Category Archives: Spirituality

Paying Attention in the Spirit of Mary Oliver!

Going Upstream with Mary Oliver

In her recent Baptist News Global piece, Hidden pencils, urgent warnings and instructions Mary Oliver left the Church, Carol Davis Younger offered a lovely tribute to poet, Mary Oliver, and an insightful exhortation to the church to approach “Scripture – and our world – with the holy curiosity and expectancy Oliver did when she went to the woods and to the shore.” As Younger shared her experience with Upstream, I caught my breath and embraced the mutuality of our stories, our experiences, and perhaps our feelings – Mary Oliver’s, Younger’s, and mine. 

I too became better acquainted with Mary Oliver through her collected essays in Upstream. I was drawn to the book, so much so that I paid full, independent bookstore price for it. Something I rarely ever do! I had admired Mary Oliver as a poet and was curious as to her prose. Being a woods wanderer and stream jumper, the title Upstream, and its connotation of going against the flow, which I often do, piqued my interest. The cover photo looked like a place I would enjoy.  I fully understand Younger’s response to the essay, “Power and Time.” As I read the essay, I felt that I was personally being both affirmed and admonished. I am keenly aware that my creative self needs solitude, a place apart, without interruptions. Oliver buoyed my spirit with her affirmation of this then promptly admonished me for being my own primary interrupter.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? –Upstream, page 23

For me it says that I need to attend this civic meeting, that I should give my wife more time and attention, that I must do my share of home maintenance. Returning to the creative work often finds that the spark of an idea has dimmed and the flow of words has dried up. In the creative work we can be, and probably are, our worst impediment. 

Oliver tells me that the “machinery of creativity” can’t be controlled or regulated. I believe it! More times than I want to recount I have awakened in the wee hours of the morning with an idea or a string of narrative going through my head. Over time, I have learned it is best that I go ahead, drag myself out of bed, and write it down for I will not be able to sleep if I don’t. 

For me, as perhaps for Anderson, Oliver’s most unsettling words are:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. — Upstream, page 30

I most assuredly will join Anderson as a “candidate for future regret” as I see a bouquet of withered buds of exciting ideas and plans that failed to blossom because I did not nurture them with power and time. I suppose my task going forward is to recognize the tiny buds of creative thoughts and ideas and give them their needed power and time. I suspect it will be an erratic path even in all my efforts to “keep my eyes on eternity,” reject the responsibilities that have claimed me, and discard the “many heavy coats” that burden. 

My prayer, with a bit of assist from Mary Oliver, as I move forward is:

In my wild and precious life
May I stay forever in the stream.
May I pay attention and find my devotion.
May I be astonished at the profound simplicity of our natural
         world,
Even as I marvel at its intricate complexities.
May I be humbled by its majesty.
May I revere the fruit of the earth-the grass, the flower, the tree.
May I respect the creature — the minuscule and the mighty.
May I glorify the Creator of it all and be grateful.
May I hear the silence that calls to me.
May I feel the rippling waters.
May I stay forever in the stream.
Whether with voice or pen in hand, may I tell about it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church This Morning: Beyond Words and into Story

 

I slept in and probably got the best sleep I have had in weeks. I greeted, kissed, held my wife, and told her “I love you!” (which I truly do). I had my coffee and cereal for breakfast, then caught a bit of “This Week” on TV, nothing new just a bummed and bleak outlook of politics as usual. We watched a beautiful cardinal in our back yard. Of course I took a picture! I then listened to the music portion of the worship service at our local mega-church. Good, yet I felt a bit of disconnect with cameras zooming in on the abundance of technology and aura of performance.

Since my return to Turn This World Around a few weeks ago, I created an Amy Grant station on Pandora. Well that might be some worshipful listening! I tuned in and skipped around listening to parts of a couple of good songs, once among my favorites, “I Can Only Imagine,” and “Shout to the Lord.” Actually, I skipped so many songs that the program would not allow any more skips and forced me to listen. I turned it off! Too many words and too much busy noise.

Suddenly I had this thought, like an epiphany. Beyond words! It is as if, for me, words are no longer a necessary nor perhaps meaningful mode of worship, my spirituality, or my connecting with God. Now, all of that seems to come with practicing Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” which is not so much about being quiet and motionless as it is about letting go, releasing control, and acknowledging vulnerabilities in order that we may know God and His power in our lives and the universe. For me it is about worshiping and knowing God with and through a heart of faith. 

Don’t get me wrong! I am not saying that words are nonessentials in our spiritual lives. After all, what am I doing now—writing, sharing my thoughts with words. We use words to share our stories, to connect with one another, to foster meaning and understanding with all sorts of folks in our daily lives. Maybe somewhat like the parables of Jesus. Perhaps only as we go beyond words in our personal worship and spirituality can we use words efficiently and effectively in the enhancement of God’s Kingdom on earth.

As I continued my “church,” I reached for an old journal to write about my Beyond Words! epiphany. Go figure on that one! I thought the journal was empty, and this would be the beginning of my renewed commitment to “story” and story writing and listening. However, the first several pages were filled with quotes from an old reading of Dan Allender’s To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future. Coincidence, maybe or maybe not. I was awed as I read what I had copied years ago. Do I still have the book? Yes! I found it on the shelf between David Gushee’s The Sacredness of Human Life and Jim Wallis’s On God’s Side. A couple of quotes that jumped from the pages of To Be Told:

Nevertheless, every story given to us and every story told to another is a precious gift that has the potential to seed us with God. – page 211

It is my responsibility to own what deeply moves me and then to live it out for the sake of others. – page 68 

I am passionate in my belief that everyone’s life is sacred, and as we share our stories with one another we invite greater understanding and compassion – we become portals of grace one to another. Needless to say, I will continue to share my stories and invite you all to do the same.

Turn This World Around

I tugged several of my old college literature anthologies from the bottom bookshelf yesterday. No, not to do any serious study, but to use as weight for a gluing project! A paper filled with my handwriting fell from one of the books. The writing was in verse form, so I thought perhaps an old poem I had written and tucked away.  I have a tendency to do that – start a writing project and put it away not to be found until years later, if at all. But this was not my “writing.” It was the lyrics to an old Amy Grant song, “Turn This World Around.” Apparently the song had some special meaning for me in 1997 since I had taken the time and effort to record the lyrics. The song was included in her Behind The Eyes album released in September 1997 and written by Amy Grant, Beverly Darnall, and Keith Thomas.

Reflecting back on my 1997, in and of itself, it was not a good year, and September was particularly difficult. It was a year of losses and reversals in every area of life – professional, relationship, financial, and health. I could certainly relate to the melancholic melody and many passages in the lyrics of “Turn This World Around.” I was living in the midst of “broken promises and dreams” even as I struggled to carry on “in good disguise.” I needed “somewhere safe and warm” and was thankful for the shelter of friends during this stormy time in my life. I had to “turn and face (my) fears”– the fear of more losses and rejection from family, friends, and the church as I began to acknowledge my same-sex orientation after decades of living in hiding and pretense. I learned to “reach out through (my) tears” and discovered “it’s really not that far to where Hope can be found.”

After finding the paper I dug through my old CD’s. I found it! I had bought it which was something I rarely did. As I listened I recalled the solace and encouragement I had found in other songs in the album such as “I Will Be Your Friend,” “It Takes a Little Time,” Missing You,” and “Somewhere Down the Road.” Today I look at this decades old piece of paper, read these words, and am thankful for how my world was turned around in 1997, albeit after it was turned upside down. Today I hear a more universal and much needed message for our world. The message that behind our eyes “we are all the same it seems.” We all want to be safe and warm and find shelter with others through the storms of our lives. We all need to face our fears and reach out to the other in the midst of suffering—ours and theirs. It is the reaching out and acknowledging the “hunger and longing” that we all know inside that “could be the bridge between us if we tried.”

We all know our world needs to turn around. We are headed in the wrong direction. Look no further than the death and destruction resulting from the numerous and lengthy armed conflicts throughout the world. Grasp the magnitude  of gun violence, the global refugee crisis, increased human trafficking, and world hunger levels rising. We are the world! Only we, working individually and corporately with one another throughout our communities, cities, states, provinces, districts and countries, can turn this world around. Maybe one day we will turn and see behind the eyes of all our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity and see our sameness, reach out to one another, and experience the will and kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, maybe one day – maybe in this New Year!

The Neighborhood Dress

Showers, Miracles, and Faith

     imagesIt was a gray day with intermittent light and heavy showers.  We needed the rain and I found myself humming, perhaps about the rain, perhaps about the call.

 

 

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

Showers of blessings.
Showers of blessings we need.
Mercy drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

     I was again waiting for a call. My now eleven-year old great niece was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and devastating brain tumor, almost three months ago. She tolerated the six-weeks of focused radiation treatments very well and with occasional medication has been fairly symptom free. The doctors say she is doing better than any child they have ever treated with DIPG. We are thankful!

     Last Friday she had an MRI to see if the radiation had had any effects on the tumor and as a prerequisite to possible participation in an immunotherapy clinical trial at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. From the initial diagnosis we have been keenly aware of the devastating statistical prognosis for DIPG patients. While there has been no denying the science of the disease, we have steadfastly prayed along with possibly thousands of others in our social media and home communities for God’s grace and healing for our girl. Family, friends, community members, total strangers have reached out with love, concern, compassion, and generosity. From the Make-A-Wish Foundation who sponsored a trip so that our girl could get her wish to “swim with the dolphins” to the local community sponsoring an event to raise funds for medical expenses and contributions to DIPG research there has been an outpouring of support that has confirmed our belief in God’s work of grace and goodness through good people. We’ve prayed for a miracle of healing while we’ve experienced the miracle of God’s love and grace everyday since the diagnosis.

     The call came from my sister. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.
     “Yes, what does it show?”
     With a trembling voice she replied, “They can’t see it. It is not there!”
     “What! It’s gone! We prayed for a miracle. Praise the Lord!”  She was waiting to hear more from my niece so we quickly hung up amid tears of joy.

     These last months as I have prayed for healing, grace, wisdom, comfort, and strength for our girl and her family, I have been continually reminded of and prayed John 11:4, a verse I claimed for myself during some difficult days many years ago.

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

     Yes, to God be the glory! While trying to soak in the reality of our answered prayer and this miracle, I found myself somewhat incredulous. Before the diagnosis I had prayed for the best even as I prepared for the worst, which is exactly what we got. Perhaps this time we have repeated that scenario, but with a different, positive result. Now that our prayer for the tumor to be gone is the reality, why does it seem incredible?  Is it some flaw in our faith? Do we lack the capacity to fully believe in God’s power and grace? Are we so steeped in the modern science of medicine that we dismiss the Great Physician? Is incredulity inherent in miracles? I am reminded of the words of the tearful father with the epileptic son in Mark 9:24.  Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief!

     I have read the MRI report stating, “There are no focal areas of abnormal signal, restricted diffusion, or abnormal enhancement within the brain. No mass, hemorrhage or acute infarct is present.” I have seen the before and after MRI images confirming no presence of a tumor. The doctors in Austin, Houston, and Boston have described the report findings as “rare, very rare.” One stated she has never seen this type of results following radiation treatment for  DIPG. Doctors have conferred and are confident they did not misdiagnose. The consensus is that the original diagnosis of DIPG was correct, and there is no disputing that the once large, entangled, inoperable tumor is now gone. Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.

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The images on the left are pre-radiation. Those on the right are post-radiation.

     This is not the end of our girl’s medical treatment. As scientists, the doctors are encouraging continued immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials to combat any possible remaining cancer cells. Only time and periodic MRI’s will tell if the tumor returns. Regardless of what the future may hold, in the here and now, we, and thousands of others, are celebrating and giving God the glory for this miracle of grace and healing.

     As the showers continued outside, my heart was flooding with song:

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

     Thank you, God, for your showers of blessings—your miracle of healing, the miraculous medical interventions and technologies that you have allowed man to develop, your grace that sustains our faith, your faithfulness even as our faith falters with doubts, the love and support of friends, family, and total strangers—your kingdom here and now on earth. Thank you for the faith of a child who told her parents as they were driving home from the doctor visit: “You all just didn’t have enough faith. I knew it would be gone.”

     We continue with prayers of thanksgiving and for sustained healing and good health for our girl.

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter: Tyler ISD School Board (and Citizens)

Dear School Board Members:

I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board.  I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.

As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:

  • assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and  ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.

In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19) 

I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing. 

Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.

Respectfully

Brenda McWillaims

bmc1105@gmail.com
www.psheretic.wordpress.com

“We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together.  Treat life as Sacred!  This is God’s command—to all humanity.  The response is up to all of us.”

From: The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee

 

When Nothing (Else) Seems to Matter!

I had projects waiting to be completed, letters to write, and activities to plan. I was eager to get started or get back at them. Today, I don’t seem to care. They are trivial and seemingly unimportant. What has changed?

I got the call a week ago on Thursday evening. I had waited for it all day. After nearly two weeks of symptoms—headache, vomiting, and general fatigue and feel bad—numerous doctor’s appointments, and countless medical tests, we were waiting to hear the results from the MRI. The ENT doctor had discovered the nystagmus, uncontrolled eye movements, Tuesday afternoon and immediately set up an appointment with the pediatric neurologist for Wednesday afternoon. The neurologist saying, “Let’s not wait until tomorrow,” scheduled the MRI for 9:30 that night. Prayer mode kicked into higher gear!

After learning of the nystagmus, I did some googling—not necessarily a good thing to do. While praying for the best outcome, an old “what if,” worst-case scenario habit, kept haunting me. She, my ten-year-od great niece, was exhibiting five of the six symptoms of a brain tumor! The call came. “It’s a brain tumor.” Okay, I was somewhat prepared for that. What came next had never entered my mind. “It is inoperable, on the brain stem and too large and entangled with other tissue. They will do some radiation to hopefully shrink and stop the tumors growth.” The projected prognosis is the worst imaginable. The emotions came quick and hard even while I said my goodbyes, “We are praying. Keep in touch. I love you,” and clicked off the phone.

I fell into the sofa crying. I wailed, “Oh, God, no!” I cried more. My wife held me. We held each other. We cried. My chest hurts, I can’t get my breath. Am I having a heart attack? The sobs and pain lessened momentarily only to come roaring back again and again. It felt like a vise was tightening around my chest. Just breathe. Just breathe! Is this what a broken heart feels like?  My heart breaks for my sweet little niece and her family—her mama, daddy, big brother and big sister. My heart breaks for her grandmother, my sister. I am heartbroken.

In the week since the call, I am not crying as much, but there are still times that I feel myself “going down” and tears welling up. I have asked “Why, God!” No answers other than we live in a fallen imperfect world in flesh and bone imperfect bodies. Don’t know if that is God’s answer or mine. I haven’t been able to focus on much other than staying in touch with the family, keeping others posted on what is happening, joining the wonderful “tribe” of folks who have come together to support my niece and her family, and reaching out to friends asking their prayers. I have learned a lot—more than I would want to know–about Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and the most devastating pediatric brain tumor. I have researched numerous clinical trials. We are hopeful and thankful that she has seen the doctors at MD Anderson, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has called, and there seem to be some options for clinical trial participation. Outside physical labor has provided some respite and distraction. I have weeded and spread 60+ bags of mulch in various beds this week. Good sleep seems to only come with total exhaustion. I could retreat into total aloneness. I know that would not be a healthy choice for me so I try to balance alone time and being with friends that I care about and I know care for me. I continue to pray even as I have no words. I am reminded of James Montgomery’s hymn “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.”

 Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
     Uttered or unexpressed
The motion of a hidden fire
    That trembles in the breast
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
   The falling of a tear;
The upward glancing of an eye
   When none but God is near.

Yet, every time I turn to other interest that I have been passionate about—social justice issues, civic organizations, ministry and advocacy work—they just don’t seem to be important or matter anymore. My head tells me they are important and maybe the passion will return in time, or maybe not.

In my heart right now, nothing else matters!

 

 

A Brand New Thing!

Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!

Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19 

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)

 I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.

At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)

We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.

Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.

Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”

 

 

 

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

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Lou Anne and I were recently invited to participate in this “Who Is My Neighbor” lecture series.  It was a wonderful experience, and we met lots of good, kind folks. Thanks to all those who showed up to warm the room and our hearts. It was a cold, wet Sunday morning outside. After our talk several folks approached me and asked if they could have a copy of my talk. Well here is my prepared script, which doesn’t mean this is exactly what I said, but hopefully, close enough.    Namaste!

Who Is My Neighbor?

In thinking about the title for this series, it struck me that neighborliness – who is my neighbor and how do I relate to and treat my neighbor — has been an issue through the ages. After all we know from scripture that on numerous occasions Moses, Jesus, and Paul offered instruction and guidance on neighborliness. When we were first asked to speak today, I immediately thought of the November 8, 2005, Texas Constitutional Amendment Election in which Texans voted on Proposition 2 – the amendment to define marriage in Texas as only between one man and one woman. Prior to that election, I wrote a letter and Lou Anne and I distributed it to our neighbors. My opening statement in that letter 13 years ago answered today’s question: We are your neighbors!’ The “we “ of today’s discussion is the LGBTQ+ community.

Let me say first that our LGBTQ+ community as a subpopulation is just as diverse as our population as a whole. I think this is fairly evident in the “alphabet soup” identifiers. Let me assure you there are efforts afoot to remedy that somewhat cumbersome moniker. If we must label there are other options floating about — DSG-Diverse Sexualities and Genders; GSM-Gender and Sexual Minorities; and the favorite among our younger folks, Queer. For today I will simply use “our community.” Who is your neighbor? We are! Let me introduce you to a few of our folks. (Real folks, not so real names.)

Meet John and Richard—two gay men in a 20+year relationship and legally married for many of those years. Both professionals, one retired. Both Christians attending a welcoming and affirming congregation in the area. One serving on the church board of directors. A visit with them always includes conversations about church, and grandchildren.

Meet James and Sal—a young transgender man and his spouse. Both continuing their educational paths and pursuing their career aspirations while building their dream house. Both active as advocates for our community.

Meet Ron and Rebecca—a straight couple working, operating a business, and raising a family. Both fierce advocates for their gender non-conforming child.

Meet Gary—a middle-aged man with a promising career cut short decades ago by the cruelty of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An advocate for our community, always a charming host, and a proclaimed Atheist.

Meet Betty and Julie—a lesbian couple in a 26-year relationship, married for 12 years. Both retired – a military nurse and university professor with a degree in Religious History. They stay engaged with friends, the publishing industry, and their “kids,” three small dogs, a cat, and a 38 year-old parrot. Christian backgrounds, but with no current religious affiliation, perhaps leanings toward Buddhism.

Meet Charles and Mike—Generation X gay men, medical and tech professionals. Baptist and Seven Day Adventists background. Want no part of organized religion.

Meet Blake and Slade who are queer youth navigating the uncertain and sometimes treacherous waters of school, legal hurdles, and public facilities.

And then you have Lou Anne and me. We have been together for 17 years, the last two legally married. With four children and seven grandchildren between us, we stay quiet busy. Both from the Baptist faith tradition, and only a couple of years ago choosing to leave the Baptist church.

So, our community is diverse and our spiritual/religious beliefs, experiences, and levels of participation are varied. As I share with you today, I can really only speak of my experience, yet from study and visiting with other members of our community, perhaps I can make some general comments about our faith journeys.

I believe for most in our community our spiritual beliefs have been both a solace and a source of seemingly unbearable struggle. From the Bible to the Quran most world religions-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu-espouse beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong-a sin-and unacceptable. Thus in matters of faith and religion, Gender and Sexual Minorities folks are naturally set –up for angst and turmoil.

I know my faith journey was filled with the gut wrenching agony and heart breaking struggle between who I am and what my religion said I should be. My solace came more from my faith and my personal study and interpretation of scripture than from the institutional church/religion. After years of praying, “Lord, please remove this ‘thorn in my flesh,’” trying to be straight and do the “right” things, I finally threw up my hands in surrender and clung to verses such as “For God so loved Brenda. . .,” my adaptation of John 3:16 since I am part of “the world.” I interpreted Mark 12:30-31 “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” as Christ’s command that I love and accept myself. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged as I began to contemplate and embrace the glorious rich mystery and my only hope of glory, Christ in me. (Colosians 1:27). I began to question the doctrines and dogma of “church” and ask just what exactly does God expect of me. I found my answer: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8)

Bolstered by my confidence that God loves me, and that I am commanded to love God, myself, and my neighbor through just, kind and humble actions, I set out on my own personal spiritual journey– a journey that took me away from traditional doctrine and dogma. Honestly, doing that felt so foreign and really scary, and this is perhaps another common element in the faith journey of folks in our community. Moving away from the familiar, even the familiar that was excruciatingly painful is difficult, yet we do it through faith. A faith similar to that expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “Faith is the courage to accept God’s total acceptance of each of us.” Or, perhaps the faith of Martin Luther, “Faith is an active, reckless confidence in God’s goodness.”

On my faith journey I have had a few experiences that I can only describe as mystical – an experience that cannot be explained outside the realm of Spirit. Perhaps this is a third common element in our faith journeys. There are those occasions when God speaks or intervenes in our lives in ways that we could not imagine. These incidents often bring shock and awe, guidance and gratitude. They are mystical experiences that change us and the direction of our lives. I am reminded of Karl Rahner’s words, “The Christian of the future will have to become a mystic—someone who has experienced something or Someone—or he or she will be nothing at all.”

My faith journey took me away from the traditional anti-LGBTQ teachings of my Baptist faith, and I stayed away from church for several years as I was welcomed, affirmed and supported by an inclusive ecumenical community during my initial coming out process. However, I returned to the church when I met Lou Anne. It was not a difficult return for now I was grounded in my faith and spirituality and not religious doctrine and church dogma. I enjoyed returning to the customs of Bible study and congregational praise and worship. As long as the focus was on Christ and serving the Kingdom, I was content. Even though I was removed from teaching and leadership positions after coming out in the “We are your neighbor” letter in 2005, Lou Anne and I stayed in the church. When the pastor began to preach openly from the pulpit against same-sex relationships in the spring of 2015, I felt I had to leave to maintain my sense of authenticity and personal integrity. Today, I have no institutional church affiliation. I am a follower of Christ and a christian (with a small “c”) and a member of the universal catholic church (all small “c”). I am a pilgrim and a seeker on this faith journey.

All of our faith journeys are unique and personal. Some in our community through the pain of condemnation and sorrow of rejection have totally abandoned the church, yet not their faith. Some reject all things “God.” Some proclaim to be Atheists. It is interesting to note that in a Pew Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, issued in May of 2015, that more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (NOTE: Transgender individuals were not accounted for in this particular survey.) A reported 48 percent of LGB respondents identify as Christian, and this is up from 42 percent in 2013. This rise is in contrast to the overall decline in the percent of Americans identifying as Christian that was 78.4 percent in 2013 and fell to 70.6 in 2015. The Pew report also indicated an additional 11 percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions.

Thus 59 percent of LGB respondents identified as people of faith. This high number was somewhat surprising for me and perhaps for you as well given the gay vs. religion paradigm so prevalent in our media and “culture wars.” It would appear that many in our community have stayed in, or they are returning and reclaiming their faith traditions.

So we ask, “Who is our neighbor?” We are all one another’s neighbors. We could argue that with the rapid communication and global connections—economic, geopolitical, and social–supported by our increasing modern technology we are quickly becoming global neighbors. Since we are all one another’s neighbors, let’s be neighborly to one another. Let’s love one another as we seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Welcome to the neighborhood! Or, as we say in our community, the gayborhood.

 

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