When I was a young man, indeed until last year, I never thought of becoming The Naked Theologian. And although I wrote a few poems over the years—often as a way to celebrate an event—I never thought of myself as a poet. And I did not think of myself as gay until I was 35—even though I had long had sexual fantasies about boys (when I was a boy) and men. And after I graduated from a Ph.D. program in theology and could not find a job teaching the subject, I thought I was done with that.
I never thought, I never thought, I did not think of myself, I thought I was done with that.
There’s a theme here: Thinking can keep you stuck.
I don’t mean one should never think, but over the course of my 71 years I have come to understand, albeit slowly and still imperfectly, that some good stuff happens when I stop thinking and start feeling.
Feeling certainly has a mental component, but when I don’t pay attention to how my body is carrying the feeling I miss vital aspects of myself. Indeed, my experience tells me that I often miss prompts, messages from God.
I love Jonathan, my husband of 20+ years, but our marriage might never have come about if I had reasoned away my feelings of anger and jealousy when he, as then my dear friend of six years for whom I had not felt any erotic draw, began chasing after a comely young man on the beach at Fire Island. Who knew Jonathan and I would become lovers and best friends for life? I think God knew we were a good match, but it took me, and him, some time to figure it out.
Or maybe it was less about figuring things out and more about allowing space for God to fill us with gifts.
Yes, for me, it’s about God, or if you prefer, the Universe. I believe, I know, God is always up to something new, something more. Life is so much richer than any of us can ever fully know, but then we, or at least I, work pretty hard to keep the riches within bounds, within the container of what I think my life is and should be, within the boundaries of the world within and around my socially informed consciousness.
I now realize that making room for new things, allowing space for new things to happen, getting out of the way for life to show us something new—or maybe even show us things that have been in and around us for a long time that we have been avoiding or denying—is the key to rich, vibrant spiritual living.
As some readers will know, I claim several identities. I am a Queer, or maybe just I am queer. I am a nudist/naturist. I am a theologian. I am a poet. I am a father and grandfather. I am a husband. And brother and uncle, and a cis gender male. I am even a Christian, and certainly a citizen. I am a gardener. I am a dog lover and owner.
Some of those identities may seem distinct from others, and some newer, some not so new. But they are all connected in the human person that is me.
The identities and their connectivity are still evolving. Indeed, the evolution that is me is ongoing. For instance, I only began naming myself as a nudist/naturist a year or two ago (I can’t be more precise because it was a process that I now realize began when I was a teenager). About the same time, I began to think about writing as The Naked Theologian.
This particular evolution also required that I reclaim an identity I thought (!!!) I had set aside: theologian. And more than that, queer theologian. And even more recently, I have immersed myself in theopoetics–a way of theologizing that prioritizes the body, experience, and emotion–quite different from the classic discipline of systematic theology in which I was trained.
But I doubt any of that would have happened had I not listened to a voice I heard in 2014 at 10,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, a voice that told me, “The writing keeps crying out.” I have no doubt that God spoke through the trees who (not which) uttered those words, calling me home to what I now see as my vocation: writer. (Of course, that moment was preceded by many others that got me there.)
In the mountains, that call was not very specific. But two days after I came down and home to Richmond, I attended a reading and talk by Natasha Tretheway, then U.S. Poet Laureate. This had not been planned—I saw a newspaper item, and felt a pull to go.
I found a friend there, Dorothy Fillmore, who I discovered in that moment writes wonderful poetry. She and Natasha Tretheway challenged and inspired me to take my first poetry class (with Dorothy) and have not been the same since. I keep taking such courses today.
Why do I share this journey? It’s simple really. The journey is not over, of course. And that’s the point.
I am not in charge of this journey and never have been. I have made choices, of course, and often I used my mind to figure things out.
But the real source of the power, and the wisdom is in my body, in the times when my mind let down its guard and I could feel the movement of the One I call God, Spirit, the One who stops me long enough to hear a voice while I sat naked on that mountain, to the voice I heard while sitting in Rosh Hashanah service at the Or Ami Congregation in Richmond telling me to step away from pastoring to engage in political organizing for equality, to the voice I heard while on retreat in the chapel at Richmond Hill to trust God to give me what I need to get through trying times at the church I served, to the voice I heard on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn in2002 to set aside my hurt and anger at the Episcopal church and accept my call as a pastor (in Metropolitan Community Churches), the voice I heard in Milford, Michigan more than twenty years before that told me to leave political life and go to seminary and serve God and God’s people, the voice I heard at the Episcopal Divinity School on Brattle Street in Cambridge telling me to come out as a gay man.
Not one of those voices, and others earlier and later too, was just in my head. In fact, my head had tried, and succeeded, and still tries and succeeds, in stopping them many times.
So I keep being reminded, praise God, to get out of my head and into my body—where God keeps troubling and guiding my soul, keeps speaking truth, keeps putting divine hands on and in my life. So it’s time to stop this writing for this moment. And listen. And feel. And live into the rich future God yet has for me.
As a highly analytical person, one of the things I struggle the most with is “getting out of my head.” Being present in the moment, not overthinking. Existing in my body instead of using my thoughts to disconnect from the sensations I am experiencing. I have a hard time relaxing and trusting my instincts- which is probably why, when I feel a pull of God calling in my life, I struggle so hard with it.
I appreciate and respect that calls to movement and change are never easy. In fact, I have come to believe that struggling with a call is part of the call itself. It’s part of faith- the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So it makes sense to me that the movement of God in my own life comes in ways that are harder for me to trust. They’re intuitive, instinctive. They require me to “trust my gut” and, for all intents and purposes, “get out of my head.”
As we are transitioning from winter into spring and the weather gets warmer, this is something I have been thinking a good deal about. I’m not someone who deals with cold very well, and spend most of the winter trying to ignore the sensations of my body- which means getting deep into my head and focusing on the thoughts and internal contemplation as a means of distancing myself from my physical reality of being cold. But as it gets warmer, and my skin feels more comfortable again, it’s easier to be more present-aware because I am enjoying the sensations of warm on my skin.
I’ve been thinking about this because it’s almost become second nature for me to distance myself from my body in different ways when the sensations my body is experiencing are uncomfortable. And by doing this, it also means that I fall into this habit during other periods of anxiety or discomfort- which includes sex, or moments where I feel the call of God stirring in my life. My default is to sink into my analytical mind and overthink everything, rather than experience the sensations of my body, however uncomfortable they may be.
It has been a period of so many transitions: seasonal transitions in tandem with life transitions. In particular, I have been at a place where I have wanted to make the work I do in the kink and BDSM community more sustainable and financially viable, but I haven’t quite known how to do that. As I was contemplating different ways to move out of food service industry and into full-time kink work, I was offered an opportunity to become a ropemaking apprentice with a friend who has been making and selling rope for over seven years and is a well-known ropemaker inside the kink community.
It’s not that I think that God is calling me to be a ropemaker, specifically. The call I felt stirring was subtler and much more powerful- follow your passion. It was a call to move beyond the “safety net” of food service industry jobs and take a blind leap, in some respects, into an opportunity that sets me on a path to making my life more sustainable. And I wanted to follow it, absolutely. But I didn’t want to give up my safety net.
I began the apprenticeship, but also maintained my outside job. Between the two, I ended up overworking myself, and got sick. It forced me to stop and reconsider how I was choosing to listen and follow this tug of opportunity that was presented to me. And in that moment I realized: I needed to make room in my life for the things I wanted, or I was distancing myself from this call as much as I distance myself from my body when I am uncomfortable.
There is a terrifying element of trust in all of this. The idea that “I don’t know where this is going or how this is going to work out, but I trust that you have led me here for a reason, God.” I wanted to cling to my own safety nets, maintain my other job (which, while I loved it, was emotionally and physically taxing as well as in the midst of many changes and transitions). The truth is, we have to make room in our lives to say yes. Getting out of our heads means taking risks sometimes. It means we do things- not recklessly, but without analyzing every possible outcome and conclusion. It means we trust that things will go well, instead of looking for every opportunity where things might go wrong. Overanalyzing is often looking for a reason to say no, rather than trusting our instincts to say yes.
Getting out of our heads means we have to be willing to experience our own discomfort. Our own fears and insecurities and uncertainties. It means that we have to let go of control, make space, and experience our lives fully- the good and the bad. It means we takes risks when our gut is telling us that’s the direction we need to move. It means being present, saying yes, and letting go of whatever safety nets we have built- because those nets are no longer a help, but a hindrance to our goals.
It means making room. When God calls us to move in some direction in our lives, sometimes we have to let other things go to make room. I needed to leave my other job; as much as I loved its goals and purpose, it had become and physically and emotionally taxing in a way that was not sustainable, it was a pull on my time that I couldn’t sustain, and I knew I would be leaving regardless. When I got sick, it was a moment for me to get out of my head, experience the sensations of my body, make some hard decisions, and follow my gut- wherever that leads me.
For me, I find that it’s rarely the thing itself that is the call, but the intention of the thing. It’s not about becoming a ropemaker (although I do love it and enjoy it and plan to do it for quite some time). It’s about setting the intention that I wanted kink to be more financially sustainable and was unsure how to do it, and the opportunity presented itself to me. I don’t think this is where I will end up “forever,” but I think it’s a step down a path that is built on following my passions. It’s an opportunity to move to a different place in my life, and that intention is perhaps the most powerful- and terrifying- part of all.
Getting out of my head isn’t easy. If I stop to think too hard, I think of every way this could go wrong and fail. I second-guess myself, my abilities, my contributions. I want to stay in the safe area of customer service- not because I love it, but because I’ve done it so long that I’m good at it. It’s comfortable.
But God rarely allows us to stay too comfortable for long. And when we state our desires into the universe, they are heard. So this season- this season of transience and transition- the themes seem to all interconnect and weave together into their own safety net of sorts: let go of control. Get out of your head. Say yes. Make room. Let go, and let God.
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