Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Bless Us With Discomfort"

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Adam Lambert is …

on the cover of Rolling Stone! “And it should come as no surprise to anyone” that he’s gay, says he in his own words.

How will his audience, or the general pop audience, respond? We can only wait and see. His career will be something of a social experiment, as we are clearly in an age that is increasingly accepting of alternative self-identifications. Certainly social acceptance is demographically patchy at best: LA, Vancouver, the big cities, yeah, maybe it's kind of all right being yourself. Arkansas, or Alberta, maybe not so much. If you're 20-something, maybe it's no big deal; if you're in your 50s or 60s, maybe it's a little more difficult to wrap your head around. At least that’s what statistics are telling us about the current state of things.

The appearance of someone like Adam Lambert on the scene is still cause for cautious optimism, as I suggested in my last post. Our community is finally capable of raising such an assured young man (kudos to his parents, of course); and the likes of American Idol is prepared to support him -- if only for the dollar signs in their eyes. But we know too well we have not fully exited a time or place when all the dollars in the world would not breach the wall that went up when "homosexual" was whispered about you. Come to think of it, that wall used to spring up pretty fast when someone uttered so benign a word as "divorced" -- you baby boomers might remember that, when you were kids? And never mind the whispers, you weren’t even on the guest list if you were brown-skinned.

There was likewise a time (not yet past) when it was considered "not natural" to marry outside one's own race (operating on the flimsy assumption that each member of each race could remain “pure.”) It was once considered in certain quarters not "natural" for a woman to have desires, or to have them fulfilled. It was once considered not "natural" for women or people of African descent to be educated. And it was once considered "natural" in some circles to keep certain classes of human beings as slaves. All of these things have been changing, over the generations. Painfully slowly, for everyone crushed or crippled in the machinery of collective fear and oppressive policies. But visibly changing, nonetheless.

Society – the great collective of souls with hearts and minds indelibly marked by each other – is a fluid, living organism. It changes, adapts to new stimuli. It changes, because growth is life, and stasis is death. Norms change. “Normal” changes. Painfully, often with great sacrifice and also with great celebration.

Mostly, though, it changes one person, one small moment at a time.

Last January I had the privilege of being invited to preach at a local church on the Sunday following President Obama’s Inauguration week. (Oh yes, I am in Canada, but the world shared in that party.) I had been particularly captivated by the furious debate surrounding Obama’s inclusion of three very different clergymen, who were to lead prayers accompanying the public celebrations. Public prayer on such a scale doesn’t occur very often, and when it does it’s nearly always in response to some horrific tragedy such as 9/11. For once, we as a world community were held together in joy and thanksgiving, in not just one moment of public prayer, but three. That is a powerful force – to unite so many in an invocation, in a wish, in a sacred vision for peace and affirmation. I wanted to reflect on that in church that Sunday.

Oh, I noticed these particular clergy were (1) all male and (2) all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic Christians), which was a gross oversight if one actually wants to make a statement about inclusiveness. But that sorry misstep was countered by other stark differences in their social locations.
Pastor Rick Warren (evangelical author of The Purpose-Driven Life) offered the prayer for the Inaugural moment itself; Rev. Joseph Lowery, lion of the civil rights movement alongside Dr. King, powerfully closed the Inaugural ceremony by invoking memories of a darker time in the American family, contrasted with the breaking light of a new day.

But the week had begun with an opening prayer for the Inauguration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, for which Obama invited Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson. Rt. Rev. Robinson is a politicized, if not controversial public figure because he is openly gay. His prayer was conducted in advance of the concert’s live telecast – discuss that unfortunate coincidence amongst yourselves – but it was all over the internet.

I also wanted to share Rev. Robinson’s lovely blessing litany in church, since many probably missed it. And because I was addressing an active Affirming Congregation, it seemed especially pertinent.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people…

At that point there was a bit of a commotion in the pews, and a man stood and shouted out in protest. He wasn’t completely coherent, at least from where I was standing, but his voice grew strong enough to say something to the effect that he would never be coming back, because the presence of gays in the church somehow spelled the end of the church … To which one of a gentle gay couple in the front pew replied rhetorically, “But we’re still here.”
The sanctuary door slammed behind the man, and a breathless silence hovered in the church. I resumed reading Rev. Robinson’s prayer where I had left off:

Bless us with discomfort –
Yes, that was the very next line, the place erupted in laughter, God smiled (I think) at the teachable moment, and I continued the service.

…at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.
Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.
Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

During the communal prayers, later in the service, someone made a point of offering up the angry heart of the nameless man to God’s mercy and understanding. I think the rest of the congregation felt as compassionate and realistic about the conflicts we daily face, in small ways and in big ones.

“Bless us with discomfort.” This is a powerful prayer. Prepare us to be changed. Unbuckle our certainties and prepare us to grow. Discomfort is actually a critical part of creativity. My very spiritual friend, a creative writing teacher, calls it “divine discontent.” Adam Lambert pulled the tooth, popped the balloon, yanked the grist of speculation away from the media. Now he just wants to be a musician, create something worthwhile, and hopefully sell records.

Meanwhile the consumers and the pundits will have to squirm and twitch and decide if their horizons have grown broad enough for the likes of Adam Lambert … and for all those artists and executives and mechanics and clerks and students and regular folks behind him, who just want to be themselves, living and working among us.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson (1871 –1938)

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