pilgrimage

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson

Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

Welcome to the inaugural post on The Naked Theologian!

I began a blog in this space some years ago, while I still lived in Richmond, VA, where I pastored the Metropolitan Community Church. Then it was called “Robin Gorsline’s Blog.” Later, in keeping with my commitment to the importance of social change—promoting justice and equality for all—I changed the name to “Make Love. Build Community.”

I still believe in that truth—the more love there is the stronger the community, and it is up to us to do the loving and building—but it’s time for another change.  Despite the new title, this blog is not a nudist blog, in the sense of focusing on nudism, or as many call it, naturism, and related activities, although I, and maybe others of my friends, will appear naked here and I will sometimes talk about nudity.

Robin standing hands open by Wayne

Photo by J. Wayne Higgs

I have claimed the mantle of The Naked Theologian because I am a theologian and I spend many of my days naked (and would like to spend all of them this way)—and because I believe that our world desperately needs to accept and celebrate the gift of our bodies, our “creatureliness,” in all their wondrous God-given varieties.

As a theologian, poet, and citizen who cares about healing the world, I want to help overcome body- and sex-negativity, including white racism and supremacy and male supremacy, hetero-supremacy, ableist supremacy, ageist supremacy, in my own nation and around the globe.

I especially want to do this for and within faith communities, certainly in my own beloved Metropolitan Community Churches—because I believe that distortions of religious teachings, especially in my faith tradition, Christianity, have been the greatest source of body-and sex-negativity and related social ills.

I also am taking a stand here as a 71-year-old cisgender gay man (who often feels gender queer), whose body is far from buff and who has suffered for most of my post-pubescent life with feelings of inadequacy about the size of my genitals.  When I first felt a call to claim the moniker of The Naked Theologian, I reacted negatively, saying to myself, “You can’t do that, you don’t have the body for it.”

But as I prayed, and discussed it with my husband and several friends, I came to understand that this wrinkling, “small-packaged,” somewhat overweight elder body could be one God will use to convey the truth about the beauty of every divinely ordained human body (which is every . . . body).  I pray that through this blog more and more people will stop judging not only the bodies of others but perhaps most importantly their own.

Adam and Eve in Eden nakedThe more we can stop dividing people into categories—based not only on gender and gender identity and race and sexuality, but also on age, ability, body type, ethnicity and national origin, religion, dress (including undress), and how well we, they, measure up to restrictive, even punitive, advertising and fashion standards—the more peaceful we will be, as individuals and as societies.

The biblical vision of Eden keeps calling to me. I have in my mind’s eye, in my heart of faith and love, in my soul, a video of the first humans and birds and four-legged and creeping creatures, as well as the flowers and trees and running and still waters, sky at night and day—all parts simply enjoying life together.

I believe the patriarchs used, and continue to use, one part of that story as a way to create control, through the suggestion of body shame between those whom they named Adam and Eve. Somebody had to stop all this freedom—things would get out of control and pretty soon people would be deciding, for and by themselves,  all sorts of things, including when they wanted to be naked and when they wanted to be dressed (as in when temperatures dip or the sun feels too hot or just wear favorite cloth on a special occasion).

The Dinner Party large view

The Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago

It is not a formal theological text, but the artist Judy Chicago’s untitled poem which accompanied her installation “The Dinner Party” expresses much of what I believe is the true message of Eden. Her artistic vision has been criticized as incomplete in that the installation—a table with place settings for 39 significant, powerful women—not only has only one Black woman, Sojourner Truth, represented, but also unlike the other 38 whose portrayals focus on their vaginas, Truth is shown without her genitals and with three faces. Still it is a powerful artistic statement about the centrality and power of women in our world.

The Dinner Party Emily Dickinson

The Dinner Party, Emily Dickinson

Chicago composed this untitled poem which I have long admired and considered almost a personal credo, even though it perpetuates the gender binary (the art and poem were shown for the first time in 1979).

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

As I begin this phase of my blogging journey, my prayer is that we learn to live free and easy, knowing that we, body and soul, are good, as God created long, long ago, and keeps creating every moment of every day.

I had a blast in Philadelphia!

Riding naked with hundreds of others, maybe even a thousand, dressed or undressed as they chose, was a great joy. The cheers and thumbs up signs from passersby were numerous and exciting, and the feel of sun and breeze on my entire body (even on my bottom when we stopped and I had to get off the seat and stand up) was, as always, a pleasure.

I came away from this experience filled with eagerness for more opportunities to be naked with others, inside and outside. The sense of freedom and delight, exuberance and joy, was palpable throughout the entire event.

That’s me, with “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

It took me no time to stop feeling self-conscious about the details of my body–too much tummy and too many wrinkles, too small genitals–and to just enjoy the flow. There was every kind of body. I saw a man with only half an arm, and somebody who appeared to be intersex, and they, like me, wore smiles and laughed with neighbors.

I saw every kind of penis–including some smaller than Dick (or as I often call him, Cock Robin)–all shades of skin color, weight ranges from rail thin to obese, heights and ages of every sort, including children with their parents (kids clothed, parents naked) and people who looked well older than me.

It was not a strenuous ride, mostly level ground. The biggest challenge for me was navigating in a sometimes crowded grouping, moving slowly or even stopping and starting due to traffic signals. At 70, my balance is not always sure, so I teetered a time or two but did not go over. What I noticed was that when I did bump someone else they did not get angry; when I apologized, all responded with some variation of “Hey, it happens to all of us.”

Robin bare butt PNBRWe rode for a little less than two hours, and I was grateful for every moment of it. I met up with one friend although we got quickly separated during the ride, he being a veteran naked biker and very sure of himself.  We had never met but knew of each other through Jonathan’s Circle (a group of men who explore sexuality and spirituality together, but not a sex club). I wished I had come with a group. Everyone was friendly, but it would have been much fun to share the experience while riding with other friends.

It was great fun to see all the slogans painted on bodies–“Bare Is Beautiful” was painted on my chest in purple by one of the volunteer body painters (and the acronym for the ride on my butt)–and various costumes, head gear of all sorts, capes a couple of riders with fairy wings. Next year I will wear my helmet!

Yes, this was about promoting safe cycling and energy conservation–two very vital causes–but I have to admit for me the real deal was just being naked in a major city for several hours with a whole bunch of other naked folks.

How about it? Will you join me next year? If we car pool, we can really be more energy efficient. And here is a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies)

……can’t you see how much fun we are having!!! (I appear at about the 15-second mark)

And next year, I am thinking I will go the day before to be rested for the ride, and I will stay over the night of the ride so I can share in the after-parties, at least one of which was a “Fuck Clothes” event. Now that sounds like fun, too!

I am becoming aware of my desire for nakedness in my life, no clothes, yes, and also being open and vulnerable in every way possible. I believe that is the way God wants me to be. The Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride was a grand step on this journey.

Stay tuned for more in this space, maybe even for the debut of The Naked Theologian!

 

 

 

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness

flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5

pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map

simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map

potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.

springborofestivals.org

springborofestivals.org

I often feel a bit Scrooge-like at this time of year.

I’m not stingy with gift-giving, and I am certainly willing to wish people blessing and good cheer (and am more than willing to adapt my greeting to accommodate the existence of religious traditions and beliefs, or the lack thereof, that are not my own). But I do become grumpy about what seems like the over-commercialization of a sacred time.

It feels to me that the spirituality of Christmas gets lost in all the office parties, shopping, and even some of the good cheer (maybe the kind of excessive cheer that gets people drunk).

It’s not that spirituality need be glum or only serious without any fun, but there is in living spiritually an inherent depth that is lost in the marketplace. And Christmas has become very much a marketplace event. It is the most important sales event of the year for most retailers.

I know another blog or article bemoaning what has become of Christmas is probably not needed–I don’t think all the ones prior to this have done much good– and it is not my purpose anyway. But is the context in which I write today.

spiritualityandpractice.com

spiritualityandpractice.com

Like many before me, I am in search of the spirituality of Christmas. Or perhaps better, I seek the spiritual practice of Christmas. I often like to think of a spiritual practice as a path to a closer connection with the Divine, the one I call God.

What is the path of Christmas? Please note I am not asking what is the path to Christmas, but the path of Christmas. Christmas is not a destination, not a date on the calendar, but a way of living more deeply, more spiritually.

It begins in humility, the humility of Joseph accepting the child in whose creation he did not play a part and the need to leave his home in Nazareth and journey to Bethlehem by order of the government. And the humility of Mary, accepting a child for which she did not plan. Then there is their shared humility of being consigned to a stable for the birth, and being overwhelmed (I would think) by angels, shepherds, and wise man from another land and religious tradition coming to celebrate this event (something neither of them could have anticipated).

kellyneedham.com

kellyneedham.com

The first path of Christmas is humility, a way of being open to, and grateful for, the wonders of God, knowing we did not create these divine gifts, freely given to us without regard to our merit.

Hospitality is a path of Christmas, too. We have no name for the innkeeper, but he responded with kindness and the best hospitality he could muster (probably more likely a cave than a barn-like stable).  We could even say the other animals in the stable were hospitable, by making room for the unexpected visitors. The visitors from the East also practiced the hospitality of guests by bringing gifts. And every birth is a form of hospitality by God, welcoming a new life into the world.

Of course, peace is a path of Christmas–the peace that descends after a successful birth when mother and child can nestle with each other and the father and others can gaze adoringly. And love, too, in much the same way. And surely joy.

blog.birthplaces.com

blog.birthplaces.com

But I want to focus on hope as a significant path of Christmas, specifically the hope of God and others inspired by God–shepherds, wise men, angels–that somehow this birth, this particular birth, would change much in the world for the better. Every birth is transformative, certainly for the mother and the newborn, and usually for others affected by it. In this sense, every birth is marked by hope that the changes wrought will be part of creating a new and better life, not only for the child and the parents but for others as well.

This birth is laden with meaning, however, that goes beyond the immediate persons involved. Whether the details in the biblical accounts are accurate in our modern/postmodern sense of historical truth is really beside the point because the story has become imbued with great power and portent. As the tradition has unfolded, Christmas hope for a world filled with love, peace, and joy is divinely inspired. Such are our hopes, yes, but their source is God. That makes the hope powerful, indeed, provided we continue to acknowledge the source of the power. The same can be said of hospitality.

creation Sistine ChapelIn some ways, then, we are back at humility, recognizing God as the source of all that is good and holy. This is not the humility of groveling at the feet of God but an awareness that God is the author of good, a humility that leads us to sing songs and give thanks and share generously what we have received and are receiving.

So let me be as clear as I can be. There is nothing wrong with buying gifts to share with others, or receiving them either, or to having parties where we welcome friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate and are welcomed by others. There is nothing inherently wrong in buying things from merchants, for ourselves and for others. That is part of being in community, and it is a way of generosity.

07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia --- Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. --- Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia — Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

But the path of Christmas is so much more than those activities. The path of Christmas is quiet and deep and self-giving, leaving (even breaking) us open to change we cannot predict or control (think about Mary and Joseph starting out on the journey of parenthood and where they ended up).

That is the Christmas I seek, the one I cannot control, the one that brings new revelation and spiritual health and depth into my life, new peace into the world, new love between enemies and those alien to each other.

I feel like a Christmas pilgrim, enjoying the glitter and the sounds and swirling bodies all around me, on my way into a neighboring land where the glitter is of deeper hues, the sound more angelic than even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the energy more organic and less frenetic.

That is my Christmas path, beautiful and challenging. I hope your Christmas path is too. Perhaps we can even share some holy gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Mary's Wilderness sign

wanderingVirginia.com

It was a mostly wet couple of days with the trees, rhododendrons, and creatures of St. Mary’s Wilderness in the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia. But of course God, or Great Spirit as our native teachers in this land might say, is present no matter the weather. So I learned some important lessons–and I am grateful I went, despite, or  perhaps because of, some real challenges. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of the challenges and lessons, or medicine, as Native people might say, I received. Here is the first installment.

I drove from Maryland into Virginia on Tuesday, September 29–after talking to the good folks at REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.), my gurus about outdoor life, about how to put up my tent in a downpour–only to discover when I arrived that torrential rains, almost blinding sheets of moisture at times, made it impossible to hike in and get a camp set up that day. So I spent an uneventful first night at a motel in Waynesboro.

Lesson: Sometimes with nature it is best to lie low, recognizing that the forces of the universe are greater than me.

2015-09-30 09.08.01

author photo

Wednesday dawned dryer–meaning not raining–so I headed off to the wilderness, and found my way to the Bald Mountain Overlook at Mile 22 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There I parked my car, loaded the pack on my back (did it really weigh sixty pounds?), and walked up Forest Service Road 162 for about a mile until locating the Bald Mountain Trail. Down that trail for most of a mile–pretty steep at times, hard on my right knee, but still a usable trail–across a creek twice until I came to a lovely small clearing in the woods very near the creek. Due to the rain, the creek was running strong and I knew I could use it as a water source (with filtering, of course).

2015-09-30 09.08.57Setting up camp took several hours. I had not done this entirely on my own before, so it took awhile. Several hours later, however, I had a tent erected, sleeping bag unfolded, a tarp in an adjacent area as a place to sit near the creek, and a bag of food hanging in a tree.

St. Mary's Wilderness Pilgrimage 085

author photo

Lesson: in putting up the tarp and the food bag, I realized I needed to have asked more questions to the good folks at REI. Where to put the tarp would have been a good start!  As to the food bag, I realized I had just nodded to the nice man at REI when he told me to toss a rope line over the limb of a tree where the bag could hang. I knew why to do it–keep the black bears and racoons from ravaging your food–but I was not sure how.

After a little thought, I realized I needed something heavy on the end of the line to toss over the limb. And I needed to find enough of an opening in the dense forest growth where I could toss the line without becoming all tangled in the wrong place. Finding a good spot (and it did work, ultimately, very well), I tied my Swiss Army Knife to the end of the line. That went over the limb just fine but given the force of my toss it just kept wrapping around the limb! I could not reach the end now. Ouch. And what about my knife? I was going to need that again!

I don’t know the physics of this (I don’t know the physics of anything really), but I was able, standing on the ground, to loosen the looped line on the limb enough to get it to unwind and come down. I untied the knife and put it in my pocket, and realized, somehow with my limited capacity for things mechanical, I needed something bigger and heavier than the knife for the end of the line. I tied a small, zipped bag of useful items  (whistle, compass, lighter, etc.) to the line and did another toss. Perfect. Whew!

St_edited-1

rhododendron, author photo

There is more about this line and the bag for a future post, but for now I will conclude by patting myself on the back for getting things set up. And I decided that since the rains had not yet returned (but they were coming, to be sure), it was time for a small hike sans pack.  How good it would feel to explore without that weight!

Lesson: Take a break and enjoy the beauty around you (rhododendron everywhere). .

More to come, as this pilgrim’s progress continues . . . . (maybe even a poem).