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I don’t usually do much for Lent other than think about what I should/could/would do. But this year there’s something stirring deep down. A need for silence.

My brain works in a furious rush sometimes, and most of my life is filled with incredible life-giving moments, but sometimes the energy of those moments keeps me up at night because I just. can’t. shut. off.

My brain and my soul need a break. And I need to practice quiet.

I told someone yesterday that in grade nine a science teacher asked me to stop putting my hand up to answer questions so that other students would be more likely to participate. In grade twelve a teacher told me I take up too much verbal space.

Ya, I’m long-winded. And I’m sensitive about it. Nearly every time we leave a social gathering I ask Kathryn if I talked too much. It’s only just occurred to me in the last few months that I don’t need to (and don’t even benefit from) this compulsive desire to share and record every thought that comes swirling through my mind.

Kathryn’s highest love language is acts of service, and in my desire to love her well, I sometimes need to remind myself at bedtime that it is an act of service not to tell her every thought I have had all through the live long day. And then I have to tell myself it’s an act of service not to tell her I’m doing an act of service. The woman needs some sleep.

So, because of these heart stirrings, and because of a desire to deepen my internal peace, for the next forty days I plan to spend twenty minutes a day practicing external and internal quiet. I will sit quietly and focus on my breath and as thoughts come through my mind I will picture them as leaves on a river floating by, appreciated but not needing to be captured, and I will gently return to my breath.

Silence.

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As I wake to the news of the election results in America, I pray these words with heartache and hope.

God of the universe who holds all things together:

Let us be instruments of peace.
Where there is hatred, may we bring love.
Where there is hurt, may we forgive.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Where there is darkness, may we bring light.
Where there is sadness, may we bring joy.

May we seek to comfort rather than to be comforted;
to understand, rather than to be understood;
to love, rather than to be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is by forgiving that we find forgiveness.
It is in death that we find new life.

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Prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi

I came out to my friends and family at the age of 25.  Three years prior, one of my university professors had come out as a gay Christian. Before hearing her story, I had never heard the two terms used in cohesion with one another.

Growing up in a Pentecostal church, being gay was so far removed from my experience of ‘normal’ that it did not once cross my mind in a conscious way that I might be gay. It was only after hearing my professor’s story that I began to examine my own life, attractions and relationships.

That journey was painful. Coupled with my vulnerability to depression and having Borderline Personality Disorder (undiagnosed at that point in my life), trying to process that I was not who I always thought I was – and not who my family, church and friends expected I was – was like trying to swallow fistfuls of cement. Coming out to oneself is always the first and hardest step of accepting who you are. And that’s just the beginning. The idea of having to share this dark shame with another person paralyzed me. I was physically and emotionally sick for a long time before I started talking to people who were able to help me see the beauty in who I am as a gay Christian.

One of those people was Wendy Gritter, executive director of New Direction, an organization that actively seeks to “eliminate fear, division, and hostility at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.” She had counselled a few other gay people I had spoken with, and on their recommendation I connected with her. I still remember her expression the first time we met, when she told me “there is no shame in being who you are.” The sincerity and determination in her voice pierced through my walls of internalized homophobia. This was the first time a straight person with a religious background was affirming my sexuality.

From there, my world of acceptance grew. As I found more safe people (and realized just how many of my friends and family were accepting and affirming), it became easier to overcome this internal shame and wrestle through the difficult theological questions that I faced as a Christian who had grown up believing homosexuality was sinful.

The result has been an incredibly loving relationship cultivated with Kathryn, sharing who I am more authentically with my friends and family, and the dismantling of a spirituality built on fear of punishment. In its place, I have found room to grow as a Christian that believes God is drawing all life toward Love, and that my role is to practice this love and learn to cultivate trust when fear is tempting.

I still sometimes revert to that internal homophobic fear that worries if gay is synonymous with broken, sick or sinful. What I return to again and again in these moments is this – I have to believe that a life modelled after Jesus must be motivated by love, and so as St. Teresa of Avila said, “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do what ever best awakens you to love.” A life lived with love as the motivator, and in conscious opposition to fear, is the one I am after.

There’s a reason I am sharing this with you. Imagine having to wrestle through all this shame and fear without the support and acceptance of the people closest to you. Imagine if I had never met another queer Christian. Imagine being a child or a teenager who is a sexual or gender minority, fully aware of how different you are, and fully aware of the rejection you would face if anyone ever found out. I was incredibly lucky that most of my fear of rejection was unsubstantiated. I weep for those that do come out and are abandoned by family, barred from their churches, pushed toward damaging “reparative” therapies or simply ridiculed for being different.

Despite growing cultural acceptance of LGBTQ* identities, there are still kids in Canada growing up in churches and families that are not affirming, and at worse are abusive toward those that don’t fit expectations of ‘normal.’ All the fear and shame I wrestled through nearly killed me (literally). I can’t imagine the deep pain of those who have to experience this as adolescents in isolation.

This is why the work of New Direction is essential. The gay/queer community is not always fond of Christians, and vice versa, and you can imagine funding for an organization that exists in such a tense place can be scarce. This fall, New Direction made the heart-wrenching decision to lay off their Youth Coordinator due to funding. This is devastating. We must be doing MORE to reach kids and teens who fear the only way out of the closet is by death.

If you think the work of New Direction is essential, please consider making a donation (choose General Fund and indicate in the comment if you would like it to be specifically for youth outreach). To really make a difference, become a monthly sponsor. This is a tangible way you can stand up to the homophobia in our churches and society, and make a real difference in someone’s life. I’ve seen it happen in my own, and there are so many more hurting hearts to reach.

To feel understood in their pain,

For compassionate people who can truly listen,

For a real safety plan that reduces the vulnerability they and family feel,

For peace during the long wait for mental health services,

For the root of this pain to be addressed and not masked,

And endurance for the road ahead,

These things I pray.

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation… all the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.” 
– David Wyte

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(Photo Credit: Brandon Mitchell)

I got to be near some pigs that were “unutterably themselves” this weekend.

I watched them cool themselves in some pretty nasty mud. I watched them root through fresh straw. I fed them corn cobs and scratched their heads and even grunted a few replies to their curious questions. I marvelled at their long eyelashes and the density of their bodies and how fast they could run in circles. I laughed and turned away disgusted as they shit and pissed right there in front of me.

I loved these pigs a little bit this weekend. I loved them even though we are so different, even though our interaction was so limited. I loved them because they showed me something I didn’t know, or maybe had just forgotten.

Along with these pigs were the dogs and the chickens; the gardens and the grass; the lake and the rain; the ants and the mosquitos; the sun and the sky – all reminding me of the hope and resiliency of creation,

the hope and resiliency of God in creation,

the hope and resiliency of creation in me.

I will tell my story.

I will open space for vulnerability where stigma and silence have reigned.

In this, I bring my darkness to light. In this, I find hope.

In this, I kindle a spark for you to bring your own darkness to light.

“You are alone.” “This pain will last forever.”

These are the two great lies of mental illness.

And so, instinctively, we fight or flee.

In telling my story, I challenge myself and you:

Stand still and hold the light.

I am, you anxious one. 

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

 – Rainer Maria Rilke

A friend of mine recently got involved in the kind of conversation that one sometimes stumbles across on the internet. The original post might be about anything, but at one point or another, the topic of religion is introduced and there are some commenters who are off to the races.

In this particular conversation, a few individuals wanted to claim that a definition of ‘christian’ is basically boiled down to one’s stance on homosexuality. My friend was frustrated with this narrow version of christianity and made a few statements, such as “for the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: love your neighbour as yourself,” and “if that makes me less of a Christian in some eyes, so be it – I’ll risk where my love of Jesus leads me,” before excusing himself from the conversation to “lament and have lunch.”

At times, it’s hard for me to avoid getting sucked in to reading these arguments, back and forth. I know they aren’t really good for my spirit, they wear me down and make me feel defeated. And while there are voices like my friend’s, calling for a more loving dialogue, they seem few and far between. And often rather ineffective.

Sometimes, if I’m not careful, these arguments can start to eat into me a little, and I start wondering who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’ The reality is that I still struggle sometimes wondering if I’m the one who is deluded. Would God reject me on the basis of my orientation?

I know that thought is based in fear. And when I think about my love for Kathryn, how we shape each other’s lives, it feels whole and hopeful. It is the same feeling I get standing in a rainstorm, or hugging my beautiful nieces, or having a chickadee land on my hand when we’re bird feeding, or celebrating life with friends by dancing and laughing and feeling belonging.

Those are the moments God is most with me, or I am most with God, or something. And they include laying in Kathryn’s arms at night, or laughing at her ridiculous sense of humour, or comforting her after a long day at work. Her gender (or mine) in those moments means nothing.

That is what I need to remember when a stranger’s comments on the internet start eating at my self-worth and security in God’s love.

I have a picture of my dad, one of the happiest and proudest moments ever captured of him. It hangs on my wall near my entrance, and shows him and I walking down an aisle towards the woman I am about to marry. My dad will forever be an example to me of the way relationship and love can heal division and fear. In a little less than two years, he went from having an opinion very similar to those commenters to the moment pictured, joy washing over his face and tears budding in his eyes. He and Kathryn sat side by side at my hockey games through a whole season, even though he was certain of his position on homosexuality, and through that slow building of relationship he discovered the love that was possible between two women, equal to the love my brothers share with their wives. (It really could be a Tim Horton’s commercial.)

Anne Lamott recently said, “the mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild.” Which also means that God loves the gay couple down the street as much as God loves those commenters. I don’t have kids, or grandkids, but I love my two nieces with such intensity, a love very different than the emotions I feel for those commenters. It’s hard not to be emotionally effected when you come across opinions that question the goodness of your most intimate relationship.

But I’m learning that it’s also really okay to be emotionally effected. Hurt and anger are natural, and we do need to lament for the LGBTQ* individuals that aren’t being shown God’s love by those claiming to represent Christianity. God’s heart is probably breaking and might be getting angry too. God just somehow manages to also love those guys just like I love my nieces, and that’s the confounding part. To be broken and angry and also really, really loving. How challenging.

It’s unlikely that I will be able to have much influence on the kind of people who want to spread a version of God’s love that excludes some people. But I’m not writing this to try to change the opinions of those who would define Christianity by one’s view on homosexuality. And I’m not writing this to hear agreements from those who accept gay relationships as part of the diversity of God’s creation. I am lucky and so grateful to have family and friends who actively remind me (through words and actions) that God is love unbounded.

I’m writing this for the kid who is growing up in a church that tells him he is not enough, or the woman afraid of being imprisoned simply for falling in love. I’m writing this because there are gay individuals who don’t have a dad that will walk them down the aisle at their wedding, or a family that will accept their partner as an equal.

In the deluge of posts and comments against homosexuality, someone needs to stand up and say “God is love.” I was so grateful for the words my friend did post. It’s not really his ‘battle,’ he is not gay. But in a way, it’s also a battle that belongs to all of us. Because as much as the world has changed, there are still gay people surrounded by those who think along these very hard lines, even gay people themselves who think along these hard lines, and feel the weight of shame and rejection that comes with being told you are less than another.

I just can’t accept a God whose heart is full of wrath and vengeance. I have to believe that God’s love is unbounded.

From Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver (2009).

“At the River Clarion”

1.

I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a
water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices
of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had
something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing
under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me
what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered
the moss beneath the water.

I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through
all the traffic, the ambition.

2.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then
keep on going.

Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God)
would sing to you if it could sing, if
you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?

If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing
their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician,
the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own
constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was
comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.

3.

Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.

4.

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

5.

My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest,
she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows
from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.

6.

Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them,
for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.

7.

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
singing.

(http://www.amazon.ca/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780807068984)

“So you’re the Spiritual Care Guy, right? The one with the answers?” “Yeah…” he says with a grin. He knows by now that conversations with me aren’t often easy. “So where is God in all of this?” I ask. His grin disappears, and as tears fill my eyes, he responds, “My honest answer? I don’t know.”

We meet about once per week to talk about life here in the hospital. This is our hardest conversation yet. I have to fight to keep from ugly crying. “I overdosed a few days ago,” I tell him, though he probably already knows. I had a chance to spend a few days relaxing at a cottage – swimming, playing games, enjoying good food – and I threw it away. One minute the pills were in the bottle, the next minute they were in my stomach. It only took about twenty minutes for the sedating effects to kick in. The next thirty-six hours are a blurry haze.

“Do you remember our conversation from last week?” the Spiritual Care Guy asks. I draw a blank. He reminds me how we talked about self-sabotage and the impulse to self-destruct. I laugh at this twisted predictor of the events that occurred mere days ago. But the laughter doesn’t last. With tears running down my cheeks, I beg him for an answer to my need. I need to understand why I am so hell-bent on self-destruction, why 99% of the time I can be focused on healing and growth, fostering peace and resiliency; and the other 1% of the time, I throw it all aside.

His tactic tends to be asking questions rather than answering them and he asks me, “what gives you hope?” I stay quiet, waiting for an answer to surface. The only one that comes is love. Wild love. Untamed, organic, unabashed, illogical love. Love for my niece (and the one on the way!), my parents, my brothers and their wives, my dear friends and of course, Kathryn. Love for her, above all else.

And yet she is the one most hurt when I am emotionally dysregulated. “I WISH I HAD NEVER MET YOU!” I screamed this at her, turning my anger outward. I was angry that she wasn’t with me, that she wasn’t meeting my current need. Mostly, I was angry that she was at the cottage and I was stuck at the hospital. How is this love? How is this the way I choose to treat the woman I say I’d give my life for? In what reality do I think these words are okay?

The answer is that they are not ever okay. She deserves the best of what I have to offer. And now my instinct is to turn this anger inward, berate myself for the way I behave. “She deserves better,” I say. “She’d be better off without me.” I try to assess what I bring to the relationship and all I come up with is pain. But this too is an unhealthy road and does not lead to me loving her well.

I tell Spiritual Care Guy all of this, and he tells me about addiction and how those who are addicts must admit they have lost control in order to begin regaining it. It’s this way with mental illness too, really any type of illness. I must admit the areas of my life that I have lost to mental illness in order to begin rebuilding them. And I must acknowledge my strengths, the places in my life where my illness has not beaten me.

It’s a great mystery – love. The love Kathryn has for me. My parents’ unending support. The love of Immanuel. Love is where God is in all of this. I will never understand these gifts, but I can choose to cherish them and in each new moment, offer love in return.

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