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At my mom’s memorial service, four days after she passed, I spoke about a few things but failed to write any of it down. The following is my attempt to do that (with a few additional thoughts).

Throughout my mom’s final two years, it seemed like her life (and thus our lives) consisted of phases. Somehow, the situation would take a turn and whether we liked it or not, we would be forced into a new phase. Toward the end, the phases grew increasingly dire. It seemed they were spaced together much more closely. I remember when we (she) decided that, based on the lack of progress with all of the treatments; the next phase was going to be one of pain management. Nothing more—it was a decision to submit to the inevitable and make her as comfortable as possible in the process.

Every phase that followed seems like a blur. The doctors implanted an internal pump that would send painkillers directly to her spinal cord. This was to accompany the external pump that was providing her medication. Her painkillers were consistently increased—every increase led to (what felt like) a new phase, but it was more cyclical than anything. The painkillers would work, then she’d build a tolerance, the pain would become unbearable and she’d get an increase in dosage. Repeat.

Throughout this, her leg became more and more swollen (and more unusable) due to the lymphedema. This created phases—she was somewhat mobile, sitting or lying for most of the day and able to walk for short bits with a cane. She was able to go to the restroom herself with almost no help from us. The cane turned into a walker. A motorized lift chair was purchased to assist her in getting up and down. Then she needed a wheelchair full-time as the leg became impossible to walk on. She could still get up out of the wheelchair to go to the restroom, but with more help.  Next, a hospital bed was rented that would angle and lift in the right way. The next phase was a portable toilet that stayed right next to the bed. Not long after, the leg became almost useless and diapers (we called them panties in front of her so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed) were necessary. The diaper phase was a difficult one—not for us as much as her. The whole process caused her a lot of pain—and with her confusion from the painkillers that were at near-lethal doses, she couldn’t understand why we would have to roll her on her side, which was very painful.

In the midst of these last few phases, she saw a pain specialist who recommended a concoction of medication that proved to be the painkilling answer we were looking for. The downside—she became nearly entirely sedated. She slept for twenty-three hours most days, with short wake-ups for pills and water and some attempt at sustenance.

About two weeks before she passed, in the middle of this phase, my dad asked me to write her obituary.

When he first mentioned it, I shut it down in my head. I thought I would have another month or two to figure it out. Several more weeks, at least. She had so much fight in her the last two years, I had no idea we had a week or so left.

I told him I would. But I was petrified to even begin thinking about it.

Throughout the last months of her life, whenever we’d talk about her death, I had an emotional ritual. She was still alive, we could still talk to her and see her and hug her. So when things came up about her dying, I would think about it for a little and then retreat back to the reality in which she was still very much alive. Her death was a future thing that I couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on. The thought was a radiation that I couldn’t expose myself to for very long before returning to the safe zone where she was alive and we were taking care of her.

When my dad asked me to write the obit, I got over my fear and said yes.

And then I retreated, like a tortoise tucking itself into the safety of its shell, back to the reality where she was alive and her death was very, very far off.

I stayed in my protective shell for a week before I ventured out again. Four days before she died, I sat down at my computer and tried to write. I stewed in the world outside my shell, where her death was an inevitable reality, and sobbed. A few hours later, with nothing on the page, only one thing came to mind to describe my beautiful mother.

Growing up, I was hardly a “mama’s boy.” I’ve always been foolishly independent, never wanting to appear overtly sentimental or childish, even at a young age. But she always wanted us to call her “mama.” She called her own mother that and it was something we did when we were younger. It reminded her of when we were young enough to let her tuck us in. Jerod and I, as teenagers, thought it sounded childish and just stuck with “mom.”

She was always incredibly affectionate. I remember when I was twelve or thirteen and, up until that point, my parents would come tell me goodnight, tuck me in, and pray with me. My mom in particular would give me a hug and a kiss every night. One particular night in my budding adolescence, as she was leaning in to give me my kiss on the cheek, I turned away and told her that I was too old for that. I told her that I would no longer need her to tuck me in, kiss me, or hug me before bedtime.

Years later, mom told me that she went downstairs that night and cried and cried.

When I was sitting down to write the obituary, a single phrase continued to permeate my thoughts. In thinking about her, and what she made our family to be, I could not stop thinking about how she was the “best of us.” I kept thinking it over and over.

The next day, three days before she passed, I had the last conversation with her where she was lucid and responsive. It was my scheduled day to be at the house, at her bedside, while dad was at work. I had a closing shift that evening so I spent all day at the house. For a brief few, precious moments, she woke up from her intense sedation. In that time, she barely moved her mouth when she spoke. And after I gave her the medication, which was a process in itself, I held her chapped hand and she looked at me, saying nothing. Her lids were half opened and I said, with the phrase still lodged into my brain, “Mom, you’re the best of us.”

She just looked at me, not saying anything. She was often quiet during these short periods of lucidity. Occasionally, she would repeat a phrase that we said to her, parroting it back over and over as the words sifted their way through the sedatives and into her brain.

I repeated it: “Mom, you’re the best of us.” She just looked at me and squeezed a bit with her hand as she parroted back, “You’re the best.”

Tears formed in my eyes as she spoke, and I just repeated, “You’re the best of us. You don’t deserve this.”

She responded, “You’re the best.”

Back and forth we went for several moments, just repeating each other, her eyes somehow locked into mine.

“I love you, mom. I love you so much.”

She responded, quietly, “I love you.”

Back and forth we went.

“I love you, mom. You don’t deserve this. I love you.”

She repeated back, “I love you.”

“I love you mom. None of this is fair. You don’t deserve this.”

“I love you.” I was trying not to cry, but tears streamed down my face uncontrollably.

And then, out of nowhere, she repeated our line from before, “You’re the best.” And then she closed her already-half-shut eyes and went back to sleep, still holding my hand, as I sobbed.

Over the course of the next three days, she was asleep every time I saw her.

I remember how pale she looked when I walked into the room that early morning of March 1st. I remember walking up to her, sobbing, and grabbing her hand.

I’ve always seen, in deaths on TV shows and movies, where the family hugs and embraces the body of their loved one. They kiss them and hold them and cry—and every time, I’ve thought to myself, “That’s disgusting. That’s a dead body. They’re kissing a dead body.”

But when I saw her lying in that bed, pale and still a little warm, I remember wanting nothing more than to hug her and hold her and kiss her cheek and feel the small bit of warmth she had left. I asked everyone for some time alone in the room with her and when the door shut, I cried as I hugged her and kissed her and told her that I was sorry for not wanting her to hug me goodnight when I was thirteen. I grabbed her hand and held it and kissed her cheek and prayed that it wasn’t actually happening. That she would wake up to give me one more hug.

Since she passed, I can’t stop looking at pictures of us, as a family, when we were younger—before I was too cool to turn down her hugs, before I was too cool to call her “mama.”

It’s been two full months since she passed. Two months that, before I know it, will multiply themselves enough times to become a year.

And then two years. And then ten.

But every day that she has been gone, I haven’t felt like I’m twenty-four. I haven’t even felt like I’m thirteen again, and too cool for her goodnight hugs. I think I keep looking at those pictures because every time I think about her, I feel like I’m a little kid again.

I feel like I’m a little boy—and all I want is a hug from my mama.Image

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Disclaimer: The following stories were told to me by a coworker, who is gay and has lived her entire life in an area of the country where religion rules and equality for gays falls by the wayside. Names have been changed.

Kerry and Susan, recently married in Ontario, Canada, returned to their home in Georgia. In their town, jobs are hard to come by—especially jobs that correspond to their education and interests. As a newlywed couple, they found the first jobs available and moved into a small apartment. They couldn’t afford much–but its coziness couldn’t be matched. Susan found a wonderful little bedroom set on Craigslist for a little over a hundred dollars; Kerry bought a small television at Goodwill. Happiness, for them, came from the love that they share. Their apartment may not have ceiling fans or a dishwasher, but they didn’t care. Susan goes to the library to use the computers. She checks do-it-yourself sites for cheap homemade furnishings and decorating ideas and writes them down. Occasionally, when she gets a few extra coins in the tip jar at work, she prints off some of the pictures—in black-and-white, of course. The color pages at the library cost an extra ten cents to print. Kerry’s position at the local supermarket is less lucrative, but somehow they make ends meet.

Their life together would be much easier, of course, if they didn’t have the legal fees. You see, Susan was married before and has a young son, Samuel. Susan’s ex-husband, Mike, is a car mechanic and a drunk—and is fighting Susan for custody of two-year old Samuel. The custody battle has been vicious and ugly—and Susan and Kerry aren’t sure if they can continue fighting for custody with their limited income. The newlyweds have a home, but without Sam, their home seemed incomplete.

 ****************

Across town, Billie and Jordan have been together for several years and are enjoying financial stability for the first time in their relationship. Billie has been working at the local discount store for several years as a part time employee—it was the only place that hired her after her injury, and even though the pay is low, she remains loyal to the company for hiring her. The source of their financial stability, however, comes from Jordan’s new job as a custodian in the local prison. Benefits, full-time hours: it’s everything they needed in this difficult economy. That is, until Billie fell again.

 ****************

James still remembered the first time he saw his daughter.

She took her first breath and unlike other newborns, she didn’t cry. She looked up at the doctor, wide-eyed, and then squinted to shield her eyes from the light that she was seeing for the first time.

The doctor looked at James, “It’s a beautiful girl. Would you like to hold her, dad?”

James, with tears leaking from his eyes, couldn’t muster a response. He nodded as the doctor gently handed over his daughter. They had waited so long for this baby—so many treatments, so many years—and he was finally holding his daughter in his arms.

James thought about that moment as he drove home. Louise, his beautiful daughter, was now finishing her last year of high school. He wiped away tears as he drove. How is he going to explain to her that her mother left? How is he going to explain why she did? He could never show Louise the note that her mother left behind.

James,

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. You will never see me again, and Louise won’t either. I can’t take it. I can’t raise a daughter that will never have children. That will never have a boyfriend. Where did we go wrong? Where did I go wrong? How could our daughter be gay? Good luck Jim. I guess you can handle her sin, but I can’t and neither can God.

Mary Beth

 ****************

When Billie fell, Jordan panicked. She had to get to work, but Billie could be injured badly and needed to get to a hospital. Billie had a medical condition—every once in a while, she would simply faint. But this time was different. When Billie fainted, she collapsed and her head hit the corner of the coffee table.  There was a lot of blood on the carpet, but Jordan knew that she had to get Billie to the emergency room—she was still unconscious. Billie’s insurance didn’t cover ambulance rides. Jordan would just have to explain to her boss, the head custodian of the prison, that it was an emergency.  She wrapped Billie’s head in a towel to stop the bleeding and lifted her into the backseat of her beat-up Corolla and sped to the hospital.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan have come to a crossroads. The judge presiding over the custody case for little Sam has a strict ideology about situations like theirs. Judge Phillips, Susan’s lawyer explains, does not believe that a household led by two women can adequately raise a young boy. The prospects do not look good. Their legal marriage from Canada does them no good in Georgia .There is a likely chance that Susan’s ex-husband will be rewarded full custody of little Samuel, despite the evidence of his drinking. Judge Phillips might also decide to award custody to the State and send Samuel into the foster system. The lawyer has one last idea: if Kerry and Susan live separately, the judge might change his mind. He has some precedent of awarding custody in such situations to single mothers.

Kerry and Susan, despite their finances, find an apartment for Kerry nearby, and tearfully they move her out into a separate home, despite the fact that they can barely make ends meet as it is.

 ****************

James wants to send Louise to college but can barely afford it, now that he is a single parent. He still hasn’t told Louise the reason her mother left—and doesn’t plan to. He can’t bear the thought of her feeling guilt over her mother’s absence.

James takes on a second job that takes him away from home almost every night. When his wife left, she took their second income with her.

Louise, having been abandoned by her mother, now rarely sees her father. She cries herself to sleep almost every night, wishing things could go back to how they were.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan can’t afford to live apart. Their two incomes simply don’t support their two apartment payments. Kerry’s parents live in Pennsylvania and they offer to take her back in during the custody battle.

The once-happy newlyweds who dreamed of their life together on their long drive back from their wedding weekend in Ontario now live separately in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Susan cries herself to sleep every night, all alone in their apartment, as she wishes she could see her son and her wife. She wonders if life will ever be like the dreams that they once shared.

 ****************

Jordan races to the hospital and admits Billie into the Emergency Room. After Billie is taken into an examination room, Jordan calls her boss at the prison to explain that she had to rush her partner to the hospital. He asks her to meet with him early the next morning—and adds that she shouldn’t bother to dress in her normal custodial uniform.

Billie, thankfully, only has a mild concussion and gets twenty-seven stitches. As they drive home, they worry about Jordan’s meeting with her boss the following morning, aware that it will probably be her last day in her new job that allowed them their first taste of financial security.

 ****************

Susan and Kerry have now lived apart for nearly a year and have grown apart. They cannot afford plane tickets and cannot afford the time off work to make the long drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania. They haven’t seen each other since the separation.

After several months of depression about their situation, Kerry and Susan find that the tears don’t flow as easily anymore. They cry less at sappy movies. Their conflicting hours at their jobs don’t allow them to talk on the phone very often, and six months into their separation, the custody battle is still unfinished.

 ****************

In most states, an employee cannot be terminated for missing work due to a spouse-related medical emergency. In most states, a gay couple cannot legally become spouses.

Jordan was fired from her job for missing her shift to drive Billie to the hospital.

 ****************

Louise never saw her father after he picked up the second job. She began spending time with people who led her into some bad situations—and even though her father picked up the second job to be able to afford her college tuition, Louise ended up in jail for drug possession after high school instead of a college dorm.

James used some of the money he had been saving to post his daughter’s bail on the night she got booked.

He had been working particularly long hours recently. When he picked her up at the jail, it was the first time he had seen Louise in over three weeks. Neither of them had seen Louise’s mother since she left.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan, after more than a year apart, decided to end their relationship. Living apart, not being able to see each other, and the stress of the custody battle proved to be too much for their young marriage to bear. Not long after, custody of three-year-old Samuel gets awarded to the state, as Judge Phillips deemed Susan an unfit mother due to the fact that she will never have a man in her life to be a father to the little boy.

She still lives by herself in Georgia.

 ****************

Epilogue: If you thought these stories were going to have happy endings, then I am sorry for letting you down. But this is the environment for too many people in this country, a country that claims it is the land of the free. Inequality can be tangibly measured, in things like custody battles and terminations from jobs. It can also be an immeasurable force—such as the devastation a family feels after a mother leaves because she can’t stomach the idea of her daughter being gay.

The state of Washington has a unique opportunity to be on the cutting edge of equality this Tuesday. Legal marriage is just a step to erase the stigma that LGBT people feel every day in this country, but most certainly a step in the right direction.

In speaking with just a few LGBT people here in Georgia and South Carolina, I realize even more fully that the people of Washington state have a huge opportunity. Referendum 74 is a step forward on an issue that LGBT folks here in the South could only dream of.

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Author’s Note: I wrote this piece originally on July 21st, 2012 in response to the Aurora, Colorado shooting at the screening on The Dark Knight Rises. It has since been updated to reflect the horrific actions in Newtown, Connecticut.

I feel an innate responsibility to comment on the shooting yesterday. Some people are going to say that now is not the time to talk about gun control. But when would be a good time? People are shot and killed every day in this country. To say that “now is not the time” is just as “political” as to begin talking about gun control–only, as Ezra Klein put it in his blog yesterday, it is to argue for the politics of the status quo. So let’s start talking. As this year (2012) comes to a close, it marks the worst year in mass shootings in modern United States history.

There were actually two horrific acts of violence at two different schools on December 14th, 2012. In one, a crazed gunman in Connecticut opened fire at an elementary school, killing twenty children and six adults before turning the weapon on himself. In the other, a man wielding a knife in a school in China stabbed 22 children.

People who defend unfettered gun rights in this country will talk about how violent people will use violence, regardless of the weapon. They will talk of how a man with no access to guns will still find weapons–in the case of the Chinese man, a knife–to commit their sick acts of violence.

To put it bluntly, this is sheer idiocy. The death toll in the Connecticut shooting? Twenty-eight. The death toll in the Chinese knifing? Between zero and three, as reports are conflicting. People who say that guns don’t kill people need to pull their heads out of the sand. People kill people when they use guns. People mostly injure people when they use alternative weapons. There is data to back this up, too: According to a study that was featured in the Journal of the American College of Surgery on “penetrating cardiac injuries,” someone who is shot in the heart has a 16% chance of surviving. If someone is stabbed in the heart, they have a 70% chance of living. If every person who used a gun to kill someone traded their weapon for a knife, the survival rates would quadruple immediately. As a side note: knives, ironically, are regulated. Switchblades remain illegal, while extended clips, armor piercing rounds, and semi-automatic and automatic firearms all remain legal.

Now on to the Aurora shooting, which had fewer deaths but far more injuries than the Newtown massacre. With over 70 people shot and twelve dead in the community of Aurora, Colorado, it marks one of the more violent attacks by a lone shooter in recent memory. Among the casualties: a pregnant mother and a six-month old child.

The gunman reportedly used extended clips—more bullets, more death, before he had to reload. Among the weapons he used: an assault style rifle with high-capacity magazines.

Imagine being in the theater, wondering when the shooting was going to stop, wondering when he’d run out of ammunition, only to hear him continue to pepper the crowd with death and pain.

The fact that he used the guns is due to some problem within his twisted mind. The fact that he bought the guns legally? Well that’s due to a different problem entirely—one that’s ours—and it’s one that needs to be reexamined before something like this can happen again.

According to a United Nations Report in the early 2000s, gun related deaths are EIGHT times higher in the United States than in countries that are economically and politically similar.

I understand the arguments that are bubbling up within some of you: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s the age-old argument from the NRA and gun-toters everywhere. In some ways, I agree with the argument. There needs to be stricter background checks, monitors, and safeguards to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong person. But in a lot of ways, the argument is a load of crap. Here’s why:

The gunman easily passed any background test to get his weapons. His only run-in with the law was a speeding ticket. He had no criminal history and was a very smart med studenImaget. The gunman in Norway from Norway a while back, who murdered 77 people and injured another 319? He passed every background check and obtained his weapons legally even though he had been planning the attack for nearly a decade. Lesson? Background checks are hardly enough.

The second reason it’s a load of crap: Guns DO kill people. I agree that people kill people. It happens every day in this country. But people with guns kill others way more efficiently than people with other handheld weapons. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that guns can be used from great distances and that no one can stab or otherwise physically harm as quickly as certain legal semi-automatic weapons.

To turn defend semi-automatic weapons, extended clips, and even handguns using the Second Amendment is absurd. It was written by a group of people who used muskets and muzzle-loaders. The same people who wrote that into our constitution had no knowledge of the level of devastation that could be caused in a crowd by a single person and a single weapon. They did, however, create a system by which we could change the Constitution as times changed—they had the foresight to acknowledge that problems would arise that they had no ability to account for—and they saw that the Constitution was not timeless. Nor is it Gospel.

And if this is about “freedom,” please tell me how someone’s freedom to own a weapon is more important than the freedom of a six-month-old to not get shot. Please explain to the loved ones of the dead in this most recent tragedy how their fallen family members’ freedom to live is not worth more than a freedom to purchase a semi-automatic weapon.

Some argue that people who are hell-bent on creating disaster will do so anyway—ban guns and they will still find ways to get them.

But, the UK did just that—as a nation, they have some of the most restrictive gun policies on the planet. They have even banned handguns entirely. In the United States in 2009, the United Nations statistics record 3 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The figure for the United Kingdom was 0.07—about 40 times lower.

I know that there are other factors to gun violence. I understand that murders would still occur, that people would still somehow get their hands on guns, and that people would still die. But it is entirely unacceptable that the United States would have a gun death rate as high as it is. In every major UN study since the 80s, The United States has had the highest amount of gun-related injuries than any industrialized nation. This will never be okay.

David Hemenway is the Health Policy Director at the Harvard School of Public Health and has studied violence prevention for over forty years. He writes that every nation that has stricter gun laws than the United States ultimately has lower homicide rates and lower gun deaths overall. In fact, “as a benchmark, in 2003, the United States homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher.”

He writes of a beautiful example in Australia: “Following the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania, massacre of 35 people, Australia acted quickly to effectively ban assault weapons. A mandatory buyback obtained more than 650,000 of these guns from existing owners. Australia also tightened requirements for licensing, registration, and safe gun storage of firearms. The result? In the 18 years before the intervention, Australia had 13 mass shootings. In the dozen years since, there has not been a single one. The laws also helped reduce firearm suicide and non-mass shooting firearm homicide.” (emphasis mine)

David Hemenway wrote about this in an Op-Ed piece for the Arizona Daily Star in 2011 following the shopping center shooting that killed six people and injured former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

And here we are, a year and a half later, with more mass shootings. How many times will we, as a nation, need to learn these lessons?

Enacting stricter laws would undoubtedly lower the death rates dramatically, just as it has in every other country that has stricter gun laws than the US. But even if we lowered the statistics a tiny bit, wouldn’t it be worth it to save a few lives?

Isn’t it worth it to even save one life? If you answer with a “no,” try explaining your reasoning to the crying parents and families of the victims of gun violence.

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Homosexuality is one of the most hotly contested issues in America today. Between marriage rights to theological debates to scientific analysis, this issue doesn’t look to resolve itself anytime soon. And typically, when there are these types of issues that find a familiar set of (different) demographics on each side of the issue, there are going to be factions that form outside of the realm of debate. One of the most obvious examples is the role of mainstream Christianity in the debate.

Christians have traditionally held the view that homosexuality goes against God’s intention for humanity. I say this not to validate the viewpoint—rather, it’s an important acknowledgement to understand the historical context. I also would hesitate to use the fact that it’s “always been this way” as a validation in itself. Christianity has a history marred with historical precedent that eventually gives way to progressive societal norms. Incest (Abraham), polygamy (too many biblical characters to name here), slavery (an overwhelming majority of pro-slavery arguments made during the Civil War era used Scripture as a divinely-inspired defense), Holy wars (too many instances to name here, from the Old Testament to Bible verses engraved on guns during the United States involvement in Iraq)—all of these prove that historical precedent of mainstream JudeoChristian thought/practice is hardly a reason to continue other antiquated practices.

However, what if there is an angle to the whole debate that both sides seem to be missing?

There are 5-6 passages in Scripture that seem to address homosexuality (or, at least, some realm of homosexual behavior). The interpretation of these verses is under debate, with most Christian Biblical scholars falling on one side and most secular Biblical scholars falling on the other.

But what if, in this modern era, the interpretation doesn’t matter? (Disclaimer: I think it does matter, not necessarily for the cause of homosexuality but for the overarching theme of Scripture misuse/mis-scholarship.)

What if everyone is getting the foundation of this debate entirely wrong?

Anti-homosexuality advocates frame the debate utilizing specific gender assignments. For them, men are to be with women and women are to be with men. By this uniformly understood view, everyone on our planet—and everyone ever created—is either a man or a woman. Every human ever created falls into either the category of “man” or “woman.” It has to be this way, right? Because “male and female (God) created them.”

The whole premise rests on this—philosophically, it has to. For a philosophical idea to maintain its soundness, it has to be followed to the infinite implications. And to define marriage, or love, as something that can only exist between a man and a woman, we have to have clear, unequivocal definitions of what “male” and “female” are that applies to every human being. If the definitions break down at all, then the argument is not sound. The totality of the anti-homosexual stance rides on the unequivocal belief that there is a clear distinction between the two genders. Gender itself has to be defined by two clear, separate groups. A human being is either one or the other.

However, this is most definitely not the reality.

 Gender, despite the primitive definition of the word, is not a dualistic lens through which every human being can be clearly designated. In fact, as we are learning more and more about the intricacy of the human body and its development, there is becoming an increasing understanding amongst the medical world that gender, instead of being a situation of being “one or the other,” is actually a scale of extremes. In this scale of extremes, “male” is a designation of one side and “female” is a designation of the other. Humanity, however, cannot be so neatly categorized—every individual falls somewhere on the scale between male and female. A growing number of studies have identified a human biology that doesn’t follow the precedent of the male/female dichotomy. The term for this gray area is “intersex,” and it is being widely recognized as a key factor in the gender stereotype debate. In short, intersex is the area on the scale between “male” and “female” that doesn’t neatly fit either category—and a significant portion of the human population is born in this gender gray area, where phenotypically understood definitions do not apply.

Intersex can occur in a number of different ways that are typically classified as disorders. These disorders occur in a number of ways and can be a result of genetics, hormones, and others. Allow me to give a rundown of the biology.

Humans are given a chromosomal designation. Women are (typically) created from two ‘X’ chromosomes, while men are (typically) created from and ‘X’ and a ‘Y’ chromosome. The mother always provides the first ‘X,’ while each of the father’s sperm carries either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y.’ The embryo, after the fertilization of the egg creates a zygote, is phenotypically asexual until roughly seven weeks after fertilization. Hormones begin taking over, and in typical biological processes, the physical distinction between male and female becomes more divergent up until birth.

Essentially, there are two basic ways to determine the gender of a human. You can look at the chromosomal nature: is the person XX or XY? You can also look at the physical evidence (genitalia, gonads) and phenotypically determine if the person is male or female.

However, this is not always the case—and the combinations of biological variance are all important. There are cases where human can be born with an incorrect designation of chromosomes—instead of XX or XY, the individual may be born XXY—or a person can be born with physical evidence of both male and female gonads/genitalia. There are many combinations thereof and I won’t go into all of them.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the premier chroniclers of gender ambiguity today. In her book Sexing the Body, she writes that “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies […] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits. […] Modern surgical techniques help maintain the two-sex system. Today children who are born ‘either/or-neither/both’ — a fairly common phenomenon — usually disappear from view because doctors ‘correct’ them right away with surgery.”

This is the kicker though—according to the Intersex Society of North America, between 1% and 1.7% of live births exhibits some degree of sexual (gender) ambiguity. Between 0.1% and 0.2% exhibit enough ambiguity to become the subject of specialist medical attention.

So what does all this mean? What does intersex and sexual ambiguity have to do with the homosexuality debate that is currently going on in Christianity?

The entire framework of the debate rests on a clear distinction between male and female. The whole framework for calling homosexuality “sinful” means that a line has to be drawn, somewhere, between males and females. And yet, for up to 6.8 million Americans who are born with some level of gender ambiguity, there is no line. For the 400,000-800,000 people in America who were born with enough ambiguity that required surgery or gender assignment, it means that the line was drawn by doctors or parents, not God.

So, for an argument to be philosophically sound, it must follow its own implications infinitely. It must always be true or it is not considered sound. If a definitive distinction cannot be made between “male” and “female” that holds true for every human, then how can it hold true for anyone? Is someone male if they are genetically male, yet have female gonads and genitalia? If someone born this way is attracted to men, is it considered heterosexual or homosexual?

What about the small population who are born in a way that essentially makes the doctors and parents the determiners of the gender? If the parents determine to raise their child as a girl because she has female genitalia, yet is chromosomally XY (male), who should the child, according to Christianity, marry? Which option would be sinful, according to anti-homosexuality advocates? Or does the individual have the option?

The problem with the homosexuality debate is clear. It assumes that all people are created as either male or female. The Bible doesn’t really seem to address intersex humans. Yet, even as God created Adam and Eve male and female, doesn’t He also create intersex humans as both male and female? Or part male, part female? Isn’t it true that God doesn’t create mistakes?

The truth is, it is not a cut-and-dry situation. If homosexuality was so sinful, why would God create people who do not even know what gender they are? Are they simply supposed to guess which group they are supposed to be attracted to? If God’s law for love is based on classic gender definitions, then why would He allow people to be born who could potentially not fall into the classic definitions? Is God really that petty and confusing?

It hardly matters what is “normal” or “typical” when it comes to this debate—if God were to have only created ONE person that didn’t fit inside of classic gender definitions, then the entire debate would be rendered meaningless. And yet He has created millions.

Perhaps we can lose this talk of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” altogether. Wouldn’t the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” be somewhat obsolete, based on their linguistic limitations to accurately describe humanity?

 If all people, genetically and physically, actually fall on a gender scale that includes various shades of gray, can’t we just let love be love, no matter who is involved?

If God is the author of Love, even defined and described as Love, can we stop determining who gets to love and who doesn’t?

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A narrative has been percolating in my mind for several months now. I have spoken bits and pieces of it in random conversations and in various group settings, but I believe that it’s not going to feel complete unless I write it down. Hopefully, however, through the writing of this I can allow my thoughts to more neatly organize themselves in a way that is neither caustic nor judgmental—rather, I hope to bring to light a fresh view of something that is, well, really not so fresh.

This narrative begins several months ago on a Monday night.

I am a part of a young adult Bible study group that meets Monday nights. On this particular night, we were wrapping up the book of Ezra. I am not going to take the time or space right now for a background on the book (but I encourage you to read it and draw your own conclusions). At the end of the book, beginning in Chapter 9, an interesting theme arises: intermarriage.

The Israelites, led by the leaders and the priests, had entangled themselves with surrounding tribes and had not been faithful to the law that was set by God that strictly called them to not marry or make covenants with a long list of people groups (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7, 23). Ezra, being the spiritual leader of the people, was confronted by the leadership of the Israelites about this. They admitted that the people have been making covenants and engaging in the practices with these surrounding tribes.

Ezra was chagrined. The rest of chapter 9 is devoted to a mournful, apologetic prayer to God concerning the terrible transgressions of the people. Surely God was enraged at these practices, especially since He had finally allowed the people to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He publicly wept and prayed until a crowd gathered around him, also crying out with guilty tears. One man, Shecaniah, stepped up with a seemingly perfect solution: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

So they followed through with these plans. They kicked out all non-Jews. Mothers and wives and children were suddenly banished, homeless and destined for poverty. They dealt with the unclean men who were willing to engage in the intermarriage with discipline as well (but not banishment).

As we began to discuss this story that Monday night, the initial consensus was that the right steps toward purity had been taken. God had given them some fairly clear laws and the people had disobeyed. They remedied the situation by amputating the reason for the problem, right? In fact, they had very religious and Godly reasons for ostracizing the group of foreigners and half-breeds (which is what they called them)! God had called them to purity, and they were standing up for truth, for the law, for God. They were standing up for what was right.

In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. If you don’t fit within the confines of the law (and the half-breeds didn’t) then you were religiously ostracized. After all, it’s what God commanded. Sometimes standing up for truth is ugly, right? When people don’t fit within the plan, God’s people have to stand up and do something!

Flash-forward several hundred years.

One of these ostracized half-breed groups, the Samaritans, had long-since settled in the northern part of what is now the West Bank. They were, in fact, descendents of the intermarriage discussed in Ezra: modern day Y-chromosome studies and mitochondrial DNA analysis has shown that they descended from both Israelites (including priestly lines) and mostly Assyrian women.

And they were religiously hated. The full-blooded Israelite populations referred to them in derogatory terms and were not to speak to them. The Samaritans could not worship at the Jewish holy sites (though they considered themselves mostly Jewish). Centuries later, the Jewish community was still standing up for the purity and righteousness God had called them to—and they were good at it.

That’s what it takes to follow God’s law, right? An unwavering commitment to the truth that God had laid out for them—the impure be damned (literally).

It is in this context that a man who had been listening to Jesus preach asks him a question. It should be noted that this is no ordinary man—this is a man who Luke calls an “expert in the law.” This is a man who was very familiar with the story in Ezra–a man whose disgust with the Samaritan people ran deep. This is a religious man who had very religious and even godly reasons for believing what he did. In fact, being an expert, he could probably name the very spots in Deuteronomy in which God forbade marriage and covenants with the Assyrians, the very ancestors of the Samaritan people.
And this expert has one question for Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” It almost seems like he’s asking the man, “You are an expert—but let’s see if you really understand the ideas behind the laws.”

The man answers by quoting parts of the Law from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus responds positively: “Good answer, do that and you’ll live.”

It’s at that point that the man seems to notice his hypocrisy. He looks for a loophole, a way out—it’s almost as if it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t been living this way. You can almost imagine him going through the people in his life, gauging whether or not he has loved them, and hoping the people he hasn’t loved weren’t his “neighbors.” He responds with, “And who is my neighbor?”

You can see him trying to justify his way of life. This devoutly religious man, who has undoubtedly spent his life trying to understand and study the law of God, has had religious reason to follow through with his marginalization of others (read: Samaritans). He has been standing up for God’s law, right? He has been standing up for truth, for purity! He is an “expert” on what it means to follow God’s law!

And Jesus responds with one of the most well known stories in the Scriptures.

He begins the now familiar story with a man who is walking on a road and then getting robbed, beaten within inches of his life, and stripped naked. He is left for dead. A priest sees the man and passes by, unwilling to help. In fact, he doesn’t just pass by; he walks to the other side of the road, perhaps so that he didn’t have to be bothered by having the man in his sightline. (I’d imagine that puzzled looks would be exchanged from the people listening to this story—was Jesus calling out a religious leader? Can you imagine the modern day equivalent to a priest? A mega-church pastor, maybe? Or another kind of Christian leader—an evangelist, maybe, or an author?)
Then a Levite does the same thing. A Levite was someone who worked in the temple. Again, people would have been shocked and even angry. Was he just going down the hierarchy of the religious elite, calling them all out as being someone who doesn’t love their neighbor (which, you remember, he said was how someone gains eternal life)?

But then, truly the most shocking aspect of the story is spoken. Let’s be honest, Jesus could have picked anyone to be the hero of his story. He could have picked a Jewish man. He was, after all, talking to an expert in the law. Why not make him the hero of the story? Instead, he does something far more controversial—and I hope you can grasp just how controversial it is, given the preceding two pages of context I have given. In fact, what Jesus says is nothing short of game-changing.

The third man to pass by helps the beaten, bloody man. The third man is the hero. He is the one who exhibits the love that neither church leader was willing to. He is the man who, according to Jesus, is going to inherit eternal life by loving his neighbor. Who is this third man?

A Samaritan. Jesus, speaking to a Jewish expert of the law, picks a Samaritan man to be the hero.

A half-breed. A man who has been ostracized and condemned the church in the name of truth and purity—yet will inherit Eternal Life ahead of the church leaders.

And why? Because he loved his neighbor.

He may not have belonged in the church, but he loved like Jesus calls all of us to.

This story prompts two questions. Primarily—what people groups today do we (as the religious folk) ostracize/marginalize/criticize/hate in the name of truth and purity? Muslims? Gays? Liberals? Evolutionists? Democrats? Postmoderns? Younger generations? Atheists? Would Jesus, if he was telling the story today, pick someone from one of these groups to be the hero? Who have we decided to separate ourselves from for the sake of being godly—only to miss out on the true message of Jesus?

Second—what can we do about it? How can we begin looking less like the church leaders of Jesus time and more like Jesus?

I think the first step is this: we need to begin making these people the heroes of our stories. Like the church leaders, we may have had some very “godly” and religious reasons for marginalizing some people. But like Jesus, we need to stop marginalizing and start interacting. Stop hating those that are different and begin loving them as people who, like the Samaritan, are just as capable of loving God and people.

We need to begin thinking less about who is “out” and who is “in” and more about what we can do to make sure that all people are viewed as “neighbors.”
The truth is that Jesus preached a message of love, not religion. We are all connected as neighbors in humanity.

I hope we can begin tearing down the walls of injustice and intolerance so that people can see Jesus’ love, not the stale religion of exclusion.

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This is my first-ever NFL preview article, so I am not totally sure how to go about it. With that caveat, let us begin with my picks to win each division in the NFC:

minnesota-vikings-logoNFC North—in potentially the strongest division in the NFC, it’s hard to pick against the Vikings (and no, not because of Brett Favre.) This was the team to beat with Gus Frerotte/Tarvaris Jackson under center. Adrian Peterson is, barring injury, going to have the best year of his pro career. He is stronger and faster than he’s ever been, thanks to a more diligent offseason. The Bears will also be contenders, and it seems that Green Bay’s offense is somewhat unstoppable. However, in the division games, Minnesota will eke out wins by controlling the clock and wearing down opposing defenses. Top of the division: Minnesota. Bottom of the division: Detroit Lion Cubs.

atlantafalconslogoNFC South—this is also a tough division. Tampa Bay, with confusion at the coaching level and indecision at the quarterback level, will have no problem assuring its fans that they have nothing to cheer for. The other three teams, however, will be better. This may sound crazy to some, but the Falcons will repeat their playoff season and win the division. The Panthers, with Jake Delhomme having an identity crisis (Do I suck, or do I really SUCK?) will barely beat the Tampa so-five-minutes-ago-Bucs (didn’t they get the memo that Pirates are out, Vampires are in?) in record. The Falcons will win a close race with the Saints, who will not make the playoffs despite improving on last year. Top of the division: Atlanta. Bottom of the division: Tampa Bay Sea Thieves.

23374_Dallas-Cowboys-LogoNFC East—this is still the toughest division in football overall. The Redskins are the worst team, and they could easily give every other division winner in the NFC a run for their money. However, this division will only send two teams to the playoffs, despite the fact that three teams will have as good (or better) records than all of the NFC West teams. The New Jersey Giants will have a difficult time putting yards on the board after losing some offensive weapons to friendly fire (Plaxico Burress) and trade (Derrick Ward). Dallas, after giving Diva the boot, will rise to the top. Despite some defensive back depth issues, the Boys’ defense will rise above last year’s level with Wade Phillips’ play-calling and the best defensive player in the league (Demarcus Ware). The Boy’s minus-T.O.-offense will be more of a balanced attack with the best tailback tandem in the league (Marion Barber III and Felix Jones, who will also do their fair share of receiving.) The Philly Puppy-Killers, though a preseason favorite, will fail to gain traction on offense, despite their up-and-coming wideouts. Michael Vick will struggle—causing rifts in the locker room and national drama as sportswriters everywhere call for the Eagles to throw Vick to the, um, dogs. Top of the division: Dallas Homeboys. Bottom of the division: Washington Political-Correctness-Fighters.

SeahawksLogoSmallNFC West—this will (still) be the weakest division in football, and the winner will take the division with a measly 8-8 or 9-7 record. The Cardinals, last year’s improbable Cinderella team, will fail to meet last year’s middling success (they only went 9-7) and Kurt Warner will finally show his age by a) getting hurt or b) insisting that all the offensive linemen meet him for coffee at the local Phoenix McDonald’s every morning so they can talk about the good old days. The Rams will again wonder who took Marc Bulger’s place during his 2006 Pro Bowl season because the REAL Marc Bulger will inevitably get hurt, play less than sixteen games, and not reach 3,000 passing yards (like 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2008). San Fran, despite Crazy-Eyes’ first full season as head coach, will not be able to inspire his team by pulling his pants down and yelling about “butt-whuppins.” Shaun Hill will perform admirably, though, and have a solid Aaron Rodgers-circa 2008 year, all the while having John Mayer’s song “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” stuck in his head. The Seafowl, despite a high-school level running game, will elevate their offense thanks to the addition of Pony-Tail Housh just enough to win the division and be one-and-done in the playoffs. Best in the division: Rain-town Seahawks. Worst in the division: The “Why-Are-We-Still-in-St. Louis?” Rams.

080307-Aaron-Rodgers.widec

Wild Card predictions: The Green Bay Cheeseheads will rebound after last year’s drama-filled snafu and barely lose the division to the Vikings. They’ll play in Atlanta in January. As will the New York Football (duh!) Giants. They will not be able to repeat their division crown because no NFC East team in the last 5 years has. But they’ll be ready to play in Seattle in JaPackers Giants Footballnuary.

Playoff game predictions: Atlanta will beat the Packers and the Giants will beat the Seahawks in the first weekend. Dallas and the Vikings will enjoy first-round byes. The Giants will go on to beat the Vikings by haranguing Brett Favre. Dallas will beat Atlanta. The NFC Championship game will be in Dallas’ new stadium in a rematch of the Boys’ home season opener. The scoreboard, contrary to popular opinion, will not be a factor.

felixjones2The Cowboys win the NFC Championship in a game that isn’t as close as it should be: 31-14.

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religulous-posterI just watched Bill Maher’s documentary, “Religulous.” It was a fascinating and often hilarious portrayal of an agnostic’s attempt to illustrate that religion is destructive, backwards, and will ultimately cause the self-inflicted end of humanity. His apparent thesis came at the end of the movie, where he said that his purpose was to stir doubt within people—to Maher, doubt creates humility, and human history is littered with people acting on what they perceive as certainty. The most violent acts in history are most often caused by people who believe, with absolute certainty, that they have it all (or mostly) figured out.

The interesting thing is, if I had a conversation with Maher, we’d probably agree on more things than we disagree on.

I too believe that religion has been the most destructive force in the history of humanity. In the beginning, the earliest humans spent their time wondering where they stood with the gods, leading them to begin sacrificing their children to these spirits. More wars and battles have been waged in the name of God (or, gods) than any other motive. Even the creation of the United States is scarred with white Europeans believing that they had God on their side as they slaughtered, raped, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

While Maher clearly has an agenda, which appeared to be an effort to shame any and all religious people, I truly think we could find a lot of common ground. At one point in the film, he stood in front of the richly built palace-like Vatican and exclaimed, “Does this (gesturing toward the palace) look like anything Jesus had in mind?” I wanted to stand up and cheer—in some strange way, Maher could read the Gospels and understand that Christ wanted nothing to do with political power, money, and even religion! In another scene, Maher interviewed a Christian leader. The exchange went as follows:

Maher: What should I call you? Reverend?

Reverend: No, please call me doctor.

Text at the bottom of the screen: Not only is this man not a doctor, he has no degree…of any kind.

The interview that followed was shameful and angering as the “Doctor” Reverend, with his many gold rings and designer suit, explained that Jesus was wealthy and wore fine clothes. Maher asked him about the many, many times Jesus appears to condemn the pursuit of wealth and riches, and the man responded that the more he follows God, and the more righteous he becomes, the wealthier he will get.

The fact that this man is representing Jesus is appalling—he does NOT represent the Jesus of the New Testament! I found myself agreeing with Maher.

Bill MaherThroughout the movie, he clearly does what most news anchors do after a disaster: pick the least intelligent people to interview. This is on purpose—the point of his movie is to shame religion! In that way, he clearly wanted to choose people who were contradictory and hypocritical in their religiosity.

The movie, however, allowed me to take comfort in the fact that I do not consider myself a follower of any religion. The actions and words of Jesus lead me to believe that following Him was never meant or intended to be a religious activity. It was never meant to be called “Christianity.” Following Jesus was about pursuing a beautiful servant lifestyle in which we are called to lovingly and humbly “wash the feet of this world.” Religulous” was a funny, biting, irreverent (duh!) movie about the fallacy of pursuing peace by waging religious war—and while I didn’t agree with Maher on many things, I did find myself realizing that true Christ-followers and Maher have a lot of common ground.

That said, he clearly is out to prove himself smarter, or more right, than those who have faith in any kind of higher Being. In that way, he is just trying to assert power over others, which makes him no different than any of the religious people he argues with.

Power over others is always the wrong pursuit, which is why Jesus calls us to lives of “power-under:” service, love, humility, and generosity. It makes me wonder. If all “Christians” actually looked like Christ, would Maher be so quick to reject them? I think not.

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