Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Just As I Am"

I was recently invited to write a short piece about my spiritual life; a vignette illustrating a significant turn in my spiritual path. This is what I wrote. The story became more important and more intimate than I had anticipated, but this is how writing - and practice - often goes. If we are willing to offer ourselves fully to it, it can take on a life of its own, and we are often changed as a result. For those of you not raised in a traditionally Southern Christian family, the specifics of the hymn and the service may have little meaning. However, I hope you will find something that resonates within the larger story.

I remember sitting in the front pew of East Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday morning as a young boy, watching my grandfather preach. When he finished and it was time for the invitation, he would ask us to join in singing the old hymn, “Just As I Am.” The church was too old, too small, and too poor to have a Minister of Music, so he would point us to the right page in the hymnal and we would sing along as he spoke during the chorus to those in the congregation who were ripe for conversion. I was a serious little boy, having grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, and I was always moved by that song and the earnest request of my grandfather, or any preacher, who was suggesting that this was a life-saving opportunity - the pinnacle of spiritual transformation - to come forward and profess your faith in Jesus Christ and thus to be assured of salvation.

The music was emotional and solemn: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood, was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” The invitation touched that place in me, and I am sure in many others, that longed to be called into a relationship in which we would be fully seen, completely accepted, and infinitely loved. Only God was capable of that we were told, and if we were willing to come to him “just as I am,” all would be well. This was all fine and good during the Sunday morning service, but in Sunday School the very next week, the story mysteriously changed. Apparently I wasn’t OK “just as I am.” In fact, it was probably a good idea that I should actually offer a “plea” to be forgiven for who I was. I could “come home,” but there were rules in this house and entry into the Kingdom had a big price. The truth slowly dawned; being seen was a bit risky, being accepted was definitely going to be conditional, and being loved “just as I am” finally seemed impossible. After all, I knew I was different. I was gay.

I was a really good boy. I did what I was told. I was polite and smart. I had my Perfect Attendance in Sunday School pins and I was a Royal Ambassador. I memorized the 23rd Psalm and repeated it in my father’s Sunday School class when I was five-years old, and was baptized when I was six. I knew what it took to make it in this world of religion and it meant following the rules and pleasing the big people. I knew I could do that and I was good at it. The only trouble was, I had to maintain certain secrets in order to keep it up. Of course, I also noticed that most of the other people in church had their secrets too, but one of the rules we shared was not to notice. It became clear that looking good was sometimes more important than being good, so I became good at that.

Over time, the hidden parts grew too large, the pleasing became too much a burden, and the disconnection too great. I left the church, but “Just As I Am” did not leave me. It kept working on me. I became a Psychologist and practiced as a psychotherapist. I dedicated my life to the relief of suffering in others and in particular I was devoted to helping people find a way to accept themselves, just exactly as they were. If change was possible, this was the starting place. I studied, trained, and practiced. I found my place in the field of Behavioral Medicine, with a specialty in cancer care, working in hospitals and cancer treatment centers around the country. These were real life-saving opportunities, or at least life affirming and healing opportunities. But one big things was missing – a spiritual path. Psychology only went so far, and these patients were facing much more than passing anxieties or depressions. They were not just struggling in their marriages or fighting with their children. These people were facing the possibility of a foreshortened life and they were living with pain and suffering that was very apparent. I needed spiritual help in my own life and new tools to support my patients. I also needed a break.

Work in cancer care can be demanding, so I finally took a vacation to Hawaii, hiking the beautiful and rugged Na Pali trail on the north coast of Kauai with a friend. Along with the needed supplies to sustain us on our trek, I took along a copy of the Dhammapada, one of the earliest texts of the Buddha’s collected teachings. The eleven-mile hike along the narrow trail to our campsite was demanding but the scenery was unbelievably inspiring. The combination of fear and awe left me in a rare state as I finally sat on that remote beach in the Kalalau Valley reading the unfamiliar words of this ancient eastern teacher. Ordinary life had dropped away as I traversed the switchbacks through the hanging valleys along the jagged coast. As I walked, I was held up by the vast sky above me and called forward by the seemingly endless ocean reaching out to the horizon. Something true was being revealed to me in the raw power of nature and more subtly on the pages of the slim volume I carried in my backpack. Here I was, just as I am, without much to prop me up or fall back on, no one to impress and nothing to hide. I stood naked under the waterfall to take my shower, rested in the shade of the rainforest canopy to eat my meals, and took walks along the beach with the shorebirds scurrying along beside me as my companions.

When I returned, I began to slowly find my way along a new spiritual path. This landscape was characterized by mindful awareness, profound acceptance, and deep gratitude for all that is. I studied and learned all I could about the Buddha’s teachings. I came to see that his only concern was the cause of suffering and the relief of suffering he saw around him. That was what I was interested in and what my patients needed - relief from suffering. I meditated and went to retreats. I found a mature teacher to guide me and friends to accompany me along the way. I started a meditation group, founded a Zen center, was ordained as a Priest, spent time in a training monastery, and practiced in Japan. Eventually I allowed a good bit of the ancient Asian forms of practice to fall away. Now I teach this same freedom from suffering, just as I am, in this body, at this time, in this culture, under these circumstances, right here in Austin.

And along the way, I turned back to the actual teachings of Jesus and discovered what the young boy could not have seen; that this freedom was what the Jesus story had been about all along. I now understood that the yearning to respond to that “call” – to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved unconditionally – was a universal desire, not a Christian or Buddhist desire. Everyone wants to be “saved,” no mater what their spiritual tradition; saved from a disconnected life that is not their own. What was touched as I sat singing that song of invitation was the soft spot in all of us, and it was this tender place that Jesus and Buddha had recognized and met with their lives. They responded as compassionate healers and wise teachers, and their kindness has made a profound difference in the world over the past two millennia. As a result, I now have the opportunity to live a life of truth - just as I am - held in that radiant light of wise care that theses great teachers demonstrated in their lives. And you have that same opportunity - just as you are.