Oh The Love of God

  

It’s one of my favorite memories and surely, it’s one of the simplest. 1989, sitting in a field on a college campus in Central Pennsylvania.  It was a church camp, I was there with the youth group I’d worked with on my summer internship at a church in Liverpool, New York. It had been a good summer, my senior year of college was weeks away.  

At this camp, part of the evening’s activities was a time allotted for each person, camper or counselor, to spend 30 minutes or so, in quiet time with God, reading their Bible, praying, journaling. While I was generally a person who did my “quiet time with God” in the morning, here we did it around 5:00 pm, when everyone had cleaned up for the evening but we hadn’t eaten yet. To be honest, and I do mean this in the best way possible, it was a little like a pre dinner cocktail. 

But here I was on this verdant hill, remembered now, even greener in my 27 year memory. Perhaps I was even on a bit of a bluff looking as far as the eyes could see, at the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania. It was 70 degrees, the heat of the day slowly replaced by evening’s relief.

And as I prayed and read and journaled that day, I was struck by just how much God loved me. Not only did he have mercy on me, not only did he forgive me, but he LOVED me. Had I always known that he loved me, yes, of course. But  this was different. Nothing noteworthy had occurred that day, good or bad, but suddenly, maybe it was the stunning vista, but I was overwhelmed by great emotion. God Loves Me.

On Sunday, in church, the minister, who was preaching about the Pentecost, and Acts 2, said that sometimes people are cruel to others because they can’t believe that God actually loves them. In the months since I’ve been back, I’ve thought about God’s love quite a bit.

I know that one could make a case that all songs about God are about His love, most anyway, but my two favorite songs when I was very little were Pass it On and a perhaps forgotten gem called, In My Heart There Rings a Melody. I loved both for different reasons. Pass it On was a song the teenagers in my church sang and, at 6, I really wanted to be a teenager. The other song I loved because the title made me think of my favorite cartoon character, Melody from Josie and the Pussycats. What unconsciously drew me to these songs, though, I suspect, was the reminder of how much God loved me.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going

And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing

That’s how it is with God’s love

Once you’ve experienced it

You spread your love to everyone

You want to pass it on

Also, 

I have a song that Jesus gave me,

It was sent from heav’n above;

There never was a sweeter melody,

‘Tis a melody of love.

And you know the very first song we learn in church, if we grow up in church, is Jesus Loves Me. So the hope is that as we grow up and go through life, this feeling, this assurance of God’s love is supposed to be what sustains us and bolsters and encourages us through the peaks and the valleys that is our life’s journey.

So, I’m just going to say it: I don’t know that I feel loved by God.  And the only reason I even type out such a vulnerable confession is, I think there are a lot of people sitting in pews every Sunday, probably even more spending their Sundays outside of church, who struggle with whether or not they feel loved by God, too. (Maybe I’m wrong.) 

I am so happy to be back in church. I love thinking about God and praying and trying not to cuss at my fellow drivers while I’m driving. I do feel God’s mercy, His forgiveness, His majesty. I just can’t say, at this moment in time that I feel His love. 

I’m such a stereotype, but I still get angry at God when good people suffer from cancer. I don’t understand why life is so hard for some people and just really easy for others. 

If I wanted to look closely at when I stopped feeling God’s love, ask myself when did I leave that mountaintop in Central Pennsylvania, I know it was way back when I first came out of the closet and left the church. 

I believed then that if God truly loved me, he would have made me straight. 

And I think that a few of us, we might go to church every Sunday, but something holds us back from the love of God. Like, why did You let my brother die or my Mom beat me or my Dad leave or my wife divorce me? We sit there in these pews with our broken hearts and maybe we feel like we can’t even admit it because admitting reveals our own faithlessness.

Maybe in a way, I’ll never get back to that mountaintop, maybe those big emotions are mostly emblems of youth. Like I said, I am happy to be in church. And yes, I do know God loves me. I believe God loves me. And I know that feelings can get us into trouble sometimes anyway.

I’m just, you know, putting it out there. Maybe it’s something you struggle with and hearing someone else voice it, might lighten your load. Why shouldn’t we be hungry, aching, and needy in our desire to feel Him whisper in our ear and touch our heart and call us beloved? 

I don’t have the answers. My blogs of late have mostly been a series of questions. If the day comes when I  see my sexuality as a gift from God, is that when I will feel His love again? I don’t know. 

Maybe, though I don’t think it is the case, but maybe, the closest I will ever get to feeling God’s love again is what I feel when I look at the ocean, or a mountain range, or snow, or a star crowded sky. After all, they are from God, clearly gifts, and I just don’t think One would bestow on me such a treasure if He didn’t really love me.

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.

I Look to You

Whitney Houston I LOOK TO YOUI thought about Whitney Houston a lot this month.  I remember the day she died quite vividly.  February 11, 2012.  I was on my computer that Saturday afternoon and the news popped up on Yahoo.  I had been at work, just a few blocks away from the Beverly Hilton when she died.  I do not know of a celebrity death that has affected me more.  I loved Whitney Houston.

Her music was part of the soundtrack of my formative years,. I remember watching MTV in hopes that they’d play the How Will I Know video and then dancing to it, alone in my room. There was also something about her story that resonated with me: she was a church girl. She grew up in the church and sang in the church and talked about her faith in interviews.

Not surprisingly, she was a polarizing topic at my Bible college. Her albums had songs about faith sandwiched between songs about infidelity or sexual longing. I remember belting out I Wanna Dance with Somebody in my ’79 Monte Carlo on those long drives from Joplin to Independence to visit my parents.

Like many of our first loves, somewhere along the way, I lost track of Whitney. I saw The Bodyguard, of course and had a boyfriend give me a cd single of I Believe in You and Me. (As it turned out, he did not.) But somewhere between 1991 and 2012, I stopped buying Whitney’s music.

And then she died. And I started listening to her all over again. I bought the greatest hits collection on iTunes and I found this song that she released shortly before her death.

As a chubby, awkward, gay boy growing up in Kansas, I would stare at the picture of Whitney on the cover of her first album and think, “She’s just so pretty!” And then, after her passing, I found myself staring at the cover of her last album, I Look to You in a similar way. She was still so beautiful, of course, but her face gave some indication of the struggles that she had endured, the struggles that she had seemingly overcome.
whitney-houston-album
Whitney Houston had her demons. She had this voice and face and look that was a gift from God, but there were things that she struggled with. And as much as I loved her because of her beauty, I think I understood her because of her weaknesses. I have demons myself. Some you know about, others I hope you never know about.

I love this video. As someone who grew up in church, it’s a plea from the broken to a merciful God. At the end of the day, whether we are Grammy winners or restaurant hosts, we all need a little help. So, if you have a few minutes, have a watch and listen. And don’t be too judgmental about your own brokenness, because at the end of the day, we are all the same: the lost looking for a cause, the weak looking for strength and the melody-less looking for a song.

This Is Not Who We Are

R79603I’d much rather spend my time here writing about people or things that I’m fond of, like Jane Fonda or Amy Grant or chocolate cake from Magnolia Bakery, but something in the news yesterday caught my eye, and I want to address it.  On a recent episode of the 700 Club, a woman was dismayed that she drove a nursing home resident to church and that no one had told her that he had AIDS.  Pat Robertson told her that among other things, in San Francisco, gay people wear rings that when one shakes hands with them, the ring cuts the person they are shaking hands with.  I’ve included the link to Huffington Post here and in the video, I’m actually more disturbed by the way his co-host sits there listening and nodding with him.  It’s one thing for a man who might possibly have dementia to pontificate about gay people or Alzheimer’s or feminism, but this woman, his longtime co-host Terry Meeuwsen has the chance to steer the show towards something compassionate and sane and she does not do it.

As long as I can remember, I have loved pageants. I’ve always loved pretty girls. When I came out to my parents, the first thing my Dad said to me was, “But you always liked girls so much.” Anyway, watching the Miss America pageant every year was something I always looked forward to. I even remember the year Terry Meeuwsen won Miss America. And as a child, my parents had a Terry Meeuwsen album that I loved to play a lot. I’d look at the back cover, where there was a picture of her wearing her crown and think, she’s so beautiful. I’ve included a link to her pageant winning performance of her singing the gospel song, He Touched Me. While I must say, I think it’s a showy performance, one does get the sense that this is a young girl who truly loved the Lord who wanted to use her voice to glorify Him. With her talent and beauty and charisma, it’s no surprise that she won the competition.

Obviously, I am a person interested in people’s journeys. How did this young woman turn into someone who reigns next to Pat Robertson everyday on the dubiously named Christian Broadcasting Network? I don’t think that Pat Robertson glorifies the Lord, by word or by deed. I don’t think it’s great, but I’m used to it when he says that gays have special rings to inflict AIDS, or men with Alzheimer’s-suffering wives should divorce them so they can move on, or that the Joplin tornado wouldn’t have happened if more people had prayed, or that there should be a vomit button on Facebook about gays, or that, well, the list goes on.
If you are a conservative Christian and you are reading this, you probably think that gay people don’t see you as a lesser Pat Robertson. But, the thing is, the AIDS ring story was reported on every gay news website that I know of. I read the comments on several of those sites and I think a lot of people see Pat Robertson as a spokesman for the conservative Christian community.

What I want to say is this, I think Christians need to stand up and say, “This is not who we are.” I think the entire world needs to hear it. Joel Osteen is probably one of the most revered evangelists in the entire world. I’m like Cher, there are some things he says that I do not agree with, but there are things that he says that inspire or convict or comfort me. I see him as a man who loves the Lord who is trying to glorify Him. But I did a search for Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson, hoping to find an article or an interview somewhere where he’s says, “Pat Robertson is not preaching the Gospel, this is not who we are.” I found nothing. (If you reading this and have a link proving otherwise to share, I would love to see or read it.)

So my message today is simple: it applies to Terry Meeuwsen and Joel Osteen, but also to people whose lives I’m truly invested in, my Christian friends. I just challenge you to say, “This is not who we are.” You might think your non-Christian friends, gay or otherwise, already know it, but what does it hurt to remind them again of your love?

James Baldwin

James-Baldwin-New-Orleans-1963So, if you and I have had an actual face to face conversation in the last few months, you might know that I’m reading the works of James Baldwin right now. I started with Another Country, then Go Tell it on the Mountain, then most recently, Giovanni’s Room.

I think he’s amazing. He wrote honestly and bravely about race and religion and homosexuality in the 50’s and 60’s, when barely anyone was writing about even one of those themes and he was writing about all three. There is so much tension in his novels and yet, the villain on page 43 is the person you’re most invested in on page 44. He understood that yin and yang of human behavior.

One of his most difficult characters is the father in Go Tell it on the Mountain, who was based on his own father. Not long ago, I watched an interview with Baldwin where he described his father this way: “He could not bend, he could only be broken.” I’ve carried that thought with me for a few days now, so I thought I would share it with you.

Baldwin grew up in a conservative church environment. He did not consider himself to be religious in his adulthood, but that Faith of his youth kept a hold on him his entire life. I’ve posted another, short youtube video of him singing “Precious Lord, take my Hand.” He had a beautiful voice. A beautiful voice in every way.

Guest Blogger, Ab Kastl: Plan B

Image

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

Plan B

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

                       

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

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

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

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

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

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

westboro-church

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

And regarding the Westburo Baptist Church, I have not hung out there in years….I kid, I kid.. I was testing to see if I lost ya or not.   They are a twelve member family cult of hate that has nothing to do with real Christianity or the bible.
1301587029-rupaul

2364680621_058246f136All of us are working on things in our life.  We all have things from our past that have thrown us off in life.  My big challenge growing up was coming from a family of a nasty divorce, feeling insecure, and dealing with being molested.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Try So Hard

Amy_Grant“It’s the stuff we love when we’re young that sticks with us the most,” said Amy Grant last night while she was in concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.  I think I had thought that sentiment before, but I’d never verbalized it.  It’s something that I’ve thought about since her concert, which was amazing.  I believe everyone has a singer or music group that resonates for them the way Amy Grant resonates for me.  She is central to my adolescence and college and even early 20’s.  For my entire life, friendships have been built over a shared love of this woman.  

I experienced a wide range of emotions last night.  When she walked out after a cursory introduction and started singing You’re not Alone in this World, I was ebullient to be at an Amy Grant concert again after a 22 year gap.  When she sang, 1974, I remembered being in my Bible college dorm listening to her on my Sony Walkman.  When she sang Hope Set High, I thought about my years as a youth minister and the kids that were in my youth group and how for years after leaving the ministry, I felt like I’d let them down.  When she sang Sing Your Praise to the Lord, I thought about its songwriter, Rich Mullins, who sang at nearly every Christ in Youth conference I ever attended.  When she sang a cover of Put a Little Love in Your Heart for her encore, I thought it was a perfect choice because, in my mind, Amy Grant has always been about love.  

The crowd was very electic last night.  My friend Richard and I were sandwiched between straight couples in their fifties.  There were also young straight couples, girls night out groups, and of course, several members of the GLBT community.  Richard and I became friends when we met through mutual friends at a Happy Hour in a Mexican restaurant in Silver Lake and one of us mentioned Amy Grant.  I actually think that I gravitated to Amy Grant as a boy because I was gay. She’s Christian music’s Cher.

There was a lesbian couple sitting in the row in front of us. When Amy Grant started singing one of her new songs, Don’t Try So Hard, I saw them lean in and whisper something to each other. One of them reached out and rubbed the other woman’s back. The lyrics about the gift of God’s grace resonated with them and then I looked around at the audience, many of whom were having an emotional reaction. And I myself, absorbed the lyrics, I remembered my 17 or 18 or 19-year-old self who tried so hard to not be gay. When did I realize or will I ever fully realize that I’m lovely even with my scars?