Monday, September 21, 2009

My Way Or The Highway

It has been eleven years since I left the Lutheran ministry, the church, and the faith of my youth and middle age years.

During those eleven years I have been a middle school teacher, a middle school counselor, and am now retired, living in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, and enjoying, among many things, the reemergence of photography as one of the passions of my life. I have just completed the construction of a photography gallery on our property, which will have its Grand Opening on October 3rd, 4th, and 18th, 2009. I am a landscape and female figure photographer, and recently had ten of my outdoor figure photos accepted into Open Studios here in Santa Cruz County. Open Studios begins October 3rd as well, so my Grand Opening will be happening at the same time as people from throughout the County visit local artists in their studios. I worked hard to have all of this come together at the same time. I am very excited about it all.

Okay, that's scene one.

Scene two took place two days ago, when I received a message from someone who had worshiped in the House Church of which I was the minister. She and I recently reconnected on Facebook, and I guess it took her a while to get to some of the writings on my website. Here is the message I received from her:

Frank~ wow... I don't really know what to say... I wondered why you never responded to any of my little correspondences since my first seeing you on this site ( till now) but after reading one of your particular "writings"...( a question of God?) I guess I can see why you haven't ... We are TOTALLY on different pages... and I am very sad at the news... I will continue to pray for you but I do not want to be on you newsletter list... I hope you will understand... at this point in the "FACEBOOK" friendship ...we will have to agree to disagree... someday I hope we can have a conversation about how you could just walk away from Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior...unless He never TRULY was in the first place.... but you will probably just delete this and that will be the end of it... I hope not...but if it is... I'll know why.... *******

Here was my reply:

Hi *******,
You have jumped to some assumptions that just aren't true. I was delighted to connect up with you as a friend here on Facebook. There is no underlying reason why I haven't responded to any of your posts, although it seems at least in my mind as if I have. I remember writing how you and ***** have both stayed as young and happy looking as I ever remember! Anyway, that's not the real point, since your real problem is where I am in relation to Jesus. You know, it's funny, but as with so many things, if you've never been something that's one thing, but if you've been something and leave it, then that's the worst for people. Joyce and I have good friends who are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists. They're all good people and we love each other dearly. Their friendship has nothing to do with what religion or not they have. It has to do with who they are as caring people. I'm the same me. I am as happy and devoted and caring to my family, friends, and community as I have ever been. There's no need to agree to disagree, which makes it sound like a constant backdrop of tension. Instead, I'd rather see it as all of us celebrating not only those things we share in common, but also all the other things that bring so much beauty and diversity as well.
Love you,

I emailed a couple of my friends who are atheist and shared the correspondence between me and *******

Here, in part, is the response I received from one of them:

Frank, it appears that someone wasn't paying attention... I recently made contact with an older cousin that was very close to my mother. We hadn't talked for many years, but I had a couple of questions. One of hers for me was whether i was still a strong christian, and I told her I had only been to church for two weddings and two funerals in the past 30 years or so, and considered myself a strong non-christian. She could hardly speak. Sometimes, i soften it a bit more than other times, but I get along great with some friends with whom I went to *********, like **** ******* (minister) and ******** ***** (ditto) and others, while other friends and former friends treat me like I have AIDS, the old, "you can catch it from breathing the same air" kind of AIDS. Or swine flu. Or being Gay ... or something. Fuck 'em. They're not worth all the effort it takes to try to explain the rationale, and they don't listen anyway. Keep up your good work, and get better. We just need to live our lives and care for those we love as best we can. Best of luck for your open gallery days. Sell a shitload! ******

And here is my response to that, which I share in the form of this blog post:

******, I think you are absolutely right. We are sometimes treated as if we have AIDS by some, as if where we are in our lives could rub off on them. I do believe that it comes out of a fear of the strength of their own faith. My best example of this came from my mother. When I left the church, she said to me, "I don't think I'll ever be able to confess the Apostle's Creed again." Now, this may seem harsh to some of you, but my reply to her was, "Mom, if your faith is dependent on my faith, then you have placed your faith in the wrong place. Your faith is in God, not in me. To make your faith dependent on mine is to place it in a false god."

I have known people who don't do what they really want to do until their parents die. So I was not willing, at fifty and sixty years of age, to lie to my mother or to play games with her. It wasn't easy for her, but I have to believe to this day that while she disagreed with me and felt pain over the changes in my life, she respected and loved me for being authentic and honest and loving.

Scene three. So, I'm sitting here thinking that none of this is having much effect on me, and I'm thinking that my atheist friend's advice is the best, it's not worth all the effort it takes to try to explain the rationale, when I find myself, as I'm varnishing frames that will hang on my gallery walls in just a few days, bursting out in tears, and anger.

The tears would not stop. I literally came into the house from my shop to share where I was at with Joyce, before the tears and feelings passed and all I would be reduced to sharing with her was a postmortem. I shared with her the thoughts I am about to share with you, asked for an evening alone, and went back to my shop, where the tears continued to flow.

Scene Four - "He who tries to explain, even against the advice of his good friend"

I want to know where people get the feeling that they have the right to judge another, even if there is nothing that person is doing in their life that is violent, or unkind, or illegal, or insane. I am living a very good life. We have property of our own in the mountains. I am launching a photography gallery business, which is one of the passions of my life. I served children in San Francisco for twenty-two years as an elementary teacher, a middle school teacher, and a middle school counselor. I was good at working with children. Prior to that (actually there was an overlap of twelve years), I was a Lutheran minister for twenty-five years, serving parishes in Monterey and San Francisco, California. During all those years of ministry, children were my prime focus, especially as a youth group pastor. Ministry and education and working with children were some of the most natural things that were ever a part of my life.

Since retirement a little over a year ago, Joyce and I are developing a wonderful group of friends here in the mountains. We were even asked and agreed to lead a couple's group, which incredibly and surprisingly, has turned out to be a real strength of ours. We are helping couples, and ourselves, learn how to do the u-turn and realize that everything that comes up for us when our partner triggers anger or frustration in us has not to do with them, but with ourselves.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, I am a good fucking person! I always have been and I always will be. I wish no one harm - Joyce and I lead insects out of the house rather than kill them! I am compassionate, honest, authentic, loving, and have an open heart. I care about the environment (with Joyce's help, who reminds me to turn off my shop lights when I leave . . :o)

Speaking of Joyce, here is the comment she just made to me, "You know, most of your life you have been a white, Christian male. And maybe this is one of the first times you have experienced prejudice or judgment. Women, people of color, gays, they all know what this is like on an everyday basis." She did not say this with judgment, but as something more for me to think about as I compose this piece of writing.

And I agree, although it is certainly not the first time I have received judgment. But there's something different this time. I am enjoying these mountains and the simple pleasures of life. I have, for the first time in my life the privilege of pursuing my love of photography as full time as I desire. I have wonderful family and friends. And out of nowhere comes someone who has not seen me in almost thirty years, who has the whatever it takes to judge someone for not being where he used to be.

Which brings me to a very surprising thought that came up this evening in the middle of my tears. In the last eleven years (except for working with children in public schools) I have not wanted to be a spokesperson for god or anyone else. I came to find that I had no answers to life at all, except to love and to connect and to express and be creative and to serve. That is probably one of the reasons that people to whom I had been a minister were most disappointed in me. But tonight I had a new thought. You still want me to be a role model? Well, what if I am? What if having someone as a teacher means not locking them into ANY box, but allowing them to grow and evolve into spokespersons for larger, more inclusive views of life?

Scene Five - The Sermon

Friends, exclusiveness in this world is going to kill us all prematurely. THERE IS SIMPLY NO MORE ROOM IN THIS WORLD for one-way kind of thinking. Several nights ago I spoke the Good News of the Christian faith to my second Dad, when he was struggling considerably with his health, and didn't think he was at peace with his Lord. I told him the Good News is that while he may not feel at peace with the Lord, the Lord is at peace with him. It was one of the most beautiful exchanges of my life. Here I am, a non-believer in a God or Intentional Creation Maker, reminding him of the Good News, and it did not diminish me in my own eyes. It wasn't just doing what I needed to do, it was being who I needed to be for the person sitting in front of me who I love. I have to speak his language. I have to help him in the only way I can.

What does that mean? It means there is no one way. If we have love, if we want to be of service to others, if we want to create and find expression of words and images, if we want to connect fully with anyone who wants peace and not war, then it makes absolutely no friggin' difference whether I am Atheist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or gay, or a woman, or a person of color, or anyone else who is the scorn of another for their beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, color, culture, religion, atheism . . .

That is the only heaven, my friends, that I am sure of. That is the heaven we mortal human beings have the capability of creating here on earth. I am no fool. I know it looks like the bad guys are winning. But that is not a given. It all depends on how many of us are willing to stand up and be a part of showing that what it means to be human is to love one another.

As I love you,


Please send all email intended for Frank Leonard to: - Thank You!