Sins of Inaction: Obadiah & Jonah

[The Lord said,] “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:11 (NIV) 

I played Jonah in my eighth grade school play. I never fancied myself the acting type; that role in my family fell squarely on my brother’s shoulders. But he was not around the middle school anymore, so that left a big vacancy in the small drama department at Penn Christian Academy (with only 45 students in the middle school… well that was not too surprising). So when audition sign ups posted, I puffed up my chest and signed up. Who cares I couldn’t sing, dance, or act? There was no more shadow to stand in!

The play was “Go, Go Jonah,” a musical interpretation of the minor prophet’s trip into the belly of a big fish and then out again. Musical theater aficionados may recognize that title as being strikingly similar to the song “Go, Go Joseph” from another biblical production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Well that’s because this play was a not-so-subtle rip off of that much more successful musical. Sheesh.

c-go-go-jonahAnyway after my audition, I was just as shocked as everyone else my name next to the title role. How could I, a musical theater shmuck, be given such a role? Maybe the surly drama teacher saw something in me that no one else did…

But at the read thru, I realized that I had been fooled. As I excitedly flipped through my script, I noticed that the character of Jonah, despite being the title character, had absolutely zero lines. He was presented as a mute with a burly beard that muffled all of his speech. The website for the musical states that “The Jonah is a non-speaking part, so any kid can be the ‘star.’” A noble goal, except that I distinctly remember the character description in the script reading: “Jonah is a perfect role for an eager youngster without traditional acting and singing ability.” Ouch.

I did the part, though I no longer felt motivated. My parents came and sat and cheered, like good parents do. But I don’t know, my taste for this classic Bible story grew sour after that experience. Yes, I have been holding a 13-year-old grudge against thus story.

I remember the story of Jonah as being fairly straightforward. God calls Jonah to prophesy to the people of Nineveh, but he flees on a ship to avoid the responsibility. Then, God sends a storm as punishment, and the crew throws him overboard where a giant fish snatches him up. After three days of prayer, the fish vomits him up, and he goes to Nineveh to finish the job. That’s it. Right?

As we have seen before, the children’s versions of Bible stories are often edited for graphic and adult content, and Jonah is no different. Jonah successfully ministers to the people of Nineveh, and they turn from his ways. Jonah proves himself to be a worthy prophet, right?

Wrong!

Afterwards, he laments to God about the lack of punishment for the people, saying that He promised to do it, and he ought to follow through. He goes as far as to say:

“Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3) 

A deep depression falls over him, and the book ends with a sunburnt, abandoned Jonah in the wilderness, contemplating God.

My grudge is over. Here is a character worth studying. Someone who listens to God, fulfills a promise, and then wonders about the outcome. Sure, that outcome involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ninevites, but still, I find myself empathizing with the guy.

God gave him the lead role and then took away all of his lines.

West Hollywood (Part 2): Psalms 121 – 127, 129 – 130

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

Psalms 130:5 (NIV)

I learned a rule of attending college parties during the first weekend of freshman year – pretend like you drink, even if you don’t. My roommate convinced me to go to a frat party; he said it would be a good place to make friends and get “chicks” (he didn’t say “chicks”). I didn’t want to go but said yes and pretended to be excited. When we walked into the frat house – sticky floor, red cups, standard frat atmosphere – he told one of the brothers to get two beers. I told him I didn’t drink. He said he didn’t care and put it in my hand. Just hold it, he said. I walked around with an unopened beer the whole night, feeling uncomfortable. Some noticed it in my hand. You going to open that, they asked. No, I replied without further explanation.

The way I understood it… he was trying to tell me “Act like you belong, even if you don’t.” The suggestion wasn’t nefarious – only misguided. Adapting to a culture was always easier than standing out. It was always a low risk choice, an easy way to start.

Queer people often feel this way in straight culture. I certainly did. The longest-lasting closet cases tend to be the ones who are most capable of staying in the closet – meaning that their mannerisms and interests do not “out” them inherently. Why go against the grain when there is nothing tangible to gain from it? That is an impossibly inane rhetorical question in retrospect – freedom and autonomy are the prizes, but that was not a priority at my young age. Us queer kids learn to adapt quickly to our given scenarios – to point at breasts and agree, to date like our friends date, to find commonality.

When my brother took me to West Hollywood – through the traffic I heard would be there, where a lesbian insulted my clothes, where vanity appeared to reign supreme – I did not feel superior or judgmental to this apparent “gay culture.” No, I wanted to adapt to it – to assimilate. That was part of the reason for my trip, after all – to give this whole gay thing a try, to see if I could where the sequin laden hat without cringing too much.

My brother took me to one of his favorite dives – a hole-in-the-wall looking place which combined cocktail lounge with dance club. Fog filled the interior, and all the guys inside – not a shocker to find no gay women at a gay bar – were looking around at one another. I felt the pressure, to be one of the guys. The place was relatively tame – no strippers on poles like I imagined, no backrooms with “shenanigans” (I think my image of Los Angeles gay bars came primarily from biblical descriptions of Sodom and Gomorrah) – just fog and fags as far as the eye could see. A bearded guy, slightly shorter than me, slighter wider than me, threw a glance at me. Emboldened by the idea of “trying” the gay culture just for a weekend, I felt no shame in returning his stare with an approach. His name was Martin.

He asked if I lived in Los Angeles.
I said yes.
He asked if I was out of the closet.
I said yes.
Even to my parents?
Yes.
What did I do for a living?
I was in entertainment in Hollywood.
Him too. Did I like clubs?
Yes, I loved the music.

I stopped, shook my head visibly, and he backed off, concerned.
What was wrong, he asked.

I told him that I felt pressure, I was actually just visiting, not out, not to my parents, I worked in the South, sort of entertainment, I was a writer, I hated the music, I liked to swing dance, to ballroom dance, and write, and read, oh and I liked football.

He smiled and said that all sounded great.

West Hollywood (Part 1): Psalms 119 – 120

How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
    By living according to your word.

Psalms 119:9 (NIV)

I never liked California. Now granted, I had never been there, but still, all of the stereotypes and details that floated their way to the East Coast just sounded awful. I look my best when most clothed – from argyle sweater to argyle socks and thick corduroys between. Of course I would be afraid of a state known for its perma-summer weather, where shorts and t-shirts were required. Additionally, I had heard:

  1. Everyone is super vapid.
  2. It’s all about the “industry,” meaning the entertainment industry.
  3. The traffic is just the worst.
  4. Everyone looks “pretty,” and no one is real.
  5. Behind Las Vegas, it is the most appropriate modern equivalent to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Oh, and more than anything, California – particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco – was “super gay.” Now, recall that my first venture into a gay bar left little to write home about; that is a good thing for a person expecting the most debauchery-filled worst. So, yes, I was looking forward to seeing what a truly gay-friendly culture looked like, and no, I never publicly admitted that minor excitement to a single person. It was fear. I was far more comfortable looking on from afar in judgment, on my manly, handcrafted pedestal.

I arrived just as the sun dipped below the horizon, and my brother suggested a quick turn around his apartment and heading out and about.

And the fearful stereotypes were certainly out and about that night…

  1. A drunk lesbian offered to buy me a new “actually good” shirt.
  2. Most everyone I met was an actor, apparently trying to corner the “gay best friend” market.
  3. Ugh. The traffic was just the worst.
  4. Many of the guys wore make up – not theatrical “drag” make up, but actual “cover my flaws” make up.
  5. While I didn’t get the whole “Sodom and Gomorrah” vibe, a few chanting Christians with awful signs sure as hell seemed convinced of it.

Yep so it turned out, California was super gay. And I started to worry that I had been birthed into the wrong culture.

Some alternative observations tomorrow…

The Lifestyle

Every Christian leader has their gay person story. Most Christian books have a gay person chapter. Every Christian teen has their gay person friend speech prepared.

There is a strategy. Relate to the gay person difficulties – make the thoughts and behaviors congruous with the straight person mindset without encouraging the deviance. Say something like “we all have our own issues” – compare yours broadly without implying you are also having gay person difficulties. Try to make it like every other sin. Wait, don’t say “sin.” Try “challenge” instead. Or “struggle.” Give them a peak into your struggles, too – your “thought life” (lusting) and “impure actions” (masturbating). Tell them they are more than just a “person with homosexuality.” They are so much more. It is possible to come out of the lifestyle.

My brother (yes, my gay brother – go back and catch up) once told me that he hates going to straight bars. I quipped back, “It’s not like a segregated bathroom, bro. They let the gays in.” He said I didn’t get it, and he was right. Why do gay people like hanging out in gay bars? That’s not the right question. Rather, why do gay people insist on hanging out in gay bars? Because, there is less risk. Because, the lifestyle.

I have always resented that euphemism – the “lifestyle.” First of all, it reinforces the idea of sexual identity being a choice. But secondly, it is an instantly alienating term. When people say it, it is because they are softening the blow of the word “gay” or “homosexual.” It is meant to subtly remind us that our identities are so dangerous, that to even say the word out loud is traumatic. It’s the “Voldemort” of the Christian community. It sends shudders down the spines of pastors and parents alike.

There is an all too common storyline for gay Christians – about bouncing in and out of the lifestyle. A gay person comes to an understanding about their sexual identity and resents it. But then, the resentment becomes too much to handle, so they go off and find a same sex partner. Then, when the guilt comes back, they repent and head back into the closet, now with a compelling story about their experiences in the lifestyle. Sometimes, they get an opposite sex partner. Other times, they stay completely celibate. Sometimes, they get married.

But then, they get sucked back into the lifestyle, much to the dismay of their friends and families. Like a heroin addict tossing their 90-day chip into the gutter, the gay person gives in to his or her addiction and falters. Some praise their self-honesty. Some mourn their weakness. The stories tend to diverge there towards varied endgames.

I fell in love with a woman named Nicole, and so opened the doors to the possibility of living as a heterosexual (with a dirtied past). Now, I want to talk about living in the homosexual lifestyle – all filtered through the advice of Psalms 51 – 100.

It’s going to be a gay person week.

 

Pretty Little Things: 2 Chronicles 1 – 9

The Gift of Wisdom. To Build a Palace and Temple. The Ark Arrives. A Prayer. Wisdom: Tested and Proved.

Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue…

2 Chronicles 1:14-16b (NIV)

I named my pet turtle “Jupiter” after the street of my boyhood home. We moved a year after I was born, but since my parents were sentimentalists – always showing off photos and gesturing stories – I still felt a deep connection to the place. My first home. It did not matter that I had no memories of the place or that it existed only in the words of my family. It was still an affectionate piece of me: I could not explain the nostalgia.

Jupiter found his way to me through a co-worker of my father’s – a fellow parent who no longer wanted to take care of it. I had spent the better part of the year guilting him into a pet, since my brother had fish and my sister had a guinea pig. It’s only fair, I whined. I am old enough for a pet. Honest. So one day, he came home with a turtle in a tub and told me to pick some rocks from the nearby creek for its new home. We never sprung for the full on aquarium – no, Jupiter stayed holed up in that same blue dishwashing tub for the entirety of his life.

I had my little responsibilities. Each morning, I took five pellets of turtle food and placed them in different spots of the tub (so Jupiter would get exercise as he snacked). Then once a week, I sprayed down the tub with a hose, while Jupiter laid sullenly on my bedspread. About a year into his residence, my mother suggested adding a weekly lawn trot onto his regimen, “outdoors” time if you will, so Jupiter would not totally lose his animalistic nature. It seemed like an innocent suggestion, until I realized my mother’s true intentions. She hated the turtle. It smelled musty, and the tub was an eyesore. And Jupiter was the last surviving member of the children’s pets (the guinea pig developed a tumor, and an ill-placed crayfish ate all the fish). She was done with pets – Jupiter had to go – and I think my mother secretly hoped my carelessness would result in the turtle waddling away during rec time.

That summer, she put the kibosh in it. You’re going to take Jupiter, she instructed, and let him go into the pond. I cried over the loss like a child would mourn a pet’s death, because that was what it felt like to me. It was like capital punishment – but for a turtle – institutionalized banishment. It was sentimentality and the lingering nostalgia of my first home. Jupiter represented a piece of my youth, and I never liked change. You could have taken my toys and dumped them, tossed my computer or whatever. Take away all my things, my mass produced things, and leave me my memories and the tokens that represented them. Don’t take my turtle.

Jupiter would not go. I placed him on the edge of the pond, but he just sat there. Maybe the mud was too deep for him. So, I dropped him in the actual water, but no, he froze there too. Turtles needed water, right? What if the years of the tub-existence had drained him of his instincts? What if he stayed out in the sun and fried to death, all because we kept him contained in a plastic cage?

So I picked Jupiter up and with my best throw, pitched him out into the center of the 50-foot-pond.

My father recalled the story differently, laughing over dinner later with the rest of the family. He said I had skipped Jupiter across the top of the pond with a sharp flick of my wrist. I denied it. But the myth grew, and soon everyone knew about my turtle’s end. Tss-tss-tss, right across the surface, 15-odd skips until plop! into the center. Regardless of the way it happened, they knew as well as I did: that turtle was dead.


Solomon installs all of the God’s holy things, and it ends up being his most pertinent contribution to the Kingdom. As this is our second pass through this story, I will not reiterate the nature of these things, but recall that it is all extravagant, costing top dollar to buy and decades to build. In the end, we end up with a tip-top palace and a temple fit for the Ark of the Covenant.

Why such preciousness? We do not know. We do know that this God likes the first of the lambs to be sacrificed, the best offerings of crops and drinks, and well-fed priests with the most succulent portions. These things are important – a way of showing respect and dedication. God values them.


Years later as I approached pubescence, we drove by the pond where I parted with Jupiter. This was not an odd occurrence; we lived right up the road from the pond. But today it was different. The pond was bone dry, fizzled by a particularly dry summer. It reminded me of the turtle, and I wondered if maybe he survived the traumatic journey across the top of the water. My mother and I talked about him for a moment, both of us smiling. She recalled the “stone skip” myth, and we laughed about it with the relief of retrospection. But after the memory waned and my expression fell neutral, I noticed that my mother maintained her smile. What’s so funny? I asked her.

The name of my boyhood street… It was Juniper, not Jupiter. I had named the turtle incorrectly, based on a mis-memory of the street’s title. She thought the mistake was cute back then and never had to heart to tell me.

A Place for Everyone: 1 Chronicles 23 – 29

Some Are Priests. Some Are Musicians. Some Gatekeepers and Leaders and Overseers.

[David said,] “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

1 Chronicles 29:14 (NIV)

Everyone Has a Talent to Contribute, reads the invisible motivational poster hanging up in every church in America. Some people were great orators and gifted with leading Bible studies and sermons. Then there were all the praise and worship people, the young rockers and the blonde singers who took charge of the band. Some people were greeters. They were good at… holding open doors and smiling and setting out muffins.

Mine was “tech,” like audio/visual support. I was good at that. Except that I wasn’t, it was just the best for me at church. Math was my talent growing up, and that really had no place in a pre-teen church service. But Math was sort of like Science which was sort of related to tech, so there you go. But I genuinely liked it, even though I had no idea what I was actually doing, because it was a role for me to fulfill. We laid out cables and pushed the “next” button on the slides. My close friend and techie master Ian did all the real stuff, like mixing the audio and solving in-the-moment problems. I mostly took orders, stood by if someone needed a body or a mic cord needed replugging, but I genuinely enjoyed it. Purpose, however contrived, felt good.

But secretly, doesn’t everyone want to be one of the musicians? Some admire the pastors, because they are in charge. But what’s cooler, the boring guy on the pulpit or the singers and dancers and praisers? Anyone can read a Bible verse and put a group of teenagers to sleep, but few can strum chords on beat and sing with perfect pitch. Their talent transcended the church experience – it was cool in any setting.

Not my domain though, and such a shame. My brother had taken all the shares of the music genes allotted for our family – none for Mom, Dad, Sister, or me. He was so good that he did not even have time for the praise and worship team at church. No, no, far too busy traveling to Australia and South Africa, and singing on Saturday Night Live*. This sounds like sour grapes (because it is), but I had a hard time grasping why my brother got all the “visible” talent. But I got over it as time went on and settled into my position far behind and above everyone else (in the tech booth, obviously). I never got good at electronics and stuff, though, nope. Just learned to be passable until the church offered another position that suited me better – which they did a few years later when they introduced the high school “drama team.”

What does this have to do with 1 Chronicles 23-29? The author makes a very detailed list of all the roles that God set aside for each of the tribes of Israel – which is a rehash of a similar list from the Law. It is comprehensive, taking into account roles for musicians and leaders, ark-attendants and soldiers. Everyone has their place.

But it is not based upon interest or talent. My church… they tried to match up individuals with jobs with some sort of logic, but the men and women (read: men) of the Bible had their positions endowed based upon birth. Levites had it the best – acting as the priests of the group. They got to go near the Ark of the Covenant and took the best portions of the offerings.

They were like the “Christian rock band kids” of the Old Testament. They even had it better than the musicians.


*For real. He’s one of those kids in the red jackets in the back.

https://screen.yahoo.com/pavarotti-vanessa-williams-000000560.html

The Unfortunate Vow: Judges 9 – 12

The Rise of Abimaleck. Three Years of Kingship. A War. A Stone. A Sword. Then, Jephthah – the Illegitimate. Promoted to Commander. A Successful Campaign. An Unfortunate Vow. The Sacrificial Daughter.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Judges 11:30-31 (NIV)

I took the Unfortunate Vow somewhere around birth, but it did not kick in until mid-adolescence. That’s when everyone started to notice something. Now I don’t want to mischaracterize my brother as a flaming faggot – one of those gay guys that no gay guy seems to want to be. I think homosexual men run from the phrase, because it implies a shallowness that permeates an entire personality. There were some warning signs for impending homosexuality, and my brother had a few of them. Interest in theater/arts – loud and aberrant – a touch of flamboyance – and an ever-growing collection of deep-v tees. I loved my brother as he was, even if I kicked in my fair share of jokes about his clothing choices, but his budding sexuality meant devastation to me.

I mentioned in a previous entry that my brother and I engaged in a queer sibling rivalry that lasted up until the moment he came out. He came out as gay, and I was in the closet – so it was a race. A race to disappoint the parents first so that other would be stuck with the responsibility of the Unfortunate Vow. And so on Christmas morning 2009, my mother woke me up with her presence alone. She sat in my room until my eyes opened, and I shot up.

What’s going on, Mom? I asked.

Mark had just come out of the closet. On Christmas morning.

And now he was making brunch, complete with eggs benedict on English muffins and mimosas for the family. I suppose us partaking in the gayest meal ever was appropriate given the circumstance.

That evening, I renewed the Unfortunate Vow.

Judges takes us through a few more of its leaders before arriving at Jephthah. He is the illegitimate son born to his father and a prostitute, and so his half brothers drive him away to claim his part of the inheritance. However, Jephthah is an enormously strong man, and so when foes of Israel arrive, they call upon their forsaken brother to come and lead the army. He reluctantly agrees.

So Jephthah does that job and does it well. We are told that after defeating all the enemies with his military prowess and blunt strength, the spirit of the Lord enters him.

Moved, Jephthah instantaneously makes a vow. The first thing to wander from the doors of his home will be given up on the Altar of God as a sacrifice. He arrives home, happy to fulfill this vow, when his only child, a daughter, runs out into the yard.

Jephthah falls onto his knees for making such an Unfortunate Vow. Now, he must sacrifice his only daughter to God. She takes it well, only requesting a two-month respite to mourn and say goodbye. And when the day comes, the deed is done. Jephthah sacrifices his only daughter to the Lord.

The Unfortunate Vow… I am starting to think that we all have taken one – to fulfill a duty that seems both foreign and unfair, and yet it is demanded for no other reason than those in charge of us demand it. God created us, and now we are indebted to Him – so we must honor laws and vows that have absolutely no logical backbone. We must perform symbolic actions in order to please those above us, for their own personal reasons that are completely unexplained. And that obedience to the Unfortunate Vow makes us holy. I must be straight because the other one is gay and the parents need some son to be straight. Why? For manhood and the image of the family and normalcy. Doesn’t that make sense to you?

I think a father who breaks a vow in order to protect the life of his virginal only daughter is a man I would want to emulate.
I think a child who honestly states their interests and passions is a child headed in the right direction.
I think a God who demands a man to kill his daughter for ritualistic reasons is terrifying.
I think parents who encourage many activities for their kids and find ways to challenge them so that they grow beyond their own intentions are doing a damn good job.
I think a God that values the bond between father and daughter is just.

I am no longer the son that my parents want me to be. I have broken my Unfortunate Vow. Because I never truly made it by my own free will. So why keep it?

UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! (Jesse Interprets the Law: Pt 4)

Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!”

Leviticus 13:35 (NIV)

Let’s talk about cleanliness.

emloyees-wash-hands-signMy mother always said that my brother cared “too much” about his looks and that I cared “too little,” and we could do ourselves a favor by evening each other out a bit. You may not think that I give my mother much credit, but I have to say, she was certainly correct about that one. My hair frizzed like a dandelion, so I shaved it off. My brother, on the other hand, took those same hair genes and managed to sculpt his into the glistening curls of David. I disliked clothes shopping (and still do), so I had no issues wearing styles that were years old. Alternatively, my brother stayed up with the trends (and still does). He was always right on track with the slick phraseology and pop culture icons of the moment. I just never could care any less. Our styles and lifestyles are just vastly different, despite our one glaring similarity.

Cleanliness is next to godliness, my mother used to say (and probably still does say, but I don’t live in her house, so I don’t know). How original, Ma.

Much ado is made about cleanliness in the Law, particularly about what makes us ceremonially unclean and how we can go about once again restoring our holiness. Barriers are put up between those who are clean and unclean, and we are told not to associate with those on the other side of the border. Women particularly seem to get the short end of the stick, as their “natural flow of blood” makes them unclean for a quarter of a month, every month. Most fascinatingly, the majority of bodily actions that make a person dirty are entirely compulsory. Why punish someone for having a rash? Because the Law says so. And that punishment will include wearing torn clothes, letting your hair be unkempt, having a veil over your face, and shouting “Unclean!” over and over again.

I am mighty glad my mother did not go that far.

I get it. This is all meant to be symbolic of how we are separate from God. Because we are sinful, we are held accountable even for those facets about us that we cannot control. Prone to eczema? You’re about to have a tough time living in the fifteenth century Before Christ.

I am starting to get a feeling, and pardon my status as a layperson… Maybe these laws are set to be absolutely impossible to follow. Maybe they are designed to make sure that Man always knows its place in the world, which is far, far below that of God.

Or maybe God just wants us squeaky clean. I don’t know yet.


CURRENTLY ON MY THREE PRIESTS

A series of defiling skin diseases have knocked up the Miscellaneous section. And no love yet for laws on sexuality. Now, if the most inflammatory Christian rhetoric taught me anything, it was that The Law was filled with smitings over deviant sexual behaviors. I’m a bit disappointed. Hopefully Christmas will come early this year.

Simple: Genesis 29 – 30

Jacob’s New Home. True Love. Seven Years for Leah. Seven Years for Rachel. Children for Power. Children for Revenge. Children for Love.

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.

Genesis 29:16-17 (NIV, emphasis mine)

OldBarneyLight

Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

These are the facts. Henry developed some sort of infection on his head and face – the exact diagnosis was vague. And the prognosis wasn’t much better: who knew when it would go away, who knew if it was infectious, and since this was Jersey in the 60’s, there was no way the teacher was letting him come into that school. She made it clear: traditional schooling would be an infeasible option for Henry this year. The infection developed near the end of summer, so they could just defer his enrollment and do the whole fifth grade thing a year later – but that meant a year of pre-adolescent idleness. Or they could homeschool him – but both parents worked to make ends meet. They went in to the school principal to come up with a creative solution, one that didn’t involve missing an entire year of school or sacrificing half their family income. The principal recommended hiring a tutor, and he had just the guy: a formidable young man in his early 30s – intelligent, excited, and diligent. They agreed to this option with an appropriate amount of reluctance; they just had not planned Henry’s year to unfold this way. The tutor started his sessions early that autumn and met with Henry every day for a period of six months.

Something sinister happened that year between Henry and his tutor – we know that much for sure. And it seemed to be, or rather, the consensus reached by his family was that whatever evil occurred between the two of them resonated throughout his life with the most negative of consequences.

I first met Henry at my Pop-pop’s funeral. He wore a kitschy powder blue suit two sizes too big. He was gaunt and dark and donned a large gold ring from his pinky, an artifact from his senior high school with the jewel missing. I turned to my Aunt Leisa with a puzzled face, and she whispered in my ear, That’s Henry. My confusion continued. He’s your other Aunt.

No, Henry wasn’t a transgendered woman, and frankly, that thought would have never crossed my pubescent mind. I knew she meant, He’s your gay Uncle Henry. Why do you think you’ve never heard of him? He stood up on the pulpit, his clothes hanging off of him loosely like a puppy’s collar, and announced that he had a poem to read, written by his lifelong partner and lover Luke. I could hear the sound of all the eyes in the room collectively roll. He unfolded a printed sheet from his pocket and read a clearly plagiarized poem in the vein of “Oh Captain! My Captain!” He finished without fanfare and returned to his seat. I saw him only a handful of times after that – he lived across the country after all and rarely came through town. And no one liked his partner Luke. He was a huge part of the problem – an enabler in the most classic sense.

Henry died a decade later from complications stemming from chain smoking and drug abuse. The doctor explained it by saying that Henry simply wore his heart out much quicker than the rest of us. His addiction to painkillers had slowly chipped away at his insides, and his tobacco use had developed into COPD. Simply: His organs had nothing left to give. He called my father from his deathbed. Henry said that he wasn’t ready to die – this just wasn’t the life he had planned for himself. There was no funeral. We all came to the collective consensus that his life was a tragedy and worthy of deep reflection. Where did things go wrong? How could it have possibly turned out this way?

Simple answers often feel the best. Cause and effect. A trajectory. The family settled on this narrative:

Uncle Henry developed his condition at a young age. The family hired a tutor.
The tutor sexually abused Henry – systematic, cruel, and consistent – for half a year.
Because of this trauma, Henry turned to homosexuality.
Homosexuality led to Luke. Luke led to drugs.
Homosexuality led to isolation. It led to alienation. It eventually led to madness.
Luke encouraged the homosexuality, and thus, Luke encouraged the isolation, alienation, and madness.
His family said no more drugs, no more isolation, no more Luke.
Henry said no.
And then so on until… the ending.

That was his sad, sad story, at least to the majority of the family. Henry’s parents never acknowledged the abuse, and while others – including my father – intuited this storyline, no one ever really talked about it. It was just the story. No need to talk. This was it.

The early Bible thrives on the concept of simplistic narrative, and Jacob’s early life gives a prime example of it. Jacob finds a woman he loves in Rachel. Rachel is defined by a single simple word; she is beautiful. Her father says that in exchange for seven years of labor, Jacob can marry his daughter. But trickery! After seven years, Rachel’s father gives Jacob his less attractive daughter Leah to marry. Leah is ugly. And so begins the one-upmanship. Leah and Rachel fight for the affection of Jacob. Rachel is barren while Leah is fertile, and so Leah looks to catch Jacob’s eye with children. When she can no longer conceive, she gives Jacob her maidservant to sleep with in order to continue her line. Rachel counters with her maidservant, to give her line. A classic duel over affections. Who will win out? Everyone wins, because eventually, the children that pile up between the four wives will end up being the fathers to the twelve tribes of Israel.

I do not mean to mock or even draw criticism to the narrative presented here. If the Bible attempted to present its vast history taking into account every nuance of humanity, then its girth would make it impenetrable. However, the attractiveness of the simple nature of these narratives remains potent. Leah, Rachel, and the whole gang here act like one-note characters in a melodrama. Their cause-and-effect motivations elicit strong reactions and clear lessons but fail to come across in sympathetic or realistic ways. I am intended to relate to these people on the broadest of levels, so that I can glean the lesson quickly and completely. And this method of storytelling is effective. The whims of man will end up fitting into God’s ultimate plan. There. That’s a lesson I picked from that story, and there are many more available if I glance at the tale from different angles.

It is dangerous to apply this simplistic approach to our real world interactions. It risks the reduction of an entire life to a sole action or trait. Does any single word accurately describe your entire persona? Are you merely gay, hefty, jealous, or kind? You would be a boring individual if that were the case.

And so to reduce my Uncle Henry’s life to a simple list of actions and reactions feels horribly inadequate – not only for its complete mischaracterization of homosexuality but also for its obviously missing details. All we have are sparse facts, and we are left to connect the pieces ourselves. And for a family entrenched in conservative thinking, the simplest and most sweeping explanation ended up winning out. No room for nuance. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had made their judgment. Something horrible happened to Henry, and we all saw how it ended. This is what homosexuals do. They abuse children and make more homosexuals. They do drugs and wallow in hatred. And then they die from their own malice. Henry did not choose what happened to him, but he made a lot of dumb choices thereafter.

But this narrative did not sit well with my father. After my Pop-pop’s funeral, he took my brother and me for some Jersey-style pizza: thin, soggy, plain. I asked about Uncle Henry, what he was like, growing up and today.

He told me his older brother was the funniest person he knew – always a jokester. Henry used to whisper in his ear at night that the moon was hungry and wanted to eat him. They could spend hours on the Long Beach Island shores, particularly in the winter, walking to and from Barnegat Lighthouse. They paid their dollar and walked all the way up the winding staircase to the top and looked out into the endless ocean. Henry liked heights. He liked roller coasters, too, and the two often made trips to the local theme park, that was before Six Flags bought it up and made it all corporate. He always stood up for his brothers. He was the toughest guy in school. A big kid smacked my father one day, and Henry found him and broke his nose. Three weeks later, the big kid drowned during the school picnic. There was no connection, but Henry felt responsible. The accident haunted him. He considered himself a devout Christian and often quoted the Bible. He said God would see him through. He was discharged from the Navy after a mental breakdown. He had chronic back pain. He struggled with addiction. He never held down a job. He lived off government support. He lived in a trailer. He called my father once a week. He could go on for hours. He was always invited to come stay with us. He only said yes to that once. His body withered. It failed him. He called my father on his deathbed. He begged not yet not yet not yet. He died with Luke by his side, while my father sped down I-95 to get there in time. My father was told by the hospital that he could keep the remains. He gave them to Luke. Luke called my father once a week. He would go on for hours. My father thanked him, from the bottom of his heart, for staying with Henry when the other members of his family abandoned him – when their parents abandoned him – when their characterizations of him were horribly inadequate – when they summed him up with only one word. My father cried on the phone. They spoke every week for a year. Then, one evening, Luke called my father, got the voicemail, left a message, said goodbye, took a bottle of painkillers, and drifted away. My father sped down I-95, but it was too late. He delivered Luke’s ashes to his family. He took my Uncle Henry’s ashes. He drove up I-95 straight to Jersey, to Long Beach Island, to Barnegat Lighthouse. It was winter. My father climbed the spiral staircase and let his brother go.

I cannot believe in the concept of simple. My father taught me better than that.

Queer Sibling Rivalry: Genesis 25 – 28

Abraham Dies. Jacob and Esau. Prophecy of Conflict. Abimeleck – The Constant Fool. Stolen Birthright. Stolen Blessing. A Dream.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.”

Genesis 28:20-21 (NIV)

Jacob's Dream by William Blake (c. 1805)

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805)

When you look at your 22-year-old brother, and he’s wearing jean shorts cut up to his mid-thigh and a deep neoprene V-neck tee and he’s tousling a hand-weaved hemp bracelet between his fingers, then suddenly you realize there is a race between the two of you to come out to your parents first. You see, there is an unspoken rule in the multi-gay-children-born-to-conservative-parents world: the first son to come out is a disappointment; the second one is just a dick. My brothers’ early eccentricities evolved into a more outright flamboyance during his college years – his quirky humor became aberrantly outrageous, and his sparkling persona took on the energy of a constantly traveling showboat. But besides these amusing superficialities, his rhetoric and demeanor deepened. He began voicing concerns over more “left-wing” causes, such as the AIDs crisis and universal healthcare, and suddenly, he had doubts about some of the standards of behavior set out in the Bible. My parents viewed this as a direct result of his college experience, but in reality, it was probably just a natural release of pressure. His personality always contained these facets, and now he was just opening the valve. No need to calibrate anymore; he was among friends.

My brother came out to me on the eve of his college graduation. He asked if I preferred gin or whiskey for the pre-grad party that evening, then he asked if I was dating anyone, then he told me he was bisexual, and then he took a shower. He seemed eager to drop the bomb and then run away so he did not have to witness the potential destruction. I was left to strike up conversation with his roommate – this beautiful Yugoslavian woman with a raspy voice.

I said: So my brother is bisexual.
No, she replied, He’s gay. He just doesn’t want to disappoint you.

Too late. This was a huge disappointment. My brother was unaware of my budding sexual debacles, and while I always knew he was gay, I never wanted him to be confident enough to come to that self-realization. I now realize the cruelty in this attitude – that I actually desired my brother to squelch his sexuality so the pressure would be taken off of me and my transient appetites. For the rest of the night, I wouldn’t make any sustained eye contact with him, wouldn’t actively celebrate his graduation, wouldn’t really talk to him. He assumed the obvious – that I disapproved of his sexual preferences and that his admission had stunned me into silence – but the truth was far worse. I resented it, and I resented him for learning to be open about it. Suddenly, our relationship had an inherent competition. There was only room for one queer son in this family, and that honor appeared to be shifting towards him.

Back in the Bible, Abraham dies, and we join his ailing son Isaac on the brink of death himself. He marries Rebekah, and with her, they bear a pair of fraternal twin boys who are in a competition of their own. Esau beat Jacob out of the womb by a hair – thus granting him the right to the family bloodline and birthright – and yet God sets forth a vow that the older (Esau) will end up serving the younger (Jacob). This is a shocking prophecy for the times as it completely undermines the structure previously set forth for determining rightful heirs. Eldest sons carry the family name. End of discussion.

The story continues with a dramatic turn of events that unfurl the contents of God’s foresight. First, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some stew when he is particularly famished. Then, due to some dissatisfaction over Esau’s choice of wife, Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal his blessing from the almost blind, almost dead, almost senile Isaac. She dresses up her seconds-late second-born son Jacob, douses him in the scent of the burly Esau, and leads him into his father’s tent. Isaac falls for it. He gives his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob – the younger son – is now the rightful heir.

The Bible finally dishes up its first bit of Telemundo-worthy melodrama with this story, and while the nature of the conflict may seem antiquated to some, the idea of the family birthright still carries deep, yet admittedly altered, importance to many modern Christian families. Wives still adopt their husbands’ last names; dowries are still paid; men still run households. And sons are still meant to acquire their fathers’ best qualities and build upon them, so that they may one day lend their name, collect their dowry, and run their household. It may seem ridiculous to those born outside the Christian faith, but these traditions are far from dead. And for my family, these traditions were more like religious rites, and the pressures to adhere were massive. Somebody had to carry on the family name. My sister couldn’t, and my brother wouldn’t. My brother’s honesty had guaranteed my continued deception. He had beaten me to the punch. He had cloaked himself in a sequin gown and doused himself in the musk of perfume and was now shuffle-stepping off over the rainbow. And the only one left in the tent with the almost ready, almost hopeful, almost fulfilled father was… me. It was left to me. After all, the second son to come out of the closet – to ruin that lineage and to destroy all the plans and to embarrass the family by being the second one and to negate the birthright, the tradition, the blessing, the name – that second son is such a dick. I would never be able do that to my parents.

After his conflict with Esau crescendos and then drops, Jacob wanders away from his family to find a suitable wife. After entering a strange new land, he falls asleep on the ground and has a prophetic dream. He sees a large stairway that bridges Heaven and Earth with angels ascending and descending. Then God appears and establishes the terms of his newly acquired blessing. This land now belongs to Jacob, and all will be blessed through him. Jacob awakens and makes a feverish vow. “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking,” he says, “…then the Lord will be my God.”

This prayer struck me as odd at first. Firstly, Jacob’s loyalty is conditional, second only to God’s protection – a big no-no, I assume. Secondly, and more importantly, it is potently vague. Watch over me on this journey. That is all encompassing. It is wonderfully generic. It feels warm.

Not make me strong.
Not make me fatherly.
Not make me love a woman.

Just watch over me.

God, I love that prayer. And I love that it comes from such a lying, deceptive, jealous, human man.

Watch over me Watch over me Watch over me

I just love that.


 

For additional reading, check out this Huffington Post article about a new study on gay brothers and genetic links in homosexuality.