Stop pretending

There is a story in the news almost every day about homophobia. People deny tips based solely on the assumption that the person serving them is gay. Homosexuals are beaten and killed in Russia and around the world. Protestors chant “God hates fags!” outside funeral services for members of our nation’s military.

Less news-worthy instances of homophobia affect me personally. After eight years together, there is still no legal recognition of my relationship. And after eight years, most of my family members still don’t acknowledge my partner. My immediate family, in many ways, is fractured.

What’s the common denominator? Religion.

I haven’t been to church in around nine months. While discussing that fact with a friend recently, I was finally able to verbalize my feelings on the matter. What it boils down to is that almost everything negative in my life is a result of religion.

Religion separates my family. Religious zealots threaten my safety and security. Religion makes my world a less welcoming place.

While I still believe in God, I have no desire to associate myself with a denomination. My church might preach equality for everyone, but the people driving by don’t automatically realize that. If I say, “I’m a Christian” or “I go to church,” I worry that many will assume I am just like the other bigots who go around bashing those who are different.

I don’t need religion to be moral. I don’t need church in order to go to heaven (if there is one.) What I need is for people who call themselves “Christian” to at least make an effort to live up to the name. Don’t pretend you love everyone when you are so clearly filled with hate.

‘Help Thanks Wow’ by Anne Lamott

I just finished reading Anne Lamott’s book titled Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. It was beautiful. Anne has a unique way of understanding and elaborating on religious doubt. I could see myself in many of the pages, including the prayer in the following excerpt.

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.

I like the idea of being completely honest with God. I tend to completely shut Him/Her out of the equation when I am feeling low spiritually. This has actually been the case for quite some time now. I also completely identify with the idea of recoiling from most people who believe in God. Even so, I still pray. Often in the manner Anne descibes. Short and to the point.

If You are up there, please help this person get better.

If You exist, thanks for my home, my partner, my comfort.

Wow. You really outdid Yourself with these beautiful flowers. I’m in awe!

I’m never sure if anyone is actually listening, but I do it anyway. Since reading this book, I intend to do it more, and in a much more honest manner. If God exists, He/She already knows my thoughts, so there is no point trying to conceal them.

Anne sums up her book and my feelings perfectly with a quote from Matisse:

I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.

Special thanks to We Are Fambly for bringing this book to my attention.

Out of order

mose_gingerich_out_of_order
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS/ STICK FIGURE PRODUCTIONS

I recently began watching Amish: Out of Order on the National Geographic Channel. The reality show features Mose Gingerich, an ex-Amish man who is struggling with issues pertaining to faith and family. Because Mose left the faith of his childhood, he is shunned by his family and considered damned for eternity. I can empathize with him on many levels and had a very visceral reaction to the show.

Like Mose, I was brought up in a strict religious home. My family worshiped at a small Pentecostal Holiness church that placed much emphasis on appearance and behavior. Our church leaders were able to pick verses out of the Bible to back up all of the strict rules we lived by. Women were required to have long hair (most wore it up in a bun), long dresses, and no makeup. Both sexes were expected to wear long sleeves and no jewelry… wedding bands included. Our pastor went as far as preaching against women shaving their underarms and legs.

Like the Amish, Holiness people didn’t fit in very well with the outside world. This “outsider” status wasn’t considered a negative attribute, but was actually taught as part of God’s plan for his people. Verses like the following were often used to explain why we were supposed to be different.

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” - John 15:19

As I grew older, I began to question many of the things I was being taught. On one hand I was being told the world was bad, while on the other I was hearing how God loved the world so much he sent his only son to die for it.

It didn’t help matters that my sister and I were attending a Baptist school where we were learning things that contradicted what we were hearing at our Pentecostal church four times each week. The differences weren’t huge but large enough to make me realize religion wasn’t so black and white. My Baptist teachers were reading the same verses but coming away with a different meaning. I began to understand reading the Bible and creating a belief system based off of it was completely subject to interpretation.

As I grew into a young man, I parted ways with organized religion – although it wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a slow weaning away. I didn’t feel like there was a place for me anymore in the little concrete block church where I spent countless hours as a child, so I simply quit attending services.

Although pulling away from the church community alienated me from most of my friends and family, I don’t think I was prepared for the rejection I was to experience after coming out as a gay man. While I may not have been shunned to the degree of Mose or other ex-Amish, I have had my share of rejection by members of the faith of my childhood.

I have now been living my life openly for almost 18 years. I have a wonderful partner, and I have been attending a loving and accepting church since 2006. Regardless of how stable and normal I might consider my life to be, I realize most of the people I grew up going to church with believe I am deceived and damned to hell.

Like the Amish, most of my family believes the only possible path to spiritual reparation for me would be returning to the Holiness community. Like Mose, I have no desire to participate in a denomination so encumbered by dogma and tradition and so separatist that they relish in their alienation from the rest of humanity.

It’s that simple

I believe in the Bible and I try to follow the Bible. I know I’m an imperfect person… I’m not making myself an angel because I’m not an angel and I’m not a devil either. I try to be the best I can and I try to do what I think is right. It’s that simple…I don’t just pray at night. I pray at different times during the day. Whenever I see something beautiful, I say, ‘Oh, God, that’s beautiful.’ I say little prayers like that all through the day.

- Michael Jackson

Choosing compassion over condemnation

I have watched with great interest over the past couple of weeks as Whitney Houston went from being perceived as a washed-up addict to a veritable saint in the eyes of the public. As tributes began pouring in from celebrities and fans, many expressed their belief that she was finally at peace in heaven. Family and friends said they knew without a shadow of doubt that she was with Jesus. Where she had been ridiculed only days and hours before, she was now being proclaimed the newest angel in paradise.

We tend to do that when people pass away. It becomes much harder to pass judgement on someone when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Death also reminds us all of our own mortality, and of our desire that other people not be too harsh in their judgment of our lives.

The morning of the day she died, I spent several minutes perusing photographs of her looking rather disheveled as she left a recent event and thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t live long. I was heartbroken when the news came in later that evening.

I have been a fan of Whitney for several years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “fanatic,” I did purchase her albums as they were released (I actually have over 20 compact discs of her music), watched her movies, and always rooted for her to overcome whatever demons she was fighting at any particular time. Even though I liked her a great deal and followed her career, I don’t think I realized just how important her faith was to her until this weekend.

As I watched her funeral on Saturday, Whitney’s personal friends and family members recounted over and over how she prayed constantly, read her Bible, and quoted verses. Her bodyguard said she refused to go anywhere without her tattered Bible, even leaving clothes behind in order to have enough room for it in her suitcase. In a television interview, a minister friend recalled how Whitney recently laid prostrate on the floor as she prayed and spoke in tongues while begging God for deliverance from her addictions. Even the last song she sang publicly just two nights before she died was “Jesus Loves Me.”

On Sunday night, Oprah rebroadcast the interview she had done with Whitney a couple of years ago. Whitney had just revealed her obviously painful battle with drug abuse and the dissolution of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown when Oprah asked the poignant question “Who do you love?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The Lord.”

So, what I know now is Whitney Houston had an astonishing love for God. She might not have been living what some would describe as a “Christian lifestyle,” but she certainly didn’t have a problem with faith. She wholeheartedly believed in Jesus, salvation, and the hereafter. Despite many shortcomings in other areas of her life, no one can accuse her of not taking her faith seriously.

As society replaces its condemnation of Whitney with a more compassionate understanding, I wonder why we have to wait until someone dies to show them any mercy and respect. Maybe if we would look a little deeper, beyond the image projected on people by a ruthless and merciless media, we might see how each person we take so much joy in building up and tearing down is still just as human as we are. We all have flaws, we all make poor decisions, and we are all worthy of a little grace and compassion.

If I should die this very day
Don’t cry ’cause on earth we weren’t meant to stay
And no matter what the people say
I’ll be waiting for you after the judgement day

- lyric from “Your Love Is My Love” by Whitney Houston