Being Who You Are

Read the rest of the Via Creativa: Island of Misfit Toys series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the First Sunday after Christmas:

Samuel was ministering before the Lord. (1 Samuel 2:18-20)
I must be in my Father’s house. (Luke 2:41-52)
Playing one’s part in accordance with the universe is true humility. (Tao Te Ching, 39th verse)

Our first song comes from folk musician John Gorka. He began playing at a coffeehouse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, while in college and in 1984 took first place in the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. He released his first album in 1987. Today’s song comes from his 1998 album After Yesterday. The song is called “Heroes.”

[Verse 1] They say that when it comes to choosing heroes
It’s best to pick the ones who aren’t around
If you choose among the living
You tend to have misgivings
When your hero lets you down
He might have a bad night on the town

[Verse 2] And so I will not name my heroes
And I’ll keep my distance when I can
But if time should bend or break them
I hope I won’t forsake them
If by chance they need a friend
Or need to walk on ordinary ground

Some of you may, or may not know, that I am sort of a minor celebrity in the very small world of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christianity.

Back in 1996, I founded a bimonthly magazine called Whosoever, specifically for LGBT Christians. This was the first — and really remains — the only online magazine for this tiny community.

You have to remember too, that 16 years ago the Internet was very different. For instance, it was powered by a hamster on a wheel. Well not literally, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. You probably could have seen all the sites out there in a day, or at least a week. It was kind of easy to be the first of something back in those days — but Whosoever has never been successfully duplicated, and we just started our 17th year of publication this summer.

The magazine brought me a modicum of fame in LGBT Christian circles and resulted in me doing workshops at LGBT Christian conferences. It was that workshop that later blossomed into my book Bulletproof Faith that was published in 2008. When the book was published, I figured I was on my way to bona fide stardom. I had it all mapped out. I’d write a few more books, get even more — and higher-paid — speaking gigs and travel the country being the next big spiritual guru, and not just for the LGBT crowd. I even pictured myself on Oprah, jumping up and down on her couch proclaiming the progressive Christian gospel of love and peace.

Well, so far none of that has really panned out, and I had been a little bitter about that. In fact, just recently, a guy who began a ministry similar to Whosoever a few years ago, has put out a new book. Justin Lee began the Gay Christian Network as a place where more evangelical gay and lesbian Christians could gather. He sponsors an annual convention and has hosted some big name speakers there.

He’s done everything I wanted to do — making his ministry his full-time work and creating events and space for LGBT Christians to gather and really get a sense of belonging, not just in this world, but it God’s realm.

It made me jealous. Just the other day, in fact, I saw that Justin had been on the Joy Behar show hawking his book, and a couple of weekends ago he was on NPR. I started a pity party: Poor pitiful me, I worked hard to start a ministry and write a book and I never got on a TV talk show or NPR or got to meet any famous people and be the big gay hero… Why does this Justin guy get all the glory?

A few years ago, this kind of self-talk would have run me right into a depressive rut. But, this time was different. At the end of my little rant, I laughed and said out loud: “Good for Justin.”

You see, my small taste of what Justin is doing was enough for me. The main thing being the big gay hero means is the one thing I hate the most: Travel. To go on a TV show, you have to travel there. To give talks at conferences, you have to travel there. It’s lovely to have a book or ministry, or some other thing that makes you a local hero, but the touring was just too much for me.

More power to Justin is what I say now. He’s got an important story to tell and a lot of people to reach with his message of love and reconciliation. I hope God blesses him on that journey — and better him than me.

It’s tough being a hero — and I don’t envy him the frequent flyer miles.

[Verse 3] God knows it must be tough to be a hero
To wake up in a hero’s state of mind
They say it’s hard to be heroic
Much easier to blow it
When somebody’s watching all the time
And you’re dancing on the thin edge of a dime

[Bridge] They say it’s hard, so hard
They say it’s hard, hard, ain’t it hard

[Verse 4] If someday I’m mistaken for a hero
I only hope it’s after I am gone
Some of us are heroes
Some of us are zeroes
Wannabes who never were the one
But who is who when all is said and done

In our Hebrew scripture this morning, we meet one of the Israelites’ biggest heroes. Samuel was the last of the judges that ruled over Israel and is regarded as the first of the prophets. He was born to Elkanah and Hannah. His mother had been unable to have children, but in a fervent prayer she promised God that if she had a child, she would consecrate him as a servant of God.

When she had Samuel, she kept her promise and took him to live with a priest named Eli. In today’s scripture, we see the young Samuel ministering before the Lord in the robes that his mother made him every year. This is how Samuel grew up, literally inside the temple, serving God and the people. He would grow to be a hero — living into the role that God called him to as a judge and a prophet.

If Samuel is a hero, Eli’s sons serve as the cautionary tale of anti-hero. As priests in training like Samuel, they abused people who came into the temple to offer sacrifices, demanding that they also offer payments to them. Like the reindeer who ruled those reindeer games in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Eli’s sons stood for the status quo, demanding that people do as they say or face rejection from the temple.

Soon, the status quo takes over even poor Samuel. He leads his people well in his time as a judge over Israel, defeating the Philistines, bringing peace to the land and calling his people back into right relationship with God. But as Samuel ages, he realizes his sons are a lot like Eli’s — as soon as they are appointed judges, they start taking bribes and perverting the justice that Samuel had created.

The people turn on their hero Samuel at this point. They reject him and his leadership and instead demand that he appoint a king to rule over them.

Samuel warns them that a king will be far worse than his sons and will be the ruin of Israel, but he gives in and anoints Saul as the first king — and he would later anoint David to replace him.

Samuel, like all heroes, learns the hard way that the world is fickle. If they get what they want or need from you they’ll like you — but the moment you disappoint them you’re suddenly the scapegoat, blamed for all their troubles.

While being a hero may be hard, Samuel never wavered from who God called him to be — a prophet and a leader who ruled with integrity and generosity to his people. When you’re a hero though, everyone is watching and waiting for you to slip, to blow it.

Samuel reminds us that no matter whether the world calls us heroes or not, we all struggle along the path, and we all face resistance and rejection. He also reminds us to be careful who — or what — we allow to be kings in our lives, because those rulers may make us miserable and take us off our true path to peace.

We also learn to beware of coveting the role of hero — because while you may ride high for awhile, the letdown can be devastating. Instead, my Jubilant misfits, do the work that the Holy has assigned you — bringing forth your own integrity and love in a world desperate to experience both. Breathe deeply.

[Verse 1] They say that when it comes to choosing heroes
It’s best to pick the ones who aren’t around
If you choose among the living
You tend to have misgivings
When your hero lets you down
He might have a bad night on the town
She might have a bad night
Hope he has a good night
Hope they have a good night on the town
Hope he has a good night on the town

You can go the whole nine yards, get the whole ball of wax, eat the whole thing, take the whole kit and kaboodle, or the whole shootin’ match — but until you realize that wholeness is the purpose of the whole universe, you’ll never understand what it means to be whole.

“The pieces of a chariot are useless,” Lao-tzu wrote in his Tao Te Ching, “unless they work in accordance with the whole. Our lives bring nothing unless we live in accordance with the whole universe. ”

What brings wholeness? It’s not our heroism, our bravery, our grand gestures, or even the whole nine yards. According to Lao-Tzu, wholeness means humility — the ability to accept that we are not separate from anyone or anything in this world, as our ego tells us. Instead, we are an integral part of the whole — all part of the body of the Holy that makes up this amazing creation.

Realizing that we are part of the whole can change our lives. Realizing that we all share the same spirit of humanity and divinity with those around us can humble us. Even those heroes and kings who seem to be on the pedestals above us are just like us, made of the same cosmic stuff. Instead of striving to be like them, doing what they do or living like they live, strive instead to be like you and play your role — no matter how large or how small — in this world with humility.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from the 1970s rock band Kansas. The band started in Topeka, Kansas, and released their first album in 1974. Today’s song came from their second album released two years later. “Carry On Wayward Son” was the band’s first Top 40 hit and earned them a gold record. Let’s try it:

Carry on my wayward son,
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest,
Don’t you cry no more

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond this illusion
I was soaring ever higher
But I flew too high
Though my eyes could see I still was a blind man
Though my mind could think I still was a mad man
I hear the voices when I’m dreaming
I can hear them say

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

In our Jesus story we find our boy missing — and his parents, Mary and Joseph, frantically searching all over Jerusalem for him. We, the reader, know that Jesus is safe and sound in the temple, knocking the socks off those old bearded priests and teachers, asking questions and really understanding the answers.

His parents, however, do not know this. Any parent who has lost their child even for five minutes in a store or mall knows the panic. Your stomach drops out when you realize your child isn’t with you. You call their name, look all around.

If you don’t immediately find them, then the utter panic sets in. You don’t know what to do, what to think, and you don’t want to think the worst. Now try that out for three whole days. This is the torment of Mary and Joseph during this particular Passover in Jerusalem.

When they find him, you can imagine the relief that washes over them, and then they realize what Jesus was doing. He was not playing in the temple — no, he was listening, learning and teaching.

Mary, of course, is a typical mother. She’s relieved, but that relief soon turns to anger: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.”

If I had given Jesus’ answer to my mother, she would have slapped me — or grounded me — for my insolence. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Parent’s house?”

Perhaps Mary was too confused by her son’s answer to react immediately, but what Jesus was saying was that he — even at this tender age, like Samuel — had accepted the place the God had set for him. Perhaps he could have given mom and dad a heads up, but he probably figured they’d learn it soon enough — their son is a misfit, and he’ll be the source of great confusion for them and the rest of the world for a very long time.

The scriptures tell us that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” Last week we heard Mary’s song celebrating the life that her misfit son was to lead — breaking down the barriers that separate people and bringing the lowly up and the mighty down. Mary knew that her child was not a regular child — and even in those moments of panic she remembered that God had chosen her son to call even more misfits, like you and me, to the place in this world that God holds for us — that place where our deepest passion meets the world’s deepest need.

Jesus played his role with humility and calls us to do the same. By being just who we are, right where we are, we are part of the whole universe, because “playing one’s part in accordance with the universe is true humility.”

If Mary were to sing a song after this encounter in Jerusalem, I think she’d sing: “Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done.”

Breathe deeply.

Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man
It surely means that I don’t know
On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set sail for winds of fortune
But I hear the voices say

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

The first time someone ever called me their hero they said it was because of my “courage,” my willingness to fearlessly face those who criticize me or reject me. I don’t care to be anyone’s hero, but I think this is what we recognize in all of our heroes: Their ability to move in this world without fear, without regard to criticism, and with their integrity intact, no matter what attacks may come. But true heroes are those whose weaknesses can also be admired.

Samuel was a great man, but despite not being able to raise sons of integrity or his failure to dissuade Israel from taking on a king, he is still revered by the Jewish people. His greatness is recognized, flaws and all.

Jesus too had his weaknesses. He had his own moments of anger, his own moments of temptation to deal with as he tried to teach this world about nonviolent ways to solve our violent problems. What makes Jesus a true hero is his deep humanity that so perfectly reflects his divinity.

This is what we, misfit Jubilants, are called to do in this world — to become so deeply human, so deeply flawed and imperfect, that the perfection of our Holy selves can shine through. It is only when we immerse ourselves in the pain and despair of this world that we can ever hope to heal it. It is only when we become vulnerable and broken that we can ever hope to become strong and whole. It is only when we play our part in accordance with the universe that we become people of true humility.

We are all wayward sons and daughters of the Holy, all called to wander through this world both amazing — and disappointing — the people that we meet. It is only by being who we are called to be that we can ever hope to call others to be who the Holy has called them to be. We don’t do that by being heroes, we do that by being imperfect, wayward servants — a mixture of light and dark, a mixture of good and bad, a mixture of perfect and imperfect, a mixture of both human and divine.

If we carry on as the people we are called to be, wayward, misfit Jubilants, there’ll be peace when we are done.

Carry on — You will always remember
Carry on
Nothing equals the splendor
Now your life’s no longer empty
Surely Heaven waits for you

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Oh, Yeah!