A Neverending Negotiation

 

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Today, Eric and I celebrated the 7th anniversary of the day we met. Pretty cool. I don’t think I post a lot about Eric on FB or IG, but today I posted a cute picture of my dog Millie and Eric around the time Eric entered our lives.

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The picture got over a hundred likes on FB, a big hit. Now, what I am going to say, it is not a judgement, merely an observation. I promise. But, whenever I make a reference to Eric, even the most innocuous one,  I sense a hesitation that comes from some people who I went to Bible college with. I can just feel them hovering over the blue thumbs up button thinking, I want to be supportive as a friend but I also don’t want to make a statement that would indicate that I don’t interpret the Bible conservatively.  I get it. It’s all good, really.  I truly believe that the evangelical Christian has a challenge today negotiating what they believe is scriptural truth against how they interact with the LGBTQ friends and family that they love.

Something happened to me when I was home in Kansas. I was visiting my friends who run a business in my hometown and they asked me if I knew a person. For the sake of the story, we’ll call him Jimmy Roberts. I said, “Yes, I know Jimmy Roberts, he is a very good friend of my parents.”  They proceeded to tell me that Jimmy had written a letter to the editor in the local paper expressing his dismay that the public library was one of the sponsors of a recent Southeast Kansas LGBTQ pride weekend.

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I wasn’t exactly shocked that someone would write a letter to the paper expressing disagreement with the festival, but it did strike me as somewhat extraordinary that this dissenter happened not only to be my parents’ friend but really their best friend.

I do not live in Independence and there is no one I know in this world who has done more for my parents in the last year than Jimmy and his wife.  They have checked on them regularly, taken them to doctors appointments, cooked them meals, spent an afternoon with them at the ER. You get the idea.

When my friends told me about this letter, I had to track it down.  Of course, I found it at the library, which was the impetus for Jimmy’s letter in the first place.  Jimmy did not feel that a government funded entity should support something LGBTQ because not everyone in the town agreed with that “viewpoint”.

I will be honest, when I read his letter, it bothered me.  First, that anyone would write those words, second, that this was a good friend of my parents and third, I wondered if perhaps my parents felt the same way about the LGBTQ community and the pride festival that Jimmy did.

I went home and asked my parents if they knew about the letter.  They had not heard about it or read it.  My Mom asked me to send her a copy so she could read it and I did.  We did not talk about it.

A couple of hours later, Jimmy and his wife, came to my parents’ house to visit them.  They knocked on the door of the back room where I was sitting watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (gay) on Netflix (also kinda gay).  My dog Ricky barked and they let themselves in.  Jimmy’s wife, who Ricky had been quite taken by on their last visit, bent down to pet him.  As he barked, I tersely said, “He’s really worked up tonight, my parents are in the living room.”

Jimmy and his wife went into the other room and for the next 45 minutes I could hear them talking to my parents, about what I did not know.  Although I was pretty sure I knew what they weren’t talking about.  I will say this, but I have a fantasy, all of us LGBTQ offspring do, I sat there in my parents’ den wishing that they somehow could have said to their friend, in a loving but firm way, “Hey, that letter, that’s not so cool.  Especially since you know our son is gay.”

I wrestled if whether or not I could say something.  And if I could say something, what would it be and what should it be? I decided against it and then I thought about the pictures I’d seen, posted on Facebook, of the SEK Pride festival. It had been held weeks before I came to town.  These twentysomethings, just kids, many dressed in various forms of drag.  (There was a lot of glitter.)  For one night, they were free and celebrated and fierce and loved. And I just wished there was a way that these kids, my tribe, could have a better time living in my hometown than I did. But how could I say anything in a way that would make Jimmy see how utterly special and desperately needed something like a smalltown pride festival is?

In the end, wise or foolish, as Jimmy and his wife were leaving, as Ricky was both barking at him AND allowing him to pet him, I told Jimmy that I had read the letter.

He gave a nervous laugh.

I told him how when I was growing up here in this town, when everything I knew, like my church and my school, were telling me something was wrong with me, I was grateful for that library.

He reiterated his point, that a government funded entity should not support a viewpoint that not everyone believes in.

It was a very awkward 5 minute conversation. My mother and his wife quietly bearing witness to it.

He told me that he didn’t think he’d ever treated me differently than anyone else and I agreed with him. He and his wife have always been kind to my face. But, when he was the minister of my parents’ church, on every occasion I was in town visiting the congregation where I grew up, on every occasion, he brought up the “sin” of homosexuality from the pulpit. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but eventually, I started tracking it, and well, every time I was in the church, homosexuality was addressed.

I’d like to say that our conversation that night was cordial. I was impassioned and nervous and scattered and loud. At one point, Jimmy started to suggest a book or a video I should read or watch, and I shut him down. (I guess he thought gay people had never had a Christian offer a book to fix them before.) I said, “No, I’ve read exactly what you have to say on the topic and it is heard and it is noted.” (Dramatic? Me?)

They left soon after and his wife meekly offered, “Thanks for taking care of our dog the other day.”

“You’re welcome,” I muttered. I had been happy to help them with their dog earlier in the week. I had been happy to lend a hand to thank them for all they have done for my parents. And then I’d snarled like a pit bull at them.

After Jimmy and his wife left, I told my Mom that she probably didn’t appreciate me confronting him. She said she understood where I was coming from. I told her that I felt like I had to say something to stand up for all the kids growing up in Independence who feel like something is wrong with them. I told her about my friends’ friend, not being accepted by his parents. And I started to cry. “Are you okay?” my Mom asked? “Yes, I’m fine.” “I know you didn’t have an easy time of it growing up here.” I could tell she wanted to hug me and a part of me wanted to hug her too, but instead I went in the other room.

After a few days, because that is what we do, my parents and I, we moved on.  The letter was never discussed.  I did not see Jimmy and his wife again and I don’t really know what I will say the next time I do.

If you are reading this and feel compelled to leave a comment, please do not bash Jimmy.   My parents read all comments.  Goodness knows, Jimmy will probably read this too.  Our conversation did not go the way I hoped it would and I must admit, I bear the responsibility for that.  After he left and I was still emotional, still seething, it hit me that the decades of rejection I’d always felt from my little town had welled up and he had been the somewhat unlikely victim of my eruption.

If the evangelical Christian has a neverending negotiation with how to show their love to their LGBTQ friends and family, I suppose we LGBTQ friends and family have an eternal negotiation as well, of how much to feel safe in that love, how much can we share, how much we should expect to be accepted.

My Mom probably doesn’t know this but of all the beautiful things she has written to me in my 49 years, and I have a cornucopia to draw from, it was three little words that touched me the most.  Three words I will carry with me until I take my last breath.  In Christmas 2010, after just meeting Eric for the first time we went to a restaurant and the waiter took a picture of my parents, Eric and myself.  I posted it to Facebook and my Mom was the first to comment beside it, for all the world to see.  “Nice looking family,” she wrote.

And we are.

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The Forty-Niner

On Sunday, Eric and I took a day trip to Santa Barbara. We visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and, while it is partially closed, we thoroughly enjoyed the pieces that are currently being exhibited. 

My favorite was a painting of a gold rush miner sitting in a small cabin, his dog nuzzling him. The young man reads a letter, and the dog stares lovingly at him. No surprise that it was my favorite. I read the placard on the wall. The artist Ernest Narjot, until yesterday unknown to me, had been a young man who was part of the California gold rush. In fact, apparently, the gold rush is what inspired him to leave his native France and go west. 


When I got home, I googled this painting in hopes of finding a crisper image. I couldn’t find one. What’s up, internet? What I did find were a few more biographical details about Ernest Narjot. How he wasn’t exactly the most successful gold rusher. And how now, many decades later, he is most known for his gold rush paintings. AND, most of his gold rush paintings were done in his later years, with a nostalgic element prominent in those works. It’s certainly here in this lovely portrait. He painted The Forty-Niner in 1881, when he was 55, a middle aged man looking back on another time. 

Time flies, I know. Seems just yesterday, I was a young man leaving my own home and traveling far away in my own hopes of striking another kind of gold. Because today is September 11, I searched my old photos to find an old picture of me with the World Trade Center in it. I found a picture from 1991, from my first visit to New York, on a trip where I fell in love with the city the second I crossed the Holland Tunnel. 

I was on a mission trip with my Bible college. I wanted more than anything to live in New York but I didn’t know if I would ever be brave enough to make such a big move. Clearly, it was a grim day, all clouds and some rain, but still to me, paradise. Less than a year after this trip, I was living in New York. There is a part of me that will always feel that the day I moved to New York is the day my life started. 

So, today, on September 11, I reflect on the great tragedy of that day, the lives lost,  the people affected in New York and Washington and Boston and everywhere else.  We say we will never forget and I hope we never will. 

But also, on a lighter note, I reflect on young Ernest Narjot who in 1849, left his own version of Kansas and moved to his own version of New York and then, eventually, created beautiful paintings that touched the hearts of wayfarers (and dog lovers) for years to come. 

Todd Stevens

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This weekend, I went to visit my parents in Kansas. I had not been to my childhood home since 2014. I spent some time poring over old cards and letters, old pictures too. I was awash, still am, really, in memories of different chapters of my life, junior high, church camp, high school, college.

The summer before my senior year in college, I interned at a church in upstate New York. I uncovered many letters from the kids and adults in the congregation, pictures too, of the friends I made there. Fond memories.

And then, somehow, nestled in the warm, I remembered someone I had not about thought about for a while: Todd Stevens.

Todd Stevens was a guy that had lived in Syracuse. (Don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to go where you think it’s going to go.) He was tall, athletic, handsome. (Seriously, not what you think.) He’d been a baseball player for the Syracuse minor league baseball team. He’d been married, but his wife left him and while I was interning, Todd Stevens came back to town, to go through the things in his storage unit and purge part of it and ship the rest back to his life in Kansas.

The minister I was working and staying with had told me all about Todd Stevens before he came to visit. “Todd Stevens is a great guy, terrific ball player, the whole church went crazy for him. He’s from Kansas too, you’re going to love him.”

We picked Todd Stevens up at the airport. Looking like a young Kevin Costner, he was as charismatic of a presence as the minister had promised. For a handful of days, the three of us, the minister, Todd Stevens and I tooled around Syracuse, golfing, going to baseball games, cooking steaks on the grill. The minister’s wife was out of town, so it was just our unlikely trio.

I did not feel I measured up to Todd Stevens. Short with glasses, paunchy stomach even though I was finally skinny after years of being the fat kid. Trying to act as masculine as possible while still bringing whatever it was that was unique and sensitive about me to my first ministry.  When Todd Stevens came to church on the Sunday during his visit, the old ladies and the young kids and the moms and the dads all reacted to him the way I wished they would have reacted to me, he was their golden boy.

“What have you been up to, Todd Stevens? We’ve missed you.” It couldn’t have been easy for him. The minister and I had been there at the storage unit, as Todd Stevens pored over his own memories, memories of a life with another person that was cut short not long after it began. Separating toasters from photo albums, baseball gear from blenders, Todd Stevens started to cry. I was a kid, 20 years old, Todd, just a few years older than me. At 25 or 26, his life was going in a completely different direction than what he had anticipated. A few years before he’d been a professional baseball player married to his college sweetheart. Now he was a divorced assistant manager at a sporting goods store in rural Kansas.

Somehow, Todd Stevens and I did form a bond in our few days together. So, I wasn’t surprised when on the night before his flight back to Kansas he came into my bedroom to ask for a favor. (Again, I’m not kidding, it’s not that kind of story.)

“You know Loyal and Bev have been so good to me, I don’t want to ask for anymore favors. I have three boxes that still need to be shipped back home but I’m out of money. Can you take the boxes to UPS this week after I leave? I’ll send you the money when I get home.”

“I can do that.” Like everyone else, I too had fallen for Todd Stevens.

“Oh man, that’s awesome. And just to say thanks, I’m going to send you some K-State hats and t-shirts! Cool. Also, do you want this blender?”

“Sure!”

The day after Todd Stevens left Syracuse I went to UPS to ship his three boxes. It cost me 30 dollars, which was kind of a lot of money for me then.

Days passed, then weeks with no check and package full of K-State memorabilia. I had Todd Stevens’ address and I sent him a letter, asking as delicately as possible, when he was planning on sending me my $30.

The summer ended and I sent him another letter, this time giving him my college address. “Don’t worry about the cap and shirt, just send the $30.”

I never got my $30 and I never heard from Todd Stevens again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst thing that ever happened me, not by a long shot, but for years, I did wonder what happened. Did he intend to pay me back and then lose track? Was he purposely deceitful? Was he a pathological liar, not completely in control of his grand promises? Did he suffer a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk outside the post office, clutching my check and Wildcat T-shirt in his hands as he fell to the asphalt?  (Active imagination.)

I do think about Todd Stevens from time to time. I’m not wounded, and I do think it’s funny. I know I sound like the paper boy in Better Off Dead, I want my 2 dollars, a never ending refrain. Also, I know now that the memory stuck with me, in part, because I did go crazy for Todd Stevens. I felt things about him I couldn’t articulate at the time, a crush calling itself admiration.

Wherever you are, Todd Stevens, I hope you are well. I hope your journey has offered you joy and love and peace. I hope you created a family, work a job you like, found purpose. I know what it feels like to think your life is set in one direction and have it veer in another.  I know what it feels like to break a promise.  This weekend, as I sifted through the memories of old friends and old crushes and even old conflicts, I was reminded of what a gift all of it is.  That decades later, I can close my eyes and see the three of us, you, Loyal and me, playing golf on a cool, green June New York evening, me vexed that I couldn’t drive or pitch or putt as well as not only you, but also a 60 year old man, all of it, it makes me smile. And then it almost makes me cry.  Life, it speeds by. How could there ever be a debt when you gave me something worth so much?

Guest Blogger, Ab Kastl: Mind the Queue

 

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Several days ago, I asked a few friends to write guest blogs about this divisive, explosive election.  One of the people I asked was my good friend Ab Kastl, who, like me, grew up in the same part of the country, went to Ozark Christian College and has lived in Southern California for over 20 years.  So, we share many of the same influences if not the same perspectives.  We often disagree politically.  But he was glad to offer his reflection on the election, why it went the way it did, and also what his hopes for this country are.  If you are led to comment, whether on here or on Facebook, in agreement or disagreement, I do ask that your comments be respectful.  And if you are inspired to write your own guest blog about this election, by all means, I’d love to hear from you.

 

Mind the Queue

“What has happened to the USA?” asked my good friend from England…the same England that voted for the Brexit. What made them vote for the Brexit? What made the USA vote for Trump? Being from Oklahoma, I hear the grumblings of so many out there in the Mid-west. Oh, stewardess! I speak redneck. There is a sense by so many in the fly over states of things being out of control (borders, spending, security, etc.….out of control). Allow me share what I passed to my friend who lives across the pond in the country where they love showing off their politeness by excessive queueing.

Let me queue up some observations on maybe why Trump got elected ……
1. Bernie Sanders really got screwed. The emails showed the Democratic Party cheated him to push Hillary through. Debbie Wassermann Shultz got the boot because it was clear they sabotaged Bernie. So many are frustrated that he got screwed it was too late to change anything so they had to go with Hillary. So many who were disenfranchised with the system being out of control probably did not go vote for Hillary.

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2. Hillary has more baggage than (name your 3 favorite airlines here). The Midwest folks are military loving diehards. The Benghazi attack on 9-11 was four fresh year ago. That it happened on the anniversary of 9-11 and Hillary Clinton did not respond properly and then blamed a YouTube video puts a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. Then she went the extra mile to erase anything related to it while she was under subpoena doesn’t look good. Destroyed computers and phones equals shady biz. One of the silliest lies she told a while back was sharing a false story in a speech about landing in Bosnia under sniper fire (remember how people were turned off when Brian Williams said such things?). She went into specific details and they were all lies. I know it seems like it is no big deal but it does show the extent she is willing to go to lie on something that is not even controversial This is not good when you are trying to get some good ole boy famer out in Iowa to show up and vote for you.
3. The Obama family wins in the “Classiest Looking Family” category. President Obama was not as strategically successful as we hoped. Obama’s health care plan was forced on the American public with zero support from the other side. The numbers did not add up but he did not care…he forced it through. We were told to pass 20,000 pages of confusion and then we will see what is in it. His cabinet begged him to go golfing with people from the opposing side in order to find some common ground. He refused. Instead of doing the necessary leg work all presidents have to do to find compromise, President Obama said “Elections have consequences. I won.” He told the other side they had to “sit in the back of the bus.” Recently, health care rates are starting to double and many, including Democrats are upset and concerned. This probably motivated a lot of the middle of the road voters to go another way.

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4. Immigration feels out of control here. Immigration is the backbone and pillar of America. There has to be limits, rules and lines. Way back, Ellis Island was the first stop for so many. Everyone understood that is part of the process. Not anymore. In a land of many laws, breaking the law as your first action here does not sit well with many. When so many show up, who’s jobs get taken away? Remember that 70’s movie Car Wash? African Americans dominated that works force in the 70’s….not anymore. So many jobs African Americans filled are now filled by our neighbors from the South. More black people voted Republican (Trump) than ever before. 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Why would they? Maybe because they have seen what it is like to live in countries that are out of control. Trump definitely tapped into Americans feeling out of control.

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5. The media here does slant a certain way. This upsets the people named Jim Bob and Genevieve. That is why they are so loyal to Fox News….They like Fox because they get a sense of balance and control in a topsy-turvy feeling world. Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan strongly voted for President Obama last time but went for Trump this time (Some say this shows the statement “Everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.” is false?). Those are hardworking blue collar states. So, Trump yelping about creating jobs sounds appealing to these states. Americans don’t want to feel so out of control.
I try not to cuss at or around my two kids. I am no goodie-goodie. I just remember as a kid the adults who never cussed and then all the sudden they wanted emphasis would slipped in a cuss word and BOOM, they have my attention. I knew they meant business. I knew I better sit up, pay attention and focus on what they wanted done. But the coaches, old bosses or relatives who cussed at me all the time and everyday…Yawn….same old same old. Who cares what they say? No one really. The same could be said of people who are so quick to call other people who they do not agree with “racists”. The broken record gets ignored. I know Trump said some bold things that have been interpreted as racist. Calling someone a racist no longer has any power or effect. Every Republican has been accused of being a racist. George W Bush was called a racist for not helping Katrina victims fast enough. McCain was called a racist because he questioned President Obama’s black pastor Jeremiah Wright and he referred to Barak Obama as “that one”. Romney was called racist because he used “dog-whistle” language like “free stuff”, “welfare” and “Chicago”. Now, anyone who voted for Trump is being called a racist. It is so overly used it has no effect. It pushed people to vote against the accusers even if the person they are voting for is a mess.
Not everyone who wants a controlled borders hates Mexicans. Not everyone who questions climate change is anti-science. Not everyone who did not get excited about President Obama is a racist. To be accused of these things creates that feeling of a society out of control. If you accused others of such things….maybe you helped Trump get elected?

I told myself before the election “Whichever way it goes, the USA will be just fine.” We have a system that has checks and balances. If Trump or Hillary wins and is a mess, we will give them the boot in four years.
Like it or not, we have some of that deep English heritage intertwined in the DNA of the USA. Deep down, we crave those organized queues. We know we have a good thing going here and to have that sense of chaos is unsettling. Things were feeling out of control. Maybe 2016 was just a sloppy shake up to try to get us back in queue.

For You Are With Me

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According to family legend, in the weeks before my father’s mother died, she had a conversation with my mother that changed the course of our lives.  At that time, my parents did not attend church.  I was still a baby so you know how long ago this was.  “Find a church,” my Grandma said, “Any church, I don’t care what denomination, but find a church and become a part of it.”

And in the months after her passing, my parents did just that.  They found a church.  As long as I can remember, church was always a central part of our spiritual and social lives.

When I was in my twenties, I left the church and in my forties, I returned.  A very long in the tooth prodigal son.

Last night I wrote about the events of the last week.  As I published the post and ran out the door to my friend’s party, I felt a lightness.  Eloquent or fumbling, I put into words what I had been feeling.  I tried to approach it with kindness, not always the easiest task when talking about polarizing subjects.

This morning,  I looked forward to church.  I got there early and sat in my pew.  There is a thirty minute organ concert that precedes every Sunday’s worship service.  You can judge me, you probably should judge me, but I tend to spend that time on my phone, checking Instagram, texting and emailing.  As the prelude began it’s final chords and the organ began to swell, I put my phone away.  In the time that I had been looking down on my phone, the sanctuary filled up.  This morning, it wasn’t average Sunday in November full, it was practically Easter full.

We stood to sing the opening hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  The oft-mentioned beauty of my church comforted me and yes, even surprised me a little.  Every Sunday, I can’t believe how at home I feel on my little pew in this grand, old sanctuary.  I was grateful to have a place where I could bring the sadnesses of the last week.

I touched on it in my last blog, this complicated navigation many of us are attempting with family members who did not vote the same way we did.  Like I said, my parents voted for Trump.  I voted for Hillary.  And for the last week, I’ve tried to figure out what these opposing positions mean about our relationship.  How can we see life so differently?

Big surprise, I cried in church.  Believe it or not, it was my first cry this week that was about the election.  Yes, I am disappointed that Hillary lost, but my tears were not really sad ones.  Well, maybe melancholy.

See, I cried this morning when I realized here I was in church again, after a twenty year break, because my parents showed me the value of it.  That church is a place to bring your heartache.  That church is a place to look at your heart and see what you need to change.  That church is where you have a moment to acknowledge what you are grateful for.

I thought about my ailing Grandma Avis who asked my Mom to find a church, any church, 46 years ago.   And maybe the ANY part is what I was thinking about in February, when I attended a worship service solely on the basis that I thought the church looked pretty when I drove by.  And when I walked into the church courtyard, I saw a poster that read, “Inclusive.”

The Scripture reading today was David’s Psalm 23.  When the man read, “I will fear no evil for you are with me,” I thought about how, like God, my parents are always with me, even when I feel there is a distance.

On Friday, when I spoke to my parents, my Dad stated that if someone ever asked him to deny Jesus, he would let them kill him.  He would die defending Christ. I assured him that that would never happen.  “You never know,” he insisted.  “If I die tonight, I have no regrets.”

Today was the first day that I prayed for Donald Trump and his impending presidency.  I prayed that God would give him wisdom and compassion and guidance.  With my head bowed and my eyes closed, it struck me that I have more in common with Trump than I’d like to admit.  I sometimes say cruel things. I sometimes make bad decisions. I can be self-serving. I grow my hair longer than what is ideal for my age/weight.

I loved that my church was packed today.  I looked around and saw faces I’d never seen before.  I imagined that maybe, like me, they had grown up in conservative churches in the Midwest or the South.  Maybe they had left the church in a huff or snuck out a side door.  But maybe, this week, this crazy week, affected them in a way that they said to themselves, I’d like to go somewhere to find comfort, healing.  Maybe they thought the church looked pretty.  Maybe they had a Grandma who begged, “Find a church, any church.”

That parable of the prodigal son, maybe it resonates because some of us feel like we’ve squandered riches and long to return home to a father that welcomes us with open arms.  Today, I thought about the time when my own Dad was a prodigal and the events that drove him back to church. Surely there are differences, big differences, but for now, maybe it’s best to hold to what we have in common, to cherish what we share.

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.

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.