Flipping the bird to the Big Guy (a downside of being a drama kid)

I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was quite a precocious child in certain ways. I was loud, obnoxious, and emotional. I was knighted by my second grade teacher as “Sir Talks A Lot,” which I ended up finding annoying, so I threw a fit about it and got my student teacher in trouble.

At one of my friend’s sleepover birthday parties, his father was trying to get us all to quiet down and go to sleep. He warned that the next boy to talk would be forced to wear a sparkly red dress he pulled out of the closet. I, of course, being the snot that I was, screamed. His father handed me the dress, but I defiantly refused. He backed off. Then I rushed forward, grabbed it from his hands, and went to the bathroom to change.

Like I said, dramatic.

When I was a wee tot, I played baby Jesus during a church nativity play. Obviously my path forward would include acting in plays and musicals in school. I was attracted to the limelight, and I had a narcissistic joy when I was the focus of attention. I liked being in charge, and I liked being bold, which led to the crowning role of drama club president my senior year of high school.

This part of me was tempered, to a degree, by my parents’ upbringing: to be kind to others, to take responsibility for my actions, and to love God.

Church was a large part of my life up until high school. I mostly attended because of my parents’ beliefs and their rules, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. We attended a megachurch in Akron, Ohio called “The Chapel” for about the first half of my childhood. From what I remember, The Chapel was a huge building with many, many hallways and rooms that one could get lost in. My mother sang in the choir. My oldest brother and father attended many missions trips, from Greece to Mexico. I attended Camp Carl, a summer Christian camp that the church runs, and I also did vacation bible school.

Because of the longer commute and some organizational changes, my parents eventually decided to switch churches, opting for a sister branch of The Chapel called Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. Riverwood is much smaller than its “sister,” but my parents quickly became involved–my mom in the Sunday school classes and my dad in the youth ministry. I made many friends there, several of whom were also my schoolmates. As I moved up to junior high, I attended youth group and went on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee.

calvary-rescue
Me, giving testimony at Calvary Rescue Mission in Memphis, TN ca. 2008

On my first trip to Memphis, I had a “born again” experience in Christ. I talked briefly about this in my last post, but it’s hard for me to fully remember and grasp what that experience was. I can analyze it over and over, and come to quick conclusions such as it was just me “fooling myself,” “playing into it,” or “doing what my parents’ would want.” However, those would be shallow interpretations. During that moment, the “born again” moment, I felt something moving in me, and calling me to something “higher.” It was not my usual dramatic flair. It was a grounded feeling, a feeling of understanding, but also–joy.

Coupled with this elation, I was constantly battling my attraction to men. This manifested itself as a deep shame that I kept shoving further and further inside myself. I told one of my youth group counselors that I “felt sad a lot,” and that I was “falling away from Christ.” This led to my spiritual re-commitment on the second Memphis trip one year later. Perhaps I thought I could bury my desire so far down that the Holy Spirit couldn’t sense it?

My sense for grand, bombastic, life-or-death scenarios got the better of me during freshman year of high school. While on the one hand I felt this natural, strong connection to God, on the other, I felt the pulling of my equally-natural and equally-strong desire for men. I tended to see the forces as black-and-white–one was evil, one was good. I felt a decision had to be made between the two. Whether this was imposed on me or self-inflicted, I cannot say for sure (more on that in future posts), but without a doubt my Drama Queen-ness forced me to choose one over the other.

While I would like to avoid too many details, there came a day when my parents discovered a boy I was hanging out with identified as gay, and they confronted me about it. They were wary of his intentions. In the heat of the moment, my emotions got the better of me and I half-coherently blurted out “What if I was gay!?” and stormed off. My parents, stunned, went to the back porch to deliberate, and I slammed my bedroom door, looked up at the ceiling with tears streaming down my face, and said “Fuck you” to the Big Guy in the Sky.

Again: dramatic.

I haven’t attended church regularly since that time. For the past eight years most of my focus has been spent on school, work, and my relationships. While the experience I had in Memphis never left me, I have not felt fully balanced in a long time. I think that is where this desire, this yearning comes from. I am only fully myself when all parts of me are given attention to and fed, and this imposed dichotomy of sexuality-vs-belief that has separated me from my faith has hindered me in innumerable ways. Frankly, I’m quite tired of it.

I think it’s time to make another bold move and tear down the “dichotomy” all together.

A quiet yearning

I sit at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, and I hear some hip hop music playing faintly in the background. Voices talking, yelling, laughing. On my screen there’s a headline that reads “North Korea warns ‘more gift packages’ are on the way as Donald Trump arms Japan, South Korea.”

I walk down the street on a Monday evening, and it is silent, save for the wind cruising through the trees in Jackie Robinson park (and my footsteps, of course). I see a child selling lemonade with the sign “For Houston.”

I slowly open my eyes as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, and a muted sound of worship music reaches my ears. It is singing that rises high and rings. It feels far away. I look at my phone, and read an article written by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He signed the recent Nashville Statement and called it “an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”

Sigh.

I don’t hear the word “yearning” thrown around too much these days. Yearning is a feeling of intense longing, a hunger, an ache. Do millennials yearn? (Sorry, the last thing we need is another article about what’s wrong with millennials…) A Marina and the Diamonds lyric feels particularly apt here: “TV taught me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal.”

I’m thinking of a specific kind of yearning. A yearning for something more than the day-to-day drudgery. The dating, the drinking, the social media, the news headlines, the seemingly impending doom of violence, war, and destruction that marks the average day in 2017. Something beyond the conservative, beyond the liberal.

Something true. Does it exist?

After several Sundays I realized the singing I heard from my room was coming from a church in the courtyard directly behind my apartment building. Definitely not as far away as I thought it was. Was that there the whole time?

st madalene
Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church – Flemington, NJ

The music is not as solemn as the hymns at St. Magdalen de Pazzi, the Roman Catholic Church I attended on Easter Sunday with my brother’s family in New Jersey. The sanctuary was large and hexagonal in shape. High red oak ceilings separated us from the morning sky. Hundreds of pews emanated from the central, circular platform that held the altar in the center and the pulpit to the left. Assortments of flowers and ferns flanked either side: yellow, white, pink, blue, orange, and violet. A cross hung above the altar, bearing a crucified Jesus and the lights that shone on Him created three distinct shadows on the white bricks behind. On the back wall, behind the altar and the pulpit, was the crowning jewel–a grand copper pipe organ that beautifully framed a circular spirit window that brought in light from the outside.

In the past eight years or so, I can count on one and a half hands how many times I’ve been to church. I’ve been twice in the past seven months, first at a collegiate church in Washington Heights and second at the aforementioned St. Magdalen. I attended the latter because it was Easter and I was with my family (my brother and sister-and-law are Catholic). I attended the former for less obvious reasons.

The church in WaHi (“Washington Heights” for the uninitiated), is called Fort Washington Collegiate Church. Like St. Madalen, it had wooden pews, but these pews were in a more traditional style: two main sections facing the front of the church. The sanctuary was rectangular, and again had high ceilings, but these ceilings had a distinctive gothic feel with dark, heavy wooden beams. Stained glass windows lined the walls on either side showing various scenes from Jesus’ life: the Passover, His baptism, as well as Him sitting and teaching among children (of many different colors.) A golden cross was centered behind the chorus on maroon panels. The blue Bibles on the back of the pews were NRSV–the translation I have.

Fort_Wash_Collegiate_Ch_jeh
Fort Washington Collegiate Church – New York, NY

Before the sermon, there was a “Passing of the Peace” where everybody in the congregation went around greeting one another. “The peace of Christ is with you!” “And also with you!” I was shy, but everybody was friendly. There were people of all types: gay, straight, black, white. Everybody was trying to greet everybody else in the small time they had, with some members trying to greet every single person. Towards the end of the time allotted the interactions simply became “Peace!” “Peace!”

The music was uplifting. There were hymns new and old, but they were not solemn. They were fun and alive. The choir wore bright red robes with white stoles. My favorite hymn was from South Africa called “Ewe Thina/We Walk His Way.” The first verse simply states: We walk for justice, kindness, love and peace: We walk His way. The chorus: Ewe Thina, Ewe Thina / We walk His way, We walk His way.

It’s hard to believe I stopped attending my family’s independent evangelical church eight years ago. I had been active in the junior high ministry, gone on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee to evangelize with Calvary Rescue Mission (and to sightsee). I had a “born again” experience on the first trip, in 7th grade. I re-affirmed my commitment to the Lord on the second trip in 8th grade. After coming out in high school, however, I stopped going with my parents on Sunday mornings. It’s the story of many LGBT individuals.

Despite feelings of isolation, shame, and anger in response to how my church views sexuality outside of one man and one woman, and despite the length of time I have spent away from its influence, I still have this feeling, this yearning. It’s been quietly with me every step to where I am today–in a committed relationship with a man and living in New York City.

It was a lightbulb in my head when my boyfriend told me he believes in God shortly after we first met. It was a nudge when one of my committed Christian friends in college affirmed my relationship and my sexuality. It was a bit of a slap in the face when I met an openly gay man attending seminary in the city.

It led me to take a step into St. Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, to shed a tear during the service at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, to fully “own” where I am today–straddling a desire to love myself and others unconditionally, but also to find truth.

It is a soft sung voice that seemed far away, but has really been with me all along. I hope it can guide me forward, still.