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PRIDE AND PASSION: CLAIMING OUR FAITH! by Rev. Chris Glaser
April 6, 2008
Downtown United Presbyterian Church
Rochester, New York

“Pride is faith in the idea that God had when God made us.”

Karen Blixen wrote these words in her Immigrant’s Notebook that is include with her novel Out of Africa, which she published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.

“Pride is faith in the idea that God had when God made us.”

That is a good starting point as we consider our theme this evening: “Pride and Passion: Claiming Our Faith.” We are claiming our place at the table, our place at the Lord’s table, as queer—as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, straight, and advocates.

We begin by claiming our faith that we are made in the image of God, that the divine imprint is within each and every one of us and may be seen and felt by all with eyes of faith and open hearts. [LOOK AROUND YOU] As I quote Thomas Merton in the sermon this morning, “How do you tell people that they are walking around shining like the sun?”

Alongside the first human creatures in Eden, we can stand naked before God and not be ashamed of our bodies. With the Psalmist, we can affirm that Yahweh formed our inward parts in our mothers’ wombs, that we are awesomely and wonderfully made.  In the face of AIDS, cancer, and gay-bashing, we can sing with the Song of Solomon that our “love is a strong as death, passion fierce as the grave…many waters cannot quench [our] love.” In the denial of marriage by the government and the church, we nonetheless make commitments to one another in the words of Ruth to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Though there are those who would deny us our sexuality, we celebrate the redemption and resurrection of our bodies as the result of Easter. Though there are those who prefer the body broken, with the early church we affirm that we are part of the Body of Christ.

Pride is faith in the idea that God had when God made us, when God pronounced our bodies good, when God put on our body to be closer to us, when God made us a part of God’s own body.  Birth, blessing, incarnation, and baptism.

Pride is faith in the idea that God had. Passion is our devotion to our faith that God made us. Passion is devoting all that we are and all that we have to the premise and promise of such faith.

Both our pride and our passion are necessary in a movement of which I have been part for thirty-five years.  Let me contrast how I am using pride and how I am using passion. Pride is when a person thinks enough of her body’s capabilities to enroll in a marathon. Passion is when a runner or a person in a wheelchair trains on a regular basis, watches his nutrition, gets enough sleep, visualizes completing the race. And passion is when a participant is determined to finish the race. Pride bubbles up throughout this whole process, but without passion, the accomplishment cannot be achieved. And then, when the race is completed, pride allows for the celebration that carefully channeled passion deserves.

Pride is faith in the idea that God had when God made us. Passion is devoting all that we are and all that we have to the premise and promise of that faith.

Now of course there are other forms of pride and other forms of passion. During a national church assembly a pastor came to me with a problem. As a straight advocate of  gay people, he had been invited to preach the sermon at a Pride worship service. He said, “You know of course that I have no problems saying that lesbians and gay men are children of God. But I have always been taught that pride is a sin.”

Indeed, pride was named one of the seven deadly sins. It was “hubris”—the Greek word for pride—that caused the tragic downfalls in tragedies, from Oedipus to King Lear to Willy Loman. It was the human desire to be like the gods that tempted the first human creatures to eat from the forbidden tree, causing shame of our bodies and prompting our shameful subjugation of the earth and even the violence of the first murder.  Human arrogance inspired the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis so that human beings could reach into God’s heaven, causing God to confuse their language so all seemed to babble incoherently in many languages.

Here we speak of “false pride.” We differentiate it from what’s considered a healthy pride in our work, in our homes, in our appearance, in our families, in our congregations. There is a healthy pride we all recognize as needful and useful. But there is a false pride. We’re familiar with Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s false pride that is most often associated with prejudice—the pride of the privileged, of the in-group, of the “ritually pure” of Jesus’ time, of the dominant culture in our own time.

When I started a gay Christian support group at Yale Divinity School in 1974 I had a respected scholar stop me on the campus quadrangle. He said he had finally connected me, a student in one of his classes, to the signs posted about the gay Christian group’s formation. He said to me, as if I were not gay myself, “What right do we have to tell these people they shouldn’t be ashamed?” I was astounded, and replied, “What right do we have to tell them they should be ashamed?—and we’ve been doing that for years!”

The “sin”—if you can call it that—of marginalized people is our lack of self-esteem. And it’s a corporate sin, one of which the whole culture, the whole church must confess. That’s what I explained to the pastor wanting guidance on preaching about gay pride. Yes, our heterosexist culture needs to confess its pride and its prejudice. But LGBT people need to embrace our pride, our self-worth, our imago dei, our belovedness as God’s children.

“Claim the God in you,” my spiritual mentor and former Yale professor Henri Nouwen wrote in his journal, “The Inner Voice of Love.” He wrote it at a time of great anguish about an unrequited love, and he purportedly wanted to come out about his same-gender affinity with its publication. But the Roman Catholic cleric who gained widespread recognition writing of the minister—every Christian—as a wounded healer, came to realize that people could, as he wrote in The Inner Voice of Love, in the end “hook you in your wounds, and dismiss what God is saying to them through you.”

In other words, by pointing out our so-called unacceptable parts, the church can dismiss any challenge we might make to a church that has become exclusive rather than inclusive. Henri knew that, even though celibate, if his sexuality became known, he might not have been able to touch millions throughout the world with his more than forty books on the spiritual life.  It broke his heart, and The Inner Voice of Love was released on the very day that Henri died of a heart attack in 1996.

But the shame our culture and the church have often visited upon us is part of a broader shame about the human body and its sexual passion. And this is one area for which LGBT spiritual people can take pride. We have given the broader culture and the church an opportunity to talk about sexuality in the same breath with spirituality.

I wrote a novel that’s never been published that was explicitly sexual and spiritual. I told my mother about it at the time, sheepishly admitting to her that, if it ever got published, I’d have to glue some of the pages of her copy together, not wanting her to read the explicitly sexual parts. In her late 70’s at the time, she said, “Chris, why can’t you just write a nice little story?”  I said, “Mom, it is a nice little love story. It’s just that we don’t talk enough about sexuality in the context of spirituality.” Smiling mischievously, she leaned across the breakfast table toward me, fixed me with her blues eyes and said conspiratorially, “In the old days, we didn’t used to talk about spirituality either.”

So we may take pride that we are prompting many people to consider not only the meaning of human sexuality, but the meaning of spirituality, the meaning of spiritual community, the meaning of marriage and of ministry and of spiritual gifts.

I was leading a workshop on the church and homosexuality, and, being a small group, I invited us to go around the room and say something about why we were there. Each person had some horror story about their religious upbringing vis a vis their emerging sexuality, save one. The last to speak said she had no religious background. We pressed her, then, why she had come to  a workshop entitled “the church and homosexuality.” She said that, in lovemaking with her partner, she got in touch with a spiritual realm she had never before experienced. Since spirituality has to do with God, she added, she had come to this workshop hoping to find out about God.

I believe many in the room know something of this—a sexual encounter that spoke of something deeper, more meaningful, more spiritual in nature than simply a physiological or even emotional encounter. It reminds me of that old joke: Lovemaking with an atheist is very silent—because they have no one to address!

In a period of feeling unloved, denied, abandoned, even betrayed, a friend I loved offered me his body, and we made love into the night, sleeping together in an intimate embrace. The next morning I awoke, transformed, feeling beloved and feeling more loving, even toward those who had been unloving toward me. And I realized that God had touched me through my friend, that through his hands and his lips and his body God had given me the tender, loving care I needed in that moment.

At the end of December I completed a stint as interim pastor of MCC San Francisco. They liked affirming in worship that God has no hands on earth but our own, no feet but ours, no face but ours. This was probably derived from Saint Teresa of Avila, who said, “God has no body on earth but our own.”

And so God touches us through our bodies, through our lovemaking, and when denied the traditional ministries and spiritual gifts of the church, the visible and tangible expressions of God’s welcome of us in the community of faith, we were instead baptized with the bodily fluids of lovemaking, and we were fed with one another’s kisses.

Our sexuality, formerly a means of shame, became our sexuality, a means of grace. Sexuality too is another expression of God’s Providence, of God’s care for us. As we learned and continue to learn to accept our queer identities, our sexual and gender identities, we recognize them as gifts from God.  We can affirm with body theologian James Nelson, “Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.”

When we reach out to one another in shame, we hurt one another, we “act out,” we can’t keep faith, we experience lateral violence. When we reach out to one another in shame, we can’t have “right relation” that lesbian theologian Carter Heyward writes about. Shame can even parade around as if it were pride.  

When we are coming from a place of shame, we face severe challenges forming an intimate bond with another person as well as forming community. The culture and the church often want to keep us in a place of shame, defensive about scripture, defensive about our varied “lifestyles,” defensive about our marriages. Then the culture and the church often turn around and blame the victim, using our woundedness as an excuse to dismiss what God is saying through us to them, as Henri Nouwen wrote.

But we should not have our agenda set for us by those still confused about scripture, or about sexuality, or about sin, or about transgressing gender expectations. Keeping us in a defensive posture prevents us from truly celebrating our pride and practicing our faith in the idea that God had when God made us. When we keep having to justify ourselves, we can’t practice our passion: devoting all that we are and all that we have to the premise and the promise of our faith.

Just as we can’t let the church or the culture set our agenda, we can’t let the queer community set our agenda. I have found it sometimes easier to say I am gay in the Christian community than to say I am Christian in the gay community. How many of us leave our spirituality out of the conversation when we meet someone for the first time, lest they be offended, or worse, attack us for the sins of religion against the queer community?

When I organized an interfaith service for human rights to head off the religious right’s own pride and prejudice masquerading as religious values, a gay paper headlined its coverage of our event, “Let us prey”—and prey was spelled p-r-e-y not p-r-a-y. It was a screed on how queer spiritual people were preying on the queer community to get them back into the very institution that condemned them. Of course, nothing was further from the truth, but often in our ideologically dogmatic gay community, perception passes for reality.

Over and over again I have seen LGBT religious leaders overlooked or excluded or shunted aside, thought irrelevant, by gay rights organizations and institutions and media. But now at least some of them are realizing that this struggle for human rights is not merely a political battle, it is a spiritual struggle for the soul of the Body Politic, just as it was for the abolitionists and the civil rights movement. But in that spiritual struggle we need more than adequate responses to the five clobber passages of the Bible. We need the passion, the spiritual discipline, to devote ourselves to the premise and the promise of our respective faiths.

Those for whom the Bible is a sacred text can see a trajectory of a more and more inclusive spiritual community, one no longer based on blood relations or purity or law, but one based on shared faith and values and grace. We can see an evolution in our understanding of God from a deity that is only ours and on our side to the universal God of the prophets from Isaiah to Jesus, a God who belongs to everyone and is on everyone’s side.

The premise of our faith is that we are all beloved children of God; the promise of our faith is that we will live as if all of us are beloved children of God—that is the kingdom of heaven, the commonwealth of God, the new heaven and earth where “God will dwell with [us] as [our] God, [we] will be God’s peoples, and God’s own self will be with us, wiping every tear from our eyes and death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

People we recognize as saints among us are those who are already living in this commonwealth of God, devoted to the premise that we each bear the imprint of the holy within us, devoted to the promise that eventually we will all “get it,” whether in this life or the next. You know the New Testament Greek word for church is ecclesia, with literally means the “called out ones.” The true church is called out of the cultural closet of pride and prejudice, out of its own Tower of Babel, to speak in the languages of strangers as it did on Pentecost, the birthday of the church.  And notice what happens in that story, which is the very undoing of the Tower of Babel. The disciples are gathered in a room when Spirit inspires them, and the next thing you know they’re speaking in all the languages represented in Jerusalem and proclaiming gospel, good news, to its citizens. What happened to the room? What happened to its walls? It’s as if the walls have disappeared, the walls of their closet, and the gospel cannot be contained.

In his book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr claimed that this is where Spirit might be found, in the movements between institutions. We witness it in the Acts of the Apostles when Spirit called people out of an exclusively Jewish sect to one inclusive of both Gentiles and Jews, even though Jews found the lifestyles of the Gentiles repugnant. We witness it when Christianity became melded, even confused with Empire and Spirit called monastics out into the desert to devote themselves to the premise and promise of their faith through solitude and spiritual practices, the chief among those spiritual practices being refraining from judging others. We witness it in the Reformation, when Spirit called people out of an increasingly works-righteousness faith and reclaimed the knowledge that we are saved by grace, not by conformity. We witness it in the Great Awakening of our own country, when Spirit transformed evangelical fervor into prison reform and settlement houses for the poor, and eventually into the movements of the suffragettes and abolitionists, so many of whom came from this great state of New York. If only those suffragettes could see Hillary now!

In our own time, in what on the surface appeared to be political movements, we witness people called out to support the Civil Rights movement in the United States, people called out to resist apartheid in South Africa, and now in our own movement, we witness Spirit calling people out of pride and prejudice, out of injustice and inequality, to live as we were intended: as if all of us are beloved children of God.  Then we will live into the meaning of the “justice-love” about which gay Christian ethicist Marvin Ellison writes. Then we will recognize what it is to be “the beloved community” that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—a graduate of Crozier—dreamed about, the prophet whose life was cut short by an assassin forty years ago this week. We are blessed four decades later to see among the fruits of his labor the first viable candidacy of an African American for the presidency in Barack Obama.

In my book, Coming Out as Sacrament, I write about “coming out” as a theme of scripture. We can take pride that the queer community has given a universal metaphor to the world in our whole notion of “coming out of the closet.” We can even use the metaphor as a hermeneutic, another way of unlocking the mysteries of the biblical stories. We can witness the children of Israel coming out of bondage in Egypt, their uniquely defining experience. We can witness the followers of Jesus coming out of a religious system of purity and its resulting hierarchy into a kingdom or commonwealth of equals. We can witness God coming out of the heavenly closet through revelation and Jesus coming out of an earthly tomb through resurrection.

I assert in my book that coming out has all the characteristics of a sacrament: rooted in the biblical story, revealing something holy, something to be shared in community, requiring the belief of the participants, even ordained by God.

I was to lead a workshop at the Presbyterian Conference Center at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. A priest called to find out more about me, and the receptionist explained that I was the author of a number of books, including one entitled, Coming Out as Sacrament. His response was, “I wish I could come out as a weed!”  He couldn’t imagine his coming out as a gay priest as a holy act. And it’s hard to imagine because most of us have endured spiritual abuse at the hands of our religious communities. I define spiritual abuse as anything that imparts to you that you are anything less than a beloved child of God, a person of sacred worth.  Ultimately, all forms of abuse are expressions of spiritual abuse, because any abuse suggests we are less than holy and good.

In coming out, we reveal something holy: our love and our lovers, our true gender or intersex status. But for others—our families and friends, our colleagues or our fellow voters—to see the sacred in what we reveal requires their belief, their eyes of faith. And so we share our pride—our faith in the idea that God had when God made us. We, in a sense, evangelize—our opponents would  say “recruit”—spreading the good news that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenderpeople are also made in God’s image.

And our queer tribe has been sharing its pride for generations. We can look to our foremothers and forefathers in our own movement for courage. We mourn our martyrs who are bashed, often beyond recognition. We grieve our other martyrs,  who are refused ministry, marriage, even the opportunity to serve openly and proudly in the military.  We grieve our martyrs to AIDS and cancer whose lives or whose health were considered expendable by those filled with pride and prejudice. We grieve our straight martyrs who hoped to see the day when all will be valued, as King said, for “the content of their characters.”

“Martyr” is New Testament Greek for “witness,” and we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. Let’s pause a moment and name those who invisibly surround us in the realms of God’s eternal love:

[NAMING OF NAMES]

In a sense, these ancestors in our movement, those who premised their lives on their faith in who God made us, are dependent on us for the fulfillment of the promise of our shared faith, the promise of justice, equality, and well-being that God wishes for each beloved child.

I believe that all movements of the Spirit, political and personal, are led by succeeding generations. We have a sacred trust in claiming our faith, upholding the pride, holding onto the passion, claiming our place at God’s table.

To hold onto the passion requires stamina. Stamina in any movement is necessary. To return to the earlier image of the marathoner, stamina is what enables us to finish the race. Many of us have been or will be tempted to take short cuts that satisfy us but not the requirements of our faith.

Remember the biblical story of Esther in the king’s palace? She was his queen, but not out to him as a Jew. An enemy of her people persuaded the king to lead a pogrom against Jews. A member of her family comes to Esther, urges her to come out, to do something, and says, “Who knows but perhaps you have been born for such a time as this!”

Many of us are tempted to stay in our courts of power or privilege, whether in the church or in the culture. Many of us are tempted to find our own little places at the table, either the table of power or the table of Christ. But, like Esther, if we do not speak up we can not hold our heads up high, if we do not stand up or wheel away from the table and point out who’s missing to “the powers that be” we neglect the premise of our faith that all are beloved, we neglect the promise of our faith that all will be welcomed.

I have not yet mentioned that “passion” comes from the Latin word that means “suffering.” That’s why the word Passion is applied to the suffering of Christ in his final days.  Like him, to devote ourselves to the premise and promise of our faith in the idea that God had when God made us, to witness our Pride in these shameful days of bigotry, war, and injustice, is to suffer.  It is not easy, it is not simple, it does not reap immediate rewards. Henri Nouwen appreciated Vincent van Gogh’s understanding that “life is only a kind of sowing time….the harvest is not here.” Van Gogh only sold two paintings during his lifetime.

Many of the leaders of our movement are gone. But the pride and passion and faith they planted in our hearts and in the hearts of all they touched will bear fruit in the life of the church universal. And until that day when we are again with them and with all whom we earlier named, sharing a drink and a laugh and our love, we must keep the faith, keep the pride, and keep the passion alive!

Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.

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