How I Lost Myself – Part 1

Dreaming Of A Bigger World

I dreamt of the day I would get to ride the school bus. I was still in pre-school as I watched my three older sisters get picked up and dropped off every week day. I wanted to speed time up so I could ride the big yellow bus with them. I was incredibly curious about the world they were experiencing. I wondered if they were learning how to draw a turkey by tracing their hand too or if they got scratch and sniff stickers at the end of their day. I had so many questions.
IMG_3208I was so excited about riding the school bus that I would have dress rehearsal for it. I would put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. I stood there knowing one day my bus will come and all my questions will be answered.

My first day of kindergarten, I was ecstatic. I was FINALLY going to experience the world I was incredibly curious about with my sisters.

The bus doors opened, I stretched my little right leg up to reach the first tall step. As I hiked my way to the third and final step, I heard the radio sweeper for “Thuuuunder Country 105.5” echo through the yellow, hollow, metal tube – bus number 24. It was the only radio station we were allowed to listen to. I sat in the seat directly behind the bus driver – next to the person who would become my childhood best friend, Craig.

The bus doors slammed shut and our forty minute journey to school, through the backroads of rural Indiana, began.

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Leaving Home

It felt like there should have been a band playing a celebratory song in our driveway as the bus drove off, along with my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. But there was no band and my mom and dad weren’t there to give me an enthusiastic send off. My dad worked third shift as a forklift driver and my mom worked first shift in a welding factory. So, by this time, dad was in the shower getting ready for bed and mom had already been at work for about an hour.

One of my earliest memories on bus 24 was when Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You” played over the radio. I absolutely loved that song. Every time it came on the radio I would come alive. I would sit up on my knees and belt the song out, “Aaaand IiiiiiiiiIIIIIIiiii wiiill always looooove youuuuu.” I would forget and not care where I was. I became enraptured with the song – every time. It felt natural to serenade the entire bus. What I realize now is that my queerness was showing and it made others uncomfortable.

It made Danny, in particular, uncomfortable.

I’ve only seen Danny’s house once. He was picked up before me every morning and dropped off after me on the days he made it to school or wasn’t suspended. The sense I got from Danny, even as a kid, was that he was from a family that was depleted in every way – emotionally, spiritually, financially.

Danny didn’t like my singing. He didn’t like anything about me. However, Danny and his brother, Seth, did like to pick on Craig and me. Craig was smart about it though. He kept to himself and Danny would end up leaving him alone. I was the opposite of Craig. I couldn’t stand how mean and abusive Danny was and I didn’t want him to get away with it. No matter how many times my mom told me, “Let the Lord fight your battles for you, Azariah.” I rarely missed an opportunity to stand up to him. When he would come for me, I would serve it right back to him. Often to the point that Danny would beat me up while reminding me I was nothing more than a faggot. The defiant queer in me was showing and that had to be beaten into submission. There’s nothing more threatening to the false masculinity he was learning at home than a naturally defiant queer like me.

Danny’s bullying slowly chipped away at me though. The last time I worked up the courage to be me, was the day I wore mascara to school. I loved how it accentuated my eyes. As I got out of my seat that morning to exit the bus and begin the school day, I started to feel overwhelmingly nervous. Fear ran wild with thoughts in my mind, “Everyone is going to notice. Danny’s going to beat you up again. Tell the bus driver you’re sick and you need to go home. If I talk to the bus driver, he’ll know I’m IMG_3198wearing mascara and tell my parents.” My blood felt cold. My heart beat was accelerating and the cold feeling was quickly making its way from the center of my chest to my arms and legs causing me to physically shiver in fear. I kept asking myself, “Why did I do this?” It was in that moment I accepted the lie that I had to butch it up and bottle up my queerness if I wanted to survive. I kept my head down as I exited the bus. Once I made it into the school, I quickly made my way to the least busy restroom and washed the mascara off the best I could. I was learning there was no place for my queerness in this world. I also learned mascara doesn’t wash off easily.

I found my closet and I had no plans of leaving any time soon.

I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha

This past weekend was the most amazing weekend of my life. No exaggeration.

Let me tell you why…

One year ago, I was feeling dead inside. My spirit was dry as the desert. My brokenness was growing like an intrusive ivy beyond myself and started to overtake those around me. My shortcomings were casting a shadow over the person I was once proud to be.

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A year ago, I was deep in the dark forest of unhappiness which was caused by no one else but myself. However, while watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, I was inspired to search for a nearby Buddhist monastery. I was hoping my results would yield a solution to my suffering. My Google search listed Deer Park Monastery in the top results. I clicked the link to learn all about Deer Park and its practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was roaming around the website, I learned they were going to have a young adults retreat the following month called, “Wake Up!” I was immediately intrigued and booked my spot for the retreat that same week. That was in April of 2015. I had an incredible time but that weekend was a mere introduction to the practice and healing which I desperately needed.

I chose to return to the same retreat this year. A year later my situation is a little different because I’m no longer in a relationship but I was still trapped in the same dark forest of unhappiness; feeling alone, broken, hurt, useless and lost.

Twenty minutes before I arrived to the retreat last week, I ended an argument with a family member saying I didn’t want to speak or visit for a long time. The conversation brought up a lot of pain and I arrived to the monastery feeling very angry. When I arrived I didn’t want to speak with anyone or really even be there at that point. Shortly after arriving and setting up my tent it was dinner time. I was thankful for the required “Noble Silence” during dinner as I was still fuming from the conversation just a few hours before. That night I went to bed still feeling livid. I couldn’t stop thinking that I will probably not talk to this family member for a very long time.

The next day, after morning meditation, breakfast, and working mediation; I made my way to the monastery’s bookstore. I wanted to buy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ (partly because Oprah said she has it on her nightstand). As I was searching for the book, one of the nuns approached me and pointed to a book on the very top shelf and recommended it for me. When I raised my eyes to read the cover of the book it was titled Anger. Part of me felt caught, embarrassed, offended, but also relieved. Will this book contain a path out of my darkness? I don’t know if it’s a book that she recommends to everyone or if my anger was just that evident. I sheepishly and discreetly purchased the book but secretly couldn’t wait to begin reading it.

I made my way back to my tent and began reading the book right away. Once I started, I wanted to consume the entire book and every line which felt like a healing ointment on a fresh burn. The book was opening my eyes to how my anger is a part of me, it’s my inner child which I need to embrace. My anger is the inner child that I need to invite to sit down and eat with me, climb the mountain with me, invite to watch TV with me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in this book that we need to care for this child because it is a part of us. While reading this book I started to feel resolve with the anger I arrived with that weekend and I began to come out of my shell and socialize with others attending the retreat. Over the next few days I started to make connections with others. I made myself vulnerable and I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging once again. 12321198_10207233633936897_1877970217804756762_n

On Saturday, the last full day of the retreat, there was a Q&A planned. This was our opportunity to ask any question(s) we were dying to ask a monk or nun concerning the practice. It was held in the main meditation hall. More than 100 of us gathered to sit on the floor to ask our questions and hopefully gain answers to our suffering. Some questions inquired about life after death, celibacy, but the question that stood out was about gender roles and is there a place for transgender people in this practice. All the questions were echoes from our caves of pain and suffering. This question, although I didn’t ask it, was one I was wondering about also.

The monk who was tasked with answering the question of gender roles and the place of transgender people within the practice gave an answer which raised some eyebrows, unintentionally evoked the pain which we too often ignore and cover up, yet, at the same time created an opportunity of healing I personally did not expect.

While he gave his answer you could feel the energy of the room shift. Several people got up and walked out feeling rejected again by another spiritual community. It was obvious that his answer did not sit well with the majority of the people in the room. Little did I know, this mishap was going to bring about a healing that me and many of my LGBTQ siblings desperately needed.

Personally, as I sat in the big and open mediation hall listening to his answer, I felt the pain from the messages of my past, “We love you but…”, “You’re welcome here but…”, “You can practice with us but…”. The mediation hall which once felt full of love and joy was suddenly becoming hollow. Having been rejected in the past by my faith community for being gay, I couldn’t help but feel the same despair again. It felt like the spiritual community I was willing to trust again and become vulnerable with was going to keep me locked outside. However, in the midst of all these feelings I invited the children (anger, sadness, despair, and rejection) to sit and breathe with me. Together we breathed and I put the children to bed. I chose to understand that this brother answering the question is not originally from America, English is his fourth language, and comes from a culture that has long ignored confronting LGBTQ issues. Within that context, the answer was a little easier to hear but still not easy. More than likely, it was nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding and poor choice of words. However, the familiar pain it raised was real.

After the Q&A, our day continued as planned.

After lunch, one of my new friends asked if I was going to go to the LGBTQ breakout group. “There’s a LGBTQ breakout group?” I asked. One of the nuns had planned this breakout for those who wanted to express their feelings and thoughts concerning the answer the monk gave about LGBTQ people within the practice. Without hesitation I agreed that I would be there.

Dear god. Am I glad I went.

There we were. A good number of us gathered in the circle garden sharing our stories, pain, and concerns. I shared with the group about how I went through five years of ex-gay exorcisms and am still hurting from the blunt force of rejection from my past faith community and leaders. I expressed that I wanted to trust a spiritual community again but was scared and now I wasn’t sure if I could.

As we approached the end of our sharing, the nun who organized the event shared a story with us.

The sister shared about the time she visited a Christian monastery. While she was there, a priest shared with her the story of how a woman came to him and told him about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Catholic priest. Moved by the story, and wanting to help relieve her suffering, this priest she was confessing to knelt down on his knees and kissed her feet. An act of humility and kindness which helped the woman heal from her pain. After sharing this story, the nun asked if we would allow her to touch the earth for us. Not entirely sure of what that meant or how much it would mean, I nodded in agreement with the group.

The sister, with a shaved head, wearing a long brown robe, took her sandals off, stood up from her chair, walked to the center of the circle and knelt to her knees. She slowly put her face on the ground covered in pine needles and mulch, stretched her arms out before her and she stayed there. Then, the healing began.

As she touched the earth for us, like a film, all the past rejection I received and felt from my faith leaders played in my head. All the hateful messages. The exorcisms. The manipulation. The lies. The spiritual abuse. While she remained faced down on the ground before us, the images I was seeing turned from color and faded to black and white. The messages I was hearing in my head started to become mute. The anger I didn’t even realize was there matured to forgiveness and resolve. The pain faded away. The power of the past died.

She touched the earth for us.

For me.

A leader within my new spiritual community chose to humble herself and care for us instead of ignoring and rejecting us. She chose to be the doctor who saw our suffering and offered a cure, unconditional love and kindness.

Others in the circle began to weep and cry.

This was a holy moment.

As I replay it in my head, it remains a holy moment and one I keep revisiting since it happened.

It gives me hope.

It brings me healing.

It has given me a path out of my dark forest of unhappiness.

This was, hands down, the best weekend of my life. I arrived angry, empty, and dry but I left feeling healed and full.

This is the reason I love Jesus but I follow Buddha.

 

 

 

 

 

Franklin, You’re No Billy Graham

“We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble franklin-and-billy-grahaminto hell because of our pride.” These are the words of Billy Graham documented in the 2009 book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, by Steven P. Miller.

If we could juxtapose these wise words by Billy Graham with the recent words and actions of his son Franklin Graham, we would find what I believe to be two opposing messages. Billy spoke these words in 1953 as organizers were setting up ropes to keep blacks separate from whites during one of his large crusades. Billy spoke these words at a time when our nation was on the edge of advancing social justice in regards to racial equality. Billy spoke these words one year before the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown v. Board of Education.

Now, here we are 61 years later and Billy’s lineage, Franklin, is in the same situation. Our nation is on the edge of advancing social justice in regards to marriage equality. The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule any week now in favor of marriage equality.

Franklin has taken the reigns from his ailing father and one would assume he too would err on the side of justice and equality like his father. Right? Nope. What we’re learning is that Franklin is no Billy Graham.

Instead, Franklin is insistent on keeping the rope up at his crusade. Franklin is insistent that the LGBTQ community remains separated from his community of believers. Franklin is insistent at keeping the culture war alive. He has demonstrated that he will keep the rope of segregation up most recently by announcing that he will move his ministry’s bank accounts from Wells Fargo (because they’re supportive of LGBTQ rights) to a bank which does not support LGBTQ rights. What does this really accomplish though? The only message the LGBTQ community takes away from this (again) is they are not welcomed, accepted, and loved by evangelical Christians like Franklin Graham. Further, the only message Franklin’s followers are going to walk away with is to remain segregated from the LGBTQ community. This is the last thing we need and certainly the last thing Christ would have wanted for us.

Christ himself tore down the ropes of segregation when he called Zacchaeus, the tax collector, down from the tree. Again, Christ tore down the ropes of segregation when he told those gathered around Mary Magdalene whoever was without sin to “cast the first stone.” Lastly, Christ tore down the ultimate rope of segregation when he said that we are worthy of the Divine’s love and forgiveness.

Franklin Graham’s latest words and actions do not only fall short of his father’s widely regarded legacy but they do not align with the message and life of Christ whom he claims to serve.

Go ahead and move your bank accounts Franklin. It’s a free country. However, consider the message you’re sending to your followers and the LGBTQ community. Consider the ropes of segregation you’re building with your words and actions. Finally, don’t, as your father warned, “…stumble into hell because of [y]our pride.”

Be love,

Azariah