(Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16)
Now, I know it’s not Pride Sunday, but I’d like to start off today by sharing my second coming-out story. It’s true, I had to come out twice. And, oddly enough, my second coming-out was infinitely harder than the first.
See, I’m one of those lucky people who had the luxury of coming out as a 20-year-old gay boy to a family so excited and eager to embrace a 20-year-old gay boy that it almost prompted me to pop right back into the closet. I was so ready for a sob-fest. I am the son of a preacher man, after all. But my family was so supportive, it was overwhelming. I even went so far as to leave the church and declare the theater my new spiritual home. Even then, my family accepted me so readily, it was almost disappointing.
But my second coming-out. Now, that brought all the awkwardness I’d been so sad to miss out on the first time around. My second coming-out felt far riskier. This time, I was 29, and I’d been out and proud as a gay, rational, hip artist for a decade. I had amazingly cool, queer friends who loved me and tolerated my art. I was living the prodigal son of a preacher man’s dream.
And then, much to my chagrin, I started to feel the grip of that same crab characterized in Anne Sexton’s poem. It started out as a slight pinch, a tickle, a quiet inkling that I was ignoring something, that there is something bigger going on around us and that we are all connected in deeper ways than I’d ever allowed myself to imagine. It still feels strange to admit it: I encountered a paranormal experience.
So this tickle, for better or worse, was my “calling.” And I thought, “Oh, crap. I had it all figured out. I even came out to my preacher man father and it went wonderfully and now I have to go and mess it up by having faith?”
Well, I began to come out, tentatively, to my hip, queer, artsy friends. And suddenly, I was faced with all of the challenges I’d thought would go along with my first coming-out. Now I was fielding statements like, “I guess I just feel kind of betrayed by your choice,” or “Well, you’ve just never seemed that way,” and the amazingly appropriate question, “Are you sure this isn’t just a phase?” See, during my first coming-out, it was easy to answer questions. “Why are you gay?” “Because I am attracted to men.” It’s not so easy when your answer to the questions is “Because I am attracted to an invisible, primordial force that is pulling at the tenuous strings of my fragile soul.”
But I was and am a believer. I have faith. And, as hard as I fought to not have this faith, I’ve now come to realize that it’s something that’s always been there, even when I didn’t know it, and it’s completely compatible with my rational, queer, less-and-less-hip-by-the-day life. In fact, I’ve realized that my love for the art of this world, particularly the performing arts, has kept this faith alive, even as I ran from and then back to the church.
Because, much like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who provides our meditation quotation on today’s bulletin cover, even when I lose my faith in God, which happens daily, or my faith in Christ, which happens hourly, I never, ever lose my faith in the world and in how gloriously interconnected its mysteries make us. And it’s art, it’s the theater, it’s the stories we imagine for ourselves and others that keep my world-faith alive enough to continuously pull me back to a certain kind of God-and-Christ-faith.
In today’s Ancient Testimony reading, we find a motley crew of Bible folk populating this chapter’s “Faith Hall of Fame.” They, unlike the narrator of Sexton’s poem, have completely trusted the nagging faith-grips that prod them from within. The Book of Hebrews was most probably written as an eloquent plea for the faithful to remain faithful, and the book’s crowning jewel is in this eleventh chapter, where the reader bears witness to this long line of faithful ancestors who, as the reading states, lived in faith and died without ever seeing the promises of that faith come to full fruition, except from afar. These people felt the tickle and allowed it to propel them to change their stories, reinvent their narratives, and follow something they couldn’t quite see, even in the end.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I attempt to live in the real world, the rational world, even with my little faith-crab eroding my rational body from the inside out, so this bit of imaginative history, at first glance, seems like a whole lot of faithful anticipation without the ecstasy of release. But one amazing thing I hope we’ve maintained, even as we’ve evolved into haughtily-rational beings, is our awesome collective imagination. And it’s this imagination that helps me to realize that, even as I stand here, a person of faith in a long line of historical and fictional and historical-fictional people of faith, I don’t have to see to believe. We’ve got our imaginations for that. My personal imagination mixes with your personal imagination and they pour into the gorgeous stew of our collective imagination.
So let’s imagine for a moment that I don’t have an imagination. Let’s imagine that you don’t have an imagination. Let’s imagine that none of us have what Wallace Stevens calls “the only clue to reality.” Let’s imagine the world is completely devoid of this clue.
What would be the guiding force in our daily lives? What would propel us forward? Sure, we might start to pick up on things simply by being out in the world. We might learn tricks for getting by. We might see behavioral examples around us. But we would have no analogous means of exploring these examples. The connection between the things we see with our eyes and the relation of those things with our own experience would be non-existent. Each imagination-less creature would lack the tools to move forward and, if the world were only full of such imagination-less creatures, well, there goes any ability to create and, eventually there goes everything, including us. “Who are we to dream,” Anne Sexton asks. “Maybe we’re no one,” she suggests.
Well, if you’ve already started your descent into imagination-less rationality, perhaps no Community Minister of the Arts will be able to convince you otherwise, but what I can do is attempt to create a space for us to present our encounters with the invisible things, the strange things, the scary things, the inexplicable things, those things that have frightened the bejeezus out of each of us, and let those encounters speak for themselves. This is how both church and theater began: Primitives gathered together, telling stories of superstition and transformation. And it was real.
When I first got together with Nate Weida to write the little ditties that you’re singing at today’s service, we originally wrote them to accompany a quote-unquote secular service called, “Hooray for Church!,” which we plan to hold once a month, starting in the fall, to accommodate the non-or-at-least-questioning-Christian folks who have been attending our Wednesday night arts events.
Now, Nate pretty staunchly questions the historical and present-day dogmas of Christianity. But Nate also creates gorgeous music and drama in compositions that have played at both of our church’s Wednesday night programs. In each of these pieces, Nate imagines narratives for characters unlike any that I’ve ever seen. Characters sing and dance and chat about things both large and small, and, after each of these events, I have left feeling as if my faith has been torn down, rearranged, patched-back-up, and reignited. Characters like me and characters unlike me are living out huge ideas right before my eyes, and suddenly I have an artistic example to follow. Nate’s imagination, received by my imagination, are making his art do that to my heart. His personal acts of creation compel me to create changes in my own life.
The same thing happened at both shows that just finished runs in our very own Gym at Judson. After these events, I left the theater reinvigorated to become a different kind of person than I’d been an hour before I’d walked in. Huge ideas played out in front of me in a funhouse mirror where I recognized and didn’t recognize situations and behavior. I left with renewed faith in my ability to create new narratives for myself. The imaginations of these artists, reinterpreted through my imagination, made their art do this to my heart. Their own personal acts of creation now propel my own acts of creation.
But before you think I’m just the Arts Minister just chattering about art and hearts again, I want to remind you that this service is not simply about artists. This service, in my mind, is about faith and the supernatural and what those things have to say about one another. Because I believe that imagining our own paranormal encounters to be real, true events and using them to transform ourselves has the power to trickle away from us and transform everyone. This is what both theater and church at their best do. They allow us to sit for a time as spectators and even critics, and then send us out into the world to create as creators.
So, to help me steer this exploration home, I want to cite two terms from religion professor Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University. Dr. Kripal has spent much time exploring the human relationship with the supernatural and how our modern-day popular artistic output represents an unceasing human draw (I would call it a faith-crab), a draw toward a grappling with the unknown, the frighteningly familiar unfamiliar. Essentially, Kripal believes that, no matter how far we might think we have run from traditional faith, no matter how fully we think we have evolved from a mindless Christianity to a more rational, secular existence, we still have that crab tearing at our insides and that’s because the universe is a gigantic, living organism, one that desires to pull us toward unity with one another through the communal sharing of our own individual, personal experiences, especially the freaking weird-as-hell ones.
Kripal names the two steps of this process, “Realization” and “Authorization.” In the first step, “Realization,” a human realizes that he or she is being “written” by the paranormal, that the universe and its mysterious events are literally creating who we are, that, like fictional texts or narratives, our lives include events that are waiting to be “read” by us in order for us to participate in the act of them transforming us. We are part of the myth that is busting to reveal itself to us through the material world. The second step, “Authorization,” is where things move beyond spooky to truly empowering. This is the step where we realize that, if the universe and its paranormal mysteries can be “writing” us, we can take the story back, make that narrative our own, read the symbols in front of us, share those symbols with one another, and activate ourselves and others to become the authors of our own impossible mythology, thereby making us better people living in a better world, regardless of whether we can see clearly the road where our acts of being better will lead.
Though Kripal sticks mainly to science fiction and comic books as examples, and though for our purposes today, we asked you to share your weirdest encounters with the paranormal, I think we can expand these ideas to encompass an even broader array of experiences and narratives.
This happens through imagination and, more specifically, analogous imagination. Even as we exist as rational beings in a rational world, we can look at stories, whether they be Greek myths, historical science fiction from the Bible, or brand-spanking-new plays in our very own Gym, and use analogy to connect those stories to our own existence. We see characters like us and not like us. Better than us, worse than us. More thoughtful, less critical, whatever. From there, we question our choices, examine our options, and proceed to progress. We can choose to give more credence to the story of a long-dead friend’s message on the answering machine or to the unexplained disappearance of a clairvoyant, 20-year-old cat. But, with both, we are creating.
We can also use Jesus and the astonishing interlocking web of narratives that followed his arrival, death, and disappearance. Or we can use other symbols that we may or may not call “God.” What matters most is that these symbols propel us to love, to ask questions of and to be patient with others, to awaken within ourselves a wholehearted desire to be the best people or cats or crabs that we can be. If the story isn’t doing that or at some point ceases to do that, if the analogy is angering you or paralyzing you or doing anything but opening up your heart with art, you’ve got to scrap it and find another one. Thankfully, the universe is busting with them.
The hall-of-famers in our Ancient Testimony had faith, they believed, but that faith didn’t cause them to rest on their holier-than-thou laurels. Instead, their faith pushed them toward an idea of heaven that might seem silly to us today, but which, if we use our analogical imagination, might be just the thing to keep us moving or at least to keep telling each other weird stories until it jumpstarts our motors again.
The universe is offering us freaky gold. We can choose to ignore it all, but it’s going to keep coming at us. We might as well take back the narrative that’s narrating us. Maybe we can say, “Hey, those stories of Jesus make me want to be better. I think I’m a Christian” or “Hey, those stories of [blank] makes me want to be better. I think I’m a [blankian].” As long as the symbol is revealing to you that you’re part of the story and always in control of the story, I think you’re good to go. As long as the story is creating you into a creator, keep using it.
That is how, I am proud to say, I always end up back at my Christ-faith. It works for me. That is how I always end up back at my God-faith. It works for me. And that is how I never, ever stray away from my world-faith. It works for all of us. Hooray for that. Hooray for us. And Hooray for Church.
Let us pray:
Creative Hand of the Universe:
Thank you for the stories. Make us authors of the impossible. Create us into creators. Keep busting open to reveal to us the silly, the scary, and the sacred.
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faithour ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.
The Poet of Ignorance by Anne Sexton
Perhaps the earth is floating,
I do not know.
Perhaps the stars are little paper cutups
made by some giant scissors,
I do not know.
Perhaps the moon is a frozen tear,
I do not know.
Perhaps God is only a deep voice
heard by the deaf,
I do not know.
Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.
There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.
I had a dream once,
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?
Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: 137.
Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: 28; Authors of the Impossible: 269-271.