J – M – J
‘Even in our sleep,
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ -Aeschylus
Labels…labels..labels! They are the bane of my life, and yet we human beings find them necessary…well, I’m here to tell you about another label I carry that you might know about! Apologies in advance if it seems like confused rambling….but I can’t be bothered to tidy this up….!
I’ve been challenged very recently, by that still small voice of God….the kind of voice, that keeps you up at night, and that you hear first thing in the morning. A voice that speaks with a lack of authority, and with tenderness…but which you cannot help but listen to. The kind of voice that speaks not just to you, but to the core of your heart.
Words exchanged in the Gospel, don’t come more precious than those we hear in St John’s Gospel – and in this Easter Season, it is from that Gospel that we will hear the words of Jesus spoken most profoundly in our churches, and in our homes. John’s Gospel is my favourite of all, but it gets under my skin more than any other Gospel – for in it, it always seems as though Christ is speaking directly to me…in my doubt, my sin, my unbelief – much like St Thomas. I wonder how long it took for the disciples to get used to seeing Jesus with his wounds….a constant reminder of his triumph, but also of his vulnerability and sacrifice. I think Jesus has something to teach us in his woundedness….
In our Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 20:19-31),
the encounter revolves around two main characters – Jesus, and Thomas. In many ways, it’s a Gospel reading all about honesty – about Thomas’s honesty both before he sees the risen Christ, and just after he touches his wounds….to be honest, is to get in touch with woundedness….to not be afraid of the scars that life impales upon us, and upon others. Perhaps a perfect world, would be a world not without wounds…but without societal bandages…of silence, and shame, and fear…..?
I think it’s safe to say, that in some ways the disciples hoped that actually things were almost over….that they could get back to life as it was before. But infact, Jesus isn’t finished – he still has more to do with them, more to teach them, more to reveal to them, starting first with Mary Magdalene…and now with Thomas. They should recall that his words upon the cross were “it is finished…” not I am done! Well, for now let’s focus on Thomas…
That Thomas, who after the crucifixion it seems went off to clear his head…he isn’t with the others, who have locked themselves away, but is somewhere else. When the other disciples take news to him of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas makes one thing very clear ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’…then, a week later, Thomas and the disciples are together, and though the doors were shut, Jesus appears and speaks to Thomas, and says to him from his heart ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe’.
There is something very visceral about this encounter – something particularly bloody and raw, and fleshy about Jesus post-resurrection. Thomas needed to see Jesus wounds, and to touch them – and it is in doing so that his faith and spiritual strength is restored.
I don’t know about you, but wounds are things I prefer other people to keep hidden. We all have *that* friend, who, post-surgery will unwrap the bandage their doctor encouraged them to keep on, just to show you the hell they have gone through under the knife. In part, that can be encouraging, if we are soon to have a similar op…and if the wound doesn’t look too intrusive…at worse it can make us throw up in our mouths and walk away.
In the Gospels, Jesus shows us that it is OK to live life with our wounds completely visible – for through them, comes life and healing, and renewal.
But, another thing that I think Jesus shows us in the Gospels, is that healing can come through talking – whether that be given voice to our needs, our wounds, our burdens, our dilemmas…to talk is to set some aspect of a burden loose and free.Thomas is set free, when he speaks his doubt, and set free when he speaks his faith in the presence of Christ. In the Church today, there continues to be so much silence, and often encouraged silence.
Silence around injustices, and abuse, silence around political issues, corruption within and without, and government leadership – silence around sex, and human sexuality.
Silence is OK, for a time. It may even be prudent, and Spirit-led. But only for a time.
I realised at fifteen, that I had an aspect of my humanity that I would keep silent about….back then I thought forever, but as time grew I saw the spaces and the ground in which it was maybe a little OK to speak. I came out as Bi-sexual to a small circle of friends in High School, then in my first year of theological college in Cambridge, more publicly this time on Facebook (my generations main platform for untimely announcements!) …I got a lot of flack both times, fell out with family and friends, but also a lot of support, and was luckily very supported albeit it from a denominational distance…by great priests (Fr John Hughes, Fr Christopher Woods and Mthr Sarah Coakley) who affirmed my existence in ways they wouldn’t have imagined, just by being kind, and sturdy and unchanging individuals. In some ways I couldn’t have done it in a louder way, in others I couldn’t do it any other way….I’m not the type to stand up an make an announcement, but I knew who my friends were on Facebook, and so it was a little bit more manageable – I didn’t come out to all my colleagues in Seminary, because it was a fish-tank of a place, and it wasn’t an environment in which any of us needed to make ourselves more vulnerable than we already were. I always felt the theologically-corrupt mixed message of it’s OK to be gay, and yes, we still love you, but it would really be better kept to yourself….always. forever. And so, many kept the crown jewel of their sexuality, under a shroud like a criminal conviction.
At other levels, I’ve also experienced myself and with friends, the way in which actually sexuality can at times seem fluid….where we suddenly realise the box we’ve put ourselves in, isn’t for us…that we need to create a box….(I never seem to see this box everyone else sees btw, when I do, I might just get in it!) – but also, where character just becomes the attractive element even before gender starts to conciously play a part…I’ll say more about that another time….!
What I didn’t realise, in High School and in seminary. Was that actually when you come out, you kind of have to keep doing it. Closets can be built around you, by assumptious individuals…like clouds on a sunny day, assuming your plans before you’ve spoken them….but they soon clear. I’m not sure it gets any easier with time, or that it ever carries less risk…the hardest bit is telling people something that you know and live with everyday….it’s news to everyone who hears it for the first time, but it’s just your everyday…! And a bit like Jesus, I’ve often found people needing me to bear the most intimate aspects of my life in order for them to trust me, which is worse and more painful when people act as though they have a God-given right to know everything about you, at the drop of a hat…and I one point, I thought this would be the case, even for me to get a job! Actually, it often still feels like that, and I hope we get to a place where the Church doesn’t cultivate the culture of silence from its LGBT clergy.
So yes. You will come out more than once. There’s an added burden, I think! when you are bisexual, or Trans…because terms you use, and people you’re interested in isn’t always a clear indicator….and B’s and T’s are always neglected groups on the LGBT scale. Added to that, for trans folk it really is more than simply revealing your sexual attractions…it’s about gender, and often coming out as trans opens up a conversation where you end up affirming binaries you wish you could burn down and erase for ever.
I know from lived experience, that for many, silence is the only way – for whatever reason, perhaps they cannot afford to lose family and friends, or even risk their lives and livelihoods…I’m not here to tell people from a place of British privilege, that they are bad human beings because they, in whichever environement they find themselves, decide that the closet is the only safe place to live…only you know. But in the face of so many young, precious, beautiful people taking their own lives….simply because of who and what they are – I feel I need to speak, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so bloody long. But I want to say, more clearly than ever: that actually it is OK, more than OK infact, to be black, bisexual, Christian and in Church leadership. Or whatever combination of lifes labels apply to you….Life is worth living – thought it won’t always be easy, and it may not even feel like it some days.
Some people may consider what I am going on to say, faults – but I have many, and perhaps one is that I’m not an activist in the way we understand that word so often, I won’t lobby the Church in an attempt to put people’s backs up on issues that they have a conviction of, I’m not fearful of, or angry with folk in the Church who take a narrow view of homosexuality, you probably won’t see me anytime soon waving a rainbow flag in my cassock at the front of a Pride parade, or painting my dog collar in rainbow colours…. – but I love my colleagues who do, and we need them. Different people – different gifts….let’s be OK with that.
All that said, I will challenge injustice wherever I find it – I will speak out against evil. I will and always have, continue to preach the Gospel of God’s mercy, grace and justice….a Gospel that is concerned with every aspect of human life and existence…a Gospel for all. I will serve with love, and compassion those who are angry and bitter and disturbed on every side of the sexuality debate – because that is what Christ would do, and he died as much for the homophobe as for the LGBT folk. But I also, want and will work and pray for a Church that isn’t afraid of touching the wounds of our time, or of bearing the wounds she bears. I don’t want a Church that inflicts wounds…and sadly we, the LGBT community, can at times speak with as much venom and ignorance about our brothers and sisters, as some of them have at times spoken about us.
When I see the faces of teenagers who thought, genuinely, that they would be better off dead than alive, it makes my heart ache with an aching that I would take to the grave. When I see the countless number of young people whose mental health is seriously damaged because of their secret sexuality, I can’t help but feel a little bit involved. To know that my silence could contribute to that atmosphere of worthlessness is too much of a thought to bear. How can I proclaim a Gospel of life in all its fullness, when I encourage others through my silence to the lonely gallows of hopelessness and despair? The burden of responsibility is on us, who have voices and do not speak. I can’t tell you when I conciously made the decision that silence wasn’t worth my sanity (although it’s questionable that I ever had any!), but I’m glad to have crossed that bridge….Yes, it’s irritating to think that everytime I start afresh in some new post somewhere, or have someone say something about “those gay people” in my presence, I’ll have to go through all of this again – but if it means preparing the ground for others to speak upon, then it’s worth it. A life that is full of convenience can so quickly become a life that is sterile, and a sterile life is not a life that can attract all of God’s children to His Son, His Word, and His Way…life really is too short.
Now, it would be easy to pretend as though all of this was neatly packaged, that I can take my sexuality off a shelf, unwrap it and present it to you without any loose edges as a finished product….and yet, there’s alot of work to undo when you come from an environment where a warped sense of hetronormativity is exalted…If I could show you the wounds that I bear from the experience of realising that I was never going to be the typical “British-born Jamaican” man….then I would show you scars, some healed, some still raw, some inflicted verbally, others emotionally and physically. I live constantly with the reality, that for many of my friends and family, it would be totally acceptable for me, as a Minister, to have 20 “babymothers” scattered around the country, but an abomination for me to be in love with someone of the same sex in union for life. Sorry to throw shade on my fellow Jamaicans….but there’s something deeply wrong in a culture where it becomes a death penalty to be a “battyman”, but a thing of honour to have 20 children, and not raise one of them…..but that’s another blog post! Then there’s the awkwardness that comes from attending some family event, or party where everyone starts dancing to a tune that calls for gays to be slaughtered….or in that moment, when in Eastenders, some gay character starts making out, and someone decides it’s time to change the channel…there are benefits to creating your own sanctuary when you live in your own space. It’s in that space, whether at university, or in later life that you slowly learn how to grow into YOU, where you learn the life-changing magic of not giving a f*ck about the opinions of people who are simply enemies of progress and peace, and where you realise the mind-blowing reality that God loves you – and knows the person He has made, more than you know yourself….incredible thought, no?!
Still, there are days when I think that in many ways, it would be easier actually to sit in the Gay camp, though I then realise that that would actually be living in just another closet albeit comfier,….but actually – people would probably get that in their heads a little better than struggling nosily to work out if you’ll end up marrying a man or a woman….the truth is how can you know, until it does or doesn’t happen?! And, let’s be honest, I’m hardly going to find a life-partner in the average British Methodist congregation….! Age has wearied, and the years condemned….
For those for whom this isn’t really news – please share it with someone you think it might help. For those for whom this is news – well, thanks for reading – I hope that you too can share all of the beautiful person God has made you. And perhaps you can save me having to do this verbally every week, by passing the message on if you think it necessary!
However you choose to live – please choose life! Always.
I hope that in some small way, the sharing of my truth will encourage others – those in the faith, those exploring a call, those who have no faith at all, but who think the Church is 100% against them.
The world we live in, is an overwhelming sea of thoughts, motives, assumptions, labels and emotions – what holds us in the spinning and chaotic world we live in, is a clear idea of who we are before God, and before one another. I hope that any LGBT person, particularly in those cultural groups where being anything other than ‘straight’ is seen as the deepest and most twisted perversion in existence, that you will realise that there is hope, light at the end of the tunnel…however long your tunnel may be – and just as Our Lord Jesus met Thomas in his darkest most desperate place of need, so he comes out to us, wherever we are…even before we come out to him, to say, gently and with caressing all-embracing love…to our fears, and our anxieties, our doubts and our secrecy…to all that we are:
“Peace be with you! Do not be afraid. See, I am wounded too!”