One night in 2005 I was sitting on my porch trying to have a moment I had been having since I was a kid. The experience would be the closest thing I know of as to what is called “mystical”. As a boy, I would sneak out of my bedroom at night and climb on the roof of the garage, lie on my back, and stare up at the night sky. We had an oak tree whose branches hung over the roof and I liked to watch the branches sway back and forth as the wind blew. The wood would creak and the moonlight would shine through the branches refracted and broken apart. Sometimes the moonlight would spread like a luminous paint by a swaying branch catching the light and flicking it across the canvas of the night sky. As a child I was aware of my “self” slipping away and becoming one with the beauty of the sounds of the leaves and branches, the sight of an iridescent moonlight, the feel of goose bumps on my skin as the breeze washed over me. The wonder was extraordinary and I felt like God was truly alive.
But on this night in 2005 I felt God was as remote as God had ever been in my life. A series of things had brought me out to the porch on this night seeking that mystical thing, “praying” in the only way that I have known how. I had sensed God slipping away for some time. It began with the minutiae of routine life. Then things like illness, the tsunami in Indonesia, the war in Iraq added to the growing sense of confusion I felt in my life about the reality of God. Ultimately, the crossroads had come when a few months earlier my wife of 10 years had come out as a lesbian. I felt despair as I saw the life with the person I loved slip away. I know that she too felt a sense of despair as she not only accepted this fundamental part of herself that she had hidden away for so long, but because she knew it could hurt me and the kids. We had been going to a church and both had a sense of faith, but the church we knew then did not make space for gay people, but instead taught that it was a sin. So as we faced this difficult period of our lives we felt cut off from the community of faith that we thought would be there to guide us through these stormy times. And then on this night, I walked into my bedroom and saw my wife on her knees praying with tears in her eyes asking for God to take her gay away and in that moment my heart finally broke and God seemed gone. I was devastated for her, because rather than feeling joy at becoming the person God had made her to be, she felt anguish that she wasn’t the person the church had told her God wanted to be. So on the porch that night I tried to replicate the experience of God I had known as a child, but I just felt alone. A mystical experience wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to feel God’s love through people.
What if the church was a place that embodies the reality that God loves people as they are? I know that a lot of lip service is given to the idea that God loves everyone, but too often it seems the church and its members spend time adding asterisks and amendments to that ideal. I found a place that is trying to live that out every day. And it came at just the right time. A few years after all that, my ex-wife and I had divorced and begun to move on with our new lives but I continued to feel a hole in the place where church once was. My youngest child had also had a coming out of sorts. Born as my daughter 10 years ago, my child had the courage to say to me that he was born in the wrong body and wanted to live as a boy. This was a difficulty even greater than my ex wife’s coming out and I genuinely had no idea what to do. There was therapy and consultations with doctors, and long talks with family and friends. And all of it helped. But this time, I needed to know that God was out there and that God was going to be a part of helping us through this difficult time. And my son needed to know that there was such a thing as a community of people who would love him unconditionally no matter what. Not even everyone in his family had been able to do this. So I sought out Open & Affirming churches in my area and found my new church home. And what has it meant to me and my family? That the ideal of “God loves everyone” isn’t some slogan. It is a living reality embodied every day by the people in this church. My son knows that God doesn’t think he is a freak because here he is accepted and loved and treated normally by these people, and these people are a reflection of God. In short, being part of this church has made God alive to me again in a way I thought lost forever, and brought me into the embrace of God’s love, feeling like a kid lost in his thoughts on a roof.