Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Longest Night

Twenty years have sped by since the longest night I ever spent.

It was late spring in 1997, two years after the onset of what I call “The Second Coming (Out).” I was trying very hard to keep afloat in a world where I feared total disaster were I to reveal anything of who I was. Priest in a large Episcopal church in a small Southern city, married, the father of two, I was alone in that most lonely and stifling of places: the closet. The door was ajar. I could see just a wee bit of light.

That light came from New York City. Richard, my best college friend, lived there, and had invited me to visit. It was Pride weekend. He had mentioned to me the possibility of going to a dance. I was ecstatic. I imagined a dimly lit bar where men danced with men. Absent any experience and not much more imagination, I naively thought that maybe a pink golf shirt might be gay enough to wear.

No slow dancing, no low lights, nor gentle touching was any part of the scene of the cavernous venue where I landed with Richard and Joshua, a young guy whom Richard knew and introduced as a style expert. The place was Roxy, that era’s answer to the famous “Saint,” dance oasis of an earlier period. The music was deafeningly loud to the point I could not hear the plan for regrouping after a certain time. And the persons per square inch made any strategy we had for reconnoitering totally impossible anyway. I found myself in a knot of twinks, wondering if Joshua’s attempt to dress me correctly had worked to keep me out of total dweebdom. I shook and writhed as best I knew how—which wasn’t too bad, I thought. I dared not touch the young body that kept (I thought) bumping into me intentionally.
The Roxy in its heyday.  It closed in 2007.

Soon the multitude had completely absorbed Richard and Joshua whom after an hour or so I completely lost track of. After three or four hours of ear-splitting noise, not knowing a soul, unable to speak (my main resource for being social in any situation), and with a bladder about to burst from the two beers I’d managed to down, I made it to the long line waiting in front of the men’s room. When I finally got in, I waded through water (I hoped) that thoroughly wet my Chuck Taylors (“those actually will do,” Joshua had said of my footwear). I stepped outside. Day was breaking.

Nice that Manhattan is so easy to navigate. Rather than wait for a cab, I walked to Richard’s. Sunday sunshine grew brighter as I wound my way from nearly the Hudson over to the West Village. I had no idea what had ever become of Richard and Joshua, but when I finally unlocked his apartment door, Richard sat bolt upright on his chaise longue and allowed as how he had come home many hours before. Dead tired, I made it to the bedroom, shed my wet Chucks, jeans, and tight-fitting tee that Joshua had recommended in Old Navy, and fell upon the mattress.

For the first night in my life since as a frightened child I’d hear my parents quarreling in the next room I cried myself to sleep. Totally alone, much more so than ever I’d been in the closet that at least held junk and costumes, I sobbed. I cried because I couldn’t go back into the closet because I knew I’d die there. I cried because the one love I had at the time was little more than an illusion, vaporizing before my very eyes. I wept because the marriage that had defined me was unraveling and I didn't know how to stop it. The priest I once wanted to be was incongruous with the man I knew myself to be.  I knew neither where I was nor where I was going.

In a few hours, these twenty years later, I will kneel, as is my custom, as a priest smudges my forehead with a crude ash-made cross, and I’ll begin the soul’s journey again from dust to glory. Rituals like that are best when we consciously realize that they play upon the strings of what our lives actually contain. Memories, hopes, disappointments, failures, new beginnings: all lie in a pile until some word, action, maybe some ceremony, orders and shapes them. I can relate to the ashes and cross precisely because of that longest night twenty years ago, and others like it before and since. If I did not know dark, I could not see light. Nor would it ever make sense to me that in such places as a tear-soaked bed the Holy One sneaks up close, unrecognized, silently waiting to be noticed.

Hard as it was, I would give nothing for that long dark night of the soul.  I would never have become who I am were it not for the painful and tortuous trip on which I found myself multiple times knocked off my perch, fallen into the dust till finally I came to realize that I was dust itself.  It is not so bad being dust.  That's the stuff we're made of.  Dirt.  And the wonder is that, from time to time, in these bodies of dust we actually see amazing glory, not infrequently shining more brightly through our tears.

 © Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Fully Alive

I was the kind of boy that, if you gave me an ideal, I not only respected it, I actually tried to live up to it.  When I started first grade and began to learn the basics of citizenship, such as pledging allegiance to the flag, I took it seriously.  When I went to Sunday School and they told me about the love of God and taught me about Jesus, I was more than interested.  I was enchanted.  If you set before me the notion, say, of moral behavior, I actually believed that it was a good idea to do my best to live morally.

Now all of that is not coming from a bad case of bragging, but rather a little self-disclosure.  I have nothing to brag about.  Because with all that stuff about being, if not the best little boy in all the world, at least one who took a pretty good stab at it, there comes a shadow side.  Deep down I knew, even in the second grade, that there was a part of me that took delight in being not only mischievous (what boy isn’t a little?) but sometimes quite mean.  I don’t think in all that I’m very different from any of you.  It doesn’t take us long to discover that there is more than one side of us.  And if we deny that shadowy, perhaps devious, side, ultimately it has a way of taking over.

There is a verse in Psalm 112 that is worth chewing on for a minute,   “Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.” What the text means is quite different from what you might think.  “Righteous” in Hebrew does not mean morally faultless.  Nor does it mean being the best little boy or girl in the world.  The word “righteous” actually means being in right relationships with God, with the world, with nature, with other people.  It means “doing what one is created to do, being what one is created to be.”  Some years ago I heard a man describing an experience he had in the Holy Land.  His car broke down on a stretch of desert road.  In the days before cell phones he hitchhiked to the nearest village and found a mechanic, who agreed to come take a look at the car.  Something like a belt had come in two and the mechanic was able after towing the car to repair it.  As he shut down the hood after finishing the repair, He said in modern Hebrew, “Sadiq.”  “Now she is righteous.”  In other words, the car is put back in order, ready to do what the car was designed to do. 

That’s helpful, isn’t it? To be upright is not necessarily to be a moral exemplar, though it might be.  More to the point is to be what one is designed to be.  And what is that?  In a word, it is to be fully alive.  St. Irenaeus, one of the Early Christian Fathers, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”  Think about that.  What is it like to feel alive, really alive?  Is it to be filled with energy? to be sensitive to sensory stimuli? Is it to stand as tall as you can, to feel balanced, grounded?  Is it to be ready to take on some challenge and to feel up to it? Is it to be almost overwhelmed with a feeling of love, a readiness to embrace nature, an enthusiasm to reach out to other human beings with compassion and delight?  Is it to be filled to overflowing with joy?  Is it to settle into a comfortable, quiet peace?  Is it be satisfied, still, fulfilled?  That is a rather long list perhaps of possibilities, but I suspect that you are like me:  you could say yes to most of those things.  It would be almost impossible to feel fully alive if we are feeling weighted down with worry, fear, anxiety, depression.  It is hard to imagine feeling fully alive if we were living in terror, scared of enemies, dreading the worst.  And I have never felt myself fully alive when I was energized mostly or only by hate, loathing, disgust, disdain, or any of those feelings that come from feeling or being over against other things or other people.  They have a way of draining me.  Is that your experience too?

Now the reason I go into this much detail about feeling fully alive is that that is the most effective way I know of for describing wholeness.  And wholeness is a word that is very closely related to sanity.  And sanity is not far from what it means to be healed.  And healing is at the heart of what the Bible means by salvation.  So you see where all this is going.  When we are fully alive and whole and well we are in fact experiencing God, who is always Life and always Truth.  We who speak the Christian vocabulary talk about that Life and Truth to be embodied and exemplified in Jesus, who is the Way that God manifests in humanity.  But Jesus never ever meant, by his own admission and teaching, to be the one and only example of God’s life in human form. “I say to you, ‘you are gods, and all of you children of the Most High.’” What he is by nature—child of God—is exactly what we become by grace. 

When I was priest in a parish with a large day school, I used to have the gift of conducting chapel for pre-schoolers almost every day. We had a little ritual that the kids loved, namely lighting the candles on the little altar in their chapel.  I would ask as one candle was lit, “Who is the light of the world?”  They would shout, “Jesus!” And I would agree.  Then as the child lit the second of the two candles, I would ask, “And who did Jesus say was also the light of the world?” Silence was the initial response.  And I would say, “Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world.’”  And they would gradually come to say, “I am.”  I am the light of the world. 

Now it makes sense, doesn’t it?  That verse in Psalm 112 is, “Light shines in darkness for the upright.” Yes it does.  And the source of the light is both beyond us and within us.  God is not one or the other but both—beyond and within.  And the Light of God, which is the Life of the human being, issues not in anything other than mercy and compassion.  Don’t ever forget that.  Those who imagine that God is punitive, graceless, unforgiving, terrifying, generally treat themselves and other people just that way:  first themselves, then others, and beyond that the rest of nature with contempt.  Those who know that God is merciful and compassionate are far more likely to be able to love themselves and almost naturally find that loving their neighbor as themselves is not so hard after all. 

It is no secret that we are right now going through a period of darkness.  Even the most optimistic among us realizes, no matter what her opinions or his political beliefs, that we are all responding to something like a cosmic eclipse of light.  Even the President’s inaugural address describes a nation stumbling about in darkness.  I myself see a good deal of light, but I do not deny that, ironically, the harbingers of darkness are sometimes the very ones who are describing it even while deepening it.  The important thing here is not who is responsible for the darkness, or even how deep the darkness is, but rather that our call is to be children of Light.  That is not the same as ignoring evil, nor is it the same as whistling in the dark.  It is knowing that we are righteous—not morally superior, and certainly not flawless.  But by speaking the truth, showing mercy, and being compassionate, we are letting our light shine.  We are being who we were created to be.  We will be doing what we were designed to do.  That is what it means to be fully alive.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Confessions To a Friend

Dear Charles,
Good to hear from you. Thanks for asking my thoughts about the recent inauguration, protests, and the events in the first week of the Trump Presidency.
First, I confess that living in Washington makes me different in only one respect from anyone living, say, in Kansas. And that is that the people around me are by and large liberal and progressive. Even the Republicans here tend to be sane and Eisenhoweresque. I’ve lived in other places where that was not true. But I don’t have an inside track on what is actually going on or how people are reacting, except through what I read in various places, principally the internet, news outlets (I tend NOT to read The Washington Post because I find it so aggravating, but instead read The New York Times online). And The New Yorker, of course.
But you ask my reaction. Joe and I were in New York with friends and his sister from Thursday through Monday, so we were happy to miss all the goings-on, although snarled traffic might have been the worst of it. I somehow felt that being away from it all was a form of protest. We did some shopping on Fifth Avenue, and as I neared Trump Tower I found myself feeling viscerally ill, the way I have sometimes felt passing through Catholic University’s campus, especially when Benedict XVI was about as awful a pope as Trump is a President.
I was present at the first Obama inauguration, on one of the coldest days imaginable. I nearly froze, but happily so. I was standing just yards away from the Washington Monument and there were about as many people behind me, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial as there were in front of me. And the crowd was jubilant. I’d take nothing for having been there. In contrast, Trump drew die-hard supporters who, I suspect, are about as full of hate as he is, although I don’t necessarily assume that. I suspect that a good many of Trump’s supporters are people who have hopes that they cherish as much as I cherished mine when Obama was inaugurated. But who knows?
Nothing that has happened in the week since has astonished me. I think that Trump thinks that he can do anything he jolly well pleases and is thus setting about making changes that he either believes or has come to imagine will correct all wrongs and straighten up the world. As I predicted, he is having the opposite of the desired, or desirable, effect, from his point of view. Precisely because he has great performance timing but little political sensibility, he knows nothing about working for consensus, and is thus stirring up one after another of hornet nests that are beginning to unleash their full strength in reaction. Really. If you had to exacerbate all the anger, piss off everyone imaginable, alienate allies, invite lawsuits (the Muslim ban will certainly be challenged in court—the ACLU has bared its teeth already—and the flagrant espousal of torture in the news today is a demonstrable show of support for breaking international law), what better a series of plays could you make than what Trump has already done? My prediction is that he will create a disaster both physically and politically if he gets behind (or leads) the Republican assault on slashing Medicare and Social Security as well as abolishing without replacing (how would they even imagine doing the latter?) “Obamacare.” It was easy, if not smart, to keep voting to repeal the ACA when they knew Obama would surely veto them. That way they could bait their base, claim to have done something, and pay nothing for it. It was all about Obama anyway, not about medical care. So now they have to either pay up or eat their words. Guess which they’ll choose. And the cost will be magnificent.
Any political analysis of this country has told us for years that we are pretty much equally divided between left and right. If anything, the “hard core right” accounts for less than a fourth of the populace (or maybe it's the voting populace). You saw how quickly George Bush’s second term deteriorated when things began to go sour. I predict that you’ll see it again. My hope is it won’t be in a second term for Trump. And I have no prediction to make about 2018 or 2020.
I called this morning to register my support for DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in standing firm in support of immigrants. I don’t know that Washington as a city has ever taken a stance, but many congregations, including St. Stephen’s, have been openly supportive of the Sanctuary Movement. While I was Senior Priest, St. Stephen’s became a sanctuary church. (We never had during my tenure a sanctuary person or families using our facilities, but we were prepared to do so if the need had arisen.)
Now, all of that said, the thing in this whole mess that has me most worked up is the support that Trump has been getting all along from the “Christian conservatives.” They have somehow excused or overlooked the most egregious things, telling themselves that the Supreme Court was somehow Ground Zero for God and Satan. Whether or not they will stick with Trump is their decision. But I look for no change. And I will take them on at every turn with every means I have (which admittedly aren’t many).
I think the women’s march was powerful and effective. Perhaps its effect was more that it seems to have energized and catalyzed many of its participants and their supporters than that it showed anything to Trump and the Republicans. Speaking of the latter, I think they are using Trump the way Trump has used the disenchanted and economically oppressed (largely white) people. I think that the Republicans despise him, know that he is unstable and utterly self-absorbed. I think they will use him to obtain a whole bunch of things that they have been salivating for for years: tremendous tax cuts for the wealthy, gutting social programs, building up a huge defense budget (really a war chest), rolling back regulations, unfettering the banking industry even more. A great part of me says, “Let them.” If it weren’t that so many people would suffer greatly, I’d be 100% in favor of their wreaking havoc on the American people to the extent that there would be no way that they could ever be elected again. I certainly have no fantasy that there is much of a way to stop them, though I think it is prudent for the Democrats to stall, delay, oppose, block every possible move every possible way.
Speaking of which, I am not one of these people who itches for fights for fights’ sake. I think that the Democrats ought to pick their battles wisely and strategically and keep their eye not on Trump (whose gift is Distraction) but on the people who are really hurt, or will be hurt, by Trump. There are some superb Democrats in Congress, like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Unfortunately too few. There are even some surprises among the Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, who is showing spine that I didn’t know he had.
So, Charles, that is my take. Although I don’t know that it is necessarily representative of the Washington DC frame of mind, take it for what it’s worth. In some ways I think it is far more important for people to raise hell in Kansas City, Toledo, Des Moines and other places in the heartland than it is for liberals like me to spout off in Washington. People expect me and my confreres to say these things. Not so much from people in “normal” places. My counsel: don’t underestimate your power.
I’ll close by saying that, optimist that I am, I am married to someone who has taught me some of the values in being realistic. And in my more sober moments I fear for the world. Trump is, after all, just the American version of what is happening in Europe, and what has been happening around the globe. It feels as if the great lessons that were thought to have been learned in the twentieth century are now giving way under stresses and pressures not unlike those that produced World War II. Some of this is a growing, and now decades old, reaction to the melding of immigrants into a polyglot society that doesn’t come easily. But some of it is, I think, the failure of liberal democracy to listen and respond creatively to the forces that Marx long ago correctly identified, chief among them being the utter disparaging of the true cost of labor and the resulting inequality built into capitalism. I’ve often said that the biggest enemy of Christianity is affluence. Or, in the immortal words of Dunn’s Law of Christian Functionality, "Christianity works in inverse proportion to the affluence of its adherents in a given time and place.” It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to be equally true of democratic institutions. The more people move into affluence, the wider the gap grows between haves and have-nots. And the less responsive the system is to the latter. Much of the rhetoric, even among liberals in this country, including Bernie Sanders, is based on the assumption that “getting into the middle class” is what life is all about. But as the standards of “middle” get higher and higher, the harder it is for those at the top to share. So it really is pretty much the same situation as the contemporary American Church finds itself in. Money. That’s the name of the god we serve. And, like the title of an old Cold War book about communism, our god is just another example of “The God that Failed.”
In truth,

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Late in the Day

Sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and before the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

John 1:29-42

This is one of those Sundays when several quite important things come into conjunction. We are in the middle of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration. We are days away from the most controversial Presidential inauguration that I can remember in seventy years. We are a week into the season of Epiphany. And you might add, the weather is not so hot.

My question, and I invite you to ask it with me, is what in the scriptures today sits closest to where we are living at the present moment.

I am struck by the story in which two disciples of John the Baptizer shift their attachment to Jesus. The gospel writer makes clear that they have John’s unqualified support, for he himself recognizes Jesus to be the long-awaited one who “baptizes with holy spirit.” He is unique enough for John to call him “the Lamb of God.” So there is not a dynamic of competition or disloyalty here. Interestingly, it is not Jesus who first calls these disciples, as the first three gospels tell us he did. Rather, they begin to follow him unbidden. They literally follow him, tagging along to find out where he is staying. Presumably they share the notion that when they find out where his lodging is they will perhaps have a conversation with him, or apply to be his students.

There is something charming about Jesus turning around and asking these two what they are looking for. They ask him where is is staying. And that’s all he needs. “Come and see.”  He invites them in. We are not told where—that is not important—but we are told when. It is late in the day, the tenth hour, 4 PM. That suggests that a transition is about to take place. Ironically, as we shall see in later chapters of the Fourth Gospel, they have found the Light. And they find the Light at just about the time darkness was to befall them.

late in the day

There. That is the place that the gospel seems to me to sit closest to us. First, it tells us of a shift in attachments, a transfer of loyalty from one authority to another. Second, late in the game these disciples discover something amazing: the true messiah.

A good deal of discussion, debate, argument, even out-and-out conflict has taken place in the Church—and not just the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion—over the last several decades around the question of authority. People have debated the authority of the Bible and debated about what is even meant by its authority. Everybody caught up in the argument has assumed that Jesus was on their side and that they were on his. That’s always the way it is. To be honest, Jesus himself is subject to so much interpretation and spin that it is almost impossible to say exactly what he stands for. And yet, at bottom, we know. He was a radical. The very trouble he got into which ultimately led to his murder was consorting with those who were outside the approved circles. Having open table fellowship with those outside the law, reaching out to social and political outcasts, breaking religious regulations, conversing with people one was not supposed even to pay attention to: all of these are things that Jesus is reported on good authority to have done and encouraged.

Yet, on the other hand, he was steadfastly disappointing to those who looked for political solutions to political problems. He refused to be co-opted by movements, like the Zealots, who were interested in fighting. He consistently held out the ideal of the Kingdom of God, which he said clearly was not co-terminus with any of the kingdoms of this world. He even said outrageous things that virtually no one believes either prudent or possible, such as “love your enemies.” The things he said about money drive even the most lukewarm capitalists crazy. So the Jesus that we actually could know from the gospels is hardly the Jesus that we really want to follow. Instead, the Church has fashioned Jesus into its own idea of Messiah, and essentially made the gospel about getting into heaven when we die, a topic that Jesus seems barely to have been interested in.

So what might happen were we to begin following Jesus with the idea of actually becoming disciples of his? I don’t, by the way, discount the fact that many of you are doing your best to do just that. I also know that the only way I’ve found to do it is to be constantly seeking the truth, assiduously asking questions, examining my heart and soul daily, being bold about accepting the uncomfortable truth of my real attachments, and above all being open to the possibility of change. Not that I do it well, mind you. Nor am I some kind of expert. I just know that settling into what I already embrace and calling it “Jesus” or “God’s will” is a delusion. What might it be like if we were to make a daily habit of taking his question seriously: “what are you looking for?” That might be a good place to start. And we might reply with a question like these two disciples: “where are you….?” The questions themselves might be far more important than particular answers.

That’s what I mean by shifting allegiance, shifting to another authority. It is endless work and requires some effort on our part. Now don’t confuse that with the issue of whether of not God loves you. You won’t get it right most of the time, and you’ll also find that living the gospel is hit-or-miss at best. And God’s love, thank God, is not predicated on whether you do or don’t get it right. Make a short list of stuff you don’t have to worry about and put first on that list, “whether or not God loves me.” That’s settled.

But then there’s the second thing we learn, and that is that these disciples become convinced fairly quickly that whom they have found is indeed the Messiah. Go back to the fact that it is late in the day. Symbolically, that lateness is what we are all up against, even the young among us. Frankly, as one of our Advent hymns puts it, there are signs of ending all around us. Climate change, economic upheavals, wars and rumors of wars, and now an incontestable wave of reaction and repression that appears to be sweeping much of the planet: these things together create a sense of urgency. They also create a kind of panic in which people are known to lose their heads and begin following false prophets and fake messiahs. There is nothing new about this, one of the reasons why it is so disturbing.

We do not have to follow suite. We have an alternative: to follow Jesus. And here is where I think that both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Donald Trump have something to teach us. I cannot imagine two historical figures much farther apart than these two. And I think that each of them would likely agree. Dr. King’s dedication to non-violence; his witness to inclusion; his courage in taking on the powers of evil; his steadfast casting of the movement towards greater human rights as a matter of getting on the side of divine justice: all of these things give us a model of what it means to proclaim the dawning of a real messianic age. And don’t forget that his life ended as those of many prophets and apostles: in death. The life of God, while full of joy and ecstasy, is not the proverbial Sunday school picnic.

And Mr. Trump teaches us some lessons as well. You read the news as well as I, and I don’t think I have to spend sermon time belaboring the obvious. But I’ll tell you what I have learned from his political ascendancy: how easy it is to fool people into thinking that whatever affirms their prejudices is in fact the truth. Now you might say that I am not being fair, and I won’t argue that I am. I’ll only tell you that my understanding of the gospel of Christ leads me to the conclusion that anything that oppresses the poor and weak is the opposite of the radical welcome of God. Anything that exploits and demeans the natural world is incompatible with the Creator’s purposes. Any deliberate attempts to sow dissension and division are contrary to God’s call for honest peace and reconciliation. Any effort to advance oneself and one’s own interests at the expense of communal integrity is at best suspect, if not downright counter to all that the gospel demands of us. How to respond? I choose not to react, or at least to keep my reactions in check. But I will not keep silent in the face of injustice and falsehood. And I call you to examine your conscience and to remember your baptism, in which you are called, as am I, to repent and return to the true Messiah when we find ourselves colluding with the forces of darkness and hate. Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being is a commitment that lies at the core of Christian life, and I refuse to go back on it. As the song says, “No turning back, no turning back.”

So there you have it. I have worked Martin Luther King and the President-elect into the sermon. But notice that this is not about King or Trump or somebody else. It really is about Christ. And that means it is about you and me. Those two disciples only had a couple of hours of daylight. No one knows or ever will know what exactly transpired between them and Jesus. But it is certain that Andrew was moved to go find his brother and introduce him to Jesus. And we see that same energy motivating other disciples in this gospel. In the gathering darkness, they have chosen the Light. Names change and identities are recast.

It is late in the day. Darkness is arriving, as it has a habit of doing. But remember what we have been celebrating now for well over a month, and many of us for a long, long time. The True Light that enlightens everyone has come into the world. You have a choice. Either succumb to the darkness or follow the Light which cannot be put out. The choice may be obvious, but it is not easy. Still, you will find when you ask, “Where are you?” you will hear a voice saying, ”Come and see.” That is your cue to follow where he leads.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017