Then Sings My Soul

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Several years ago, I was driving through Utah on my way to a family reunion.  Having never been in the state, I was awestruck by the beauty and the majesty of the landscape.  Mountains and canyons and old bridges and blue, blue skies on a sunny July day.  Over and over, only half aware of it, I would start to sing the first verse of a song that I sometimes sing when I encounter grandeur in nature.

Oh Lord my God
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds
Thy hands have made
I see the stars
I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout
The universe displayed

The truth is, How Great Thou Art isn’t really even one of my favorite hymns.  I don’t hate it but I don’t think of it as a song that resonates for me.  And yet, here I was driving through Utah and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  I also couldn’t get it out of my head when I saw snow capped Mt. Shasta for the first time.  Or sometimes when I walk through Central Park.

At that particular time in my life, church and God and religion were something that I felt very far removed from.  It was almost vexing that an old-fashioned country church hymn would be so fixated in my subconscious. While I grew up in the church, it was not who I was in my adulthood. But as I drove through Utah, I tried to give myself some grace.  I tried to just enjoy the song and the singing of the song, sung at the top of my lungs, no less.

I’ve written about it before but a couple of years ago, I embarked on a journey back to church.  Not the same faith of my youth, I don’t think anyone ever holds on to that, exactly.  But I found a church that accepted the LGBTQ community and preached about social issues that I care about and told me that all those questions and doubts I’ve always had about God and Jesus and the Bible and Christianity were welcome too.

So I joined that church and then about a year later I stopped going.  Somewhere down the road I might write about it but, put succinctly, I stopped going to that church because even after a year, no one knew my name.

I share that, not to ask for anyone’s sympathy, but only to illustrate that many people have any number of reasons for going to church and any number of reasons for leaving it.

Yesterday, in an effort to take a break from getting into political fights on Facebook, I asked the question, “What is your favorite hymn?” And I asked people to elaborate if they were inclined to do so.

While I was slightly surprised by how many people responded to the question, I was not shocked by the answers themselves.  The classics like In the Garden, The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace, Great is Thy Faithfulness, Ave Maria and of course, How Great Thou Art all made multiple showings.

As I imagined, so many favorite songs had memory tied to its resonance.  Beautiful stories of grandmothers and grandfathers, weddings, funerals, parents, siblings, children.  I know this sounds corny, but it was an honor to read these paragraphs about some of my friends’ most indelible memories.

I wondered why I had even posted this question, was I trying to write a blog?  If so, what was it that I wanted to say?  I didn’t know.

But, then, tonight, a friend of mine, I’ll call him Scott, weighed in.  (I pray he forgives me for sharing this.)   “*sigh* It’s been so long since I’ve invested any thoughts to anything ‘Christ-ey.’ That said, “Abide with Me” has always held a secure spot in my gay soul because it speaks of the promise of love & support when the rest of the world has abandoned me.” 

I feel like I understand where Scott is coming from.  We both grew up in conservative evangelical homes.  We both tried to be straight but came out eventually.  We both spent so much time in churches singing songs and listening to sermons and participating in classes and these experiences, in part, have molded the men we are today.

Not everybody goes to church.  Not everybody that grew up going to church still goes to church.  Church is responsible for many good things and also responsible for some bad things too.  I am not here to make a case for religion. But I do want to say something, and I must confess, it’s a lesson that took me a few decades to learn. If you have a song, whether it’s Sia or George Jones or Tchaikovsky or a song about Jesus that you sang when you were a child, if you love it, that song is yours and it will always be yours.  Nothing can change that.

Inspired by Scott, I have posted a YouTube video of a British (I think) boys’ choir.  A quick search led me to many renditions, even one by Elton John, but this is the one that moved me most.  Young children singing about the promise of love and support. I pray that they will grow into adults who always, their entire lives, know that Love.

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Running to Stand Still

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Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to my friend Richard sing and play guitar to songs from U2’s Joshua Tree album.  I had not heard much of Joshua Tree in the years since I wore my cassette tape of it out back when I was in Bible college.  Throughout the evening, Richard had me awash in college memories.  I was struck by how many of my memories included going long distances on open roads, whether it was for weekend choir or preaching trips or visits home to see my parents or adventures in the hometowns of my college friends.  And Joshua Tree was one of a handful of albums/cassettes that provided a soundtrack for much of those years.  So, if you are reading this, Richard, thanks for taking me a sentimental journey that night.

After the concert, but before I even got in my car to drive home, I downloaded Joshua Tree so I could have it again. It’s such a great album and yet, in the last two weeks, one song has bubbled in me more than all the other tracks.  As I drive around LA, or walk the dogs, or swim, I find myself humming or singing,

Ha la la la de day
Ha la la la de day
Ha la la de day.

Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t but it’s the refrain to as song called Running to Stand Still.  It starts,

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Lying still
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re going

It’s a sad song, a song about love not quite going right, maybe even about life not quite going right.  It’s a dirge, a lament.  Even before Tuesday, it had once again become a soundtrack, a part of me.

Obviously, much has been written about Tuesday, all of it on Facebook.  Well, most of it on Facebook.  We’ve certainly had the opportunity to air all of our opinions about this election and the aftermath.  If we thought it was divisive before and we thought it would go away after the election, we misjudged that as grandly as many misjudged the outcome of the election itself.

I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I can’t imagine anyone being shocked by that admission.  I don’t love her in the way some of my friends do, but I did feel that with the options presented, she was my, our, best hope.  I will also admit to being a big Obama fan, too.  I would happily sign up for four more year of him and Michelle.  Yes, I know that not everyone feels the same way.

Also, for the last week, I was working on a written piece that I hoped would be a part of a storytelling show.  I recounted one of the worst things that ever happened to me, maybe the very worst, and the show’s director asked for rewrites that took me further and further from a workable piece.  Have you ever written paragraph after paragraph and with each sentence found yourself drifting completely away from whatever it is you wanted to say when you started writing? When this person told me that I would not be asked to participate, it was a crushing blow.  Are you ok, they asked.  No, not right now, but I will be.

Ha la la la de day
Ha la la la de day
Ha la la de day.

Yesterday, after not speaking to each other since pre-results Tuesday, I called my parents.  We do not talk politics much, we are not on the same page.  But I was shocked to find out just how truly gleeful my Dad was about Trump’s victory.  I tried to explain that I was worried about my safety and my civil rights, but he was more interested in telling me the ways Obama failed these last eight years and that Hillary should be in jail.  It got heated and then it cooled.  My Dad said that with Tump being president, I have probably never been safer.  They told me that they loved me, I told them, I know, I love you too.

I did not post much to my FB wall this week.  I made a joke about moving to Canada (how original) early on Tuesday when I still had some hope that the direction the night felt like it was headed was not going to careen in the way that it did.  The next day, I posted a picture of my dog Ricky looking super adorable at the Blessing of the Animals at my church last Sunday.  Also, on Wednesday, I posted a picture of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, a U.S. soldier, was killed in 2004 in the Iraq war.  Mr. Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was one of the most emotional moments of the convention.  President Elect Trump made fun of the family and conjectured that Mrs. Khan, who stood silently by her husband, was not allowed to speak.

Also, yesterday, someone I went to Bible college with posted a meme that said, “Protests only work if human rights have been violated.  Protesting for not getting your way is just crying.” I hesitated to comment, what good does it do, but I wrote, “I have not been protesting, so I only have a limited understanding, but I do believe there are people who fear that with Trump’s election, their human rights will be taken away. I know I fear that my human rights will be taken away. We will see what the future holds.” To which a stranger responded to me, “And what about the human rights of others being demolished right now in the protests? You are worried about nothing. The riots however are real.”

So I said,  “I am not making light of the violence that is occurring at the protests right now, but you do not need to dismiss my concerns about what the future holds.”  I did not think that was too offensive.  As you might suspect, a part of me wanted to lash out, say something cruel.  I looked at this stranger’s FB profile.  Apparently she loves her grandbabies and her state university.  I don’t really know why she felt the need to attack me, a stranger to her as much as she is to me.

You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice.

Anyway, I decided to take a break from Facebook.  If you see this, it doesn’t mean I’m on FB again, WordPress just automatically sends my blogs to Facebook when I publish them.

It’s Saturday night, this dramatic week is nearly over.  I don’t mind saying I’m glad to see it go.  I have a party I need to get to and I need to change into something cute.  (Typos and run on sentences, be damned.) Tomorrow is another day, a new week.  But tonight, I want to raise a glass and toast my friends and say that I’m sad. If you’re sad too, I get it.

Tomorrow we can leap and soar and fly, but tonight, suffer the needle chill, we are running to stand still.

Mr. Bradley

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A few days ago, I found myself at an elementary school assembly. There was a young man, apparently the music teacher, leading a group of kindergarteners in a song about being an animal, if I recall. He was magnetic and enthusiastic and a tad flamboyant and he reminded me of my own grade school music teacher, Mr. Bradley.

Mr. Bradley was tall (at least he seemed tall at the time) and lean and silver-haired. He wore clogs and turtlenecks and was the most sophisticated person I’d ever known. He taught us songs in foreign languages (Frère Jacques) and songs about European landmarks (London Bridges) and he gave us, at an early age, a window into a world far away from our little Kansas farm town. He was the vocal teacher and orchestra teacher and since I sang in the choir and also played violin, he figured prominently in my grade school years. Like the young teacher I witnessed a few days ago, he was magnetic and enthusiastic and a tad flamboyant.

Mr. Bradley was the first gay person I ever knew, although I did not know it at the time. I remember in junior high, a classmate told me about how he’d once called Mr. Bradley a faggot to his face, bragged about it actually. I asked if Mr. Bradley was gay. He said, “Yes.” I asked how he knew and he told me his Dad who was also a teacher had told him.

When I was in high school, Mr. Bradley moved from Independence to somewhere in Texas. A few years later, I heard that Mr. Bradley had passed away. I’ve talked about formative teachers on my blog before and Mr. Bradley falls into that category. And of all my teachers from my hometown, he is the one I know the least about. In my adulthood, I’ve wondered why he taught in Independence when the call of the world was clearly beckoning to him. I’ve wondered if he had a great love or any loves at all. (I’d never heard talk about him having a boyfriend or partner.) I’ve wondered what prompted his move to Texas and if his final years were happy ones. I hope so.

I also wonder if he knew that I was going to grow up to be the (sometimes) magnetic, enthusiastic, tad flamboyant man I’ve grown up to me. Did he see something of himself in me? I know there are some people in the world that think gay people should not teach. There might be people who read my blog that think gay people should not teach. But I am very grateful that the Universe placed him in my educational path.

Mr. Bradley, I really wish you were alive today. I wish you could come visit me in Los Angeles and I’d take you to see Follies at the Ahmanson and jazz at LACMA and we’d walk the grounds of the Huntington Gardens. We’d get tickets to the L.A. Philharmonic and grab a drink at the revolving roof top lounge at Westin Bonaventure and as the world spins around us, I’d tell you how special of a teacher you were. I might confess to the school boy crush I’d had on you. You might tease me about how ridiculous I look in my man clogs and I’d tell you that it’s all your fault I wear the darned things. And then we’d laugh and order another round of Cosmopolitans. And when the check came you’d grab it and I’d steal it from your hand and say, “No, this is on me, I owe you.” And the fact is, even though I’ll never get to tell him that, I do owe him.