Not Only Does Jesus Love You

jesus-wineMy friend and co-worker Judy has never really gotten over me writing a blog about another co-worker. I know this because about once every five days, she brings up that blog and asks, “why don’t you write a blog about ME?”

And this blog is about her, sort of. It’s about her in the way that it’s also about me and, I hope, anyway, it’s about you too.

Judy and her fiancé Travis have been attending church with me this summer. When our church announced a few weeks ago that we would have a night called Beer and Hymns, Judy and I both got really excited. We love drinking. And they promised it wouldn’t just be beer, but wine also.

And I’m not going to lie, for the last few weeks, I’ve really looked forward to this event, which is tonight. (7:00 pm! First Congregational Church, 6th and Commonwealth) Did I mention I enjoy drinking? I know I joke about my alcohol consumption but I don’t really drink the way I used to when I was younger. And yet, with a nice glass of wine, or a bit of my favorite Maker’s Mark, sometimes I can go on a journey that’s warm and sentimental and kind of funny and deeply emotional. Some say we become someone else when we drink and others say we reveal our truest selves. And I think both are true and both can be true.

One of my happiest moments was a few years ago, drunk at the Amy Grant concert at the Greek with my friend Richard. We had grown up in the church and with Amy’s music, and in our adulthood, for our own reasons, moved away from the church. Now that I have returned to church, the memories of that night are sweeter. I did not realize I was inching back to a spiritual journey at the time, but I was. And I have both Amy Grant and a bourbon distillery in Kentucky to thank for it.

Judy and I have been talking up Beer and Hymns to our co-workers and other friends. Every chance we get, we ask someone else, “Do you want to go?” And you know, as it turns out, the idea of drinking in church is a little provocative.

A few days ago, Judy and I asked one particular friend if she wanted to go to Beer and Hymns. I don’t want to embarrass her, but she really is my favorite person to work with. (Sorry, Judy.) She is always the one to help me when I’m in a bind. In an environment where someone is always in a fight (or feud) with someone else, this person is liked and respected by everyone, no small feat. We met working together at the same restaurant downtown and as I tell her often, she is the only good thing to come out of that place.

When I asked this friend if she wanted to go to Beer and Hymns, she said with a sad little laugh, “No, Jesus doesn’t like me.” And I don’t want to spin this out too much because she was making a joke. But, somewhere I do believe it came from an honest place.

And I understand it because it’s the kind of thing I’ve thought, probably even said.  Jesus doesn’t like me. How does one derive at that conclusion when it’s the total opposite of what the Bible says?

A few nights ago, I had the recurring dream that I was back at my Bible college. Years ago, I wrote about this phenomenon, that I would dream I was at Ozark and I was afraid they would find out I was gay and that they would kick me out. And I’d wake up anxious and sad and conflicted. For years, every several months, I would have a variation of the same dream.

This time, when I found myself back at Ozark, in my nocturnal journey, it was different. I was happy to be there and then I was surprised to find myself so happy. I thought, they all know I’m gay and I’m here and we don’t exactly believe the same things and we all want to understand God better and really, it’s all okay.  Wonderful, even. No doubt, my dream was influenced by the reception I received several weeks ago at an Ozark reunion in Anaheim, where I reconnected with old, dear friends and we laughed about the good times, and I remembered, there had been many good times.

2016 has been a truly bumpy year for me. To be honest, I think I only do bumpy years. But, being in church again has brought me so much joy.

I don’t know if church makes me a happier or more peaceful person but I know that church is a source of happiness and peace for me.

Let’s be honest, the church is the reason many people go around wondering whether or not Jesus likes them.  If you’ve been along for any of these blogs the last few years, you know that I have held resentments toward the church, hostilities for the way my friends or family or myself have been treated.  And now I find myself back in church.  I’m the one asking my friends to join me for fellowship and comfort and unity and peace, again.

And how I treat every person I come into contact with, is a reflection of my faith, my journey.  And that sucks because I am really not always a nice person.   But I’m trying.

But this blog is for anyone and everyone who ever wondered if Jesus liked them or loved them, even for everyone who ever wondered if Jesus existed.  It’s for anyone with questions about why we are here or what happens to us when we die.  It’s for anyone who truly does not understand why cancer exists.  It’s for anyone who has been hurt, not only by the church, just hurt.  Is that everyone?  I hope so, simply because it’s better if we remember we are in this together.

And while I know that I do not know all there is to know about Jesus, there are things that I believe.  And you know maybe someday I’ll be proven wrong, and if that’s the case, that doesn’t seem so bad either.  But I believe that not only does Jesus love you, he likes you too.  And if you want to join Judy and me tonight at our church and drink a little sauvignon blanc or IPA and sing about God, we’d love to see you there.  Like so much in life, it’s an open invitation.

Make Lillian Way Great Again

 

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You know, what is a blog if not an opportunity to air one’s grievances? To share what just happened with a plaintive hope that maybe someone out there will say, “I feel you, I see your point, I get it.” And you know, maybe you will get it. Also, maybe you’ll just think I’m a weepy Vanya.

As I was walking to my car this morning, on the street where I’ve parked my car for the last 18 years, my neighbor and friend Mark waved and said he had something to tell me. Long story short, he told me that there had been an initiative to implement permit parking and that the majority of the street had been for it and it went through. The change will go into effect shortly.

So, I live on one street, which is a major street with little parking and apartment complexes with little or no parking garages. So most of us who live in my building, as well as the other buildings of my street, park on another street enchantingly named Lillian Way. Lillian Way is a verdant, lush, old-fashioned street lined with 60-80 year old homes, houses built at a time when Los Angeles was neither old nor young, just hopeful.

I have lived in my neighborhood, on my street, for 18 years. And mostly, every day and night, I have parked my car on Lillian Way. Through the years, I thought I had built relationships with my seemingly friendly, devoutly Democratic neighbors. There were friendly exchanges. My compadres knew, if not my name, at least the names of my dogs.

Many years ago, I read an article in Los Angeles magazine about how when people love living in LA, it’s because they live somewhere where they feel like they are living in a small town. And if you know LA, you probably know that to be true. There are all these villages here, like Larchmont Village and Brentwood Village or Valley Village that say, “Hey, we aren’t a metropolis, just a few hundred cozy hamlets all cobbled together.”

And for 18 years, I certainly would have echoed that sentiment.

But now, suddenly, shockingly, permit parking has come to my abode. I will never again be able to park my car overnight or longer than 2 hours during the day. And most of the other folks who live on my street are in the same position.

I interrogated Mark for details. When does it start?  Who spearheaded all of this?  How long was this brewing? He said that the decision was mostly unopposed. So basically, all (or most) of these people who I thought I had an amicable relationship with had been plotting to prevent me from parking the way I have parked for the last, yes, 18 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that for the people who live in houses on Lillian, having the “apartment dwellers” invade their curbs and walk on their lawns gets annoying. Day after day, year after year. I see trash or dog droppings that litter homeowners yards and while I don’t do things like that, I suspect there are some without my staunch (that’s for you, J.J.) values.  I do get it. And please do not get me going again about people running the stops signs.

BUT, I do think it’s revealing that all these people who put Hillary and Obama and John Kerry and Al Gore (that’s how long I’ve lived here) signs on their lawns have now built their own wall, not unlike Donald Trump’s plans for America’s borders.  They are going to make America GREAT again, by taking away parking for people too poor to own a house.

The line has been drawn and it’s icky and I am well aware of where I fall.  All those people I thought were my friends, as it turns out, were not my friends.  We were not Grover’s Corners of Bedford Falls or Mayberry after all. Since I found out about this earlier today, everyone I talked to about it, and there were a few, all those people said, “Ray, don’t take it personally.  It’s not personal.”

But wouldn’t George Bailey take it personally?

Maybe it’s not personal.  And maybe when the sting wears off, I won’t care.  Maybe parking won’t be as troublesome as I fear. But right now, while it is still fresh, I don’t know if I will stay on this street or in this town or in this state.  Because home is no longer home to me.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, but in this breath, as I type these words, it’s really not a welcome feeling.

My Friend Waleed

I didn’t work on Sunday and I called in sick on Monday. On Tuesday, when I got to work, one of the first people that called was my friend and co-worker Waleed, who was off for the day. 

He asked if I was feeling better. (I was.) And he told me he had a couple of reservations he needed to give me, but most importantly, he wanted to tell me how sorry he was about what had happened in Orlando. 

You know, we gays we do have this tendency to make everything be about ourselves. I think it’s because most of us have an excess of narcissism and empathy in our DNA. ( I’m not a scientist, so that’s just a theory.)  As we watch the news and read the many articles about the victims and the survivors and the families, we grieve for Orlando. But also, we watch the scroll of men and women and think, he looks like a guy I dated in New York or she looks like someone I used to temp with at that law firm. We feel a deep connection to those lost and those struggling to stay with us. And of course, though it happened miles away, on another coast, if feels personal. 

Waleed grew up in Afghanistan but has lived in Southern California for decades. If you are familiar with Beverly Hills’ luxury hotels, you likely know him because he is famous around here, having worked in the best properties.

What makes Waleed special, and I’ve witnessed it where we both work now, is that he always treats every guest as if he is welcoming them into his own home.

I believe this kind of graciousness is rooted in his culture, in his homeland, and in his upbringing.

Yesterday on the phone, he repeated over and over how much he loved his friends in the gay community. “You are my good friend, ______ is my good friend, ______ is my good friend. ______is my good friend.” He didn’t have to tell me, I see everything and I know how much he loves his gay friends. 

The store was not yet open, no one was around to see, but a few tears spilled out as I talked to my friend.

“Waleed, you gotta stop, you’re making me cry.”

“I want you to know that what happened is not what I believe. That is not Islam.”

“I know that.” And my heart broke a little more that we live in a world, where when someone commits a crime, everyone else who is from the same country or the same religion, somehow feels like they need to apologize. That when Waleed tells people, “I am from Afghanistan,” he always has to wonder what conclusions people will draw about him.

We have worked together a year now, we learn more about each other as we go, but when he talks about his home, his eyes dampen, his smile deepens, he has so much love. 

For some reason, my swimming pool received a large shipment of single serving Quaker blueberry pecan granolas. I’ve been bringing them into work by the handful and sharing with anyone who wants them.

No one reacted as enthusiastically as Waleed. “These are perfect, I can eat these on my drive home.” You may or may not know that we are in the middle of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammed. So Waleed can only eat or drink from sunset to dawn, from June 6 to July 5. It’s a discipline that I don’t know that I have, but he does it every year. With joy he does it because his faith is that important to him.

To lighten the conversation yesterday, I told him how on Sunday, I kept thinking about a conversation we’d had just two days before. He told me he woke in the middle of the night, hungry, but not wanting to eat anything too heavy. He remembered the granola. He told me that he got up, made a cup of tea and ate his granola.  And he told me he prayed for me, his friend, who had given him the previous snack. 

And on the phone, we laughed about that darn granola, that it could be the building block of a friendship. 

Of course, many things are building blocks for friendships. I told him, “Maybe the one good thing that can come of this is that it will bring us all closer, that we’ll realize we are all in this together.”

He agreed with me. We said our goodbyes, I told him to enjoy his two days off, to get some rest. 

I don’t know if tragedies do bring us closer together on a global level. I’ve certainly seen evidence indicating otherwise. 

But I do know this, what happened in Orlando, deepened my friendship with Waleed. I feel I need him more. Though, I don’t really know, I think he needs me a little more too. That maybe there was this part of him that was unsure when he called on Tuesday, hesitating to dial the number. But what we both found, does not surprise me. I am his friend, as he is mine.

Imagine You Are on a Beach

I was on death’s door this afternoon. With a lump on my tongue and swelling in my glands and a raging headache, I made an appointment with a doctor. 

I couldn’t get in to see my doctor so they sent me to another doctor in my network. 

The nurse brought me into a room and started to take me blood pressure and pulse. “I have white coat syndrome,” I whispered.

She stepped back. “Okay, don’t look at me, I won’t look at you. Imagine you are on a beach.” 

I tried to do what she asked because I really liked her and she reminded me of Niecy Nash’s character in Getting On.

“What, do you think you’re running a race?” she asked. 

“I told you I get nervous. What was my blood pressure?” 

“150 over 82.” (High, obviously.)

“If you take it in a few minutes, it will go down.”

“Have you felt depressed, down or hopeless in the last six months?”

“Yes.” As in, hasn’t everyone?

She handed me a questionnaire, to gauge my depression, downness, and hopelessness. I scored ones (occasional depression, not frequent or constant depression.) 

“I’m not suicidal or anything, I just don’t feel very good.” 

For some reason, good or bad, she moved me into the room across the hall, the only difference, the new room had a window with views of the Beverly Hills flats. If I squinted I could see the building that used to be Loehmann’s.

The doctor came in, skeptical. Since this was our first meeting, I tried to explain that I am a hypochondriac who is deathly afraid of doctors. I hoped this would be our ice breaker. It was not our ice breaker.

He asked me about my symptoms.

I told him about the bump or lump in my throat. I told him that my Dad had oral cancer twice. He looked at it and poked it with a tongue depressor. “This?”

“Yeth.”

“That’s a taste bud.”

“Oh. Well, my glands have been swollen.”

So he felt my glands.

“Your glands are not swollen.”

“Oh, can you look under my tongue? It feels like there are weird spots.”

“Looks fine. Nothing unusual.”

“I was thinking it might be oral thrush.”

“Oral thrush was white spots, you  don’t have oral thrush.”

“Long dormant oral gonorrhea?” 

“Unlikely.”

“What do you think is causing my headaches?”

“Has there been anything in your life that has caused you stressed lately?” 

“Yes, my job, you see—” 

“Well, work could play a factor.”

“You see, Doctor, I am a very sensitive person.”

He nodded. He told me I looked healthy.  I asked him if he could still write a doctor’s note since I missed work. He said he would.

“But don’t tell them nothing’s wrong with me.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll just tell them you have oral gonorrhea.”

I thought, he likes me, he really likes me.

He then checked my blood pressure. 120/80. Then he left the room. 

Niecy Nurse came back to take my blood since I needed that checked for my blood pressure medicine. 

“120/80, so I guess it was you all along,” I bragged.

“You’re really going to say that to me before I stick a needle in your arm?”

We laughed. Old friends laugh.

She drew my blood. I survived. 

I asked her my favorite question, “Say you go home today and there is an envelope with $10,000 that you must spend on a vacation and you must leave tomorrow, where would you go?” 

She told me that she just returned from where she grew up, in South America, and that she would love to take her three kids back there for another trip. 

I asked what country she was from and she told me Guyana and we talked about the massacre that happened there so long ago. 

“I’m surprised you remember, no one remembers.”

There is a silence, unacknowledged, but I know we are both thinking of what transpired this weekend. 

I also thought how could anyone ever forget the Guyana tragedy?  It was probably my first introduction to the evil that exists in the world. Nowadays, we have a Jim Jones or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine or a Virginia Tech or an Orlando, every few months.

Clearly, all this sadness takes an emotional toll, but perhaps there is something physical that happens too. And my connection to this particular atrocity is simply that I’m gay, just like most of the victims. That I am a person who has danced in a gay club, thinking, this is home, this is life. I didn’t know one person that was at Pulse on  Saturday night, but the stories that come forward, I can’t shake them. I don’t want to shake them. 

So I sit down and write a story about my trip to the doctor where I try to see the funny, because you know,  life can be funny.  And it’s important to laugh, especially when all you want to do is cry.

Where Could I Go


It’s all so fresh. As today unfolds, we will learn details about the victims and the gunman. About the families, about the survivors, about Orlando, about tragedy. 

We already know that the guman’s father has said that his son acted because of antigay beliefs. So his interpretation of his religion led him to kill scores of people.

Like many on my Facebook feed, my heart is breaking. I’m so sad. I awoke this morning happy. It is Eric’s birthday. We had plans to go to church and then to brunch for yet another birthday celebration. A few miles down the road, West Hollywood was preparing for its annual LGBT Pride Parade. What a festive day this could have been.

And now, we find ourselves glued to our televisions and checking our news feeds on our phones. Waiting for details. Trying to understand.

I know that I won’t ever really understand.

I don’t know how the day will unfold but, after a quick swim, I’m heading to church.  I want to pray for the victims, pray for the families, pray for my LGBT brothers and sisters, prayer for my fellow Christians.  

An old southern gospel song has returned to me. I don’t even have a recollection of liking it but this morning it is a salve.

Where could I go, where could I go. Seeking a refuge for my soul. Needing a friend to help me in the end. Where could I but go to the Lord. Where could I but go to the Lord

Is there irony that some people’s interpretations of their religions think that gives them license, even explanation, to murder others and here I am turning to God and my church for comfort? For understanding. For guidance.

Because this is a Sunday, I find myself wondering what is being said this morning in houses of worship throughout this nation. Are there churches not even addressing it? Are there churches teaching that these people had it coming? Are there churches praying with compassion but tacking on the addendum, “Also, dear God, let’s let this be an opportunity for these people to turn from their sinful lifestyle.”?  Probably all of the above.

If this tragedy had happened six months ago, I would have turned to all the usual channels for solace. Eric, my dogs, my parents, my friends, Facebook. (All very good support systems, I might add.) But this morning, it is different. And I feel grateful I have a church now. I can stuff my burdens into a satchel and I can walk into a house of God and lay those burdens before a magnificent altar. And my church will mourn with me. 

Will I ever understand any of it? Probably not, but I might find some comfort on an extraordinarily heartbreaking day. 

We Need to Talk About Ray 

Yesterday, my friend Louie called to tell me that our mutual friend Angela had been messaging him about me. It seems Angela is worried about my recent involvement in church. I pressed Louie for details and then stopped myself. The whole thing kind of irked me and I felt the more I knew the angrier I’d get. 

“Are you worried about me?” I asked Louie. Louie said he wasn’t. And then I wondered if Louie was just saying that to placate me. I have an active, bordering on paranoid, imagination and ever since talking to Louie, I’ve had this image of every person I know, by text, email or Facebook messenger, communicating with each other with the subject line: We need to talk about Ray.

Never mind that I’m sure Angela’s intentions are pure, that she just cares about me and wants me to be happy.

When I lived in New York, one of the young men who had been in my youth group when I was a youth minister came to visit me. He was a freshman at an East Coast college. I had worried a bit about our trip. I had come out to myself and most of my NY friends knew I was gay but I had not started the process of telling the folks back home, so to speak.

In our time in New York, we didn’t talk about my sexuality. I didn’t really think he’d figured it out. But a few days after he left, I received a late night call from one of the girls, now in college,  who had been in my youth group. “Ray, I’m just going to ask you, are you gay now?” “What?” “Gary just called us and he thinks you’re gay now.” I told her that this wasn’t the way I wanted her to find out, but yes, I was gay. 

It was one of the saddest phone conversations I’ve ever had. This girl who called, even though we’re not supposed to have favorites, was one of my favorites. I felt I’d let her down, I felt I’d let the entire youth group down. Also, I was mad at Gary, I questioned his intentions for sharing this piece of information before I felt comfortable with others knowing. And if he’d been so sure, why hadn’t he asked me if I was gay while we were together in New York?

In the months after that phone call, I found that this girl gathered all in the youth group, my youth group, who attended this particular university and they all prayed for me. Presumably, they prayed for me to stop being gay. But also, I think they prayed for me that I would know God’s love, find my way, find peace and joy.

Later, when I found out about that late night prayer session, I was conflicted. One one hand, it was an example of how much they loved me, that this little group dropped everything and came together to beseech God on my behalf. On the other hand, it was also kind of like when Sandy walks into the bedroom after the Pink Ladies have been singing an entire song about her and sadly asks, “Were you talking about me, Riz?”

All day, I thought about Angela. For years, I was the source of concern (or gossip) because of my lack of faith and now I’m the source of concern because of my (perceived) return to it. And the irony is, I still don’t know what I believe. I just missed church and decided I wanted to find a church that affirms me, my people, and I found it. And I really like going.

I do know this, I know what I have to remember. Angela loves me. Louie loves me. Those kids in the youth group loved me and even Gary loved me. They all just want the best for my life. They want me to be happy and joyful and at peace. 

I could spend a day or weeks or months or years ruminating about how people are talking, worrying, and texting about me behind my back, or I can just say, “They love me. I know they love me.” And move forward.  

Life’s too short and I don’t even know if heaven exists. 

Always

  
As I drove Highway 128 from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, towering redwoods flanked me for most of the journey. These old, gorgeous, distinguished trees were like nothing I had ever witnessed growing up in Kansas. Otherworldly, maybe even a little sinister.

I had been in Mendocino for a friend’s wedding, and now it was Sunday. More than a little hungover, I headed home. My two dogs, Lucy and Mandy, in the passenger seats, were my docile navigators.

On NPR, I discovered a Julia Sweeney audio cast, what I came to know as her one woman show, Letting Go of God. She spoke of a spiritual quest that she’d embarked upon that ultimately led to her embracing and accepting her own atheism. She talked about Biblical inconsistencies, other religions, Deepak Chopra. For some reason, probably because I was surrounded by the most majestic trees I’d ever seen, her thoughts on Jesus (cruelly? rashly?) condemning that fruitless fig tree  have stuck with me in the decade since that day. I mean, DID that fig tree really have to die?

It might sound strange, but that drive ended up being a sort of spiritual experience. I was surrounded by beauty, my two dogs curled up next to me, it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to this woman’s compelling story about her complicated relationship with faith. It made me feel less alone about my own complicated relationship with faith, and God, and Jesus.

Two Sundays ago, I joined the church that I have been attending for the last few months. Not a rash decision, it was something I had planned. On that Sunday, about 15 of us, old, young and in between, stood in front of the congregation and were introduced as new members.  I tried to stand up straight, look proud, but also humble. I wore a tie. 

That morning, when I woke up, my first thought was, do I really want to do this? Am I ready to do this? Shouldn’t I wait until I’ve become a better person or a better Christian before I join a church again? I really do cuss a lot when I’m driving. And I’m a gossip. Also, I border on self-righteousness. 

But while a part of me said, “Take the day off, gets some donuts and go to the beach.” Another, louder voice, told me to go forward. There would always be questions, weaknesses, doubts, but why not explore those worries within the parameters of church, and church’s membership.

On that Sunday, as I was sitting in the pew, in the second row, cordoned off for the new members, the minister told an anecdote about an atheist who attends our church, who after each Sunday’s service, shakes the minister’s hand and says, “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me.” I thought about that long ago drive, and the Julia Sweeney audio cast. 

As I sat there, listening to the minister’s sermon, reflecting on that memory, it hit me, that all along, even in the decades that I avoided church, felt completely detached from God, that church and God had still been a part of me. Always. 

I loved church when I was little and I loved it as a teenager in youth group and I loved it in Bible college and, certainly, in my short time as a youth minister, I loved trying to help others to love church. 

And then I left the church, and I thought I’d left it permanently.

Of course, I kind of knew that I had this fixation on church and religious themes. I still loved Amy Grant. 

Sometimes I read my old blogs. For three years now, I’ve written so much about God and Christianity and church it seems obvious, in hindsight, that it was all, always, leading up to this return. 

Is it possible to come home to somewhere you’ve missed for decades only to find that you never left at all?  That you only thought you left?

I’ll tell you what the big surprise in all of this is, it feels as if God has been saying to me, “Not only have I been here all along, but you have been here too.” And not that I even know exactly what the “here” is. 

Not that I was always faithful or always pure or always kind, maybe not that I’m even any of those things now. But God and faith and Jesus and Church are still a part of me, of who I am. Always have been, and fight it or not, always will be.