A Kind of Love That Never Ends

This is the sermon I preached on February 14th at Spring Friends Meeting.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a romantic holiday, which celebrates love. A lot of couples will celebrate today by sharing gifts, eating out at a romantic restaurant, or getting away for the whole weekend. I have a hunch that 1 Corinthians 13 will be read or recited a lot today between couples and in churches around the country in honor of today. You may even see it quoted on church signs or posted on social media today. I am fairly certain that I am not the only person preaching on this chapter today.

I am glad that this chapter will be read a lot today. 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful piece of writing. My favorite part of this chapter is verses 4-8: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

These verses are often recited at weddings. It is really beautiful to reflect on what romantic love could be like. If a couple followed these guidelines for love, it would certainly build a great foundation for an long-lasting, romantic relationship.

Yet, people often take this chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth completely out of context. Paul is not talking about romantic love at all in 1 Corinthians 13, not even close. Paul does not care at all about the romantic lives of the Christians in Corinth. He is talking about a greater kind of love.

In Chapter 12 of his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is talking about the variety of spiritual gifts that Christians may possess. His overall point for Chapter 13 is about how we can only use our spiritual gifts in the most effective way if it is done with love. The Greek word that Paul uses in this chapter is agape. Paul does not use the Greek word eros, which is translated more as romantic love. Instead, agape translates to mean benevolence and good will. Christians have translated agape to mean God’s unconditional love. For example in the King James Version, agape is translated to English as charity, instead of love, unlike the New Revised Standard Version translation that I just read from.

Even though Paul does not talk about romantic love in this chapter, I still want to talk about this type of love on Valentine’s Day. For me, to only define love in one way, only in the romantic sense, robs us of a deeper love that Paul is talking about. A love that Jesus came to teach us about himself: An unconditional love from God that is given to us just because we exist. No matter who we are or what we have done, God still loves us, each of us.

On Facebook in recent days, I have seen friends my age reminiscing about what Valentine’s Day was like in elementary school. Valentine’s Day back then meant that everyone received a card and some candy. Ideally, back then, no one was singled out to get more cards or candy, nor left out of the exchange at all. For me this example illustrates what I believe God’s love is like. God loves each one of us the same way.

With the knowledge of this love comes responsibilities that we must bear. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is reminding us about these responsibilities that this love entails. We need to treat each other like the children of God we are, reminding ourselves of Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not an easy task by far. I often fail to love others, especially the people who I disagree with on matters I hold dear.

This is perhaps a great reminder to have right now. Currently, we are struggling among each other in the yearly meeting and also we are in the midst of yet another bitter Presidential election season. In this time of intense disagreement, let’s keep asking ourselves: How do we seek that of God within everyone we encounter?

At the same time, more is required of us than just passively loving each other despite our differences. It is a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly implores His followers to show solidarity with the oppressed. We need to take heed of this call to action, especially with the numerous injustices currently happening within our wider community, like mass incarceration, police brutality, eroding of voting rights, mass deportations of undocumented people of color. I could go on listing the social ills affecting our society. Most of these injustices do not directly affect us, as a congregation largely made up of privileged white people. This is precisely why we need to be working in solidarity with those affected by oppression at the same time challenging the status quo.

The scholar and activist Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We need to be showing up in solidarity with the oppressed to fight for justice, whether that means attending Moral Monday protests, educating others about injustices in our community, or helping people learn their own rights. To take action will look different for each person, but we all need to be doing something.

Whatever we do, we must continue to be mindful that we are affirming the dignity of the oppressed, not using them just to pat ourselves on the back. In the same vein, we need to lovingly challenge people in power, not demonize them. We should not be doing this work if at the end of the day we still feel superior towards the oppressed or smug towards people in power. This work should be done in partnership to achieve liberation for all. The Aboriginal activists group once said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” God is calling us towards a collective liberation. Are we heeding this call?

On this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember to love each other unconditionally just as God love us and further challenge ourselves by asking: How are we seeking that of God within each person we encounter? How are we showing up for justice in our communities? Where is God calling us to challenge the systems of oppression affecting our neighbors?

Because this kind of love never ends!

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My Complicated Relationship With Thanksgiving

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, a holiday that has brought my family and friends together. A holiday that includes my favorite food: pumpkin pie. Actually I have two in my kitchen right now waiting to be taken to two Thanksgiving feasts later today.

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With my growing discomfort with the consumerism of Christmas, I have appreciated that Thanksgiving does not mean having to buy/receive presents. Instead, the gift of the holiday today is to be present with each other and to come to the table to share a meal together; a communion with loved ones.

Already today I have enjoyed seeing my family and friends post about what they are thankful for on social media. I have a lot to be thankful in my life at the moment. I have a wonderful wife and a family that I love. I have a great job working within a supportive office and a college full of amazing students. I have a huge network of friends who challenge me to be a better person and a better accomplice in my work.

But…

Thanksgiving as a holiday is very problematic in the first place. The lore associated with this holiday is mostly false. For example, yes there was probably a meal in 1621, but indigenous people had celebrated a harvest feast each autumn long before the European people that we now called Pilgrims arrived.

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Thanksgiving Myth!

The late Michael Dorris, a Modoc author, writes:

A year ago my older son brought home a program printed by his school; on the second page was an illustration of the “First Thanksgiving,” with a caption which read in part: “They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!”

On the contrary! The Pilgrims had literally never seen “such a feast,” since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided, or so legend has it, by the local tribe.

The indigenous people that resided in what we now know as Cape Cod, the Wampanoag people, greeted the people despite prior Europeans’ harsh treatment of them. In 1970 remarks prepared by Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag people, these new European arrivals continued that trend:

Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.

Wamsutta had prepared his remarks for the 350th Anniversary Celebration of the Europeans’ arrival at Plymouth Rock, but the organizers rejected his words. Then, Wamsutta was asked to give a sanitized speech written by the public relations staff of the event. He refused to do so and was uninvited altogether from speaking at the event.

Sadly, the organizers should have faced reality, instead of continuing with the myths of the good Pilgrims. Even 45 years after Wamsutta written these words, we need to still confront the lore and history of the Pilgrims coming to North America and the negative, brutal impact it had on Native Americans:

We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years?

(I highly suggest reading Chapter Three “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving” in Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen as a starting place to explore more about this history and to hear voices of Native Americans.)

For more insight on what has happened since 1621, Sarah Burris of Raw Story has a great article listing five ways that the US has “given thanks” to indigenous people. The five ways she lists are: Stolen Land, Andrew Jackson and his Trail of Tears, Re-Education and Cultural Genocide, Broken Treaties, and Murder.

She ends the article by writing:

What we owe the Native Americans is a more complicated question, but for sure it begins with a greater respect and extends well beyond the limited reparations we’ve given them over the years. Perhaps it begins with the reclaiming of holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving which have done nothing but perpetuate stereotypes and gloss over the history of violence and broken promises.

I would add that we need to deconstruct the whole mythology around the “founding of the New World” and realize the devastating impact of Manifest Destiny has had and continues to have on Native Americans.

In my previous work with the Lakota people living on Pine Ridge Reservation, I have seen up close the harm that Europeans and then our government has done to indigenous people over the last 400 years in North America. At the same time I have witnessed the resiliency of Native Americans to continue fighting for their right to their land and culture.

Today, on this day we call Thanksgiving, we, white European-North Americans, need to recognize this painful history and start supporting indigenous people in their fight to regain land and culture. This is why many people of color call this day Thanks-taking and Thanks-stealing.

I am thankful for this day for the opportunity to celebrate with loved ones and just to be present with them. At the same time, we need to acknowledge our ancestors’ brutal violence towards indigenous people and examine the ways we continue that violence today.

This is why I have a complicated relationship with the day we call Thanksgiving.

Kirk Cameron’s Acne: Accepting My Disabled Self in an Ableist World

I gave a version of this talk during a panel entitled “Community, Reconciliation, and Healing” during the Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Conference at Guilford College on May 6, 2015 under the title of “Learning to be Whole: Finding my Sexuality as a Person with a Disability in an Ableist World”. I have edited the manuscript and retitled it.

I feel that my journey in realizing my sexuality in an ableist world is paralleled to my spiritual journey. As a campus minister, these two journeys are so intertwined. I find that I cannot talk about one journey without the other.

When I was young, probably 8 or 9, I remember at least once crying at night and asking my mother why me? What did I do wrong to deserve a speech impediment? Why did God do this to me? I didn’t feel whole.

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This is what I imagine when I think of a perfect Jesus and the first image shown when I did a Google search for “Perfect Jesus”. (Source)

Since a young age, I have had a difficult relationship with God. For a long time I tried to disassociate myself from Christianity because growing up on the northern edge of the Bible Belt there was a lot of talk about God, Christ, and perfection, as if perfection was the third part of the Trinity instead of the Holy Spirit. I often wondered: Why should I follow a God who curse me with a disability?

Since a young age, I treated my speech impediment as not part of my whole self. In essence, it was a detriment that kept me from succeeding in life. Part of this thinking was due to being misdiagnosed early in life. I remember, throughout elementary school, doctors thinking that I would grow out of my speech impediment by high school. I could not wait until high school.

Around this same time, I remember seeing a Full House episode, where two teenage girl characters, DJ and Kimmy, were talking about one of DJ’s male cousins, Steve, coming back to visit. Steve was supposed to be “nerdy-looking” or as Kimmy called him a “Geek-burger with cheese”: Glasses, braces, and acne.

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Isn’t he a hottie? (Source)

Yet, when they open the door, he had no glasses, nice teeth and clear skin. The two girls found him to be hot. (The actor playing the cousin was Kirk Cameron, who in the late 1980s was considered to be one of the more attractive young male actors.)

The two teenage girls asked what happened to him. He explained that he now had contacts, the braces came off and the acne cleared up.

For years afterwards, I remembered the scene incorrectly. In my mind, Steve had said:One morning I woke up and bam the acne was gone.”

After watching that episode and having the wrong recollection of the scene, I dreamt that: One day I would awake and find that my speech impediment was totally gone, like Kirk Cameron’s acne.

I wished for that day to come for years! Once that day happened, I would be more accepted and girls would finally find me attractive.

But that day never came. I felt disappointed as high school went by and my speech impediment continued to stay, like unwanted acne.

I spent a lot of my teenage years and my twenties feeling alone and just wanting to be loved. Even though I had a loving family and a huge network of friends, I felt that I just needed romantic love to finally feel whole. But for the most part I didn’t have any luck with dating in college or right after.

Yet when my relationship with my now-wife, Jenn, started over four years ago, I quickly realized that, nope, romantic relationships were not the magical cure to the depth of self-hate I had. I still did not feel whole.

Soon after I started dating Jenn, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Over the years, I had felt called by God to ministry in different ways. Then, after college, I felt a call to seminary and I resisted the call for years, but I finally caved in and applied.

Throughout seminary I wrestled with my anger towards God and why God chose to give me a disability or at least why God did not prevent it. At one point in seminary, I started to view my disability as a gift as an attempt to quickly reconcile my anger with God with my calling to ministry in God’s name. But one of my field education supervisors called me out on using that kind of messed-up theology.

After that intervention with my supervisor, I was again at a loss for how to reconcile my anger with God and I realized it would be a difficult path.

Finally, in my last semester of seminary, I took Sexuality and the Christian Body. Through the class, I had finally able to deal with my anger with God about my disability and actually confront my feelings of feeling lonely and abandoned by God

Through the class I was able to admit that, yes my disability was not a gift, it felt more like a burden, but also I learned that I was not as alone as I once thought.

In reading Disabled God, by Nancy Eisland, for my final paper in the class, I realized that the Savior that I had been worshipped was differently-abled too. In her book, Eisland writes: “The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin… Our bodies… are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”

In the Gospel of John, there is a scene after the Crucifixion when Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. In the scene, all of the apostles, besides Thomas, have encountered him after the Resurrection. But Thomas does not believe the others and Thomas says he will only believe when he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touch the wounds that Jesus had sustained on the cross.

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Jesus appears to Thomas and allows him to touch his wounds. This scene is known as Doubting Thomas and this story is mainly used to preach about the virtues of believing without seeing.

Yet, rereading this through the lens of Eisland’s book, I see this scene in a completely different way. Through this scene, I realized my conception of a perfect God, a perfect Jesus, was false. Christ could have come back perfect but He didn’t. Instead He bore the wounds He had suffered up on the Cross. He came back differently-abled.

My disability is not a hindrance to the Kingdom of God but just a part of my whole being, just as God created. I am indeed made in the image of God, as it is written in Genesis 1.

For years, I have let my sexuality and my spirituality be defined in an ableist world where perfection is the measure, but not anymore. My disability is not like Kirk Cameron’s acne. My speech impediment is part of me, not an unwanted inconvenience that will clear up one day.

I am disabled and both God and Jenn love me just as I am!

‘I’m the Man’

On our road trip last summer, Greg started posing for some photos in a body builder stance which he and I came to call his “I’m the Man” pose.

In a way, it’s like a funny inside joke for us because he and I both consider ourselves feminists and strive for a relationship that acknowledges the patriarchal, sexist world we live in while creating a partnership based on equality.

He and I haven’t read any how-to blogs or books on how to do this and while it has certainly been intentional that we work for an equal partnership, it’s not exactly an orderly process. Lastly, as in most things of life, I don’t believe in a one-size fit all, so what has worked for us, won’t necessarily be true for another.

First, I think the act of acknowledging that our relationship exists in a society that is sexist and patriarchal has been essential. It’s difficult to counter a dominant narrative if we were to pretend it didn’t exist.

The primary building block to our partnership is communication. I know; it’s pretty cliché. But I think Greg and I utilize a certain set of communication skills that work well in building our partnership including: empathy, active listening, ability to reflect and change, and self-awareness. Our communication is more than being able to share our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Sharing about the -isms of the world, including sexism, makes one vulnerable and knowing your partner is empathetic creates a safer space to share in. In our discussions about sexism, we actively listen to each other, trying to understand each other’s perspective. Greg and I also try to be reflective and consider that we may need to change. I have brought to Greg’s attention times when he has expressed sexist perspectives and he has been able to hear that and reflect on that. (And don’t worry, he’s called me out about -isms too). It isn’t comfortable, and it’s easy for us to get defensive, argumentative, and to want to be right. And it would be hard to have this kind of communication if we didn’t possess some level of self-awareness and commitment to self-growth.

Another factor we have considered is the division of labor in the home.  Historically speaking, household chores (cooking, cleaning, raising children) were the woman’s domain. Greg and I have made the active choice to divide chores at home. Some tasks are decided based on passions (I enjoy cooking more and Greg loves baking). And other tasks decided by fairness (whoever doesn’t cook does the dishes, major household cleaning is done when we are both able to do it together, I do my laundry and he does his own). As a number of our fights have been about household chores, division of labor has been harder to figure out than I am making it seem and is an ongoing process.

For me, the most difficult aspect to navigate in our relationship has been promoting and fostering both careers. Having meaningful and fulfilling work is important for both Greg and I. Before dating Greg, I had frequently stated that I would not move for a man or put his career first. Words which I ate as I made decisions to move from my home and career in DC to Princeton NJ where Greg was in school and then again as we moved from NJ to Greensboro NC for his job. I’ve heard of partnerships where couples alternate over the years whose career they focus on which is an approach that Greg and I have discussed. Right now, it’s worked out well for both of us. I have found work in Greensboro that is in a field I want, that advances my career, and that is meaningful and fulfilling. And Greg is doing work he loves. Win-Win for now.

Of course, we exist in a world that has multiple systems of oppression in addition to sexism that have to be addressed in a relationship working to be equal. Greg, as a male, belongs to the privileged group when it comes to sexism but there are other systems that impact our relationship. Greg has a speech impediment and has faced discrimination and oppression as a person with a disability and I am the privileged partner as the person (currently) with an able body. As a partner, I have to be conscious that I do not speak for Greg when someone cannot understand him unless he asks me to and that I do not finish his statements for him. Greg lets me know when he feels like I am speaking for him or ‘babying’ him because of his disability.

And beyond the power dynamics within our relationship, our relationship is privileged above others which we cannot ignore in our efforts for justice and equality. As an opposite sex couple, Greg and I can get married in any state and if we want, we can adopt children without question, unlike same-sex couples. Further, Greg and I are in the privileged group for a number of -isms, including race, education and class, and part of our work to build an equal partnership is to support each other in getting involved in anti-oppressive efforts.

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