Sometimes I feel alone. Like there’s something wrong with me. Like I’m a bad person, a misfit – not fit for friendship. I feel that way tonight. I feel bad.
I think it’s because I’m remembering.
I grew up in the Unification Church. We believed that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was the second coming of Christ. We were called Moonies.
My parents dedicated their lives to the cause of Rev. Moon – a man I called True Father. Their lives were directed and commanded by leaders in the church, and their marriage was arranged by Moon. Our church community was tight-knit, and even though my life was mostly normal, my identity as a Moonie was central.
Growing up, every morning started with a full bow to a picture of Moon and his wife. I would read his words. When Moon was in the States, we’d go to his mansion in New York and listen to him speak. To make space for all the members to fit in the room and to be as close to Father as possible, I’d sit seiza-style, legs folded under the thighs. I made several pilgrimages to Korea, the Fatherland. These trips cost thousands of dollars. I believed they were worth it. Someday, my parents would arrange my marriage to another member born into the church. Together, my wife and I would join in the work of building God's kingdom on earth.
One fresh spring morning, I sat down in the sparse meetinghouse I used to worship in. Sun streamed in through the window in the ceiling onto the bowed heads of people breathing deep and grounding down. We were all seated in a circle. Chairs and benches were the only furniture in the well windowed room. Everyone was bathed in light.
The silence was baited, tense. Waiting to be broken.
Then, out of a bench in the corner, a loud belch rose up into circle.
And for the rest of the meeting, this old, drunk man belched and snored cacophonous snores the whole time.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are different kinds of vocal ministry. And this man, in his big tattered coat and authentic presence in his body was the big fuck you to liberal quaker piety that meeting needed.
I have some friends where you can tell they experience their bodies as a residence, as a space. With some of them, it’s like they’re visiting their bodies. In their eyes you see them peeking into the world.
Their minds are their sanctuaries.
I’m not like that. I experience my body as my self. In fact, sometimes I struggle to stick with my thoughts long enough to think about what I’m thinking. Sometimes I’m not really sure what I’m feeling. Or how I’m feeling.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ll be out for a run – running – when all of a sudden I’ll feel rage or heartbreak or fear, rising up from my chest and catching up with me. I just keep running into my feelings. Sobbing. Shouting.
I think this is part of why I’m pentecostal. My body is how I know God. When I first came to know Jesus, I felt it. It was an emotional experience, yes, but convincement wasn’t a decision for me. Instead, I was overwhelmed. It took over my body. There were weeks of confusion over feeling compelled by Jesus, and I didn’t necessarily want to be. I tried to push it away. But I was falling in love. I was possessed by love, and I prayed. My whole body shook and shook, and there on the ground, on my knees, I knew God.
When I was five years old, my dad brought home a Dalmatian puppy for my birthday. He named her “Candy” for her sweet disposition. I did not want a dog. To make matters worse, Candy was not a nice dog. She barked, and she bit ankles. I was afraid of Candy.
I asked my dad to find a new home for Candy, suggesting that maybe Candy needed a family that would be more patient, more understanding, better equipped to love her in spite of all of her problems. My dad laughed. He thought I was funny. But I was desperate. So I prayed. I had learned in Sunday school that God answers prayer, so I asked God to kill Candy and take her to live in heaven with the angels.
In the middle of the night, I would hear things. I’d wake up screaming and thrashing. Every night, I’d wake my parents with my screams and then try to fall asleep again on my mother’s side of the bed, clinging to her hand. I had to hear over and over that the dream wasn’t real before I could calm down enough to sleep.
Once I finally started sleeping in my own room, the voices didn’t go away. But instead of monsters, I often thought I could hear my mother’s voice in the middle of the night, usually asking for something (her Bible, some food, nail clippers). No matter how many times she told me she had been fast asleep and to stop waking her up with these “jokes,” I continued to go into her room, convinced that, this time, the voice was real.
In the Old Testament, Samuel hears the false voice of somebody he trusted. After coming to Eli several times, he learns it was the voice of God, but the voices I heard were not the voice of God. They were evil. I was afraid. And later in my life, I continued to feel that God had left me alone, giving me no voice or guidance that I could trust.
Here goes nothin'. There are some of you I would have LOVED to tell this in person, but I felt I needed to be 100% authentically myself sooner than allowed for those face-to-face conversations with everyone.
Let me tell you a little about my story and what that means to me. (Be prepared for a lack of organized thought. I was nervous when I wrote this, and I decided not to spend a long time editing it before I posted because I just wanted to get it "out there".)
I grew up in a very conservative, heteronormative community. I wasn't around many LGBTQ+ individuals, and those I knew that were LGBTQ+ were gay males. I never felt that they should be treated differently, but I know that they were absolutely treated differently by the community I lived in.
This summer I’ve talked about the ways that people of faith, in every generation, have resisted the death-dealing powers of the world, the forces that dehumanize and dominate. In resisting these forces, people of faith have also re-imagined what the world could look like, from the Hebrew exiles recasting their Babylonian captors’ creation narrative in a way that dignifies every human being as God’s representative, up to Mr. Rogers’ television-based nonconformity. So I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about a major contemporary source of resistance, re-imagination, and sheer joy in serving God and loving God’s creation: the gift of queer Christians to the church.
I’ve grown more cynical as I’ve gotten older. I know this and I own it. Part of the issue is as I’ve become an adult, I’ve become less of a big picture thinker and more of a detail oriented person – not that being a big picture person is bad, or that being detail oriented automatically predisposes you to being cynical, but you start to realize how much work goes into things you thought would be so easy and natural.
The other part of it is more grounded in the times; every day my phone or computer delivers constant updates of tragedy and heartbreak. Every hour there’s another school shooting, police brutality, queer bashings, environmental crises, I could go on, but I’m fairly certain you probably feel the same way. Elected officials tasked with serving people serve only themselves and the corporations they get donations from. Church leaders cry about the name of Jesus being twisted in the public square for decidedly un-Christian legislative agendas but they don’t do much else about it but hem and haw and play it safe….All while people die easily preventable deaths.
A good game is like the gospel. In the imaginative world of play, people perform foolish acts for no good reason. It’s fantasy that teaches us something about reality: what it is to live without inhibitions, what it means to be real together.
Imagine a six-year-old girl teaching adults to wriggle around on their stomachs like snakes. Imagine two friends on a road trip, reading billboard messages backwards, pretending to speak in a foreign tongue. Imagine a group of students using dictionaries and a long cafeteria table to create a schoolhouse shuffleboard.
I wasn’t listening to my body. I was trying to ignore the anxiety building up in my chest as my stomach turned in knots. My palms were sweaty. My neck was tense. I took a deep breathe in. I held onto it for a few seconds. Then, I let it go slowly. I had forgotten what it felt like to breathe. I had forgotten what it felt like for my heart to beat, holding onto both excitement and fear. I had forgotten what it felt like to be alive.
About one year ago, I found myself feeling the most depressed that I have felt in a while. I had to force myself to get out of bed and I don’t mean that I had to push snooze on my alarm three times. Rather, I slept through my alarm and other important tasks that needed to get done. I ate because I knew I needed to, not because I felt hungry or wanted to. I felt that my mind was eroding. I was numb. I was breathing because I had to survive, not because I was living. I felt like a half functioning machine.
The main gist of this whole "guarding your heart" facade is supposed to be this: if you don't get too close to someone in the early stages of a relationship, "giving too much away," is usually how it gets phrased, then you'll walk out the relationship with less pain if it happens to not pan out. That might be a nice idea to start out with, but it really starts to destabilize when you throw in the parallel Christian notion that casual dating is bad and that you're always supposed to date with the goal of marriage. (I could write another whole blog post on the flaws of that, but I digress). The problem with this setup is that those two ideas are completely antithetical. It's not possible to simultaneously "guard your heart," aka basically hold a person at arm's length in the initial stages of dating while also dating with this laser-focused goal of getting married eventually. I might only have one year of therapy school under my belt, but it's enough for me to tell you that's not how things work relationally whatsoever.
I will be honest and cut to the chase: Quakerism needs to be revived. Earlier this week, as I was working on my talk, I received a notification that a Young Adult Friend, Hye Sung, posted a new blog post. Sadly, it was a blog post where Hye Sung announced that he decided to leave Quakerism. He was inspired to come to Quakerism through the writings of early Friends, saying: “George Fox wrote about the Kingdom of God breaking into this world — and it came from within — this was the gospel I knew, the gospel I needed. Quakers were holy fools, apocalyptic evangelists, soldiers of prophecy. They were about liberation and creating the age-to-come. That was the Spirit I knew. This was the church I longed for.”
Yet after years of being in Quakerism, Hye Sung writes: “What I’ve found, instead, is that Friends have converged on a shared history and a handful of practices.”
I read his post with sadness knowing that I have felt this feeling myself and I have seen others leave Quakerism feeling a similar way as Hye Sung. I must be honest, I have had thoughts of leaving myself, especially as a minister who seeks to be of service to the larger Quaker body and with a family to support. I have thought many times that it could be easier to just go to another denomination and be fully supported. But every time that I try to leave, God keeps calling me back into the fold and it is in Quaker worship that I truly experience the Divine.
I’ve been thinking about the Bible. I’ve been thinking about the book of Job.
Because the story of Job is the oldest book in the portable library we call the Bible, I’ve wondered if maybe this story might be THE story. I’ve wondered about whether the other books could be commentary – a working through and a working out of the themes introduced in this first story, the story of Job: a story of suffering.
Unexpected. Undeserved. Unexplained.
Why is there suffering? The book of Job takes up quite a bit of space discussing the problem. Each of the friends introduces an idea as to the source of suffering and how we should respond. Job argues. The friends argue back. But it seems that suffering is not the moral – only the motivator. Without suffering, Job – a stand-in for humanity – might have no reason to consider his existence.
There is a tree beside the church I grew up attending. It grows in the quiet space between buildings.
Up in that tree was where I first found I could be invisible.
Not just hidden in a small dark place, but out in the open, vulnerable and exposed, free and unseen.
At the age of eight, I hadn’t experienced a lot of that in my life. I didn’t know what to think of it. I didn’t trust it, so I tried a few experiments. I made faces. I waved. I dropped leaves, sticks, balls of moss upon people as they passed. I dangled my legs and arms from the lowest branches, nearly brushing the tops of heads with my toes as my legs swung from side to side. When none of that worked, I cried. Fat, noisy, ugly tears that left my eyes swollen and my face red.
Nobody looked up. Nobody saw. Even when crowds moved through, conversing and laughing and arguing, nobody ever thought to look up as they passed under my tree. I could have touched them, they were so close. It was strange to me. Like watching a world where I did not exist. I remember when I first started thinking that way. While in this place, the world existed without me.
It was the first vacation of my adult life. Since childhood, I’d dreamed of going on a cruise, island hopping and swimming and maybe watching whales. And I finally did it, booking the ticket to leave from New York City – just a subway ride from home.
It took awhile to settle in. The first night, I jerked awake repeatedly – “Why is my bed moving? Oh, yeah …” Then two minutes later, “Why is my bed moving? Oh, yeah …”
I found the basketball court on the sun deck and shot hoops for an hour a day, discovered the soft serve machine and had ice cream at every meal, explored the decks and made use of the best reading chair in history, and awakened (inexplicably) at five o’clock every morning.
Most importantly, I turned off my phone. I needed it as a clock, but I put it in airplane mode for the duration. I work pretty much full-time in ministry, with a lot of that work happening online – email, social media – so it’s normal to have the work at my fingertips, responding to others’ needs within minutes. It’s a joyful ministry – work that I love – but it’s also something I carry with me twenty-four hours a day, and sometimes, it gets heavy.
I have a fondness for cemeteries. Most people don’t know how to respond when learning that fact. I imagine images of cloaked figures or old-timey grave robbers flash across their minds’ eyes. What good could I possibly be up to in a place like that? Sure, people visit graves of loved ones and meander around for genealogy research from time to time; that’s understandable. But those of us who stay for hours at a stretch, not there for anyone in particular? That’s just weird, right? Off-putting at least.
I'm glad you don't hate gay people. I'm glad you think Black Lives Matter. I'm glad you're inclusive, welcoming, affirming - I'm glad you're the good kind of religious people.
But you're not.
A lot of us had to learn that the hard way.
We had to learn that we were counted as members in order to reach a quota. We were present so the pastor, the church, the denomination, looked good. Open-minded. Liberal. Progressive.
Our gifts were used, flaunted even, and we were constantly affirmed. Told we were needed, necessary, and we were thanked. Over and over again. For what? For showing up. Without saying a word, we were counted prophets.
I am very decidedly a “city person.” So much so that, during seminary orientation last year, when some new friends invited me to “go exploring” with them I assumed they meant exploring downtown. Lo and behold, they meant exploring a state park. So off I went hiking.
For the past 4 days, I hit the road and spent time in Nashville, Tennessee, “Music City USA” with population nearly 700 thousand, and in Bryson City, North Carolina, a little Smoky Mountain town with population 1-2 thousand. City person as I am, you might guess which location I enjoyed most. But you’d probably guess wrong.
In Bryson City, I was struck with the gift of the small town, the gift of getting away from home, work, school, and errands, trading them all in for a slower pace and quieter place even just for a couple days.
Late last summer, I finally did something I had told myself I was going to do for a long time. It didn't feel particularly profound or significant at the time. In fact, the only significant part of it was the thought that it would take *at least* a few months for it to all grow out again in the event I didn't like it. And if anything, I think it even felt a little childish. So, no, I wasn't running around with lofty philosophical ideas in my mind at the time, but I went ahead and dyed my hair silver/white anyway. I didn't know dyeing my hair was going to change my life.
Maybe that sounds melodramatic. Maybe that is melodramatic, but I really believe the last 6 months of my life might've played out differently if I hadn't decided to dye my hair white. It's funny, you know, how you find those small sacred things that have a way of needling their way into your soul and so drastically changing you that you're not even fully aware of it until months have passed. That's what I've been discovering about my white hair.
I’m Darren. Darren Khalil Calhoun to be exact. Most people call me Darren, but my mom calls me Calhoun and sometime we call each other Franky. I’ve been called a number of names… most of them Good and kind like “Dare Bear” but some others that I… wouldn’t ever repeat in church. I’ve also been known for what I do. I work as a freelance photographer so sometimes I’m known as “photo guy” or “picture man.” In college, I helped to launch a campus ministry and during this same time I was ordained as a minister. Suddenly my name became “Minister Darren.”