Sunday, August 10, 2008

How we get here from there

It's once again my pleasure to be guest blogger while DP is away. For those who do not know me, I live in New York City and am a member of The Episcopal Church and am currently in the Discernment Process to be a candidate for the priesthood....

But how did I get here? I shared part of my story on my blog, specifically about "the scales fell from my eyes" with regards to reconciling being a gay man and a Christian, but other than that, I haven't really shared too much of my journey of faith and how I got here from there. So ... here's a condensed version in the hopes that you'll get to know a bit more about me.

Quite a few people are rather surprised that I have many fond memories of growing up in the Baptist church in rural North Carolina that my family attended. It was a small congregation, about 100 people or so, including children. My mother's people came over from Wales during colonial days and my father's folks came from England shortly after the American Civil War. We all grew up knowing each other, what everyone’s parents did and which church everyone went to. As one could imagine, this society, while idyllic in its own way, is also very insular. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. Except for various media outlets, it is a closed system.

I have always enjoyed being in church. I grew up on the many stories of Jesus and other biblical figures and developed a great love for hearing those stories repeatedly. Around the age of 7 or 8 I remember witnessing my first baptism. I did not understand exactly what it meant, but I knew somehow that it was important. Some years later, I asked questions about what Baptism meant and how it relates to all of the things I have been reading and learning about The reply I received from my parents was something like, “Well, son, it’s a symbol that you’re a part of God’s family. And when you are baptized, you are saying to God, to your family, and to your church that you want to follow Jesus.” An that is what I wanted to do. After a few conversations with our preacher, I was baptized at the age of 11. In the Baptist tradition then, through the stories of Jesus, it could be said that I learned of God the Son and how Jesus is a very real being. I did not know what following Jesus meant, but I knew it was something I wanted to do, whatever it turned out to be.

During high school, I began to feel a desire to go deeper into my spiritual life, and I began attending an Assemblies of God Church in a small city near where I grew up, a place that some described as where "God was hanging out." There I learned that God is found not only in church, but in every day life. One of the profound things that stuck with me was the idea that everything we do can be an act of worship and of prayer. It was there also that I received, rather by accident, what is known as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. After services one Sunday evening, I went down to the altar for some alone time and prayed, "take my life, my gifts, they are yours. I re-affirm the promises I made to you, and I commit anew the desire to follow in your footsteps.” What happened next is hard to describe. It was as if something inside which had been dormant suddenly "woke up" and filled my entire self. Interestingly enough, ever since that day, I have never felt alone. I have been lonely, sure, but never alone.

In the Pentecostal Church, there is a deep and abiding faith in the activity of the Holy Spirit, a belief that God still works through that same Spirit to continue the work that was done at Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. This faith in the work of the Spirit through the body of Christ and through the Church laid a foundation for my coming to understand God’s work in my life through my own baptism and then my confirmation in the Episcopal Church some years later. Looking back, I can say that the Pentecostals taught me about the God the Holy Spirit and how we are able to experience God at work in the world.

At the suggestion of my father and grandfather, I applied for admission and was later accepted to the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY, which is something like going to West Point or the Coast Guard Academy. I got involved in the Christian Fellowship Group and helped with Bible Studies, leading in worship and in other activities, an involvement which lasted for the duration of my time at the Academy. When it came time for class officer nominations my freshman year, I was voted in as class chaplain and took it upon myself to write a weekly column posted on our barracks bulletin board.

During my three-year tenure at the Academy, I traveled quite a bit (Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean) in my sophomore and junior years and experienced the wonder of Creation and different cultures and what it means to be the "other." What really struck me about my time at the Academy was how diverse the world really was. It was my first prolonged contact with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics. I was fortunate to see the breadth and depth of Creation and how the Church existed in various cultures. At the Academy, I learned about God the Father, creator of a very diverse heaven and earth and what it means to be called part of God's family.

About half-way through my junior year, I realized I was gay, and was granted a leave of absence to "sort things out." On my own blog, I describe in part the process of leaving the academy, making my way in the world and eventually moving to Manhattan. I also talk becoming like two people and its subsequent reunion, so do go read it if you haven't. After a great deal of internal struggle when I started going back to church again, I decided to leave the Baptist tradition, for I wanted to hear the gospel and participate fully in the life of a community than to hear what had become a political agenda cloaked with scripture and other ecclesial trappings. While I was on my search, I noticed that along with the healing and the integration I experienced, I discovered that my outlook on life and my beliefs on what it meant to follow God had changed somewhat, and I began to visit other mainline churches in addition to more moderate leaning evangelical churches. I always remembered fondly a concert where I sang in a choir at St Thomas in NYC and enjoyed going there to pray and to thumb through the hymnal and Book of Common Prayer, and decided I would visit an Episcopal church. After visiting a few, I ultimately decided to make my home at what I affectionately refer to as Immaculate Contraption, having discovered it quite by accident some years ago while wandering around the East Village late at night and lost, and thinking that perhaps it was that church that got converted into a night club! So yes, I found my parish because I had confused it with a night club.

I have to tell you, I felt like I had come home, and it was like a breath of fresh air coming into my soul. I was deeply moved by the liturgy, the music and the appreciation for education. Another thing I found to be a great strength of this church is its desire to be Christ to others in this world, which was reflected in its many outreach and relief programs. Coming from traditions where the normal course of events was to divide and walk apart, I felt I had entered into a place where no part of the body of Christ is easily willing to say to the other, "I need you not." So when things are working and acting at their best, I believe that you can get a very good idea of what God as Trinity is like (yes, we knew this was coming didn't we?) ... a social deity in relationship, communion and conversation with himself.

So there you have it. Small town country baptist boy picks up everything and eventually winds up in New York City as an Episcopalian wishing to enter the priesthood. Only thing I have to say in closing is that by putting your life in God's hands, he takes you on a very interesting ride through life. Life with God is a lot of things, but it certainly is never dull, and as I learned while on vacation, he is most certainly always present.