Social Media Sabbatical

Social Media Sabbatical

I was hungry, lonely and tired when I stepped off the train at Convent Station in New Jersey back in 2010. I had just spent the better part of a day driving, parking, checking luggage, flying and chugging to this corner of the Garden State. I still had to drag my wobbly luggage to the lodging arranged for me by Drew Seminary and I was running late and expected to miss the appointed dinner hour.

By the time I reached the Sisters of Mercy convent, I could see the last of dinner just being put away in the nearby dining hall. I apologized for my late arrival and said I would head up to my room for the night. Sister Margaret, or was it Mary, asked if I had eaten dinner yet. “No ma’am, I know I’ve come after dinner service and I have some things to eat in my bag.” Looking at my sorely battered luggage, she suggested I make a plate from what was left on the buffet. Again I apologized for my tardiness, “no ma’am, but thank you, I’m late and don’t want to be a bother.” To which she gently but firmly replied, “may I please make you a plate?” Letting my exhaustion catch up with me, I gratefully relented and said “yes ma’am.”
Sister Mary, or was it Margaret, showed me to the remains of the dinner and invited me to help myself to whatever I liked. She left me to attend to her own evening business and I settled at my table to let the day’s travel fall from my shoulders in the quiet shuffling and tinkling of a dining room being packed up for the night.

While at the table my thoughts turned to what I thought was the purpose of my visit. The savvy powerpoint was ready, the tightly crafted script was well rehearsed and with passionate conviction I was ready to share with local clergy why they needed social media.

Just six months or so before this evening I had taken the job, answered a calling right out of a southern seminary, to be the digital circuit rider for a progressive Christian organization whose mission it was to equip motivated clergy to growing communities committed to actively living the Beatitudes. I’d found that rare overlap in a life’s venn diagram where my passion and (a tiny fraction of) the world’s needs came together as gainful employment. Skilled in technology, called to ministry, my professors and colleagues had encouraged this unique blend and I had, by this time, been leading various iterations of online ministry for a few years.

So weary in body, but intellectually full of vim and vigor, I sat with my wilting plate of salad and glass of tepid water and looked at my immediate surroundings. Here I was, ready to stand before a room full of clery to tell then why they needed social media and I thought, what would I tell the sisters purposefully working around me, about why would they need social media? And suddenly my entire script fell apart.

They don’t need social media. Social media needs them!

That night I rewrote my entire script, reworked all my slides and what I told the gathered clergy and seminary students the next day was exactly what I’ve told you here so far, and – what social media needs is the simple but radical hospitality that I experienced the night before. On the digital landscape, then, and good Lord all the more now, the dominating feature seems to be pain, anger, hatefulness and abuse. Just imagine if we can turn that tide by being present as bearers of love, light, hopefulness and healing.
I told them, and dozens of rooms like them after that, about what drove me to create online communities of faith in the first place – the conviction that it is untenable to abdicate the conversation to the media moguls of the religious right. I still believe that a unique window has opened in the history of humanity where the theological power brokers are no longer in control of the message. The voiceless have a voice.

Good grief, why is a post titled “social media sabbatical” burning so many pixels on the importance of social media? Because I want y’all to know that I’ve thought long and hard, prayed a bit too, about my decision to step away from social media for a full year.

I’ve spent the better part of a decade creating digital spaces where I tried to share the gospel of Jesus to the best of my understanding and ability. From a fully functioning church in Second Life to weekly contemplative practices in streaming spaces and a blog about being queer and Christian in America, I’ve been called to social media ministry in some form or fashion for quite a while.

While living into that call, I’ve spent A LOT of time in two, or three or a dozen mental places at once with my attention flickering from one tab, one device, to another. As a result, I am not always fully present in any given space, least of all where my body actually is at the moment, and I end up feeling increasingly physically anxious or psychologically exhausted after being online.

In recent months I’ve recalled the Sisters of Mercy and their quiet, cloistered life. The simplicity of attending to daily routines in community, fully present to one another and the still small voice of God, without the pernicious prattle of popular media.

As a result, I’m craving more and more time away from screens. Whether it’s playing board games with B, working on terrariums with friends, piddling for hours with a paper collage, marvelling over my wonky embroidered mushrooms or walking alone in wooded parks, every cell in my body is telling me it’s time for a digital detox.

So, on March 6, the day I begin my 51st tour around the sun, I will be stepping away from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the seemingly endless blogosphere in search for a full year. What I hope to cultivate is more depth and peace in my local life.

I pray that those of you still out here will be the light and love the world so needs right now. I’ll see you in 2021.

Be excellent to one another.

What does “openly gay” mean to you?

What does “openly gay” mean to you?

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a cis-gender, straight woman whose opinion I respect, about my ruminations regarding the phrase “openly gay.” The moment that sparked this chat was the sharing of an article about one of the football coaches who will be leading a team in the upcoming Super Bowl. While trying to share our individual responses to what is indeed great news, it seemed to me that we didn’t entirely understand where the other is coming from.

When I see this phrase pop up in the media, being a person who over thinks all the things and feels all the feelings, an array of complex thoughts and feelings always percolate to the surface. At first glance, of course the phrase alerts me to news about a queer person who I probably want to know about. Usually it’s a great story about someone in a professional role that for straight folks might seem uncommon for someone who identifies at LGBTQ+ It’s great to learn about more and more people living authentically and doing work they love in every sector of society. Visibility matters. Let me say that again – visibility matters.

Visibility matters to the young woman who hopes to play and coach professional sports.  Visibility matters to LGBTQ+ people who are called to be a doctor, teacher, pastor or any field under the sun where one might otherwise be expected to hide the fullness of their humanity. When we see a queer person living authentically and thriving in their chosen field of work, it lets us know, it lets everyone know, that we don’t have to hide, lie or suppress our own truth to do the work in the world we are called to do. Visibility matters to young people who are still under the impression that the world (maybe even their parents) will hate them if they tell the truth about who they are and how they have been created to love. Visibility matters to middle aged people who have suppressed their true selves and are just starting to wrestle with their truth. Visibility matters to LGBTQ+ people of any age who need to see someone like themselves reflected and thriving in the world around us. Visibility = courage. Visibility = hope. Visibility = peace. Visibility = life.

Alongside gratitude for the visibility of folks like me, I also think, hmmm, what is the writer trying to communicate to different audiences with the phrase “openly gay?” In other words, what is their motive? Openly gay reminds me of the closet that so many are still in and where millions of folks want us to remain huddled and ashamed. Intended or not, openly gay smacks of  “why do you have to rub it in our faces?” 

My heart also hears a similar phrase often used in religious contexts when someone is being defrocked (UMC) or otherwise abused by their community of faith – “practicing homosexual.” This is a phrase used by religious people meant to control and publicly shame a person, to remind them (and those still in the closet) of deadly theology, of the sick lie that they are an abomination.

And on a very personal and painful note, the phrase always reminds me of something my mother said many years ago. Shortly after a stage collapsed at Atlanta Pride (in 2006), she told me she wished people, including her own daughter, had been hurt in the accident, she said “what do THEY have to be proud about anyway?” She went on to say how disgusting “it is” and that we should not be flaunting our depravity. Though we later reconciled and she made great strides to understand who I am, those words will forever ring in my ears reminding me that “openly gay” is sometimes code for disgusting and depraved. 

Ultimately what this all calls to mind is what I most long for – the day when queer folks are neither closeted or out, we just are. For the most part, I’m privileged to live my own life, day in and day out, exactly like this. I do not think of myself, nor EVER refer to myself as “openly gay.” My wife and I work in a k-12 school in The Netherlands – she in the high school and I in the elementary school. Our colleagues know we are married and it would never occur to either of us to be “secretly gay.” Parents and students know us and somehow we manage to just be Ms. L and Miss Kimberly, teacher and secretary. We are just Betsy and Kim, each an individual in her professional role and a couple who hangs out with friends after work like any other married couple who works here (there are quite a few). Why on earth would we behave or describe ourselves any differently than any other couple. We’re not an “openly gay married couple” any more than our friends are “openly straight married couples,” we’re just married. We’re just people.

So back to the news that sparked all of this – the first female, openly gay coach in the Super Bowl – Katie Sowers. While it is important to note this groundbreaking moment, the vision I have for such things would be an article that focuses on what Katie has to say about her goals for her team. Let’s have an article that details her strategies as an offensive assistant coach. I bet Betsy would love to read an article comparing Katie’s stats as a coach with the stats of Corey Matthaei, the Kansas City Chief’s offensive line coach. I think you get what I mean.

Now, my hearing and understanding of things is of course different than yours, and maybe it is just the word “openly” that sticks in my craw, and if all this is just navel gazing over semantics, then I can reassess my point of view. I am genuinely keen to find out what you, especially folks who identify as LGBTQ+, think about the phrase “openly gay.” 

The longest night welcomes the light

The longest night welcomes the light

When I opened my eyes, I was sure it was no later than 5 or 5:30 a.m. The room was still enveloped in a deep darkness and because it was Sunday morning, in late December, the stillness outside was thick and complete. I peered at the nightstand clock and was only mildly surprised that was it was nearly 8 o’clock. For weeks now the days have been increasingly brief with the night stalking the dawn as soon as she arrives. And here in Holland, clouds frequently blanket the heavens, filtering what little light we see through damp grey gauze. So we begin lighting candles in the afternoon, telling ourselves this time of year is gezellig – cozy and rich with opportunities for quiet conversations, warm meals and reading by lamplight.

Today is December 22nd, the fourth Sunday of Advent and the morning after the winter solstice, both days pregnant with the returning of Light to the world. Of all the turning points of the year, New Year’s Day and birthdays, first and last days of school, equinoxes and solstices – it is the intersection of Advent and Winter solstice, inextricably connected, that for me resonate with the most perplexing and palpable mystery.

Advent is the Christian season of waiting and hoping for the in-breaking of Peace, believing in the Incarnation of Love. It is a season for lighting candles in the darkness because we believe the Light of the world will soon shed the light of eternal love and justice on every dark corner of the world. The fourth Sunday of Advent we listen with renewed inspiration to the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, a powerful proclamation of a young woman living over 2000 years ago in the darkness of a land occupied by military might. She sings with joy and resolve while still captive to the powers and principalities of this world.

This time of year, as we wait with all of nature through the longest night of the year, the fulcrum point between the retreat and return of the light, many Christian congregations around the world gather for a “longest night” service where the sacred season of darkness and lament are lifted up as part of our holy journey.

These services hold sacred space for those who don’t exactly find this season to be the most wonderful time of the year. Longing for a former partner, receiving a frightening diagnosis, aching for family who’ve departed this world, deep and real hunger in little bellies and even fear for one’s own safety don’t magically disappear just because Starbucks has switched from pumpkin spice to candy cane coffee.

And for many, the twinkling lights, heart-strings commercials, and warm glow from other people’s windows only serve as an all too stark reminder that they are not welcome in the homes of their birth. When the faces of friends are lit up day and night with the joy of family drawing close, LGBTQ+ people who have been cast aside by their families of birth can find this season particularly painful. Many of us, myself included, have been cast into the outer darkness for choosing to embrace our own inner light, a light given by our Creator to live and love in ways the world does not always understand.

What my eyes can perceive, what my mind experiences, is a darkness that grows deeper and deeper. But what I know in my heart and soul to be true is that the light is already returning even if I can not yet perceive it. Yes, there will be weeks ahead when I will still not believe it, because the darkness will hover and the cold will seep in everywhere, and I will be nearly convinced that warmth and light will never again appear. And then, because of nothing I have done or left undone, the light slowly, surely pushes back the darkness.

And while we still wait, full of hope for days to lengthen and life to spring again from the cold earth, we are invited to stand in that liminal space not only with others who feel the chill of pain and loss, but to also hold tenderly all of our own wounds.

My prayer for you this day is that whatever darkness may haunt your heart it will be gently illuminated by the slow return of the light. So too I pray that if you are able, you are a light bearer for yourself and others. We are the hands and feet.