When I was 14 years old I was masturbating… a lot. The fundamentalist evangelical culture that I was raised in drilled it into my head that this was a surefire way to end up in hell. I would go to the altar at church, weep and beg for God’s forgiveness – and within 24 hours I’d be guilty again. Twice.
Worse than the shame and guilt was the loneliness of living with the secret. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t talk to my pastor because he was my dad. I couldn’t talk to my dad because I was 14. I couldn’t talk to my youth pastor because he worked for my dad and I couldn’t talk to my friends because I had a reputation to uphold. I was the leader of the intercessory prayer group and I even preached youth revivals in the summer. I was trapped and ashamed and I had nowhere to turn.
So one Wednesday afternoon, I took the train to Chicago and made my way to St. Michael’s Catholic Church. I was far enough from home that I didn’t have to worry about seeing anyone I knew and no God-fearing Pentecostal would ever be caught dead in a Catholic Church anyway so I might as well have been on Mars. As soon as I walked in the door there was a queue of people waiting to enter the confessional. When it was finally my turn I entered the confessional, ready to unburden my soul.
I explained to the priest that I was not Catholic, but needed someone to talk to. In the movies, priests in confessionals always listen no matter who is confessing and this priest did not disappoint. I wept as I told him of my inability to control myself despite my deep desire to please God. I told him of how ashamed I was of my hypocrisy.
“First of all,” the priest began, “I hear you weeping and I don’t think I’ve ever met a boy as young as you who wanted to please God more than you do. God is not mad at you, son. He must be so very proud of who you are. And don’t worry so much about this sin. It sounds to me that you are mostly guilty of being a teenage boy. That is not your fault. When it happens, ask God to forgive you if you feel you’ve sinned and then go on with your day. This is a part of growing up and you are just adjusting to new hormones and instincts as your body changes. You are loved. You are forgiven. God is proud of you and your church is lucky to have you.”
“And give your dad more credit,” he concluded, “You should talk to him. I’m sure he will understand more than you think he does.”
It was Ash Wednesday.
Five years later, I attended an Ash Wednesday Mass at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I walked up to the front when they administered the ashes and as the priest smudged my forehead he said, “Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I remembered the confessional from five years earlier and the way that day changed my perception of myself. I remembered that liberating redemption and my heart leaped. The ritual felt ancient and sacred and the ashes felt holy on my forehead; not because I’m a sinner, but because I’d been redeemed.
I eventually left the Pentecostal church I was raised in. I left as a licensed minister with a full time gig as a youth pastor in the very church my father once pastored, though he had long since moved on to a different congregation two states away. I left that tradition for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason was because I felt that they were incapable of distinguishing between their culture and their doctrine. It seemed to me that their cultural orthodoxy was identical to their definition of piety and I found that to be dangerous. It proved dangerous when President George W. Bush waged war on the LGBTQIA+ Community via the “Marriage Amendment” and the evangelical church-world celebrated and rallied for a change to the U.S. Constitution that would only serve to ostracize and marginalize an already marginalized people. I was confused. How could the world “know us by our love,” if we were supporting a gesture of intolerance and hate?
It seems as though I left just in time.
In the 2016 Presidential election the white evangelical church sold its gospel for political power and supreme court justice seats when over 80% of them voted for the most godless president we’ve had in recent memory – and they did so while praising the name of Jesus. Even after he praised white supremacists who murdered an activist in Charlottesville, they support him. The Roman Catholic Church has just begun to acknowledge the systemic war they waged on children around the world and they will never be able to right what they have wronged. The Mainline Protestants are having an identity crisis right now as the United Methodist Church just voted to exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ Community instead of loving them. Conservatives in virtually every Christian sect have been anti-Semitic, homophobic, white supremacists, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, abusive colonizers, and the list goes on and on. So why the fuck should we bother with any of it at all anymore? Why bother with religion or ritual when it has failed us at every turn?
It’s a legitimate question, and one worthy of substantial consideration. Some have chosen to walk away entirely; chosen not to bother with it anymore. Many needed to walk away in order to preserve themselves and I hold these siblings in my heart and pray that they find nourishment for their entire beings in the ways they want and need to find it.
Others have wrestled with this truth for centuries since the birth of the Christian institution and its first failures. When the ancient Christians sold their gospel for political power under Constantine, the Desert Mothers and Fathers fled the cosmopolitan cities and embraced God in solitude, silence, and stillness. When the American Protestants bent the Holy Scriptures to defend and uphold chattel slavery in the Antebellum South, black and brown enslaved people cried out to a God who liberates and sets the captives free. They cried out to a black Messiah who was murdered by the State – who defeated death itself so that ALL may go free! Like Daniel in the lion’s den, while the Church has persecuted the Queer Community throughout history, queer folks have exalted a God of Love who courses through their veins and calls them righteous! And while the Church has attacked trans-folks and even rallied to police where they can use the restroom, our trans siblings have boldly stood like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – refusing to bow to a hateful god but insisting that there is another, higher, mightier God who cannot be contained in a binary but exceeds all human understanding. These failed institutions may own the buildings we once worshiped in, but they don’t own the Truth. They don’t own our Faith. They don’t own our rituals, and they damn well don’t own us.
The witness of the oppressed is the tradition I seek to follow now. They have led by example all along. As Millenials leave church en masse (pun intended), as the evangelical world and the UMC mortgages its future for points in a culture war, we find ourselves in a diaspora of sorts. We are homeless for now, but we are not alone. We have each other, and the witness of the saints who have gone before us (and died at the hands of oppressors, may they rest in power). We must learn from their example if we are to carve out a path in this wilderness.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I will once again stand in line for ashes. This time I’ll be on the steps of Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee in protest of the anti-Queer legislation they continue to push and the white supremacists symbols and statutes they continue to live by and venerate. This time the ashes will be mixed with glitter as the ritual of Ash Wednesday grows to reflect, and shine, and TESTIFY to the lives and witness of the Christians pushed to the margins by those who used the Gospel for their own pursuit of power. And later in the evening I’ll meet with the faith community I belong to as we dine together at Christ’s Table and conspire to live out God’s Kingdom here on Earth!
And perhaps, on some Ash Wednesday in the future, the institutions that have failed us and failed to execute the Great Commission will humble themselves and join us in repentance. Perhaps, someday they will “turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But if they won’t, we will mix them with glitter, smudge them on our foreheads, and declare that Christ is Lord!