Friday, November 14, 2008

A church that did it right

When I look at the current mess we're in, I take comfort in knowing at least one church did it right this election season, and I'm happy to report that it's the one I attend.

Our church is a conservative congregation in a Reformed denomination. We are Calvinists. In our worship services we sing mainly traditional hymns with a few modern tunes thrown in here and there. I would guess that most members are Republican. But then, I wouldn't know exactly because politics is not an obsessive topic of conversation at our gatherings. We are much more concerned about caring for one another and keeping up with each other's lives: someone battling cancer, an infant undergoing surgery, a difficult pregnancy, a death in someone's family.

My pastor has never preached a sermon on Proposition 8 or even once mentioned it from the pulpit. I have no idea how he voted on Prop. 8 and I don't care to know. I have no doubt that his silence was a conscious decision to honor the church as a spiritual institution and to respect the consciences of his congregants.

Likewise, I never took it upon myself to bring up Prop. 8 with anyone in church, never sent out a group email to my church friends pushing my views, never asked anyone how they planned to vote. Many people at my church don't even know about this blog, and those who do have no obligation to read it as far as I'm concerned. I suppose I can't take full credit for my restraint. It just never occurred to me to do otherwise. I think it is because I have been unconsciously following the leadership of my pastor and elders who have diligently kept all political talk out of our worship services. When I'm at church I become focused on spiritual things. I become aware that I have left the things of the world behind to unite with my spiritual family in Jesus Christ.

That doesn't mean I have shied away from giving my political opinions when church friends have approached me with questions. I remember one Sunday in particular, it was three weeks before election day when the pro-Prop. 8 campaign sent out a slew of amazingly nasty mailers. Out of the blue and all at once, I had numerous people seek me out during our fellowship/refreshments break for my take on Prop. 8.

That's when I learned how diverse our congregation was on this issue. A surprising number of people told me they were voting no. Others said they were genuinely torn. Even for the ones who ended up voting yes, this was no light matter, no small struggle of conscience. Just the struggle encouraged me. It is again a credit to my pastor. His silence from the pulpit gave people room to struggle and soul search. He did not obliterate the complexities of this issue and attempt to bind people's consciences with authoritative calls for obedience to God and loyalty to church. None of us felt like our relationship to him or to any of our brothers and sisters in Christ would be imperiled by making an unpopular voting decision.

If only more church leaders took care to treat their congregation members as citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and left them alone to figure out how to vote as citizens of this passing earthly society. Our witness to the world would be immensely brighter.

Believe it or not, there is nothing that most gay and lesbian people want more than to see the church acting like the church should. They know the world to be a hostile, lonely, and oppressive place and that the church is supposed to be a beacon of hope and light. I am leery of the anger that is fueling the current protests and I fear it will lead to increasingly worse behavior. But I also know the anger wouldn't be so bitter if it weren't an expression of people's disillusionment with the church and its leaders. It is a disillusionment that once hoped, that expected better, and now vows to never hope in us again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Suffering as Christians or as meddlers?

Consider my husband's recent post in which he examines the meaning of "troublesome meddler" in 1 Peter 4:15. Are our churches really being "persecuted" right now by the anti-Prop. 8 protesters? Or are we simply seeing the consequences of our own disobedience to God's scriptural command to take care that we do not suffer as meddling moralists?

By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or troublesome meddler [NASB footnote reads: "one who oversees others' affairs"]; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. (1 Peter 4:15-16)

Again, just asking.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

At what cost?

In spite of a smear campaign by the Christian Right that was so vicious and boldly dishonest it appeared to take even gay activists by surprise, Prop. 8 won by only a narrow margin of 52% to 48% this year. Compare that with the victory of Prop. 22 eight years ago by the huge margin of 61% to 38%.

I myself voted for Prop. 22 in 2000. I'm one of those voters who swung to the other side, accounting for the nine point gain we are seeing now. Despite the fear-mongering, lies, misinformation, prejudice, ignorance, and yes, sincerely held religious beliefs that homosexual unions go against the moral teaching of the Bible (which I myself hold to), 48 percent of Californians somehow waded through all that and saw a simple truth: when it is placed in your hands to vote on somebody else's marriage, somebody else's life, somebody else's dreams, have the decency to let them be.

The pro-Prop. 8 campaign may have won, but at what cost? As I've done my own amateur research into the claims this campaign has made and the propaganda they've disseminated, the majority of it appears to me to have been constructed from an editing and pasting job that I can only describe as a deliberate deception of the public. Let me put it this way. If I were in charge of writing those campaign mailers, I would have had to engage in a level of maliciousness and calculated dishonesty that would, in my view, render my Christian profession of faith utterly meaningless. I might win the campaign, yet I'd have to sell my soul to do it.

So was it worth it? Guys?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Rising above the culture war

The past couple of weeks I was feeling somewhat frustrated that the anti-Prop. 8 campaign hasn't done more to answer the lies and misrepresentations of the opposition. It only takes a little research to refute each claim, and anyone who's been reading this blog the last two weeks has gotten a sample of my amateur findings. So why hasn't the No-On-Prop-8 campaign done more to respond to the accusations of the religious right?

Then I came to realize something. The anti-Prop. 8 campaign is not about screaming, accusing, and engaging their opponents in a fruitless, all-out shouting match. They are not trying to twist our arms, convince us of their moral views, or make us feel guilty or obligated. Instead they are appealing to our decency, and in doing so they demonstrate how much more respect they have for us than the other side.

The anti-Prop. 8 campaign is simply asking us to do what is fair and right. They are assuming that we already know a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is gay. They are assuming that whatever disagreements we may have with that gay or lesbian person, we ought to be intelligent enough and fair-minded enough to realize that he or she deserves to be treated as an equal member of our society. And they are trusting that when the critical time comes, when no one is looking, when we are alone in the booth with our ballots and our consciences and no one's eyes upon us but God's, we will do the right thing.

In other words, the anti-Prop. 8 campaign has been making a tremendous effort to rise above the culture-war ugliness even as the pro-Prop. 8 campaign has been attacking them with all the usual tactics from the playbook of 1985. Aren't the differences between these two campaigns telling? The fact is, the gay rights movement has grown up and gone to college, while the religious right continues to roam the playground looking for someone to bully. After all, it's the grown-ups who want to get married. The adolescents, with their limited imaginations, sneer at talk of committed love, always thinking it has be a cover for some baser agenda.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The whole first-grade-field-trip-to-gay-wedding deal

I'm sure you've heard of the latest hype about "First Graders Taken to San Fransciso City Hall for Gay Wedding." A pro-Prop. 8 mailer I received yesterday says:

Just recently in San Francisco, first grade students were taken on a school-sponsored field trip to a gay wedding. The school's principal called it 'a teachable moment.' Gay marriage WILL be taught in California public schools if we don't pass Proposition 8.

A public school took a first grade class to see a gay wedding to indoctrinate children on the moral equivalence between gay and straight marriages! We have to vote for Prop. 8 or else this practice will become widespread!

Breathe, breathe. All right, now let's consider some facts that will help us better understand what was going on here:

1. The wedding the children attended was for their school teacher, Erin Carder, who was marrying her partner, Kerri McCoy.

2. The field trip was not arranged by the teacher or the school principal. It was arranged by one of the parents, with the school's permission.

3. The trip was meant to be a surprise for Ms. Carder. The students took a Muni bus then walked a block to City Hall. They surprised their teacher by blowing bubbles and throwing rose petals as she and her partner emerged from City Hall, then they mobbed Ms. Carder with hugs.

4. It appears that some of the parents attended the wedding with their children. Take a look at these photos and decide for yourself.

5. As with all school field trips, parents have a right to opt their children out. Two families did.

6. The school is Creative Arts Charter School. I think of charter schools as sort of a hybrid between a public and private school. Like a public school they are government funded, but like a private school they are allowed a certain amount of freedom to chart their own educational course. Creative Arts Charter School uses innovative teaching methods, relies heavily on parental involvement (parents are required to volunteer 40 hours a year at the school) and refers to experience-based learning as "a teachable moment" (a phrase that is mocked by the pro-Prop. 8 mailer). They are a small, community-based, K-8 school with only eleven classroom teachers and less than 200 students. In other words, they are far from your typical public school.

So . . . will voting for Prop. 8 prevent charter school parents from arranging surprise field trips to the weddings of well-loved first grade teachers? The difference is maybe a parent will arrange for the school kids to surprise their teacher at her civil-union ceremony instead of her wedding ceremony. Is it worth amending the state constitution to deny an entire segment of the California population their marriage rights to achieve this difference? Just asking.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rebuttal to pro-Prop. 8 campaign claims . . . by a Mormon

Here I've been sinking the few hours of the day I have left in my schedule into investigating the claims of the pro-Proposition 8 campaign, and someone has already done it for me!

Morris Thurston is an active member of the Mormon church, a graduate of BYU and Harvard Law School, and a recently retired senior partner of a global law firm. He is every bit as interested in the preservation of religious freedom as many of us are. But he is also very concerned that the falsehoods and misrepresentations of the pro-Prop.8 campaign will tarnish the reputation of his church, which has contributed heavily to this campaign.

Check out his sensible, readable essay:

"A Commentary on the Document 'Six Consequences . . . if Proposition 8 Fails.'"

If only more religious conservatives were equally concerned about integrity. Should Proposition 8 pass this coming November 4, just remember how many Christians blindly supported the lies, misrepresentations and shameless scare tactics it took to make it happen. Then please, try to make an effort to temper your righteous indignation against gays and lesbians when your attempt to share with them the message of Christ's grace, love and forgiveness is met with hostile rejection.

Our Lord Jesus calls us to adorn his gospel with lives of humility, integrity and love for the truth, yet we are willing to sell that sacred calling for a mess of pottage to satisfy our earthly craving for political and social supremacy. We are willing to win the earthly battle and yet lose the war for people's souls. How did we manage to get so far afield?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Will gay marriage threaten the tax exempt status of churches?

To recap, I received a pro-Prop. 8 mailer containing all sorts of scary talk about how the legalization of gay marriage will strip Christians of their religious freedoms across the board. I've been looking into the cases listed in the mailer one by one to determine whether the threat to our religious freedom is real. Here's the next one on the list:

Same-sex marriage threatens tax exempt status of churches. The Methodist Church's Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey was stripped of its tax-exempt status for part of its property after it refused, for religious reasons, to allow a lesbian couple to hold a "civil-union" ceremony at a pavilion on the camp's property.

Wow. A lesbian couple demanded to be married in a Methodist church, the church refused, and for that it was stripped of its tax exempt rights! How frightening that churches will now be forced to accommodate gay and lesbian couples who demand, upon threat of lawsuit, to be married in our sanctuaries!

Before we have a collective heart attack, let's take a look at the pavilion in question:

This is an open-air pavillion on a beach boardwalk that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The locals understand that it is controlled by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) which is governed by a Methodist board of trustees. But the locals also understand this property to be open to public use. While it is used for worship services, Bible studies, gospel choir performances, it has also been open to the public for weddings and other events and generally provides refuge for pedestrians and beach-goers looking for a place to rest.

So you can see why one of the major considerations in the State of New Jersey's decision in this case was whether this pavillion was for public or private use based on its history. "Evaluating these matters under the appropriate section of the LAD [Law Against Discrimination]. . . will require a determination as to whether Respondent's pavillion rental is a public accommodation subject to the LAD's anti-discrimination provisions, or is exempt as a program which is distinctly private." Notice how the State is ready to recognize exemptions from LAD provisions in cases where the property is private. The problem is, OGCMA couldn't demonstrate that the use of these facilities was distinctly private.

Even weirder was that the State had trouble determining whether OGCMA is even a religious organization. While acknowledging that the state Supreme Court had at one time confirmed the OGCMA's religious status in a case some thirty years ago, "evidence of subsequent changes, such as those relating to the Respondent's relationship with and funding by government entities, may demonstrate that Respondent is no longer a religious organization."

I looked into this "relationship" a bit. First of all, OGCMA doesn't just own the pavillion, but much of Ocean Grove's choicest beach property including, apparently, 1000 feet of the ocean. Furthermore, within the last two decades OGCMA has lobbied U.S. Representative Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth) for state and federal funds to have their property repaired. This includes $250,000 in state funding to replace the roof of the Great Auditorium and federal funds to repair the Ocean Grove boardwalk after a 1992 storm. While all this government money was rolling in, they also successfully secured tax exempt status for themselves as if they were just like any other private religious organization. So which are they? A public or a private organization? Rep. Frank Pallone stated, "They've taken state, federal and local funds by representing that they are open to the public."

Sure, the pro-Prop. 8 mailer correctly reports that OGCMA was "stripped of its tax-exempt status" as a result of this civil union lawsuit. But that's because the OGCMA was getting away with enjoying the benefits of government funding and tax-exempt status at the same time. All the State did was decide, in view of this lawsuit, which side of the line the OGCMA should properly fall.

Sounds fair to me. But instead of giving you the facts, the pro-Prop. 8 mailer would have you believe that this lawsuit unjustly stripped a church organization of its rightful tax-exempt status in favor of the homosexual agenda. That just isn't so.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Frantic pro-Prop. 8 mailers

Twenty-five million dollars have been spent to boost an enormous campaign in favor of Prop. 8 here in California. I just got one of their mailers yesterday. The rhetoric comes off as truly frightening to all church-going, child-raising, conservative-value-cherishing Californians. Activist judges are out of control. Children will be indoctrinated in the second grade. Churches will be stripped of their rights. It goes on and on.

Except I keep seeing stuff on the mailer that contradicts known facts. For instance, you open it up to this headline:

In May of this year, four activist judges on the Supreme Court in San Francisco ignored four million voters and imposed same-sex marriage on California. Their ruling means it is no longer about 'tolerance.'

Hmm. One problem is they fail to mention that three out of four of these "activist judges" were appointed by Republican governors. These "activist judges" are:

Chief Justice Ronald M. George--Gov. Wilson (Republican), 1991
Assoc. Justice Joyce L. Kennard--Gov. Deukmejian (Republican), 1989
Assoc. Justice Carlos R. Moreno--Gov. Davis (Democrat), 2001
Assoc. Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar--Gov. Wilson (Republican), 1994

They also fail to mention that before this ruling, the California state legislature had already voted twice in favor of full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. The legislature took the lead on this one, not "judicial activism." And since California state law had already granted gay and lesbian domestic partners all the legal benefits and responsibilities of married couples, the court's decision was simply about whether there was any constitutional reason to deny the label of "marriage" to such couples. Three out of the six conservative-appointed judges on the CA Supreme Court apparently thought there wasn't.

Then there's this claim on the flyer:

Same-sex marriage threatens the education of our children. After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, public schools began to teach school children about gay marriage. After second graders were read a story in which a prince married another prince, some parents complained. A court ruled that they had NO RIGHT to withdraw their children from classes that taught gay marriage. And since California law already provides children as young as kindergarten be taught about marriage, gay marriage will be taught in our schools too!

Sounds scary, right? So scary that you forget that Prop. 8 has nothing to do with educational policy in public schools. At all. It's about whether gay civil unions, which are already recognized by the state of California as equivalent to marriage relationships in just about every legal aspect except in name, should be called "marriages."

But what about down the road? What if inappropriate sex education gets taught to our children in public schools? I don't know about Massachusetts law, but the California Education Code says parents have every right to excuse their children from public school sex education. Read it for yourself:

Article 5. Education Code sections 51937, 51938—
Notice and Parental Excuse
Many of the parent notification requirements from the prior sex education and HIV/AIDS instruction codes have been retained and moved to this section. Education Code Section 51938 retains a parent's right to excuse their child from all or part of comprehensive sexual health education or HIV/AIDS instruction and any assessments related to that education. Parents are to be notified:

• about instruction that is planned for the coming year in comprehensive sexual health education, HIV/AIDS prevention education, and research on pupil health behaviors and risks. This notification is to be at the beginning of the school year or at the time of enrollment for a new student.
• that written and audiovisual materials are available for inspection
• if instruction will be taught by school district personnel or outside consultants
• of their right to request a copy of this chapter
• that they may request in writing that their child not receive comprehensive sexual health education or HIV/AIDS instruction

But what if the California Education Code changes to strip parents of these rights? Well, obviously that's the time to start screaming and hollering about "our rights" as parents and sending out panicky mailers about the "threat to the education of our children." The thing not to do is to send out mailers implying that parents will have "NO RIGHT" to withdraw their children from sex education classes, when in fact they currently do have that right in very explicit terms.

There's more misleading stuff on the mailer I'd like to talk about, but I've got to pick up my oldest kid from public school now. More on this later.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Prop. 8: "It's about the children"

So while I was sitting in my minivan yesterday waiting to pick up my oldest daughter from middle school, I was trying to understand an editorial by David Blankenhorn in Friday's L.A. Times on why gay marriage would have a negative impact on kids. In "Protecting Marriage to Protect Children," Blankenhorn starts by saying, "I'm a liberal Democrat. And I do not favor same-sex marriage. Do those positions sound contradictory? To me, they fit together." Well, I'm intrigued. Maybe Mr. Blankenhorn can enlighten me using his liberal Democrat point of view. Shed some new light on the subject.

I read the editorial twice over. The second time I really combed through it, underlining, even slowing my eyes down to study his arguments word by word, and still I wasn't exactly sure what points Mr. Blankenhorn was attempting to make. Was I missing something? I'll put them down line for line and maybe you can tell me.

[M]arriage is not primarily a license to have sex. Nor is it primarily a license to receive benefits or social recognition. It is primarily a license to have children . . .

[T]he anthropologist Henry Fisher in 1992 put it simply: "People wed primarily to reproduce."

Presumably, Mr. Blankenhorn is aware that the entire debate we're having here in California over Proposition 8 is whether gay marriage should be legally recognized. This is not a philosophical discussion about marriage ideals. This is a debate over whether to grant or withhold marriage rights from a certain segment of the California population. Given that context, Blankenhorn sounds like he believes that the marriages of all couples who are biologically incapable of producing children (including: the man or woman is sterile, or the woman is past childbearing years) should not be legally recognized. I don't think he is seriously suggesting that, but that's certainly the direction of his logic.

Marriage (and only marriage) unites the three core dimensions of parenthood--biological, social and legal--into one pro-child form: the married couple. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you . . .

In 2002 . . . a team of researchers from Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center, reported that "family structure clearly matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage."

I agree that this is a beautiful ideal. I had it in my family as a child. My three children have it now. But, as we all know, it's not possible for all children to have that. Now, if we are serious about passing laws to minimize these less-than-ideal child-rearing situations, we should start by outlawing divorce. Such a law would make great strides in ensuring that "the man and the woman whose sexual union made [the child] will also be there to love and raise [the child]," wouldn't it? But again, I don't think Mr. Blankenhorn is serious about following through on his own logic.

Let's look at this from another angle. According to Blankenhorn, Child Trends says that the ideal family structure for raising children is "two biological parents and a low-conflict marriage." That means, in theory, a stable married gay couple who, let's say, adopts a child would provide a better family structure than a divorced single mother who shares custody of her child with her ex on the weekends. The household of the stable married gay couple would fulfill the "two parent" requirement, the "low-conflict" requirement and the "marriage" requirement. The household of the divorced single mother who still has to deal with her ex on the weekends would fulfill only the "biological" requirement and fails on the "two-parent," the "low-conflict" and the "marriage" requirements. By Child Trends' standards, the theoretical stable gay married couple is far more preferable to the single divorced mother.

So why aren't we voting on a proposition to penalize divorced single mothers, since they can't provide the ideal family structure according to Child Trends? The answer is, because this is America, not communist China. In this country we don't use the law to penalize someone because he or she fails to live up to everyone else's utopian ideals.

And, I might add, we also know too many divorced single mothers who have successfully raised well-adjusted kids. Why not give gay couples the same chance?

[C]hildren have the right, insofar as society can make it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world . . .

Every child being raised by gay or lesbian couples will be denied his birthright to both parents who made him. Every single one.

Every child has a "right" to be raised by both biological parents, says Blankenhorn. This is where he really loses me.

When I picture a gay married couple raising children, I think of four different scenarios. 1) The children are biologically related to one partner from a previous heterosexual marriage. (One biological parent, one stepparent.) 2) The children are adopted. (Both are adoptive parents.) 3) A child being raised by a lesbian couple was conceived by implanting donated sperm into the womb of one partner. (One biological parent, one stepparent.) 4) A child being raised by a gay male couple was conceived by implanting the sperm of one partner into the womb of a surrogate mother. (One biological parent, one stepparent.)

Plenty of straight parents have or acquire children through these means. Plenty of straights are also involved in raising children who are not biologically their own. Besides stepparents and adoptive parents, there are also godparents and grandparents who step in to help raise a child where one parent is deadbeat, deceased, etc.

Shall we penalize all these people, whether gay or straight, because they are "denying" the child his right to be raised by two biological parents? What on earth does Blankenhorn mean by that anyhow? You could rephrase Blankenhorn's statement as follows:

"Every child being raised by a stepparent, adoptive parent, godparent or grandparent is being denied his birthright to both parents who made him. Every single one."

At best it's a dismal take on the situation. At worst it's an insult to the people who are unselfishly devoting themselves to the child's well-being. Someone who isn't even their own biological child.

I thought that people who weren't the biological parents of a child, yet still took on the responsibility of giving him love, attention, discipline, security and provision, ought to be commended for doing a noble thing. I thought that people who wanted children so badly they would go as far as adopting a child, using cutting edge medical procedures, or risking hiring a surrogate mother showed tremendous promise for being committed and enthusiastic parents.

I have an odd feeling that the real answer is, if you're straight you can be a noble, committed and enthusiastic parent. But if you're gay you are only capable of denying a child his "birthright."

* * * * * *
I know at this point you're expecting me to list more of Blankenhorn's arguments. But really, that's it. Read the article for yourself and let me know if I've missed any other profound insights from the liberal Democrat on why I should oppose gay marriage. For myself, I can think of plenty of socially conservative, even Christian reasons why I should support it. I think I'll stick with those.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ray Boltz's story

A friend sent me a link to this interesting article in the Washington Blade. I've never been a CCM fan so I can't say I knew the name, but apparently Ray Boltz is right up there with the likes of Sandi Patty and Steven Curtis Chapman. His journey to coming out as gay is, unfortunately, typical of many people I know. He was married for 33 years and has four children. He hated himself for his homosexuality and endured decades of pain, of hiding, and of fear. Although he never formally joined an ex-gay group, he tried all their methods. “I basically lived an ‘ex-gay’ life — I read every book, I read all the scriptures they use, I did everything to try and change.”

Boltz speaks for many, many people who have been down the same path. The difference is that he is a celebrated name in Christian circles, and evangelicals can be brutal when their idols disappoint them.

Says Boltz:

I don’t want to be a spokesperson, I don’t want to be a poster boy for gay Christians, I don’t want to be in a little box on TV with three other people in little boxes screaming about what the Bible says, I don’t want to be some kind of teacher or theologian — I’m just an artist and I’m just going to sing about what I feel and write about what I feel and see where it goes.

Sample lyrics from one of his recent songs:

I was so good at pretending/like an actor on a stage/but in the end nobody knew me/only the roles that I portrayed/and I would rather have you hate me/knowing who I really am/than to try and make you love me/being something that I can’t (from “God Knows I Tried”).

Boltz isn't the first Christian singer to come out, though he may be the most famous. Kirk Talley, a Southern Gospel singer, came out in 2005. The Washington Blade tried to interview Talley for their story on Ray Boltz but he declined, offering only one comment:

"I will definitely be in prayer for Ray," he said in an e-mail. "He has no idea the crap he will have to endure."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Post-trip let down

I haven't forgotten about you guys. I even got started on a couple of posts for this blog, which I've left incomplete for now. But it's not just this blog that's suffering neglect. I have friends I'm supposed to email back, or get back in touch with, or get together with, and I've been slow to follow through.

I think it's because the Cambodia trip is still eating at me. This summer my husband and I went on a short term missions trip to Cambodia for ten days, my first missions trip since I was in college in 1987. Ever since that first trip in '87, I've wanted to go back. The past twenty-one years I've invested a lot of time thinking and educating myself about foreign missions. I thought finally getting the chance to go to Cambodia would reignite a desire for missionary work and give me clearer direction about when and where that would take place.

Instead I've come back feeling less excited about it than before, and I guess I didn't expect I'd feel that way. I'm not less enthusiastic about missionary work itself. I understand the tremendous needs out there and saw them firsthand. I was inspired by the missionary workers I met who have given up everything to dedicate themselves to this task. For most of my life I've half expected that I'd be called upon to make those sacrifices myself. But now, after this trip, I'm no longer sure that God is confirming that path for me.

Twenty-one years is a lot of build-up to come to a conclusion like this, so right now I'm feeling a bit of a let down. But it helps to confront the hard facts of the situation, writing it down here, so that I can start making some progress in moving forward. Maybe when more of that progress is made, I'll feel up to writing again.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Posthumous Oscar for Ledger?

Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight was outstanding. There are even rumors that he might be considered for a posthumous Oscar. I think that would be terrific, of course, but not without mixed feelings.

The year Ledger was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Brokeback Mountain, I heard from reliable opinions that Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Capote that year (which I didn't see) happened to top his. I could accept that.

But for the Academy to award Best Picture to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain was, to my mind, pure cowardice. The Academy nominated the Brokeback cast for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, and didn't give the award to any of the three. That must mean that, given that the collective performance of the cast was so exceptional, by the Academy's own admission, not the mention the obvious impact the film was making among the general public and the social relevance of the issues being raised, it all points to a best picture of the year, right? Any other picture carrying those credentials would be an obvious shoo-in for the award. Except, it turns out, a picture that tells the truth about being homosexual in America.

Since Crash won Best Picture two and a half years ago, do you hear anyone talking about it? Any memorable scenes recalled? Any truly memorable performances? When someone says "Crash" you think they're talking about their commute home from work. When someone says "Brokeback" everyone knows what they're talking out.

All things considered it makes me wonder if Heath Ledger ever had a chance at winning the Oscar, Philip Seymour Hoffman notwithstanding. I wouldn't be surprised if the Academy viewed Hoffman as a godsend that year. If Ledger wins an Oscar this time around, posthumously, that would be great. But it also leaves me with the sad feeling that the honor came too late, and on a picture that, overall, isn't nearly the achievement that Brokeback was.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Back from Cambodia

Phnom Penh was an amazing, exciting, crazy place to be staying for ten days. Geckos crawled the walls inside the houses and restaurants. People set up shop any place they could find on the shoulder of the road--all you need is a cart and some merchandise. And no traffic rules applied, such as: what lane you're supposed to be in, what side of the road you're supposed to drive on, and whether red means stop or green means go. As far as we could tell the only traffic rule that applied in Phnom Penh was, Do what you need to do to get there.

The Cambodian people are friendly, gentle, easy-going souls. They graciously tried to understand my Khmer and gave me pronunciation pointers on my vowels. (There are more than 40 different vowel sounds in Khmer, the most of any language in the world.)

Using a translator, I taught a discipleship-type class for Christian women from Monday to Friday the week I was there. Going in, I was under the impression that my students would be at a more basic level. But as I began teaching them I quickly realized they were much more advanced, and I had to rework all my lessons to make them adequately challenging.

They wanted to know why the clean and unclean food laws from the Old Testament changed after Jesus' coming. They wanted to understand the Trinity. They wanted to know why good people suffered and evil people prospered in this life. All really good questions. They were questions that I had thought of before, and the more I answered the more questions they asked. Before I knew it, it was Friday.

I only wish I had more than just one week to spend with those Christian women. But whatever my longing, I have to accept the shortness of my stay. I had seen enough to know that the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of those believers, and it was my privilege to be able to stop in briefly and enjoy fellowshipping with them in our common faith.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Off to Cambodia

I'm off to Cambodia tomorrow morning. I spent a year and a half trying to learn Khmer just for this ten-day trip, and yet I feel like I know hardly anything. Since not many people know Khmer, I thought I might be able to connect with the Cambodian people more quickly if I at least made an effort to learn their language.

Otherwise I will be relying on a translator. I'll be giving five lectures at a Christian women's conference on how to grow in your relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. I'll also be sharing the gospel with women in the rural villages who are mostly illiterate.

From everything I've heard, the Cambodian people are a cheerful and resilient people in spite of the horrors they suffered during the Pol Pot massacre in the 70's. Going into that context carrying Jesus' message of forgiveness and of redemption through suffering, I can't say I feel entirely adequate. If there are Cambodian Christians who have learned to forgive the past and have managed to find redeeming value in their sufferings, they are the true message bearers. I'm sure I'll come away feeling more blessed by them than the other way around.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

AFA bizarreness

A friend points me to a story about the bizarre editing practices of the American Family Association. Anyone ever heard of "auto-replace"? I think I'll turn it over to The Carpetbagger Report to explain . . .

The auto-corrected version of the article can be found here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reporting live from California

I thought I should report to all of you who might have been concerned that even though gay and lesbian couples have been getting married all day here in California, my own heterosexual marriage is currently in good and stable condition. Today has been largely uneventful. My husband went to work, worked, and came back from work. I cooked dinner while he played with the kids in the yard. I served honey Dijon chicken breast, braised carrots and salad. We enjoyed dinner then watched the Laker game. In disgust he just now walked out the door to run an errand, not because his marriage has been redefined but because the Lakers are trailing the Celtics by 29 points. So things are pretty normal around here, and I do believe our marriage will pull through. But thanks, everyone, for your concern.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sunday School class, part two

I felt burnt out from my studies after finishing the second and final Sunday School class three weeks ago. And yet as soon as the class ended I had to hit the computer again to write a series of five lectures (different topic) in preparation for a Cambodia missions trip next month. No rest for the weary.

Hence, this late report on how the second class went. It was a more practical class than the first. I talked about understanding where gay and lesbian people are coming from, the ways in which we often talk past each other, and how to communicate about our Christian beliefs without sounding like a religious right fanatic.

I explained that one complicating factor is that gay people divide roughly into two groups on the question of how to evaluate their own orientation. Which group any given person is a part of changes entirely how I understand and relate to them. I've found that people can look at their homosexuality in two ways:

1. Some people focus on the fact that their sexual feelings and attraction are not oriented toward the "right" sex. They have always felt that there is something about them that has gone awry, and their conscience, the pressures of society and the teachings of religion seem to confirm this perception. People who view their homosexuality in this way often come from a religious, conservative or ethnic background. More liberal-minded gays often dismiss them as self-haters, weaklings who have failed to stand up to social oppression. This may be the case with some, but I think it's only fair to acknowledge that there are others who believe they are simply following the convictions of their conscience. In other words, even if the pressures of family, society and the church could be shoved aside, many people would still feel something is wrong with being homosexual. It is easier for the average conservative Christian to relate to people from this group because Christians can appeal to the idea of sin and the fallen state of human beings when talking to them.

2. On the other hand, there are other people who choose to focus more on the fact that their sexual feelings and attraction are an expression of love, which they say is no less real than heterosexual love. The fact that their sexual orientation happens to be directed toward the same sex is a less critical issue to them. Whether they think their same-sex orientation is a morally neutral or morally troubling phenomenon, to them the more weighty issue is pursuing a loving relationship. Love is among the highest of moral virtues--so healing and beneficial to yourself and the person you love. Loving and being loved makes you whole. How can this be harmful to society? Conservative Christians dismiss this group as depraved and hard-hearted because they celebrate with "gay pride" the very thing Christians view as sin. But it's hardly fair to assume people are "celebrating sin" when they believe they are just celebrating love. Conservative Christians may have a serious moral disagreement with them, but going as far as calling them "depraved" only shuts down the conversation altogether.

I remember when I was a kid my dad used to tell me, "There's a difference between saying 'I understand' and 'I agree.' I may understand you but not agree with you." Dad isn't a Christian, but I think his advice is apropos for Christians who want to be effective witnesses in the world today.

From my experience it never hurts to understand where the other side is coming from. It might only hurt if hearing a different viewpoint upsets you to the point of shaking your faith, in which case you should definitely bail. But if you are a mature Christian, if you are secure in your own personal moral life and you know what your limits are, having a conversation with someone who sees things differently than you shouldn't imperil your soul. I view listening as an act of kindness. It is just taking to heart the advice from James 1:19-20, "But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Running low

Opponents of same-sex civil marriage will need to present Californians with a convincing argument for voting in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage this November. But as this Bill O'Reilly interview shows, they're running low on ideas.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Last Sunday's class

My Sunday school class went really well this past week, and I've been so busy preparing for the next class I forgot I was leaving you guys hanging. Sorry!

My goal was to present my understanding of homosexuality to the class, so that later on we can discuss how Christians can do a better job of loving and understanding their gay friends, family members and acquaintances. I presented the homosexual orientation as both a fallen and yet unchosen condition, a definition that stays true to both biblical teaching and people's experiences. It is in accord with Augustine's view of original sin that is further expounded upon in the Westminster Standards' Larger Catechism, to which our denomination (the PCA) subscribes.

But it's not enough to present abstract doctrines and theological definitions. I also read from the testimonies of two gay men who were professing Christians who talked about what it was like to grow up with the dawning awareness that they were homosexual. To me this was the centerpiece of the class, because if you haven't heard people describe it for themselves, you can never fully appreciate what people mean when they say, "I didn't choose this." I don't know how people in the class felt about those testimonies, but everyone listened in a respectful silence.

The question and answer time went on for 30 minutes. No one was hostile, everyone was trying to think and understand. Maybe the reason it all went so well was because our church is very young. The vast majority of members are in their 20's and 30's.

People wanted to know if these testimonies were typical to most gay people's experiences. One guy mentioned off-hand that he didn't have a problem with the CA Supreme Court's recent decision, and wanted to know how Christians can distance themselves from the "religious right" image. We talked about celibacy, what that was like for people, how the church might support someone who makes that decision for him- or herself. Someone brought up Joseph Nicolosi, not to bring up ex-gay ministries but to ask whether Nicolosi's theories about child-rearing could prevent kids from becoming gay. (I said I had never seen any convincing evidence to support his theories.)

Before we broke up, I asked the class whether they wanted me to explain about ex-gay ministries next time, or if they just wanted me to move forward with how to talk to and befriend someone who is gay. I was offering to read some ex-gay testimonies and explain how they related to what we had just talked about in class. One guy said, "Skip it" and I saw a lot of heads nod. To me that was the most surprising thing about last Sunday's class. Is the younger generation of conservative Christians becoming more skeptical about the claims of ex-gay ministries? If so I think that would be a huge step in the right direction.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Republicans aid "judicial activism"

I heard that Hugh Hewitt threw a fit on the radio this afternoon over today's 4-3 California Supreme Court ruling. Apparently he was screaming something about voting for John McCain so that a Republican could appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court instead of a bunch of liberals.

Well, I'm afraid that may not necessarily solve things because Hugh Hewitt failed to mention one small detail. I learned from the Log Cabin Republicans today that 6 out of 7 justices on the CA Supreme Court were appointed by Republican governors. I checked it out for myself:

Assoc. Justice Joyce L. Kennard--Deukmejian (Republican), 1989
Assoc. Justice Carlos R. Moreno--Davis (Democrat), 2001
Assoc. Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar--Wilson (Republican), 1994
Chief Justice Ronald M. George--Wilson (Republican), 1991
Assoc. Justice Ming W. Chin--Wilson (Republican), 1996
Assoc. Justice Marvin R. Baxter--Wilson (Republican), 1991
Assoc. Justice Carol A. Corrigan--Schwarzenegger (Republican), 2005

Given that the Democratic appointee voted in favor of this ruling, it means that the remaining Republican appointees were split 3-3. You're not going to learn this tidbit from either the Democrats or the Republicans. Leave it to Log Cabin to give us the real scoop.

California joins Massachusetts

Andrew Sullivan astutely points out that the ruling in California today is not judicial activism, as the religious right will no doubt spin it. Far from ramming this ruling past the legislature, the California legislature has already voted in favor of full marriage rights for gay couples twice. All the court has done is refuse to buy into the "civil unions" rationale, which says, "Gay couples can have all the legal benefits of marriage but let's stop short of actually calling it marriage." Instead, they have chosen to do what is legally fair.

As I have said many times before, when it comes to the civil arena the only justification I can see for stopping short of calling such unions "marriage" is bigotry. We do not live in a theocracy. As a society we do not require that our government withhold the title of "marriage" from all couples whose marriages do not conform to biblical standards (logically, that would include a lot of marriages). You cannot withhold the label "marriage" from gay couples seeking legal recognition of their unions by appealing to a Christian definition of marriage, unless of course you want to start by attacking the Buddhist married couple down the street. You have to find some other excuse. And speaking for myself, I've been hard pressed to find one over the past eight years of studying this issue.

If you're a Christian, look on the bright side. For years we've pounded on gays, condemning their "lifestyle." Well, there is no better remedy for a sexually promiscuous and irresponsible lifestyle than entering into a marriage union, where your gay spouse would be much more effective in keeping you on the straight and narrow than a Focus On the Family broadcast. Let's prove that Christians can be smart, consistent and fair-minded by at least giving a nod of approval in that direction.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Doing them justice

For the very first time since I started studying this issue eight years ago, I will have an opportunity to teach a class on homosexuality at my church. The fact that I've been overthinking my lesson plans and generally stressing about it shows that I'm more than a little nervous.

How often do we talk openly about these issues in the conservative church? Whenever it does spring up, it's usually because someone within the church is suddenly discovered to be homosexual, and so the discussion arises in an atmosphere of shock, gossip and scandal. The person in question is under a cloud from the start. There is no opportunity to discuss what it means to be homosexual in a calm and rational environment.

I feel I need to speak for that person, to explain to my fellow Christians what homosexuality is from the perspective of those who experience it. There is so much to say, and it is difficult to know where to begin.

I have been reading through old emails that readers have sent me over the years. I'm amazed at how open people have been with me, how articulately they have expressed themselves. It's overwhelming, really. Now I want to do them justice, and I'm afraid of failing them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Moved in

So we're finally getting settled into our new place. The house is so . . . nice. I've been working on it non-stop but am finally beginning to realize that there is no end to the stuff that needs to be done. Maybe it's time to let up a little.

I keep wondering why God gave this house to us. For the first time we have a yard for the kids to play in, a garage to store stuff, a fireplace (two of them!), a driveway (where your newspaper sits waiting for you instead of getting swiped by neighbors in the next unit), and a roomy kitchen (where I don't have to use the pull-out cutting board as counter space). Recently I realized that I've been working so hard because I felt like I had to deserve to be here. Which is dumb because no matter how hard I work, I would always be able to think of other people who deserve this house more than me. There must be some other reason why we're here.

If you'd asked me back in college where I thought I'd be living at age 39, I would have said a thatched hut somewhere on the missions field. When I started dating my husband, he asked me if I'd mind apartment living the rest of my life since that's all he'd be able to afford with a career in the ministry. I figured it was a step up from a thatched hut, so no problem. I was fairly content with apartment living until the third kid came along and I couldn't walk three steps in our apartment without bumping into something. (Mysterious bruises routinely appeared on my legs that I never remembered getting.) I wanted to stay content, though, because if I couldn't hack the situation that might mean I couldn't hack Africa or China or some place God might call us to someday.

I guess I'm worried that the reason God gave us this nice house and the reason I'm enjoying it so much is that he's telling me I'm not cut out for the rough stuff of missionary life. Yet at one time I thought he had called me to be a missionary. Was I mistaken?

A gay friend of mine observed, "Maybe God wants you to be a missionary here. I know of so many conservative Christians who would much rather minister in Cambodia than to homosexuals right here in the States." I wonder if he may be right. I have the tendency to think that anything I enjoy doing couldn't be God's real calling for me. I always imagine that his real calling for me would be something distasteful.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Internet Monk gets it

All I can say is: my sentiments exactly.

Check out a great post by Internet Monk on what gays and lesbians hear when they listen to evangelicals. A sample of just one of his many good points:

One of the inevitable results of the information age is that anyone who wants to know the worst behavior of any group can gather that information easily. If one chooses not to be judicious and cautious with such information, it is possible to make every member of a group guilty by association . . . For example, saying that some gays somewhere have hundreds of sexual partners has little to do with the behavior of gays that I might know. As a statement of statistical truth, it cannot be applied in a determinative way to any individual. The average preacher is well aware of the extremes of sexual sin that probably occur among heterosexuals, but few would find it as easy to speak about internet porn addiction as promiscuity in the gay community.

What this says to the gay community is simple: evangelicals aren’t interested in the truth as much as they are interested in an emotional response. There is an agenda to how we process such facts and stories into communication.

But don't stop there. Be sure to read the whole post.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Unfit to homeschool

This is a bit off the subject, but most of you regular readers know that I'm a homeschooler. And you've probably heard by now that according to a Los Angeles County Appellate Court, I'm not fit to teach my kids at home.

I got my B.A. at UCLA and my Master's degree at Westminster Seminary. I've taught English in Japan, done some public speaking and currently teach a women's Bible study at my church. I've published numerous articles over the years in magazines, papers, theological journals and, of course, the Internet. Ironically, I even served as a math tutor for Cal State University San Marcos students who were trying earn their teaching credential but were failing basic math. Yet I guess I'm not fit to teach my own kids unless I go back to school and get a teaching credential myself.

I have nothing against public schools, just the ones that aren't giving kids a decent education. They are usually located in non-ritzy neighborhoods like the one we just moved out of. For low to middle income families who can't afford private school, homeschooling is the most affordable option you have to help your kid get ahead educationally. And now that's going to be taken from us too? Why should only the rich have all the best educational opportunities?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Our house is almost fixed up and just about everything's boxed up for the move this Friday. All was going well until I had a bad fall on Monday and spent ten hours at the ER trying to get an x-ray. They finally got around to doing the x-ray--at 4 am. Nothing's broken, but a night of sleep was lost. I can get around okay, as long as I get around slowly. Also, one of the kids came down with a high fever last night. Not good timing since the local appliance recycling program came today to take away our old refrigerator, so we'll be living out of a cooler for two days.


The good news is that the earth will keep turning and the sun will keep rising and setting until we get past all this.

Oh, and by the way the blogging will be light, very light, over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lust or love?

I was talking to some friends last night who would consider themselves to be more liberal-minded than most Christians with regard to social issues. Sure enough when they spoke of homosexuality, they were quick to acknowledge that it is no different than any of the other sins out there. But I was surprised to learn that their reasoning was that they characterized homosexuality as essentially "lust." One of my friends, a passionate Democrat, said, "It would be unfair to single out homosexual lust as if it were a special kind of sin, since heterosexuals lust too. Lust is lust."

Now, I'm glad that people are coming around to the idea that it's wrong to vilify homosexual people as some special category of sinner. But my understanding of gay and lesbian people is that their experience of homosexuality is not about being caught up in a continual state of lust. To say so is to characterize their homosexual feelings as fundamentally sordid and self-serving. It leaves no room for any of the feelings or impulses that belong to the higher order of human sexual experience such as emotional and spiritual bonding, mutual respect and admiration, the urge to give oneself to another, the desire to sacrifice oneself for another, or the conviction that you have found a "soul mate."

To say that homosexual people are all about the baser impulses of sexual attraction, minus any of the nobler feelings, is essentially saying they are less human than the rest of us. In other words, it is saying they are incapable of human love.

I think the reason the idea of homosexual love makes some Christians uncomfortable is that it doesn't provide much basis for their negative reaction to homosexuality. It would seem more justified if homosexuality were about people who are of a fundamentally lower moral quality. But to say that there are people who are capable of the exact same kind of sexual attraction as everyone else, except that they find themselves attracted to people of the same sex for reasons even they can't explain, is a more disturbing idea. It turns a part of your universe upside down. How can something as sacred and sublime as love take on this orientation? How could God allow this to happen? What is he doing? What does it mean? Why am I feeling so freaked out by it?

As much as Christians like to talk about "the homosexual agenda" and their righteous anger over "perversion," at its root this is really about the deep issues regarding our own personal faith, isn't it? As Christians we know we're not supposed to despise people. Everyone knows that. So we look for reasons to justify our uncomfortable feelings instead of just admitting we have them. Maybe that's why we make up stuff about how homosexuality is "lust" and "sex addiction" instead of just listening to what gay people have been telling us plainly about themselves until they are sick of saying it. Believing the made-up stuff is easier than having to accept the truth of the matter, than having to confront our own fears and phobias and doubts and questionings of God. We want to believe this is about "them" when it is really about us.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Super Tuesday and beyond

We have closed primaries in the state of California. As a registered Republican voting by absentee ballot, I mailed in my vote for John McCain this past Tuesday. I should add that way back in October I'd already decided to cast my vote for McCain in this primary, feeling a trifle foolish since he was barely on the media radar screen at the time. Now with this latest surge of success, I feel a lot less embarrassed about supporting him.

But that's in a closed primary. What about this November? As a moderate Republican, this is where my cold, rational self stands with regard to the November elections at the present moment:

Clinton vs. McCain -- McCain
Obama vs. Romney -- Obama
Clinton vs. Romney -- Clinton (ouch! ouch!)
Obama vs. McCain -- Obama (by a hair)

My reasoning is that what this country needs right now is a Democrat for president. People are sick of the Republicans right now (and I think for good reason). But what we also need is a leader who can begin to move us beyond the culture war, the red state-blue state divide, and this whole divisive mess we've gotten ourselves into. In my opinion, Obama and McCain move us closer to that goal, whereas Clinton and Romney move us farther away.

If it were Obama vs. McCain I'd have to (painfully, because I really like McCain) choose the Democrat because I think that's better for our country. If it were Clinton vs. Romney I'd have to (even more painfully, because I really can't stand Clinton) choose the Democrat once again. But if it were Clinton vs. McCain, McCain gets my vote because he will be much less divisive than Clinton.

If John McCain wins the Republican ticket, I personally think the only Democratic candidate who can beat him is Obama. Obama is the first Democratic candidate who has appealed to me in a long time. I take interest in watching the drama of whether Democrats will take this golden opportunity of voting him in, or whether they will again jeopardize their chance at the presidency by going with the more partisan choice.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Protesting "fag enablers"

Westboro Baptist Church is trying to find out where Heath Ledger's funeral service is being held. Apparently, they are only interested in protesting the funerals of truly innocent victims of crime (Matthew Shepard) or people who are courageous enough to have done something worthwhile with their lives (soldiers fighting terrorists, actors promoting understanding about homosexuality). Maybe it's an honor if they show up at your funeral. Should any of us dare to hope they would show up at ours?

One of the signs they are allegedly planning to bring says "God Hates Fags and Fag Enablers." Now that is the first time I've heard the term "fag enabler." In the '60's they called whites who marched with blacks in the civil rights movement "n----- lovers." By employing the derogatory term for an African American person, the term is supposed to make you, as a white person, feel ashamed.

I have had to deal with this kind of assault from people who were trying to make me feel as ashamed of myself as they were ashamed of me for associating with gay and lesbian people. But I never encountered any standard schoolyard term used by straights to try to cut me down along those lines. Not that people haven't had plenty to say, but it's as if they can't agree on one label. The fact that Westboro Baptist Church can only come up with something as relatively benign as "fag enabler" does surprise me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

I felt sick hearing the news this afternoon. So far it sounds like an accidental overdose. It's hard to imagine any other explanation for an actor who was at the top of his game like Heath Ledger was. Anyone who has landed the role of The Joker has to be at the top of his game (and the clips of him in The Dark Knight trailer looked terrific).

When I first saw Ledger in The Patriot I wasn't impressed. I assumed he was just another pretty boy who couldn't act. When I heard he had the lead role in Brokeback Mountain, I would have written the film off if I didn't have so much respect for the director, Ang Lee. Ledger's performance blew my mind. I had seen the private pain and struggles of so many closeted gay men, but never imagined I'd see it portrayed so compassionately up on the cinema screen, let alone by someone I had written off as a B actor. It was a gift to anyone who could see his own life's story in the character of Ennis Del Mar.

I respected Ledger not just for that performance but for proving me wrong. I was so looking forward to The Dark Knight. I still am, but after this news how can it not be painful to see?

I wrote a review for Brokeback Mountain shortly after I had seen it in the theater. You can read it here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Self-Made Man

I finished reading Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent, a former columnist for the L.A. Times who quit her job to write this fascinating book. Vincent is a lesbian who grew up a tomboy and thought it might be fun to write a book on what it would be like to go undercover and live as a man. She felt she was in a good position to pull it off, and she did so successfully. For a period of eighteen months as "Ned" she joined a bowling league, dated women, went to strip clubs, worked in sales, and even lived in a monastery for her research.

She did not do this as a transsexual (someone who believes he is a man trapped in a woman's body), or as a cross-dresser (someone who enjoys dressing as a man). Rather she had to endure tremendous psychological and emotional stress to keep up the act, disguising her speech, mannerisms, feelings and body language (not to mention her appearance) to complete her transformation as Ned. Aware of the common feminist complaint that men have a cushier lot in life than women, she was eager to experience male life for herself and report back with her findings. She writes:
At the beginning of the project I remember thinking that living as a man and having access to a man's world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside. I expected everything to be big and out in the open, the real deal live and three feet from my face, instead of seen through a glass darkly.

Yet what she discovered completely surprised her. Instead of living large once she was freed from the social expectations of femaleness, as a male she felt she encountered only a different type of repression, a different set of problems. She learned that the only socially acceptable emotion Ned was allowed to express was anger ("As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range"). She found that women were immediately hostile to Ned on the first date ("'Pass my test and then we'll see if you're worthy of me' was the implicit message coming across the table at me. And this from women who had demonstrably little to offer"). Among men Ned was always on guard against doing anything that might get him labeled a "fag."
Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. White manhood in America isn't the standard anymore by which women and all other minorities are being measured and found wanting, or at least it doesn't feel that way from the inside. It's just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.

The entire book, in fact, could be summed up as a politically incorrect critique of radical, anti-male feminism. And no one is in a better position to pull it off with greater credibility than this free-thinking lesbian intellectual. Norah Vincent's message to women is: Men aren't what you think. Her message to men is: You have it harder than people know. Far from thinking that the line between male and female can be obliterated into some sort of androgynous human existence, her experience of having lived as Ned brings her to quite the opposite conclusion:
I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can't help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in a parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects.

As a woman and a lesbian, Vincent can get away with raising issues no conservative male could without sounding reactionary, sexist and defensive. And, of course, the irony is that by run-of-the-mill conservative standards, when it comes to dealing with feminist viewpoints on sex and gender issues, a lesbian is automatically relegated to the enemy camp.

Yet not only did Vincent use her lesbian angle on life to her advantage in doing the research, coming to some surprisingly conservative conclusions, but she pulled it off at tremendous personal cost. The strain of maintaining her male identity for eighteen months and shutting off her female self resulted in a breakdown that landed her for a few days in a mental hospital. The fact that she could, in the end, recover from her ordeal and write such a winsome and compelling account is a testimony to her personal strength, as well as her compassion and commitment in trying to understand both sides of the male-female divide. Considering her book is not likely to be embraced by either conservative traditionalists or liberal feminists, she has paid quite a price. I hope she gets the credit and recognition she deserves.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Japanese American

Sometimes people ask me, "If you're not gay yourself, why are you so interested in their cause?" I used to think to myself, As a Christian why wouldn't I be? It's a clear case of social injustice, and much of the blame falls upon the Christian community. Naturally as a Christian I'd want to do everything possible to help salvage the credibility of my faith and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But lately I've been thinking along different lines. Maybe this cause hits home with me because I'm also a fourth generation Japanese American. I often discount my ethnic background as having anything to do with "me." Aside from going to family gatherings, I don't hang with other JA's. I'm not involved in the JA community and I have no JA friends. But even in my free-floating, culturally-detached state, I wonder if I've been more affected by my community and family history than I realize.

My grandfather was a 30 year-old American-born citizen living in Los Angeles when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Grandpa had been born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, California. His ambition was to go to UCLA and become a doctor. But money was tight, his own father was a useless alcoholic, so Grandpa become the main provider for his three younger brothers, even succeeding in putting one of them through med school instead. Having given up his own college education, he never left celery farming. He was married to a young Japanese wife and raising two young children of his own (my aunt and my dad) when America went to war against Japan.

As a Japanese-American farmer, Grandpa soon received a government notice assuring him that if he supported the war effort by stepping up farm production, the U.S. government would acknowledge his loyalty. So he bought a new tractor, even though he couldn't afford it. Probably sunk all his savings into it. Then a mere two months later he received another notice telling him he and his family would be bussed off to Manzanar Relocation Center. So much for getting a chance to prove his loyalty.

I don't know what he and Grandma did with all their stuff. They only had two weeks to prepare for relocation. Many JA's sold their belongings dirt cheap while neighbors descended like vultures for a bargain. I'm sure it was no different for my grandparents. Grandpa locked up the new tractor in a storage barn and asked a neighbor watch over it until they returned. He didn't know how long they'd be in Manzanar. Maybe one month? By the time Grandpa and his family returned from camp, three and a half years later, the barn had been broken into and the tractor ripped off.

They stayed in army barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards. They were among the first to arrive, allowed to bring only what they could carry on their backs. Manzanar is a windy, dusty wasteland, rolling with tumbleweeds and banked by a mountain range at the far end of the camp grounds. My grandmother later told me that dust constantly blew up into the barracks through one-inch spaces between the floorboards. Three families were squeezed into the one-room barrack and they all had to hang up bedsheets for privacy. The toilets in the women's bathroom had no partitions for privacy either. They stuck up in the middle of the floor so that everyone could watch you do your business.

After the war was over, the government dumped Grandpa and his family off in L.A. so that he and Grandma could start over again in bitter poverty. Celery farming doesn't exactly rake in the bucks. And when you've had everything taken from you, and you have to start from scratch with everyone else sneering at you as one of those "Japs" fresh out of camp, you don't exactly get the breaks.

I don't know all this stuff because I grew up hearing about it. Grandpa never said a word about it, and Grandma wasn't understandable since she spoke in Japanese. I did gather from my dad's childhood stories that Grandpa stewed in a silent, sometimes violent rage for a couple of decades, though I wasn't clear on the reason. Only when I reached college and interviewed my grandparents for a paper I did for an Asian American Studies class did I learn the details of what they went through. Otherwise, the matter wasn't spoken of.

Maybe Grandpa's pride wouldn't allow him to speak of the injustice. Sometimes words seem to cheapen the suffering you've been through when you try to explain it to others. And when you know your words will only be received with sneers and disdain, you don't even want to bother. The last thing you want to hear people say is, "It was justified," "You deserved it," or, "Why are you complaining? It could have been worse."

Even though times have changed, I see how the older members in my family, particularly my grandpa's and my dad's generations, still operate with the sub-conscious awareness that some people might think being Japanese American makes you lesser. It is important, in my family's view, to do well in life, get an education, be successful, and behave appropriately. Whatever you do, you must not be an embarrassment. If you do draw attention to yourself, let it be because of excellence and not because you are acting like an idiot. It is also important to integrate yourself into the mainstream and contribute something positive to society. Because you aren't a threat to society, you never were, you are an asset to America if only people would give you a chance, and they were wrong, so very wrong to have treated us otherwise. But we won't say it, we won't have to if our lives and our conduct prove it.

Nobody said these things out loud, but I now realize all the vibes were in the atmosphere I grew up in. I guess it's no surprise, then, that I naturally recognize these feelings in others when I see them grappling with similar situations. Some gays and lesbians are very vocal about the injustice they suffer, but many are not. Certainly in the conservative church most gay people remain silent, hoping that if they are found out, their conduct and contribution would prove they are not a threat, and that they don't deserve to be treated as such. I'm afraid I know all too well what that struggle is all about.