Sunday, December 28, 2014

Act Two, Scene Six - “Finding My Way”

This post is part of my on-going story that I have been telling through this blog.  If you are just coming here for the first time or if you need to catch up, you can catch the earlier parts of the story in Setting the Stage or Act One.  See the navigation panel to the right labeled My Story.  I hope that my sharing of my story is helpful, encouraging, informative, or at least entertaining for you.  Please feel free to comment or contact me at the e-mail address below.  Thanks!

"Finding My Way"

Defining for myself what my life would look like as an ex-gay was not an easy task.  I didn’t really have any role models to look to, and it’s not like I could ask anyone for advice.  The “gag order” that Pastor Rob had placed on me kept me from talking to anyone, at least initially.  It was difficult to make genuine connections with people when something that was so core to who I was and what was driving me to Christianity in the first place had to be kept veiled.  Eventually, I connected with a couple of younger guys, Brent and Anthony, in the church.  They seemed to take their faith a bit more seriously than a lot of the other people at the church, and I was drawn to that. It took me a while to feel safe to do so, but I eventually shared my struggle with them.

Both Brent and Anthony were very understanding when I shared my story with them.  They saw homosexuality as a form of demonic attack, and I was very comfortable with that.  I didn’t necessarily like the idea of being stalked by a demon, but I was comforted by this way of thinking that externalized my problem and made it “not my fault.”  

Anthony and Brent attended a Bible study on Saturday nights.  It resembled more of a house church than anything else.  I began going with them.  I was nervous at first.  Some people had cautioned me about small gatherings like this in people’s homes.  There was the fear of the lack of the kind of accountability that comes from a larger church setting, and there was also fear that listening to a multitude of people who placed themselves in the role of spiritual leader would lead to confusion.  Through these meetings, I encountered a number of young people, all of whom seemed to take their relationship with God very seriously.  These were young people who were giving up their Saturday evening to praise, worship, and learn about God.  How could this be a bad thing?

When Pastor Rob and others in leadership at New Promise found out that I was attending these outside Bible studies, they were very concerned.  I was talked to about it.  I was troubling for them.  In their eyes, I was a new “baby Christian.”  They were concerned that I might be getting fed things that were different than what I would be taught by them.  This belief that there is a “right” way to view or interpret the Bible and a fear of anyone who teaches things differently from that individual’s or group’s viewpoint is prevalent in conservative evangelical Christianity.

As I look back on it now, the views of those in the Bible study group and the views of those in leadership at New Promise were really very similar at the time.  Other individuals who participated in the group have, like me, moved on to a less dogmatic understanding of Christianity.  In fact, there are a handful of people that I met through that group that I am still friends with today. 

This act of rebellion, of stepping outside the “borders” of the community of New Promise, would mark me in a way.  It’s a mark that would stay with me throughout my time with the church.  Even when I was heavily involved and very close to the church’s inner circle, there always seemed to be this air of suspicion that I could or would be led astray by the teachings of others.  I realize that it was born out of a sincere effort to protect me, but, looking back, it seems very cultish and controlling. 

- Culbs

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tips for Surviving the Holidays

The holidays can be a difficult time for members of the LGBTQ community. These tips from Queer Theology provide some wise advice for anyone who finds themselves having a difficult time navigating through the holiday season.

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Husband's Not Gay!

I know that this program produced by TLC is drawing, and will continue to draw, a great deal of fire from the LGBTQ community.  Having spent years living as an ex-gay and struggling in my own journey to self-acceptance, it is difficult for me to see these men as anything other than pilgrims on their own journey.  My only hope for them is that they would be able to live lives in which they feel whole and fulfilled.  The voices that spoke loudest to me on my own journey were those that said that they supported me and accepted me no matter what.  I wish these men well as they continue down their own paths.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sometimes, in Order to Find Your Voice, You Have to Shut Up

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted.  At first, the silence began because of the demands of balancing school, work, and just everyday life.  I also realized that I was at a point in my story where I realized that I was going to have to choose whether or not to vilify those voices from my old church that told me that I could change my sexuality.  My other option would be to gloss over the whole thing and try to avoid pointing fingers at all.  Neither of those extremes sat well with me in my heart.  I neither see those individuals as villains, nor do I see them as being completely without responsibility for the messages that they put out into the world.

Over the past few months, I have wrestled with this issue of how to depict these people who were (and, to be honest, are) so very dear to me.  I also realize now, through the amazing gift of hindsight, that, sometimes, in order to find your voice, the most important thing you can do is shut up.  One thing that happened over the course of the past few months is that I re-encountered the voice of another that those from my conservative evangelical days would also have labeled a “wayward soul” or a “prodigal” just as they would me, Jennifer Knapp.

Jennifer Knapp was a contemporary Christian music artist who was just rising to fame as I was taking my first steps into the evangelical world.  Early in her career, she came to Zanesville, my hometown, and did a show.  I actually worked her merch table at that show.  I have never really heard about her before that, but there was so much that was new being thrust at me then.  Some friends who arranged for me to work her table so that I could get into the concert for free assured me that she was going to be a bright star in the contemporary Christian world, and she was.  Then, at the very pinnacle of her career, as suddenly as she had arrived on the scene, she was gone.

Years later, she would emerge from seclusion, with her faith intact, and reveal that she was a lesbian.  Of course, many of her previous fans and supporters deserted her.  I re-discovered her voice through her new memoir, Facing The Music. Reading her book was very cathartic to me.  We were both part of this massive contemporary Christian world.  Of course, we occupied very different levels of it, but many of the experiences were very similar.  There were many times I had to pause while reading it because something experience of phrase that she shared very well could have come from my own lips.

It was in Jennifer’s treatment of those who chose not to support her decision to be herself that I found the most profound and endearing.  Of course her initial feelings toward them were of anger and of defensiveness, but, ultimately, she could only feel pity for them.  That resonated with me.  When I walked away from conservative Christianity, I walked away from, what felt like at the time, was everything.  That church had become far more than a place of worship to me.  Everything I did socially, I did with people from that church.  If I needed to order flowers, there was a florist who went to the church.  If I had a banking need, I went and saw someone at a local bank who attended the church.  My hair was cut by someone from the church.  Had I ever had a need arise to build a home, there were general contractors at the church.  There were people to support my business and investing needs.  In retrospect, it all seems very closed and unhealthy, but, at the time, these people, this church family, were my everything. 

Pastor Rob and his family were like a family to me.  In fact, to this day, the holiday season is still difficult for me at times because so many of holiday traditions during my 13 years at New Promise were tied in with theirs.  I would have my time with my family each holiday, and, then, I would leave, and go to their house to celebrate with them.  It wasn’t until years after I left that my own therapist would point out to me the unresolved feelings of loss and grief that I still carry from having left that community.  I have done some work on working through that, but, to a certain extent, I want to continue to be aware of that sense of loss.  On the other hand, now that I have separated from them, it has given me a much greater appreciation for my own family, and I regret having neglected those relationships as much as I did during the New Promise years.

Still, it is my hope and desire that anyone reading the words that appear on this blog know that it is not my intent or desire to paint anyone as a victim.  The folks at New Promise did not seek me out, and they did not come into the closet looking for me.  I went to them, and I asked them to help me shed a part of myself that, at the time, I did not want.  In many ways, my journey with them was self-chosen and self-directed.  I think that is one of the primary reasons that I do not feel a great deal of bitterness towards them or towards my time there.  I know that their actions and words towards me were out of nothing other than a desire to help me when I asked for it and to show me love in the only way that they know how.

Now, about 5 years after my departure from New Promise, I do not feel that I walked away to find myself with an inferior experience of Christianity, of God, or of human spirituality.  If anything, I have been able to open myself up to love in ways that I never would have felt the freedom to do so before.  I pray, someday, that those who I left behind will be able to give themselves permission to do the same.  My experiences have only introduced me to a God that is much bigger, wider, and more open than I ever could have conceived of during those years at New Promise. 

~ Culbs

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Divine Appointment?

First, I apologize that it has been so long since I posted. Seminary is back in full-swing for me, and focusing on school work, both inside and outside of class, is taking up a significant amount of my time. Still, I don’t want the circumstances of life to take away from writing which is a much needed creative outlet for me, and I hope that you, the reader, find some benefit from me doing it as well.

My original plan was to finish up my personal story over the summer and then be able to share my reflections of being a gay seminary student with you. Of course, I’m only halfway through my story, but I don’t want these few years of me being in seminary to slip away without putting my reflections into writing, both for my own benefit to reflect on later and, again, hopefully, some of my thoughts will provoke thought in or be of benefit to others.

One thing that seminary has, thankfully, forced me to confront is what is my perspective on God is and how to I allow that to influence my day-to-day life.  This pondering of what and who is God is very interesting for me. After having spent 13-years in a very conservative church where I felt that I had a very concrete image of God, it is very different and very freeing to find myself at a point where my understanding of God is far more ambiguous.  I find comfort in experiencing God in a way that doesn’t place limiting definitions and parameters on the scope of what such a Being is or how God would think or behave.

I know that no single blog entry, or even an infinite number of entries, would allow me to describe my experience of the divine, but I hope that by sharing some of my thoughts and daily experiences, I can give some insight into what it is to be me.  I also hope that this leads to some dialog where we can discuss and compare our experiences of God.  As always, I welcome comments.  While this blog was initially set up to only allow registered users to leave comments, it should be open for anyone to post now.  Please let me know via e-mail if you have issues or difficulty in doing so.

Let me share a small part of my day with you.  I am in Cincinnati this weekend.  The GLBTQ Center of Greater Cincinnati is hosting a Pride Night at King’s Island this evening, and I’m down here to attend that and catch up with some friends here in Cinci.  My former pastor and his partner of 27 years live here, and I’m staying with them as their guest for a long weekend away.

Earlier today, while my hosts were at work, I decided to wander down the street to get something for lunch.  I had a sandwich at a Bruegger’s Bagels and then head to the Starbucks next door for coffee.  As I enjoyed my turkey club and later my salted caramel mocha, I decided to try to get through some of the textbook reading that I needed to do for next week.  The material that I was reading today focused on existentialist approaches to counseling.  So, I have in my mind these ponderings of what it is to “be,” what it is to be in relationship with others, and what significance, if any, can I ascribe to any of that in terms of whether or not there is an actual plan or purpose in that “being.”

About 3:00, I decided that I should head back to the home of my hosts as I knew they would be coming home about 4:00, and I would be having dinner with them before my evening at King’s Island.  As I walked to my car, I noted a Great Clips was also in the shopping center.  I’d been meaning to get a haircut for the past few days at home in Columbus, but I just hadn’t.  I hesitated in the parking lot trying to decide whether to go in or not.  I figured there would be a wait and who knew how long that would take, but I know how crazy my hair looks after riding a rolling coaster when my hair is too long.  I decided I’d just better go ahead and do it.  I locked my backpack and computer bag in the car and walked inside.

As I approached the Great Clips, my thoughts turned to the small talk that I knew would take place as my hair was being cut.  I am in Cincinnati.  I knew that I might be asked what brought me to town.  Cincinnati is, historically, a very conservative town, and, while great strides have been made in the last few years, it is still a town where I might be wise to be cautious about being too overt in terms of the activities that brought me too town this weekend.  Still, I don’t live here.  I knew that I would probably never see the person who cut my hair again.  I felt that I should let them know who I am in hopes that it sparks thought and helps open their eyes for the sake of others in the LGBTQ community who do live here.  This was my state of mind walking through the door.

When I walked in, there was only one customer getting their hair cut.  It was evident that my wait would not be long.  One of the employees was on the phone when I walked in.  She finished her call and registered my in the system before taking me back to the chair.

She did ask me why I was in town.  I explained that I was in town for an event at King’s Island that night.  I figured that we would get to follow up questions about the nature of the event  or she could look it up later if she wanted to.  We never got to that.  As she put the cape on me to cut my hair, she asked me if it was too tight.  It was pretty snug, but I told her I was fine.  She made a comment about them having larger ones if I wanted her to get some since my neck was so thick.  Again, I told her I was fine, but that led us into a discussion of my ridiculously large 32-inch neck which makes wearing dress shirts and ties quite an issue. 

She explained to me that her husband also has a thick neck and had just been diagnosed with sleep apnea and he was struggling with that and adapting to using a C-PAP.  Having been diagnosed with sleep apnea a few years ago and using a C-PAP machine regularly now, I shared with her that it had been a struggle with me at first too.  We continued to share back and forth about the similarities and differences between his situation and mine.  She shared with me that his sleep deprivation has gotten so bad that he was dealing with feelings of depression because of it.  I encouraged her to share my story with him in hopes that it would encourage him to stick with it so that he can see the benefits of using the machine.  She thanked me for sharing my experience with her, and I could tell that her words were genuine.

As I walked to my car a second time, I found myself contemplating myself, that woman, her husband, and the God that, in some way, I believe binds us together.  Was my spontaneous decision to get a haircut a divine appointment to speak to someone who needed to hear words of encouragement?  Was it merely a coincidence?  Was my perception of the event influenced by the readings on existential counseling techniques?  Having come out of a religious school of though that ascribes spiritual significance to every single thing that happens, I am always about what I choose to perceive as divine intervention in the lives of men, but I am comforted by the notion of God directing me to be a source of comfort and encouragement to someone who needed it.  Isn’t that why I chose to pursue a counseling degree at a seminary to begin with? 

~ Culbs

© Joshua Culbertson 2014