Despair, fear, and the decision to hope.

I used to see myself as a hopeful person. I was always seeing opportunities to plant seeds of change. I had a dream for a future where we cared for and restored the vitality of our planet. I truly believed the arc of the universe bent towards justice. I thought this way of seeing the world was intrinsically part of me. I also had faith, not in an interventionalist God, but in a greater power oriented towards justice and renewal.

Two years ago, all that disappeared in a moment.

We had just found out that Miromiro was on the way, I read an article about climate change, which predicted catastrophic, near-term outcomes. As I read, a chill passed through my whole being, closely followed by panic. I was shaking all over, my head spun, I couldn’t breathe. Over the next week the panic continued to come in waves, and in the moments in between I was close to tears. My mind completely bought into the worst case scenario, and with that came the fear that our children would suffer.

Since then, obsessional worries and an accompanying sense of dread have been a nearly constant feature of my life. There are times when I am really busy and engrossed in things at work, and I don’t notice. There are brief moments when I am captivated by the children’s laughter and forget my worries. When I sing with my choir I have an hour or two of peace. Once these moments pass, it is back again. Fear, tinged with grief. It encroaches on activities that I used to find grounding and enjoyable. Gardening now brings anxiety about whether we will be able to feed our children in a changing climate. With droughts, massive hailstorms, plagues of cicadas, and now weeks and weeks of rain drowning our spring seedlings, growing food has not been easy in the past few years! Time with my children almost always involves sadness tugging at my sleeve and trying to get my attention. Church used to nourish my sense of hope and purpose, but these days I sit there feeling disconnected and numb. I’ve become depressed, and at times overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness. Some of it is secondary sadness – I feel grief that I am missing out on enjoying my children’s first years, which then makes me more depressed, which means I miss out more, in a vicious cycle. I can’t see the world getting better, and I also can’t see myself recovering from this state.

Some weeks are a lot worse. The US election brought one of those weeks. Anxiety took the opportunity to grip me and shout in my face about how if the US pulls out of the Paris agreement, we’re going to cross that line and climate change will spiral out of control… but we might not get that far, because Trump might blunder into a nuclear war first. These thoughts left me literally shaking with terror. I cried on and off for most of the next day. There were plenty of articles on the web to further fuel my fear.

I was just starting to breathe normally again, when we were woken at midnight by a massive earthquake, bringing more immediate worries to the fore. Then there were floods.

I am grateful that just before these recent stressful events, I went to a talk by Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley, on Activism, Despair, and the Practice of Hope. I saw a billboard advertising the event, and it seemed to speak to where I was at.

Rebecca talked about hope as an intentional practice. Not something that just happens, but something we can work at. One of the things I liked most was that she spoke of hope as an act of defiance. Hope is a decision we can make. It is about courage and defiance, not necessarily optimism. She talked about various elements of her own practice of hope. These included needing to draw from a deep well – those things that give you strength and meaning, be it music, prayer, nature, community…what nurtures your soul. Prayer, confession, taking small steps to bridge gaps, and finding the job that is yours to do were also part of her practice.

“If you find hope easy, you have not been paying attention. You have not sat with someone long enough. You haven’t listened closely enough. You have not cried hard enough. You have not been angry enough at injustice. If you start with the right question and you face it squarely, you will hear and see some unbearable things. Here what I know for sure: Hope starts by looking steadily at reality. It goes straight through the middle of despair. Then it is pulled into God’s will for the world God loves so much. Hope is freely available. But it does not come cheap.” – Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley

It is a stance that fits well with the approach I use at work, and try to practise in my own life – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Trying to use ACT in my current struggle, I try to notice the thoughts and feelings of despair, and make space for them, but not get completely caught up with them.  I try to be present in my life, in the present moment. And I try to act in line with my values. Whatever is going on in the world around me, and in my own mind, I can always choose to act in connection with my values. Among these are social justice and care for the earth. Despair tells me there is no point trying anymore. To defy despair,  I can keep on taking actions, however small, to bring the world I long for a tiny bit closer to realisation. I can speak out against injustice. Act with compassion. Plant trees.

mural

This is part of a mural created by our church – it captures our community’s values and vision for the world.

The other thing which has made a difference in the past week was my last session with my therapist. I was talking about how despairing I felt about the world and imminent disaster. She said to me, “OK, so what if you’re right. Just say your worries do become reality. What would your children need? What would you want for them?”

Love. A sense of purpose. Connection with community. Kindness and compassion. Resilience. Curiosity and open-mindedness. Creativity. Belief in justice. Hope.

No matter how much I am struggling inside, how can I act as a parent to nurture these things in my children?

I can’t convince my mind that the future is not dark… but I can act as though there might be a miracle. Even if the miracle never comes, striving for justice and acting with love is never going to be the wrong thing to do. It might make a difference in the here and now.

And even if my brain is geared towards the worst case scenario, perhaps I can bring up my children to practise hope – defiantly.

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This hurts

(Part two of two on the 2014 General Assembly)

Eight years ago I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand as a youth commissioner. It was one of the darkest times of my life… I can’t blame all that on the General Assembly, but it didn’t help. My self-identity was already pretty negative, so sitting in a room with hundreds of people and finding out that 65% of them had just voted to exclude people like me from leadership roles because our relationships are considered immoral, abnormal and offensive was enough to tip me over some kind of edge for a time.

During the debate, I had spoken about how the message would put people off engaging with the church, how it would feel like a rejection to many members of the church, of how gay, lesbian and bisexual young people were already vulnerable and didn’t need another organisation telling them their experience of love was unacceptable, and of how the rule would cause pain to families and friends as well. I finished by saying “We don’t choose who we fall in love with. And we don’t choose to become leaders in the Church. God calls us. Let’s leave our lives in God’s capable hands.”

After the debate I was caught crying on the 6 O’clock news.

It was General Assembly time again at the beginning of the month. Even from a distance I have been experiencing waves of anger, sadness and pain. This year, proposals to remove the leadership rule (banning people in same sex or de facto relationships) failed again, and a new rule was added which bans ministers from marrying same-sex couples.

It hurts. It hurts to receive the message, once again, that we are not accepted and valued as we are. It hurts to have our relationships treated, not only as sinful, but as more threatening than other sins. So much so, that the church needs special legislation to protect itself from us.

So yeah, it hurts. Even for me, supported as I am by a wonderful inclusive community. I worry about the impact another rule will have on people who are more isolated, and especially for young queer people growing up in Presbyterian families who are just starting to figure out who they are.

When I started going to church as a teenager, it was all sort of hypothetical. I didn’t even know any queer people, so I was not very optimistic about the prospect of finding a girlfriend. I went to a church where the leaders proclaimed the “love the sinner, hate the sin” message. As a 14 year old I struggled to know exactly what that rule meant for me. What exactly defined “the sin.” Did having a crush count? Writing a poem about a girl? What about a kiss? At what exact point did things tip over from loving to hate?

As I wrote when I was a little older:

It sounded so simple when he said it,
“We love the sinner, but hate the sin”
yet somehow I can’t keep it all separate.
Sinner and sin.
Person and practice.
Lover and love.
Hater and hate.
Love the sinner, hate the sin…
Somehow I always end up
hating myself.

I was lucky. The support of my family, some of my friends, and eventually the welcoming congregation I found, carried me beyond the messages of hate.

Here I am, at home with my two dear ones. Windhorse, who is sleeping but just let out a little cry. I remember wondering what she dreamed about when she was tiny. Boobies and milk probably. Now she has grasped enough language to be able to sleep-talk about things we can understand! Apparently she dreams about train trips with her mums.

L is sleeping too. Tomorrow I will try not to stay up so much later, but tonight I’ve decided to snatch this late night quiet moment to finish this blog post. Soon I will tip toe into the bedroom and curl up beside her as she dreams.

Tonight, suddenly it has struck me – I have crossed the line.

This is the stuff they hate.

Our lives are so tangled together and so infused with queer love. Love which the church refuses to celebrate. Love which makes us unsuitable people who shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to contribute to our church life. There’s no way to separate out one part which makes us “practising” (and probably parenting without a man involved makes anything else we’re doing a moot point in terms of contributing to the moral decline of society). So this, all this, is what they hate.

How exactly is the church showing us it is still loving?

The “sides” of the LGBT Christian debate

The book I wrote about in my last post reminded me that we (people with differing views within the church) have some similarities in how our every day theologies are shaped and in how we relate to one another…

…but we are not experiencing the debates about the place of queer people within the church from equal positions.

Quite often I have heard comments implying that the debate about queers in the church is characterised by two opposing groups, both equally extreme in their views, with ordinary people in the middle just wanting to get on with being the church.

We are not equal.

The current Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ law denies congregations the right to call ministers who they are led to call. It denies people the right to follow God’s call and offer their gifts to the church as ministers and elders.

Those of us who oppose this rule are not telling other congregations that they have to call gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers. We’re not even telling them they can’t call homophobic ministers. We are just saying that we want the space to be able to call our own ministers, and to follow God’s call in our own lives.

There are people in the denomination who want a ban on ministers officiating at same-sex weddings.

Those of us who support same-sex marriage are not going to force any minister to marry a same-sex couple. We are asking for the space for ministers to be able to discern for themselves who they should marry… and for Presbyterians in same-sex relationships to be able to have their love affirmed and celebrated in a church ceremony led by a minister if that is what they want.

Some people are debating. Some of us are debated.

There are some of us who are at the heart of this debate. It’s not about abstract issues, it’s not about theology, it’s about us. Our lives.  Our identities. Our right to be believed when we speak about the ways God is working in our lives. Our right to offer our gifts to our church. Our love. Our right to experience the gift of sexuality and the joy of a loving relationship.

As well as the “two extremes” line, there’s the “why do people have to keep bringing up this issue over and over? We just want to have a peaceful time at General Assembly…”

Some of us can’t stop bringing up this issue. It’s about our whole lives.

How can we speak with one another about God?

Sometimes we have more similarities than we might think.

I have just been reading a fascinating book about two congregations wrestling with the place of gay people* in the church. God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies, by Dawne Moon, has given me a greater understanding of my own beliefs, and raised some questions about how I relate to others within the church.

Moon did an ethnographic study of two congregations within the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the USA. One congregation, which she calls City Church, was debating whether to join the Reconciling Congregations Programme (RCP), an organisation seeking to welcome and affirm gay, lesbian and bisexual people.  The other congregation, which she calls Missionary Church, had some alliance with Transforming Congregations, an organisation supporting the ex-gay movement and promoting the belief that homosexuality is sinful. There were a range of views in each congregation.

As someone who was raised in the UMC but is no longer a Christian, and informed by critical theory, Moon was able to analyse the ways people naturalised beliefs. That is, the beliefs that were different between groups, which might change over time or in response to different social situations, became timeless, natural, God-ordained truths for some people.

She also observed that the debates about homosexuality were actually about much more – understandings of community, sin, the nature of God. Debates about homosexuality threatened to expose deep theological differences within the denomination. I have been aware of this within my own denomination – but Moon articulates it well.

Moon examined the way that every day theologies were shaped. People’s beliefs were influenced by all kinds of things. Yes, the message they heard from the pulpit played a role, but their beliefs were also shaped by their own experiences, interactions with other people, bible verses which seemed to leap off the page or resonate with them, and feelings – whether a belief or course of action made them feel settled, untroubled.

What I found most fascinating was the similarities between the two congregations.

1.       In both congregations people saw themselves as inclusive and welcoming.

At City Church, a lot of people wanted to declare that gay people were welcome and didn’t have to change who they were. They wanted their church to be a sanctuary for ordinary gay people (but perhaps not weird or radical queers) who had been hurt.

At Missionary Church, people thought that gay people should be welcomed to the church, as all sinners were welcomed. People saw themselves as sinners, struggling with their own issues, and trying to live as God intended them to. Ordinary gay people (as opposed to those lobbying/converting/taking advantage of the vulnerable) were not seen as the other, they were fellow sinners and should be supported to let go of that sin so they could come closer to God.

2.       In both congregations people saw the bible as sacred and a source of God’s truth and both understood it contextually

At City Church people generally understood the bible as God’s word written, translated and influenced by people. They saw examples of the same-sex temple prostitution and sex with slaves which are condemned in the bible as very different from contemporary gay relationships and saw the purity codes as overruled by the coming of Jesus. They drew connections between biblically-justified/church-supported oppression in the past and oppression of gay people today.

At Missionary Church, many people were aware that in the past the bible had been used to justify slavery, racism and exclusion of women from ministry but saw these examples as different from homosexuality. They saw that sometimes scriptures could be misunderstood or misused. They did not see that the same could be happening with debates over homosexuality – because homosexuality is condemned every time it is mentioned in the bible

Moon observed that in both congregations, scripture had to make sense – it had to fit with what they already knew to be true. “Members looked to scripture to naturalize their understanding of God’s will, and they looked to what they knew about God to help interpret scripture.”

3.       In both congregations people had a list of does and don’ts

At City Church people sometimes denied having a list of does and don’ts, but as they talked in seemed like it actually came down to a short list. Do love God and love others. Don’t hurt people. Sin seemed to equate to being unloving or cutting people off from God’s love.

At Missionary Church people generally believed that God demanded that they follow scripture and not commit various sins – don’t lie, don’t be promiscuous, don’t be an alcoholic, don’t have gay sex. By sinning people hurt others, hurt themselves, and drove God further away.

4.       In both congregations people saw those with opposing views as wrong

Some at City Church thought that those who saw homosexuality as sinful were misguided, ignorant and fearful about homosexuality, and if they could be educated about how ordinary gay people were and how much gay people had been hurt by the church they might change their views.

At Missionary Church some saw the bible as a complicated message which was hard to understand if you were immature in your faith journey. Sometimes people who were pro-gay were ignorant and misguided about what God meant. Other times people were deceived by the pro-gay lobby.

5.       In both congregations people saw the body as earthly/separate from the sacred

In both congregations people framed the human body – and sex – as earthly, profane, fallen and very separate from what was sacred. Church debates often focused on gay sex, locating gay people in the physical and profane realm. In addition, those who were pro-gay often talked about homosexuality as biological and innate as a way of countering claims that it was a sinful choice. This also reinforced gay people’s separation from what was sacred and spiritual.

Moon observed that gay people, and their allies, seemed to be trying to move where the dividing line between body/spirit, profane/sacred was, so that they could be on the other side of it, rather than challenging the divide itself.

There was so much more that I found fascinating and I’m probably not doing the book justice. You should read it.

What does it mean for me?

“The right to be believed when one testifies as to God’s power in one’s life. The right to receive the church’s blessing for answering God’s calling…”

Moon’s summary of what gay church members seek really resonates for me. I have felt God’s presence in my life. I have a deep sense of God’s blessing of my relationship and my family.  I sense God calling me to be part of change within our church, creating a space where all are welcomed and supported to reach their potential. I have an understanding of a loving God who celebrates diversity and of Jesus who believed in radical love and sought liberation for the oppressed. This understanding has been influenced by reading scripture and learning about its context… listening to ministers and theologians… my own experiences… the still small voice… the sense of resonance and rightness in my heart of hearts.

God, Sex and Politics has reminded me that others hear that still small voice, or feel something as God’s truth in their heart of hearts,  but they have very different beliefs about God’s intentions.

There are people within my denomination who have very different theologies. We debate issues like the place of queers in the church but we don’t acknowledge we have very different understandings of what God is like and what God intends for us and the world.

I have known people who have believed that homosexuality is sinful, and they were not ignorant, deceitful or setting out to hurt people. And yet… I find myself thinking they must be misguided, ignorant about biblical contextualism, misled by the rhetoric of anti-gay lobby groups… how could they have got God’s message so wrong?

I don’t want to frame others as ignorant or malicious if they’re not. I don’t want to make judgements about whether others are really experiencing connection with God. Some of the people at City Church who thought homosexuality was sinful felt like their views weren’t heard. They were offended to be lumped in with racism and sexism (the implication of comparing their stance to things Christians have supported in the past) and they felt hurt and infuriated by the way the issue was being discussed. Is it possible to talk about this issue without someone feeling hurt and frustrated?

I can’t stand by while injustice is present in our church. I guess I have a similar bottom line to some of the people from City Church; that is, love God, love others, don’t hurt people. I know that the message that homosexuality is sinful hurts people, and I want people to be aware of that.

But, with the stories of this book to reflect on, I will continue to reflect and pray about how I can relate to those with opposing views.

And, I will continue to work to create the space where LGBTQueer people can experience God’s love and follow God’s intentions within the community of the church.

Whatever others believe, that is what I know God calls me to do.

* Almost all the time within both congregations people talked about “homosexuality” and “gay people” rather than LGBT/queer people and I have used that language here while discussing their perspectives.

*****

Still with me? Here’s part 2. 

Keeping faith and choosing love

One of the films which screened in Out Takes this year was Love Free or Die; a documentary that followed Gene Robinson. Gene stepped into the international spotlight ten years ago as the first openly gay partnered bishop in the Anglican communion.

Although I already knew a little of Gene’s story, I was shocked by some of the details. I knew that he had received death threats, but I did not know that the police had arrested a man who seemed to be on his way to Gene’s house with a sawn-off shotgun and tons of ammunition. Living his life so openly is such a courageous act.

I knew that Gene had not been invited to the 2008 Lambeth conference. I did not know that the Archbishop of Canterbury (at that time) Rowan Williams had also banned churches in England from inviting Gene to preach. Williams’ behaviour disgusted me, especially given he was supposedly trying to preserve the unity of the Anglican communion. Vilifying individuals and trying to suppress minority views is not a pathway to unity. At the time of the conference Williams said “Some of the practices of certain dioceses in the American church continue to put our relations as a communion under strain, and some problems won’t be resolved while those practices continue.” The next year, despite Williams’ pleading, a substantial majority of delegates at the US Episcopal church’s convention voted in support of the ordination of gay and lesbian priests and bishops. Basically, Williams wanted to sweep the majority of Anglican leaders in the US and Canada (and many in other places) under the carpet and ignore their concerns.

There is now an openly lesbian bishop, Mary Glasspool. After she was elected as a bishop in Los Angeles, Gene realised he no longer needed to be the openly queer voice in the house of bishops, and that perhaps he was called to a new role. He has taken up a position with the Center for American Progress, working on faith and gay rights issues. It must be a relief to let someone else take a turn as a prominent face of queers in the church.

I am part of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Currently, our church bans gay, lesbian and bisexual people from becoming ministers, elders or leaders in the church. Anyone who is in a relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman is not considered fit for these roles (although those already ordained as ministers before 2004 can continue in that role). I was a youth commissioner at the General Assembly where this ruling was passed with 65% in favour. It was a deeply painful time. I hope I never again have to experience sitting in a room with 230 people who think I’m sinful and unworthy of having the same opportunities and fulfilment that they have. That’s what the church decided: some of us are not worthy of living full and happy lives. The church makes it clear that we shouldn’t be fulfilled in love (even if we are not called to leadership, our loving relationships are regarded as sinful). If we feel God is calling us to have a leadership role in the church, we cannot offer our gifts and our service and answer that call… unless we say no to love.

Watching the footage of the debates in the Episcopalian church, I felt sad and hopeful. Sad, because their discussions made me think we are a long way behind them. I wonder if part of it is that there is a big group of gay, lesbian and bisexual clergy there. Maybe not bigger as a percentage of the church, but more faces for others to have to look into before voting. I felt hopeful as well, because it was a reminder that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Change will come. Churches in other places have found different ways to move forward together. Refusing to invite people to the conversation, as Williams did, will not lead to unity and peace. We have to talk to one another.

In association with the Love Free or Die documentary, a project called the Friends and Family Plan has been launched. It provides people with information and resources to help them to have conversations with friends or family members about gay, lesbian and bisexual people and the church. It’s an exciting concept which recognises that “Change happens most powerfully person to person – loved one to loved one.” The website is targeted towards people in the USA, but some of the resources are relevant elsewhere.

Here, in the PCANZ, all that seems to be happening is that every two years some of us (often the same few) who dissent bring another motion for the ruling to be removed, and lots of people say they wish that the issue would go away and we could have nice peaceful gatherings.

I would love our church to create more spaces for conversation. Kanohi ki te kanohi. Face to face. Meeting together and facing up to those who are affected by these issues. Not shutting anyone out because we don’t agree with them. The very slow shift in attitudes, as the church gets dragged along a little by the changing tide in society, is not enough.  We need to take active steps to move forward from this place.