Thursday, April 7, 2016

I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha


This past weekend was the most amazing weekend of my life. No exaggeration.

Let me tell you why…

One year ago, I was feeling dead inside. My spirit was dry as the desert. My brokenness was growing like an intrusive ivy beyond myself and started to overtake those around me. My shortcomings were casting a shadow over the person I was once proud to be.

A year ago, I was deep in the dark forest of unhappiness which was caused by no one else but myself. However, while watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, I was inspired to search for a nearby Buddhist monastery. I was hoping my results would yield a solution to my suffering. My Google search listed Deer Park Monastery in the top results. I clicked the link to learn all about Deer Park and its practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was roaming around the website, I learned they were going to have a young adults retreat the following month called, “Wake Up!” I was immediately intrigued and booked my spot for the retreat that same week. That was in April of 2015. I had an incredible time but that weekend was a mere introduction to the practice and healing which I desperately needed.

I chose to return to the same retreat this year. A year later my situation is a little different because I’m no longer in a relationship but I was still trapped in the same dark forest of unhappiness; feeling alone, broken, hurt, useless and lost.

Twenty minutes before I arrived to the retreat last week, I ended an argument with a family member saying I didn’t want to speak or visit for a long time. The conversation brought up a lot of pain and I arrived to the monastery feeling very angry. When I arrived I didn’t want to speak with anyone or really even be there at that point. Shortly after arriving and setting up my tent it was dinner time. I was thankful for the required “Noble Silence” during dinner as I was still fuming from the conversation just a few hours before. That night I went to bed still feeling livid. I couldn’t stop thinking that I will probably not talk to this family member for a very long time.

The next day, after morning meditation, breakfast, and working mediation; I made my way to the monastery’s bookstore. I wanted to buy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ (partly because Oprah said she has it on her nightstand). As I was searching for the book, one of the nuns approached me and pointed to a book on the very top shelf and recommended it for me. When I raised my eyes to read the cover of the book it was titled Anger. Part of me felt caught, embarrassed, offended, but also relieved. Will this book contain a path out of my darkness? I don’t know if it’s a book that she recommends to everyone or if my anger was just that evident. I sheepishly and discreetly purchased the book but secretly couldn’t wait to begin reading it.

I made my way back to my tent and began reading the book right away. Once I started, I wanted to consume the entire book and every line which felt like a healing ointment on a fresh burn. The book was opening my eyes to how my anger is a part of me, it’s my inner child which I need to embrace. My anger is the inner child that I need to invite to sit down and eat with me, climb the mountain with me, invite to watch TV with me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in this book that we need to care for this child because it is a part of us. While reading this book I started to feel resolve with the anger I arrived with that weekend and I began to come out of my shell and socialize with others attending the retreat. Over the next few days I started to make connections with others. I made myself vulnerable and I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging once again.

On Saturday, the last full day of the retreat, there was a Q&A planned. This was our opportunity to ask any question(s) we were dying to ask a monk or nun concerning the practice. It was held in the main meditation hall. More than 100 of us gathered to sit on the floor to ask our questions and hopefully gain answers to our suffering. Some questions inquired about life after death, celibacy, but the question that stood out was about gender roles and is there a place for transgender people in this practice. All the questions were echoes from our caves of pain and suffering. This question, although I didn’t ask it, was one I was wondering about also.

The monk who was tasked with answering the question of gender roles and the place of transgender people within the practice gave an answer which raised some eyebrows, unintentionally evoked the pain which we too often ignore and cover up, yet, at the same time created an opportunity of healing I personally did not expect.

While he gave his answer you could feel the energy of the room shift. Several people got up and walked out feeling rejected again by another spiritual community. It was obvious that his answer did not sit well with the majority of the people in the room. Little did I know, this mishap was going to bring about a healing that me and many of my LGBTQ siblings desperately needed.

Personally, as I sat in the big and open mediation hall listening to his answer, I felt the pain from the messages of my past, “We love you but…”, “You’re welcome here but…”, “You can practice with us but…”. The mediation hall which once felt full of love and joy was suddenly becoming hollow. Having been rejected in the past by my faith community for being gay, I couldn’t help but feel the same despair again. It felt like the spiritual community I was willing to trust again and become vulnerable with was going to keep me locked outside. However, in the midst of all these feelings I invited the children (anger, sadness, despair, and rejection) to sit and breathe with me. Together we breathed and I put the children to bed. I chose to understand that this brother answering the question is not originally from America, English is his fourth language, and comes from a culture that has long ignored confronting LGBTQ issues. Within that context, the answer was a little easier to hear but still not easy. More than likely, it was nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding and poor choice of words. However, the familiar pain it raised was real.

After the Q&A, our day continued as planned.

After lunch, one of my new friends asked if I was going to go to the LGBTQ breakout group. “There’s a LGBTQ breakout group?” I asked. One of the nuns had planned this breakout for those who wanted to express their feelings and thoughts concerning the answer the monk gave about LGBTQ people within the practice. Without hesitation I agreed that I would be there.

Dear god. Am I glad I went.

There we were. A good number of us gathered in the circle garden sharing our stories, pain, and concerns. I shared with the group about how I went through five years of ex-gay exorcisms and am still hurting from the blunt force of rejection from my past faith community and leaders. I expressed that I wanted to trust a spiritual community again but was scared and now I wasn’t sure if I could.

As we approached the end of our sharing, the nun who organized the event shared a story with us.

The sister shared about the time she visited a Christian monastery. While she was there, a priest shared with her the story of how a woman came to him and told him about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Catholic priest. Moved by the story, and wanting to help relieve her suffering, this priest she was confessing to knelt down on his knees and kissed her feet. An act of humility and kindness which helped the woman heal from her pain. After sharing this story, the nun asked if we would allow her to touch the earth for us. Not entirely sure of what that meant or how much it would mean, I nodded in agreement with the group.

The sister, with a shaved head, wearing a long brown robe, took her sandals off, stood up from her chair, walked to the center of the circle and knelt to her knees. She slowly put her face on the ground covered in pine needles and mulch, stretched her arms out before her and she stayed there. Then, the healing began.

As she touched the earth for us, like a film, all the past rejection I received and felt from my faith leaders played in my head. All the hateful messages. The exorcisms. The manipulation. The lies. The spiritual abuse. While she remained faced down on the ground before us, the images I was seeing turned from color and faded to black and white. The messages I was hearing in my head started to become mute. The anger I didn’t even realize was there matured to forgiveness and resolve. The pain faded away. The power of the past died.

She touched the earth for us.

For me.

A leader within my new spiritual community chose to humble herself and care for us instead of ignoring and rejecting us. She chose to be the doctor who saw our suffering and offered a cure, unconditional love and kindness.

Others in the circle began to weep and cry.

This was a holy moment.

As I replay it in my head, it remains a holy moment and one I keep revisiting since it happened.

It gives me hope.

It brings me healing.

It has given me a path out of my dark forest of unhappiness.

This was, hands down, the best weekend of my life. I arrived angry, empty, and dry but I left feeling healed and full.

This is the reason I love Jesus but I follow Buddha.

Monday, January 27, 2014

One Lesson for the LGBT Community

While scrolling through my Facebook news feed this morning, I came across this headline from Instinct Magazine, "Christian Singer Natalie Grant Left The Grammys Early. Guess Why..." The assumption is Natalie left early because of the gay weddings about to take place during Macklmore's performance.

At first I became saddened because I always thought of Natalie as someone who is very loving and more enlightened than most conservative Christians. I clicked the link and read the article. After reading the article, I wanted to know if this is what Natalie actually meant or if her words were being taken out of context. Here is how Natalie responded to Instinct magazine's accusation, "I absolutely NEVER said that is why. In fact, I left before that ever happened and heard about it after the fact." Here is a longer response on her Facebook page.

In 2008, I was honored to be called one of Instinct magazine's "Leading Men." As a "leader" I must state that I find the magazine's unfair characterization and assumption of Natalie Grant uncalled for. With that said, I think this incident is a good example of the bitterness the LGBT community and media holds towards anyone who classifies themselves as a Christian.

Have we - the LGBT community - been abused and hurt by self-proclaimed Christians? Yes, absolutely. Do we - the LGBT community - have the right to be hurt and upset? Yes, absolutely. Should we - the LGBT community - forgive the people of faith who have done wrong against us? Yes. It is our only hope if we ever wish to become more than bitter old queens.

In all my travels and meetings I've found the most painful and controversial thing you could possibly bring up with LGBT people is the topic of faith.

We have been hurt by it. We have been violated by it. We have been lied to about it.

However, if we want to grow as individuals; if we want to grow as a community - we have to forgive people like Pat Robertson. We have to forgive Jimmy Swaggart. We have to forgive our ex-gay counselors. We have to forgive the pastors and people of faith that dismissed us to hell. We have to forgive. 

Here's the one lesson the LGBT community must learn...

Love - not bitterness - wins. 

"Love wins" has been the anthem of our fight for marriage equality yet we fail to implement it in every aspect of our lives. If we truly want to help society evolve then we must let go of the bitterness with how we have been wronged in the past.
When you're condemned to hell, remember - love - not bitterness - wins. 
When your family and friends disown you because you're LGBT, remember - love - not bitterness - wins.
When your humanity is invalidated time and time again, remember - love - not bitterness - wins.

If we hope to change hearts and minds, we must let go of bitterness and choose to love. As the very wise Martin Luther King Jr. stated, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." 

Choose to love. 

Be love,

Azariah Southworth 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Gay Agenda

This is what three hours of fighting for my right to marry looks like. I shouldn't have to but I will.

Hello Sir/Ma'am, 
 Can I have your permission to marry the person I love?

If you're in Indiana - Vote NO on HJR-3.
Go here to get involved...

Friday, January 17, 2014

Life's Most Important Lesson

In a TV interview, Sherri Shepherd from The View revealed that she believes LGBT people are going to hell. Her interview reminded me of the most important lesson I've learned in life so far.

As humans everything we do is a response out of two things... fear or love. Every choice we make derives from these two emotions.

The thing which hinders us from fulfilling our New Year resolution to be healthy is fear. The decision to not forgive a friend or family member comes from a place of fear. When we don't fulfill our career goals or even create goals it's because we are allowing fear to control us. However, operating in love will inform you to forgive the friend or family member. Love for yourself will compel you to keep your resolution. Love will motivate you to achieve your goals.

My journey of letting go of fear started when I stopped fearing hell.

For me, growing up in a very religious home, the fear of hell was deeply instilled in me. I remember the countless sermons that ended with, "If you left here tonight, died in a car accident, where would you spend eternity?" If I wasn't sure, I would be one of the first to raise my hand to be saved. Jesus was my way out of hell. However, love didn't lead me to Jesus, it was fear. However, the Jesus that fear led me to was a counterfeit Jesus.

While I was on the 2008 Equality Ride, I was confronted with the same question from hundreds of students and community members opposed to our message of LGBT inclusion. Everyday I was asked, "Aren't you afraid of going to hell?"

After I was asked this question at an Assemblies of God school in Texas I came to a conclusion. I decided that I would not let fear control my life or inform my decisions anymore. After choosing to not let fear inform my decisions, when I was asked again, "Aren't you afraid of going to hell?" My answer became a solid and resounding, "No." My reason being is this, if I choose to accept Christ as my savior because I don't want to go to hell but heaven instead then I have only accepted Christ out of fear because I want to save myself.

So, no, I am not afraid of going to hell. That question exposes the selfishness and fear which has come to be the very foundation for so many who call themselves a Christian. A relationship based on fear and selfishness will never last. I believe this to be the main contributor to so many ignorant, angry, and religious Christians. They have not yet fallen in love with Jesus. They have not allowed love to be the foundation of their relationship with him. At the end of the day, Jesus is not their loving Savior, rather, he is their ticket out of eternal torture.

I do not choose to be in a relationship with Jesus because I don't want to go to hell. I choose to be in a relationship with Christ because his compelling message of love and forgiveness has saved me and healed my many wounds. I choose to follow Christ not because of my fear of hell but because his radical and endless grace sets me free.

This is why I pursue Christ. This is why I walk with Christ. Heaven is not my goal and hell is not my fear. To know and love Christ and share that with others in this life is my purpose and goal.

So, here is life's most important lesson (according to me)... Begin to recognize when fear informs your decisions. When you start becoming aware of when and how fear informs your decisions, ask yourself, "What would love do?" When you have your answer, do what love would do instead.

Don't allow fear to control you.

Forgive when you think you can't.

Exercise when you think you're exhausted.

Pursue your goals like it's a race for your life.

Don't let fear win. 

Be love,
Azariah Southworth

I would like to note, I do not believe a literal hell exist. That can be a post for another time though.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

To My Hometown - Orland, Indiana

To My Hometown Orland,

Like many of you, I grew up with summers spent on Lake Pleasant and Wall Lake. During the summer my sisters and I loved to fish from the pond across the street from our home. We would take turns swinging in our neighbors tire which hung from a weeping willow in his side yard. As a young kid, I competed on Orland’s baseball team sponsored by Bill’s Marathon. I wasn’t very good, but I had fun. I remember my mom taking me to breakfast at Chubby’s restaurant before dropping me off at my babysitter Joyce’s house. I remember how colorful and beautiful the gladiolus were which bloomed in the field across the street from Shop Rite Supermarket. I loved the summers in Orland. I adore my hometown.

However, there is a scary thing happening in my home state of Indiana and it will affect every town and city including Orland. Our legislators are currently deciding if my right to marry should be up for a public vote or not.

If you’re married, do you remember when you proposed to the person you love? Perhaps it’s the other way around, do you remember when the person you love proposed to you? Now, imagine going to the county clerk’s office to get your marriage license and they refuse to grant one to you. How would that affect your life as it is today? Would you have fought for the 1,100+ benefits that are granted to married couples? Would you have fought for your relationship to be recognized by the government that you pay taxes to? Would you have gone door to door asking your neighbors, “May I have your permission to get married?”

That is what I’m doing right now. I’m asking you, will you let me marry the person I love? I shouldn’t have to ask you this, but I am, because it’s important to me. If HJR-3 and HJR-6 come up for a vote, please vote no. When you vote no, you’re voting for freedom, you’re voting for equality, you’re voting for love.

I hope one of these summers, I can come home with my love (who is also a Hoosier) to marry him and create new fond memories in my hometown, Orland, Indiana. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

3 Lessons Straight Christians Must Learn

If you're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) you've probably received an email like this one. -------> 

I’ve received emails like this one since I’ve come out. I've received them from old friends, strangers and in this case from past fellow church members. People who are reaching out to me in hopes for me to “see the light” and come out of this “lifestyle”—for me to deny my identity. 

There was a time when I would have been really hurt by an email like the one from Connie. People don’t realize that we aren’t talking about an abstract theological concept. When you talk about homosexuality—or really same-sex sex—you’re talking about a piece of me. I didn’t choose this anymore than you choose to be straight. This is my road to walk and you can critique from the sidelines on how I should live all you like, it still is my shoes making the journey. 

Above anything, I just wish Connie could know the Jesus I know. The one that delivers us from fear, breaks the bondage of ignorance, the one that loves and affirms all people; regardless of their sexual orientation. 

I'm not hurt by Connie's email because I know she means well. She has reached out to me time and time again, she truly cares and wants the best for me. However, Connie is confusing her best with God's best. Connie has done what countless others have done and continue to do; they have made God nothing more than a mere reflection of themselves. 

Faith is a journey, it’s a personal journey. When you stop traveling in your faith, you stop growing and you stop learning. I believe the Divine is knocking on the church's door and asking, "Will you love my LGBT children as I love them? As I affirm them? Will you choose to know them as I know them?" 

To all the Connies out there, here are three important lessons to learn... 

- First, When you tell me my life would be better as x,y,z; you’re minimizing my relationship with Christ. I have a different interpretation of a couple verses in the Bible. I have reconciled my faith and sexual orientation. There has to be respect for my personal journey with God. 

- Next, ask yourself have you actually done your research on what the bible says or doesn’t say in regards to homosexuality as we understand it today? My friend Eliel Cruz says, "You've read six Bible verses, listened to a 45-minute sermon and have deemed yourself well-versed on the multifaceted subject of homosexuality. How quickly you have become an expert on the lives of thousands. An expert on my life." (Watch Eliel's moving video with his spoken word, "Where Were You?" HERE) There are many, many interpretations out there from different theological perspectives. A great book is “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” by James Brownson. Wrestle with your beliefs, I have. 

- Lastly, just get to know me. Come into genuine fellowship with me. I’d love to have a mutually respectful dialogue about this subject. It is only through genuine fellowship that we can both truly see each other, learn from each other and grow in our faith together. 

Remember, this is a journey and it's not over. 

Be love, 
Azariah Southworth
(co-authored by Eliel Cruz)