Not Losing My Religion

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I just received my current issue of RFD Magazine, with my story, “Not Losing My Religion” in it:

Born in the South at the end of the Baby Boom, I have a long and complicated relationship with the church. ‘The church’ for me being Christian, and, more specifically, the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.

As a child, I loved my religion. I remember sitting in Christ Lutheran’s sanctuary of blond wood and stained glass windows, a larger-than-life statue of Christ resurrected hanging over the altar, feeling transported by the setting, the music, and the rhythms of the liturgy. Some of my earliest memories are of liturgy—the Te Deum laudamus and Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.  As a gay child, I found great comfort in the teachings of love and meekness and the reverence of a savior who taught us to “turn the other cheek.” Fights at school and the bus stop were common occurrences growing up, and I was a ‘sensitive’ child in my mother’s words; a ‘mama’s boy’ in my older brothers’ eyes; a ‘sissy’ in the words of at least one teacher; and all that or much worse in the taunts of my classmates. Church was truly a refuge for the pre-adolescent me.

All that changed with my sexual awakening, which was so different than that of my straight brothers and peers. I came to hear more clearly the message of the church that I was wrong—an abomination. Like so many other gay and lesbian men and women, I slowly turned away from religion, dismissing my previous feelings of comfort and belief as being primitive and naïve. I stopped going to church when I left home for college, and it was a long time before I found my way back there again.

Two pivotal things worked to bring me back into the church’s orbit and, finally, into a pew. The first incident happened soon after I graduated from college. I found myself in the Southern gay mecca of Atlanta, and I found myself with a boyfriend. As Christmas approached, I realized that I was going to have to choose between spending the holiday with my family or with my new boyfriend—an untenable choice in my mind. Hoping to be able to spend Christmas with my family and my boyfriend, I came out to my mother. Not surprisingly, my mother, a good Missouri Synod Christian woman, struggled with my revelation. “Are you sure?” she asked, hoping that I had somehow made a mistake. My boyfriend did not come home for Christmas. I, however, continued coming home every weekend after coming out in hopes of showing my mother, recently widowed, that I was the same person she had always known.

One evening, as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, my mother returned home from a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League meeting. She walked up behind me as I continued washing the dishes, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I talked to Pastor about you after everyone else left the meeting. He said that God still loves and accepts you. I hope you know that I do, too.” My hands immersed in the hot soapy water, I stared forward, out the kitchen window, unable to wipe the tears that ran down my face. We had a good talk that night, and I called ‘Pastor’ the next morning to set up a meeting to talk with him. He admitted that he didn’t know anyone who was gay, but he was sure that God loved me. He and I became pen pals for several years after, corresponding regularly while I was away in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

While his loving—his Christian—response was enough to keep me interested in God, it was not enough to overcome my fears of condemnation by God’s church, and I continued to keep my distance through my years in the Peace Corps and my return to the United States. I did, however, read and study on my own, finding much comfort, to my surprise, in the Bible. I also read historian John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and began to realize that ‘God’ and ‘church’ might not be synonymous. Nonetheless, I avoided the institution and the risks associated with it. Then, something happened in 1987 that brought me back through its doors and into a pew.

I had returned from the Peace Corps and was a nurse at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, working with AIDS patients. One afternoon, as I was walking into a patient’s room to hang an IV, I heard a conversation taking place and, for some reason, I stopped and waited—and listened. A minister was visiting the patient, a gay man with AIDS, and they were having a beautiful talk, full of kindness and acceptance—no condemnation or guilt. I even heard the minister talk about the patient’s partner, who was also apparently a parishioner, in loving words. I was surprised—genuinely and pleasantly surprised. When the minister walked out, I asked him about his church. He was also a Lutheran, of the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he invited me to come to a service. After thinking it over for a few weeks, I did, and I felt as if I’d returned home, easily falling into the rhythms of the liturgy. I ended up joining, and God seemed to bless my return by introducing me to the man who has been my partner for over 25 years at that church.

I still go to church, although I moved to the Episcopal Church in 2002 because I found them more theologically welcoming to LGBTQ persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has since opened its doors wide as well, but I’m a committed Episcopalian now, often serving on the altar with the priest. I remember the first time I gave communion to my partner—I had to choke back the tears as I offered the cup of wine, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Another time, a parishioner called me after church to tell me that he had watched as the priest and I walked out into the congregation to commune an elderly member who couldn’t come forward. He said he had watched as I offered her the cup, and my face was changed. In truth, I do feel changed into a better version of me when participating in the service this way.

While I, too, have wandered down alternative paths on my spiritual journey, they have always brought me back home to ‘church’ through the blessings of clergy and others who have truly shown me the loving image of Christ that is at the heart of all true Christianity. At the same time, I understand that is not the case for so many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and I pray that all of us find that love and acceptance somewhere, whether it be a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or in community or nature. We are all children of a loving God.

Fear . . . and the Death of Innocents

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On Wednesday of this week, the Church remembered The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the conclusion of Christmas and the beginning of the season of Epiphany. In this season, we remember those events in Jesus’ life were his Lordship was revealed to various peoples.

As my priest Matthew noted on Sunday, during the joyous season of Christmas, we celebrated some pretty “gritty” events of Christian history—the Feast of Saint Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, celebrated the day after Christmas, followed two days later by the Feast of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. In the Feast of the Holy Innocents we remember the many children and infants slaughtered by King Herod in an attempt to kill Jesus. The story of those Holy Innocents of Bethlehem is anticipated in the Gospel reading for Epiphany, which begins:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

“And all Jerusalem with him” were frightened. Like peoples everywhere, the citizens of Jerusalem had grown comfortable with the current system. Fear is a strong argument when it comes to politics—fear of the ‘other,’ especially. Bishop Dietsche addressed this very issue in the politics of our day in “The Bishop’s Message” in the current edition of The Episcopal New Yorker:

We are watching as an alarming number of Americans, and many who would be our leader, are insisting in what could pass for apocalyptic times that the desired peace can only be found by filling more prisons; by demonizing Moslems and every immigrant; by building higher walls behind which to hide; by fearing and shunning the stranger at the gate, even the naked hungry refuge; and by making more and more war. My God. Not as these false prophets give peace does Jesus give peace.

“And all Jerusalem with him” were frightened. Fear is a strong argument that our politicians—and apparently Herod, too—wield to get in power, but we, as Christians, are called to “fear not” and put our trust in God. As Bishop Dietsche goes on to say:

 . . . turn away from the false idol of Safety-Safety-Safety to take the risk of connection and communion and going deeper and trying out what it might mean to all-be-one-as-Christ-and-the-Father-are-one.

Don’t let the Herods of our day lead us to believe that our safety requires the killing of our innocents—our Holy Innocents.

AdventWord by the Society of Saint John the Evangalist

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The Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist have created an online Advent Calendar called #AdventWord. They send a word a day with a short meditation and invite us to take a picture which represents that word and share it via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I’m planning on participating by posting a picture and a short poem for each day’s word.

Today’s word is “Wake Up,” and the meditation they sent with it is:

Look clearly and honestly at your life–and take action. Now. For now is the time to waken out of sleep. This is the watchman’s trumpet call–the clarion call of Advent. Now is the time for you–a choice to be made, a decision to be taken.

My photo is above, and this is my short haiku to go with it:

Wake Up! Awaken
From the darkness where we sleep
Into God’s pure light.

Sign up and share your photos and thoughts!

Happy Advent!

A Thanksgiving Blessing

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Bless those who harvest–
Bless all who toil in the soil–
So God can feed us.

Bless those who butcher–
Bless the beast which makes our feast–
So God can feed us.

Bless the store grocer–
Bless the store, with food galore–
So God can feed us.

Bless those who prepare–
Bless their hands, in pots and pans–
So God can feed us.

Bless those who gather–
To see friends and family–
For God has blessed us.

Bless those we love–
So dear, whether far or near–
For God has blessed us.

Bless our pets, Dear Lord–
In their eyes, a deep truth lies–
Of how you bless us.

Bless those who must work–
So that they, their bills may pay–
This Thanksgiving Day.

Patient, prisoner–
Alone who live, to care give–
That God may bless us.

For those in mourning–
On this day, Dear God, we pray–
That we may bless them.

Bless those who worship–
Prayers that rise to the skies–
For God to bless us.

Bless all creation–
Who sing this song all day long–
Dear God, please bless us!

 

Motor Mouth

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As Daddy backed the car out of our short driveway and headed it up the dirt road, Mama twisted around from the front seat to face me. “Tell me about school. Do you like it? Do you have friends? What’s Mrs. Bost like,” she asked.

We were going to school—my new school—for the first open house with my new teacher in my new classroom. I had attended Christ Lutheran’s church school for kindergarten, first, and second grades, but, now that we had moved far out of town, I had been moved to the county public school, Startown Elementary.

I didn’t really know how to answer her questions. I didn’t like this new school. It scared me. The classes were bigger, and the boys meaner. The only friends I had were girls, but I didn’t want to tell Mama and Daddy that. Mrs. Bost seemed okay, but I still got in trouble for talking too much. At Christ Lutheran, my teachers took care of my talking too much by punishing me in class and simply noting that “Alan talks too much” on my report card. That was all about to change.

I led Mama and Daddy into the building where my third-grade classroom and Mrs. Bost awaited, a new one-story structure built next to the imposing original three-story building that housed the principal’s office and upper grades of elementary school. We only went in there for a weekly visit to the library and for lunch in its basement. Mrs. Bost was busy talking with other parents when we entered, and Mama asked to see my desk.

All our desks had little folded tents made of cardstock with our names neatly written on them by Mrs. Bost. We weaved our way through the classroom, and I pointed out different students I knew, pretending to have more friends than I did. As we approached my desk and its little folded tent, I noticed that it looked different, and my heart began to pound in my chest. By the time I realized what was written there, it was too late—Mama and Daddy knew it was mine. The tent read “Motor Mouth,” neatly written in Mrs. Bost’s hand. I flushed from fear and embarrassment; Mama and Daddy flushed from anger. And, here was Mrs. Bost, walking across the room to explain how my talking too much disturbed her class. I was silent on the ride home, while Mama and Daddy discussed how to handle me and my Motor Mouth.

In my junior year of high school, I had occasion to call my mother at work one afternoon. She worked with several other women in a kind of secretarial and administrative pool above an auto parts store in town. Mary Jane, who answered the phone when I called, didn’t put me on hold. Instead she yelled across the upstairs office for my mother, “Jet Jaws! The phone’s for you!”

Jet Jaws! Mother of Motor Mouth. If only I had known.