Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 3 Part 4

Here's the last section of chapter 3. the first part of Chapter 4 was mistakenly posted a few days ago and when I post again, I start from where that left off. So use the Archive links to the lower right to read ahead.

This section is where I see how long ago I abandoned this thing---2007.

Chapter 3, Part 4

When you enter a Lutheran seminary on the M.Div track, you‛re signing up for a four year journey that includes two years of class work, a year of internship, and another year of class work.

In the spring of 1993, the end of my second year of class work, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. She immediately began treatment with much hopeful talk from the doctors that it was caught early and easily treatable. That same semester, I was assigned an internship in Nebraska. I was nervous about going so far away at that time, but by the end of summer, Mama was finished with treatments and it looked like she‛d beaten the cancer.

Long story short, she hadn‛t. It recurred in the spring and I ended my internship early (having put in just enough time to fulfill degree requirements). I moved back to the farm in early May and she died in early June.

All the grief of that summer found me praying to God in this way. I said, "God, I‛ve buried both of my parents and I‛m still alone. I suppose I could do most anything alone, after all that, but I don‛t want to. It‛s been six years since my homosexual relationship. I‛m ready to fall in love."

(I pause to note that, at this writing, in 2007, I remain single and ambivalent about falling in love. My pathological inability to build a relationship is a story not very relevant to this story and probably best told as a case study with a skilled professional. As if I‛d ever give anyone that chance.)

Shortly after that prayer, I met a man. I liked him immediately and he had what I can only call fine Christian qualities. I also began to realize that I liked him for more than his fine Christian qualities. Very soon, I was praying to God again, saying, "So what‛s this? Some sort of test? I‛m not falling for it, God. Help me forge a friendship with this man and send me a woman to love."

Except, of course, I was falling in love with this man. Then a terrible thing happened. This fine Christian man came out to me. I was falling in love with a gay man.

Well, shit. What were those six years of celibacy for?

So, late one night, I‛m driving along Highway 21, going home to the farm, and arguing (note the word) with God. How can this fine Christian man be gay? Why couldn‛t he be straight and help me stay on the right path? What? Is this something that‛s going to rear it‛s ugly head every ten years for me to battle down all over again?

By this point, I was well aware of all the "liberal" arguments for accepting homosexuality and homosexuals into full, active participation in the church and I continued to argue all the familiar "conservative" arguments for drawing lines for who can serve as church leaders. All my arguments wound down to an exasperated whimper, "It just doesn‛t seem like what you had in mind in the garden."

In my head, I heard, "Yes, well, neither were cars." It was one of those thoughts that didn‛t feel like my own thought. As I drove my car, I found myself comparing and contrasting the harm a car does in the world against the harm a homosexual relationship causes.

I sighed. "Very clever, God," I prayed. "But it‛s scripture that tells me homosexual relationships are wrong. I need something scriptural to convince me they‛re all right."

Since I felt I knew scripture pretty darn well, that settled that. God and I remained silent the rest of the drive home.

If the above sounds preposterous and maybe a little mentally ill, you may as well stop reading now. If you‛re the sort who does not believe God speaks to us or that God is not active in personal lives, you won‛t believe the following. God became very active here. This is my story and it‛s sticking to me.

So after my challenge for a scriptural basis on which to open myself up to the unrepentant homosexual (gotta love the language I had to talk about it), I began feeling the nudge of the Holy Spirit. The nudge was toward the tenth chapter of Acts, where Peter had his vision of unclean food. Without bothering to crack a Bible, I said to God, "That‛s the best you can do? A story that lets me eat bacon?"

This went on for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks. When you have the right answer, you don‛t want to go looking for reasons to prove it wrong, even if it‛s God telling you you‛re wrong.

Eventually, this insistent nudging sent me to the actual text. As I suspected, it was all about food. Ham and Swiss is okay with God. I so no reason to turn that into welcoming man on man or woman on woman action.

But that persistent, bothersome Spirit wouldn‛t let me alone. "Read on," She said.

Giving a heavy sigh, I read on.

And that‛s when the scales fell from my eyes.

My knowledge of scripture, despite being in my fourth year as an M.Div student, was sorely lacking.

The vision, ultimately, was about people, specifically ritually unclean people. Peter immediately met a Roman centurion, an enforcer for the regime oppressing Peter‛s people, a Gentile who had heard the Good News of Jesus and wanted to be part of the church.

Peter saw the man‛s faith, saw that God had called the man to the church and in so doing had called the man clean. Peter, in surrender, could only say, as the voice in his vision had said of the food, "What God has called clean, I cannot call unclean."

For my part, I had met a gay man, a man clearly devoted to God, clearly called by God. God had called him clean. Despite all my training and study to the contrary, I could not call that man unclean.

From there, is was only a short, if rocky, journey to accept that judgment for myself.

That was the fall of my senior year of seminary. For the final months of classes, I read everything with new eyes. In my final semester, I took the required course in liberation theology. A topic about which I was dubious now excited me, revealed to me the subversive ways God moves among the least of us, how historically, the Spirit moves from the bottom up. We don‛t see the exalted lifted up. As Mary sang, God lifts up the lowly.

I can‛t really place myself among the "least of these," not while I live indoors and not in prison. I can, however, identify with the oppressed, if only in that gay and lesbian people, despite their faith, despite their commitments, are barred from serving God in most Christian denominations. (This is changing—slowly, but it is changing.)

I always say that the change from disowning my sexuality wasn‛t exactly a light switch being flipped, but it was at least a dimmer turned up pretty quickly. I‛ve had only the most fleeting questions about God‛s love and acceptance of the GLBT community. This is true and it‛s also true that my first thirty years of repression linger.

If my backyard experience of God as a preschooler was a conversion experience, so was this. If this was a conversion to seeing God‛s expansive grace in a whole new way, it‛s also a beginning of a questioning that culminated in my theology‛s bottom falling out at Pete‛s memorial service.

Coming out and conversions have one thing in common. They are both ongoing processes. As a gay or lesbian person might come out over and over, living more and more openly, so does a Christian go deeper and deeper into the faith, always finding a more meaningful way to be Christian. Both also experience backsliding. There are times when a gay person retreats to the closet, given certain circumstances. It‛s just safer there, sometimes. So do Christians fall and become less Christian because, let‛s face it, it‛s sometimes safer to be less than Christ-like, too.

These are three beginnings of my theological journey. There are probably others, but these give you a context for what follows.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 3 Part 3

Turns out Chapter 3 is long. For internet reading it seemed best to do 4 parts. here's part 3. (See the Archives for previous pieces---and one section of Chapter 4 posted early by mistake.)

At that time, as I struggled to find some way to tame my sexual desires, I started looking into the Roman Catholic Church. It makes sense—when you‛re not staying to your own rules very well, find the church with more rules, with a better history of knowing how to practice religious discipline. Of course, I‛d never had said that then. I was drawn to the liturgy, the history, the mystery of the church. The Romans do get some things right. When I moved to Houston, I started attending a Catholic church and reading Catholic writers, among them some mystics. This time in Houston turned out to be the tail-end of my "Catholic period," as I shortly thereafter returned to my Lutheran roots.

It was an intense time of prayer. Mostly, my prayers revolved around delivering me from my homosexual feelings, but prayer can often lead us to into spiritual renewal. I often think of that brief time in Houston in such terms. Spiritual renewal. Through experiences I had in prayer and meditation, I first started getting an idea of what the phrase "grace of God" meant. It was something my campus pastor had tried to tell me a few years before and I was finally getting it. For the first time, I had the feeling that God truly loved me. Not in that "God loves everyone" platitude sort of way, but that God loves and knows me.

I had a friend, Bill Williams, who is dead now. He wrote and spoke of a God who practices triage. We are all in emergency need of healing, but not just from one wound. God, as EMT worker, looks at us and starts to work on the thing that is likely to cause the most damage. In my case (and in Bill‛s, come to think of it—maybe in everyone‛s case), the wound seeping the most life was my fear and mistrust of God. God was judge and I was bad. If I was going to hold to law-based images of God (and I no longer do), God the Spirit started to nudge me toward an understanding of God as advocate, as the lawyer who defends us, who believes our innocence despite all evidence. And God never loses a case.

This was a significant healing, a dramatic turning point in my life with God. Of course, I was simultaneously caught up in the old ways of thinking about God, too. These things take time, and if I experienced anew the goodness and love of God, I did not understand the love of God to let me pursue a homosexual relationship. In fact, in gratefulness to God for such love and grace, I renewed my resolve to become heterosexual.

This resolve lasted six years, or the rest of my twenties. During those six years, I was effectively, functionally asexual. I had set an arbitrary goal of not pursuing a relationship (i.e. dating) for three years, to somehow balance out the three years I was in a relationship, and once those three years passed, I was in a habit of not dating and life went on, celibate and asexual.

Meanwhile, I watched my high school and college friends marry or, in a couple of cases, find same-sex partners. I would sometimes fight off loneliness, but I also had a rich prayer life. If I felt directionless and buffeted about by the late 80s Texas economy, I was also experiencing spiritual highs. When my father died suddenly in 1988, I found new purpose for my life in helping my mother as much as I could. I was laid off at a job in Houston, which gave me reason to move back home to the farm for a time. Eventually, I found work in Austin, moved there, but went to the farm as often as possible to mow Mama‛s grass and do other little chores for her.

In 1990, I felt a call to study theology and started to inquire about doing a two-year Master of Arts in Religion degree. I let myself get sweet-talked into the four-year Master of Divinity degree, however. Still susceptible to good strokes, I heard people say they‛d always knew I‛d be a pastor, what a good pastor I‛d be, what a good boy for going to seminary. Sickening, isn‛t it? But there I was, enrolling in the fall of 1991 to study to be a pastor.

On a campus of Lutherans and Episcopalians, I found myself drawn socially to the liberals, but kept arguing a more conservative line. I dislike those terms, liberal and conservative, but if I recognized the grace of God in one set of students more than in others, I still found myself arguing more for the rules. As such, I wrote a paper for a class on how the Bible does not support a homosexual life, how the church would do well to not ordain homosexuals or bless their relationships.

Some memories are just so embarrassing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 3 part 2

Here's part two of that abandoned theological memoir. Due to some mistakes over the past weekend, things got a bit out of order. the pieces are all labeled correctly, they're just out of order. If you want to get all the pieces in order, you'll have to navigate from the Archives links on the right hand side (scroll down a bit). Sorry for the inconvenience.

Chapter 3: Coming Around, Coming Out. part 2

College was an odd time, sexually speaking. There are so many ways in which I did not know myself, and if I caught a glimpse, it scared me so badly I turned my head to avoid seeing it. Sort of like running into that very odd person from your friend‛s party and pretending not to see or recognize him or her. That was me. I was my own odd person from a friend‛s party. I did a lot of pretending not to see or recognize myself.

I made vague attempts at dating, but mostly I didn‛t try. I had a set of good friends, mostly from the Lutheran Campus Ministry. We were the good kids on this party campus. We barely even talked about sex, much less did it. Or, if any of us were doing it, we especially didn‛t talk about it. I realize, in retrospect, that my sexual ambiguity was confusing to a few people of both sexes. I doubt I actually broke any hearts, but years after the fact, I recognize what were surely romantic overtures.

In the last years of college, I was confronted head-on with sexuality issues. It was rough, to say the least. I fell into a relationship. The details of it are not pertinent and not all of that story is mine to tell. It was, to say the least, very confusing. No, it was, in fact, terrifying.

I suddenly found myself begin and doing things I‛d always understood to be the wrong answer. It became an agonizing see-saw of promising God I‛d never "do it" again and finding myself drawn back to this man, who I really did love quite a lot. It was stressful—and grossly unfair—to both of us.

This lasted for three years, 1985-1988.

It was at the end of those years that I started having fantasies about killing myself. Sounds dramatic, doesn‛t it? I suppose it is. It didn‛t seem so alarming at the time. I knew I didn‛t really want to kill myself, so I‛d pull myself out of the fantasy and go on for a few days, until I‛d find myself fantasizing about it again.

I never even came close to carrying out any of these scenarios, but just as I might daydream about, say, being on the Tonight Show and what witty thing I‛d say to Leno, I found myself daydreaming about the best way to commit suicide. Sometimes, the fantasy was all about the most dramatic impact it would have: I‛d hang myself from the rafters backstage at the theater where I was working and I‛d become the new theater ghost. Sometimes, I wondered about what would be the least painful way: A razor blade doesn‛t really hurt that much, and in a bathtub full of warm water, I imagined I‛d just slip into a warm, liquid unconsciousness. In all cases, the fantasy included staging it (theater major, you know) so that my man would be the one to find me. Yes, you could say there was some hostility behind the fantasies.

I‛ll go one step further and say it was misplaced hostility. I was terribly unprepared for a relationship with a man and he was terribly unprepared to deal with my religiosity. I very badly needed someone to talk to, but our relationship was secret. I‛m not even sure if it was secret by mutual consent or out of my obvious terror and shame. Surely, some of it was the former—he wasn‛t exactly marching in any Pride parades, either—but for my part, it was surely a whole lot of the latter. He clearly didn‛t want to talk about it in the terms that I needed to talk about it (the root of my hostility) and I could never give myself fully to him because of being in such internal conflict. In those three years, we hurt each other repeatedly.

As for having no one to talk to, of course there were people. The most glaringly obvious person was my campus pastor at the university. He would have extended many words of grace to me, already had in many other situations. I was also terrified of that grace. I was afraid to hear it was okay to be gay. I didn‛t want to be gay. I did not want to be in a relationship with a man, even one that I loved as much as I loved this one. I just wanted to get over this infatuation or sexualized friendship or whatever I might have called it at the time, and move on to living a normal, heterosexual life. I just wanted to be normal. I was afraid, truly terrified that if I told someone I was gay (which is so much harder to deny than someone else saying you‛re gay), I would never be able to take it back. I would be stuck there, feeling that shame, unable to move on, crying all the time.

Have I mentioned the crying? Oh yeah, there was a whole lot of crying. In private, mostly. Sometimes with my man. Honestly, I should have been seeing some sort of mental health professional.

I‛m sounding glib. Let me be more serious for a moment. Writing now, as a 44 year old man, those years are such a small fraction of my life and I can honestly say that from 1989 on, I‛ve not had suicidal fantasies. If they were to return, I hope I will have the sense to find the professional help I need. I encourage everyone to do so. One great mystery to me is why I escaped the downward spiral those fantasies represent. So many don‛t.

Of course, one way I escaped the spiral was by escaping the relationship. I moved to Houston. It was probably the second best way to deal with the situation, maybe even third or fourth best way. But it helped me live to tell this tale.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chapter 2: A Life with God

I know I had posted this chapter earlier, but I seem to have deleted it by mistake. I accidentally posted the first part of chapter 4 last night, thought I had deleted that but it's still there, so I must have deleted this chapter by mistake. And so reading this abandoned memoir on the blog just became more difficult. Sorry for the out-of-order-ness of this. I don't intend to be difficult, it just comes naturally.

Chapter 2: A Life with God

I grew up in the church. Unlike many memoirs you hear about growing up churched, I loved it. Some of my earliest memories involved church and Sunday school. Some of those memories involve me asking to go. I'm just that unusual.

I should first say that not all my desire to go to church was due to spiritual interests. Church was an easy place to get positive strokes. I'm predisposed toward pleasing people, so I early and quickly learned what would please the adults around me. I had a nimble mind suitable to memorizing answers, which delighted adults. Good behavior pleased adults and there were pretty clear rules of conduct at church, easy enough to follow. When I did misbehave, I felt shame in what must be a double measure compared to some of my more rowdy classmates, which probably also pleased some adults. But I was a sensitive kid in a rough and tumble country environment—these were as much survival tactics as anything else. I felt fat and unpopular with my peers, but so long as I had the favor of the adults, I felt safe.

I also found church and Sunday school to be a place to feed my acquisitive nature. You could get stuff at Sunday school. I loved getting the weekly coloring pages and story pamphlets. At that time and place, new coloring books were rare and story books came from the library but not for keeping. Anyone who has seen my library knows I still like to keep books. At Sunday school, I didn't have to wait until my birthday or Christmas to get stuff.

Church also fed my early creative urges. The annual Christmas program gave me a moment on stage, vacation Bible school had lots of crafts to make, and of course always and forever coloring pages every week at Sunday school. I was also good at these things, which also pleased the adults. See the trend? I got things I wanted and I got approval.

All of which to say, I wasn't some extraordinary prodigy saint. I lot of my attraction to church was just plain avarice and narcissism.

But I am also predisposed toward noticing spiritual things. That's where this second beginning really begins.

I had my first mystical experience as a preschooler.

I can't tell you exactly how old I was. I know my family was still attending St. John's Lutheran Church in Paige (the country church), so it was before I started first grade, when we transferred to Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Giddings (the town church). I believe it was a Sunday school teacher at St. John's who said that God was everywhere, all at once, and that God wasn't an old man in the sky far away, but was a spirit, always all around us.

That seems like a pretty big concept to be laying on a preschooler, now, but it struck me as, for lack of a better term, an interesting idea.

Sometime soon after—the same day? Later that week? Later still? I have no idea, but soon after—I was lying on my back in the backyard. I was watching a few clouds in an otherwise fair, blue sky. To say I was meditating on what I'd heard at Sunday school seems silly for a five (ish) year old, but I was thinking about it.

And that's when it happened. I was suddenly aware that, yes, God was up there in the clouds, and God was in the grass beneath and beside me. God was in the crepe myrtle to my right and in the pecan tree a few yards from my head. God was all around me. Everything was shot through with God.

It would be twenty years or more before I knew to call this a mystical experience.

I believe preschool is the exact right age for mystical experience. Adults get too awed by it. They make too big a deal about it. My reaction was something along the lines of, "Oh. Okay. I get it. Is it time for afternoon cartoons yet?" In other words, an adult had told me this thing so I figured everyone knew it already, experienced something like it. I took the presence of God as ordinary. Expected, even. I didn't even bother to tell anyone about my experience in the backyard.

There is something in that afternoon that remains foundational for me. It is, I believe, the closest thing I have had to a conversion experience. It is the experience that I fall back on when I want to discount the existence of God. Had I had the experience later in life, I might have dismissed it as an exercise in imagination. I suppose it could still be that, just a small boy's willingness to believe fairy tales.

Except it wasn't the last time I've felt such things. I don't want this to become a catalog of the times God touched me. Those stories can quickly begin to sound awfully precious in the worst sense of the word. The remarkable thing to tell, however, is the consistency of who I experience God to be. Tender. Loving in a way that turns all our romantic notions upside down. Permeating everything and yet somehow knowing me specifically. Big—Really Big—and concerned with the small.

Obviously words fail. I want to qualify every word. Loving doesn't quite cover it. Omnipresent suggests something I don't quite mean.

Still, I find God strikingly consistent in this ineffability.

I wish I could claim some special good fortune or favor because I've had these experiences, or that I was a better person for having experienced them, but that's not the case. No one I know has been miraculously healed because I prayed for them. I remain impatient and petty in most of my relationships. I know atheists who are really much better people than I am.

I can only claim that these experiences give me peace. Help me calm down in my more anxious, nervous moments. Seems like a small payoff for touching the Ineffable, doesn't it? But there it is. And it's really very good.

The experiences still seem ordinary to me. God remains present and active around me. The mysterious thing to me is that more people don't notice it. This is why I don't engage in arguments over the existence of God. How do you argue experience or, more to the point, the lack of experience? If you haven't felt the presence of God, I don't know that my arguing with you is going to change that. An exchange of "I haven't experienced God" and "yeah, well I have" doesn't much advance the philosophical discussions surrounding this very basic question. Besides, any number of people in mental institutions and correctional facilities would take my side in the argument, even as I also wonder what god has touched them. I know my experience moves me to not commit heinous crimes, not yell hateful things at passersby, not invade and overthrow sovereign nations.

But I digress.

The only reason I offer this information is to tell you something about my faith, to give you a context for the rest of this book. Even when I didin't know what I believed about God, I coudln't help but still believe there is a God. This remains an experiential reality through all the changes in my life.

There have been, of course, many changes in my forty-odd years. The biggest happened when I was thirty. That would be the third beginning to my developing theology.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 3 Part 1

Here is the first couple of pages of Chapter 3 of that abandoned theological memoir, (which never had even a solid working title). It's a fairly long chapter and will be broken into 3 or 4 blog posts. This is a fairly frank discussion of my sex education and may contain words not everyone wants to read, at least on a religious blog. Others of you will wonder why I'm warning about such a mild post. But if you're the type to be offended by certain words, this is your warning that those words are used below.

Chapter 3: Coming Around, Coming Out

So I was always the good boy, the pleaser, the one quick to learn the right answer. I always wanted the right answer.

My sex education was not, shall we say, formal. I received it early, in elementary school, when my older brother, in junior high, somehow scored some paperback porn novels. He let me read them so long as I promised not to tell Mama and Daddy about them. I can say it was a stimulating, if incomplete, education.

I‛ve often joked that I learned about sex before I knew where babies came from. I mean, I knew women became pregnant and babies came out of them. I grew up on a farm, after all. Cows got fat and had calves, pigs got fat and had piglets, cats got fat and had kittens. I just didn‛t know the mechanics of how that happened. To be honest, I just thought God decided these things. When my oldest brother‛s wife had babies, I just assumed it was God saying it was time for them to have children. I‛m not making this up. My childhood God was just that intimately involved in our lives.

So this sex thing, these acts described in these books (no pictures, by the way) sounded really quite interesting and fun but completely separate from any reproductive function. By that time, I‛d experienced erections, but all I knew of them was that it was this funny, silly thing that happened sometimes and I associated it with having to pee. I certainly wasn‛t old enough to be producing semen.

These books, with their stories of men using this silly thing to put inside women, fascinated me. By all accounts, it also felt really good. I know I wondered (and I may have even asked my brother) if Mama and Daddy knew about this "fucking" thing. A really funny question coming from the youngest of seven children, eh?

(I pause for another silly bit of my sexual education. Since there were no pictures in these books, I had a really misguided notion of what a vagina looked like. I pictured something like a second, lower, much deeper belly button.)

I was also introduced to man-on-man sex in one book. This book was about a couple of swingers and their adventures. In one scene, one guy went down on the other. It was clear that the other characters considered this really unusual and maybe a little crazy. The first man assured everyone else that he was really okay, this was just something he liked to do now and then, but not as a regular thing.

I thought, What‛s the big deal? Why wouldn‛t two guys, after everything else described in the book, not consider it? I suppose that might have been an early clue that I was gay.

Even as those books were entertaining and, uh, stimulating my imagination, I soon picked up at church that they were dirty and made God angry. Not the books in particular, just the general notion that sex was dirty. You know the old line. Sex is dirty and disgusting and you save it for someone you love. I don‛t recall telling anyone about these porn novels, but it dawned on me that they were definitely not the right answer.

In a fit of piety and concern for my brother‛s soul, I burned those books. Yes, that‛s right, the future writer was a pre-teen book burner.

I was first called "gay" in junior high. I didn‛t understand. My best friend and I were artistic and musical, hated sports, preferred playing with the girls, and maybe got sillier and giggled more than most of the boys in our class, but it‛s not like we were having sex or anything. That was my working definition of "gay" at the time—having men having sex with other men. I wasn‛t having sex with anyone and besides, I‛d also long since figured out that "gay" was the wrong answer, even if no one really talked about homosexuality, not in any explicit, neutral terms. In my rural setting, sex was for marriage and men married women, period. That was the right answer.

These accusations followed me into high school. In some ways, they hurt and hindered me, in other ways, I defiantly did what I wanted to do anyway. I felt the rumors inhibited my social life somewhat. There were girls who I definitely wanted to date—more out of a desire to have a normal high school life than out of, well, desire—and I felt that my friendships with other guys were colored by how it looked to be friends with me. Probably both the girls and the guys sensed something different in my interest in them, even if I couldn‛t name it at the time. On the other hand, my interest in the arts continued unhindered by charges of queer interests. It was, after all the 1970s and even in small town Texas gender roles and definitions of masculinity were being questioned (or at least on tv they were). The first and most regrettable time I let being called queer hinder my creative impulse was in college, when I took some dance classes to fulfill my PE requirements. I didn‛t declare a dance minor mostly because of the derision I felt from all the jocks in the gym, where the dance studios were, as I walked through the halls in my university-issued black tights. Of course, by that time, it was the 80s and a noticeable sea change in social and political thinking had occurred, despite Boy George (or maybe because of?) being on MTV.

From junior high to college, however, it amazes me now that all those cowboys and jocks seemed to know more about me than I did.

Abandoned Memoir Chapter 4 Part 1

This is the beginning of the fourth chapter of an abandoned theological memoir I started some years ago. In fact, Chapter 4 was as far as I got. It's a bit longer than the other chapters so I'll likely break it up into 3 or 4 blog posts. 

Chapter 4: If These are my Circumstances, How do I Live Faithfully?

When someone asks me, "What‛s your sign?" I should answer, "A question mark."

I‛ve always been full of questions. That‛s the other side of always wanting answers.

Upon his retirement, my childhood pastor told me I was one of only two students in his long career that nearly wore him out with questions. "I could never give a confirmation lesson and move on," he said. "You always had another question."

Well, what do you expect? Anyone familiar with Luther‛s Catechism knows that it‛s set up in a Q&A format. Every petition of the Lord‛s Prayer, for example, is followed with, "What does this mean?" Luther‛s answers were never quite enough for me.

As I said in the last chapter, I was very concerned with the right answer. How to act, what to believe, what was pleasing to the ones teaching me the answers. Eventually, I began to feel like I had a few answers stockpiled. I did my best to live accordingly. They were, for the most part, colored in black and white. 

It wasn‛t until college that I found difficulty in a world of strict right and wrong. I became involved in the Lutheran Student Movement, a national organization of college students with a strong bent toward social justice issues. This was the early 1980s, so there were many plenary sessions on things like nuclear arms and ways to resist the cold war machinery of paranoia and power plays. This was probably my first real contact with more complex social concerns, with the notion that living a life in Christ went beyond not stealing or not killing. Apartheid was a new word for me and I was suddenly aware of South Africa as an actual country, not just a location on the continent. This was the first time I‛d come into contact with modern boycotts, a concept I‛d not encountered beyond history books. We were all over the Nestle boycott of the time (primarily for distributing substandard baby formula to third world countries) and other companies were brought up on charges of irresponsible capitalism, primarily businesses with ties to governments that violated human rights or that benefitted from the nuclear arms race.

For the most part, I latched onto these ideals. I definitely stopped buying Nestle products and a friend from Campus Ministry, more of a boycott zealot than I, helped keep me informed of other nefarious companies. Then, I got my first credit card, a gas card. I was telling my friend about this new acquisition and her immediate response was, "I don‛t know, Neil, I think they have investments in South Africa."

So I started to agonize over this credit card (not yet realizing how evil credit cards are in general). I mentioned it to our campus pastor. He said something like, "Well, good luck with finding a righteous gas company."


So what to do now? I couldn‛t give up my car and it had to have gas. Which gas company could I support? How many companies do I have to boycott?

(to be continued)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Ground Breaks Open Beneath Me (chapt 1, part 2)

(continued from the previous post)

Our friendship wasn‛t all grief and angst. I‛m not much of a film buff, but Pete was very much into foreign and art house films. I quickly learned to trust his instincts about films he‛d heard about. He‛d call me up and tell me about a film and when it was showing and soon we were on our way to the Dobie or some other artsy cinema.

We also had months at a time when we were not in touch. These were not precipitated by anything. I suppose we just didn‛t have much to say sometimes or else a drought of good films hit Austin. Still, some subtitled movie would come out that would catch Pete‛s attention and my phone would ring. We‛d see the film, catch up, and not see each other again for a while. Eventually, he found a girlfriend and they moved in together. As often happens when one friend enters a romance, the friendship drifted a little more, but then he‛d find a movie she wasn‛t interested in and off we‛d go. It‛s odd to me, now, but I never met his girlfriend until his memorial service.

It was during one of those long spells of silence that Pete was diagnosed with throat cancer. The cancer didn‛t kill him, complications from the treatment did. But all of that happened between foreign films. To hear the news on my answering machine was a shock to say the least.

In the shock, I had a moment of wondering why he hadn‛t called to tell me he was undergoing treatment. I let it go, though. He had a girlfriend to lean on and it‛s common for men to not talk about their health issues, least of all to other men.

And so it came to pass, on a bright Saturday morning, a small group of Pete‛s friends gathered to memorialize him with stories. We met under a gazebo on Town Lake, a few yards from the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, by the hike and bike trail Pete and I walked so often. Pete belonged to a Unitarian church, so his pastor was there. She acted as something akin to an m.c. as different friends got up to speak.

One of these friends was a woman I‛d never met before, but I recognized her from Pete‛s stories. They knew each other from AA and Pete always spoke of her as a good friend, a close friend. He also always seemed a little suspicious of her religion. She was a charismatic Christian, a "holy roller," the sort of Christian given to ecstatic displays of religious fervor. I got the impression that he held that part of her at arm‛s length, a little cautious that she might try to convert him. He was doing okay at his Unitarian church, he got what he needed there, or at least he was comfortable there, not too Jesusy, not too emotional. I got the feeling attending his church helped him stay clean and sober, and there‛s much to be said for that, but definitely different from his friend‛s very emotional, very Jesusy church which, to be fair, probably helped her keep clean and sober, too.

Imagine my surprise, though, when this woman told the story of Pete‛s illness in relation to her. She told us that Pete called her up and said, "I want to meet your friend, Jesus."

That told me a lot about where Pete was with his diagnosis. He was scared, more scared of the cancer than of flamboyant religion. That made my heart hurt for Pete.

Then, because I am relentlessly self-absorbed, I turned her story into being about me. Why hadn‛t Pete called me, asked me about my friend, Jesus? Religion had certainly been a part of our meandering conversations. He knew I went to church, that I had a Master‛s of Divinity degree, for crying out loud. What was wrong with my Jesus?

But, okay, Pete wanted to meet her friend Jesus. She got him to visit her church, where he "accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior," and had the congregation lay hands on him for healing. I realized she was giving a testimony for Pete, how he came to the Lord, how he left that day convinced of his healing.

Somewhere in there, she had a slight pause. Whoops, that‛s right, she was telling of Pete‛s healing at his memorial service. She quietly said something about not knowing what happened, why Pete still died, but she came back strong with the comfort that Pete died a saved man.

In contrast to this testimony, the pastor gave a sermon based on the first verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel According to John: "Let not your hearts be troubled." In context, Jesus is about to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be betrayed by Judas and led away to be judged and, eventually, crucified.  The Gospel of John has the most confident and in control Jesus of the four canonical gospels, and at his last supper, he‛s telling his disciples what‛s about to happen. (John‛s Jesus is also pretty omniscient.) Jesus then tells them to be at peace. Jesus tells his disciples, "I go to prepare a place for you" and "let not your hearts be troubled" and other such famous words of comfort.

The pastor said, "Can‛t you just hear Pete telling us that today? ‛Let not your heart be troubled. I‛ve gone to a better place.‛ Can‛t you see his wide, open smile as he‛s telling us this?"

I‛m paraphrasing. Her words may not have been that saccharine, but I remember them as being pretty artificially sweet. I also remember thinking, Well, fuck that shit. My friend just died. You‛ll have to excuse me if I‛m a little sad right now.

The point being this: In that gazebo on Town Lake, presented with two very different messages in regard to my friend, a distinct and powerful and life changing thought entered my head, perhaps not for the first time, but in a new way, a way that made the ground give out beneath me.

I thought, This is all superstition.

All this religious talk is babbling about things that we can‛t know about and so we just make shit up.

Believe hard enough, accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, have hands laid upon you, and you‛ll be healed—or at least that‛s what they‛ll say about you at your memorial service.


Pretend hard enough and you won‛t grieve. Picture a happy face and a better place, and you‛ll almost be glad your friend died. At least that‛s what they‛ll say at your memorial service.

And neither message felt rooted in any kind of reality that I experienced. It probably looks really simple on this page, but the two messages, delivered within a single hour, created something like cognitive dissonance for me.

I lost my faith that day. I wouldn‛t have put it that way then, and not for a long time after, but at this distance, I can confess that‛s what happened. My way of thinking about faith certainly changed. I didn‛t exactly stop believing in God, but my creed became this one line: I believe in God. I just don‛t know what I believe about God.

Between graduating from seminary (May 1995) and Pete‛s memorial service (April, 2000), I had been trying to understand the phrase, "The Good News of Jesus," in terms that made sense to me, in a way that didn‛t feel intellectually dishonest. "Jesus died for your sins" had started to unravel for me somewhere around the question, "but why does an omnipotent God need anyone to die for my sins?" It also seemed increasingly unlikely that Jesus went about Galilee, preaching, "the reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News—which is that I died (will die?) for your sins."

That question, "what is the good news?" came to mind the day of Pete‛s memorial service. Was the good news that we could think happy thoughts and not experience ugly emotions like grief? Was the good news that we could all feel better about death if the deceased had been "saved?"

More importantly, what would have been good news for Pete? Whatever he got out of his own church, it wasn‛t enough to face cancer. It appears that he sought out good news in gifts of healing, but if the good news of Jesus is about miraculous healing, then, at best, it‛s capricious good news.

For my own witness, what good news would I have given Pete if he had called me and asked to meet my friend Jesus? We Lutherans pray for healing, certainly, and we say God is with us (Emanuel) whether we experience healing or not. We affirm the promise that God is with us in our suffering. God is with us in our dying.

Which probably doesn‛t seem like very good news when you flat out just don‛t want to die.

From this point on, I began listening to sermons with an ear for false hope, false promises. From that moment on, I would sit in my pew and scowl, thinking bullshit at any platitude my pastor offered from the pulpit (with apologies to all my pastors, who I love, even when I fear they‛re full of shit).

Paradoxically, I felt God being present, perhaps more intensely than I had for some time. So much of what I once professed casually now seemed like fantasy, but I never stopped believing in God. In fact, I felt God‛s hand in all this questioning. So began the sifting of my theology.

This is the first beginning of this story. It‛s the latest beginning, chronologically, and the one that got this particular ball rolling. But nothing happens in a vacuum. There are other beginnings.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pieces of a Memoir

Some years ago, I tried writing a theological memoir. I never finished it, but I think I want to put what I have out there. Maybe I'll use lent to take it farther. Or it'll remain incomplete. I can't see the future. But I'll put up pieces of it over the next weeks. Here's the beginning of the first chapter.

Chapter 1: The First Beginning—The Ground Breaks Open Beneath Me (part one)
I knew Pete for about three years. We met while we were both bit players in an Austin, Texas, production of Juno and the Paycock. Being bit players, we had lots of time to get to know each other backstage.

Had this been high school, we would have been voted least likely to become friends. He grew up east-coast inner-city tough, learned to do nearly any and all drugs (but clean and sober when I met him), and was a free spirit. As an example of the latter, he was an independent contractor, a painter who worked mostly interior jobs, small jobs he could do by himself. He‛d work until he had a little money saved up and then he‛d disappear into some mountains somewhere for a while. When the money ran out, he‛d start calling his network of construction companies to find more work.

Me, I‛m a Texas farm boy, have never even been really blotto drunk, and despite ample opportunities as a theater major, I‛ve only experienced marijuana as second hand smoke. That‛s as "hard" as my drug exposure has ever gotten. Although I aspire to it, I cannot lay any claim to being "free-spirited." Even now, at my most bohemian, I can‛t imagine being without a steady job. I am, after all, Lutheran.

But Pete and I, we became friends. Not close, see-each-other-all-the-time friends, but real friends. There was a depth to our relationship. His apartment was by Town Lake and we sometimes met there for long walks on the hike and bike trail by the water. I told him about my (then relatively new) experiences with coming out as a gay man and he told me something of the struggles he had learning his twin brother was gay. ("Man, until we hit puberty, it was like we shared a mind. He could be across town and scratching his ass and I would feel it. Then suddenly he likes guys and there‛s like this psychic wall that went up.") We shared our grief stories, me with mother‛s recent death due to lymphoma, he with his brother‛s death from AIDS. We were both a little lost. He‛d quite unexpectedly lived into his forties and realized that if he‛d been handling his painting business correctly, he‛d have a younger crew to climb all the ladders. Now that he was clean and sober, he wasn‛t sure he wanted to continue in that business but didn‛t know what else to do, either. I‛d recently graduated from seminary with no intention for ordination and coming out made most church careers unlikely. I had a decent enough job as a bureaucrat at the University of Texas, but I didn‛t really like it much and didn‛t know what else to do. We both felt stuck, uncertain about how to move forward.

Funny how being a recovering drug addict and a recovering seminarian can draw two people together.

(to be continued)