Humble Love, Good Art

After reading “Where Are All the Good Stories about Marriage?” by W. David O. Taylor, over at Christianity Today, some thoughts have bubbled up. I should be working on my thesis, but…

In the article, Taylor addresses—broadly—the role of Christians as culture-makers in a non-Christian society, and—specifically—the way in which recent movies and television series have portrayed gay relationships and not so many straight Christian marriages:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I share Taylor’s concern that Christians have not done enough to use our “artistic imagination”. It seems to me that this problem is a fairly recent one. For centuries, Christians (of various tongues and tribes) have been the creators of luminous art that has expanded and created new artistic forms, inspired generations of people, and glorified God. From catacomb frescoes by early Roman Christians to the icons of the Eastern churches to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Gregorian chant to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Palestrina’s polyphonic masses to the linguistic style of the King James Bible to Christopher Wren to Bach to Dostoevsky to the spirituals of African American slaves to Henry Owassa Tanner (look him up!). Any such list is doomed from the start because Christians have made so much damn good art and it is worth pointing out that a lot of it was created for the purpose of worship—for the Christian community to rehearse its history and tell its stories in new ways, often within the context of a mass or other liturgy.

It is not necessary that art made by Christians be used in such settings. Nor is it necessary that art made by Christians include Bible stories or obviously recognizable Christian images and themes. I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch enough films to say anything very interesting about them, but I do read books. Borrowing the language of Gregory Wolfe, a lot of Christians who write about faith today do not necessarily do it in shouts (think Flannery O’Connor), but in whispers, like Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop—one of the best writing programs in the world. Nearly all of her publications, fiction and non-fiction, have won prestigious awards, including a book about a midwestern preacher and his wife (note: it’s a straight Christian marriage). The book is called Gilead and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, Lila (a prequel to Gilead) is about how the two met and how Lila came to Christ. Tomorrow Robinson is talking about Lila at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a university comprised by people of many faiths and ideologies, not a majority of whom are Christian.

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals and abbeys over the course of my two terms abroad at Oxford, representing different time periods (from the 12th century to the 20th), different styles, and different locations. However, they all have one thing in common: they are crammed with tourists. I occasionally find this annoying (I’ve seen people take ducklip selfies whilst irreverently standing astride centuries-old graves of Irish nuns), but it is a good thing that these places of worship are still, in various ways, drawing in crowds of curious onlookers.

When Christians make really good art—even if it does unapologetically pertain to topics of faith—others want to see it, read it, watch it, study it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and potentially changed by it.

– – – – –

For my SPU thesis, as well as the shorter one I’m currently working on for my study abroad, I have been reading a lot literature that pertains to Christianity and homosexuality—fiction and theory. If you follow my blog at all (thanks by the way!) you will know that this is a personal topic for me.

Questions of identity are difficult. I’ve spent my whole life living hours away from extended family. When I was ten my family moved from New Hampshire to Michigan. My heritage is a mix of German, Welsh, Swedish, Slavic, Scottish, Swiss, and English, none of which I am extremely in touch with (stay tuned for a post about Sweden). In her essay “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” Land, clan, and nationality are all powerful contexts in which we hear stories about ourselves that tell us who we are. They are lenses through which we see the world, and my lenses are all fogged up.

Because I am fairly distant from so many of these things that root a person into a larger narrative of life on earth, my faith has become important to me in a new way: it is a narrative through which I can understand myself as being part of something larger than just myself—something ancient, something true—Christ’s Body, the Church. It roots me in a story that begins with the creation of everything and ends with the restoration of everything. In between those points, there are some difficulties.

After slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am attracted to men, I also began coming to terms with the fact that a large part of Western cultural history does not pertain to me. Listen to the radio, watch television or a movie, or, do what I mainly do, and read a book—scan the canons of great literature, and while doing these things, imagine that you are a Christian attracted to the same sex. There aren’t songs for you—certainly not love songs. You have no literary history. There aren’t shows on television for you. You don’t have movies. Now reread the passage from Dr. Taylor’s article:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I have a practical suggestion for those with theologically conservative views on marriage: making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage for the sake of making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage not only sidesteps the question of what gay Christians in your community can do, but in the current political climate in which the dominant voices on both sides are loud and angry, it will be taken and responded to (or, more likely, ignored) as just another political act.

Later in his essay Dr. Taylor writes:

As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.

This should change your art. If you want to make a difference with your artistic imagination as a Christian with theologically conservative views on marriage, make movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage learning what it means to love their gay sister, their transexual son, or their intersex neighbor—learning that loving them often has little to do with anyone’s ideas about marriage and has all to do with presence. And if you are trying to rid yourself of stereotypes, try portraying the LGBTQ people as coworkers, faithful Christians, devoted parents, not just condescending portrayals of the prodigal son.

If you want to learn how to seek every opportunity to lay down your life for your gay neighbor, start by making a space for us in your artistic imagination. Most of us know what straight Christian marriages look like. I was so blessed in the parents God gave me, but many LGBT people have been hurt, beaten, and disowned by their straight Christian parents with theologically conservative views on marriage. Try to imagine what you could do to make people with these experiences want to watch your movie, to listen to you. Creating a movie about a wonderful Christian marriage without any LGBT characters in it will tell them something about how you want the world to be.

Someone once said to me about volunteering at my old church’s Vacation Bible School while being gay that “it is clear what will happen to those who cause little ones to stumble,” referencing Matthew 9:42 (“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV). The implication was clear to me. While I disagree with how the verse was used in that instance, it is true that we have great responsibility in how we interact with people, especially about things pertaining to faith. Let it be through humble love, and if there is art involved, good art.

along the way

and so along the way
we’ll pick things up
we didn’t know we had to say—

refrains that shake
the condensation
from our cataracted window panes

that we may be found again
by tendrils of the reaching sun

and speak the words
we one day had begun

[for SPU, at the start of a new year]

Until We Rest on Thee

I have felt very lost this summer.

The summer began in the wake of a shooting that left my friends and school family lost in time and space, floating in a nightmare. The sudden realization of what a bullet can do to a person, family, and community has made watching the news (read: going on Facebook or Twitter) all the more jarring. With the horrors of Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Ferguson, two feelings have left me paralyzed: the (1) outrage of knowing that while the hurt I’ve had since June 5th is indeed painful and the result of a needless and senseless act of violence, it is what many around the world are experiencing as day-to-day life due to their religion or skin color, and the (2) utter disbelief that such things can and do happen so frequently.

The violation of the shooting and the frustration of not being able to find a summer job in Seattle sent me flying home to Caledonia for the summer. Everything seemed impossible in Seattle. Bussing an hour both ways to Capitol Hill for Latin lessons (with an admittedly wonderful woman), being so close to campus, taking the short bus ride to the church I love, buying groceries, and cooking alone for a second summer—all of these things felt like islands that my body had the impossible task of bridging, connecting into one life. The constancy and familiarity of suburban Western Michigan beckoned mercifully, and I came running.

In Michigan I began a summer job and Latin lessons with a man who can speak the dead language nearly fluently. These two things fell into place before I even left Seattle, for which I am very grateful. I am also grateful for my parents. Earning a paycheck will make you appreciate the generosity of the people who raised you.

My parents went to Austria for a week and a half early in the summer. My dad had a conference to attend there, so he and my mom took some days afterwards to travel around Vienna, where my mother once lived. It was a well-deserved and long-overdue vacation for them. Being twenty-one, I was hoping that I would be fine home alone, but I went to bed every night for the first few days convinced that someone was hiding in my house, waiting for the perfect moment to shoot me.

I was hoping that I could return to my hometown without increased depression, paranoia, and anxiety about my sexuality, but the conversation about homosexuality is just starting in the Christian circles here. While I am grateful that that discussion is being had, it comes with a cost to those involved. When my sexuality and my future are daily being debated around me it is hard to think of anything else. I am so frustrated that I am stuck in ruts I thought I had long since left behind. I left my summer job early when I became incapable of focusing on my work due to such thoughts.

I have felt very lost this summer, which makes me wonder what it would mean for me to feel found—to be found.

When the shooting and murder of a student left my school lost we were found in prayer. “We were found” means three things here: that (1) were you to walk through campus during those days you would have seen SPUers in prayer circles on Tiffany Loop, in First Free Methodist Church worshiping and lamenting, and outside Otto Miller Hall, stopping to offer prayers and flowers, that (2) we were unified by the act of praying together—we were found by each other, which means we were not alone—and that (3) we were found in Christ. Because we came together not only as a family but as a worshiping community we were, I believe, members of a community of believers that transcends time and space—a community that ultimately cannot be separated by death because it is a community that shares in eternal life with Christ.

Although people say Seattle is the most Godless city in the country, it is where I have known most fully what it means to be Christian, to pray with others, and to walk amidst the company of saints. Separated from those people I have had a difficult time keeping my prayer practices and discerning the presence of God. With two weeks left before I return to England, I’m going to renew my effort to observe Morning and Evening Prayer. I have been lost enough times to know that I am found in Christ—a consummation of seeking and being sought.

Lord, may we rest on Thee.

 

in response to the shooting

[For those who don’t know: there was a shooting at my school on June 5th. One student was killed and others injured. I haven’t known what to write about it. This is all I’ve been able to do to describe those days, grieving together and being utterly lost, laying our flowers down on the sidewalk.]

we are all quite
wide awake
and simultaneously
dead
adrift in our
own reveries
adrift within
without our heads

my feet fall right
next to you
and others follow, hit the
grass
none of us knows
what to do
hearing heli
copters pass

blind the windows
call a friend
she says yes with bated
breath
classes taught her
time could bend
now she knows just
what that meant

my knees fall right
next to you
and others’ follow, others
bend
they brought flowers
we did too
for this garden
of cement

Walking the Canterbury Trail

Seattle Pacific has a class called University Foundations 1000, which is a required course in basic Christian belief. The culminating assignment in the class is a project in which groups of three or four students attend a church in a different denomination than the one they grew up in. In addition to the visits, they research the denomination and one of its historical figures. Everyone writes down their top picks and the professor assigns groups. My choices were the Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church.

The group I was placed in was assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne. Growing up, if we were traveling, my family would attend an Episcopal parish if no Covenant church was around. As my dad pointed out, “You pretty much always know what you’re going to get.” Episcopal parishes all follow the Book of Common Prayer’s service order, so even if, heaven forbid, the sermon is boring, that’s alright because the sermon is just one part of the structured liturgy that tells the Christian story.

My group attended a couple of services at St. Paul’s that fall, which was fall quarter of our sophomore year. We learned that St. Paul’s is an Anglo-Catholic parish. Anglo-Catholicism comes from the Tractarian Movement, or the Oxford Movement, which was a shift in Anglicanism starting in mid-1800s Oxford amongst Anglicans who desired to restore spiritual vibrancy to the Church of England by returning to some of the traditions that had been forgotten or removed. It was a return to some of the “high church” traditions still found in Roman Catholicism. Anglo-Catholic parishes use incense, liturgical vestments, bells during communion, chant parts of the service, and stand, sit, bow, kneel, and genuflect together. Smells and bells and holy yoga. One thing I appreciated about the liturgy from my first exposure was the space it left for silence. At a time of life when everything felt very turbulent, the collective stillness of a parish meditating on Scripture and listening for God distilled in me a sense of peace that remained with me for the day.

The priest at the time (who has since been called to be the bishop of a diocese in Canada) was Mother Melissa Skelton, a truly amazing woman who was once a high-ranking official at Tom’s of Maine, earned three Masters degrees, writes beautiful homilies, and exudes the love of Christ. At the end of a service she would stand at the door leading into the narthex to greet anyone who wanted to say hello. After taking advantage of the monthly ask-a-priest-about-our-traditions at the Mary shrine we introduced ourselves to Mother Melissa and went downstairs for coffee hour. As a teenager I thought coffee hours in small churches were just sort of hokey and awkward, but through two or three coffee hours at St. Paul’s I met people who, astonishingly, remembered my name the next time I visited. Even when I returned in the spring someone recognized me and asked what I had been up to. That blew me away.

Before my first visits to St. Paul’s, through a conversation with a good friend, I became convicted that I needed to be honest with myself about my orientation, a move that brought me much peace and clarity. After that moment my depression retreated for a solid year. Prior to that moment my pain and loneliness were what kept me returning to God every night. I knew how to pray as a depressed, closeted teenager: God please hear me, help me God, deliver me. But once my depression lifted, I realized that sorrow had been my only spiritual discipline. Without it I did not know where to meet God. I no longer knew what to pray for. I no longer knew when to lift my hands in worship songs, which used to be emotional times when (often thinking about my struggles with sexuality) I sang, sometimes cried, bared myself to God, and praised God despite my sadness. The primary way I experienced God was through my emotions, which I’ve learned are pretty shaky things on which to build any faith or relationship.

Still attending the church that I had been for a year and a half or so in Seattle, I started to become worried. Many artists who are inspired by their suffering fear that their creativity will vanish with their pain. As a sometimes-writer that was certainly a fear of mine. I did not, however, anticipate that my experience of God would change when I became more joyful. I stopped feeling God in worship so I stopped knowing when to raise my hands. While singing, I debated whether or not to stand up or remain seated and whether or not to lift up my arms, and I soon realized that most of my attention in church was spent on myself—not worshiping God.

Around the same time, it occurred to me that, although I had been attending the same church for a year and a half, the only people I knew were the other SPU students I went with. Every Sunday I met someone else during the shake-your-neighbors-hand part but I never remembered their names and no one remembered mine. I never did join a small group and I only attended the college kid hangout once, so I felt relatively anonymous. The church I grew up in in New Hampshire was maybe sixty to eighty people large. We had potlucks and a hokey coffee hour and everyone knew everyone’s name and we all prayed for each other. At my home church in Michigan, which is fairly large, I developed many strong relationships through youth group, hokey coffee hour, and playing in the worship band. I missed that sort of church family feeling.

At the end of sophomore year I wrote a paper on globalization’s role in how the worldwide Anglican Communion has dealt with homosexuality. Briefly put, homosexuality has created much tension within the communion. This is the story of many denominations that make a decision one way or the other on ordaining and marrying gay people, and it breaks my heart that it is so. But over the course of my junior year, in England and then back in Seattle, I spent a bit of time learning about Anglicanism beyond the recent divides. I participated in St. Paul’s Enquirer’s classes back in Seattle, two five-hour sessions on Episcopal and Anglo-Catholic history. I also recently met with the current Priest in Charge, Fr. Samuel Torvend. Through these things I learned about the beautiful heritage of Anglicanism: the church’s heart for the marginalized and its love of art, its Baptismal Covenant and its care for the earth, its practices of prayer and its embrace of mystery.

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in a denomination that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

On May 18th at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, surrounded by my fellow confirmands Amanda, Mary, Mollie, and Emily, my church, priest, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Olympia, housemates, roommit (roommate), dear friends, and my mom, who flew out from Michigan to be there, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church (USA). And I’ve got a certificate to prove it!

 

 

I’m not sure when yet, but one day I hope to go through the discernment process for ordination. I’ve been reading about liturgy and would love the chance to formally study Scripture, theology, and church history. But regardless of ordination, I hope to live a life steeped in the rhythms of Morning and Evening prayer, Lent and Easter, confession and absolution, baptism and communion, worship and justice, death and new life in Christ.

Love to David and Trevor, two of my housemates this past year. We spent hours… HOURS together talking about faith and our denominational adventures. I miss our conversations already.  And, of course, much love to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal, who swiftly accepted me as one of their own. I’ll see you in January!

Asperges Me

Sometimes as I walk home through Queen Anne streets after a day of school and the air is particularly damp and the sky is dark it smells like the time my father and I climbed Mt. Humbug in Oregon, a mountain I bet no one climbs except people like us, passersby who stop on a whim (because sometimes it sounds nice to climb a mountain) and work their zig-zag way upwards to find the elevation where spring dampness becomes frost and snow that clings to the trees and everything shimmers. I pause and think of that day and of the other blessed few days I’ve spent hiking the Pacific Northwest and imagine what Queen Anne was like a few hundred years ago, before urbanization, just another tree-canopied hill cut from the continent’s cloth. I look up and want to go higher, to reach the moment of transposition where time and water freeze.

As I continue my short walk home, a song flits into my mouth.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnum misericordiam tuam.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat en principio, et nunc, et semper, et en saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

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