2015 Spiritual Autobiography: Colors

This year, the theme for our Spiritual Autobiography exercise in the Education for Ministry (EfM) program is: colors. Some of our instructions included the following suggestions:

Imagine the metaphor of an artist’s palette to represent your experience of maturing in faith. Name the “colors” that have gone into your personal maturing process: the people, events, resources, locations, and so forth that have been part of personal growth in knowing God. Colors can represent various moods and levels of energy. Try assigning an actual color to each of the people and circumstances that you identify. Identify when each color was added. Note how that person or circumstance or resource played a part in a personal journey of faith maturity. “Mix” your palette/ life by writing about the desires you have felt in relationship to God, the things you have tried, the questions you have raised, the affirmations and commitments of faith you have made, and the imperatives for action and decisions that you hold. An artist creates with a result in mind, a finished product at the end— a picture, a weaving, a sculpture. However, in the work of maturing in a relationship with God, the creative process itself may be more important than achieving an end. What do you think? What picture or sculpture or other work of art would represent your journey of faith maturity?

Source: Education for Ministry Reading and Reflection Guide Year C: Living as Spiritually Mature Christians (Kindle Locations 512-520). Morehouse Publishing.

I have partially cannibalized an earlier spiritual autobiography, simplified some parts and greatly expanded other parts. Instead of trying to list and identify every little thing that contributed to my spiritual development, I have instead chosen to focus this year rather narrowly on a couple of threads that run throughout my life mainly having to do with my relationship with my parents. These issues have been very much on my mind because my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, yet I have had no direct contact with my parents due to being shunned by them on a religious pretext. I discuss this situation at length below.

–wh


 

2015-2016 Education for Ministry
Spiritual Autobiography: Colors

I was born in 1966 to very young parents – Bill and Elaine – in Pensacola, Florida. I have one brother – Brian – who is 2-1/2 years younger than I am. My father was a mechanical engineer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.

We were a church-going family. From before I was born until I left the Church of Christ in my early 30s, I attended a lot of church services. And by “a lot” I mean twice on Sunday as well as Wednesday night, every week, without fail, even when we were travelling or on vacation. If the church doors were open, we were there.

My parents and me at 3 months old (1967).

Photo: My parents and me at 3 months old (1967).

The sermons we heard were Bible-based and generously peppered with quotes from scripture. Every member of our family had a Bible. We were expected to bring it with us to every service and to follow along with the preacher every time he referenced a verse to read it during his sermons. If you think you hear a lot of Bible read in Episcopal Church worship on Sundays, you have no idea how much scripture can be crammed into one 30 minute sermon. In fact, I remember this one time in my 20s when I suddenly felt guilty that I had never read the Bible cover-to-cover. But when I actually sat down to do so, I realized just how much of the Bible I already knew quite thoroughly even if I couldn’t always quote book, chapter, and verse on demand.

Listening to these sermons, I was exposed not just to scripture, but also to the particular dogma and doctrines taught by the conservative Church of Christ. Actually, exposed isn’t the right word — I was indoctrinated if not actually brainwashed. And the longer I am away from the Church of Christ and my family’s involvement in their faith community, the more I feel as if I was raised in a cult. (LINK: Is the Church of Christ a Cult?)

Screen shot 2015-10-08 at 4.48.30 PM

This building was the site of the East Hill Church of Christ when I was a child. It was designed by my grandfather, Samuel Crass (S.C.) Hastings. When I was a teenager, the building was sold to a funeral home and the church built a new building north of Pensacola. This building is today an Anglican mission. These screen captures were taking from Google Maps Streetview in October 2015. I'm actually very surprised the exterior has changed very little since I was a kid.

Photos: This building was the site of the East Hill Church of Christ when I was a child. It was designed by my grandfather, Samuel Crass (S.C.) Hastings. When I was a teenager, the building was sold to a funeral home and the church built a new building north of Pensacola. This building is today an Anglican mission. These screen captures were taking from Google Maps Streetview in October 2015. I’m actually very surprised the exterior has changed very little since I was a kid. It doesn’t look like the home base of a cult, does it? 😉

The Church of Christ spends a lot of time discussing why everyone else was wrong. It was well and good to be critical of the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and so forth, because the Church of Christ claims to be the restored 1st Century Church established by Jesus. They believe they have the One Truth, that everyone else is going to Hell, and if you catch them off guard they’ll even tell you so directly.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is an author and Lutheran minister who, like me, was also raised in this conservative Church of Christ tradition. In her memoir, Pastrix, She writes,

Belonging to the Church of Christ – and therefore, being a Christian – mostly meant being really good at not doing things. Not drinking, obviously, not being snarky and sarcastic, not having sex outside of marriage, not smoking, not dancing, not swearing, not dating people outside the church, and, of course, perhaps most important of all, no mixed bathing. The better you were at not doing these things, the better Christian you were. It did not seem to me, even back then, that God’s grace or the radical love of Jesus is what united people in the Church of Christ; it was their ability to be good. Or at least their ability to appear to be good. And not everyone can pull that off.

So this is the not-so-blank canvas that I began with. When I was born, my parents in effect handed me their color-by-numbers kit with instructions that read:

  • Blue goes in the sky,
  • Green goes in the grass,
  • Brown goes on the mountain, and
  • Yellow goes on the sun.
Image: Sample coloring book page. "Artwork" only a mother could love enough to put on her refridgerator.

Image: Sample coloring book page. “Artwork” only a mother could love enough to put on her refridgerator.

All the controversies were worked out. All the theology was nailed down. All the possible questions about how and why were answered. And I was expected to learn the rules in detail as they were given to me, without questioning, because of course this was the only way for the picture to turn out right.

In his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg writes about three stages of maturity and I can clearly chart these stages in my own life. When I was young, it was normal to accept what the authority figures in my life were telling me without questioning. But about the age of 11, I began to question some of the things I was hearing taught, and the more I compared what I was being taught with what I read in the Bible, the more dissatisfied I became with this color-by-numbers canvas I had been handed.

The Church of Christ is very dualistic. Everything is either right or wrong, black or white, and their thinking is very us-vs-them. This dualism even extended to concepts of God. The Church of Christ, intentionally or not, taught me to think of God as a split personality: part Santa Claus and part Cosmic Cop. On the one hand, God is generous, willing to give more than we can think to ask. But on the other, God is waiting to catch a Christian unlucky enough to die with one un-repented sin to send them to an eternal Hell of fire and torment. “Loving, but just”, they like to say. This God — I have come to believe – is far from loving OR just… This God was schizophrenic and scary, and it took me many years to realize that this image of God doesn’t leave much if any room for love – if God is love – or for grace, because no one could possibly be vigilant enough to ask to be forgiven for every minor infraction. Fear, being a powerful motivator, was the very reason for this approach. Keeping people afraid ensures they stay good.

My parents meant well.

I can remember how we often sang a hymn that paraphrased Psalm 119:9-10 – it began:

How shall the young secure their hearts
And guard their lives from sin?
Thy Word the choicest rules imparts
To keep the conscience clean.

Everything my parents did was intended to secure and protect. However, this canvas was small in scale and strictly regimented. Each little area was clearly outlined and defined, and the expectation was I would fill in each section with the predetermined colors and get a gold star for getting them all correct when I was done.

This method may have worked for my parents’ generation back when America was less diverse, less divided by economic and social status, and more segregated by race. But, by the time I was graduating high school in the 80s, I was experiencing a very different world from my parents’. The tie-dye of social change in the 60s had burst into a complete mixing of colors in our culture and all the black-and-white outlines of division had begun to disappear. Equal rights for women was a big deal in our church and in my family in the 70s as they wrestled with the autonomy afforded women by the birth control pill and the increased social acceptance of divorce. In the 80s we saw the rise of HIV and the epidemic of AIDS pushing LGBT people into the public eye as they demanded to be heard and included in respectable society. And the rate of change increases as time go by, so that now in the 2000s we’re grappling with living in the multi-colored, multi-cultural world that Thomas Friedman described as “hot, flat, and crowded.”

Everything’s Coming Out Rainbows

At an early age, I had the feeling that I was different, and puberty brought with it the realization that I liked boys not girls. So, the first colors that began to appear on the canvas of my life and spiritual journey were rainbows. And knowing that rainbows didn’t belong on the color-by-numbers picture my parents expected me to fill out also brought with it the realization that at some point I would have to make a choice. The choice wasn’t an easy one, because as much as I wanted to make my parents happy and get that gold star, I could only do so by trading an authentic, honest, technicolor life for a very grey and lonely life of keeping my true colors hidden.

I played along for a very long time. Through my grade school years, I was an underachiever, a B student, a good kid. I stayed out of trouble, I was always home, and I was active at church. Because I knew I was gay, I didn’t date. There was no going to the Prom, there was no bringing girls home to meet the parents, and I missed out on many of the typical coming-of-age experiences most people have in their teens and twenties. I was marking time, doing what was expected of me. And in this metaphor, I was just barely painting around the edges, leaving the biggest parts in the middle blank until some future time when my life could truly begin.

Waiting for Life to Begin

Much of my spiritual journey has been about reconciling what I experienced as true – on the one hand — with what I’d been taught about how God (and my parents) expected me to live – on the other. But that situation was untenable. Simply put, I wasn’t called to celibacy. Through my 20s I focused on getting into and out of college and then launching my career in advertising. I spent a great deal of time alone when I wasn’t at school, at work, or in church, and I was very lonely. In my late 20s, I began to develop a couple of groups of friends, but these friendships weren’t enough to fill the emptiness of a life in solitude.

By the time I had reached the age of 30, I had seen more than one wave of friends and acquaintances marry and begin having children. I would read the story of Creation in Genesis where it says, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…” to which I would say “Amen”… and then read the next phrase which in the New International Version says, “I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18) and I would wonder: where was the helper suitable for me to be found?

I spent too much time alone in the dark, crying and praying to God to let me be straight. For all the people like my parents who would condemn my “chosen lifestyle”, all I can say is that if fervent prayer or if just wanting it to be so could change someone’s sexual orientation, it would have happened for me.

Trading Fear for Love

Thank God for the Internet. With the advent of Amazon.com, I was able to search out and read books by Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, John Boswell, and others. These were some of the first gay theologians and social activists I began to read that gave me a glimpse of a better future than I had been facing.

At the age of 33, I finally reached my limit. I was tired of being alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. Now that I was willing to admit to myself and to others what I wanted, then I needed to take action to make it happen.

My concept of God was changing, and if God was a loving God who knew the intentions in my heart, then I had to trust that God would approve. If God is love, it seems to me, then, where there is love, God will be there also, regardless of what some Biblical literalists might say or whatever clobber passages someone may cherry-pick out of their King James Bible. Coming out is a process, and mine began in the first years of my 30s. Almost all of my close friends and co-workers had the same reaction. “It’s about time!”

It was through 2000 and 2001 I reached my breaking point with the Church of Christ. As my theology was changing, I found that I could no longer even passively assent to what was being taught there by sitting in the pews. My attendance became spotty until at the end of 2001 the elders of the Church of Christ church in Memphis that I had been a member of for over a decade tracked me down and confronted me, to which I could only tell them I needed to take a break. Non-attendance means sin to them, so they “marked” me as an erring brother. If I were Roman Catholic, I would be excommunicated. This began my 8-year hiatus from organized religion.

From Memphis to Los Angeles

Dan Savage likes to say that every relationship you’re in will fail, until one doesn’t. After a short string of failed relationships, I met Brooks in 2003 through a mutual friend, and we have been together ever since.

Photo: Myself and Brooks

Photo: Myself and Brooks (Sept. 2014)

In 2006, Brooks got tired of working as a restaurant server and decided he wanted a career and not just a job. He told me he wanted to go to Los Angeles to attend Cinema Makeup School. So, I made a deal with him. If he saved up the money for tuition and went to Cinema Makeup School, when he graduated we’d move to LA if school went well and he had job prospects. Brooks moved to LA, rented a room from a nice family, and went to school for 8 months while I stayed in Memphis.

Although I was now out to all my friends and co-workers, and in a relationship, I still hadn’t come out to my family. At the end of 2008, I was making plans to move to LA to join up with Brooks, and was also making plans to visit my family in Pensacola for Christmas. I received an odd email from my brother which prompted me to call my parents. It was during that call they informed me that I wasn’t welcome to visit for Christmas. They knew I was planning to move to LA with Brooks, and they weren’t happy about it. But the policy was still don’t ask, don’t tell. My father was harping on the fact I wasn’t going to church as a pretext, because he wasn’t brave enough to ask if I was gay and I wasn’t brave enough to come out, so we both pretended that church attendance was his real issue.

A Bridge Too Far

After that emotional phone call with my parents, I sent my father an e-mail describing the paradigm shift I had been experiencing with my understanding of God and the Bible. In it, I used a quote from a book by A.J. Jacobs which outlines the difference between Fundamentalism and Modernism.

My father’s long email response included this memorable section:

If you actually accept this “Modernism” as you describe it, then you must regard the creation account in Genesis to be a “myth”? If so, you are worse off than we thought and you may as well deny the whole Bible.

You need to read and study more of what God wrote and less of what men write.

Pop quiz: who wrote the Bible?

So for the most part my family haven’t been nearly as generous as my secular friends. By accepting my sexual orientation, and by entering into a committed, same-sex relationship, my family has labelled me an unrepentant sinner. And in accord with some of Paul’s prescriptions to separate from erring Christians, have banned me from their home and have cut off contact with me completely. I am dead to them unless and until I choose to go back into the closet and resume attending a Church of Christ church of which they approve.

So while I have embraced and incorporated the rainbows, there are also dark and angry colors of sadness and loss mixed in the palette that composes the colors of my spiritual development.

Searching for Sunday

The irony is, for me, that even as my father was becoming more aggressive about shunning me and excluding me from the family – ostensibly about my church attendance – I was also feeling like I was ready to return to church. The idea of returning to a Church of Christ church wasn’t an option. Even in liberal California, a Church of Christ is still going to teach the same things I had walked away from. (LINK: This page details what the “church of Christ” typically teaches about homosexuality.) It seems that 8 years was how long it took for me to shake off the fundamentalist brainwashing and to finally to give myself permission to investigate another Christian tradition.

The Episcopal Church had been on my radar because I had noticed many of the authors of the books I’d been reading were either Episcopalian or Anglican, but otherwise I didn’t really know anything about what The Episcopal Church believed or taught. Separately, I had seen Ed Bacon on Oprah’s Spirituality 101 podcast where he had said, among other things, that being gay is a gift from God. So once we knew where we were going to be renting in Alhambra, I did some Google Maps searches for Episcopal Churches in the area. All Saints showed up, and eventually I made the connection that Ed Bacon was the Rector at All Saints, and All Saints was a short bus ride from our apartment, so that’s where I started.

Education for Ministry

While a huge part of my journey is one of reconciling my faith with my sexual orientation, it is also the story of coming out of biblical literalism, fundamentalism, and a faith grounded in fear to a richer, deeper, more loving approach to faith that exemplifies Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self. When I reached All Saints, I knew what I didn’t believe more than what I did, and I was looking for something to run to instead of just running away from. I met Ken V. in a small group at All Saints. He identified me as a seeker, and recruited me into his Education for Ministry group. EfM was just what I needed to complete my paradigm shift, and that experience cemented my belief that there had to be a better way to follow Jesus than the path I had been on. EfM has been a rich experience in learning to think theologically, in reading the Bible critically, and in taking the Bible seriously but not literally. I have developed a deeper understanding of scripture through an understanding of the context in which it developed. I am incredibly thankful for my EfM experience, and for my fellow travelers in that group. I learned so much from each of them, listening to their insights and their individual journeys of faith. And I am thankful that they were willing to always listen to me and allow me to be heard as well.

Another irony of my journey is that the more I learn about the Bible, about theology, and about church tradition and history, the simpler the good news of Jesus becomes. Where once my concept of how to be a good Christian was defined by endless lists of dos and don’ts and by parroting strictly defined dogma, all that has been replaced by a much simpler, more loving approach. In short, I had to get past Paul in order to see Jesus.

Love Wins

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples:

…”The first [commandment] is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (NRSV Mark 12:28-31)

And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says,

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (NRSV John 13:35)

In the Genesis creation story, God says,

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”

I believe that being made in the image of God refers to a number of attributes of God that we find in ourselves. Among these are our gifts of intellect, reason, and skill and that God created us to be creative beings, to use all these gifts for the enrichment of ourselves and others.

My intuitive, critical thinking skills, my questioning nature, my love for learning, and my creative spirit ultimately moved me to want to use every Crayon in that box of 64 … at least a little bit. And to color outside the lines even to the point that the lines could no longer be seen in the finished product. Not that there ever will be a single finished product to show off, for I don’t believe that I’ll ever reach an end to my spiritual development as if there is a destination instead of only a journey. No, my spiritual life in this color metaphor has been destined for experimentation with unexpected color combinations, applied layer upon layer, through a lifetime of trial-and-error. Each new philosophy, experience, and person I encounter becomes another bit of color and patch of texture added to the surface of the canvas that is my life. It is a journey that will never be complete as long as I have a mind to wonder and an ineffable God to contemplate.

EDIT: In case anyone reading this is currently in a “church of Christ”, is considering leaving, or has already left, you may find the website at ex-churchofchrist.com to be worth checking out.

Letter from my Father

I was raised in a religious family. They are ultra-conservative fundamentalists who believe “God hates fags” even if they don’t stand in public spaces holding the signs. I remained single, celibate, and closeted until my early 30s, because coming out meant my family would shun me. In December 2012, I decided to write a coming out letter to my family using language they would understand. (I have posted a copy of that letter here. I also included a copy of my Spiritual Autobiography, which I have posted here.)

I didn’t hear from my family immediately. In August 2013, after having sent my father a birthday present and card, I received the following letter back from him. With that letter, he returned in one box all the Christmas presents, all the birthday presents, and all the cards I had sent to my family in Florida from Christmas until his birthday in August. He references these in his letter, below.

I haven’t posted this correspondence exchange before now, hoping my parents might over time begin to open their hearts, listen to my story, and find a way past their religious dogma to restoring relationship with me, their oldest son. I’m posting it now, two years later, as proof that religious fundamentalism is cult-like. It separates families. I causes needless pain. It teaches hate in the name of religion. It violates the spirit of the teaching of Jesus. And it is just wrong. 

Pray for God to open hearts.

—-

August 12, 2013

Dear Wayne:

I am returning your gifts because we cannot accept them. We cannot participate in any exchanges with you that could be construed as approval of your chosen lifestyle.

We have known about your abominable sin of homosexuality for some time. This is sin and you know it! I stand by, as I always have what the whole Word of God says and this sin is an abomination that will damn your soul. Always has been and always will be. (Gen. 19, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-21, Gal. 5:19-21, Heb. 13:4, Rev. 21:8)

You can and evidently have sought out people who will tell you that you are okay. The laws of the land may permit it and say it’s okay and make it legal, denominational doctrines may accept it, people may write books okaying it, but they cannot succeed in circumventing what God’s Word says. The Truth is Truth; always has been, always will be. (Ps. 119:160, Prov. 23:23, 1 Cor. 4:17, Gal. 1:8-12, 1 Tim. 6:3-5)

These sins have separated you from your family (at least this part) and whether you admit it or not, you are separated from God. You need to repent before it is everlastingly too late! (Isa. 59:1-2, Matt. 10:34-39, Rom. 12:1-2, Eph. 5:1-14)

You may regard me as a bigot, sexist or whatever and perhaps say I am hateful if you want, but the fact remains that I stand by what God has said on this subject and on proper worship. (Heb. 4:12-13; 10:24-27; 12:5-6)

Just like the father of the prodigal son, I have not moved nor changed position. You are the one who left us and the Lord. Hopefully, like the prodigal son you will eventually decide to get out of the pig sty and repent of your sins. Just as the father was watching and waiting with open arms to receive him back, we will be there for you. However until such a time as that we will have no familial or social contact with you. (Lk. 15:11-32, 2 Pet. 2:20-22, 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14)

We love you and are concerned for your soul.

Dad and Mom

P.S. If you decide to reply, use some scripture to support your argument. I’d like to know what they are.

Letter to my Parents

20 December 2012

My dear Mom and Dad,

I’m writing to you to confess. I have not loved you enough, nor trusted you enough, to tell you the truth and share myself with you completely.

I have kept a large part of my life a secret, and that has resulted in my separating myself from you little by little over the years until the point we’re at today. We aren’t close as family should be, we don’t discuss important issues as we should, and I would like to repair this aspect of our relationship.

I should trust you and love you enough to be completely honest about every facet of my life. So I am writing to ask forgiveness as I share this part of my life that I have kept from you.

I am gay.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, but it may still be a shock to see the fact plainly stated. I know this is going to be difficult for you to hear and accept.

This is my story.

I have known about myself from very early on, and definitely by the time I was age 10 or 11. I’ve never been attracted to girls or desired a woman in the way heterosexual males do. I have had a couple of immature crushes on girls which were the result of my attempt to deny the truth about myself to myself.

As a teenager and young adult, I could have dated girls, conformed to social and family expectations, gotten married, raised a family, and lived a lie in misery. Or I could have internalized the homophobia and hate so prevalent in our culture to become another unexplained teen suicide statistic. Instead, I remained single while I slowly worked out the apparent conflict between my religion and my sexual orientation.

I spent a lot of time alone — decades of time alone. And I’ve spent many hours in anguished prayer, in tears, begging God to just let me find the right girl, to make me straight, to take away this thorn in my flesh, and so forth. At certain dark times, I’ve felt despair and feared that God had forsaken me.

Over this same period of time, I’ve also been reading the Bible. And I’ve been reading commentaries and books by a wide variety of authors on the subjects of faith, religion and homosexuality. Slowly, slowly, I have come to realize that God answered those agonized prayers. Not by making me straight, but in helping me realize, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that there is no reason to fix something that isn’t broken.

These are some of the conclusions I have reached so far in my journey of faith:

1. Being gay is not a choice. If I had had the choice, I would have been straight, plain and simple. I cannot imagine anyone signing up to suffer the intolerance and discrimination gay men and women are subjected to as a matter of course in our society.

2. I believe sexual orientation is a fundamental part of every person and cannot be changed, that it is a complex behavior and arises from some combination of “nature” and “nurture”.

3. I believe that homosexuality is within the range of normal variation in nature: it is not a pathology, illness, or perversion. Same sex orientation in animals is widespread and well documented. And in humans, homosexuality of one form or another has existed in all times and in every culture worldwide.

4. I believe that the Bible does not address issues directly relevant to homosexuality and that the “clobber passages” used to teach that being gay is against God’s will are either quoted out of context or are overly simplistic, surface readings that don’t apply to Christians today.

5. Being gay is nobody’s fault. Rain falls on the just and the unjust — some things just are.

I realize that this is fairly late in life to “come out of the closet”. I actually started coming out to close friends around the age of 30. The coming out process is different for everyone, and gay men and women come out at different points in their lives and in different ways. I frankly expected to receive a great deal of negative criticism and condemnation, so I looked forward to coming out to my family with a bleak sense of despair. I find it sad that the place I should feel the safest — with my family — is the one place I feel the greatest dread of disapproval. It is no surprise to me that many gay men, women, and teenagers choose suicide in the face of rejection received from their family and community.

You will want to know that I am currently in a relationship, which so far has lasted 10 years. Brooks and I met through a mutual friend, and like all relationships we have had our ups and downs. Should we decide to legally marry or otherwise hold a public commitment ceremony of some kind, you will of course be invited.

Both sides of Brooks’ family have met me and we get along very well. His father’s side of the family is Catholic, his mother’s side is evangelical/charismatic. In all cases, they completely accept us as a couple, they accept me as a member of their family, and are happy to see that we are happy together.

Brooks has been out since he was a teenager, so his family has had some time to adjust to the idea. And the fact that I haven’t come out to my family has been a source of conflict in our relationship. Brooks has understood that my coming out to my family would probably mean that I would lose my family due to your history of reading of the Bible literally. So I haven’t pushed the issue, and have remained in the closet for a long time — I haven’t been willing to face losing my family.

So as I express to you this truth about myself, I know that the reactions to the news will be as individual as the persons hearing it. Ultimately, I am hoping I can have a more open, honest relationship with you going forward. You are my family and you are important to me. I love you. I accept you as you are. And I hope you can find it in your heart to accept me as I am as well.

Sincerely,

—-

Click here to read my father’s response >>

How should Christians respond to Caitlyn Jenner?

Yesterday, a friend emailed me asking about Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner and how Christians should deal with trans people.

She wrote in part,

Please answer a question for me. It is my understanding that a person does not ‘choose’ to transgender … It is really not a ‘choice’, but a diagnosis … Can you point me in a direction for valid information … I would like be able to speak affirmatively with documentation at the next family dinner … you remember the old book/chapter/verse mentality.

What I am having a very difficult time understanding is the ‘christian’ angle … [people I know] are saying … trans gendering is a sinful choice not a correction.

Here is my response to her:

Dear Friend,

The world is a lot more complex than conservatives like to admit. And it is a human tendency to want things simple and clear. We want to have black-and-white categories so we can pigeonhole and classify — it gives us comfort to believe we have control.

I believe we can learn a lot about our values and what we really believe by looking at people on the margins of society. Jesus went to the marginal, and welcomed them in, and even instructed his followers to care for those who society demonizes. And while most people are born with a clearly defined gender and sex identity, some are not. In reality, there is a huge gray area between what we think of as male and female. Just knowing that everyone doesn’t easily fit into male or female buckets is a revelation to people who haven’t been exposed to the concept.

So who are these people? Some are born with unusual genes and/or indeterminate genitalia. A genetic “boy” may have genitalia that looks like a female, or vice versa. Some have an unusual combination of hormones, genes, and physical appearance that make determining their sex problematic — these people are called “intersex”. A Google search for intersex easily turns up pictures and diagrams of babies with a range of genitalia characteristics.

Intersex
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex

To be clear, Jenner is transgender not intersex. But knowing that intersex people exist helps us think about how to deal with people who don’t conform to gender norms.

Transgender
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender

I’m not familiar with any test to identify someone as transgender except to listen to them tell their story. If a person has a hormone imbalance or indeterminate genitalia, they may not necessarily be transgender. Doctors don’t perform sex reassignment surgery on just anyone and it is a many-year-long process of engaging in therapy and evaluation before surgery is approved.

In short, trans people have gender dysphoria: they feel they were born the wrong sex.

Gender Identity Disorder
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_identity_disorder

My experience of my own body is that I’m a male, I am happy being a male, and have never seriously wished I were anything else. But my experience isn’t universal. If you saw the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner, you saw him speak quite movingly about his experience and his life-long struggle to fit in, to be normal, to deny deep-seated feelings and the experience that he is and always has been female despite having been born a male.

If I am insecure in my own gender identity, I might feel threatened by this story. Fear is a powerful emotion. And instead of asking why I have that reaction, I may turn to my religion for certainty so I can separate my experience from “the other” — the thing that I fear — to say he’s falling into sin and is leading people to ruin God’s plan for him and for the Earth. And they will often turn to Genesis, Leviticus, or some other ancient prohibitions about men wearing women’s clothing or whatever other cherry-picking they can get out of the Bible.

So, what do we do with people who don’t fit neatly into the male or female buckets?

If we believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, we listen to them tell their story. (“What would Jesus do?”)

And that’s what I believe we do with people who are transgender and with all people, really, because that is what Jesus did and what we ask God to do every time we pray. Can we really say we love our neighbor as ourselves if we won’t even listen to them? How much do you love someone if you tell them their experience of themselves is wrong?

Bruce told his story. His experience is his experience. And while his experience isn’t my experience, I have no reason to claim he’s lying or wrong in telling his story. I honor his bravery in being honest and vulnerable to the greater world around him by sharing his pain and the story of the journey he has been on.

This is my loving response to someone expressing a life lived in pain.

The problem with Biblical literalism and the conservative concern with authority is this: what do we do when the scriptures are silent on a subject? Jesus never said anything about people being transgender and the apostles and New Testament writers didn’t, either. Without a direct command or an approved apostolic example — to use the Church of Christ hermeneutic — they will search for a necessary inference. I’ve never been happy with this hermeneutic, because every time I questioned why the CofC did something that I felt contradicted their own exegetical methods or that could be done a different way, it always boiled down to “that’s just the way we do it” to end the discussion. That never satisfied me. Instead, I prefer to look at how Jesus treated people, then told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Proof texts on love abound…

John 13:35 NRSV
“…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Romans 13:8 NRSV
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

1 Peter 3:8 NRSV
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

1 John 3:14 NRSV
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

Dealing with people who want a black-and-white distinction between male and female can be hard, because they’ve never bothered to learn the kinds of things I’m writing here. If you want to get someone to think, start asking “why” questions to draw them out and to articulate what they are feeling on a gut level.

  • “It is important to you that everyone fits neatly into either the male or female category? Why?”
  • “What do you think Jesus would say to Bruce Jenner if he were here today? Why?”
  • And keep following up on their responses with, “And why is that important to you?” or “Why does that matter?”

It may take a while to get to the bottom. Often, I think, there is some prejudice against the opposite sex — men fearing being perceived as weak since they view women as lesser, or women fearing violence at the hands of aggressive or stupid men. In my parents’ case, their fear of spending an eternity in hell is their biggest motivator and the main reason they deny love to people who are different. It all keeps coming down to fear… But we know what the writer of I John said about fear…

1 John 4:18 NRSV
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

You might want to check out She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan — a great autobiography about a man who transitions to female.

Also, My Transsexual Summer is a British TV series that is on YouTube worth a watch.

Once you hear trans people tell their stories, you’ll be thankful that isn’t your own problem and you will see that they’re living with a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I see nothing in scripture that says what a person is is sinful, only what they do and that based on the motives in their heart.

If Mike Huckabee had claimed to be trans in high school so he could shower with the girls in P.E., what is the motive in his heart?

I know this is long, but I’ve included links to lots of other resources. I haven’t addressed complementarianism which is part of your original question and probably a longer discussion.

Complementarianism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism

I’d also recommend you check out Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Nadia was raised in the Church of Christ like we were. She left organized religion for a while and is now an ordained Lutheran priest. She has a lot to say about how if man is made in the image of God, then what about woman? And about how a 13 year old boy has more authority in the church than an adult woman. I heard her speak here in LA just after her book was released.

Let me know what other questions you have.

Sermon: Jonah, Nadia, and Me

At Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Torrance, CA) we have a tradition where on the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, the outgoing Senior Warden delivers the sermon during worship before the meeting. The following is the sermon I delivered to the congregation on January 25, 2015. It was the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B were:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

God said to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah…”

In this season of Epiphany, we’re hearing a number of stories that focus on occasions when God speaks to individuals and directs them to take action in His name. Last Sunday, we heard about the boy, Samuel, who, in the middle of the night, heard a voice call his name. He didn’t understand what was happening, but his mentor, Eli the High Priest, told the boy, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ”

In her sermon, Bonnie spoke quite frankly about her own experience of lying awake in the middle of the night, worrying, and waiting to hear a voice of reassurance telling her everything was going to be ok. Pastoring a church – of whatever size – is a tremendous responsibility. And even though she didn’t mention it specifically, I am sure that the duties of caring for this flock would keep any Rector awake some nights.

Bonnie also asked the question of which would be worse? Hearing God’s call, or never hearing anything at all. If we hear the voice of God, that call demands a response: hearing means accepting responsibility and taking action. It is an awesome duty to live out a true calling.

So in this season of Epiphany, as we’re looking at the instances when God calls his faithful, we can see a wide range of responses to God’s call. And the story of Jonah is an important one for us to examine.

Our lesson begins with this detail: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” That is our clue that we are picking up the story of Jonah in the middle of a three act play. And this middle part of the story has a happy ending.

The people of Ninevah have sinned. And as Christians living in the 21st Century, we read about how a bad people heard God’s message through the prophet Jonah and responded. Ninevah declares a fast, they mourn, they repent, and God spares them. This cycle of sin, judgment, repentance, and reconciliation is one Christians are well familiar with. Hearing how the people of Ninevah repented and were spared, we are consoled knowing that if we fall that we too are able to repent and be restored to relationship with God. The salvation of Ninevah cheers us, knowing that salvations remains ours for the asking.

Jonah, on hearing the news that Ninevah faces destruction yet can saved, has a very different reaction from ours.

At this time, Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrian empire. Scripture tells us that 120,000 people live in Ninevah, and that on foot, it would take three days to travel from one end of the city to the other.

God told Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah was to declare to the people, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Jonah recognized the voice of God. He understood what was expected of him. And he didn’t want to have any part of God’s plan.

In last week’s reading, Samuel was young – he is old enough to work in the temple, but is also described as being still a boy – and although he is living and working under the High Priest Eli, he is most likely sheltered from the outside world and naïve enough to do what he is told without questioning. Jonah, on the other hand must be a grown man, and although he is a faithful servant of God, the truth is that no task could have been more distasteful for an Israelite of that time. The Assyrians were Gentiles, idol worshipers, and would have been hated as such. But beyond that, the Assyrians oppressed Israel cruelly, and were warring enemies. God had threatened to destroy the capital of one of Israel’s worst enemies. The last thing Jonah wanted was for Ninevah to be spared. Jonah knows hate. And, in fact, Jonah is a bigot. Jonah wants to see the Assyrians overthrown, not forgiven. His heart is dead, and he wants nothing to do with seeing his enemy spared God’s wrath.

We all know the story of Jonah and the big fish from Sunday school. Jonah boards a ship headed as far away from Ninevah as he could get, they run into a storm at sea, and Jonah confesses he is the reason the ship is about to sink. The frightened ship’s crew throws Jonah overboard, and he spends three days in the belly of the fish, an experience Jonah himself describes as “the belly of Sheol” – Sheol being another word for “the grave”.

Jonah is perhaps the biggest fish story of all time. Biblical literalists have spent a countless amount of time and energy trying to find a fish in the ocean as big as the one described in the Book of Jonah, and in trying to collect anecdotes about people who were swallowed by whales and survived. But if we focus on these details, we will miss the point entirely. The big fish is only a tool to bring Jonah himself to repentance.

The fish spits Jonah out, dropping him back at the place where he began. I can imagine Jonah standing up on the beach, dusting himself off, when God speaks to Jonah for the second time, “Get up, go to Ninevah…”

Powerless in the face of God’s compulsion, Jonah relents. He goes to Ninevah. The people hear his warning, they proclaim a fast, and repent. And, as promised, God spares this city of 120,000 people—men, women, children, and animals as well.

Jonah complied, but wasn’t particularly happy about the situation. And the Book of Jonah doesn’t end on a happy note for Jonah himself. The city is saved, but he is resentful. The enemy of the nation of Israel lives on. The story ends with God questioning Jonah. God’s questions go unanswered, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions and to ponder where, in our lives, do we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When I think about this theme of reluctantly responding to calling, I am reminded of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran priest. Nadia recently wrote a memoir titled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” – the title, of course, refers to the church plant she founded in Denver, CO, – the House for All Sinners and Saints.

In interviews, Nadia speaks honestly and openly about her own calling to a life of faith and to the priesthood. She says of her experience as a Lutheran,

“I love[d] the emphasis on grace, the fact that God always is coming to us. There’s nothing we do to make our way to God. God is continually coming to us and interrupting our lives and wanting to be known. And I had experienced that to be true. And I was so grateful when I stumbled into a place where I didn’t have to like remove half my brain in order to believe the things that they were telling me to believe.”

Nadia and I were both was raised in a fundamentalist Christian tradition. As we came of age, we both questioned what we’d been taught, found it didn’t work for us, left that tradition, and sojourned for some years outside of organized religion entirely. My secular friends who knew I’d left the Church of Christ were surprised to hear I still considered myself a Christian. I just wasn’t ready to give up on God. Nadia says this about her experience outside organized religion …

“…with everything that happened and all of the stops along the way, I never really managed to be an atheist. I couldn’t pull it off. I think the fact that there is a God is something that never left me no matter where I sojourned to.”

And, she, like myself, searched for and discovered a better way to follow Jesus. She characterizes her journey as a love story. Describing her calling—away from a path of self-destruction and toward a path of religious faith and service in the priesthood—she says,

“…becoming Lutheran for me, because being somebody who got clean and sober, it really felt like this rather rude interruption of my life by God, like I was really OK being dead by the time I was 30 and I had this tragic sense of who I was and God — it was like God plucked me off that path kicking and screaming and went, ‘That’s cute. I’m gonna put you over here …’ “

I’m sure Jonah, too, would have described God’s calling as a rude interruption. But keep in mind, not all callings are as disruptive as these. As you reflect on your life, ask yourself: where do you feel God calling you?

In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, is famous for writing, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

God doesn’t speak to us today in quite the same way as he did in the time of Jonah. Discerning our calling – our life purpose – will rarely involve the shocking experience of being thrown overboard from a ship at sea to spend three days in the belly of a fish.

Brooks and I moved to Los Angeles in 2009. Brooks had a life dream of going to Cinema Makeup School, and for a number of reasons, I was ready to get out of Memphis to live somewhere different. We landed in Alhambra. For about three years, I worshiped at All Saints in Pasadena, where I got my introduction to the Episcopal tradition. At every service, they say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome at God’s table.” And when you’ve been raised in the kind of fear-based religious tradition as I was, it is easy to scoff and say, “Yeah, right!” But when I’d look over the audience, I saw a lot of people just like me. And slowly I realized that they really did mean what they said.

I had been damaged by my experience with fundamentalism, but I wasn’t ready to give up on God. By the time I found All Saints, I had been away from organized religion for about 8 years. Our move to LA coincided with the feeling that I was ready to find a new faith tradition to get involved with – I was ready to return to church. Discovering the Episcopal Church through All Saints was like a breath of fresh air to my spiritual life.

I spent three years at All Saints, slipping into and out of worship services fairly anonymously. Those three years were a time of recovery and healing for me. But at the end of those three years, I was feeling that I wanted to find a smaller church to get involved with, a place where I could dig in and make a real difference. Brooks and I moved again, just over three years ago now, to Torrance, where I found St. Andrew’s.

The religious tradition I grew up in doesn’t use words like calling or discernment. However, I can now look back and say with confidence that I felt a calling. Remember Buechner’s criteria: your deep gladness, and the world’s deep need. I remember looking up this church’s previous website and thinking, “These people need me.” As you are aware, that website project ended up begin just the tip of the iceberg.

As you will read in my Senior Warden’s report for 2014, I have enjoyed serving this year as your Senior Warden. This has been a year of tremendous personal growth for me. Being Senior Warden has been challenging. I’ve made some mistakes. But I am ending this term with greater confidence in my own ability to lead when the need arises. And for these opportunities, I am truly thankful.

This is a small but very active church. When you look over the Rector’s Report, I expect you will be as amazed at the sheer number of events that take place here through the year as I was. Making this parish run requires the hard work of each and every one of its members. We do a lot with a little here.

As we go into this New Year, I would urge you to reflect on where and how you serve, and ask where you might be called to do more than you do now. This church is a place where someone can serve God and their neighbor to as great an extent as they’re willing and able. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.

Let us pray:

Gracious God,

Send us anywhere in this world You would have us go
Only go thou with us.

Place upon us any burden You desire
Only stand by us to sustain us.

Break any tie that binds us
Except the tie that binds us to thee.

Amen.

 


 

References:

1. Opening prayer is from Psalm 19:14

2.Nadia Bolz-Weber quotes are taken from her interview with Krista Tippett OnBeing podcast Oct. 23, 2014. Transcript here >>

3. Closing prayer is found here >>

Multi-cultural Experiences

September 2014 marks the beginning of a new school year, and my first year as co-mentor of the EfM (Education for Ministry) group at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California. The theme for EfM this year is, Living Faithfully in a Multi-cultural Context. In keeping with the theme, every EfM student co-learner is asked to write a spiritual autobiography that describes how the person’s multi-cultural experiences have shaped their spirituality and their relationship with God and their fellow human being. This is what I presented to our group during our session on Monday, September 29, 2014. Each presentation is asked to run 15-20 minutes, so what I’ve written focuses on a few pivotal moments in my life. And, due to the time limit, the implications of each experience haven’t been as fully explored or elaborated as they could be in an ideal world. Questions, comments, suggestions, insights, etc., feel free to comment below the post.

As I reflect on my multicultural experiences, I have identified six key points where my interactions with other cultures have influenced on my attitudes toward others.

  1. Experience begins in my own family.
  2. Followed by living with Southern racial tensions both in public school, and
  3. In the church of my childhood.
  4. Then in my 20s, encountering atheists, and
  5. The ancient Asian wisdom of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
  6. Finally, leaving the empowered majority to become a self-described minority by coming out gay in my 30s.

1. Family

First, a little about my family and me. I am a white male, in my late 40s, who was raised in the southern United States.

My parents’ families are both from the south: my father’s family is from Tennessee, and my mother’s family is from Alabama. My brother and I grew up with our grandparents living just a few minutes away. Even today, my parents continue to live in the same house they moved into when I began Kindergarten. My father has made it clear that he has no intention of ever moving.

My father is the oldest of three boys. Both of my uncles got married and moved away from Florida—one to Arizona, one to New Jersey—to launch their careers and raise their families. I knew other kids whose families had moved several times, and I was curious why our family was different. When I was in college, I asked my father why we had never moved away from Pensacola like his brothers did. His response was, “I’m like a turtle, I never want to be too far from home.”

There is a stability of place in my background that I didn’t fully appreciate when I was young. Not everyone gets to know their extended family the way we did, and I still have a very strong sense of home being located in Pensacola and in my parents’ and my grandparents’ homes. That sameness of place was also insulation against having to experience or learn about people who are different from us. Our neighborhood was a suburb on the far north of Pensacola, and was mostly undeveloped land when we first moved there. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, everyone around us was white, middle class, and living the suburban American dream.

2. Church

My earliest memories of people different from us are from church. My family on both sides are Church of Christ for several generations back. In Pensacola, and in Memphis where I lived in my 20s and 30s, all the Church of Christ churches I have known are largely self-segregated. In the white neighborhoods, the Church of Christ members are nearly all white. And in the black neighborhoods, they are nearly all black.

I would hear taught from the pulpits how in Jesus there is no black or white, slave or free, but in practice I saw a separation that didn’t match the ideal I heard preached. We may have been equal in God’s eyes, but in the pews we kept things separate. The people are free to worship wherever they wish: it just seemed that birds of a feather flocked together.

This was perhaps the first warning sign to me that the Church of Christ tradition had a problem: it didn’t live up to its stated ideal. And if they didn’t practice what they preach in this aspect, what else was I being taught that was being ignored in practice? My bull-shit detector was set, calibrated, and alert from an early age.

3. Public School

In the States, a great deal of the conflict between African-Americans and Caucasians are due to socio-economic class differences. The attitudes about these differences expressed themselves in my family environment in a number of ways, usually assumed or taken for granted rather than explicitly taught.

In Pensacola, the black part of town was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. At church, we had a few, older black members, but they didn’t live near us and we didn’t socialize with them outside of church. My mother’s side of the family often used the n-word, but not as an insult the same way it is used today. That was just the Southern dialect pronunciation of negro.

I remember being at my father’s parents’ house and seeing on the television a news report come on about Martin Luther King, Jr.—I think it may have been an anniversary of his assassination or of the Memphis sanitation workers strike—and hearing my grandfather say something disparaging, about how all King did was get “those people” all riled up and causing problems.

My great-grandparents on both sides were farmers and working class people, so it isn’t as if we came from nobility or the upper class. Yet there was this idea that that we were superior, and that they ought to know their place in society. It was with this mindset that I began public school.

The first multicultural experience I had as a child outside of church was when I started public school. In Kindergarten, there were 5 or 6 black children in my class of about 25 or 30, but two of them were mean, and, sensitive little boy that I was, they teamed up to terrorize me on the playground. I can remember running crying to our teacher more than once because of something they had done.

When I reflected on these early experiences, I was surprised to remember that our Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Anderson, was also black. She was the kindest, sweetest, most wonderful woman. And yet, her goodness wasn’t enough to counter the negative associations I formed with the two boys being mean to me. It may sound petty and childish to admit that my attitudes toward black people were significantly negative for most of my life due to that early experience, but it is the truth and I was a child then. If Maurice and Anthony had been white, I would have just hated them for being bullies. But since they were black, that difference was the hook I could latch onto, it became a focus for my anger, an excuse to hate others even when there wasn’t an actual cause for it.

The situation didn’t change much when I entered middle school. In our area, what had been the black high school during segregation became the integrated middle school during desegregation, and what had been the white agriculture high school became the integrated high school.

During those years of segregation, the neighborhood that grew up around what would become Ransom Middle School was, of course, black. It makes sense that families who wanted their children to get a good education would want to live near the high school their children would be attending. But for this white boy, starting Sixth Grade, and having to ride a bus into the middle of what seemed to me to be a very poor, black ghetto, was shocking and scary. It didn’t help that adolescence was hitting everyone full-force, hormones were raging, and angry teenagers were looking for a fight. Racial differences were as good a reason to pick a fight as any. More than once there were school-wide rumors that race riots were about to break out.

I can remember clearly eating lunch in the cafeteria, with three rows of tables in that large lunch room. The right and middle rows were where the white kids sat, and the left row was where all the black kids sat. There was little if any mixing of the races during lunch, even among friends.

In those days, there wasn’t much empathy or seeking to understand the other. I felt a lot of fear: fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of random violence. Overall, my experience was of wishing I would be left alone, and I actively steered clear of anyone who I thought might want to give me a problem. When I advanced to high school, I was back on familiar territory, and had minimal interaction with people of other cultures. In my college years, and especially once I moved to Memphis to attend the Memphis College of Art, I interacted with a lot of different kinds of people in my classes, but rarely socially.

4. Atheists

The first multicultural experience I’ve had that I would describe as a positive one happened after I graduated college and began working in an advertising agency in Memphis. My parents and the Church of Christ had taught me that anyone who didn’t follow their clearly defined formula for salvation was going to go to Hell, and non-Christians in the world were all immoral, lying, stealing, cheating, hateful people to be avoided at all costs. So when I began working in advertising, I expected I would have to watch my back and be careful around all these heathen people. Without God, they couldn’t be moral or good, and I expected any one of them might try to take advantage of me in some way. I was naïve, to say the least. So you might imagine my shock when I learned that some of the nicest, most generous, loving people I was getting to know were also… ATHEISTS! It was these encounters that began to open my eyes to what the world is really like, and not just the worst-case-scenario, fearful concept of the world my parents had instilled in us. I was in my mid-20s, and my eyes and heart were beginning to open to the people around me and to view people different from me in a new light. I began to question the type of God who could send such good, honest people to an eternal Hell when they were better people—more moral people—than many so-called Christians I knew.

5. Taoism (as well as Confucianism and Buddhism)

As I settled into my career, I was feeling a lot of stress, since advertising is a stressful business. I began to be curious about alternative exercise and meditation techniques, primarily as a form of stress relief. The advertising agency where I was working began offering a yoga class after hours. I attended a few classes, but yoga wasn’t for me. Holding static poses didn’t fit my personality.

T’ai chi, on the other hand, is a form of moving meditation—what our teacher referred to as “body prayer”—and I quickly found that I enjoyed the slow, deliberate, continuous movement of the form. I took a six-week continuing education class at a local college, then began taking classes with the teacher in a small studio behind the teacher’s home. For the next three years, I practiced t’ai chi and took classes from our teacher twice a week. Part of learning t’ai chi is learning the eastern concepts of how the breath and life energy—the chi—move through the body. I read the Tao te Ching as well as other books and essays written by contemporary Taoists and Buddhists.

It may have been during this time that I heard someone say that Christianity is in fact an Eastern religion. But, much like how English is actually a Germanic language heavily influenced by Latin, Christianity as I have known it is an Eastern religion heavily influenced by Western philosophy. In learning about the Taoist philosophy, I saw a lot of wisdom there, and began to appreciate how truth can be found outside scripture. Even today I see no conflict with calling myself a Taoist even as I call myself a Christian.

By the time I had reached my 30th birthday, I had come to understand that there are other paths people can follow that will lead them to live a good, moral, and ethical life. I’m not to the point even today where I would be willing to say that all paths to the holy are equal, but I’m much less likely to be critical of good people just because they don’t profess to follow Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is quoted telling his apostles, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” But he also tells them, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:14-16)

In her book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong writes the following:

“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology.”

This paragraph has become a touchstone for my evolving understanding of how wisdom and goodness can come from anywhere and anyone, and I can put down my Christianity litmus test in favor of looking at who people are rather than what they believe.

6. Coming Out

Each successive stage of this journey has built on the other. I was moving away from the dogmatic approach to religion I had been taught in favor of a more inclusive, loving, and kind approach to people and to difference. As I look back on this process, I realize it is probably this growing willingness to be kind to others that led me to be kinder to myself. I had been taught that being gay was sinful, which meant the best I could hope for—and remain faithful to the Church of Christ’s dogma—was a life of celibacy and of living alone.

By the time I had reached the age of 30, I had seen more than one wave of friends and acquaintances marry and begin having children. I would read the story of Creation in Genesis where it says, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…” and I would add my heartfelt “Amen”… and the next phrase, “…I will make him a helper as his partner.’” Or, as the New International Version reads, “…a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18) and I would wonder: where was the helper suitable for me to be found?

Regardless, I was tired of being alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. Now that I was willing to admit to myself and to others what I wanted, then I needed to take action to make it happen. My concept of God was changing, and if God was a loving God, then I had to trust that God would approve. I began coming out to my close friends and co-workers.
I had a very easy coming out process. My close friends all had the same reaction. “It’s about time!”

My family, on the other hand, haven’t been so generous. By accepting my sexual orientation, and by entering into a same-sex relationship, my family has labelled me an unrepentant sinner. And, in accord with some of Paul’s prescriptions to separate from erring Christians, they have banned me from their home. They won’t even eat a meal with me.

So I am grateful that I haven’t been evicted from my home, denied a bank loan, or been fired from my job just for being gay. I am also sad that my family has been willing to let their prejudice sever our relationship. One of the main reasons I stayed closeted as long as I did was because I knew my family would react this way. This reaction to a family member coming out is not unusual.

In fact…

According to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. In addition, the San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute has found that LGBTQ youth who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
( http://gayteens.about.com/od/sexuality/f/suicide.htm )

In coming out of the closet, I left behind my status as a member of an empowered majority to become a self-identified minority. I have experienced oppression from my own family, but also in our wider culture in subtle and no-so-subtle ways, from the ban on gay men donating blood, to the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages, to hearing people use the phrase “that’s so gay” as a put-down.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you may ask, how have these experiences and influences affected my spirituality: my relationship with God and with my fellow human beings? I recognize that I inherited a religion of intolerance which I questioned, and that questioning led me to a greater tolerance of others. I began in a situation of privilege, which I gave up in order to live an authentic life and to achieve what every other person in the history of the world has wanted: to love and to be loved. I gave up being judgmental and critical in favor of finding a more compassionate way to live. In all these things, I thank God that I’ve had the presence of mind to question and the ability to survive in this world with the freedoms we enjoy in this nation. God told Abraham, “… I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2) I, too, feel blessed. My continuing discernment is how I can be a blessing to others.

My Spiritual Autobiography

Originally written in October 2011 and updated in 2012, this Spiritual Autobiography was written as an exercise assigned as part of the Education for Ministry program. EfM is a four-year continuing education program developed by Sewanee The University of the South, an Episcopal seminary in Tennessee. EfM is designed to give students an introduction to the historical-critical method of Bible criticism, teaches theological reflection as a lifeskill, and helps students develop their personal theology. EfM students ideally should leave the program with a (more) sustaining spirituality.

Timeline Chart (PDF)
http://www.waynehastings.net/efm/timeline1.pdf

Method and Introduction

Somewhere along the way, I learned that Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in Egypt, the second 40 years of his life in the desert, and the last 40 years of his life leading the people of Israel. When I heard that, I realized that I had spent my first 20 years living in Pensacola, FL, and my second 20 years living in Memphis, TN. If that pattern holds, I’ll most likely spend my next 20 years living in the Los Angeles area. So on my timeline chart, you will see that I’ve divided my life into three stages which I am coming to think of as:
1. Life in Egypt
2. Life in the Desert
3. Life with the people of God

I’m not Moses, but this gave me a starting place for this year’s spiritual biography exercise. Our theme is Timelines, and one was not enough.

When I sat down to create my timeline, I decided to map all the significant events in my life, then selected the events that had the most effect on my spiritual life. I ended up expanding my chart to 8 categories, with dots marking years with significant events. The result isn’t so much a timeline as a matrix.

Four significant intersections visibly emerged from the data. These intersections mark years when multiple threads of my life interacted with significant consequence. These intersections are marked with vertical dotted lines.

Background

I was born in 1966. I was raised in a non-denominational, ultra-conservative, fundamentalist sect. The Church of Christ came out of the Restoration Movement — sometimes called the Stone-Campbell Movement — in the 19th Century. The goal of the Restoration Movement was to restore the First Century church as described in the New Testament, with an ecumenical call for people to come out of their denominations and be called simply Christians. An early motto of the Restoration Movement is, “We are Christians only, but we are not the only Christians.” Human nature being what it is, this movement quickly began dividing into factions over details of dogma. The Restoration Movement resulted in the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Christian Church. Because the goal was to restore the first century church, they don’t consider themselves Protestant.

The church I grew up in isn’t tolerant of difference. The social structure is very family-oriented, and adult single members are generally treated like a fifth wheel. Most of the churches I’ve known have been largely self-segregated. And in my lifetime I have heard quite a few sermons detailing why everyone else was wrong. They believe they have the One Truth, that everyone else is going to Hell, and if you catch them off guard they’ll even tell you so directly.

My father’s father was an elder and preacher for many years, and my father is an elder. My family, on both sides, are all Church of Christ as far back as we can remember.

Concepts of God

The Church of Christ taught me to think of God as a split personality: part Santa and part Cop. On the one hand, God is generous, willing to give more than we can think to ask. But on the other, he’s waiting to catch a Christian unlucky enough to die with one un-repented sin to send them to an eternal Hell of fire and torment. “Loving but just”, they like to say. This schizophrenic and punitive God is scary. If we create God in the image of our fathers, you can learn a lot about my experience of my father when I describe my early concept of God as distant, detached, and uninvolved in my day to day life except to make me feel inadequate and to make my life more complicated.

Family

Both my parents were born in Pensacola, FL. I have one brother, Brian, 2-1/2 years younger. We were fortunate in that both sets of grandparents lived in Pensacola, also, so we got to spent a great deal of time with our extended family. I even got to know one set of great-grandparents. While my uncles on both sides moved their families away from Pensacola, we stayed put. In fact, my parents continue to live in the house they moved into when I started Kindergarten. And with that kind of history, right or wrong, my early expectation was my life would follow a similar trajectory.

The elephant in the room

Unfortunately, life is never that simple. The elephant in the room is that I am gay. A great deal of my spiritual journey is composed of time spent attempting to reconcile my orientation and my religion.

Childhood and the First Major Intersection — 1977 (11 years old)

Early on, I sensed I was different. Andrew Sullivan begins chapter 1 of Vhis book Virtually Normal describing his early experience becoming aware of his difference from the other children. My experience is very similar to what he describes.

In 1977, my mother became pregnant with twins. She had been on birth control, and it was a completely unexpected pregnancy. My parents took that as an opportunity to have “the sex talk” with my brother and me. This was the point where I put my finger on my difference. I don’t know if I even knew the word gay then, but I knew what it was even if I didn’t have a word to describe it. I told no one. I had no one I could imagine discussing this with, and hoped that if I ignored it, it would go away on its own. This internal conflict is probably what sparked another realization. During all that church-going, I had been taught that sin separates the individual from God, that Jesus was the atonement for sin, and Baptism was how one achieved forgiveness. I felt like how I imagined Adam and Eve might have felt, with this new knowledge of good and evil. The Church of Christ doesn’t perform infant baptism. It teaches there is an “age of accountability” where everyone becomes aware of right and wrong, at which point they become accountable for their sin. So at 11, I felt I had crossed that threshold and I wanted to be saved, so I went forward during a Sunday evening altar call and asked to be baptized. I don’t know what sins I could possibly have been guilty of at the age of 11, but I wanted to do the right thing and being baptized felt like the right thing to do. My mother’s pregnancy had complications. She was retaining water and at 6 months she looked like she was 9 months. She was miserable. On Easter Sunday in 1977, during a week-long trip to visit family friends in Kentucky, she miscarried and lost both girls. So, this period, which should have been a time of joy and celebration, was covered with a pall of sadness and loss, and I really didn’t feel much different after my baptism than I did before.

Through my school years, I was an underachiever, a B student, a good kid. I stayed out of trouble, I was always home, and I was active at church. Because I knew I was gay, I didn’t date. There was no going to the Prom, there was no bringing girls home to meet the parents, and I missed out on many of the typical coming-of-age experiences most people have in their teen years. I was marking time, doing what was expected of me, waiting until some future date for my life to begin.

Second Major Intersection — 1985 (18 years old)

8 years later, the second major intersection of my timelines involves that transition between high school and college, and what I now think of as my first boyfriend. My senior year of high school, I was working at a pizza place that was across the street from the largest mall in Pensacola. As sheltered as I was, rubbing elbows with such worldly people was an education in itself. I ended up befriending this one co-worker, and we started hanging out, going to movies, out to dinner, that kind of thing. If I had thought of it as dating at the time, I would have been a lot more nervous. After a few months, this friend became something more. Even though I knew what I wanted, I was too immature to deal with being in a gay relationship, and I was too scared and unprepared for the consequences of coming out of the closet. So I broke off the relationship abruptly, retreated into my solitude, and a few months later I moved to Memphis, TN, to finish my Bachelors of Fine Arts in Graphic Design at Memphis College of Art.

Life in the Desert — 1986-2006

This begins the period of my life I think of as “Life in the Desert.” For the next 20 years, I focused on getting through college and beginning my career in advertising. The student body at the Memphis College of Art, as you can imagine, had plenty of gay students. I was “in the closet, but with the door wide open.” No one asked, I didn’t tell. But I did observe. So many of the gay students were themselves fresh out of the closet and I can only describe them as effeminate screaming queens. Rainbow flags and Pride Parades, God bless them. But they were also vulgar, worldly, and self-destructive. And I was too self-righteous to get involved with any of that. Plus, 1987 was early days in the AIDS epidemic. When I looked at them, I saw negative role models — that was what I didn’t want to be. If I hadn’t been so up-tight, I might have had some fun there, and my college experience might have been more typical. But I wasn’t ready for any of that yet, and instead spent a great deal of time alone.

Through college and after, once I had begun working in Memphis-area advertising agencies, I was still going to church three times a week, and was participating in the worship services. I was even teased for being the unofficial youth minister, since I was in my mid-20s and involved with the group of teenagers at church who I had more in common with than the older married couples. I knew I was gay, but didn’t have a clue how to deal with the issue, or how or whether I would ever be able to reconcile what I believed with what I wanted. I spent too much time alone in the dark, crying and praying to God to let me be straight. If fervent prayer or if just wanting it to be so could change someone’s sexual orientation, it would have happened for me.

Thank God for the Internet. With the advent of Amazon.com, I was able to search out and read books by Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, John Boswell, and Peter Gomes. These were some of the first gay theologians and social activists I began to read that gave me a glimpse of a better future than I had been facing.

The Third Major Intersection – Coming Out (1996-2000)

Birthdays that end in zero tend to be major life assessment years. My 30th birthday was no exception. I was lonely, and very much tired of being alone. Three of my grandparents died, one a year in the space of three years. What I was hearing taught from the church pulpits and in the classes wasn’t feeding my soul. I was disillusioned in a number of ways. But I was doing well financially — I had a good job at the largest Memphis-area advertising agency, and got good reviews from my bosses. I realized that my situation had to change — I couldn’t spend the rest of my life alone. I decided to take a leap of faith. I didn’t have everything worked out with regard to doctrine or faith, but I had to trust in God that if I found someone I could spend my life with, that that would be ok with Him. And I started coming out to my friends and co-workers. Nearly everyone I told said, “It’s about time.” It was such a relief to have that secret out in the open, and it felt good having the support of everyone I told.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. In late 2001, I met the guy who became my first adult relationship. He took me on an emotional rollercoaster that lasted 8 months, one that was a major education for me in more ways than I can list. By the time this relationship had started, I was already becoming spotty in my church attendance. This lack of attendance was noticed by the church elders. At the end of 2001, the Internet stock bubble had burst and we were in a receission. I got laid off from my job of 8 years, and the day I got laid off my 12 year old cat died unexpectedly. Nearly simultaneously with all that, one of the elders of the church in Memphis called my parents in Pensacola to report my lack of church attendance. My father being an elder at his church, this was a big deal. Here I was, unemployed and with no prospects, with my unemployed boyfriend living with me, and my dad is calling me on the phone wanting to come to Memphis to discuss my church situation. All I could tell him was I needed a break. I was trying to find a job in the middle of a recession, and I was completely freaked out. It was all too much — I don’t know how I got through it all.

The church in Memphis “marked” me as an erring brother, and until Facebook came along, I had no interaction with any of the people I had once considered my friends and who I had gone to church with for over a decade.

This began an 8-year hiatus from organized religion. I found a new job with a small company, but at half my previous salary and with no benefits. As you can imagine, this was pretty painful. From recession to Great Recession, I feel the pain of the Lost Decade quite personally.

I finally reached my limit with my first relationship and kicked him out. Not too much later, I started a second relationship, but it was long distance and he was more in the closet than I was at the time, so I broke that off after 8 months also.

In 2003, I met Brooks, and we have been together ever since.

“Life with the People of God” and Fourth Major Intersection (2006-2009)

In 2006, Brooks got tired of working as a restaurant server and decided he wanted to change careers. He told me he wanted to go to Los Angeles to attend Cinema Makeup School. I made a deal with him. If he saved up the money for tuition and went to Cinema Makeup School, when he graduated we’d move to LA if school went well and he had job prospects.

Brooks moved to LA, rented a room from a nice family, and went to school for 8 months while I stayed in Memphis.

A few weeks before Christmas of 2008 — about 8 years after my break with church, and during the time I was planning to visit my family in Pensacola for the holidays — my parents informed me that I wasn’t welcome to visit for Christmas. They knew I was planning to move to LA with Brooks, and they weren’t happy about it. Again, the elephant in the room… My parents know, but are afraid to know, because knowing means telling me I’m going to hell for eternity.

After an emotional phone call with my parents, I sent my father an e-mail describing the paradigm shift I had been experiencing with my understanding of God and the Bible. I used a quote from a book by A.J. Jacobs which outlines the difference between Fundamentalism and Modernism.

In response, my father sent me a very long e-mail detailing why I was wrong in many particulars. His e-mail included this memorable section:

If you actually accept this “Modernism” as you describe it, then you must regard the creation account in Genesis to be a “myth”? If so, you are worse off than we thought and you may as well deny the whole Bible.

You need to read and study more of what God wrote and less of what men write.

More or less simultaneously with all this, I was looking forward to moving to Los Angeles on several fronts. I was going to be working from home, remotely, the same job I had been working in Memphis. After 20 years in Memphis, I had some ghosts I wanted to put behind me. Brooks and I were going to be in a more progressive part of the country where our relationship would be the norm and nothing at all out of the ordinary. And we wanted to make the move to a new city a fresh start for our relationship, also.

And I was thinking I was ready to return to church. The idea of returning to a Church of Christ church wasn’t an option. Even in liberal California, a Church of Christ is still going to teach the same things I had walked away from.

The Episcopal Church had been on my radar from the affiliation with authors of the books I had been reading. I was also aware of Integrity, the Episcopal gay special interest group. Separately, I had seen Ed Bacon on the Oprah Spirituality podcast where he said, among other things, that being gay is a gift from God. So once we knew where we were going to be renting in Alhambra, I did some Google Maps searches for Episcopal Churches in the area. All Saints showed up, and eventually I made the connection that Ed Bacon was the Rector at All Saints, and All Saints was a short bus ride from our apartment, so that’s where I started.

2012 Update

While a huge part of my journey is one of reconciling my faith with my sexual orientation, it is also the story of coming out of biblical literalism (fundamentalism) and a faith grounded in fear to a richer, deeper, more loving approach to faith that exemplifies Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self. My paradigm shift took place over several years. When I reached All Saints, I knew what I didn’t believe more than what I did, and I was looking for something to run to instead of running away from. I met Ken V. in a small group at All Saints. He identified me as a seeker, and recruited me into the Education for Ministry program. EfM was just what I needed to complete my paradigm shift, and cement my belief that there had to be a better way to follow Jesus than the path I had been on. EfM has been a rich experience in learning to think theologically, in reading the Bible critically, and in taking the Bible seriously but not literally. I have developed a deeper understanding of scripture through an understanding of the context in which it developed. I am incredibly thankful for my EfM experience, and for my fellow students in our group. I have learned so much from each of them, listening to their insights and their individual journeys of faith. And I am thankful that they have been willing to always listen to me and allow me to be heard as well.

When I was 11 years old, I made an intentional decision to be baptized. In August of 2012, I celebrated and affirmed that decision through Confirmation in the Episcopal Church. I didn’t feel that I needed to be confirmed, and no one was pressuring me to be confirmed. Instead, I chose to be confirmed out of sheer gratitude that the Episcopal tradition exists, that it welcomes me, and celebrates me as I am.

I am a Christian because I follow Christ, and following Christ means exemplifying Christ to the World around me.