Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent: Finding God at Home, and Home in God

In a comment to my posting yesterday about Michael Witbank’s BYU art exhibit, my e-friend and sympathetic reader Julie Arms reminds me of something important—namely, of the hard work many gay-inclusive people of faith are putting into the effort to open church doors, minds, and hearts. I responded to Julie’s reminder with a note that, in this advent season, I need to remember to thank these stalwart allies for their important efforts on my behalf and on behalf of LGBT people in general. Advocates like Julie take blows from some church leaders and some people of faith, just as we who are gay often do: and they do this for us.

Just yesterday, I read a good posting by another e-friend, Mattheus Mei, on his Leonardo’s Notebook blog, about a Lutheran church in Columbia, SC, that is intentionally reaching out to gay believers ( I thanked Mattheus for calling attention to the gay-inclusive policies of this church. When we don’t live in a particular area, we often don’t know the good news about what some churches in that area are doing on behalf of the LGBT community.

Perhaps because it’s advent time in many liturgical traditions, I’ve been thinking lately about my own quarrel with some churches, and about what I expect from churches. What may not be clear to all readers when I critique religious traditions is that this is a lover’s quarrel. It is for me, at least.

I am profoundly disappointed in the churches, insofar as the face they show me and other gay persons is demonic and not salvific, because I care. Not because I want to attack and destroy.

Because I care. And what I care about seems, to my simple-minded way of thinking, exceedingly simple. I care about church as home, family, welcoming and inclusive community. What I seek in churches—and what I daresay many gay folks seek there (and what most folks seek in churches)—is that churches fulfill their fundamental calling, a calling to provide nurturing, loving community that is home and family to us in our spiritual journeys through the world.

Because the strange circularity of life has brought me back to the city in which I grew up—at least, until I was 8 years old—I often think about my family’s life in the critical period in which I began school. The house in which we lived then is not far from the one in which I live now. My grandmother’s house—a symbolic house, since it was a stable and always loving home for us during my growing-up years—is between the two houses.

For reasons that have only gradually become apparent to me, many of my narrative poems and aborted short stories center on that growing-up house that my family left in 1958 to move briefly to Louisiana, my father’s home state, and then to south Arkansas. What happened to me in that house of my childhood was, in many respects, decisive for my entire life.

In the final year in which we lived in the childhood house, my father abandoned us for a good bit of the year. When he returned home at Christmastime that year, he did so because he had been in a serious car accident in California. He needed family. He needed my mother to take care of him.

Within a few days after his return, I accompanied my father to his law office. As I sat there, I happened to hear him tell someone on the phone that he had been with another woman when he wrecked his car in northern California. In all innocence, I went home and mentioned this to my mother.

All hell broke loose. My parents quarreled, and my father told me at the end of the fight that he was not my father—that I was not his son, because I always took my mother’s side.

It was not really news to me that I was not the son my father wanted. He had made no secret of his disdain for my bookishness, my “feminine” ways, the ease with which I cried when a movie or book moved me, my terror at carnival rides or frightening shows, my inability to excel at the sports my brother Simpson, a year younger, played with ease.

Still, I had never heard the words that I knew brooded in his heart—the ugly words of repudiation: you are not my son. For the rest of my father’s life, I was never able to bridge the gap, to be the son he wanted me to be. I was never able to learn to love him adequately beyond the hurt. I could not be what he wanted: a manly man made in his image, a mirror into which he could look and see his best qualities (as he imagined them) reflected.

In short, my childhood comprised a serious wound, right at the center of my being. As do most of our childhoods, in very specific ways that differ from one life to another.

These are the kinds of wounds we look for church to heal. When our families of origin hurt us to the core of our being—and they inevitably do so, in all of our lives—we hope not to have the hurt replicated by our families of choice, including our religious communities of choice (and of a choice that chooses us, of vocation).

For too many of us who are gay, church echoes the parental (and familial) repudiation that is a crucial part of our formative life stories. Steve was deeply scarred by our savage treatment at a Benedictine college in North Carolina—and, in particular, by a meeting he had with the abbot of the monastery that owned that college, after I had been hounded out of my teaching post and not long before he was dismissed on spurious grounds of financial exigency.

What the abbot, the father, the abba of the community, did to him hurt him to the quick because Steve’s family has longstanding Benedictine ties. His father’s two sisters are Benedictine nuns; a great-aunt in the same family was also a Benedictine. The Benedictine communities in Minnesota, both male and female, are full of his cousins. His family came to Minnesota with the first Benedictines at St. John’s. They have lived for generations near the monastery, which is the historic center of their lives of faith.

When the Benedictine abbot in North Carolina spent a solid hour screaming at Steve, threatening him, shaking his finger in Steve’s face, Steve was shocked. He had never seen a religious behave this way. That was precisely the phrase he used when he came home and told me about the meeting. He was in tears—something that is rare in Steve’s life. He is less given to emotional expressions than I am.

This savage behavior by a Benedictine abbot hurt precisely because it was a familial event: it was an expulsion from family. Steve’s experience of attending Benedictine schools as a boy was idyllic, in contrast to the Catholic-school experiences many adults report. His memories of the nuns and their school are happy ones, ones centered on praying, singing, and learning—never on condemnation, threats, and expulsion.

Steve’s familial wounds are different from mine. His father was always affirming, as is his mother, perhaps because their lives were/are so deeply rooted in that Benedictine tradition of praying, singing, and loving—and not judging, condemning, and expelling.

He does have siblings, though, who find themselves unable to affirm him, or to accept me. And this hurts. It hurts him that my nieces and nephews dote on me, while some of his do not even know him, since their parents have deliberately sought to keep their children from him. And it hurts that these siblings are the staunchest believers in the family, the self-professed orthodox Catholics.

The point of this meditation? Churches should be what our families often fail to be. They should be family. They should be home. These are minimal expectations of what church ought to be. And they are also what church is all about. These are the ultimate expectations of what church ought to be, if it wants to claim valid connection to the gospel.

Advent does not bring to my mind hope for some miraculous intrusion of the divine into our everyday lives. This season inevitably leads me to reflect on the homely ways in which the divine is already there in our lives—ways that we overlook as we hunger for miraculous intrusion.

Homely, as in a warm house to come home to at the end of the day. As in candles in windows when it grows dark outside earlier and earlier. As in family and friends who care enough to cook a meal for us, to set a table for us, to smile and hug us when we come through the door. As in bread, wine, salt, oil, water, the basics of life that become vehicles of encounter with the divine in sacramentally oriented religious traditions.

We value these things all too little. Advent calls us to remember them and their significance in our lives. This is why I do not capitalize the word advent: it is, to my way of thinking, about the homely things in which God comes to us far more than it is about miraculous intrusion.

About family, for instance. About what churches should be and can be, but often forget to be. And about those we need to thank for pushing the churches to be what they proclaim they are—even for us who are gay and lesbian.