Abundant Love

Written for a Tuesday chapel service that I lead at Starr King School for the Ministry on 3/10/15

Once every six to nine months my jeans respond to thighs that won’t quit by, well, quitting. So, I take myself to the one store that sells jeans that fit close to how I’d like them to and buy a new pair. When I’m lucky, I’m in and out in under 30 minutes and walk out with pants basically identical to the ones I’m replacing. When I’m not lucky I wind up in the fitting room for far too long, and eventually a sales associate starts to try to bring me things. Several times this has ended in a strange and quite uncomfortable interaction between me and the aforementioned sales clerk.

 

See, that store is always coming out with new versions of jeans that are supposed to have some sort of magic tummy concealing powers, and the sales associates – bless them, just doing their jobs – are often trying to make that a selling point. I’m not always at my kindest or most understanding when I’ve just tried on several pairs of jeans that don’t fit. Notably once a confoundingly thin sale’s associate’s gushing about how the spandex panel in these jeans would ~*magically*~ control my tummy and make me look thin resulted in me looking at her, looking at my tummy, and looking back at her only to say “you think that’ll work?”

 

I’m not mad at her, I never was. I’m mad at a society that wants me to try to disappear. I’m hurt by a society that wants all of us to hide – to wrap ourselves up in some restrictive physical, emotional, or spiritual construct in order to “fit”. I am resistant to a society that doesn’t see that it isn’t just ok that we’re not all the same – it is amazing.

 

We talk a lot in our communities about how to be welcoming to folks from all walks of life, how to feel like home for people who have never been home, how to be safe for people so commonly hurt by an unsafe culture, and I’m so glad we do this, but how often do we talk about coming home to ourselves? I know that for me it’s so much easier to be open and accepting and loving towards other people.

I have almost endless space in my heart for other people’s flaws – perceived or otherwise. I love being with people who have different experiences than I do, I love what I see in others the same way I love flowers – the things other people might find imperfect I find beautiful. I am grateful for their variety. I’m the first to push back when a friend or acquaintance is being hard on themselves. I think it’s my job to show up for my people in their struggles. And…sometimes I don’t think any of that stuff applies to me. I’ve spent years unlearning internalized fatphobia, biphobia, femme phobia, and stigmatization of mental health issues, and still…some days I wake up and I wish I could just be normal. Some days this body and this life feel like too much. Some days I want a break from being me. I bet we’ve all had those days.

 

We all have these things. The stuff we hide as best we can and hope nobody notices. The stuff we were taught was “wrong” about us, that would make people not like us, not love us. We are fat and queer and trans and Black and brown. We’re people who are chronically ill, and who experience mental health problems, and who interact with the world in a way different from the “norm”. We are people with bodies and lives that we are supposed to believe are wrong. We’re told to hide, to disappear, to blend the best we can. To kill pieces of ourselves so that someone else may think we’re ok.

 

But we are ok. We’re better than ok. We’re beautiful.

 

We are – as Pslam 139 says – fearfully and wonderfully made. We are stardust. We are the universe experiencing itself. We are, each of us, a miracle.

 

On days when I wake up unsure that I can handle being myself, there are two simple things I always turn to: lipstick and hip hop.

 

Now, these particular things may not work for you, but hear me out.

 

Lipstick can be armor when I need it to be. I look at myself in the mirror and I’m not ready to be me, but one swipe of bright red reminds me of my strength, my vibrancy, my love of myself. I take the time to decorate my body, in general, in honor of my love for myself. Writ larger this means I get tattoos and buy dresses I love and in general arrange my presentation in a way that reminds me of who I know myself to be.

Maybe I can’t feel my Divine light that particular morning, but I smooth on some lipstick and I feel like it starts to show back up. Even on my best days, I am bright and loud for a reason: in a world that wants me to disappear – that spends a lot of time trying to literally get me to take up less space – I refuse. I’m here, I matter, and you will see me.

 

As for hip hop, well, I could give you a whole other sermon on what hip hop as a genre means to me, but I’ll try to be brief. Some mornings call for a beat that makes me want to dance. For lyrics about resistance, about thinking you’re the best in a world that doesn’t really care about you. Some mornings call for “If I ever wasn’t the greatest, I must have missed it”

 

Some mornings call for the poet Kendrick Lamar telling me over and over again “I love myself, I gotta get up, life is more than suicide.”

 

What gets you through? We gotta get up, life is more than suicide.

 

Fearfully and beautifully made, children the Divine, stardust that has figured out how to experience itself, walk in your light. Be you, you’re the only one who can. Find something that reminds you of you, a way to remember on the days that are hard. Listen to your favorite music, put on your favorite outfit, get up, dance. Love yourself like you love the world. Love yourself like you love God. Be brave when you can, be you loudly and fiercely, make space in the world for someone like you, and know that your community has got your back. How could anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful? Your beauty is abundant. Your worth is abundant. You matter so much.

 

And if anyone tries to tell you that you don’t, that you’re not, quote the poet Saul Williams

 

“Never question who I am

God knows, and I know God personally.

In fact, she lets me call her me.”

Preaching some familiar material

I preached a version of my “God Doesn’t Give a Fuck About Your Respectability Politics” essay a couple weeks ago and was able to record the audio while I did so. It’s pretty similar to the initial essay, but different in some notable ways and also spoken! Give it a listen (rough transcript below).

In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.

 

In a chapter on “Disturbing the Peace” Bill Doulos, interpreting Jordan’s parables writes “Shall we be timid lest we arouse [a] threatening giant and incur its wrath? Or shall we wreate such a nonviolent ruckus that the state will give in to our demands just to be rid of us? If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men. The God Movement is not made up of such stuff.”

 

When we are passionate about and active for justice in this profoundly unjust world, we do not – we should not – have time or space for respectability politics, and yet they appear over and over again. We are cautious about who we’re seen as, we speak “nicely” – we unlearn our accents and stop using slang, we don’t swear and try to never appear too angry, or too emotional. Even as we claim to speak for the most downtrodden we rarely speak with them. Jesus hung out with prostitutes – when was the last time you saw a leader of a religious movement for justice even talking *about* sex work as something other than a tragedy? Are our congregations safe for sex workers? Safe for trans* folks? Safe for people who aren’t educated like we are? Who don’t talk like we do? Is our space safe for freaks? Can we come together and be truly ourselves?

 

Doulos says “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?”

 

It is easy, and altogether too common, to look back at movements past and see black men in suits marching arm in arm and think that somehow they won the battles they did by means of a well tailored suit. We don’t like to look at the pictures of those same men in those same suits being beaten and imprisoned for years before anyone bothered to listen. It is easy and common to think that as soon as we convince everyone that gay people are “just like them” the violence and hatred will stop. But what does it mean to be “just like them?” and who do we have to leave out to move in to power in the way that suggests.

 

To quote again “If our enlightened society calls this behavior “ugly,” we must remember that God has a different notion of beauty. Perhaps the measured wisdom of our culture is itself ugly and oppressive.”

 

God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics, and, frankly, neither do I.

 

I do not mean to say that one should never employ them, nor that no one has ever made useful progress by means of working in the system. I mean to say that if we want the kingdom of God, if we want Justice with a capital J then we have to get over trying to please a system that is built on keeping people out. Maybe we will make more money never saying anything that really unsettles power, maybe we will be safer, but I can see no path to true justice that doesn’t involve upending the entire concept of some people being “correct” and others not. In my space, in my movement, in my work I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.

On “In-Between-Ness”

I think I was fifteen when I first really realized that I was queer. I guess before then there were flickers of it, but mine isn’t a story of being a small child who “knew” or had any kind of “obvious giveaways” (whatever those even are). I was fifteen and my life-long best friend was telling me about one of her friends from school. She said, “she’s bisexual” and I said. “wait, what? That’s an option?”

I usually stop that story there, mentioning something about how the label has changed since then but, yeah, totally, once I realized you didn’t have to be exclusively heterosexual or homosexual I was golden. I don’t think any story that wraps up that neatly is ever entirely true.

One of the complications of having an “in between” sexuality is being told over and over that you must choose. Worse, having your whole sexuality defined by the apparent gender of your current partner. Or by how many times you’ve had sex with men at all. I think you get good at defending your in-between-ness, at forcing there to be grey where the world only wants to see black and white. It’s not exactly a skill that’s fun to learn; it’s painful to fear rejection for being queer at all and then also face erasure and rejection in the queer communities you thought were there for you. Increasingly though, I think it’s a skill that is useful far beyond its necessity.

It seems that learning to make space in a supposedly clear dichotomy has made it easier for me to sit with other types of “in-between”. Most clearly, it has opened up for me the option of a spirituality and theological location that itself feels very in between. These experiences share much in common. I’ve been repeatedly asked to choose: “Do you believe in God or not?” And I’m constantly being read as whatever I’ve most recently been closest to. It’s strange to find myself both too theistic for atheists and not theistic enough for theists. I think it’s a particularly queer approach to the Divine, and one that has given me greater freedom and comfort than trying to squeeze myself into boxes that were quite simply the wrong shape. I get to say yes. I get to say both/and. I also get to say “no”, and “yes, but…”.

Very few things are clearly yes or no, this or that, and I think that in our constant struggle to be easily definable we lose some of the beautiful mess of reality and the Divine. In ways that I never expected, realizing that in between was an option has opened up the world to me and shown me beauty and love well beyond measure. I wonder what else we’ve been missing? What other as yet unseen freedoms and insights live in the in between?