...I wish I were good at being alone, at feeling comfortable only in my own presence. But that is when the void of my loneliness, inadequacy, and insecurity is most present, tangible, palpable. I feel more and more like the authentic me, and it's hard to celebrate the goodness there when my mind sees the cracks, the flaws, the shame and the pain.
It wasn't until I sat down at lunch with Audrey today outside of the Chase food court on the steps next to the fountain, listening to the rush of the water and feeling its spray on my recently buzzed scalp that I realized it's been a decade since I stop saying I was "struggling" with same sex attraction and started identifying as gay. That summer demarcated the era of denial from the era of acceptance. I didn't know it at the time, but nothing would ever be the same.
The sad truth is most of us never even come close to that proverbial silver-backed glass with the intent of introspection. The idea of knowing ourselves is horrific. What if we hate what we see? What if we suddenly see what others see? Worst of all, what if we find out a truth we've been running from for a long time: the truth that the person we present ourselves to be to the outside world is not who we really are at our core? What then? What if our stories don't line up...
...Conference is about being real, authentic, and vulnerable
It's about meeting people with whom one has much in common, finding solace in community, and being in a safe space where one can truly be oneself. This year I was able to do that more than I think I ever have been able to in previous, mostly because of my amazing roommates Ben, Bryan, and Kevin, as well as several other friends both old and new.
As I was growing up, one of the primary ways I was disciplined was through the mechanism of shame
When I would do something wrong, rather than making it clear that my actions were wrong, I was often made to believe that something was wrong with me, that something within my character was skewed and distorted, and that distortion was the reason for my mistakes of behavior. The problem with this type of discipline is that it strips a person of his or her agency. It tells them, “You make mistakes because it’s part of who you are. You don’t really have a choice.” However, when a person who has done wrong uses this same logic while being confronted by his or her accuser, they’re seen as irresponsible and illogical. “The Devil [inside you] didn’t make you do it. You chose to do it. You made your bed, and now you have to lie in it.”
We can’t have it both ways
Either we are inherently so controlled by our “sinful nature” that we bare no responsibility for our actions, or we are inherently good but have the capacity to act in wrong ways. Most of evangelical Christianity would say that we are only truly controlled and enslaved by sin up to the point of conversion, and beyond that, we bare full responsibility, a logic that stems from Romans 6. In a world where Christianity is no longer the leading faith tradition, it’s necessary to rethink this logic as it pertains to those who practice their faith in other contexts. Otherwise, we need to rethink our entire legal system and how we choose to hold someone accountable for their crimes.
So how does shame fit into all this? From my perspective, shaming often takes place under the guise of accountability but is more about control and power than it is about fostering right behavior. Shame is inherently harmful. As a form of punishment, it doesn’t actually foster right behavior or thought. Instead it devalues and dehumanizes the person being shamed. It says to them, “How can you live with yourself? I can’t believe you did that. What were you thinking? Were you even thinking at all? You should be ashamed of yourself.” Notice how the last one is not, “You should be ashamed of your actions.” What makes shame so harmful is that it makes it next to impossible to differentiate between actions and personhood. When a person faces shame, it doesn’t just evince shame over actions. It manifests shame over self.
Shame is also harmful because, after experience it being imposed on us by others, it becomes far too easy for us to impose it upon ourselves. This is what I’ve been struggling with more recently. Shame for having an astronomical amount of debt. Shame for being gay. Shame for being partnered. Shame for not having a relationship with my parents. Shame for not spending as much time as I can with my partner, or for wanting to spend time with other people besides him (neither of which are imposed upon me by him). Shame for sleeping too much, for having too much wine, for smoking too much when I’m stressed, for not communicating or being more assertive. Here’s the thing about shame: it’s a boulder that has the capacity to snowball and grow larger and larger until we can no longer bear its cumbersome load.
Without facing it, it can crush us
It’s important to understand that what I’m not saying here is that we should not be held accountable to our actions. In fact, I think we all need some form of accountability in our lives. Without accountability, we risk becoming stunted or fragmented in our natural course of development. Without someone to reflect back to me a realistic image of who I am and how I live, I stand the chance of becoming disillusioned about myself and my actions. But the common misnomer is that accountability requires shame. This is a lie, and a dangerous one at that. Shame, in my opinion, actually hinders what accountability is supposed to do. Rather than catalyzing thoughtfulness, reflection, and change, shame puts on a set of blinders with a funhouse mirror in front of them. Not only does shame keep you from seeing the bigger picture, but it is a coerced reflection using a mirror that does not reflect reality back to the viewer.
Shame isn’t so much about what a person says to us as it is about how he or she says it. There’s a demeaning, dehumanizing way to ask a person, “Why did you do that?” and there’s a kind, thoughtful, reflective way of asking the same question. In this sense, accountability is not only about the person being held accountable but also about the person enacting accountability. For healthy accountability to take place, the person enacting it must have an awareness of the one they are holding accountable as well as an awareness of self. Not only should they have awareness, but there needs to also be respect. Without both awareness and respect, the doorway to shame is left open.
Shame is a reality that we cannot escape, for as long as humans have existed, for as long as the world has been broken, shame has lived. We all face it in some way, shape, or form. Brené Brown, one of my favorite researchers and speakers for TED, spent six years researching shame before her work led her into the topic of vulnerability. In her most recent talk, Listening to Shame, she says, “You gotta dance with the one who brung ya… I did not learn about vulnerability and courage and creativity and innovation. I learned about these things from studying shame.” She discusses how, recently, there’s been a national if not global call to talk about and face the issue of race. She continues, “You cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”
That’s what shame does when it goes unchecked: it cripples and debilitates. We all have shame, and when we go through life without naming and embracing our shame, it cages us and limits us from becoming our true selves.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Brown goes on to remark that, if we walk into the arena of life having mustered up the courage to do, to live, when we look out into the stands, the critic we most often face is ourselves. Even when we experience being shamed by someone else, the nature of shame is to become internalized. The voice of the other becomes the voice of myself, and most often, that voices either says, “You’re not good enough,” or, “Who do you think you are?” Shame is different from guilt, she says, in that shame is about self whereas guilt is about behavior. Guilt, or in dogmatic terms, conviction, is meant to affect change. Shame, on the other hand, leaves its victim bloody and bruised, often unable to move for long periods of time.
In the end, as individuals, as a society, and as the church, we need to learn to stop using shame as a means of catalyzing transformation. Shame cannot perform this task. It’s not in shame’s nature. Instead, we must learn to reconceptualize relationship, both internal and external, and reorient ourselves towards love, towards hope, towards faith, and towards unhindered, unstunted wholeness. Shame keeps us from being whole. Love makes us whole. Therein lies the difference, and therein lies our goal.
I've been addicted to Spotify lately, and yes, I'm one of those who pays just so I can avoid the ads and interruptions. Mostly, I've been listening to radio stations based on some of my favorite songs. This morning, on my way to campus, one of my favorite artists, Audra McDonald, showed up with a song by John Mayer called "My Stupid Mouth." I fell in love with her all over again, not simply because of the amazing tamber in her voice, but also because the song puts perfectly to words how I feel most every day of my life.
My stupid mouth has got me in trouble. I said too much again...
Yup. That's me. I don't care what the situation is — somewhere along the way, my filter died, disintegrated, and was destroyed. I can be in a meeting, a class, heck, even at church, and all of a sudden, out of the blue, something that was in my mind for only a nanosecond finds its way across my vocal cords, over my tongue, and out of my mouth. I get this look on my face that evinces my thoughts far too vulnerably: Oh shit, did I really just say that?!?! Dammit!!!
The impact of this reality has a far reach. I get paranoid. I'm worried that I've offended someone. I feel the glare of someone around me, and I retreat into my own little world, putting a piece of invisible duct tape over my mouth. I glance around, hoping to not catch the eye of someone who heard my unfiltered voice, scared of how they might look at me for being such an idiot.
Most of the time, I never see anyone else looking at me. Once in awhile, I'll catch someone's stare, but it's not an unfriendly one. Instead, it's a smile. It's an affirmation that what I just said really was funny or brilliant or thoughtful. I really didn't have anything to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. I'm not as dumb or thoughtless as I made myself feel or thought myself to be. In fact, I'm not even alone. Others have told me of their similar feelings.
Apparently, feeling as if one's voice isn't significant is not as uncommon as I once thought. We all struggle with communicating in ways that are both authentic to who we really are and sensitive to the perspectives of others. Worse, we don't know how to let others know that, even if we disagree with them, their opinions, feelings, and thoughts are more than valid. They're sacred. They're something to be honored and respected. If our thoughts are part of who we are, and if we as individuals have intrinsic value and worth, then the words we speak share in that worth. It's not easy for us to believe, and therefore, it's not easy for us to convey that reality to others, espeically when we're offended or annoyed by what they have to say. But if we're treat others the way we want to be treated, if we're to love others as ourselves, then we need to honor them as often as possible.
It's good to know that, even in those times when I have no filter, even when I feel that it doesn't, my voice matters...
One of the most important topics for anyone in ministry is self-care...
When working in areas of tension and even conflict, it's difficult to not become burned out, cynical, disheartened, frustrated, and hurt. It's challenging to know when to take a break, to give yourself a sabbath from being in the trenches, as well as to know how to spend that time. But as my time in ministry progresses, I'm realizing more and more just how precious and necessary those sabbaths are to me and my personal well-being.
One of my goals for my time with the Marin Foundation this year is learning how to further develop healthy emotional and physical boundaries for my ministry context. Inherently, I'm extremely physically affectionate and emotionally sponge-like. I always prefer a hug over a handshake, and I often find myself taking on and soaking up the emotions of those around me. Not only could such relaxed physical boundaries cause issues for me professionally, but such consistent emotional vulnerability could be detrimental to my psychological wellness.
The past couple of months have involved both sharing my story with some and hearing the stories of others, either over the phone or in person. When a person's story resonates deeply with my own, it's hard to not let my emotions of my experiences surface, which in turn makes me a less effective listener, makes me less objective in times when I need to be just that. I've heard stories from other LGBTQ individuals about their experiences of coming out to their parents, of being a part of non-affirming denominations while feeling called to ministry, of coming to terms with their identity and having to wrestle with extremely difficult questions. I've listened to the stories of parents about their child's coming out, about feeling alone, about fearing for their child's future and holistic well-being.
Self-care and sabbath are challenging to me individually because I have a difficult time "shutting my brain off."
I am always thinking, feeling, wondering, and questioning. Even in my times of solitude, the voices and words of others run through my head. This makes hearing the voice and feeling the embrace of the Divine hard to do. It means being inundated with perspectives and opinions from all across the spectrum of human experience. It means not always knowing how I feel or what I think. Self-care for me necessitates knowing myself, which is challenging to do when I often don't truly feel alone.
Working with the Marin Foundation, I often encounter people who might look at me and my life and deem it unholy, sinful, or dishonoring to God, who share perspectives and presuppositions with many around whom I was raised. As such, my emotions and thoughts have a tendency to cycle back and forth between what I "know" now to what I "knew" then. My own thoughts and voice get lost in the mix. I lose my sense of self, my sense of identity, and I feel confused, disoriented, and fragmented, all of which make it difficult for me to do effective and holistic ministry. How can I help people become whole when I don't feel that I myself am whole? How can I share my understanding of the "good news" when I have such a hard time hearing and assimilating it into my own life? These are the questions that make me aware of just how much I need to take care of myself so that I can better provide care for others.
So what does my self care look like given everything I've shared thus far?
- First, I have a therapist. I think anyone in ministry, especially ministry that has the propensity for emotional drainage should have a counselor of some sort. This should be different from the person one turns to for spiritual direction. Pastors and counselors are trained in two different manners and should therefore be seen for different reasons and with different goals in mind—at least that's my perspective.
- Second, I have a close network of ministry colleagues with whom I can share my challenges and struggles and have them share theirs in return. We take time to support each other, to listen, and to encourage one another, especially in difficult times. I also feel it's important that there is a network in place, primarily so I don't end up venting to one person or being the sole person to whom someone else vents. We are to bear one another's burdens, and I believe it needs to happen communally.
- Third, I set limits based on what I know about myself. This means taking breaks (when possible) every 20-30 minutes when I'm doing draining work. This means letting my commutes and train rides be filled not with emails or school work but with music or simply being silent, with the occasional fiction novel thrown in. This means stopping work at a particular time of day so that I can rest, process, listen to music, watch some TV, read a book, play guitar, or spend time with my non-ministry friends.
- Fourth, I do my best to have a life outside of ministry, outside of my office, outside of the classroom, and outside of my apartment. This means saying yes to spending time with good friends even if there's something else work-related that I could (and sometimes should) be doing. This is a matter of awareness and choice. Being such a social person, I try to have a balance here. I go out with friends for dinner or drinks, but I make sure to be home earlier than I might have if I were still in my early 20s. I keep an actual schedule, and I plan accordingly. Most of the time, I stop work after 7pm and spend the rest of the night doing things to feed and nourish my soul. Put simply, I make space for me.
Are any of these ideas new or groundbreaking? I doubt it. Do all of these precepts get put into place all the time? Of course not, but they are good basic tools for helping me live a healthy life while engaged in ministry. Will these ideas work for every person all the time in every kind of ministry context? I would imagine not. Self-care is just that... self. I have to know myself, my passions, and my limits and live and work accordingly. I hope these ideas spark some for you wherever you are. Know yourself, know your limits, and know your heart. Even when you're in the grey space, living in the tension between worlds, take a sabbath, take rest, and take heart.
Yesterday, I found myself with a few more friend requests on Facebook. One of the individuals told me he heard of my story on Towleroad. Out of curiosity, I decided to Google myself and see what showed up. One result was a post from a contributor at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. It took reading over it several times before I could fully make sense of what was being said, or more importantly, in this case, what was not being said.
The article, in addition to being, well, a grammar Nazi's nightmare, reeked of subtext. There was more being unsaid than said. In any case, speaking to a friend who shared more with me about the organization, her words when picking up the phone were, "Congratulations on getting quoted by the IRD." Apparently, among my circle of friends, to be quoted (or more importantly, attacked, albeit in a very subtle fashion) by the IRD is a sign that you're doing something right. It's the good kind of scarlet letter. And so I felt a certain sense of pride.
I also felt a sense of angst. There was this tone of manipulation and coercion that was present, and I don't fare well with either of those. This is my response to the article:
I did not pass to move on to full ordination. I was certified as a candidate. The United Methodist ordination process is a long one, usually taking 5-7 years. I'm still in seminary and have taken more time than most to get to this most recent stage of ordination.
"This concern that somehow we won’t be “true to ourselves” or “authentic” when we become Christian puzzles me. As Psalm 51 one says, “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We all have baggage as we step into Church. If being Christian required us to be perfect before our baptism, no one would get baptized."
I understand that from your perspective, my sexual orientation should be construed as "baggage." But I feel you missed the point. As a person called to ministry, I believe that authenticity and integrity are vital to effective ministry. The reality is I'm a gay man (not homosexual... if you want real dialogue, don't be so condescending), partnered who has wrestled with my sexuality for most of my life and, after much thought, prayer, and discernment, has come to the conclusion that I am neither called to celibacy nor any attempt at changing my sexual orientation.
You say you're not here to offer reasons as to why homosexuality is sinful. I'm glad for this, and here's why: if we want to be honest about it, scripture never addresses homosexuality as an orientation. In fact, it doesn't address the idea of sexual orientation at all. The concept was foreign up until the last couple of centuries. Also, as for holy scripture and Christian tradition serving as foundational reasons for why homosexual practice is sinful, let's not forget that both scripture and tradition rationalized the subjugation and dehumanization of women as well as the rightness of slavery in North America. When we look back on those issues today, scripture was not right... at least human interpretation of scripture was incorrect.
Throwing in buzzwords like "lifestyle" and insinuating that any sexual orientation other than a heterosexual one is not an inborn part of a person doesn't prove your point or make you right... it shows your fear (not you necessarily as an individual, but the systemic you). Fear of losing power. Fear of change. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being in true relationship with anyone whom you might categorize as "other" or separate. Fear of abandoning yourselves to the real message of the gospel, the one that challenges the status quo, that makes the first last and the last first.
It's been said that perfect love casts out all fear. I pray that you and many others might experience this perfect love in a way that forces all fear out of you, allowing your hearts to be filled with true grace and your lives to be overflowing with abundant relationships with *all* people.
When I think about the cross that we are called to bear, I believe we must all wrestle with the ways in which we are to "crucify" ourselves or allow ourselves to be crucified. Denying who I am and who I love is not the cross I am called to bear. My cross, as I've understood it recently, is vulnerability—being someone who experiences the broken, fallen nature of the world to a deeper extent than most, and to do so while embracing a call to love and show grace to all, including those who would vilify and ostracize me. God's love is extended to all, and as a person who has experienced that love, I feel called to spread it outwards, to bring to light those places and actions that are shadowed by the absence or rejection of that love.
Since I began discerning my call into ministry, one key component that has kept coming up is that of authenticity. There is immense value in being oneself. After all, if we are all beloved children of God, then we cannot and should not deny the existence of some divinely imbued goodness within us. We should be real, for the sake of our own well-being, as well as for the benefit of those we encounter and with whom we develop relationships, whether they last only a few moments or a lifetime. When we put on a mask, a guise as a means to reach a particular end, we do injustice to ourselves, and we dishonor who we are created to be. Furthermore, when we ask others to put on such a mask, we do immense harm to their souls. We might not like or approve of every aspect of a person's character or life, but the call to love them and honor their humanity never ceases.
I love the United Methodist Church. After a several-year hiatus from any faith community, I found a new home in my current congregation. I was encouraged to finally answer my call to ministry and attend seminary. I was loved and welcomed into a community that admits its various forms of brokenness and seeks to uplift and affirm the goodness in each other. I've had three pastors who've supported me and some of the challenging decisions I've had to make, one of whom has been an incredible mentor, and I'm honored to call him friend.
Pursuing ordination within the UMC leaves me with a perpetually challenging question: how authentic am I truly called to be? As a man who has fought and continues to fight to love himself and honor the person he's been created to be, I'm stuck in a dilemma I knew was coming but hoped would not be this difficult. The cold, hard reality is this: while my home congregation is a reconciling community — meaning it welcomes and affirms the sacred worth of all people regardless of race, class, creed, age, background, belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, or relationship status — the denomination I unite myself with does not universally share these sentiments.
This past Thursday, I met with my district committee on ordained ministry to be certified as a candidate for ordination. I'd not met with them since the fall in which I started seminary. I'd spoken with a few members, as well as some other mentors and colleagues, about my paperwork and how best to present myself and answer questions posed to me. I felt relatively prepared going into the meeting, but there were still some lingering questions on just how true to myself I could be and still be successful my journey towards ordination. How much of my story could I share without raising red flags or self-sabotaging?
The reason for my asking these questions lies within the governing policies of the UMC, the Book of Discipline. Within its pages, after affirming the "sacred worth" of all people, it declares that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and asserts that "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church." In a denomination whose membership spans numerous countries and various cultural contexts, it's not surprising that there is disagreement on the above statements. In several annual conferences (or regional districts), it's fairly common knowledge that someone who falls into this category can fail to disclose the truth of their identity, lay low, and successfully traverse the ordination journey.
Long story short, for an out gay person who is partnered, becoming ordained in the denomination requires being professionally closeted. It means not speaking about their true self or their relationship in what's often called official space. It means hiding and often allowing oneself to be implicitly heterosexual. My frustration rests with my desire to be a part of this denomination, primarily because of the good I see it as capable of doing. United Methodists are some of the best people I know. For many of them, living out the Christian faith is not simply about evangelizing or "saving souls." Within them is an understanding that this life is not merely a stepping stone on the way to heaven or hell. This earth is not simply a way station. There is real pain, brokenness, suffering and injustice here, and as people who seek to live out the message of the Gospel and live like Christ, we are called to be agents of change, people through whom God's redemptive power flows for the purpose of helping others find lives that are truly abundant and not merely bearable. I love my denomination, and while there are people within it who love me and affirm the fullness of who I am, my denomination is a system that suffers from the same brokenness that many other systems face.
On Thursday, I was certified as a candidate for ordination. There were positive affirmations given, and there were good suggestions for growth. Unfortunately (and painfully), it was implied that even referring to my partner as my "significant other," leaving out any gender markers, could and most likely would hinder me from becoming ordained. I felt as if I was being told to keep my head down and my mouth shut about who I really am, and if I do that — if I put myself through several years of verbally rejecting, or at least neglecting being honest about the amazing love I've found with the man I love — then I stand a chance of being ordained and given credentials by the denomination.
I left that meeting, not feeling the joy of having completed another milestone, but instead feeling dejected and rejected, silenced. I felt rage that people who clearly see an injustice yet choose to place the dictums of the denomination over the well-being of someone who clearly exhibits graces, gifts, and fruits for ministry. I felt physically ill thinking about 4+ years of being what for me would be dishonest and lacking integrity. I spent much of my therapy session this morning crying, feeling the anguish of going back into a sort of closet. I felt dishonored. I did not feel as if I had sacred worth.
Blake told me today that opting to continue in the process as suggested would be a form of emotional masochism and quite possibly detrimental to my mental health. I have a year until my next meeting with the committee. While I truly feel called to ordained ministry, I fear that goal will not be reached in the denomination I've come to know and love. There is time to decide, to think, to discern. This I know: I cannot and will not do dishonor to myself. I hope and pray that we can all feel loved and valued, and this means being authentic and honoring the beloved children of God we all are.