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During 5 weeks and 1,000 miles of unicycling for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equal rights:
No one cited Biblical injunctions against me unicycling on the road.
No one studied the constitution to see what to do with my one wheel preference.
No one said to me. "We have our place. You have your place."
No one forced me to ride in a closet.
What if we celebrated LGBT difference as easily as the difference between bicycling and unicycling, as a gift to be thankful for among all the standard wheel arrangements?
I rode my unicycle to collect everyday stories, to show that queer people live normal lives, that there's nothing to be afraid of from gay people, that the friendships I've developed through the years can be found everywhere, and that the church's damnation of gay people is all wrong. I rode as a pastor to argue a point.
With the ride done, I race toward another deadline. Rhetoric will soon ramp up for the 2006 midterm elections. Political and religious conversations about homosexuality promise to turn red hot again and polarize our country. People's lives will turn into political capital. I have watched this happen before and this time I am ready.
This time I have stories, because on this tour I asked these questions.
"What is it like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) in America today?"
"What do you think of gay rights?"
Now I speed through composing my rough draft, writing faster than I unicycled my 1,000 miles Straight Into Gay America. I want to do what I can as a progressive pastor on a one-wheeled cycle to make the case for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights.
Printing out the first draft of my manuscript, I ask my poet-friend Jim Bodeen if he'll take a look. He has loved the idea of this ride ever since first hearing of it. He told me once that if a person will only tell their story, he can "cut them a lot of slack." Story is his life, so much that he has a Poetry Pole in his front-yard garden, complete with thumbtacks for posting writing. Anyone can tack up words; Jim will tend them. He and colleagues have just published Weathered Pages, hundreds of poems selected from the ten-year history of the pole.
I take my freshly printed pages and start the three-hour drive over to Jim's home in Yakima, Washington. Driving alone and anticipating this meeting, I think back to other elders who have guided me through stages of my life: Carl, Russell, Don, Steve, Bill, John, Robert, Glen, Darrell, Jim, Paul. Maybe I sought them out. Maybe they found me. Perhaps I've just been lucky. Mentors have shaped me.
"Hey, Jim!" I shout when I arrive at his house. He's waiting on his porch as I walk up the driveway. I pass the Poetry Pole before we walk into his home. Jim retired one year ago. That's the same time he got the crewcut, which makes him look like a Marine. He cut his hair to mark the crossing from teaching high school students to following storypath fulltime. So far the path has led him to extended trips in El Salvador and Mexico. He spends a lot of time with his mother, too, exploring family history. When he's not lost in words, he swims to keep strong for this journey.
Jim and I sit on the tan leather couch in his living room. His penetrating eyes and ears define him. They are always searching for more. Whether from the center of society or from the edge, he weaves stories into fabric strong enough to test the contradictions of life. We haven't wasted any time. He begins turning pages, saying little as he reads. After awhile he stops and raises his head to speak.
"There's something missing here. I want you to go and watch ‘Walk The Line.' Pay attention to Cash's first audition."
The new biography of Johnny Cash is playing in theaters. Two days later I buy my ticket and take my seat during an afternoon matinee. I watch the recording agent cut Cash off in the middle of a Jimmy Davis gospel hymn.
If you was hit by a truck
and you was lying out in that gutter
dying, and you had time to sing one song,
one song people would remember
before you're dirt, one song
that would let God know
what you felt about your time
here on earth, one song that would sum
you up, you telling me that's the song
you'd sing? ... Or would you sing
something different, something real,
something you felt? Cause I'm telling you right now,
that's the kind of songs people want to hear.
That's the kind of songs that truly saves people.
It ain't got nothing to do with believing in God.
It has to do with believing in yourself.
Cash's next try is a song about Folsom Prison.
I walk from the theater to the coffee shop, replaying in my mind the two hours of death and resurrection I've just seen; watching Cash lie drunk in the dirt as often as he sang on the stage. Jim sent me here to show me a message: My story isn't real enough, and it doesn't share what I feel.
What do I feel? Unsettled. Scared. Angry. Hopeful. Uncertain. Folsom Prison makes me think of my church. Two months after riding Straight Into Gay America I'm not attending worship anymore. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I belong to just finished spending five years and more than a million dollars studying whether to sanction the blessing of same-sex unions and whether to allow the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian pastors. They voted both proposals down.
When Cash decided to play the Folsom Prison concert, he asked his managers to arrange the concert. They refused. "Your fans are Christian people. They don't want to hear you singing to a bunch of murderers and rapists."
Cash answers them back, "Then they're not Christian."
I was raised in the Lutheran Church. I'm an ordained pastor in this church. I've served congregations in Alaska and Michigan, but I can't make myself sit through worship anymore. Exclusionary rules contradict the gospel of Jesus and make me too angry. Anne doesn't pressure me, but we feel the tension on Sunday mornings as she walks out the door with our kids in tow.
I feel like Johnny Cash; I'd rather be at Folsom Prison. At the concert with the inmates, he tells them they're the best audience he's ever had. They are his resurrection crowd; they've got nothing left to lose; they understand his suffering and hope. I felt the same way about my thousand miles of riding out beyond the status quo. Jim pressures me. "Why did you feel that way?"
A year ago our family lived in a small Lutheran retreat center where gay rights were the dominant issue of the winter community. The new directors of the village were appointed at the same time a new pastor was being selected. Of the three candidates, the village was overwhelming in its preference for one of these three, a man who happened to be gay. The directors chose differently from this pastor who so impressed the village. I wrote the new directors a letter of concern.
"You are astonishingly arrogant," was the first line of their reply, and it went downhill from there, closing with a quote from a favorite teacher, "the guilty cannot love."
And then there was my last call as a pastor, serving the campus of Michigan State University. The national board reviewed me in the spring of 2000, after my four years of ministry there—they called me a "Lone Ranger." They even said "It is time for Lars to go." I've been out searching ever since.
"Get closer," says Jim. "Push your own story." He wants me to be more than a good reporter. He's hunting for what's inside of me. He doesn't care about those letters calling me arrogant, or those reviews saying I have to go. He cares about my life, not my good name.
"You want to be good?" he pushes. "You want to be safe? Safe is not part of death and resurrection."
People call Jim a Poetry Man, and right now this title scares me. My church. My life. All my questions. Mentors have made it impossible for me to live in the closet of the status quo, but I still feel threatened when someone starts digging into my life. After watching Cash audition, I know I have an invitation to write the story I'd give when I'm lying in the road, hit by a truck, dying like roadkill.
I push my whole manuscript to the side and worry, if I pick it up again, will it ever look the same? I'm scared. Poetry Man has gotten through to me.
I pack up my computer and head over to his house again. This conversation will have nothing to do with grammar.
"Come in." Jim opens the door when I knock and grabs my hand to pull me in. He pushes his face up close to mine, intense, penetrating, stripping away physical space the same way he bores for truth when he reads. I give him my story. I tell him what I saw at the movie.
"You got it. Look. You write
about all the injustices you came across
on your ride, and the people you met,
and the changes you want,
but change is dangerous.
Good people don't change,
only the desperate." He takes
a breath, "Where's your desperation?"
Hunting through a pile of letters, I find the one I'm searching for. I take a long look, then start reading, words from a woman who was once a man, who gave me her death and resurrection story about trying on her own to do the sex change operation that would allow him to become female, how he tried this three times, and ended up in the emergency room after each encounter with the knife, doctors screaming at the woman who kept trying to come into existence, until finally she prevailed at changing her sex.
Poetry Man sits for a long time. "My God," he says, and sits a long time more.
"That's a coming out story." He turns to me.
"Now where is yours?"
"Scared me a lot," I tell Paul, filling him in on the Johnny Cash movie and the challenge from Poetry Man. We're sipping coffee together at the Vogue Lounge. Paul is another current mentor, the Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Chelan that Anne and KariAnna and Kai attend on Sundays without me. His daughter and my kids play together. Instead of the unicycling I do for exercise, he gets up at 5:00 a.m. for basketball with friends. He's lean with a narrow face. He laughs easily and often, but I imagine him playing an intense game of ball.
Paul pastors edge ministries. Every Friday afternoon he stands on a corner in town with a handmade sign that reads PEACE VIGIL. He's been leading this vigil since before the war started in Iraq.
When I tell him about Johnny Cash and Folsom prison, Paul says to me, "I hardly ever meet anyone who loves the church anymore," he replies. "Liberals don't. Conservatives don't. What has happened?"
"I don't want to talk about church anymore." I reply . "I hardly even want to talk about Jesus anymore. Say ‘church,' say ‘Jesus' and you have a month of explaining to describe what you mean by those words. At the end, if you're all still talking, it's a miracle."
I've found conflict or been removed from every Lutheran place I've tried since ordination. Paul pushes on this nerve. I have no pretty endings in church. All those years in seminary. All those years in parishes. I thought if I got out on the road, away from the pulpit, I could just hear unburdened stories. But almost everyone who talks about LGBT talks about church—rarely as a place of love, more often as a place of death. If love comes in church, it comes in through cracks. If the church is my judge, I'm a failure.
I walk home while my story churns inside me. What scares me is Poetry Man's warning that poetry allows no lies and no deception.
I don't know if I dare explore my life this deeply. I don't want the danger of ending up even further outside the status quo. I wanted to go out on behalf of outsiders, not become one myself. I know the perils of the margins once the standard interpretations quit making sense. Jesus lasted three years. Sweet Jesus. Three years. This is the church that Paul wants me to love, but the truth is, I have not found peace after all the lonely crazy places I've seen.
"All true," concedes Poetry Man, "but you didn't ride just to argue a point about equal rights." He looks at feeble lines I've written about my time as a pastor. "There's a whole book in why you traded your robes for a unicycle. And you don't have a word of it written."
"That's not the book I'm writing." I say the words loud, as if force will give them credence.
Poetry Man confronts me now.
"You didn't leave the church to argue
a point. You left when you were
desperate. You didn't ride
your tour just to do a good deed.
What about not believing in God
anymore? You've talked to me
about this. Where's that in this writing?"
"That's not the book I'm writing." I repeat the words, this time without strength, "I wanted to be a reporter, share what I saw, help gay rights."
You watch Public Television instead of FOX news
and everyone knows the reporters have a viewpoint.
You have one, too. You choose
what you watch.
You're a pastor.
You don't believe in God,
and you're not going to report that?
Who. What. When. Why. Where. And how.
All reporting comes through the story of your own life.
You're scared. You think you're doing
something big. Right now it's small.
It's a cover-up of you.
Your ride could still save you.
Poetry Man picks up the 74,000 words of my manuscript draft, and places them back in my lap. He makes no sound. I look at the pile of pages, knowing I have to go back through each line. Is there anything in here worthy of a truck-crash dying hour? For a long time we sit on Jim's couch, the pages resting on my knees. At last I look up at this Poetry Man, searching his face.
He tells me, "You don't have to do this, you know."
Another few minutes pass before I finally speak. "All last summer when I rode, I kept meeting people who faced the choice of living their life or living in a closet. Maybe while I toured for equal rights I was touring to find my own voice, and unlock my own closet."
Poetry Man answers, this time more gently. "Let's see your story."