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One Million Prayers: A Letter to a Friend

Psalms, Bible lessons and prayers twice a day for six years.

Dear Leonardo,

Thank you for your Facebook greeting on the news that my Daily Office website and blog have together recorded one million page-views. It feels pretty significant and I’m still reacting to achieving this milestone. Let me tell you and other readers here what it means to me, in ways I would not do on the prayer sites themselves. There the focus is on God, not on Josh – though I can’t help but intrude at times anyway.

It took me awhile to get used to that; I select the artwork and write the captions, and those obviously come out of my faith, values and priorities. I follow the Episcopal Church’s official calendar and lectionary, rules and regulations and try not to deviate. But I do have some discretion at times, such as what saints we celebrate – and don’t. Last week I chose to feature news photos of a pilgrimage held in Alabama to remember the seminarian and civil rights martyr Jonathan Daniels every night; the whole Church celebrated his day on August 14, the same day the pilgrimage was held, and I alone decided he was worth an octave of days. They were good pictures, very moving.

A few years ago during Lent, I featured a trove of old lost photographs of the civil rights days, discovered in a closet at The Birmingham News. Since we were repenting of our sins, let’s show what some of those sins were and are. Page-views skyrocketed, and that’s really what put our sites on the map. We’ve also raised some quick money for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka and South Asia and other natural disasters. Editorially I covered Hurricane Katrina for a solid month, all along the Gulf Coast, with prayers to match. Then there’s the complete destruction of part of Haiti, our biggest diocese. Six months later we’re still using a prayer I wrote for Haiti twice a week. Those are all my choices.

Earlier this year, for the first time (I think) in Anglican history, and certainly the first time in Episcopal history, the 16th century theologian John Calvin had a proposed feast day; in other words, we’re testing whether he gets a saint’s day. I didn’t run it – and I won’t. I was lucky this year because it fell on a Sunday and we never observe saints on a Sunday. But I won’t run John Calvin Monday through Saturday either; this guy is the Protestant crank in the 16th century who tried to turn the capital of Switzerland into a theocracy – which meant killing a lot of people and hounding the rest to prove they believed and behaved “rightly” according to him. The same impulse was behind New England Puritanism and the Salem witch trials.

I’m Gay. I don’t do John Calvin and his ludicrous notion that humanity is “utterly depraved” and alienated from God, who then picks and chooses his friends (“the elect”) to get into heaven anyway, because he’s a nice God after all, if you’re the “right kind” of person. Jesus consorted with the “wrong kind,” including our kind, all the time; he didn’t like the “right kind” that much.

I then sent an official notice to the Church Bigwigs in Charge of Who Our Saints Are that my million-visitor website and blog will never celebrate John Calvin, who constructed his Reformed theology on a belief that the Bible is never wrong. Biblical inerrantists are also anti-Gay.

It’s beyond me why Episcopalians should be asked to cheer for this Presbyterian/Congregationalist fanatic. So I won’t ask them to. I’m the kind of Episcopalian who, if you turn too Catholic on me I’m a Protestant (protester; that’s what it means), and if you turn too Protty on me I’m all Catholic. That’s who Episcopalians are.

The Calvinists of the Episcopal Church are largely schismatics who’ve now left and tried to take our property with them – and their whole schtick is hating Gay people because they think the Bible says so. The proposed feast of John Calvin is homophobic, bigoted and anti-Gay – if his modern adherents can be taken at face value.

The next time General Convention meets, and will decide whether Calvin gets a day, is 2012 in my home diocese, Indianapolis. I plan to be there, and I’ve already started campaigning against him. A million page-views makes my virtual church bigger than any parish and diocese in this Church. I don’t go mad with power but baby, I’ve got some.

So it’s taken me awhile to realize that the personality, background and experience of the Worship Leader in any church or prayer website inevitably influences what goes on. I don’t feel guilty about it or apologize for it. Instead I think about the priests and lay leaders who have influenced me and my faith. I’m eternally grateful for them, even as I know they were just human beings. I’m allowed to be too. “Of course I could be wrong.”

Beyond this issue of how I intrude on and guide the prayers, which is a serious responsibility and about which I am sometimes wrong, there are two other things running around in my head. When I started this operation six years ago tomorrow (August 24, 2004), I was just a guy owing God a big thanksgiving (for a home of my own) and looking for an easier way to pray, instead of all the page-flipping that saying Morning and Evening Prayer requires. I wanted it online – and God immediately answered, “That’s a great idea. I nominate you.” She has a wicked sense of humor.

Often people thank me – you did, Len – for putting in the work. I have a two-part reply; one, sometimes I just hate it, because it can be work. Updating every day (now on three different platforms) seems to impress people the most, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I do want it to go smoothly and when it doesn’t I’m apt to let loose with more curses than all 150 psalms. When a computer stops working or there’s an electrical outage, that’s a major problem; people depend on me, and I like being dependable. I’ll get up in the middle of the night to post if I have to, and I always work a day ahead on the main site; I get visitors from all over the world and I can’t forget the “all-important New Zealand market,” where it’s already tomorrow. (That’s an inside-my-head joke, but clocks in Christchurch, Sydney, Kabul and Baghdad do in fact structure my day.)

My second answer is this: I tell people that if they want to get closer to God, saying the Daily Office is guaranteed to do that. I give that guarantee because I know from personal experience, doing the work every day, rain or shine, no matter where I am. I don’t get to pray the same way as my site visitors do, but the work is my prayer, and God has blessed me a million times with it. I’ll look over a Bible passage and ask out loud, “What the hell does that mean?” And often he’ll show me; maybe not right at first, but as I keep going.

Once I put together an online Festival of Lessons and Carols, which is a big Anglican thing around Christmastime. I spent hours at it, but I was ecstatic, and in the midst of it I finally began to understand the Sacrifice of Isaac. I won’t tell the story now but it’s not what it appears to be, God thirsting for a little boy’s blood; it’s human beings who are bloodthirsty (and don’t we know it today), while God put a stop, once and for all, to child sacrifice. That’s why Abraham, Isaac’s dad, is the father of three major religions and reverenced in all of them. The Jews were the first to get that God doesn’t need appeasing for sin.

Isaac also brings the crucifixion of Jesus, God’s own Son, into his supreme place in the whole history of salvation.

This is not primarily an intellectual exercise for me; I’m not a theologian and I distrust people who are, when they go off the deep end. It’s a spiritual exercise for me, and oh my my, I love everything about our God.

When, last Sunday, I ran the site counter numbers and realized we’d hit the million mark just two days shy of our sixth anniversary, I surprised myself; yes, I knew we’d get there, but not how I’d react to it. I looked at the number, 1,000,067 as of 12:34 p.m. on August 22, 2010, then I looked up at the crucifix hanging over my desk – and started applauding like Jesus just scored a touchdown or somethin’. I laugh now to think of it, but what I did was cheer him.

It wasn’t me who got to a million, it was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’m just the bus driver here, they tell me where to go.

But there’s something else, and this is the intimate part for me, that I can only tell a good friend who knows my story. And you do; you feel it with me, because we’re about the same age and we’re both Gay and we love this Jesus fella completely, and all his saints whether quick or dead:

I feel as if I’ve finally done the one great thing I was put on earth for, but had never accomplished.

True, we believe in faith, not works, but St. James taught that works are good too; and here is the work of my life.

One million views of the work of my life.

So I finally feel like I’ve arrived – not in heaven; but in my own mind, my own expectations of who and what I can be.

I have always, since childhood, expected greatness out of myself. But I’ve never quite achieved it before.

I’ve done many things I’m extremely proud of; I founded the world’s second-oldest AIDS organization, after Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, in Cincinnati in 1983. They’re still going strong and now have a million-dollar budget, but I turned it over to other good people and went to New York to work at GMHC.

I did very good work there, and spent Christmas Eve making hospital visits; one was pretty important, a middle-aged, friendless closet case with fundamentalist parents who came north from Carolina and cut off all contact with his support system, made up of Gay people in GMHC. He didn’t want to hurt his parents, but when I came to visit that night, he finally sent them out of his hospital room and talked to me, honestly and deeply.

It was an honor. I didn’t even make it to midnight mass that night, though the cathedral wasn’t far away; I felt like I’d already been to midnight mass, so I let it live in my heart.

In later years, back in Ohio, I ran the toughest, most hard-hitting (and journalistically reliable) Gay newspaper in the country. In the early ’90s the Gay and Lesbian Press Association named me the Best Investigative Reporter in North America, for breaking news and followup on a serial murder story, Gay men from Indianapolis murdered and dumped all across the Midwest.

That led to my first novel, which until Sunday and the million visitors milestone, is the thing I’ve been proudest of. It’s a fictionalized retelling of those murders, complete with a message to the killers in Chapter 2: “I know who you are.”

But it went beyond the whodunit genre by introducing the purest, most chaste Gay romance ever. The reporter (who is younger, blonder, smarter and richer than me) meets this cop… and they don’t even get their first kiss until the last chapter.

(I’ve been working on the sequel ever since, about how to build a Gay Christian marriage.)

I’m terribly proud of my second book, which is a Gay comedy. It has a serious point but it still makes me laugh every time, in the exact same spots where I’ve always laughed; where I laughed the day I wrote it, and in every rewrite since.

But however proud I am of them, these books didn’t sell nationwide. The first one sold well in the Midwest (and with heterosexual women) but outside these states no one ever heard of me, and book sales are publicity-driven. I could not say, “Well, I have a right to be on this planet, I’ve changed the world in some way.” I love the books but the world wasn’t changed, only a few readers.

In my definition “greatness” requires something that changes the world.

I’ve always expected something of myself and never done it. Never gone mass market. I’ve been in The New York Times but they didn’t offer me a job. (A commenter once kindly suggested they do so.)

I guess I’ve chosen to define “going mass market” and “changing the world” as a million hits on dailyoffice.org.

One could argue with that choice but I’m comfortable with it. A million prayers! All of them originating from my fingers, in my office, in my bedroom.

Last night, when reality began to sink in, I talked to God about all this; that I finally feel I’ve met my own expectations, much less hers. I mean, she knows what a sinner I am; I was drunk half the time. But I got those prayers and lessons up letter-perfect. (In the early days I typed it all myself. Now there are more resources online and I type less. Much of my job is formatting.)

When I was done talking, God gave me a rather serious but common affirmation for all this – serious so I’d remember it and know it was real, but familiar too, the same physical stirring we’ve shared countless times in six years and 2,190 services. It’s like a pat on the head but nicer! A rub on the spine, head to toe – or just a part of me.

So yes, I feel proud of myself; I feel like I’ve been on this earth for something. I feel like I’ve finally fulfilled my potential, that I had all along but never could channel before, in part because I don’t have much or any personal ambition. I don’t see how a person can have that ambition and get about serving God; those goals seem to clash. So I never made any money – and I couldn’t care less.

You can see why I was so thrilled to finally be able to afford a house! All that wandering, all those years, but now I get to grow marigolds and dill, chives and tomatoes. I can smell the dill from my back door.

Now I’ve got a little fox terrier to love, so I’m not pouring it all out of my fingertips (or the palm of my hand).

Those million visits are “great enough” for me. And that’s a major rearrangement in my psyche.

Y’know, I may never write a bestseller; may never get much credit for anything; may never be on Rachel Maddow or be intimate with a man again. John Calvin may get a feast day out of the Bishops’ Church, when he hated bishops!

I don’t care. Those million prayers – which relied on me but I didn’t originate, my congregation did – resound with the Holy One on whom all life depends. We, you and me, are part of the communion of saints. And no, we don’t understand that or see all the directional arrows, here to here and her to her; but they are part of the life-force that sustains us all.

So man, I’m content. Don’t got no laurels to rest on, and there are six more saints this month, but I can die happy. And that really is what it’s all about to us mortals; we don’t want to die, or get Alzheimer’s and be useless, but since we’re going to die, let us do it happy, knowing we did our part.

God doesn’t require me to be Moses; God requires me to be Joshua. And finally, for the first time, I am.

Love,

Josh

Claudio Cassio: St. Rosa de Lima, whose feast is today.

2 Responses

  1. Congratulations on over a million visitors, but also on 6 years being online in The Daily Office.

    And that from a non-religious person.

  2. Huge. Huge thoughts and huge outreach as you´ve provided a vehicle that infiltrated brains and touched human hearts with millions of multiplying messages that flew out of mind like shooting stars or deeply embedded themselves within some of us…forever, and ever, Amen.

    Again, thank you Josh for being the authentic person that God made you to be…it´s easy to see

    P.S. I once made ¨money¨ and felt hollow inside. The money was nice but my Burberry´s raincoat and Louis Vuitton umbrella were still stolen the same night that Jose died…yes, that human tragedy, loss and grief helped me see the difference between real. illusion and material fakery. My birthday is Wednesday, thank you for all your gifts…I´ve unwrapped them regularly.

    Un abrazo fuerte,

    Len

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