MCC of Christ the Liberator, Highland, N.J., March 4, 2012
MCC of the Lehigh Valley, Allentown, Pa., October 7, 2012
Dish soap theology and the Dover train are title headings I use to depict two different aspects of the spiritual journey I’ve been on now for 15 years.
Both have to do with the spiritual re-inventing of myself and my present thoughts on beliefs and practice which are quite different from my earlier years as a seminarian and Baptist minister.
My search for a new understanding of God started on the day I suddenly terminated my ministry as an evangelical Baptist minister in 1997 and at long-last came alive, living out the real me – the person who I knew I was since age 13 – a queer, a homosexual.
In less than half a day’s time, without any pre-arranged plans or any pre-knowledge on the part of my wife, four children and the church I pastored for ten years, I deserted the lake-community town of Sparta, New Jersey, for a tiny apartment in the subsidized housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where my future husband, who was newly employed as a public school guidance counselor, was living with his brother. I was 44 years old. He was 31. This change-of-life move was the single best decision I’ve ever made. It cemented, forever, my relationship with my significant other, the love of my life.
It was at this point in time that I began the venture of re-doing theology.
Theology was my habit. When I was a child, my mother regularly read me and my siblings the Bible. As a young teen, I poured over apocalyptic charts in the dispensational books I had purchased with my own money. And in high school, there was my daily two-hour self-imposed Bible study at my desk in my bedroom. With pen and paper I wrote out my reflections on the Bible, verse by verse.
In college I earned a Bachelor’s degree in theology; in graduate school a Masters in Divinity.
Theology – or, to know God – had become my life-long, all engrossing passion. For the evangelical Baptist, to know God meant knowing Jesus experientially in a personal relationship.
There was, for me, a downside to this evangelical mode of knowing God, which did, for a period of twenty years, impact me negatively. It was, however, this stepping onto the Dover Train – when I left the pulpit for my lover – that occasioned the spiritual watershed in my life. As the train pulled out of the Dover, New Jersey, station, it was as if Jesus stood on the platform and watched me pull away – away from him, going in a direction towards another other than him. As if he said, “It’s OK; this is the way it should have been all along.” For the first time in my life, Jesus was not at my side. And it felt so right. I was determined that flesh and blood, heart and soul would occupy the seat next to me.
This Dover train experience became the catalyst around which I would evaluate, and uncover for myself, the three-fold crippling effect of my evangelical “Jesus and me” faith.
First, my so-called “personal friendship” with Jesus had become exclusive and over-reaching. The need for human love, physical touch and belonging, in relationships such as father-and-son, brother-and-brother, friend and friend, and lover and lover, was easily and essentially dismissed. The Jesus-and-me-only concept of a relationship with God had masked over the felt need for belonging and for normal human relationships and displaced them as insignificant or inconsequential.
For the evangelical Baptist Christian, the assumption is our relationship with God will sustain us no matter how ineffectual or nonexistent our other relationships are. Yet, even Adam, in his unconfirmed perfect state before the fall, could not be sustained socially and emotionally without the presence of Eve in his life. Though Adam had God, with whom he walked in the cool of the day, God could not provide what only another human being could. Adam, for all his walks and talks with God, is incomplete, unresolved, detached, and alone without humankind.
The second downside of a Jesus-and-me-only friendship which I experienced was this: To the degree that I projected onto Jesus my own emotions and sentiments, the friendship I supposed I had with him was imaginary and fantastical. Like a child with his imaginary playmate, Jesus would speak back to me the exact words I would place in his mouth in order to affect in me that sense of love and belonging I longed for. This of course had the further negative impact of making Jesus my enabler if he spoke to me what I wanted to hear instead of what I needed to hear. When I did have him say what I needed to hear, he said it without ever offending.
The third downside was this. My Jesus-and-me-only friendship displaced the importance of my knowing another human being (straight or gay) and being known by that other human being (straight or gay) as a self-disclosed gay man. I assumed only Jesus needed to know that secret about my essential self, my gay self, in order for me to feel belonging and love and connectedness. The human equation of acceptance, love and belonging as a gay man had been discounted.
Like a young person dispensing of his childhood play things, this personal friendship with Jesus surprisingly dissipated at the Dover station as I took my seat on the train for New York.
I want to leave this “Dover Station” experience for now, and return to it at the end of the sermon. Suffice it to say that before the Dover train, I saw myself in relationship with Jesus, after the Dover train, I saw myself in relationship to Jesus.
The second aspect of my spiritual journey I call dish soap theology. What is dish soap theology? It is my home-spun way to say re-think God.
Re-thinking God has preoccupied my religious experience since coming out. I’ve called the process of re-thinking God (1) “loving God with all my mind,” (2) modeling Jesus who did not think Biblically, and (3) asking the question “what if the church is wrong” which is the first question of re-thinking God. More recently, I’ve called re-thinking God dish soap theology simply because so much of my re-thinking God happens while the mundane of life is happening, like washing dishes, walking to the post office, riding the metro, or drinking coffee.
During my years in high school, Bible college and seminary, and as an ordained Baptist minister, my spiritual discipline and the vigilance I kept in order to keep my same-sex feelings at bay, were constant; but by the time I reached my early mid-40s I was weary and weak. I knew I needed help. I put myself into reparative therapy with psychologist Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH and began attending area “ex-gay” support groups. Once these, and other structured attempts for change ran their course, I found myself thinking critically about the church and its teachings. “What if the church is wrong about homosexuality,” I asked myself. It was an astounding thought, something like an epiphany. I had never thought like this before, that a way of thinking which was almost universally received within Christendom could be flawed.
I began to read authors, who like me, questioned the church’s teaching on homosexuality. I read every book I could find. I built my own library on the topic. I was amazed to find that serious theologians and scholars, most of them gay, had already been addressing religion and homosexuality for about twenty-five years or more. How isolated I had been. I was a recluse in my own spiritual, ecclesiastical, evangelical waist land.
The second major critical thought I remember having on homosexuality and the church was this: The only way Romans 1:18-32 could be about me, a gay man, was if I were to read the chapter backwards beginning with verses 26 and 27, the “against nature” part. None of the unholy characteristics ascribed to those of whom Paul was speaking in Romans 1 was true about me. And Paul placed these unholy characteristics in a chronological order, one unholy phase leading consequentially to the next unholy phase, culminating with acts “against nature.” This, then, was Paul’s argument: unholy, unsanctified chain-reaction causes (none of which characterized me) result in this “against nature” outcome (which did seem to characterize me). So then, this realization – that Romans 1 was not a description about me unless I read it backwards – which is what I was doing for twenty years – was a new beginning for me; I was no longer under the condemnation of Romans 1. This was my second epiphany. I was somewhat transformed by it. It was an intellectually violent upheaval, an about-face, a metamorphosis, a radical change in my thinking.
Years later, in my studies, I found this. Elizabeth Stuart says the Apostle Paul, in Romans 1, uses this phrase, against nature, “to describe, not homosexual people, but Gentiles who characteristically engaged in same-sex activity, a characteristic that distinguishes them, not from heterosexuals, but from the Jews.”
With these two new insights – that the church could be wrong about homosexuality (and by extension who knows what else) and that Romans 1 “against nature” is not about me, my re-thinking God – what I now call my dish soap theology – was just beginning.
My objective in my re-thinking God was to lose God that I might find God. This meant I had to lose my evangelical God to see if scriptures could present another kind of God. My objective was to make the Bible a completely different read, not at all a familiar read.
In short, I set aside the “born again” definition of Christianity for the “golden rule” definition of Christianity. With every Bible passage I examined, I transferred onto it my new golden-rule-grid of interpretation, knowingly and consistently: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This was a conscious paradigm shift.
Every text of scripture, as we experience the reading of it, has a pre-text unconsciously fixed in our minds which predisposes us as to how we view and understand the text at hand. The pre-text is what we have been previously taught is the meaning of a text or passage. This is, in fact, the universal experience of the misinterpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah. The world’s pre-texts determine, incorrectly, that the text of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah condemns all same-sex acts.
So then, I must always ask myself, what pre-texts do I bring to the Bible or with what lens am I presently reading the Bible.
At present, the “golden rule” is my summary statement of what the Bible is about. So then, whereas the epistles of Paul were formerly key to my thinking, the gospel stories of the life and sayings of Christ are now key; whereas I formerly saw the import of the death of Christ in terms of Reformation theology and substitutionary death, I define the cross now more in terms of the “golden rule,” the good Samaritan par excellent, that the likely consequence of a life lived for the marginalized is a cross; and whereas my evangelical faith was more devotional and God-me centered, inviting people into this knowing-God experience through a personal relationship with Jesus, my “golden rule” faith is more about knowing God through connecting with people and fostering the well-being of humankind, especially those whom society generally overlooks or are in distress.
Which brings me back to what I was initially discussing, about my evangelical “Jesus and me” fantastical friendship and my Dover train spiritual watershed experience. I said that when I left the ministry for my lover, I went from being in relationship with Jesus to being in relationship to Jesus.
Here’s what I mean.
Theologians define God as being both imminent and transcendent.
For God to be imminent means he is at hand, he is near. For God to be transcendent means he is other than you, he is other than me, he is other than his creation. Because the evangelical emphasizes the nearness of God somewhat to the exclusion of his other-than-me, his other-than-you, Jesus can literally become enmeshed with the believer’s own personality, so that the two, Jesus and the believer, are indistinguishable. Jesus and the believer twin, they are joined at the hip. It is an unhealthy relationship that eclipses all other human relationships and generally takes the individual inward towards himself and a God-experience within rather than outward towards a God-experience out there among others, helping others, doing good unto others.
It is people like me, who, for whatever reasons feel essentially cut off from family and society, enter into a fantastical, imaginary friendship with the evangelical Jesus because he is near, he is imminent; but in doing so, forget, practically-speaking, that Jesus, that God, is the Other-than-me, the Other-than-you, and not a substitute or a surrogate for positive human relationships.
The Dover train spiritual watershed experience was just that for me: For the first time, God became other-than-me. God stood apart from me. Different than me. And in the exaggerated sense that I had imagined him, as I left the Dover station he was rightfully no longer there with me. Whatever hunger pangs I had for relationships, the divine would no longer supplant the human. It never really could.
In Edward the Second by Christopher Marlow, contemporary playwright of William Shakespeare, King Edward of England, upon being reunited with his male lover Gaveston, who was returned to him from exile in France, says “Kiss not my hand – embrace me . . . Why should’st thou kneel? Know’st thou not who I am? Thy friend, thyself, another Gaveston!”
Those words are the exact words, in kind, that Adam spoke to Eve: bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. God is not another Adam. God is other-than-Adam. God transcends Adam. Only Eve is another Adam and Adam another Eve. In my evangelical faith I wrongly confused Jesus as another me. Instead, I now understand that he is Other than me. When I got on the Dover train to travel to New York City, I was bravely moving towards that love that completes me, no longer hiding behind my evangelical faith; and, along with the King of England, I was saying to my lover waiting in New York the words King Edward had spoken to his Gaveston, ‘Know’st thou not who I am? Thy friend, thyself, another [you]!” At last, Jesus was rightfully displaced by my lover. “When I was a child . . . I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
In my Dover train experience, I was putting away my childish, fantastical, misguided “Jesus and me” religion for an Adam and Adam, a male-to-male, a body-to-body human relationship. I was becoming fully human for the first time and Jesus stood on the Dover station platform and happily watched me run off to New York City. The train seat next to me was empty, Jesus wasn’t there. Soon it would be filled, however, by another like me.
Rev. Stephen R. Parelli, formerly an ordained evangelical Baptist minister who pastored in the states of New York and New Jersey, became the Executive Director of Other Sheep in 2005. Other Sheep (othersheep.org), founded in 1992 in Latin America by Rev. Dr. Tom Hanks, an American missionary, author, and contributor to the Queer Bible Commentary (Romans and Hebrews), is a multi-cultural, ecumenical Christian ministry that works worldwide for the full inclusion of LGBT people of faith within their respective faith traditions.