Consider this a post for not only my friends but for anyone feeling the pressure of outside expectations: pressures to perform, to excel, to exceed expectations. I want you to hear this, and if you need to, I want you to read it over and over, day in and day out...
In the opening to one of my favorite films, Angels in America, Meryl Streep pays the part of an aged Jewish Rabbi presiding over the funeral of a woman he did not know (as often happens with clergy of various sorts). He speaks of how her journey is one that cannot be repeated in the modern era of rapid travel. Simultaneously, he speaks of how her remaining family members carry within them a piece of her, of her journey, of her triumphs and her hardships.
Later in the film (or more accurately, miniseries), Louis, portrayed by Ben Shenkman, is beckoned by his ex-lover's best friend Belize (played by Jeffrey Wright), a nurse to speak the Kaddish over the recently deceased infamous closeted lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Louis, a secular Jew, struggles at first with the traditional prayer for the dead, but finds himself supernaturally assisted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also played by Streep). His only personal addition comes in his referring to Cohn as "you son of a bitch."
Death and legacy are common themes in the popular-play-turned-HBO-miniseries. Personally, I try to sit down and watch the entire six hours of the film in one sitting at least once a year. Every time, I find myself learning something new about myself during the process. My primary reason for mentioning this film pertains to tonight being All Hallows Eve, followed by tomorrow being All Saints.
I've lost a number of family members over the course of my life thus far, the most recent and important of which was my grandmother nearly a year and a half ago. Tonight, in the pagan tradition (the religion of my partner), is the holiday of Samhain (pronounced so-wen), a night that recognizes the presence of our ancestors in our lives.
There are too many people to list who have influenced me being the man I am. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny. My great, great-aunt Blanche. Several of Nanny's siblings and in-laws (Kathleen, Ira, Evelyn, Pansy). Tonight I seek to honor them and their journeys. Tonight I give thanks for the ways in which they loved and shaped me, gave me strength. Together, and separately, they taught me the importance of family, of perseverance, of selflessness. They taught me the value of a home cooked meal, of time around the table sharing story and self. They helped me understand what it meant to take pride in your work, and to do everything with a sense of significance, worth, and value.
As I sit here in my living room lit only by candles and the glow of my computer screen, listening to various movie scores and the sound of a relaxation fountain, I wish I could down with them all. I wish I could see their faces and their smiles, hear their voices, feel their arms embrace me. I would I could tell them thank you for loving me so deeply and unconditionally. I wish I could be certain they knew how much they meant to me, how deeply they changed me, even if they didn't necessarily understand or agree with my identity and relationship. I loved them, and I know they loved me.
I miss Christmases with Aunt Pansy, who always bought a box of Zachary's chocolates every year and shared it with anyone. She made sure I got the vanilla creams. I miss being in the kitchen with Aunt Blanche, a woman who could cook for an army without breaking a sweat. I miss the coziness of Aunt Evelyn's kitchen table, a place where we could sit and talk for hours. I miss Uncle Ira's laugh, even on days where he was grumpy or cynical. I miss the drive to Aunt Kathleen's house at the end of what was, for a very long time, a dirt and gravel road, and how I could always count on her having some kind of baked good ready for consumption upon my arrival. I miss sitting in Nanny's living room watching shows like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order (you get the jist), or being with her in the kitchen, cluttered around the stove making a simple but ever-filling meal.
These are my ancestors. Yes there are many others whose names, faces, and voices I did not or can not recall, and just as these are the ones who shaped me, so were they shaped by the ones before them. Their blood runs through me. There are some I did not know so well who passed before I got a chance to do so. However, given their influence on the ones that shaped me, I am thankful for them and I honor them. I sit here letting the words "We do not grieve as those without hope" run through my mind. I've moved beyond thinking I know what happens the moment a person exits this life. I do not know where these aforementioned family members are now, but regardless, part of them is still here... inside me... guiding my actions and choices. I pray that I can honor them by the way I live and, in doing so, I can honor the One who made us all for the purpose of love. I can hope and pray that, one day, I will leave a legacy similar to theirs. I hope to change lives as they have changed mine. One day I will be counted as an ancestor of someone else, and I hope that one night very much like tonight, they can sit among the candles, the water, and either silence or music, and be thankful for how I've changed or transformed them.
The primary male lead of Angels, Prior Walter (a man diagnosed with HIV in the late 80s), ends the film with this: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and we'll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins."
I pray this for everyone I meet... more life. We are all in this great big mess called life together, and we will all leave a legacy. I pray that mine is one of transformation, restoration, and healing... that the ones who come after me know that, even if I never meet or know them, I love them and offer a part of myself to them for the betterment of their lives. Tonight I honor my ancestors, my saints, and I say a prayer for those for whom I will be an ancestor, a saint...
More life... the great work begins...
When we look at the various Gospel narratives pertaining to Jesus' baptism, there's something in common between them, something I find vital to the life of any person of faith facing major life events or crises of faith. Right after his baptism, we learn that Jesus retreated into the wilderness. There, not only did he face temptation, but he also experienced renewal and a period of discernment.
A dear friend and mentor suggested that I treat my last service with Holy Covenant as a renewal of my baptism, and as such, this might be an ideal time for me to retreat for the purpose of discernment and renewal. I think he's right, but I'm honestly afraid. Afraid of what my temptations will be. Afraid of feeling alone or isolated. Afraid of becoming spiritually malnourished. Afraid of retreating from God rather than from the world.
There's a distance between the waters of baptism and the wilderness of discernment. It wasn't as if Jesus didn't have to walk for awhile before he reached the unknown. I have to wonder what that period of time was like for him... what it was like to know what he was about to do and why he was doing it? How did it feel? What did his conversations with God during that leg of the journey look like? Unfortunately, the scriptures don't tell us this part of the story. So we're left with more questions, but then again, aren't we always?
I've left my "baptism," and now find myself walking towards the wilderness. I don't know what it will look like. I'm walking there broken while praying for an increased sense of wholeness and restoration. I'm hoping for an Elijah moment in which I clearly hear God's voice in the silent whispering of the wind, or a Moses moment when I see God in the flames. I'm sure I won't get either of these... mine will probably something different, but I hope it will be there. I hope I leave the wilderness restored, feeling God's presence and direction more clearly. I hope I don't feel alone. I hope I enter the woods knowing I'm loved, and I leave them knowing that reality even more deeply. This is my prayer. I'm scared, and I don't honestly know why. I see the edge of the woods approaching, and suddenly I find my hands shaking, my heart racing, and tears welling up in my eyes. Something is about to change; my hope is that it will be a change for the better.
Over the course of my life, one question that's been asked of me time and time again is why I still have faith. After having my biological father give up his parental rights, after struggling with my sexual identity, after being raised in a verbally, abusive household, why do I still believe... both in the existence of God and in the goodness of humanity.
My first response has always been this: nothing else works for me. I've tried not believing in any sort of higher power. I've looked to science. I've meditated. I've lit candles and incense, sitting in silence in awkward poses. No matter what I do or where I do it, there has always been that gentle whisper calling to me. Whether I'm in the middle of a sobfest, laughing my ass off, in the throes of passion or surrounded by a quiet stillness, I still find myself face to face with something... someone... bigger than me.
In my particular case, this someone is Jesus. Oddly enough though, sometimes I've encountered Jesus in the Gospels, and other times, I've recognized him in the Quran. He's shown up in parts of the Torah as well as Bhagavad Gita. I see him in Ghandi and the Dalai Lama, in the girl at the Subway down the street, or the homeless man I took there for lunch the other afternoon. Since coming to seminary and diving into theological studies, an endeavor many friends said would destroy my faith and "take away my Jesus," I've learned to see him everywhere and in everything. I've also learned from my old ways and grown to understand that, for some people, many of whom I'm blessed to call friends, the message (or more often, the messengers) of Christianity and Christ is not all that compelling.
Having dealt with crippling depression for a number of years now, one would think that faith has been seemingly useless to me. From where I'm standing, though, it has been anything but. In times where I struggled with an eating disorder, the temptation for self-injury, and ideations and fantasies of suicide, something kept me tethered to this life and all that it has to give. Sometimes, I could put a name to it... sometimes I couldn't. This much was for certain... it was bigger than me, but not in a controlling, overpowering way. It has always been gentle, loving, even during those times that it challenged me and pushed me to my very limits.
"Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don't see." These are the words I heard growing up concerning faith. It makes it all sound so easy and simple, doesn't it? Well, truth is, for some people, faith is a simple reality. It comes quite naturally with little effort and significant ease. For others, including myself, faith takes work, struggle, and in many cases, a whole boatload of heartache. I'd be lying if I said I felt it was always worth it, at least in the moment. In time though, after realizing how surrounded I am by the faith of others, I frequently see my own faith strengthened. Sometimes it's in shouts and screams. Sometimes it's in tears or laughter. Mostly, though, my faith finds its strength in mere whispers.
I talk to myself... a lot sometimes. Hell, every now and again, I even respond to myself. Sometimes the words I have to say are meaningless banter. Sometimes they're harsh criticism for something I've done, words I've spoken, or for simply just being me. But every so often, I speak kind words to myself. It's a rare (but ever-increasing) occurrence. After realizing just how hard I am on myself, I've begun to understand the value of self-directed affirmation. There are a few ways that I do this...
Last year, one of my dearest friends made a suggestion to me. I'd been struggling with both my body image and my intellectual capabilities. Additionally, my personal faith had been struggle. Her suggestion was a simple one, but more powerful than I would have thought. Every day, at least once, I was to look in the mirror and tell myself, "I'm sexy. I'm brilliant. I'm a Beloved child of the Divine." If speaking it wasn't enough, then I was to plaster my apartment with post-its filled with similar words. It sounded silly, and while I don't do it nearly as often these days, I'm able to discern when I need to reestablish this habit. When I do, it usually ends up being just as powerful.
Another way that I've learned to speak kindly to myself has been through solitude. It's easy for any of us living today to become caught up in the busyness of life. Meetings. Classes. Lectures. Homework. Relationships. Dates. Hookups. Bar-hopping. Dinner parties. Holiday gatherings. Shopping. You name it, and it can be used to keep us from spending time getting to know ourselves. Don't get me wrong, solitude often happens best alone. But even something as simple as riding the train without putting in the headphones or turning on the e-reader can make a difference. When we take the time to give notice to our thoughts and our feelings, we get a chance to know something new about ourselves, even if it's subtle and seemingly miniscule. It's a powerful thing when we make self-awareness a priority.
Finally, as odd as this may sound, I speak kindly to myself through taking care of my body. Admission: I am not a gym rat. I hate running. Lifting weights makes me awkward. But I enjoy taking walks with close friends, and within the past two months, I've developed a love for yoga. I stand close to the mirror in the studio, not so I can practice vanity, but so I can make sure I have proper form, but even more importantly, so I can spend close to an hour seeing myself for who and what I truly am. I'm able to see nearly every nook and cranny. I've learned to accept the reality of my barrel chest and broad shoulders, of my incapability of ever looking a particular way. As I reach the end of my yoga practice and flow into fetal pose, I often find myself gazing in the mirror with a smile. This simple gesture is a way of affirming the fight within me, the transformation I've allowed to take place.
We all need to hear kind words. Sometimes those are words unspoken. Sometimes they're written encouragement and affirmations. Sometimes is a smile seen in the mirror, the feel of one's heart racing and sweat dripping off of one's skin. The list is as long as we make it. This much is true: when we take the time to be kind to ourselves and to develop self-love, we're able to release that love into the world around us. When we let go of the busyness and the "stuff", we make it possible for our intentions and affections to be directed where they're really needed. The kindness we speak to ourselves becomes kindness we offer to the world.
For as long as I can remember, but especially over the past several years, I've had to deal with the constant up and down cycling of depression. Some days are great. Some days are alright. Some days are downright unbearable. Hardest are those days where my emotions decide to become a roller coaster worthy of the most avid thrill seekers. I can go from laughing and having an amazing conversation with a dear friend to needing to lie down on my bed in the fetal position with the lights out and no sound other than the ambient noise of the city behind me. The rapid transition from one state of mind to its polar opposite can happen so quickly that I find myself emotionally out of breath. For anyone who struggles with chronic depression, this probably sounds familiar.
These mountain-valley days can be grueling. On those days where my emotions are fairly stable, whether they be good days or bad days, I feel like I can cope fairly well. On those days where I both skyrocket and plumet, sometimes multiple times, coping is more strenuous. I'm often torn between surrounding myself with those I love most and running off into the jungle after deactivating all means by which to contact me and consequently disappearing completely. Usually, my happy medium ends up including pajamas, milk & cookies, and hiding under the covers while watching either Dr. Who, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, or some other movie that will catalyze a complete and utter sobfest for me.
After last week's therapy session, I ended up enduring a pretty intense mountain-valley week. There were high moments—meeting with my pastor to talk about ordination, dinner with a friend from church, lunch with another girlfriend—and low moments—one of my dearest friends moving away, a spell of intense anxiety, and another fruitless conversation with my mother where it was affirmed that she would never accept or agree with my choice to be with Frankie. It was one of those weeks where determining whether or not the mountains outweighed the valleys was incredibly difficult (which made for an interesting therapy session today). Alas, I'm still here. My Facebook is still there. My cell phone is still on. My bank account is still full. My wedding rings are still on my finger. My name is still on the mailbox. My heart is still beating and my blood is still flowing.
Blake told me this morning that I have much to be grateful for and proud of. I've come a long way in the last five years. I've made a lot of progress, experience a ton of growth, and most of all, despite not knowing the source of my energy, resilience, or perseverance, I seem to still have a lot of fight left inside of me. I hardly ever give up, and even when I do, it's not completely or for good. I always bounce back. Something within me wants to keep seeing the good in the world. Something inside of me wants to keep fighting, which is what I'll do. No matter what, Lord willing, I won't ever give up. This is who I am...
Sitting here listening to some music from Hillsong and numerous other artists, I realize I'm just under two weeks from finishing my first year of seminary. Although the normal run is three years, I am currently planning on taking four, mostly for sanity sake, as well as to give myself more time for discernment. This morning, instead of going to my home church, I visited the church at which I will be interning year as a student pastor. It's a much more traditional congregation in comparison to what I'm used to, which I must admit, scares me. I'm scared to be authentic, to be real about my faults and my flaws. I'm nervous about preaching, even though I've been told I have a preacher's heart. I'm anxious about all of the little details to which I must pay close attention. Most of all, while hopeful, I'm worried that the church will not change in the area in which I need it to change the most - its stance on inclusivity.
More and more, almost as a fallback, I just want to go into chaplaincy. I can deal with the hard questions posed by those in dire circumstances. I can handle death and disease, quite well actually. I'm not sure I can handle the demands placed on me by the same group of people for the time span of several years. In that respect, I feel week, inadequate. I can take care of one, two, five people. But 60+ unnerves me... a lot.
I realize that next year will help me grow accustomed to serving a church on my own, or even in the context of being an associate pastor. I'm excited to see what I'm made of. All fears, anxieties, concerns, and worries aside, I am sure I will do fine. If I can handle serving a church while being in seminary, then I can handle it outside those cold stone walls and wooden rafters. I know at the end of it all, I'll be just fine... at least, I hope so...
The past few weeks have been interesting, to say the least. I survived, with flying colors, my first semester of seminary. At least academically. I handled the holidays with my family, which this year, included F. And now, here I am, on a longer break than I expected, having chosen to move my Interim class to spring semester. M. initially stated, a while back, that if F. was going to be at my grandma's for Christmas with me, then they would not be present. Yet within a couple of weeks of that declaration, she changed her mind. Apparently, her mind has not been the only thing experiencing change...
F. and I got to N.'s on a Wednesday, a whole day before my parents arrived. It was nice to sit down at the dinner table with the two of them interacting as if there were no tension or awkwardness. Sleeping in separate beds was awkward, but doable.
The next morning, we went to go visit one of my great aunts, one who just turned 90. One who has always been encouraging of me, despite all of my career aspiration changes. And one who has never seemed to have any problem with my identity. Yet it was still weird to be able to sit down with her and F. and not have any weirdness, only polite, catching-up conversation.
After going back to N.'s, her "friend," G., arrived shortly thereafter. We've had some tension before since he is from the generation of men who prefer to have control and the last word, and in my mind, I'm still the "man of the house." Yet, with F. there, he seemed to treat me as more of a man, with more respect. He seemed to be engaging with F. even if there was some discomfort.
M. and D. got to N.'s about an hour later. M. had been sick, and since we are often one in the same person, she was just in a mood to be comforted and not cause conflict. Once settled, I ended up sitting on the couch with F. to my left, holding my hand, and M. on my right leaning her head on my shoulder. Wanna talk about weird? I'd never in my wildest dreams imagined this scene taking place.
Dinnertime came. M. and N. sat on one side, D. and G. on the ends, and F. and I on the other side. Holding hands while G. said grace. My mind was reeling, especially since there had been no tension whatsoever. M. and I ended up laughing over some very silly things while F. looked on and just smiled, amused by the unexpected bonding. D., N., and G. had no idea what was going on.
Some friends of the family who lived down the street came by and visited. Keep in mind, this is a woman who comes from a strong Pentecostal background, so the fact that she said nothing remotely demeaning or contradictory shocked me to say the least. Instead, she and her husband were their usual jovial selves, kind, loving, laughing.
They left, and it was time to sit down for presents. M. and D. gave F. and I matching luggage, new skillets for the apartment, as well as other necessities. I was expecting minor, if any, monetary gifts from the family to F. But I was shocked when I saw that they'd given him almost the same as they gave me. Seeing our names on a card together from G., I was fighting back tears. N.'s card for F. was signed "N." and not "M.H." When I shared my thanks with M. later alone, she said, "We might not approve, but we've got no reason to treat him badly." All I could do was hug her.
After sitting down and watching a couple of movies, with the entire family, bedtime came. I could tell that F. had been as floored by their reception of him as I had been. All we could do was hug and kiss goodnight, and leave ourselves to our thoughts.
Friday morning, and it was time to leave. Quick breakfast. Load up the car. Hugs and kisses and a few tears. It wasn't until we were in the car that F. told me M. had said "Love you" to him. All I had heard a few moments before was my mom telling him that crying wasn't allowed because if he did it, then she would as well. She always cries when I leave.
Needless to say, Christmas was not at all what I expected. More recently, while I was away at a conference in Denver, F. texted me saying I would never believe who just called him. Having no idea, he let me know that my mom had called "just to check up on him." They'd had a short conversation, and she again said "love you" in ending their chat. Floored again. I honestly had no idea what change was taking place, but I now find myself thankful for all the thoughts and prayers lifted up on our behalf.
So now what... well, as mentioned before, I opted to move my interim class to my spring semester, mostly because I wanted time to rest and think and feel, things I'd not had much time to do last semester. I'm left to think about my calling, my relationship, my family, and my depression. Some might say this is bad, but I've learned that it's only when I am able to directly address my negative self talk and suicidal ideations that I become stronger. I'm not the kind to run from risk, or so I've been told. For now, I just sit with it all, head on, resting with it and feeling it fully, knowing that in all things, God does work for the good of those who love God and are called according to God's good purpose.
It's been a busy time since my last entry. Starting seminary. Getting engaged to and moving in with F. Dealing with some family issues. Seasons changing. Demons resurfacing, most of which I have difficulty naming. There are days when my energy levels are so low that leaving the bed is a monstrosity of a task. Last winter, I noticed, my depression was fairly in check. I attribute that mostly to my being in the honeymoon phase with F. Don't read too much into this - my life, my partnership, is something I am thankful for everyday. But now that the novelty has worn off and we've gotten into reality, the hardships I faced for so long that had gone underground are seemingly returning. B. and I talk about it some, but school seems to dominate my conversations with him. That may be changing soon. I started smoking again, slowly at first, then full-force after my mother's reaction to the news of my engagement. To not be accepted by one's own flesh and blood is nearly excrutiating. I'm not talking about having one's parents disagree with a choice or decision. I'm speaking of the agony of knowing that the person you are is nothing shy of a monstrosity to them. To know how much effort it takes them to be in my presence without gagging or wretching kills me. Yet I know that who I am is unchangeable, irreversible. And at this stage of my life, I know that if a pill could change me, reverse this state of being, I would not take it. I can only hope and pray that doesn't condemn me. I believe it will not, but the old ways of thinking still have their nooks and crannies in my life, in my psyche.
Seminary has been good, challenging, and overwhelming all at once. I'm reminded often, even if inadvertently, of my faults, my shortcomings, my weaknesses. My selfishness rears its ugly head. My brokenness is exposed, bleeding, if only symbolically. I don't often share the thoughts that seep into my head. The effort I have to make while on the train platform to stay near the center. The attacks placed on me by the Enemy. I think of the times over the years when friends, but mostly total strangers, have prophecied over me, informing me of the grand role Elyon seems to have in store for me, the role I am to play in His/Her will. Apparently the side of Light is not the only one aware of this destiny.
It's always said that in order for one to be able to love others, they have to learn how to love themselves. Sometimes it feels like God has made me an exception to this rule, for so often, I find myself fully capable of loving the other and struggling endlessly to love the self. When I asked a friend where she thought my calling was, she said she saw me in the local church, because I know how to "love people where they are rather than where they can be." Riddle me this then - why can I not offer this same service, this same grace to myself? Why must I wrestle with the demons, the darkness so often, so frequently? Why do ghastly images of either my own demise or that of the people most dear to me push me into a crippling frenzy of anxiety and sorrow?
By next fall, I will be in my second year of seminary, about to change my life (and my name) forever. I have found the gift so many speak of - a person who does truly love and accept me where I'm at. A person who has more faith in me than I thought humanly possible. And I see in him the Creator, the God-mark. A sense of agape that just barely falls shy of that of the Redeemer. Yet I do not... I cannot... see myself as he does. I wish I could, but it seems to be the thorn in my side that I am shielded from my own self-worth and intrinsic value. In the meantime, the love I am given for him only seems to grow stronger and stronger, almost impossible to contain.
This is not a cry for help or assistance. This is merely a purging of some of what has built up inside of me. An honoring of the pain that has accumulated over recent months. This is a note of thanks to He who made me for giving me the blessings of F., of my friends and family at G-ETS, of my church family who has encouraged, affirmed, and embraced me fully, and of my own strength that has gotten me this far - a strength that is not truly of myself, but of Him and the person He made me to be. And one last note, to the darkness, to the opposition - hell or high water, you will not defeat me, break me, or tear me down. My life has one purpose - to see to it that the love of the Creator is made visible and made known to all within earshot, and that purpose, that goal, is far too great for you to overcome. Whatever you've got, bring it. For I will not be silent; I will not be quiet anymore...
I've always had a hard time with change, or more so, with the fantasies running around inside my head about them. All of the changes in my life lately have been, or are going to be, positive changes. Leaving my job. Starting school. Thinking about my eating habits. Moving in with F. All of these things are moves in a forward direction. All that aside, I'm scared. Scared that I could crack under pressure. That I will not be as good in school as I used to be. That what has been a blissfully happy relationship thus far will be irrevocably changed by sharing a full-time living space. That I will go back to smoking full time (the stress lately has led me to smoke maybe 1 or 2 a day, no more thankfully). That I will be so unwise with my finances that I dig myself into a grave so deep that escaping is not an option.
I can't cry right now. I don't know why, but so much of it seems blocked up inside of me. I just want enough of a catharsis to be able to make the transition smoothly. I want to be able to have my faith, in word, thought, and deed, feel whole again. I want to know that, even in my own head, I'm being successful, and that has always been a hard truth to accept.
I want to know that people see Christ in me, in my life. That somehow, I help them feel loved, even if only for the brief moments they cross my path. I want to be a good husband, a good partner. F. and I both share fears of fighting, of conflict. We're scared of how we may (will) hurt each other. Of sharing finances. Of being more emotionally vulnerable. Or seeing more scars or baggage than we already have of each other.
All of this is illogical, irrational. I want to be able to hold on to the concrete facts: that my faith is strongly developing, that I will be good in school, that I can not have to rely on cigarettes to ease my stress, that I am a good representation of Jesus, that I am a good man who loves his partner and tries to put him first.
So for any who read this, just offer up a prayer (or in Peter Pan language, a happy thought). For myself and my schooling and my career and my finances. For my witness. For my relationship. For those with whom I interact. For my heart.
In His Arms, M.