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Soul and Sentimentality

Why bother writing? Isn’t it a thing of privilege to sit down and jam buttons on your computer for an hour? Isn’t it a question of arrogance to think you have something to say that will interest others?

Taking an hour to write every week forces me to reconnect with a larger view of life and the world as it moves on around me and it helps me reconnect with our common humanity, our common struggles through all of our differences.

Being closer to 30 than 20, at an age when many people are primarily concerned with their economic advancement and starting families, I selfishly want to focus on the state of my being. I can’t stand to live life for superficial things or exterior qualities. Life can’t be boiled down into the house you live in or how much money you make or the photos you post on Facebook of the places you’ve been and the things that you’ve seen.

After all, there is the soul which cannot be communicated through such things.

Soul has everything to do with how or even if we are able to relate to one another. The soul is the heart of our existence. The soul is the most vulnerable and easily confounded thing about us. It is easy to confuse the soul and sentimentality. Sentimentality, however, is a poor substitute for soul and we must not confuse the two.

Sentimentality says that you ought to go to church and not swear and do all the good things your parents told you to do. Sentimentality is about being a good citizen; sentimentality is a reflection of societal mores, what a group of people consider to be good and right behavior. Sentimentality is something easily packaged by Hollywood and pastors on Sunday mornings alike. Sentimentality is about appealing to the emotion inside of you and preying on that emotion; exploiting your ability to sympathize and by moved to tears. Watch a Christmas movie on TV this holiday season and you’ll get a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.

Soul is much more complicated. Soul is your ability to relate to other human beings. Not to sympathize, but to empathize. Sympathy is a condescending thing. Empathy means going down and putting yourself in another person’s shoes and really trying to get at the heart of what they are feeling. Sometimes you can’t know what another person or another group of people might be feeling and having soul means having the maturity to step back and say, “I have no idea. This is so far beyond my capacity to grasp.” Soul means that you get outraged on other people’s behalves but you don’t take it upon yourself to try and speak for others when they are suffering. That would be cheap sentimentality. Soul is fighting for others, for others’ rights, and for their advancement with a common goal. Soul is looking beyond the exterior, beyond labels, beyond differences.

There’s not much I’m good at in life, but I want to make myself a better advocate for our collective soul and to continue to try and develop my own, which is why I’ll continue to write.

To bring this full circle and make a connection to my original intent when I began this blog, here’s a similar thought I shared a while ago on my “Why Queer” page,

But what about being queer? To be ‘queer’ is to be ‘other’ – which is, I think, outside the realm of gay versus straight, liberal versus conservative, Christian versus secular. As cited from dictionary.com, queer means “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular.”

I very easily could have been a blindly hateful, unabashedly homophobic Christian in another life. There was some grace I received and some curse in being gay and born into the particular milieu where I grew up. I’m still living it down. None-the-less, it informs the way I look at the world and has afforded me a great chance to see the soul in the people I often hate – a word I use out of sheer honesty because it describes the utter frustration, outrage, and anger I feel when I look at the lack of justice in the world.

I very easily could have been a very different person, but I changed and am still changing; growing.

Life can pass you by and leave you angry, wondering where the time has gone if you don’t take the time for critical self-reflection. Some people achieve this through conversation. Some people achieve this through religious reflection or meditation. I can only work through this in rambling blog posts. I hope that one day my writing will add up to something more but in the meanwhile I hope that it will enrich my own soul and maybe encourage and edify you as you examine your own.

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What Does Being a Christian Mean to You?

Every time I manage to think of something to blog about, it falls into one of two categories: Woah-is-me-isms or reflections on American Evangelical Christianity.

Last time it was a Woah-is-me-ism, this time it’s about Christianity and how deeply conflicted I feel about Christianity.

On the one hand, Christianity and religion in general is a mollifying force, a force to pacify the anger and sense of rage in us when we look at a supremely unjust world. Religion is the opiate of the masses and that sort of thing.

On the other hand, religion is an organizing tool in the face of injustice. Look at churches around the United States, for example, organizing around immigration reform, harboring undocumented residents in their buildings.

My particular beef here, which I think I will do a very poor job of explaining, is Evangelicals in particular and their penchant for a “personal relationship” which, for the sake of this post, we’ll assume means God as a white, bearded genie sort that you get to carry around in your pocket. (I realize this is vast oversimplification, so don’t freak out at me.)

When my Evangelical friends and family talk about missions trips and going to share the Gospel, I am so deeply conflicted inside. What is the Gospel? For many, it comes down to a few core things:

  1. A set of rules. Usually with unbalanced emphasis on things like sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, drinking, drugs, etc.
  2. A political vantage point. When you see your ultimate leader as (your version of) Jesus, it takes precedence over everything else. The government should allow your views not only to be freely expressed, it should also be a vehicle to further those views or at least allow you significant leeway in enforcing and promulgating your version of Christianity.
  3. Looking for signs. You are constantly seeking out God’s will for your life in one way or another. If something goes wrong, if you come up against a wall in your life, you start to wonder what God is trying to teach you, or perhaps you examine your life and try to determine if there is any fault or guilt that you need to expunge.

Of course, the Gospel means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. These are my observations based on having spent 20+ years living within the sort of community that I’m describing. I’m sure I could add a good deal more to this list and perhaps I will with a little time and thought on the matter.

So back to missions work and sharing the Good News with people all over the world and why I feel so conflicted about this.

Accepting the Good News of the Gospel is often reduced to a set of rules and encouraging people to accept this new set of rules. When people share testimony about how they were saved and how they came to know the Lord, the most exciting stories always involve leaving behind a life of rampant sin. The best ones are the most scandalous: adultery, addictions, drugs. Many of these things are very good things to reject. There are indeed healthy (“moral”) ways of living and unhealthy (“immoral”) ways of living. It does seem to me, however, that the focus is usually misplaced for two reasons: 1) By going out to share the Good News in foreign countries, we are by necessity neglecting our own relationships and our own communities which are very often in need of love and support. How many nice white people from the United States have gone on missions trips to Mexico or Europe or Africa but don’t know the black or Hispanic neighborhoods down the road from them? 2) By sharing Christianity, we are presenting our version of the religion, with our own emphasis on the morals and rules that we find to be of particular importance (take extreme examples such as American missionaries going to Uganda and Russia selling fake science about homosexuality to target those countries’ LGBT communities). This is an extreme example, but it is an equally real example. Moreover, it takes a good deal of sensitivity and cultural awareness to be able to relate to a community. It takes people who are a part of that community, who understand, know, love, and sympathize with its members, to really be able to accurately and fairly speak to those people. Some missionaries do this. Some missionaries go out and spend years or even lives in communities and you have to respect them for that level of dedication. Here I’m criticizing more of the tourist missionary than anything else, someone who goes for a week or two in another country, “feels the Holy Spirit,” and comes back home changed and “on fire for God” and with a new passion for the people of this or that country, people that they don’t even understand.

I want a version of Christianity that’s outraged, that’s less about me and my personal relationship and less about subjectivity (“I feel God is telling me this…”). I want a religion that doesn’t send missionaries to Mexico to convert Catholics, but that sends missionaries to Mexico to learn about the atrocities that the government is committing in collusion with drug lords. I want a Christianity that doesn’t send missionaries to Uganda to condemn homosexuality, but a Christianity that rallies protestors in Washington and New York and across the world when bad policies are enacted that hurt third world countries. I want a Christianity that stands up and says, “No. We will not bomb foreign countries because we believe that Iraqi, Afghani, and Yemeni lives are sacred as well.”

That’s what I want out of my religion. Less pacification, less inward searching, and more doing. American Christianity has become totally self-absorbed. We have a whole subculture to help you live your life in a good and godly way. We have short-term missions trips galore to send you out into the world so that you can have an unforgettable experience that you get to talk about for the rest of your life like you’re a saint for stepping foot in a country where you can’t drink the water. It reminds me of a Switchfoot song, actually. “Gone.” Wow. That song was good the first 100 times you heard it.

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The Promised Land

I’m taking to writing on here once again not because I have much commitment to this blog in particular, but because I need some outlet. As a professed writer, I should actually write, shouldn’t I? As it is, I have been receiving more opportunities to do so at work since our Director of Marketing left the company for a new job with the University of Michigan this past summer, and I admit that I have actually greatly enjoyed this opportunity. I suppose I am rather proud to be making a living doing what I said I would – or at least to be in the nascent* stages of carving out a career of writing.

Saying that you’re a writer sounds much sexier than actually doing it.

Saying, “I’m a writer” conjures up images of a slick, minimalist workspace in a city skyscraper or maybe throwing back a couple whiskeys (or, my preference, cognacs) while you muse over what you’re going to write. Instead, I get to write from a cubicle in a warehouse with no windows in a hardbottle neighborhood in Flint.

Not very sexy.

The way that life has gone since finishing grad school, I’ve been busier than ever. I don’t know how grad school works for everyone else, but our cozy little cohort always managed to find time to get really toasted once a week or so before going back to our books.

I get nostalgic for grad school sometimes since in the year and a half since graduating, all my free time goes to something like cooking or cleaning or paying bills or working on my resume and applying to jobs or working a second or third job. The list goes on. It’s 6.30 on a Saturday night and this hour or so of freedom is my weekend where I get to do what I want. And I’m choosing to spend it with you.

Sitting down to write while you’re at home is always a dangerous thing. If you have a personality like mine, you’re always looking around and noticing things that need to be done. It would be a miracle for me to be able to sit down and put my thoughts out all at once. If you’re not noticing something that needs to be done, there’s someone else reminding you of their presence in your world and their needs such as your favorite dog in the world plopping her head on your lap with a forlorn look that would go well an animal cruelty commercial.

But this is my hour of freedom. With the dog and the cat both napping and my partner at work, I get to breathe. I get to treat myself to an hour of quiet with only the cars going by on Saginaw Highway and incense burning and the lights low and a glass of $4 wine.

Again, saying you’re a writer is much sexier than doing it.

But, when you’re like me, you come back to it because you have to. You come back to it because writing helps you to understand the world a little better, particularly when it’s a week like the one this has been where so much seems to make so little sense. You may not have much, you may be drinking from a $4 bottle of wine and trying to not let your eyes leave the computer screen for fear of remembering all that you have to do, but that makes the moment that much more important. Why? Because you have to remember. You have to make it through the tough moments in life and come out on the other side – both on a personal level and on a collective level. You have to come out on that side and remember where you were and what life was like before you made it over the mountain to the Promised Land with more than just a vague feeling of how bad things were.

jrm

*(I have an MA in French literature and I make shit for pay, so I’m allowed to use the word nascent, OK?)

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The broadening of the world

Last night I went to go see Cesar Chavez with my partner. It was an excellent film, which comes at an important time in our history where many Americans take rights in the workplace for granted; many of us, myself included, don’t fully understand the past struggle which has allowed us to be where we are today. And at the same time, we see efforts across the country to dismantle and limit the scope of unions, such as here in Michigan when Rick Snyder signed “Right to Work” into law.

It’s discouraging, I think, to realize that, well into your adulthood, you can still be so ignorant of the world and of events that have shaped it in the not-so-distant past. Movies like this, for many of us, break our understanding of the way that the world is and put us in an uncomfortable position where we have to come to terms with the practices of American agriculture exploiting workers – which is, by the way, no where near being a thing of the past.

It is much easier to remain ignorant, to go to the supermarket, make your purchases, and not have to think about where this food came from as if God is still sending us manna directly down from heaven, only now it lands in aisle 8 and costs $1.29/lb on sale.

The world is a complicated, tangled-up place and we should be constantly coming face-to-face with our own ignorance of it. It strikes me that we are all making complicated choices on a daily basis, too, just for our survival.

Rather than being such a frightening, overwhelming thing, it should increase our empathy for one another and encourage us to find the common bonds that we share.

Easier said than done.

That’s life in the trenches.

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Neither/Nor (Part 2)

I have been struggling lately with the idea of belonging.

I’ve not only struggled with belonging in terms of a religious community, but also in terms of the LGBT community.

I don’t wish to associate myself with a religious community primarily because it feels inauthentic. How can you feel comfortable sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with strangers with whom you associate merely because you spend an hour or two with them every week? I share my struggles and reflections with people I know well, with people I trust. Religious gatherings have always given me the impression of inauthenticity – to one degree or another.

The LGBT community is a different matter and one which is more difficult for me to judge since, although I am a member of this community, I have considerably less experience with it than I do with communities of faith.

I want to check my words when speaking about the LGBT community since it is an oppressed community whereas Christians are in a position of power in most of the United States.

What’s been most troubling for me is that the LGBT community is, more or less, a lot of the purportedly horrible things I was taught to believe as a kid. At least the gay male community – I certainly cannot speak for lesbians or the trans community so I’ll change my wording to “gay community” rather than “LGBT.”

I also don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. Certainly there are many different experiences of what it means to be a gay man and I hope that my words won’t be used to mis-characterize or mis-represent.

On the group level, which again is in acknowledgement that there is plenty of room for individuals to behave differently, I don’t feel comfortable within a community that tells me that sex is something that isn’t really a big deal, that I shouldn’t be concerned about the integrity of my monogamous relationship, that sex can happen whenever you want without feelings attached.

Of course we should also be clear that these are all things which may be said of the heterosexual community as well.

I think that the difference comes in with the way we as gay men are catered to by people who want to sell us sex in any form whenever and wherever we want. Hookup apps, hookup websites, you can carry them all around in your pocket with you wherever you go.

Apparently we just can’t control what goes on in our pants – and we’re supposed to accept it because restraint and self-control are no longer things we know how to appreciate.

I’ve spent years raging against my conservative evangelical upbringing to find myself adrift between two camps I want nothing to do with. The clear cut, black and white world of my youth has its appeal in that it is a very comforting system but I don’t think the world works as a system; I think it is a far more complicated, far richer and messier place than that. The freedom and lack of judgement in the gay community is nice, but you are only given the freedom to fit within certain prescribed rolls. Sexual freedom is nice, but what is freedom without restraint but a new form of enslavement?

I struggle putting these thoughts down knowing how they might be perceived as hateful or as some sort of “Aha!” for homophobes to use as damning evidence against us. They’ve been floating through my brain for months upon months. I share them not to cast judgement, but in the meager hopes of understanding my own mind a little more precisely and, more boldly, in the constant hope of finding others who can relate.

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Just a bike

There’s a bike, but what color is it?

Blue. But it’s debatable. It’s pretty dusty, covered in rust and the paint torn off through use and occasional neglect.

We’re going so fast we get annoyed when we have to spend twenty seconds at a stoplight. We need to get home, get home, come on, move GOD DAMMIT! just so that we can get home to a television screen or a silver or white box with a glowing apple on it.

We’re so busy going everywhere that we never notice that we’re never going anywhere.

We never notice where we are because we always want to be somewhere else so we keep working at it and trying to make an extra dollar or two that we end up spending where there was no need.

And maybe I keep saying we and meaning me because this is my experience, this is my disease, this is my neurosis.

I don’t even know what neurosis means, it just sounds like the right word for this.

I gave up believing in religion a while ago. So now, I believe in that blue bike that you can’t even tell is blue anymore. Half the time I don’t notice it, either. And by half, I mean more like 99 percent of the time.

So now I’m riding that blue bike, even if it looks more like it’s a grey or a brown. I’m on that bike and I’m trying to get somewhere besides the concrete boxing me in because this is my natural habitat but sometimes you want to break free but it feels just as impossible as flying to the moon.

But it’s just a bike. It’s a fucking bike. And there’s a park across the two lane highway where I could ride it and enjoy the squirrels’ natural habitat for a change.

So I keep riding my bike but I can’t decide which way to go but I can’t stop now so I’m headed into the city where I’m going to see the people, where there are more blue bikes like mine.

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Neither/Nor

It’s been a while again since I wrote last.

After writing my last post about being determined to carry on with Queerrant, I decided I had nothing really worth saying.

Yes. I am that wishy-washy.

Another reason I haven’t written is that many of my thoughts lately are not easy to explain and I’m not comfortable divulging many of them. Or rather, I’m scared of how they might be misinterpreted.

Often I find myself leaving a thought, be it out of busyness or because it’s simply too hard to grapple with. Checking Facebook to see the latest meme or watching a TV show or doing the dishes, even, is much easier than coming to terms with your own mind.

I’ve always struggled with belonging; I’m a perpetual outsider.

As a kid, I attended a 99% white school. My classmates were almost all fairer skinned than me. My sister and I had olive skin, dark brown hair and brown eyes. I got used to people asking, “What are you?” As an adult, it’s subsided. I guess adults are less curious or better at filtering their curiosity. It never bothered me to be called out as different; I took it as a point of pride to not be blond and blue-eyed.

In high school, however, I felt a much more painful wedge between me and my friends. Being gay was a big deal in West Michigan in the 2000s – as I think it still is, by and large. Without a safe space in which I could exist, I lived with a wall between myself and everyone else.

At the same time, I rejected the conservative ideology of my upbringing in favor of a more “progressive” or “liberal” view of the world and yet, to this day, I stubbornly refuse to identify myself as anything besides “independent progressive.” I don’t think of politics as something that should divide us, and I’m not interested in perpetuating the unhelpful Right-Left divide in our country.

And, after years of searching, I feel ready to let go of one more label – one which was even more important to me than Republican: Christian.

It’s a scarey thing to think for a boy who grew up in Grand Rapids, let alone write down.

I feel no pride in saying it. But I feel no shame, either. I feel regret, if anything, for uncovering one more area where I don’t quite belong; my rejection of Christianity doesn’t equate with an unequivocal  rejection of religion or God. I’m not an atheist, I’m not agnostic. I still believe in God, actually. I’m not a Christian, but I am a theist.

The instinctive reaction of the Christian, as I was trained, is to reach for a Bible verse to use as a sword against the unknown or the different. The arrogance, too, of the atheist eagerly dismisses that which can’t be explained through pure logic or science.

I neither believe religion to be the answer to everything, nor do I believe science to be an infallible guide to the universe.

I believe our perception of everything is flawed and our understanding can never be perfect in our limited state as humans. I don’t know how many answers that I’ll find on my way, but I hope to be a better person for being a more honest one.

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