What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

We Built This City

Had the opportunity to guest preach today at a Presbyterian church in San Francisco. Scripture text is Jeremiah 29: 7-9.

      The prophet Jeremiah has some really strong words for the Israelites here. They’re upset about being sent into exile and cast out of their homes. Understandable perhaps. After all, who wants to be cast out of their home and forced to make a life elsewhere? My guess is, most of us wouldn’t willingly sign up to live in exile or to live without the comforts of home. It would make us feel very uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit unsafe.
I’ve been spending my summer doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with the San Francisco Night Ministry. The Night Ministry has been in existence for 51 years and in that time has become a vital and important part of the night life of the city. The Night Ministry practices a ministry of presence and is there for people when they most need it. Our job is not to convert, proselytize, evangelize or condemn. We simply walk with people and engage with them wherever they might be on their spiritual or life journey. Our work causes us to spend time with prostitutes, drag queens, bartenders, doormen, drug addicts, drunks, alcoholics and people who are living on the streets for one reason or another.
We hear some rather interesting stories through walking the streets. Stories that can break your heart. Stories that can make you doubt your faith in God. Stories that can make you wonder why you continue to do this type of ministry.
They are the stories of people like Jimmy, a man I met on the streets. Jimmy is in his mid 20s. He’s living on the streets because his parents kicked him out of the house when he came out as gay. He had been staying in a local shelter but the living environment was really abusive and not healthy. Now, he’s living on the streets trying to make enough money to get something to eat, even just a donut from the local donut shop. His story is the story of so many young gay men.
There’s Mark, a young man I met who had recently overdosed on heroin for the third time. A man who is so addicted to heroin that not even the fear of death will stop him from seeking it out. He’s already died and come back three times. He is fully aware that the next time he overdoses, he may not come back. It may be too late. Yet, he’s an addict. He literally can’t stop. His story is the story of so many addicts.
There’s Thea, a trans woman of color I met. She’d been homeless for three days but still maintained a positive attitude. She was quoting Bible verses at me and kept telling me she was remaining optimistic. I’m sure Thea is aware, though, that her status as a trans woman of color makes her much more likely to face violence and sexual assault. Trans women of color are the most at risk, particularly those who are homeless. Her story is the story of so many trans men and women.
These stories are just a few of the many stories I’ve heard over the last two months of working with the Night Ministry. There are many, many more that I and my colleagues could share but I think those will suffice. What does one do with all these stories? How does one carry all of them and possibly continue on to do the work every night? Every single night we hear story after story after story. It can sometimes feel overwhelming. I’ve often questioned why I’m doing this work, particularly after a hard night full of tragic stories.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you”. What does this phrase actually mean? It is real tempting to read this phrase as meaning that I should see myself and my colleagues as the saviors of San Francisco and that thus we are called to bring salvation and save those on the streets from their plight. I do have a bit of a savior complex so you can understand why I might be tempted to read these words that way. However, I think that’s perhaps not the best approach to take with these verses.
How then should we read these verses? Let’s look at the word “welfare”. It means the good fortune, health or happiness of a person, group or organization. So, what Jeremiah is saying here is that we are supposed to seek out the happiness of the city where we have been sent. How does this apply to my work with the Night Ministry? When do we ever see any sort of happiness or good fortune in the work we are doing? I’ve made it sound pretty bleak and depressing.
The church doesn’t always have the best reputation. Christians and Christianity have a public relations problem. It is especially true here in the Bay Area. Marin County, where I currently live, is the most unchurched county in the entire country. People just don’t see the purpose of going to church anymore. It is easy to see why when all you hear from the media is all the ways that Christianity continues to persecute and hate others in Jesus’s name. This is the kind of Christianity that the Night Ministry works to counteract. Every time we walk into a gay bar or a drag show or talk to a trans person, we are sending the message that the church can and is a force for good.
Here’s where the welfare of the city idea comes in. By being present in those moments and those places, we are doing the work of Jesus Christ. Through this work, the church is given a new image, a better image. When people find out that we are with the Night Ministry, they tell us stories. Stories that they might not otherwise tell anyone else. Stories of deep pain and great joy. Stories that transform both the teller and the listener.
The Night Ministry does its work with little fanfare or press. We’re known but not well known. Yet, we are everywhere in this city every night. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide, I and one of my colleagues were in the Castro walking the streets and enjoying being a part of the celebration and festivities. Our presence there sent a message that not all Christians are bad. There are actually some that wanted to celebrate marriage equality right along with them.
“For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” When the city celebrates, we celebrate. When the city mourns, we mourn. We walk alongside those like Jimmy & Mark & Thea but we also walk alongside those who are celebrating marriages, births, job promotions. In their good fortune is ours as well. In their joy is our joy.
It is through my work with the Night Ministry that I have learned something deep and profound about the nature of Christian community. Our joys and our sorrows are all wrapped up together. When one hurts, all hurt. When one celebrates, all celebrate.
This spirit of community is embedded in the city of St. Francis. It’s what built this city into the great place it is. This city had to band together in the 80s when the AIDS epidemic hit. When Harvey Milk was assassinated. When the People’s Temple cult killed themselves. When so many other historic and important things have happened here, the city has come together as one. We built this city not on rock and roll but on compassion. On caring for each other. On taking care of our own community members. On living with each other even when we disagree with each other.
For in its welfare, you will find your welfare. When we take care of each other, we take care of ourselves. God has called us to care for each other, the Jimmys and Marks and Theas of the world. This care can be as simple as a long conversation about their life or even just a hug. It can take many forms but whatever form it takes, it can and will bring about our own welfare and that of others. The whole purpose of the work the Night Ministry does is to humanize others. To make them feel like they have value and import. When we see others, really see them, we give them a sense of humanity. And in return, we feel more human too. We find our welfare wrapped up in their welfare. This is part of our calling as Christians. This is part of our calling as human beings. This is part of our calling as residents of the city of St. Francis. We can do no less nor no more with our lives. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Indeed, Jeremiah, let us go forth and seek the welfare of this beautiful, amazing city we call home. Let us go forth and see the Jimmys, the Marks and the Theas in our communities. Let us go forth from this place prepared to discover the many ways that our own interests are tied up with those of others. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Today, I was blessed to preach the following sermon. This marks my first preaching gig since graduation. Scripture text is Amos 7: 10-15

        How many of us have the courage to do something that we know is going to be difficult? How many of us will, when necessary, stand up and speak out? How many times have we personally risked relationships in order to express our views?
Courage is defined by the dictionary as, “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.” That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Yet, for some reason so many of us are either unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to be courageous especially when it comes to our relationships.
In the last year, we have seen an escalation in violence against the African American community. From police murdering black people to a white man murdering 9 black people during their Bible study to 8 black churches being burned by arsonists, now is a dangerous time to be black in America. Comedian Chris Rock was recently asked if black men are an endangered species now and his response was, “no, the government protects endangered species.”
Yes, it is a dangerous time to be black in America. However, what are white people doing about it? Are we speaking up in support of our black brothers and sisters? Are we participating in the Black Lives Matter movement? Are we speaking out and declaring that the Confederate flag is indeed racist and should be taken down and never put back up? Or are we too afraid of what speaking out might mean for our relationships with our friends and family? Are we not willing to have those bold, courageous moments because we know it will damage a relationship that is pretty good for us?
For so many of us, I fear the answer is yes. We fear the trouble it might bring. We fear the conversations it might cause. We fear the damage it might do to our friendships. So, we say nothing. We remain silent. We shy away from the tough conversations and we don’t dare say too much for fear of being labeled a certain way.
I’m sure Amos had the exact same thought process. He didn’t want to go tell the King that Israel would soon be overthrown and sent into exile. He knew that that was not the message that the King or the people would want to hear. Earlier in the book of Amos, he calls out the people for their wrongdoing. He proclaims that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” I’m guessing Amos wasn’t too popular at parties!
Yet, Amos still felt called to prophesy. He knew that it would make him unpopular. He knew that it would possibly result in him being kicked out of Israel. He knew that it would result in the loss of relationships. He did it, anyway. He took a chance and spoke out against the injustices he saw Israel committing. Amos, who as he admits, “was not a prophet or a prophet’s son”, still was willing to put his life and his reputation on the line to speak out against what he saw as wrong.
Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made a ruling that lifted state bans on same gender marriage. While many across the US praised this ruling, there were plenty of people who were unhappy about it. Some even went so far as to say that God’s wrath would soon be raining down upon America for allowing this to happen. I’m not going to weigh in on the debate over whether or not the Supreme Court made the right decision. I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not I think God’s wrath is going to rain down upon us for allowing two people who love each other to get married legally.
Instead, I’d like to weigh in on the great outpouring of support I’ve seen from others about the decision. It warmed my heart to look at my Facebook news feed that Friday morning and see so many rainbow profiles and so many people expressing their affirmation that they were happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling. For some, I’m sure doing that took some real courage. I know I saw several people have to deal with ugly comments from their friends and family for expressing their support so openly. It can be tough to be that open about your feelings on an issue that is so controversial still. I especially felt bad for my queer friends, myself included, who had to deal with all kinds of ugly comments from their “friends” and family members. One friend of mine compared being gay to pedophilia while another thought it would be a good idea to share a post from conservative Christian Franklin Graham talking about how the Bible has already defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This same friend then didn’t take too kindly to me calling Franklin Graham a bigot and made it clear that there was no ill will intended by posting that. As if posting something so intentionally hurtful was done in a spirit of friendship.
Yes, many of us took risks on that day. We posted about our joy over the ruling. We changed our profile pictures to express our support. We endured vicious, hateful attacks upon us from friends and family near and far. We risked friendships or in some cases ended them because we believed so strongly in the cause.
Yet, in some sense, that was perhaps an easy battle to take on. Same gender marriage is now supported by the vast majority of the country so you are far less likely to encounter resistance to it if you post about it. While it is still courageous and bold to speak out about it and I don’t want anyone to think otherwise, in a sense it is somewhat “safe” to talk about. You aren’t risking as much by posting about it on social media as you are with certain other issues.
It would be far more courageous, particularly as a white person, to talk about issues of race or racism. How many of us are openly willing to discuss the topic of race with our white friends and family members? How many of us are willing to have those hard conversations about all the ways that we have been complicit in racist policies and actions? How many of us are willing to put our lives and reputations on the line and risk our friendships to call others out and call them racists?
What about our country? Are we willing to risk seeming unpatriotic for calling our nation out for its atrocities? Are we willing to declare that this nation has a lot of work to do before we can ever bother calling ourselves “Land of the free, home of the brave”? Are we speaking out against the injustices happening in Israel/Palestine and the ways that our country is complicit in it? Are we wiling to stand up against corporations and governments and declare that they need to clean up our air, stop polluting our waters and start being responsible for fixing the mess they’ve created?
Or, are we just too afraid or too complacent to bother with any of that? Are we instead willing to let others put their reputations on the line while we sit back and watch The Daily Show on our couches? Are we willing to do the hard but necessary work involved even if that might mean ending relationships that have lasted for decades?
The biblical witness is full of people doing just what we should be willing to do too. Amos is just one of many examples throughout the Bible of people who had the courage to speak up. Moses; Ruth; Esther; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; and let’s not forget that person we call Jesus. All people who risked their reputations (and in some cases, their lives) in order to speak out against the injustices being done against God’s people. Was this easy for them? No, it definitely wasn’t. Many of them even argued with God about it or tried to run away from it. Yet, in the end, they found themselves speaking out.
If our Bible calls us to speak out and be brave, then why are we so unwilling to do it sometimes? Why aren’t we more open to calling others racists? Why aren’t we more willing to call our siblings homophobes and bigots? Why are we not shouting from every rooftop that America is the evil empire and that the way we are currently doing things isn’t benefiting anybody but the elites in society?
We must be willing to follow the Biblical witness and be wiling to speak up. We must be willing to speak out. We must be willing to risk friendships and risk arguments with people we care about deeply. It is what our Christian faith calls us to do. It is what the Biblical witness tells us we must do. It is what those on the margins of society most need from us, someone to advocate for them and to stand in solidarity with them. We must do no less than be brave, be bold and have courage. In the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Let us face our fears and speak out. Let us live into our Christian convictions and be brave. Let us be like Amos and be wiling to risk our reputations to call each other out on injustices. It is truly the only thing we can do in this life.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Take Me to Church?

  I graduated from seminary with my Masters in Divinity two weeks ago. So of course, the first obvious question is: what am I actually going to do post graduation? That's such a great question and one that I have been asked repeatedly for about the last month, hence this blog post. This is my attempt to let everyone know what exactly I will be up to for the next few months or more.

  I do have something lined up for the summer. Starting next Monday, June 8th, I will be starting a unit of what is referred to as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This is one of the last remaining requirements I have left for my ordination process and will be 10 weeks of intensive clinical self-examination and peer group meetings. Most people do their CPE units at a hospital. I'm taking a different route, however, and will be doing mine with the SF Night Ministry doing street chaplaincy with the homeless. This is a population that I am excited to work with and a population that I feel called to work with. I'm looking forward to reaching out to them and being a helping, pastoral presence in their lives. The unit will include leading Bible Studies, walking the streets at night and being a crisis line volunteer. There's a lot of other logistics of it that I still don't entirely know yet so I am looking forward to learning more about it this coming Monday when we have orientation. The only part I don't like is that CPE doesn't pay anything at all so I'm going to be living off what is left from my student loans this past semester. Money is going to be really tight for me this summer which is not ideal but I'm going to make it work. I've arranged to continue living on campus through the summer and have already moved into a cheaper apartment on campus that will save me some money.

  As for what's after the summer? That's still being figured out. Over the last few months, I've come to realise that I really want to stay in the Bay Area for a little while longer. My heart is here. My friends are here. My life is here so why leave? So, I've determined that I'm going to stay here and make it work for at least another year. Come next August, I'm going to re-assess and decide if I still feel called to stay here or if it is time for me to move on to a new adventure. I don't really see myself settling down anywhere for very long. I'm fortunate in that I have the freedom to do that. I don't have a mortgage, a partner or kids so I'm very open to going wherever I might feel called to go next. For right now, that's the Bay Area. The cost of living here is ridiculous and that is the part that is going to be the most difficult factor. Yet, I'm resourceful and can live on very little so I just have to be smart about it and I can make it work.

  So, what about jobs? You might think that since I have a Masters in Divinity now that I would be looking for church jobs. Well, you would be wrong. I've been realising that I really have been feeling burned out on church work, actually. It's really the only kind of work I've done and I think it would be good for me to experience other types of work before I commit myself fully to it. I'm really interested in trying something in the non-profit sector. I've never worked for a non-profit before and think it would be good for me to have some experience in that realm. I'm also looking at different types of chaplaincy positions because it wouldn't hurt to have that experience under my belt either. What I've realised about myself is that I love preaching. I love writing liturgy and crafting worship services. But I don't really love all the other aspects of church work. I think I'd be fine with doing something along the lines of guest preaching occasionally on a Sunday morning. That way, I get to do the preaching and liturgy writing that I love without all the other aspects of ministry that I don't.
  As for ordination, I'm still deciding if that is something I still want to pursue. I've come to realise that for me, it isn't the most important thing anymore. I don't have to have it to lead a successful, happy life. I'm going to be just fine if I never get ordained. I really will be. So, while I do plan on finishing up all the requirements for ordination, I can't say for sure that I'm going to actually get ordained. I just don't feel ready at the age of 30 to make such a major life decision, particularly one that stays with me for the rest of my life. If I get to the age of 40 and still want it, it will still be there for me.

  Ultimately, what I've realised is that I just want to be happy and be able to support myself. As long as both those criteria are fulfilled, I'm going to be just fine. I sincerely believe that a person is not their job. A person is a person and they just happen to have a job. So, whether I'm working at Starbucks or pastoring a church or working for a non-profit, I'm going to be just fine regardless because I'm still me, not the job. I think we tend to lose sight of that fact nowadays. I've got some promising job leads that I'm going to be pursuing over the course of the summer but even if I end up working at Barnes and Noble, that doesn't make me a failure or doesn't mean that I wasted the last four years of my life. I'm still a success. I'm still a person. I still have value. That's what I have come to realise over the course of the last few months.

  So, that's where things stand now. I've got housing and a job lined up for the summer and I'm going to be vigorously pursuing other jobs for the fall and other housing options. Here's hoping it all goes well and I get to stay here in the Bay Area for at least another year.

Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Succeed in Seminary (Without Really Trying)

Today, I was blessed to preach my senior sermon to my professors, colleagues, classmates and friends. It was truly an honor to be at the pulpit today. Here's the text of my sermon for those who weren't able to be there in person. Scripture texts are Exodus 4: 10 - 13 & Philippians 4: 8-13.

My name is Moses. I was called by God to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt and take them to a land where they would no longer be slaves. God asked me to do this in spite of the fact that I was in no way, shape or form qualified for the job. I had never held any type of important positions in any organization before that. I mean, when God spoke to me, I was a sheep herder for my father in law and a fugitive from justice. So, what in the world did I know about anything involving successfully leading people to do anything at all? Did I mention that I had a speech impediment and wasn’t exactly known for being a great orator? Yeah, good job God. You picked a real winner here!
Yet, God used me anyway. God made me a great orator. God helped me lead my people out of Israel and into the Promised Land. Sure, there were some speed bumps along the way. Pharaoh wasn’t too happy about letting us go and there was that whole roaming through the desert for 40 years debacle and don’t even get me started on that whole golden calf drama. Yeah, needless to say, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Yet, in the end, it all worked out as you may have heard by now. The Israelites were freed from the land of Egypt and became a great and powerful nation. And it was, at least in part, thanks to my leadership. God used me to help deliver God’s people in spite of the fact that I wasn’t at all the right person for the job based on my prior history. I never saw myself as the type of person who would do all that I did. Somehow, God did though.
The Bible is full of characters like Moses, characters who at first glance you would never imagine would be remembered as important or essential or be seen as great leaders. Characters who if they existed today would have been written off by society as failures. You had Jacob, the liar. David, the adulterer. Abraham and Sarah, the infertile elderly couple. Rahab, the prostitute. And let’s not forget to add Jesus to this list. A man who in his 33 years of life led an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the status quo and was publicly humiliated, tortured and executed while his own followers either betrayed him, denied him or completely abandoned him. Not exactly what any of us would define as a success story, right?!
I’m supposed to be preaching today about the topic of success. That is, after all, why I titled my sermon “How to Succeed in Seminary (Without Really Trying)”! Yet, I must confess something to you. I literally know absolutely nothing about this topic. You see, I’ve never succeeded at anything in my entire life. If you were to look up the word “failure” in the dictionary, you’d see my picture! Everything I’ve tried, I’ve been a failure at. I’ve never been any good at sports or mathematics or science or relationships or keeping a budget or taking care of myself or gaining weight or remembering to do things on my to do list or finding a job or sleeping. I’m not particularly clever or funny. I pretend to be much smarter than I actually am. I am 30 years old and yet I can barely tie my shoes. I never learned how to swim. I just recently learned that people actually floss their teeth and to top it all off, I can’t even make a grilled cheese sandwich successfully!
So, why in the world would I ever even pretend like I have anything to say at all about the topic of success? Where did I, someone who society would label a complete and total failure, get the idea that I can even possibly know at all what it means to succeed?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I have to confess this is perhaps my favorite verse in the entire Bible and I think many Christians would say the same thing. It is so empowering and so encouraging and so simplistic, isn't it? Yet, are Paul’s words actually true? Can we really do all things through Christ? What does that phrase even mean? Does it mean that all I have to do is believe in Jesus and I will pass that test? Or get that job? Or even get that mysterious third date with someone?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Really? Can I now? Because as stated earlier, it sure doesn’t seem like I can. If that were indeed the case, my life would surely have been a whole lot easier and I would know what it looks like to succeed.
I think what Paul is intending to say here is that simply believing in Christ isn’t actually enough. You have to show your beliefs through your actions. “Whatever is true. Whatever is honorable. Whatever is just. Whatever is pure. Whatever is pleasing. Whatever is commendable.” Do those things and you really will be able to do all things. It is not enough to simply be a Christian. Anyone can do that. We have seen that plenty of times over the centuries. However, simply claiming the title of Christian means nothing if you aren’t willing to live into that label and do Christian things.
So, without further ado, let me present exclusively “Tad’s Tips on How to Succeed in Seminary (or in Life) (Without Really Trying).”
Step 1: Love but more importantly allow yourself to be loved. Allow others to see you, the real you. Allow yourself to get close to others even when you know it might hurt because it will. When you are in the midst of a nervous breakdown because you failed yet another quiz, permit others to comfort you as you cry. When you feel as if your entire life is spiralling out of control and you don’t see any way out, call up someone and ask them to come sit with you as you eat ice cream and vent. Lastly, allow yourself to make friends, real, life-long friends. The kind of friends who will continue to be friends with you in spite of your many, many, many flaws or failures. The kind of friends who will still love you even after you make outrageous, outlandish statements in the middle of class about hating babies. Oh yes, they will continue to remind you about it for years afterward but they won’t let that stop them from loving you. That’s the first step to success.
Step 2: Don't be afraid to raise your voice and speak out. Speak out against the sins of homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, transphobia and other societal evils. Use your voice and don’t let anyone tell you that you have nothing important to say. If you have a problem with the way things are being done or if you feel like you’ve been wronged, speak up. Don’t believe the lie that the world may tell you that your voice isn’t necessary because you aren’t part of the dominant paradigm. That is precisely why your voice is so important. Our world needs to hear the voices of women, of queer people, of trans people, of African American, Asian, Latino and Latina people. Low income, no income, all those voices need to be heard and need to be shown respect. If I have learned nothing else from my time here, it is this very fact. You have a voice. You have a power. You have a chance to change the world. Take it, always.
Step 3: Do well but more importantly, do good. Get out into your communities and do something that helps others. Whether it be making dinner for the homeless, teaching Sunday School to children, babysitting, or any number of other things, don’t let yourself off the hook for getting involved. Our world needs more committed citizens like us out there in the streets: marching for marriage equality; protesting for women’s rights; lobbying for prison reform. It is part of our calling as Christians to help others. It is part of our calling as human beings to work to make a better system for others. It is part of our very essence to want to see others succeed. So, do it. Get out there and get in the streets. You won’t regret it, not even for a second.
Step 4: This is the final step. Give yourself permission to fail. Yes, I did just say that one of the steps to success is to fail. Perhaps that sounds counter-intuitive, maybe even counter-cultural. However, it means you have the freedom to not put so much pressure on yourself. Here’s a simple fact that I absolutely hate to admit publicly. You can’t do everything. You especially can’t do everything well. Thus, give yourself permission to drop the ball or fail or let someone down. It is going to happen and that is ok. It may happen multiple times over the course of your life. That is ok too. You won’t like it. You may feel like a complete and total loser. You aren’t. Not even for one second. Just because you fail in certain aspects of your life doesn’t make you a failure at life. Take it from someone who knows, a scrawny nerdy gay kid from Texas with learning disabilities and a speech impediment. Take it from NBA legend Michael Jordan who once said, “ I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Take it from the Biblical narrative. God still used Moses, a murderer and a fugitive with a speech impediment and made him leader of the Israelites. God still used David and Rahab and Abraham and Noah and many other “failures” to achieve God’s plan for humanity. If God can use them, in spite of their failings, doesn’t it make sense that God can use you and me too?
So, those are my four tips on how to succeed in seminary without really trying. But wait, you are saying to yourself. Those are all great pieces of advice but none of them will help me achieve an A on my Theology test or help me write my final papers. What gives? I want to know how to succeed academically. I thought that was what you were going to tell us. You are correct, nothing I told you will help you succeed academically or guarantee that you make all As. Making good grades isn’t a bad thing but it isn’t a true measure of success. What will matter? That you loved and were loved. That you spoke up and raised your voice. That you did good in your communities and your world. That you gave yourself permission to fail. That’s the true measure of success. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Now, we have to actually go and do. In Christ’s name, AMEN.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Kids Are Alright?

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎UNCO‬‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for March is (un)Lucky.

Disclaimer: this blog post is in no way intended to criticize, shame or otherwise denigrate those who have made a different life choice than me. It is simply intended to give my thoughts on the matter.

 I want to write today about a topic that has been on my mind for many years now: the subject of kids. For a long time, I really did genuinely believe that I wanted kids. I thought that that was something I wanted and thought I would make a great dad someday.

  Yet, I've come to think slightly differently on the matter. I've been giving it a lot of thought and I've realised that having kids isn't as important to me as I once thought it to be. I think I've realised that if I never have kids, that's ok. Not everyone has to have children. Not everyone has to make that choice. That doesn't mean that I've somehow failed or that I've been unlucky. That also doesn't mean that my life is somehow less fulfilling if I haven't had kids.

 That's a phrase that really gets under my skin: this idea that people who don't have children are somehow less fulfilled or less satisfied with life. That's quite frankly, incredibly insulting and ignorant to say to someone. You can have just as fulfilling and just as successful a life if you never have children as someone who has. It just means that you put your centre of value into something else besides your children. It could be your career or your volunteer work or your partner or your friends or your pets or something else entirely. Any number of things can bring you fulfilment or joy, it doesn't have to be children.

  Also, can we please not look down on people who don't have kids and feel sorry for them? Again, insulting and degrading. You don't know all their life circumstances that have led to them not having children. For me personally, I just don't see the appeal or the point really. I recently went through and made a pro/con list of all the reasons to have or not have children and honestly, the cons won out. This doesn't mean that having children is a bad thing or the wrong choice. I want to validate those people who have had children and let you know that I support your decision and the reasons why you made it (whether or not it was intentional).

  For me, though, I just don't see the appeal. Having kids can be a real burden and a real pain and I don't see a reason to sign up for that. Plus, I love to travel and I know that that would probably not be able to continue if I have children (or at least not to the extent that I would like it to). There's also the fact that you lose a piece of your identity when you have children. You no longer are yourself. Instead, you become "Jacob's daddy" or "Susie's mommy" or simply just "Daddy". For me, as someone who's struggled with identity issues my whole life, having to give up a part of my identity has zero appeal for me. Not to mention the fact that I would never get to sleep in again and as someone with insomnia, I crave being able to sleep in! And there's also the fact that your time is not yours anymore. Your days become all about your kids and their schedules and their needs and it stops becoming about you.

  So, are those selfish reasons to not have children? Perhaps but isn't it also just a little bit for selfish reasons that people have children anyway? There's a need to care for something. There's a need to have your legacy preserved. There's a need to have that identity or status that being a parent gives you. I'm not saying that those are bad reasons to want kids. Not at all. What I am saying is that they are, in a sense, selfish reasons. So, it is selfish to want kids and selfish to not want kids.

  Here's my somewhat rambling point of all this. Not having kids doesn't mean that I'm somehow unlucky or haven't been successful in life. I'd like to think that when I get to the end of my life, I will look back with pride on my accomplishments even if they don't include children. I'd like to believe that irregardless of having children or not, I will still feel like my life has been blessed and that I've led a pretty lucky life. I'd like to think that my choice to not have children will be respected and appreciated by society and by my friends. For the longest time, I was bowing to societal pressure to want kids. Now, I'm choosing to go against the grain and declare that it really doesn't matter to me if I never have children. I'm going to be ok either way. At the end, what really matters is whether or not I've made a difference in the world and whether or not I've been loved and have loved. That can come in a myriad of other ways besides children.

 I think I'm a pretty lucky guy, even without the kids. And I think that will continue to be the case even if the children never happen. The kids will be alright and so will I!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

All About that Treble?

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎UNCO‬‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for February is (un)Loved.

It's Valentine's Day, a day I hate more than almost any other day. Thus, I felt it necessary to write a blog post about everyone's favourite subject, self-love. The following represent my thoughts on a subject that is highly personal to me and one that is also highly charged.

"You're too skinny"
"Are you anorexic?"
"You just need to eat more. That will put the weight on ya!"
"Have you tried working out? Lift some weights, it will do wonders for you."
"Come over to my house and I'll fatten you up in no time."

These are all comments I've received over the years from people who mean well. I admit it, I'm skinny. For those of you who've only read my blog and have never actually met me in person, let me paint the picture for you. I'm 5 ft 9.5 inches tall. I weigh maybe 130 pounds if I'm lucky. I have zero body fat and my metabolism is super fast meaning that I can't gain weight even when I try. I know what you're thinking. "He's so lucky. I'd love to have that problem. I'll gladly give him some of my weight."

Yeah, I've heard that one before too. How it must be so great to eat as much as I want and not gain a pound. Or how lucky I am that I'm not overweight and have to worry about health problems that come from that. I've heard pretty much every comment a person can hear about my weight. I know people mean well. I know those comments aren't meant to be hurtful. Most of the time, I am able to laugh it off and smile.

However, I don't think people realise how hurtful their comments can be sometimes. I've struggled with body image issues my whole life. I got called anorexic every single day of high school because I weighed less than 100 pounds the whole way through high school and people thought for sure I must be anorexic or something. For the record, I've never had any sort of eating disorder and I do in fact like to eat. I eat at least 2 meals a day, sometimes 3 and I snack constantly. The idea of intentionally skipping a meal or intentionally throwing it up after eating it has zero appeal to me. So, you don't need to worry. I'm eating. That's one thing I'm really good at: eating.

I've made peace with the way I look, mostly. Do I have times when I wish I was fatter or had more curves or had a six pack? Yes, yes I do. Somedays I look in the mirror and I'm really disgusted by what I see. I think our culture glamorises and idolises thinness to an unhealthy degree. We demonize fat people and call them lazy. However, that also means that we sometimes don't think about the fact that thin people can also struggle with body image. Yes, I'm skinny but it's not the "good" kind of skinny. I'm too skinny (whatever that might mean). I look like I haven't eaten in days or like I'm starving myself.

I'm trying to get to a place where I can love myself, all my non curves and non edges. Self-love is actually the hardest kind of love there is. It requires you to accept the fact that you are the way you are and that that isn't likely to change anytime soon. It requires you to quiet all the voices in your head that tell you that you are too skinny or that maybe you should be anorexic since everyone thinks you are anyway. It is not helped by well meaning voices telling me to eat more or work out more or offering to fatten me up. What those comments are really implying is that I'm not good enough as I am and that my current weight is unacceptable to those people. That doesn't make the task of loving myself very easy.

We need to think about the way we speak to each other and we need to be careful that our comments never imply that the other person isn't perfect the way they are. What I want more than anything is for others to affirm that the way I am is great and beautiful and worthy of being loved and that I don't need to do a thing to change it. I currently weigh the most I have ever weighed in my entire life. It is very possible that I will stay this weight for several more years, even decades. I want to be okay with that fact. I want to accept the fact that I weigh what I weigh and that is good enough. But then, somebody else says something like, "we need to fatten you up" and I realise that I'm not ok with it.

On this Valentine's Day, a day when we recognize and celebrate love, let us begin with self-love. Let us love ourselves as we are and not be so quick to try and change it. Let us love the bodies we were born with. Ok, so I don't have a six pack and I don't have muscles and I don't look like a male model. That's ok. I don't need to. I look like myself and that's good enough, don't you think?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You Can't Stop the Beat

Here's the sermon I preached this morning at my church. Scripture text is Philemon 1: 8-21

My name is Onesimus. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’m mentioned several times in your Holy Book but only in one portion. The letter that Paul wrote to my master, Philemon. Paul says that he has met me and that he has converted me to his faith and that now he is sending me back to my master with the hope that my master will do the right thing and set me free as a favor to him.
What I find so interesting about Paul’s letter to my master is that not once does Paul ever ask me what I want. My voice is left completely out of the story and my silence is never once accounted for. Did Paul even think to ask me whether or not I wanted to return to my master? Did he think to ask me if I might rather have been seeking him out as a way to get away from my master? Did Paul bother to even consult me about what I thought my ultimate fate should be? No, he didn’t. My voice wasn’t considered important or interesting or necessary to Paul or to Philemon. Just like so many other characters in your Holy Book, I am left voiceless with no one to come to my defense and stand up for me. Who will speak for me? Who will stand up for me? Who will give me my voice back?
Onesimus has been silenced in the Bible. His voice and his interests are left completely out. He is just another nameless, faceless, speechless character whose own interests aren’t considered important or necessary or good. Yet, those were biblical times. Things were different then. We don’t still do that now, do we? We give everyone a voice and everyone a say, don't we?
Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sound familiar? These four men were all shot dead over the last few years because of the color of their skin. Their voices were silenced. Their voices weren’t considered important. Their voices were considered less worthy of attention and focus than their white assailants. Since their deaths, there have been attempts by the public and the media to paint some or all of them as “thugs” or “criminals” or some other such label that would somehow justify them being shot dead. As if it is somehow more socially acceptable to kill someone if they are a thug than it is if they aren’t. Their deaths have inspired protests and have also created the “Black Lives Matter” motto on social media.
More importantly, their deaths have sparked conversations all over the country about issues of race and racism. It has forced many white people to confront their own internal prejudices and biases toward their black brothers and sisters. It has also exposed the inherent racism that exists in our justice system as so far not a single indictment has come down for the white men who killed these black men.
Tomorrow, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in which we are asked to remember the legacy of Dr. King, a man who worked so tirelessly for so long to help the Black voice be heard and be considered important. We are almost fifty years out from his assassination and it sadly doesn’t look like we are any closer to realizing his vision of living in a society where we really do believe that the black voice matters and shouldn’t be silenced.
It is absolutely vital that more white people speak up about this issue and stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters. Since we are the ones who perpetuate the racist system, we are also the ones who have the power to stop it. We can take action against the systems that perpetuate racism. We can stand up against racism and declare that the status quo isn’t benefiting all. We can even work to enact new laws that will ensure that our black brothers and sisters are given a more equal footing in society.
We can be the ones who demand that the black voices no longer be silenced. We can stand up and declare that the deaths of Trayvon, Eric, Oscar and Michael do matter and that their voices were silenced just like Onesimus’. We have to be the ones who demand that they be heard and that justice prevail. We can give Onesimus his voice back. We can demand that he be given a chance to speak his truth, his experience and his life. We can do the same for all the black people in our own lives whose voices have been silenced. I hear the cries of Trayvon & Michael and I hear the protests in places like Ferguson and New York City. As a white person, I admit my own complicity in the silencing of black voices and in the attempts to slander them and keep them oppressed.
So, I’ve identified the trouble with the text: the fact that Onesimus is silent. What about the grace then? What words of hope does this text have to say to a world troubled by Trayvon & Eric & Michael & Oscar? What does this text say to us that we can use to better engage with our black brothers and sisters and be a part of the solution, not the problem? It comes through Paul’s words that Onesimus was his beloved brother in Christ and thus Paul didn’t see him as a slave anymore. Through Christ Jesus, we are all united. We are Trayvon Martin. We are Eric Garner. We are Michael Brown & Oscar Grant and the many other nameless, faceless, silent black men who have been killed. This is the hope that white people can provide. A hope that one day, our system will support and uplift black bodies, not destroy them.
As Martin Luther King says, though, in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Thus, while we can provide hope, hope won’t be enough. While we continue to sit by and wait for a day when racism will end, more black people will die or be the victims of our racist policies. So, yes, hope is great but hope won’t prevent people like Michael Brown from being killed.
We have to be more than the hope then. We have to be the agents of change. Change is coming. You can’t stop the beat of history as it marches forward toward a new day. Let’s help make that new day today. Let’s be that change. Let’s be aware of our own privilege and use it to help, not hurt. Change won’t come about if we hope for it. We have to actively work for it, for the good of our black brothers and sisters. We have to fight for it, with them, not against them. It is up to us to begin the hard work of dismantling the systems of privilege that keep oppressing black people. It is up to us to vote for elected officials that will represent those voices that are silenced. It is up to us to stand up and speak out against racism in our culture and our world. It is up to us to do this hard and difficult yet necessary work. Onesimus won’t be kept silent anymore. Michael Brown won’t be kept silent anymore. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant won’t be kept silent anymore. Their voices are rising up, out of the pages of history. Out of the pages of the Bible. Out of the pages that tell them that they should stay silent and stay oppressed. Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of revolution. That’s the sound of their voices. That’s the sound of change. It’s coming. The only question that remains: are you going to join in or stay on the sidelines?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year Without A White Man

  I want to take some time to write to all of you about a project I took on this past year and the many ways it expanded my worldview. This past January 1, I decided to take on a rather unique and unusual reading project. I love to read. I've been a bookworm for as far back as I can remember. However, I haven't always done a good job of reading outside my comfort zone or reading about other cultures. Thus, I gave myself a challenge: that I would only read books written by non-white men. I did this partly because I think that white men have had enough of a voice in our culture and I wanted to give other voices a chance to speak up. I also did it as a way to confront my own internalized racism. I realized when deciding to begin this project that the vast majority of my own favorite authors or favorite books are written by white men. While I don't mean to denigrate or deny their own marvelous writing abilities, I was aware that I needed to branch out and read books by some non-white men. Instead, I focused exclusively on historically oppressed groups. I would like to add the caveat that I did still read books by white women. This was because I wanted to include all the various ways that women, even white ones, are still systemically oppressed in our society. However, of the 46 books I read this past year, the vast majority were written by people of color.
  So, what did I learn from doing this project and how did it open my eyes? A big takeaway for me is just how institutionalized and systemic racism really is. Through reading books like Americanah (Chimamanda Adichie); Roots (Alex Haley) and 12 Years a Slave (Solomon Northrup), I was exposed to the ways in which my white culture has made racism a part of every system and how far back it really goes. I confess to having a much different view of slavery and even racism before hand. My history textbooks growing up gave the image that slavery wasn't as bad as it might have been portrayed. They portrayed the idea that most slaves preferred slavery over being free and were indeed happy with their lot. I realize now just how racist and awful an idea that is to even think but before reading Roots or 12 Years a Slave, it had never occurred to me to re-think this. As a white person, I've come to realize just how little I had actually ever thought about race mainly because it doesn't affect me. I even remember thinking to myself how this project sounded very racist to take on because isn't it racist against white people to not read them for an entire year? My whiteness protects me and gives me a level of privilege that people of color don't have access to no matter their financial resources or education or ability. The books I read this year helped me see just how hard it is to be a person of color in America.
   Through reading 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini) and the House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), I was exposed to what life is like for those who live in other countries. It gave me a new global perspective.
It also gave me the opportunity to finally read some books by authors who are well-established and critically acclaimed but who I had never read before for some reason. I finally had a chance to read Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Beloved); Alice Walker (The Color Purple); Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings); Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart); Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Somehow, I had never before read any of these authors and they completely expanded my reading abilities and my worldview.
  What were the best books I read this year? I have to admit, not every book I read this year was that great. That's ok. I didn't go into this thinking they all would be. I knew there would be some books I'd read that would be less than awesome. However, there were definitely some that stood out to me as being excellent works. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock was an incredible book for me to read this year. Mock is an African-American transgender woman who writes about her experience growing up as a boy and then realizing that she was actually a woman and then deciding to go through with transitioning. It is a powerful story about what it is like to be transgender, black and a woman in the United States. Definitely highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about that experience. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri was a powerful story about the immigrant experience in America. Also highly recommended. I can't say enough good things about the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. He writes about his experience growing up as a Native American and choosing to attend school off of his reservation. A powerful look at how white culture has supplanted and made shameful Native American culture. I read two Khaled Hosseini novels this year (And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns). Both were great but incredibly devastating reads. He really paints a vivid picture of what Afghani life is like both pre and post Taliban. I can't stop thinking about The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Such a strong, vivid prose style that has stuck with me even now almost a year after reading it.
  I had my eyes opened to the many ways that being a minority can be hard. It can feel shameful or lonely or isolating. It can even be dangerous. I won't say that I was completely unaware of this before but it became clearer to me through the works I read this past year. Some of these books were quite difficult to read and I had to force myself to get through them. Some of them contained extremely graphic sexual acts of violence, particularly against children. Not exactly pleasure reading. Some of them made me feel so incredibly ashamed of my whiteness and the fact that my ancestors did such terrible things to an entire group of people. Some even forced me to acknowledge my inner racism. That was the hardest part of this project: acknowledging that even as a somewhat enlightened, highly educated queer person that I am still guilty of racism in some ways. I still have racist thoughts or racist tendencies. I admit that. What this project did was bring them to light and help me be willing to acknowledge them to myself.
  Now, that we've hit a new year, I've come to the end of my year long project. I'm looking forward to being able to read some Charles Dickens and John Green and Orson Scott Card again, three authors I had been particularly missing reading over the last year. However, I'm also going to be more intentional about seeking out and reading more books by people of color. I've got a good place to start after this past year with several authors that I really want to read more from. Perhaps I'll even be willing to admit some of them into my hard to crack list of favorite authors or favorite books! I'd encourage everyone to take on a project similar to this in your own lives. If you aren't a reader, maybe try it with something else you enjoy. Maybe only watch TV shows or movies starring or written by people of color? Perhaps only cook foods that are enjoyed in countries other than America? Travel someplace where you are likely to be the minority? Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself to do it. It will enrich your life in so many ways, I promise you. I can't believe I waited so long to discover so many of these authors but now that I have I'm very excited to see what else they have in store for me!