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)
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.
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.
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.
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.