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When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

God Rest Ye, Murray Hendelman

My Christmas gift to you.

***

It was really my fault for inviting Carl Anderson onto the committee. We would have been so much better off if I had asked instead the church janitor. Or a mop. But we were caught short. Our music director, a quiet young man named Fred Swensen, had been summarily dismissed just before Thanksgiving. The board gave no reason why, though there were rumors that young Mr. Swensen had been caught in a compromising position in a men’s lavatory down in the Warehouse District. Nevertheless, St. Brigit Lutheran Church had gone caroling through the streets of North Minneapolis for over forty years—which had always been organized by the music director—and I foolishly thought I could be the one to save Christmas that year.

I thought I had all the right pieces in place for the ad hoc committee—the pastor, the organist, and the leaders of each of the choir sections (I led the tenors)—anyone who was remotely connected to a leadership role in our church’s ministry of music. It helped that Carl  both led the basses and headed up the church board.

But I should have been able to tell we were in trouble when the meeting convened, because we all fell into our predictable roles. Our pastor, George Svaan, was gracious and accommodating and generally a milquetoast. The organist, Edna Tschida, asked everyone to repeat everything two or three times and muttered about the batteries in her hearing aid going dead. The section leader for the sopranos, Juanita Miller, steered the conversation toward her solo at the Christmas Eve service, while the alto lead, Florence Olsen, rambled on about her son Timothy’s streak of three shutouts as goalie for the Minneapolis North High hockey team. And Carl and I butted heads.

I assumed that we would do things the same way we always did at St. Brigit: assemble in the church parking lot at 6:00 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and keep to the same route we’d used for at least two decades. After all, I figured, we were a part of many of these families’ Christmas tradition. But Carl said we should think bigger, that the church wasn’t just about us, that we should envision how to minister the gospel in a grander way, worthy of the baby boy whose birth we were celebrating. He told us he had a big plan, and that he would take care of everything, just leave it to him.

And I acquiesced. My big mistake.

But, on a certain level, I can’t entirely blame myself for wanting someone else to take charge. My Anna had died that June. She was running errands downtown when she was struck by a car as she crossed Nicollet Avenue. And now, suddenly, I was both father and mother to Becky, my little firecracker. After the summer break, she started acting up at school—back-talking her teacher, failing to turn in schoolwork—and I was at my wit’s end trying to both discipline her and give her space to grieve. I figured, if all of this was too much for a thirty-five-year-old widower, how much worse for a seven-year-old girl.

And so I handed everything over to Carl. The snake.

***

It was not an easy drive over to St. Brigit. Becky was fussing: she was cold, she was tired, she didn’t want to go caroling. I promised her that if she could just do her best this evening, she could open one of her presents that night instead of waiting the three days until Christmas. This seemed to do the trick.

When I pulled into the parking lot at St. Brigit, it was nearly two-thirds full. I had to give some credit to Carl; he was a go-getter. I got out of the car and helped Becky out. Just then Juanita rushed over to me with a stack of mimeographs. “It’s the map of the route,” in a tone indicating she doubted my ability to read.

We had never used a map before, and for good reason. Like I said, we’d used the same route forever. We kept close to the church. One glance at this map, and I knew we were in trouble.

Instead of a nice little loop-the-loop in the environs of St. Brigit, Carl had us marching nearly a mile down Sixteenth Avenue over to my neighborhood, and then up Sheridan Avenue.

This was 1962, in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Jewish folks hadn’t yet moved out of the neighborhood over to the suburb of St. Louis Park, and the black folks hadn’t moved into the neighborhood yet. Mine was one of only two Gentile households on the block. What on earth was Carl thinking? I scanned the crowd for the towering Swede so I could find out.

I shoved the map in Carl’s face. “What’s the meaning of this?”

He looked down at me with guileless blue eyes, smiled, and replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I mean this. You have us—” I traced my finger along the route “—schlepping halfway across town in the cold, and for what?”

“I took into account where our parishioners lived. I thought you’d want to drop out early and put that little one to bed.”

Then why didn’t we stick to this neighborhood, where the majority of the parishioners lived, I didn’t say.

“But Carl,” I said, “what’s the point of caroling in a Jewish neighborhood?”

Carl stared off to the fingernail snip of a moon on the western horizon. “They’re His people too, you know.”

But they don’t go barging into your neighborhood with their religion, they keep to themselves and let me live in peace, I didn’t say.

“I really think this is a bad idea,” I said.

“Well,” he beamed with infinite grace, “you should have put yourself in charge.”

***

Becky struggled with the walk down Sixteenth. Though it was a cold day with a biting wind, she thwarted my attempts to keep her bundled up, peeling off scarf and mittens, saying that she was too hot. I reminded her that if she kept it up, she wouldn’t get to open a present that night, so she whined and bundled herself back up.

How this was going to expand our ministry, I had no idea, because Carl had us sing at maybe a half-dozen houses down Sixteenth. My dread grew with every block. Oliver Avenue. Penn Avenue. Queen. Russell. Sheridan.

My house was the second one in. The house at the corner belonged to Murray Hendelman, a sexagenarian who had never done anything to me beyond nodding hello to me on the sidewalk. We had the mutual tacit respect and minding-of-one’s-own-business that I had always valued in a neighbor.

Dear God, I prayed, please don’t let us bother poor Mr. Hendelman.

Carl turned around to face us carolers. He demonstrably cleared his throat and intoned, “Look around you. These are Jews. These are Jesus’s people! And tonight, we’re going to sing to them of the miracle of his birth.”

I don’t know what got into me, but somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my heart, I shook off all of my Minnesota-born reticence. I squared my shoulders, and with as booming a voice as I could muster, I said, “No, Carl.”

Carl turned to me. “Excuse me, Peter, did you say something?” I guess I didn’t boom as much as I had thought.

“I said, no, Carl. We’re not going to do this.”

“Peter—” Carl made a grand, sweeping gesture “—we have the opportunity to minister to God’s own people.”

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe they don’t need ministered to? That they’re doing just fine? That maybe they’re even doing what God wants them to?”

Murmurs arose from the crowd of carolers. I was violating the first rule of being a Minnesotan: don’t make a fuss.

“Need I remind you that we all need the love of Jesus, that we all need to hear His Word?”

“And do I need to remind you that you don’t always need to be stroking your damn ego?” Now I was booming.

And just at that moment, Mr. Hendelman stepped onto his porch. “What is all this?” he asked.

I had to speak before Carl opened his fat mouth. “Mr. Hendelman, it’s me, your neighbor, Peter Hansen. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to be on our way.”

“Oh, Peter,” Carl cut in, “come now. Let’s give Mr. Hendelman his gift.”

“A gift?” Mr. Hendelman asked.

“Mr. Hendleman,” I said, “it’s nothing. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”

Carl glowered at me. “You are not going to deny us this opportunity, Peter.”

“What opportunity?” asked Mr. Hendelman.

“Carl, what the hell do you think was going to come of this? That you were going to convert this whole neighborhood to a bunch of good Lutherans all in one night? That you were going to put some big fat star in your crown by making all the Jews into good little Christians? Just how big is your ego?”

“I was simply—“

“And another thing. Do you honestly think that you were going to get away with this, that the board wouldn’t find out, that Pastor Svaan—“

“Pastor Svaan is a sniveling old man! I’ve got him wrapped around my finger!”

It got so quiet, you could hear the snowflakes fall.

One by one, from the back of the crowd to the front, the carolers dispersed back down Sixteenth Avenue. Juanita was one of the last to head back to St. Brigit. She shot me a look that I don’t think I have since seen on a human face, an admixture of befuddlement, awe, pity, embarrassment, and resignation.

It was four of us: me, Becky, Carl, and Mr. Hendelman. Carl stared me down. “May God have mercy on your soul,” he said. And then he glanced over at Mr. Hendelman and said, “And on yours, too.”

Then he lumbered back towards St. Brigit, and (I am not exaggerating) sang at the top of his lungs, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/May nothing you dismay”—and then practically shouted, “Remember Christ our Savior/Was born on Christmas Day…”

I took Becky’s hand. Through all this, she hadn’t uttered a peep. I was mortified. I didn’t appreciate my daughter having seen me blow my stack like that, and, to the best of my recollection, she had never heard me swear before that night.

“Come,” I heard. I turned to Mr. Hendelman. “It is a cold night. I will make you some chocolate, that would be nice, no?” It was clear this was not a question.

We followed Mr. Hendelman into his house. Ten years we had lived here, ever since Anna and I were newlyweds, and I had never been in his house.

His furnishings were modest but well-kept. And upon the mantle stood a menorah. Becky noticed it immediately, pointed to it, and asked, “What’s that?”

“Becky, now, it’s not polite to—“

“Oh, it’s a menorah,” Mr. Hendelman interrupted. “You see, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah.”

“What’s Hakka— Hanka—”

“Hanukkah. It is a holiday that my people celebrate.”

“Like Christmas?”

“Well,” he reached to touch the menorah, “not exactly. Christmas is one day, but Hanukkah is eight days.”

“Eight days! That’s a lot more fun!”

Mr. Hendelman chuckled, “I suppose you could say that. You see, at Hanukkah, my people remember when our enemies seized our city of Jerusalem—”

“Jerusalem? Isn’t that where Jesus lived, Daddy?”

“Well, some of his life,” I replied, “but let Mr. Hendelman continue his story.”

“The armies laid siege to the city for eight days, but there was only enough oil for the lamps for one day. So, do you know what happened?”

“What?” Becky was Mr. Hendelman’s newest fan.

“God was able to make the oil last eight days. And then God helped my people defeat our enemies.”

“That’s a neat story, huh, Daddy?”

“Yes, honey, it is. I don’t think I’ve had it explained to me like that before. Thank you, Mr. Hendelman.”

“Now,” he cleared his throat, “I have two matters to take care of. First, understand, Hanukkah is more a holiday for the children. I do not have children. Not now. I put up the menorah to remind me of my daughter Rebecca—”

“That’s my name!” cried Becky.

“Sh, honey, let Mr. Hendelman speak.”

“My daughter, she has married and moved away. California. She says that is where the future is. Myself, this city has always treated me well.”

“Until tonight,” I muttered.

“Let me explain something to you, Mr. Hansen.”

“Please, call me Peter.”

“And you may call me Murray. Short for Moritz. Now, where was I… Yes, you must understand, Peter, my Ruth and me, we moved to America in 1928. I think you know your history. Ruth and me, we were very lucky.”

“Indeed.” I swallowed a lump in my throat.

“I have always been grateful for this country. I have lived here in this house, what now, thirty years. I raised my Rebecca here. And my Ruth, we made a good home here. I lost Ruth last year, you know.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” In all honesty, I only half-knew. I was mortified that I knew so little of my neighbor of the past decade.

“Oh, I keep getting sidetracked,” Murray sighed. “There were two things I need to do. First, Hanukkah is a holiday for the children. I put out the menorah to remind me of my Rebecca. The children, they get a present every night of Hanukkah.”

“That’s—” Becky counted on her fingers “—that’s eight presents!”

“You have a smart girl there, Peter. Now, what can I give—”

“Murray, I must decline, especially after all we put you through tonight.”

“Is this a matter for you, Peter? This is between me and your daughter. Now, what would make a good present for Hanukkah…” He rummaged through a knickknack shelf to the left of his fireplace. “I think this would make a good gift.” He pulled out a lace doily, obviously handmade, most likely by his late wife. “It looks like a snowflake, no?”

“Oh, Daddy, it’s so pretty! I can use it as a tablecloth for my dollies!”

“What do you say?”

“Thank you, Mr. Hendelman!”

“It is my pleasure. Now, there was one other matter… I promised you chocolate, no? I hope that Ovaltine will do.”

“I love Ovaltine!” said Becky.

And so the three of us settled into hot mugs of Ovaltine. I imagine Becky thought herself the luckiest girl in the world, because she was celebrating two holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah.

***

Murray was in that house another ten years. I found in him both a wise elder and a comrade as we navigated widowerhood together, and Becky thought of him as a long-lost relative she was happy to find. I even got to know his daughter Rebecca and her husband Michael when they would make the occasional trip from California. I would have invited Murray to Becky’s high school graduation had he not died during her senior year. When Rebecca and Michael flew in to make arrangements, she confided to me that Murray thought of me almost like a son, and she thanked me for looking out for him in his later years.

I am so grateful that Murray was in Becky’s life.  He opened her up to a new world, igniting her imagination and developing within her a deep appreciation of other cultures. Becky entered the Peace Corps after graduating from Berkeley (where she lived not twenty minutes from Rebecca and Michael). After that, she entered a career in education administration and dedicated herself to desegregation efforts.

I never remarried. I developed a certain gratitude for what I had in my life. I was, indeed, a rich man.

Oh, it might interest you to know that I never darkened the door of St. Brigit after that night. It wasn’t so much that I was against the church in general, as it was that I didn’t want to be around Carl, and I didn’t want to subject Becky to him, either.

I went to this church and that over the years, and even made a visit or two to a synagogue. But I’m an old man now. I don’t have the energy to get out like I used to. I prefer to stick around this house and maintain my friendships with my neighbors. I’m the only white man on my block. There’s this young couple living next to me right now. They have the brightest little girl.

Yes, I have much to be thankful for.

And all because Carl Anderson made an ass of himself.

Ugly Truths and Pretty Lies

An article has been running around Facebook that raises my hackles. The article, 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity, includes two pictures that really take away my faith in humanity.

From the article “21 Pictures…”–the first photo in the blog entry.

I’m going to make a bet that the author of the article doesn’t know the full story behind the pictures. They just saw something that looked inspiring and then posted them. But looks can be deceiving.

The first two photos feature a “hug-in” by the Marin Foundation. (Founder Andrew Marin is on the right side of the first photo.) The organization is best known for attending Pride celebrations and hugging people (mostly, it seems, young males in their underwear), “apologizing” for the harm the Christian church has perpetrated on the LGBTQ community, and asking for donations to help them with their “cause”. The Marin Foundation officially claims to be “neutral” regarding their stance on whether being gay is okay. The foundation’s cause, though, requires a Rosetta stone to decipher, as it consists of a never-ending stream of vague platitudes.

Let me be your Rosetta stone.

Beneath the milquetoast smiles and lukewarm niceties lies a much darker reality. Please watch this video, created by Andrew Marin.

If you’re not familiar with the language, let me unravel it for you. Basically, Marin is saying that to be attracted to the same sex is not sin, but to do anything whatsoever in keeping with those attractions–to date, to marry, to have sex–is sin, what he calls “the sin portion”. The man has a lot of gall if he thinks this constitutes “neutrality”.

Let me be blunt. I’ve had it up to here with a church that says, “Oh, we have to love the homosexuals, they’re sinning just like everyone else.” There is a bloody world of difference between a conscious act (murder, pedophilia, or anything else that gets lumped in with homosexuality) and a state of being. I could never have a date or any physical contact with a man for the rest of my life and it would still not change my orientation one iota.

Ah, you may say, but to date, have sex, etc *is* a conscious act of will. May I simply remind you that Jesus spent a heck of a lot of time telling people that, when it came to matters of personal morality, to hold oneself to a high standard, but when it came to matters of others’ morality, to mind your own damn business.

So, back to the photos. They may look good, they may look pretty, they may look inspiring. But those two photos represent a very consciously perpetrated lie. And an ugly truth will always be more beautiful than a pretty lie.

Retreat

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.

My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.

The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.

We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.

The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)

My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.

The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.

But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool  to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.

Advance in love. Do not retreat.

Friends

I just posted this essay to Facebook. It is largely addressed to certain individuals on my friends list. However, I thought it might be useful to post here as well.

—————–

This is going to take me a long time to write. I’m writing it as a Word document first because I want to get it just perfect before I post it to Facebook. The things that I have to say need to be careful and measured and precise. But in the process, I cannot remove the fire and emotion that is motivating this post in the first place.

I was an evangelical Christian for a long time. I was at church three to four times a week, not counting special events. I studied the Bible and prayed every day. And I talked with everyone I could about becoming a Christian. I had been convinced that the only way they could avoid eternal pain and torment was to become a Christian. I didn’t want anyone to endure that agony; therefore, I wanted everyone to become Christians.

But then two life-changing events happened to me, at about the same time. First was the growing realisation that I was not turning into a heterosexual. I had only been attracted to males all my life, clear back to when I was a preschooler. Never mind that I had a hang-up on Greg Brady when I was three years old—all of this was certainly and undeniably a choice, my church told me, and the only way God would *really* love me (as opposed to just “loving” me the way he “loves” the people he sends to hell) was if I worked my absolute hardest to be attracted to women and not to men at all. But I wasn’t even most concerned about my going to hell. Instead, I was worried about being a “stumbling block.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means that your words and actions can cause someone else not to consider God and God’s true character so they will not choose God and they will end up going to hell. And, remember, I didn’t want anyone to go there.

And so I went to “therapy” to turn into a heterosexual. I put it in quotes because no professional medical organization considers this to be genuine therapy. In fact, they consider it to be dangerous to those who pursue it. Given that, for the entire ten years I was involved in this “therapy,” I was either suicidal because my trying my absolute hardest to please God wasn’t working, or I was in a dead fog with no aspirations in life, since I had to put all other dreams on the backburner until I turned into a heterosexual, I concur with these experts. But after a full decade of figuratively (and sometimes literally) beating my head against the wall, after working my absolute hardest and seeing absolutely no change whatsoever, I realised that maybe this didn’t actually work. More audaciously, I thought that maybe I didn’t need this therapy for God to love me.

I came to this radical conclusion—that God might actually love me without my going to therapy anymore. I assumed I would never date a man, let alone have sex—I still assumed God wasn’t okay with this. I was simply saying that I wasn’t going to turn into a heterosexual, and that God was okay with that. But the church I was going to was not okay with this, and they of course knew exactly what was okay with God. When I asked them if I was welcome to continue with the church, they said that I was always welcome, but, because they loved me, it was their obligation to constantly tell me what a horrible mistake I was making and that I was sending myself and others to hell. I replied that I could not be expected to maintain that kind of unequal relationship. Never mind the fact that there were members of the church who were known to engage in premarital *heterosexual* sex and who were also budding young alcoholics who were in the same positions of leadership in the church I had been barred from for not turning into a heterosexual fast enough or perfectly enough.

The second event wasn’t so much an event as a person. I have always had a difficult time making friends. I grew up in a household with severe abuse and neglect issues which have left me with some social impairment. I’ve fought mightily to overcome these obstacles, but more often my fighting has backfired, my best efforts thwarted as I’ve struggled to fit in. The same was true in college—the school in which I was enrolled when I was attending the aforementioned church. I was always reaching out to make friends with my fellow students, in spite of the fact that, as a nontraditional student in classrooms full of folks fresh from high school, I didn’t fit. It only occurred to me later that I was so desperate to reach out to my classmates because my only other relationships, the ones at my church, were far more strained and abnormal than I could admit at the time.

So when I clicked with a classmate, I rejoiced. I befriended a classmate who was kind and funny and smart—pretty much anything you’d want in a friend. He was also planning on becoming a rabbi.

My church had taught me that I had to reach out to absolutely everyone, and do my absolute best to convert absolutely everyone to Christ so they wouldn’t go to hell. But here was this friend who would never, ever become a Christian. It seemed absurd to try. But it also seemed absurd to abandon our friendship over this one issue. After all, I was taught that the greatest commandment was to love, *not* to convert.

All of these things happened over a decade ago. I have changed so much. I am an out and proud and (sometimes) confident as a gay man. Not only am I no longer a Christian, but I am now an atheist. Yet the echoes of those experiences hit me full force on a regular basis—particularly because I am now on the other side of the equation. I have friends who tell me that I need to turn back to Christ, that they’re not going to give up on me. I have friends who tell me that I can’t possibly be an atheist for no other reason than they can’t understand how it’s possible.

To those friends, I say this: which is the greatest commandment, to love me or to convert me? Will you love me as I want so much to love you, even if I reject your religion out of hand? Or will you consider this a case of “pearls before swine” and move on? I’m always going to be here. But if you can’t respect my request that you not proselytise me, then I’m asking you to leave. You will only be dragged down further in your guilt over your not converting me (trust me, I get it, I was drowning—unnecessarily—in that guilt for the longest time), and we both will only ever be exasperated.

Now I wish to address those who believe we need to ensure that the laws of the land dictate that marriage—a legal contract, I don’t care how you slice it, since the government can recognise a marriage not carried out in a church, and a church can choose not to recognise a marriage the government deems valid—must only be between one man and one woman. The only arguments I have ever seen that even pretend to hold water are Biblical in nature.

Let me explain why a Biblical standard for law in the United States doesn’t work. I will keep coming back again and again to the Golden Rule—to do to others as you would have them do to you—and the Great Commandment that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. This is, as I was taught, the cornerstone of the Christian faith—all the Law “hangs” on the commandment.

First, I get the desire to want to follow God, and to have that desire to inform every decision. But the way you live your life does not of itself form the standard to rule a country. There’s this idea that we are a “Christian nation” and that the laws must conform to Christianity. (More on this later.) I ask, whose Christianity? Methodist? Pentecostal? Lutheran? (And, of course, this gets into the eternal argument of who is “really” a Christian, which I’m not going to engage.) This country was started by folks who wanted the freedom to practise their own understanding of Christianity rather than conform to the Church of England. If you decide that your version of Christianity is the one to form the laws of the United States, then you are doing the exact same thing the Church of England was doing. Never mind the fact that there are a number of Christian denominations (and other religions) who support same-sex marriage rights. You’re denying them the same freedom of religion the Church of England denied the Puritans. Do unto others…

And none of this even touches the subject of other religions. I get the idea that you think that your worldview alone is correct and all other religions are wrong on every level. I used to live deep within that understanding. I get it. But here’s the thing—that standard can’t be used for the governance of an entire country, particularly a country as diverse as the United States. The standards of law must apply to all citizens—even those who do not conform to a particular religion, or any religion. That’s why the law must transcend the tenets of any particular religion. There have been any number of Islamophobes stirring up the false notion that Christians in the United States are somehow being forced to abide by Islamic law. In terms of manufacturing fear, it’s a smart move. Folks don’t want to be forced to conform to a religion they don’t belong to. Bear that in mind when I say: Do unto others…

Speaking of stirring up trouble, there have been a number of organisations and personalities over the past 35 years who have been spreading lies to Christians and threatening them with accusations of being unpatriotic or un-Christian if they dissent. When I was in high school, a gentleman came to my church to teach us our “rights as American Christians.” What he had to say was pretty familiar to us now: that the United States is a Christian nation, that the Founding Fathers were Christians who wrote the Constitution to conform to Christian law, etc.  But one particular statement stuck in my mind. The gentleman declared that Thomas Jefferson had intended his doctrine of separation of church and state to be a “one-directional wall,” by which the state keeps out of the church but not vice versa. And he gave a *quote* from Thomas Jefferson in this regard. But here’s the thing: You can track down this quote as much as you want in vain. Jefferson never said any such thing. The man in my church *lied*.  People are lying about a lot of things. They are lying about the intent of the Founding Fathers. They are lying about the intent of same-sex couples. Do your research. Challenge every notion. Learn the truth. The truth will set you free.

And now I want to pull this discussion back to more personal concerns. I have people who say they are my friends, but who say that they cannot abide by the law allowing me to marry someone on the same basis they would choose to marry someone. I’ve already made all the arguments as to why your religious opinions shouldn’t inform our nation’s laws, and why this actually benefits you. Still, this means nothing to some of you.

This is how I hear it: that this issue exists only in the vacuum of your own theories, and that we must conform to the laws in this vacuum of your theories. But guess what? This is affecting real, flesh-and-blood people. I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a long, complicated story that’s led me to where I am—a story some of you haven’t bothered to ask about or wanted to listen to, telling me that my story is impossible. And I am one of millions of flesh-and-blood people not living in your vacuum.

Now, my mother always taught me to put myself in someone else’s shoes, so I’m going to ask you to do that now. I want you to go back to when you were in junior high, high school, to the first time you fell in love. Now I want you to imagine your parents finding out and kicking you out when you’re 13, 14. I want you to imagine yourself tiny and afraid on the brutal streets.

I want you to imagine going to school and managing to get to class and do homework in spite of constant harassment and threats. (This is *me*, by the way.) I want you to imagine worrying you’ll get beat up or worse on the way out of school every day.

I want you to imagine getting fired from your job because someone saw you out on a date the other night.

I want you to imagine you and your spouse. I want you to imagine going to a restaurant and getting kicked out when you hold hands. I want you to imagine the two of you going on your dream vacation, only to have your reservation rejected because you want to share a room. I want to imagine you having kids, and the school only allowing one of you to pick them up from school. I want you to imagine your kid sick in the hospital, and only one of you allowed to visit. I want you to imagine *yourself* in the hospital, and your spouse not being allowed to visit. I want you to imagine that you die in that hospital, and your relatives swooping in and leaving the spouse you leave behind utterly penniless.

Because of current laws and social norms, everything I’ve said is real life—not theory—for millions of Americans. I’m talking about baseline empathy, the minimum standards I’d hold someone to in terms of basic morality. And if you can sit there and tell me that you’re okay with the fact that millions of human beings equal to yourself go through such ordeals and more, then you have no empathy. Moreover, it means you’re okay for *me* to go through these things, even though you’d say you’re my “friend”. I don’t need you dragging me down in my life. I don’t need to feel like one of my slave ancestors, who has found his freedom, only to have his former master chasing him down at every turn trying to drag him back to the plantation. You say that I do not deserve the same rights and protections under the law as you. You—who say that you’re my friend—thus see me as inferior, whether you care to admit it or not. I can’t see how that can be called a friendship.

If you have the guts to maintain this stance, then you have the guts to defriend me. I want you to. I want my Facebook friends list to be shorter in the next week, because people have read this and can’t assent to the idea that human beings ought to be treated like human beings. The only way I want to see this number stay the same is that you’ve actually bothered to read what I’ve said and have taken it to heart. I left a relationship with a church because it was built on inequality. I’ll leave a relationship with an individual for the same reason. But I have some slight glimmer of hope that folks will take what I’ve said to heart. It’s up to you.

And if you can’t assent to any of this, if you do drop me from your friends list, then my parting words to you are to please raise your children to be loving and kind. If I can’t have hope for you, I can at least have hope for them.

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Read the follow-up to this essay here

Religious

This morning was my second at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.  It would have been my third in a row had I not been out of town last week.  There is a lot about the congregation I like, and I will keep visiting to determine if indeed it is a good fit for me.  This much I know: the service at this particular Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregation, in structure, much more closely resembles an evangelical Christian service than a mainline Christian service.  It feels familiar.  It “feels like church”, more so than a mainline service, and far more so than an unprogrammed Quaker service.

Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t attended a religious service in about 1 1/2 years, which, I say, is like most people not having gone to church for 15 years.  In evangelical Christianity, the general expectation is that you go to worship services three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening.  As such, it cannot help but be a very large part of one’s life.  One of the challenges as I transitioned into liberal Christianity was that there was not that huge presence on my weekly calendar.  Especially in the smaller mainline congregations, much of the church’s life begins and ends Sunday morning.  Though I understand the reasons why each branch of the Christian religion does what it does, it is the former that makes the more sense to me, because of familiarity if for no other reason.

I say that I left evangelical Christianity for personal reasons, but left Christianity overall for theological reasons.  I am, I think, a doubter by nature, and I appreciate it when I’m given space to think through ideas, rather than to just accept them wholesale.  I am at a place where I will not make any definitive statements regarding the nature of God, or God’s connexion with the universe and with humankind.  I have thus been leery of engaging in any religious services lately.

However, an acquaintance recently challenged me.  He said that, even if I might very much want to chuck God and faith and all the rest, that I myself am, for whatever reason, a religious person, and that it will only do me good to find some way to “scratch that itch”.  I’m hoping the good people at First Universalist may help me in that regard.

Unbalanced

I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010.  It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.

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This is hard for me to write.  I risk incriminating people with whom I am making peace.  I now recognize that they, as well as I, were operating out of ignorance.  Yet I must tell my story on behalf of those with similar stories.  Many of them are unable to speak for themselves, either because they live in fear, or because they have already lost their lives.

I realized I “had homosexual temptations” during my senior year of high school.  I had no one to turn to with it.  I felt uncomfortable discussing it with church leaders, and the other youth group members spoke gleefully of “flamers” going to hell.  My last week of church camp before heading off to Bible college, I opened up to one of counselors.  He recommended I let the authorities at my college know about my “issue” so they could help me through it, so I could grow closer to God and be a witness to others, so that they might not go to hell.

I did so almost immediately after arrival.  They said I’d best not let other students know about my temptation, as I might upset them, and they strongly recommended counseling to help me overcome my attractions.  However, I convinced myself I could conquer my temptations on my own.  I’d read that I was probably just going through a phase.  God had the power to conquer any sin, and I was a Christian, a child of God.  This would ultimately be as simple as staying close to God.

However, it burdened me to hear other students speak of their own issues with sex, alcohol, and so on, whilst I was to remain silent.  I decided to confide in a few students I deeply trusted, for advice and spiritual support.  I fell in love with one of them.  Try as I might to guard that information, it leaked to the authorities.  They informed me that if I was to remain in school, I must attend regular counseling to overcome my “issue”.

The first two counselors claimed their technique could conquer any “sin issue” in six to eight weeks.  This proved to be wildly optimistic.  Making simple behavioral changes did not alter what went on in my mind and my heart.  It didn’t change my thoughts, desires, and hopes.  It didn’t change the dread I awoke with whenever I dreamt of holding hands with a man.

I then met for about two years with a counselor who had previously held a position of authority over me and with whom I still had some connections outside counseling.  In secular practice, this is forbidden.  The counselor is to approach the client with a clean slate, and influence outside the office taints the delicate nature of the counseling relationship.  However, in the church, authority figures routinely counsel those under them.

Those sessions proved difficult for me.  Despite my following my counselor’s advice to the letter, I still thought about men.  I wanted to hold hands with them, to kiss them.  I would fantasize about sharing my home with a man for the rest of my life.  Interestingly, thoughts of sex with men were rare.  I tried to shut down my sexual drive in order to avoid the inevitable guilt and shame.

All the while, my mental health spiraled out of control.  My lifelong depressive state began alternating with rapid, uncontrollable thoughts—paranoia, terror, self-destruction.  I felt that my evil homosexual desires were destined to be known regardless of what I did, that my Christian witness would collapse and I would cause people to go to hell.

One night, a random comment from an acquaintance tipped the scales.  I realized that I was a Christian, but I was also gay.  I had always been told that Christians go to heaven and gays go to hell.  I was thus a contradiction, and in my whirlwind mind, contradictions couldn’t exist.  I had to do something.  I had to end the contradiction.

I almost did it.  I almost flattened myself from a leap off an overpass.  But at the last minute, I called a suicide prevention line.

I spent ten days in the hospital.  They determined what others had suspected, that I had bipolar disorder.  I struggled to put my life together after my stay, but ultimately, it was best for me to move back to my hometown to recuperate.

Once home, I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and discovered an ad for a counselor who promised to deliver clients from homosexuality.  I leapt at the opportunity.  Here was a specialist, someone who would understand exactly what I was going through, someone who had helped others overcome their temptations.  Perhaps now I could conquer my shame.  Perhaps I could one day walk down the streets without strangers yelling, “Hey, faggot!” at me.  Perhaps now I would not cause someone to go to hell.

For two years, I got the same message.  “You have homosexual temptations because your father was distant and your mother was smothering.”  But my mother was pretty lenient.  Also, why didn’t my brothers have this issue?  “Well, it wasn’t that your father was distant and your mother was smothering, you just perceived it that way, and your brothers perceived it differently.”  We argued a lot.  If I was doing what he told me to do—stay devoted to the Bible and pray—and it didn’t have the desired result, he would tell me I just wasn’t doing it right or doing it enough.  If I fell away from the practice, he berated me for not staying close to God, that I clearly wasn’t serious about being healed of homosexual temptation.  He began demanding that I attend the same church as he, since his was the only local congregation who had ascribed to his therapeutic practices.  In the end, he closed his practice owing to finances.

Looking back over my journals from that time, I see I was already expressing doubts about these treatments.  I had had no results in nearly eight years.  But the message of the counselors and churches remained—I simply needed to work harder.  Until the point that I had no doubts that I was in fact a heterosexual, I would not have a close relationship to God, I could hold no position that even looked like a leadership role in the church, and I would be a “stumbling block” to others—I risked causing others to go to hell.

Two more years I continued with counseling from different leaders at church.  They told me nothing I hadn’t already heard.  Any doubts I had were quashed by the proclamation that I was not right with God.  Yet one reality grew clearer to me: the more I tried to draw close to God in the way these counselors had told me, the further from God I grew.  It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results.  By this definition, I was insane.

I approached one of the counselors.  I told him it was clear to me that what he was telling me to do was actually pulling me further from God, not drawing me closer.  What if I were to remain in the congregation admitting that I was a homosexual—that I was gay—and that that was okay?  I didn’t even bring up whether I thought it would be okay to date or have sex or anything—I hadn’t reached those conclusions yet.  He told me that I would always be welcome in the congregation, but because they loved me, they would constantly warn me of the error of my ways.  I decided I could not live in that kind of unbalanced relationship.  That was the last day I attended that church.

It has been quite a journey since then.  I moved to Minneapolis, “The San Francisco of the Midwest.”  I have affiliated with religious groups who audaciously claim that God loves me—and everyone else—just as I am.  I am not beholden to mere human opinion.  My relationship with God is much closer than it was in my younger days, though its shape is much different from what I expected a close relationship with God would look like.  God is replacing bitterness with grace, resentment with reconciliation, and despair with hope.   Perhaps one day I will build a home with another man—or perhaps I will be single the rest of my life.  Regardless, I know that the love and acceptance I sought in God’s representatives, I have found in God.

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Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.