Faith

Choice

Alex

I want to talk about choice.

I want to talk about the fact that just because someone who is out to destroy you says you chose to be the way you are does not mean the path of best protection is to counter with “no I didn’t, it’s not a choice, I was born this way and I’ve always been this way.”

Is who I am—my sexuality, my gender—a deep and real part of me, close to my soul? Yes. Are there choices involved? Of course there are.

I have made one choice after another to feel more at ease, more vibrant, more alive. I chose to change my name. I chose to allow myself to open to the idea that I might be attracted to women. I chose to open myself to the idea that first of all genderqueer people exist, second that I might be one, and third that I might be attracted to other genderqueer folks. After all of this, I chose to remain open to the idea that I was still attracted to men and might actually like being in a relationship with one. If I hadn’t made these choices I never could have lived into my full authentic self.  Continue reading

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Religion is Not a Dirty Word

This post is the second of a two-part response to the assertion among some yogis that yoga is not a religion. Read Honoring Yoga’s Sacred Religious Roots for part one.

Teo

The second part of my struggle with the declaration that yoga is not a religion is the underlying concession of the domain of religion to the Religious Right. I am simply not willing to concede that territory.

As a philosophy professor one of the hardest things to explain to the folks I was teaching was that for us to have an actual philosophical argument, we have to agree to the terms. We have to both agree to common definitions or at least acknowledge that we don’t have a common definition. We have to have that discussion first before we can have an argument, because if we are not using common definitions, if we don’t have an understanding that by you saying this you mean this but when I say this I don’t mean that, if we don’t have that understanding, then we can’t have an argument, or a debate, or whatever language you want to use. We can have a fight, we can have a shouting match, we can have a confrontation, but we cannot have an argument. We cannot have a debate. We certainly cannot have a reasoned debate.

And in this regard I will not concede the use of the word religion to the Religious Right. I will not allow them to have sole ownership of that word. I will not release and walk away. This is not a game of tug of war where I’m willing to let go of the rope. I’m not interested in taking the rope from them. I’m not interested in claiming sole ownership of the word religion but I’m also not willing to concede sole ownership of the word religion to the Religious Right. Continue reading

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Honoring Yoga’s Sacred Religious Roots

Teo

In January, there was a flurry of posts on Facebook regarding some anti-yoga backlash coming from the Religious Right. At its core is the accusation that teaching yoga is an attempt to convert participants to Hinduism, and in January this accusation simultaneously came up around teaching yoga to kids and also in the context of using yoga as a treatment for PTSD in returning soldiers. On the one hand, the fear was that children were being brainwashed, and on the other, that veterans were being kept out of “right” relationship with God. The reaction to this anti-yoga backlash from many I know who teach and practice yoga was to emphatically state that yoga is NOT a religion.

I’m struggling with that declaration on two grounds. I’ll tackle the second later. Here is the first: yoga is part of a religious tradition. It is deeply rooted in Hinduism. To protest that yoga is not a religion is to do what white Americans have done for centuries. Take what we like from other cultures and other people’s lived experience (especially people of color) without being accountable to those cultures and people. Yoga is part of a religion. We may not teach it from that place in the west, but to deny it feels wrong to me. In his Washington Post article “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Skulka says that yoga is Hinduism’s gift to the world. He is not advocating that yoga not be available in the West. He is asking that we not deny its origins or its religious roots. As with any precious gift we are given, isn’t it our responsibility to handle it with care? To honor and nurture it? To acknowledge from whom it was given to us?

I don’t understand why we cannot simply acknowledge openly that yoga is rooted in a religion. It is a sacred practice that is not inherently incompatible with another religion. When we practice yoga and especially when we teach yoga, we are called to mindful stewardship of that sacred practice as it is integrated into a Western—and particularly, into an American—context. Yoga doesn’t require conversion to Hinduism, but to deny its foundation because we are afraid to battle the Religious Right over their assumed ownership of the definition of religion violates the very foundation of the yogic principle of Ahimsa (do no harm). I’ll leave that for part two.

Read part two: Religion is Not a Dirty Word.

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On Marriage

Alex

When I was 17 years old I got married to my dear friend Chris. I don’t remember who proposed to whom or even what inspired us to have a ceremony, but I remember the service well. It was held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbus, GA, which is where at least twenty of us had set up camp, our sleeping bags covering the floor, after our pilgrimage to protest the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

The ceremony was conducted fully in pirate-speak, officiated by our friend Duncan, who I was convinced was endowed with the power to do so by virtue of claiming to have once been a captain of a ship. Whether or not his credentials were legit is rendered moot by the fact that we were not in international waters at the time, not to mention the detail that we were both minors. But we had a flower girl, who somehow rustled up some baby’s breath, and there was even someone who objected to our union on purely fraudulent terms just to add some drama.

My love for Chris was something that I couldn’t seem to explain in words anyone could understand. Ours was a fierce, intimate, platonic love. Our marriage gave us a way to express in no uncertain terms that we would always love each other, that we were committed to the friendship we had for life. The rings we made each other out of beads and pipe cleaners gave me something solid to remind me that my real world existed outside my high school building, that the dominant teenage culture wasn’t my home and there was something more and real in my life.

Continue reading

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Invitation to a Multi-faith Playground

Teo

So many of us bristle at the language from someone else’s religious, spiritual or humanist tradition. Perhaps we bristle because we believe that our path is the True Path. Perhaps we bristle because we have been hurt in religious spaces—those words a trigger of past trauma.

I had the blessing and the challenge of participating in a multi-faith service this morning. I was asked to bring some of my tradition forward, as were others. I knew that some of what I was to hear would not be language I have always experienced as friendly just as I knew that what I would say would feel the same for someone else.

As I meditated and breathed into the experience, an image came to me. A playground filled with children. Not the playground of my childhood where some belonged and others were alone or worse bullied. This was a playground where I could see and imagine the sounds of childlike joy. The giggling. The singing. The squeals of glee. Some children were in large groups. Some in pairs. Some on their own. All with the same joy.

What if this was a religious/ spiritual/ humanist/ atheist playground? What if another’s joy was infectious? Continue reading

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“An Experiment in Love”: An MLK Day Sermon

Alex

I was invited to deliver a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, and it was remarkable to be asked not only because it’s an honor to receive such an invitation but also because for the last two weeks I’d been completely ensconced in King’s writing. Once upon a time I worked for Beacon Press, and I still do the odd freelance job for them. A few years ago Beacon became the exclusive publisher of King’s books and future collections of his work, and for a couple of these new collections, I’ve proofed and checked the manuscripts against previous versions to ensure accuracy. It’s pretty incredible to do this—sometimes I’m using the original transcriptions of his sermons, and once in a while I encounter King’s own handwriting in the margins.

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on Beacon’s latest King project—an anthology of King’s words for high school students. “I Have a Dream” is in there, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and a careful selection of other pieces that really show the breadth and depth of his vision. So here I am ensconced in his work, and reading bits out loud to Teo every night, and hearing King’s words resounding all around me, and I get invited to deliver a chapel service in honor of MLK Day and share some of this magic with others. I couldn’t say no to that.

Whenever I am blessed with the opportunity to read or listen to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I never fail to reflect on what a tiny sliver of his vision has been handed down through popular culture in this country—how little of him lives on through mass media, textbooks, and bank holidays. And what is resonating with me right now more than anything else is his vision and grounding and message of nonviolence, which was so central to everything he did and everything he preached. It was central because it was tied to his theology and his faith. King’s full vision of nonviolence as a spiritual way of life is one of the biggest things that is pretty much missing from the way we talk about him and learn about the civil rights movement and honor his legacy in this country. Continue reading

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Cultivating Reverance

Teo

I’ve been pondering since you read to me from Woodruff’s book on Reverence today.  Not much else to do during a hurricane, I suppose.

The difference between Plato’s belief that reverence was not a stand alone virtue (rather, it came about through practicing other virtues, primarily justice) and Thucydides (who in contrast prizes reverence as a cardinal virtue to guard against human arrogance) felt important the minute I heard you read those words.

Cultivating reverence as a means of counteracting human arrogance resonated with me. How do I/we work for social justice without sliding into self-righteousness, arrogance, bitterness, rage and/or hopelessness? After all, there is so much to be done, so many people marginalized in very real and harmful ways. I have been challenged as naive for believing and teaching that the most sustainable way to create change is by cultivating a practice of self-care that grounds us in compassion and interconnectedness, in purpose and in the larger perspective. My first introduction to activism and leadership through this lens was with Off the Mat into the World. I began to understand that I kept getting called to a spiritual practice as the foundation from which I could seek social justice, but articulating exactly what was happening has eluded me more often than not. It struck me today—cultivating reverence—that’s the thread that weaves through my spiritual practice. Reverence as a “profound adoring awed respect.”

I come back to my mat, my connection with the divine, to mindfulness, to spiritual conversations—all as ways of opening my heart. Being a target, fighting for survival, bearing witness to others fighting much harder battles all serve to tighten my body and armor my heart. Engaging in activism from that tightened, hardened place led me down a path of anger and resentment. It brought me to the conclusion that I knew THE way forward and anyone in my way was the enemy; seeing social justice as a battle in general where I could easily tell those on the side of good or evil.

I need an actual practice where I can cultivate reverence. A practice that calls me back to my higher self over and over again. A practice that cracks my heart open wide. A practice that allows my heart to break because of what I have experienced and what I witness in the world. A practice that opens my heart time and time again to joy, to feeling loved and cared for without question. A practice that lets me find my strength through softness and flexibility and that lets me know I can be wrong without shattering.

Cultivating reverence need not be tied to any religious or spiritual belief. It’s an intentional practice that we put in place as a touchstone serving as a reminder of our higher selves and our connection to all beings everywhere. A practice where we make time to heal, to breathe. Where our bodies and our minds find comfort.

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Go Ahead Call Me Naive

Teo

I bear the physical and psychic scars of a life spent on the razor sharp edge of survival. I still have to play hide and seek with whole pieces of who I am long tucked away safely out of reach from whoever might be swinging at them. My brain and my body not always knowing today isn’t those yesterdays.

Say I am naive. Tell me I don’t know how it really is. What the world is really like. As if I haven’t felt their fear my body might bleed, toxic puddle between us, my soul bleeding instead—an acceptable penance. I still hear the priest who held the life preserver I might have exchanged for the razor meant for my wrists. “No, child, there is no place in heaven for your kind, I’m sorry.” In my dreams with my eyes wide open I still see the fists and the belt. Watch the parade of their agents. Hear my own whimpers. Like I don’t know what the sweat on my skin feels like as I wrestle love apart from it’s weld with violence. Go ahead, tell me how it is while out of the corner of my consciousness I hear a debate about the cost of government funded health care. You think I don’t know Paul Ryan wouldn’t spend the forty grand a year it costs to keep a queer trans man with AIDS alive? Go ahead, tell me I am naive because my anger isn’t the first thing you meet.

Then let me tell you: my faith is my rebellion. Standing ankle deep in compassion anchoring my open heart while I bear witness to my pain and yours. My radical act—choosing love and hope over my cultivated fists or sharpened tongue as agents of change. Believing I am wanted and loved by the divine is my heresy. Speak your truth, it’s ok with me. I can hear the divine over the thunder of my heartbeat simply by touching my forehead to the floor.

Call me naive audio

Alex

You’re the one who gave the lie to the idea “if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention” and showed me that love and compassion are the real signs of attentive awareness and connection to the suffering and injustice in the world. You gave me permission to be my open-hearted self, to shed the ill-fitting armor of self-righteousness. You taught me that inside every angry person—no matter how vicious and hateful—lives a scared and hurting small self.

Right before I met you I was reading about Howard Thurman and his role in bringing the practice of nonviolence to the U.S. civil rights movement. I realized that I had never understood what nonviolence was. It is so often painted as passive resistance—a lack of violence—when in reality it is anything but passive; it’s actively choosing love and compassion and practicing lovingkindness toward those who are complicit with the forces of hatred and intolerance. Practicing nonviolence doesn’t just mean refraining from acts of aggression and force, it means finding love and compassion for those who would destroy you with hate.

The universe laid out pebbles for me to follow that led me back to staking a claim for myself as a person of faith—a faith grounded in love and interconnectedness. And then I met you, and one of the first things you told me was that you believed that the energy you bring into a room is the first and foremost way to make a difference in the world. My armor cracked and I found my feet solidly on the path of love, the path leading me back to my authentic self, back to wonder and hope.

Being hopeful and loving isn’t a sign of a sheltered, charmed life. It doesn’t mean a person isn’t paying attention. Choosing a path of love, compassion, and hope in the face of struggle and injustice is far harder than taking the easy road of bitterness and anger. That’s why it takes faith. I’m so grateful to be on this path with you.

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On Faith

Alex

It seems only right to get this blog started with one of the biggest questions of all: What does faith mean to you?

I have long felt something bigger than myself at work. I would never consider it to be sentient — to describe it using such human terms is to disrespect it. It is larger than sentience, more dimensional than simple understanding and intellect. It has no use for reason; it simply is. I believe this force/spirit flows through all beings and things, all gas and liquid and matter, deeply connecting everything, making each of us part of a huge larger whole. We use reason and science to try to make sense of this force/spirit, but ultimately it is beyond our understanding, and science and reason are beginning to come full circle in support of this truth.

One of the most amazing and resonant things you’ve shared with me about doing martial arts speaks to my conception of the place beyond sentience. The novice martial artist will think carefully about how to execute a kick — where to position their body, how to best react to what their opponent has done. The person who has spent a lifetime practicing martial arts will move without conscious thought, move in relationship to their environment, intimately knowing — without thinking — what an opponent will do next before the opponent has any idea themself. That, to me, speaks to the difference between relying on science and being one with the spirit of life.

Faith comes in because of my belief that this larger spirit/force works in service of balance. It flows through all things and pushes the whole of creation toward balance. And each element and being has a part to play in that. So I believe that things happen for a reason, even though I think reason has nothing to do with it. I can’t comprehend the answers to the biggest WHY?s because they are beyond my comprehension, but I can and do believe that in small and enormous ways everything is tugged toward balance.

I see the presence of the spirit in things like perfectly geometric patterns in plants, shells, and snowflakes. I am connected to the spirit when I sing and am surrounded by music. I feel it course through me and connect me to another being during times of intense physical intimacy and sex. I am left in awe that I am intimately and divinely connected to every living thing — which is to say, everything. Awe, gratitude, faith.

Teo

I really appreciate your willingness to take a leap and write about faith first.  Trying to articulate my spiritual beliefs and the role faith actually plays in my life is one of the most vulnerable experiences I can have.

This Kevin Griffin quote grabbed me recently: “I need to spend less time trying to name god and more time trying to know god.”

I can’t always explain what I believe or believe in, but I know that feeling of touching my forehead to the mat in child’s pose.  It’s the place and the space where I meet god without fail.  I can almost hear the welcome home.  Everything in me melts.  I know I am loved and wanted.  Somehow I can remember that I am needed, that there is a purpose for all of my experiences and struggles.  I don’t have the words to articulate that experience, it just washes over me.  When I was younger I was afraid to talk about the intimate experience I felt at times.  I was less able to seek out the connection, but it was there especially when I needed it most.  At the lowest points, when I was ready to jump off a bridge or just roll over and quit, I would sense a faint “knowing” that kept me grounded just enough to stumble through.

That song by Libby Roderick you were singing the other day is the essence of what I “hear” from the divine when I am in child’s pose.  How could anyone ever tell you / you were anything less than beautiful? / How could anyone ever tell you / you were less than whole? / How could anyone fail to notice / that your loving is a miracle? / How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

Part of faith for me is much like it is for you.  It isn’t something that happens in a church.  It is something I am called to walk, both in trusting a power greater than myself and in being willing to walk that calling.  In twelve step meetings I heard “walk the walk” all the time, walking my faith is the way I carry out a lived relationship with the divine. The best way I can describe it is the feeling of being kept company, a gentle touch on the shoulder and an invitation to get up because we have work to do.

During our first dinner together you asked me about my spiritual path and we had a long conversation about the role of faith and spirituality in our lives.  I didn’t think I would ever meet a radical queer identified, genderqueer identified human being who craved the kinds of conversations I craved.  That you were irresistibly handsome was a huge bonus (grin).  I am ever grateful for your courage in being visibly genderqueer, visibly radical and visibly a person of faith.

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