Monday, May 26, 2008

RCL - Proper 3 A - 25 May 2008

From Baptist to Benedictine

St Paul's Episcopal church, Tustin, CA
Mr. Charles Mizelle, Aspirant to OHC
RCL - Proper 3 A - Sunday 25 May 2008

Isa 49:8-16a
I Cor 4:1-5
Matt 6:24-34

Opening Prayer: Come Holy Spirit and fill your people with love, joy, peace and wisdom. Amen”

Good Morning.

I’m honored to have this opportunity to share a small slice of my faith journey with you. In many ways it is a story that has been repeated all too frequently.
Child grows up in a religious home.
Child loves the Lord and has a deep spiritual life.
Child comes to an age of realization and struggles with being gay.
Child prays, hopes and even submits to an exorcism to not be gay anymore.
Child actually believes if he gets married his problem will go away.
This WAS my story. And standing here today reflecting back to the struggles I went through in my teens and 20’s seems all so unnecessary. Yet, some 30 years later, this is a story that is repeating itself in the lives of thousands of young people right now.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I truly had a loving home. And the faith I had was real and deep. And I hear the call of God from our reading this morning from Isaiah. God delivers a fourfold declaration of hope to the Israelites who have been exiled in Babylon: “I have answered you...I have helped you...I have kept you...I have given you”.

Let me tell you how...

Well getting married was not the magic pill to change me. Now I know that it was God’s pressure cooker to bring to the surface all of the issues He wanted me to face. But living those 6 years was hell on earth for us both. Feeling like I was falling off a cliff and on the verge of a mental breakdown I finally mustered the courage to get a divorce. And this proved to be the defining moment between me and the Baptist church.

Divorce was anathema to God’s Word. And at the time of my greatest spiritual need, a time when I desperately needed pastoral care, my church decided it was time to exercise church discipline. It began with a visit from my pastor and a deacon asking me to leave the church unless I changed my ways. But that was just the beginning.

My landlord was a member of the church and they told her they could not keep me as a tenant because I was living outside of God’s will. They threatened to contact my employer to tell them they should not keep a person like me employed. The small circle of friends I had for support were told to banish me from their lives. Here is the surprising part. All of this church discipline was not about me coming out of the closet as a gay man. I had not come out. That struggle was still buried deep within me in a very fearful place. No, I was being disciplined for getting a divorce. Imagine my shock when several months later I am sitting in a court room to finalize our divorce and 20 + people show up to contest the divorce and testify against me. This was without a doubt the most difficult time of my life. What had meant everything to me growing up as a child: my faith, God, the church, had all been ripped away from me. And I knew what it meant to look into the eyes of hate and be on the receiving end it.

It took a good 6 months for the dust to settle from all of this. And it was then that I had my second born again experience. Yes, I had had the Baptist born again experience as a young child. But this second born again experience was just between me, God and my bathroom mirror. I was home alone in a small studio apartment. I got up and went into my bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. And in front of that mirror I began a verbal conversation with God. I told God I was tired of the struggle, I was tired of living in denial, and I wasn’t willing to do it anymore. I said God I love you but I can’t go on living this way. I said I know you love me God but more importantly I love myself. I accept myself and it is okay that I am gay.

Well let me tell you I busted out of that proverbial closet so hard there was no closet left. The door shattered, the hinges blew off, there was no closet for me to ever return to, and I never looked back. I also never looked back at the Baptist church. I was done with it. The damage was too deep.

It took years but I finally found a new spiritual home in an eastern meditation society called Self Realization Fellowship. There I grew in many new ways. There I learned that God is too big for just one faith tradition. There I learned what Jesus meant when he said “In my Fathers house are many mansions...and I go there to prepare a place for you.” There is a place for all God’s children: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. And even a place for a gay man like me.

As much of a healing place as the Self Realization Fellowship was for me I still missed my Christian tradition. And I had a growing hunger for it. I prayed to ask God if there really could be a Christian church out there that would truly accept me, as the traditional hymn says “Just As I Am”. It was about this time I began hearing in the national news about the stir being caused by the Episcopal church ordaining a gay bishop. I knew absolutely nothing about the Episcopal church but I truly felt joy in hearing this news. For me and hundreds like me it was not just national news--it was Good News.

Then something quite amazing happened. I had moved back into the West Hollywood area and it was June. Time for the annual gay parade. Now this is an event that I personally run from. I found it pedantic. But when you live just one block from Santa Monica Blvd you have to give in to the tens of thousands of people who show up for a visit. Having secured my parking space for the weekend I wasn’t going to give it up under any circumstances. So on that June Sunday I walked the 2 blocks from my home to Santa Monica Blvd to be a casual observer of the day's celebration.

The Gay Pride Parade offered every group and organization you would expect. But there was one group that took my breath away. In this wild and party atmosphere I looked down the boulevard to see literally hundreds of smiling, peaceful Episcopalians carrying signs saying "God loves you and we welcome you". It was a very powerful moment for me. And one that gave me courage to tiptoe back into a Christian church.

That church was All Saints Beverly Hills. I will never forget that first Sunday. I scanned the entire congregation to see how many big black Scofield Bibles I could spot. I didn’t see a one. But I just knew someone was there to tell me I was an abomination to God and hit me over the head with “God’s Word” in an old fashioned Bible thumping and then show me the door. When I understood that it was really okay for me to go to the altar to receive communion I thought they simply do not know who I really am and I am not going to tell them. I tiptoed around that parish for a literal 6 months waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting to be told I really wasn’t welcome there. And it never happened. What did happen is that they just kept pulling me in deeper and deeper. I was asked to actually participate in the workings of the parish. Alpha, Beta, Covenant classes, small group Bible studies, the homeless ministry, and retreats. I kept meeting more people like me. And God was healing the deep wounds in my soul.

A retreat for the gay and lesbian ministry was announced and I instantly signed up to go. But a short time later I learned my company was downsizing and I was looking at a layoff. Time to circle the horses, pull in the wagons, spend no money, and go into an intense job search. Gay retreat canceled. Several weeks later a miracle happened. A lady approached me and said that an anonymous donor had provided my way to attend the retreat. To say I was stunned would be an enormous understatement. It was a moment of receiving pure love for me. Church discipline had turned into Love in Action.

The retreat was an amazing experience. Forty plus people, all with similar experiences to mine, all on an amazing faith journey. And the Holy Spirit was at work in my life. During my free afternoon someone said “Do you know that up the hill is an Episcopal monastery?” Once again I was stunned. To me monastery meant Catholic. I was intrigued and wanted to go. I had had a long fascination with Monastic communities and in my late 30’s actually inquired about the monastic life at Self Realization Fellowship. My visit there had a profound impact on me. It was frustrating to only be there a couple of hours. I knew I had to return. It would be a while before I fully understood why.

God blessed me with a new dream job. But it meant a move to Orange County. I was devastated to move away from All Saints Beverly Hills. Why would God take me away from the place I had been looking for all of my life. Having lived in Los Angeles for 20+ years my impression of Orange County was not too great. My friends teased me that I would be living behind the “Orange Curtain”. My total experience of Orange County was it was simply the place you drove through on your way to San Diego.

After settling in to a new job and home I started my search for a new church. I visited many and did a lot of looking on the web. When I came to St. Paul’s there was something different. It began with a phone conversation with Wayne reassuring me this is a welcoming parish to everyone. When I arrived here my first Sunday I was never before made to feel so welcomed in all my life. I would later know that I was simply the recipient of the incredible gift of Susan Dean. Then I got to hear Kay preach. It touched my heart and my mind and I was hooked.

The Good News that initially attracted me to the Episcopal church was turning into not-so-good-news. Schisms, ultimatums from the global south, parishes and whole dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church. Was this that “other shoe dropping” I was initially afraid of? Early in my time here at St. Paul’s I heard a sermon from Reese saying whatever happens in the Episcopal Church this will always be a parish that welcomes EVERYONE! I knew I had found the right home.

The next stop on my journey became EFM. Being a wannabe armchair theologian such an intentional study of scripture was a natural for me. EFM, Education for Ministry, has been the highlight of my time at St. Paul’s. It is a Bible study like no other. Quite honestly it is the toughest Bible study that you will ever love. The first thing I learned in EFM is the name Israel means one who struggles with God. I certainly identified with that. And I have certainly struggled at times with the EFM material. But something truly wonderful happens every Tuesday night when about 8 people come together to share their own struggle. We always have an extra guest...the Holy Spirit. And that EFM classroom becomes the upper room at St. Paul’s.

Profound conversations occur. And you witness first hand God’s amazing work in each and every life. EFM will enliven and enrich your faith. It will give you the tools to bring God into the mundane and the profound of daily life.

New faith was reborn in me at All Saints Beverly Hills. EFM at St. Paul’s became the place where that faith matured. A part of my EFM commitment was to return to that Episcopal monastery in Santa Barbara and explore how being there just a few hours could effect me so profoundly. Returning there felt like going home. And my head was full of “if only”, “if things had been different”, “another time, another life” type of statements. Upon meeting with the Prior, to discuss another subject entirely, I casually said I wished I was younger and circumstances were different for me to consider a monastic vocation. His response took me completely by surprise. He said “You are not too old for us to consider you. We would consider you.” My head exploded. To this day I cannot tell you what was said for the rest of the conversation. I stepped out of time and was transfigured to another place. I ran back to my guest room and fell on my knees in tears. Just the thought that this was a viable possibility coupled with the realization that my circumstances in life actually do allow me to consider this was more than I could process.

It has now been 1 year since I formerly entered a discernment process for a monastic vocation. It has been a year of miracles, uncanny coincidences, doors opening and circumstances falling into place. I am overjoyed to tell you this September I will enter the Order of Holy Cross monastic community, in West Park NY, as a postulant. There, I will go through a 3 year formation process to live the rest of my life as a Monk. But on a sad note, this is my last Sunday with you. This week I depart on a 3 month sabbatical to begin a time of study and reflection to transition from my corporate life to a monastic vocation.

Dogwood at Holy Cross Monastery - by Randy OHC

I am not leaving the world. I will not be cloistered behind walls, I will not be a hermit in silence. I will still have my computer, the internet and e-mail, I will even have my iPod. Today’s monastic communities are about learning to be fully alive in God, living an intentional life in community to serve the needs of others. It is first and foremost a life of prayer. We are a Benedictine Order which means hospitality is at our core. Finally I get to live the rest of my life welcoming everyone back to God: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, all of those who have been excluded and marginalized. We even welcome Baptists.


1 comment:

joel said...

How refreshing it is to see how our God uses the 'tools of this life' to help us build bridges so we and others may travel. Only the best wishes and prayers go with you on your journey...& may you never quit being suprized by such a great community of acceptance!