Breaking down shame and guilt for Lent

Once again, Broadway breaks from tradition this Lenten season. Instead of the usual giving up of chocolate or alcohol, we’ve asked people to face the shame or guilt in their lives that holds us back from being our full selves. We’ve decorated the church with barbed wire as a solemn reminder of our journey together — wrapped around the pulpit, the ends of the pews, the Communion Table. Wow. Barbed wire! (Hiding Out from God)

To make this more than just a gimmick, we had a powerful First Sunday of Lent. The ministers started off the service asking us to take a blank piece of paper, and think about shame or guilt in our lives that is holding us back…is plaguing our self-image. We wrote or drew that on the piece of paper during a prayerful silence, and then walked to the front of the church and placed it in a box. I call it the God box. Our collective shame and guilt points stay there throughout our Lenten journey, and at the end, the box will be destroyed. Setting aside any overtly Christian symbolism, it’s a pretty powerful exercise to face, accept and walk through things that may still hold me down. And the Spirit moved me to bring forward a clear and present danger…but before I go there, let me tell you how the service went from there.

We had a gospel choir from Grand Rapids, MI visiting – for Calvin College. As people started to walk up the silence transitioned into song. “I Am.” I heard this song the night before at their concert. And as I sat there Sunday morning, having faced the shame still hanging over my life – having been brought to the surface through recent events, including the Christian concert the night before – I started crying…ok, sobbing.

I thought I had dealt with these demons from my past before, and their hold on me had been shattered. But I realized that even today, at 45, with all the self-awareness I muster, there are still some dark clouds over my soul that need work. I was crying partly because of the pain and shame I felt, but also because of the joy I had knowing that the first step is realizing I have a problem…and through awareness comes acceptance, and the chance to overcome the bondage a little more with each step along life’s journey. The joy of freedom, fullness, and life commingled with the pain of past hurts and rejection. Bittersweet.

And that moment gave me hope for this Lenten season like you can’t imagine. So before we go any further, listen to this song. Thank you to Dr. Sawyer and her band of angels, in their blue gospel robes, singing out proudly and loudly. Hmmmm…love me some gospel music.

I’ve taken some liberties to remove some of the overtly Christian parts of his lyrics that don’t fully resonate with me. But his larger message brings me hope and healing. I hope others may find similar comfort by listening beyond the Christian dressing, because of a similar source of our shame as GLBT men and women, rejected by hardcore bible thumping Christians who lack the necessary compassion and acceptance that I’ve found at Broadway. I can’t honestly say I believe the whole doctrine as gospel, but see it as another way of telling the story of our common humanity, our connectedness and our need to find community and connection. So for me, this is a song about those friends around me who have stood by me, seen my wholeness and possibility even when I couldn’t; who held my hand, who listened to my pain, and showed me truth and beauty and possibility.

“In the pain is a plan… How do you do? I am human; now I believe, not who I was, but still not what I shall be. (A friend) found me and gave me a name, things I’ve desired have changed. But inside you’ll see, it’s still broken pieces…deep in me reaches for you (my friend)…though I may fall, you stand by my side. You speak (truth and comfort) and gone is the weight of my mistakes. I am so far from perfect, I thought life is worthless, until you showed me who I am.  Not here by mistake…”

I Am, by Kirk Franklin

So my shame, even today, is about being gay.

Though I know there is nothing to be ashamed of, growing up in a heterosexist world that too often tells me the opposite story, I’ve managed to internalize some of that homophobia.  Four years at college at the hands of an ultra-right wing Christian cult didn’t help: they tried to make me straight. I went thru ex-gay ministries (which don’t work!), and even attended Homosexuals Anonymous – a 12+2 step program to help people overcome their homosexuality, as if it’s on the same level as an addiction to crack cocaine or pornography.  And when I finally “found myself” again at 22, and came out of the closet a second time…I lost all of those “deep Christian friendships” from school, because they couldn’t associate with me anymore.  I even got a handwritten letter from my pastor and friend Ted Jungkuntz, telling me how he “had no other choice” but to turn his back on our friendship, because he couldn’t “hang with me” anymore as a gay man.  I lived with this man, his wife and his family for a year…sang songs after dinner while washing dishes…shared deep, dark secrets…and in the blink of a judging eye, it was all gone.  Phil Armbruster, gone.  John Graves, gone.  Dozens of men I shared community with, and summer households with…vanished.  Paul Dull, the one who probably did the most damage to my psyche as a young, influential college-aged man…turned his back on me.

So, like many gay men, it was YEARS before I could think about entering a house of worship again.  I now know the difference between religion and spirituality – and find wholeness in the latter, because I know in my heart I’m a physical, emotional, intellectual AND spiritual being.  But the pain and shame and brokenness from the former still hangs over my head.  I realized last weekend, as I listened to the stories of faith from the Calvin Gospel Choir, that the dark cloud of shame came over me, expecting the same level of rejection and judgement from this group of “strong, faithful Christians” that I experienced from the Word of God Community and University Christian Outreach.

I realize, of course, that this has now become my own internal prejudice about “Christians,” which I have to be careful of less I lump all people of faith into the same boat as Ted and Phil and Paul.  And even with these men, I realize that until I’m able to forgive them, I let their power hang over me even today.  Damn.  More work to do this Lent.

And, as I’ve already written, some 20 years later, the hatred and rejection of my grandfather still tugs at my heart with sadness.  But again, that’s on him – his weakness and narrow-mindedness.  It doesn’t mean I’m the one who has something to be ashamed of, as a gay man, any more than women or blacks have to feel shame for past civil injustices, supported by the same bible fundamentalism that judges gay and lesbian people today.  In this, we share a common humanity, a common pain…and ultimately, a common victory.

So, since this weekend of revelation when I wrote down “Word of God,” “UCO,” and the pink triangle on my piece of paper…I’ve listened over and over to the song “I am…” as well as one more song from my past, both of which do bring comfort and relief…reminding me that there is freedom from this bondage, as soon as I’m ready to let go.

Thank you to my friend Matt McCoy who introduced me to this song of Blessing…for the first time in a long time, I found a new truth I could believe in about myself, about who I love…and how it’s exactly what God has planned for me.

“Who I love is exactly what God has planned.  Just try to remember, I’m still your baby, your blood, have your eyes, have your smile.  I’m sorry this hurts you, I’m sorry this numbs you.   But I’m not ashamed of this fire I’ve inflamed; I was given this gift to love from heaven’s hands.  Don’t abandon me now for loving another man.  All I ask is in time, you’ll give me your Blessing.”

My grandfather is dead, so it will be hard to ever hear his love, but must choose to forgive him for his actions.  But gladly before my mom died, I felt the fullness of her love.  She went from telling me in the 90s that AIDS was God’s judgment on homosexuals, to writing me a handwritten note after I was diagnosed with HIV+ in 2012, letting me know that she loved me just as I am.   I can cling to this truth, this blessing…and in doing so, loosen the bondage and shame that clearly still has a bit of a hold on my soul.  May I find deeper forgiveness for Pop-Pop, Ted, Phil and others during this Lenten season, because it’s only in letting go that I will find the freedom I know I deserve.

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I see life as full of possibilities and the world full of beautiful people possessing unique and often untapped talents. I’m a learner and connector, seeking ways to leverage the abundance in this world through strong community.

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