Sunday, December 11, 2016

Part 3. In 2016, We Migrated: Losing my dream job as a youth pastor and leaving my home, Calvary.

“True church can never fail, for it is based upon a rock.”

~T.S. Elliot.

"We are parts of one body, and we all belong to each other."
~Romans 12:5

May of 2015 was the start of the most excruciating paradigm shift that I have ever experienced, a season which continues to have its process...

A Confession...
  When I was ten years old, I experienced the most terrifying self-revelation I had ever learned: I started developing a crush on one of my male friends. After this realization, I sobbed for what felt like hours, scaring the hell out of my parents. I wouldn't talk to them, I wouldn't play with anyone, I just locked myself in secret. Growing up in a culture of conservative Christianity I learned early on this was not a safe thing to confess, so my only option was to hide, and beg God to take it away. So begun a common and destructive life pattern. As a kid when it was a girl who had captured my heart, it was easy enough to pretend that I had no unacceptable sexual orientation; but when I had fallen for some one of the same sex, what came with it was a destructive storm that consistently attempted to claim my life. I would try everything to keep myself from giving in to what felt like a curse: Years of praying and fasting and begging God to make me different only to feel ignored, or even worse, unloved and therefore condemned. When I was sixteen years old, I grew tired of praying and decided God had abandoned me. I had given into my bi-sexual temptations a few times at this point, so I decided, as I had heard it said in Romans 1, that God had given me over to my wicked desires. I couldn't put my parents through the shame of having a bi-curious son, so one night I decided to take my life. I started to drink a bottle of bleach only to throw it up after the first chug, those who know me know I have zero gag reflex. Even still, I would rather die than live with this curse. I started a habit of cutting myself whenever I caught myself infatuating over a male, attempting to condition myself out of this "sickness." Nothing worked. In 2007, with pistol in hand, I had a mystical encounter with God. An experience that when recalled, to this day, nearly ten years later, brings me to tears. It felt as if a message was being written on my heart, a message that proclaimed I was loved with an unconditional love. For some reason I may never be able to reconcile, this Divine mystery I know to be the Father, Son and Holy Ghost claimed me as its child; and that no matter what my sexual orientation was, that love would never be taken off the table. This love is boundless, and while I had a keen awareness I may never fully discover its depths, I also knew I would be exploring it for the rest of my life. I was liberated, the weight of desperation and wanting to die was replaced with a sense of eternal value.  Words fail to give sufficient insight into the weight of that encounter. With this affirmation came a promise: if I just followed the leading of the Spirit, I would be led to a place of satisfaction, no longer wanting to die because of my sexual orientation. A promise, I am happy to say, has met its fulfillment in my marriage to the girl of my dreams.

The Confrontation...
    Fast-forward 8 years, and I was in a small room used for counseling at Calvary Open Bible, where I had served on staff for close to five years. My pastor (who was really my father figure/boss/friend/mentor) and our church counselor (also an invaluable friend) confronted me on the great secret. After years of living clandestine, the last people I wanted to know about this informed me that they had been enlightened. I kept this secret all through middle school, high school, pastoring and into my marriage. Even though I no longer felt unloved by God, I was keeping a secret fundamental to my journey, while living in intimacy with my wife and my church community. We were not meant to live in darkness, it will always destroy us from the inside out. I had been suffering severe depression, panic attacks and deeply unhealthy attachments to different friends. I wasn’t healthy enough to be a good husband, let alone help pastor a church. So I finally confided in a friend, in hopes of gaining some reprieve. This friend, seeing how much this secret was destroying my life, sought guidance from some one, who then told the powers that be. We sat in that room, my pastor, our counselor, and myself; and they both looked at me with a mixture love, compassion and sadness in their eyes as they laid out the plan they had set up to relieve me of my youth pastor position, and to help get me healthy.

A lovely Sunday at Calvary Open Bible.

Fast-forward nearly a year: Kels and I did the impossibly hard work of bringing our marriage, not to a point of sustainability, but to a point of abundance. This was due to my wife being a superhero, our wonderful counselor and the healing power of Holy Spirit. It’s hard to convey just how straining it is for a hetero-sexual marriage, when both parties are raised to believe anything LGBTQ+ was a chosen path of abominable sin, and the male says:
“Oh by the way, I know we already made a covenant before God and everyone we know to be together until death do us part, but the reason I've been a near-suicidal nut case its because I’ve also been into dudes my whole life and you weren't the first person I told about. Sorry you’re just now finding out.”

That is an extremely light and shallow summary of what lead to the heaviest and darkest season of our lives. The fact that I’m in such a beautiful marriage is not only a testament to how amazing my wife really is, but also the fulfillment of the promise God made to me back in 2007. I went to counseling and learned, for the first time, how to take care of myself. I learned how to be a human being outside of an identity wrapped up in being a pastor. Things were looking up…then something completely unexpected happened: I started deconstructing (see In 2016 I… Parts 1 & 2). Part of working through the process of feeling like God had all but disappeared, or never existed, was this consistent anger, and that anger (for many reasons, fare and irrational) led to a scrutiny towards all things American Christian Church.

“Why does the church so often attach itself to national pride when Jesus so clearly rejected that way of thinking?”
"How dare the majority of churches assert America was a more Christian nation when it was lead by un-apologetically oppressive men who asserted supremacy over everyone who wasn't a white, hetero-sexual male!"
“Why do we spend so much time on learning how to properly interpret scripture while atheist social workers are doing more Jesus work everyday than us?”
“Why do we tell people every week that tithing is giving your money to God when it goes to staff paychecks and building maintenance? The New Testament doesn’t talk about tithing in this way at all!”
“Why are we so racially segregated?”
“Why don’t we live in closer community? What happened to the book of Acts type of community, where nobody in the church went without and people made sacrifices that us westerners would consider unspeakable, just to take care of each other?”
“Why do we spend millions of dollars on building projects, remodels and additions when there are 21,000 people dying a day of starvation?” I would rant as I continued to buy more fast food, books and movies and didn’t do anything to aid the fight against world hunger.

 In my anger, I mercilessly tore it all apart. Anger is never a humble or flattering color, it always leads to blaming everyone but yourself. Now, to be fare, a lot of my constructs of church needed to be torn apart and rebuilt. I now have a much more biblical and healthy theology of the communion of saints and sinners than I did before. After I started reconstructing, I thought my temperament towards church life as I knew it would heal. While I wasn’t angry anymore, I realized that I had changed so much during my time of deconstructing and reconstructing I no longer felt I belonged at my church. This community I had fought blood, sweat and tears for, and who did the same for me, began to feel distant and unfamiliar.

 Two years ago, the kids I had the privilege of youth pastoring during my time at Calvary at mine and Kelsey's wedding.

The Migration...
 I didn’t know how my new convictions would be accepted. Actually, I didn't know how they could be accepted. I felt the very direction I was being led would lead to nothing more than unhealthy discourse in what was an otherwise beautifully unified congregation. My constructs of Christianity had changed so much. I didn’t read or interpret the bible the same way, I didn’t look at the institution of church the same way, I didn’t believe in God the same way. Every Sunday, for every sermon and interaction, my wife and I felt less and less that we were connected to this community. This, of course, was never at the fault of the people at Calvary. Calvary Open Bible is a church full of good people committed loving each other and God, and they never once made us feel unwelcome or unwanted; quite the opposite actually. Still, eventually things started taking place that led my wife and I to, for the first time, ask God if we should even stay. For my whole life, Calvary was never on the table. I never dreamed of leaving, ever. Something in us began to feel a pull in another direction, and as time went on, we knew if we wanted to honor the new direction God was taking us, we would have to leave our home.
To call Calvary was my home would be a massive understatement: I had been attending that church since I was eight years old, nearly every mystical experience with the Spirit I have encountered can be linked to my attendance at that church. I preached my first sermon there. I baptized countless youth there. We had my mom’s funeral there. The staff, elders and members walked me through every step of that unspeakable grief. I proposed to my wife there. I married my wife there. They took care of us there. I knew the only way I could possibly leave was if the Spirit of God guided us… And Spirit did, even if I left kicking and screaming.

My new friend Pastor Tim Johnson preaching at Fifth Avenue Church

Today, Kels and I attend a beautifully diverse church in downtown Eugene called Fifth Avenue Church. Once a month they have what they call “The Upper Room,” which invites the congregants to come and discuss any and all inquiries. This environment is facilitated for us to vocalize our questions, doubts and fear. We don’t shoot down ideas and if we disagree, we talk about it and appreciate the tension of diversity: In this way we are unified without being uniform, a beautiful expression of Gods diverse Kingdom. The pastor has become a friend and has walked me through my doubts and questions, as well as the tough process of redirecting my life. Every Sunday we hear the still small voice of God confirm we are where we belong.

The Christian story is so much bigger than I ever thought. This migration for Kelsey and I has not been without its fare share of pain, rejection, and loneliness. It has opened us up to criticism, gossip and accusation; but it has changed our very ground of being. We float along in the movement of God, hoping to follow him through every dip and current, and we are blessed to be apart of such a remarkable story.

A Brief Note To My Old Church... 
To my friends and family at Calvary: thank you. Thank you for teaching me to be flexible and open to the rhythms of the Spirit. Thank you for crying with me when my mother died, rejoicing with us at our wedding and weeping with me when I was removed from my position. Thank you for the unexpected financial blessings and gifts. Thank you for calling out my vocation, and putting me in positions to practice it. Thank you for being my family, and greeting me at every gathering with a hug, a smile and an encouraging word. You are a good and beautiful people. Thank you for believing in me and investing in me. As I type with tears in my eyes, I am reminded of the many years of camps and retreats and service projects and moments of sacred communion as we broke bread together. Words fail to summarize how important this church is to me. Had I not been apart of you, I probably would have pulled the trigger a long time ago. For the rest of my life, you will be with me.

May YHWH bless you and keep you; YHWH  make his shine upon you and be gracius to you; YHWH lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
With a full and weepy heart, and lots of love,

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