Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thankful for the Journey

            On June 21, 1996, I timidly but with determination made my way to the front of a small non-denominational church in my hometown of Zanesville, Ohio.  I was hungry to find hope and meaning for my life.  I had begun attending the church a month before, and I wanted to be a part of this community where I felt that I had found a family.  The details are still etched in my mind as I slid from the center of the pew in which I was sitting, and another young man named Terry slid his legs to the side to let me pass.  This was a big moment for me, but I wasn’t sure it would be noticed by anyone else.  There were a lot of people at the altar already.  In churches like this, it isn’t uncommon for those who have already made commitments to their faith to come forward to make public their repentance or desire to connect with God.  There were steps leading up to the platform on either side of the sanctuary.  I sat on right side of the room facing the stage along with a lot of the other youth and young adults.  I knelt in front of the steps closest to me but just to the right of center.  A few seconds passed.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  I knew that there was a prayer I needed to say, but what if I said it wrong?  I strongly desired to connect with God, and I felt God calling me.  I didn’t want to mess this up by not doing it right.  Then, I heard the pastor’s voice speaking softly into his microphone, “ Lenny, talk to Josh.  Talk to Josh.”  As Lenny, who was the youth pastor at the time, led me through the sinner’s prayer, I felt the nervousness leave me and the warm embrace of God fill me.

            As I rose from the altar, the enormity of what had just happened began to sink in.  I had just gotten saved.  I was born again.  Now, that is not the way in which I would describe my faith relationship today.  Today, I would tell you that I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus.  That is no disrespect to those who use “saved” or “born again” language, but, to me, being “born again” was far more about the hereafter and the promise of a life after death while I consider being a follower of the teachings of Jesus to be more about making a difference in and through the life and the world that we have now.  I want you to understand where my mind was and what an enormous new world that I felt had just been opened up to me.

            Within another month or so, I had shared with some at the church about what I considered, at the time, to be my real struggle.  I was gay, and I didn’t want to be.  I knew that it went against God’s plan and that I was doomed to hell if I couldn’t get control over it and defeat it.  Anyone that I spoke to was very encouraging and supportive.  There had been a man who attended the church before me.  His name was Denny.  He identified as gay, but I was told that he had conquered his desires and turned away from homosexuality.  Unfortunately, he had passed away from complications related to HIV, and I never had the opportunity to meet him.  Still, his story became a source of hope to me.  When I would fall short in terms of my thought-life or succumbed to looking lustfully upon another man, I would feel that I had not only disappointed God but that I had disappointed Denny.

After I had been at the church for several months, some friends asked me if I wanted to go to a Christian concert.  There were two or three musical acts, but I honestly don’t remember who all was playing.  I believe the headliner might have been Audio Adrenaline, but I might be mixing that up with other experiences as I would end up going to many shows of this nature of the coming years.  The one performer that I do remember was a newcomer to the contemporary Christian music scene, but she was a star on the rise.  One of the organizers for the show was looking for volunteers to work the merchandise (merch) tables at the show, and my friends got me one of the volunteer slots.  I didn’t make much money at the time, and this was a way for me to get into the show without having to buy a ticket.  I was assigned the task of working the table for this new artist who was on her meteoric rise to fame.  Her name was Jennifer Knapp. 

It was the first time I’d ever heard the name, Jennifer Knapp.  I didn’t even get to meet her that night as she had to be rushed off to another show right after finishing this one.  There was a barrier separating the merch tables from the concert floor.  I could hear the music, but, in order to see the stage, I had to stretch to see over the barrier.  I caught a few glimpses of her, but I remember really liking her.  She was so simple.  It was just her and her guitar, and her lyrics seemed to have more depth and felt more personal than many of the other Christian artists I had heard.  As the years rolled on, I would end up owning a few of her CD’s mixed in with the others, but I didn’t really feel a special or personal connection to her music.  I did kick myself occasionally for not trying harder to meet her that night before she climbed her way to the pinnacle of Contemporary Christian Music.

Then, a few years ago, in 2009, I found myself in a crisis of faith.  After having spent the last thirteen years asking God to heal me of my homosexuality, my journey had led me to a point that I realized that one of two things had to be true:  God either was not fixing me because God was incapable of doing so (a conclusion that I could not make work within my personal theology) or God was not fixing me because I was not broken.  I did not know if it was possible for me to continue as a Christian, or as a person of faith of any kind, while also claiming my identity as a gay man, but I knew that I could not continue the inauthenticity of the life I had been living any longer.

In 2010, I would attend my first Pride parade in Columbus Ohio.  I was taken aback by the number of churches marching in the parade, and a larger number of them were United Methodist Churches.  That began my journey towards connecting with the Reconciling Ministries Network and, eventually, becoming a member of a reconciling congregation.

In September of 2009, after having taken a seven-year hiatus from public life, Jennifer Knapp returned to the stage, and, in April of 2010, she announced to the world that she was a lesbian and had been in a committed relationship with another woman for eight years.  I respected her so much for being public about her relationship.  I knew the world that she had risen to stardom in, and I knew that she had just cut herself off from so much of that fan base.  I knew that they would not be able to open themselves up enough to accept her in light of this revelation.  She may very well be putting an end to her second go at a music career before it ever got started, but, having been on my own journey of self-discovery, I knew that, once you realize your own authenticity, you can’t, with any level of personal integrity, go back into a world of self-denial.

My mind went back to that show all those years ago in Zanesville, Ohio.  I was right there, so close to her, separated only by a fabric barrier and a couple of hundred enthusiastic music fans.  I began to ask questions life, “What if I had been able to speak to her back then?” and wondering if we would have been able to spare each other all those years of self denial.  It didn’t take me long to realize how futile it was to ponder such things.  Even if someone else had told me back then that it was okay to be me, I wasn’t ready to hear it.  I wasn’t ready to accept myself.  I would have viewed it as an attack upon my newfound Christian identity and responded with a, “Get thee behind me, satan.”  As much as I wish I could have gotten there more quickly, I needed to go on the journey that has brought me to where I am, and, while I didn’t yet know much about the details of Jennifer’s story, I imagined that she probably needed to as well.

Late last year, when Jennifer’s book, Facing the Music, was published, I eagerly downloaded and read it.  While I am surrounded by so many amazing people to encourage and support me in my faith and my life, I have few who can understand that evangelical chapter of my past.  I was excited to connect, through her book, to someone else who had been a part of that world.  I appreciated the transparency that she brought to her writing.  It put me back in those days so quickly and not in an unhealthy way.  It made me so appreciative of the fact that both she and I as well as so many others have found our way, not only to a place of self-acceptance but to self-embracing and, therefore, to a greater and wider understanding of love and God than we ever could have been open to before.

Jennifer's book, Facing the Music

This past weekend, I was in San Antonio Texas to come together with over seven hundred other progressive United Methodists to discuss the work of making our church more inclusive and bring it more into alignment with the teachings and practices of the historical Jesus.  On Saturday evening, there were two speakers.  One was Frank Schaefer, the amazing courageous United Methodist pastor turned equal rights advocate who was defrocked for performing the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim.  The other was Jennifer Knapp.  Following the banquet, I waited outside the hotel ballroom for her to come out.  I bought another copy of her book and asked her to sign it.  I wanted to say more, but I was a bit star-struck in the moment.  I took a picture with her and walked away, kicking myself for not letting her know more about how much her story and the timing of her coming out had encouraged me on my own journey.

Me and Jennifer Knapp at Gather at the River in San Antonio 

The next morning, I found myself in the hotel lobby when I saw Jennifer rush into the coffee shop at the hotel.  I waited for her to come out, and, when she did, I asked her if I could have a moment.  She graciously said yes, but she let me know that she had a car waiting to take her to Austin.  I walked and talked with her, sharing my story as we moved closer to the door and the waiting car.  Within a few minutes, I was able to share with her about the show in Zanesville, my years living as an ex-gay, the struggle that I had gone through to accept myself as a person faith, and my current journey as a seminarian to become a counselor and help others who find themselves conflicted in the areas of spirituality and sexuality.  I thanked her for sharing her story, and she thanked me for sharing mine with her.  She told me that she plays in Ohio a lot and told me to come see her the next time she is near me.  I told her that I would.  As we parted ways and she headed towards her car, I stood there, inwardly reflecting and smiling to myself.  I had finally had the conversation with her that I needed to have.  Also, I was thankful that we were both there in San Antonio at that moment and that both of our lives had brought us to a point where we were at peace in our faith, our relationships with other, and our lives as a whole.

~ Culbs