Where I’ve Been

As I noted in my ‘housekeeping’ post last week, I’ve decided to spend this time before Advent begins on questions of my own spiritual autobiography and how my experiences have shaped how I engage with Christian theology and the world as a whole. Today I’d like to provide the broad strokes of my story until the time when I started this blog in 2018; the next post will cover how I’ve changed over the course of the past five years.

I was born at a time of transition in my family life. My dad was discerning a career change into ordained ministry in the Anglican Church. Shortly after my first birthday, we left the stable life of southwestern Ontario (which had been home to ancestors on both sides of my family since the late 1700s) for the Canadian North, where my dad undertook formal lay ministry as a test of his vocation. This set the tone for my childhood, which involved a lot of church and six cross-country moves and eleven homes before my eighteenth birthday. While this had both positive and negative consequences for my development, what I think is most relevant for here is that I grew up exposed to the wonderful diversity of this country, and in contexts that cut across our divides of ‘East’ and “West’, ‘North’ and ‘South’, city and country, and, being educated in French Immersion, even Anglophone and Francophone. Moreover, my earliest memories are from a predominantly Indigenous community, and my schooling began in a part of Winnipeg that was home to many immigrants and New Canadians of many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. So I was not brought up with any sense of Whiteness being the ‘norm’ or ‘default’. One thing I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that both dealing with change and managing difference involve skills that need to be developed and exercised. And I’m very grateful that I learned to exercise these muscles from an early age.

In terms of spiritual influences, my parents were generally suspicious of the various factions that made up the Anglican world in Canada during my childhood; if I can say anything about the shape of the Anglicanism in which I grew up, it would be as a ‘low church’, contemporary-leaning, but strongly Eucharistic expression of Christianity that preferred a bread-and-butter faith to theological speculation or elaborate ceremony. While my upbringing was very middle-of-the-road Anglican, a variety of different traditions have influenced my adult faith. After a few years in my teens in which I would have described myself as an atheist, when I reaffirmed a Christian faith at seventeen, it was primarily through the Evangelical influences that dominated the Christian youth and young adult spaces in the late ‘90s.

As I think back on my university days, I see the emergence of a tension between conservatism and progressivism that has stayed with me through to middle age. On the one hand, I am cautious and rule-following by nature and this innate conservatism was encouraged by my Evangelical influences. By my early twenties these came together in a craving for security and stability in response to the collapse of my parents’ marriage and my struggles with my sexuality that I could not reconcile with my faith.* And so, I found myself flirting with the certainties of Fundamentalism for a couple of years. On the other hand, I felt a strong pull in the opposite direction as well: I had always valued diversity and creativity and complexity, and at the time was finishing up a degree in Linguistics, which is a discipline that has a built-in relativism about how humans describe and encode our experiences of the world. And so I was equally pulled towards progressive, expressive, and inclusive ways of being.

This internal tension continued in the next phase of my life, when I attended an Evangelical seminary with the intention of eventually pursuing a doctorate in either New Testament or Theology. The education I received was not the common caricature of such schools. My professors engaged honestly with postmodern thought and emerging ideas in biblical and theological studies, and I quickly fell under the mentorship of Rev. Dr. Mabiala Kenzo, a postcolonial theologian from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had my eyes opened to ways of doing theology that were both biblically grounded and critical and open-minded and was relieved to discover I didn’t need to pick between the two. It was during this season of my life that I was exposed to the thought of people like Jürgen Moltmann, Walter Brueggemann, and Paul Ricoeur, and general movements such as narrative, liberation, and postcolonial theologies and the ‘new’ perspective on Paul, all of which continue to influence my thought to this day.

Yet, while this season of my life was intellectually stimulating, I was struggling spiritually. The theology I was exposed to was rich, yet the spirituality that accompanied it felt shallow and unable to speak into my situation. In 2005, just as my frustration was coming to a head, I experienced a vision that changed the course of my life. It indicated that God’s ‘living water’ was abundant within me and that if I was feeling stuck, the blockage was with me, not God. I got the sense that God was going to tear me down and build me back together again. And indeed God did do this, but in the way I least suspected: through two events, one positive and one negative, five years apart, that felt like nuclear detonations, whose shockwaves still reverberate through my life.

The first spiritual bomb came in the form of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It began when I randomly stumbled across a quote from Fr. Alexander Men’s final lecture that blew my mind and heart open. I immediately found a book of his teaching and before long I became insatiable for anything from the Eastern Church. There I found the deep, full, and mutually-enriching union of spirituality and theology I had longed for; I found a liturgical expression that resonated deeply in my soul; and I found an approach to faith that bypassed so many of the fractures and rabbit holes of Western Christianity. It was intentionally traditional but not reactionary (though, sadly, I don’t think this could be said for much of the Orthodox Church today) and had insightful things to say about contemporary issues like cultural diversity, bioethics and ecology. Not only did this time in my life remake my spiritual life and practice, but it also exposed me to many of my greatest theological influences: The Cappadocian Fathers, Saints Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas, and more contemporary figures like Vladimir Lossky, Alexander Schmemann, and Olivier Clément. But, of greatest value for where I was at the time, in the Orthodox world, where asceticism was a normal part of the expectations for everyone, the asceticism that being a non-affirming gay Christian entailed was a matter of degree rather than substance. It was a place that had room for where I was at. And that felt good and sustainable, and in its own (hard) way, beautiful.

But, this time in my life was not to last.

The second spiritual explosion started one otherwise normal morning in Spring 2010, when I discovered that I could not pray. I could say the words, but it was like I was dialing a number with no one to pick up the call. I continued on as usual, but as days turned into weeks turned into months, the weight of this divine absence became increasingly unbearable. By Christmas it was becoming obvious that the life I had so intentionally constructed on what I had believed to be stable ground was little more than a house of cards and I was just barely holding it all together. The loneliness and complete desolation of the experience overwhelmed me. It’s shocking looking back just how quickly the end came. At the beginning of Lent 2011, the mere suggestion from my priest that I might need to walk away from the Church was unimaginable to me, and yet by Holy Week I was done. Despite my desperate hopes for an Easter miracle, my last confession in the Orthodox Church was on Holy Wednesday 2011 and simply involved me sobbing into my priest’s cassock for twenty minutes. Easter Sunday was the last time I received the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.

The next three years were really interesting, to say the least. I had spent the previous thirteen years of my life wholly committed to a faith that had rendered itself now completely irrelevant, and was having to start my adult life over again under a completely different set of assumptions. I suddenly had all this capacity to explore interests, ideas, and areas of creativity I’d never indulged before. I was also free to start dating and to figure out what my boundaries and values in relationships might be as an affirming gay man. Everything was new and filled with possibility. But this is of course only one side of the equation; I still had to find some way of processing everything that had happened. The first year I was mostly just numb to it all; the second year was when the pain came; and, the third year, I began to experience some healing, through an odd combination of Buddhism, drag queen wisdom, the Bible story of Jacob, and personal reflection. From the Buddha I learned not to take my ‘self’ too seriously; from drag I learned that I could make for myself any life I wanted; from Jacob’s story I learned that life is all about wrestling with God; and from my own reflection, I came to see just how strongly influenced I continued to be by the Gospel message and that I liked the man that that message had made me.

Shortly after moving to Toronto in the Fall of 2013, I started cautiously attending an Anglican church again; I still struggled to find a sense of prayer, but it was no longer painful, and was even peaceful to be in church. I poked my head into the progressive Christian theological world and began to re-examine the assumptions that had led me to balance that old tension between the more conservative and progressive sides of my personality as I had for so long. And, I began the process of trying to reconcile my sexuality and faith for the first time. In a full circle moment, it was in Holy Week 2014 — exactly three years after everything had come to a head — that I hesitantly began to call myself a Christian again.

Probably the single most consequential experience for me during this season was when I sat down and read the Gospel according to St. Matthew. I was shocked at the centrality of the message there that genuine faith is to be judged by the quality of what it produces (3.10; 7.15-19; 12.33; 21.18-21). As interesting as I may find systematic theology, I knew that from then on my focus would shift to practical theology: Truth is not about a system’s internal coherence or beauty, or basis in Scripture or tradition, but is about what brings about goodness, life, and love in the world.

As positive as all this was for me, I was still haunted by the past. People began asking me about vocational ministry and while I tried to put these questions off, I realized that since so much of what I had lost revolved around questions of vocation—not only to ordained ministry (which I had been pursuing when things fell apart) but also issues of celibacy and family life and simply the vocation of belovedness that comes from being a child of God— that I couldn’t expect to deal with that baggage without dealing with the vocational questions. In the Christian world, vocation and discernment have been the particular focus of Ignatian spirituality, and so it was in this time of my life that I became influenced by the wisdom of Ignatius Loyola, along with his contemporary disciples, particularly Wilkie Au.

The thing with reading is that reading begets more reading, and my reading on vocational discernment brought me to reading on grief and loss. While I had long described my experiences with those words I hadn’t ‘owned’ them as such; undertaking grief work was critical in helping me integrate everything I had been through and look towards the future. My reading on grief and loss then brought me into contact with the world of life coaching. Coaching is a discipline that is the butt of a lot of jokes, but there is a lot of truth there. It offers a basic but vitally important skill set dealing with areas of life such as agency, discernment, creativity, planning, and personal fulfillment, and the tools it offered absolutely changed my life for the better. The coaching world, in turn, put me in touch with Brene Brown’s writing on vulnerability and Angela Duckworth’s ideas about ‘grit’, which in turn placed me squarely in the world of positive psychology. This discipline (some prominent voices include people such as Duckworth (writing on grit), Barbara Frederickson (love and relationships), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (creativity), Susan David (emotional agility), and Martin Seligman (well-being)) seeks to understand the human mind not by looking at psychological pathology but at psychological health and well-being. The more I read about the research emerging from positive psychology, the more I saw the strong connections between what it was saying and what ancient wisdom traditions, including Christianity, have been saying for millennia.

This sense of the harmony between ancient and contemporary understandings of well-being was only heightened when I encountered Integral thought, first popularized by Ken Wilber, but since expanded on by such people as Terry Patten, Diane Musho Hamilton, and Steve McIntosh. While I have some big questions about some of the assumptions built into Integral thought, I continue to find its framework and its basic principles to be very compelling. It proposes that genuine ‘growth’ on both the individual and collective levels, occurs over several aspects of life, and is about being able to integrate as much information and as many perspectives as possible. Stagnation occurs when we refuse to see other perspectives; and just as bad, false growth occurs when we transcend our previous knowledge but reject its wisdom.

During this whole season of my life, from Fall 2015 through 2017, I was engaged in a discernment process for ordained ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada. As my ordination date got closer, however, the less comfortable I was that my vocation would ‘fit’ with what the ‘job’ of being a priest looks like day-to-day. I eventually decided to pull out of the process and find other ways of engaging my vocation. And it was out of that that this blog emerged towards the beginning of 2018.

Believe it or not, this was the ‘short’ version of my life story and influences. The upshot of this long, strange, and winding journey, is that I came to this blog influenced by a wide breadth of the Christian and wider intellectual spectrums. I was rooted in the deep traditions of human wisdom yet open and excited about the potential in what is emerging in the here and now. And I was committed to exploring the possibilities of all of these to create genuine, positive change in the lives of people and communities.

That’s where I was at when I started this blog and it continues to direct how I approach Christianity and the world writ large. But, the focus of what I’ve been writing on has shifted over the years. In the next post, I’ll talk about how I’ve changed in the five years of the blog.

 

* Note: I mention my difficult journey with my sexuality in passing a few times in this post. A fuller discussion of that story deserves a post of its own at some point; I elected not to focus on it here because to even begin to address it in an honest and helpful way would have doubled the length of this already very-long post.

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