By Zachary Scott
Have you ever seen the sun as it breaks the horizon and rises over the ocean?
Have you ever looked down from a mountaintop, surveyed the bustling life on the lake just beyond the sea of green treetops, all the while knowing that you’re merely a spec, a blip in the timeline of Earth’s long life?
Have you ever witnessed the messy glory of childbirth?
Or, conversely, have you ever wept silently in the corner of a room, watching as someone who witnessed your first breath breathes her last—your heart broken, your spirit overwhelmed with awe?
Have you ever stood naked, chest deep in a river, churning into a torrent as the skies open into a downpour? Have you felt the current rush around you, your body the rock refusing to erode as Mother Nature washes away your sin, baptizing you, again?
Have you ever sat, still, in a moonlit sanctuary beneath the cross, and even there not felt alone?
Have you ever bared your soul, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, expressed your deepest fears, your greatest challenges—only to be swept away by love, support, understanding?
Have you ever dared to ask the universe for something—anything really—and then receive it?
Or, perhaps, you were denied your request, but found yourself stumbling into something far greater than you would have ever been courageous enough to ask for?
Have you ever experienced love at first sight?
Have you ever felt, in an instant, a molecular connection to another person—to a person you seemingly have nothing in common with, a person who lives their life in a manner completely different from your own?
Have you ever forged a new family? Out of strife? Out of shared goals? Common ground? Over rich coffee or copious amounts of alcohol? Out of a desire for a deeper connection to the planet? To fellow humankind? Out of a calling to be the voice of the future? A voice of the present?
If so, you’ve been to my church.
“God hates sin. He hates sinners. If you don’t change, you’re going to Hell. But, the good news is that all you have to do is admit your sins and ask for his forgiveness, and stop being gay, and he will forgive you. It breaks his heart when people sin and refuse to turn away from them.”
My best friend’s girlfriend said that to me shortly before he moved halfway across the country to live with her and her cult-like, hardline, neo-evangelistic family. They were the ones who actually believed that nuclear war would soon be breaking out – and I don’t mean in a few years or decades, they believed it was immanent – and that God’s reckoning was soon to be upon us.
I didn’t really stay in touch with my best friend for a while after that. He had been among the first to whom I’d come out to, and he was overwhelmingly supportive. We went to our last semi-formal dance together because he thought I should be able to go with a guy after having come out. Then he met her and was smitten and followed her to the Midwest. It’s okay, though, he realized her flavor of crazy, we’ve reconnected. And though he lives even further away, we keep in touch, and he’s got a beautiful, sane wife, and an adorable baby.
After being informed of my sinful, God-angering nature, I swore off religion. I swore off God. To be clear, I hadn’t been raised in a church-going household, but I’d been taught about heaven, and believed that there was a God. I buried any questions I had about the Divine. I refused to accept that there existed an all-powerful deity who created humans as they were, but then dared to condemn them for their innate, hardwired, feelings. Shortly thereafter I began to read the Bible. If I was going to do battle, it was best to know the playbook my enemies were using.
That came in handy when I was able to argue, in a tiered classroom, looming angrily in my semi-agnostic liberal glory, a row above the strange little woman who lived with her grandmother and believed that because of Leviticus 18:22, homosexuality was a sin and same sex marriage should not be allowed or recognized by our government, that Leviticus also condemned the cotton-poly blend she was wearing that day. When someone had a scriptural argument to hurl against the sin that was an inherent part of my being, I was prepared and willing to leap to my feet with evidence from the same book that refuted the claim they raised.
The funny thing about reading something so often is that you eventually stop reading it as just a manifesto of your enemy, and more for what it is. You begin to find comfort and inspiration in the words on the page. Jesus may have been angry at times, but he was righteous in his anger against injustice. He ate with sinners and outcasts. He lived with and loved those whom society had forgotten about or condemned. Yeah, sure, he flipped tables that one time, but his anger was never ignited by who someone loved, or the color of their skin, or the gender they identified with. He called out hypocrisy. He called out judgement. He called out hatred and apathy and violence. His followers did so because he was preaching a message of radical love and acceptance. His mother trusted that God had plans for her son, and she followed and supported him because she saw that light shine from within him. She made the sacrifice of standing aside as he made his own sacrifice for us – if the story of his life teaches anything, it’s that love reigns in the kingdom of heaven, and that we ought to make it reign here on earth.
A few years after that inciting incident, I found my way to Buffalo, New York, and to a religious studies class. My eyes opened more to the world of spirituality, and my heart swelled with the desire to better know God. I studied what I could of the religions of the world, finding myself drawn to the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the radical world of progressive Christianity – the ones who actually strive to live the teachings of Christ. I prayed with an Indian student at a Hindu temple, asking Lord Ganesh to help keep my heart pure and focused, and to remove the obstacles that held my prayer hostage. I lit candles to the Holy Mother, asking for intercession at the minor basilica in the city. By the time we moved home from Buffalo, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had been regular attendees of the Pilgrim-St. Luke & el Camino Nuevo United Church of Christ in our intensely diverse neighborhood.
Home, in northeastern New York, I spent nearly six years studying on my own, attending yoga classes, falling in and out of regular prayer and spiritual practice. Something was missing from my life, and it wasn’t a mystery. After finishing my undergrad and applying to Southern New Hampshire University’s Master of Fine Arts program, I made the eleventh-hour decision to attend seminary instead. Chicago Theological had an online Master of Divinity program that would lead to ordination, and I was convinced that this was the only way to effectively study religion, and further convinced that I was being called to lead a congregation as its pastor. To this day, my semester at CTS remains one of the most invigorating times of my life – ten thousand dollars well spent.
“I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity.”
It was during my single, formative semester at CTS that I began to regularly attend the First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls. It had been the home church of my maternal great-grandmother, Clara, and I had been swept away by the kindness of the young, bearded pastor as he prayed with the family during her final hours. The reception, held in the fellowship hall after her funeral, was further divine interference, as kind members of the congregation welcomed and consoled our family, and especially when two white haired women took my hand in theirs and emphatically insisted that my grandmother had spoken sweetly of my husband and me, and that we were truly welcome to visit them whenever we wanted. So, a year later, deep into my first and only semester of seminary, I met with Michael, the pastor, over beer and hard cider at a local brewery to discuss what being a Presbyterian was all about.
As I write this, I am entering the final year of my first term as a Ruling Elder and member of Session – the governing body of the congregation, nominated by committee and approved by congregational vote. Michael and his wife, Lauren, are among my dearest friends, and I’ve become completely immersed in the family that is this congregation. I was not wrong when I thought that I heard the call of God to religious leadership, I just got off at the wrong exit. We are a truly welcoming community. Everywhere you look, churches are hanging banners that read, “all are welcome,” but their theology and practice don’t reflect that message. I often comment that I want a banner of our own that reads, “all are welcome, and we really mean it.”
I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity. I am open about my increasingly liberal ideologies (which became even more liberal during seminary) and share my excitement and passion with pride. When I fall on my face, there are dozens of people to pick me up. I have shared my journey with them, and they’ve embraced it as wholly a part of me. I have spoken plainly about my struggles with depression and anxiety and have been dragged from the brink by these people who refuse to love with any less than their whole hearts. Together we work to make our community a safer, healthier place full of abundant welcome and acceptance. What’s more, my belief that creating that kind of loving energy and sending it into the universe will have a tremendous butterfly effect, and will return to us all, is respected and shared by many.
I have asked the universe and I have received. Sometimes it’s not quite what I was expecting, and sometimes I am refused what I first asked for, only to receive what I truly needed. But I trust that the Divine has guided me to where I am and will continue to do so. The angry and frightened eighteen-year-old, whose best-friend’s crazy girlfriend insisted he would burn in hell, would not have believed that he would someday be a thirty-year-old professor, Christian leader, writer, uncle, and husband. My journey has been one of hills and valleys, and there will be more to come. But faith is not easy. Trust in something all-powerful and beyond adequate description with words is not easy. Willingness to bare your soul, show your bruises and scars, along with the moments of celebration, is not easy. Nevertheless, in my church, I’ve found the support that guides me through all those difficulties. Tonight, I will read more about my chakras. Tomorrow, during my lunch break, I will read more from the Upanishads. Sunday morning, I will prepare communion, welcome back my friend from sabbatical and help him lead worship. Next Thursday, I will teach my students how to write effectively, and discuss gender issues in our society, and then attend the monthly meeting of the Session, where we will worship and prayerfully make the decisions and do the business of leading our congregation forward into the bright, bright future.
Zachary Scott is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.