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.

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 >>

In Which God Answers Prayer

“Lord… make me straight. I want to live a normal life like my parents have. I want children and a wife and two-story house with a white picket fence. I don’t want be alone the rest of my life. I want to be good and go to heaven when I die. Make me straight…”

When I hear people talk about how God answers prayer, I remember all those days and nights I spent praying to God, “Let me be straight.” Having been raised in a fundamentalist family, I knew being gay wasn’t an option. I had been taught that God answers prayer, so I took my problem to Him. I was afraid and had no one I could talk the situation over with. A couple of years ago, I wrote in my spiritual autobiography, “If fervent prayer or if just wanting it to be so could change someone’s sexual orientation, it would have happened for me.” I spent uncounted hours, alone and in the dark, praying to God, “Let me be straight.” Today, almost 30 years later, I’m not straight. Did God answer my prayer?

What you think about prayer will be a direct result of what you believe about God. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong describes how most people’s concept of God develops at about the same time they are learning about Santa Claus. (“He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good…”) As children mature and become adults, so their concept of Santa Claus matures also. Too often, however, concepts of God remain stunted and never mature past that early point even as people grow up and become mature adults in all other areas of their life. God remains for them the white-bearded man in the sky, sitting on a throne surrounded by clouds and sunshine, peering down at us humans on the Earth far below.

What was I expecting to happen, as I poured my heart out in prayer? I wanted a sign. I wanted to be transformed in some way that would make my life—and my future—look and feel like a life I considered normal. I wanted to be spared the pain and judgment I expected to receive from my family and church if (when) I came out. I wanted to be spared the loss of relationships that I knew would end if I embraced what I knew to be my true identity. The closet is a cold and lonely place, and I didn’t think I could live in the closet my entire life. I wanted to be spared the difficulty of making a choice between what I had been told was right and what I experienced as right.

When I consider the subject of prayer, a couple of Biblical figures come to mind. Jesus, just prior to his arrest, prays in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” And Paul, writing to the Corinthians, states that God had given him a “thorn in the flesh” for which he prayed three times that it be removed. Did God answer Jesus’ prayer? Did God answer Paul’s prayer? If I expect God to grant what I ask, then God can only be said to have answered Jesus’ prayer if Jesus had been spared crucifixion. Paul continued to write as if God had spoken to him verbally, “…he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” Maybe this response was meant to be taken literally, but I don’t hear the voice of God that way, so I have no reason to believe Paul did, either. In these instances, the prayer and the pray-or were sincere and heartfelt, yet the answer to these prayers didn’t arrive in the form of wish fulfillment. There was a greater plan which these requests would have thwarted. So clearly the concept of whether and how God answers prayer is more nuanced than yes or no, or even not yet.

Did God answer my prayer?

As time went by, as hours became days became years, what I prayed slowly changed. As I poured out my soul, expressing my desires and my fear to Him, I believed then—and I continue to believe today—two things. First, that God hears my prayer. And second, that He understands my suffering. God is the one “in [whom] we live and move and have our being” not out there in space somewhere, far removed from us. God is one who “loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” God is the one who become flesh, lived among us, and “who in every respect has been tempted as we are…”

God did answer my prayer, not by granting my wish to become straight but by helping me understand that I didn’t need to be made straight at all. I believe that God’s Holy Spirit was walking with me in my journey to understand his will for me. As time passed, what I prayed changed as something inside me changed. I moved from asking of God “let this cup pass from me” to instead saying, “in all things, thy will be done.” Like Paul or Jesus, I accepted the situation I had been given. I surrendered my will to let God’s will unfold.

If your concept of God is punitive, then he acts as Cosmic Cop, waiting to punish otherwise good people who might once slip up and commit a sin. If your concept of God is that he materially rewards the faithful, then you may expect him to act as a kind of Cosmic Butler, waiting to grant the wishes of those who he deems good enough. Neither of these concepts is healthy. Neither of these concepts are true to the God I find in scripture. As my concept of God has matured, I no longer see God as cosmic cop or cosmic butler. Because God is ineffable (defying expression or description, too sacred to be uttered), I have a hard time visualizing what God is like. The images of Cop and Butler—so similar to the image of Santa Claus—are simple and simplistic, easy to imagine and ultimately facile. My God remains mysterious, greater than I can conceive in any easy way, but he does speak to me quietly, in a small, still voice that takes patience to discern.

Anglican Archbishop Condemns Anti-LGBT Violence

Southern Africa’s Anglican archbishop calls for an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Respect the gift of difference,” says Most Revd Dr. Thabo Makgoba, challenging arguments that culture, tradition, and religion justify the marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people.

In Which I Backtrack And Say “Hello” A Second Time

In a time when our culture is finally throwing off the last of the moral taboos derived from Luther’s *sola scriptura*—that being the taboo of homosexuality—and when only the most strident fundamentalist voices seem to penetrate the 24-hour news cycle, I’m thinking I just might have something to add to this conversation through sharing my life experience.

This last battle in the culture war isn’t over by a longshot. And there are a lot of people—pre-teens, teens, and adults—hurting and feeling beyond the reach of love because of how their communities of family, friends, and church (for those still in church) have treated them.

I’m looking for ways I can help heal these people who are not as far along the path as I have come. I’m not here to say, “It gets better.” I’m here to say it will probably get worse before it gets better. And sometimes it just *doesn’t* get better. You can’t control the choices and attitudes of others. But you can decide to live a life consistent with your values, and brave the cruel darts of people shouting hate in the name of Jesus.

Jesus loves you, and so do I.

If you are new to this blog, you may want to visit my first post here.

If you want to see a list of only my life story posts, click on My Life Story category.

Morality: fixed or culture-based?

Here’s a thought provoking question I encountered recently… Is morality fixed and unchanging, determined by God as described in the Bible? Or is morality changing over time and influenced by culture, as people seek to interpret the Bible as the Holy Spirit moves them/us?

On Facebook, I asked a question that appeared to be about the interpretation of Psalm 173, and how my reading of it has informed my understanding of inspiration of scripture as described in 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

In Ps. 137, the speaker/writer is an Israelite in Babylonian captivity, lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. It is quite pretty, and has been set to music many times. It is pretty, up until the last couple of verses of the psalm, where the narrator expresses a violent revenge fantasy:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:8-9)

I went on to discuss how morality is changeable, and used slavery as an example. Slavery is not condemned in the Bible, as Dan Savage recently stated to much media coverage. Paul (and Jesus) could have staked out a moral high ground by stating plainly that all human beings have a right to exercise their free will and autonomy without being exploited and subjugated by others. But he/they didn’t. However, over time, and as people sought to follow the teaching of Jesus, they came to understand that you can’t love your neighbor if you’re got him locked in chains and working against his will for your personal profit.

That, I posited, was the Holy Spirit continuing to lead us into all truth. Some things that were not considered immoral in the past are now considered immoral. We’re being led to a better way, and the process is not complete. Also, some things that were considered immoral in the past already have been re-examined as being either morally good or neutral, and some things that are still considered immoral on historical grounds are now or soon to be re-examined using similar criteria: how do we best demonstrate love for your fellow human being?

I got push-back. The response was, in part:

“…without inspired biblical morality we all really would just be evolved apes. How does anyone know that “hate” is wrong?”

“I don’t have an answer for whether or not the Jewish “indentured servitude” kind of slavery was immoral. It was/is immoral to mistreat or disposses a servant, but I don’t know if it was/is immoral to have servants. I suspect not. The larger issue is that I am human, and God is divine; I cannot presume to know all of his wisdom. But I do know this: He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His wisdom does not evolve in response the the chronological snobbery of the latest human versions of foolishness. We may choose our values, but nothing we do has anything to do with determining morals.”

Saying that slavery in the Bible was actually just “Jewish ‘indentured servitude'” seems like an attempt to redefine the topic and completely side-step the issue, as if every slave in the Bible made a choice to enter into an indenture contract. I find this statement preposterous. Did descendants of Jacob contract with the Egyptians to enter into indentured servitude, and Moses was just freeing them from their contracts early?

So I thought the issue of slavery was an easy example. No one would say that slavery isn’t immoral in the 21st century, would they? Apparently some would.

I’m not an expert on the rhetoric of ethics and morality. But my intuition is that morality is a combined product of culture (society-derived) and values (internally-derived), and that a person’s or a society’s morality changes based on these factors.

So this is something I’ve been thinking about lately. What do you think?