I woke up in complete darkness one warm summer night in 1975. I had fallen asleep upon a bench in a tunnel behind the amphitheater set of The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was about 1 AM. I was 14 years old and I was several miles from home without a ride.
“The Play,” as we locals called it, was a two-hour presentation of Christ’s last week on earth. It employed townspeople from around the area as actors and at the peak of its run, seated 4400 people a night. At my young age, I was merely part of the rabble praising Jesus with Palms for his Triumphal Entry at the beginning of the production and then turning a fist toward him during the trial and crucifixion scenes. It was add-on summer job to my 8-hours of bussing restaurant tables. I enjoyed both the acting and the few extra dollars it paid.
I’d obviously been short on sleep that evening and dozed off so hard that I didn’t awaken until long after The Play was over, actors were gone, and busses had ferried the audience to their motel rooms.
I was disoriented, but I knew that I couldn’t just stay there. I had to find my way out. The staff had turned off the dim tunnel lights hours ago. I’d been overlooked because I’d fallen asleep in the shadows. Rising slowly, I carefully made my way, step by slow step, until I reached a set entrance. I came out of the dark and stepped into the light of a full July moon drifting across a starlit sky. No cell phones in those days, so I began my trek home on-foot.
I never thought the story would be a metaphor for where I am now.
Last year, two weeks before Easter, I “got woke” as the cool people say. This time it was our Lord – the Father of Lights (James 1:17).
I have struggled with my gender identity since the days when I performed in The Play, but I’d managed to keep my struggle very much in the dark tunnels of my life. It remained hidden and safe, in a place where only God and I knew of it. Two weeks before Easter, the sermon focus was to be on the raising of Lazarus. You’ll recall that this man had been dead and in the tomb for a few days before Jesus called into the darkness and said, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43) When I saw the preview of the church bulletin, I had a very sudden and powerful sense of God saying to me, “Salina, come forth!”
Some of you may know the feeling. It’s like when your mom discovers some hidden sin (like eating your brother’s Christmas candy) and directs you: “Go apologize!” You think “No, no, no!” but deep down, you KNOW that’s what you must do. Let me tell you: apologizing for eating Christmas candy is jelly beans when compared to attending church in a simple grey jersey dress, no make-up, no wig, and a male body.
What I hadn’t expected is that the Light that would shine upon me was like the soft moon-glow that I experienced when I walked out of the tunnel that night in 1975. It didn’t shock my eyes with condemnation like an officer’s flashlight, nor did it blind me with overwhelming brightness like the sun after being in a dark building. It was enough Light to see.
The glow came not directly from God, but through the exceptionally supportive congregation of my church. I had hoped the gesture would be a “one and done” Sunday confession-offering to God, but He had other plans for me. Over the following months, I came further out of the darkness and into the Light regarding my authentic, created self. (Psalm 139) I am more active in my church than ever and I am becoming involved in local LGBTQ activities.
Recently, I’ve heard God speaking again. This time it is both Word to me and through me to you. The message is this:
Pastor Jenny, who is the interim at our church and a God-sent companion in my personal journey, recently attended a Next Church conference. The theme and workshops were filled with ideas and thoughts on how to revitalize and re-energize our churches. They are certainly not the only concerned Christian organization. The continued wane of denominational Christianity in the United States has been profound and unmistakable for several years now. During the conference, Jenny said that several metaphors were used to describe the phenomena, “desert” being one of them.
Many people tend to think of the desert as a dead and barren place. While it certainly isn’t the heartland of Kansas or the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it is not dead. Life is there, waiting for the next rain or the cool of the night before coming out.
I believe that the denominational church, including our beloved Presbyterian USA, is in exactly that place. For the outsider, church may appear to be a dead or dying place, but to those of us on the inside – we experience life and Light. I also believe that a big challenge we face is social climate change. Where others were once drawn to our packed institutional churches in the years of strong institutions (big stone city halls, banks, churches, and even club buildings), that is no longer the case. What was once lush is now a desert because of social climate change.
Inviting someone to church often feels like: “Hey! Come over here and sit in the desert with us. You’ll love it.”
You might get a hearty one or two … but for the most part, people prefer Sunday at the beach.
To me – this means we need to come out of our dark and desert places. We need to be authentic and in the open. We need to “Be Light” to those who are groping around in their deserts and tombs and dark passages hoping to find a gentle moonbeam of hope. We need to seek out the depressed, the discouraged, the lonely, and the overwhelmed, to Be Light to them.
It’s an old message, but here’s the new twist – who better to “Be Light” to the world than those of us who’ve spent time hidden “in the closet?” Who better to “Be Light” than an LGBTQ person who has known social fear and rejection? Who better to “Be Light” than someone who has lost relationships because of WHO they are? Who better to “Be Light” than someone with these life experiences … and still says, “Christ is my Light?”
I find it more than a little curious that the rainbow is used as the symbol for the LGBTQ community. A rainbow is formed by the refraction of sunlight through drops of water. Could it be that we are now at a place in spiritual history where the drops of water that created the LGBTQ rainbow are the tears of sorrow from our past? Could it be that the LGBTQ rainbow could symbolize “never again an overwhelming flood of tears?” Could it be that Divine Light shining through our unique, God-created LGBTQ spirits, might be the love-Light that God will use to shine through the tears of others as a rainbow symbol of hope?
I believe so.
It begins by coming out of our dark places and living authentic lives. It continues when we live a life that is Christ-honoring, as well as loving and accepting all others in this world as our brothers, sisters, and siblings.
I believe it is possible that a day will come when others will say: “I want to love and be loved the way the LGBTQ community loves the world.” It won’t be about sex or gender – it will be about the love-Light that shines through us.
I want to close by sharing an example of an LGBTQ love-Light that remains with me. It came in the clay, mortal package of Gene Lyon. He was one of three men who played the role of Christ in The Play back in 1975. A slim white man with long blonde hair, he certainly wasn’t the middle-eastern model of Jesus’ mortal form, but inside, he shined with the love-Light of Christ. I always felt his portrayal of our Savior was the best, better than even the professional actor/director who scripted and created the Passion Play. The difference, I believe, is that Gene had a genuine, humble love for every person he met. It shined brightly when he was on stage and did not dim when he was off the set.
Openly gay, Gene was also warmly accepted by our community. This, at a time in our country’s history when gay people were routinely incarcerated, abused, shunned, and murdered.
Gene has long since passed on, but his closing scene of The Play continues to shine within me. It was the ascension. Gene, in a shining white robe with a spotlight upon him, closed the performance by raising his hands and saying: “And I, If I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)
His smile was as radiant as the spotlight upon him. He shone from inside-out with the Light of Christ.
I pray that we might also be lifted up and shine brightly, not for any spotlight glory, but instead, that others lost in their shadows might see the beautiful, LGBTQ, Christian love-Light within us and discover a moonbeam of hope that will light their path to spiritual freedom.