by Ron Raynes
This was a talk given on June 10, 2018, at a Community of Christ service.
Identity. Think for a moment on the meaning and implications of that word. Identity is at the core of our being and helps us understand who we are. Many aspects of our individual identity come from birth without our conscious decision, such as our inherited physical traits, personality, gender, orientation, ethnicity, and so on. We also don’t choose the families we’re born into, the societal culture or religious beliefs in our homes, our access to education, or the poverty or wealth that may surround us as we go through life. But then, of course, there are the countless choices we each have, to decide for ourselves who we want to be or what we do with our lives, our talents, and gifts, day by day and year by year. All of this is part of our “Identity.”
When Jesus asked, “Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33) he wasn’t intentionally distancing himself from his family waiting outside, but rather he was opening up a vision of the community of God and inviting all of us to step into His identity and into His service in the household of God. I accepted that invitation when I was 17 almost 18. I made a decision that radically altered the identity and course of my life…I entered the flowing waters of the Rogue River, where I was baptized into a new life of faith and religious practice known as Mormonism. I made a conscious choice to become “religious” as a young adult, apart from my family and not knowing the implications and downstream realities of that choice.
That was almost 44 years ago, and indeed a lot of water has gone down that old river in the meantime! All along that journey of faith I have learned and evolved in my identity as a believer and as a moral human being. I don’t regret my religious decision–it has informed my life and provided opportunities and growth that helped me understand God and my spiritual relationship with myself and others, and how to love, serve and interact with the many people of my life. But it hasn’t been all roses and rainbows either. Along my path, I have also learned to question and doubt religious authority. Over the last several years I’ve struggled with spiritual dissonance, religious rejection and frankly, a loss of faith. It is from that conflicted part of my journey that I want to reflect upon in my talk today because I believe this is where we learn the most from our lives.
For those of you who don’t know, I am a gay boy, who like many in my generation growing up and coming of age in the 70’s, really really didn’t want to be gay! I think part of why I joined the LDS Church was because I was afraid of my inherent identity and I wanted to embrace a life of family and rules and structure that would make ‘“it” go away. I bought into the LDS Church’s confident assurance that being gay was a just a worldly choice and that I could overcome that “weakness” through obedience to a righteous pattern of living, where family and church activity would replace my natural attractions with an orientation more acceptable to God. Oh wow, was I wrong, not only in such false hopes, but in trusting others to dictate who and what I should be, without checking inside first and believing in myself, and believing in a loving God, who would support me to follow my heart!
So about 18 years ago, after almost 20 years of marriage, I started to realize that who I was, both spiritually and physically, was squished inside a closet of my own making and that I needed to “come out.” I began to crack open my closed door and seek the understanding I was hungry for, but I also feared for my family’s well being and where this process might take us. And then my mother’s cancer came out of remission, and I was faced with the reality of how short and fragile life really is.
During our last real visit, mom told me, “I just want you to be happy.” I realize now those were code words. She knew I was gay, even if I wouldn’t admit it. After my mom passed, I made the determined decision to return home to Oregon, leaving a stable job in Cincinnati, and that would turn our lives upside down for the next ten years. In the midst of that chaos, I discovered how the Lord knew my journey, from beginning to end.
Part of my “gay” self that has brought me great joy throughout my life is the creative identity I was blessed with and that I have magnified, the gifts of imagination, curiosity, and personal expression through music, art, and words. Most of you know of my singing voice, but I also have a poetic voice, and I want to share four of my poems with you because they speak in an imagery and in layered meanings that I couldn’t otherwise communicate. Poems are a way the voice of the Spirit speaks to me, and more importantly, a way in which I listen and find truth.
The first poem is, “Face Towards Zion.” I started writing this poem at my crossroads in Cincinnati in 2001. The poem unfolded in three stanzas, the first two speaking from my past and the last stanza facing the present and looking to the future:
Face Towards Zion
In the confidence of Spring my heart vision searches
Distant mountain valleys, gazing over unknown oceans.
Shall I turn my back on the sweet green fields of home?
The bleating lambs follow their mothers for only so long,
Then find pastures of their own. I shall dream of prairies,
Endless as the sky, and full of the promise of tomorrow.
Leave behind the civility of fine things, the tender grasp
Of parents and friends, never to see or embrace again.
I must bite my lip, let the tear crease a corner of my soul,
Yet move steadfastly forward, one foot in front of the other.
Oh, let me see beyond the mountains to glimpse the bright city
Where He that watches over neither slumbers or sleeps.
Today I will hear His voice, I will kneel beside the quiet stream
And never thirst again! Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Along the endless muddy mire or hot dusty road, it matters not.
Gladly I pull my handcart to join Enoch and those of one heart–
And if only I am a stranger in the land, then let me face towards
Zion, while I gently close my eyes, and wait upon the Lord.
I didn’t know this poem was to be my “coming out” roadmap, but it was. I don’t have time to explain all the details, but this poem, built upon favorite scriptures and the Mormon Pioneer allegory, speaks to leaving the comfortable behind and being willing to give up everything for the cause of a Zion, and of finding ourselves through faith. I had done this once before decades earlier when I left home and joined the Mormon Church, and now I was prepared to do it all again. I fully believed that the Lord would show me the way. And I still do.
The last line of the poem spoke to me powerfully a decade after I wrote it, “And if only I am a stranger in the land, let me face towards Zion, while I gently close my eyes and wait upon the Lord.” From this single line was to come three more poems.
But what was I saying, “If only I am a stranger in the land?” I was afraid of becoming that strange person! How could I ever be a stranger in my own cherished land of Zion?
So here is the second poem, “Stranger In the Land,” that explores and begins to embrace my gay identity. Herein are elements of longing and the tension of me loving a man, even if that man is Deity itself.
Stranger in the Land
He came to me late in the night,
Like in a dream, somehow disconnected,
I could see his face, the image hovering.
There is time between us, different worlds
Intersecting in space, yet he beckons
To me, smiling… Kindness in his eyes.
How shall I reach to him, waiting there
At my bed, extending to me his hand?
I grasp the image and yet he is gone.
Oh that I might embrace the truth of him!
The sandaled feet stirring up the desert dust,
The warm water from his earthen flask.
I shall not mince words. He consumes me.
This stranger, this man of simple means.
I cannot rest, but to follow his footsteps.
From behind the thorny acacia, I watch him.
Watch the crowds press upon him, needy.
Drawing life from him, yet only to leave him.
Let me walk up to him, kindly stroke his face,
Returning smile for tender smile. He will be
No stranger to me, no man behind the gates.
The cock crows, and yet I deny him. Tears.
I would linger, struggling to prove otherwise,
But time blinks, I turn and he is gone.
Fast-forward a dozen years from Cincinnati in my coming out faith journey, and I find myself in Eugene, still an active and believing and now openly gay Mormon, serving in my ward family. I believed the church was allowing me to do it all. And then the LDS policy change excluding LGBT families from fully participating in the church happened in November 2015. I simply stood up and said, “NO, I think this policy is wrong!” And then the unison of my gay Mormon world began to slowly come apart.
More on the identity theme. What do we do when we begin to realize that our evolving identity, the genuine identity that causes us to be happy, the one we feel called into, the one that is honest, no longer fits or meshes within a culture? Do we repress that identity and conform to the culture, or do we continue on a new path of discovery?
I invite you to think about who you are this month of Pride, which is really a celebration of being ourselves and affirming each other’s unique identities. It is more than just a party for gay people.
“And if only I am a stranger in the land, let me face towards Zion, while I gently close my eyes and wait upon the Lord.” Poem #3 took me by surprise…it came like in dictation, during a period where I began to question what was all around me… what seemed wonderful, the confidence I felt in my religion, was capable of harm and illusion! So this is what I call my “protest poem,”…Gently Close My Eyes. The poem begins and ends with the first and only childhood prayer I ever learned, taught to me by my mother.
Gently Close My Eyes
Now I lay me down to sleep,
And pray the Lord my soul to keep.
I watched the children play in the street puddle.
I watched them ride their bikes through the middle,
Spraying each other with great drops of laughter.
I watched the wet sheep on the hillside, in the drizzle.
I watched how unconcerned they grazed beside the
Dead llama who had watched over them for years.
I watched the outsider sit under the dripping tree.
I watched how everyone passed him by, despite
His drenched cardboard pleas for help and food.
I watched the wet ice form around dormant twigs.
I watched its heavy grasp pull down the branches
And flinched when the trees finally broke apart.
I watched the tears softly rise in her eyes.
I watched him silently pack his hope into one small
Suitcase, a lifetime of trying for some connection.
We watched the tender plant die for lack of water.
We watched its leaves curl under, tuck down
And slowly turn brown. We did nothing but watch.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The shocking message of this poem to me is that I’m the gay spouse, leaving the straight spouse, who is the church, for something I’m not sure of, because there is no intimacy, no trust and no longer a connection. How do we know when we’re no longer acceptable? It’s that dawning reality of being judged, labeled and dismissed, even though they may say they love you. This is a sure way of knowing you are not affirmed for who you choose to be. The lesson in all of this is that we need to respect each others’ right to self-determination! “Who are my brothers?” Jesus asked. And then He said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This begs the question, “What is the will of God?” It is to love, is it not? To embrace one another as equals. Such is God’s greatest commandment. Acceptance and Love are what brought us here and will keep us here. I am so thankful for this beautiful Community of Christ, where we feel only love!
The fourth and final poem springs from the words of Isaiah 40:31:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
I can only say that my testimony of our divine Creator is real to me, and based upon my personal experiences with them. I know that God lives because I have felt repeatedly their love and direction in my life. I know that we are all “children of God,” connected brothers and sisters in a human family that goes on and on. I have faith and hope in this connection, above all.
Wait Upon the Lord
And whom shall I send? Stars convene into galaxies
Without number, so large I cannot comprehend.
Father, Mother, you are gone yet I am still connected.
Your matter twists and conforms into molecules that direct
My very being, alive in a universe of cells and tissue and
Faith and desire. For there is no space in which there is
No Kingdom. Lesser or greater, my soul is the white fire,
Oxidizing the matter of life, shedding electrons without
Sensing the chaos beyond. Where is the rhythmic heart
That silently understands? The Balm of Gilead gathers
The resins which we speak. We shall sing new songs.
The chorus is busy rehearsing our harmonies, all unique.
Wait?! I cannot be still, even though my part begins in
Twenty three measures. Close my eyes, dream my visions,
But do not restrain the unconscious motion of my heart
Beating its own path to virtue. In the furnace of affliction
Warm cinnamon emits its familiar essence anew.
And still I must be–I tremor in expectancy. Patience waits
Within sinews of hope, mounting up as on wings of eagles.
Oh Lord, how oft thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me!