… join us Wednesday, October 11 as we reengage exploration of our spirituality as it connects with our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, and our sexuality.
After making the difficult decision to take a hiatus from this blog over the summer, Robin and Malachi are excited to announce that we will be returning–with a few adjustments–this month.
To help balance our passion for speaking honestly about sexuality and spirituality against the drain of writing every week, we have decided to publish once a month for the next several months to help ease back into the discussions and topics.
Then, beginning in January, we hope to publish twice a month–one piece co-authored by us, and a second piece featuring a guest author. We welcome suggestions (or volunteers) for different voices you would like to see highlighted in these discussions. At this time, we will not be returning to the monthly seminars offered as continuing education courses for clergy, though you are welcome to review this past year’s sessions here.
So join us Wednesday, October 11–and National Coming Out Day–as we reengage in this discussion and exploration of our spirituality as it connects with our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, and our sexuality.
God isn’t something we can schedule in; God shows up when God is ready
We are a little more than halfway through Lent, a period of time which calls us each to reflect on our relationship with God, and what things we want to change in our lives to deepen that relationship. Often times, people will give something up for Lent- something they feel detracts or distracts from their relationship with God, in order to make space for these reflections.
I’ve never really understood the concept of “giving up something for Lent.” When I was in school, I saw kids giving up red meat, or chocolate, and I didn’t really understand. I interpreted it to mean that Lent was about sacrifice- giving up something you loved as penance or a means of sacrifice to show your love for God. As I got older, I came to understand “giving something up” as a means of creating space. The time and energy we would have devoted to whatever we were giving up, we instead used to focus on prayer or other things that we felt connected us to God and God’s calling in our lives.
But to be honest, I had a hard time with this interpretation and understanding as well. It still has a feel of impermanence to it- we remove something from our lives for a set, finite period of time to make room for God, but then we bring it back into our lives at the end (usually with some sense of relief or enthusiasm that we can have whatever the thing is again). By doing that, it sort of feels like kicking God out again- very
much a feeling of “I created space and had wonderful reflections, but now I’m going to go back to how my life was before; this was just temporary.” I’m sure that’s not how it feels to those who practice it, but that’s how it has always felt to me.
Anyway, I say all this to say, I don’t really give anything up for Lent because, for me, I haven’t been able to do that in a way that feels congruent with my faith. And yet, here I am, in the middle of this period of Lent, and I find that I am working through many of the same struggles of loss, grieving, and temptation that come from giving something up. Because like all things that we give up, it feels good, initially, to make changes in our lives that are healthy and beneficial…and then we hit a point where it gets hard, and I feel like that’s about the mid-way point of Lent- where we are right now.
So far, this year (2017) has felt like a period of setting down old baggage for me. It has felt like- and continues to feel like- a time to look at my life and recognize those habits, behaviors, and patterns that have not suited me well, and work toward changing them. That’s a tall order, and not as concrete as giving up chocolate, but it feels authentic to my understanding of faith and God in a way that Lent never has.
It’s been important, I think, to do these things- and to continue to do them. I’ve been learning to be more transparent about desire, learning to state (and ask for) what I want from friends and partners, learning to be more vulnerable with people I care about, learning to be more transparent about things as they are happening (rather than jut in retrospect).
I’ve written lately about my life as a poly person, about going on dates with someone new, my issues with sex, and my struggles to be a real, authentic person. These, I think, are some of the culmination of this work I’ve been doing to try to be more honest and intentional about the relationships I have in my life and how I interact with them. I asked someone out on a date (asking for what I wanted) and told them beforehand, “I would be interested in fucking you” (claiming and stating desire). I’ve had a friendship transition into a sexual relationship, and was able to do so in a way that didn’t cause any issues in our polyamorous configurations (being transparent about things happening in the moment). I’ve let friends see me frustrated, sad, weary, but also giddy,
excited, nervous, and looking forward to things- something I am usually not good at doing, because I don’t like other people seeing me disappointed if the thing I’m excited about never comes to pass (learning to be more vulnerable). I’ve written erotica and sent it to lovers. So many of these things are connected to my sexual and embodied self, but they are also connected to how I live in relationships with others, what I offer and what I give, what I allow others to see and how I choose to interact with the world around me.
And damn, I’m tired. I’m weary. My heart seems to be saying, “radical vulnerability is nice, but you’ve left me open and exposed for a long time now and I think it’d be just as well that we stop all this nonsense and go back to being safe and protected and guarded because I’m tired of being so open all the time.” It’s so easy for the old demons and insecurities to come to the surface. I want a finite period of time where I know I can go back to life the way I have always lived it, and I won’t be weary and tired and afraid of vulnerability.
But the truth is, I don’t actually want to go back. I want to move forward to a point where these things aren’t terrifying because I have moved through them. I want to create more permanent space in my life- to actually learn how to be authentic and lay down some of this baggage for good. I want the ways in which I’m shifting to stick around for awhile, even if the journey getting there is difficult. I don’t want to lose this period of reflection and contemplation. I don’t want to give up Lent after Lent.
The “moving through” part is the hard part. Being present in the discomfort of change. Allowing yourself to feel loss- even if the things that you are letting go of are toxic and unhealthy, there is still loss. Before we figure out how to do it better, before we figure out how to fill the space, there is an emptiness, a hole where we have set one thing down but
haven’t picked something else up yet, and we realize exactly how tired we are.
It’s easy to cling to the devil we know. But in this period, we are encouraged to consider and contemplate how we might strengthen our relationships with ourselves and with God. And so, as I continue to put
down some of my old baggage, as I continue to intentionally work to change unhealthy habits, as I struggle to navigate situations in ways that are not damaging or toxic, I think about this period of Lent. The midway point. Because even though these things don’t stop for me when Lent ends, it’s a good reminder to me that change is not always easy, or comfortable.
At some point, things get hard, and that becomes the part where we are actually making space. Do we allow those things which are hard, which push us, which ask us to stretch and grow to move us further away from God? Or do we allow these things to change us in ways that deepen and strengthen our relationship with God? Do we move in ways that are authentic to our callings, or do we move in ways that are more comfortable to our habits? This period of Lent- or whatever period of time you take to intentionally reflect on your relationship with the Holy- asks that we create space in our lives with intention, and find ways to hold that space beyond just the time we have set aside.
Strengthening our relationship with God is not something we can do for finite periods of time. God isn’t something we can schedule in; God shows up when God is ready to. All we can do is work to prepare a place, to cultivate space in our hearts for when we feel that small voice stirring. Because before we can follow our calls, we must first be willing to listen.
In the past week or so I have been having trouble staying focused in my writing. I have felt pulled in several directions; I have more interests than I have time to write about them all, or at least that is how it feels. I had begun to feel overwhelmed, sometimes even despairing, wondering what kind of writer am I? What might be my signature, what subject or genre is most central to me as a writer?
A conversation with Malachi helped me see that this might be an outcome of my Lenten fast this year. I pledged not to partake of those internal messages that say I am not capable of responding to the call on my soul to be the writer God creates me to be.
What if, as a result of not letting old messages shape my life, my vision, I am becoming more open to all my possibilities?
This would surely reflect my long-time view of Lent as a time of growth rather than solely a time of penitence. I am not opposed to penitence or penance, and certainly benefit from deep inner reflection and owning my shortcomings. But too often, in my experience, Lent is seen as a time of punishment—feeling often to me like a time of beating up on ourselves, even beating our bodies, for the guilt of Good Friday to come again, and our continuing participation, or at least complicity, in violence and oppression.
Instead of punishment, however, I have found that Lent provides an opportunity to go deeper into spiritual truth, and to be changed by experiencing that truth. In my case, right now, I feel I am being given an opportunity to make conscious choices about the nature of my work as a writer.
That is an extraordinary gift for someone who has long been engaged in work that, while good and often productive and even satisfying in many respects, did not reflect who I am deep in my soul. As I continue to move more fully into claiming writing as my vocation, my ministry, my calling, it seems I am being given a menu of options so I can, with God’s help, shape my life to reflect more of what is most important to me. This may seem easy, but at the moment I am really having to probe deeply into my soul to learn what matters most. The reality, hard to face, is that I cannot focus on all the topics in which I have an interest, nor can I work in all the genres I might wish to try.
Lent this year, then, has become about discernment. One thing that clear to me is that my interests—theological/spiritual, poetic, creative—center in bodies: Feeling bodies, dead bodies, Black bodies, brown bodies, LatinX bodies, queer bodies, Trans bodies, male-born bodies, female-born bodies, white bodies, naked bodies, sexy bodies, Palestinian and Israeli bodies, Gazan bodies, Sudanese bodies, Asian bodies, Native bodies, aging and aged and wrinkled and sagging bodies, polyamorous bodies, young (younger than me at least) buff and not-so-buff bodies, skinny bodies, fat bodies, smooth bodies, suffering bodies, malnourished and distended bodies, hairy bodies, lesbian bodies, gay bodies, bi-racial and bisexual bodies, and the whole rainbow of precious, godly, human bodies.
And my body, too.
In that regard, I received a jolt. It began about ten days ago as a result of the nudist party about which I wrote last week (Can Prayer Be Erotic?)
The experience I described in that post as well as my reflection on it, touched and enlarged my awareness of how much nudism or naturism means in my life. A journalist visiting that gathering interviewed many of us about our attitudes toward and experience of nudism, and when I told her I am a theologian and retired pastor she probed me about the spirituality of nakedness. During our conversation I told her I had wondered if I might write as The Naked Pastor (or Preacher). She asked if she could quote me, and do so with my full name (some at the gathering wanted her to use other names). I said “yes” to both. I have no idea when or where or even if her piece will be published.
And then, two days ago, as I read a blog post from a man who writes about being naked in a wide variety of situations (The Naked Jade), it came to me that what I might really want is to be The Naked Theologian.
The Naked Theologian? Yikes! Would that mean pictures of me naked, like The Naked Jade, while writing, speaking or teaching (where would that be)? And what would my husband, my family, say, and my church? Would they, the church, even let me in the door, let alone continue as Writer-Theologian in Residence? Would anyone take me seriously?
Such concerns, anxiety—okay, fear—arise from two sources. One is that my body, unlike Jade’s, is far from photogenic. I have wrinkles and sagging skin (I am 70 after all) and am very far from well-endowed. And the second may be even more fundamental: people, especially most religious people, are not open to nudity as an acceptable public presence (heck, a lot of people don’t even feel comfortable with nudity in private).
I do not know where this will end up, but I feel I need to stay in this exploration, this journey, to become the me I am called to be. On that way, I am reminded of a Celtic prayer:
Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that stems from Eden.
Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that can still spring forth
in me and all that has life.
The goodness that stems from Eden . . . . hmmm . . . this contradicts what I learned in Sunday school and in the church of my youth. What I heard was that although Eden may have been beautiful, bad things happened there. Stay away from Eden. In fact, much of the Lenten tradition that I identify with punishment seems to flow from that view of Eden.
However, perhaps I am being given a new view. Maybe Lent is really about rooting ourselves in the joy and hope and pleasure of Eden, so we can walk in wholeness and love with Jesus wherever he leads?
Happy Lent, anyone? Or Naked Lent? Or at least Loving Lent, Holy Lent, Joyous Lent?
Whatever. I hope your Lent is as interesting and filled with sacred possibilities as mine.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you experience Lent? Is it a time of openness to new things in your life, or a time to revisit comforting ideas or practices from the past? Does it feel like rules or a holy pilgrimage? What are you “giving up” or moving away from during Lent this year? What are you hearing from God? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us in about two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
As the Halloween season comes to a close, we’ve seen another year of dressing up: scary costumes, fun costumes, goofy costumes, themed family costumes, sexy costumes (hopefully limited to adults), and so forth. We’ve seen people become someone else for a day or two: someone that inspired them (I saw quite a few female ghostbusters with steampunk goggles); something they wanted to believe in (a number of classic renditions of devils, angels, witches, etc.); or perhaps someone that they want to be all the time, but can’t (some rockstars, a David Bowie or two, and no shortage of superheroes).
I’ve definitely seen some offensive and problematic costumes as well: people dressed up in “Native” outfits (which are iconic of a whitewashed, Americanized understanding of many cultures, and are particularly offensive right now as protestors are being arrested at Standing Rock); men dressed in beards and a full dress playing “Dude Looks Like A Lady” and mocking non-passing transwomen; kids in blackface. There is a good and a bad side of dressing up, and Halloween inevitably brings out both.
For many, Halloween is a time to put on a mask and become someone (or something) that we aren’t. For others of us, however, it’s a time to unmask, to be who we truly are. For me, I walked around in the clothes I wear every day, plus a little extra makeup. Instead of strange sideways glances and uncomfortable whispers, I got compliments: “Hey, nice costume!”
It’s gotten me thinking about the ways in which we live our lives through performance: performance of gender, performance of faith, the performance of sex. It’s also gotten me thinking about the ways in which performance can be used to mock and even erase the experiences of others, such as some of these offensive Halloween costumes.
I’ve been a drag performer. I’m not currently doing shows right now, but I did for six years in North Carolina. Drag, to me, is the performance of gender. Regardless of your body type or assigned sex at birth, any body can perform any kind of gender. I did both king and queen performances; sometimes I did both in the same show.
Drag was a means of exploring gender. It was a way to understand the complexities of gender expectations- everything from how to contour a face for feminine makeup (which meant exploring accepted bone structures and facial highlights associated with typical expectations of feminine beauty) to how men move and dance, every piece of drag requires us to understand the boundaries we are working within. Drag is the performance of gender, and as such, the performance heightens and feeds off of the expectations that are deeply rooted in many of us.
But outside of drag, we still perform gender. It is these exact rituals, in fact, that make drag part of what it is. For women, it’s body hair removal, makeup application, cinching the waist for that perfect hourglass figure. For men, it’s working out, looking buff, growing enough facial hair to prove that you can, having the appearance of a large cock. These are the rituals that are utilized in drag for show, but they are not necessarily less performative when done in daily life.
It is difficult to define what masculinity and femininity mean outside of the gender binary, but we can define what characteristics and traits are important to us because they make us feel good in our bodies, versus those rituals that are done because we are told that that is what “makes a real man” or “makes a real woman.” For example, I have no opinion, issue, or preference with a partner’s body hair grooming practices. I care more that those practices come from their own comfort and love of their bodies, and not from an unspoken rule that certain body parts must be shaved.
Which brings me to the concept of performance of sex. Sometimes, we are sexual when we don’t want to be. I’m not talking about rape; I mean, sometimes, we’re not really feeling it, and our partner is, and we love our partner, so we are intimate when we’d maybe rather go to bed, or finish our book, or any number of things (The Ferret writes a really wonderful post about this here) (and often we get more into it as we get started, but the instigation isn’t necessarily coming from us).
But there is a whole aspect of “performance” that comes into sex… particularly with assigned male at birth individuals who use their penises
for sex. In fact, “perform” is often used as a euphemism for “get hard and stay hard for a suitable length of time during which intercourse occurred.” It’s a question sometimes asked of gay men who have (or are) married to women: “Are you able to perform with her?” as though any man who is capable of getting hard and having sex with a woman is automatically “less gay.” As for assigned female at birth people, well… “faking orgasms” is something many women do on a consistent basis. If that’s not the performance of sex, I’m not sure what is.
Attraction, intimacy, connection: these things are so much more than the operational functions of anatomy, and certainly much more than feigning a particular type of enjoyment for your partner’s benefit.
The performance of faith is trickier, because “faith” means something different to each person. Regardless of how a person relates to their faith, however, we fairly consistently see faith in God as a transformative experience. I personally believe that that type of transformation doesn’t just happen once or twice in a person’s life, but continues to happen as they grow and deepen their understanding of God and their faith.
In that regard, I consider the performance of faith one in which our lives in relation to God have become stagnant. It is a point where we are more focused on the action, rather than the intention and meaning of the action. Are we kind to one another because we truly care for those whose lives have been harder than our own? Or are we kind to people because we have been told that we should be kind?
Like many things, performance isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary… Alcoholics Anonymous discusses the idea of “fake it ‘till you make it.” Sometimes we need to act in certain ways to help our own understanding and belief get there. But sometimes our performances limit, mock, or erase the ability of others to be as authentic as they want to be. We need to be aware and conscious of the intention of our daily rituals, actions, and beliefs… that awareness can be the difference between performative and transformative.
As we close this Halloween season, I challenge all of us to hold onto and be aware of the performances around us every day, including our own. I challenge each of us to close this time of letting go- the essence of Samhain (the pagan tradition from which we draw much of our Halloween inspiration)- by letting go of some of our own masks and performances. I challenge each of us to consider our intentions and goals in the actions we take- particularly the actions we take for granted. Let’s each put our masks down and work to be who we truly are, rather than carry on the performances of who we think we should be.
What does it mean to perform sexually? Is it only when one engages in genitally-focused activity or other erotic behavior? Or is it possible to perform sexually through speech or other communication? Is it possible that constructing an identity, or at least an image, is an act of sexual performance?
My answer to these somewhat theoretical questions is “yes.” And it is an answer from my own experience as a male-bodied-from-birth person. That does not mean that my answer is simple, and it involves a fair amount of personal history. And it seems to me that I am not done answering these questions.
In 1974, I was married to a beautiful, wonderful woman, Judy. We were blessed to have three wonderful daughters who have grown up to be bright, beautiful, powerful women with families and many achievements.
As a result of claiming my homosexuality and coming out as a gay man, Judy and I separated after nine years and then divorced. We remained loving and caring friends, and although she had primary custody of our girls, we worked together to raise them. Sadly, tragically, she died in 2001.
I can never talk or write for long about sexuality without thinking about Judy. She was a very sexy woman. She deserved a better lover than me. Oh, we had sex, but on my side it was mostly about relieving sexual pressure. I loved her, yes, very much, and she had a beautiful body, a beautiful woman’s body. But I did not crave her body, I did not fantasize about her body when we were apart.
Even so, I constructed a sexual identity as “straight” through a wedding, having sex with Judy, and eventually in helping to produce children.
At the same time, I fantasized about various male bodies. I bought a subscription to Playgirl, claiming it was for her (she showed little interest, and did not renew it) but really because I wanted to ogle the naked men.
I should have known long before that I was gay. I did not date girls in high school and had a major crush on a male friend and lesser ones on others, went through extensive psychoanalysis in college, and put off having sex with a woman for quite a few years. Still, I performed as a straight male.
Much of my failure to claim my gay identity had to do with society—I was a good boy and did not want to make others angry or bothered, and until I got to college I did not know any openly homosexual person—but it is not so simple.
I am more sexually fluid than a label reflects.
I am not bisexual. I have a clear attraction to men. But I also find some women attractive, and have sexual thoughts about some of them. At the same time, there are limits (including that I am happily monogamous with my husband!).
I have never had sex with a woman that involved more than the “missionary position.” I tried oral sex, but I gagged (definitely not true with men). So my performance has its limits, but only the couple of women I have slept with would know that for sure.
But my sexual antennae are not always fixed firmly on the gay wavelength. Admittedly, the women I find most alluring often appear somewhat boyish, and transgender men can sometimes move the needle on my attraction dial.
Sexual attraction is, at least for me and I think many if not most others, is not solely about genitals. My husband of 19 years said he was first most attracted to my brain (now he seems to like my body, too!). Some people are drawn to legs (I really like hairy legs), others to height or the lack thereof, or breasts big and breasts small, chest hair or no chest hair, particular ass shape and sizes, etc.
I loved Judy for her vibrant personality, her laugh, her instinctive kindness and generosity, and I liked her well-curved body, too. Or maybe I liked that other men admired it, and that made me feel good……..these things are often complicated.
In reality, many of us fall at less than absolute points on Kinsey’s famous (and I think less useful than it used to be) scale and our location can even change. Earlier, others would have classified me as a Zero (exclusively heterosexual, unless you count the one time I engaged in mutual masturbation with a male friend in high school), and now, since 1983, I would be a Kinsey Six (exclusively homosexual). Does that make me a 5 (incidental heterosexual behavior ) overall?
No. Judy was not incidental in my life. She was, and is, even now, central to who I am and have become. As surely Jonathan is, and has been, for 19 years.
I have two friends, Arlene and Tom (names changed), who have been married for about 10 years. Arlene used to be married to a wonderful “butch” lesbian, Melody. Sadly, Melody died. A couple of years later, Arlene and Tom found each other. Some friends objected, saying Arlene had abandoned Melody. I said I thought love was what counts. Arlene told me that Tom was Melody with “different plumbing.” I understood her to be telling me that she found a beautiful spirit in him that reminded her of her old love. She clearly loves Tom for who he is and vice versa; they are a lovely couple.
I understand this. If something awful should happen and I would be without Jonathan, who knows who, if anyone, would become central in my life? Would I seek a partner again? If so, it likely would be a male, but that is not certain. And maybe I would decide to stay single. Whatever the outcome, I assure you, though I am 70 years of age, I will perform sexually in some ways or others—certainly by talking and writing about it, self-pleasuring, and continuing to figure out, and live out, perform, my sexual identity/identities.
As our transgender siblings are showing us, lots of things we thought were fixed are more complicated—and it is not just about bathrooms. Creation, especially humanity, is not easily locked into categories; scientists know that there are always exceptions to hard rules. Creation is bigger than all of our boxes, and so are our bodies and psyches and souls. As the psalmist writes, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . “ (139:14)
That’s surely me, and you, too, and everybody who wonderfully and fearlessly (at least bravely) crosses boundaries and concepts that inadequately describe our full, beautiful, complex humanity. The great thing about life is that it always demands performance, and we get to choose, if we wish, which roles to play . . . and how to play them.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about performance, particularly in regards to sexuality? How can we challenge ourselves to be more authentic while recognizing performance is an important aspect of our lives? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part I: Beyond the Binary
What turns you on? Is your attraction based on anatomy, gender identity, or something else entirely?
Sacred, Not Secret is a three-part series beginning Thursday, November 17 at 3 PM EST/19:00 UTC in which Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, authors of the blog Sex, Bodies, Spirit, discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. This month, they go “beyond the binary” of gay and straight to explore the fluidity of sexual desire, and explore ways that we can be an open, affirming space for people- not in spite of our sexual relationships, but because of them!
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.