Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Why I Sing", an essay for The Utah Chamber Artists

(Originally written for The Utah Chamber Artists newsletter and website in September 2015)
I have a confession. For years, I’ve been hanging on to a secret that has been the source of shame. Now is the time to let it out: I dropped out of piano lessons at the age of 9.
Yes, friends, it’s true. But it doesn’t stop there. I used to hate singing because of a traumatic experience I endured at the hands of my piano teacher. Let’s go back in time.
My earliest music-related memory was when I inadvertently played a chord on my grandmother’s piano at the age of 5. With excitement, she ran over to me and said, “Nathan, do you know what that is? It’s a chord!” I loved the reaction and validation my musical mistake elicited from a woman who could ragtime rattle those ivory keys like a rattlesnake can rattle…well…you get the point.
As the youngest of 8 eight kids, and being a triplet on top of that, I saw the piano as my chance to step out and do my own thing. From that time on, I would play piano on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of my 6 brothers who wanted to watch TV without my childhood compositions coming into creation in the background. After all, the one TV we had and the piano were in the same room.
A few years later, I would begin taking piano lessons from Denese Webster across the street. She was a fantastic teacher and I was scheduled to play two songs at a recital within a few months of starting my lessons. That’s when the proverbial crap hit the fan.
“Nathan, let’s have you do the Beethoven for your first piece. For your second piece, I’d like you to do something more upbeat and fun. How do you feel about singing and playing at the same time?” It was the first time in my life that I was challenged to actually sing in front of people.
So, there I was, at my recital. The Beethoven went perfectly, but it didn’t matter. My second piece, “The Boogie-Woogie Goose”, was coming up and I knew my brothers would give me a hard time. I was encouraged to sing it with conviction and pep. The main note from Mrs. Webster was “Louder, Nathan. LOUDER!”
As I assured the audience through my performance that Aunt Rhody’s old gray goose was, in fact, not dead, but was busy being a dancing fool, my faced flushed with embarrassment. My brothers meant no harm, but I remember seeing them laugh throughout the song. The lyrics were fun and silly, but I took their laughter as feedback. Ever since then, I still have insecurities about my singing voice. I can take a compliment on my piano playing or songwriting, but I somehow don’t think I’m as deserving when it comes to singing. Darn, that silly goose.
Mrs. Webster turned me on to a new possibility, however. The idea of singing and playing piano at the same time led to a love of songwriting and arranging. Throughout junior high and high school, I was much more comfortable being the accompanist than the singing soloist, but I kept trying to find my voice. There was the time my voice cracked on my “Bein’ Green” solo in 8th grade and the entire choir chuckled behind me. But, in a bigger victory, there was the time I wrote a song and performed it at my high school graduation, backed by the choir and followed by a standing ovation from my graduating class. To this day, it’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Since college, I developed more of a singer-songwriter style. It was perfect. I could hide behind the piano and sing in a quiet, comfortable style that perfectly suited my range. But this style did not bode well for my first audition for The Utah Chamber Artists. While I was told I had a lovely voice, I had much to learn. Phrasing, diction, shaping my vowels, etc. Since then, as a member of this lovely group, I’ve had to step out of my comfort zone and learn to use my voice in a new way. A collaborative way. A beautiful way. No more hiding behind the piano for this guy. “Louder, Nathan. LOUDER!”
I’ll end on a personal note. As a 38 year-old member of the LDS church who happens to be gay, I’ve only recently decided that it might be okay to date and eventually find companionship. My personal journey to find balance, acceptance and peace began in a similar way to my singing career. The once trembling, nervous boy who had to sing about that stupid goose has evolved into a man who is comfortable singing a solo or blending beautifully with the most talented group of musicians around.
Similarly, I’m no longer afraid to use my voice in other ways. I use my voice to speak out, to ask for kindness and understanding, to challenge the status quo, to encourage acceptance and change. I use my voice to express myself, to offer advice to a friend in need, to make people laugh, to agree and to disagree. But perhaps the most beautiful thing I do with the voice I’ve been given, as imperfect as it may be, is touching lives through music.
Joining my UCA friends in song is one of the most thrilling and joyful experiences I’ve ever had. Being part of something like this has not only built my confidence with my own songs, it has also affected my approach to life. My personal song is sweeter and fuller as a result. 
Guess I have Mrs. Webster to thank. I’ll admit, I’m glad that goose isn’t dead.

Original post: 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Matt Walsh: Blood on His Hands

On a fairly regular basis, LDS friends of mine (who I love and still associate with) will share a post like the one shown below. Sometimes, they’ll add their own stamp of approval for the content they are sharing and praise it. So, then I go to read what is shared and feel completely opposite. I continue to be amazed how something that brings a friend such goodness and light can cause me to feel incredibly down and sad, at times, even angry.

“Well, Nate, you’ve lost your way.”

“You’re not in tune with the Spirit.”

“If you made more of an effort, you’d agree with everything in the post.”

I’ve lost my way? I’m not in tune? Then why do I feel so good when I pray? Why do I feel more assured than ever before that the efforts I am making are acceptable to my Maker?

Consider the following example, posted by a friend earlier today. I’ve eaten dinner at her table and she is remarkably kind and thoughtful. But then, she posts something like this and regards Matt Walsh as brilliant and courageous. It makes me wonder what she truly thinks of someone like me.

Matt Walsh is well-known for his blog, and I have a fair amount of friends who subscribe to his way of thinking. That’s okay, we can still be friends. But I’m a different kind of Christian. On numerous occasions, I’ve read Mr. Walsh’s thoughts on a variety of topics and, in my humble opinion, he misses the mark. It’s very “letter of the law” and less “spirit of the law” to me.

In his latest post, No, Christianity Should Not Welcome or Include Your Sinful Lifestyle, he says a number of things that strike me as dangerous, insensitive, lacking in understanding and devoid of any compassion. When members of the church perpetuate these kinds of messages, I feel extreme sadness.

I understand that as members of the church, we must strive to be obedient. But sometimes I wonder why we don’t focus as much on the concept of forgiveness. “The law is the law and who are we to change it? Fall in line or get out of the way!”

As I consider friends who have taken their lives or who have lived their lives in hiding and isolation in fear of condemnation from the very people who should be prepared to love them the most, these are the direct quotes from Mr. Walsh’s latest blog entry that concern me the most. As you read through them, do you feel good?

“The sins of homosexuality and fornication have existed since Biblical times…What do we know in our time that the Church didn’t know — that God Himself didn’t know — up to now? Be very careful in how you answer that question.

“You need to stop reading with your emotions and read with your brain.”

“Two plus two equals four, because it does, and because even a stupid man can see that.”

“It’s difficult to have grown-up conversations these days, because people like yourself see every mention of moral truth as either a personal attack or a statement of superiority. This is the real damage you cause in the Faith.”

“You want to be coddled.”

“You want to modify Christian teachings not because you tried them and found them wrong, but because you found them difficult and don’t want to try them.”

“You apparently come a sick and broken man looking to be assured you were never sick and broken to begin with.”

“I’m tired of hearing this “inclusive” stuff.”

“You’re asking to be “included” in the Faith on your own terms. That’s just not how this works, brother. As Christians, we have no authority to “include” you in that way.”

“You must be the one who “includes” the Truth in your life. Your lifestyle must change to accommodate the Truth, not the other way around.”

“A sin is still a sin, and He instructs us all to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), which often means dramatically altering our lifestyles.”

“You must choose, then, to walk through the right path, the narrow path, but it will be difficult and demanding, and it will not and cannot be widened to include you.”

“We all struggle with sin. But struggle is the keyword. Struggle. Fight back. Plead with God in agony to help you defeat these demons. Go to Christ begging that He help you overcome your temptations and live with chastity and temperance. Don’t demand that your sin be allowed to accompany you into Heaven. It can’t.”

“It seems you want to remove, well, all of those ingredients and still call yourself a Christian. You might as well remove all the yeast and flour from a mixture and call the goop of water, butter, and salt that remains ‘bread.’”

“We have to choose to shed our sin, pick up our cross, and follow Him. That’s what it means to “be included.” You say that’s what you want, but do you?”

“Christians churches in America were never guilty of “alienating” unrepentant sinners like the “LGBTQ community.” They are so attached to their sin that they literally define themselves by it. They look for ‘community’ not with the Body of Christ, but with those who share their urges and fetishes. They elect to reject the difficult aspects of the Faith. They alienate themselves.”

“John Chrysostom said the Holy Scripture should be “engraved upon our hearts.” There are some Christians who wish to adhere to it with that level of severity. They are the minority that all churches should be bending over backwards to embrace. They are the ones who need to be included again.”

“The church has not failed if it makes open homosexuals or anyone else feel uncomfortable in their sin. That is a success. That is the church doing what it’s supposed to do.”

“I’ll pray Christian churches in this country always “include” the Truth, not liberal sexual dogmas or any other form of blasphemy.”

“I’ll pray you leave your sin behind and come to Christ remorseful and empty handed, ready to be His servant.”

I could respond to each quote, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave it up to my readers. Do these comments sound like they come from someone who wants gay people to feel welcome and included? Does the author of these comments even begin to understand (or make the slightest attempt to understand) what it’s like to be gay and Christian? Does this collection of quotes sound like anything the Savior would say?

As I read through this blog, it doesn’t bring me closer to the Savior. It’s basically Matt Walsh saying, “Get over it, no mercy is available here. Just get over being gay and stop complaining.” He associates being gay with being depraved. Most of the gay people I know have the same core needs as anyone else. But Mr. Walsh would dismiss the longing to be loved and the chance to build a life with someone they love as “urges and fetishes”. But only when it comes to gay people.

In closing, I’m just asking you to be more aware when you share these kinds of messages. I’m all for standing up for what you believe in and even fighting the good fight. But if you can do these things in such a way that makes people like me feel loved and included and part of the fold, that’d be really great.

Compare his approach to Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Twelve:

"As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender."

His use of the word "lifestyle" kind of bugs me, but the tone is so much warmer and more Christ-like, don't you think?

I think Matt Walsh’s approach is irresponsible and dangerous. His complete lack of mercy and understanding is something that he’ll have to account for one day just as much as I will have to account for my own sins. Luckily, we both have a Savior who loves us. I just think one of us tries to bring people TO the Savior while the other one often pushes people AWAY from the Savior.

Read Matt Walsh. Agree with Matt Walsh if you want. Say how brilliant and courageous he is. But be aware that his insensitive tone and unapologetic approach is doing damage to people who truly love the Lord. I know plenty of brilliant and courageous gay men and women who lives their lives in a way that would be pleasing to the Lord. People like Matt Walsh may never understand what this kind of discipleship requires.