It’s the Real Thing

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…

In an article in The New York Times, my cousin’s enterprising husband, professor-turned-farmer Jerry Ford, described garlic as “the Grateful Dead of Vegetables.” And indeed, their first annual Minnesota Garlic Festival was something like what a Grateful Dead concert might be if held in Lake Wobegon. Several thousand friendly folks in blue jeans, gathered at the Wright County fairgrounds for some down-home fun, spent all day and could have passed a dozen more. All, perhaps, except for Jerry and my cousin Marienne, who survived the experience in a state of happy exhaustion. They’ve got a year to put the next one together, and they may need at least six months of it to recuperate from the first.

Several of the festival-goers referred to themselves, with good-natured humility, as “old hippies.” Having been called a “hippie,” myself, on any number of occasions (usually by people who are neither humble nor good-natured), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I felt right at home there. I saw gay and lesbian couples by the score; everybody was warmly welcomed, and we all fit right in. Artisans, musicians, meat-goat ranchers, we were a little bit of everything. Even Count Dracula put in a special appearance.

It was all about sustainable farming: reclaiming the land from the grasp of encroaching corporate barony and using it, once again, with respect. Jerry and Marienne came home to Howard Lake after September 11 of 2001, called to simpler and holier things than trying to grind out a living in big-city Texas. Houston had pumped the very life from them, the way its moguls take the oil from the ground. The oil can never be put back. Good crops – garlic and healing herbs – can, if properly nurtured and loved, come back time after time.

My cousins and our one surviving patriarch, Uncle Willard, have welcomed me back into the family fold after years of what seemed like exile. Unlike my father’s more-conservative faction, they never gave up on me. “Our liberal relations,” Dad used to growl about them. They’re the ones who stood by him in his young, wild, drinking days, never having given up on him no matter how big of a mess he got himself into. But once he’d gotten sober and found success in business, he scorned their idealism, aspiring instead to the “respectability” of big-city executive life and the easy salvation of those smugly certain they had God on their side.

My father was a decent man who trusted the wrong people and lusted after the wrong things. He wanted to own lots of things, and to have control over lots of people – especially those in his family, whom he thought he owned. The “leaders” to whom he looked up led him to the near-destruction of his relationship with me, and to his alienation from many others in the family as well. A man must always be powerful, he was told. Always in charge, and always right – even when he was so terribly, sadly wrong.

Dad repented at the end, I believe, in his own fashion. He grew gentler, more tolerant and generally more thoughtful. He ultimately loved me too much to let the crowd he’d followed all his life convince him to discard me like garbage because I’m gay. I like to think he didn’t quite go over the cliff with the lemmings after all.

Our liberal relations may love us poor strugglers home yet. “Remember who you are,” I was told this summer, in a thousand different ways. “Never forget where you came from, and where you will always belong.” What a profound relief it is to realize that I belong with the very people who want me. Those, on the other hand, whose highest priority is rejecting others will one day find themselves on the garbage heap.

“You shall know them by their fruits,” Jesus advised us. Or by their vegetables, as the case may be. To automatically assign a status of moral and spiritual leadership to people simply because they claim it for themselves is lazy and cowardly. As a matter of fact, it borders on idolatry. God has given each of us the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, and to shrink from that is to entrust our minds and souls to the very same “world” of which we are so often admonished, in Scripture, to be wary.

Just who says we ought to care what Jerry Falwell and James Dobson say about us? Time magazine? Newsweek? CBS News and CNN? What the hell do they know, and in what pristine marble in Heaven does it guarantee that they know it? The “world” says we must accept these charlatans as authorities over our spiritual lives. Last time I looked in the Bible, we were told to pay attention not to all these wordly “authorities,” but to Christ and Christ alone.

Why is it so hard for so many to recognize that the blow-dried and cosmetized professional religious leaders may be very different from the saints they want us to think they are? Satan himself, we are told, comes as an angel of light. Any fraud, no matter how fiendishly greedy and ambitious, can tell the public that he or she comes in the Name of the Lord. Given the power religious passion holds over people, why wouldn’t a great many wolves find it useful to don the clothing of sheep – or even of shepherds?

Progressive Christianity is, indeed, countercultural. So was Jesus Himself, as well as all of those in the New Testament church. Would Christ have advocated bombing an entire civilian population into submission to some self-proclaimed emperor-god, for a resource we must steal instead of share, or would He have wanted us to farm sustainably and make sure there are enough resources in the world for everyone who lives here? Conquer, kill and hoard, or feed, heal and share – which “side” really serves Jesus? I no longer have any problem answering that question for myself.

Howard Lake is just a podunky little backwater town. Sorta like Nazareth. The folks there spend their time tilling the soil, feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. They aren’t in Washington D.C., trying to rule over the world. Where would Jesus be?

Are these political issues also Christian issues? You bet your life they are. And I mean, you are literally betting your life.

No political solution will ultimately work unless minds are changed and hearts transformed. This is something only the church can do. The Religious Right has corrupted the hearts and minds of America almost beyond recognition to anything approaching a Christian society. Our politics are literally killing people. Even if you don’t want to think about the souls our politics are destroying – even if you choose not to believe that there are such things as souls – we dare not, we must not remain silent while human lives are being ruined and prematurely, often violently ended.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks have a vocation from God that, in many ways, resembles that of Christ Himself. He royally pissed off a lot of very powerful people, and He was killed for it. Likewise, our calling seems to be to upset the proverbial applecart – to comfort the afflicted, sure enough, but also to afflict the comfortable. To challenge hate, and to help bring about a more loving world.

Over the decades, my older sister and cousins challenged tradition and questioned authority just about every chance they got. It is, largely, because of their generation’s relentless commitment to uncomfortable truths that our lives today are as happy as they are. I don’t have to believe that conservatives are bad people in order to see that their politics – and to some extent, their religion – are destroying them. If they take us down, they’ll take themselves, and indeed the whole planet, down along with us.

Question authority, challenge convention, get out there, lift up your voice, get loud and proud and raise holy hell. We who are sexual minorities cannot possibly be tamed, neutered and housebroken enough to suit those so many of us wish to convince we’re “not all that bad.” They will turn on us if we trust them, and tear us apart as viciously as the Republican powers-that-be are doing now to gays in their party because of the Mark Foley scandal. If we need to lie about who we are in order to belong to a political party, a church congregation or anything else, then that organization does not deserve us.

Those who have come to welcome and accept me have challenged me to draw my circle of concern wider than merely what is necessary to include myself. My steadfast relatives, and those at my reconciling church, are about welcome, about sharing and about mercy even when it profits them nothing. Even when it hurts them. My sustainable-farming cousins could have made more money doing almost anything other than what they have chosen to do, and the radical welcomers at my church have allowed themselves to be stigmatized, by many “respectable” members of our denomination, as troublemakers. All to show the love of Christ to “the least of these,” whom their Lord has called them to follow regardless of the cost.

As gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders in the Body of Christ, we must understand that the bogus Christians will never accept us. We will only find a true home among those who are the real thing. This means a life of sacrifice and danger, and it means that we must pay the welcome forward. The world only recognizes the phonies. It will never point the way to what is true, to what is not easy, to what requires hard work, sacrifice of self, service to others and the taking up of the Cross.

Before you rifle through your Bible searching for the quote at the beginning of this essay, let me tell you that it didn’t come from Scripture. It came from a very old, very Sixties Coca-Cola commercial. Madison Avenue even managed to co-opt the ideals of those most determined to transform the world. We can no more teach the world to sing than we can teach a pig. But underneath all the mud, some hearts will insist on loving, and some souls are unsullied still.

Where will we find Jesus? We’ll find Him wherever arms are opened in welcome. If we look for Him behind any one of the doors that are closed to us, we will be looking in vain.