For You Are With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a Wish

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Yesterday morning, I went to the mall with my Mother.  I am in California and she is in Kansas, and yet, unbeknownst to her even, we found ourselves walking the corridors of Metcalf South Shopping Center, in Overland Park, Kansas, circa 1973.  I don’t even know what spurred the memory, as I swam my morning laps, but that recollection stayed with me for the rest of the day.

It was an autumn morning, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the date was September 28.  My mom brought me to the mall, we walked around, she bought me a popcorn jack-o-lantern at Topsy’s Popcorn.  I think there might have been some toy that came with it.  We got in the car and we drove home, me elated by my new acquisition.

I think of this day from time to time.  I don’t know why, other than it’s just a pure, happy memory.  My Mom was the center of my world when I was 5.  She was the prettiest, the smartest, the best singer, the best dresser, the funniest.  I loved my Dad, I loved my brothers, I loved my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and my cousins and my dog Pee-Wee, I loved God and Jesus and church, too, but my Mother, she was my favorite.  My Mommy.

I tried to unearth more details from this 43-year-old outing.  Did we make other purchases? Were we preparing for some special occasion?  Was it definitely 1973?  Am I sure that it was even a popcorn ball and not some other candy or toy that brought me delight on that day?  Did I beg for this treat or was it her idea?  Was it something we could easily afford or a small extravagance? And while I arrived at no answers, I luxuriated in the speculations, the recreation of the scene.

Because I am a bit of a history buff, I decided to google Metcalf South Mall.  When my Dad had his surgery in 2012 and we were based in Kansas City for three weeks, I once drove by the mall and could see it was not the mall of my memories.  The intervening years had not been kind.  According to Wikipedia,  Metcalf South closed its doors for good in 2014.  Sad, I know.

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Metcalf South Shopping Center opened in 1967.  If some of its nostalgic Pinterest fans can be believed it was “the place to be in Overland Park” in the 1970s.  All that I can remember from those years affirms that observation.

Because we lived in nearby Merriam, we went to this mall often, at least once a month, probably more.  I’d forgotten the centerpiece of the structure, a three-story fountain.   In scrolling through internet images last night, the memories flooded back, of all the times my Mom or Dad would give me a penny so I could add my hopes into the collection and make a wish.

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Last week, I wrote a piece about my parents where I alluded to some health challenges.  What I didn’t say was that my Mom was diagnosed with macular degeneration three weeks ago.  While she had told a handful of people, I did not want to say anything on a larger scale before she wanted to share the information herself.  On Monday, before she met with a specialist in Wichita, she posted on her Facebook page about her diagnosis and asked for prayers.

The doctor gave my Mom a shot in each eye that we hope will improve her sight and/or slow down the degenerative process.  As she faces some uncertainty about what the future holds, her spirits are good and she remains hopeful.  On Monday night, after they had returned home from Wichita, my Mother told me how, as they sat in the waiting room, my Dad comforted her by reading to her all the loving comments friends and family had written in response to her Facebook post.  And even though I was in California, and they were in Kansas, I could see it.

I don’t know what I wished for when I stood in front of that grand fountain back in the 70s. What we dream about when we are young isn’t always what we dream about when we get older.  And yet, here I am, on my way to old myself, and my wish is as pure and simple as if I was still a five-year old.

Yesterday was a bit of a gift. For a couple hours anyway, I was 5 and I was at the place to be in Overland Park with my favorite person.  And because memory can be kneaded and stretched in any way we want, I created a new one, or maybe just added onto the old one. I saw a little boy walking hand in hand with his young mother.  When they came to the sparkling fountain with millions of coins lining the pool’s floor, he asked his Mom if he could make a wish. She dug in her purse and found a penny, maybe it was even a wheat penny.  She placed the coin in his small hands and he closed his eyes and somehow he, miraculously, made a wish for something decades into his future, something his little mind could not possibly imagine in that moment.  He didn’t say it aloud, not even to her, but as he sent the currency into the air waiting for it to fall to its splash, he hoped.  The little boy hoped his wish would come true.

 

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More Than We Deserve

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Last summer, at a family reunion, my Father was asked to say grace before the evening meal.  Even though it’s my Mom’s side of the family, he is always the one who is called upon to pray.  He is a godly man and a good man. As our heads were bowed in prayer, one of the things he said to God was, “You’ve blessed us.  Some more than others. Some more than we deserve.”

I was glad we all had our eyes closed, so no one could see me crying.

Because I live several states away from them, I only see them a couple of times a year.  When I am in California and they are in Independence, in the house where they raised me, I can imagine them still being the couple in the pictures I have displayed in my home.  I can see them as high school seniors, or a young 1970’s Kansas City family, or the way they  looked when they visited me while I lived in New York and we went to Atlantic City for the day.

And then I go to them or they come to me, or sometimes we meet in the middle.  Within minutes, my Mom will tell me whether my hair is too short or the appropriate length.  And I will be shocked with the reminder of something I manage to forget when we are only talking or texting to each other from 1500 miles away: they are old now.

This weekend, I met my parents in Denver.  After they picked me up at the airport, we went to lunch at a Panera Bread.  And as we sat in a corner and ate our food, they told me about all the doctors’ visits they had made in the last few weeks.  They both retired this summer and now, like so many others, their days are filled with negotiating doctor and dentist and optometrist appointments.  As casually as they could, they shared the news of these visits and I sat there, with concern and sadness, as I gobbled up what might possibly have been the worst turkey club sandwich I’ve ever encountered.

For the rest of the weekend, as we drove around Denver and went to the Museum of Nature and Science and to dinner at my cousin Valerie’s house and services at historic Trinity United Methodist Church downtown, I tried to take as many pictures as possible, to document and memorialize our time together.  I’m not the biggest fan of the way I look in pictures these days, but I tried not to judge my wattled neck or squinty eyes too much.  Each moment together is something to be treasured.

I’ve tried to dissect why my Father’s prayer last summer has stuck with me in these last 14 months.  Part of it, I know, is that he reminded me of all of the challenges we have been through as a family, and the challenges he’s been through and the challenges my Mom has been through, and somehow, we are still here.  They are still here.

Maybe it’s the Kansas in us or the church in us, but I fear that we go through life worrying that we don’t deserve the blessings we have.  Or that suddenly all those good things might go away. I know that I am lucky that I know my Mother and Father love me.  I know that I am lucky that there are still things to laugh about, still things to see.

When I got home on Monday, and I presented Eric with the butter pecan cookies my Mom made for him, it struck me what a gift those cookies were from her.  Even something like making a batch of cookies is not as easy as it used to be.  And it doesn’t means she won’t make them anymore, it just greater reflects the deepness of her love. Also, probably a day will come when she won’t be able to make me cookies and a part of her will wonder, how does he know I still love him?  But I’ll know. In the 48 years I’ve been on this planet, everything she’s ever done for me has revealed that love. I’ll always know my Mother loves me.

I’ll be honest, I have been sad in the days that I’ve been home.  I miss my folks and like a spoiled child, I miss the version of my folks I see when I close my eyes.  And with each step and each breath and each blink, their lives will only become more challenging.  And back to that prayer, but I wrestle with this feeling that my parents deserve more.  I know, deserve is probably the stupidest, most egotistical word in the English language. Nobody deserves anything.  Except my parents, they do.  They deserve every blessing imaginable.

The truth is, God has blessed them.  While aching, weeping, and praying for more for them, I am grateful for every good thing, every good day, every good meal.  And certainly, I must hold to another truth, as I grapple with what our futures hold. If you are lucky enough to know them, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway.  In giving me these two as parents, God has blessed me beyond measure.  More than I deserve.

 

Ray, I Hope You Know

  On Sunday, after church, I went to an orientation for people interested in joining the congregation. About 15 of us, we all sat around a table and wrote our names with sharpies for name tags we affixed to our shirts and blouses. 

The minister came in and introduced himself, shared a bit of his life story and asked us all to share our names, what we do, and briefly, our religious history. Not surprisingly, the group was filled with folks like me who had grown up in church and somewhere along the way, stopped going. 

When it was my turn, I shared that I had gone to Bible college, had been a youth minister, and that after I came out of the closet, that was the end of all of it. Also, for whatever reason, in the beginning of 2016, I decided I missed church. So, after more than 20 years, I started looking for a church home. 

After we went around the room, each sharing a bit of their own story, the minister told us about the church, its history, its positions, its outreach. Then he asked the room if anyone had any questions. The room sat quietly for a few seconds until finally, he said, “Surely the former youth minister has a question for me.” Everyone chuckled, I chuckled. “Actually, I do.” Another chuckle. I asked my question, so boring of a question that it doesn’t warrant repeating. 

A few others asked questions, and not much later, he dismissed us. As I left, my friend Richard and I went to shake the minister’s hand and say thanks. 

The minister said, “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here. We have many LGBT members.” I laughed because, as I shared in my last blog, at this church,  someone, everyone, is always reminding us, as often as possible, just how welcome every person is. 

I was a little high all that afternoon. And it wasn’t just the welcoming the gays part. But there was something thrilling about being called out for my time in the ministry. The former youth minister. And that somehow, if God had used me before, maybe God could use me again. 

As I was reading a book today, another memoir of a Midwestern gay who moved to New York to make his way, I had a flash of that exchange that took place on Sunday. “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here.” My eyes got blurry and I had to put my book down and I started to weep. It had not been emotional in the moment, but now, with some reflection, I thought, I have waited 25 years to hear those words from a church.  I’d actually waited my entire life. From the time I was the little guy in a tan leisure suit and a wooden cross necklace, until the day I left, at 23, I was always trying to turn myself into the straight version of Ray. And here someone, an entire congregation, was offering the possibility, that Gay Ray, could be what God wanted me to be all along. And the idea was shocking, but also, a comfort. I bawled. 

And you know, I must be honest. There is a conflict, because within this joy, this discovery that there is a place for me, after so many years, I can’t help but resent the churches that turned me away in the first place.  And then I wonder, DID they turn me away? Or did I just go away because I was afraid I would hear those words, “You are not welcome here.” I knew the 411. I’d been paying attention every Sunday. Church is no place for the gays. Being gay is something you repress or pray to heal. And if you aren’t healed of it, your faith wasn’t very good to begin with. And your parents are taught in church that if you are gay, it’s because they did something wrong. And your parents, as hard as they try, it breaks their heart that you’re gay. And you go through life, knowing that, even though they love you, you broke their hearts. And their churches don’t offer them comfort and say to them, “You did nothing wrong. You are amazing parents.”

It’s a lot. It’s enough to burden a person’s soul.

I know it must seem like I say the same thing over and over again. I do and I know that I do, but I cut myself some slack because I don’t think I am the only person who has struggled to feel welcome, to feel home. And I know that I have conservative friends in conservative churches that have young LGBT kids in their congregation and it would mean so much to me, if that is you, you could reach out to those kids and tell them how much you are rooting for them. That your church is their home. That they are welcome.

I know that some of you grew up, completely, all the way, house, kids, dogs, vacation home, grew up, but for some of us, childhood never seems very far away. And the people whose approval we wanted most in our youth are the affirmations we seek for the rest of our lives.  And we are all a little broken, all a little weary. And don’t think you can tell someone too many times that they are welcome, because,  maybe the opposite is so ingrained, that it takes a really long time to hear it.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a

Leonardo-DiCaprio-dans-TitanicIt was December 1997.  I remember it vividly for a couple of reasons.  My parents and I met my brother and my two nephews and niece at Simple Simon’s pizza in Independence.  I was visiting from LA for Christmas and it was to be my one chance to see the kids.  I had been close to them when they were smaller, but as they grew up, it seemed we had less in common.  They were roughly 15, 13, and 11, I believe.  The day before, my parents and I had gone to see Titanic.  I innocently asked the kids if they had seen the movie.  It was December 1997, and if you remember, it was the movie everyone was talking about.

“Leonardo DiCaprio is a fag,” my oldest nephew bellowed. “I hate that fag,” my other nephew agreed.  And that was the beginning of a 15 minute conversation among my two nephews and niece about the sexuality of the most beloved, yet apparently, polarizing heartthrob of 1997.  The boys talked about how they didn’t want to see the movie, because Leonardo was a faggot, a fag, gay.  My niece bragged, “I don’t care if he is a fag, I still love him.”  

I was actually 29 in 1997.  I was newly out to my parents.  My brother said nothing to them to stop them.  He wouldn’t have.  Just a few years before, back when I looked up to him and tried my best to build a relationship with him, his best friend would regularly call me Fag and Gay Ray to my face, in his presence, and he never asked this friend to stop. My parents also did nothing to stop the conversation.  I watched both of them, clearly pained to hear their grandchildren say cruel things about a community of which their youngest son was a member, but they both stared down at their pizza, hoping the conversation would stop.  Eventually, the three started talking about something else on their own.

I’m not sure why this day popped into my head today.  But it’s something I’ve thought about from time to time in the years since it happened.  I think about it whenever the movie comes on television.  I thought about it when Eric and I went to the Titanic exhibit in Las Vegas last summer.  I thought about it the only time I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in person.  (He was with his girlfriend at the time, the insanely gorgeous Bar Refaeli.  I thought to myself, he doesn’t look gay to me.)  I also thought about it when one of my nephews passed away a couple years ago.

I am a forgiving person, I really am.  I still love my nephews and niece, I only wish the best for their lives, but there was a shift after that day.  They were kids, I don’t really know if they were li’l homophobes or just talking the way every other teenager talked, especially in Kansas in 1997.

On that day, I sat there hoping that someone would speak up.  I hoped it would be my brother.  I also hoped it would be my parents, who struggled so much with my sexuality, especially in those early years.  If only one person had just said, “Stop, don’t use that word.  There is no reason to ever call someone that word.”  Of course, looking back, I know who that person should have been: it should have been me.  I should have told my family, “I wish you would not use that word.  I’m gay and words like fag and faggot hurt people’s feelings, specifically, my feelings.”  And if I had, maybe it would have been the beginning of a conversation or an education or a connection.  

By not saying anything, I backed away and I never gave these kids the chance to move forward.  I do not know if they grew up to not like gay people, we’ve never talked about it.

I’m a lucky guy, I know that. I have friends who have been my friends so long that they are family now. And I’m lucky that those friends are actively, vocally, passionately supportive of me and my community. And I’m lucky that I have the relationship that I do with my parents. But when I think about that day, it does still haunt me. If I’d been brave enough to say something, who knows what I might have gained in the long run.

Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: Old Wallpaper

wallpaper 2My good friend Michael has written another guest blog, the first guest blog of 2014!  Partly because my parents have lived in the same, relatively unchanged, ranch style house since 1980, I can relate to this story.  And yet, since this is a story about constants and changes and our relationship to those things, I am sure everyone can relate.  

Old Wallpaper

In 1973 my dad moved us from Queens, New York to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Needless to say it was a bit of a culture shock for the whole family.  No one could understand what we were saying with our thick, New York accents and every time the lady at the Piggly Wiggly store said, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear”, we would literally come back to the counter wondering what we had done wrong.  It was like living on the planet, Mars.  But one of the great things about our move was that we got to watch our house being built.   The first time my dad took us to our lot, all that was there was the cement foundation.  Once a week the whole family would pile into the new Ford, Galaxy station wagon and check out the progress of our house.  Soon there were studs up, then walls, then brinks and stone, and then the roof.

When it was finally finished it was the quintessential 1970’s ranch house, with avocado green, shag carpeting, burnt orange appliances in the kitchen, a wagon wheel light figure in the living room and lots and lots of loud wallpaper throughout. 

Flash forward 40 years!  My mother and father still live in that same house, minus the green, shag carpet, etc.  When I was visiting last summer they mentioned that they might finally take down the old, original wallpaper in the half bathroom off the garage.  “Oh, no don’t!  That’s all that’s left of the original design and it’s so cute”, I pleaded.   I made sure to take a picture of the bathroom before I left in case they followed through with their foolish plan.

This morning on the phone, my mother casually mentioned that they finally remodeled the half bath off the garage.  She also mentioned that they were thinking of finally selling the house and moving to a smaller place.  A four bedroom house was just too much trouble for a couple in their late seventies.  It was time.

 It was just old and worn wallpaper, hanging in the half bath off the garage. It was dated and silly and dingy so it was time for it to be torn down and replaced with a fresh coat of beige paint.  Preparing the house for the next family to take over perhaps.  What’s the big deal?

But that wallpaper was my youth, my memories and a link to the past.  When I would visit my childhood home, little by little things would change but I could always go into that half bath off the garage and I was immediately  pulled back into the 1970’s and my childhood.  

As a kid I probably spent too much time in that bathroom, sitting there trying to figure out the story of those characters on that red and white, kitschy wallpaper. There was the woman sitting at her vanity painting her fingernails.  The bald man drying himself off with the checkered towel.   The woman with the night cap on, checking her wrinkles in the mirror.  The man in his bathrobe combing his hair.  The mom brushing her little girl’s hair while she plays with her toy, with the cat watching closely.  The naughty poodle pulling the towel off the rack.  What did it all mean?  Pondering it now I guess it was just a simple story about a family living together and sharing a space on a daily basis.  It could have been any family I suppose, but I guess to me it was my family that I imagined on that wall.   I think that is why I find it so hard to let go of it completely.   So this afternoon I blew up the picture I had taken last summer, put it in a frame and mailed it off to my folks.  I want it to be a reminder I guess…or a monument really, to that young family from Queens, New York starting off their new life and adventure together on the planet, Mars.

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Lead With Love

heart-love-ocean-wavesWhen I was in Bible college, there was a song that was popular called You’re the Only Jesus. The idea is that you might be the only Christian a non-Christian will ever encounter and because of that you bear a responsibility. And hopefully, that responsibilty, will affect the way you treat everyone with whom you interact.

Last Friday, I posted a blog stemming from something a childhood friend posted on Facebook. A lot of people read it and many people commented, both here on easilycrestfallen.com, on Facebook and in private messages. Several conjectured what Sarah would say or think if she saw the blog. I wondered about it myself. I wondered if maybe I had shared too much of her personal story. I wondered if I had overreacted to her original post. I want you to know that she did send me a message a couple days ago, apologizing for hurting my feelings and telling me she had a struggle with self-righteousness. If you know me, you know I have my own struggle with self-righteousness, just bring up the subject of people running stop signs and I can rant for an hour. I was moved by her response and I must say, she really did not have to respond at all.

Last week, when I was with my cousins in Vegas, one of my cousins was talking about religion. She was talking about Christians and how hypocritical some of them are and she brought up my parents and said, “But your parents, your parents are true Christians.” I agreed, because I feel in all their interactions, they always lead with love, whether it be with other family members, or co-workers, or church friends. And as a person who has known them for 45 years, I can tell you that’s how they’ve always treated me. When I came out to them over 20 years ago, it was not easy for them, in fact, it broke their hearts, but the first thing they did was remind me that their love for me was unchangeable.

In Friday’s post, I talked about how some friends say I should unfriend the people who post anti-gay things on FB. I said that the reason I stay is because I like hearing about their lives. I think that’s definitely part of it, but there is more. I sometimes wonder if I might be the only gay person, or one of the only gay people, some of these friends might know. Here in LA, I am surrounded by gays, you can’t even turn a corner without bumping into someone who claims to be “Cher’s Biggest Fan,” but I know that other parts of the country are a little different.

I was humbled by Sarah’s response to me, because though I try to lead with love, I often fail. Actually, I fail a lot. It seems I’m often saying or writing something petty or snide or sarcastic, both on the page and in person. What I need to remember, try harder at remembering, is that even though I am no longer that Bible college student, the things I learned at home and church and college, still apply. 1 John 4:7 says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” There aren’t any qualifiers in that Scripture about whether or not the lovers or lovees are straight or gay or something in between. The command is simple and pure: Love.