Creed & Culture: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 11

Part 1: Grandpa’s Hymn

This is a hymn written by my grandpa, a poet and gentle soul who always spoke like he was from another dimension, and now, is struggling to cling to the last tendrils of connection to this world. He’s been hospitalized after a bad fall and his mental state is deteriorating rapidly—my mother says that he’s not recognizing anyone in the room, though he’s talking about me by name.

At first, I was stunned by that particular detail; I’ve been a terrible grandson, rarely around or in touch. But then I stopped to think about why he’d remember me & it started to make more sense; I thought of those summer days we spent in his garden talking about God and beauty and the words he was writing to string these planes together; I’d tell him how cool it’d be if we took a photo of that flower and this flame and he would act like everything I said was sheer genius. We shared poetic bones.

Jeddo is my biggest fan, no matter what I do; no matter how many times I changed what I do—jeddo was there to be amazed by it. I’m not close to most of my family, but my grandfather’s love is vast—it fills up all that empty space. And the words he wrote for the church of my birth are especially precious—they too keep me cleaved.

Jeddo’s hymn is called “The Land on which God Prayed.” It is a celebration of incarnation and presence—my community’s continued existence over the centuries, in spite of persecution. But as with everything to do with land and community and history and myth in my part of the world, this hymn is also an anthem of a people with blood on their hands.

The more I learned about my community’s history, the more I distanced myself from my community’s church, eventually leaving their faith completely. But I still love our music and our liturgy and the particular ways we pray. These are what my grandpa loved. These are my true inheritance.

I owe it to him to remember that beauty—to return it to God.

Part 2: Mary’s Wisdom

My discomfort with culture and creed began in high school, where my feelings of alienation became conscious acts of socio-spiritual distancing, like refusing to participate in Holy Communion. I hadn’t articulated a philosophical position for or against anything at this point; I simply knew, in my gut, that I was breaking off a relationship of some kind. I was angry.

This was a school named after Mary, the mother of wisdom, whose catechist contradicted its own biology curriculum, screened the crassest of anti-rock propaganda, and promoted a play that called a war criminal a prince; it was written & directed by another priest, who was also its leading man. These were the gross absurdities of a minoritized people with unacknowledged power.

In time, I’d learn that these annoyances were but trifles in a large-scale operation of a church at war, and so I took arms. I experienced the kind of anti-religious moralism that only broken hearts can produce, and the broken-hearted still have my allegiance, even now.

I’ve since started taking the body and the blood again; I still remember the first time, passing a silver tray of tiny little cups around, and taking a swig of grape juice. I’ve rejoined the Body of Christ but I’m in full communion with all who refuse him.

Today, I feel privileged to work where I do, especially during COVID-19. The Church exists at the threshold of realities, as unbelievable as free love & as systems critical as public transport.

As panic outpaced pandemic last week, my time on both sides of the metaphysical divide helped me find the signals within the noise, to know in my gut that our commitments to both body and soul were in no way contradictory. But I remember what it’s like for words like these to ring hollow, to fall flat. That’s the backdrop to my first time preaching, last Wednesday. That’s center-stage to what I love about the community of faith that received me when I was ready to return.

This community is no less privileged than the community of my birth. It is no less ripe for disruption. But in my experience, it is hungry for change. It is open to suggestion.

It celebrates our gift of a troubled spirit.

May we continue to work towards healing all hearts broken by our absurdities.

Part 3: The Silent Cry

Before communion, there was shared song. I felt the first thaw in a Baptist church in Mansourieh, where the content of my head identified me as a temporary guest & the silence of my heart was pierced by a hymn about dry bones. I didn’t sing along; I ached.

Many months later, my throat strained as I reached for cracked notes in a United Reformed church in Edinburgh. It took all my mental strength to concentrate on the words without freaking out about actually doing it. I ached.

Music has always been my drug of choice—my opiate, my salve—so it‘s not surprising that its significance grew as my tastes in transcendentals became more minimal. I collected lyrics like lines of scripture & bands like prophets of the zeitgeist—because that’s what they are, really, for those with ears to hear.

Christians sometimes talk about listening to the culture, but we’re often too quick to respond & too sure about what it is we’re hearing. Worse still, we assume that people are paying attention to what we have to say.

It’s like that local band we’ve seen three times—the circus-punk good girls who mock the male gaze (“you f-ing creep”) while seducing it, who shock and awe and work more tirelessly than any band I’ve ever seen—who recently played in the basement of an Episcopal church and made several comments about whether Jesus would let them in. What do Christians hear in that question?

It’s like that time on Capitol Hill having lunch with my queer/married priest, mere minutes from our welcoming/affirming cathedral; a gay man interrupted us to ask if we were Christians. He pressed us on Jesus and the Resurrection and couldn’t quite wrap his head around the words coming out of our mouths. Not because he rejected these beliefs, but because he’d never met anyone who loved Jesus as well as someone like him. What do Episcopalians hear in these questions?

In both cases, I was surprised by how little people know about the things I believe, but I really shouldn’t have been.

Christians, even generally progressive Christians, have a lot more to do to enter into dialogue & earn the trust of neighbors on the other side of the metaphysical fence. Not to squat their homes; not to barge in unannounced; but to maybe tend to that fence together, to put the contours of community in order & maybe earn the right to mutual recognition.

And maybe then we might learn to hang out more easily—to meet in the middle, in that open field of poetry and art and human voices in harmony. Maybe then we can be ourselves within something beautiful.

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