The Transformed Cynic

The fourth Sunday in Advent, 1998. Having been accepted into membership of my church just a month before, I was looking forward to Christmas with my new congregation. The sanctuary was all decked out with wreaths, a crèche and a tree. The pews were full. The recessional hymn began. It was “Hark the Herald”. Ah, Mendelssohn, that should be lovely. But halfway through the first verse I found myself all choked up, I couldn’t sing, and tears are just streaming down my face. When I told people about this later, a few suggested that I was getting sentimental, becoming an old softy. That wasn’t it at all. I was weeping because after all these years of estrangement I couldn’t believe how happy I was to be in church, to be reconciling with God in my life. This is my story.

When I walked into Trinity Lutheran Church one Sunday morning last July, I was, as all who know me can testify, about the least likely candidate to become a Christian. During childhood I went to Episcopal Church with my mother every Sunday, but being a skeptical, rebellious cuss by nature I remained devoutly in the smug agnostic-atheistic comfort zone of the intellectual, identifying, if at all, with the secular Jewish roots of my father (as well as my partner, Ben). But mostly I just lived with a very materialist worldview. I had no truck with the ever-popular “I’m not religious but I feel that I’m a very spiritual person” line one hears so often. It all seemed very obvious and simple to me and as one ossifies into the third decade of life a person will interpret events in a way that reinforces one’s beliefs. I was unprepared for the epiphany that would rock my universe. Someone had other plans.

Then in late spring of 1998 little things started happening. In appreciation for a donation to a left-wing political group I received the book “Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures”. Despite having read a fair amount about the African-American liberation struggle, for the first time the acknowledgment of the supernatural faith, hope and love that made it possible began to bubble in my consciousness. I was becoming increasingly aware of the of the spiritual poverty in my life, and the cynicism that I felt kept me grounded began to feel like a millstone around my neck.

This was also the time of the notorious ex-gays ad campaign, which, contrarian that I am, subconsciously influenced me in a way the folks who created it never intended. I didn’t believe in God, yet it started me thinking about my gayness in relation to my (lack of) spirituality, a connection I had never really delved into too deeply before. Sometimes I can be mighty slow on the draw. It wasn’t until a couple of days after that Advent service that something clicked and I was able to honestly look at my early life. You see I’ve known I was gay since long before there was any “sexual” to go with the “homo”. When you’re seven years old you can know something without understanding it. So you go on living like that until the shock of recognition hits. When I was twelve the Harvey Milk murder took place. I remember looking at the front page of the newspaper, realizing for the first time that “that’s what you are and they’ll kill you for it”. Shortly after that puberty arrived. Though I don’t have a specific memory of this I’m sure I was so angry with God, feeling that if God loved me God wouldn’t have made me this way. Adolescence notwithstanding, I became a reasonably well-adjusted gay man — out to my family and friends, out at work, in a loving long-term relationship. But that angry, hurt boy was still living inside of me whether I was aware of him or not.

One day in early July I saw a small notice in the Kansas City free weekly about Lutherans Concerned. One of the few Christian friends I did have was a Lutheran, and so I started asking him questions about his church. After we talked for a while he said “well you’d be welcome to come some Sunday.” With those words he gave me permission I could not give myself. Here was a man who I admired, respected, and more importantly I knew had spent a large portion of his life as not-a-Christian, who knew me and invited me. My partner was out of town that weekend, so with no uncomfortable explaining to do, I figured this Sunday was a good risk-free opportunity. As I made the half-hour walk to the church, I was scared. Of what I’m not sure, but I must have smoked five cigarettes between here and there. Except weddings and funerals it had been almost twenty years since I’d been in church for a service. It was strange! The service itself was reminiscent of my youth (though no kneeling), but I had a hard time with the fact that I was actually there. Not participating, but politely standing and sitting with the congregation and trying to follow the proceedings. I was able to take away a couple of things I liked. The Gospel reading was from Luke about the Good Samaritan, one of my favorites, and there was a lovely hymn “Let Justice Flow Like Streams”. It was nice, nice enough that I decided to go the next Sunday. Making an excuse about having to go into work, I made my way down, still feeling quite out of place and not even being real sure of what I was doing there. Normally the usher asks you where you want to sit and I always pick the right side, near the wall, three to six rows from the back. This time I was led two thirds of the way down and seated on the left side at the aisle. Well there was a baptism scheduled and there I was about six feet from the fount. As the ritual went on the space inside my head became intense. When the words “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” were spoken I just about bolted as my mind raced over itself and the fact of my own baptism. I did make it through the service and went home. However the question ‘Even me?’, rang in my ears the whole way.

What was going on? I didn’t talk to anyone about this and for the next two weeks I didn’t go to church. What I was doing was praying almost all the time, every day, without realizing I was praying. I felt like the character on the X-Files with the poster captioned “I want to believe”. But how? The investment one has in how the world is seen and conversely is seen by the world, is extreme. And God was as far out of the self I had constructed as I could imagine. I don’t know how it happened, but miraculously one day I woke up and God had found me. The reality of God and God’s love for me was as tangible as this keyboard. I couldn’t believe it! For the next week a Spirit-filled joy emanated from me as I would walk up to friends with a goofy, dumbstruck look on my face and tell them God is Love. All I was really sure of was that God made me, God knew me and God loved me. But that was plenty. That revelation is the most profound, beautiful thing that has ever happened to me.

Next on the agenda was sharing this with Ben. We’ve known each other for over ten years and are devoted to the other person’s happiness, but I was not at all confident he was going to take this well. His views on what he terms “sky-god” religions are more extreme than mine ever were. Would he see this as a real betrayal? But I wasn’t doing right by my man or my God by not sharing. One day after work I sat him down on the couch. “Dear, I need to tell you something.” He can tell it’s heavy. Not being the most patient man he asks/tells me: “You’re not in love with me any more.” “No.” “You’re in love with someone else.” “No.” “You contracted HIV.” “No!” It turned out to be a good lesson in trust for me. His reaction was better than I could have hoped. He didn’t understand but he loves and supports me as I do him. There are certain discussions we just don’t have. If one person believes the world is round and the other that it’s flat, some conversations are impossible because of a lack of common assumptions. But since I didn’t announce I was renouncing The Simpsons in favor of The 700 Club the mutual love and respect the our relationship is based in has actually deepened our union.

A few more weeks went by and I found I was having difficulty accepting God’s Grace. Carrying around a lifetime of baggage I was unable to receive communion. At my friend’s suggestion (who did and continues to mentor me on my faith walk) I went to talk to the interim associate pastor of the church, a compassionate, empathetic woman I had warmed up to very quickly. I spoke with her a while in her office and then she took me into the sanctuary. There she performed a formal rite of confession with absolution. It was an incredibly powerful experience. I never would have guessed I had such (Roman) Catholic leanings. I do believe there was a glow around me that carried through the rest of the week.

The following Saturday Ben and I went to an art show. Jewelry-wise, I have lived unadorned. Not even a wristwatch. Going our separate ways, I bought a small silver cross to wear around my neck. After we met up and are ready to go Ben says “I have to show you something.” He takes me to a booth and says “Pick a ring.” Those three words constituting the sum total of discussion we’ve ever had on the subject, I am stunned. We both pick silver rings and on the way back to the car we put them on each other’s finger and say “This is a symbol of our love, honor and commitment.” So I then had two pieces of jewelry signifying the two most important relationships in my life. I haven’t taken either off since then. Oh, and the kicker, when I get to church on Sunday I’m handed the bulletin, the ‘canned’ cover is a picture of a young man reading and the words “Joy in heaven over one sinner who repents”. I still smile in disbelief at the memory. All I can say is God was working overtime in my life that week.

So the journey is just beginning. My church is a large, prosperous, somewhat conservative congregation. I am making new friends and trying to grow in my faith. I read the Bible daily. I attend a prayer group. I serve on the social concerns committee. While there are undoubtedly other gay or lesbian members I gather that none are “out”. I am slowly, cautiously on my way to being the first. I’ve been asked why I didn’t join a more gay-friendly denomination, like UCC, or at least join the “hipper” ELCA church in town. As I continue to understand what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, it has become more clear to me that I was led to this church for a reason. My friend told me once, “I think you were brought here as a test. I just hope we pass.” As for me, I need to be around people different from myself. Unless someone is just a hard-core lemon-sucking bigot on this issue I’m willing to struggle with them. In general I feel the further away something is from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the more I can agree to disagree. Homosexuality is pretty far away from that truth, in my humble opinion. Disagreement does not give me the right to vilify anyone or brand them as the enemy. Because even a fundamentalist-literalist who I don’t understand at all, shares one very important thing in common with me that my closest “pagan” friends do not: Jesus is Lord.

The funny part about all this is that while I feel transformed, I’m somewhat the same person. I wasn’t horrible before and I’m certainly not a saint now. But the healing power of God’s love has infused my heart and soul and I wake up every day with an abiding trust that I’ve found the right path and I’m on it. I’m just amazed and thankful that it happened to me. And I think I now get why God allowed it to happen when it did, without my having to go through a foxhole conversion. About a month after my “first” Christmas I went through one of the most painful, traumatic experiences of my life. If I had not come to the Lord, I’m doubtful I would have made it. Since then, when I talk about having been “saved” (admittedly not very often), there’s a down-to-earth meaning behind the word.