Who Am I?

Leelah Alcorn

Posted: January 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Comments Off on Leelah Alcorn

I know the title of this post is not particularly descriptive. I thought of many different titles, but none seemed quite right for what I wanted to say. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Leelah Alcorn was a transgender teen who committed suicide by stepping in front of a tractor trailer the night of December 28. Her death might have gone largely unremarked outside her local community if she had not left a suicide note scheduled for publication on tumblr. Her tumblr account has since been closed, but of course nothing published on the Internet ever really goes away.joshua_leelah_alcorn-550x412

Leelah’s death is a tragedy, even more so because it should have been avoidable. Whatever else can be said, and much has been said since her death, one thing is abundantly clear. Leelah’s parents failed her when she needed them most.

I’m hardly a shining icon of parenthood. I don’t want anyone to mistake my tone for a self-righteous one. My children are all adults now and I’m sure, if pressed, could catalog my faults and failings as a parent. I have tried to learn from my many mistakes along the way and hopefully my children all know that if they really need me, I’m there for them. Unconditionally. Even if the whole world seems to be against them, I’m in their corner. If I have one fervent prayer, it’s that I never fail my children to the extent that Leelah’s parents failed her.

Nor do I say that to demonize Leelah’s parents. By all accounts, they are the family next door. It’s reported they are Church of Christ members, a denomination that’s pretty similar to the SBC church I’ve attended for as long as I’ve called myself a Christian as an adult. (My interaction with Christianity and other religions is a complicated one and beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that I’ve practiced a number of religions and studied even more, but have identified as Christian for the past couple of decades and change.) I could easily see conversion therapy, which is proven to be outright harmful for transgender individuals, being recommended by members of my own church. In fact, it’s not particularly hard to imagine Leelah’s tragedy taking place in one of the families I know. I’m sure her parents were seeking advice from their friends and pastors and I’m sure they were acting on that advice. I’ve received plenty of bad parenting advice myself over the years from pastors and others in my church. Fortunately, outside a few instances I still deeply regret, I was able to recognize it as bad advice and make better choices instead.

While much of the attention has focused on Leelah’s suicide note, she had another note scheduled after it. In it she apologized to her siblings and friends and included the following to her parents.

Mom and Dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.

As a parent, I read those words and weep. Whether or not we condemn her parents, Leelah clearly did. Those were her last words to them. And from all the reports, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment those words express. The way Leelah was treated was messed up. But it was messed up in a way that’s all too common and which is replicated to one degree or another by many parents today with nothing but the best of intentions. The road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.

I do believe that Leelah’s parents loved her, or at least that they loved their son, Josh, even if they could not accept that their son was actually their daughter. I can’t remember where I originally saw it, so I can’t provide an attribution, but the following has haunted my thoughts for days now.

They loved their son so much they killed their daughter.

Even if Leelah had not committed suicide, the Alcorns would have lost their son, Josh. That was inevitable. Leelah was seventeen and approaching her majority. However, instead of merely losing the concept of a son they carried in their head, the Alcorns lost their child entirely.

Long-time readers of my blog (if any such individuals are still around) likely expect a theological reflection from me. I do have one. I hope it doesn’t disappoint. It may not be what you expect.

If God doesn’t love my children more than I do, then to hell with him.

I have no use and less interest in a God who demands that I sacrifice my children on his altar.

I’m familiar with all or most of the “biblical” arguments for and against accepting and loving those in the LGBTQIA community. I suppose there is some value in those discussions, but it really looks like so much intellectual masturbation to me. I’ve studied it all and found that it ultimately means nothing to me. I worship a good God who loves mankind in all our messiness and craziness. I worship a God who seeks communion with me and with all humanity so that we can love as he loves. Most of the time I think it’s a lost cause in my own case, but if I could I would become all fire.

So I place my hope in a God for whom love is never a mistake, the God we see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

And I’m comfortable with that choice. Ultimately, if there is no God, there are worse things I could have done with my life than tried as best I could to love. If the foundation of reality is something else then it either doesn’t matter that much (which would, in a sense, be the case with Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism) or the God that exists is one I’ve chosen, likely deliberately, not to worship. That would be true for most ancient pagan Gods, for the God of Islam, and for the God who demands blood sacrifice, satisfaction, and compliance that many Christians seem to worship.

I do believe you become like that which you worship over time. I’ll take the God who calls me to love over all else. And if, instead, God actually is as many Christians envision him, a God who expects me to sacrifice even my own children if they do not comply with his demands, then I’ll happily borrow Leelah’s last words to her parents as my response to such a God.

Fuck you.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

Posted: August 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

18. If ‘love is long-suffering and kind’ (1 Cor. 13:4), a man who is fainthearted in the face of his afflictions and who therefore behaves wickedly towards those who have offended him, and stops loving them, surely lapses from the purpose of divine providence.

Indeed. Yet love is hard, especially toward those who are afflicting you. Of course, I’ve often seen people confuse love with allowing others to abuse you when there are other options. That’s not love. If you study the ancient Christian martyrs, you’ll encounter many places where, if they had an available option, they act to escape. In no small part, it was out of love for their persecutors. These were not people who feared death, but they also did not seek it. They loved life. Moreover, they did not want another human being bearing the burden of the evil of murder. So we do not allow others to abuse us. But we should not respond in like manner when they do. I can’t claim to have such restraint, sadly. But that’s not a reason to stop trying.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 9

Posted: August 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 9

17.  The aim of divine providence is to unite by means of true faith and spiritual love those separated in various ways by vice. Indeed, the Savior endured His sufferings so that ‘He should gather together into one the scattered children of God’ (John 11: 52). Thus, he who does not resolutely bear trouble, endure affliction, and patiently sustain hardship, has strayed from the path of divine love and from the purpose of providence.

On the one hand, I lived so much of my early life on the edge of crisis that most of the time I’m pretty good at getting through rough times. I can compartmentalize and focus on what needs to be done immediately. But I’m not sure that bear, endure, or patience describe me much at all.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

Posted: August 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

15.  A soul’s motivation is rightly ordered when its desiring power is subordinated to self-control, when its incensive power rejects hatred and cleaves to love, and when its power of intelligence, through prayer and spiritual contemplation, advances towards God.

Without self-control, we are ruled by the passions flowing from our disordered nous. We tend to lash out when provoked; it’s not easy to embrace love. And ultimately, we need to know God.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 7

Posted: August 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 7

14.  Evil is not to be imputed to the essence of created beings, but to their erroneous and mindless motivation.

This is an important point. There is a mystery to evil as the nature of creation is good. As such it can even be difficult to describe evil as a separate thing. Rather it is more the perversion of something. God did not create evil, but in the very freedom instilled in the essence of his creation, God created the space that allows evil to exist. Ironically, evil rules, dominates, and destroys us in ways that God never would. We truly suffer evil. And God suffers with us both as the lover of creation and, through Christ, by joining us within our suffering.

Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

Posted: August 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

13.  Whether or not a nature endowed with intelligence and intellect is to exist eternally depends on the will of the Creator whose every creation is good; but whether such a nature is good or bad depends on its own will.

First, we are contingent beings. We have no natural immortality. Thus our existence is not part of our nature in the sense that it is something we control. When Christ broke the chains of death he did so for all humanity. However, our acts for good or ill do depend on our will. In that sense we form part of our nature.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Posted: August 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

I can’t claim to have really followed the Chick-Fil-A debacle. I’m not the sort who pays a lot of attention to boycotts or their opposite. And, given that much of my family has celiac disease, we don’t really frequent any sort of fast food establishment. Nevertheless, I have a twitter account and I read quite a few blogs, so I naturally heard some of the back and forth. Throughout it all the expert in the Jewish law’s question to Jesus has been running through my mind. Clearly, from his earlier answer, the man understood that Jesus was teaching that we could only love God to the extent that we are willing to love our neighbor as ourselves. It wasn’t a love God first and then as a secondary command love others. Rather, it was one command intertwined and inseparable.

Almost everyone, Christian or not, has heard about Jesus’ parable in response. We even have “Good Samaritan” laws named after it. And over the years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about that parable. Much of it has been good and highlighted important aspects about human interactions. But I think most of what I’ve heard over the years has missed one of the key aspects of the parable.

As a response to the lawyer’s question, the parable of the Good Samaritan reads to me like a sharp rebuke. Jesus is telling the lawyer that he’s asking the wrong question for the wrong reasons. When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” we are all in truth asking who we don’t have to love. And we are doing so by trying to group people into categories. And in response to that question, Jesus tells a story of a man who encounters a stranger who needs him — a stranger who in other circumstances probably would have despised and avoided the Samaritan — and who without hesitation or condition meets the needs of that stranger.

Whenever we ask “Who is my neighbor?” we have already stepped away from the way of life onto the way of death. The question itself indicates we want the escape clause. We want to know who we are allowed to hate. Oh, we dress it up and rationalize it in all sorts of ways; some of them are even pretty convincing.

Jesus will have none of it, though.

So who are really trying to fool? Ourselves? Are we simply attempting to justify our refusal to follow Jesus, the one we often falsely call “Lord“?

This incident is just one of many, of course. We see it every time Christians other Muslims. (Has anyone ever gotten one of those fear-mongering emails about Muslims trying to turn America into an Islamic state under sharia law from anyone other than a Christian?) We see it when a white church refuses to allow the scheduled wedding of a black couple on its premises. And we see it in this most recent dust-up, which has never really been about fast food chicken nuggets and sandwiches.

Jesus tells us in the parable the question we should instead be asking:

Who will be my neighbor today?

Out of those I know, those I will meet, or the strangers whose paths will cross mine, who will need me today? Who can I serve? Who can I help, even if only by my presence and support? Who will I be given the opportunity to love today?

Because ultimately it’s not about groups. It’s not about categories. It’s not even about generic statements that we should somehow abstractly love everyone (though that’s better than abstractly hating them, I suppose). Instead it’s about loving the individual human beings, each beloved by God, who need our love today. And the moment we ask who we have to love and who we don’t, we’ve turned our backs on Jesus. It’s really as simple and as hard as that.

And please don’t misunderstand me. I understand how hard it is. There are individuals I struggle not to hate, much less love. And there are groups (like the modern nativistic, racist GOP element) I want to other as a group, to make into a group I’m excused from loving. Like everyone else, I want to love those who love me and hate those who hate me. Christianity is hard. If anyone ever told you it was easy, they lied. But in the long run, it’s much harder, or at least more destructive, to hate.

Richard Beck has a follow-up to an earlier post in which evidence seems to show that evangelicalism is actually structured to allowed people to perceive themselves as more loving when in reality, even on a self-assessment, according to specific criteria members of that group actually aren’t more loving at all.

Fred Rogers really had it right, I think. Won’t you be my neighbor?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 5

Posted: August 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 5

7.  Divinity and divine realities are in some respects knowable  and in some respects unknowable. They are knowable in the contemplation of what appertains to God’s essence and unknowable as regards that essence itself.

This text touches on the distinction between what is also called the essence and energies of Gods. The actual essence of God is unknowable to us. We know God through his activities or energies. Those energies are no less God, but they are active as opposed to being. Every description we have of God at some level describes an activity of God, not the essence of God. In many ways, that’s also true of the way we know each other. We do not know the essence of another human being; we know them by their activities, by their words, and by association with them. It’s a concept that sounds esoteric, but is really so fundamental to our nature that it can be hard to accurately describe it in language.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

Posted: August 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

6.  Some say that the created order has coexisted with God from eternity; but this is impossible. For how can things which are limited in every way coexist from eternity with Him who is altogether infinite? Or how are they really creations if they are coeternal with the Creator? This notion is drawn from the pagan Greek philosophers, who claim that God is in no way the creator of being but only of qualities. We, however, who know almighty God, say that He is the creator not only of qualities but also of the being of created things. If this is so, created things have not coexisted with God from eternity.

We are not eternal beings. There was a time when we did not exist. There was a time when all that was did not exist. The idea that we are somehow naturally eternal seeps into Christianity from various sources today, even. We see evidence of that in various ways, but not least in Christians who also claim belief in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation.