Today, I went to church.
I know that doesn’t seem like much. But this was the first time I attended a mass of any kind in about ten years.
I was raised Catholic in the Deep South (so you can guess how rigid and un-gay friendly that experience was.) So as soon as I could leave the church behind, I did. I briefly was a speech coach for a Catholic school, so on out-of-state trips, we’d take the kids to mass, and I’d begrudginly go, grumbling about “wasting an hour” and “having to sit through Jesus storytime.”
And about ten years ago, my then-partner shared his church with me, but it was the newfangled kind (which, not to disaprage, but felt more like a rock concert and video show than a mass. Catholic pagentry roots die hard, I guess.)
Four years ago I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. When you’re 35 and it comes out of the blue and this cancer is typically an older man’s cancer, it’s a really messed-up moment. Mortality appears, and it seems pissed, and it wants you. You might think you’re going to be a badass when you are confronted with the possibility of your own end, but I can’t imagine there’s any other response to it than, “Oh shit.” Life is suddenly and perilously fragile. Everything seems made of the thinnest of glass. And you’re a big hulking ogre with clown shoes and you’re definitely gonna knock shit over and then you’re done. End of play. Curtain.
It was an experience that shifted so much for me, all across my life. That cliche is totally true. Mortality shows up, and you’re suddenly, “Oh nope. Don’t need that extra bullshit. That concern over there? Totally unimportant. All essential passegngers and missions, please step forward. We’re heading out without all that stuff back there.”
I refocused my creative life (I’m a playwright and teaching artist) and I headed back into education, which was a love of mine.
I’ve been walking a road back to God for a few years now. I stopped off in Buddhism, which felt sane and essentially about goodness and awareness. I love the language of Buddhism, the simplicity of the message. I love Buddhism’s awareness and reverence for the place suffering holds in our life. And I love how uninvolved Buddhism has been in politics (particularly gay politics, which affects me directly.) It kept me sane through cancer and my surgery to remove it. And it’s served as a nice resting place in the years since being cancer-free. But it wasn’t quite a fit. And I sucked at meditation. Deeply.
Then a friend offered me a book suggestion a few months ago: Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Pastrix.” I postponed picking it up until I could grab it on Audible (I have commutes. Books are feel more productive than the new Taylor Swift album.) I devoured it. It resonated with me. Especially a message like this:
God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us. We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love, and we only try to live in response to the gift. No one is climbing the spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different from spiritual self-improvement. We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time. The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority. The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.
So, today I went to church.
I found a church very near my home in Willington, CT. Storrs Congregational, a UCC church. It had the bare bones of what I was looking for: Liturgy, check! LGBT-friendly, check! Not-too-early service, check!
And I had a moment I’ve had throughout my life, in a variety of situations. I used to call it “the Universe tapping my shoulder” moment. It was the moment where the lining up of circumstance is just too neat, too tidy. It’s the kind of moment that feels like it’s been crafted by a dramatist. And you get the feeling, in your gut, that “the Universe” is giving this to you as an acknowledgement of your being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
Why didn’t I realize before that “the Universe” has been God speaking?
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:1-12
Ten years away from any kind of church experience, and this was the message. God belongs to everyone. He particularly belongs to the people we don’t think he belongs to: the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted.
Sitting in my pew, my eyes teared up a little. It felt a bit like God speaking directly to me. “Hey. Welcome back. This belongs to you, too.”
It’s a powerful thing for a 38-year old gay man from Louisiana to hear and feel as true. At 18, the idea of even publically acknowledging my gayness was terrifying. There was such a strong message that “men like me” weren’t welcome in the church. Anywhere, really. God, I thought, belonged to the good.
But those messages (and we’re still saddled with them in some parts of the country, aren’t we? Definitely in the world at large.) are the messages of people. Misguided and imperfect people. It’s not God’s message. God’s message comes from a table where there is a seat for every one of us.
It’s nice to be back at the table.