Queer people know what the tomb of Jesus feels like, because we know what the closet feels like.
As eight, or eighteen, or forty-eight year olds, we know that a hidden sexuality or gender identity is a boulder at the mouth of a cave you’re stuck in, the light just barely streaming in around the edges in the morning.
If you dare touch the stone, it feels colder and heavier than you had feared. It doesn’t go away. And yet, somewhere inside there’s a persistent uneasiness that says, “What makes you different will one day be public.”
And, of course, as the terror of the closet rules, there’s the rest of life to deal with, too. That eight-year old still needs to cook their own pasta because the parents are working late.
That eighteen-year old still needs to figure out how to get to college without a social security number. That forty-eight-year old still has to come home to her spouse who doesn’t know her secret. Sometimes life happens so fast it’s easy to let your identity slip by.
But in the restless nights, when moonlight is just barely streaming through the curtains, and you’re awake with no hope of sleep, you start memorizing your ceiling tiles and dare to name the unnameable: you’re gay. You’re trans. Somehow your story breaks away from the future you thought would happen, the future your parents envisioned and society assumed.
What happens next is what I want to focus on.
In the midst of such constant, underlying secrecy, the soul says: something has got to change. And if the world you’re in isn’t safe for you to come out in, the soul kicks into overdrive and demands consolation elsewhere.
And so “best little boys” are forged—gay men who become perfectionistic in their pursuits, hoping achievement in some areas will cover perceived sin in others. Song writers retreat to their guitar. Fitness nuts push harder at the gym. And the prayers start. Prayers as deep and desperate as the undertow of an ocean.
Before I came out, there were days I would just go to the woods and yell at trees. Across every city and continent in which I’ve lived, there were LGBTQIA+ people finding spiritual practices just to make it through the day. It’s not about “feeling better,” really, it’s about wrestling with the fact that your whole being is at worst condemned and at best conditionally accepted based on which zip code you happen to be in.
“Spiritual practices” are, broadly, the daily habits we pick up to do soul wrestling. Everyone needs them, but we remember that best when we’re in desperate situations. That’s why Jesus sat on a mountain and taught: blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5). At some point things get so desperate that the soul reaches out and demands: I need support from something greater than my circumstance.
And so our prayer life begins: queer people flock to cathedrals and art, nature and dance. We duct tape together community and hack language to express ourselves.
We try to meditate while the traffic howls. Unsurprisingly, people do the same thing when someone close to them dies or they find out they have a terminal illness. All of these reactions point to a soul longing for a connection it once had all but forgotten, to touch a God who once inspired us as babies but now feels distant.
It’s easy to get lost in the busyness of life, but then something happens that brings you to your knees, speaking with a God you deeply hope will respond. Whoever you are, your life could get desperate enough for you to become a person of prayer.
Our biggest challenge, though, is not just to pray while we’re desperate, but to pray all the other times, too.
A common refrain I hear is, “My connection to God felt so vital and vibrant when I was going through a tough season, but now that things have leveled off I’m so much more distracted.” The cozier we get, they tell me, the easier it is to forget soul work.
Could this be why the Old Testament dedicates so much time to remembering? Don’t forget when we were enslaved, Deuteronomy 5:15 urges.
Don’t forget the ways God showed up for your ancestors in hard times, Isaiah 46:9 demands.
Keep praying. Don’t forget battlefields you have survived.
All of these urges to remember are so that you don’t waste your suffering. The easy impulse, once things get good, is to try to scrub any discomfort from your memory to preserve a sense of happy-go-luckiness. The Old Testament carefully protects us from such naïeveté. Our ancestors and our descendants both will face hard times, so it
is now our job to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) so that our relationship with God holds strong.
Like Krista from New City says, “The spiritual practices we develop and rely on in dark and difficult times are no less necessary than in other times of life, although they can seem less necessary when we don’t feel so desperate.”
Suffering is both terrible and illuminating. Don’t waste it.
Relationships that are based on one person having an emergency and the other swooping in to help are about dependency, not relationship. And God is big on relationships. Spiritual practices like prayer are daily visits with God to build up a relationship and re-align yourself with God’s deep desires for the world.
Spiritual practices are disciplined truth telling. They’re a chance to figure out what’s actually going on in your heart and put it in conversation with God.
Spiritual practices keep us from creating Hell
When scholars translate the Bible into English, one of the words that can get translated into “hell” is Gehenna. Gehenna is a literal place, like Auschwitz or Angel Island. Two thousand years ago, you could find “Valley of Hinnom” (as Gehenna is literally translated) on a map, just south of Mount Zion. It’s a valley where, hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth, terrible things happened. Some kings practiced child sacrifice there, and it was so horrifying that people thereafter considered the valley to be unclean.1
The violence stained the soil, and nothing could wash it out. Tradition says that eventually that valley would become a landfill where people brought trash and roadkill there, and there might have even been a perpetually burning fire.2
No one liked Gehenna, even as they recognized that they themselves had built the place.
Contrast this with a compost pile, which Jesus’ society was so familiar with that Jesus incorporated it into one of his teachings.3 A compost pile is a place where you toss banana peels and coffee grounds, and through the miracle of microbiology, that stuff breaks down and becomes soil again. What was dead can create the conditions of life again.
Not so with a landfill.
In a landfill, there’s not enough breath (oxygen), so things can’t become soil again. In a landfill, things don’t decompose, they ferment. In other words, instead of completing the circle of life → death → new life, things just get stuck in death. Landfills are where things get stuck. So Jesus looked over at a landfill and said: You see that? That is what your life is like without God. Stuck. Trapped in death.
Anyone who has experienced the closet knows that this image isn’t just some abstract place that happens after you die. The closet is Gehenna. Lifetime sentences for low level crimes are Gehenna. White supremacy is Gehenna.4
Prayer is anti-Gehenna.
When we receive things in our lives, how we hold them decides whether we will live in a landfill or a compost pile. If we hold on to them, fixate on them, become obsessed with them, then we fester, and we create landfills of our lives. But we have another option.
Prayer is a chance to offer those things to God so that God can do Her thing. Releasing something to God is hard because it means that, if it’s something we like, we can’t exploit it anymore, and if it’s something we don’t like, we can’t complain about it anymore. It $%&'($%) *$’)* that God can do something that we can’t do. In prayer, we release our lives to God in hopes of a turnaround.
For people just starting, it is important to note that a lot of activities can be spiritual practices, but not every one. In other words, I know people who have successfully turned writing music, reading Scripture, poetry, running, cooking, photography, sitting by the lake, and playing with kids into an act of prayer. Doing the practices helps them recover a deeper truth from God, receive what they need to receive, release what they need to release and clear the way for a stronger relationship with God.
I also have done all of those things but, because of the headspace with which I approached them, they stopped being prayerful. That is, they made me more closed off, more scarcity-minded, and less likely to let God compost what needs to be composted in my life.
The other day I was saying grace (a prayer of gratitude to God before a meal) with a group of friends, and right after I said Amen, I frantically put a bite of food in my mouth and talked about something completely unrelated. But prayer isn’t a letter—once you send it off to God it’s not ‘finished.’ Prayer is more like opening a window.
It changes the room you’re in, and if you’re attentive you notice it almost immediately.
1 “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart”. (Jeremiah 7:31)
2 This short article is a helpful primer on scholarly perspectives of Hell: Meghan Henning, “Hell,” http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/hell
3Salt is good. But if salt loses its flavor, how will it become salty again? It has no value, neither for the soil nor for the manure pile.” (Luke 14:34–35a)
4 White supremacy is like the Gehennest Gehenna that ever Gehenna.