Christianity

A chaplain's doubt...

A chaplain's doubt...

SOMETIMES I THINK IT IS MY MISSION TO BRING FAITH TO THE FAITHLESS, AND DOUBT TO THE FAITHFUL ― PAUL TILLICH

Rambling. I do it when I feel vulnerable. Doubt makes me feel vulnerable. I like people to think I have my shit together, that I know something about something. I like to feel competent and trustworthy. But in the world of chaplaincy, of caring for the spirit in the throes of crisis and loss, it would seem my doubt and disbelief are gifts. It isn't that I disbelieve in a *fill in the blank with a typical, evangelical Christian adjective* God. It's that I don't mind questions. I hate not knowing, but I don't mind the questions that come out of the not knowing.

Ashes 14: Held hostage...

Ashes 14: Held hostage...

I am so incredibly disappointed and hurt right now. I am frustrated. I am infuriated. I am saddened. How have we gotten to a place where the Gospel, where the supposed "Word of God" can yet again be used as a weapon against a group of people that have been hurt over and over again? How can so many of "God's people" think it is okay to show such blatant hostility against "the least of these" simply because they've been told that Matthew 18 says it's okay to do so.

Inerrant...

Inerrant...

I realized that I could read the Bible (and other texts) and find meaning in them without having to believe in the absolute Truth of the stories contained within them. After all, what difference does believing in a global flood or a talking donkey or a king killing 200 men just for their foreskins have on my life today? What questions do these stories answer?

Tension and bridges...

Tension and bridges...

In my closest relationships, tension is a constant. I value friendships with people whose backgrounds, ideologies, and beliefs are not exactly like mine. I hold dear conversations with friends who are willing to challenge me, willing to play the devil's advocate. In friendships with people who tend to be more amicable and less challenging, I feel numb, almost stagnant. It's when there is a tension, a tug-of-war you might say, that I feel most alive, most human.

The last things...

The last things...

For many [fundamental] evangelical Christians today, when they hear the word "eschatology," their minds jump to the rapture, to the tribulation, to the battle of Armageddon. To some ambiguous anti-Christ and his prophet. To some B-movie where Kirk Cameron proves to us yet again why he should have stopped with Growing Pains (apparently there's a new version coming out starring Nicholas Cage, Ashley Tisdale, and Chad Michael Murray... just when you think certain careers can't sink any lower).

Yet there's something wrong with this mentality. There's something missing...

Nothing else matters...

Hi, I'm Michael. I'm a music whore...

While listening to Spotify today, I came across a song by Jeremy Schonfeld called "House of Love." It became my evening addiction, listening to it over and over both in the house and outside on the deck. I can't get the lyrics out of my head (listed below). I was singing along and just felt the urge to jump up and down to get my emotions out in the open. Something about this song resonates so deeply with my soul that I can't help but feel it.

I met with an old friend from college tonight for coffee. Also a former seminarian who has experienced ostracism and exclusion from the church because of his sexuality (a small part of who he is), he's fled to atheism and humanism for his faith beliefs, a shift I completely understand.

I don't want to give up on my understanding of God

It's what has always made sense in my head and in my heart. Given my experience the past few months, I'm finding "Christianity" harder and harder to hold onto. All of a sudden, Jesus has shifted from being the savior of an utterly helpless human race to a man sent by the Creator to show us how to live and to let us know, in one manifestation, just how deeply we are loved. No longer is he the only way to know God, and this is a major shift for me... an uncomfortable one. If Jesus was merely a man (albeit somehow divine in nature), then what makes Christianity different.

I feel like I'm losing it. Everything I once believed is crashing down. I'm not really losing Jesus, but who he is for me is changing, and it's painful. I don't know whether I'm right or wrong, and this is one time where I'm fearful of ambiguity. I'm so used to my understanding of Jesus being pivotal to my faith as a whole. If he didn't come to "save" us, then why come... what difference does it make? What about heaven and hell? Why does life matter? Do we matter to God? Who is God, and why does he/she/it/they care about us, or do they?

Things are changing, shifting, morphing, and I don't know what to hold onto

What parts of my faith are so important that I cannot and will not let go of them? That question came up in VFCL today, and the words that came to mind for me were brokenness, wholeness, transformation, redemption, community, and relationship. Neither Jesus nor God show up in that list, which frightens me. I thought they mattered to me. When, why, and how did they manage to disappear from that list?

I know this much...

...The one thing that desperately matters to me is love...

Without it, nothing else matters. But what's necessary for love to be made manifest in the world? Can we do it on our own, or do we need something or someone bigger to give it to us before we can dole it out to everyone around?

Again, more questions, most of which I won't be able to answer anytime soon. I need time and silence... I need to retreat...

Break down the door Slip through the window Climb down the chimney To the house of love

Use every option Try every lock and key Just step inside, you'll see In the house of love

Oh baby take a train, take a train, take an aeroplane Take a bus, take a boat, stay afloat Don't stop believing In the house of love

Oh baby look around, look around, lookin' up and down From the sky to the ground, 'til you've found it Keep on believing In the house of love

Search every angle Check twice for any old clue Hold what is dear to you In the house of love

It ain't no mystery Once known but now concealed True love will be revealed In the house of love

Oh baby take a train, take a train, take an aeroplane Take a bus, take a boat, stay afloat Don't stop believing In the house of love

Oh baby look around, look around, lookin' up and down From the sky to the ground, 'til you've found it Keep on believing In the house of love

You may feel tired You may feel like you've lost your way When you're least inspired Love is going to come and save the day

*This post comes from a journal entry written November 7, 2012*

Taking responsibility...

While I know that I wrote just yesterday about taking a sabbath from blogging, something has been on my heart for the past few days, and a conversation with a friend and mentor today confirmed the necessity of addressing it...

Had I known just how "viral" my recent post was going to be, I would have written it in a very different fashion. Alas, I did not know, and more importantly, I was not self-aware enough to recognize the true perspective from which I was writing. My perspective was one of pain, heartache, and brokenness and as such, I feel that some of my words were unfair. For this, I need to take responsibility and ask forgiveness.

Throughout my discernment process and my time in seminary, I've had a number of conversations about what it would look like for me to pursue ordination within the United Methodist Church. I've known since the near-beginning what our Book of Discipline said about individuals such as myself (self-avowed practicing homosexuals). I've known that the nature of my life and relationship are counter to that discipline. My reason for pursuing ordination in the denomination is simply that the UMC is the context to which I felt called. It's not earth-shattering or radical. It was a simple voice and a gentle nudge on God's part that led me to do so.

When first meeting with the church leaders with whom I was required to meet before officially entering the ordination process, it was clear that in "official space," I could not be out. There were policies in place and those in leadership were responsible for adhering to those policies. I respected that. I couldn't always understand why I was feeling called to serve in a denomination that is not fully "open and affirming" of non-celibate LGBT persons, but the call was there and I was trying to live into it. As such, I was complacent to a certain extent. At the time, I was willing to be at least semi-closeted for the sake of being ordained. I've not owned up to this until now, and I'm sorry.

While writing my paperwork for the district committee, I met with several people for the sake of gathering input on how to proceed. In those meetings, I was often cautioned against using language that would make my sexual orientation and relationship explicitly clear. I spoke about my desire to be as authentic as possible, and those individuals understood. The reality was if I wanted to be ordained in the UMC, I would need to compromise. The people who made these suggestions did not do so from a place of wishing to silence, exploit, or use me. They did so because they saw my call to ministry, as well as my gifts and graces for such, and they wanted to help me answer that call. They did not force or coerce me to move forward. I did so of my own accord. It was my decision to exclude my partner's name, gender, and role in my life from my paperwork, and I did so. I've not given the people who guided me the credit they are due, but instead blamed them for our denomination's stance on homosexual practice and for that I'm deeply sorry.

When I met with my district committee, my nerves were already fried. I was on edge, concerned about what I would or would not say, what questions would or would not be asked. I was worried about being rejected, even though part of me seriously considered going in there, guns blazing, for the sake of forcing the committee's hand. I didn't. Instead, I too beat around the sexuality bush. I participated in the conversation. I did not speak up. I did not speak truth. I compromised, and I have no one to blame for this but myself.

In addition, thus far, I've failed to publicly acknowledge the love that was offered to me in that room. The encouragement. The kind words. The affirmations. The committee thanked and honored me for my level of honesty and vulnerability. They challenged me to better articulate my call to ordained ministry. They asked that I speak with other deacons in order to better understand my call to that particular branch of ministry, which included willingness on the part of a committee member to have those conversations with me, as well as connect me with others. There were hugs and handshakes of congratulations. There were blessings. There was love. I didn't acknowledge this in my earlier post, and in doing so, I painted an inaccurate picture of the character of the people involved in that meeting. I failed to honor them as they had honored me. For this, I ask forgiveness.

Once the meeting was said and done, people helped me process it. Conversations were had with friends who knew how shaken up I truly was. When I wrote my earlier post, I knew Reconciling Ministries Network would publish it. Unfortunately I failed to include much of what I've written above. I do not believe I neglected these details intentionally. I did not mean to come across as vilifying anyone on the district committee, nor did I mean to sound as if I was unaware of reality. Writing from a place of pain, I was more subjective than objective. While it may have been what many say was a well-written post, it was not comprehensive, and it failed to do something vitally important: it failed to point to God.

After being asked to leave the church in 2003, my relationship with God deteriorated. It took finding Holy Covenant and the UMC before that relationship began experiencing healing and restoration. In all of this, God's hand has been clearly visible. Discernment is not an easy process, and sometimes we make mistakes. I don't think being a part of the UMC or pursuing ordination in the denomination was a mistake. I truly believe it was part of the work God was (and is) doing in my life, even if I don't know all God's reasons for doing so. I made my earlier post about me, and in doing so, I failed to honor God and point people towards God. Instead, I focused on the existence of brokenness within a human system and on the impact that brokenness had on me individually. I'm an only child, and so I tend to make things about me more often than I should. I'm working on this. Forgive me, please.

As for the tagline attributed to my blog post by RMN—Told to Go Back into the Closet, Michael Leaves Ordination Process and the UMC—I feel it was unfair and overly political. Nowhere in my meeting did anyone tell me to go back into the closet. For them to do so, I would have had to come out in that meeting, and I didn't. The reality was this: I initially had every intent to comply with what was implicitly asked of me in order to be ordained in the denomination. After further discernment, I changed my mind. I thought I could and would be one who could handle the closet for the sake of answering my call, and I realized that I couldn't and therefore wouldn't. The UMC didn't change its mind, betray or mislead me. I changed. I did not honor this truth or this reality in my earlier post, but instead I decided there was blame to be placed and it wasn't on me. For this, I am sorry.

Do I disagree with the United Methodist Church's stance on ordaining non-celibate gay individuals? Wholeheartedly. Do I have an issue with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that is practiced in my particular conference for the sake of including individuals like myself in the community of ordained clergy? Again, yes.

Did anyone ever tell me that I could be ordained in my conference as a fully out, partnered gay man? Not that I recall (though that was our hope as time passed). Did anyone lie to or mislead me about what might be expected of me in order to be ordained? No, they did not. Did anyone tell me to go back into the closet? No, they did not.

Bridges have been burned, or are burning now as I write this or as you read this. Harm has been done. Pain has been inflicted. Egos have been bruised. While it may have all happened unintentionally, it still happened, and I played a part in it whether I intended to or not. I hope that in writing this, I can stop some of the flames from doing further harm while still being honest and authentic. I've never claimed perfection, but in this case, I unintentionally feigned innocence and naiveté. To those whom I've hurt and caused damage, I am truly sorry. I'm thankful for the support you've given me throughout my journey thus far, and I hope that, even as I leave the UMC and pursue my call to ministry elsewhere, we can still be in connection and relationship with one another. I'm thankful for the ways in which you've nurtured and loved me and so many others, for how you live out your faith and point others to God in what you do. We share the common thread of Christ. We're all imperfect. We're all seeking God while wrestling with tough realities.

But I have to, don't I...

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Sin

It's a short word that comes with a multitude of definitions, interpretations, and responses. It's riddled with dogma and doctrine, and more often than not, is spoken with a certain harshness. It's a word that, most of the time, I don't enjoy speaking. I avoid it. I feel as if the impact of its being spoken to me and at me has done more harm than good, caused more harm than redemption. Yet it's a word that sometimes needs to be used to explain the presence and existence of certain phenomena in our world.

Sitting down for lunch (read breakfast) with Andrew Marin, creator of The Marin Foundation, my field placement for this academic year, we talked about many things. We talked about his decision to offer no definitive answer when asked for his personal stance on the issue of homosexuality. We talked about relationships. We talked about my recent decision to leave my denomination to pursue ordination elsewhere. We talked about our marriages and circles of friends, what made for healthy friendships, and what made for broken ones. We talked about God. We talked about love.

One topic in particular came up, and after sharing my insights with him, Andrew asked if I'd be willing to write a post rehashing them, and so here I am, listening to some Shane & Shane, drinking coffee while my cats scamper around the apartment, thinking about and writing about this topic

Accountability

As a gay man who has spent most of my life in a Baptist church of one branch or another, the words sin and accountability have been spoken at me many times, specifically pertaining to my sexual orientation. Former friends and church members have spoken of their "responsibility" and "obligation" to hold me accountable for my sin, spouting off any number of scriptures that give them the right to do so. A significant number of individuals who took on this role, well, they didn't know me, at least not very well. They'd taken little to  no time getting to know my heart, my interests, or my passions outside of their Sunday morning interactions with me. These people believed that their identity as a "Christian" obliged them to point out, admonish against, and correct the sins they witnessed in other Christ-followers, regardless of their relationship status with those persons. Based on their interpretation, it's hard to argue with them.

There was and often is something missing though that I believe is a key component to effective and holy accountability: mutuality. There are struggles I face from time to time that I want to overcome. More often than not, I recognize ability to win those battles alone. And so what do I do? I turn to someone I know, someone I love, and someone I trust to hold me accountable. This is the key.

Accountability has to be welcomed by the one being held accountable.

Yes, there are times when someone we love might be faltering and not asking for our input, but in those cases, the relationship that already exists often grants a certain level of permission. When you've built a relationship with someone that centers around love, respect, and mutuality, then sure, hold those friends accountable, but only so far as they allow you to do so. When that permission is revoked, then you no longer have that right.

Holding someone accountable to anything without relationship runs the risk of damaging that person in a deeply intimate way. Furthermore, holding someone accountable to a standard with which they disagree stands a chance of doing more harm than good. We're all called out to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Even Peter is given a vision in which he's told not to call profane what God has called clean (Acts 10:15). When it comes down to the wire, sin does have grey areas. Some things are sinful for some and acceptable for others. And once a person has worked out and wrestled with certain parts of their life, we are only entitled to hold them accountable insofar as they allow us. Anything beyond that, and we're no longer truly acting out of love and grace. Anything beyond that, and we're no longer living out the true Gospel message.

Poultry hell...

 So apparently Monday has become my regular blogging day, probably because my blog has become a place to personally process my therapy sessions. While I'm not sure whether or not Blake would approve, being the kind of person who sees his own story best in the stories of others, I'll probably keep this habit up... at least until school resumes in September.

Needless to say, this past week has been hell. For a gay recovering-Baptist-turned-United-Methodist like me, the onslaught of the Great Poultry War (as I like to call it) mixed with some other personal happenings that I'll leave out made for an incredibly emotionally broken week. As someone caught in the tension between the Christian community and the gay community, this week ended with my feeling as if I'd been beaten to a bloody pulp.

Blake remarked that this summer has been an incredibly hard one for me. One would think that last summer would have been worse due to losing Nanny. However, last summer, rather than let myself feel the pain of my loss at its onset, I dove into outlining Wesley's sermons and consequently suppressed much of the pain that one often feels in the early stages of grieving. This year, my only weekly responsibility has been working on Tuesday and Friday mornings. With this much unstructured time (which several friends have criticized me for), it's not surprising that my emotions have been running rampant. As painful and exhausting as this has been, I've needed it.

Back to the chicken battles... my biggest challenge has not been whether or not to support my local CFA whose owner is a supporter of LGBT rights. It's not been about being angry with or hating Dan Cathy and the larger CFA company for their financial support of anti-marriage-equality groups, ex-gay organizations, reparative therapy techniques, deportation of queer people, and criminalization of homosexuality. It's not even been about the "Christians" lined up in droves to "support Chick-Fil-A's right to free speech." It's been about the underlying message that these realities represent.

People are right. Dan Cathy and those who share his beliefs have a civil right to speak their minds and use their money as they wish. People are also right in saying that those of us who disagree with him can speak our minds and refuse to give CFA and other like-minded companies/organizations our money. Again, this isn't what bothers me most.

When I see herds of people from across the country lined up to buy a chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and sweet tea, I don't visually hear the Gospel. Instead I hear this subtle voice filled with fear and anger saying, "God does not love you. God did not make you this way. You are not God's child, God's beloved. You are not loved. You are not valued. You have no worth. You, at your core, are something gone horribly and terribly wrong. You are weak. You are a stain on the surface of this world, and it would be better off if you did not exist. You call yourself a Christian... that's ridiculous. You don't know Christ. In fact, you disgust him along with the rest of us. Go. Leave. Disappear. Die."

That is what I hear, and while I'm usually able to hold my own and stand firm in my beliefs and wrestled-with conclusions about my worth, value, and orientation, the events of this past week ripped me to shreds. This is the curse of dealing with chronic depression and being an empathic gay follower of Christ. I not only felt the pain of my own past, but I felt fear and concern for all those who may have heard the same message without having the strength or awareness to recognize the lies and deception present. How many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people heard what I heard, felt what I felt, yet do not have the love and support in their lives to keep going? How many of them want to give up? How many of them truly believe that God hates them and will never accept them? It scares me to my core.

One image in particular really bothered me. I did a Google image search for Chick-Fil-A appreciation day and one of the first pictures to appear was of a school bus filled with what appeared to be middle and high school students smiling widely while holding their CFA bags and cups...

I couldn't help but fear that one or more of them was like I was when I was that age: scared, hurt, filled with self-loathing, unable to be true to themselves. I imagined one of them getting on that bus with their friends from their church youth group, having never told a soul their secret, but instead partaking in an event that devalued and diminished their self-worth like nothing before.

As much as I want to proclaim the mantra of "It gets better," it's times like these where I barely have the energy to hold onto the message for myself, much less put it out there for others.  In the midst of all my struggles, revisited shame and guilt, seeing people I know reaffirm their disapproval not just of who I love but of who I am, I've also felt an outpouring of love from my partner, several of my friends, classmates, church members, and family. They've offered encouragement, affirmation, strength, and most important, their very presence. I am oh so tired right now, but despite the voices in my head telling me otherwise, I know, I know that I am loved for the fullness of who I am. I am doing everything I can to hold onto this truth.

Blake said once again this morning something that he's said on several occasions when I've been a place like I am right now; he reminded me that I've made it this far and that I have within me more love, strength, courage, and faith than he's ever seen before—enough to keep me going today, tomorrow, and the day after that... one day at a time. I'm glad I have him and others in my life who allow me to see myself through their eyes. I'm glad I have my memory of Nanny and her love for me. Mostly, I'm glad for the other voice in my head telling me, "You are my child, my beloved. I love you more than you could ever imagine, and you will be okay. Just hold on a little while longer. I'm not letting go... ever."