Fear and Femininity

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I received a challenge on Thursday to write an artistic piece in honor of International Women’s Day. I decided to write a poem from the perspective of a trans woman focused on the conflicting advice she received. The form for my poem was inspired by the villanelle. I found myself composing a series of poems instead of just one and included tetrameter and pentameter forms.

Do not do any thing to get you dead
Long hair will keep you from career
That is what my family had said

Then never will you ever wed
A cutesy name will trap you here
Do not do anything to get you dead

Eschew that pink exchange for red
Fashion regulation adhere
That is what my family had said

Don’t be sad/get up/smile they pled
Wait later then there’s naught to fear
Do not do anything to get you dead

Stamp out those gestures
How will it make us all appear
That is what my family had said

Look at you now all your loves fled
There will be no job had that’s clear
Do not do anything to get you dead
That is what my family had said

Back then I was so strong weak now
I told them/my quiet name shared
So brave and very free but how

A skirt I wore to reveal wow
Some tights complete this clothing, thread
Back then I was so strong/weak now

Almost too confident allow
Warning rang throughout my whole head
So brave and very free but how

Return to safety I go now
I will reverse to shirts coll’red
Back then I was so strong/weak now

Let them forget why disavow
New group their understanding fled
So brave and very free but how

Come back my strength be here right now
Feminine spirit hence retread
Back then I was so strong/weak now
So brave and very free/but how

I am afraid because I have been warned
Don’t do anything that will get yourself killed
I pray to God yet am not transformed

What you really need is a pair of high heels
Call yourself that and you won’t get a job
I am afraid because I have been warned

Wear a dress then they’ll know you’re a woman
Cut your hair short/let them get used to you
I pray to God yet am not transformed

I cannot tell your story you tell them
Stay this way and you will never find love
I am afraid because I have been warned

Masculine traits must all be banished
Problematic pronouns get in the way
I pray to God yet am not transformed

Be true to yourself whatever the cost
Change cause I love you want your happiness
I am afraid because I have been warned
I pray to God yet am not transformed

Do that and then they will hurt you
Fear fashion never mini skirt
They don’t see her not true

Makeup is lying through and through
False arouse truth divert
Do that and then they will hurt you

Remove that hair do not let through
Masculine attributes avert
They don’t see her/not true

Hold back not now not here to view
Embarrass/please do not/alert
Do that and then they will hurt you

Express yourself other way do
Watch out avoid the quirt
They don’t see her/not true

Reverse to your own self be true
Feminism to you, choice revert
Do that and then they will hurt you
They don’t see her not true

Who is Responsible for the Revolution?

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It’s easy to have the energy dissipate. The cycle recurs. There is some originating incident. Everyone gets riled up for a while. The establishment may respond or may just try to wait it out. Initially everyone wants to do something. Without any particular focus the desire for action dissolves into chatter and frustration. Later when a new incident arises people wonder why they never did anything last time.

Sometimes we form organizations. OK, so organizations can allow us to get stuff done. They can also allow us a false sense of accomplishment. Responsibility that was previously diffuse is concentrated on a few individuals. The new leadership group may not have any more idea what to do than the original undifferentiated mass of people, but at least the rest of the people don’t have to face the frustration any more. If the leadership can’t come up with any coherent plan to keep another incident from happening they can console themselves that eventually the system that originated the incident will collapse, but if the organization isn’t doing anything to move the system on its way why does the organization exist?

The cry from the French Revolution that became the national motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort. Equality came over liberty when the revolutionary government decided to crush those unwilling to abide by its rules. The revolutionary armies extracted a tribute of grain from unwilling farmers in a way that, despite rhetoric, did not seem that different from the way that other armies had extracted tributes of grain from farmers. Among those condemned by revolutionary tribunals most were workers and peasants–those most likely to have faced oppression before the revolution. Moreover, equality did not receive continuing support when it came to supporting equality of rights between men and women. Even the term fraternité (fraternity/brotherhood) was problematic in that it seemed to grant a primacy to men.

Perhaps the worst problem with fraternité, though, was that it falls in the realm of moral obligation rather than legal construct like liberté and égalité. The harmony and sense of community that are part of fraternité are not enforceable. At most fraternité can be exhorted or inspired, but cannot be brought about through mere command.

Your particular revolution may not be as grand or deadly as the French Revolution(s), but in each of our lives we have the opportunity to confront our ideals. Do we let go of our dreams? Do we wait on others to accomplish those dreams for us? If you want to know who is responsible for making a difference, then it may be time to look in the mirror. While leaders of movements can inspire us, we are the ones we can do the most to persuade. We are the ones we can best convince to work on making the world better. As Jim Wallis might say, I’m the one I’ve been waiting for.

Ersatz Arousal vs. Asserted Femininity

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Modifying Ourselves into Attractiveness

Introduction

Earlier I wrestled with the issue of hair removal. Hair removal as a body modification seems both relatively practical (no major problems introduced by this mod) and societally acceptable, so why not, right? Hair removal makes one smoother and seemingly more naked. However it is also problematic in the both physical and symbolic vulnerability that it brings. Hair removal takes away cushioning that protects sensitive areas. Hair also can protect the skin against bacteria. Most problematic, though, may be the symbolic result. Hair indicates physical maturity, adulthood. To lose body hair is to return to childhood. This is somewhat blurred by the perception that body hair is tied up in masculinity. Still, to be hairless is a return to childhood.

Another far more temporary body modification is the high heeled shoe. High heeled shoes simulate longer legs and long legs are a sign of physical maturity. Generally, physical maturity is attractive in a sexual partner, so various things may be done to exaggerate the appearance of maturity.

Perceived Arousal

Yet while you may refer to a pair of high heeled shoes as fuck-me pumps, they do not indicate arousal in the way that makeup can. Lipstick, with the rare exception of colors like black lipstick, simulates the increased blood flow to the lips and its accompanying reddening. Blush or rouge does the same thing for the cheeks. Lipstick and blush allow one to appear aroused when one may feel nothing of the sort. Herein comes a sort of emotional lie that can make the dance between potential sexual partners even more confusing than it already is.

To whom, though are you lying? Are you lying to potential partners? Are you lying to yourself? Arousal does not come through conscious choice. Arousal requires trust and knowing if you are aroused can take listening to deep within yourself (both literally and figuratively). Neither is arousal be something that can be imposed by society. Just because it would make other people happy if you were aroused by them does not, in fact, make you aroused. Covering over these truths with faked arousal makes it more difficult for others to understand us and makes it more difficult for us to understand ourselves.

Another key sign of arousal is enlarged pupils. While makeup can emphasize the eyes, without contacts even the most artful eye makeup is not going to go all the way here. Instead, people rely on candlelit meals, dark movie theaters, and sunsets to offer larger pupil size.

Asserted Femininity

While cissexual women, face challenges with accepting their own bodies, the pressure from society to be perpetually “pretty” and perpetually aroused, there is yet more layers for transgender and transsexual women (trans women). Trans women already have their beauty questioned by society and are challenged as false or artificial. Trans women who transitioned late in life or have not had the social or financial resources to undertake body modification type transitioning may use makeup to promote the perception by others of their femininity.

In a society that prioritizes masculine characteristics, even a single secondary sexual characteristic identified as male such as facial hair can be a significant impediment to a trans woman being perceived as female. Close shaving helps, but is rarely sufficient particularly among those with lighter skin tones and dark hair. Electrolysis will get you there, but is quite expensive. What’s left is pancake makeup to cover that pesky five o’clock shadow. Yet, heavy foundation is generally seen as a lack of expertise in the application of makeup.

Applying additional makeup such as lipstick, blush and eye makeup can increase the perception of one as feminine. However, lipstick and blush are problematic for any female as mentioned earlier. The mere application of makeup adds a sense of formality and consciously asserted beauty. For a trans woman who is sufficiently androgynous in appearance makeup can move one from a state of being perceived as male or female varying with each person encountered to a state of asserted femininity.

Asserted femininity brings with it an additional vulnerability for trans women. Whereas in an androgynous state when one is perceived as male one may merely be seen as a peculiar male, when one is perceived as male and in a state of asserted femininity this can cause cognitive dissonance in the person encountered and in the wrong person bring out latent hostility.

Beyond Makeup

Outside of makeup, there are other ways that people deceive themselves and their partners about arousal and I’m not talking about faking orgasms here. Physical activity or even fear and excitement reactions produced by roller coasters and scary movies result in the appearance of sexual arousal. There is increased heart rate and faster breathing. Going on a date that involves these activities can leave both parties confused on a subconscious level, thinking that there was more chemistry than truly evident.

Conclusions

So why do women allow themselves to be put in these situations? For one, it is not easy to fight against cultural expectations. First, you must be aware that they are there. Second, you have to decide that it is worth the social cost to you to stand outside or explicitly against such expectations. Another reason women allow it is because we are each a product of our culture. Our culture provides a vocabulary of symbols for concepts like femininity and attractiveness. If we do not draw on the vocabulary of our own culture then where can we find alternatives? Moreover, if one does either draw on vocabulary from other cultures or create new symbols then one has to face an increased likelihood of being misunderstood.

Now You See Him. Now You Do.

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Today was that puzzling moment when Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy, something that has not happened for more than half a millennium–not since Gregory XII resigned in 1415. Yet, as Benedict said his farewells his power was not so easily renounced. The announcement that Benedict intended to resign was stunning news given how many popes had chosen not to relinquish power till taken by the grave. There seemed some hope in his move. He offered the reasoning that he was getting too old and no longer had the strength to do the job.

Was this a new precedent for popes? Would they no longer allow themselves to be elected just as they reached the age when the Catholic Church considered them old enough to be harmless? Would cardinals force the election of younger popes who might still be filled with the dynamism to make serious change? This might not be the sort of change that selecting a pope from South America who held strongly to Liberation Theology would be, but it might still be significant progress.

So how does one go about letting go of papal power? A pope wears white robes rather than a black cassock. A pope wears a white skullcap rather than the red of cardinals nor the pink skullcap of bishops. One might think that one who had renounced the papacy would let go of the symbols of power such as the white robes and white skullcap. A former pope might go back to the outfit of a cardinal or bishop or priest or even layperson. Benedict, however, has elected to continue wearing the white.

Another sign of the papacy is the taking of a new name. Benedict XVI was once Joseph Ratzinger. One could have easily assumed that upon resignation from the papacy he would become Joseph again. Apparently, he will remain Benedict.

Surely, you might say, he is going to give up living in the Vatican and having a personal secretary conduct his affairs. On this account too, you would be wrong.  All of this seems rather shocking to me, but then I am comparing the pope with Bishop Kenneth Untener who never was much for convention.

Where most bishops are canon lawyers, Bishop Ken was a theologian. Where most bishops where a prince’s ring and live in a mansion, Bishop Ken wore relatively simple clothes and moved from parish to parish as he watched over his diocese. One of the few affectations in his clothing was a shepherd’s crook that he carried which could be disassembled for transport. Bishop Ken was perhaps most infamous for bringing in people trained in psychology to talk to people being ordained or going into religious orders about sexuality. That strike against him seems laudatory looking back. During his time as bishop, women attained positions of prominence in the Diocese of Saginaw. Laity trained at the diocese’s Center for Ministry and became lay ministers including some taking posts as pastoral administrators with all but sacramental power. Bishop Ken was also known for his soft spoken nature and sense of humor.

Given that it has been nearly 600 years since the last pope resigned, Benedict was bound to blaze a new trail, but the wisdom of his reluctance to let go of the accoutrements of power remains to be seen. Had Benedict asked my advice I would have suggested that he no longer hold onto the title of Your Holiness and return to Father, at the most. I would have suggested that he return to the clothing of a priest and live out his life in a monastery away from the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the halls of power. Benedict says now that he will give his “unconditional obedience” to his successor, one cannot help but wonder if this will be as hard to grant as all of his other opportunities to relinquish power and status have proven to be.

How Am I Not Myself?

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In I Heart Huckabees, Bernard and Vivian are existential detectives. They work with Brad Stand who hires their existential detective agency with less than pure motives. Despite Brad’s reluctance, Bernard and Vivian eventually do affect Brad. By repeating “How am I not myself?” over and over they plant this idea just below the level of conscious awareness into Brad’s mind.

How am I not myself is not just an intriguing question for Brad, but something that can be provocative for all of us. Am I who I want to be? How much do I adapt my behavior and choices to fit the expectations and preferences of others? How much is such adaptation proper and when does one become inauthentic or directionless from overmuch adaptation? I am not myself when I don’t buy what I want because someone else is with me. Yet, if I wear more or less formal clothes to suit a particular situation I can still be myself. I needn’t forever be formal or casual and never change. However, there are other axes besides casual vs. formal and perhaps there I should hold fast.

When I adapt myself to suit others this is not merely me being true to myself or not, but also testifies to who I am. A willingness to make others happy and comfortable seems positive. On the other hand, when framed as being weak willed or unreliable it seems quite negative. I worry that I am not being true to myself, but to whom am I referring?

One way of conceptualizing who I am is the role models I have chosen and the degree to which I correspond to their qualities. With this measurement I am truer to “myself” if I more closely correspond to the qualities of those role models. Of course this becomes problematic because in this understanding “myself” does not change over time. Instead I either grow truer or less true to “myself”. Identity quickly becomes nebulous. The one place where this measurement is strong is that it is indicative of desire and aspiration.

In a discussion today, some friends and I compared aspirational self with “true” self. Aspirational self would fit with my role model conceptualization plus a sort of implied projection into the future. If “true” self represents a single moment in time then it has a more objective nature. My “true” self in this case may be whatever behavior I am currently displaying. The tight connection to my current behavior offers responsibility, accountability. On the other hand, for my “true” self to be whatever I currently am discounts my desires and hopes for myself in an unacceptable way.

To be truly me my “true” self must be more than any single moment and include both where I am currently and movement toward a goal. I am neither merely my goals nor merely my current behaviors and traits yet I am both of those things. I build a model of who I would like to be by taking qualities from various role models and choosing the proportions of one to another. While I occasionally find myself frustrated that I am not this role model or that one it does not mean that I have failed. I can continue to mold and shape who I am and who I am going to be.

I apologize for the abstraction and level of intellectualization in this blog post, but it seems that I am not ready for an unfiltered discussion of how I interact with the matter of identity.

Celibacy in the Catholic Priesthood

While it would be fair to say that I no longer have standing to object to rules about who can be a Catholic priest nor what they are required to do/not do. Still, logical inconsistencies can be spotted by any observer. Today, a celibate priesthood is a venerable 900 year old tradition, but once it was a political convenience on the part of a powerful institution.

We can reason all we want with after the fact justifications, but in the end it comes back to why were priests forbidden from marrying in the first place. When priests had children those children would inherit land and other property. With a stronger conceptual basis for groups having an existence outside of the individuals we are now able to have property held by organizations rather than by a person.

Regardless of the reasoning, for me personally the requirement of celibacy was a significant stumbling block keeping me from considering being a Catholic priest. While I feel called to ministry, I do not feel called to be alone for the rest of my life. There are other considerations that keep me from being a Catholic priest, but the fact that Catholic priests are forbidden to marry is high on my list.

On Ritual

“We don’t have too much ritual in our life anymore. And these life symbols which people rely on to keep their feeling of well being, that life is not too bad after all are required more and more.” –John Hench

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” ― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“The left sphere [of the brain] questions phenomena and looks for alternative explanations. Often the left sphere can talk us out of something we just experienced because the event defies left-brain reasoning, but as Witches we understand that ritual, and ritual phenomena, are metaphorical communication. This is why our rituals form around myths representing the seasons of the year, and through them we communicate with Divinity residing within nature.” –Raven Grimassi The Witches’ Craft “Altered States of Consciousness”

It is popular to among Protestant Christianity (perhaps particularly in the US, but that is beyond my ken) to deride ritual. Back toward the time of the Reformation, relatively naked antisemitism was the easy course for making these statements. One would point to churches full of ritual and symbolism and declare that they were contaminated with Jewish patterns. Today,  such antisemitism is considered distasteful in all but the fringes.

Calvinists and Iconoclasts began purging what they saw as problematic rituals, but all except Quakers felt that some rituals had to be preserved to preserve Christianity. At the very least, baptism and communion needed to stay. Surely, those rituals were well-founded.

Yet, to be religious (and maybe even to be human) is to observe ritual. Even the sparest of unprogrammed Quaker meetings include basic rituals. There is a set time for gathering (for exceptions see Opportunity). People start in the same way–sitting in silence. Locations of people remain important. People seated at a “facing bench” are in a position of symbolic weight. The time together is ended by an agreed upon signal such as a handshake.

Few can claim to have as little in the way of ritual elements as an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, so if you run into a Baptist railing against ritual you might remind them that the baptism they believe in is ritual. So too is the communion they take part in. Ritual is sometimes derided for its human nature. As in, this a human practice rather than something received from God. While ritual is an important part of what it means to be human, it is unfair to dismiss ritual as merely human while holding on to the Bible as Divine disregarding its human qualities. If, on the other hand, one can allow for the intersection of the spiritual and the human in the Bible then neither is it unreasonable to find it in ritual.

Our ancestors understood the power of myth and metaphor in a way that seems lost to us today. Either we extract pieces from stories, parables and novels declaring those pieces the “true” meaning  or we dismiss the whole of those stories, parables and novels as merely fiction. If we can remember why myth and metaphor were so powerful to our ancestors then we can remember why ritual was so powerful to them.

Ritual does not gain its truth from being old, though a well-worn pattern in our collective psyche can offer added weight to the power of a ritual. Rituals take everyday events like walking across a room or eating food or speaking and turn them into momentous occurrences filled with meaning. The difference is more in the perception and understanding than the pieces that make up a ritual.

Handing out pieces of paper as a newspaper delivery person can be routine and sterile, but handing out diplomas at a graduation can be rich and textured. Snacking on crackers when you’re hungry passes without notice, but eating the consecrated host as a part of communion during mass is a way of becoming one with God. Walking down the hallway at work is boring, but processing up the aisle as a wedding begins and down the aisle as a wedding ends is tremendous.

Ritual offers a way of reflecting on a moment in time. Ritual helps to bring people together into a shared consciousness. Transitions between one state and another are recognized: single to married, young to old, uneducated to learned. While in one sense these transitions are part of an extended process, by pausing and observing this transition at a point in time it becomes more real to us. It becomes an object with which we can interact. We become better able to process our emotions and raise our level of awareness.

 For more on ritual a good place to start is Ritualwell. Also, talk to practitioners of ritual in your community whether pastors, rabbis, witches, judges or others. While we all practice rituals, they will be more aware of ritual observances than you may be.

Meditations on Community and Organized Religion

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This blog post is adapted from a sermon that I delivered this morning answering the twin questions of Why Community? and Why Organized Religion? When I began working on that sermon, I loved the idea of preaching on community. I have always loved feeling that sense of belonging and purpose which can come from community. I have sought community for a long time. While contemplating this topic, it seemed that the more I thought about community, the less focused the concept became. Community literally means together one.

Not Alone

In Genesis 2:18 we read “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone.’” And as good as dogs and cats can be, animals are not enough—it takes another human for a human not to be alone. At this point in human history it seems that we have that sort of being alone taken care of. There are around 7,068,183,567 people on Earth as of 6:05 pm Saturday, February 23, 2013.

The truism that it is not good for a human to be alone can echo in our ears in these days of mass shootings. We often hear of the shooters feeling isolated. On the flip side, we hear that if only people were in relationship with the shooter and talking to the person then they would have known sooner what was going on. Isolation and loneliness can become their own sort of boogey man.

All Alone in a Crowded Room

Isolation has other less obvious effects too. The challenge of Ecclesiastes holds. It seems that we can be utterly alone even with other people in the world. If we don’t have a companion close to us or a child or a sibling then how can we find meaning to our work and self-sacrifice? Who will benefit from our self-denial? Merely having more than one person on Earth is not enough. We need connection.

Organized Religion

When the worship team for our congregation began discussing using Why questions for the sermons in Lent, today’s question was framed as “Why Organized Religion?” Offering a defense of all organized religion is quite a daunting task. Moreover I am not certain that I am the right person to do it. I left the Catholic Church for the Church of the Brethren. The Catholic Church seems to be the epitome of organized religion in Christianity. They have hierarchy down. Priests around the world follow the order of mass prescribed in books handed down from the Apostolic See. Catholics follow one supreme Pope whereas the Orthodox follow one Patriarch among many. Brethren have councils. And I left the Catholics behind for a group where the individual had more power. The Church of the Brethren is set up as a representative democracy which offers more hope for change.

Religion Without Hierarchy

Who am I to argue for religion that is organized? Yet, I find myself in good company in the Church of the Brethren. Before the Church of the Brethren existed, Luther and the Reformation began the process of questioning hierarchy and the Radical Reformation, which gave birth to the Church of the Brethren pushed it even further. People not only pulled their countries or even their parishes out of the system, but some Radical Pietists even stopped going to corporate worship entirely. Some of these people never rejoined organized religion. They found their unity by leaving behind their togetherness.

So what happened to “It is not good for the human to be alone?” By working together a group will get a good return for their efforts. Many gathered in small reading groups called conventicles. Together they read the Bible and together they prayed.

Around the turn of the 18th Century, one conventicle was gathering in Schwarzenau, Germany and they are remembered by the Church of the Brethren today. Five men and three women decided that they needed to be baptized as adults and these eight proceeded to baptize one another in the Eder River. While later Brethren would look back on Alexander Mack as their founder, these early Brethren wanted to avoid the sort of hierarchy having one founder implied.

A term used today to describe the sort of group who began the Church of the Brethren is an affinity group. Affinity groups tend to be small with perhaps 5 to 20 people. Decisions in affinity groups are made by consensus which allows a strong sense of unity when they do act.

Hierarchy Returns

Over the years, Brethren have allowed a sense of hierarchy to creep in. Unity was found by expelling individuals and communities. On an individual level this is called the Ban and which is more commonly called shunning. Part of our desire to become organized came from a fear of people who followed inspiration more than any tradition, even the Bible. Following the Spirit seemed to give way too much power to the individual. Elders were chosen to be leaders in our meetings. We assembled ourselves into districts. Annual Meeting decisions became precedents and precedents became Annual Conference Statements.

Unity Through Explulsion

Whereas individuals were placed under the Ban, communities were disfellowshipped. Brethren split into more and more sects following a push for unity by expulsion. The people of Ephrata left and eventually became the German Seventh Day Baptists.

A three way split led to the creation of the Old German Baptist Brethren who split again into Old Order German Baptist Brethren and Old German Baptist Brethren New Conference. Also from the three way split came the Brethren Church which split again giving birth to the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches which split again and gave birth to the Conservative Grace Brethren Churches. The third piece of that three way split led to the Church of the Brethren. Oh and there was this group called the Church of God: New Dunkers, but they disbanded in 1962.

Today, our friends who were once Indiana Yearly Meeting are experiencing pain from an effort to find unity by expulsion. Powerful people in Indiana Yearly Meeting thought that they would only lose three monthly meetings. Instead found themselves riven in half, torn in two.

Searching for Unity

True unity comes not from expulsion, but by building relationships. 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that “the body consists not of one member, but of many” and that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” It is through honor and respect that we find our strength.

Early Brethren tried to emulate early Christians, but eventually hierarchy became a part of the Brethren too. Jesus broke down barriers and hierarchies by eating with outcasts, going against his society’s expectations. Jesus and John the Baptist offered ways to participate in religion that did not require traveling to the distant Temple in order to be faithful Jews.

In Acts 2 we see early Christians eating meals together following Jesus’ pattern and holding all possessions in common. Each person received according to their need. They met in Jesus’ name as Jesus had called for when he said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there with them.”

Glimmers of Hope

Community requires more than merely being together. In my life I have felt a strong sense of community only a few times. In college, I had a group project in my Communication Research Methods class where I felt community. The words “group project” are liable to make people groan because many of us have been forced to work with partners or on group projects where a sense of community is lacking. I faced this challenge throughout my education. Yet, in this particular class it was different. We were as at ease chatting with each other as we were working together and our project got high marks. Being with these people brought me contentment. Even though I rarely had reason to see them again, these people felt like friends to me.

Another time when I felt community was when I went to a protest to work to close the School of the Americas. I and some of the people with me heard that there were Catholic Workers there who were giving away food. We went over to the apartment where the Catholic Workers had stationed themselves and we were welcomed in. Not only was I offered food, but I was integrated into their group for the time I was present. I was quickly assigned to the job of chopping vegetables and found myself as much a part of their effort as the people who had traveled with them.

I have been a part of many choirs and choral singing requires cooperation, working together. A strong choir and even more so a skilled choir working in tandem with an orchestra are amazing. There is strength and a balance between unity and diversity. Yet there are times when people sing together but do not rise beyond the level of acquaintances outside of rehearsals and performances. This sort of disconnect can lead to cognitive dissonance and a dramatic emotional let down. First this shows up as rehearsals end, but can be even more intense after the final performance.

One incident that stands out to me came after I was singing Carmina Burana with a huge choir and a full orchestra. We had practiced together for a full semester. To begin with the choir practiced on its own and the orchestra practiced on its own, but by the end we were practicing as a full group.

After our performance was over and most everyone had left I found myself walking alone in the parking lot. Of course, I had arrived alone before the performance but after the performance there was no more sense of anticipation. The unity that had been building was dissipating and the loneliness surrounding me was palpable. Some friends and acquaintances had talked about going to a restaurant so I went there. My friends didn’t show as I waited in the parking lot. I went inside and looked for friendly faces. I figured with so many people in the choir and the orchestra there would be at least one person I knew. I finally found someone I recognized and asked, “Can I sit with you?” “No,” she answered, “I recognize you from choir, but I don’t really know you. Anyway, we have enough people.” I felt loneliness in the contrast—the sense of unity was gone.

Where Lies Our Refuge

The Buddhists can offer us insight into how to find unity. Buddhists affirm what are called the three jewels or three treasures. They proclaim, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” the Enlightened One. “I take refuge in the Dharma,” the teachings or the way. “I take refuge in the Sangha,” the community.

While we do not proclaim our faith in this fashion, Christians can also find strength in similar concepts. We take refuge in Christ, the Messiah. We take refuge in the Way. Early Christians called themselves followers of the Way. We are guided by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We join with a community that transcends time extending far beyond the present moment into the past and the future. We take refuge in community. Together we find strength. Together we find joy. We unite.

Indeed, I am not alone. I am together with the people who worked to lead worship and all of those who attended and participated. Beyond the people there in person were James Martin, Patricia Shelly, John Oxenham, Alexander Reinagle, and Brian Wren who composed the hymns we sang today. Beyond even them, we join with the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes and all of the writers of Scripture.

Merely being together, though, is not community. For a church to offer community we need to find common values and purpose. Like Proverbs tells us, “As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens the wits of another.” Any of us might lose our way alone, but together we stay on the path. We must find unity, but not unity from expulsion or exclusion. A three ply cord doesn’t easily snap. Groups that freely gather and find consensus through listening to one another and honoring one another achieve true unity together they are one. We gather in Jesus’ name. Together we are one. Together we find community.

Straddling Two Worlds

I have been eager to find a job as a pastor and frustrated at my lack of luck. It seems somewhat ironic that I currently find myself working for two different churches. I am an employee of a Church of the Brethren congregation and a Catholic Diocese. I was at a board meeting tonight representing the Brethren yet when they pointed out the Catholic representative was not around I felt responsible.

When I was in CPE I was challenged for speaking as an insider of the Catholic Church. Indeed, I was a Catholic from birth. Yet, by that time I had already been gone from the Catholic Church for several years. I found it frustrating to move from being perceived as an insider critiquing the Catholic Church to being perceived as an outsider throwing stones. I felt chastened by the stern talking to I got from my supervisor and the complaints from the young priest candidate in my CPE cohort.

More recently, someone pointed out to me that no one can take my history away from me. I may choose no longer to be a Catholic, but the years that I spent as a member of the Catholic Church are part of my experience. At the same time, I want to be taken seriously as a part of the Church of the Brethren and, no matter how much knowledge I accumulate, I will never be Church of the Brethren by blood. My identity as someone who stands between these worlds gives me a rare perspective. While there are some things I cannot see because of my position, there are other things that I see that others cannot.

Protestants claim to hold Scripture as their highest authority and yet Catholics almost always have more Scripture in their worship. Catholics are said to have more emphasis on hierarchy and indeed priests have more ceremonial authority than their Protestant counterparts, but homilies given by Catholic priests rarely last as long as sermons given by Protestant pastors. Protestants explicitly believe that the laity has spiritual power in a way that Catholics do not believe, but there are plenty of Protestant congregations where the laity are less involved than in a Catholic Parish. Catholics are highly unlikely to worry that liturgy is not what God wants or too much tradition, but even low church Protestants with supposedly great freedom in planning worship services rarely take advantage of all of the sorts of liturgy with which they could experiment.

More to the point, as a convert there are Brethren ideals I hold close to my heart and signs of hope I do not want to let go. Brethren explicitly stand for peace, so it should not be the case that Catholics who have not made peace such a central stance are more clearly on the side of peace. Brethren officially allow women to be ordained, but while it is a sign of hope in my mind the conviction among Brethren on this issue is just not there. Early on Brethren turned to scholarship to learn more about early Christians. Yet, where is our readiness today to invoke that history in favor of reading today’s best scholarship on who Jesus was?

Feminism–Part II: On Hair

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While Bitch Magazine issue #28 probably said most of what needs to be said on this, I still feel like I want to put in my two cents. Hair removal is a common body modification. Depending on the body area and the level of permanence it can be relatively noncontroversial. According to societal expectations, men shave their faces and women shave most everywhere else except the top of their heads.

Expectations

Men can get away with hair removal elsewhere if they are bodybuilders or their body hair is considered “excessive.” Chest hair is favored over back hair, but even chest hair is only marginally accepted. Arm and leg hair seems to be expected, but recently it seems like even those expectations may be changing.

Aside from long eyelashes, hair on the top of the head and delicate eyebrows women are expected to be nearly hairless. Some even joke–barely chuckling–that this hair removal expectation is a tax on being female. Waxing or shaving takes on hair all over the body.

Body Modification

Part of me says that people should be able to modify themselves however they like. Immediately I feel the urge to backtrack, perhaps not modifications that would be debilitating. Does socially debilitating count or just over-the-top loss of functionality (limb/organ removal)? If I feel like people should be able to pierce and tattoo themselves why does hair removal seem troubling? Perhaps it’s because hair removal is not so much allowed but expected and even required.

I vacillate on my own hair removal practices. It seems as if I should not have to remove body hair to get people to perceive me the way that I perceive myself. If I want to remove body hair then it should be because it gives me some sort of satisfaction.

Hair-hair

Haircuts and hairstyles add another dimension. Accepted men’s hairstyles seem far more restrictive than those socially acceptable on women. Some subcultures still expect women to have long hair, but they seem to be in the minority. Women are allowed short and long hairstyles with the limit being as short hair becomes a buzzed or shaved head. Men with longer hair are on the edge of acceptability. At the hairstylist, as one perceived as a man with longish hair, I am warned that certain haircuts would be girly and guided away from them.

Conclusions

So do I object to certain haircuts being markers of masculinity or femininity? Actually, this seems to be one spot where I’m fine with these sorts of cultural divisions. What makes it problematic for me is that masculinity is limited to men and femininity to women without the opportunity for individuals to choose from a variety of symbols to form their identities. Even in the midst of these symbolic choices people should be seen more for personalities and character than mere appearance