Who I Am Is Learning to Love Who I’ve Been

Last week I wrote a story for my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) group about “The Day My Heart Was Broken” about the day my first girlfriend broke up with me. When I wrote that story, I was very unkind about the things I did that I thought made her do it. I listed out the decisions I’d made that I thought were poor, and my overall tone toward the person who did those things was very judgmental.

But that the person I hated – the person I used to be – isn’t just the person I used to be.

That person is a part of me. That person is a part of who I am today.

So when I read that story in group, I felt physically ill. My eyes started twitching. But I read it. I read every goddamn word. And I felt worse when it was done. As one does when one is particularly unkind to oneself.

This week, the story is about my most pivotal relationship.

I wrote about my relationship with Kristen, who is now my wife. I have evidence from my journal that even though I didn’t make the same foolish decisions that time, my decisions weren’t the brightest then, either.

But while I was typing up the story, I was smiling. Yes, me before I married Kristen was a little goofy, a little whack, but I liked him. I was an idiot, but I was my idiot – the kind where you muss their hair and shake your head at them, but you still like them.

The me from my first relationship and before… he was somebody I would debate and devalue online. The head-shaking is still there, but it’s hostile head-shaking. He’s somebody I might try to fix.

I’ve heard that we don’t just tell our stories; our stories tell us. I think that’s true, because I wrote a story based on the life of the prodigal son shortly after that break-up, and my character avatar was the runaway.

And while I was writing the part where, in the words of the King James Version, “he wasted his substance with riotous living,” I hated him. Like a lot. I knew while I was writing the story that I didn’t like him.

What I didn’t know was that it meant that I didn’t like me.

The (Christian) band Reliant K wrote a song a while back called “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been” and it’s a quintessential Christian song that aligns with the sort of general Christianish narrative of “I was bad –> I met Jesus –> now I’m good.”

I’ve lived by that narrative for a long time now – I think over ten years – since my spiritual awakening when I started making value judgments about my decisions.

I also started accepting value judgments that others put on my decisions and actions.

Not only were they bad decisions and actions, but they were decisions and actions that made me bad.

So last night as I lay in bed, I revisited that person I wrote about in the story of the day my heart broke. I stopped at every bad decision he made and I found a way to be kind to him. Not necessarily to affirm his bad choices, but to say “I still love you anyway,” and “It’s not your fault, or if it is, you made the best decision you could’ve with the information you had.”

I forgave myself, but it was more than forgiveness. It was forgiveness with an attitude of kindness.

I imagine it will take time to overcome a decade of unkindness, but I’m working on it. And I’m trying not to be unkind to the me that was unkind, because that wouldn’t help anything.

Romans 5:8: But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God did not wait for us to shape up before God loved us.

God did not wait until we were sufficiently sorry or felt sufficiently guilty to get busy loving us.

God loved us as we were on our worst days, on the days we most wish we could take back or get a do-over for.

And I think that means we have permission to love ourselves on those days, in case we weren’t sure.

Scripture teaches us to love our neighbors like we love ourselves, and if I’ve been loving some of my neighbors the way I loved my past self, I’d hate to be them, because I said lots of unkind things about my past self.

I wasn’t patient or kind with myself; I was pretty boastful and arrogant and more than a little rude. I insisted on my own way, and was irritable and resentful. I didn’t bear well what I thought were the consequences of what I had done; I didn’t believe that I had good intentions, or at least not malicious ones; and I didn’t hope or endure very well either.

So now I’m trying to love myself, and take those skills and love others, too.

This morning, I found that I am already better able to look people in the face, and my smile comes a little easier.

Side effect of grace.


Reflections from the Gay Christian Network Conference

Last weekend, I was privileged to attend the Gay Christian Network Conference. It was a very moving experience. Here are some of my takeaways.


Worship at GCN was… unexpected.

I used to attend services with GCN-like worship, with the band on the stage and the lights and the projected song lyrics written in this century. I was that person who would cry and raise his hands and the whole thing.

But as I grew more progressive, I found that churches that worshiped in the style I enjoyed were often paired with horrible theology and sermons that made me not particularly want to be a Christian.

Since then, I have gotten used to more formalized liturgies and hymns and organs and pianos and the Presbyterian liturgy, but there’s still a part of me that wishes for drum kits and guitars and maybe one song by Chris Tomlin, even though I know – I know – I’m going to walk out of that service furious.

So I walked into the first session and was immediately thrown off-balance. GCN had the modern worship style I liked without the horrible-theology-that-made-me-immediately-angry rest of the service that often goes along with it.

I’ve been looking for that worship service for the past three and a half years, and there it was – but only for one weekend. Continue reading “Reflections from the Gay Christian Network Conference”

Charity is not a Substitute for Justice

It was the same summer that Trust and Obedience Landed Me in Hell – and the same camp.

I’d worked out in the sun that summer with my little sister to make enough money to pay for all that was to be had at Camp Kanesatake.

The day of the lesson about charity, my fellow campers and my sister and I trudged up the ridiculously steep hill and lined up outside the dining hall after a long day of… whatever it was we did there. Probably going to chapel and learning to sing “Hallelu Hallelujah” in another language.

Normally, they would say a blessing and let us in. Today was different: the leaders handed out little slips of paper with numbers on them as we went in.

When we reached the food line, the servers asked for our slips. I flashed my slip with “1,” scrawled on it, and they gave me plenty of everything. Others weren’t so lucky. Those with twos got only beans and rice. Those with threes got only rice. My sister, who had worked just as hard as I had to pay to come to camp, received a two or a three.

My eleven-year-old brain was not happy about the situation, but the powers that be had decided that I was to get more food while others didn’t. I trusted and obeyed, and I ate my dinner, but I felt guilty about it.

Suddenly, from halfway across the dining hall, a girl with a “1” asked, “Are we allowed to share?” They said yes. There was a whirlwind of activity as ones rushed the counter to get more food to distribute to their friends with twos and threes.

Before the end of dinner, the camp leadership said everybody could come up and get whatever they needed. They had taught their object lesson.

The point, of course, was that some people are born in first-world countries like the US, some in second-world countries like Russia, and some in third-world countries, like places in Africa, and those of us who had it best had a responsibility to give up some of our food so the people who weren’t well-off would have enough.

And I felt guilty. Horribly guilty. Why hadn’t I thought of sharing my food?

I’ve carried that story around in my heart for the past twenty years. I’ve hated it since the moment it happened.

Then today while I was doing dishes, two things clicked.

  1. There was enough food for everybody the whole time.
  2. Everybody deserved a whole meal.

Everyone had paid to come to camp. This included all the meals. But the people running the camp had decided to arbitrarily and randomly select some of us to receive a decent meal, and some of us not to, and they expected those of us who did to patch the injustice by sharing with those who didn’t.

These grown-ups expected us 9-12-year-olds to fix the injustice they created with our private charity.

And their counterparts in America are still doing it.

We’re expected to donate money and goods to food pantries to help people who work minimum-wage jobs so the owners and stockholders can get rich.

People working minimum wage jobs have paid for a full meal at the camp of America, and they’re getting beans and rice. And there’s enough for everybody, but the people in the front of the dining hall are hoarding it.

We’re expected to front taxes for social services for people who are already working 40 hours a week – that is, people who deserve to have a place to live and enough to eat, but can’t because the people at the top need more money. As President Obama has said, “Nobody who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”

We have to give money to help starving children in Africa while we share a country with people who have generational wealth because those children don’t have enough to eat.

We can – and should – share with those who were born with twos and threes.

But it’s long past time to overrun the dining hall and demand that the people in charge give everyone the food they’ve worked for.

Are We Called to be “On Fire”?

A few years back somebody described me as being “on fire for God.”  I was surprised. Me, “on fire for God?” But I was just me! Apparently I was, though. It showed.

I read a book by Eric Ludy once in which he wrote about talking to an older Christian about his fiery passion and the older Christian telling him that it fades. He really didn’t want it to fade. He pledged that it never would.

I think it was Diana Butler Bass who lamented that the options for Christians seem to be knowledge on ice and ignorance on fire. I repeated that quote to an Assemblies of God friend, and he commented that the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary slogan is “knowledge on fire.”

And of course, there’s the misattributed John Wesley quote about how if you’re on fire for God, the world will show up to watch you burn.

As I fought to get a campfire going a few weekends ago, I remembered the lyrics to the song “Settle on My Soul,” as performed by the band The Martins. The song envisions faith as fire as well: “Before the embers fade, stir the ashes of my faith.”

I’m not sure which way it came, but culture also celebrates fire – particularly, the fires of romantic love. In the song “Remind Me,” Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood take on the persona of a couple for whom the fire has faded. They sing about how they used to be “So on fire so in love,” and regret that their relationship has dimmed to embers.

I don’t think this is quite right.

fireBig fires with high flames are exciting. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing (and probably even if you do), it can take a while to build a fire, though. Dry wood is important. You also need plenty of air. And it requires work to keep it going the way it is in the picture. A lot of work.

I don’t think anybody has time for that.

The fire in this picture took a while to build. It’s this high because we had just tossed on a bunch of new, dry wood. But it didn’t stay that way. Eventually, it faded down until it looked more like the second picture.

And that’s good.

Big roaring flames are sexy, but you can’t cook much over them besides marshmallows and hot dogs. They look exciting, but as Kristen often reminds me, you can’t cook anything substantial on them until they’re down to hot coals. And I think coals might be a better metaphor.

Kristen and I have been married for over three years now. We’re still delighted to see each other when she gets home from work, but we don’t have that “whoosh” of excitement that we did when we were dating and I was working at Jumonville and only got to see each other once a week. That would be an exhausting emotional roller coaster ride if we did it every day. We still stir the embers and occasionally put on more wood, but our relationship doesn’t require embersthe constant second-by-second attention it did then. There’s still fire, but it’s less fireworky. It’s more useful now. It’s something you can sit around and hold a good conversation with close friends around. It’s something we can build a life on. It’s not a paper fire that’s all whoosh and then everything’s gone. The big logs have caught.

My faith has shifted down to embers too. Ignorance is paper. Knowledge is hardwood. It burns slower. Sometimes you get fireworks, but usually, it’s a slow, unimpressive burn that is capable of doing the work it’s meant to do.

By all means, let us celebrate the whoosh and roar of fresh fire – and let us hope that it will come to have the valuable strength of a slow burn that’s been going a long time and will be sustainable for a long time to come.

I Know Where The Land Mines Are

I have inhabited the Christian world for the better part of three decades. It’s a beautiful place. And it is also terribly dangerous.

Charlatans host TV shows to raise money for private jets from people who can’t afford their own groceries.

Fundamentalists believe they take the Bible literally. They dismiss anyone who disproves their bizarre version of reality by living the way they think God wants them to and hing it all go up in flames.

Evangelists desperate to save souls prey on the weak who aren’t sure they’re saved – who spend lifetimes wondering if they’ll go to heaven or hell, if they were sincere enough when they prayed the prayer the last 2,000 times.

People with excellent intentions write books about putting God first that make natural romantic feelings feel sinful.

I know where the land mines are.

People who don’t know what patriarchy is or where it comes from hold it up as “God’s best” for everyone, seeing only the beauty they imagine, and never the shame.

Men “know how young men are,” and shame young women for their choice of clothing.

We brandish our Bibles like swords – going so far as to have “sword drills” to find Bible verses – and use those swords to “exhort” others, but only serving to tear those others down.

We tell people who are attracted to other people of the same gender – through no fault of their own – that their attraction is sinful and if they ever marry someone they’re attracted to, that would be sinful as well.

I know where the land mines are.

But I said the Christian world is beautiful, too.

We have grace big enough to heal the universe.

We have a story filled with commands to care for the earth and the poor and the stranger.

We have a Christ who taught us to love our enemies.

But I know where the land mines are.

An atheist on Twitter told me, “Christianity isn’t a ‘good camp’ and ‘bad camp.’ It’s a tapestry woven with silk and barbed wire. Inseparable.”

Grace too often comes attached to impossible expectations – God forgives you for not doing the things that, if God was remotely reasonable, if God knew our frame, that we are but dust, would never demand of us.

The commands to care for the earth and the poor and the stranger appear in a book filled with commands to subdue the earth and kill our enemies and “whoever doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat,” that re-affirms our prejudices.

Like I said: I know where the land mines are.

So here I am, days away from starting a class on spiritual formation.

I have done my first reading.

I sat in on a class about missions that actually felt safe – that felt like missions might be something good.

I asked about what we might do as Christians about Christian traditions that seem antithetical to the Kingdom of God as I understand it – Christian traditions that run about hurting people and the world with impunity, who live up to Pascal’s quotation about how “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

I’m starting seminary in earnest on Tuesday.

I’m hoping to figure out how to disarm the land mines, or clear the field, or navigate around them and help others to do the same.

But I’m also hoping to discover truth and beauty and love, and grace larger than the universe.

I’m hoping to find reasons to believe, and not more reasons to redouble on my doubt and distrust God more.

Because I know where the land mines are.

The Wall I Built Against the Monster-God

The chapel at Jumonville is a special place. That’s what my friend Drew says, and I think he’s right. Last Saturday I walked in a hardened skeptic and walked out believing just a little more.

Jumonville Chapel

I was waiting for Kristen and her sister to get back from Ohiopyle. I felt drawn to the chapel. I always do. I can’t go to Jumonville without visiting the chapel at least once.

The front door was open. There were flowers hanging over the lamps beside the doors, left over from a wedding earlier in the day.

I crossed the concrete threshold, worn down by countless worshipers over more than a century. The rain from earlier that day had washed in through the open door, and the carpet was damp. I switched on a few lights.

Old habits die hard. My skepticism lived on in full force a few miles away, but here, I took off my shoes. The wet carpet went further than I’d thought.

I’ve been in the chapel dozens of times. Followers of Celtic spirituality believe earth holds “thin places,” places where the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. I suspect the millions of prayers uttered in that old stone chapel have worn that veil very thin indeed. I call it a thin place not because it’s an accurate description, but because they’re the best words I have to grab at that reality.

“Hey God.” My voice echoed off the walls.

My words were short. Stilted. When most of your prayers are almost perfunctory thanks for food over dinner and “Lord, hear our prayer” as a fill-in for words your heart can’t seem to send to your lips, I guess that tends to happen. Continue reading “The Wall I Built Against the Monster-God”

The Double Standard of Anti-Intellectualism

Within the past week or so, I’ve had two conversations during which someone accused me of trying to prove I’m smarter than other people. It puzzled me.

The first was a conversation about evolution on my dad’s Facebook wall – a conversation that began with his statement,

“I do not understand how anyone with any intelligence can believe in evolution.”

I replied,

“It would definitely take more faith to believe in evolution as understood by creationists than to believe in 6 day creation.”

Both messages were longer than that, but that’s pretty much the core.

A former Sunday School teacher of mine chimed in,

David, this is not a post of proving or disproving intelligence. It is simply you’re [sic] lack of wisdom and respect in your constant effort to try to put down and your father in order to make yourself appear more intelligent and highly educated.” (emphasis mine).

A long-time friend unfriended me on Facebook this week for similar reasons. Our subsequent conversation was much longer, but the core piece I’m interested in is this:

I’m not letting your take over my posts and disrespect me and bring up all your ideas and make them like you’re right and everybody else is wrong on my post… (emphasis mine).

As you can see, both share those themes of disrespect (for disagreeing) and trying to look intelligent. I admit, I do try to look smart, but I think the core is that my friend and former Sunday School teacher believe I’m actually not very smart, because how can I be? I’ve come to the wrong conclusions!

I think they would agree with Charlie Brown’s retort to Lucy: “You’re not always right, you know. You just sound right!”

Continue reading “The Double Standard of Anti-Intellectualism”

Sponsoring Missionaries

As I mentioned in a previous post, one time during our family devotions, my father read us Tortured for His Faith by Haralan Popov. I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand on my own time. We learned a lot about persecuted Christians in other countries and came to appreciate how God had blessed us in the US of A with freedom to worship as we pleased. Which is lovely, I must admit.

I borrowed a tattered copy of God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew from our local library and was enthralled with his retelling of God’s miracles and his own deeds of derring-do smuggling Bibles into evil, godless communist countries.

Through mailings from Voice of the Martyrs, we learned that for the paltry sum of only four dollars, we could send those poor starving Christians hiding away in basements hoping not to go to prison a treasure their communist overlords could and would never give them: their very own Bible, in their very own language – or their very own New Testament for only $2.

Ever after, when my siblings or I would deign to walk down the street to buy a pizza from Domino’s, or rent a movie, or spend money on anything for our own pleasure, we first had to endure an harangue about how many Bibles that money could buy for starving children in… I mean spiritually starving Christians in Communist Countries. Continue reading “Sponsoring Missionaries”

Hurts Me More Than You: A Post about Spanking

I submitted a draft of this post to the Homeschoolers Anonymous “Hurts Me More Than You” Series, which you should all read, but I wanted to share it here as well.

I got spanked a lot growing up. Sometimes once a day, sometimes more often.

Spanking was a legacy handed down by grandparents on both sides, but mostly by my dad’s parents. My grandfather used a belt on my dad and his eleven siblings, sometimes lining them all up and spanking them one at a time until someone, occasionally the guilty party, confessed. My paternal grandmother used whatever was handy. “We learned not to irritate her while she was ironing,” my dad would joke.

He was determined to be different until he realized “At least my dad got respect.” I think he went with a board instead of the rod prescribed by Proverbs because it seemed more merciful, but it was still in the spirit of the law.

I remember my dad asking my mom when it was appropriate to start spanking my younger siblings. He decided as soon as a child was old enough to say no, they were old enough to spank for their rebellion, which was as the sin of witchcraft. I think some of my siblings got their first spanking before they were two years old.

My dad rebranded any and all disobedience as “rebellion” and spanked us for it. Worse, he taught us that any time we disobeyed him, it was disobedience to God, because children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. Disobedience to him was rebellion against God. He added that “To delay is to disobey,” so failure to obey immediately was also disobedience, and also therefore sin.

I was immensely frustrated and angry when I realized that my dad could turn anything into a sin simply by forbidding it, and he often did. He could make failure to do anything a sin, simply by telling me to do it. This realization made me feel helpless.

Like many kids, we had chores. My dad inspected each chore, every night. Those who completed their chores to his satisfaction were given a bedtime snack. Those who failed to complete them to his satisfaction were not given a snack, but instead spanked.

If we got into fights in which someone got hurt, one of my parents, usually my dad, spanked the offending party. We were spanked for talking back and spanked for leaving the yard without permission. He often said, “I spank extra-hard for lying” to remind us that lying to get out of trouble would get us into more trouble, so we might as well tell the truth and take the spanking. Spanking was basically the go-to punishment for every offense.

When we got in trouble at church (maybe for talking out of turn; I don’t even remember), he would use a plastic coat hanger. Coat hangers were the worst, so we were more careful to behave at church.

At church he would be more cautious to hide the “discipline,” warning us that the government didn’t believe in the Bible and might take us away from our parents if they were caught. Not only were we the victims, but we were forced to collaborate, because nothing seemed worse at that age than being ripped away from our family.

My dad didn’t limit his sources of child-rearing advice to sacred scripture. He also took disciplinary advice from the communists in a book he read to us called Tortured for his Faith. It was about Haralan Popov, a Bulgarian Christian who spent over a decade in prisons on charges of treason. It wasn’t completely unlike a horror story. In one episode, the communists, trying to break Popov, forced him to stand against a white wall for days on end, hitting him when he shut his eyes.

Shortly after reading this book, my dad instituted a new consequence for talking out of turn during our nightly hour-long “Bible Story:” Stand up until he was satisfied we had learned our lesson. I found myself standing during “Bible Story” every night after this.

When I got angry and blew up about something, my dad would assign me to find verses from Proverbs about anger and copy them in good handwriting. It took me years to re-learn how to be angry, and longer to learn how to have a healthy level of anger.

I don’t doubt that my dad had good intentions. He was then, and is now, “trying to do what is pleasing to the Lord.” The difference between then and now is that my siblings, my mom, and I have grown up and moved out, and now there’s nobody left for him to hurt in his attempts to please the Lord. [I have received criticism that I implied my dad intended to hurt us in his pleasing the Lord. He didn’t intend to hurt us. But he did hurt us.]

I think most adults look back fondly on their childhood and wish they could go back. I don’t. I don’t miss always dreading my dad coming home from work. The best part about my relationship with him now is that if I’m talking to him, I can leave or hang up whenever I want, and there isn’t a thing he can do about it. I don’t miss hour-long sessions of my dad reading the Bible and making points, and having to stand up because my brain was wired directly to my mouth. I don’t miss my dad’s arbitrary rules having more power and authority then any of the rules in the Bible except “Children obey your parents.” I don’t miss having to copy verses about anger from Proverbs.

And I don’t miss being hit every night.

“If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” -Anne Lamott

EDIT: On my Facebook page, our pastor, Dr. Tom Trinidad, shared a link to some of his thoughts on spanking that I feel belongs here:

Why Christians shouldn’t spank

He noted, “My children have never been spanked, and they are among the most respectful, and more important, mature, children I’ve ever met.”

EDIT 2:  My dad read this post and called me to say I had slandered him and made it appear that all of these things happened concurrently during my entire childhood. The situation did change over the years. I’m not sure how long the spanking-for-chores situation lasted, but it was years, or it certainly seemed that way. My younger brother doesn’t remember a time when it was not the rule, though my mom suggested it was enforced more laxly in later years.

My dad asked asked how many times I remembered the standing punishment happening. “Hundreds, at least,” I replied. He disagreed in the strongest of terms, but one of my brothers hinted that “hundreds” seemed accurate. My mom said it was “more often than it should have been,” though she couldn’t remember specifics. I lost count of the Proverbs-writing times. He insists it could not have been more than five, but I’m confident it was at least ten or twenty.

When I asked my mom about this, she reminded me of two other significant spankings. One of my sisters was spanked for not blowing her nose correctly when she was about twelve. Another was spanked for giving herself a haircut. I was spanked for helping with that haircut. The haircut occurred when she was three and I was five.

My dad read this post and strongly objected to its accuracy. I will tell you what I told him: It is the truth as best I can remember it.

Becoming a New Christian :: 7 August, 2012

I found this journal entry a couple days ago. Though I’m not as confident as I was then, I think much of the content is still pretty accurate.

For context, this happened the summer after My 15 Minutes of Atheism, and the summer of Chick-fil-A-gate – that time when Christianity was looking particularly ugly.

Dear God,

Tonight I think I became a Christian. At least on the emotional level. I finally let my heart follow a mind that was convinced. For a long time, I stayed away because the whole thing was just so goddamn ugly. But Greg Boyd showed me that Jesus is more than just an ellipsis between mean god of the past and mean god of the future. Rob Bell cracked my cynicism. Philip Yancey made me want to believe. N.T. Wright blazed something beautiful. Brian McClaren made me not sick. Morgan Guyton was the vehicle of conviction, and Jonathan Martin, with all the rest, showed me beauty.

I don’t have most of the answers yet, but the sketches I have I feel safe with. You’re not a moral monster. Jesus = you. Jesus still makes me a tad nervous… but I think, at least today, I believe.

I’m not sure of all I believe, but…

In my heart I believe God exists.

God is only good, and stories that say otherwise are fabrications. or misunderstandings.

God’s heart for all is revealed in the crucified Christ.

God is love.

God does not need defended or stood up for.

God can take care of himself.

God is a loving Father. My understanding of those words is broken.

There will be some continuity and some discontinuity between my faith as it was and my faith as it is now coming. I’ve discarded a lot, picked up some new stuff, and kept… a little.

I was in the shower tonight and realized that I believed in God. I was “agnostic” last night, but tonight I distinctly sensed that I believed God existed. No arguments, just the beauty of the crucified Christ.

I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree with anyone… even Jesus… but I have SOMETHING. A set of beliefs, I guess. I don’t feel a need to argue with people to prove them. They’re mine. But this is different. God is real. And my fears have been laid to rest. Let love arise.

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.