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Glasgow, Scotland
Words are formed by experiences, and words inform our experiences. Words also transform life and the world. I am a writer and Presbyterian minister who grew up in the 1960's in the segregated South of the United States. I've lived in Alaska, the Washington, DC area, and Minnesota. Since 2004 I've lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where I enjoy working on my second novel and serving churches that are between one thing and another. I advocate for the full inclusion of all people in the church and in society, whatever our genders or sexual orientations. Every body matters.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Prayer for Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Prayer for Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Guide them, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrims, refugees, asylum seekers, freedom seekers.
They are weak, but thou art mighty;
hold them with thy powerful hand.
When they tread the verge of Jordan,
the Mediterranean Sea, the River Clyde,
bid their anxious fears subside!
Let your Divine Hospitality flow through each one of us
to welcome, shelter, and share our daily bread
as it is shared from Heaven.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Re-imagining Marriage

Re-imagining Marriage

The phone rang, and a staff member at my seminary in Washington, D.C., from which I had recently graduated, in May 1989, had a problem that he hoped I could help resolve: a couple he knew was planning to have their relationship blessed by their minister in the United Methodist Church where they were members—until the Bishop heard about it and declared that such blessing ceremonies were not to be conducted by United Methodist ministers or take place in United Methodist churches under the Bishop’s authority.

The Bishop’s problem was that the couple was gay.

The seminary staff person knew that I was one of many Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, thanks to my having trained at a More Light Presbyterian Church which publicly welcomed into membership and leadership all persons, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. I myself was not yet ordained, but did I know a Presbyterian minister who would be willing to step in and conduct this Holy Union in their Presbyterian church?

I referred them to my training supervisor, the Rev. Jeanne Mackenzie, minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest D.C., and to the Rev. Carla Gorrell, a Presbyterian graduate of my seminary who worked in Westminster as Director of a program preparing and delivering meals to people with AIDS-related illnesses. As it turned out, Carla was able to conduct the ceremony, and Jeanne was more than happy for it to take place in Westminster—until the Presbytery heard about it and tried to ban such blessing ceremonies from being conducted by any of its ministers or taking place in any of its churches.

One debate led to another, until finally it was decided that Presbyterian ministers were free to bless same-gender relationships as long as they were not called “marriages.” This was a moot point in the days before civil jurisdictions in the United States started to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

This month the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the first denomination to “re-define” marriage. Its Book of Order now holds that marriage is “between two persons, traditionally a man and a woman.” And last summer the General Assembly of the PC(USA) decided that its ministers may conduct same-gender weddings wherever they are legal.

“Will you marry me?”—It’s no longer just a straight question.

“I do!”—It’s not simply a straight answer.

The human right to marry, whatever your gender or sexual orientation, is simply just.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Heavenly Manna

 Heavenly Manna

I attended a small Presbyterian college in North Carolina, Davidson, where the Dean of Students, the Rev. Dr. William Holt Terry—whom we all called “Will”—taught me how to make biscuits.

Part of my job on the College Union Board was to organize the annual Short Courses, which were non-credited classes offered by members of the Davidson community for us students to take for fun. By far the most popular course was Will’s “Southern Cooking” which he hosted in his home, across the street from campus. It was limited by the size of his kitchen to a half-dozen students, but since I had an inside role as organizer I signed up me and my friends—only to learn there was a waiting list!

I did manage to get us all signed up the next year, however, and we practiced making biscuits and other Southern delicacies under Will’s hands-on guidance, peppered with wit and graciously administered with glasses of wine. 

I think of Will every time I make biscuits, and I’m grateful for going to a college where my dean taught me how to make what for me is manna from heaven.

I give thanks to God for the life of Will Terry, Davidson Class of 1954, who was born in 1932 and died in 2015, age 82.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

LGBT History Month in the UK: The Bible comes out

LGBT History Month in the UK: The Bible comes out

In 1992, while serving as a Campus Minister at the University of Minnesota with the single remit of “working with under-represented and traditionally-excluded students, faculty, and staff addressing issues of oppression,” I decided to research what Scripture really has to say on the topic of “homosexuality.” I confess to you, if the Bible treated “homosexuality” like it does the topics of “women” and “slavery,” I was prepared to deal with it similarly, that is, take a “that was then – this is now” approach.
To my surprise, I found Scripture does not address “homosexuality” much less condemn it. (This is where I differ from some other liberal folks who use “women” and “slavery” as analogies to “homosexuality.”)
In 2007 I refreshed my research, reading up on the latest exegeses and commentaries. Again, I was unsure about what I might find; perhaps the exponential growth over the past fifteen years in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; Gay Liberation Theology; and Biblical Studies from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender perspectives would reveal a different conclusion. And again, I was willing to go where the research led me and have my mind changed by new knowledge about ancient texts. Lo and behold, I found more bases offering greater precision that Scripture does not, in fact, deal with “homosexuality.”
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-11 (from which we get the English word “sodomy” which can refer to heterosexual activity, including that between a husband and a wife) is about the threat of gang rape and mob violence and the extreme limits to which the Biblical code of hospitality—welcoming and sheltering a stranger or foreigner—is to be practiced.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are part of the Holiness Code which condemns Hebrew men for “wasting their seed.” In order to be fruitful and multiply as the covenant people of God, and to survive as a distinct religious group in a harsh desert land, Israelite men—who were thought to contain a finite number of miniature human seeds inside their testicles, a misconception common among ancient peoples—were not to “sow their seed” in any ways other than by planting them in certain prescribed females (for example, a Hebrew wife, or multiple wives especially as one wife might be barren as in the story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, or a slave as in the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar) only when the woman was impregnable, that is, no sex during menstruation, no masturbation or coitus interruptus (“onanism,” from the story of Onan in Genesis 38), and no sex with animals or with various proscribed types of people –male and female. Rather than conserve this ancient Israelite context (ignorant of human reproduction though it is), the New Living Translation (1996, 2004) chooses to state: “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.” (Leviticus 20:13)
The English word “sodomite” was inserted into the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible in 1611, in Deuteronomy 23:17, I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46, and 2 Kings 23:7. “Sodomite” was used to translate a Hebrew word qadesh which means, literally, “holy” and implies in these verses “holy temple prostitute” (or “cult prostitute” or “sacred prostitute”). As with all forms of sexual exploitation, gender is not the issue; prostituting children or adults—regardless of the gender of the prostitutor or the gender of the victim—is wrong. It is important to note that The Living Bible Paraphrased (1971) decided to stick “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in the first two of these passages, but now its successor, the New Living Translation (1996, 2004), uses “temple prostitute” and “shrine prostitutes”—male and female.
In the New Testament, Paul discusses the major issue of monotheism and polytheism in his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 1:26-27, he uses, in an analogy, the Greek phrase para phusin which gets incorrectly translated as “unnatural” or “against nature.” The word para (same as the English prefix “para”) means “exceptional,” “different,” or “beyond the usual.” Modern English examples are “paramedic” and “paralegal”: a paralegal secretary working in a lawyer's office is not “against the law” or “illicit,” and a paramedic working for an ambulance service is not “against medicine,” or “unhealthy.”
Paul uses in this passage the Greek phrases pathe atimias (“passions of dishonor” or “degrading passions” or (KJV) “vile affections”) and orexis (“passion,” “yearning,” or (KJV) “lust”). In 1 Corinthians 7:9, Paul again refers to “passion”: “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” (KJV). For Paul, sex is not the problem—passion is—so much so that marital sex acts are judged by him to be the cure of last resort! Paul felt all passions were “dishonorable” and urged Roman Christians to believe “naturally” in one God, rather than “exceptionally” in more than one God, that is, polytheism—which is not “against belief” or “atheism.”
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, Paul lists a variety of sins, two of which get mistranslated as “homosexuals.” (The Good News Bible (1976, 1994, 2004) prefers “homosexual perverts.”) In the Corinthians list, the Greek word malakos means “soft” or “gentle.” The KJV translated it as “effeminate.” If we suppose Paul's intended audience was male, he is saying men should not appear “feminine” or act “lady-like.” Regardless of whether we talk about the 1st century Roman world or the 21st century world, there are “straight” men who are feminine in style and personality, and there are “gay” men who are masculine and quite manly. One's primary personal demeanor does not have anything to do with the primary gender one finds most attractive.
As for the Greek word arsenokoitai, no one knows nowadays what it really meant during Paul's time. It only exists in Scripture in these two vice lists, and there are few contemporary examples to go by. Thus to assume it means “homosexuals” (the Today’s New International Version (2004) opts for “practicing homosexuals” in the Corinthians list and “those practicing homosexuality” in the Timothy list) is faulty scholarship and extremely discriminatory. Where this word is included in extra-Biblical ancient lists, the other words in the lists are not related to sexual activity but rather to economic injustice and exploitation. So it is fair to assume Paul is referring to some kind of economic exploitation, like slavery or prostitution. But we simply don't know for sure. As with all forms of exploitation—sexual, financial, physical, etc.—gender is not the issue.
To insert into the Bible the word “homosexual”—a term coined in the late 1800's by schools of psychology and sociology to designate a person who is attracted to another person of the same gender—is both anachronistic and unfounded.
Any group of translators, editors, and publishers—including Bible Societies!—who permit the word “homosexual” to replace Biblical Hebrew and Greek words or phrases that mean other things, or whose original meanings are long lost, cause a scandal to the Gospel. This is not about linguistic nuance or academic parlance: this is about manipulating The Good Book to underwrite hate crimes and witch hunts against all of us who are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender—including my Roman Catholic colleagues who dare to lend a sympathetic ear and offer compassionate advice to anyone struggling with anything remotely queer.
Providentially, two English language Bibles have done a fair job of revision. The New Revised Standard Version (published under the auspices of the National Council of Churches in 1989) does not retain the word “homosexuals” printed in the Revised Standard Version (published by the NCC in 1946). The Revised English Bible (published by the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge in 1989) does not retain the phrase “homosexual perversion” printed in the New English Bible (published by same in 1961).
To my knowledge, the word “homosexual” does not appear in The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene H. Peterson (1993, 1994, 1995).

LGBT History Month in the UK: My coming out story

LGBT History Month in the UK: My coming out story

I grew up in the Southern United States quite aware, because I had two cousins who lived in California, that we Southerners were about ten years behind the times when it came to popular culture. Whatever my relatives were listening to or wearing in the early 70’s didn’t drop across the Mason-Dixon Line until I was in college in the early 80’s.

When it came to politics and morality, the South was a world unto itself: Southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, had a stronghold in local governments in states where Black people were still kept from voting even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I know this because my parents were frowned upon by other white people in Starkville, Mississippi, where we lived from 1969 to 1972, when my mother drove our maid, Thea Bishop, who was African-American, to the polling station each Election Day before taking her home after work.

I remember my family going on vacation to the Bay Area during the summers of 1967 and 1972, when Flower Children dotted the streets of San Francisco. Their long hair and hippy clothes and androgynous style so captivated my father that he toured the city with his camera ready and aimed at this wild life in their natural habitat. The only way you could distinguish between the males and the females was by their beards—men’s beards tended to be a bit fuller. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in December 1960, I was a child in the 60’s—not a child of the 60’s—and, sure enough, long hair and unisex clothing featured prominently in my Southern high school and college yearbooks from 1977 to 1983, a full decade after the “summers of love” on the West Coast.

The AIDS crisis forced me to grow up.

In 1985, I started seminary, in Washington, D.C., dimly aware of “the homosexual disease.” Herpes was all the rage among the sexually-active, of which I was not one, but I knew and laughed at the jokes, which were often at the expense of gay people. Only we didn’t call them “gay people” but rather “queers” or “fags” or “homos.” If you really wanted to put somebody down, you merely had to call them a “homo” or “faggot.”

Then I heard through the grape-vine that one of our seminary professors, the Rev. Dr. Joe Weber, who taught New Testament, Greek, and Orthodox Theology, had died of AIDS and that he had been secretly gay and homosexually-active. Publicly he had been married to his wife for many years, and they had a couple of grown children, whom I caught a glimpse of at his memorial service attended by many of us from the seminary, following his death from what was reported to be some rare form of pneumonia. Dr. Weber had gotten sick half-way through the semester and had to quit teaching us first-year students about the Jewish roots and different developments of the various gospels (of which there are more than four, we learned to our surprise).

The only good news about our professor’s illness was that we New Testament students did not have to endure being divided into small groups to work together on biblical research projects, for which the members of each group would earn the same grade—regardless of how much time or energy or intelligence each student contributed to their group’s final outcome. Our fierce sense of unfairness at this common-fate grading scheme helped to unite us newcomers—only to discover that previous generations of New Testament students had suffered the same common fate—and so our protests, official and unofficial, proved futile. Thus imagine our initial feeling of liberation when the academic dean came to our class one day to announce our professor’s medical absence and then distributed a revised syllabus, with the remaining lectures to be given by other members of the faculty and our final grades to be based on the usual method of written examinations—with each student earning their own grade.

Six months after Dr. Weber’s funeral, rumors about his real death and real life started to spread. Like any secret functions in a familial organization, the chain of action and reaction quickly became toxic: we students blamed “the administration” for, supposedly, lying about our professor; the gay students blamed the non-gay students for protecting the supposed lies; and the whole situation exposed the religious and moral hypocrisy that shamed individuals to go into the closet. None of us wanted to admit that we—individually and communally—were responsible for perpetuating homophobia, heterosexism, anti-gay discrimination, fear and hatred against anyone perceived as “different.”

This is what forced me to come out. To choose, for the first time, to relate differently—with acceptance and affirmation—to people—those I knew, and all the ones I didn’t know I knew—who identified—or who needed the freedom to explore their identities—as being other than strictly heterosexual.

I am grateful to every gay person and gay-friendly person on my seminary campus and in the More Light Presbyterian Church where I interned for three years who sat me down, told me the truth of their lives, opened me to the truth of my life, and turned me to identify Jesus as “different”—as queer as any of us.

The decade after Joe Weber’s death, I went to see the AIDS quilt when it came to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was living. I remember finding his panel, one of the many thousands of panels by that time, and reading his name and touching the symbols from his life that had been sewn onto it. I trust that he knows how many lives his death changed and how much those lives have worked together to help change the church and the nation—congregation by congregation, state by state.

Thank God, once you come out there’s no going back.