Letters, I Do Get Letters.

BzIkodzIcAAfEIg.jpg-largeWell, I suppose by letters, I mostly mean emails or Facebook messages, but from time to time, I do receive privates correspondence from people, usually from people I know, about something I’ve written here.  Just the other day, I received a card in the mail from a junior high and high school classmate full of encouragement.  What a sweet gesture, I thought.  We seldom communicate with cards and physical letters anymore and when you get something in the mail, it’s a treat.  So, thank you, T, you made my day.

Also on the same day, I received a FB message from a fellow classmate from Ozark Christian College.  I have thought about it quite a bit since reading it.  I responded that day and he responded to my response that day, but I really don’t know what to say in going further.  When you read this, you might have your own thoughts on the matter.  For the sake of anonymity, I will call him Andrew.

Here it is:

Hey Ray – I have been struggling for a while to ask you some questions about your life now. I am frustrated because I do care about you as a classmate and brother in Christ but I just cannot reconcile your contradictions. I am not attacking you or trying to start an argument – and I am sure you have posted your story – but help me understand why you think you are right and I am wrong? I am asking this in COMPLETE humility and a desire for compassionate understanding. Thanks

This was my response to him:
Andrew, thank you for taking the time to send me a message. I don’t doubt that I sometimes contradict myself, I believe most of us do at times. You don’t have to reconcile the person I was when you knew me to the person I am now. I think I understand how you see it as your job to help me and I don’t mind that, but I don’t see it that way.

Still, if you would like to write a guest blog, I think it would be a great conversation starter. You really could take any direction that you want. My sense is that you have been thinking and praying about this and I’m sure you have something to say that many people want to hear. Yours is the first message of this nature I’ve received from my OCC classmates and I’m sure you are expressing what many feel and think. I would love to have your POV.

This was his response to my response:

I appreciate that Ray – I will definitely consider that – I do want you to understand that I do not feel it is my job to help you. I think as a friend it is my responsibility to completely understand your POV and choice – if I don’t agree so be it – but I have been wrestling with this because I am angered by what I consider over-reach in the gay community – and the threats against those of us who are Christians. So that is what I am trying to reconcile – thanks for your kind response – I look forward to more dialogue !!

Now, let me say, I do appreciate his attempt to have a conversation.  I don’t doubt that he is expressing the thoughts of many of the conservative Christians I know. And I do think it was sent with good intentions.  Is it overstepping the boundaries of what is “polite” to initiate this exchange? It’s possible.  Andrew and I were amiable at OCC, but I never considered him one of my closest friends and I doubt he considered me one of his closest.  Does that make a difference?  Maybe, maybe not.

I think it’s somewhat audacious to talk about one’s perceived “over-reach in the gay community” to someone who knows first hand what it means to not have the same rights as any member of the heterosexual community.  If it appears that fighting for equal rights for myself and my community is an over-reach, I can’t apologize, it’s something too important to me.

Another thing that I’ve thought quite a bit about in the days since receiving the letter is him telling me that he can’t reconcile my contradictions.  And maybe this is just me, but what I heard, whether it was intended or not, is that he sees me as a hypocrite.  I am sure I am.  I think most of us are, but I really try to be a forthright, honest, accountable person.

There is something that I have skated around since I started this blog.  I have avoided talking about my personal beliefs in terms of God and the Bible in specific terms for only one reason, I don’t want to hurt my parents.  They do read this and while I’m sure they know my belief system is not identical to theirs, we do not discuss it.  If they were to ask me, I would tell them, but, we don’t talk about it.  It certainly isn’t rare for parents and children to see the world differently.  But one of the many things I love about my parents is that they focus on what we have in common, the things that do connect us.

I have been torn about even sharing these exchanges from my classmate.  He asked me why I think I’m right and why he’s wrong.  I could ask him the same thing, and I suppose his answer would be that’s what the Bible says.  But I could respond with, “No, that is how you interpret what the Bible says.” Even among people who identify as Christians, there are widely varied interpretations on many subjects. And it must be said, not every person esteems the Bible as the inspired guidebook for one’s life anyway.

I know how I go on and on about wanting to be the bridge between the GLBT community and the conservative Christian community, but there is a part of me that gets defensive when I receive messages of this kind. And I must say, that’s stupid of me, because Andrew really is just initiating an honest conversation and maybe having that conversation can lead to something good. I mean, if Melissa Etheridge and Mike Huckabee can be friends, isn’t there hope for all of us?

I do welcome your thoughts, even if you are going to tell me something I disagree with. And ESPECIALLY if you are going to tell me something I agree with. Either way, it means we are talking, communicating, and somehow that conversation might inevitably be the channel for connection.

I do want everyone to like me, it’s part of my needy nature. I know it’s just a handful of people who read this, most are people I have known in my lifetime. Most I rarely see in person. But if you are one of my old friends in Kansas or Missouri or Oklahoma, you do have GLBT folks that you work with or go to school with or are the parents of your children’s friends. And even if you read my blog and think, you know, I really don’t agree with Ray, he’s arrogant, a jerk, contradictory, hypocritical, not nearly as smart as he thinks, that is okay. My bigger hope is that somehow me sharing my journey creates a sensitivity, an understanding, even a love, for those people, members of my tribe, who ARE in your lives. Many have been rejected by their family or their friends or their church and it’s my belief that you being there for them, really being a friend, would be a good thing for them and also for you.

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Lunch With an Old Friend

halfdomeYesterday, I had lunch with a friend from Bible college that I had not seen for over 20 years. I met him and his oldest son Luke at the California Pizza Kitchen in Arcadia. We caught up on our lives, they told me about their impressive trek up Half Dome in Yosemite. I love a view. They showed me the picture of the cables one has to climb to make it up the last 400 feet of the ascent. When I saw the picture of the incline, which looked to me about 80%, I thought, but did not say, “Ohhhh, shit!” Instead, I think I just said, “Wow, that looks scary!”
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I’m sure my friend, who is now the president of my Alma Mater, Ozark Christian College, and his son have both heard people use that word. When ranking expletives, I think it’s one of the more innocuous ones, right? Anyway, we had a nice lunch. It had been prompted by an email I wrote a few months ago. I won’t go into that here, but Matt had reached out to me then and a couple weeks ago, he sent me an email asking if I wanted to meet him for lunch since he was coming my way.

Matt and I worked together in recruitment at our college when we were students. It was a great job, mostly we just sat on the phone talking to kids we’d met at summer camps and youth rallies in our time at OCC. While it was a sales job of sorts, I loved it because, more than anything, we were talking to kids a couple of years younger than us, about what they thought God’s plan for their life was.

Yesterday, we reminisced. I asked him about his wife Katie, whom you might know, has had some health challenges in recent years. He asked about my parents. He asked about Eric. We talked about the Joplin tornado of 2011 and the way the community came together in the aftermath. We talked about my blog and my not always successful hope to be a bridge between the gay community and conservative Christian community. We talked about movies.

At the end of the meal, he told me that he would like to pray for me. Then he asked me if there was something specific I would like for him to pray for, he suggested my job hunt and what the future holds for me. I said I would appreciate that. He also asked if there was anything he could pray about for Eric and I immediately thought about Eric’s Dad and how losing him is still, naturally, a source of sadness and weight. So we bowed our heads, and Matt offered our burdens up to the Lord in prayer. We said our goodbyes. They were going to a movie. I had to go to my Italian market before I drove back to LA. Like I said, it was a nice lunch.

Later when I met friends for dinner, I told them about meeting with Matt, my former classmate, now the president of my college. When I told them about him asking what he could pray for, one friend asked if I felt like that was condescending. It had not occurred to me, but I pondered John’s question. Was it condescending? I don’t think so. If you are a Christian or believe in the power of prayer, there is no greater gift, saying, “God, this is someone you love, this is what he’s going through, please give him direction and comfort.” And I must say, it made me feel good that he asked to pray for Eric, too.

Is it possible that in his more private prayers, Matt has prayed for me to turn away from a homosexual lifestyle or return to the conservative Christian fold? Yes, it’s probably likely that that has been his prayer. If his Biblical interpretation is that homosexuality is a sin, his concern for me would mandate for him to pray for me in that way. I am sure he went into this lunch, not with an agenda, but a hope that I would somehow return to the faith of my youth. I had my own hopes going into the lunch as well. I hope that knowing a bit more about my story, he might have more compassion and understanding when he meets other gay people, that he might see the similarities before he sees the differences.

I keep thinking about that climb up Half Dome though. (And those cables!) When he showed me the picture of him and Luke, atop that crest, sky so blue, the surrounding mountains so majestic, I marvelled at the beauty of the planet. It’s hard not to think of a Creator when you see vistas like that. And in his way, Matt, by meeting me for lunch, breaking bread over barbecue pizza and a Thai chicken salad, was saying, I still want you to climb this mountain, I still want you to see this view.

Book of John

johnevanThere is a group that I belong to on Facebook whose aim is to bridge the gap between the glbt and conservative Christian communities. There is a fellow in the group who repeatedly posts things from his Biblical perspective that homosexuality is a sin. He is strident and does not appear to absorb or even ponder what other members of the group have to say. Most, but not all, of the members are people who grew up in the church and struggled for years before they reached a point where they started to accept themselves as is. We share our stories and connect. But this guy, he just kind of comes in, lobs a grenade and runs away, never responding to other members’ constructive comments about whatever he has posted. After a couple of weeks pass, he repeats his cycle.

I could wonder why this man, a young, Midwestern husband and father, is so fixated on that Biblical issue, but I’ll never really know his story. And that’s fine. I’ve never met him. I personally don’t have any interaction with him. I don’t respond to his posts. But he does remind me of someone I know.

When I lived in New York, I was a member of an amazing church. I moved to New York knowing no one, they helped establish me in the city, they were my first friends. When I came out to the pastor and his wife nearly a year after I’d moved to New York, their first words were affirmation that I would always be a part of the congregation. By that point, their words and deeds had led me to suspect as much, which, it goes without saying, was a tremendous relief in a tumultuous time in my life.

And I guess the reason I knew that I would still be loved, accepted at this church was the way the congregation loved and accepted a man named John. There are things I’ve probably forgotten about John and perhaps things I’ve remembered not quite precisely. John was gay, probably in his fifties. He never in my presence talked about his sexuality, but I’d been told he had a long time lover that had passed away. He was a greeter, always one of the first people to welcome you and give you a bulletin of the church program. He always wore a suit and tie, always had a kind smile.

John and I spoke every Sunday, it was a small congregation. I have no recollection of any specific thing we discussed, but I thought he was a nice guy. I liked him. I also, probably, foolishly, pitied him a little.

One Sunday, months before I came out of the closet, but certainly while I was wrestling with my sexuality and my identity, I was asked to preach a sermon. It just happened to be gay pride weekend, the day of the parade. And while my sermon was not completely about my perceived interpretation of homosexuality being Biblically immoral, I remember I touched on how the gay people celebrating on Christopher Street did not know the “truth.” While I was writing the sermon, I thought about John and how my words might hurt his feelings, but I reasoned, John needs to know what the Bible says. As if in his 50-some years no one had ever told him. Just thinking about that day, I cringe. I don’t remember John ever treating me any differently after that sermon. I also don’t remember John treating me any differently after I came out to the church less than a year later.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I lost track of most of the people in that church. I find that sad, too, because, they were very, very good to me. I do not know whatever happened to John. It seems possible I heard he’d passed away, or maybe he moved to Florida.

There is one thing that gives me comfort when I think of my fervent sermon about God’s truth that long ago gay pride weekend and that is John knew what was going on the whole time. I was a fresh-faced, corn-fed, passionate Midwestern boy who had moved to New York with a dream, or two. And he knew before I knew, I was on the road to becoming the person I did become. He’d seen it all.

So that’s why I have a little patience with the guy in my Facebook group who lobs dagger after dagger. I think he’s working through his own issues, and let’s be clear, his issues may not even be my issues, but there is something going on that’s shaking his faith. And my wish for him is peace in his spiritual and emotional life. Whoever he is, I want him to accept it.

I don’t doubt that John wanted the same for me. There is an irony that at 46, living in Los Angeles, the stories I most gravitate to are stories about gay culture in New York in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. If I’d known John a little better, I might have had a mentor, my own historian.

I can hope that John knew the influence he had on me, but I doubt he did. Still, I’ll always remember him fondly, a sharp dressed gentleman of a certain age, greeting not just me, but everyone, into the flock, with open arms and a welcoming smile.

Guest Blogger, Ab Kastl: Plan B

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 A couple of weeks ago, I asked my Bible college roommate, Ab, if he would like to write a guest blog.  I don’t usually “assign” topics, but I asked him if he would be willing to write about something that I think about and write about frequently, the relationship between the conservative Christian community and the gay community.  Clearly, there are things we disagree about (I LOVE RUPAUL!!), but I think there are many more areas where we see eye to eye.  Not the least of which, those college years were among the years I laughed the hardest, too, and you should know, Ab Kastl was responsible for many of those laughs.  

Plan B

Hey Everybody! I was Ray’s college roommate for a few years back in the late 80s.  Those are the years I laughed the hardest in my life.  

                       

I am one scatter brained individual.  I am sure you probably struggle with being distracted every now and then.   I am so scatter brained I am thinking about 3 other things right now (food, the news, what I have to do tomorrow) while I should be focused on this blog. I am always thinking “I could be doing something else and maybe that would be better”. What could be my plan B? 

We all decide what we will invest our brain power in.  I am guilty of often focusing on the negative.  I have perfected the art of remembering every nit-picky thing someone has ever done.  If I focus on the negative in others, it justifies in my mind whenever I want to blow them off.

I am a conservative Christian minister….did I lose ya?  Did you just think of three reasons to blow off anything else I say from here on out? Did images of Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart creep into your mind? If not, yea!! If so, you are normal.  

It is easy to highlight the negative in some ministers, Christians or churches so we don’t have to invest much in what they are about.

I read the huffingtonpost.com everyday, so I often hear the negative about what people are saying about ministers and churches.  

I think all of us have trained our minds to jump to certain images of certain groups because we don’t want to invest our time in what they offer. It would be foolish if I compared all gay people to RuPaul or the most flamboyant group from a gay pride day float. That would be like lumping all Christians with what Pat Robertson says or what the Westburo Baptist Church says.  Pat_Robertson

westboro-church

 I have been a minister for 25 years involved with conservative churches in the Midwest and Southern California and I have never heard of anyone from any church ever reading, quoting or teaching from anything Pat Robertson has ever said. Obviously he has some niche out there, but I am sure they are a hospice away from the afterlife. 

And regarding the Westburo Baptist Church, I have not hung out there in years….I kid, I kid.. I was testing to see if I lost ya or not.   They are a twelve member family cult of hate that has nothing to do with real Christianity or the bible.
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2364680621_058246f136All of us are working on things in our life.  We all have things from our past that have thrown us off in life.  My big challenge growing up was coming from a family of a nasty divorce, feeling insecure, and dealing with being molested.  

I was molested as a child by a neighbor and family friend. If I judged all neighbors and family friends by the acts of this one, would that be right? If you judge all Christians by the acts of some, would that be right?

 I have never had food poisoning from a restaurant, but if I did it would be silly for me to say “I AM NEVER EATING AT ANY RESTAURANT EVER AGAIN!”.  I think the same can apply to churches.  If you get burned at one, don’t use that as ammo for the rest of your life to never get involved and get nourishment from another.  We all need food and we all crave to fill that spiritual hole in our heart. I did not have much real peace or joy in my life until I invested my life in the love of God through the church.  

I can honestly say many churches have realized they have failed in bridging a connection to the gay community and they are trying to improve.  They know they got caught up in quickly cutting them off instead of reaching out to all people as God’s children made in His image.  Many churches and leaders are investing time in books like “Unchristian” and “When Christians Get it Wrong” which tackle how Christians need to overcome this gap and be more consistent with loving all people. More and more churches are letting their members know they are a place of love and Jesus was inclusive and they must be also.   

I work with an average bible believing church here in Southern California (not far from Orange County).  A few years back a couple of guys showed up every Sunday. I was guessing they were a gay couple. They brought two young kids to Sunday School and then sat together in church.  They were welcomed with love and joy. They got more and more involved. Everyone loved them.  Come to find out they were father and son but they looked about the same age. I was curious if others thought they were a gay couple. When I asked around, everyone I talked to assumed they were a gay couple but no one said anything negative or demanded a meeting to run them off.  They were loved and accepted as is and stayed until they moved out of the area.  I was proud of our church that no one skipped a beat. 

More recently, a couple of divorced ladies in our church developed a friendship that has evolved into more than a friendship.  No one has shunned them, made them feel unaccepted or demand they “turn or burn”.  They have been deeply involved in church and everyone loves them. Somewhere out there is a church that you can serve, learn, love and grow closer to God. 

I guess the dominate point of this is to pep talk us all to stay focused on what we can do.  I am challenging myself to focus on all people being God’s creation loved by Him and treat them as God would and to speak up when I others do not treat them properly. I challenge you to focus on God and His plan for your life through involvement in a church.  If you are involved in a church, that is great, get in there and serve God and others with all your heart.   If you have not even thought about investing any time in a church, maybe give it a second to look into why God set up such a gathering.  It has taken some time, but things are moving towards lots of love for all God’s children. 

Just like anything, you have to go shopping and searching to find out if it is a good match for you…. for a job, for a car, for a church.  If you visit a church and it is not a good match, go check out another until you come to one that is full of love and celebrates His plan for your life.  

Most of the time dealing with people can be difficult.  Sometimes as a minister, I fantasize about flipping burgers instead of dealing with some people and all their drama. With a big grin, in total bliss, my only worry would be to get that patty over at just the right time….ahh, glorious. Life without the church often sounds appealing, but it was through the church God chose to let the world know His plan and see His love. There is no Plan B.   

 

Words Have Consequences

Ray Barnhart and friend  (not Sarah), 1998.

Ray Barnhart and friend (not Sarah), 1998.

“Words have consequences. Very, very good rebuttal for those who want to normalize perversion.”  This was the introduction a friend of mine from childhood wrote on an anti-gay article she posted today on Facebook.  The article itself was just typical “Biblical” anti-gay spewings, not completely relevant to what I’m going to share, but if you want to read it, you can do so here.  Anyway, this person, whom I’ll call Sarah, was someone who grew up with me at the same church.  We were in youth group together and she briefly attended the same Bible college I attended.  She is extremely intelligent and graduated near the top of her high school class.  I have not seen her for over twenty years, and like so many modern relationships, our only contact is via Facebook.  About a year ago, she randomly posted, “I really want a sari.”  Because I am a former sketch comedy performer, I have a closet full of many props and costumes that I’ve acquired, just in case, you know,  I can use it in a sketch.  It so happened that I did own a sari so I sent her a message asking for her address and I sent her the said sari.  (Heaven knows what I’ll ever do if the Groundlings one day ask me to play Indira Gandhi on the main stage.)  A few days after sending the gift, I received a beautiful, thoughtful handwritten note from Sarah.  I’m sure I still have it somewhere, because I’m sentimental about gestures like that.

Her actions today are nothing new, she has frequently posted anti-gay material, all from her Biblical perspective.  And let me say, she is not the only person on my FB friend list who posts items of this nature.  Most of my friends tell me I should unfriend these people and though I’m tempted, I do like hearing about their lives in general.  I like the pictures of their dogs and kids and cakes they’ve baked.  I want them to live rich joy-filled lives.  And while I have many friends that are conservative Christians, only a handful repeatedly post anti-gay agenda and musings.  I wonder about the pathology of someone who posts over and over and over again that they really, really, really like Chick-Fil-A.  Also, it hurt my feelings.  

There is something about Sarah that I wrestled with sharing publicly.  Although I have clearly changed her name, it would not be hard to figure out her identity if you were to look at my FB friends list.  But when I think about Sarah, it’s something that comes to mind.  As I stated earlier, we briefly attended the same Bible college.  When I was a junior, she was a freshman.  And then a few weeks into her freshman year, she got pregnant.  She left school immediately and went back to Independence and married the father, her longtime high school sweetheart.  I remember her telling me she was afraid to tell me she was pregnant for fear I would respond judgmentally.  In my recollection, I responded with love and support.  At least that’s the way I remembered it, perhaps she did sense judgment from me.  I remember how sad I was that she left school because I felt her life goals would be out of distance because of the unwanted pregnancy.  I hope I only treated her with kindness.  As it turned out, from what I’ve gleaned from her Facebook profile, her life goal was to be a loving, nurturing wife and mother, the kind of wife and mother she did become.  And I don’t think there is any loftier aspiration.  In every picture of her, she is beaming at her many children.  Most of her posts are about something cute or intelligent or mischevious one or more of her children has done.  Clearly, there is much that I like about Sarah.  

I just wish she didn’t post things like this.  There is a part of me that thinks a woman who thinks as expansively as to want a sari, would be moved by the plight of Edie Windsor.  Maybe I’m just an optimist.  Maybe I’m a fool. I must say we agree on one thing, words do have consequences.