31 August 2009

Defining the Ones Who Defy Definitions

Steven Andrews

I am a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman.

And that’s odd, but is it queer?

I am a newlywed—by the time you read this blog, I will have been married for only two days—but I have been thinking for some time about the implications of my relationship for my affinity identity. We are in a monogamous relationship, so when we fell in love, and got engaged, and got married, I wondered, during every step of the journey: am I still bisexual? If the other side of my bisexuality will never be expressed again, can I still use that word to describe myself? Where’s the line between what I do and who I am?

I have already gotten in trouble for asserting my bisexuality. My original sponsoring congregation was a small church in Indiana. When I joined the church in 2005, I didn’t tell anyone about my affinity identity. I reasoned that I was more attracted to women than men, anyway—that there was no reason to risk the career track I was on or damage my relationship to the church. I could think of myself as bisexual in the meditations of my own heart, but there was no reason for me to express the dangerous side of my sexuality. I could pass as a heterosexual. It wouldn’t be a major loss. In this way, I came to think of church as a place where people hide who they really are; I thought concealment and deception were part of what it meant to be an active member in a church.

In 2007, I left Indiana and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where I began my theological education at Columbia Seminary. That was when things started to change. My church roots expanded. I met other queer Christians. I became more confident in my identity, not only as a bisexual, but as a human being. I came to know people who had been deeply wounded by the church’s negative stance toward queer individuals. I became confident enough and determined enough to do something about that, and I knew the most effective thing I could do was to “come out” to that church back in Indiana.

So in November 2007, I began to have conversations with people back home about my affinity identity. I owned bisexuality. I claimed it as who I was. My relationship with the church was strained for a while; our relationship ended in May 2008, when they found a pretense to revoke their original endorsement of me. Needless to say, our parting was not pleasant. But I stood my ground. I was honest with them, and I think that was more important than being pleasant.

I was able to remain under care of my original presbytery, which allowed me to transfer to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. My new home church is a welcoming and inclusive congregation in Atlanta—Ormewood Park—and it has been, in every way, a refreshing surprise to me. I have been able to be myself there, and not just in terms of identity, but in every aspect of who I am. I can say crazy things during Sunday School and they still love me. We have a warm church family, based on real intimacy and vulnerability. They have shown me that church can, indeed, be a place where people are honest.

Throughout the transfer process, I have been honest with my new church and with my new Committee on Preparation for Ministry about why and under what circumstances I was transferring. I have told them that I am bisexual. I have owned that name and claimed it as part of who I am.

But now what do I do?—what do I say?—and what’s the line between the two? Am I a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman, or am I a heterosexual man in a heterosexual relationship? Is there a way to think of bisexuality as something more than an expression of who I’d like to be romantically involved with? I think there is.

For instance, I am more feminine than a lot of men I know. I enjoy reading and writing poetry. I’m not particularly athletic. I’m an empathic listener who thinks emotionally, not rationally. My hands are small and soft; my lips are full; my torso is slender. Even after the wedding, these things remain true. Can I think of these things as aspects of my bisexuality? I have before. If I continue to do so, am I being stereotypical? Am I saying all gay or bisexual men are less manly than other men, or speaking in terms of a gender binary many of us are working to shatter? Despite the import of those questions, I know I am not like other men, and I know this realization has been a part of my developing affinity identity. I don’t know what to say about the gender binary, but I do know this: my feminine attributes are not a threat to my masculinity. They are an expansion and redefinition of my masculinity, and they help me understand what it means to continue to call myself bisexual.

More importantly, though, I know a little about the spirituality of bisexuality. We are people who are open to finding all kinds of love in all kinds of places. In the words of Adele Stan, to us, “a person’s gender is just another attribute, like the color of his eyes, or the texture of her hair.” We see through the traditional definitions and look beyond the traditional boundaries to embrace affection in all forms from all directions. Some people say our ability to love is reminiscent of God’s unconditional love, and while I’m not quite willing to own that myself, I will note that it has been said. For my part, I am still a person who is open to finding all kinds of love in all kinds of places, even if my romantic attentions are focused on one, wonderful woman.

And she has been wonderful. She doesn’t want to be accused of turning me hetero; she wants me to continue to assert my bisexuality, my queerness, or whatever I choose to call it on any given day. And her desire gives me hope that I can sort all this out—that I can figure out what it means to be a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman, and that I can assert both those truths without contradiction—that I can be honest with myself, with the church, and with the world.

24 August 2009

Letter to the Christians in Queerdom

By Alex McNeill
Based on Ephesians 6:10-20

I knew when I came out that I was accepting a call to a spiritual battlefield. For the church that raised and nourished me, the church which gave me the tools to question and discern God’s will for me, the same tools which led me to understand that I was both queer* and called to ministry, was suddenly the very place I would be denied to put God’s gifts to use. I knew that part of God’s plan for me included a battle of sorts, and at the very least as a queer person called to work in the Presbyterian Church, I had a long road ahead. However, I knew that I loved this church too much to let it off the hook for discrimination or to leave it behind to sort out God’s plan for it without me. So I prepared for battle. After coming out into this realization, I had never felt so alone. I thought I knew what preparation for this battlefield would look like: a cloak of firm resolve, a shield of detached coolness, a sword of academic rebuttals of the 'texts of terror,' a breastplate of moral fortitude. My goal then was to arm myself in such a way that in meetings with my CPM no matter what was thrown at me, my armor would deflect it from touching me. I thought that my armor came from within. God had called me to this task, and it was up to me to prepare for it.

Fortunately, as my experience in my CPM, and this passage from Ephesians proves, I was not alone, nor was it up to me to craft my own armor. From a feminist perspective, the idea of Christians at battle conjures up a lot of pretty awful aspects of Christian history and patriarchal ideals of dominance and might. However, I love what the author of this letter has done to turn battle imagery on its head. As Rev. David Cameron put it in the Union PSCE blog "Join the Feast," the author of this letter "reinvents the image in a most non-militaristic way. He appropriates the common parts of armor – belt, breastplate, shield – but he assigns them uncommon values: truth, righteousness, faith. Consequently, the armor, usually a symbol of self-reliance, is transformed into a symbol of utter dependence on God."

Thank God I'm not a one woman army. I learned that in my first CPM meeting to become an inquirer. As I sat facing many in the room who on principle would never have voted to allow an openly queer person take any steps towards ministry in the Presbyterian Church, I slowly lowered my weapons of 'firm resolve' and 'detached coolness' and became radically open to the workings of the Holy Spirit. With the knowledge that God had called and prepared me for this meeting, knitting my armor since birth, I felt suddenly calm. Rather than feeling powerfully invincible, I felt the radical power of utter dependence on God to get me through it.

As Christians called to serve the Presbyterian Church but who face difficult trials, meetings, and committees for the sake of who we love or how we present to the world, I believe this text has a lot to say to us. Imagine this is a letter to the 'Christians in Queerdom.' Perhaps we are not standing against the 'wiles of the devil,' but we are in a struggle. We might walk into rooms filled with people who might not yet believe we have a valid call to ministry. We might need to have difficult conversations with family or colleagues about how we understand our calling to be to be inseparable from our sexuality. We might be wrestling with our own acceptance of how deeply God's call extends to us.

Thankfully, we are not alone. God is with us, and by creating a community for ourselves we have been working on our armor together. My armor is not a sword or a shield. It is the food coloring dyed t-shirt we made at the Presbyterian Welcome retreat, a friendship bracelet knotted by prayers for my ordination, it is the knowledge that through God, by God, and with God this journey is one of the fundamental tasks of my ministry. God has created all of us to be in community with one another so that we can repair our armor together, so that we can remind each other that God is with us, and that we are working to bring God's vision for the Church into being, on earth as it is in heaven. Together we can declare boldly the gospel of God's radical inclusion. When we walk together, pray together, and come together as a community to ready ourselves for this struggle, we are marching in the light of God, Siyahamb' ekukhanyen' kwenkhos'.

*note: I use queer as an umbrella term for all aspects of the sexual and gender diversity rainbow; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

10 August 2009

John 21:1-19 – Some Observations

Sara J. Herwig

Imagine how the disciples felt after Jesus had died and was buried. There friend, their Teacher, their Messiah was gone from them. What were they to do now? Grief mingled with fear seemed to creep over then and immobilize them.

Some of the disciples were on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, and Peter was among them. Peter had always been a man of action and strong words. Sitting around by the water was not something he was used to doing. So he told the others, “I’m going fishing.” Once again, Peter moves. It didn’t matter to him in what direction. He just had to do something. And what better thing to do than go fishing in the waters he had fished for most of his life and knew so well. It would be a comfort to be out on the sea again, casting the familiar nets into the water, and pulling in the fish. It would be familiar. Which one of us in times of grief and fear would not seek the familiar, the things that have always calmed and comforted us most? The things that too often keep us from doing the hard things God asks of us. Like Peter, many of us would want to do something, something to take our minds off the pain, even for just a little while.

The disciples were out on the water all night, but they caught no fish. They returned to the shore with nothing in the boat but themselves. And as they draw near to the shore, they saw a figure standing by a charcoal fire. As they drew closer the man spoke to them. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered, “No.” An answer that must have been a frustrating admission for Peter who had been a fisherman all his life. The man told them to cast the net to the right side of the boat and they would find some fish.

Peter must of thought this man was a bit off his rocker. They had been out all night. No one knew these waters better than he. But the disciples did as the man told them. And now, after no catch all night, they weren’t able to haul the net in because of all the fish. One of the disciples exclaimed, “It is the Lord!” Peter once again was moved to action. But this time there was purpose and direction. He put on some clothes, jumped in the water and swam to shore. Once he realized who it was who called him, he could do nothing else but go, no matter what hindered him.

The disciples arrived in the boat, and Jesus simply said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have caught.” And they sat by the fire and watched their teacher break the fish, cook them and offer it to them, as they had a hundred times before.

Then Jesus called Peter aside. He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answered, “Yes Lord, you know that I do.” And Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Again Peter answered, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” And Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”

Then a third time Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt, and probably a bit frustrated. Where was this all going? Peter replied, probably with the hurt and frustration in his voice, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”

We are not told what Peter made of all this. But perhaps he recalled that on a cold night not so very long ago, he stood by another fire and was recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples. Three times he was asked if he knew Jesus. Three times he denied him. I don’t think the three repetitive questions Jesus asked Peter about love were meant to frustrate or hurt him. Here was a chance for reconciliation, for forgiveness. His three declarations of love for Jesus wiped out the three denials. And he was given a command to act on it. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Peter was to turn from fisherman to shepherd, to care for God’s people.

Those of us called to ministry are no different than Peter. We too have denied Jesus in one way or another. But there is reconciliation, and there is forgiveness. And even to us the command to tend and feed God’s people is given. The call is not easy. There are many things that block our way. Sometimes we feel that we have been on the lake all night with nothing to show for it. But then Jesus comes to us with forgiveness, a command for action, and gives us the strength to persevere and to help each other in the task of being God’s shepherds. May we each hear anew God’s call in our lives, and be disciples of action.

03 August 2009

Love Without Expectation

By Anonymous

The Presbyterian Welcome retreat in July was an eye-opener for me. Not only am I new to Presbyterianism (yes, I bought a "handbook" at Barnes and Noble), but I am new to PW, and only about six years into a religious walk within community. That is to say, I left my church quite young (at 19) and spent as many years 1-on-1 with God, only to begin again with a church community six years ago.

For me the retreat spawned a theme of expectations. Mine were simple: I'd never been to one before, so I had no idea to what to expect. Would it be so intellectual I'd be lost? What would the worship be like? And most importantly, what if I really don't feel like doing all of the activities? I knew only one person there - what would I do if she didn't want or was too busy to spend with me? What if no one accepts me there (acceptance, as GLBT people know, is NEVER guaranteed)? And I had two very serious spiritual expectations: to have the deep conflict I was feeling about my home church resolved, and to regain a full, central focus on God. There were other expectations, too, inherent in the retreat organization: for all to agree to the retreat covenant, for all to participate, for all to be open to everything, for all to share, for all to feel welcomed, for all to belong. But I think perhaps the overall expectation might have been that it would be easy, that we'd all know how to "play."

The end result? As is always the case, when a person takes one step toward God, God comes rushing to greet that person. I never met so many gentle, truly tender, incredibly brilliant, sincerely God-loving people in one place in my life (well, aside from a church I love in Phoenix, Arizona). Each of us brought our own spiritual tide and presence as given by God, and the currents often criss-crossed and crashed about, but even as water does, all blended together. It was a pleasure to see and experience.

I am grateful for those who gathered me in and glad to be one who could gather others in, and I thank God for seeping into the otherwise sealed pockets of my fearful resistance and insecurity.