Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Faith, belief, and finding community

Yes, I have been gone too long. Yes, I have some catching up to do. Sorry, it's going to have to wait....

A friend of mine recently decloaked as a fellow blogger, Ravenmoon at Becoming A Perfect Mom. Her post Not beliving, a lonely business brought me a flashback from my Church History experience with Dr. Kurt Hendel at LSTC. Here's my flashback word, with its Wikipedia reference:

Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek ἀδιάφορα "indifferent things") was a concept used in Stoic  philosophy to indicate things which were outside of moral law – that is, actions which are neither morally mandated nor morally forbidden. [emphasis added]

Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.

(And yes, I know - some of my seminary friends could do a whole sermon series on what's wrong with that definition. But it's close enough for the purpose at hand.)

I love this concept. One of the best ideas I got from seminary. It's "the stuff we agree not to argue about." It doesn't mean we agree on how we do it - only that this thing (whatever it is) will not separate us, in faith, friendship or fellowship. The opposite, I guess, of "adiaphora" is "anathema" - the stuff that is utterly rejected or "beyond the pale," as they used to say. It put names to things that I'd felt all my life.

Being a closeted gay man in the church meant that I was always the "other" in the group. I often found myself reading the Bible and looking for the Scripture passage that would somehow "vote me off the island" of salvation. (It's not a good way to read it, by the way.)

I knew, from the way I heard God's supposed words preached, that God liked "us" and didn't like "them," and while I knew that I loved God and I wanted to be like "us," I also knew that at rock-bottom, I was "them."  (Trust me, I have since learned much differently, and found great acceptance for the "thems" among us).

First, I was a former Catholic in a Lutheran church. This was definitely an us-vs-them thing! However, I received a pure inspiration one day, when someone said, "But you weren't BORN Lutheran! How can you preach effectively to life-long Lutherans?!?" The gift I believe God gave me was simply this: "Correct me if I'm wrong - but I thought Martin Luther was a former Catholic - and somehow he turned out OK..."

I was also a childless, profane and divorced man and a recovering alcoholic in a church full of happy and polite families (or so they would have had us believe). But as I threw myself into service, they came to love me despite my "rough edges" and "unfortunate earlier life."

The gay thing, though, was one from which I could never get free. Looking back over the wreckage, I'm not entirely sure that the only reasons for me to go to seminary was so (a) I could find a group of accepting and loving people in some of my professors and theologians, and (b) that the God of my misunderstanding could drop me 750 miles away from my guilt community, into a world in Hyde Park that was richly populated with faithful, celibate, deeply devout and thoroughly-gay priests, as well as faithful gay ministers and lay people.

[Note to reader: insert your own favorite "gay lay people" pun/joke here.]

They taught me the difference between "who I am" and "who or what I sleep with." They taught me alternate ways of understanding the holy words that I felt condemned me for years. And they showed me a way of being a faith-community in which homosexuality itself was adiaphora. "You love God? You enjoy the community and the ceremonies? Then come along - our God is big enough to sort all the rest of it out in the end."

We are ALL different. Some of you might well think I'm an idiot, madman, fool and free-thinker because I choose not to spend a lot of time around children! (My favorite prayer for children comes from the late storyteller Gamble Rogers: "Let them that want none have memories of not gettin' any.") That may be a difference between you and I - but it does not separate us. I value motherhood and fatherhood, even though I would not choose to participate in it.

The very fact that my friend Ravenmoon even deals with diapers - regardless if they are cloth, paper, or some future atomic-force-field variety - makes her a MUCH better person than me. (Please note: gay men have nothing on new-parents when it comes to the "ick factor"!) She also mentions a not-often-mentioned taboo - women who do not shave. For me, I could give a rat's patootie about what parts of her that do or do not get shaved - because all of these things are adiaphora to me - they do not show me her soul, and they certainly do not separate us in our beliefs.

Even the Buddhist thing just doesn't faze me. When it comes to being excluded from "the body," I have never felt from any other faith group the kind of apart-from-ness  that I have felt from wide swaths of Christianity - so their moral mandates about being "THE way and THE truth" ring more than a little hollow.

Buddhist practices and beliefs may not jive with all of mine - but I find much of the Buddhist tradition that shares ground with what I have come to know, as well. A Catholic, Father Roy D. of New York, talks about how much of the experiences he had sitting-lotus in ashrams and temples in Southeast Asia reminded him of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuit tradition in Catholicism).

Mama Cass Eliot, more than 40 years ago,  sang the words that started to set my soul free:

You're gonna be knowin'
The loneliest kind of lonely
It may be rough goin'
'Cuz to do your thing's
The hardest thing to do...

So if you cannot take my hand
And if you must be goin'
I will understand...

You gotta
Make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along!

(Can I get an "amen..."?)

I've found this thing about so-called "people of faith" (especially in the Christian variety - and yes, I tend to lump your Mormon friend into that category, Ravenmoon). As a large group, I've found they tend to subjugate the way they feel and are to the way they are supposed to feel and be. Or, to put it better, they want the way that they try to feel and be to correspond with their ideal of how a "true believer" ought to feel and be. (Again, thankfully, I have found hundreds, if not thousands, of exceptions to this broad and sweeping generalization. But I think I'm not far off the mark here.)

My experience is that the rare people-of-faith who are honest about their faith find it just as cracked and flawed as my faith seems to me. I "identify" with them, because they are broken toys too - yet they consider themselves "believers," too. So I guess that if they qualify, so can I....and that's good enough for me.

None of us are the same...in appearance or beliefs. All of us have hangups and "baggage," to be sure (I sure do, anyway). But, as the song from "Rent" says, "I'm lookin' for baggage that goes with mine." To be real, to be honest about who and what I am, always runs the risk of rejection. It also runs the risk of finding community and building relationships - which is almost always worth the risk.

Back in 1997, in one of my several copies of Richard Nelson Bolles' classic What Color Is Your Parachute?, there is an appendix of advice for "special populations" - ex-offenders, gays and lesbians, stay-at-home-moms, ex-clergy, you name it. He gives specific advice to each group - but then tells them that (other that the specific advice), their drill is the same as for the rest of us. Then he concludes each section in exactly the same way - forgive me, my copy is packed away, so I'm doing this from memory:

In your job search, you will encounter two groups of people: those who will not be bothered by [insert your issue here] and those who will be bothered by it. Your job is to say "Thank you very much, have a nice day" to the second group of  people - and then go on and find the people in the first group.

That has become my mantra, in these later years.

Back in the 60's, they actually allowed advertising for cigarettes, and one memorable campaign was for Tareyton cigarettes. It featured people with artificially-blackened eyes and the slogan "I'd rather fight than switch."

I am finding that I have become somewhat of an Anti-Tareyton-Man - I would much rather switch than fight. If you can find common ground with me, let's walk the road together. If not, then be on your way without me - don't let me hold you back from your appointed rounds; you surely shall not hold me back, either.

You also need to know that there have been remarkable instances of grace in this journey, as well. There is a man named John who I know from the recovery community here. He's a family man, a man of faith, a hail-and-well-met fellow, and a pleasure to be around. He tends to be more politically-conservative than I, and I suspect (but never have confirmed) that his church might be more than a little uncomfortable (both theologically and socially) if I showed up arm-in-arm with Chris to services on a Sunday morning.

But here's the deal: John has come to know me.  And my partner Chris. And John has come to see us as people, and I have come to see him as a friend. No, we will probably not be in the same line at the voting booth; I probably wouldn't join his church (though I'd be happy to visit, and I'd sing right along with him in the hymns of faith). But we can share large parts of our life and our recovery - because we find, and focus on, the parts of our lives that are common. And that, as they say, is close enough.

/end epistle/  :-)

I'm grateful to get to share the road with you, Ravenmoon. I would gently suggest that your beliefs are as powerful, and as deeply rooted, as any of those who have a building, creed or hymnbook - and I trust you will continue finding those fellow travelers whose baggage goes quite well with yours. Here's a music cue for both of us, filled with smiles, from my favorite bear and frog combo...