Monday, January 24, 2011

The lack of love for singleness.

The danger of killing time by reading my Google Reader: Recommended Items (where I sometimes find really great things) is that I sometimes find absolutely ridiculous stuff.  Then Kristi's subjected to a half-hour rant about what's wrong with _____ today and then I have to go lie down.

The problem starts here:
Google Reader has noticed the frequency with which I "like" items in my Subscriptions feed which can be classified as "Christian" (most often:  the naked pastorA Church for Starving ArtistsJodi's Humble Walk blog The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO JesusThe Cartoon Blogand that for which every post I automatically "Like", Star, Share, and post quotes on my Tumblr, Pastor Nadia's Sarcastic Lutheran blog).  

Google Reader has failed to create an algorithm that will recognize that my Like for "Christian blogs" does not include a like for the following:

His first book, Heaven Help the Single Christian,  has been published by Regina Orthodox Press and is available on their website.  Thomas wrote the book
after years of striking out at youth conferences, coffee hours and monasteries, has a book to help single Christians through the dating scene with humor and advice. Heaven Help the Single Christian is relationship advice for the serious churchgoer, but it’s not homework. Ruthford offers us thoughts and laughter on Internet dating for Christians, on the joys and perils of dating the Heaven Help the Single Christian is relationship advice for the serious churchgoer, but it’s not homework. Ruthford offers us thoughts and laughter on Internet dating for Christians, on the joys and perils of dating the sons and daughters of clergy and shows us that modest clothing does not have to be frumpy. Cheer up, you’re not alone.

"Cheer up, you're not alone" - except you totally are.  And it's like the worst thing ever.


hate that the church has not developed an alternative voice in our romance-obsessed culture.

The "secular" culture (let's pretend that these lines are actually easy to draw, for simplicity's sake) encourages romantic involvement & sexual activity as the norm.  Music, ads, TV shows, blogs, tweets - there is so much to do with "who's with who".  Even our action movies have love interests.

Many Christian leaders like this.  In particular, I think Christian leaders who are interested in confining sexual activity to man-woman marriage are very interested in getting men and women to look at romantic relationships as the pinnacle of life experience.

I've been thinking about this, and I propose that there is a huge challenge to Christian leadership:

  • Humans are physically ready for sex (i.e. have sexual desires and can conceive a child) at the onset of puberty.  (Note that I say physically.  Emotionally, spiritually, practically, etc. are totally another ballgame.)
  • Puberty occurs before marriage, in most cases in Western Christianity (but, not so in biblical times).
  • Therefore, sexual desire exists outside of marriage.
  • But, literalist interpretation of Scripture demands the expression of sexual desire only within marriage.
  • So, somehow literalist-interpretive leaders have to convince other Christians to not have sex between puberty (between ages 12-16 on average) and marriage (18 at earliest, but average is 25.6 for women & 27.5 for men).

So, how does one do this?

Well, there are three options:

a) One abandons literalist applications, because of the inapplicability of rules designed for sexual expression when the average age at marriage was twelve.  Other rules for holy and safe sexual expression must be developed.

b) One creates an atmosphere in church environments where single people are celebrated as whole people.  Self-reflection and development, self-reliance, and the creation and maintenance of life-giving, non-romantic relationships is encouraged and modeled.  Restriction of sexual expression to marriage alone is maintained; the attempt is to redirect sexual energy into other activities, particularly those which require major or total physical or mental engagement.

c) The "romantic relationship culminating in marriage" ideal is given primacy as the end goal of all behaviors, dress, interactions, activities, etc.  The concept of soul mates is promulgated.  Romance is depicted as perfect, miraculous, and life-changing.  Restriction of sexual expression to marriage alone is maintained; the emphasis on marriage as life culmination event encourages marriage at a young age, which dilutes the problem of the time between puberty and sex.  Sexual expression outside of marriage is hidden; in some groups, its revelation is catastrophic for those involved, particularly the woman.

I see so many churches and church communities choose (c).  "Singles groups" are basically matchmaking clubs.  Little old ladies play Yente at coffee hour.  My unwed, un-boyfriended peers bemoan their singleness.  And on and on and on.  This just plays along with the "secular" culture where "chick flicks" end with a perfectly happy couple who will totally be together forever, and Taylor Swift's love songs shoot to the top of the charts*.  And on and on and on.

[*Said by someone who totally loves Taylor Swift, but I digress]

I do not like this.

I think that Christian leadership - and the church as a whole - needs to do a combination of (a) and (b).

I think that Christian leadership needs to openly recognize that Biblical sexual rules are not directly and perfectly applicable to modern relationships.  This has already begun to happen in permissive attitudes towards divorce, and to the same degree but with less frequency about queer sexualities.  But, this needs to happen for single people.

The church as a whole needs to have an honest and considerate conversation about singleness, and about how it gets totally railroaded by our culture as a failure to "lock in" some other poor sap into all your neuroses and baggage before you even know that you have them let alone have begun to address them like a semi-adult.

The church needs to be honest about the time gap between puberty and marriage, and admit that there are people who will - people who are - having sex before marriage.  This is where (a) comes in; should the church make space for this, create specific guidelines for safe and holy and mutually respectful sexual expression before marriage?  Or should it dive into (b), sublimating sexual drive and desires into other activities?  The church might even need to be prepared for (a) and (b) to be appropriate based on an individual's situation, personality, etc. But all this is a discussion that needs to happen.

No matter what - if the church (or individual congregations and leaders within the whole) decides on (a), (b), or whatever combination thereof - the glorification of the romantic relationship culminating in marriage needs to stop.

It depicts the human being as half a person without their "soul mate."

It lays pressure on unmarried couples to tie the knot prematurely.

It demands perfection and ecstasy from married couples.  (If you're married, you know it isn't the end credits to Eat Pray Love every day of your life.  It's more like ... I can't even think of a cultural example because we don't have enough of them.  Do you see what I'm getting at here?)

Basically, it's bull.

And it railroads single people into directing their energy into acquiring a mate rather than stretching their own soul or enjoying their own life.

So, if you're single, guess what?  You're awesome.  Go freaking enjoy it.  Sell your copies of The Princess Bride and Cosmopolitan and He's Just Not That Into You, and buy a new swimsuit  and go parasailing, or enroll in an art class and make jewelry, or learn to cook ten really kick-ass meals, or expand your collection of postcards from around the world by going there. Take a journal with you.  Learn who you are.  Overanalyze your parents.  Unpack your emotional baggage, decide what you're going to take with you, and burn the rest.

And not "so when you do meet the One..." or "because nothing's as attractive as...".  No.  Do this because it is intrinsically valuable to be a self-reflective, empowered, independent, interesting, happy person.

I promise.

[Disclaimer:  I say all this as someone who met her partner when she was twenty.  So I could be wrong about all this - moreso than usual.  So, please correct me.]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Abundant life in the assembly of G-d

When I was sixteen, my school friend Bekah invited me to join her Wednesday night youth group at an Abundant Life Assembly of G-d church in a northern suburb.  

It's quite funny to think of sixteen-year-old me, starting to learn who she is politically, starting to come out tentatively, starting to temper her repressed anger and stubbornness into action, joining a conservative church.  But I wasn't wary of the hermeneutic differences between Assembly of G-d and Episcopal churches, largely because I had no idea of them.  

In defense of my lack of knowledge: I was sixteen.  I had grown up in the Episcopal church, in a congregation that was high on Committees and Liturgy, and low on emotional engagement and personal convictions.  There were very good people at that church, but there was also a priest who had no interest in challenging the rudeness and disinterest of his youth group.  The year before, when a fellow confirmand had said, "I think the Bible is a bunch of baloney; we should learn about Wicca instead," there was neither chastisement nor engagement; he ignored the statement.  I remember Father B saying at one youth group meeting, "Yeah, sure, I've read the Bible all the way through, but I was seventeen and a dork."  I'd been passionate about getting confirmed, about affirming the vows made for me at baptism as a full and consenting adult - which made me the odd girl out in confirmation. 

Suffice it to say that I did not fit in there.  Everyone else knew I was a dork, and treated me as such.

So in going to youth group at the Assembly church, I was mostly excited about going to church with school friends who treated me kindly in spite of my dorkiness.  

Then, of course, I experienced worship at AoG.  If you are familiar with Episcopal services, you know they are highly liturgical - prescribed, well-planned, consistent from week to week, with fixed dialog between priest and congregation.  There are very specific (but unspoken) standards for physical attitudes.  When you sing, you look at the hymnal.  When you pray, you kneel on the kneeler, bow your head, fold your hands.  Everyone stands for the gospel, everyone sits for the sermon.  Prescribed.

If you are familiar with AoG (and, I believe, the majority of Pentecostal and/or non-denominational) services, you will know that they are incredibly, incredibly unlike this.  Prayers are extemporaneous.  Songs are led by band, not organ, with Powerpoint slides.  Singers and pray-ers can stand or sit or kneel or dance, raise one hand, raise both hands.  There is a lot of crying.  It is highly emotional.

For me, at sixteen, it was like coming home.  These people, unlike my stinking pile of apathetic "peers" at confirmation, actually wanted to do stuff.  They wanted to praise.  They wanted to read the Bible.  They wanted to come to worship.  The Holy Spirit had convicted their hearts and they weren't afraid to cry in church.  

So looking back, I am not shocked that I loved it.  AoG worship particularly connected with my emotional needs. As a lonely kid who experienced deep emotions (including, at times, crippling depression and social anxiety), I felt like I belonged, even when I cried.  If I cried at school, my friends were unsure what to do.  At AoG, I watched other youth group members cry - and peers and leaders swarmed them, put their hands on them, prayed out loud for them.  For the first time in my life, I saw people be emotionally moved in worship.

I know now that the emotional displays I witnessed come from a variety of sources.  It is likely that when I broke down and wept, the leaders and youth who laid hands on me and prayed for Christ's conviction on my heart were assuming that I was weeping because of the multitude of my sins, not because of the loneliness of my soul.  But this was unknown to me then; I just knew that I felt welcomed and loved in a way that I did not normally experience with my peers.  

And I love contemporary music - even now.  Jami will laugh if she reads this, because I am the one who gets billed as the liturgical, if-it's-not-in-a-hymnal-I-won't-sing-it kind of Lutheran (and this is fair, considering the abundance of my love for Marty Haugen, for the ELW, for a full service with the Confession, Forgiveness, and Gloria Dei thankyouverymuch; but I do love contemporary music.  It was moving to me then, and it is moving now.  I am reading The Scandalous G-d:  The Use and Abuse of the Cross by Vitor Westhelle for my Mission class, and I cannot look at the book without "Scandalous Night" stuck in my head for the next few hours:

At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree
On that beautiful, scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful, scandalous night

(Theologically I am not certain that I commit to the theory of atonement - but the song still speaks to me.  The crashing chords, the drum line, the soaring melody, the aching in each note.  I do miss being able to sing contemporary music.  But there are so few safe spaces - so few spaces where raised hands do not signal pointed fingers, where extemporaneous prayers do not become words of condemnation.  Someday, perhaps.)

I continued attending the Episcopal church on Sunday mornings - I tried Sunday worship at AoG twice, but could never get over the oddness of fifty-year-old men in stained white tees and beer guts with their hands raised and tears streaming down their cheeks.  Somehow I accepted the emotional displays of fellow youth but found them alien in adults.  A local Episcopal church led a Teens Encounter Christ retreat twice a year, and I continued leading on the music team at the retreats.  

And we hired a new youth group leader, Alison, who laid down guidelines for group behavior with specific Scripture references and called upon the youth group (now comprised mostly of younger students, as my peers had disappeared post-confirmation) to actually read the Bible.  Alison loved us - visibly and actually and compassionately - and in a way that Father B never did.  She is to this day one of my guiding stars, a hero and a friend.  

And it was good that I maintained my ties with the Episcopal church (as boring as I now found the services), because I would not last a year at AoG.  Hermeneutical differences will out, as I have mentioned.  

But without my subsequent re-connection with my Episcopalian self, I ever would not have volunteered at the General Convention of 2003 - not seen, that very summer, a mainline Protestant church stand up to the protests of Fred Phelps and the willful determination of fundamentalists - not seen a church lay hands on a gay and proud bishop and say, "Yes, yes."  

And if I had not been so emboldened by that summer - by the conviction that yes, the church could be brave enough - would Martin Luther's "On the Freedom of A Christian" have sung in my soul so deep?

I will not glorify the hurt I felt when I realized that the AoG could never be a home for me.  But the pain of my forceful disassociation from AoG gave my heart room to hear G-d's call, and the youth group gave me a dream of commitment to the Biblical narrative of G-d's love and of a worship service where tears do not terrify. 

The youth group promised abundant life.  I have found it; I just happened to find it everywhere else.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two years ago, I read this article:
It changed my life in that it was what finally convinced me that I’d be OK at Luther.  That I’d find a way there, just like the others had, even though the article warned:
“All of this makes it an interesting time to be a [sic] gay or lesbian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. It’s the largest of the eight Evangelical Lutheran seminaries and produces one-third of all the pastors who serve at the church’s 10,500 congregations. It’s also considered the most conservative. Professors give detailed recommendations to synod bishops, and if they know a student is gay, they must note that in their report.”
I facebooked Lauren (Wendt) after the article came out, and we chatted a bit, and since then I’ve met Margaret (Kelly) and Dustin (Nelson).  Who are both fantastic.  And both not ordained.
Obviously, things have changed a bit since the article was published; my candidacy committee (and thus my bishop) already know that I’m partnered and fortunately, in the Minneapolis synod, that isn’t a problem.
And the majority of students I’ve met at Luther are supportive.  Yet I know that they’re supportive because I’m out.  Almost everyone who knows me knows I live off campus, and that I live with Kristi.  So my peers (most of them, anyway) and my friends (all of them) know where I am, and thus they’ve had an opportunity to share that they’re supportive.
I know only one other seminarian who is out (because he is partnered), and one who is sort of out (because she is open, but not partnered, so it does not come up easily).
It would be easy, I think, to have gotten through these past four months without knowing how many fellow students are supportive of the ordination of (deep breath) people in publicly-accountable-lifelong-monogamous-same-gender-relationships.  
 I can’t imagine how lonely that could be for someone who’s closeted.  
And I can’t - not as a queer woman, and not as a future pastor - let my fellow students graduate from “the most conservative seminary” in the ELCA without knowing that there are pastors of great integrity, skill, passion, and compassion who support the ordination of partnered gay or lesbian or bisexual people.
I’m terrified of becoming “that girl.”  I know that there are professors who are diametrically opposed to my ordination.  I know that there are fellow students who are as well.  I can’t stand the thought of being known primarily as “that girl” for the next three and a half years.
But even more I can’t stand the thought of fellow students never knowing that allies exist in the church - and at Luther.
The article mentions, but does not detail, a group called Agape which met on campus.  I know little about it - just that it was a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and allied people to meet and talk.  
So I’ve emailed Dustin and Margaret for a rundown of Agape circa 2008.  And I’m unpacking my belt of truth and my shoes of peace and my shield of faith.
I’m in need of a visible, public community of allies.  
And I think others are too.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Total exhaustion.

I'm physically exhausted by the lack of sunshine; not an unusual situation, living in MN, but it's unusual for me.  I haven't suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) before, but I'm displaying all the symptoms at present.

I'm sick of having to fight for my right to love and marriage and ordination.  The longer I am at Luther, and the longer I engage with the wider church and preaching community (through Twitter and blogs and the like), the more I encounter people whom I think have no right to preach, because their theology is bunk; but I am not active in trying to systematically deny their ordination.  The same cannot be said for them and for my ordination.  I am tired of this fight.  I am shocked that we are still having it, but mostly I am tired.

I am frustrated then on a larger scale with trying to teach what I know about G-d and about Jesus and about what the church could be, about liberation and shalom and welcome and family and mercy and love and righteousness, when I am preaching basically in opposition to many - some who will receive my same degree from my same seminary and have my same "vocation."  I am meeting and encountering people who will receive an M.Div from Luther, just like me, who are happy and proud to go into the world chasing my queer brothers and sisters out of the church with sticks and stones, and thus creating more people that I have to go chase down and explain "No, listen, that's not actually what church is about."  This pisses me off, to use the vernacular.  How am I supposed to get people fed and nourished and fulfilled when other people wearing the same collar - preaching in the same denomination - are creating more pain and destroying more lives?

And I am so exhausted and disheartened on the very large scale of how hard the faith is.  Not believing in Jesus, per se, or even in G-d, but in the things we do in Christianity.  We use religious texts with metaphors entirely alien to us.  We call upon our youth to read the lectionary texts in church, to talk about the "cedars of Lebanon" and such, with absolutely no context presented and no time for proper explanation.  Some of our best hymns have bad theology, or at least theology that worked a hundred years ago but can't now.  And some of the good new hymns, the praise and worship music, are similarly bound by language and supremacy.  And liturgy is boring to some and totally alien to others, and yet so beautiful to me and many more.

How can I do this?  How can I spend the rest of my life trying to explain so much, to so many, who come from so many places? And so much of this - in accord with what Paul said - is actually illogical and unexplainable.  A stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  It is hard enough that I preach G-d crucified, an impossibility and an offense... but I also preach from a book written at least two thousand years ago, written by Middle Eastern men oppressed by foreign powers and freed by a G-d who led them through the desert in a pillar of cloud and fire.  

I know that in a few weeks I will feel much better and my present crisis of call will be over (or at least mitigated for the time being).  But today I am so damned tired.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

a little more on G-d

A professor noted on my final exam that he’d like to hear my reasoning for using G-d instead of … y’know… the full word.

He’s the first professor to ask about it, so for the first time I had to be systematic in my explanation (moreso than here).

And here’s my answer:

Hi Professor,

I got my final exam from my mailbox today (thank you) and noticed your question about my use of G-d.

My preference for G-d is twofold. I learned the practice from a friend in college, whose Jewish faith radically challenged and changed my Christian faith (much for the better); it’s only in candidacy that I adopted the practice. As you likely know, the practice in Judaism of using “G-d” is done with the intent of never writing the true Name, since its inscription makes the paper (and apparently the electronic device? I have not fully studied that extension) holy. That’s the first reason that I use it - out of reverence for the true Name (which I acknowledge is not even G-d but Y-h).

The second reason derives from an experience I had in systematic theology early last semester, when I grew incredibly annoyed with my own questions about G-d that I felt had no resolution. I felt that I was in danger of being incredibly cavalier about the Deus Absconditus - that thefact of G-d’s hiddenness made it so much easier to make claims about G-d. I believe in G-d because of the revelation of G-d in Christ; I feel anxious enough making claims about Christ and Christ’s actions — it was much more terrifying to think of asserting what G-d the “Father” or “Creator”, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, might “be” or “want” since I see such a multiplicity of testimony to G-d’s will and actions over time and place in the Hebrew Scriptures. So using G-d is an admittance to myself that nearly everything I learn and read and write could quite well be wrong and I should be very, very cautious in ascribing any of it to the One.

I have not yet adopted the accompanying Jewish practice of saying HaShem instead of G-d in conversation, because it’s harder to change the way one speaks, and because it creates a stumbling-block for people I am speaking with (who need clarification). G-d in writing is at least understood (if puzzling); HaShem spoken, for most Christians, is totally alien. But I would very much like to use a name other than G-d when speaking, for the same reasons as outlined above. I have moved away somewhat from using it, but obviously there are circumstances when nothing else will do.

I expect my reasons for doing this will change the longer the practice continues; I may perhaps reach a day when using G-d is more of a hindrance than a blessing and a soothing for my worried mind. But, for now, this is where I am. Hope this short essay of an answer is clarifying!

Thank you again for your course. It really was great.

Happy j-term!

Emmy Kegler

May G-d make me worthy of such thoughts. May G-d correct me and guide me. Amen.