opposite. Whose religious view is correct? We can fight about that all day, but religious squabbles should never be settled by the state’s constitution.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

When Freedom Is More Than a Platitude

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. -Camus

Presidential election season is upon us in full force and aren’t we all thrilled about that. The Republican hopefuls have debated one another more than a dozen times. Here is what we have learned so far.

Newt Gingrich surged to the lead in December until Mitt Romney’s supporters shelled Gingrich with television ads in Iowa bringing up Newt’s previous marital problems.

Romney looked like he was going to win the nomination in a romp until questions were raised by Gingrich about Romney’s time at Bain Capital and just how he went about making all those millions.

Ron Paul has been chided as an out-of-step extremist on foreign policy issues by all the other contenders. Even so, Paul has outlasted some of the other candidates who deemed him unelectable.

The candidates have gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from one another, but there is one word or theme that will get them to hold hands and sing Kumbaya in a hurry: freedom.

When American political campaigns get rolling we are guaranteed to hear endless sermons from the candidates about how much they love freedom. Hearing politicians talk about freedom is like listening to Southern Baptists talk about the Bible. It all sounds the same and it can get old in a hurry.

But here’s the thing. As cynical as I am about the way politicians go on about the importance of freedom, I actually think they are right. Freedom is a key ingredient to any recipe for a meaningful life.

Nothing reveals the importance of having the freedom to choose than not having the freedom to choose. In other words, if you rob people of choices, you will quickly see their souls shrink and their hopes fade.

I witness this dynamic regularly. When I work with counseling clients who were trapped as children in abusive homes, it can be hard for them to believe there is anything of value in them many years later. The shame of the abuse haunts them, and even though they had no choice to be a part of it, they still feel responsible.

Other clients are trapped in marriages where they feel unsafe to say or do what they wish. This lack of freedom to speak or act produces great anxiety and despair.

Where I see this painful dynamic played out most consistently, though, is with my LGBTQ clients. Few people understand the limits of a life without choices better than gay and transgender folks.

Our state is entering the most public and vigorous debate about freedom for LGBTQ citizens in its history. The vote on May 8 to determine if same-sex marriage will be forbidden in the North Carolina Constitution is a critical event. How much more basic of a human right can there be than the freedom to choose whom you will love and marry?

But there are so many other situations where LGBTQ individuals have their basic human freedoms tested. Does a gay couple feel free to hold hands at the mall? Can a transgender employee go to work as the person they really are, not the one on their birth certificate? Can you take your partner home for the holidays when you are not sure how the family will react? In a culture where the homophobic message of exclusion is reinforced by the government and the church, LGBTQ people face daily questions about how free they are to push back against those stifling limits.

The thing is, no politician, pastor, or parent can give a gay or transgender person freedom, or take it away. Freedom is a birthright for each and every one of us. Straight Americans wallow in their freedom unconsciously. They don’t even have to think about the choices they make. Sadly, this is not true for LGBTQ Americans. Almost every expression of their freedom carries risk. But in taking the risk to live as the free souls that we are, we discover the true liberation of being free.

There is an absurdity to a group of people running for President of the United States, all of whom champion the cause of freedom, but each one willing to deny that freedom to millions of citizens because of their sexual identity. Such hypocrisy is not new, and it isn’t going away soon.

Real freedom, though, doesn’t wait for permission to express itself. Claim your birthright and, as Camus said, “become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Three Virtues

Although I occasionally receive letters from people accusing me of being a liberal heretic, I’m actually a pretty traditional guy. I love baseball. I’m fond of dogs, little babies, and cherry pie (not necessarily in that order). And I believe in the importance of virtues.

Virtue is an old word favored by traditionalists that refers to morality and commendable character traits. Conservatives like to talk about virtue and morality because these concepts point to a permanent order of goodness. Liberals feel more comfortable talking about ethics because the term suggests that morality is about choices, and choices lead to progress. I don’t think those definitions and classifications are necessarily accurate. I’m a pretty progressive guy on many issues, but I still think virtues are critical. Just call me a liberal traditionalist.

I bring up the subject of virtues because it strikes me that much of what ails our society currently is the lack of them. We live in a country that is fearful and divided. Our political and religious leaders inflame the fears and divisions more often than seeking to extinguish them. The polarization within our land casts a pall on our collective spirit. I believe an emphasis on three classic virtues would go a long way toward healing us.

Humility. I’m tired of hearing that the United States is the greatest at this and that. We have a wonderful country that remains a beacon to much of the rest of the world. But our national addiction to be dominant in every arena leads to distorted self-perceptions and resentful attitudes from our global neighbors. There are other great nations and peoples in the world. If we would treat them as equal partners and view them as such we might become the superpower we already like to think we are.

Religion is also in need of an injection of humility. Much of the conflict in our society is fueled by a religious fanaticism that insists it holds the only truth about God (the move to change the North Carolina Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage would be a current example; the arguments being made in support of this amendment are exclusively religious in nature). Most of the great religious leaders in history were humble in nature. They were clear in their convictions, but not arrogant about them. There is a difference.

Humility is not a virtue connected to weakness. It is a virtue connected to awareness. The humble person, church, government, or nation is aware that there are others like them who are no better or worse. This awareness makes us sensitive to superior attitudes and actions that might injure others. We need a strong dose of humility in our political and religious conversations.

Truth. The truth is an elusive virtue that is always imbued with subjectivism. However, if we surrender the notion of truth solely to our personal opinions and beliefs, we are left with nothing but permanent division. I have my truth and you have your truth and never the twain shall meet.

We need to remember that there is an element of the truth that is bigger than any one person, religion, or philosophical system. The search for truth means opening ourselves to new ideas and more nuanced positions. We ought to talk less about the truths we think we own and invest more energy in discovering and embodying truths that are bigger than our personal preference.

Beauty. It might seem odd to list beauty as a virtue, but I can think of nothing more noble and moral than the creation, appreciation, and promotion of beauty. We are inundated with violent images and divisive scenes on a daily basis. Our souls ache under the weight of such cruel humanity. The antidote for this nasty infection of the soul is beauty. It lifts us and lightens us and inspires us.

All we have to do is look up in the sky and see the greatest show on Earth. Gaze into the face of a child and be transported to a holy place. Put paint on a canvas, or pluck the strings of a guitar, or simply walk in the woods and you have opened a place for beauty inside of you. When we surround ourselves with beauty some of it is bound to seep in, and when that happens, the other virtues become easier to attain.

Three virtues. All free of charge. And they help heal what is broken in us regardless of our political leanings or religious convictions. What a deal.


About Me

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