Jarad Dewing’s path and reasons for being ordained were different than his father’s, but their desire is the same: to foster love.
Everyone loves an underdog. Perhaps that’s why the biblical tale of David and Goliath remains firmly entrenched in our consciousness. A sturdy whip of a boy, reeking of sheep wool and desert sweat, steps up with a sling and a stone to take down the giant. It’s an empowering story, digging right into the adventure-starved center of our brain, making us roar triumphantly for the little guy.
But it’s not just a fable about overcoming impossible odds. It’s also a story of self-acceptance.
The part of the story that often gets glossed over is what happened right before David walked onto the field of battle and faced the towering champion of Gath. The king of Israel, Saul, brought David into his tent and, praising his courage, offered the shepherd his royal armor. Breastplate, helmet, shield, and sword. David put on Saul’s armor and found himself dwarfed by the size and encumbered by the weight. He could barely move, let alone lift the sword. So he shrugged it off. David went out to battle Goliath unarmed save the same sling he’d used to kill wolves and bears, unburdened by the protective covering of the king. He went to fight in only his skin and leathers, assured of his purpose. Sometimes shepherd boys must do the work that kings refuse.
My father is a farm boy, not unfamiliar with herds, and a diehard servant of the King of Kings. Like his father before him, he never strayed far from the family town. His first foray into the vastness of the world was to Oklahoma, Rhema Bible College, to become a pastor. His ordination is proudly displayed in a gilt frame. I’ve seen pictures of him as a very young man, wiry and grinning. I imagine him as a hardworking student there, homesick, fiercely devoted, maybe unnerved a little by the dusty desert so unlike the soft hills of Pennsylvania.
My dad worked as a baker to help pay for college, and once a tornado threatened the town. Everyone shuttered their windows and barricaded the doors, but he stood planted in the middle of the street, mouth agape, watching the immeasurable whirling force move toward him. It was incomprehensible, utterly alien, this mindless brown funnel that marched steadily on the town. There were screams to get inside, get safe, get underground, but still he stood. I imagine him in his baker’s apron, forearms dusted with flour, eyes wide in awe.
When he came back, a full-fledged shepherd of wayward sheep, he met my mother. He married her, and adopted my sister and me as his own children. “Raise a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he shall not depart from it,” the Good Book says. I’m not sure which is louder in my memory: the Scriptures, or the snapping of a leather belt as he walked up the stairs to discipline me for talking back to my mother. “She’s my queen, and she was here first,” he said. I knew that made him the king, and I had disappointed my king, and therefore the punishment was justly deserved. I learned to rejoice in it. My soul was being saved.
Much, much later in life, I decided I didn’t need anyone to save my soul, it was doing just fine and I’d take care of it by myself, thank you very much. I left the worn-down hills and moved.
Boston is a strange city, full of wonderful food and fierce opinions, stubborn old-timers and fervent students. It was the furthest from home I’d lived for any period of time. Recently divorced and no longer preaching, without faith of any kind, I found myself cooking in a chain restaurant for barely over minimum wage. Constantly scraping for money, good times, women, cheap gas station wine, soap, books, anything that would point me in a direction other than the one I’d left behind. That’s when I met her.
She was, by all accounts, unreachable. Not only was she my new boss, she was a lesbian. Looking back, I couldn’t tell you how it happened, only that it did, and we became lovers, and then best friends, and now fiancés.
The world she came from differed from mine in every aspect. She was a Southern city girl, I was a country Yank. She identified as gay. I was taught homosexuality was a disgusting abomination and, while Boston had loosened my views quite a bit on the morality angle, I had no experience with the LGBT community or culture. I learned quickly. Immersion is the best teaching method there is, and so I jumped in with open eyes and open ears and swiftly realized I’d been on the wrong side of a war without even knowing I was a participant.
I witnessed firsthand what it’s like to join a battle when your only weapons are reasonable argument and emotional pleading against a fusillade of abhorrence, spittle, and condemnation. A battery like that does not hear reason, and does not respond to calls for understanding.
Prejudice is a juggernaut.
Conan O’Brien was ordained online in late 2011 by the Universal Life Church Monastery, and he used that newfound power to officiate the same-sex wedding of one of his staffers. It might seem convenient to scoff aside any deep meaning behind his act because, well, he’s a comedian. But in a society where same-sex marriage is still seen in many states as a ruination of Puritan values, it’s hard to overlook the importance of this new weapon in the fight for equality under the law. The power to bind consenting adults in matrimony no longer lies solely in the hands of single-minded believers who’ve diminished the rights of others in order to maintain their fundamentalist worldview.
The certificate I received from ULC is decorated with calligraphy and a raised seal. It looks an awful lot like my father’s. Though I am an atheist, I am also still a shepherd. Though I was raised the way I should go, according to one mindset, I have departed from it. The duty to guide a way through the desert does not depend on dogma. That responsibility rests with all of us, those who would shrug off the ill-fitting armor of our kings and stride onto the wilderness plain on our own.
I’m officiating my first wedding this weekend for two friends of mine. Their gender isn’t important. Their love is. And when I stand before them and a crowd of witnesses, I will think of the boy who smelled of sheep and stared down a giant. I will think of my father who smelled of bread and faced down a tornado. I will think of the fight, and what must be done when kings are afraid, and I will pick up my sling and let fly the stone.
Photo: Flickr/Soenke HH