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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

A SENSE OF FREEDOM

ALEX SUNDERLAND'S SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

 

On November 5, 2016, I had my last book event in New Mexico—a reading of To Drink from the Silver Cup. Immediately afterwards I left for the Generous Space West Coast Retreat, a weekend event for LGBTQ Christians and allies, in British Columbia. There I met Alex Sunderland in what seemed like a chance encounter. Alex seemed very shy–somehow more of an observer than a participant. I asked what had drawn him there, and he told me he was friends with two of the Generous Space staff members, and they'd invited him. There was something about his answer that made me feel as if this might be a one-time event for him.

 

Some time after the retreat, we became friends on Face Book. A couple of Alex's posts got me interested in interviewing him about his spiritual journey. The first was when he came out as a trans man in transition on International Coming Out Day. When I'd met him, he identified as bigender, although I wasn't aware of that at the time.

 

The second post that caught my eye came during the Christmas season. Alex wrote, "I may not have stayed in the religion but I will forever be grateful that the vast majority of Christians who influenced my life are also huge nerds and just generally good people to be around. I think of all y'all when I sing the Christmas hymns that I still love." I was intrigued because here was someone who had left his Christian faith, but showed warmth toward it rather than bitterness. I often see animosity toward religion, perhaps Christianity in particular, when someone has left the religion of their youth.

 

So I asked Alex if he'd be interested in being interviewed, and a couple of weeks later we cued up on Face Book Messenger. To start with, I mentioned that I differentiate between spirituality and religion. "I noticed that in your post, you referred to 'religion.' Do you make a distinction between religion and spirituality?"

 

"To a certain extent," he said, "but in that post I was trying to find wording that worked. If I said I didn't stay with the faith, it would imply that I knew it was wrong to leave, but if I said 'religion,' it was like the right thing to do." I knew what he meant and saw it as an effort to maintain integrity.

 

Then I asked the question that usually kicks off an interview about spiritual journey, "How did you experience your spirituality as a child?"

 

Alex thought for a moment. "It's like, it's hard to go back and think about it and remove all the baggage of now. I was raised very Christian. But I was a very imaginative kid, and to a certain extent I had," he paused again, "not exactly pantheistic beliefs, but I ascribed some sentience or being to stars, trees. I didn't have anything set out or consciously thought about, but things were friends."

 

I was curious about the denomination Alex described as "very Christian."

 

It was more or less Baptist," he said. "We switched denominations a few times to try to get my dad to come to church with us, but we defaulted to Baptist. We settled on an Alliance church eventually, but it was affiliated with the Baptists." And my mom is a young earth creationist, which seems somewhat rare even within her own denomination.

 

"Was your faith important to you?"

 

"Yeah. It mattered a lot to me for a long time."

 

"So how did you experience your spirituality as an adolescent?" I asked.

 

Alex hesitated and finally said, "I don't really know. It's harder to separate it from feelings I have now. I had a firm belief in God, but I also felt if I didn't I'd be a horrible person. I had pretty rough mental health when I was a teenager. I had some pretty dark impulses, and I was afraid that if I didn't have God inside me I would act on them."

 

"Were you still involved in church?"

 

"Somewhat. I still went. I thought I had an unshakeable belief in God, but I wasn't keen on going to church. I enjoyed the social aspect of it more than I enjoyed the church aspect. I think toward the end of high school I started to get a lot less interested in it."

 

I wasn't sure how to ask the next question, because I thought of Alex as a young adult now, so I stumbled a bit. "I want to ask how you experienced your spirituality as a young or younger adult, but I don't know if you think of yourself as a young adult or…well, how old are you?" He told me he's 28. "So young adult could be early twenties, or you could still think of yourself as a young adult. I don't know if where you're at now is very different from in your early twenties or not." It was kind of a question.

 

Alex was emphatic, "It's totally different." He went on to explain, "After high school, I got kicked out of my house. I was trying to figure things out. I met, or re-met my ex- husband. I got a lot more involved with church, with Bible studies, and I was taking it all much more seriously."

 

"Is that because he was serious about it?"

 

" Mostly. But it's incredibly interesting so…" he stopped.

 

"Say more"

 

"A big part of my relationship with Brent was about learning things together. He would teach me about history, and we did Bible stuff together, mostly him—he did a research project comparing women's rights in several civilizations during Bible times. It's what we'd do for fun. I was more like moral support. I asked questions, was there for bouncing off ideas, discussing what things we should compare, how to word them."

 

"I'd like to go back for a minute. You mentioned you were kicked out of your house after high school. What happened?"

 

"It was for drugs. Really I mostly just partied with my friends, but there was a zero tolerance policy in my house."

 

"Where did you go?"

 

"I stayed with friends for a couple months, then with my dad for a month. He kicked me out too, but that was because he's a jerk. Then I lived with my grandma for a year, then got a job, so I could get an apartment. Things were pretty good with my grandma—comfortable. I worked for room and board for her.

 

"And how do you experience your spirituality now?"

 

"It's dormant," he said.

 

I didn't sense any particular energy on that, so I asked, "What does that look or feel like?"

 

"The retreat I went to was me saying goodbye to Christianity. It's odd, but when I accepted that I didn't believe in it anymore, well, I'm technically agnostic but functionally atheist. Now I'm closed off, partly because of all the things that have been happening. It will be interesting in a year to see what happens, but now it's just hard."

 

"What has been happening?" I asked. I'd noticed an entry in which he posted that it had been a hard year, and I mentioned that post now.

 

He explained that he and Brent split last January. He moved out in August after getting a job and apartment. "It's the stress of being a single parent, taking my daughter, who's five, to school in the mornings, working on weekends. We have shared custody. He's a good parent. He's just a very, very straight man."

 

"Was your coming out what caused you to split?"

"That was it. Our relationship hadn't been the best for a while, but that was like, okay we're done."

 

"Was it mutual?"

 

"I can't say I was completely unhappy, but I felt somewhat trapped in it. But if he'd been open to me in general, I'd've been happier in the relationship prior to coming out. But I knew when I said I was going to transition, that would be it for him."

 

"Is he still very Christian?"

 

"No. We both sort of left the faith about the same time. It was mostly me. I started asking questions. We researched them, and we found that we didn't believe this and not that either. We both left, but for him it was really hard because I think he naturally wants to conform to Christian morality, and for me it was like, I'm free from this crushing guilt."

 

"So in a way you've said this already, but more specifically, what would you say caused you to leave the faith of your youth?"

 

"I dunno. It makes me really self-conscious to talk about it because I don't want to cause offense or be weird."

 

I wondered who he would offend.

 

He said, "I never want to start an argument. Someone might say, 'Oh, you said that. Well, I'm going to tell you why you're wrong.' It came down to the fact that we started reading the Bible front to end. We got just past Isaiah when we stopped. I realized it's a very human book. It tells about a different type of god than the other human gods, but still, it's about another human god. A god that is a group of humans' perception of what god would be."

 

"And thus not real?"

 

"And thus unnecessary to worship. Real is relative, sort of." He paused and then went back to the question of offending. "It's not so much 'offend' as start a beef. I never want people to dislike me because of something I've said. Unless I want them to dislike me," he added. "Then that's why I'm saying it." He smiled. "I just don't want to be too weird.

I'm constantly worried that people are going to think what I'm saying or doing is weird and will judge me for it. That's just my own anxiety."

 

I brought up the post that got me interested in talking with Alex. "I noticed that, unlike some who leave their faith, you're able to embrace what was positive for you—the Christians who influenced you, the hymns. Can you say something about the people that influenced you?"

 

"My mom," he said immediately. I don't agree with a lot of the things she

 

did when we were kids, but she was always doing her best to give us a good upbringing. In church it was a bunch of nerds having fun. Nobody rejected me. I had a few unpleasant Christian influences growing up, but they were short lived. Like, there was a woman who watched my sister and me. I started crying when I had to go there, so my mom ended it. If there were Christian people who would've been a negative influence if I'd spent more time with them, I didn't have to, so that was good."

 

"What about the hymns?" I asked.

 

"I dunno. I just like them. They're nice. I like singing a lot, so anything that's beautiful to sing, I'm going to enjoy it. It's still like you get the expansive chest feeling. I dunno, like the good church feeling, even without believing in it, just from the music."

 

I related strongly to what Alex said about the hymns, the music. In the years I was away from church and now, too, I sing hymns almost every day, and I share that feeling of expansion in my chest when I do. I call it "joy."

 

"How has embracing a gender different from what you were assigned at birth affected your spirituality?"

 

Alex got visibly thoughtful. "I'm not sure. I'm not really sure."

 

"How has it affected religion for you?" I asked, making the differentiation between that and spirituality.

 

"One thing that I remember…one time in church when I still believed, there was one Sunday, and I don't remember why I did this—it was like holding up two things that I was conflicted about. One was gender stuff, and one was being polyamorous. I felt like a welcoming like yes, like Boy, Alex, you're okay, too. It was in some ways an important experience, but in other ways it was like another nail in the coffin of my faith because I didn't believe God would have given me that answer; I believed I would give me that answer."

 

"Did you have that same welcoming feeling about being polyamorous?" I asked.

 

"No. That was like a no."

 

"Is it still?"

 

"Well, no. I like people. I like more than one person usually, so I'm fine with that."

 

I shifted back to the beginning of our conversation, to how we'd met. "How did you experience the retreat?"

 

"Mostly pleasant. It was weird. Like an alien experience. Prior to the retreat, knowing I was part of the group, but when I was there, I felt like, 'I'm part of this group, but I'm also not, I'm sort of an outside observer.' It was very familiar. The final service felt like a funeral. Not in a bad way, I cried a lot. It felt like the death of something but not like a tragedy."

 

"Would you say now that it's loss?"

 

He was emphatic again. "No. I think I gained more by leaving anxiety behind than what I lost. I lost a way to connect with some people in my life, but I gained peace of mind."

 

"Why does this bring peace of mind?" I asked.

 

"Because I could never fully believe that some of the things the Bible said were wrong—things that I wanted to do—actually were wrong. And if I don't believe they're wrong, I can't repent, and if I can't repent, I'm going to hell." 

 

"Do you have a connection now with any sort of religious community or practice?"

 

"Not right now. I miss ritual. But I don't miss the same rituals as the ones I don't have anymore. I don't believe in any specific gods, although I'm open to the idea that there could be a being that could be a god, but I don't think any human religion is right. Some for actual reasons and some because I don't think humans are capable of being right about that, as a group."

 

"How is your art connected with your spirituality?"

 

"I don't really think it is. I like doing art and it's a way to relax and process stuff, but I don't think it's connected to spirituality."

 

"How about your life as a parent?"

 

It's not connected with spirituality. Not really. It's hard to explain or think about how to describe it. I'd say my bond with my daughter is…it's something. Somebody might call this spirituality, and I might not because that's not where my mind goes. And someone else might have the same kind of bond and call it spiritual. But she is my favorite person." We both smiled about this.

 

"I saw you posted that this past year had been a hard one. Do you want to say anything about that?"

 

"Mostly it's just been adjusting to much higher levels of fatigue that come from working and single parenting. I have less time, less energy, a lot more responsibilities. Before we split, I was a stay at home mom for five years."

 

"Is there anything you'd like to add?"

 

"One thing I'd probably say is that one of the reasons I haven't turned into a bitter atheist is that Christianity makes sense. I get why people believe it. It's weird being in a space of not believing this but I totally get why people do."

 

I found this puzzling and asked, "Why do they?"

 

"Because it makes sense. It's an explanation for how the world works, so people could reasonably look at it and think, 'Oh yes. These two things go together.'"

 

"Anything you want to ask me?"

 

"I like your pink hair," he said.

 

"Thanks."

 

I love to hear and share people's spiritual journey stories. If you'd like to share your story here, use the contact tab on my website or PM me on Face Book. If I interview you, you have complete control over what gets published (or doesn't). Let's talk. Distance is no object.

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WHERE IS HOME?

In my previous entry I wrote about "Going Home by Another Way," which made me think all over again about just where home is. The great 13th century Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "It is right to love your home place, but first ask, 'Where is that, really?'" I have moved sixty-seven times in my life. 67. That number does not include college summers, when I had to move out of the dorm or whatever temporary lodging I had. I have lived on three continents, in four countries, in eighteen cities or towns and far out in the country. In October 2019 I moved for that sixty-seventh time, this time into a 415-square-foot apartment, having downsized drastically when I left the tiny hamlet of Gamerco, New Mexico last spring.

 

In a time that seems long ago, I used to quickly fall into feeling at home, wherever I was, and I was good at creating home. I realized this more than thirty-five years ago when I spent a few days living on the beach on the island of Crete (this was not one of the 67 times of living somewhere and moving!). My then partner and I did not have a tent; we used our Helly Hansen rain ponchos as shelter, so home was not even the flimsiest of structures. We had our 15-speed touring bikes and panniers, and that was pretty much it. I went around gathering large round rocks to create what amounted to virtual walls around our home place. Within the walls I placed and replaced sleeping bags and panniers until our spot on the beach felt homey and orderly. And then I thought, I do this wherever I am—create home. And I do it well.

 

However, the last few times I've moved, I haven't felt at home—not even months after moving. Not even when all my art has been hung and every functional and beautiful thing has found its place. Including now–I'm just not feeling it. I loved the 1930s duplex in the downtown part of Albuquerque where I lived four moves and two years ago; nevertheless, when I would step into the van I'd lived in on tour, that was the space that felt like home. When I lived in the Earthship, the land around it brought me into direct contact with the Holy One, and the ship was esthetically pleasing. But it never became home.

 

This little apartment is the perfect size for me. Its measurements qualify it as a Tiny House, which delights me. Before I moved in, the management put in all new flooring, new carpet, repainted everything, and put brand new shelves in the oven. It was the cleanest place I'd ever moved into, and I love clean. The fact that they did all that made me think perhaps the apartment had been lived in for a very long time and was in dire need of refurbishment. When I couldn't seem to settle in psychically, I wondered if the space still "belonged" to the previous tenant. I did a home blessing and smudging. It still doesn't feel like home.

 

Sociological researchers have identified people like me who grew up in a culture other than their parents' culture as Third Culture Kids. The third culture is neither the parents' culture nor the host culture but a culture shared by other Third Culture Kids, regardless of the cultures that have formed them. Third Culture Kids do not have full ownership in any of the cultures that are part of their livees. One of our characteristics in adulthood may be restlessness. Certainly having moved 67 times suggests that I have been a restless being.

 

I've been quite willing to embrace Third Culture Kid-ness as the cause of my restlessness. But there are other factors. I can see that my heart was often someplace else—in another place—as in the longing I sometimes feel for the home I sold after having listed it three different times. Clearly I wanted to leave it, and now I miss it–in some moments acutely. Sometimes my heart has been with another person, which has knocked me far off-center. If home is where the heart is, as has been often said, then home is within us. It doesn't depend on external places or people. I know when I'm present, when my heart is with me and not somewhere else, then I am at home wherever I am. If my heart is some other place or with some other person in my imagination, it's hard to feel at home anywhere. I know the practice of being present has the potential to change all this; it's a process.

 

However we find our home within, however we settle into it, as the late teacher Ram Dass said, "We are all walking each other home." Or as Art Garfunkel wrote in the song "Woyaya," "We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there,/We know we will." And that is a comfort.

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GOING HOME BY ANOTHER WAY

"Going Home by Another Way" first appeared in the Gallup Independent's "Spiritual Perspectives" on January 18. It is reprinted here with permission.

 

 

In Denmark, January 6 is called (in Danish, of course) Holy Three Kings Day. The kings are guys from the Christmas story—the ones we call the "wise men." We don't know if there were three or if they were kings or how holy they were, but they were either very good at saving money, or they were rich, based on the gifts they brought. The day is known in many places as Epiphany.

 

In 2020, Epiphany fell on a Monday, so in many churches, it was celebrated on January 5th. The highlight of the celebration for me this year was when Bill came down from the choir and sang the James Taylor song, "Home by Another Way" In the biblical story and in Taylor's song, an angel tells the Wise Ones in a dream not to go back the way they came, because King Herod wants to use them for his evil purposes. They are to go "home by another way."

 

I wonder what might've happened to the Wise Ones when they went home by another way. Maybe it was a harder route. After all, you'd think that, being wise, they would've scoped out the best route for following the star to the baby who would be king. But maybe another way offered some surprises—a passage through beautiful rock formations, a meeting with a wise woman who offered comforting hospitality after their encounter with scary Herod. In the song, they're urged to "Keep a weather eye to the chart on high;" after all, they were star-gazers. Maybe going home by another way showed them the heavens from a different perspective, making plain a new discovery. Perhaps they came to a sweet little village that looked a lot like Bethlehem but wasn't. Yet it caused them to marvel again about all they'd seen in the baby's eyes. Maybe because the journey took longer, they told each other more and better stories, getting to know each other more deeply. Often there are benefits to going home by another way.

 

When Bill sang "Home by Another Way," I was deeply moved. I also laughed because he delivered the song's humor along with its more serious message. I didn't think of a physical journey or a physical home, but of my inner journey—my spiritual journey. This journey started out in a way that seemed straightforward. My spiritual home and physical home were one and the same—my family home and church home. And then Diyin took me onto a different path, when my lesbian sexuality meant there would be no place for me in the only spiritual home I knew, if I were to be true to how the Creator made me. But the Holy One was full of grace for me. The song says, "You have to figure that God's saying play the odds/And go home by another way." When I went by another way, I met people I would never have met, if I had stayed in my little world that seemed so safe at first. I learned and grew from other traditions, and I still learn from them today. What an immeasurable gift that was. At the same time, I was always looking for a place I could call home. I'm beginning to understand that spiritual home may not be a physical place, like the church I now attend or the apartment I live in. In fact, the saying, "Home is where the heart is," may be accurate, albeit a cliché.

 

A few days after Holy Three Kings Day, I shared "Home By Another Way," with my brother Rick. I told him what it had meant to me. He said, "I wonder what going home by another way would mean for me." Almost immediately he came up with an answer. "I guess it would be becoming affirming. And speaking out about it." He meant that he had become an advocate for fully including LGBTQ people in the Church. Rick was not always supportive of LGBTQ people's place in the Church, but when the Holy One sent him home by another way, he wasn't just quietly supportive; he took risks. He wrote an article in his denomination's magazine, started a book study group, spoke out whenever he had the chance, and wore a rainbow ribbon to church. I'm not sure just what benefits another way home has brought to him, though I hope it has blessed him richly. It has done something very important for me: it has given me a safe and joyful place within my family, where there are still sharp divisions about whether or not I belong in the Church. I'm grateful that Rick listened when the Holy One told him to "play the odds" and go "home by another way."

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BECOMING NEW MEXICO

In the dark it could be anywhere.

Then darkness lifts

 

Slowly

 

And it is 

Becoming New Mexico.

 

Dim light rises

Above juniper-freckled mesas

Curved rocks the red of humans

Colors deepen in the damp and dawn light.

 

The day becomes New Mexico.

 

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