It Runs in the Family

May 08, 2016

by Rev. Micah Bucey
Minister of the Arts

Dig, if you will, this picture: A modest, split-level house in the modest, split-level town of Massillon, Ohio. An uppity little eight-year-old boy, dressed to the nines in full gown, heels, makeup, and earrings, following his super-cool sixteen-year-old cousin Jennifer into her magical museum of a bedroom. Every nook and cranny is filled with the miracles of Midwestern-80s-adolescence, the denim, the spangles, the neon, the hairspray, the countless crappy stuffed animals from countless crappy county fairs. And, surrounding the bed, an altar to Jennifer’s chosen idol. To the right is a teeny-tiny fish bowl housing a teeny-tiny bright purple betta fighting fish named, “Prince,” and hanging from the ceiling, in prime location to be viewed while one is lying in bed, awaiting sweet, violet-hued dreams is a dog-eared poster, the cover of an album called, “Dirty Mind.”

 At the center of the image is, perhaps, a man. He must be a man, because he has cleanly-shaven facial hair. But the rest of the image is a mystery. He might be black, but he might be white. He’s dressed only in a studded satin jacket, a loosely-tied neck bandana, and barely-there black bikini briefs. If this is a man, he dares the camera like no man ever before and he’s more comfortable in his own exposed skin than any man ever before. He seems to not know what he is while knowing exactly who he is and he doesn’t care if we like it or not, doesn’t care if we get it or not. We can come along for the ride, or stay home and stay basic.

I am eight-years-old, I am dressed in my aunt’s clothing, and I am getting permission from a mesmerizing god of liberation…and I don’t even know what the word “liberation” means yet. I just know I need it. And Prince seems blithely happy to show the way.

This is a holy moment.

Prince became a parent to me that day, a mother even, a force that weirdly loved me into being, even though I never became a super-fan. Luckily, I also had biological parents who loved me, but many kids of my rainbow stripe did not. Instead, many of them had Prince, a slippery, colorful, coiffed, straight-but-queer-but-straight-but-question-mark spirit guide who helped these queer kids make up for the emptiness with funky grooves and fabulously boundary-busting lyrics.

And, speaking of funkiness, how about that Bible? Today’s Ancient Testimony readings bust through boundaries in similar ways. Here are two readings from The Gospel of Luke, one that comes relatively early in Jesus’ public ministry career, and one that is, literally, the final moment his disciples see him in his earthly human drag. Even if the Jesus quotations in both passages are accurate, they’ve also been skillfully edited to further the agenda of the early Christian church, to gain new followers, new family, and they work together to form a coherent portrait of a human being who has blood relatives, but who is also a prophet, a radical, an outsider who chooses a community, teaches that community, learns from that community, nourishes that community, and then, when it’s time for him to go, leaves a legacy for that community to follow, a trail of glitter-dust blowing in his wake as he ascends uptown, on a stairway to Heaven, beckoning us to a new world beyond our wildest imaginings.

Long ago, right around the time Prince changed my life from that bedroom ceiling, when I first heard our first passage, I thought Jesus sounded pretty harsh. The rejection feels a bit softer here in the Gospel of Luke than it feels in some other gospel passages, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus is drawing a line between the family you’re born with and the family you run with.

I didn’t really get it.

It took twelve years for that eight-year-old Ohioan to become a twenty-year-old New Yorker, one just on the verge of coming-out, just discovering what it truly meant to embody the call to “be yourself” that had, for all of those twelve years, seemed necessary and impossible at the same time. But then another gospel came into my life: The Gospel of Barbary Lane, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, in which a ragtag group of queer San Franciscans, many of them outcasts from their blood family because of their gender-fluidity and sexual preferences, form community in the face of a world that seeks to reject them at every turn. Has anyone visited the magic of Barbary Lane before? These books, originally written in the late 70s and early 80s are sacred scripture for many queer folks, and mostly because of that first quotation on the cover of your bulletin: “There are biological families, and then there are logical families.” There’s the family you’re born with, and that might be a loving family, a wonderful family, and, if so, that’s wonderful, but, if not, if your biological family is not the loving, nurturing family you need, there’s a logical family out there, just waiting to ascend, transcend, and run with you.

Now, if drawing a connection between queer logical family in the twentieth century and the Christian logical family in the first and second centuries seems like a bit of a stretch, think about this: regardless of whether the stories told of Jesus were true, as in true-true, or true, as in mythically-truer-than-true, the early Christian church was a full-on disrupter of the biological family. Many scholars agree that the decision to join the Jesus cult, to profess your own faith in these teachings and in the radical idea that Jesus had been so filled with the Holy Spirit that he rose from the dead, walked among us, and then ascended into Heaven, was an idea that would immediately cut you off from the family and friends you’d known before your conversion.

And coming out and committing oneself to this cult was not exactly comfortable. Rumors flew around about what unsavory things went on in naughty, private Christian meetings. Even the “Agape” meal, which seems like such a gentle, cheesy little party to us now, used to have the reputation of being a “love feast” where ritual kissing would give way to wild orgies. I’m not kidding. I’ve got sources! And, as often happens, these identity-damning rumors permeated the air and condemned the Christian lifestyle until the good old Empire made Christianity the official Empire religion in the third century, and everyone forgot that, up until that point, Christians had basically been “family-value”-destroying, child-corrupting, ascension-ready, salty pariahs.

But things change. And the love of logical family, the common sense of a community coming together to nurture one another in the ways that some biological families cannot, is as easily co-opted as any other wonderful thing. Watered-down water goes down much easier than saltwater.

So…Happy Mother’s Day!

Nowadays, it’s easy to forget that becoming a Christian was about interrogating lazily-accepted family values and actually asking, “How can we create the family we’ve always needed and how do we extend it to others who have never felt part of one?”Now, I’m not here to devalue the meaning of this day, nor the meaning of biological mothers or biological family, at all. I’m even lucky enough to come from a beautifully-broken family, so I’ve actually got two mothers (twice the advice, twice the love!) and I hope you are equally blessed.

But this is not the case for many. For many, the realities of biological family have meant rejection and guilt, for whatever reason, for many reasons, for illogical reasons. And that’s where Maupin’s idea of “logical family” has saved countless lives, even if they’ve never read Tales of the City. I’d argue that, at our best, this community of seekers, who gather once, twice, a few times a week in this building, form a kind of “logical” family, one where the benevolent love of one member’s mother might start to ease the pain of another member’s broken relationship with their mother, simply because we’re forming a new kind of family together. I also know that there are some who think we shouldn’t call ourselves a “family” here, when connections can sometimes feel tenuous and superficial. But I believe that the concept of “logical family” can be a whole lot like the concept of “queerness” or the concept of “the Kingdom or Queendom of God,” all of them destinations just over the horizon, just above our heads, pulling us toward a new kind of being, something our human systems and structures try to muddle, but something that beckons us anyway, telling us there is a new world to believe in, especially when this world tries to tell us regulated boxes, stalls, and borders are safer.

After Constantine enveloped Christianity in the drab drag of the Empire, Christianity ceased to be the radical thing it could have been, but we can see the radical possibility of logical family in nooks and crannies all around us. We can see it in the logical families formed by the homeless queer youth who participate in our Shower Project here, we see it in the House Ballroom scene, where, for decades, queer kids of color have formed logical families in place of the families who have rejected them. It might sound kooky, but this Kiki scene is the closest thing I see to the original image of Jesus’ chosen family. In the Ballroom scene, there is a House Mother, often a House Father, and then House Children, all queer folks supporting one another through art events and daily life, nurturing House Children into becoming House Mothers and Fathers that will nurture the next generation in the scene. They compete in glorious, community-building dance and fashion competitions and even this has even been co-opted by the mother of all co-opters Madonna. All those Vogue moves you see are radical at their root.

Queer people have been making logical family for and with one another for a long time now, but even that is now under threat. As the white-washed power players of gay gentrification threaten to push the saltiness of queer identity into shadowy corners, kids are coming out earlier and earlier, coming to cities to find the family they’ve never had, and finding that queerness, like Christianity, is losing its salt, in favor of a dampened acceptance into the mainstream, and those who need the logic of a radically-inclusive family are losing opportunities to form them. The tools of the Empire might be OK for biological family, but logical family can’t grow unless those tools are interrogated at every turn and we say to one another, “Let’s go crazy. I would die 4 U. Let’s get through this thing called, ‘Life,’ together.”

That’s where I go back to that moment in 1988 when that little queer boy looked up at the image of a man who said it was OK to question all the fearfully-boundaried stuff he’d been told, that’s where I go back to the idea of how closely the disciples and Jesus and the early Christian cults mirror the logical family of damaged queer folk who love one another on Armistead Maupin’s Barbary Lane, that’s where I connect the glorious image of Jesus ascending into Heaven with the “God-in-drag” image that drag-mother RuPaul celebrates. Jesus was God in human drag and he figured that out in community with his logical family. He discovered his eternal nature, his forever-ness, by surrounding himself with queens who needed one another in order to discover the royalty they truly were. The roots of our nice, clean, at-best innocuous, at-worst Empire-assisting Christianity began as a logical family of outcasts who discovered their inner, fierce God-force with the help of a house mother named Jesus. And, like any good group of fools, they troubled everyone.

True family means trouble for the Empire outside. Often, we are the closest thing to an image of God that others will ever see. We can be vengeful, wrathful, fearful images of God. Or we can be benevolent, glorious images that nurture one another in the ways only a thoroughly-invested mother can. We can run away from one another or we can run toward one another and ascend, together, in our Divine Realness. A truly logical family mothers in the best way, allowing liberation to run through the family like the radically fabulous idea it is.

Let us pray:
God who comes to us dressed in everything unexpected:
Mother us. Transcend. Ascend.
Teach us to live and die and live again.

For Your Meditation:

"There are biological families, and then there are logical families."
— Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City

“In a child's eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.” — from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison

Call to Worship, culled from The Gospel of Prince

One: Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Many: Controversy.
One: I'm not a woman, I'm not a man.
Many: I am something that you'll never understand.
One: I'm not your lover, I'm not your friend.
Many: I am something that you'll never comprehend.
One: Now, where I come from, we don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be.
Many: Our clothes, our hair, we don't care. It's all about being there.
One: Everybody's going Uptown.
Many: That's where I wanna be.
One: Set your mind free Uptown.
Many: No need 2 worry. No need 2 cry. I'm your messiah and you're the reason why.

Ancient Testimonies

Luke 8:20-21
And Jesus was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Luke 24:50-52
Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

Modern Testimony from an interview with drag queen icon RuPaul on, March 23, 2016, by E. Alex Jung

How do you feel drag's function has changed?
The function hasn't changed. It's been the same since the beginning of time when shamans, witch
doctors, or court jesters were the drags. Which is to remind culture to not take itself seriously. To
remind you that you are not your shirt or your religious affiliation. You are an extension of the
power that created the whole universe. You are God in drag. You are dressed up in this outfit of a body, which is temporary. You are eternal. You are forever. You are unchanged. And this is a
dream you're having. So don't get too attached to it.

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