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300 Miles to Ranching Country for a Funeral

The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm.  I didn't relish the thought.  Obviously.  But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.

Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn.  Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her.  My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church.  There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state.  I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.

So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.

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Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways.  The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas.  The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.

A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor.  The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor.  She received the training and was licensed to the church.

The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off.  Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct.  I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall.  It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery.  I began to contemplate turning around.  I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather.  Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.

An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.

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I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest.  If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted.  While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.

Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills.  What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch.  I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.

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And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building.  The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out.  Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.

The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."  One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman."  The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community.  Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."

And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording.  Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church.  In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected.  And it was being honored and celebrated.

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After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.

The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before.  Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow.  It snowed until the other side of the town.  In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going.  So odd.

In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband.  Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another.  I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.

I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."

I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving.  Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork.  After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.

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Transforming

Transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender ChristiansTransforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians by Austen Hartke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good introductory text to biblical and theological issues of trans inclusion. I particularly liked the way he structured the book with each chapter exploring a topic through the lens of the personal story of a trans person of faith. Hartke is a good writer; we can look forward to his future projects.

I also liked the point made in his 11th chapter, "Life beyond Apologetics." One of the annoyances I encountered first in writing and then later in publishing my recent memoir was the pressure for the book be yet another text explaining how it is okay to be gay and be a Christian. I keep insisting that many versions of that book are available, and I wasn't writing that book. I like Hartke's way of describing this as "life beyond apologetics." I'm not trying to defend myself or explain that it's okay to be me, I'm simply telling my own story.

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American Primitive

American PrimitiveAmerican Primitive by Mary Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today I had the day off, so I spent the day reading a wide array of things, including this early volume of Mary Oliver's poetry. As always, there are some great lines and passages ("Joy is a taste before it's anything else"). And I admired where the homoeroticism was strong in this work and puzzled how even with that she was America's favourite poet for so many decades. Her ability to describe wild nature--in the outside world and in our own bodies--is exceptional.

We'll be doing a four week worship series based on Mary Oliver poems this summer, concluding with Pride Sunday. She was not only America's beloved poet, she was one of our greatest spiritual writers and greatest queer writers. So interesting that she combined all of those in one person.

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I Know What Heaven Looks Like

I Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age StoryI Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age Story by Lawrence T. Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Lawrence speak at the annual meeting of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. His vulnerability, resilience, and humor blew me away. He's coming to preach for us at First Central on Feb. 17, so I wanted to read his book ahead of time.

It is, at times, a harrowing read, as he recounts his childhood experiences of poverty, neglect, and abuse. But it is also a story of finding faith and a calling to ministry and how those brought healing and hope. Then it is also the story of a gender transition and the violent reaction that initially generates from family and his faith tradition.

This is a powerful book. I recommend it.

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The Queerness of Mary Oliver

When Mary Oliver died last week, I missed seeing explorations of her as a queer artist, so I was glad for this piece written by Jeanna Kadlec on the role of queer desire in Oliver's poems, including some of her most familiar ones.  An excerpt:

Take “Wild Geese,” perhaps her most beloved poem. “Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you. Brandon Taylor has written about how this poem speaks to validating the reader’s worthiness. For me, someone who grew up in the evangelical church, the experience of reading “Wild Geese” has often been about receiving permission to desire within my own body: I do not have to be good; I do not have to repent.


Harold Stevenson or The Prominent Artist I Knew

Harold
Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year.  I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.

Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries.  You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).

The New Adam

Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model).  The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery.  It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute.  The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while.  In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art.  I reviewed that book here.

So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?

He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City.  It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions.  A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing.  He gave me a signed print.

Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.

Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris.  This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.

The Great Society

The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966.  In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here).  That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions.  That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."

I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October.  He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.  


Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient IsraelJacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this very well argued book Ted Jennings claims that "same-sex eroticism in Israel is inseparably connected to Israel's Yahwism. It is no extraneous import but something deeply and inextricably embedded in the religion of Israel."

Jennings begins in the obvious place--the sagas of David, Jonathan, and Saul--and from there considers stories of Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, elements of the prophetic tradition (particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Jacob, before wrapping up with Ruth. In other words, here is a systematic overview of much of the Hebrew scriptures demonstrating the role that same-sex eroticism plays in the development of the biblical tradition. Jennings credits same-sex eroticism as being the key element that moves YHWH from a violent warrior God to a God of steadfast love and compassion. In other words, the key essence of the biblical tradition arises from the experience of homoeroticism.

Along the way, Jennings' interpretation makes sense of a wide range of passages, including some of the strangest in scripture. He makes far more sense of them than other interpretations I've read.

Also along the way, Jennings deals with a longstanding false idea in Western culture that Greece was the culture most accepting of homoeroticism while Israel forbade it. Instead, homoeroticism is key the Israelite religion predating its significant emergence in Greek culture. Plus, it is a homoeroticism based upon the desire of bottom rather than the activity of the top, which is how he characterizes Greek culture.

He shows how the Holiness Code in Leviticus is very late to the tradition and doesn't fit a wide range of stories from the sagas (not just those dealing with homoeroticism). He argues that the Holiness Code is borrowed from Zoroastrianism and should not be understood as reflective of Hebrew culture prior to exile.

This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it.

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Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer TheologyRadical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cheng contends that "Christian theology is fundamentally a queer enterprise" what with doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, etc. More than a simple overview or introduction to queer theologies, the book itself is a survey of all the traditional major doctrines of systematic theology around the organizing theme of radical love. He defines this as "a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries." Cheng writes that "Christian theology can be understood as a three-part drama about radical love." For example the Trinity is understood as an internal community of radical love, Jesus as the bearer of radical love, the church as the external community of radical love, etc. I appreciate some of these formulations and will incorporate them into my own rhetoric.

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