Last Sunday, I had the honor of sharing my heart at our church here in Portland, Pearl Church. It was an opportunity to tell a bit of my personal story, and also share my hopes and dreams for our little church. More than anything, though, my talk was a love letter to our church and to those like it that have suffered in the name of generous inclusiveness.
Our church experienced massive losses in attendance a few years ago when it changed its marriage practice to include same-sex couples. This was a bold decision to validate our stories and welcome in people historically on the fringes. Although there are a lot of personal references to our church in my reflection, there's a universal message about how the stories of LGBTQ people fit into the overarching story of humankind. I invite you to listen. Or, if you prefer, I've posted the transcript below with some minor edits. Enjoy.
My name is David Khalaf and I’m a member of the Oversight Team. For those of you who have been here for the past few weeks, you know that for the month of August we’ve been hearing from members of the board and learning about them and their hearts for this church. We heard first from Mo Hawthorne and her thoughts around how we approach church and faith with Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese: “You don’t have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Wasn’t that beautiful?
Then we heard from Karyn Lush, who talked about how when we come together every Sunday, we are a room full of hopes and dreams and struggles and pain. It’s tender and joyous and tragic and beautiful, and it all belongs. She also spoke about the extensive visioning process we undertook over the past year, and so if you didn’t listen to it, I highly recommend going back to hear about the incremental but significant ways in which we hope to thoughtfully grow and develop both Pearl and the people who call it home. And then last week Mike Roth posed the question: Who has the capacity, ownership, and authority at our church to make space for others? And the truth is, no matter how new you are, we’re all invited to take ownership of our church, to be a cover for others and welcome them with generous inclusiveness. He used a poem by Warsan Shire that starts with “Come with every wound” and ends with “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you.” We are a community that invites you to come as you are, where every part of you belongs.
I’m wrapping up this series of reflections before we return to our regularly scheduled programming next week. The nice part about going last is that I use up half my time just recapping everybody else. This is my first time giving a reflection at Pearl. I came onto the board last November and I was the newest member of the Oversight Team until Chuck Tsen earned that honor a couple of weeks ago. I’m so pleased to have Chuck on the board. Mo and Karyn can now finally stop hazing me and focus all of their attention on him.
Today I want to talk about stories. My story. Our stories. Pearl’s story. I love hearing the stories of the other Oversight Team members in their reflections. Even when I think I know them I always learn something new. For example, Karyn began her reflection with stories of when she was a teenager in Pennsylvania, and how for summer jobs they would thin the branches of trees in an apple orchard. Had I known this about her, I would have invited her over for whiskey at our house (that’s a thing I do know about her — she has excellent taste in whiskey) and I would have solicited her advice in thinning the apple tree in our backyard, which nearly broke in half this summer under the weight of its fruit. You see, my husband Tino and I bought our first house in November, and with it came trees and shrubs and plants and all sorts of green sprouty things I had no idea what to do with. I come from the suburbs of Orange County, down in Southern California, which has a higher concentration of Applebee’s than apple trees. Although my parents have an unusually large backyard in which we planted fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables, I never really worked the land in the way a farmer does. I am not an agriculturalist. I lived in Los Angeles most of my adult life and Tino in New York, so we plucked our fruits and vegetables from the grocery store and local bodegas.
On the block of our new home we have neighbors who keep chickens for eggs, and others who keep bees for honey. So this summer I was determined to grow, raise, or cultivate something that didn’t come with a price tag. Now, our house came with planter boxes, and, Hillary Marshall, who’s in our small group, had some leftover seed packets from the school where she works. So, really, I had no excuses. I gotta say, doing bona fide gardening has been pure delight and pure torture. The joy of seeing a first sprout. The agony of discovering your cauliflower devoured by slugs. What I didn’t expect was how it made the Bible so much more relevant. As I would be planting things, I would be thinking about all of those farming parables and have a these sudden revelations, like, “Oh, that finally makes sense to me!” Especially the parable of Matthew 13, which starts: “Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Then he told them many things. A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” I had something similar happen, but it was squirrels we inherited with the house. I planted edamame beans, and as far as I can figure out, the squirrels dug them up and ate them. Apparently Portland squirrels have a palette for Japanese cuisine.
The parable goes on: “Some seeds fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” This happened too, in a way. I got some vegetable starts in these tiny pots but I was too slow to plant them, so they just grew tall and then fell over and died under the heat of this hellacious Portland summer.
Parable: “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” Our yard was pretty much a weed farm all spring long, so I get that one.
Parable: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” I finally cleared out one of our planter boxes, filled it up with that overpriced Miracle Gro soil and — bam — we’ve got kale coming out the wazoo. I’ve been so happy to finally achieve success that we haven’t actually eaten any of it. It looks too pretty.
My point of all this is, Jesus spoke parables — which are just types of stories — that people of that time would relate to. He was sharing an important message about the nature of man and the nature of God through stories people would implicitly understand. And it got me thinking, what happens when those stories lose their relevance because of changes in time, culture, and technology? What happens when there’s a disconnect? When we don’t feel like those stories are our stories? Not everyone is a farmer. Not everyone is a fisherman. How, then, do we still get to the fundamental Good News of the gospels today?
My million-dollar idea is to write a hipster version of the Bible. Just imagine the parables: “Jesus sat down by the Stumptown Roasters, and there he Snapchatted many things. A group of people were trying to get to work Downtown. One woman took a car, not realizing that it was rush hour and that the Fremont Bridge was a cluster at 8 a.m. She was late to work. A man took a motorized scooter, which died because it couldn’t make it up the incline over the West Hills. He was late to work. Another woman gave her bike a tune-up and mapped the route on Waze. She took the Springwater Corridor and arrived on time. Whoever has EarPods, let them hear.”
Now, I doubt any of us wants to change the parables of the Bible, but I think we can all understand the desire to hear our stories in the overarching story of humanity. The old parables are perfectly fine, but I think we can also grasp that, as we have changes in time, culture, and technology, there can be new examples that illustrate the same fundamental messages. It’s a new story, but the underlying message is the same. If we can grasp that idea, why is it so hard for some of the faithful to understand God in this way, as a concept that is both fixed and changing? As a being who is both constant and dynamic? What I want for Pearl, and the reason Tino and I were drawn to it in the first place, is a community that can grasp this seeming paradox. Our community has a humble openness to seeing new facets of God through the new stories we encounter.
Here’s my story: My experience of faith growing up was fixed and static. I have vague memories of Sunday school teachers doling out Bible stories out like history lessons, all fact and no mystery. Faith was a simple equation. Be good and God will love you. God was something to be learned, not experienced. If you wonder why I volunteer in the children’s ministry and why I advocate for Pearl pouring more resources into kids and the new youth program, is that I was frankly turned off by God early on. He was kinda dull. I don’t want that to happen with our kids here.
Even so, I believed in the stories of the Bible. I believed in parted seas and virgin births and walks on water not even so much because I actually believed them, but because authority figures told me it was true. And being a 3 on the Enneagram (I had to fit in a reference somewhere) my fundamental desire is to earn affirmation, particularly from authority figures. And so I performed belief really well as a child. Not only did I say the standard bedtime prayers every night — “Now I lay me down to sleep…” — I improved upon them. Addendum after addendum, like some kind of celestial contract. May I share with you my bedtime prayer as an 9- or 10-year-old boy? This may be the first time I have ever spoken this aloud to anyone.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord Jesus my soul to keep. Guide me safely through the night and wake me up with morning light. Amen.
Please God bless my Mommy, Daddy, Tammy, and David, Rascal, Misty, Nana, Papa, Nana Sue, and Tata. All my aunts, uncles, friends, cousins and Sunshine. Please let us all live long, happy, healthy, and wealthy lives, and in those lives let us stay close to each other and close to you. Amen. And don’t let us have any bad or evil thoughts or experiences. Amen.
How did I not become a lawyer? It actually goes on longer than that. That was the story I had learned about God. Do this. Say this. Believe this. Cover all your bases. And everything will turn out just fine.
But everything didn’t turn out just fine. Believing in parted seas and virgin births and walks on water wasn’t a promise of easy living. By the time I stopped attending church, I also began to become vaguely aware of my sexuality. And that was not OK. I was not OK. Because I had a story that did not fit into the anthology of Bible stories. Or, rather, the only stories there were seemed to be cautionary tales. Those who taught me the Bible taught me I was something perverse, deviant, fundamentally flawed. “But Jesus loves you!”
And so I stopped going to church — throughout junior high, high school, and college — a good 15 years — I had no want of it and it seemed to have little want of me. And of all places, I found God again in my early twenties in reparative therapy. Reparative therapy, AKA conversion therapy, AKA ex-gay therapy. I did it on and off for six years — far longer than most people put up with it because, you know, Enneagram 3. That therapy was damaging to me in many ways I need not go into in this talk, but it was because of this therapy that I started asking the big questions: If I’m trying to change my sexuality, why? Who am I doing it for? If I’m doing it for me, then why? Because it’s wrong? Well, why? Because it’s a sin? Who says? God? Who is God? Does God even exist?
I decided I really needed to dig in to faith and figure it out. I did something I hadn’t done before: I picked up the Bible and read it cover to cover, twice. And I’ll be honest — it coulda been tightened up a little bit. I gave it four stars on GoodReads. Kidding. Although I didn’t get or appreciate every part of this massive text, I began to notice some recurring themes. And what struck me most was the recurring theme of paradox in the Bible. God is repeatedly depicted as polar opposites: the Alpha and the Omega, the lion and the lamb, the father and the child. The Trinity in itself is a paradox: a single being that somehow expresses itself as three beings. A solitary being that somehow exists in perfect community with him-, her-, or itself.
And as I began to become comfortable with this idea of the paradox of God, I began to wonder about the paradoxical nature of my own story. Could it both fit and not fit? Could my story not belong in the culture and time around which the Bible was written, and also fit within the overarching story of humankind? Could my story and those like me of shame and rejection and ostracism be both new and something that has happened in different shapes and forms throughout all of history?
I have a background in screenwriting, and a common saying in the film industry is: “Give me something different but the same.” By that they mean, take a popular story and tell it all over again but make it feel new. “Give me something different but the same.” I like to give the movie Bridesmaids as an example. When it came out in 2011, it was a typical buddy comedy, but fresh in its own way because it was a comedy with a nearly all-female cast, and it was raunchy. And, surprise! Women can be funny. And they can be raunchy. And it works. And so all over Hollywood for the next few years, producers were saying, “Get me the new Bridesmaids. Get me a fresh, funny, raunchy female comedy. Give me something different but the same.”
If you’ve studied any creative writing, you’ll at some point hear that there are a set number of basic story plots in the entire craft of storytelling. Some say it’s seven, others 10, some a few more. But they all agree that no matter what story you tell, it will fall within one of these archetypal story plots. It’s funny when you think about it. We come up with new stories all the time in film, TV, comics, and literature — collectively, storytelling is a multi-billion market — and yet they are the same stories rehashed over and over, just in slightly different ways.
And so it’s only natural to ask the question: In our day and age, could God be telling new stories, but ones that are the same? Could the stories of the 21st Century include new characters and new situations, but still be consistent with God’s values and the nature of who God is? As time and culture changes, is God giving us something different, but the same?
This has been my experience at Pearl: a community collectively awakening to God’s new stories. And it has been so meaningful to me because one of those new stories, one of those stories that never before belonged, has been MY story. Pearl made a conscious decision to validate my story — to say to me, “Your story is different, but you’re the same. You’re one of us. You belong.”
Before coming to Pearl I had regularly been attending church for about 12 years, but I had never once had my story validated on a Sunday morning. Except for those of you who share a story like mine, you may never truly understand what it is like to have to shrug off a fundamental part of yourself before entering the church doors, like leaving a coat at coat check — but more like leaving your very skin at coat check. You can never truly understand. Or maybe you can. Maybe you were a previous incarnation of the outsider. Maybe you were the interracial couple or the divorcée or the pregnant unwed mother. Maybe you were the beggar or the leper or the thief or the addict or the victim or even the remorseful perpetrator. Perhaps you do know what it is like to have your story rejected, to have a part of you on the outside of the circle. Perhaps all of us, at one time, have had our stories dismissed and rejected and that is why we are all here together now, at this particular place and time, in this particular community we call Pearl. Because we understand that not every story is the same, but they all belong. Different stories, but the same.
I was hesitant to join the Oversight Team. My experience at this church has been magical and I didn’t want to break the spell. I was afraid to see how the sausage was made. I’ve seen glimpses behind the curtain at other churches and it has often been a distasteful experience. But I figured it was more important to see Pearl how it really is rather than my starry-eyed view of it. I value authenticity over idealization. And in case you’re wondering, I can tell you that Pearl does not operate as a magical utopia where everyone fellowships in perfect harmony. It can’t be, for we all bring our stories and no story is a utopia. Every story has some hurt, some blindness, some unique perspective, and of course some glory. And so we sometimes bump and jostle each other like inner tubes floating down a river, but like those inner tubes we’ll all moving together in the the same direction. And it is all good, very good. Although my view of Pearl has changed is some ways, it is at its core still consistent. How I see our church is now different, but the same. This has been a huge relief to me, knowing that the outward-facing appearance of Pearl was genuinely reflecting its inward heart. It is still a community guided by its values and rhythms, being shaped by a sacred story, sharing at a common table, and being animated by divine love.
Digging deeper into Pearl has been like the stages of falling in love with my husband. My first impression of Tino was alluring, with our thought-provoking conversations and his infectious laugh and smile. His accent, which he hates, I love, because it is uniquely him. Early flirting, with its starry-eyed idealization, before there were deep commitments and difficult conversations, seemed so easy. But now, seeing all facets of Tino and loving him authentically, in the midst of conflict, flaws and all (and likewise mine for him), is where I feel real relationship between us happens. It’s a deeper form of love. I love Pearl all the more because I get to see Pearl more clearly.
And I guess that’s what I want for all of us at this church. I want our stories to intertwine deeply and meaningfully and authentically. I want us to risk showing all facets of ourselves, not just the shiny sides. I want you to dig in to life here and get involved beyond Sunday mornings. I want all of our stories to belong, and I want us to continue to challenge ourselves to consider what stories today we think don’t belong. I believe God is a being of perpetual revelation and also fundamental consistency; I believe God can be showing up in ways that are different but the same. If we can remain people who have open minds and hearts, and who are committed to understanding the nature of God, we can play a part in the trajectory of our faith rather than being a roadblock to it. But that requires listening to the stories on the fringes — ones we may have never heard before or ever thought would fit inside these walls.
And I want our church to grow. Not for the sake of growing, but because we have something special here that I want to generously share with Portland. I want people searching to come into our community and feel safe and welcome and free to flourish. I want them to come, and I want us to tell them:
You don’t have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
Your hopes and dreams and struggles and pain are welcome here.
We’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you.
Our stories — they’re different, but they’re the same. Welcome.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo courtesy Pearl Church.
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