Look Up

  For the second time in two weeks, I have found myself in a church service on a Sunday morning.  It’s hard to say how this all came about and certainly, I don’t have any idea where this new journey of sorts will lead me, but, this seeking, I guess you could call it, has been on my mind lately.

I have found an old church, a congregation that dates back to the 19th century and its current edifice has been around for nearly 100 years.  As you might expect, it is a congregation that welcomes, affirms, and condones the LGBT community.  For the month of February, the pastor’s sermons have been based on the Alice Walker novel, The Color Purple.  So, long story short, it’s very different from the churches that raised me.

  If my mind had a tendency to wander at church when I was 10 and 15 and 22, one shouldn’t be surprised to learn that my mind still wanders (and wonders) when I am at church.  I love looking up at the high, majestically high, ceilings of the sanctuary.  I think about the men who built this church.  It’s the kind of thing I think about when I visit historied, grand, ornate, towering churches.  I thought about it when I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Church of St. Mary the Virgin on my recent trip to New York.  I look at the ceilings and think how men risked, and probably sometimes lost, their lives, creating these works of art, how some probably took great pride in their efforts. This will be my legacy, they might have thought.  For others, the work might have been only a job, maybe not even a well compensated one.  I don’t know.

This morning, as I sat in my pew, occasionally looking up, I marvelled at the beauty of this church.  I thought about how its current state was the sum contribution of many people with many stories.  Some believers, some doubters, probably even some heretics.  And then I looked down, looked around me, at the other people filling the pews.  Maybe these parishioners are not all that different from the men who built this church all that time ago. Believers, doubters, heretics.  Maybe, I went so far to imagine, we all have belief, doubt and heresy in varying amounts, in all of us.

When I started this blog, a couple of years ago, I really had no idea how much I was going to talk about religion and God and Christians.  Several times, in emails and Facebook messages, people from my midwestern past have asked me what I believe about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell.  And I usually just avoid the question because the truth is, I don’t know what I believe.

  For a long time, I thought that my questions or disbelief were a reason to keep me out of church.  Why go if you don’t believe?  But, somehow, in the last couple of months, I started wondering if maybe, those questions might have more value than I realize. And maybe a church is the best place to take one’s questions about God. Makes sense actually. 

  I don’t really know where any of this is leading.  While a part of me feels that I should know what my intentions or goals are, the louder voice tells me to just be still and listen.  So here I am, listening.  And for what feels like the first time in a little while, looking up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Us Vs. Them

tim-tebowIf you’ve met my Mom, you no doubt love her. She is a sweet little lady with a big heart. She is also a Christian and, like most Christians, she makes her decisions by asking herself, “What would Jesus do?” 

Yesterday, my Mom shared on Facebook something that someone named AskDrBrown posted about Caitlyn Jenner. It was a picture of Tim Tebow, in heroic profile, with the caption, “The people who are applauding Bruce Jenner for ‘being himself’ are the same people who condemned Tim Tebow and told him to ‘keep his beliefs to himself.'” 

Let me be clear, this is not about my Mom and me. I don’t think that she posted this comment about someone in the LGBT community to hurt my feelings. I think that as a Christian she probably feels that the Liberal Left is often persecuting and judging the Religious Right. Certainly this kind of contempt that we see on places like Facebook and Twitter and in the media go both ways.  And I see what she posted as her way of saying, “I am a Christian.” I respect that.

Of course, I thought quite a bit about what she posted all day yesterday. I wrote about it in June, but there is a part of me, that when I see people write negative things about Caitlyn Jenner’s identity, I somehow take it personally. (I’m not saying that kind of sensitivity is a good thing.)

An aside here, I like Tim Tebow. I mean, I certainly don’t know as much about him as I know about, say, Bethenny Frankel, but he seems to me like a decent Christian guy, trying to glorify God in the way he lives his life. He does not go out of his way to say homophobic or transphobic things, that I know of, anyway. And, because I AM gay, I have noticed that he is quite handsome, in my humble opinion.

The thing that I found myself really thinking about yesterday was not my Mother, but this AskDrBrown who originally posted the transphobic/Caitlyn-phobic comment in the first place. It’s a classic effort to polarize the world we live in: Liberals vs. Christians, LGBT vs. Conservatives. While I don’t think my Mother had malice in her repost, I do sense that, for AskDrBrown, cruelty was part of his intent. Why else would he refer to Caitlyn as both “Bruce Jenner” and in the male pronoun? Whether AskDrBrown thinks Caitlyn is going to heaven or not, it’s unkind, heartless, petty, judgemental and provincial to not respect a person’s wishes of how they would like to be addressed. 

I know that, in a way, it truly is Us vs. Them. This social dichotomy is one of the themes that runs through my entire blog. I grew up conservative, identify as liberal in adulthood. I have many people close to me that are big cheerleaders on each side.  Sides exist and probably they are necessary. But I also think that this Us. vs. Them pathology has its problems too. And let me be the first to admit my own guilt.

My 30th high school reunion is coming up next summer. I am planning to attend. I think. I enjoyed our 20 year reunion but back then, none of us were on Facebook, we didn’t know exactly how we all landed politically, and spiritually, and socially. No one had seen pictures of Eric and me at pride festivals. I hadn’t seen pictures of classmates with the deer they just shot. By the time next year’s reunion rolls around, I will probably have a clear handle, from each classmate, about who plans to vote for Hillary, who plans to vote for Bernie, who plans to vote for Jeb and also, yikes, who plans to vote for Trump. Can I really spend an evening or a weekend reminiscing with someone wearing a Trump/Cosby ’16 t-shirt and ball cap? Do my classmates really want to see the choreography I do when Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York starts playing? Well, I hope so, because WE ARE THE CLASS OF ’86. And we have history and memories and shared laughs and shared tears. We have our differences, yes, but hopefully, for a weekend anyway, we will only focus on what we share. Right?

I hope that a little good can come out of AskDrBrown’s mean spirited Facebook post, and that is that I can be a little kinder, a little less polarizing. We are all in this together, the conservatives, the liberals, the football players, the decathletes, the doctors, the restaurant hosts, the deer hunters, the Meryl Streep superfans, the Kansas moms, the Real Housewives. It is not Us vs. Them, merely We.

Secrets of the Closet

The author, age 23.

The author, age 23.

The gay press has been floating around a story about a pastor in Michigan, Matthew Makela, who recently resigned from his position at St. John’s Lutheran Church because it was exposed (mild pun intended) that he had an active Grindr profile. He is a 39 year old husband and a father of 5 children. It has also come to light that one of the young men in his congregation was told by the pastor he “might as well kill himself since he was gay”. The young man told a local news channel that he had considered taking his own life over the reception he received from his pastor.

Obviously, it’s a sad story and I have compassion for the young man who came forward with his experience. I can imagine being a high schooler, afraid that no one would accept me if I shared the secret of my sexuality because I was one. Not that I ever told anyone at that age, I was too afraid. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, 22 to be exact, before I told anyone that I thought I was gay.

In one interview, the young man, Tyler Kish, said that he has found compassion for Makela because he realized that “everything he told me, he was, kind of, telling himself too.” And I don’t doubt that that is true. If I can relate to Tyler Kish, it must be acknowledged that I can relate to Matthew Makela as well.

That I was quoting Demi Moore at all, it should have been apparent to anyone who knew me that I was gay. I was a youth minister in a small town in Missouri, just out of Bible college. My only friends were the kids in my youth group, every other 22 year old in town was long gone, ready to build their lives in larger towns and cities like Springfield and Kansas City. St. Elmo’s Fire was one of my favorite movies and to anyone who would listen I would affect Demi Moore’s husky lament, “I never thought I’d feel so old at 22.” It was the refrain for that year in my life and I am sure that weariness is one of the things that got me on a Greyhound to New York not long after turning 23.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I went to Bible college to try to not be gay. You also might know that I had lived in New York a few months before I really began my journey out of the closet.

Allegedly, Matthew Makela has been living somewhat of a double life. He was a pastor with a wife and children, but also maintained a rather provocative Grindr profile. There are pictures and screenshots of conversations that are now public knowledge. I’m sure more about Makela’s secret life will be revealed in time.

I’ll say this up front because if you are reading this, it’s a valid question, but I never had sex with a guy when I was a youth minister. I never so much as kissed a guy. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my secrets.

I don’t remember now how I acquired a list of gay bars in Kansas City, I think I must have found one of those gay travel books in a bookstore and written the places down on a piece of paper. I remember the first night I drove to Kansas City to do a bar crawl. I went to about 5 or 6 places, all in the downtown area. This was the early 1990s and I was confused that most of the places had no signage to tell me I was in the right place. I don’t remember every detail of that night, but most of the places I visited were dark and run down and the customers were old. I’d enter, do a tour of the joint, and leave immediately. There was one place where I stayed about an hour. It was large and there was a dance floor and the crowd was pretty cute. I didn’t order a beer or anything, I was a Christian after all, so I just kind of stood there looking around. A tall, handsome, slightly effeminate man smiled at me, I smiled back. We started a conversation, I told him it was my first time in a gay bar, that I was a youth minister. I probably told him that I wasn’t even sure I was gay. He told me he was an antique dealer and lived in Iowa. The dance mix of Amy Grant’s Baby, Baby came on and I asked him if he wanted to dance, we did. While we danced, I wondered if this guy and I might share a kiss or more. I also wondered if Amy Grant knew her song was playing in a gay bar. And if so, what would she think? I don’t remember the details but the antique dealer let me know he wasn’t interested in me. As he went off to pursue someone else, I hung out for a while, then feeling slightly rebuffed, decided to leave and go home. I remember rolling down the windows on that late night 90 minute drive to my little town, the wind tunneling through my car. I was elated and scared and titillated and ashamed and hopeful and fearful as I steered my way home. I think I had a couple more of those KC gay bar crawl nights before I eventually left the midwest, but that first night is the one that sticks in my memory.

You might remember those 900 numbers were big in the early 90s. Somehow I had found a couple 900 numbers that were geared for men looking to meet other men, by telephone. I only did it a couple of times because each time, though it was advertised as something like $2 a minute, the charge on my phone bill was $150. Twice, after dialing 900 numbers, and furtively talking to a flirty stranger for a couple of minutes, I received my bill and was shocked and scared to find $150 charges. I only made $250 a week and I didn’t know how I would pay off a $300 phone bill, but I did pay it in increments. I was afraid that someone, somehow, might find out the secret of my phone bill, but if they did, they never said anything.

That I received the International Male and Undergear catalogs should have been a pretty obvious clue what was going on, too. One of the church members was the town postmaster. It was a small town. Did he notice my catalogs? During my time there, I always wondered if he might share my secret to the church board or worse, his children that were in my youth group. Looking back, I’m sure small town postmasters know quite a bit about people’s secrets.

At one point, I decided to put a personal ad in the Springfield newspaper. It was very simple: “22, masculine, brown hair, brown eyes, GL, bicurious looking for similar.” (Well, I DID have brown hair and brown eyes.) I remember driving to pick up my responses at the paper’s office. I received a large manila envelope filled with about 25 letters from various men in the area. That night, I sat down on my living room floor and sorted the letters from definite no’s to maybe’s to yes’s. I ranked them all and called the first few ones that appealed to me most. One guy was a bagger at a Dillon’s grocery store and for some reason that sounded hot. We talked on the phone a few times and he was in the closet too so we had something in common. I don’t know why, but I pictured him looking like Ralph Macchio. In the end, we never met. One guy was ranked 5th or 6th on my list but we ended up talking on the phone on a Friday night. He convinced me to drive to a town an hour away so we could meet in a Wal-mart parking lot. (That sounds safe.) Before we met, he told me he’d been living in Texas and had started the process of coming out and he encouraged me to do so myself. We told each other what kind of cars we were driving and when we met, he was not what I hoped. Too chubby, too pimply. I didn’t even get out of my car. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t want to get to know him so he coldly told me, “You’re gay. You can act like you aren’t, but you are.”

I also corresponded with a guy, a couple of years older than me who had grown up in Stockton and now lived in Springfield. He had been a ballet dancer, had trained in Russia. He might have been getting his master’s degree, I can’t remember for sure. We went on a date to a Mexican restaurant and then to see a touring production of A Chorus Line. It was not a perfect date, but that was the night I decided that somehow, some way, I was going to go to New York. And a few months later, that’s exactly what I did.

When I was a youth minister, I wondered how the long term burden of holding in my secret might affect the rest of my life. I mean, I really thought I was in it for the long haul, a lifetime of ministry, but I wondered if I might marry a woman, have kids and still have this secret life. I imagined a scenario not unlike Matthew Makela’s where one day, my secret would be exposed, and I would embarrass myself and all who loved me. And I don’t know Makela, but I can’t imagine his beginnings were all that different from mine. One day you’re a confused kid turning to Christ to make sense of your biggest burden and you blink and 20 years later, you’re on Grindr, looking for a man to man massage.

I look back on things I said as a youth minister from the pulpit and in classes and counselling situations and I wonder about how judgemental I was. In my gauzy recollection, I THINK I was a pretty compassionate pastor, but I’m sure I had my moments.

I know this, I’m grateful for that tubby guy in the Wal-mart parking lot who told me I need to wise up and accept the fact that I was gay. I didn’t take his advice immediately but he was one of the many who pushed me out of the closet into the life I lead now.

Like Tyler Kish, I have compassion for Matthew Makela. I remember how damaging the closet was for me at 22 and I can only imagine what it must feel like at 39.

The fact is, no matter who you are, no matter what your burden, there is something of Makela in all of us. We’re just trying to figure it all out. Like my friend Vanessa said about Don Draper recently, we make decisions sometimes that take us in the wrong direction from happiness.  I don’t think Matthew Makela will ever see this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say to him.  First of all, you’re gay, you can act like you aren’t but you are.  But also, more importantly, you will get through this.  There are hundreds, thousands of men and women who have had similar experiences, similar journeys, we have survived, and so will you.  Peace be with you.

The Differences

 

 A couple of days ago, I spent the afternoon with two friends from Bible college, Heidi and Greg, who were visiting Los Angeles with their teenage children. We walked around Hollywood Boulevard and the Chinese Theatre and eventually made our way over to the La Brea Tar Pits. It was a joy to catch up with old friends and show them around my city.

Now, I know how my blog posts have a tendency to unfold. I tell a story and I say, either the people I am talking about are in the wrong or I’m in the wrong or we were both in the wrong. I’ve read the back log, I know the pattern. And especially when I write about any interaction between the gays and the conservative Christian community, I have a history of pointing fingers. Sometimes my diatribes are late night rants that I second guess in the morning. Other times, it’s something more thoughtful, a gentle nudge of “hey, let’s just look at this, how can we do better?”

Well, let me start by saying, that is not the nature of this particular blog. The hours that we spent together were lovely. I never felt a judgement from Heidi or Greg or their children about my life. The words “lifestyle choice” never came up. 

When we met, they had just come from a tour of Paramount Studios and they told me they got to meet Dot Marie Jones from Glee on the lot and Greg took a picture (or 3) with her. I thought to myself, good for them for wanting to take a picture with not only an out lesbian, but also someone playing a transgendered character on television. I honestly don’t know that every conservative Christian would jump at that photo op, but of course, it honestly moved me that these old friends did.

At one point in our afternoon, Heidi pulled out her ticket from the tour. She wanted to give the ticket to me because the quote on the ticket, credited to Cecil B.Demille, said, “The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.” There was a bit of awkwardness because I wasn’t really sure she was giving me the ticket or just showing it to me. And then she wasn’t sure if I really wanted the ticket. And then the ticket became a running joke throughout the rest of our afternoon, a punchline really. 

Heidi was one of my best friends in college. I know this won’t translate, how could it, but Heidi and another friend Sheri and I once went to a weekend conference to Lake of  the Ozarks (as glamorous as it sounds) where the entire time we kept singing this three part harmony song called “I don’t know.” All we did was sing “I don’t know” over and over and over again. Like Michael Row the Boat Ashore with significantly less lyrics. I KNOW, I told you the story wouldn’t translate but it made us laugh all weekend. It made us laugh for weeks and months and years after, too.

While I had friends in high school, I never felt like I was part of a tribe until I went to Bible college.  I just wasn’t skilled at making friends until my time at Ozark. And even though I don’t see life exactly the same way as most of my former classmates do, I still feel a connection to them. 

Tuesday night, even from the moment we said our goodbyes and our cars took us in opposing directions, I felt a little sad. I couldn’t quite name it, we’d had a great time, laughed a lot. There was still a connection, I concluded. We still have things in common. They are still the loving people I remember and I could tell, they are raising their teenagers to be loving, interesting, sharp-witted adults, too. I didn’t feel like their icky gay friend. (Note to self, HBO series pitch or perhaps just a great Katy Perry song: My Icky Gay Friend.) 

So, if they didn’t do anything wrong and FOR ONCE, I didn’t do anything wrong, why did I feel melancholy? 

It has occurred to me before, that I have spent my entire life feeling I need to explain myself. When I was a fervent, Evangelical high school and college student, there were always people who asked, “Why are you such a Bible beater?” When I came out of the closet, for years, I had people question why I would choose to be gay or choose to live the gay lifestyle. Even still, I get asked versions of that same question. I assume that, to some extent, I will contend with that for the rest of my days.

As I drove home, and later that night, I imagined the conversation Heidi and Greg might have had about me. That it was great to see me (I hope), that I’m not so gray or wrinkled or overweight that I’m no longer recognizable as the Ray they remember. But also, I imagined a sigh, and then, “He’s so special, I just wish he still loved Jesus.” In my mind, I did not imagine a judgement, merely a wish that I might still be a part of the club, or even better, the tribe, they are still a part of. 

As much as we will always have things in common, there will also, always, be differences. And that’s okay. Really, it is.

I’ve thought about that Paramount Studios tour ticket a lot since Tuesday. I did keep it. It sits on my desk now and when I look at it, I smile. This morning I saw that Heidi posted a pic of us with it, joking about my tepid reaction, and it tickled me. Nearly 30 years later, she still makes me laugh.

I always wonder how people see me, too much so.  I know. But I have to remember to think it without overthinking it. That maybe Heidi doesn’t think of me as gay or Christian or not Christian or lost or found, forgiven or I don’t know. Maybe she just thinks of me as a storyteller.

And she is part of my story, as I am part of hers.

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.

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.

The Pink Tea Cup

052809PinkTeaCup17MS.jpgWhen I lived in New York, on my days off from work, I would sometimes go to the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, check out a few books, then wander somewhere around there for lunch. One of my favorite places to have lunch alone, just me and a book, was a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood staple, called The Pink Tea Cup. I ordered the same thing every time, a burger special that came with fresh cut fries, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a cup of coffee. I was usually one of only a few customers during the hour or so I’d sit and read my book and eat my meal. It was a cozy joint and I especially liked going in the winter. I remember one year that I did not think I would be able to fly home for Christmas, whether it was because of money or getting shifts covered or both, but at some point, the heavens parted and I was able to get a plane ticket and make arrangements. I celebrated by taking myself to a late lunch at The Pink Tea Cup. I could not help but be conscious of the color of my skin while I dined there, but there was something Southern and familiar and comfortable about the place. I sat and ate the home cooked meal and looked forward to the home cooked meals my Mother would have waiting for me when I made it to Kansas for the holidays.

I just finished reading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. There was a section of the book where the protagonist, a successful African American actor named Leo Proudhammer, recalls working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant called The Island that sounded, if only to me, a bit like The Pink Tea Cup. Leo remembers serving Hopping John and chicken and ribs and I closed my eyes and saw all the action taking place at my old haunt, a place that still looked like 1968 even in 1993.

I am mostly drawn to James Baldwin for three reasons. He wrote often about New York, a city I love. He wrote about the Church, it’s complicated burdens and emancipations. And probably mostly, because he wrote about homosexuals, because he was one himself. I identify with James Baldwin.

This identification resonated even more in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone because he wrote about acting, specifically his character’s technique and process and it gave me an idea what it must have been like to be an actor in the ’50s and ’60s New York, a time and place that produced some pretty exciting actors, not to mention writers.

There is a point in the novel where Leo’s estranged brother, a man who was falsely imprisoned in his youth but has become a minister, comes to visit him at The Island. He stays until the restaurant closes and the two brothers sit to share a meal, Leo drinking a tumbler of Chianti, Caleb, the elder, drinking coffee. Their conversation is tense in moments and tender in others. At one point, Caleb asks Leo, “What does an artist really do?” I’m editing for space. More than anything I just want you to pick up the book and read it yourself, but Leo tells Caleb that an artist creates things-paintings, books, poems, plays, music. Caleb then wants to know exactly what these arts do. Leo tells him, “They make you-feel more alive.” And then Leo thinks to himself that he doesn’t trust that answer. They talk more, Leo then says, “I think it-art-can make you less lonely.” But he doesn’t trust that answer either. And then finally he tells his brother, “Sometimes you read something- or you listen to music- I don’t know- and you find this man, who may have been a very unhappy man- and- a man you’ve never seen- well, he tells you something about your life. And it doesn’t seem as awful as it did before.”

Everytime I write about Baldwin, I feel a little foolish. What could a very white boy from Kansas have to offer when talking about one of the greatest African American writers in history? His experience was not my experience. It’s kind of ludicrous for me to say, “Oh I LOVE James Baldwin because he wrote about New York!” It sounds like I’m talking about Cindy Adams. But there is something about the way he wrote about New York and Evangelicalism and sexuality that drew me into his world, that captivated me. And once he had me, has me, for James Baldwin’s work is ongoing, by seeing how much we are alike, he also reminds me of how different we are. I learn from his experience; it’s my hope that reading about his specific African American experience makes me a more sympathetic, empathetic, knowledgeable person. I think there is, in his writing, an attempt to shame me for the wrongs my ancestors did, just as I think he tries to hurt his father, even though he loves him, for being cruel and abusive and embittered and drunk when Baldwin was a boy. Baldwin offers a knife in the side and then a blanket for comfort.

It’s no surprise, really, that I feel a pang of regret for saying that something in Baldwin’s writing intends to punish or wound me. While I am gay and have always felt like an outsider, the color of my skin, reminds me, how much of an outsider could I possibly be? I’m much more Barbara, the secondary character of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a white aspiring actress who fled Kentucky in hopes of making her way in New York City, who forges a life long intimate relationship with Leo Proudhammer. Leo’s love for her is visible and tenable, but in the 20 years of their friendship the novel spans, there are the knife and the blanket and neither are ever very far from each other.

I really don’t know where I am going with all of this. Baldwin raises more questions than he answers for me. But God, I love him. I love the way his stories burrow into me and I laugh and I weep and I think to myself, “This is MY STORY. He is telling my story.” And the ridiculousness of that statement doesn’t even occur to me until I am pages ahead.

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.

Willie’s Redneck Rodeo

912spnDSGJLIt was one of those jaw dropping, did I really just see that moments. I was on Facebook, per usual, scrolling through posts and I stumbled upon a picture of someone’s kids in long grey beards and bandanas. That really can’t be what I think it is. And I read the attached caption. This person’s children had been at Duck Dynasty Vacation Bible School all week. I had no idea such a thing even existed.

I did a little research when I saw it, a few weeks ago. Apparently, there is a Duck Dynasty curriculum for everything: Vacation Bible School, teen programs, adult programs. That family really knows how to make money. Wow! If you go to a Christian publishing website, you’ll see how many Duck Dynasty created items are out there. I guess I didn’t quite realize the depth of their influence.

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

Now, I really try to keep my blog as clean as possible. I seldom swear here, I don’t talk about sexual acts, of any kind. That quote above, you most likely know, is from a GQ interview Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson gave a few months ago. It ignited a controversy, which I believe he, and the family, too, knew would erupt in the way that it did. My Facebook newsfeed was full for days, weeks, even still, with folks weighing in on the interview and the subsequent interviews. Most of my friends, obviously, expressed disdain, discouragement, disappointment. And also, a handful of people I know expressed pride. “I’m with Phil!” was posted by a guy who I only remember as being a jerk in high school and the last time I saw him, sometime not long after college, made fun of me to my face about being gay.

This family, they have struck a chord with the American public. Whether or not I like them or watch them is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they are influencing people and probably not in the best ways. The whole fallout over this initial interview was to position themselves as Christian martyrs, suffering for their faith.

In all of the interviews, snippets of episodes, merchandising, I have seen nothing that deters me from my initial reaction which is Money is their God. There is nothing they love more than making money. I don’t think living to make money is such a bad thing, sometimes I wish I was a little more money motivated. If I was, I would probably have more of it.

As a whole, I do not think they are good role models, for anyone, but it especially scares me that what they are selling is being sold to grade schoolers. This particular VBS, Willie’s Redneck Rodeo is nothing more than a rehash of the Parables of the Gospel, the implication being that the Bible itself is not interesting enough to be taught as is, so one must put a beard and bandana on it.

They proclaim that their message is not anti-gay, but it is. I am not alone in that observation. I don’t believe in talking to children about adult topics, that they should be shielded from certain life realities for as long as possible. There is just something about choosing these people who are so famous for their polarizing lifestyle that doesn’t sit well with me.

I am sure not everyone who reads this will agree with me. I wasn’t going to write about this, I generally tend to avoid political stuff because I’m no expert about anything, except maybe The Brady Bunch, The Facts of Life, and shamefully, Big Brother. But, hey, it’s been on my mind, on my heart, and I wanted to express it.

Ultimately, I guess that family reunion this weekend is still on my mind. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the church that I was a little surprised by the way my family wholeheartedly embraced Eric with such open arms, from my 7 year old cousin Angelica to a distant 80-something cousin who when Eric and I were leaving whispered in my ear, “I like your friend.” We just want to be part of the family.

God’s Pen

Vintage-ink-pen-and-cursive-writingFunny story.  Several years ago, back in Bible college, my friend, who for the purposes of this story, I will call Dwight, was in the school’s library doing homework.  He needed to use a highlighter for something and he saw that a fellow classmate, I’ll call him Parker, had a highlighter laying next to him as he sat at another table doing his own homework.  Dwight walked over to Parker and asked if he could borrow his pen.  Parker, who we thought of as self-righteous, but in retrospect, was just perhaps a little on the awkward side, looked up in confusion.  “Is it okay if I borrow your pen?” Dwight repeated.  After a moment, Parker defensively answered, “It’s not my pen, it’s God’s pen.”

For some reason, that anecdote resonated with my circle of friends, the guys who lived on my dorm floor, we fancied ourselves young men who loved God, but did not fit the ideal mold of what Ozark necessarily wanted.  Parker, on the other hand, was evangelical catnip to the faculty and administration.  He always wore slacks and a tie, he was always so serious about God.  

Last night, I wrote a blog about my Bible college and my perceived lack of compassion to the passing of a fellow alumni, another gay man like myself.  It ultimately turned into an explosive piece.  I heard from many of my former classmates today as well as a few people from OCC that I’ve never met before today.  I revisited this missive and I thought, did I really write all this?  Did I then really post it for anyone in the blogosphere to read?  Well, I did.  And just 24 hours later, I can admit my error.  There are things I said that I wish I had not said.  There are things I said that I wished I’d said with more eloquence and most importantly, more compassion.  

My goal with that blog was to open people’s hearts, it’s my goal always when I talk about the relationship between the church and the homosexual community.  I read my post and think that what I said was so important, but I approached it so judgmentally.  So, for that I apologize.  This evening I received a kind message from OCC’s president, my former classmate, Matt Proctor.  He did not have to extend an apology, but he did. 

Today, one of the many Ozark friends that I heard from was my friend Dwight.  We talked briefly about my blog and then I asked him if he remembered the God’s pen incident.  He told me he totally did, in fact, he and his wife still talk about it from time to time.  I told him that I always try to tell people the story and it never quite translates.  I wondered to myself, why did this story about God’s pen stick in my mind so prominently for so long.  What does God’s pen even mean?

Maybe it just means that God is the only one of us who can afford to use a pen, the only one who says it right the first time.  For the rest of us, especially for me, it’s better to stick with writing with pencils. Because the good thing about a pencil is that you can erase it and try again and erase it and try again until you say exactly what you want to say in the exact way you want and need to say it.