I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
- Galatians 2:20
This weekend, I had no time for interruptions. It was our church’s fifth annual Drag Gospel Festival weekend, and all week we had a lot of preparations to take care of. We had to get ready for Friday’s big fundraising drag show at Club Café. Saturday was spent with a crew of awesome Christ Chefs at Costco, at Market Basket, and in the church kitchen prepping the meal to follow Sunday’s Drag Gospel Worship. Sunday morning I had to get up, get dressed, and put my face on. Lipstick and lip liner were applied and removed twice. The first attempt left me looking like a giant bearded baby that had eaten a tube of lipstick. The second attempt was worse only because you could tell I had tried (and failed) harder. And I don’t even want to talk about how many times I glued my fingers to my eyelids trying to get the eyelashes on.
Fortunately, while we work, work, work in the world of Chronology, God frequently works on another timeline altogether. It is the Kairos timeline – a sacred timeline operating in a hyper-dimension of space-time all around the tick-tock of Kronos. We experience the Kairos when it intersects and interrupts the clock of our expectations.
We often experience worship as Kairos time – unless, of course, the sermon is too long. ;) It’s true that we attempt to craft an entryway into Kairos with a perfectly orchestrated execution of music, testimony, prayer, and preaching. If you’ve ever done a wedding with me, you know that much of what we do to prepare for the ceremony is to open up a vulnerable and beautiful opportunity for the Supreme Moment to touch us all when you make your vows to one another. And you also know that no amount of preparation can actually prepare you for what happens in that Moment. All of our preparations are blissfully laughable in the face of the overwhelming largeness (the overwhelming “?!ness”) of the Grace of that Moment.
And so we must recognize that the Kairos moment is not always intentionally prepared for or even welcome. Sometimes, it bursts in upon us violently and terrifyingly. The phone rings at 3 AM. Your water breaks months too soon. A cry for help! The other shoe drops. The excrement hits the air conditioning.
A man rises menacingly in the middle of Drag Gospel Worship and begins to shout angrily.
It was the furthest thing from a holy moment that I could imagine. I was terribly afraid. I didn’t know what his intentions were. I didn’t know how things would end. And I was not prepared. But, as a community, as the Body of Christ, by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the intervening Power of the Holy Spirit, we responded as best we could – with love and respect, both for the person yelling at us and for ourselves.
I have received quite a bit of thanks and praise from our community for handling the situation with Drew, the man who stood up to interrupt worship on Sunday. But it was not I who met Drew, but Christ living in me, through Grace and by the support of our community’s faith commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
God intervened on October 7th, at the meeting of our church’s deacons, through the faithfulness, wisdom, and well-differentiated leadership of Senior Deacon Melissa Shungu. Meli calmly and respectfully brought up feelings of discomfort in our community around the image of Drag Gospel Jesus that I had approved for this year’s promotional materials. She wanted to discuss the image and why it was chosen. Pastor Jeff didn’t really want to discuss it and he copped a HUGE ‘TUDE with Meli. This guy right here was defensive, made unfair generalizations about why people would feel uncomfortable with the image, and was more interested in self-righteous eyeball rolling than in listening with love to his Christian sister who in that moment was doing exactly what she is called to do as a Deacon of our church. Thank God, Meli didn’t descend to her pastor’s level. Instead, she raised us back up by making clear, compassionate, self-differentiated statements that reminded us all of how a group of Christians should have handled this important and relevant discussion.
I didn’t cop a ‘tude with Drew on Sunday, in part, because Meli and the Deacons prepared me to be who God was calling me to be on this issue in that particular moment.
It was that Deacons meeting that compelled me to sit down and write the blog post in which I clearly articulated to myself and our church for the first time why the image of Drag Gospel Jesus was chosen, why it is important, and why I felt it wasn’t offensive but inclusive. If you read the blog post and heard my response to Drew on Sunday, you know that much of what I said in that Kairos moment and how I said it was born in the writing of that blog post.
I had a well of words to draw upon extemporaneously in Sunday’s interruption because I had first been asked by our Deacons to write those words to all of you.
Earlier this month the national offices of the United Church of Christ sent out an article by email about Landon Patterson, a transgender high school student who had been elected Homecoming Queen at her school. Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest her. The UCC showed up to support her.
One of the pictures that originally accompanied the article showed a sign held up at the rally. It read, “Westboro Trash GO HOME.” FULL CONFESSION: I am confident I have had some very nasty things to say about Westboro Baptist Church and that I have said them boldly. Still, something about that sign didn’t feel right to me. I prayed about it and realized I was uncomfortable because the image could be interpreted to suggest that we as the UCC were promoting this sign as a part of our Christian response to the situation and that we felt it was acceptable as Christians to call people trash. And seeing that sign (which didn’t belong to the UCC supporters of Ms. Patterson, but to another group of counter-protesters) I had to come to the point of conscious awareness and articulation of the conviction that no person, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done, is trash.
I did not fall into the temptation of treating Drew like trash on Sunday because God, through the actions and communications of our larger church, had confronted me with the fact that this kind of thinking is not in line with the values and commitments of my faith.
What is also not in line with my faith however is allowing someone to disrespect or attack me or any other person with hateful ideologies or theologies. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean submitting to them. Praying for those who persecute us entails taking actions to resist their hateful and hurtful actions.
When Drew first stood up, I didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know where to begin. I was shouting for attention. I walked toward Drew, then back away, totally confused. I felt called to protect the people gathered in worship and I felt that dragging (ha!) Drew out of the church physically while he yelled at us would have only increased the violence that people were experiencing in that moment.
Then the Holy Spirit broke in with a story. The story was related through Warren Goldstein about Rev. Donna Schaper. Donna, who I met at Judson Memorial Church, is a mentor in ministry to me and has taught me so, so much. But she doesn’t talk herself up much, so Warren, her husband, is occasionally the scribe of some her wisdom. As I remember Warren telling it, a man stood up in church once while Donna was preaching to shout her down. She walked down from the pulpit as he yelled, stood before him, and asked him calmly, “May I engage your anger?” I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say to Drew; I didn’t know how I was going to balance honoring Drew and honoring those he was attacking, but I knew where to begin.
My sister, Christina, was riding a BART train in San Francisco when a man slapped a woman on the train across the face with all his strength. Had my sister ever prepared for such a moment? No. But in that moment she became a ferocious She-Bear, the mother who dines upon the flesh of the hunter who would dare threaten one of her children, and she chased the man from the train like Athena descending upon the Trojan plain, like Kali come to devour the demons. That Moment, the Moment of her response, was one expression of her truest Self. Kairos interrupted her and she became something more than herself; she became a big, bad, holy expression of God by the power of a Grace that we do not control.
Her courage inspired and prepared me.
It wasn’t me, or at least not me alone, who responded to Drew on Sunday. It was all of us. And It was the Holy Spirit.
When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.
- Mark 13:11
Next weekend the Drag Gospel Festival returns to Boston and Somerville for the fifth year! For those of you who don’t know, the Drag Gospel Festival (DGF) is an annual celebration of (mostly) gospel music and drag performances that raises money for the LGBT Asylum Task Force. The LGBT Asylum Task Force supports and empowers LGBTQ folks seeking refuge and asylum in the US after facing violence or persecution in their country of origin. DGF was the brainchild of James who is a drag performer under the name Serenity Jones and a member at First Church Somerville UCC. But lots of people get into the act at DGF – we have drag queens and drag kings, from actual pros to first timers, with costumes worthy of the finest ballrooms to costumes that would get groans at even the most last-minute Halloween parties. We even have “Faux Queens” – women who dress like men who dress like women (talk about meta!) This year First Church Somerville UCC, Old South Church, and the Imperial Court of Massachusetts are co-sponsoring the event. The above flyer will give you all the info on the upcoming festivities.
The flyer also contains what is probably the greatest Drag Jesus image ever produced in the history of Christian art. At least, that’s what I thought everyone would think when I approved the image. Actually, the first thing I thought was, “Drag Jesus needs longer eyelashes and some lip liner.” The artist, Rich, made the changes and THEN I approved the poster thinking it would be universally hailed as the next great movement in religious iconography.
Seriously though, let me first say to all of you who might not know me that well – I love me some Jesus. I LOVE JESUS! Jesus Christ is, in fact, my Lord and my salvation. Jesus Christ is my greatest teacher, my path and my way, my entry into all things holy, and sacred, and good. Jesus is a friend of mine. As a pastor, I spend the vast majority of my time thinking about and talking about who Jesus was and is and why it’s all important to us. I do my best to welcome other people into relationship with Jesus and I do my best to live in the faith and according to the teachings and examples that Jesus has set forth. So, let me just drop those Jesus creds right there as my way of saying that I am not interested in insulting Jesus.
And I feel strongly that there is NOTHING INSULTING about Drag Jesus. But I’ve become aware that not everyone may feel the same way as I do about this image. So I’m writing this in defense of Drag Gospel Jesus. As a Christian and a pastor, I feel compelled to suggest a few reasons why I think it’s important to imagine that Drag Gospel Jesus isn’t an insult to God or Jesus, and why it ought not to be offensive to Christians either.
First, I want to remind everyone that the original image that was modified for this poster is not what Jesus actually looked like. I know, I know – you’re not stupid. You know that. But what’s important to remember here is that ALL of our images of Jesus are human cultural expressions of what we think Jesus OUGHT to look like and – by exclusion – what we think he OUGHT NOT to look like. I invite you to Google Image Search the term “Jesus.” What you will find are hundreds and thousands and millions of pictures of a white, European Jesus. Was Jesus white? Hell no! Jesus was not white.
Many people are not insulted by pictures of white Jesus. I vary. Images of white Jesus that were produced in European art before modernity I often give a pass to. Some of them are sublimely beautiful masterpieces that touch my soul and bring me closer to God. And I believe that they were produced in an attempt to imagine Jesus freely and not in an attempt to constrain Jesus. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with depicting Jesus as European, African, Asian, Indigenous within the artistic traditions of those cultures.
But the fact that the image of white Jesus still dominates in our culture and in our churches today is a terrible spiritual harm to God’s people. I think Jesus would be just fine with looking like all of us in all kinds of different art. I just think he’d remind us to make sure we spread it around – to remember that we’re all God’s children, and that Jesus is not the Jesus of just one kind of people. Jesus is the Jesus of all of us. What we are saying today with our pictures of white Jesus is that, even though we all know that Jesus wasn’t white, we would prefer worshiping whiteness to worshiping Jesus.
As for spreading it around, why not another image of Jesus that looks not exactly like Jesus did, but exactly like some of God’s children and Jesus’ people do? Drag Gospel Jesus is such an image. I don’t imagine that Jesus actually looked like this. But I do believe that Jesus would want people who do look like this to see themselves reflected in him.
This all makes me think of the opening two weeks ago of the movie Stonewall. The Stonewall Riots, that the movie intended to depict, were the symbolic beginning of the gay rights movements and the actual beginning of the gay pride movement. The community in Greenwich Village and some of the main leaders in the riots were drag queens, trans women, and people of color. Numerous eyewitness accounts describe the people being put into the paddy wagon that night as “queens” and some of the biggest trouble started when the police arrested a woman dressed like a man. Other accounts describe the riots really blowing up after a police officer shoved a drag queen and the drag queen hit him with her purse. People began throwing objects and shouting “Gay Power!” But in the movie, the main character is a cisgender white male. And it’s he who throws the first brick outside Stonewall.
The film's director, Roland Emmerich, says ... he wanted a white, male protagonist to serve as a relatable surrogate for the audience. That character, Danny, also throws the brick that starts the riots after he catches his boyfriend cheating on him in the bar. "We knew this didn't happen," Emmerich explains. "This is a fictional story and I think it made ... sense for this story."
As our culture continues to try to “whitewash” history, trivialize queer people’s struggles, and reduce gender non-conforming people to secondary roles (at best), my hope is that a faithful Christian response would be – in small part – an image of Drag Jesus that reminds people who don’t conform to gender binary norms that God sees them and loves them and that they are truly welcome to come to church – just as they are.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations