From my sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Billings yesterday:
I love the word “harmony”.
Besides being just a musical term, it also describes being in balance.
Sometimes it takes some time to find that balance- I’d like to tell you a little bit about the time it’s taken me….
I was born in Butte and raised in Twin Bridges. My Dad was a rancher, my mom stayed home with me and my brother and sister. From an early age, I knew I was different. I really couldn’t have put my finger on it when I was young, but I seemed to be more sensitive than other boys my age, more compassionate about things that could hurt.
In fact, I actively avoided rough games and play. I liked to read- and I read constantly- often about far away places, places that I might be able to go to when I was older- where people might understand me.
It’s hard to find harmony when your insides are saying one thing- and the world is telling you its opposite. But I did find it sometimes.
When I was alone- in my room or in the woods.
When I was reading a great book.
When I was in the quiet of my church.
In fact, church was probably my salvation. I grew up Catholic, and I loved all of the rituals and music of our little church. I loved that the priest took an interest in me, didn’t think I was weird, encouraged me in reading and study and conversation. I felt the harmony.
But then, around twelve or thirteen, something happened.
I realized that the difference I felt wasn’t just about the way I saw and felt the world, it was about how I felt and saw other people.
I learned that other boys my age wanted to chse girls and that other girls my age wanted to chase boys- not that they’d know what to do when they caught them- but that wasn’t what I wanted.
It was confusing. I had crushes on older boys. Felt myself looking at my classmates in the shower during gym. And it terrified me, because I knew it was bad. I knew that I was one of those people that were really monsters, freaks. Teachers said so- kids said so- the church said so. “Queer” was evil. We played smear the queer at recess. It never went well for the “Queer”. The word “Fag” was a term of derision worse than “Nazi”, or “Communist”.
And that’s what I knew I was.
A Queer. A Faggot. And it was bad.
That’s when I lost the harmony.
It was important for my survival 35 years ago- as it sadly still is for kids today- that I not be detected. That I not be singled out. I had to hide.
So I did. I no longer trusted the goodness of my nature. My desires were to be obliterated out of necessity. It wasn’t safe.
I pretty much hid my sexuality in high school and college- with brief moments of harmony when I found others like me, but mostly, I was just working hard to keep myself from being fully seen. And that culminated in my becoming a priest.
And not just any priest. I went to seminary in Rome. I knew people in the Vatican. I found other gay men who were following the same path I was and we supported each other.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that of all the people in seminary with me, the ones that later got into some kind of trouble were the ones who were in denial about their sexuality- the ones without any support.
Harmony actually found me again for a while.
I loved the work, I loved the people. But it got tiring.
I got tired of not being seen for the real me. I got depressed because the official church position on my particular sexuality was that we were all “fundamentally disordered”. It’s hard to believe in an institution that discards as irrelevant your particular, strong and direct experience. It’s hard to maintain day after day the lie.
I tried everything.
I worked harder. I got a dog. I bought a truck. Nothing helped. Finally, I got counseling.
What took me so long?
Denial can be a very high and thick wall- especially if you lay each brick in desperation, in fear for your very life. I had denied my experience. I was hiding from harmony- only I didn’t know it at the time.
What brought me out was something ordinary.
I fell in love. Hard.
I heard the notes of harmony again. Sometimes- when I just let myself be loved by this man- it was more like a symphony.
I came to realize that my experience hadn’t conflicted with my faith at all- it just conflicted with the interpretation of that faith by others. In one sense, LGBT people aren’t asked by their churches to inform the faith- they’re asked to stand outside and accept the information given by others- some of whom are hiding behind their own self-built walls of shame and denial.
I also realized that I hadn’t allowed myself the common dignity of reflecting honestly on my life before making promises to a church that would never accept me as the man I really was.
Ironically, I had preached “the truth will set you free” a million times- but it never sank in until I was freed to be myself. To have compassion for myself. To create a space of understanding in myself.
As a therapist, I know the biggest breakthroughs often come from uncovering the lies that we tell ourselves. “What’s the lie?
But it has to be done with compassion.
I spent years dealing with the fallout of my denial. That initial relationship didn’t last. I spent time doing drugs, having meaningless sex, until I had spiritual breakthrough just weeks before I was diagnosed with HIV.
I’m not sure if we have the time for me to into it here, but here’s what I walked away with: “Nothing can go wrong” (You can read about it here)
In my best moments, I believe this.
In my worst moments, I forget this and struggle to make the world make sense by bending it to my will.
The complete opposite of what I should be doing.
You see, there’s nothing more important than the recognition of reality. Loving what is- not what should or could be- loving what is. Right here, right now.
It doesn’t mean we have to stay in it forever, we just have to let the total reality of the present moment sink in if we want to have fulfilling and satisfying lives.
And yes- sometimes pain is a part of the present reality.
But it’s always temporary.
Notice I said “pain”, not “suffering”. Suffering is almost always optional.
Here’s my definition of suffering: “Suffering. Noun. Remembering past pain in a way that traumatizes; imagining future pain in a way that traumatizes; creating stories about pain that doesn’t exist- either from the past or future. Creating or re-creating unnecessary pain.”
What do you think of that?
I’ve come to understand that it’s not about making things happen, it’s about allowing things to happen- and finding my place in them.
It’s not about bending the world to my will, its about truly looking at the world and knowing that I have a place in it- even if it’s not immediately evident.
It’s about feeling loved. By everything. There’s music there….
How do you do that?
Practice. And by listening for it.
How do musicians get the feel of harmonizing? Practice. And by realizing they won’t get it right every time. By not needing it to be perfect. You have to stop and listen.
Because nothing can go wrong.
Today, I have a man that loves me more than anything else in the world. I believe that. And I love him the same way. We have a house and dogs and a very satisfying life together. I work with LGBT people, helping them to be happy. I work with HIV+ people, helping them to be happy and healthy. I’m doing things that satisfy me.
Some have said “You’ve overcome so much to get where you are today- how did you do it?”
“Yeah, overcoming your own sense of self-importance and shame and denial is a bitch- but we all have to do it eventually. On earth or in heaven, I guess.”
It’s not the circumstances- it’s how you see them.
I believe prayer is trying to see with God’s eyes, not vice-versa. That’s the only way it makes sense. Why would I pray for anything but to see the truth?
Well, maybe to hear the music….
We all know the tune- and I believe that we all have the power to discover the harmony. I believe that sooner or later, the harmony will find us- especially if we slow down, quiet ourselves and wait for it.
And that music is so beautiful and rich.
May harmony find you.