Tuesday, April 29, 2014

When Way Opens: Having the Faith to Say “Yes” to the Movement of the Spirit

ESR student Katie Heape delivered the following message during ESR Worship on April 24, 2014:

            Good morning F(f)riends. It is such a joy to be speaking today in Worship.  As I have been thinking about what I would speak on today, I have been reflecting a great deal on these past two years at ESR.  What a blessing this experience has been and continues to be for me.   I am quite humbled and moved when I look around the room at all these faces, all of you who have been such a blessing in my life.  I cannot thank you enough for being such an important part of my spiritual journey.  As I look back on my life, I can see how Spirit has been moving, how I have been led from place to place, person to person, experience to experience to get me to this place.  I would like to share with you some of the road upon which I have traveled.
            I played alone for hours in the late evening under the illuminated carport, lost in the freedom of play, exploration and pure joy.  Within this place, I could go anywhere I pleased with no worries, no fears and no limits to where my imagination could take me.  As I leaned my scrawny six-year-old body against one of the posts holding up the roof of the carport, I looked out at the vastly beautiful deep black star-filled sky above the cornfield next door.  As I got lost in the breathtaking swirls of vivid dancing stars, I felt as though only the sky and I existed and the notion of time had completely vanished.  And then a sweet stillness came over my entire being.  I began to sing improvisational hymns into the mystery of the great beyond as the peace of the Spirit warmly embraced my soul.  I met my Creator face to face and in that moment, I fell in love with the limitless mystery of God.  That bliss, that stillness and that peace I would seek and not find for another twenty years.

            Over the next several years, the institutionalized church became something which I wanted no part of.  I had seen the ugly undersides of Christianity and I began to question God.  When my sister told me she had become an atheist, the little bit of faith I had left dissipated.  I had lost hope in ever finding the God that I had seen in the stars.  Maybe, that hadn't even been real at all, I thought.
            In 2010, I graduated college with a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Interior Design.  After graduation, my goal was to move to Chicago and work as an Interior Designer in the big city.  All my thought was bent on achieving this dream but I had to stay in Cincinnati one more year and work to save some money before I could make the move.  No one was hiring interior designers in Cincinnati at the time so I took a good paying administrative position.  “Only one year”, I told myself, “and then my life really begins.”  In my pursuit towards becoming a big city interior designer as soon as possible, I looked for an additional part time job for extra income.  My friend Allison told me of an open administrative position at her Quaker Meeting, Cincinnati Friends.  My skin crawled at the idea of working for the institutionalized church which by this time I had come to severely distrust, but I decided to interview so that I could get to Chicago that much faster. 
            During the interview, I was very uncomfortable.  I felt as though I had nothing in common with these church goers.  My walls were sky high as I tried to be on my best behavior around people who I felt were probably much better people than I was.  These were good people.  I did not belong here, I thought.  At the end of the interview, they posed a concern that in the past their office assistants had also been attenders of the meeting and due to confidentiality reasons they were happy to find someone outside of their Meeting's circle.  I laughed at this as I told them that they would never have to worry about me attending the Meeting.  I was done with church!  I was done with God!
            I began working at Cincinnati Friends Meeting in June 2011.  During the first week of that job, I could not help but notice how well suited the minister, Donne Hayden, was for her position there.  She reached out to the people of her congregation and would talk with them and visit with them as though she had all the time in the world.  She LOVED them and they LOVED her.  This struck me hard because this completely contradicted the hypocrisy of the church that I had witnessed for so long.  My heart slowly began to open to the possibility that maybe there is a loving God.  As time went on, Donne and I became very close.
            My second encounter with God occurred when I was 26.  In my full-time position, I had been working for a man who treated his employees very poorly and after a year of working with him, I had lost all desire to stay.  As the environment in the office became more and more hostile, I prayed and prayed that I might be able to leave.  Finally the day came that I quit my job.  As my boss was yelling at me for the last time, I felt as though I was being lifted out of my office chair and out of the front door.  I walked out elated.  I drove home to an empty house and I sat down reflecting on the almost out of body experience I had just had.  I took a seat on the couch and began to pray.  “Why God?  Why?  Why have you helped me?  Why?  What is this all for?  Why have you done this for me?  Why?  Why?”  With hands in the air, I tried to understand why a God would choose to help me.   “Why me?  Why am I important?  Why are you God?  What is the point of all this?”  As I sat there in prayer asking my very honest questions, I began to see a figure clothed in a white robe.  As I looked closer I could see that it was Jesus.  I had never been a believer in Jesus so even in this vision I looked for God who was there but in the background somehow.  Then Jesus in his sweetness and light reached out his hands and radiant beams of light started to pour out from them.  They were beams of love pouring out to me and then, they spread out into the whole world.  It was so beautiful and overwhelming this great love for every single being.  As I sat there sobbing and overtaken by what I had just seen, I immediately realized why God cared about me.  The answer was simple, LOVE.  I had finally come home to love.
            From that moment, all of my plans, my goals, my desires were seemingly unimportant.  I felt that my life was no longer my own, that I had released all of my fears to my loving Creator who I trusted would guide me to where I needed to go.  I no longer cared about going to Chicago and becoming a big city interior designer.  I knew in an instant that God had bigger plans for me than I could ever imagine for myself.  I began to regularly attend the Meeting at Cincinnati Friends.  

As Donne and I talked over those next months, I could feel a leading towards ministry rising in me.  I applied at ESR and was accepted.  Although I was incredibly excited about the opportunity to come to seminary, I was so scared to leave my home, my family, my Meeting that I had come so quickly to love.  I prayed and prayed that my fears would not overcome me.  One day, when I was leaving for work at the Meetinghouse, I had picked up a CD by Sara Groves called “Conversations.”  I had several CD's by her but this one I had not heard yet so I picked it up to listen to in the car on my drive to work.  As I was driving and searching through the tracks, I landed on a song called “Painting Pictures of Egypt.”  Interesting title, I thought.  As I began to listen to the words, my heart stopped.  It was as though she wrote the song for me for this very moment when I needed them the most.

I don't want to leave here, I don't want to stay. It feels like pinching to me either way. And the places I long for the most are the places where I've been. They are calling out to me like a long lost friend.  And the place I was wasn't perfect but I had found a way to live.  And it wasn't milk or honey
but then neither is this.  I've been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacks.  The future feels so hard and I want to go back.  But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned.  Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned.  The past is so tangible, I know it by heart.  Familiar things are never easy go discard.  I was dying for some freedom, but now I hesitate to go.  I am caught between the Promise and the things I know.

I felt God smiling at me and loving me with all my fear and all my doubts.  I would be OK, I have God's love and support.
            The decision to come to seminary is the best decision I have ever made.  I am learning so much here and I am so thankful that I said “Yes” to God.  As I continue to say “Yes” to God, I continue to see my world expand beyond my understanding.  Each time Way Opens and I step through the door, I come back to the child under the carport admiring the boundless mysteries of God.  I cannot possibly count all the many blessings that have come from the moments when I have stepped out in faith and surrendered to the One who Loves each and every one of us.  God has a plan bigger and better than the plan we have for ourselves.

            As each of us continues on our journey in faith, as we wrap up this year of seminary, as some of us may be leaving for new spirit-filled adventures, may we always remember how much God loves us.  May we always hold on to the faith that God will support us in our ministry and may we always remember to trust that God's plan is perfect, boundless, mysterious and so worth taking the leap for.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Reconciling My Faith With Being Gay

ESR student Justimore Musombi - originally from Kenya - delivered the following message in ESR Worship on March 27, 2014. 

            I grew up in a King James Bible believing Episcopal church. My step-mother was a mama Dorcas in my home church and a district chair lady of women. I used to go with her to church--not often, but once in a while. Sermons on hell and salvation raised a lot of questions in my young mind. At age 14, my second year in high school, in response to my spiritual questions, our school chaplain led me to trust in Jesus as my savior and I also become a convinced Quaker.

            Knowing that God loved me and had made me his child through faith in his blood was a life-changing experience, even at such a young stage. Being gay is not something to be embraced in my culture, it is something to be ashamed of. For a gay Quaker teenager, there was literally no one to talk to who would understand. And I had no computer or internet to Google for answers.  Not even a simple book that was positive about being gay would ever find its way into our school library or into our home. I knew that the Bible’s moral framework was not even positive about gay relationships. I was taught that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

            Back then, it never occurred to me that books positive towards gay people even existed or that many Christians have discovered that the Bible is affirming and positive towards gay people. It also never occurred to me that there were other gay people in the world or even that a church can be welcoming and affirming and that a gay person can be nominated to any church position or even be a priest. Even though I was saved and had the assurance of eternal salvation, I believed I was all alone and I felt that God hated me for being gay and that I would go to hell.

            Based on my own context, many people in my culture are still living in the days of ignorance. All people are victims of blind, unreasoned fear and hatred of homosexuality that has been passed down generation after generation without much thought and almost no careful historical, cultural, or linguistic study of the ancient biblical records. Up to date, people still don't know the difference between sexual preference and sexual orientation. Personally, I used to think that homosexuals were perverted heterosexuals resulting as a mental illness, people who, for some reason, chose to have sex with people of the same sex. I didn't know that homosexuality is mysteriously imprinted with the need for same-sex intimacy and affiliation in our mother's wombs, and that however much we try to avoid it, our sexuality, like heterosexuality, is a permanent condition.

            In my culture, people don't understand the real nature of homosexuality; they fear the rumors that they could be recruited into homosexuals. People have often said that homosexuals are abused children, and that homosexuality is a mental illness. That homosexuals shouldn't be hired to work in public offices, and that they are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. And that if homosexuals could commit their lives to Christ and have a heterosexual marriage and family, they could escape this terrible sin.

            The isolation, guilt, and loneliness I experienced before my coming out were devastating. Standing it brought years of tears and tons of turmoil as I struggled to integrate Christian faith and sexuality. In high school and college, I was in the closet and in a nightmare. To survive, I pushed the gay stuff to the back of my mind and focused on learning. I wanted to be a priest. Maybe then God would allow me to go to heaven. Strangely enough, alone with my secrets, no one knew my suffering, not even my close relatives and friends. Coming to ESR and hearing people's public confessions about their sexual orientations was like leap of faith to me, but still I wasn't ready to open up and confess my sexual orientation. One day my friend Brent Walsh asked me whether I was gay or not. Quickly I denied it, but he kept pushing and told me that it is okay to be gay and no one is going to judge me and that God still loves me just as I am.

            Meeting gay students at ESR and going to LifeJourney Church re-started my quest to discover for myself what the Bible really says about homosexuality. I think my coming out journey actually began here. Years ago, I was angry at God. Why, I wondered, hadn't anyone ever told me that being gay was okay and that I could partner with  a wonderful gay Christian man for life? Witnessing gay relationships at LifeJourney Church was the backbone of accepting myself and gaining that confidence to say “Yes, I am gay and I believe God loves me just as I am.”  This assurance gave me the excitement to share my coming out story with my close friends back home. However, some of them and family had already heard my story through LifeJourney Church’s website that contained the news bulletin about my coming out story. The church had my story on a weekly bulletin to help me find a car that would enable me to go to Indianapolis every Sunday to join other members for church worship. The link of this article was forwarded to my home church and my family members with a friend over here in the States who knew me and with whom I had shared my story, trusting that he would keep it private and confidential.

            Someone forwarded the article to my family, friends, and church, and they became angry at me. They called me abusing me and wrote me terrifying and threatening e-mails that scared me to death. Depression lapped my soul like waves assaulting an endless beach. I experienced intense feelings of loss, rejection, loneliness, feeling unworthy and unwanted. These feelings relentlessly filled my heart to the point where I thought of taking my own life; maybe it would help to reduce the pain.

            Even though I had graduated from a bible college, had been in the ministry for 5 years, and had led many souls to Christ, still I was scared to death and afraid of my life and destiny because of these horrifying e-mails and phone calls I received on daily basis from my home country. One day while I was praying, the spirit of the Lord led me to read Matthew 15:21-28.
            My heart breaks and I am left without the ability to understand hatred and violence by or between human beings. My heart breaks when someone is denied a spiritual home. We are all born into this world worthy of all the love and opportunity our miraculous universe has to offer. Love is not love without a basic respect for human dignity and acceptance of who we are.
            In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly taught those around him to love their neighbors and even to love their enemies. This is a tough thing to do. Jesus knew this, and even He was not always good at it. He held prejudices like the rest of us, and learned along the way to be more affirming of people. In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus travels northwest of the sea of Galilee. One day while walking, a local woman approached him and his disciples. The woman was a Canaanite; historically, Canaanites were the pagan enemies of the Israelites. She came to them actually shouting and asking Jesus to show mercy and to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.

            At first, Jesus didn't answer. He didn't even acknowledge her. He just kept walking. Then his disciples advised him to just send her away, that she was too bothersome with her shouting. So Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24).
Whoa! Jesus basically said, “Hey lady, I am only here to help God's chosen people, and you aren't one of them. You are from the wrong side of the track.”
She wouldn't give up. She knelt in front of him and said very simple words, “ Lord, help me.” Still Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”(v.25-26).
            Whoa! Again Jesus compared her to a dog and refused to give her what was reserved for others. Jesus both metaphorically and literally dehumanized this woman to her face because of who she was. This is just the way my family and friends had linked me to a mentally ill person who is not supposed to eat dinner with healthy people. She still would not give up. At this point, she had nothing to lose and talked back to Jesus: “Yes Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table” (v.27).
Not only had Jesus dehumanized her, he had denied her very existence by not even affording her the basic consideration one allows a dog. This finally got to Jesus. It was an in-your-face wake-up call, and he realized what he had done. He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v 28). With that, her daughter was healed. Jesus finally afforded her the worth and dignity he knew, and had even taught before, that every person deserved. This dignity and worth allowed her to be herself through her faith.
            Coming across such passages in the Bible gave me clarity of my struggles to reconcile my faith and my sexuality. I began to read tougher passages in the Bible that people slapped me with on my face. I couldn't read passages like Lev.18: 22, 20: 13; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:20; and many others that talk about homosexuality. I now clearly understand that the Bible does not say what I'd been told it says. The scriptures which are alleged to talk about homosexuality came alive to me as I read them in the context God intended. The peace of my coming out journey has rapidly accelerated. The Bible is my friend, not my enemy. I have now changed my position about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality.

            I now hold the truth that heterosexuals, young or old, can't be recruited into homosexuality. I remember, while I was young, that I was abused sexually by my close friend. This didn't contribute to my sexual orientation. And homosexuals are neither promiscuous;  they are as capable of controlling their sexual needs just as are their heterosexual colleagues. I am also convinced that homosexuality cannot be healed by God or by counseling therapy. And homosexuals who enter into heterosexual marriage to cure their homosexuality are more likely to cause terrible suffering and inevitable grief for their partners and for themselves as well.
            I believe further that sexuality, call it homosexual or heterosexual, is a permanent part of the mystery of creation; that each of us, gay and non-gay alike, is called by our creator to accept our sexual orientation as a gift and that we are called to exercise that gift with integrity, creativity, and responsibility. I know all this now, but I didn't know it then. I used to think that homosexuality was evil and that practicing homosexuals were condemned by their lust to misery, disease, and death. I was convinced that if I gave in to the evil spirit, my life would be ruined, my family would be destroyed, my vocation would be lost, my spiritual journey would be derailed forever, and my soul would be condemned to an eternity in hell. I just piled up more guilt, prayed daily that God would heal me, and tried to live a productive life in spite of the growing fear and frustration that I carried for many years in my life.
            Homosexuality is not something you change or heal or overcome. After fasting and praying for many years for God to change me to be the best pastor, husband, father, and praise and worship leader in my church, it was becoming obvious that there was nothing I could accomplish that would replace or end my constant longing to be in a long-term, loving relationship with another man. What I can only say is this: May God bless my life, my ministry, and my future life. Amen!