Saturday, December 31, 2016

Go tell it on the mountain.


There are two Christmas stories.

I mean, literally, there are two. We have four Gospels, but Mark and John do not consider the circumstances of Jesus' birth to be significant enough to mention. Instead, they both start the action with John the Baptist doing his baptizing thing. Jesus enters the story fully grown and ready to go.

The Christmas story most people think of, the Charlie Brown special one with the shepherds and the angels, comes from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered...All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The...other Christmas story is in Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit"...When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him...Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was...On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and...opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him"...When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
 
It's not very festive. But it is enlightening. We are used to the idea that The Establishment grew increasingly frightened of Jesus and his message throughout his adult ministry, eventually killing him in an attempt to silence him. Matthew reminds us that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was understood by The Establishment as a threat from his first breath.

We do get some of the same message earlier in Luke with Mary's hymn of praise to God for the child God has given her, shared with her relative Elizabeth, herself the mother of John the Baptist under miraculous circumstances:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Magnificat explains concisely what Jesus' people hoped for and expected. It is, in a sense, the job description for the Messiah.

So it's not a question of different people having different understandings of what Jesus meant if God's promises indeed came true through him. It's a question of different people having very different responses to a singular truth. One group of people is frightened and lashes out. The other group is overjoyed and celebrates.

Quaker pastor Mike Huber frames this distinction as worrying about "what if?" instead of worrying about what is. For the more powerful or privileged who benefit from the status quo, change is a threat. For the less powerful or privileged, the status quo is a burden that change may relieve them of.

When one embodies change--say, by forming a strong, healthy and openly proud family that has more than two adults in it--one has to decide how to deal with the fears that others have. One common way of looking at it is to say: You should stay quiet. Don't draw attention to yourself. Be as deferential and non-threatening as you can.

But that approach doesn't work. You will still scare people, and they will still come for you.

In late August, Katherine Willis Pershey published "Get Ready for the Polyamory Movement" on the Patheos website. As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a denomination that understands itself as a progressive champion of inclusiveness, Willis Pershey struggles with how to condemn polyamorous people without coming off as, y'know, judgey:

I admit that much of what I know about polyamory came from a single article by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic...The few polyamorous relationships with which I have more than a passing familiarity haven’t ended well...It would be wholesale logical fallacy of vividness to presume stories such as this are the norm, but I nevertheless suspect that they are more than merely the exception...Because I do wholeheartedly affirm the love and commitment between same sex partners, I can’t just parrot a line about marriage (and sex) being designed for “one man and one woman.” Still, I am convinced that there’s something to the one and one...(At the risk of really sounding like those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago…what about the kids?)...Just as Christians are monotheistic in our religion, we are called to be monogamous in our relationships. No gods before God; no lovers on the side.

After some choice words to myself about the piece proving my point about the blind spots of liberal theology, I experienced the usual sequence of anxiety, anger and despair. My denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches, has an agreement with the UCC that they reciprocally recognize the credentials of their ordained clergy, and it's not unknown for MCC congregations to "defect" to the UCC--would a dust-up over polyamory in the one spill over into the other? Why would a UCC pastor with a moderately high public profile, in the absence of any formal polyamory advocacy in the UCC or significant pastoral experience with polyamorous people, decide to use their visibility to abstractly stomp all over the hearts of real people with real families? When would institutional Christianity stop being actively hostile to me and mine?

But as I watched the supportive comments roll in, and participated in my own restrained way, I started to feel hopeful as I realized it actually is the same pattern as it was with "those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago" in the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. While MCC blazes a path in the wilderness, the others use intellectual debates to stall for time, calculating what their reputations and internal sense of moral authority can bear. Eventually, they will come around as the cognitive dissonance falls more on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the open-minded ones?" and less on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the respectable ones?"

I didn't expect to see confirming evidence quite as quickly as I did, though. In October, Rev. Rachelle Brown began her term as Interim Moderator of  the MCC. Buried in her resume--but still there! in public!--is her role as the Convener of the MCC Polyamory Affinity Group at the 2016 MCC General Conference. In December, Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell offered a webinar approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy:

This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities--because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.
This description comes from the presenters' blog. Eventually, the webinar should be available as a screencast on MCC's Sacred Space Online Learning site. Amy was able to attend it live; she got Rev. Dr. Gorsline's permission to share some of his comments on Facebook. I can't share them all here, but I want to highlight that he said he has "become convinced that Metropolitan Community Churches must take the lead among faith communities, at least the Christian ones, on this issue. We helped the larger church begin the long journey toward more openness to homosexuality, and now we need once again to step up on non-monogamy."

And I returned, glorifying and praising God for all I have heard and seen, as it has been told us.

In the meantime, the United States also had elections. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for President despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. The Republicans held onto their majorities in both houses of Congress. With a few exceptions, the story was much the same at the state level. In the face of changing demographics and social norms, large swathes of the American populace asked themselves "what if?" and did not like the answer they got. They looked at what is and chose to see only their own (often parochial and self-aggrandizing) suffering.

Understandably, equally large or larger swathes of the American populace have felt we've gotten a Matthew Christmas instead of a Luke one. I'll readily admit I am among them. We'll likely avoid a literal slaughter of the innocents--at least, more than we already have with unaccountable police, violent transphobia and under-addressed domestic violence--but I see a high probability of pruned or shattered lives amounting to a metaphorical slaughter.
 
And yet, I have hope. Because the response to the elections has not been what I expected. I thought that both the fears and the responses would slip into abstraction. The thing about abstractions is you lose even if you win. Your story is lost.

Instead, the focus has remained significantly on people's stories, told by the people who have the most to lose. People are refusing to stay silent as mere data points in debating The Issues. Whether it is health care, immigration, civil rights or criminal justice, people are already creating the record of the human cost of regressive policies. This multitude will not tell Trump and his supporters merely that they are politically wrong. They will say: Here is my family, which you have torn apart. Here is my parent, who is now dead. You did this to us. You. Us.

It is important to tell these stories. Under oppression, resistance arises. And more importantly, where resistance starts early, oppression finds it harder to gain a foothold. More people are going in haste, and seeing, and sharing what they have seen. More people are understanding that just because someone is nice to you, it doesn't mean they're incapable of hurting others. More people have stopped pretending not to notice the disgust, fear and entitlement that have consumed so many (white, Christian) Americans for so long.

We tell each other our own stories, instead of waiting for the Wise Men to interpret them for us. We share our stories, instead of holding them in the privacy of our hearts. We stand together. And so God's promise comes into the world, with the specter of tyranny kept at bay a little longer.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

So how's that working out for you?

In my last post, I talked about what I would be doing the next six months. And it's been six months! So I have an excuse and/or obligation to write this post. In my head, its title has been, "Your theology is bad and you should feel bad." I'm going to do my best to write with clarity and compassion, but that's not where my thoughts have been. (Another potential title was, "Reclaiming hate as an appropriate emotional response.")

Amy's blog is currently on hiatus, which is what she needs to do for herself, but it does unfortunately deprive me of the ability to link to her much more thorough and moving updates on our experiences at her former faith community, West Hills Friends. Specifically naming them here is not a call-out thing, as some people worry about (in an overly deferential way, in my opinion). It is, instead, both a public service for queers of all stripes who might wish to know the potential limits of a community that is proud of its self-identification as welcoming, and an invitation to that community to fully embrace their understanding of Quaker process as group discernment led by the Spirit. If their words and actions are indeed the result of God's leading following earnest contemplation and prayer, then they should stand confidently by them, whether they supported our family or did not.

Short summary of the past six months: it was full of tiring and frequently intense conversation with the leadership of West Hills Friends. (As a reminder, years of talking came before and led up to the past six months.) The end result was that we chose to put a question forward to the congregation: Would they allow us to use their space for a celebration of our family's mutual love and obligation, and would they allow their pastor to make his own decision about whether he wished to participate? The question was first introduced at a business meeting (roughly equivalent to congregational meetings in other traditions) earlier this spring. At their business meeting in early June, they discussed whether they could answer yes. (Quakers use consensus for their decision-making, instead of voting.)

The result was: at this point and for the indefinite future, no. There were still some members of the congregation who do not feel clarity that it would be okay; there was no "sense of the meeting," which is the prerequisite for moving forward. (As many people on the pointy end of the status quo know far too well, "we haven't decided yet" means "we're not going to stop hurting you.") We emphasized that we were not trying to establish precedent. This request was not a social justice issue. It was a cry for help to give our family access to the tools we need to stay strong in an actively hostile world. Despite every single person who spoke having kind words for our family's rightness, goodness and truth--and their desire for us to feel loved and supported--there were still those who had to add a "however."

Here is a list of the concerns raised:

--Our family might get in legal trouble. (Nope; we are quite open about the fact that there is only one legal marriage in our family.)

--The congregation might get in legal trouble. (Nope; no marriage licenses involved.)

--Generalized, free-floating unease. ("Yeah, don't bother trying to address my concern, even I don't know what it is." In healthy consensus environments, this kind of position results in a "stand aside" instead of a "block.")

--The congregation won't have the time and energy to discuss the request for at least a year. ("Hey, drowning people? We gotta finish painting this lifeboat, grab some lunch, maybe take a little nap. Nothing personal.")

--It's inappropriate to approve one ceremony specifically for our family before taking a public stand on the abstract issue of non-monogamous marriages in general. 

The concern about insufficient time and energy pissed me off the most, to be honest. It's what made it hard for me to keep my composure during the traditional post-meeting "thank you for participating and sharing your truth" interactions intended to reinforce the idea that we're all in this process together. In at least one instance, I had to make an actual choice between shaking someone's hand, walking away, or punching them in the face. It took me a full 3, maybe 5 seconds to make up my mind. I went with the handshake.

To the extent that the last concern--an institutional need to establish clear precedent and guidance for the future--is genuine and not an expedient stalling tactic, I can accept it as a valid starting point for conversation. It just happens to be theologically unsupportable and contrary to the Gospel message. That message begins in the life and ministry of Jesus and continues in the work of the early Church.

When people came to Jesus seeking healing, his reply was consistently a variation on "your faith has made you whole." Jesus never said, "Because you followed policy, I have healed you." When the friends of the paralyzed man tear a hole in the roof of a house so they can get through the crowd to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26), their determination is rewarded. When the woman with hemorrhages seeks his healing power without even asking his permission (Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56), her boldness is rewarded. When the Gentile woman rejects his claims that only Jews deserved his help (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), her persistence is rewarded. The act of seeking healing, for oneself or others, in and of itself justifies the healing.

Apostles and evangelists of the early Church followed the same principle. Well before the Council of Jerusalem formally declared that Gentiles didn't need to convert to Judaism in order to be Christian (Acts 15:1-35), Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Peter baptized the Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10). Paul and Barnabas expanded their mission to include any Gentiles who would listen (Acts 13:42-49). The act of seeking salvation, in and of itself, secures that salvation. What is there to stop this person from being baptized? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The entire tradition of Quakerism is built on this idea of continuing revelation. Quakers are called to recognize evidence of the Light in the lives of those around them, and to have the bravery and integrity to acknowledge and respond to that Light appropriately. As I said, nobody at West Hills Friends (openly) questioned our family's rightness, goodness and truth. All the way back in 2014, I was writing on this blog, "I am grateful beyond words that Amy's faith community accepts our entire family, so that we can care for our neighbors and brothers and sisters." I am still stunned and furious that some people we considered our friends--people who supported our family in both words and concrete actions when we experienced disapproval from others--would draw this line and justify it in the name of waiting for God's leading.

What more faith in them could we have shown? Several times over the past years, I defended West Hills Friends when they as a community would do something--usually not directly related to our family--that worried or angered or hurt Amy and made her question whether it was the right place for her. I spoke of their earnestness, their willingness to listen, their warmth and their care, the way their shared spirituality was so compatible with hers. I spoke of how her thread was woven into the fabric of their life now, and how I trusted that they would not tear it. Other times, Amy would be the one to talk me down. Dave, a self-identified atheist, put up with the time and energy we invested in all the ups and downs, because he knew them as decent folks who offered something desperately needed by people he loves.

What more desire for healing could we have shown? We were candid about what the possibility of this celebration had meant for us last year, what the bait-and-switch of the withdrawal of its approval did to us, what the lingering uncertainty about our access to the life of the community cost us. We held nothing back, and in return, it not only didn't affect the outcome, we had some people actively erasing our pain and telling us we shouldn't be hurt. That's not discernment. That's not consensus, which calls for collaborative solution-finding, not just shutting down conversation after a pre-determined amount of time and leaving the problem to fester until the next meeting. That's decision-making by Internet comment thread.

Amy suffers far more pain and consequences than I do from how things ended up. She was much closer to all the individuals involved, and she relied on West Hills Friends for much more of her spiritual nourishment and connection to the Light. But the impact on my life has been drastic. I've written before about how church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--has long been the bedrock foundation of the rest of my life. My trust in the very idea of church has been shattered by this experience. I've resigned my Board position at Metropolitan Community Church of Portland, haven't been to Sunday worship in weeks, and don't expect to return for months. I try to ignore the little voice insistently whispering, "...if at all."

Don't get me wrong: I've had plenty of bad church experiences over the past 17 years. Churches are no more or less messed up than any other human institution. Okay, sometimes it seems like they are more messed up, on average, because people have such a sense of investment and ownership without much actual cost or obligation, in practice. But never before have I felt that the things that make that mess worth it--the promise that God works through you to make the world a better place, that bringing together a diversity of convictions and temperaments reveals more aspects of God, that sharing burdens leads to empathy and understanding--could be so thoroughly weaponized. That people will love you so that they can control and contain you, and maybe that's not the exception. Maybe that's the norm.

I'm becoming more and more radicalized, and I'm not entirely comfortable with this development. I look at the recent United Methodist General Conference, for example, and the social media storm over that denomination's continued abusive treatment of queer clergy and laypeople, and mostly what I feel is disgust that people are still engaging with them. People I am acquainted with, and largely respect, I want to yell at and tell them to give it up already. I don't care about personal relationships or historical tradition. They've had years of second, third, fifteenth chances. There are several viable alternatives that Methodist individuals, or congregations that are in internal agreement on being open and affirming, can take. The moral imperative now is to pick one and go. Strengthen the institutions that are doing the right thing. Starve the institutions that refuse to do the right thing.

But since the Reconciling Ministries Network is publishing think pieces about the unlikeliness of ethical multi-partner families, I'd still probably want to yell at them, even if they dumped the UMC.


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Saturday, January 2, 2016

The past six months, the next six months.

Among almost everyone I know, or keep up with by reading what they write, the general consensus appears to be that 2015 was a Very Bad Year that will not be missed. That assessment certainly holds true for me and my family. Since the last time I wrote a blog post, here's what's happened around us and to us:

-- In July, Amy's Quakers were kicked out of their broader fellowship.

-- In August, the oldest member of our extended family died.

-- In September, Amy and Dave were literally compelled to fly to Colorado to face an abusive relative in court, because she was finally legally allowed to challenge the civil protection order against her that had helped our family stay safe. The challenge was successful; it was a horrific experience for all of us.

-- In October, the youngest member of our extended family died, at only five days old.

-- In November...to be honest, November is kind of a blur. I'm on the Board of Directors at my church. Several situations arose that required immediate attention. Also, I ended up becoming Treasurer.

And then came December.

If you read this blog, you're already aware of the importance of church and community to me. I mean, it's right there in the title, isn't it? It's the reason the blog exists and the focus of the great majority of posts. It should be no surprise that, through everything, I relied heavily on the comforting, solid and predictable presence of Amy's church and mine in our lives. A lot of our friends are part of one or the other. I had places I could go where I could just sit there and have all my senses report back to me: God, reassurance, company. As someone whose two largest weak spots are fear and loneliness, I can't exaggerate how much that sense of belonging enabled me to keep moving forward.

All the way back in January 2015, Amy and I had approached the pastors of our churches about the possibility of holding a formal celebration of our marriage and family on October 14, 2016. (October 14, 2011 is the date that Amy legally changed her last name to include both mine and Dave's. In the absence of any legal way to get married, we've settled over time on that day to be our anniversary.)  We had wanted to give both the chance to say no privately, and to allow time for whatever public conversations might be needed or wanted to keep such a celebration from becoming scandalous or divisive. We received an enthusiastically positive response from both. In October, we posted a "save the date" message on Facebook for our friends and family.

In December, Amy's pastor informed her that he did not feel empowered by his congregation to participate in our celebration in any active way. He might come as a guest, but he had to avoid any appearance of offering any kind of official endorsement. His "yes" had become a "no." Amy's Quakers' lack of inclusive language about families like ours had gone in practice from "no comment" to "no way." We immediately put out a cancellation announcement on Facebook.

Amy can tell her own story about these events, and she has, including plenty of detail about Quaker theological distinctives and organizational culture. Speaking only for myself, it was the worst part of the entire Very Bad Year. I felt afraid, and isolated, and angry, and cornered.

I am not what one would call a strategic thinker when it comes to seeking a world that is more welcoming for my family and families like mine. Mostly, I find spaces where people already hold interests and values that are very similar to mine, go about my life openly, and let them realize that my atypical family structure isn't incompatible with those interests and values. In practice, I suppose it amounts to an appeal to empathy.

When it comes to empathy, Hari Ziyad writes fiercely about its limits. I agree with everything they say (except, unsurprisingly, their dubiousness about the importance and impact of marriage equality). They accurately describe not only my observations about how other people behave badly, but about how I behave badly myself, too. Ziyad's most cutting point is about the obligatory spectacles of pain that marginalized people have to produce again, and again, and again in order to earn and maintain acknowledgment of their existence, let alone decent treatment, from people who sit in cozier socioeconomic positions.

Where they are incomplete in their critique, I believe, is not recognizing the ways that the appeal to empathy creates a social contract in the minds and hearts of the comfortable. "We understand you and your pain," the contract says, "so you will understand and sympathize with our struggles." In return for basic human decency on their part, they expect others will nod gravely and pat them on the back when they are unable or unwilling to move past that very low bar.

I should be clear that, as this dynamic applies to my own personal situation, I am not picking on Amy's Quakers here. I went through my Facebook friendslist, and there are about 25 clergy ordained in mainline Protestant denominations on there. I believe all of them would welcome my family's attendance at a church that they served. I also strongly doubt that any of them would put their "congregational capital" on the line for my family if we asked for the same open recognition and blessing that traditional married couples are routinely given, and I am unsure how they would react if other congregants complained about our presence.

I should also be clear that we face low risk of physical assault from society, unlike, say, Black people or trans folk or Muslims in America today. Talk about your low bars, though. "At least nobody goes out of their way to kill us!" Yay!

To sum up the past six months, then: We felt acceptably safe. Then we didn't.

Now we don't.

The next six months, I will not be relying on empathy. I am going to be noisy and demanding in the spaces I can be. (Not Amy's Quakers. That space is hers, to engage with how and if she chooses.) If my family doesn't get to feel safe anymore, other people who are safe don't get to feel comfortable anymore, either. As I said, I am not what one would call a strategic thinker.

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