Society/Pop Culture

Outstretched Arms, or, My Answered Prayer Was A Gay Atheist

Flashback. It is college.

I–a purity ring-wearing, worship service-attending, raise her hands to praise Christian girl–have my first ever barkada: a group of pious Catholic kids who go to confession every week and attend spiritual formation at a “Center.” Despite some niggling doctrinal differences, I truly believe I had found my tribe.

Three weeks later, I am dumped. Somehow, by being my borderline-manic, socially-awkward, embarrassingly earnest, consistently tactless self, I manage to offend/irritate every last one of them.  In the words of the group’s de facto “leader,” I’d proven “…too much to handle.”  As quickly as I thought I’d found a place to belong…I am alone again.

I’d spent ten years of my life alone. Having gone to a conservative Baptist-oriented school where I was one of the few kids from a broken family (anger issues included), I literally had zero friends from grade school and high school. While not really “bullied” in the conventional sense, I was definitely ostracized, seen for most of my time there as a “problem child” who either needed to shape up or get out. Starved for human kindness, I’d hoped college would be different: here, I could finally have a brand new start.

It appears I am wrong. This is high school all over again, five more lonely years of floating and feeling like I have to apologize for existing, that somehow my very presence offends.  I spend three weeks dodging my ex-barkada–and my whole college block, who also have reasons to dislike me–and discovering every last corner where it is safe to cry.

In desperation, I turn to the Bible. I pray my way through Psalms–David is about as distraught in most of them as I am–beg God to not let me be so alone.  I do this for probably a month, until one day, as I am moping on the couch in the lobby of our faculty building, a boy walks up to me with what is probably the best/worst icebreaker in human history: “You’re a Christian, right? So what do you think about Leviticus?”

(Yes, he means that part of Leviticus.)

After offending what feels like everyone else on campus, by some miracle, I do not offend him. This boy becomes one of my best friends in college, the person who picks me up and swings me around when I make it to the Dean’s List for the first time. Who listens to my first (horrible) attempts at writing songs. Who calls my mother on my eighteenth birthday to tell her he’s buying me my first drink (a tequila rose; I discover I do not like alcohol).

After ten years of being a label, this is the first person who sees me as a human being.

He is gay, and at the time he was an atheist.

Before I became a Christian, I understood judgment better than I understood grace. Raised, as I mentioned, in an uber-conservative school environment, I grasped very little of homosexuality beyond the fact that “it was bad:” the sort of shallow theology that, if allowed to grow, leads to justifications of cruelty and violence, to concentration camps and mass shootings. Back then, befriending a gay atheist would have been unthinkable. It is easy–so easy–after all, to demonize a label.

But then, that label saved my life.

Yesterday was, I am told, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). A few weeks ago, in celebration of it, I was tagged in a challenge to rock rainbow-colored lips as a symbol of protest against violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

I could not take that photo, because I am not an ally, because as a Christian my stand is that homosexuality is a sin, and I cannot celebrate it. But, as a Christian, this is what I know: we are all sinners here. Jesus died for us all. And in that death, he marks us all as being of equal value

The dead in Orlando. The tortured in Chechnya. The shunned in Manila. All of them are worth the death of God himself.  The blood of Christ is the price of every single one of these lives we dismiss as “abominations” in the name of “religiosity” or just plain prejudice.  I can’t be called an ally, but I am a Christian, and that means I try to follow what Christ has to say. And did he not say this, that “…whatever you do to the least of my brothers, so you also do to me”?

This is my stand, then, that whatever is done to a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also done to me. Their lives are just as precious as mine, and honestly—if I think about the things I’ve done–maybe even more so. I may not paint my lips rainbow, or fly a Pride flag, or march in the Parade, but you will not find me picketing on the sidelines, screaming hate and judgment.  You will not find me cheering in approval as my brothers and sisters are thrown into camps or shot in nightclubs or beaten in the streets for sins none of us have any right to pass judgment on. Sins that all of us are guilty of.

Once upon a time, God answered my prayers: he sent me a friend, and that friend taught me grace.  Despite differing beliefs, and–as we would later discover–wildly different yet equally intense personalities, he treated me with kindness.  In the face of inevitable arguments, and myriad opportunities to cause each other offense, he treated me with dignity and respect.

When no one else did, he offered me outstretched arms, and for the first time I was not alone.

I have no idea why we’re still saying this in 2017, but gay people are people. And God loves people, even as he hates their sins.  If I raise a fist, or a voice in judgment, I do not do it in the name of my God, because the God I serve did not come with fists. He did not come with violence. He came with an offering of himself, a baptism in blood that was for everyone, regardless of who they were.

He came with outstretched arms.  

To be honest, my relationship with the gay community is a complicated one: many of my friends identify as LGBT, or else have loved ones who do. I understand how my Christianity–with the beliefs that entails–can often feel like an attack, like an angry mob with stones in their hands ready for throwing.  “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” has been so often misused it’s been reduced to a meaningless cliché, so much so I still struggle to articulate exactly what I mean when I say it.  I cannot offer easy explanations reconciling what seems to be an inherently bigoted worldview with a promise of love and respect.

What I can offer, though, is this: Compassion instead of condemnation. Kindness instead of discrimination. 

Whatever happens, my hands will always be free of stones.

~aRT~

A/N: Because I know a bunch of people are going to ask: No, I do not support conversion “therapy.”

Tomorrow Comes

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This was the outfit I wore to vote in my first ever Presidential election, which was May of this year. In hindsight, it was probably the worst possible election in which to debut my voting status–none of the candidates were particularly palatable, and all had made compromises that were, in their own ways, difficult to swallow. I knew who I didn’t want to vote for, though, so by process of elimination I cast what I termed a “protest vote,” choosing the only person whose compromises I could stomach (looking back, perhaps I shouldn’t have stomached them), and who I believed would run my country best.

Today, she is dead. Has been for a while. She was struggling with stage four cancer then, and even on the campaign trail it was clear she wouldn’t make it. My vote was for a country I believed should be, and sometimes, when I look at the news of our current president’s latest shenanigans, I do wish I’d voted with a little more strategy. But back then I believed that a vote was the one statement I could make as a citizen, the one act of change I could participate in.

Now, I think a little bit differently.

2016 has not been a great year in politics. In that May election, we voted a foul-mouthed, trigger-happy sexist into office (Honestly, he’s actually doing some good for my country; it’s his fanatical supporters that are ramping up the negativity.), and with that decision paved the way for the hero’s burial of our most infamous dictator, who plundered the country so badly that we’ve never really recovered. That burial announcement came via the Supreme Court, just yesterday, and was met with great celebration from his family, who are all–son, daughter, widow–still involved in current politics.

(Apparently, our history has a short memory.)

As if the glorification of a tyrant were not enough, today, Donald Trump won the US elections, proving that America is still more sexist than a developing nation. I’m not sure what the political effects of this decision will be on my country, but on a personal level Hillary Clinton’s loss to an accused sex offender, misogynist, womanizer, cyberbully, and corrupt businessman did a number on my faith in humanity. Yes, she is a shifty, vaguely-robotic career politician, but she was also an example of the heights a woman could attain with ambition, drive, diligence, and intellect. She could have been a role model, a pantsuit-wearing #Girlboss, a sign that the times truly were a-changing.

Except apparently the times aren’t.

Following on the heels of that announcement, a news article came out revealing that our President had made lewd comments about the legs of our Vice President, a woman I had voted for and had watched win a hard-fought battle against the dictator’s son. I got my eleventh-hour salvation moment, as I watched Leni’s numbers climb, and until the end I kept hoping Hillary’s supporters would get theirs too…but sometimes the ceiling shatters, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the aftermath of this one-two punch, I did what most millennials do: I mourned on Facebook. As my teammates streamed Trump’s victory speech I waded through a sea of thinkpieces and memes, all sharing the same sentiments: humanity had failed, and what in the world we were going to do now?  One post, by a friend who is also a teacher, jumped out at me. It read: “How am I supposed to teach kids that bullying, sexism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and violence are wrong NOW?”

During the dark days of our own election season, there were a ton of smear campaign ads made about the man who is our current president. The approach was pretty much the same in all of them: kids repeating his multiple swearwords, his threats of murder and vengeance, his lewd comments against women. The argument was that the president’s foulness would someone trickle down into our children, and was this the example we wanted them to follow? Back then, since I already hated the man, I was all for sharing those videos…but faced with the current situation, I’m starting to think a little differently.

See, when I was a kid, I couldn’t care less who the president was. I thought the news was boring. I didn’t really care what happened in politics as long as I could still play outside. But I did care what my parents did. What my uncles and aunts did. What my teachers did. It was their behavior I copied, their examples I followed, until such time as I was old enough to form my own opinions, and even then, it is their behavior that has formed the basis of many of my judgments.

We like to think of the president as the parent of our nation, and it’s true, he does hold a lot of influence on the immediate direction our country will take. But presidents aren’t forever–unless you’re Putin, I guess–and in the end what will be left standing of the state are its citizens.

It’s tempting, seeing how sexism and racism and xenophobia and ignorance are currently winning, to just throw in the towel and remain numb. Joke about immigrating. Drink ourselves into stupors. But that’s copping out when the fight is far from over. See, our government does not define us. We define it. If we want a better government, we can start to build one, beginning now. Because it isn’t the president our friends and family will see on a daily basis: it’s us. We are the leaders people will look to daily for guidance. And while we can’t control how President Duterte or President-Elect Trump might act, we can combat some of the ills that put them in power by being the people we wish those leaders would be.

The shirt I wore for Election Day was merch from Les Misérables in Manila. Les Mis is my all-time favorite musical; it ruined my life long before Hamilton was ever in the picture. In particular, the song that always gets me is the Finalé, when the ghosts of the barricades sing to usher Valjean into Heaven. After everything that has happened, after the revolution has turned into a massacre, after the heartbreaking news of “The people have not stirred,” these ghosts still sing:

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade,
is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?
Say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes.

“Tomorrow comes.” are the last words of the musical. At first I thought it was just an arbitrary choice–happened to be the last words of the last verse, so let’s repeat in harmonies for that big “showstopper” effect. But as I’ve reflected over the events of today, and how they feel so much like that fruitless July revolution, I’ve gained a different understanding of those words altogether. It’s almost as if those ghosts knew that one day, someday, people what remember what they fought for, and that though they never saw the end to the injustice they died for…one day tomorrow would come.

2016 has been a long, dark year. This year, it seems, hate has won. And maybe it has. But that’s just this year, and though we’ve lost, the fight isn’t over. Rather, it just means it has to go on a little longer. There is a world beyond the barricade that we long to see, and until we get there, the revolution continues, woman by woman, and man by man.

This is our revolution: love, kindness, decency, honor, and respect. It’s taking the fight to the streets, practicing what our current administrations have failed to preach. It’s being the leaders we wanted, instead of the ones we’ve got. It’s choosing, even in the face of a world turned upside down, to live as if history has its eyes on us, and not on those so-called people in power.

Today we tend to our wounded. We mourn our losses. But tomorrow will still come, and so we rise up. Because more than anything, our revolution is hope.

~aRT~

P.S.
Of course I was going to work some Hamilton in there. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets are what’s keeping me sane right now.

Scattered Thoughts of a Sinner in Church (Come As You Are)

When I was a kid, my cousin Charlie introduced me to the comic book character “Spawn,” a man who, from my limited understanding, was “too bad for Heaven, too good(?) for Hell.” Lately, I’ve been feeling that same internal tension: too “Christian” for the world (or so a friend called me, not entirely as a compliment) but too much of a sinner for church, too riddled with doubt and disbelief and anger to fit comfortably into the padded seats of the airconditioned assembly hall. Even the way I talk and act runs counter to the poised prayerfulness and doe-eyed Christianese of the girls in Friday Youth Group, where I stopped attending after my barnacles got too obvious to hide.

I am a Christian sanctified, but far from sanitized, and honestly, I feel that the slight whiff of “worldly” about me marks me, to this church, as imposter, a wolf trying to live under the blood of the Lamb, but my teeth are too big and my claws are still sharp and oh, how I howl.

(Church, could you love me if I wasn’t perfect? Because I’m not. I am so not. Please don’t judge me, but I don’t always feel “on fire” for Jesus. Sometimes I doubt if he hears. Sometimes, my faith is in shambles. Sometimes (a lot; I even have a tracker in my BuJo), I stumble. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to the sermon. But oh, Church, how I could not live without Christ!  Surely, that is enough?)

I’m a small group leader. I still do not understand why, and my group meets less regularly than I think is ideal, but since my name is on the roster, I get invites to the regular Leaders’ Huddles our church holds. Since my mum is a leader too, I sort-of have to go, regardless of what I feel the state of my soul is at that very moment. Two huddles ago I spent the entire meeting on the verge of tears, calligraphy-ing my frustrations in my sermon notebook: a Christian on the fringes, on the outside looking in.

Today was a good day. Today, I felt my social anxiety and situational depression was at a low enough level that I could function as my Sunday self. I sat through the leader’s huddle, convinced I could fool my church into believing that I was a model leader…and then I was unmasked.

Well, not actually. The pastor–one of my favorite pastors; I want him officiating my wedding–didn’t suddenly summon me to the front to be rebuked. Instead, he preached about Zacchaeus, that familiar story of the wee little man in the sycamore tree. Since this was a leader’s meeting, the insights were about ministering, and one point struck me:

“People, not process.”

I have this habit of building up monsters in my head. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I’m always expecting the worst, waiting for the axe to fall because I am not changing fast enough. Over time and familiarity and, okay, disappointed expectations (Who knew Christian millennials could be just as cliqueish as non-Christian millennials? Duh, Frankie. Christians are people too.), I guess I turned the Church into one of those scary monsters, another self-policing institution in a world full of self-policing institutions. But with three words, that terrifying image shattered, and I was reminded of why I believe. See, as my pastor exhorted us leaders to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate with people who, perhaps, did not fit our preconceived notions of what salvation–what the desire for changed life–should look like, all I could hear was “You are welcome here.”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In the Bible, tax collectors are mentioned separately from sinners, are their own brand of outcast. As turncoats who aligned with the colonizers, they were considered social pariahs, and it was not kosher to associate with them.  Here was a person who longed to change, but for whom the door seemed shut.

But then Jesus asked to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, and in that moment the nature of what the church should be was established: a place of open doors, where sinners of all sorts belonged, could find acceptance, could become saints by virtue of accepting one man’s sacrifice.

My two best Christian friends–really, my two best friends–are probably the two people I know who reflect this best. Together, we three form #TeamHumanChristian, and when we get together and talk about the journey of overcoming our sins it is so easy to see God’s grace. Painting on a Sunday face makes sense, but when you come in your Monday blues and Tuesday baggage, your Friday failings and Saturday sins, it becomes so easy to discover “I am not alone.”

Everyone is growing here.  Everyone has a ways to go.

I love meeting Christian sinners, people in the trenches, fighting their flesh; those for whom the words “His grace changes everything.” are not just lyrics but a daily reality. The struggle IS real. It is. And how beautiful is the honesty.

“People, not process.” This is a home for humans, not a factory for churning out cookie-cutter models of holiness. I’d forgotten that home is where you take off the mask, not put it on, but thank God for the reminder: “Who does the Lord receive?” In Luke 15:2, the Pharisees said it so clearly, voices strangled in self-righteous horror: “SINNERS! He eats with sinners!”

The church is His dining room, and I am a sinner. I am a Christian. Those labels were always meant to coexist. Every Christian is a sinner, every saint has a past. The armor of God maybe doesn’t fit just right, still sits uneasy on my shoulders, but it has always come with the reassurance that I will grow into it, should I choose to keep walking.  That everyone else in His church is fighting to grow into it too.

People, not process. Christ met Zacchaeus at the foot of the tree. I smell of the world. I howl like a wolf. Church means come as you are, because this is where God meets you.  This is where hope resides.

“You are welcome here.”

~aRT~