Back to the Basics

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In his timeless book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes:

 

“Imagine that Jesus is calling you today. He extends a second invitation to accept His Father’s love. And maybe you answer, “Oh, I know that. It’s old hat.”

 

And God answers, ‘No, that’s what you don’t know. You don’t know how much I love you. The moment you think you understand is the moment you do not understand. I am God, not man. You tell others about Me – your words are glib. My words are written in the blood of My only Son. The next time you preach about My love with such obnoxious familiarity, I may come and blow your whole prayer meeting apart.

 

Did you know that every time you tell Me you love Me, I say thank you?”

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Often, I fall for the belief that I have somehow spiritually made it. That I’ve graduated the basics of faith, moved on to the more complicated and sophisticated work of figuring out my own theology, my own interpretations of scripture, applying the teachings of God to the issues of the day like a PhD solving elementary questions. I take stills of God in my mind and pick him apart. I strain myself to solve him out, because I believe God gave me a brain to better understand him. To learn him, inside and out, and seek the real Truth in all of these hypotheses.

 

After all my years of trying to fight my way into God’s good graces, and then finally finding I was there all along, I fall for the idea that I know who I am and whose I am and that my value is a kind of concrete floor I will be standing sure-footed on for the rest of my life. I won’t have doubts, because I’ve taken that journey. My feet are beautifully calloused by that walk and I shall forever live in the afterwards. I won’t have to bother, anymore, with the basics of faith, the overly simplistic questions, because they are part of me, like scar tissue. 

 

I am easily offended at this question: Do you know that God loves you? Uh-hu, I want to say. That’s kind of the point. That’s why I’m here. God is love and I love God, and we could talk about this all day but I think there are some bigger issues demanding our utmost attention. Let’s talk about how science informs our faith and vice versa. Let’s dive into the deep waters of soteriology and pneumology, creation myths and Divine grace. Let’s tackle this thing from all angles and figure out, grow in understanding, enter into enlightenment. We have no time to discuss the basics, we have the answers, move on.

 

Do you know that God loves you?

 

It’s a question that I so easily bat away, particularly from well meaning people trying to help me when I’m in my pain. During my depression days, I heard this over and over and over again: God loves you. He is here for you. You matter. And each and every time, I thought, this is not news to me. I know that. Things still hurt. It’s not the issue.

 

It’s a question that sometimes feels too reminiscent of the simplistic culture I’ve walked away from. The one with the literalists and the dopey-eyed jerks, vampire Christians who see Jesus as a means to a glorious afterlife end. It feels like: Jesus loves you, and that’s all there is to it! And I get that. I agree with that. But still. I don’t want to agree in the same vein that they do. To agree with them in that way would feel, strangely, like a capitulation. Like the next thing coming is a suspension of my brain with it’s wild curiosity, a resumption of chirpy worship ballads emotionally manipulating me and a weekly volunteer gig for Young Life.  And I want to know the God that loves me in total, as I am, not as I should be. I want the one with the big outstretched arms always open. And the kind of love being sold by this particular strain of Christianity is anything but unconditional.

 

It’s a question that I respond to with “that’s Old Hat”, that’s elementary, basic, and I am better than that question. Then I move about my day from one experience of self-doubt to another of shame to another of questioning whether or not I am enough. And suddenly, the concrete floor caves beneath me. And I feel the distance between a simple declaration and nourished belief.

 

Does God love me?

 

It’s a humbling question. You have to set down your pride to face it, stop your eye-rolling and look at it. Acknowledge that maybe those evangelicals are on to something and it’s okay if it feels like capitulation, like a confirmation that you don’t have it all figured out. Say those words, I am loved and I am accepted, and work them into your heart like thread through a needle.

 

There is nothing elementary about this question. The depths of it are endless, the implications are paramount. The response we have points to the belief we hold about ourselves, about our worth, about how we see ourselves in this great wild world.

 

At the end of the day, it is the most important question and I am never 100% sure about it. My ability to accept that I am accepted hinges on me, and my hands are broken. Cupping them open to receive is an act of faith. Believing I deserve it in the first place is a mountain, it is a reach, but it is there, in that journey, in that holding out, in that summons, that I find the rope of grace. I grab it and hang on. I say the words again. I am accepted. I am accepted. I am accepted. And I allow for the moment where, as Tillich says,: “reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.” I am back to the beautiful basics. Starting over. Feeling it for the first time, once again.

Faith by Sehnsucht

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On the last night of camp, we were released from the amphitheater with a promise that God loves us and an encouragement to go spend time in prayer with him. All my church camps ended this way. I loved it like that. I loved the silence, I loved the time. As an introvert, I loved the ability to wander off alone and know that no one was going to bother me and everyone else was doing the same because by decree, there was no talking until the foghorn blew.

 

But as a Christian, I kind of hated it. I hated the way so many friends would come back to the building with new life in their eyes and how they’d speak secrets given by God and the way they somehow seemed better, improved, reformed into a spiritual maturity that I did not understand. I went into it feeling excited and left feeling sort of defeated. Even when I felt slightly different, I chalked it all up to my emotions and the scenery of nature. I never truly believed it was God, because who can look out at a dripping with gold setting sun and not feel something?

 

This camp was nestled into the side of mountain in Colorado, and on the last night, I found a spot on a ridge overlooking the valleys steep and hundreds of feet below. The land was alive, flickering in the flood of light from the east. I breathed deep. Routine, I asked God to come into my heart again. Then I spent several minutes straining my soul to hear him. My mind drifted elsewhere, so I scolded myself for becoming distracted, as if God was something tiny as powder, I had to watch for him, lest he blow away out of my presence.

 

The table was set, all the pieces were there. The sun was standing on the horizon like it was patiently waiting, the soft wind, the warmth of summer, the colors, the code of complete silence, but I still felt like something was missing. I felt like it was my own heart. Like I was trying, once again, to be this thing called Christian, but it all felt so staged. The timing of the alone time, the light, the prayers, careful and rehearsed in my thoughts. I wondered what was missing. What I wasn’t seeing.

 

///

I have always been a doubter, a skeptic, and recently, a cynic, and more recently, a recovering one. Forget the exclusion I once felt from the faith community because I was gay. That was part of it. But it was also this pressure to believe which worked reverse in me. I reflexed, yanking my fingers out of the of that Chinese trap, and I wound up a little more defeated. A little more concerned that something might be wrong with me.

 

So, when Greg Boyd’s book landed into my life, The Benefit of the Doubt, I had my reservations. I thought he, like many before him, might try to rationalize my doubts in a way that made them less real. I thought he might try to be cute.

 

But I quickly learned that he was as honest in his doubts as I was. I read his words and there was an instant exchange of familiarity and empathy, and I couldn’t put the damn book down because finally, someone understood me.

 

Lately, I’ve been throwing myself into many of the old books lately. The Gospels, Paul, even some of the Old Prophets, and I’ve wondered, like before, why I’m not feeling it. Why the words feels like nothing more than words, written for people that are not me, and told in a cryptic way that feels less spiritual wisdom and more plain old corrupt religion.

 

There’s a part of Boyd’s book where he introduces this all important word. A word I want to stamp on my conscience: Sehnsucht.

 

“It’s an unusual word that is hard to translate, for it expresses a deep longing or craving for something that you can’t quite identify and that always feels just out of reach. Some have described Sehnucht as a vague and bittersweet nostalgia and/or longing for a distant country, but one that cannot be found on earth. Others have described it as a quasi-metaphysical sense that we (and our present world) are incomplete, combined with an unattainable yearning for whatever it is that would complete it.”

 

The sunset from the mountain wasn’t enough for me, and yet it was one of the most stunning scenes I have seen. A miracle was flickering inside of it, but I still wanted more. This feeling, it happens all the time. On my drive to the coffee shop I am now sitting in I saw grandma teaching her grandson how to bike, before I reached the door of the coffee shop, an old man ran past me to open the door to a woman in a wheel chair. These signals, these revelations, this light breaking through.

I choose to wander the park path at twilight, because the trees, they are backlit and the leaves are pressed in by the sun, making the air flow with an emerald tint that leaves me breathless, nostalgic for somewhere I have never been. Certain hymns steal me into silence, into a place I don’t want to leave. I type out a perfect sentence, think a new, thought and I am tripping over myself to keep the magic alive. Where did that come from? When Wyatt laughs in falsetto, when he smiles his toothy grin it’s like a gust of joy, rushing through the house. And I want to save the moment somehow. I want to enclose it in a frame. Cap it in a bottle. I think of Annie Dillard’s reflection of nature’s movements: “Now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t.” And it seems, for me, the way faith has always been. Even when I didn’t know that’s what it was. These crisp pinpricks of something… larger. It’s there, it’s gone.

 

Theology, I don’t know if I have one. Faith is a slippery thing I may never get a good grip on. I only have questions. I live on curiosity.

 

I live on the Sehnsucht in my bones. Ask me about God, and my answer will depend on the day, honestly, but I am always compelled by these moments that startle me. There is something more. Sometimes, it is silent. Sometimes, it is only seen and not understood or realized. But it’s just a little further. It’s not the shallow, theologically bankrupt, thumb-sucking beginnings of faith. It’s the beating heart of it.  

if your kid comes out to you

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Note: This post was edited with softer language regarding Dr. Moore and his article. Upon reflection, I recognized my language expressed the passion of my convictions but did not reflect my earnest hope for and belief in peaceful, thoughtful dialogue.

~

I first realized I was gay when I was around eleven or twelve and in the silence of that moment, I swore I would take it to my grave. I made myself promise. No telling. No telling because if anyone knew, no one would love me anymore.

 

The weight of that secret grew heavier over the years, attacking me like a cancer, breaking me down with grief, isolation, and so much fear. At 21, I began to slip away. I disappeared into drinking. I checked out friendships. I shut out the world. And then I passed out on the floor of a bar around 2 AM and woke up knowing it was do or die, quite literally.

 

The next night I told my parents. I came home from college and walked up their stairs. Every step feeling the full decade of dread pulling me back, telling me to leave, to suck it up and go home. Or die.

 

But I knew I had to do this. It was so heavy.

 

When I finally told them they were… frazzled. They were in complete shock, looking as one does after a two-ton anvil drops on their head and there were lots of tears and hugging and trembles in voices. But they were also kind of perfect. They made due, stringing together words amidst the hurricane of feelings in that moment.

 

They spent much of the night calling out the lies I believed about myself. When I said I felt like a freak, they said oh honey, that’s a lie. When I said I thought they’d be afraid of me, they looked at me like I was a limping puppy. They wrapped me up and said, no, pumpkin, we LOVE you.

 

That was my coming out experience. It took me a couple years to realize just how lucky I was.

 

At the Gay Christian Network Conference there were a number of parents present wearing large buttons that said Free Dad Hugs! and Free Mom Hugs! ready with arms wide open for the kids whose parents cut them out. Told them off. Said they loved them, but hated their sexuality. In a quiet room of the hotel we were at, these proxy parents held these orphaned kids. Held them close. Prayed over them and told them they loved them.

 

I tell you, friends, resurrection always wins, even in the dark- for that matter, especially in the dark. God is near.

 

///

 

I have really been trying to restrain myself here on the blog from responding to every LGBTQ-related article or statement emanating out of the self-appointed Gatekeepers (see: Southern Baptist Convention, The Gospel Coalition). But the latest hits felt like too much. Felt too dangerous. It all felt too close to home.

 

First, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention who is not a family therapist, who has (to my knowledge) no gay kids of his own, wrote a blog post about how parents should react to a gay son or daughter coming out to them. It was, as expected, unhelpful. But his post is nothing compared to John MacArthur’s video, in which he said that the Christ-like response to a child coming out is too shun them. To disown them. To, in John’s words, “turn them over to Satan.”

 

So, I thought I’d pen my own advice, from experience. This is for all the parents with closeted gay kids. These are words you need to hear.

 

If your son or daughter comes out to you, go to them. Hold them. Whisper your love and kiss their forehead and make them feel your love. Say it again and again and again because here’s the deal: The faith many of us were raised in told us this was a deal-breaker. That this love between you was not strong enough for this. And odds are, your kid is thinking there’s a chance you might not love them anymore and a chance that your lying if you say you do. If there was ever a moment to step up as a parent and love your baby, now is it. You don’t get a redo.

 

If homosexuality is something you’ve been familiar with and are theologically affirming of, then you are probably pretty comfortable here anyway and I have no further advice for you than this: Your kid might not share your theology. And you have to respect that. All you have to do is listen and share when you are asked.

 

If you’ve held conservative opinions about homosexuality and have long held to a traditional sexual ethic, this confession might leave you feeling impaled. It might feel like a tearing. A falling apart that you can’t stop, no matter how much you want to, and I have a few words for you.

 

You are okay. In this moment, you are not against your kid, and in the future, if you find yourself still in the same theological mindset, that doesn’t make you hateful or bad. It means you disagree. And you are okay.

 

Now is not the time to say so, though, to tell your kid that you think he’s sinful. Now is not the time, as others might suggest, to say you love your kid, but you hate their sexuality. Now is the time to say the most important truth you know. The truth that you are most certain about. Tell him you love him. Tell her you love her.

 

Of course, there’s a scrambling for words, sometimes these things last a long time and what else can you say with all trip wires tying around you? Do you talk about the theology stuff after the love stuff? Do you ask about their relationship status? No and no.

 

Here’s what you say. It is, in my experience, the second best thing to hear: You. Are. Brave.

 

It’s the truth, after all. My own coming out was and will probably be the most impossible thing I have ever done. I still can’t believe I did it. And there is nothing more affirming than hearing you, my boy, have guts. You inspire me. You are so, so brave.

 

And finally, thank them for trusting you, because you know they could’ve chosen not to. Tell them you feel privileged to know this part of them That you are happy to know them better. Remind them that you love them and then give them a kiss goodnight.

 

If, near the end, your own opinions crop up, here is something non-threatening to say: I admit, I have a lot to learn. I will try to learn, because you are my child.

 

Listen to me. I have seen the kids of parents who have followed the advice of the Russell Moores and John MacArthurs of the world and I can tell you, no one wants that to happen to their kid. No one wants to live with that kind of regret. Listen to me, this is your job. To love. And it ends there.

 

Now, as far as learning goes, I’m afraid you have homework. I’m not assigning you theology, I am sending you to those who have been in your shoes and know your experience better than I do.

 

For starters, here is the Marin Foundation Parent Network. Try calling some of these ready-to-support-you folks (my parents are on there!) and hear their stories and find that empathy and community that you need.

 

Check out the story of my friends Linda and Rob Robertson, who have been tireless in their efforts to support parents of LGBTQ kids. They want to bring about more understanding and grace and love to families everywhere. These two, they’re such good and Godly people.

 

Go check out one of my favorite blogs, Susan Cottrell of Freed Hearts. Susan has written a book about her experience as a mom of gay child and she blogs consistently about issues facing the LGBTQ community and issues facing parents. She is a wonderful woman and a gift to us all.

 

Watch this video, Lead With Love, which my parents also watched. It is absolutely phenomenal, I’m surprised I don’t share it more.

 

Rachel Held Evans, a wonderful advocate just for people in general, wrote once about how she would respond if she had a gay child. It is beautiful. Glennon Melton of Momastery did the same, which I bet money will leave you in a mess of hot tears.

 

Look, it’s not easy. I know that. It’s complicated and there are lots of questions, let alone feelings, and for a small amount of time you might feel completely isolated and alone. But your kid is your kid, and you love her, you love him and they need you to be their mom and their dad right now, not their theologian. Not their pastor. Their parent.

 

Hold them. Love them. Listen to them. Kiss Them.

And God will lead the way.

~

 

A Love Letter from Hännah Ettinger

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I have only met a handful of friends from the internet, but I am so glad Hännah Ettinger was one of them. Shortly after I made my move to DC, she invited me out for drinks where we had the chance to get to know each other on a deeper soul level. She introduced me to her friends and new places and then…. We both moved out of the district- (sad face).

 

Hännah has written a poignant letter that will leave you feeling touched and encouraged and motivated. I was so moved when I read this that I read it several times over. Friends, I cannot encourage you enough to go check out her blog here (that is, if you haven’t already heard of it, since it was mentioned by SETH MEYERS a couple weeks ago)

 

Here is her letter. Be so blessed.

 

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This post is not a big deal. This post should be obvious. I told Ben I wouldn’t write this post, last year when he first asked me. I said that I didn’t want to make a big deal out of something that isn’t mine.

 

But I don’t want to receive another letter like the one I did this morning, a letter where an old and dear friend came out to me and asked if I would be comfortable having a lesbian as a friend, because she couldn’t tell from my blog.

 

I don’t want there to be any question in the minds of my siblings where I stand on this issue, because statistically speaking, there are nine of us, and right now the official word is that one in ten people identifies as LGBTQ+.

 

I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me knowing who they really are.

 

Let this be crystal clear, then, for I am about smashing shame and isolation.

 

I love you. 

 

I will stand up for you to our friends if they talk about you behind your back, saying that you chose this and how cruel and selfish it was to have the audacity to come out.

 

I will be angry with you at your parents when they send you away with your boxes full of your inheritance, a prodigal child made wanderer by the older son’s bitterness.

 

I will answer the phone and sit with you when you call me to tell me that your mom found your birth control and you think you’ll have to tell her you’re bi.

 

I will cry in relief with you when she doesn’t tell your dad.

 

I will beat my inner English major asshole into submission and carefully use your preferred pronouns despite my habitual stumble-trip awkwardness.

 

I will try to gently educate those who I introduce to you if it will make you feel better to not have to explain to more people that you are called they or hen or ze or Ivan.

 

I will solidarity-drink with you late at night and invite you over to stay at my place and marathon Buffy when you feel you can’t face explaining yourself to your family yet again.

 

I will grieve with you over our alma mater’s choice to pretend that you don’t exist, and howl with glee when you indulge the imp of the perverse and subvert their policies.

 

I will shut up and listen and let you tell your own stories the way you want them to be told, and when you need to yell a little I’ll hand you my megaphone if you want it.

 

I will tell you you’re cute or beautiful or handsome and offer you hugs if you want them when you’re feeling floaty and can’t quite connect to your own skin.

 

I will take endless selfies so you don’t feel alone when you need to take one to see yourself staring back and know you’re really you.

 

I will make you coffee and cookies and have you over to talk or sit alone together in the same house if you need to not be really wholly alone.

 

I will crow profanities in crowded restaurants with you if you need to rage against the universe in public.

 

My parents used to have a tile they got when we drove through New Mexico on our pilgrimage east, and it hung in our entryway at home for years and years. Mi casa es su casa, it read.

 

All of these things I have said, they have a lot of “I” in them. This post shouldn’t be necessary, because this isn’t my story. I prefer to be quiet and let you tell your story.

 

But because invitations are sometimes hard to accept if they aren’t made loudly, let me make it very clear: mi casa es su casa.

 

This house always belongs to you, too.

 

Love,

Hännah

 

~

Finding God in Exodus International [Deeper Story]

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It’s been a long day of work, so I’m a little late in throwing this up, but here it is. My latest piece for Deeper Story.

The beginning:

 

Last year, Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the world, shut down.

I was at a Starbucks late at night when the news erupted over Twitter. I all but cried. I called my mom. “This is such good news, wow! wow!” she said and then I texted my brother who took to Facebook, posting the news by saying “This is a HUGE WIN for humanity.” This was monumental. A miracle. An answer to so many prayers said by so many souls in our community.

My total “ex-gay experience” was a rainy afternoon, in the home of a man who was not a counselor. He wasn’t from Exodus. In fact, I never met an Exodus counselor nor I have been to any Exodus events. And yet Exodus International once held a daily presence in my life. A powerful one.

Late one night, in my closeted teenage years, I quietly tapped into the Google search bar my most desperate question: “is there a cure for homosexuality?”

Topping the list of results was Exodus.

Read the rest over at Deeper Story

Grace for the Addict (at Deeper Story)

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A few weeks ago, I was blown away when I received an email inviting me to join A Deeper Story. Most of you know who that is, but in case you don’t- A Deeper Story is a group of Christian writers writing about faith in the peaks and weeds of life. They are some of the best writers on the internet today. I’ve been following them for well over a year now and I have learned so much from the writers there about writing and life and God. It has been a well of encouragement that I have turned to time and time again.

 

And today, I have my first post up over there, and I am hoping I can reflect just a fraction of that encouragement. It’s about a part of my life that’s a little profane: my addiction. And it’s about the grace of God, which is so much more offensive.

 

Here’s the beginning.

 

In the seventh grade, I won the Ramsey County Police Department Poetry Contest after I penned a poem telling anyone addicted to nicotine to just stop it. It was a district wide contest; a winner would be selected from every school. And a couple weeks after I submitted, my Language Arts teacher burst through the door of my history class. She walked straight up to my teacher and whispered in his ear. They both turned to me, smiling. I beamed back.

They gave me one hundred and fifty dollars. More money than I had ever held in my hands. And two weeks later, with my parents standing proud at the back wall and the local paper’s intern snapping shots next to them, I stood in front of my class and read the poem aloud.

“I know the chains of addiction may be holding you down, but think of your family! They still want you around!” I roared like FDR and the class went wild.

I am no poet. But my life has been riddled with irony. Here’s some: only a few years after speaking my plea into class, I was twirling the feathery white stick between my own two fingers. I was sparking the cherry at the end, inhaling it deep into my lungs. Over a lake, I lay down on a dock with friends, blowing filmy rings into the stars. Watching them rise and rise and wash away in the wind. Dizzied by the buzz that was breaking over me, I felt euphoric, badass, and truly alive. I did not feel the chain clinking around my ankle.

 

Click here to read the rest.

hymnals and the way of faith in the story of church

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Thee, Thine, Thou never felt natural in my ears or on my tongue and the slow, few instruments that played had a way of boring me to sleep as a kid. Some Sunday mornings, I’d sneak a look at the back wall where a red digital clock hung. And by the time the sermon closed, I was lethargic, but straight up relieved.

 

At a certain point, my parents, seeing us kids in our shared listlessness, having noticed the slow blinking of our eyes, decided to take us to the later, contemporary service. And it was there that my faith was forged. Songs like “Light the Fire” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord” and “In the Secret” seemed to inject me with a spiritual oomph I had not felt. I was moved to tears. I was dancing. Every chorus of those power ballads made me stretch my hands in the air as if to brush the Holy Spirit’s fingers.

 

Several years later now, with my heart weathered and worn, I’m at a kind of of standstill with church. Having been hit a hundred thousand times by evangelicalism, having become a survivor of the place that initially swept me off my feet, I am instinctively suspicious of all of it. All of Church. And also, wanting so badly to be a part of it.

 

But all the pop Christian jams still ring shrill in my ears. I am very annoyed by the use of music as a means of emotional manipulation when the pastor prays. And goodness, it takes every ounce of strength in my being to stay on the ground when I hear a secular pop song, sung by the worship band, sometimes with words changed. Stop the sale’s pitch! Stop your need to be Cool! I want to scream. I want to walk out. 

 

One such song was played last night at the Easter service and at the start, when I recognized it, I started shaking my head in a very obvious, take-note-of-my-disapproval way. I turned around to my family hoping to find solidarity but No. They were feeling it. Loving it. They were clapping joyfully and crooning out the catchy song from the radio. And I. was. appalled.

 

These little triggers, sensitivities, chinks in my armor are really all it takes to dirty up an entire church service for me. One cringe-worthy thing lingers in the back of my mind like a leaky faucet and it is Game Over. And I hate this about me. I wish I could roll it off my shoulders and just gel in with everyone else, but my heart is weathered and worn. Once I sense the evangelical spirit, with all it’s wrongness and past crimes against me, the dominos effect begins within. Everything is called into question. Every. Last. Thing.

 

And I don’t know why I keep coming back to this form of faith. The Evangelical. The bubble-gum joy. The cheap sentimentality. Because it’s all I know, but still. I wish I knew more.

 

The music slowed down for the next song. The electric guitar was set aside and a soft ripple of piano began. A steady, functional, reliable chord. I looked up. I felt a centering. A simplicity that made me want to cry with relief. And then the words:

 

I hear the Savior say

“Thy strength indeed is small

Child of weakness, watch and pray,

Find in me Thine all in all”

 

These are the songs I once hated, but they are meeting me right now with a precision and truth I cannot explain. In the midst of my own cynicism and sensitivity and anger, in the mess of all the wrong and unkindness of the Church, these plain and poetic words arrive standing before me, unadorned and beautiful, like peace, like Jesus out on the water.

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They don’t push me into an exclamation. They don’t pressure me to feel when I don’t. They don’t carry the slushiness, schmaltziness that transfixes everyone into a moment of emotional intoxication. They come wearing no mask, blowing no incense, dangling no carrot before me.

 

I speak them and I know what they’re saying: Jesus Paid it All. I feel a rush of gratitude at that lyric. I wonder why we feel the need to sing any other line. Then I heart Come Thou Fount, It is Well, and There is a Fountain and I know why. This the fabric of Church. This is her story.

 

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There is a timeworn dependability to them, too. I hold the hymnal in my hands and it’s crinkled, the paper, thin, the crush of a thousand fingers opening and closing and folding and leaving and returning, week after week, year after year. And there’s something about that history. I can trace these works through generations that have come before me, that have endured their own battles here, and maybe, for them, it was just this, this small little book with its’ crinkled up pages, that gave them the grit to come back week after week after week.

 

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And maybe it’s not about fitting back into something. Maybe it’s about being aware of the new shape of my faith. I’ve grown and changed and it’s different now, maybe better. In this season, I can’t hear the electric zest of an era that is still too raw, that left me high and dry and bitter and cold. Maybe I can only be with the old songs. The simple ones. I can lean into the sturdiness of lyrics long-lived.

 

As I return in my own battle regalia, week after week, searching for my own Sunday Morning, I am finding that for now, this is enough to hang onto. It’s a small raft, but it is mine, and it’s holding me up.

Creativity and Elizabeth Gilbert

“Send in the artists, mystics, and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision, and striking symbols, they express God’s inexpressible Word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flame and flare.” Brennan Manning – from Ruthless Trust

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I spent an entire Spring day sitting in the basement of my college house making my masterpiece. It was the end of the year and the final day of submissions for the school’s art competition and normally, I could care less about it, but for whatever reason, that morning I was eating cereal and looking out the window at my stretching emerald lawn and decided that this was what I would do today. I would paint.

 

Truth is, I had been painting for several months. I had been throwing myself to the canvas daily because I desperately wanted to be Great and also, I tend toward OCD with new hobbies and also… my therapist thought it a good idea.

 

I confined myself to my room all day and only left for slews of cigarettes and vitamin D and finally, to watch the dazzling setting of the sun.

 

We had until midnight to submit.

 

At some point in that long day of surge and then swell, of frenzy and then form, of plastering white over wrong colors and then intensifying the exquisite ones, I fell into a tempo, a rhythm, a sudden honing in on what beauty was and who I was and what I wanted to create.  I felt what many artists describe as flow. That river of creativity and craftsmanship that you can’t really find, until, at some point, you’re just there.

 

It was intoxicating.

 

The grooves of the tiled floor were streaming with crimson and cobalt and evergreen, meeting at the room’s lowest levels and turning murky brown. Dirt-dry paint coated my fingers and face and all over my clothes. If one were to walk in and see this tie-dye uproar they’d be vexed by it. Even more so, if they looked over at me leaning back in my chair, raising a glass of red to my toothy grin, zappy eyes, lunatic sprayed in raving colors, they’d be downright concerned.

 

But maybe, after a moment, they would’ve known. They would’ve watched the light fall down in the middle of the madness. They would’ve tumbled into a chair beside me and stared in nodding agreement at the best thing I had ever done.

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[Its based on this photo by Peter Przybille (thanks Jessica!]

I didn’t win the competition, but I didn’t really care. I was transfixed by this beauty because I had endured many many uglies. And I started to wonder if maybe I picked the wrong major. If maybe I should be an artist. If maybe I was born to paint.

 

And then I tried to do it again. I tried painting bears and owls, I tried landscape and macro, I tried everything, but I fell far, far short.

 

And it bummed me out.

 

This is when I started thinking things like beginner’s luck. And wondered, will I never be able to do anything like THAT again?

 

And then I got really bummed out.

 

This same gloomy awareness has fogged in around me whenever I write a really good, well-received post, and then, fail to form a single non-clunky sentence on the next one. I was talking with Steph Spencer several weeks ago and she said, “the hardest post to write is the one following your best.” And it’s true.

 

And that’s how we often approach this work. Too often, we strap ourselves to it and fly with our balloons and drown with our anchors. We get big-headed and we get bummed out.

 

I went on a TED Talk binge the other night and I came across something really good. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, was talking about how her book had become this freakish success, how it had become a movie and a-months-on-end NYT Bestseller, and how now, everywhere she goes, people worry about her.

 

“People treat me like I’m doomed.” She said, and she’s talking about the hard truth that no matter what she writes for the rest of her life, she won’t ever top Eat Pray Love.

 

She went on to suggest that these pedestrian merchants of death are on to something. That with art comes suffering and a constant feeling of not measuring up. Of not being good enough. And that all we need to do is look down the history of 20th Century art and see all the casualties of it.

 

And this bothered her, like I’m sure it has bothered every other artist. Why is this? Why this constant coupling of the two? Why must we feel psychologically tormented? Better yet, why have we accepted such a reality?

 

So she went on a search:

 

I’ve been sort of looking across time, and I’ve been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people, sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back. But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, O.K.? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

 

And the talk goes on and it’s absolutely brilliant, you should go check it out. But I wanted to stop here and think about what this means for how we, in career or in hobby, approach creativity. Are we the source? Are we particularly built to produce some smidgeon of beauty into this world? Or is this there something greater? Something more? Some sort of interaction? Something whispering behind us?

 

When I think about painting the perfect picture, writing the perfect post, seeing things clearly for the first time, I also think about the accolades received. About the admiration. About the STATS. About thankful eyes gazing at what I’ve done. And I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong.

 

But the mistake happens when we hook compliments around our sense of self. It feels like being buttered up, and when you believe it’s because you’re great, it really feels good. But what we fail to see is our versatile selves tangling our feelers in the achievement of it. We fail to see how we lean in and, in a way, lose ourselves.

 

And what happens is our sense of worth becomes knotted so tightly to our creativity that, when we inevitably flop, we go sinking down with the tossed out work into the pile of perishables, and in a weird way we believe we deserve the drop, because we shouldn’t ever started writing in the first place and we’re just wasting away what little time we have here and I am surprised I have friends at all….

 

Stop.

 

I’m putting an end to that. No longer will I overanalyze why something I worked so hard on resonated so little with readers. No longer will I pat myself on the back 1,000 times for the well-received work because really if I am to believe that I was created, I am also to believe that this is a cooperative effort now. That it is not just me thinking, diving deep, tapping away at the keys, but there is something bigger, One who sometimes shows and sometimes does not.

 

And the point is to always show up. You never know when something beautiful will tip toe in through the window and chances are, if you commit yourself to just showing up, sitting at the desk, typing out imperfect amateur words, brushing in awful colors, you will catch it. And it will be Great. But it won’t just be you.

 

RR

“To Be Who You Know You Are”- Nathan Kennedy [Love Letter Series]

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Quick note: I changed the title of this series from “Open Letters” to “Love Letters”. Initially, the word Open meshed well because it flowed with my original post Open Letter to the Closeted I now know that the term “Open Letter” can carry some negative connotations. A lot of times it is a public indictment of someone or some institution that is meant to point out something the recipient of the letter has done wrong. And many times, they are justified.

But that doesn’t really fit this series at all. This is about loving others as you love yourself, empowering individuals to love themselves. That’s what this is.

~

Nathan Kennedy is an incredible writer. He is gay and he loves Jesus. I met him through twitter and then got to hang out with him over G + Chat. The piece you are about to read is both emotional and intellectual. It is understanding and poignant. It is one of my favorite reads yet. Seriously.

To read more from Nathan, check out his blog Petrychor.

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A middle school civics project once had me research the life, teaching, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was then that I had met one of my personal heroes, someone with whom I could identify, emulate, and look to for guidance. His ideals and his witness for the cause of racial and social justice seared into my imagination indelibly; I had found my first instance of an ideal of moral conviction and action. This project culminated when a local minister, the pastor of one of the community’s chief African American congregations, invited me to give a speech at his community’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. The invitation and the experience humbled and exhilarated me. At age thirteen, a lily-white, nerdy little middle schooler stood before a thousand strangers and preached about Dr. King’s legacy of love, tolerance, and peace.

 

And yet…

 

What nobody knew was that I had barely begun wrestling with the emergence of my gay sexuality. It terrified me more than I could say; growing up deeply religious in home and community, the tension was incredible. While I loved the experience of preaching to that congregation, it was the beginning of my feeling caught between two worlds, two equally distinct subjective realities, of being gay and Christian.

 

As long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve had at least the intuition that being Christian involves aspiring to be the best version of myself possible. Dr. King is simply an example of someone who modeled for me (and still does very much) how to become my best, fullest self through the Christian Way.

 

Therein was the dissonance. Being gay, you see, had nothing to do with my best self. My sexual orientation was “intrinsically disordered” away from Christlike, life-giving love and toward selfish, self-indulgent desires. I lost my faith as a teenager because I couldn’t reconcile these two worlds. I knew that being gay wasn’t going to go away. It seemed surer and truer than the platitudes preached in church. Thus, I decided late in high school that being Christian had nothing to do with my best, truest self.

 

I’ve since come around and reclaimed my Christian identity, and that is a story that is both very long and very much still in process. I wish to leave out a great portion of my story of struggle, not because there’s anything I wish to hide, but because to tell it would be to write an autobiography when my purpose is to share encouragement. My story’s filled with enough twists and turns to distract from that purpose, so forgive me if I leave my personal “testimony” unfinished. What my testimony strives toward is articulating how I came to see being gay as being a true and constituent part of my best and truest self – how my gay sexuality has moved me toward being more selfless, Christlike, authentic, and compassionate – and to help you to do the same.

 

In the years before my coming out, I wasn’t “gay”: I struggled with same-sex attraction. Nobody in my church community could know about it. I would bring it up in confession but that’s where it stayed. If I needed to “come out” to any of my church friends, we wouldn’t discuss it much for fear of “dwelling” or “identifying” with my flaw. Love isn’t self-indulgent, I would tell myself using different thoughts and different words every time. If you want to love, you have to hate yourself. Love is tough. Love will kill you. Love doesn’t look for self-serving affirmations.

 

The problem with struggling with being gay, all in the confines of my nice little closet, was that, in making it a “struggle”, I couldn’t see any value in it. It was a flaw. It was extrinsic to my true identity as a Christian, as a human being. It was a patch of mold on an otherwise good loaf of bread. Being closeted – feeling like I had to hide it – reinforced this idea. This is called “shame”. “Shame” is feeling like there is something wrong with you – not with your decisions, behaviors, or attitudes, but you yourself.

 

Coming out gave me the freedom to stop “struggling” with being gay and to start struggling with being human. Once I let go of shame, I was free to start focusing on becoming who I actually want to become.

 

For me, this means finding the confidence that being gay is no flaw at all. I’m sure many of you might disagree with that; acknowledging you’re gay is one thing, but acting on it through a romantic partnership is another. Who am I to second-guess your conscience? Who am I to tell you that what your faith tradition has taught you is wrong? If you have chosen the path of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage you have my support, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye about the acceptability of same-sex partnerships. But I want you to know, that even if you believe that sexual or romantic actions with a person of your same sex is sinful, your attractions themselves aren’t. It is very important that you should know this. Consider it a challenge to Christians of either side of the debate to understand how if Christian tradition is correct, being gay is even then not a flaw.

 

It’s important, understanding how completely okay it is to feel the way you do, to have the attractions you have, and to want to love the way you want to love.

 

It’s important, because I’m sure that you have an idea of who you really want to be, the “best version” of yourself. You see this person hinted at in the heroes you have chosen and in the ideals to which you strive. You see it through Christ himself. And your sexuality is important to becoming that person.

 

Your sexuality comes from the deepest, most intimate center of your being. It’s the part of yourself that stretches out in search of connection, in search of intimacy, because that part of yourself knows that you have something to give. Your sexuality exists because you have something to give – and in giving that, you make the world the better place. You bring about new life, regardless of whether or not you have ever or will ever have children. You should never fear it, be ashamed of it, or want to get rid of it, because your sexuality is a part of the gift you have to give to the world.

 

Your sexuality exists because God made us to need people and to be needed by people.

 

This is true whether you realize that your best self should arise through a romantic partnership, or if you realize that your best self should arise through celibacy. Every relationship you have, whether it is family, friends, teachers, employers, coworkers, etc., is in a very broad sense “sexual”. “Sexual” doesn’t mean “genital” or “having sex” – it means “relational” and “reaching out for the other”. You are a creature of relationship and your sexuality is beautiful. Your queer sexuality is beautiful. It’s beautiful because you are beautiful – you are beautiful through your sexuality. Being straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a crucial part of what you have to give to the world. If you embrace it – if you embrace yourself in the very deep and intimate part of yourself – you are saying yes to what you have to offer.

 

It took me a lot of hard and painful lessons to realize this. It’s so easy to repress it out of fear and shame, or to turn it on itself by being a libertine. But to embrace it – to embrace your fundamental drive for love, relationship, intimacy, and connectedness – is to embrace your identity as a person of love.

 

Because, in those moments when we’re told by our own self-criticizing voices about the toughness and painfulness of love – sometimes given us by our own churches and families – we absolutely must remember that love is patient, and love is kind, and it keeps no record of wrongdoings (1 Cor. 13).

 

Love does not default to pain and suffering, but it goes there if necessary.

 

This is my challenge to you, whether you are in the closet or not: be who you know you are. Be everything you are. Being yourself takes courage, and it means discovering things about yourself that will shock and amaze you. You are stronger than your realize. You are more beautiful than you think you are and your sexuality is a part of that beauty.

 

Be brave. Be strong. Be who you know you are.

 

Love,

 

Nathan

 

 

Out of Hibernation

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I drove to the lake today because it is SPRING, at last. A part of me felt relieved when I got there. In my spiritual hibernation, when days were short and everything was cold, when I ran from the Living Lord, because everything felt cold, the possibility of a day at the lake seemed like a world away.

 

I drove to the lake and it was a sing song morning. The trees were growing green, the water was turning turquoise, the geese were zooming across the surface, splashing and honking out ugly hallelujahs.

 

I think, in this past season of sulking, winter wasn’t the only spell on my soul. For awhile now, I’ve been tuned into every twitch, every moment that makes me run from church, and I’ve grabbed onto them, held them close in defense of my desertion.

 

And there has been a lot of rickshaw religion, a lot of sermons and subculture summons that have left me feeling bloody and bruised and bitter. But, the problem is, their imperfections have been like dust in my eyes. They’ve been like a thick fog, a rising wall between God and I. And whether or not it’s my fault or theirs doesn’t matter anymore. The veil has sewn itself back together. God and I are not one.

 

This morning I read from Brennan Manning. He wrote about his meteoric rise to the pulpit, how he became intoxicated with applause and praise. How when it all fell apart, he needed to replace it with something, anything, so he uncorked the bottle and stayed drunk for a long time.

 

When he hit bottom, hard, he swallowed his ego and pride and one last sip, and then checked into Hazelden Rehab Facility.

 

As the alcoholic fog lifted, I knew there was only one place to go. I sank down into the center of my soul, grew still, and listened to the Rabbi’s heartbeat.

            What is the purpose of this disclosure? For anyone caught up in the oppression of thinking that God works only through saints, it offers a word of encouragement. For those who have fulfilled Jesus’ prophetic word to Peter, “Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times,” it offers a word of liberation. For those trapped in cynicism, indifference, or despair, it offers a word of hope.

“Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The way he related to Peter is the way He relates us. The recovery of passion starts with reappraising the value of the treasure, continues with letting the Great Rabbi hold us against His heart, and comes to fruition in a personal transformation of which we will not even be aware,” – Brennan Manning, The Rabbi’s Heartbeat

 

I folded up my book and looked back at the lake. Watched the birds catching their breath. Listened to the swishing and crackling of spring swimming and shooting back to life. I realized that seasons all fall under the same Sun and Sky and Moon. That how we feel, what we’re told and how we react doesn’t change a damn thing about Jesus. He is a rock, a stream of love that will never ever go dry.

 

And even if I can’t move much. Even if my prayer that morning lasted less than a minute. There is a comfort I can take that my fleeing didn’t change his affection towards me. That my momentary fire, dowsed as I drove back home, is the exact opposite of his yearning for me. That he is always there, close as my breath, stubbornly chasing me down in love.

 

I’m not ready to reclaim this faith yet because the dust, the fog, still hurts my eyes. But I’m getting there, with every slow visitation, He’s wooing me. And it may look different in a million ways than it did before, but that love, that most-important-thing-above-all, is gripped and rooted through and through in my heart.

 

Little by little, I am feeling it.

 

RR