First Sermons

Nothing happens by accident. And anything we might be able to survive becomes a lesson. 

What follows is my sermon, delivered at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the 8 AM, 10 AM, and 5:30 PM services, in response to John 5:1-5:9.

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

A significant part of living our shared lives in Christ is that, as we take additional trips around the sun together, the beauty and truth of the Gospel reveals itself to us in different ways. When I first encountered today’s Gospel reading several years ago, I interpreted it as a simple story about faith inspiring us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and take a meaningful place in this world; at that point, that made a lot of sense to me.

But life continues, and things change.

I’ve talked about my personal faith story a lot in the last year; international news site The Guardian asked me to talk about my status as a lifelong progressive and gay man,  “coming out,” without reservations, as a Christian in my thirties. It struck a chord, somehow; over a million people read that story, and thousands commented on it, fervently, for both good and ill. My editor at The Guardian attributed the interest in my story to the “delicious paradox” of wanting a relationship with Jesus Christ without compromising the truth of my ideals and sexual orientation. When you trace the steps and know my story, this spot from which I currently stand–pun intended–makes perfect sense, plain as day.

I was raised completely unchurched; my dad’s an Episcopalian from Boston, my mom is a Jewish girl from Tulsa, and I was raised…confused. My parents instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in my brother and me via a love of learning, popular culture, and their own personal examples. I didn’t know the gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, and as an eight-year old boy  I instead threaded together a bizarre, commercially-influenced version: Jesus and Santa were somehow the same person, born on December 25, and Holy Week represented the death of this mashed-up character following a prolonged weight loss; on Easter Sunday, we rejoiced as he returned to us in the form of an adorable bunny rabbit.

I was a kid with an intense and fertile imagination; it’s not much of a surprise that I ended up in theater as my primary calling in my teens and twenties. Like-minded people coming together to tell vital and vibrant stories about why we’re here and how our lives profoundly affect one another, and building a community for the common good in the process…that’s theater, sure, but it’s also a gigantic part of what I love about church.

With that said, at this point in my life, I plaintively argued, publicly and privately, that I didn’t want or need a relationship with God. I considered myself a rarity: a mostly-happy, fairly well-adjusted gay kid who grew up in suburban America, totally unscathed by the monsters of bigotry and hatred. Never once in my formative years did I feel unwanted, or afraid, or less-than because of my sexual orientation; my parents were, and are, some of the most loving and intellectually engaging people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. I knew early on that the content of my character would have a far greater impact on my place and progress in this world than my attraction to men. With all this in mind, I considered religion an unneeded and potentially damaging interaction with my worldview. I had theater for community and social good, I knew who I was and loved myself, and, from regular doses of Fox News, of hypocrisies and cover-ups of scandals and horrid transgressions, of casual conversations with my peers about the “love the sinner, hate the sin” nature of my “lifestyle”–well, I didn’t need church, in specific, or God, in general.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. And I remember the day I started to realize that: June 10, 2010.

TIngling in my fingers and persistent fatigue led to me finally seeing a doctor and confirming a year’s worth of suspicions: a diagnosis of diabetes, complete with an insulin regimen and a half-dozen medications, at 28. My physician made it clear: this was permanent. It could get better. It could be managed. But this was an intractable part of my life and would, at some point, most likely contribute to my death. The funny thing about this period of my life is that I felt mostly fine. As soon as I started medications, diabetes, for several years, became a set of data points on a page instead of something I could feel. That would change; I spent days googling diabetes horror stories.

If you ever get the chance to do this: don’t.

I was angry, in two pointed and distinct directions: first, at myself, for a combination of cruddy genetics and poor decisions on both the dietary and stress management fronts. I could handle self-directed anger, and I took steps to manage and treat that. What started to nag at me was that I was mad at…something else. The anger bubbled beyond the borders of me into something vast and mysterious and frustratingly implacable. When I was physically by myself, I started to talk to the air, acknowledging, for the first time, a presence bigger than me. I now recognize this as prayer, in the only rudimentary form I could muster it.  It scared me in ways I struggle to put into words; I felt God, for the first time in my life, and I desired connection and conversation. I was so mad at God for this diagnosis, the end of my youth-powered denial of my own mortality.

I was angry. I wanted more. These two facts, taken together, led me to a profound truth: I believed in God, and I wanted to know and understand him better. Even talking about it now rumbles out crazy feelings of fear and awe and helplessness at the size and weight of what I was feeling–I now recognize it for the call it was, but at the time, it felt like slow-burn shattering of my entire perspective as a happy-go-lucky-sorta-unflappable-maybe-agnostic-possibly-atheist. And sure, it was that, too; it began a five-year journey of church shopping, of arguing with clergy from different denominations, of earnestly, sometimes desperately, looking for answers where there were none. And it led me, in the end, to the Episcopal Church, and by extension, my vocation and ministry as communications director of this diocese. And to my baptism at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on October 11, 2014.

This is all prologue to the greatest test of my faith thus far, in November of this year, when diabetes became more than just a vague future threat and actively threatened to end my life. An infection in my foot went septic; three toes and much of my right foot were amputated. Had I sought treatment a few hours later, I’d’ve lost the leg. A day later, I’d’ve lost my life. Nearly six months later I’m still recovering,

It’s been a rough road, of near misses and close calls and losing giant chunks of my independence. I’ve re-learned to walk, bit by bit. I’ve been blessed and humbled by the rallied army of friends who’ve kept me in the game, kept me positive, helped me take care of myself, kept me alive. And yet–every day, I look at what’s left of my right foot and I fight the impulse to consider myself broken, beyond repair. I struggle to imagine a time where I’ll once again be defined by what’s in my heart and mind instead of perceptions of my physical invalidity. Some days I win that fight. Some days I lose profoundly.

And here is the core of today’s Gospel: Jesus approaches the invalid, disabled for thirty-eight years, and asks him, simply: “Do you want to get well?”

My gut response to that question was a gigantic eye roll and a prolonged “Duuuuuuuuuh.” OF COURSE the invalid wants to be well! Don’t we all? And then I thought–wait a minute. What’s really being asked, here?

Jesus is offering the invalid a choice: the man can wallow in his brokenness, and let it be the thing that defines him in his heart of hearts; his response to Jesus confirms this, with his explanation of his current location being a result of a lack of help from his friends and that the more able-bodied folks always beat him to the pool’s edge. In Jesus, however, he’s offered healing, real and true, if only he has the faith in both Christ and himself to accept it and make his way to the pool, hale and hearty. And that’s exactly what he does.

Today’s Gospel moves me in ways I never quite expected it to; we’re all broken, in ways that are both visible and invisible. These traits of ours, these things that happen to us, the parts of ourselves we define as shameful or let divide us from the rest of the flock–these things are not us. They are part of us, parts of our stories, but in Christ, in faith that God has purpose for us, and a promise of healing and wholeness as we put our trust in him and one another–in that trust and love, we are so much more than our broken parts. We are the body of Christ on this planet.

And together, we are whole.

We accomplish amazing things together. I’m still in awe of the Pride and Joy Festival, which many of us here came together to put forth over the last two days, as the biggest affirmation I’ve seen in this diocese of the LGBTQ community as a welcome and celebrated part of our church. We raised up sexual orientation and gender identity–traits that, in generations past, carried with them definitions of brokenness both in the individual and in the often shameful ways these individuals have been treated by communities of faith–and right here, at Grace-St. Paul’s, we cast aside that definition of brokenness as a brand on a community. This is a place of God’s love, and over the past few days, that love trumped brokenness with wholeness and togetherness in a very real way. Despite the sorrowful history between LGTBQ communities and faith-based communities, we all opted to get up and walk to the pool, together. And look what happened. We proved, conclusively, that this is a place of God’s love, and healing. No exceptions. And I’m stunned, humbled and grateful for that.

I know I’m going to wake up every morning, and look at where most of my right foot used to be. But my plan is to acknowledge that broken part of me, take a deep breath, and also acknowledge the painful progress and lessons that have come in the wake of this thing that happened to me. Every day, Jesus offers each of us that choice: we can lie in the shadow of the terrible things that have happened to us, or we can, through our faith, make our way to the edge of the water, together and whole.

I know what I’m going to strive for, each day. And may that be true for each and every one of you, as well.

I love you people.

Everybody–into the pool.

Iconography, Cultural Signifiers, and Stereotypes.

I don’t always understand aspects of the gay superculture. I don’t personally have a taste for drag, or dancing, or sass, and I’m allergic to glitter. And all of that is okay, because we’ve reached a point in pop culture and regular culture where we’re not boiled down to these base–if fabulous–signifiers. I can be all the things I am and still be gay.

With that said–there’s something about Ursula.

I was seven when The Little Mermaid hit theaters; I was immediately drawn to the indigo-hued, octopus-from-the-waist-down villain from the piece. Perhaps it was her confidence, perhaps it was the body language, perhaps it was Pat Carrol’s sanguine voice. I saw something I recognized; something aspirational.

I’ve learned in my travels that many young gay men had this feeling. It’s funny what we gravitate towards; stereotypes are one thing, but icons transcend that.

I always wanted to be Ursula when I grew up; tonight, for the first time in ten years. I sort of get my chance.

Stay tuned.

 

#BigGayChurch

Something big is happening at my church this weekend.

The Pride & Joy Festival comes to central New Jersey on Friday and Saturday; it’s two days of music, fabulous worship, and affirmations of the love and relationship between LGBTQ people and God.

This is a big step for my church, and The Episcopal Church in New Jersey as a whole. Since becoming an Episcopalian, I’ve met hundreds of LGBTQ people in churches around the country, and my heart burst with love last summer when. on the tails of coast-to-coast same sex marriage legality, The Episcopal Church voted to adopt same-sex marriage rites.

And yet. And yet it’s not enough for me and others. We’re often as a community to quiet about our gay brothers and sisters in our midst. And acknowledgement and open embrace is necessary after decades and centuries of otherness at best and violent transgressions at worse. In my diocese, the only LGBTQ events to garner widespread attention over the last few years are commemorations of World AIDS Day. And while that is a part of our history, we are more than that.

I’ve attended liturgical events dedicated to deprogramming the parts of Leviticus and Paul and Romans that declare us sinful and abomination; I guess that’s cool, but I’m past that. I think a lot of us are past that. I sin constantly, in my temper, in the condition in which I keep my bathroom, in the over-consumption of ice cream, in what I ignore or over-accentuate every day. The barometer of who I am attracted to and how my heart works in that direction do not feel like sin. That part of me is not part of sin. I refuse to believe that and don’t need it deprogrammed.

So, then–this weekend, instead of deprogramming or analyzing the scripture that might condemn us, we look at passages that celebrate differences, that explode with weirdness, that say “if you can’t fit in–don’t. It’s okay. It’s welcome. God needs that.”

I’m thrilled. If you’re around, please join us; it’s free, and there’s sung worship and a cabaret on Friday (my performance is a surprise…) and worship, an “ask us anything” panel of clergy on Saturday, family-friendly games, and a cupcake social. We’ve adopted the hashtag #BigGayChurch –perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, but also out of truth. We’re one church. Some of us here are queer, and we’re not going away, and we have value to offer in being accepted and embraced into the fold and rites of the church as a whole.

“There is no longer
Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28)

 

 

Time, Limits, Rage, and God.

Accepted fact and foible: we’re all going to be late for dates, massively miss a set time or occasion of delivery, or just saunter past deadlines on the regular. Primal, spotless punctuality is such an unattainable goal for most (all?) of us. We try our best and go full steam ahead.

Why, then, have I recently developed such a steaming sense of anger when it comes to tardiness of all sorts?

There was a time in my life where I considered myself “laid back.” I laugh at this now, as it was, most likely, a consideration in the same way big guys like me are sometimes called “Tiny.” The winking and dingy roar of irony just cuts right through that now, in hindsight.

My illness and amputations and extended recovery are the closest thing I’ve got to a collective and bona fide crucible. And I think that’s the crux of it. I get steamed when my time is wasted without reason; I let myself get all sorts of huffy when a friend is late for a home or hospital visit, or a cog in the deadline machine (read: copy or other time-sensitive material) comes in late and strips some gears.

I have to believe God had me survive this crap for a reason, and I’m doing my best to pack my healthy and cognizant moments with meaning and efficiency. The anger that occurs when that gets blown out of the water is so pointless, though; I’ve tried to pray staunchly and purposefully on the issue, and I’m certain that there are no specific scriptural references to tardiness. But deadlines and punctuality give the ugly chaos of what’s happened to me some structure: it’s easier to climb a ladder of reason and importance if there’s a rhythm to it.

I do firmly go back to the Steve Jobs chestnut, which has hung on my wall for five years:

0465

Three years ago, a dear friend, one who I consider family, was habitually late for our times together. I lost it on him in a way that wasn’t exactly fair. He justifiably snarled back: “You have such a chip on your shoulder about other people stealing time from you.” We used to fight about stupid things. He was right. He still is.

I look forward to letting go of this and, while not exactly letting this lateness stuff slide, taking it so much less personally. Lord knows I can fill those “stolen” moments with meaning and fun and creativity. Let’s see how this goes.

On Vulnerability, Competency, Usefulness, Brokenness, and Strength.

I could and should start by busting out some Brené Brown. That’s a good twenty minutes of fascination and making us all feel better. She’s great.

I had a phone meeting today with an out-of-state colleague about some technological comparisons in our respective areas. It went well until the last few moments.

“Can I offer some advice?”

I could hear the deep inhale on the other end.

“Okay.”

“Everything that you’ve been through…you’re really comfortable talking about it.”

“I do talk about it a lot. It’s sort of what’s going on…”

“You ever worry that people are defining you by it? Maybe you should put a cap on it on social media. You don’t want to be the amputee, or diabetes guy, or something like that. You’re so much smarter and better than that.”

Pleasantries continued. I said goodbye. I went out to see Purple Rain. And I moped.

Every day, when I assess the missing parts of my foot, or I’m just not feeling well, or I get that look from my family and coworkers and colleague that assesses my illness and fragility first and my talent and dignity second–I think about this.

And the thing is, I’m not going to shut up about what’s happened to me, or what I’ve learned, or what’s about to happen. Editing our truths and feelings for a sense of complacency or an illusion of wholeness is profoundly destructive to both ourselves and who we love and interact with. If we’re in the process of telling our stories for the purposes of lessons and knowledge and strength, we have nothing to fear. I don’t see myself as a victim, and I hope the people I encounter don’t see me that way, either. Then again, I need to accept I don’t have much control over that.

I firmly believe we minister from the places we’re wounded worst; this ordeal has given me strength. Leonard Cohen and Rumi hit it on the head: “Everything’s got a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in.”

I’m not going to accept that I am permanently branded as less useful by a few missing chunks of skin and bone. I’m not Superman, either. Striving towards perfection is boring and impossible. Knowledge and betterness from the events that should’ve broken me? That’s interesting. That’s useful.

At least, I like to think that’s so.

The Essential Nature of Empathy and How the Internet Screws It Up.

If you ever want to feel bad about yourself, hang out in the comments section of any website.

After sitting amidst the maelstrom of pieces on Prince’s death yesterday, I clicked on the comments section of a piece on NJ.com. I’m not going to link to it. It bummed me out in its racist, queerphobic litany. So I closed my browser and went on with my day.

When my Guardian piece was published last June, I soared over how it seemed to resonate with people and how often it was shared…and then I read the 1000+ comments on both the site and on Facebook. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t Christian enough. I wasn’t gay enough. Everyone had a prickly opinion on me and my faith. I thought I was tough enough to take it. I was and I wasn’t; going back and reading some of these today really hurts.

Two days ago, the brilliant, open-hearted writer Stephanie Wittels Wachs published an amazing and stirring piece on the dangers of the internet and how it deadens empathy, framed around the death of her brother, television personality and writer Harris Wittels. I wept a little when I read this, and its companion piece from almost two years ago about Harris’s death.

She nails it:

Maybe people are just shitty. Or maybe it’s the internet’s fault. Or maybe people are just shitty and it’s the internet’s fault.

Regardless, it’s time to resurrect the Golden Rule. Let’s all take a breath, shake it off, and declare a do-over. Let’s start listening to each other, especially when we disagree. Let’s value our differences instead of vilifying each other for them. Let’s be inclusive and kind. Let’s be compassionate and empathetic to the plights of others. Let’s be human beings. Because we’re never going to get anywhere if we continue to treat each other like garbage.

A wise man who I loved very much once said: “Let’s stop finding a new witch of the week and burning them at the stake. We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”

It’s so easy to roboticize our personalities and those of others on the internet; I read those comments on my piece and I get my Irish up, ready to say unconscionable things to people who might feel comfortable calling me a faggot and worse from the comfort of their laptops, wherever they may be. And sometimes, those comments are deleted, and sometimes they aren’t. I can’t control that. But I can control the context and level of response and adherence to the Golden Rule, if I so choose.

So, let’s be better. That’s the root of the root and the bud of the bud of all of this.

Purple Reign.

Prince died today. A lot of us are torn up about it. As am I.

Prince’s turn to faith became a bit of a punchline in the last few years; he was openly and unapologetically a Jehovah’s Witness. Side note: if you try googling “Prince and Faith” you’ll get many fan sites for Broadway star Faith Prince, which is not what I was looking for, but I welcomed nonetheless.

Anyway.

He was raised Seventh-Day Adventist, and converted to Jehovah’s Witness in 2001–apparently, he was spotted going door-to-door in 2003 in Minneapolis, distributing copies of The Watchtower.  And there’s no shortage of commentary and criticism that has trouble reconciling the guy who wrote “Dirty Minds” with this part of his life.

Breaking the mold is sort of the point; there is no such thing as the archetypal follower of Jesus. And Prince put that out there.

I think the most fascinating exploration of Prince and his faith comes in Kevin Smith’s story of what happened in a week spent at Paisley Park filming a documentary. His fannish admiration of Dogma is pretty cool, as is the stuff he found in there that the director didn’t entirely intend to plant. There’s more to the story, but the interesting parts start there.

The way this story is told, and indeed, how Prince talks about God and Jesus, really speaks to how the Gospels are presented–four perspectives, some radically different from one another, to allow for discourse and shading and contrast. We live in the controversy of differing interpretations; that’s a big part of our story.

Give it a play; we love and will miss you, Prince.

Persecution and Victimhood are Different Things, Gang.

The bogus and creative reclassification of Christianity as a persecuted body on the run in America is goofy, and wrong, and infuriating, and absurd. This isn’t debatable, as far as I’m concerned.

For those of us who might’ve missed SNL this week: click play.

This is a spot-on riff on the trailer for “God’s Not Dead 2,” which, in its glib tone and bizarre sense of confidence, comes off as a parody all its own…but it’s not. And Pat Boone is now leading a rallying cry that SNL’s parody is offensive to everybody: Jews, Christians, homosexuals…yes, Pat Boone is calling out a perceived slight to the gay community. That is pretty much the elusive unicorn of mock outrage, right there.

I’m sick of outrage culture, that every self-ascribed categorization is subject to a sense of righteous indignation and bullied victimhood. As George Carlin put it: either everything is funny, or nothing is.

If our beliefs aren’t strong enough to stand against satire and parody of their exaggerated, most-questionable aspects–well, that’s a problem with the belief structure, not the comedy at hand.

…You know, “God’s Not Dead 2” went into wide release on April 1. Sometimes, the jokes just write themselves.

Six Months Later.

So, I took a hiatus.

The last six months have included eight surgeries and a total of seven weeks in the hospital. The long and short of it is that a diabetic infection set in to both my feet; I lost much of my right foot and three toes. If I’d dawdled any further, as is my custom, I would’ve lost my leg or very likely my life.

But that’s not how this story goes, should we end it sometime around here.

Today is my first day back in the office following two weeks of medical leave after a skin graft. My relationship to God has changed; my perception as someone or something new has also, largely, changed.

Cynicism is a gross thing. I’m trying to scrub myself of it. It has little use when it comes to prayer, self-perception, and forward motion. I know this.

I’m still relearning how to walk. Today is the first day in which I can legitimately say I’m not in pain. That’s a span of October 20 to April 18.

I worry I’m less funny than I used to be; God gives me many things, but I’m bereft of good humor and humor in general today. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to laugh at what happened to me, and I’m coming up extremely short today.

That will change.

I’ve returned here to document this process, and to continue talking about my status as new in my relationship with God, and the peculiar and infuriating and glorious moments that honor and color that.

So, here’s to day one, all over again. Down a few parts, but attempting, as best I can, to be new again.

Anniversaries (1 and 15)

There really aren’t any coincidences.

On October 11, 2000, National Coming Out Day, I came out to my freshman floor at TCNJ. Slowly, half-jokingly, without much confidence…but I did it. I’d come out to a few folks on the floor beforehand. and I’d been out to a few friends in high school,  but this was my first real step into owning this as a part of myself worth too much to hide.

On October 11, 2014, National Coming Out Day, I was baptized and confirmed at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mercerville, NJ, as part of a “two-fer” ceremony, in which my baptism was the sidecar to my amazing priest’s Celebration of New Ministry. It was one of the scariest and most exhilarating days of my life.

My sexual orientation and my faith are huge keystones of my identity; they’re not the only ones, to be sure, but they are absolutely giant parts of my perspective and, in turn, how I’m perceived these days. And that’s not an accident. My profession, my vocation, my gig with The Guardian…it all circles back to these points.

And of course, I’m going to write about this more in the future. I’m so grateful that I have no problem these days living boldly into these parts of my life. I wish and want that for everyone; the parts of us that make us special and weird and different and noteworthy really start to suck if we hide them under a bushel.

So, I plaintively say, for all of us: Don’t. Celebrate the weird, within you, without you. Let it come out. And tell that story.

Sara Ramirez does this way better than I do, in song: