I first met Jera Brown at my table in the Exhibition Hall at Calvin College’s 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing and a second time at my table at the 2017 Gay Christian Network Conference in Pittsburgh. We agreed there that Jera would post a review of To Drink from the Silver Cup
on her blog, Church of the Scarlet Letter
. Time constraints turned a review into an interview, which was published just prior to my reading at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where Jera was based.
Jera describes herself as a queer progressive Christian, an MFA student (at the time) at Columbia College in Chicago, pursuing a freelance career. She writes that she is also polyamorous and kinky and that her blog is a way of forming and sharing her thoughts about sexual ethics and her faith, among other spiritual questions.
Jera quoted this passage from To Drink from the Silver Cup
before delving into questions and answers:Belonging to St. Andrew is not only about being part of this local gathering but also about claiming kinship with something bigger, something with a history that reaches back through the ages … The something bigger than me is the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed faith, the Church Universal, the Jewish faith, the people I see driving to church on Sundays, to temple on Friday evenings, people I know who sit in the teepees of the Native American Church. We are all part of that great cloud of witnesses with whom I cast my lot when I joined St. Andrew. We all bear witness to the law that says that the Whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every Sunday at St. Andrew, after a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, we sing a short “Kyrie Eleison,” Greek for Lord, have mercy." It is a very old part of the Christian liturgy—Eastern, Catholic, and Protestant—and this too reminds me that I have rejoined something much larger than the small congregation that worships across from my library.
And then the questions: JB
: When you talk about belonging to something bigger, you describe the wider spiritual community as those who “bear witness to the law that says that the Whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I’m struck by the fact that the parts of this Whole will never agree with each other. What keeps them united as a Whole?AR
: I believe that they are united as a basic fact, which is probably why I used the word law
. A law exists independent of our perceptions, our failings, our mostly petty disagreements. Quantum physicists have relatively recently learned what Navajo healers understood for centuries—that in the universe all is connected, and it is that interconnectedness that forms a Whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Within the wider spiritual community we often don’t seem to want to know how we are connected, to learn what we agree on. Instead, as you say, we focus on our disagreements. But the agreement is there, apart from our human failings. When we study the world’s religions it is clear that there are many principles and even narratives that we have in common. These have the potential for uniting us as a Whole, but we have to desire that and put our energy into manifesting unity rather than division. An all too prevalent commitment to being “right” rather than being in love and harmony is greatly responsible for the divisiveness that threatens the Whole. But the Whole is always in existence. There are many names for that Whole. In Christianity we most often call it God.JB
: Belief—the creeds, the difference between religious doctrines and histories—plays a big part in your memoir. Near the end you also say all you really wanted was to belong. “It was about being a part of something bigger than me, something with a history.” What is the relationship for you now between belief and belonging?AR
: Recently I saw a wonderful meme reminding us that Jesus’s words on receiving someone in heaven are, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” not “Well believed, thou good and faithful servant.” Some Christian writers, among them Brian McLaren and N.T. Wright, have been talking about a shift happening within Christianity—a move toward a focus on action, living the gospel, rather than holding to belief as the gold standard. When I sought and found a Christian community to which I could belong, how that community lives the good news of Jesus was what mattered most to me. That this community could recognize that what we believe is, if we are growing spiritually, a process, was essential to me. Our doubts are honored, and with our doubts and our messy baggage we can all be included in the work that Jesus entrusted to us. This is the kind of community to which I want to belong.JB
: How do you see your sexuality continuing to inform your faith or spiritual practices?AR
: Today I’m very grateful for a sexuality that caused me to question pretty much everything that I had been taught. When you have to ask questions about something that most of the Church considers so important, usually that leads you to asking other questions. Finding that my sexuality was different from what I and everyone in my faith community expected of me, led me to see many things differently. Without that, I might not have been so aware of what I see as Jesus’s most radical, central concept of his ministry—wild inclusiveness. My sexuality will probably always inform my commitment to inclusivity in my everyday life and in the spiritual community I’ve joined. It is my sexuality that informs and will continue to inform the knowledge and practice (which I live up to only very humanly) that love is all there is, that we are in love and of love, that as God is love and we are made in God’s image, we, too, are love.JB
: I’m looking at the different themes of the body: Communion is metaphorically body-focused. And yoga, also important in your story, brings its practitioner back to the body. And then, the matter of what bodies you were attracted to. How else has being embodied been important in your journey? I’m particularly curious about the ways that Navajo and Jewish traditions brought you back to the body. Or what does being embodied mean to you as a spiritual person?AR
: I believe that we are spiritual beings living this life in bodies, and that there are many things we are supposed to learn as embodied spirits—things we wouldn’t otherwise learn. It is through both body and spirit that we experience Spirit in all its wonder. In Christianity we speak of the incarnation mainly as it relates to Jesus’s life on Earth. But I think of the whole Universe as an incarnation of the great Spirit we refer to as God, and because we are embodied, we can experience God through our bodies—rejoicing in the natural world as well as in the life of the spirit. When I take quizzes about learning modalities, kinesthetic learning is very high for me, so your attention to the spiritual role of communion, yoga, the bodies of who attracted me romantically and sexually, is right on.
Regarding Navajo tradition, I need to emphasize that what I experienced of it as a child and teen was limited to things that my missionary parents would permit. The sharing of food (communion again) and occasionally its ritual significance, as with the cake made for a girl’s puberty ceremony; learning to weave; hearing the chanting as I was falling asleep—those were all experiences of the body. Much later, when I worked in Navajo education, I learned about the interconnectedness of everything, called k’e
, in Navajo cosmology. In that Navajo worldview, I think you can’t even talk about body and spirit as separate entities. As I understand it.
I guess one reason Judaism is so deeply meaningful to me is that its practice is very earthy, too. Food and ritual are very important in Jewish practice. The Christian tradition I grew up in was very parsimonious with ritual, associating it in a negative way with Catholicism. That included being very sparing with communion (we had it only four times a year). But ritual has the power to touch something deep within us, bypassing the intellect and taking us to the heart of God in a way that sermons often don’t. So yes, what I was allowed and later privileged to experience of Navajo traditions and thought and what Judaism has meant in my spiritual life have both helped this spirit live a more embodied life. To be who we were created to be is to fulfill our incarnation. And that also includes living the sexuality with which we were fearfully and wonderfully made.
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