On this day in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a disease. As with so many moments of progress, that seems both a really long time ago, and not that long at all.
Today I’m leaning more on the side of ‘not that long at all,’ because here we still are, watching politicians hash it out over the full humanity of our friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters who do not identify as purely cisgender, heterosexual and binary. It’s confounding that some of our elected officials are digging in their heels to block LGBTQ rights when we are in the middle of a global pandemic and over half a million Americans have died; we are staving off an economic disaster; and the environment is sending red alerts, by way of deadly winter storms in Texas, that we must change our ways… This squabble over equality is what they want to hang their hats on? But here we are.
The Equality Act, passed by the House this week, will now go to the Senate for a vote. The party line for those who oppose it is predictable: they are worried about religious freedom.
The road from ‘gay rights’ to ‘religious freedom’ is a pretty twisted but also familiar path. Their bottom line is that businesses should not have to cater to a “lifestyle” to which they are opposed. So, just for instance, a conservative florist should not have to decorate a gay wedding. Or, to go one further-- a religious school should be able to fire a teacher if they find out he has a same sex partner, etc.
But we can call b.s. on that action because what they are really, blatantly trying to do is protect the rights of an institution to discriminate. It has nothing to do with religion, nor does it have a thing to do with freedom.
The First Amendment was intended to protect religion from government-- not to impose religion ON governance. This is a fine distinction that sends many of our ideological disputes into a spiral, ending with meaningful policy just circling the drain. But protecting the rights of LGBTQ folks in no way impedes your right to worship or practice your faith in private life. You can go to any church you choose, and do or say whatever you please there. In your own home, pray however you want. Even in public spaces-- go for it. Nobody can stop you from taking a bullhorn and loudly proclaiming your brand of gospel from the street corner next to the adult entertainment complex or the abortion clinic. Rage on, I guess. This is America.
But if you operate a business, then you are operating in another realm of public life. You are functioning as part of the community--and there are certain covenants that bind you as a neighbor, as part of a wider economy, beyond the confines of your religious life. Embody those Christian values however you want in terms of your behavior, or what words and symbols you might display in your workspace. But how you function as an enterprise no longer falls under the purview of ‘religious freedom.’ Don’t want to hire a gay person or decorate a gay wedding? Perhaps it’s time to find a new line of work. The year is 2021.
What has become clear to me as we hash these same arguments out, again and again, is this: spirituality itself is a lot like sexuality. There is a spectrum. And it is becoming increasingly acceptable to come out as nonbinary in terms of religious belief and practice. You don’t necessarily “believe or not believe.” You don’t have to be all in or all out. You are never just a saint or a sinner. You can hold doubt and devotion in the same spaces. The truly faithful do it all the time.
The evolution towards nonbinary thinking is a big part of maturity in general, and faith development specifically. I’m reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now, and this is his entire premise--we are only surface living as long as we see the world in binary terms. Years of study in the field of faith development reveal the same truth. The ability to weigh critical thinking alongside our religious beliefs is essential. Otherwise, we are not really practicing faith, we are just being superstitious.
Clearly, many of our leaders are still stuck in the infant stages of both critical thought and faith development. But my bigger concern is that so are our institutions. Both religious and the secular, church and state, remain stuck in this early-stage perspective that all things must be either/or. Like a toddler just developing spatial awareness and object permanence- did that toy just go behind your back, or did it disappear??
Here lies the very heart of so much discord.
I hold out hope that the Senate will pass a vote for movement and change- a shift towards growth mindset and nonbinary thinking in general, and more to the point, an affirmation of the full freedom and dignity of LGBTQ folks. Even if the vote doesn’t go that way, we can keep moving in that general direction. We continue to evolve in both faith and critical perspective, moving towards not just a more equitable world, but a healthier, more productive way of living in it.
I want our LGBTQ fam whose lives will be affected by this vote either way to know that, even if this measure doesn’t pass, we have your backs. That we are even still fighting about this is absurd, and I am sorry for it, truly. If we continue to be held hostage by regressive politics (and religion), please know that we will keep trying to find a better way.
In the meantime, whatever comes, take comfort in this truth: the world is not a binary place. Very few things are entirely left or right, right or wrong, light or dark.
Clearly, this is true of our institutions, both the faith-based and the secular. And the longer our systems of religion and government try to function in absolutes that don’t exist, the weaker they become. I’m never sure if that’s the good news or the bad news, but I do know this: embracing the beauty of the spectrum is the more life-giving way. Any existing structures that fail to see this will eventually crumble under the weight of their own rigidity.
And when they do-- maybe what’s left is a better foundation. Colorful, resilient, free.
Call your Senators and invite them to join us in this century.
We already adored her. Of course we did.
As a musician, she is legendary. An institution. I've been in that room in the house in Dollywood where they have all her awards, and it is too much for the eye to take in. And you just KNOW she's got a few favorites at home on the mantle too. Her body of work speaks for itself, accolades aside. There is a Dolly song for everything, and we know every word.
But the music is not the only reason she is so beloved. There is an incomparable something about her that has always sparkled, always made you feel like you KNEW her, like you could run into her at the grocery store and she'd give you a hug. (Let me stop you now if you feel compelled to disavow me of this particular daydream). But at this particular moment in history, heavy and chaotic as it is, Dolly has emerged as something much more than iconic artistsand genuinely nice person. She is a unifying figure, one who has managed to bring hope, joy, and a kind of aspirational resilience to the present upheaval.
Jad Abumrad explored this phenomenon in his podcast, Dolly Parton's America, even before the pandemic. If you have not already listened to every single delightful episode of this series, then congratulations: your weekend is planned!
A philanthropist to the Nth degree, she has long provided scholarships for any kid from her hometown who wants to go to college. Fiercely committed to literacy, she has donated over 130 million books to children around the world. And just recently, she made a many-zeroes contribution to Vanderbilt Medical Center, funding research that made significant strides towards a coronavirus vaccine.
It’s no wonder Tennessee wants to put a statue of her on the state’s very front lawn.
And here, I think we might be coming around the heart of things, the intangible something that makes Dolly the incomparable force that she is, and it is this: she doesn’t want the statue.
In response to the announcement she said “I am honored and humbled by their intention but I have asked the leaders of the state legislature to remove the bill from any and all consideration. Given all that is going on in the world, I don't think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time”
What it takes to step out of the spotlight in a moment like this is something more than just humility. It is a whole different kind of internal economy: one that defies individualism. This is what it looks like when you know that you don’t live for just yourself, and that nothing you have is really your own. Because when you get right down to it… you are just part of the neighborhood. More than anything else Dolly just gets that.
As a rule, America operates on an economy of self-- glorifying independence and rendering individualism a uniquely American idol. Such an economy is rooted in ego; it values wealth, seeks status and power over communal wellbeing, and elevates “personal freedom” above all else. This is how one of the wealthiest and most privileged countries in the world ends up with one of the highest death rates in a global pandemic: because our toxic notions of 'personal freedom' somehow got caught up in a fight about masks and, well, here we are.
These twisted notions of individualism also lead to things like: corporations get to do whatever they want, even if it means poisoning the environment. A de-regulated power grid in Texas that fails in catastrophic fashion and costs lives in a moment of crisis. Generations of systemic racism that we can't seem to even talk about without white folks hollering how "It's not my fault, I never owned slaves!" and "all lives matter!" in yet another communal failure of empathy. And the guns... let's get into the 'personal freedom' gun conundrum another day, because we're talking about Dolly here and I want to stay on task.
Ultimately, what Dolly displays with her life is this wonderfully counter-cultural understanding of her place in the world. And it's hard to be counter-cultural when you are so deeply a part of the culture, you know? But that's what makes her kind of extraordinary. She has this internal economy, not of independence, but of INTERdependence.
And I think deep down, we all know that is the way. Now more than ever.
For my part, one of the things that I've always loved most about her is her accent-- here is one of the only truly famous people in the world who comes from that part of the world and yet did not somehow water down or eliminate her dialect to make herself more relatable to folks on the outside. Though I'm sure she's been pressured at times to talk more "regular," I hear home when she talks, and I love that she represents my people and my place out there in the wide world.
That sense of place is what people see in her that sparkles, that connects, that we want to somehow emulate but don't know how. Here is a woman who has more fame, fortune, and power than any of us would know what to do with; and yet she continues to honor her roots, and to take her place as part of a larger whole. Giving back to make communities stronger, to give families a future--maybe even to help end a global pandemic.
But she'll pass on the statue, thanks. She is just part of the neighborhood.
If we want to be like Dolly, but no one is offering to build us a monument that we can turn down (just speaking for myself here) then where to begin? All I can say is, it has to do with transforming our internal economy from one of independence to one of interdependence.
To start: know where you're from. Then, just take your place in the neighborhood. Be who you are. Show up for folks. Sing a song. Read a kid a book. Give something away. Maybe see what comes to life from there.
We will always love you, Dolly! These are just a few of the reasons why.
We are dust, you know?
It need not be a churchy thing, to think about this.
It need not always be marked on our heads,
the dark stain of our living and someday dying.
It is a thing we know in our bones,
maybe especially when we have been sequestered for
going on a year that feels like many more.
Do we need to cover our faces with dirt,
when already they are masked
when already we know that even breathing can be
a dangerous business in these frail human forms?
We are plenty practiced in rending our hearts,
have scattered ashes far and wide
to the very ends of the earth.
We are covered in dust.
Have been daily called up into this knowing
of our eventual end.
We are marked. We are reminded.
This season is redundant.
And what can we give up or lay down
that has not already been taken?
What small joy or comfort has not already been added
to the long list of things unsafe, untouchable?
we lean towards a dim winter light
that lingers near the corners
where two dark lines cross in the middle.
And let the artist's stroke tell the story
of all the miraculous life
that dwells in dust and darkness
all the beginnings marked by ashes
and the endless wonder of having
nothing left to lay down.
Americans will spend about 21.8 Billion dollars buying Valentine's stuff this year.
That's nearly $4 billion more than it was last time I looked up that number, about 4 years ago.
When I think about what we could do, collectively, with nearly $22 billion, it boggles the mind. No, scratch that-- it literally breaks my heart.
For one thing, it would cover our National Parks budget for about 8 years. Or fund the National Endowment for the Arts for a few decades. How many hungry children could be fed? Student loans forgiven? Refugees resettled?
We could make a longer list, but you get my point- we have the resources in this country to do so much collective good; to meet so many needs; to solve so many complex problems. But when you come right down to it-- our hearts are just in all the wrong places.
Valentine's Day itself is not the problem. A holiday designated for love? Sure. Fantastic. But... when did “love” get saddled with all this stuff? Billions and billions of dollars worth of stuff?
I’d venture that most of the billions are spent on flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, and any other number of things that come in the shape of a heart. Which, by Monday, will be marked down 80% at Walgreen’s and Target and every other store in America. Not long after that, much of it will be in a landfill.
This holiday is just one of many that draws attention to our consumer sickness. That sickness is big, and multi-layered, and it’s not Saint Valentine’s fault. It’s also not the fault of Baby Jesus or the Easter Bunny; or Saint Patrick, the Great Pumpkin or Uncle Sam. On every one of these days, we wade through the sea of sugar and cheap plastic crap that will ultimately flood the landfills we use to hide our addiction. The dam will only hold for so long.
So there’s an environmental concern, and a sweatshop concern. But more than anything, there's a heart concern, underlying all the paper and diamond ones. The real emptiness that might make us feel like we *have* to buy this stuff, or else we have somehow failed at the whole love thing.
More to the point, this is an illumination of the scarcity mentality… The one that tells us we cannot possibly afford to insure all of our children–or educate them, or provide them with clean water and air, or protect the resources for their retirement someday–when clearly, we have all the money in the world to spend on… What, exactly? Another engraved picture frame? Another charm for that bracelet? Another bear holding a heart? (What can I say, SNL gets it).
Can we fix all of these complex problems by abstaining from flowers and stuffed animals today? Maybe not. But practicing a bit of mindfulness about our own spending and gifting can go a long way to change our thinking about what is needed, what is important, and what is worthwhile. And that shift might, in turn, change our thinking about what we can, and cannot afford… As a family, as a country, and as people who have to inhabit this earth together long after the landfills overflow and the rivers run dry.
Here are a few ideas for how to celebrate this day of love without breaking the bank–or contributing to our collective national junk pile.
This is modified for COVID times from a post that originally appeared on Patheos.
How’s your creative energy these days? Mine is in the tank. I hear that’s going around.
The guitar I bought last summer has not been touched in months. I have little bandwidth for reading. I cook the same rotation of things for dinner pretty much every couple of weeks. Playing with my kids? Forget about it. (An as-yet unnamed grief for me in pandemic times is that I started it with two kids, but will emerge on the far side of it with two tweens/almost teenagers. Like all of us, they have grown up fast this year.) I spend time with them, yes. But anything that could be construed as creative ‘play’ has mostly left the building. Not only are they on the verge of being too big for such things-- I just don’t have it in me to pretend things these days. That part of my brain is off the clock.
As for writing-- I’ve tried explaining to friends and fam why I have chronic writers block when, in theory, I should have all the time in the world to write. I have no travel, no daily commute, no social engagements, no evenings and weekends spent running kids to endless activities, and few of the errands that can consume us in normal times. I’ve been stumped.
It makes easy sense, at some levels. I read somewhere that the part of our brains usually devoted to creativity is now devoted to processing endless changes to our ‘normal,’ facing a relentless string of daily decisions in this new reality, and, you know, staying alive during a global pandemic. Not to mention that the 4 people in this house are almost always in this house. One of them frequently banging on drums. So there’s that.
Still. I look around my house and think to myself: I’m always HERE, why can I not spend a few hours a day doing this thing I love?
And then it occurred to me-- I’m always HERE. But what I write about is OUT THERE.
Just as I dearly love to read a book that has a strong sense of place, I also write with a sense of place. Both content and form are shaped by my physical location, in more ways than one. It is, in part, about geography: I am a different writer in one landscape than I am in another. When I lived in Arizona, the desert itself found its way into my voice, in some ways that stayed with me and some ways that I lost when I left. Living in Kansas, I never really connected with the Midwest scenery in the same way; but what I wrote was still profoundly shaped by the people around me and the community where I lived.
Beyond that, I had physical spaces in which to write. A favorite coffee shop, a favorite bar, a favorite corner of the library.... I had quiet places, and places with a low hum of activity. Even when I was not writing, I was places- church, the gym, my kids’ school, people’s homes, hospitals, bars and restaurants, my daughter’s dance studio, my son’s baseball practice… Our days were an endless cascade of nouns! People and places everywhere.
I may not have been writing about the places, but I was writing from them.
When we moved back to Kentucky, I was back to the climate, geography and culture that I knew in my bones. But working from home, I had to try a little harder to be out among the folks. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite corner of the library. A place to sit at church while I was waiting for the kids to be done with an activity. A two hour window of time to myself every Saturday while my daughter did her theater thing. And, of course, there was travel. Lots of it.
Over the course of a decade, from this litany of locations, I wrote two books, hundreds of sermons, and nearly a thousand blog posts. Who knew there were so many words in the world?
And now I am always… well, HERE.
I know what a privilege it is to be able to work from home, to be fairly sequestered in this place to stay healthy and keep others safe as well. I also know that this is all temporary. In the meantime, it helps my spirit tremendously to be able to name why we struggle to find creative space --when much of our lives are situated in a single place.
Despite my recent lack of focus, I did recently finish reading News of the World, by Paulette Giles. I saw the movie trailer, and well, you had me at Tom Hanks. Being a strong believer in finishing the book before starting the movie, I powered through the whole thing.
I’m a sucker for a good Western anyway, but this one just resonated deeply. The story itself is a great one, but more than that, I loved the landscape and the premise. In the post Civil War frontier of northern Texas, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid travels from one small town to another, and he reads people the news. He curates selections from multiple publications, and people pay to come hear him read these stories.
It’s a great reminder that, well before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, the globalization of everything, and tiny devices that put the whole world at our fingertips, people-- many of whom could not read, and would never travel beyond their own county line-- craved a glimpse of the outside world. To hear those stories was an escape, yes, but it was something else. A connection to something much bigger, in a world that must have felt very small.
These days, our worlds have gotten very small again. And in many ways, that’s not entirely a bad thing. But something primal remains in our being that wants to be part of a bigger story. So just know, when you have trouble creating in your own space--which is likely the single space in which much of your life takes place these days-- that the longing for the story is, itself, the spark or creation. It is often drawn out by the people and places you orbit. But the essence remains, even when your orbit gets much smaller.
I have no magic formula for drawing out that creativity when time and space is acting against it. But remember that whether you are struggling to play your music, or paint your picture, or bake your masterpiece, or play cowboys with the kids and their stuffed animals... that story is still there, and will be called out in its time. The same creative energy that formed the world--that separated light from darkness and called up life from the depths of the earth-- it still moves, and moves in you. However quietly it might be stirring at the moment.
I will keep trying to write small things from the small world I inhabit these days. I will write about bread, and winter, and things that give us life while so much of it is standing still. I will write from memories of the desert, and long roads that used to call to me regularly, and are still out there somewhere. I will write about the people in my small orbit, and the news from this small corner of the world.
How about you? What are you creating these days? Or what is creating space in you?