The Blinding Light of An Image of God

In our striving, in and through our various faith systems, to create a pervasive, active sense of radical welcome that moves us to a just, compassionate, egalitarian world, a central theme in our framework is this thing we call the imago dei: the image of God.

In Hebrew, the originating concept of the image of God is phrased as tselem Elohim: צֶ֫לֶם אֱלֹהִים. Elohim is the term used to refer to God. The word, tselem, like all Hebrew words, carries layers of meaning. From a root signifying, to shade, the word is meaningfully understood as a shadow, resemblance, representative image, a phantom, image, or implication of something; in this case, of God. There is much here to look into more deeply, if we dare to do so.

What we can read here—and, indeed, many have read—is that our likeness to God is like that of a shadow to the light which forms it. In other words, at a certain angle, from a certain perspective, we are creatures who are a shadowy resemblance of God, something that suggests—perhaps, hints at—the essence of God: this, in the same way a shadow points to the light which casts it. The shadow is not the light. More, the shadow cannot exist without the light. We could also say, more pointedly, that the light needs the shadow in order to be seen—to be distinguished and discerned. If all is light, we see only light. And, we go blind.

Explicit in all of this is a central revelation: this image of God is not a physical thing. Moreover, the phrasing “tselem Elohim” throughout the verses referring to humans, does not contain indicators of the definite article, “the.” Therefore, the text does not say, “The image of God” at all. Rather, the verbiage is “An image of God”—perhaps, an image God had in mind, a representative image God possessed; an envisioned thing; one of many. We earth-beings are individual creations God imagined, envisioned, and made, much like an artist images, then creates, a drawing or painting. It is the artist’s image, but is decidedly not the artist. Nonetheless, it carries, always, something of the artist in it. More, the image, itself, is always and ever, IN the artist. Thus, we can say we are in God, and God is in us.

At a deeper level, we can surmise that there is no definite article, “the,” for God or for the image because there is not, and cannot be, a single image for God. God cannot be reduced to a single image, concept, or manifestation. By extension, then, the same is true for any image God has of us. We are images of God’s imagining, intended to bear some resemblance of God in the world—some essence that, itself, points back to our Creator. So, we ask ourselves: what is the essence of this image of God we were created to bear forth in the world?

If we are shadowy resemblances of God, if we are the shade God casts on the world, then what is our purpose? I think we can glean that our purpose is that of the shadow: to point to, or direct attention to, the light that is our source. More, we are, perhaps, to make brighter the core of light within us. We are images that make clear there is a light that causes us to be, that makes us visible and distinguishes us, one from another. Thus, the essence of God that we point to—that we carry forth into the world—is spiritual in nature, intangible, and most assuredly, relational. It is our interaction with one another, our relationality, that makes our essence, our resemblance to the essence of God, accessible and tangible in the world we inhabit.

I am enticed to wonder: what if we were able to really embrace this concept? How might we greet and interact with one another if we took to heart that we are God’s envisioned images, creations ever pointing back to the Light that formed us? Not just some of us, but all of us? Each of us AN image of God.

How might we be transformed if we were to accept that even a shadow bears a point of light within it—that, at its center, even a shadow bears the light that birthed it? How might we treat ourselves and each other if we realize we, too, are resemblances bearing something of the Light of our Creator? It is, to me, a rather terrifying truth to consider…perhaps, this is what it means to stand before God, trembling in awe, as there is profound responsibility within such a realization; but, it is also equally exhilarating and inviting, potentially calling to our deepest longings.

Would we embrace, in the passing of the peace, the person who seems to be talking to their-self and appears a bit disheveled by our standards? How might we respond to the bearded person who enters our doors wearing a stunning dress and combat boots…or the apparently pregnant person, equally bearded, wearing a suit and tie? Could we recognize, in the homeless person we pass by, the grumpy person in line at the grocery store, the person who stole our wallet, the shadowy resemblance of the Holy Light that cast them? Could we recognize, in our own perfectly imperfect selves, the sacred Light that makes us, too, visible? Would we be able to see an image pointing us to the awe-inspiring Source, and lifting our heads seeking, stare full-faced into the Light? Would we allow ourselves, even for a moment, to gaze into the glaring brightness of that Light, squinting in joyous desire to see even more deeply?

Or, forgetting we are already in the light and the light is in us, would we turn away, fearing we’ll go blind?


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Explorative Musings on the Insufficient Politics of Inclusion (Part One)

Include: from the Latin root, includere, to shut-in; 1. to shut up, enclose;
contain between or within, as a whole does any parts or elements; 2. to place
in an aggregate, class, category, or the like; 3. to contain as a subordinate
element, (biology, geology, metallurgy) to contain a body or particle that is
recognizably distinct from the body or substance in which it is embedded.

Movement One—to shut up, enclose, contain between or within:
I first learned about inclusion as a child following eagerly behind my grandparents, learning everything I could absorb, as we went about rock-hounding and fossil-hunting all over Arizona. Traipsing around desert lands, dried creek beds, and mountains, discovering and looking deeply into the material evidence of an interconnected cosmos made tangible everywhere captured some deep yearning within me and held it. Some abiding longing for connection; understanding; origins; place. Perhaps, even belonging. What we learn from nature, if we turn our attention, never ceases to teach us. Gleanings from nature work on me, root into and shape, more and more, how I see the world.
Inclusion, essentially, refers to any material body that is trapped within another in its formation. Included bodies are distinctly different from the body they inhabit. They stand out. Sometimes, stunningly beautiful, nonetheless, they are enclosed, contained as a subordinate element within a larger whole. Included bodies are, by definition, not part of the thing that houses them. They are, perhaps, tolerated by the surrounding body, as their embedding cleaves a defined, but limiting space. Inclusions are contained.
As I got older, I learned about inclusion in the world. Through experience, I learned being included meant being absorbed, squeezed and conformed into something different, something not like me. I learned there were consequences to inclusion—fractures, confinements, losses of essential pieces. I am not alone. Others have learned this as well.

Movement Two—an aggregate, class, category, or the like:    
The framing idea of “inclusion” has dominated the rhetoric of movements for justice—especially, the LGBTQ movement for equality. If what we are seeking is, in fact, inclusion, then we have been successful.
The evidence of our success: an entire collective of diverse peoples, have indeed been included: trans/gender-expansive persons; all who are women; bisexual and pansexual persons; and all queer and trans persons of color, alike, share the same inclusion—we have been shut in, enclosed, and tolerated into a movement for equality that reflects the dominant culture and is not our own; a movement that is centered within a cultural history of constructed norms and ideologies that become the default measure of our progress. The lives of the rest of us, our experiences, and our interests, have been compressed into an overarching, homogenizing “gay” narrative: the aggregate class somehow, still, superordinate to the rest of us, the aggregate-of-the-aggregate.  Our voices and our stories exist at the farthest reaches, framed by a larger assimilationist bedrock. The gay rights movement for inclusive equality includes all of us, different-of-the-different, as the subordinate class at the margins.
Perhaps, the reason we struggle to create a society of equitable diversity is precisely the result of the language, and thus the thinking, we use to frame it. We have become subject to the language we use.
This is understandable; we are steeped in culturally transmitted, rhetorical conditioning:  colonialist capitalism, the culture of “whiteness,” the elitist myth of the American Dream, patriarchy-preserving science, suppositions of normalcy and deviance, ruling class Democracy, universalizing liberalism, and the misogynistic, racist, androcentric ideals that these systems of knowledge and power affirm and preserve. These ideals include into us, our psyches, worldviews and ways of being; they embed themselves, included material contained in our bodies—personal and collective—we carry them around, unconsciously, even as they cleave us, until we become aware something profoundly vital and visceral has been torn. We strive for change using the same systems and practices that mete out our oppression.
Intentional, reflective attention to the language that forms our efforts for change is the only way to create something different—something that frees, rather than shuts in, all of us.

Movement Three—to contain as subordinate element a particle or body that is distinct:
Words matter. Words are thoughts; thoughts are words. Words forge beliefs; have power. Especially, when we unwittingly turn them on ourselves.
I stir uncomfortably, inwardly resisting the language we seem to assimilate, almost unconsciously, without real reflection. Some words creep into our language, practically bellowing and hollering the unconscious acquiescence that moves external nomenclature to internal lexicon.
People of trans experience…trans-identified…gender non-conforming…preferred pronouns. These words consternate me. There are others even more troubling. Such is the plight of the subordinated—always sifting through the linguistic table scraps scattered about the ruling-class storehouse, searching for language that fits our needs. The language of revolution. Left groping, the language of inclusion sticks in my throat like bad food I’ve been taught to believe is good. I long for something more.
             Life seems to compel me toward an almost nagging impulse to turn again—to reflect, to question, to look more and more inward, to probe a little deeper, searching always for what will suffice, what seems real and meaningful. Half measures are meaningless. Transition is like that it seems. Never one-and-done. Never a discrete, finite thing. Transformation is so much more than a terminal series of easily distinguishable events. True for people and for worlds. Once consented to, once an opening is made, there is a rippling of interactive movements, widening, expanding outward and returning inward again toward deeper realizations of self and world.

A body that is distinct: distinct living bodies; enspirited; infused with self-understanding.
I am, among other attributes, qualities and quirks, a person who is trans—not trans-identified, as if I simply relate to being trans or comprehend it. While there are many paradigms and systems in our culture I choose not to conform to, while there are forces I resist with every thread of attention and intention I can weave together into a cohesive, active response, I am not simply choosing not to conform; I am choosing daily to accept and affirm my own gender self-understanding. I am an embodied person, endowed with identity, infused with a persistent is-ness of personhood, in a state of perpetual being, longing to become and belong and be in interconnected, interdependent relationship with others, with nature, and with the world I inhabit. I am a distinct body in a world with other distinct bodies. My body is powerful, fragile, odd and marvelous, perfectly imperfect. I am a person, doing the best I can to live, grow, thrive and contribute in a world that values sameness as a means for maintaining power for the few through divisiveness among the many. I grow increasingly resistant to inclusion. I am not alone.
We are all distinct, individuated, enspirited bodies, endowed with identity and personhood. We are not meant for inclusion. We are meant for more. No inclusion into a homogenized collective status quo can erase or minimize our individual selfhoods or value. More, a politics of inclusion will never move us toward the just liberation we are seeking. To create something different, we have to think something different. We have to envision, dream, language, and speak something different.
We were not meant for inclusion, for enclosure. We were meant—all of us, without hindrance and without bias—to be set free, unbound, liberated to be and become fully, distinctly, who we are.

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Us and Them, Within and Without …

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They.

                                                                                      Rudyard Kipling, “A Friend of the Family”

The pervasive belief in “us and them” is killing us. In every possible way—from slow, subtle and not-so-subtle, psycho-spiritual death to actual, targeted violence. The sad truth is, though, this is nothing new.

Throughout history, our evolved human survival-imperative ability to discriminate—to distinguish between things and categorize friend or foe, healthy berries or poison, novel event or dangerous situation—has served equally to divide us as persons, groups, and nations, and to perpetuate a fearfulness of difference that seeks to other the different, colonize them, exploit them where possible, and erase them. Nothing new.
Yet, now, there are more and more of us humans, more and more complicated social structures. The definitions of who constitutes “us” and “them” have become more narrow. Socio-culturally, we have become increasingly confused about the features of likeness and sameness, thus experiencing a profound forgetting of, at least, two important realities of our existence: that likeness has never meant sameness, and, that difference is the fundamental underpinning and essential strength of the natural world. Colonialism and capitalism are built on and prosper from the exploitation and manipulation of difference. From gender to race, caste to ability, age and, even, education, difference maintains and legitimizes the powerful.

The element of difference is the source metal out of which an amalgamation of beliefs, codes, norms, and social systems are smithed in power-preserving fires that benefit the dominating few and disinherit the many. Snuffing out the forge of pathological sameness is about changing the beliefs, codes, unexamined assumptions, and norms that fuel the fire itself. The work of justice-making is about creating a groundswell of conscious awareness of, then changing, the underlying belief systems and social codes that make up the forge on which our lives, and our very bodies, are hammered and shaped. This is more crucial now than ever.

Or, as David Berreby observes, his book, Us and Them: “Today it is clear as never before that human kinds—those categories we use to explain human acts on every scale, from a morning walk (“Why were those men wearing turbans?”) to all of history (“Is war inevitable?”)—don’t depend on what people are, but on what people believe.

We, as trans/gender-expansive and queer folks, know a little something about the ways an intricate web culturally transmitted assumptions, beliefs, and codes become the manipulated means of “othering,” divisiveness, intentional disenfranchisement and oppression. We know because, in order to survive, we have had to intentionally dismantle all that culturally transmitted, assimilated nonsense about what it is to be a person, how persons come into being, and how we all discern who we are. We know.

Yet, in important ways—ways that, ultimately, harm us all—we forget this. And, as humans throughout time have done, when we forget the deeper truths of our condition, we recapitulate them—on others and, worse, on ourselves. We as trans/gender-variant folks know in intimate ways that people come into the world as persons and that it is culture that defines, codifies, and rewards or vilifies persons based on pre-existing, constructed beliefs about normalcy or deviance, superiority or inferiority, etc. We know these arbitrary norms reflect, always, the dominant group. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out so powerfully (Between the World and Me): “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

This is true on all levels of intersectional oppression. The constructs of gender and sex are the fraternal twins of androcentrism and sexism—an insidious coupling of fragility and fear of impotence and irrelevance. The gender binary and homosexuality are the children of androcentrism sneaking around with a misunderstood, but no less enticing, mythic hetero-human, all painted and primped, strutting seductively, adorned with flashy bobbles and shiny beads. The myth of an Arian race is the child of anti-Semitism. The idea of “whiteness” and all it’s assumptions are the offspring of racism. The lineage goes on.

Yet, we forget. It’s not all that surprising, really. Humans are prone to forgetting if we’re not attentive to remembering. It’s as natural as our good-berry-bad-berry discriminating faculties. These instincts assured our survival.

But, honestly, I am wearied of watching our collective forgetting cannibalize us from within. Lately, I am concerned by a pervasive lack of awareness in our practice of change-seeking, that people, writ large, are not the problem: we—us, people—are in fact the answer to the dehumanizing, discriminatory systems we have all inherited through cultural transmission. We are all the recipients of culture. The targets of our efforts for change are the particular, and collective, ideologies of difference and normativity—the contrived beliefs regarding human nature, normalcy and deviance—intentionally preserved, curated, and manipulated to serve and benefit the powerful. The hindrance of a just and compassionate society is not the people, themselves, and who they are; it is what they believe.

Yes, it is true that some people are the problem because they are people who preserve certain oppressive ideas, curate them, and manipulate them for their own self-serving agendas.

This is certainly true of gender and race. But cis-gender people are not the problem; systemic misogyny, institutionalized sexism and transphobia are the problems. White people, in total, are not the problem; enculturated, systematized “white-ness” is the problem. These ideologies were, indeed, crafted and institutionalized by some affluent, self-serving, power-obsessed men whose light skin would be denoted “white” and whose bodies were iconicized as the superior human form, ordained by God (who is presumed “male”)—these, the false ideals heralded as all that is good, and right, and intelligent and “naturally” better. We know this.

But, in all our oppression(s), our half-healing pain, and our fatigue, we forget.
We forget that these are the very iconic beliefs we, ourselves, had to examine, interrogate, and reframe for the sake of our own survival, authenticity, and integrity precisely because we, too, were born into these frameworks and assimilated them—more, we must continue the ongoing process of social analysis proceeding, first, from personal examination of the layers of conditioning at work within us. For the truth is, there is reciprocity of affect and effect: what has been transmitted to others has been, also, transmitted to us with similar results, internally and externally. When we forget this, we are doomed to recapitulate the systems and practices that oppress us. More, when we forget, we stymie our own efforts.

This is so because the creation of a truly just and compassionate society relies on transforming the people—collectively, and writ large—enticing, encouraging, and inspiring ourselves and others to awaken the just, compassionate, egalitarian core within and live that into the world we inhabit. In such a world, the relative minority that feeds itself on separatism, greed, and facilitation of intolerance and hate will have no foothold. They will crumble under the weight of their own inhumanity and their mythological false ideals will fall into the recesses of antiquity. The creation of the just society we seek begins with us—within ourselves—and it moves out from there in ever-widening, increasingly influential spirals of relationality. We cannot cry we are hated if we, too, act in hate. We cannot call out oppression if we, too, oppress one another from within. We cannot protest exclusion if we, also, exclude.

It is a simplistic socio-political and cultural framework that oppresses us as trans and queer people. We cannot dismantle that framework with an equally simplistic analysis. More, we cannot achieve the justice we seek by making use of the systems, processes, and practices of our oppressors.
I long for healing of the breaches in our own communities, but also for a meaningful process by which we lead by example, envision and model this new thing we wish, work, and hope for achieving. And, I long for partners and allies in the work of vision-crafting ways to practice the thing we dream of, so that we all can be, collectively, a part of making a just, values-based, compassionate society a lived reality. I likely have more questions and curiosities around how to do this than I have answers. But I am willing and increasingly eager to be in community with others trying to figure it out and work together.

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Keeping My Eyes Open

(adapted from a journal entry written the day after Passover)

It is the day after Pesach—the Passover.
It is 4 days after the accident: the thing, the unexpected force, that by all the laws of physics should have torn my family—my spouse and our son—from my life, from in fact, the world all together. Thankfully, other forces were at work. Life-saving forces. The Laws of Physics, it seems, are inextricably bound to the Laws of Passover.

In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks of keeping her eyes open—of straining to remain open-eyed and looking intently for those “appearances that catch at [her] throat.” Likewise, I think, to see glimpses of the laws of Passover at work in the world around us requires keeping one’s eyes open, looking with searching intention to the things that catch at one’s throat.

Pondering this condition, I am reminded of a thing the rabbis say: that the whole world—the universe, in fact—is in the Torah; to see, we just have to keep turning it. Since the Torah is, first and foremost, a scroll, “turning it” means moving attentively through it, turning and rolling it from passage to passage, seam to seam, reading and re-reading; eyes wide open.

And, for what do we look, wide-eyed and searching intently: signs, glimpses, hidden-in-plain-sight indicators of the physics of Pesach. For the blood of some act of sacrifice, no matter how small, splashed on a door frame; the presence of still-living, first-borns. More, for reedy marshes wind-blown dry enough for crossing. For fresh manna in the morning, enough for the day entire. For sustaining water springing forth, at a tap, from desert rock. For evidence of clouds of smoke by day and fire by night.

I look for these. Again and again. I search in trees and streams, in wood and glen, in faces and in the skies over my head. I look in world and in Torah. And, I look—straining to keep my eyes open—for glimpses of these elemental evidences, these spirit-forces of Passover physics, in the stories of people who persist and who, in persisting, find some sign of God present among them.

Perhaps, a life is a scroll—a fragile parchment-skin, wrapped loosely around the grounding handles of earth and community, eternity and temporal now-ness, written in ever-turning and returning relationship and longing to be read.
Then, a life, too, can be read eyes-wide-open: turning and turning again, seeking after signs of Passover-physics at work in the bare and remarkable persistence of being. The appearance of each day, renewed and breathed-in against all odds. Strange movements of providence, unexpected, just-the-thing needful for hopeful going on to the next day. Perhaps, even, the mangled mess of metal, forced by carelessness through grass, trees, and wire boundaries, backwards, down a ravine to be caught and held by a stand of trees, barbed-wire fencing still clinging to its wheels: this testament, written in an instant, empty of the bodies who walked away. The only blood on the door frame, the tiny smear of a scraped knuckle.

I keep my eyes open to these things. I strain and strive to keep looking, turning again, looking closer still.

If a life is a scroll—or at least, a seam in a vast unfolding of a larger telling of the interdependent being-ness of every created thing—then, perhaps, not only is the whole universe in the Torah, but the Torah is in the whole of the world, shot through it all like green through the eternal springing of the stem: and, all our body-scrolls an individual haggadah in an ongoing recounting of Sacredness passing-over, hovering, brooding over the evolving telling of it—seam bound to seam, passage after passage, continuing Holy revelatory self-disclosure, the never-ending writing of the Law of Sacred Pesach Physics disclosed again and again in the remarkable, throat-catching persistence of being.

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On the Willows

[This sermon was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Winston-Salem, March 19, 2017] Reference text: Psalm 137

In the Christian church, it is the season of Lent. From Ash Wednesday to Easter morning, we move near a more inward contemplation of God, of our missteps, our distracted failures to listen deeply, even in our longing. We linger in the desert of our private prayers, withdrawing from outer world to inner world—choosing to enter the wilderness place with our understanding of God, searching our hearts, removing barriers, seeking a deeper sense of ourselves in reflection with the Holy.

As a transgender person of faith, I often feel as if I am in a perpetual season of Lent, as if the daily conditions of marginalization require me to make time and space for spiritual respite and reflection—or risk coming a bit unhinged. We are, after all, people living in a very real and oppressive exile. An ancient people, spanning globe and history in continuous transit across culture and experience, ours is an ongoing story of persecution and survival, exploitation and resilient persistence, attempted erasure and celebratory thriving.

Increasingly, it seems as if all the means ever employed against us — legally, religiously, socially and culturally — have melded into one big gear-grinding, speeding force of moving metal. We scarcely jump to one side of the street before the thing turns again, barreling toward us like a heat-seeking missile on wheels. It is staggering at times how efficiently the tools of racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, classism, nationalism and religious intolerance have become so cleanly cobbled together toward the disenfranchisement of so many. As it has been, so it is now, we gender-expansive folks are caught in the machinery of oppression. These forces have always been with us in the unholy triad of white supremacy, colonialism and market capitalism, but the organized combination of them continues to reach new and more troubling efficacy. Daily, now, the more of these markers a person carries on their skin, the harder it is to safely leave the house, let alone cross the street.

And, yet, here we are. Here, we survive and persist.

Like our Psalm-writing Hebrew cousins, we know a little something about exile. More, we live under the constant criminalization of our bodies and our self-understanding. This is bad enough. But we are also equally subjected to the double-edged sword of criminalization and exploitation… discrimination and commodification… exclusion and exotification. You may have noticed, transgender folks are the hip thing these days. Trans characters show up in movies and television shows with fairly regular frequency now—some of them far from favorable: think “Silence of the Lambs” or “The Assignment.” Those of us who are visually pleasing and look like “regular” folks show up on the covers of magazines. We have become entertainment. Our lives and our personal stories have become commodities. Even as we live in the fringe-lands of our own Babylon, we are bodied-story-bearers whose suffering is lifted up as profit-making grist for a cultural voyeurism that never tires of heart strings-tugging dramatic tales. In less than nine months, a national press released two books of trans theology, written by white, cisgender, heterosexual women in a stunning display of dominant culture privilege: that they appoint themselves the right to speak for us and about us, and propose to comfort us and clarify our faith for us. We are free-market material for folks who reap social and economic benefits we, ourselves, do not share: namely, the privilege of speaking for ourselves, being compensated fairly for our work, or even having access to compensated work in the first place.

But, really, shouldn’t we be grateful? After all, don’t we all—transgender and other folks alike—really just want to be seen and heard? If so, shouldn’t we celebrate any opportunity to have the songs of our Zion-displacement sung aloud? Perhaps.

I don’t know: to be honest with you, these kinds of questions keep me up at night. What I do know is this: we are a people wedged between the proverbial rock and the hard place. If we do not make ourselves visible, if we do not tell our stories and offer up our insights, if we do not teach others about the nature of our self-understanding, then we won’t be heard at all… and nothing will ever change for the better. And, if we do not, on some level, embrace others who co-opt our stories for their own profit, we risk never being asked to tell them ourselves. Without allies, we are even more alone and more in danger. Still, we are at the mercy of the whims of dominant culture curiosity and lust for entertainment.

Thankfully, for old justice-working, rabble-rousing preacher types like me, there are folks like yourselves who actually invite us in and listen to us when we show up. There are places of safety like this where we can openly share and question and struggle. Nonetheless, the questions remain: how do we sing our deeply felt songs of faith in a land of exile? More, how do we have any faith at all when places of worship are often the houses of our tormentors…and not houses of refuge? Or, perhaps more pointedly asked: how do we transform forums of entertainment into forums that highlight our resilience? How do turn exploitation into celebration? How might we transform spaces of exoticising curiosity into forums that shine a light on our bravery and resilience? How do we engage others in ways that invite them to see the underlying systemic problems without seeming merely angry and wounded and fearful?

These questions consume not only my meager musings, but the ponderings of an entire movement. And there are some things I have come to know are true: that the answers are not simple; that even as we wrestle with them in collective yearning for liberation, we do so privately as well. In this, I am also keenly aware that my position as a white, male-passing person living in a whiteness-valuing, market driven culture gives me, both, some mediation of my suffering and some responsibility for being vocal about that—but more, it means that no matter how much folks may want me to do so, I cannot speak for an entire population; I can only speak from my own perspectives, intellectual investigation and experience. And, I am responsible for naming those factors that mediate my experience. Doing so puts me on the road to being a better ally…as we are all allies, one to another.

So, things being as they are, so layered and complicated: how do we sing the songs of our faith in a land of exile?

For me, the most fundamental answer lies in being clear about my faith in the first place. This means doing the work—intellectually, experientially, and spiritually—to develop my own practical theology. It means freeing my sense of the Holy One from the doctrinal errors and hatefulness that frame our faiths. It means not relying on the permission-granting efforts of straight, cisgender theologians to frame my faith for me; rather, it means claiming the power to that for myself and for my community not merely through intellectual process, but through the experience-informed, in my bones, search for faith that moves in and through my reading of scripture—Christian, Hebrew or otherwise. It means liberating those texts from the violence done to them by self-serving human agendas. But mostly, being a person of faith in religious systems that negate and demean my existence means I remember the very thing the psalm-singing Hebrew people learned:

That God is most decidedly NOT a manifestation of the people who claim to be people of God. God is not the church, writ large…although Sacred Speaking sometimes shows up there. And God is not the empire that co-opts faith for persecution. God is the force of Spirit Abiding that lives in all of us, even and especially, in me and my kin. God is the Holy One of my ancestors present in rock and stream, irises and black-capped chick-a-dees. God is the One who abides with us and still speaks to and through us all—who speaks to me in my discernment, study, and good sense through other spiritual seekers, and more, through my own experiential awareness of divine presence…and this same God with many names will still be speaking in human lives, across time and space, long after I am gone.

These are the psalms I will sing—songs of the Sacred Thriving shot-through all things and abiding everywhere. And I will sing the story of Adam: the original earth being, at first undifferentiated, self-contained, and self-sufficient, our intersex common ancestor whom God split open and divided for the sake of essential, deep relationality…each always containing something of the other, ever-connecting us and reminding us we all are one…for it is not good that the Adam should be alone! Self-sufficiency is not the way. Relationship is the way of the cosmos…and, more, all genders are not only possible and valid but exist, inherently, within us all.

I will sing the story of Joseph, the vision-dreaming, gender-bending fellow keeping time with the women, cooking, tending hearth and kin, wearing his ketonet passim—his princess dress—bestowed on him by his father who saw him and valued him for who he was. I will tell of the brothers who betrayed him and how that betrayal made him an alien in a foreign land, uniquely positioned to save the people from famine.

I will sing of the Ethiopian eunuch, Eved Melek, servant of the King, who freed the prophet Jeremiah from the muddy cistern where he had been left to die—making it possible for him to save the King and others in the siege of Jerusalem. I will lift up songs telling of the other Ethiopian eunuch Philip baptized outside Jerusalem, who went home and founded the church in Ethiopia.

I will raise my voice in celebration of the lives of gender-expansive people, across time and culture, who lived resilient lives of courage and resistance even in struggle: like Petric Smith, a transman and civil rights worker who risked his life to testify against his own uncle and the KKK in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Alabama. And Leslie Feinberg, transgender theorist, writer and activist who produced the first, deeply researched, comprehensive history of gender variance, giving us all a sense of ourselves as an ancient and vibrant people. I will sing the story of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha Johnson and Miss Major whose fight for transgender rights gave us the Stonewall rebellion and sparked the gay rights movement. If I forget them, ever, let my right hand wither. If I speak the names of our dead without first caring for the living, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.

So, I will raise my voice, as honestly and authentically as I can, to tell my own story as it intersects the lives of others whose testimony, courage, and work for justice inspire me every day. I will transform the land of exile by standing on the holy ground of my ancestors to proclaim the reality of my faith—the truth I learn daily, the indwelling psalm the Holy sings to me in my own seeking and in people like you, in places like these:
that we all, indeed, are one, that in all our longing and in all our struggling, the thing that gives our lives meaning and has the potential to save us all is the act of planting our feet, deeply, in the soil of relationship in which we are formed…rooting our tender lives in ethic of love expressed among us through our willingness to keep showing up, rather than languish in the comfort of our own keep, to come to and stay at the communal table, share our stories, wrestle with our questions, seeking answers together and learning to love more deeply because we are willing to seek a little of ourselves in each other.

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A Magnificat for Our Times

At this time of year, we remember Mary, mother of Jesus. How, in circumstances that would shame one less trusting, in what must have felt as much like some kind of daily dreaminess as faith, she in her living love of God sang praises to the Holy for the gift of this child she bore in uncertainty and out of wedlock. She sang praises in the midst of conditions more likely to bring ruin than reward. I never cease to be astounded by this demonstration of radical belief. It calls me to reflect. Deeply.

Especially, given these times, so uncertain and troubling to all of us, but particularly to my community—Trans and LGBQ folks, as we live already and daily on the edges of too many margins.

Still, I long for Mary’s kind of nearness to the Holy. In faith, in relationship, and in likeness. And, of course, I fail more often than not. Still, I strive. Mostly, by stillness more than effort. This year, in my stillness, I gave myself a journaling assignment: I will write my own Magnificat; I will write one a week until that kind of praise becomes more and more part of me and my daily practice. This is the fruit of the first week

“My soul magnifies our Creator and my spirit rejoices
in our God, the one who saves us, endlessly, and daily—
from ourselves, from aimlessness, our own mythic self-sufficiency,
delivering us full-faced and open-handed into the holy land
of human community, where we just might be redeemed—
for God has looked with favor on all of us, siblings in the good creation:
even as some are favored in the world of needfulness,
while others are left wanting; even as the few
profit on the bodies, labor, and gifts of the many;
even as we hear the cry of those who suffer and give thanks
it is not we who are hungry, who are in danger, who long,
seeking place and safety and some measure of more.
Surely, from now on all generations will call us blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for all of us,
holy are God’s many names—spoken, dreamed of, crying inside-out, heard
before the letters form on our fragile lips:

Surely God’s mercy is for those who fear
from generation to generation; with the strongest voice,
Sacred Speaking calls on us to scatter the proud in their thoughtlessness;
to drag down the lofty self-preservers from their thrones,
to lift up the holy low and forgotten; the One Most High has filled us
with everything we need to answer the Holy Word calling us to fill the hungry
with good things, and make the rich in plenty see there really is more
than enough for all to be apportioned some measure of what sustains.
My soul magnifies remembrance of Our Renewer’s help and mercy:
God’s help to servants of love and justice, everywhere, offering
remembrance of all the many ways Loving Presence comes to us—
daily, everywhere within and around us, giving us
what we need and then some, to keep waking us up, moving us
through our days, prodding us, perhaps, to the see the empty spaces
longing to be filled…in self and other; and for that,
to give thanks, within, even before the letters form
on our fragile lips.”

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What I Said at TDOR (or, most of what I said)

As our people have for far too long, we gather here as trans persons, with family, friends and allies, in a spirit of remembrancea communal collecting of sacred moments in which we name, remember, honor and grieve those members of our trans family we have lost to the violence of misunderstanding, fear, intolerance, and hatred.

We do not remember alone. And we do not gather alone: we collect together in the midst of and surrounded by a great cloud of witnessesthe spirits of those who have gone before us for generations, the spirits of all our fallen, and the ever-growing great spirit of our shared longing … longing for a day when we no longer come together to mourn but to gather freely, without threat, without fear or trepidation and celebrate openly, as a matter of human course, the beautiful and abundant diversity of personhood and gifted-ness we offer each other and our world. More…

We abide, squarely and soundly, on the strong, courage-making shoulders of our ancestorseunuchs, Hijras, two spirits and gender-bending, gender-expanding trans folks of all kinds who dared to be and live authentically who they were. We are an ancient people, spanning time and culture—made stronger, wiser, more resilient by those whose footsteps lead the way before us…and by the communities of love, affirmation and support we build together.

We gather knowing that these are troubling times. Throughout history, our common lot has been difficult. We know the days and months ahead will be trying. But we also know—because we are indeed an ancient people—we are survivors. We have always existed, as we do now, on the margins, at the intersections of multiple oppressions: institutionalized racism and systemic white supremacy; genderism and systemic misogyny; classism and economic exploitation; ableism; anti-immigration policies—all these and more, the unholy offspring of nationalistic colonialism married to unfettered market capitalism.
All this has been and still is our inheritance in these not-so-united, United States…and, sadly, we know many of our kin do their best to live fully authentic lives in circumstances even worse than our own.

And, so…we gather as we have for too many years to grieve both our fallen kindred and the conditions that make us all so vulnerable. And, if you’re at all like me these days, you wonder like I do how our conditions can get any worse. It seems as if every step we make forward is met by a groundswell of resistance that pushes us past where we began. We are all aware—some of us painfully so—that the oppressive forces embedded in our white, androcentric elitist patriarchy have been rising like waves in the stormy waters of a man-made sea of us-and-them-insecurity. We’ve been watching and listening and we know the forces we face because we, as a people, have been here before, throughout history.

As diverse gender expansive people, as queer folks, we know how deeply the seeds of division have been planted because we have always lived at the intersections of desert and community, forest and neighborhood, haves and have-nots.  Far too many of us trans kindred live and move and have our being in one threatening, thorny thicket-forest inside of another—one soul-trapping, body-shaming, skin-scratching, freedom-killing briar patch after another. Far too many of us lose our way in the tangle. We struggle to grow as the vines choking out the social realities of interdependence and interconnection go untended. If even one of us is lost in the effort to break out into the light of a new day, it is one too many.
This year, at least 27 of us were lost in this country alone—we know there are more who have gone from us uncounted because they were mis-named and mis-gendered. More of us are lost each year, at home and throughout the world. And, so we remember—we remember our persistent is-ness of being is fragile, our audacity of authenticity is threatened, our unbridled determination to survive and seek some sense of thriving comes at great risk. We remember the tender lives lost in our risking. Remembering is good. Remembering is important.
But there is a hard truth beneath our remembering, one I simply cannot, in good conscience, ignore the call to speak.  So, I ask you to bear with me for a moment and hear the truth we too often fail to name.

Now, more than ever, we are called to recognize and then understand that remembering is good and necessary…but it is not and never has been enough. That we are here this evening drives home the point: our very lives depend upon us hearing the cry together and in unity to be more than annual mourners of our fallen, to do more than gather in once a year, sing songs and light candles. As important and vital to our lives as this is, the fact that we continue to have to do this is proof that it is not now and never has been enough.

The difficult truth is, that the forces that come together to kill us, illegalize us, and oppress us are the very same forces human beings have been struggling against since we moved from communal interdependence to empires based on amassing, controlling and exploiting resources—especially, the resources of human bodies, creativity, talent and labor. The hard truth is that societies based on hoarding and valuing power-giving resources over human beings have been killing us and bartering our liberty throughout our history.

And, the even harder, deeper truth is this:  it’s not so much individual people who are the enemies of a free humanity—it’s not cis folks, or hetero folks, or Christians or Muslims, it’s not them over there, or those folks over here…it’s just not—the enemy of an authentic, living human freedom are the value systems, structures and institutions that arise among us out of insecurity-based fear. Our enemies are not each other but the normative human tendencies that those with power exploit in us to keep us all divided: fear, insecurity, distrust, competition and egocentric self-preservation—these are our enemies; these and the ways these forces are enacted against us and among us.
(Friends) there are layers of truth here. The most troubling to me—and really to our movement for justice—is that these same forces of fear and insecurity, the chemical building blocks of racism, misogyny, classism, and all the other death-dealing “isms” that poison our culture, are the self same forces that divide us as well. We, as trans folks, queer folks, allies and families, are thwarted in our efforts by the same divisiveness that threatens all of us as members of the human family. This is hard to hear, but deep down, we all know it is true. In our singular struggles to survive, we have lost our way: we have failed to hear the call to truly unite as the very people prepared and equipped to lead all of us deeper into a true, thriving human community…which is exactly what the powerful want us to do.

They want to keep us spinning just trying to stay alive because we are weaker and easier to subjugate when we are divided.

In the work for our own individual freedom to be, the power-holding minority wants us to forget that a free individual can only exist in a free community. The difficult but utterly beautiful truth is that none of us is an island. I know, perceive and understand myself to be a self precisely because I exist with other selves. My freedom to be depends upon your freedom to be. Yours depends upon mine.
More, freedom, once won, demands responsibility—we are responsible one to another, for ensuring that a just community comes into being and is encouraged to grow: for none of us is free until all of us are free. This is the way of the whole of creation. The whole depends on the parts. The reality is, none of us can truly know who we were are, can truly be and become who we are, without all the other selves in community with us—we need one another to reflect for and with us, encourage and challenge us, love and nurture us, and hold us accountable to being who we say we are and being about what we say we’re about.

Interdependence, interconnectedness and relationality are the underpinnings of nature itself—of, in fact, the entire cosmos. The ideas of self-sufficiency and self-reliance are myths. We as trans people know this in our very skins: we know it because we understand our own bodies are built on interconnected systems that give our inner selves a fleshy home—and that sometimes, we need to re-imagine and re-shape those systems so that we can be more fully who we are. The same is true for us as a human body consisting of different but connected, interdependent persons. Now, more than ever, our interdependent parts are in great peril—all of us, collectively, are in danger. We remember the cost of that now. But remembering is not all we are called to do.

We are called to do more than sentimental annual gatherings. We are called to learn to do the hard work necessary for our personal and collective growth and survival so we are able to move toward our common thriving. We are called to take seriously the fact that we all need each other. Our lives and the lives of those who come after us depend on our ability to learn to grow in interdependent relationality. Acting together, in unity, is the only way that change will come. The change we need begins with us, individually, and then moves outward from there. We are called to learn to listen to one another, to share our stories and really hear the stories of others—we’re called to learn to work together for a greater justice, rather than focusing only on the matters that concern us personally. We are called to be in conversation, to seek  to share space with each other, so those conversations can grow us and guide us in the more difficult dialogue and work necessary to real, meaningful and lasting justice. We are called to the deep work of collective healing so that the change we seek is possible.

We have work to do. That work can only begin in earnest if we are willing to work through our own discomfort and learn to grow together, in relationship, and in community—where each of our lives and concerns have equal value and where we live out an understanding that our personal thriving depends on our communal thriving. It is not easy work.
But the work of bringing the ethic of love into our world, in practice, is never easy. And, really, we are the most prepared to do it:  we who have learned to love while living in the hatred others hold for us; we who have learned to build communities of nurture, support, and affirmation in the wastelands of marginalization; we who have learned to find the quenching water of compassion in the dry desert; we who have walked a thousand inward miles to reach the homeland of a self make real in the world; we who have learned in our very skin and bones, every day of our lives, that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness and determination to do what is before us, even in our fearfulness. We who are resilient. We who are resourceful. We who resist the tyranny of hate and legalized oppression with grace and dignity and unwavering audacity of personhood.
We who are an ancient people.
Who better to hear the call of liberation and do the work to lead us all into the light of a new day? More, how can we expect others to hear the call and do what we, ourselves, cannot seem to do? How can we expect the more privileged among us to recognize and address their standing if we are not willing to look at and name our own relative privilege? How can we expect larger numbers of white folks—especially those who also feel unseen, unheard, and erased—to recognize the reality of white supremacy if we are not willing to do that hard interior work ourselves? How can we expect cis-gender folks to understand the real harm of gender oppression if our queer cis-siblings are not willing to do the work of awakening? How can we expect hetero-normative, cis-gender folks to stand in the gap for us if we can’t fill the gap for each other?

If we are not willing, in large numbers, to put our queer white bodies in the gap, how can we expect those around us to do the same? How can we expect those who do not share our lot to do the work of justice with us if we, ourselves, cannot figure out a way forward together? How can we create a just world if we continue to recycle the same systems of our own oppression—how can we realize a meaningful vision of a liberated humanity if we continue to recapitulate the tools, tactics, and structures of institutions that devalue the tenets of human flourishing? If not us—we who are most prepared, by experience, to envision and lead a movement toward radical love and justice—then who will lead us? If not us, we whose very existence is in danger, then who?

So…let us mourn and remember. But then, in this remembering, let us be transformed by love, by the spirit of thriving, to go forth and transform the world. Let us celebrate our fallen and ourselves by working for a world where every self has a place, has value—a world where the good of the many is built upon care for the good of the few, and the reality of a collective thriving is measured by the thriving of each of us, in communal relationship, one to another.

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Lately, I find myself wrestling the urge to withdraw—quietly slip out to the wood shop and, if nothing else, just get lost randomly cutting and sanding. It as if I’m compelled to embody some deeper need to smooth off the burs, dings, and scratches that living in these days and times seems to leave all over me: the sore, bruised remains of life in a world where fracturing rhetoric, divisiveness and cultivating intolerance ensure that the work continues for justice-seeking, anti-empire, intersections-tending rabble rousers like me. But, then, maybe those scrapes and scuffs I feel are really on the inside.

Either way, I’m not aware of there being a sand-paper for smoothing the scrapes and scabs of a battered spirit. It’s like I’m needing to embody some kind of soul-sculpting objective correlative where a sawdust-blowing, wood-chip flying, wood-working frenzy changes things, makes something more just, and true…perhaps even beautiful—where shaping pieces of wood reshapes me. Reshapes the world I inhabit—which, of course, isn’t true. Still, the wood shop makes for a kind of sanctuary.

There, at the least, I can salvage fallen remains woodland growth could not sustain, cut and shape them into something new. Something that looks nothing like the culture-boxes and exotic-trinket shelves collective fear and insecurity build to bend us all into something shaped like sameness while simultaneously showcasing the more eccentric of us as amusing oddities …something that looks nothing like the wildly overgrown wilderness planted with us-and-them rhetorical parasites grafted to the seedlings of survival, choking out our fecund roots. I can reach for draw-knives, saws, and sanding blocks and dream-work wounded bark and broken limbs, liberating the woody spirit longing to be seen. I can push against the grain and imagine I am healing splintered edges, revealing the storied lines etched on the tender skin of our collective humanity. I can tend and smooth the scars left by the ravaging winds of racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia and trans-phobia, and all the other systematized “isms” that threaten our needful hope for thriving. In my small, but comfortable 10 x 15 space, I can physically engage the embodied work of imaging—envisioning as I work an entire flourishing forest, rooted in the realities of interdependence and interconnectedness, where every human being has a sense of being a person, a place and a purpose in community together; where transformative showers of a just coexistence fall as water on growing things, and the light of eternal love shines, feeding generation after generation. In the work of mind, body and hands, I can imagine a vibrant living thing some have called Zion. Others might call it the beloved community.
In the end though, I’m really just cutting, shaping, and sanding wood.

Still, I can work and imagine. And, I think of another worker of living dreams, a fellow who followed the way of the prophets and tried to show us how to do the same…it seems I recall hearing in my childhood that he, too, was a carpenter. I don’t know. I do know the stories we’ve been given tell us that he imagined a particular kind of human coexistence rooted in love of neighbor—a vision he was willing to work for, invite others into, and risk his life for. Maybe he, too, was just cutting, shaping, and sanding wood. I don’t know.

But I wonder. And in the meantime, I live as we all do in the world we have both inherited and somehow allowed to emerge—a dark threatening thing crawling up from the stagnant water of a nearly forgotten past and lurching, awake, fear-formed and defensive, into our present. We contend with the now distorted fledgling we have dreamed into being, but have yet to raise—a more perfect union in which all of us are recognized as created beings, equal in value and apportioned some measure of freedom to pursue selfhood, happiness and purposeful living in an ever-evolving dynamic collective. Such is the dream we have dreamed. And so it is, for me, the imagining that persists—that, perhaps, itself saves me from the otherwise sure aimlessness of my own trans-marginalization and delivers me into the depth of my whole-bodied belief that all life is sacred and created in freedom. Service to this, this dreaming the beloved community, is the only way I know to make a living prayer.

So, side by side with strangers and with kin, I march, attend rallies, carry signs, and sing freedom songs. In the company of others, I add my voice to the groundswell of voices. In the spaces in between, I am learning to listen more deeply—to the soft sound of sandpaper on grain, to the voices of those who are different from me. I seek to do my part. I dream dreams, in wood shop and in world. And, I pray.

In the end, it may be that all I’m doing is cutting, shaping, and sanding wood. Perhaps, all this sawdust-blowing and wood-chip-flying work is really only reshaping me—soul-sculpting my own wounded skin and woody spirit. But, maybe that is where the work of live-praying begins. And, maybe, just maybe, the wood shop isn’t a withdrawal at all, but rather, a retreat into inner sanctuary where a Holy whisper softens worn and fragile bark.

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Getting Dusty with Jacob

An ancient wisdom asserts that the whole universe is in the Torah, we just have to keep turning it to see it more fully. I believe this to be true—even as a transgender person of faith, even in light of the many ways our sacred texts have been used to exclude trans and LGBQ people. Perhaps, it is precisely because of the hurt arising from the misuse of scripture that I have come to hear refrains of our diverse human conditions sounding forth from Biblical narratives. It is what keeps me turning again to look closer, then, turning the text, itself, to find stories that connect even with my own.  One story that speaks profoundly to me is the story of Jacob wrestling until daybreak in the desert.

Most of us know the story, at least generally.

After a life of falling behind, living under the influence of others, making questionable decisions, controlling circumstances, suffering consequences, and trying to live with himself and others in a life made running from himself, from his past, Jacob—the heel grabber—realized things needed to change. More, he had reached a point where he finally had no choice but to go home. Going home meant setting things right. And, setting things right almost always means, first, dealing with ourselves.

Setting things right. Amends. Making change. Starting over. Whatever we choose to call it, it is deep work. We often engage it only when we run out of other options. It is dusty, grappling, solitary work. In fact, the Hebrew word translated as “wrestle” comes from the word for dust. In the verb sense, it means to become or to get dusty. In this passage, the verb is reflexive, telling us Jacob wrestled with himself.  With his conscience.  His past. Jacob was alone in the desert of his life, getting dusty. Struggling. Yet, some kind of presence was with him—some unknown man—who did not prevail against him. As he tussled and skirmished in the dust, Jacob held his own. In all his desert grappling, his hip was knocked out of socket. He was forever changed. Transformed.

Yet, there is more to the story.  Jacob perceived this unnamed other getting dusty with him to be some manifestation of God. His experience left him with the understanding he had contended with God and humans, including, himself. Not only that, he prevailed. As if he somehow understood the significance of his striving, Jacob asked for a blessing. Perhaps because he asked, because he persisted, he was granted the blessing of affirmation—the thing he had been seeking all along. And, his name was changed to Israel: one who strives with God.

In my own journey, I have learned what Jacob learned.  At some point, all our striving, all of our heel-grabbing a world that doesn’t fit us, brings us face-to-face with ourselves. And, because God is ever with us, in us, we are brought fully into the presence of God. What we find there is staggeringly profound.

Not only is it acceptable for us to wrestle with God as well as ourselves, but it seems to be in some way part of the process of being in relationship with God. Striving with self and God seem, also, to be essentially the same thing. And, if we dare to face ourselves—to grapple in our desert dust—we come face-to-face with all that is the Holy One. We will, doubtless, walk away changed, perhaps limping, but we are assured the sun will rise upon us. Somehow, this being changed makes us more who we are. It is a coming home. The way we are known, our very name, changes forever as we are changed. And, a way is made for setting things right. This is how it is with transformation, Jacob teaches. We bear it. In our skin. In our walking. In our name. And in our going forth. We come home, limping, joyfully, as the sun comes up before us.

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When Shelter Fails

There is an old Celtic wisdom which asserts that it is in the shelter of one another that the people live. This is a layered truth—not merely that we exist within and are surrounded by the community of others, but that it is precisely because of and in the caring keep of others that we come dynamically to life. We transcend simply being human beings to become humans being through the fact of interdependent and relational connectedness. We are born into communal relationship. To the degree that the common manifestations of our relationality—family, kin, neighborhood, community, school, church—are truly sheltering, the people live. Where connectedness covers the people with nurturing care and protection, the people thrive.

When, however, the communal features of our relational nature become distorted, the people suffer—individually and collectively. In the ever-weaving web of inherent interconnectivity, the realities of socio-cultural transmission of codes, norms, beliefs, and accepted knowledge intersect with the very forces out of which they are also born:  our inherent bent toward kinship-seeking and our ability to distinguish unfamiliar and potentially threatening others. These instinctive processes produce ways of behaving and of thinking about the world, other beings, and ourselves that are, with equity and impartiality, as potentially brilliant, beautiful and beneficial as they are dreadful and destructive. We are made this way: from the way cells communicate without bias or ideological conflict, to the way we differentiate smiles from fangs; from the ways neuro-chemicals assist us in fleeing or herding, to the ways we more actively determine kin from strangers. When our communal attributes move from the beautiful and beneficial to the dreadful and destructive, the problem is not so much in our nature as it is in our attention and intention—what we emphasize, nurture, and manifest in our perceptions and beliefs about the world, circumstances, ourselves, and others.  When we forget that shelter of community is the outward enfolding of an inward, innate interdependence—one in which the good of the individual arises within and from the good of the many, when we forget that this is the true nature of sheltering—we are doomed. Usually, the culprit is some perfectly and proportionately natural fear that becomes perversely and dangerously expansive. Our chemical capacity for fear is designed to protect us (…perhaps, to move us to shelter…), to help us sense something is amiss, perhaps, perilous. This is so even for the fear of seemingly fangless things like rejection, or shame, aloneness, pain or despair. These, perhaps, even more so.

As our current times attest, when fear is stoked by other psycho-social factors, that which is meant to get our attention becomes our attention. Like wayward embers lifted on the breeze from a fire meant to warm us, the social realities of economic insecurity, competition for resources, systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and religious fundamentalism are winds fanning a blaze of uncontrollable emotive flames, igniting all manner of dry fodder and, eventually, consuming us all. Fire-starters and bystanders alike. Under such conditions, the communal embrace that would shelter us becomes the heavy arms of intolerance, hatred, and distorted self-preservationism that choke and suffocate. The cover of connectedness becomes a crushing cage of constructed codes, ideologies, proposed natural laws and universal truths in which systems exclusion, negation, marginalization and extermination are the bone-breaking bars. When we give our attention to the forces that distort and twist our natural gifts for survival and kin-seeking into elements of division, when communal shelter becomes exclusive and insular, it fails to be sheltering. And the people fail to thrive. Sometimes, they die.

These realities tug at the threads of my thoughts these days, at least, in the days since the shooting at Pulse in Orlando. The event, itself, is a lingering thing—lurking in the shadows of our personal, and collective, consciousness; creeping around the edges of our daily routines; whispering the reality of our vulnerability; calling attention to the illusory nature of whatever sense of safety and normativity we have created, as persons and as communities. The shock, devastation, and grief sit with us. Palpable. Near to us as our clothing. And, if we are not now more profoundly attuned to the realities of intersecting oppressions, marginalizations and vulnerabilities for violence that are daily realities for (in particular) people of color, persons of varying immigrant status, women, and transgender persons, then we are greatly in need of examining and addressing our own blind spots.  As details and personal stories continue to emerge, the thing I can’t get away from is a difficult and daunting truth—one we have  learned over and over:  when shelter fails for even one of us, ultimately, it fails for all of us.

In Omar Mateen‘s ranting cries and gunfire, I hear the course, death-dealing crackling of internalized homophobia—the insidious virus of self-loathing, railing against the instinctive desire for love from others and from self, sputtering and gasping like drowning lungs unable to resist the smothering inhalation that ends it all. In his shouts of desperate fundamentalism, I hear the constricted code of fractured sense-of-self, like mechanical Morse dit-dah-dits, forced outward into compensatory bluster, bullets, and destruction—the face-saving need to be better, to be more faithful, more man-ish, more hetero-normative. More something. More anything-other-than who he could not accept and allow himself to be. I could be wrong.
But, as pieces of the larger story emerge, (selectively, through a biased and irresponsible media, but that’s another topic for another time), it seems clear that the familial, religious, and social structures that should have offered Omar nurturing protection and cultivated a flourishing personhood, failed him. His would-be shelter became a choking cage, squeezing the conflicted selfhood out of him until, like a human-big-bang of anti-creation, it exploded. In heartbreaking irony, his disturbed sense of self shot outward, repeatedly, into the one place that was sheltering sanctuary for so many—including, the stories suggest, even him. It seems that unresolved conflicted identity, rage, and internalized self-loathing, are also relational.
One shelter fails; another falls. And, all the people suffer.

In this case, 49 people died as one man’s wounding cage made a killing field of the shelter for a whole community. In his exploding turmoil, Omar Mateen also lost his life. All this loss: a grotesque and terrible testament to the interconnected consequences of failed shelter.
The grief in all of this is huge. Almost daily, I find myself asking the same questions I ask in the midst of other tragedies—the all-too-frequent murder of transwomen; the increasing number of suicides among transgender and LGB youth; the bullying and beating of our queer young people. What can we do—what must be done—to prevent these things from happening? What do we do, here and now, to create a sheltering world where the people can live?
Sadly, I do not know the answers. The only thing I know is that I must keep getting up each day and greet the world I inhabit with some measure of hope. What I know to do is to continue trying to cultivate spaces of caring-keep, however small, and make room for those who wish to come inside. Dorothy Day said, to paraphrase, that we find grace in never being separated from the people. I believe this to be so. And, I am inclined to think that, in practice, it means that I must endeavor to be the shelter I also seek to find.

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