On Grace and Houston

1.

I write about gay marriage here a lot, but when I do, I’m really writing about marriage itself: I’m defending the goodness of marriage as know it, as I’ve learned it from my marriage, from my parents’ marriage, from the marriages in my family and among my friends. I defend gay marriage, among other reasons, because gay marriage fits into what I know to be the best definition of marriage, which I think of as a transformative, life-sustaining institution.

The point is, I love marriage. Consequently, I love weddings. It’s normal for me to spend the week after a wedding in a blissed-out daze, dreamily meditating on the wonders of love, love, love. Two weekends ago, my wife, daughter and I drove down to Houston for the wedding of two of our friends. It was the kind of wedding that would drive a lot of religious conservatives nuts—the ceremony took place in a park in the Heights neighborhood; it was officiated by one of the couple’s friends, and I don’t remember a single reference to God.

At the same time, the wedding might have reassured those folks who worry that modern couples see marriage as a private affair, that weddings nowadays represent a couple selfishly turning inward. Instead, it was a wedding that felt like it was all about us. I don’t mean us specifically, even though our daughter did a bang-up job as the flower girl. I mean it was a wedding all about the couple’s friends and family; it was all about community. That was apparent in the way the couple got so many of us involved in the ceremony and in the celebration, in the way they visited with every guest during the reception, and in the way this couple in their late twenties made sure to provide music that would get their 12-year-old nephews and 60-year-old parents on the dance floor at the same time. The bride and groom understood—better than H and I did when we got married twelve years ago—the public nature of a wedding and, behind that, the public nature of marriage.

And there was this: watching the bride and groom say their (secular) vows, I was struck by a thought: They don’t have to do this. Conservative critics of contemporary life are right about one thing: there’s little stigma left in not getting married. A couple can live together forever and no one in the Heights or Montrose, or back here in Austin, will raise an eyebrow. In my social set, marriage is mostly optional. And I’m glad about that.

But I also delight in the fact that couples, my friends, keep doing it. They keep getting married. They keep standing up and announcing their love for one another, and promising it forever, and they keep inviting us into their lives, asking for our help, making us their official witnesses. They keep telling us that we matter to them, as a couple, and, in turn, they keep promising to matter to us, their community. They don’t have to. They just do it.

2.

Which is another way of saying this: Houston is a great place to learn something about grace.

So it’s a great place for Mockingbird to be holding its annual fall conference, entitled “The Risk of Grace.” It will be at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on October 17th and 18th, and it will feature—get this!—Slaid Cleaves, one of my favorite Austin-based singer-songwriters.

Grace is free, but the conference will cost you $60. Looks worth it to me. You can register here.

3.

If you need another reason to go to Houston, here’s something written by Casey Fleming, one of my favorite Houston writers. Casey learned something I didn’t know about a soul music classic:

American Soul is one of those rich forms of music that allows its listeners to groove and grieve at the same time. “Midnight Train to Georgia” exemplifies the beautiful contradiction inherent in soul music—that a listener will feel joy in her body compelled by a horn, piano, or hook, only to simultaneously feel ache in her heart compelled by the singer’s voice and sad story. The great masters of soul understand that bodily celebration is one way to express, contain, and survive spiritual hurt.

This reason trumps all the others.  I recently discovered that Jim Weatherly’s original lyrics to the song were “Midnight Plane to Houston,” supposedly inspired by a conversation he had with Texas-native Farah Fawcett about her relationship to Lee Majors. Be still my Lone Star heart.  And how typical of Houston, to be almost-cool.  In Gladys Knight’s epic version of the song, the love interest buys a “one way ticket back to the life he once knew.”  I left Houston when I was 18 and never planned to return, but after more than a decade away, here I am again.  When a chorus voices those things a character cannot say aloud, her deepest secrets and fears, it paints a landscape for the audience of her internal life.  How many times have I boarded a late plane to Houston, leaving a lover behind on some lonely tarmac in some faraway place with too many words left unsung?  How many times have the touchstones of a native city—in my case, the miscellaneous string of strip malls, the metallic downtown skyline luminous at dusk, the slow slur of kind hellos and how-are-yous, the heavy blanket of hot air, the generous waft of chorizo from a local taco shack, the colossal highways that dead end into an endless sky—acted as chorus, as the pitch-perfect Pips for our private dramas?

BTW, although the blog is defunct now, If you haven’t read Casey’s writing at nonseculargirl.com, you’re missing out.

Bonus tracks:

On my way out, two gorgeous pieces of writing on marriage, and one more song about Houston and midnight.

First, Elizabeth Bruenig (née Stoker) on her wedding.

Second, a link embedded in Bruenig’s post but worthy of its own link: Wesley Hill on “scruffy hospitality,” or what it means for a marriage to serve a community.

And, finally (why not?), Leadbelly doing “Midnight Special”:

 

Three Perspectives on Women Bishops in the Church of England

Three (non-Anglican) Perspectives on the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as bishops:

1) VJD Smith (aka Glosswitch), writing in The New Statesmanpoints out that women bishops are the inevitable consequence of seeing women as, you know, human. This paragraph drives the point home:

I want to see women having authority over men, not as part of some shoulder-padded aspirational feminist project. I want men to see women in the way women see men, and for women to see themselves as men see themselves: as real, solid, diverse, complete, as close to and as capable of representing whatever higher power any of us might believe in. We are not hollow vessels, waiting to soak up the teachings that only men can transmit, whether it be through theology or politics or porn. Freedom of conscience is one thing – no one should ever police what goes on inside an individual’s own head – but the fundamental humanity of women should never be up for public debate.

2) Smith calls herself a non-believer. Before anyone goes pointing to that fact to suggest that the CoE’s move was a move against Christian tradition, here’s Fred Clark at Slacktivist to remind us all that radical equality is perhaps the defining Christian tradition. Responding to Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler’s denunciation of the Church of England, Clark cites Acts 2:17:

But the radical inclusiveness of Pentecost didn’t just encompass national and ethnic diversity, with people “from every nation under heaven.” Nearly 2,000 years before the Church of England finally voted to catch up, the church at Pentecost also declared a radical gender inclusiveness:

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.’

Your sons and your daughters. And if that binary isn’t comprehensive enough, try this: All flesh. Male flesh. Female flesh. LGBTIQ flesh. All.

“Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul said. Or, rather, Paul commanded.

By the way, I appreciated Clark’s clarity in insisting that his argument had nothing to do with Mohler being on the “wrong side of history,” and that, instead, it was simply about Mohler being on the wrong side, period. Or, as Clark put it, “the wrong side of Pentecost.” In that sense (well, in all senses) Clark’s post reminded me of this 2012 piece by NT Wright on the same topic.

3. At Bilgrimage, Bill Lindsey contrasts the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, noting the peculiarity of the fact that “the top leaders of the Roman Catholic church have allied themselves decisively with the top men running the LDS church, and not with those leading the Anglican communion, a communion theologically and historically far closer to Catholicism than Mormonism is.”

He suggests that the convergence of the Mormon and Catholic hierarchies (going back to Mohler’s post, we can throw in the evangelicals too) can be seen as a sort of branding strategy on the part of Rome:

They’re convinced that, if they brand the Roman Catholic church as the church that stands against illicit claims of women on grounds of “orthodoxy,” they can not only hold onto the loyalties of a solid core of reactionary believers in the Northern hemisphere (many of these the richest among their adherents in that hemisphere), but that they will attract burgeoning numbers of new Catholics in the Southern hemisphere, where the church is growing by leaps and bounds and where women continue to occupy a subservient place in most cultures. The Roman Catholic church as the “orthodox” brand in contrast to the brand of Anglicanism and its ilk … .

 In the short run (a relative term when talking about Catholicism), this makes him pessimistic about the status of women in the Catholic Church. However, echoing Fred Clark’s thoughts that I posted above, Bill writes:

The danger of painting a reactionary brand as “orthodox” becomes ever more evident as increasing numbers of people of faith — Catholics included — insist that the movement to accord rights to women and gay folks which some church leaders want to stigmatize as a collapse to godless secular culture is actually rooted in the deepest traditions of their faith communities. For Christians, for instance, this movement is rooted in the example and teaching of Jesus and in the gospels that enshrine the theological memory of Jesus’s example and teaching in the first generations of his followers.

In the long run, he says, that reactionary version of Christianity can’t sustain itself. The real Christian tradition of, in Bill’s great phrase, “open commensality” is just too powerful to be overcome.

 

Texas: Good News & Bad

Franklin Barbecue is one of the best barbecue joints in Texas (and therefore, Texans say, the world). Which is why President Obama stopped by last week when he was in town. (NOTE: he skipped the famously long line, which, for the first time, made me think that maybe Fox News has it right about his imperial lawlessness.)

Working the counter was Daniel Rugg Webb. The Austin Chronicle reports what happened:

“It was just a lucky day to be the register girl,” says Webb.

The entire restaurant, he says, was prepped in advance of Obama’s appearance, and Webb, who laments not being properly attired in his preferred sequin ensemble, knew he had to make some kind of stand.

As the president approached, Webb threw his hand down and slapped the counter dramatically. “Equal rights for gay people!”

“Are you gay?” the president asked.

“Only when I have sex.”

“That’s when he laughed and said, ‘Bump me,’” Webb says.

“That’s my favorite part because it was cool to get a joke in. In all the photos [all over the Internet], I look like a dead fish, but it was cool. I do stand-up, so it was nice to have some interaction based on, hopefully, something funny.”

Webb & the Chronicle also allay my line-skipping gripe: “Logistically,” Webb said, “that’s a really lazy complaint. I don’t think you can safely have a world leader hanging around in a line.” Fair enough. Maybe I won’t push for impeachment.

Anyway, the story offers a nice counterpoint to the one a few weeks ago about the restaurant (erroneously reported as a BBQ joint) in East Texas that kicked a gay couple out for “touching legs” or not acting manly enough or something.

It’s also a necessary bit of positivity in a summer in which I’ve read about the rise of do-it-yourself abortions, about gay couples denied adoption rights and, more generally, aboutright-wing extremists’ takeover of state politics.

 

Three Things for Sunday Afternoon

1. This is from last year, but on the death of the last of the Ramones (Tommy), it’s worth linking Martin Little’s reflections on the lessons Christians can learn from the NY-based band. Little writes:

But there is a particular thematic thread in their songs which points to a deeper yearning. Taken as a body of work, The Ramones’ songs introduce us to a cast of characters. These characters are people who are ostracized from mainstream society as a result of youth, cultural obscurity, mental illness, and/or physical deformity. These characters are drawn in, accepted and celebrated into the cult of the band in a way that mirrors Jesus’ acceptance of the marginalised into the Kingdom of God in his own cultural setting. Jesus enacted his embrace through his preaching and actions; the Ramones’ enacted their embrace through the songs themselves, both on record and in concert.

John Flansburgh, writing at Slate, points out that even the term “punk” signalled an embrace of the margins. “I never understood why in old movies grown men would jump up and punch someone in the face after being called a punk,” he writes. “Wasn’t it like being called a little jerk? Evidently the truth behind the word, at least from the grizzled NYC know-it-alls I hang with, is that it was street slang for a younger gay lover or rent boy, so to call someone a punk was beyond calling someone a fag. It was calling someone a whore and a fag.”

I’ve always thought there was something Christian in punk’s lack of pretension, too, in, say, the Ramones’ insistence on building all of their music out of only simple elements. There’s also this, also from Flansburgh:

A Ramones song cannot be unheard. The Ramones changed the pH balance of rock music’s pond water. Their existence challenged everyone else’s. They’re not part of a school. They built the building.

2. At The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes about Rachel Zucker’s writing about motherhood. He quotes her poem “mindful”:

jammed my airspace w/ a podcast &

to-do list list filled up inside I run & running

then a snowstorm so no school I cried & said

Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded with hot

cocoa when someone said Yay for snow! I’m

cutting it too close Erin if a blizzard makes me

cry I used to long for snow for that quiet filling

everything up What are you talking about? asks Erin

Seriously what are you talking about? crammed

in the toddler bed I say If you want me to stay

You need to lie stil the toddler tries why? must he?

“There is a devotional poem hiding somewhere inside these calamities,” Chiasson comments, “an attempt at ‘mindfulness’ undone by the mind’s fullness.” I’m spending a lot of time in a toddler bed lately (okay, actually stretched out on the floor next to one), and so I’m very glad Chiasson has pointed me to Zucker’s writing.

3. Finally, Sarah O’Holla’s review at Slate made me want to pick up Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price. Petrusich writes about collectors of 78 rpm records; O’Holla focuses in particular on Petrusich’s revelation of the gender dynamics of music obsession, which she connects to her own project, My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection. Petrusich writes:

I was methodically teaching myself exactly how to miss the point. When I wondered whether I just listened differently—whether my experience of music was somehow more emotional, more divorced from its technical circumstances, more about the whole than its pieces—I chastised myself for being arrogant or stupid. (I blanched, in fact, at catching myself using a word as treacly as “emotional.”) And yet: I could love a record more than anything in the world and still not make myself recall its serial number.

O’Holla nods: “Traditional music criticism doesn’t really resonate for me, so if I was going to write about records, it was going to come from a place that interested me: The way the music made me feel.”

 

Michael Boyle on Holy Sex

At A Sound of Sheer Silence, Michael Boyle just finished his engaging series on Dr. Grep Popcak’s Holy Sex!: A Catholic’s Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. The whole series is great, but Michael’s final thoughts are especially worthwhile. Building on Barbara Brown Taylor’s distinction between “solar” and “lunar” Christianity—both provide light, but solar Christianity is about clarity (and therefore flattens out complexities), where lunar Christianity is more comfortable with ambiguity—Boyle writes:

My experience of sexuality, and the experience of everyone I have spoken to about this, is profoundly lunar.  I do not mean to suggest that sexuality cannot be solar in the way Popcak would suggest—I suppose it is possible—but I don’t think it is particularly common.  I find sexuality to consist in almost nothing but nuance and ambiguity.  Clear and unbending rules almost always prove difficult to apply and subject to exceptions at every turn.  As opposed to the lock-step, ontological categories of sexual beliefs and attitudes, sexuality waxes and wanes like the moon.  Sometimes sex between partners is a deep, spiritual communion.  On other occasions, with the same partners, it is almost entirely carnal and physical.  Both of those scenarios can be pretty awesome.

Most people view sexuality as lunar, not because of some pre-existing opposition to Catholic thinking on sex (as Popcak imagines), but because a lunar approach best reflects the reality of sex they experience.  People have experienced that sexuality can wax and wane and that this is OK.  People don’t use artificial birth control because they are in “romantic anti-marriages”—they use it because it works, and they don’t experience any of the catastrophic life consequences Popcak and the Church warn of.

“I find sexuality to consist in almost nothing but nuance and ambiguity” gets right at what I believe about sex. Absolutism about sex seems to fly in the face of the nature of the act itself, which is the apotheosis of relationality.

You can find an index to all of Michael’s posts in his conclusion. I also recommend his posts oncontraception and “natural family planning.”