Sometimes they just won’t see

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:54-58

You know, aside from the whole “Child of God preaching in a synagogue” thing, this is really a pretty common story. I bet a lot of you have lived it.

You’ve probably left home, and somewhere in the process of growing up you learned more about who you really are, and who you really want to be. You live your reality. Maybe, after being treated like a boy all your life, you’ve started living as something that’s decidedly “not-a-man” (not that I’m inserting my own story here… nope… not at all). Or maybe, shaking off the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality, you’ve started dating people of the gender(s) to whom you’re really attracted.

Maybe, though, you’re still at home. Still closeted about something you feel gnawing, trying to get out. And maybe you’ve reached out online and found others who are like you. Who understand you and see you for who you are in a way that the people nearest you don’t or won’t.

However it’s played out in your life, you’ve found something true about yourself. Something powerful and bright that’s inextricably a part of your being. You’ve found your truth and you’re living it. And a lot of times, when that happens, you find your own deeds of power. You find out you have a strength you didn’t know before. You find out that you’re whole. You shine your light all around you. Cracks start to form in the depression that’s bound you. No, it doesn’t always happen. But when it does, it sure feels like a deed of power.

And then you go home. And then you log off. And then you’re hit upside the head with the expectations of people who knew you before. People who knew you when your light was hidden even to you. “You can’t be like that!” they say. “What do you mean you’re gay? No, this is just a phase. I remember your boyfriends.” And it feels like they’re all holding so tightly to the idea of you that they’d constructed that it’s impossible for them to embrace the real you that’s before them. They insist you can’t be a girl, because you loved playing with Tonka trucks when you were a kid. They tell you this isn’t how God made you.

And maybe you feel your own deeds of power start to falter. Maybe you feel your light start to flicker.

But this is how God made you. This is how God is continually making you. This is how you’re continually being made new by the one who has loved you with an everlasting love.

Jesus had great wisdom, and he preached it. Jesus had great power, and did great things. But people clung too tightly to the idea they had of him. They clung to what they expected a carpenter’s kid to be. “He can’t talk like this! Where does he get off parading around here like he’s so smart. No, I know his family. He’s not what he thinks he is.”

And the people nearest him couldn’t see the person who was right before them. They couldn’t see the light shining and the truth he was living. And it hurt him. And he couldn’t make them see. He knew how it is to feel invisible. To feel rejected and misunderstood by the people he’d known the longest.

But his light kept being his light. His truth kept being his truth.

Ain’t that just the queerest thing?

Broken, busted, fucked up

I spent years as a kid demanding perfection from myself and everyone else. My mom tells me I used to come home from kindergarten complaining about how stupid all the other kids were. I needed to achieve every goal perfectly. I needed to get straight A’s, I needed to get everything right on the first try, and I expected everyone else to do the same. I don’t think this came from any outside source. I wasn’t ever pushed to be the best. My parents, in fact, have always been wonderful about helping me and my siblings follow our own goals and interests. No, something in me demanded the impossible from me, and I set about trying to achieve it.

That’s probably a big part of why I had a nervous breakdown in second grade. No, really. There were other factors at play, but I think my own demands for perfection were at the heart of it. My anxiety was so high I was making regular trips to the hospital with crippling stomach cramps. I came home every day crying. I actually remember very little of this, but enough to know it really happened.

And I think that somewhere in there the drive for perfection became more than just a demand I put on myself. I implanted the idea that to be worthy of love, from myself or from anyone else, I needed to be perfect. Love was something I had to earn with perfection, and keep through never being anything less than perfect.

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church didn’t help either. The double pressure to be both “normal” (I tried, and I didn’t know how!) and perfect was terrible, but also played into the “truth” I’d created for myself.

That’s part of why I stayed in an abusive marriage for so long. I thought that if I just found exactly the right thing to do and always did it, then things would have to get better. If I provided the appropriate care for my mentally ill wife, she wouldn’t need to direct her manipulation and threats toward me any more. If I was perfect, things would be better.

I’ve spent a lot of time rebuilding myself since my divorce. It’s not easy. I still expect perfection from myself. I still convince myself that love is something I have to earn. Luckily I have two wonderful partners who do their best to disabuse me of that notion. Still, thirty years of self-programming that was reinforced by a fundamentalist church and a decade+ long emotionally abusive relationship… well… it doesn’t go away overnight. Or over the last 7 years.

Lately I’ve begun wondering about the ways that I affirm myself. I tell myself that I am good. I am worthy. I am beautiful. I am perfect.

I think I might still be going about this the wrong way.

Lately I find myself thinking that when I tell myself these things, what I’m really doing is convincing myself that I do meet these impossible goals I set for myself as a child. I tell myself that what I’m doing is perfect. I tell myself that I am worthy of love.

I think I need a new tactic.

Hi, my name is Gabe, and I’m a colossal fuckup. Everything about me is broken. At 37 years old I still don’t know how to deserve love. “I’m not perfect. I’ve just been going through the motions of being perfect, and inside I’m screaming.”

Maybe instead of telling myself that I am perfect, I am good, I am beautiful, I am smart, that I reach all those illusory benchmarks, I need to tell myself that I fail, I am not good, I am ugly, I am ignorant and unintelligent. I need to tell myself that I missed every mark I ever set for myself. And that I am still here. I am loved. I can love. I don’t deserve that love and that acceptance, but I have it. I didn’t, I can’t, do anything to earn it.

I need to let go of all the things I’ve told myself that I should be, and even all the things I’ve told myself that I am. I need to accept that I am broken, busted, fucked up. That I deserve nothing.

Love is not about what you deserve. It’s about grace. You can’t earn grace, or lose it. It simply is. It doesn’t hold us to our own standards. It is a miracle, a mystery, that sort of thing that religions try to point toward, but can’t really describe.

I can stop striving. I can stop demanding. I deserve nothing. I have love. I have everything.

A slap on the cheek (to cheek to cheek)?

Last year John Shore published an interview with a polyamorous woman on the blog Unfundamentalist Christians. I thought the interviewee spoke a little too broadly about other polyamorous people and how relationships are named, but I was thrilled to see a relationship like mine presented in a positive light in a Christian space. It’s not something you see too often, especially with fundamentalists crying that if we legalize same-sex marriage then polyamorous marriages will be next, and progressive Christians saying “That’s not true at all.” Whatever issues I had with the particulars, it was one of the few times a Christian talked about polyamory without dismissing it.

Obviously that was too good to last. A couple of days ago, in response to a letter he received from another polyamorous person, John put up another post, this time on his own blog, about polyamory. He states up front that he does not see how polyamory itself is a moral issue, even going so far as to say what’s the big deal if three- (or more) person marriages happen. That’s a lot more than we get from a lot of progressive types.

“I love two people; they both love me; they also love each other. Where is the harm in that?” they ask.

That’s a fair enough question, don’t you think? It’s one that I’m asked all the time—albeit usually by right-wing Christians (always, alas, bitterly) making the point that if gay marriage is legalized, why shouldn’t three-way marriage also be legalized?

Why indeed? I see nothing at all inherently immoral about polyamorous relationships. If three people living in such a relationship say it is working for them, why should anyone argue it? If no one is being hurt, how is it anyone else’s business?

Pretty freakin’ cool, no?

Unfortunately the rest of the post is about how my relationships and others like it are just… not as deep, intimate, or loving as monogamous relationships. In discussing why he and his wife choose monogamy, John says, “I don’t want the power of our intimacy diluted by one-third.” Cat, John’s wife, goes so far as to say “I think being in a polyamorous relationship is a way to avoid emotional intimacy,” and John agrees.

After this John goes on the defensive about how his monogamy doesn’t make him “barbaric or simplistic.” I understand this response, as there are so many polyamorous people who insist that polyamory is better, more ethical, more enlightened and non-possessive than monogamy. I wish this would stop, because we don’t need to tear down other people’s relationships, relationships that are fulfilling and loving, in order to build up our own.

Unfortunately, John feels the need to do just that. He tears down my relationships, decrying them as less intimate, diluted, even a tactic of avoidance, in order to build up his monogamous ideal. Despite couching it in “personal opinions,” he makes general statements about how love, intimacy and romantic relationships work for everyone. Because I love and share my life with both Kristi and Elizabeth, John says I’ll only ever know them half as well as if I had but one partner.

You want intimacy? Put four adults (in my case it’s myself, my two partners and one of my partners’ best friend) in one three bedroom house. Four people with different temperaments, habits, desires, priorities. Now have those four very different people dedicated to one another. Dedicated to being there for and supporting one another. Dedicated to making sure everyone is cared for. Dedicated to being a family, however odd our family may be. You think that doesn’t create intimacy? You think there’s anything in that situation that can be classified as “avoidance?” No, we can’t live like that and avoid much of anything. We have to face everything, including each other, head on.

But even if it were the case that I could only ever know my partners half as much because there are two of them, I’ll take that, because the idea of life without knowing one or the other of them is heartbreaking. There are tears in my eyes just considering that.

Our intimacy may not look like what others have. Our family certainly doesn’t look like what other families look like. But it is deep, it is powerful, it is loving beyond what I ever thought was possible. And until you see what goes into the ways we love one another, kindly keep your opinions about my family to yourself.

Some thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Philippians

Originally published on Tumblr

So, instead of working today I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s short, but I don’t think I’d ever just read it straight through before. It’s one of those letters that everyone is pretty sure Paul actually wrote, and I found myself in relationship with him in all his humanness in his words.

I started reading because I saw someone quoting Phil. 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” So I read the few verses around that. Then all of chapter four, then I backed up and started from the beginning.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.

Such a beautiful greeting. “Every time I remember you.” How many things do we see, hear, smell, touch and taste daily that go by without our noticing? How many things have we forgotten before we’ve even experienced them? How many people have we forgotten as soon as we’ve become aware of them. Can we remember them? Can we open ourselves to the experience of everything and everyone around us? If we can remember, can we thank God for each thing we remember?

How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Compassion is not a detached feeling of “Oh, that’s too bad.” It is a longing. It is a desire. It is such a desire that you start to feel what the other person feels. Compassion is feeling the experience of another with them.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Knowledge and love are tied together. Love must be enacted, and we must learn how to do that. This is a knowledge of lived experience, not of abstraction, nor of empiricism.

Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.

Reading this, I could hear the fretting mother Paul, worried for her children, wanting them to be happy and healthy. Knowing that she’ll be able to relax some when the children are together, even if their mother can’t be there. It’s this humanness that grabbed at my heart. If I can jump ahead to the end of the letter, Paul says:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.

I laughed. Mother Paul again, saying, “It warms my heart to know you care about me. Not that I need you to pay attention to me. No. I’m doing just fine. But it warms my heart.”

But back to where we left off.

Beware of those who mutilate the flesh!

Paul does not seem to have a happy relationship with his flesh, nor with any other flesh, so this phrase surprised me. It jumped out at me. I was left dwelling on it. “Those who mutilate the flesh” could certainly refer to those who demanded circumcision, and that seems to be who Paul is referring to. But it also refers to those who want to punish the body for the sake of the spirit. Paul says that they “have no confidence in the flesh.” As he’s just sung a hymn of the incarnation, of God in flesh, I can’t believe he is dismissive of the body. I have to read this as having no trust that doing things to spite one’s flesh will bring about rightness or salvation. Mortification does not bring one closer to God.

This is not to paint Paul as a champion of the flesh, but to find in his words an affirmation of the sacredness of the flesh.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Be gentle. Don’t worry. Acknowledge your struggle before God, give thanks, and keep going. It doesn’t say not to struggle. It doesn’t say that struggles, difficulties and work are to be avoided. It’s not an escapist sort of “give it to God.” It’s a reminder to be gentle, to let go of worry, and to act from under the guard of God’s peace.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Once again, I don’t think this is an exhortation to avoid the injustices and violence of the world, but a reminded not to let it consume you. It’s a plea that we take the time to notice other things as well. Spend time dwelling on the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent worthy things that you encounter. Terrible things can and do make themselves known without our effort, so we have to deliberately notice the good around us so it can keep us afloat. We come back to the first passage I mentioned: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Paul wants us to open our hearts, to be aware, to remember, to think about all the good we encounter. It is as important as the bad. If we open ourselves to the experience we may find more good than we ever expected.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned

Rejoice, acknowledge, give thanks, dwell on the good, and keep working.

Finally, Paul closes with thanks for the gifts they had sent him.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.

Wikipedia mentions that Paul was always thankful for gifts, but did not always accept them. He accepts gifts from the largely poor people of Philippi, though. On reading this, Paul’s saying “I know what it is to have little” came back to me. Paul, having been without, knows the importance giving has among the poor. I’m speaking from experience here. I grew up poor, and it was always important to share what we had when we could. There is a grace in receiving that gives strength to both the ones giving and the ones receiving. Paul knew this, and refused to turn away from this grace he could share with the people he “long[ed] for… with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


On holy ground


Today I was feeling stiff from laying down too much, and kinda stuck, not knowing what to do with myself. So I got in my car and started driving. I eventually ended up at the labyrinth pictured above. I started walking it, and realized that my boots felt wrong.

“Take your sandals off your feet,” the voice rang in my head, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” So I did.

With bare feet I continued the walk. I felt the bricks beneath me, the cracks in them, the grass and moss growing between them. I felt how one side of the labyrinth was dry and warm, while another part was dry and cool and yet another was cool and damp.

A few times I found myself looking too far ahead, trying to see where I was going. That never works in a labyrinth. Not only will my eyes get lost, but when I stop keeping my current step at the center, then my feet get lost and my mind gets lost. Each time I tried to plan ahead I felt this. My eyes would lose focus, trying to make out the winding path. My mind would start trying to plan and I’d have to stop because I’d lost track of where my foot needed to go in its next step. So each time I brought myself back to my most immediate surroundings. I stepped the next step and no more. I felt the textures below my feet. I trusted my feet to bring me somewhere. It didn’t matter where. There are no finish lines. There’s only the next step.

Somehow I get the feeling I was learning a life lesson. Or at least being taught one. It’s up to me whether I learn it or not.