I was working at the church Thrift Shop today organizing the book shelves (aahhh, a book-geek's dream job) when I ran across a tattered little volume of poems from 1916 entitled "Rhymes of a Red Cross Man." In it I found the following ode:
The Black Dudeen
"Humping it here in the dug-out,
Sucking me black dudeen,
I'd like to say in a general way,
There's nothing like Nickyteen;
There's nothing like Nickyteen, me boys,
Be it pipes or snipes or cigars;
So be sure that a bloke
Has plenty to smoke,
If you want him to fight your wars."
You can't make this stuff up.
Actually, I guess somebody did, Mr. Robert W. Service did in 1916. I opened this dusty little book right to the page containing this poem and the irony of it made me laugh out loud. The imagery conjured up by the words used in the first two lines seemed shocking at first simply because these words have entirely different meanings in 2007 than they did in 1916 (you know what they mean, don't make me say it).
As I read further and realized that this was an ode to tobacco and its narcotic effects my sensitivities were rankled even further. Once again, because smoking is seen in a different light today than it was even just 10 years ago. I experience the same odd sensation when I watch an old movie where everyone is smoking like chimneys…in restaurants, in offices, on airplanes!! Now... I'm no spring-chicken, I remember when people were allowed to smoke in all of those places, I remember when it seemed normal to do so, but its been banned long enough now that it does seem out-of-place when I encounter it.
The most jarring representation of pre-ban smoking I've seen took place in a 1960's sci-fi movie that was supposedly set in the 22nd century. An astronaut crew (all white males of course) wandered into a night club on Mars where a Martian go-go girl with green skin and a 1960's bouffant did a provocative dance in front of a crowd of smokers. Apparently in 1960 they assumed that smoking, the objectification of women, and the beehive hairdo, would never go out of style.
The point of this rambling post (and there is one) is that things change. What seemed appropriate and acceptable yesterday may be seen as inappropriate and unacceptable today. Words change, situations change, behaviors change, people change.
Case in point, at the Thrift Shop today a woman came in and shopped for quite awhile chatting amicably with me and J. who runs the shop. After the woman left, J. told me that the woman used to a member of our church but she left when we called our current pastor two years ago. She left because the pastor we called is gay.
Hearing this brought out the same reaction in me that I would have if I witnessed someone lighting up a cigarette on an airplane. It was bizarre. It was out-of-place. And I couldn't believe that someone would assume that such behavior was not only appropriate, but acceptable.
I'm not naïve. I know that there are many places where rejection of gays in the ministry, in the church, is not only acceptable it's expected. I hear the selective rationalizations of the "The Bible SAYS…" people. I know about the theological debate that is tearing apart the Episcopal church, that is keeping partnered gay Evangelical Lutheran ministers from serving the congregations that call them, that is yanking wonderful and gifted pastors from the pulpit in the Methodist church, that is causing rifts in the more liberal denominations and is institutionalizing and legalizing discrimination in the more conservative denominations.
I know all of "that" is out there. And I know that only 10 years ago this woman's public rejection of a gay minister would have been commonplace and normal in all but a few churches. But not today. Not here.
I've been spoiled. As a gay woman I've encountered a few personal and impersonal rejections in my life, but discrimination rarely touches me anymore. I have a family who loves and supports both me and my partner. My partner teaches at a private school whose community loves and supports us. They put me on her health insurance. They allowed us to have a commitment ceremony in their school chapel, officiated by the school's ELCA minister. They gave us on-campus housing making an exception to their "non-cohabitation of unmarried couples" rule. I've been 'out' at every job I've ever worked and been openly accepted by my coworkers and superiors. I attend a church that called a lesbian pastor, considering only the wonderful gifts that she had to offer; a church that accepts and supports me and my call to the ministry as well.
I've lived in a smoke-free environment for so long that it seems shockingly out-of-place when I encounter it.
And when I do I'm left with questions that have no logical answers. Would the woman in the thrift shop have treated me any differently if she knew that I was gay? What if she knew I was gay and planning on entering the ministry? Would I suddenly be deemed unworthy of the smiles and friendly banter that we shared?
It all seems like just a big waste of time.
All the theological arguments, all the wracking of brains and hearts trying to interpret what God does and doesn't want, who God has or hasn't called. In our arrogance we are ignoring the obvious: Any belief that makes one Christian, one human being, treat another with contempt does not come from God, it comes from within our own brokenness. It comes from our pain, our guilt, our anger, our fear.
All of these things fill our lives with smoke, obscuring and distorting our view of God; our view of each other. As our friend Mr. Service wrote in 1916: "be sure that a bloke has plenty to smoke, If you want him to fight your wars" - It's only when the smoke clears that we lay down our arms and stop seeing each other as the enemy, and start listening to God's call.
I'll leave you with tomorrow's lectionary text from Isaiah 6 which oddly enough seems appropriate:
"The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Isaiah 6:4-8)