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For the last two years, I kept track of each book I read throughout the year and reflected on them in December. Why did I choose to read them? What stood out about each book? It’s interesting to see some of the common threads through what I read and how one book led to reading another.
This list is in the order in which I read them this year.
As 2016 comes to a close and we head into 2017, if you’re looking for books to read, feel free to browse through this list. Happy reading!
The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter | by Juanita Brown
Having led and facilitated discussions in the past, this book intrigued me because of the unique framework it provides for discussions. It offers a comprehensive answer to the question: How can we create more effective conversations in the public sphere? If you’re in education, business, or government, this is a book worth reading.
Learning to Walk in the Dark | by Barbara Brown Taylor
I was clamoring for this book, after living in NYC for just three months. From transitioning to a new job, to finding out I had a kidney stone, and wondering why the hell I moved to NYC, Brown’s words were a soothing balm. This book helped me to approach darkness and unknowing in a more grounded and mature way. While I often thought light was always “good” and dark is always “bad”, Brown draws on her life experiences as a pastor, as well as Scripture, to remind us of the lessons to be learned in the dark.
“…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” — Barbara Brown Taylor
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness | by Karen Armstrong
The title was another one that jumped out to me during a rough time this year. I first saw Karen Armstrong, a former nun and religion scholar, on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Her life story, often filled with uncertainty and nagging doubts about faith, was a refreshing reminder that doubts are more than okay. They are often the path to transformation. And her own battle with what she eventually found out to be epilepsy, provided me strength as I had to face two surgeries, in April and May.
Making Peace with Your Parents: The Key to Enriching Your Life and All Your Relationships | by Harold Bloomfield, M.D.
Whether you believe you have amazing or terrible parents, or somewhere in between, all of us were wounded by our parents in one way or another. Parents are human and imperfect, just as their children are. This book provides some pretty powerful exercises and insights, in order to help a person come to terms with their parents. It’s also a useful guide for mending many types of relationships.
Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self | by Richard Rohr
Rohr is one of my favorites and a voice of faith that we so desperately need at this point in human history. Other people probably struggle with this, but I often find myself wondering “who am I”? As only Rohr can do, he makes discussions about the “true self” and “false self” digestible for the everyman. His blend of spirituality and psychology is useful for anyone looking for a holistic approach to faith.
“Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.” — Richard Rohr
The Seven Storey Mountain | by Thomas Merton
Merton continues to be one of my models of faith and spirituality. But I honestly didn’t really know that much about him. Reading his autobiography gave me a much deeper understanding of his life and the different circumstances that shaped his view of the spiritual life. And who knew Thomas Merton was once in a fraternity at Columbia University?! The fact he spent time at Columbia and in Harlem was a fun connection, since I find myself there as well. This is a long read, but fascinating if you want to know the man that was Merton.
A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life | by Parker Palmer
Palmer was another person that I first heard about through Oprah — thanks, O! If I had to pick one book as my favorite for 2016, this would be it. The first half delves into the ins and outs of living a whole, undivided life. Palmer’s gentle and insightful words will challenge you to take a brutally honest look at the way you’re living your life. I don’t want to say much more, but if you are serious about living an integrated life, read this book in the coming year.
“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. ” — Parker Palmer
Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche | by Bill Plotkin
I think I was drawn to this book earlier in the year because I felt a disconnect from nature and was interested in the connection Plotkin makes between psychology and nature. As a wilderness guide, Plotkins brings really interesting thoughts about the connection between nature and soul; inner and outer. From shadow work to wilderness vision fasts, I’ll admit some of it was a little “woo woo”, even for me. But compelling nonetheless.
The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence | by Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen is another one of the Christian spiritual teachers I look to for wisdom and practice. Although this book is pretty small, it has a strong foundation, centered on three spiritual practices: solitude, silence, and prayer. Nouwen’s challenge to approach each of these disciplines is bold without seeming overwhelming. If you’re a person who lives the spiritual life primarily from your head, these three disciplines are an excellent avenue back into the body.
Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After |
by Kathleen Woodward Thomas
This was one book I didn’t expect to read this year. The end of relationships are often a brutal time for the heart. When I realized my ex and I wouldn’t continue our relationship, I wanted to approach it in a thoughtful way — as best I could. It’s easy to poke fun at this idea of conscious uncoupling, but I truly believe having an ugly, throw down breakup is the easier path. Anger and blame can seem effortless. Conscious uncoupling, however, requires reaching into the depths of oneself that I wasn’t ready for and honestly feels unnatural to some degree. In the midst of a difficult breakup, I’m glad I reached for Thomas’ wisdom. I recommend this read, with caution. The approach Thomas advocates is not at all a cake-walk.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People | by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I chose this book because I’ve always been intrigued by Bolz-Weber — the tattooed, foul-mouthed, irreverent pastor, based in Denver. Her honesty about the messiness of loving others and self is refreshing. Her vulnerability about her own struggles challenges the reader to look at the complexities of life and that the “gray areas” are where life happens. Few things in life are black and white. I especially appreciated her honest approach to community: if you’re not wiling to be let down and stick around for the long haul, community is probably not for you.
“I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones — people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.” — Nadia Bolz-Weber
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation | by Parker Palmer
What is my “calling”? That’s a question that often lingers in my head and one that can haunt me, if I let it run wild. Palmer shares many heartfelt stories about his life journey and how he got to where he is today. How he stumbled upon his life’s work. His tender and honest musings about depression are welcome for anyone who has or is struggling with depression. While this isn’t a five-step blueprint to discover your calling, it will help you to wrestle with and listen to those small voices in your self that are eager to be heard.
The Internet Is My Religion | by James Gilliam
This was one of two books I received when I started working at Meetup. If you’re hankering for an autobiographical thriller, here you go. I confess I was pretty stressed while reading this book. Gilliam faced what seemed like insurmountable odds (a terminal illness) and a whole lot of loss. This reminded me what a gift every single day is and to not take for granted health or life. A frank story of how we are all connected and we need to tackle the problems we face, together.
Little Victories: Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living |
by Jason Gay
I was gifted this book and while I thought the cover was cute, I was like, “How am I going to connect with a guy who writes about sports for a living?” Hint: I never watch sports. This book was so much fun to read. Gay is self-deprecating, witty, and someone I’d actually like to hang out with! If you’re a fan of advice-y books, but looking for a light-hearted read, this will be just the right fit.
Ten Day in a Mad-House | by Nellie Bly
Next time you’re in New York, be sure to take the tram and visit Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell’s Island). This true story is about a courageous woman who goes undercover to expose the abusive practices at a woman’s “insane asylum” in the late 1880’s. It’s a stark reminder of the crap women have had to put up since the beginning of time (from men) and the power of taking risks to blow the whistle on a corrupt system.
Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life | by Henri Nouwen
What, exactly, are the ingredients that make up the spiritual life? Nouwen introduces three fascinating movements: reaching out to our innermost self (loneliness to solitude), reaching out to others (hostility to hospitality), and reaching out to God (illusion to prayer). My favorite part was his powerful word about creating space for strangers and different forms of hospitality. In a nation where being inhospitable to strangers seems to be on the rise, this is a much needed reminder of the role people of faith have to welcome the stranger.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living | by Rob Bell
This was a particularly special read because I attended an 8-hour event in Brooklyn, where Bell talked about the ideas in this book. The most significant takeaway from this book is to take new projects, endeavors, and goals step by step. Take the very first, tiny step toward a goal, instead of dwelling how I will get all the way to Z from A. Just begin!
“We rob ourselves of immeasurable joy when we compare what we do know about ourselves with what we don’t know about someone else.” — Rob Bell
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times | by Pema Chodron
Even though Parker Palmer’s “A Hidden Wholeness” was my most treasured book of the year, this one would be a very close second. This book really woke me up to all of the energy and effort I put into trying to keep everything “together”. The fear is that if I don’t perform good enough or lively “perfectly”, everything will turn to chaos. The real challenge is realizing the ups and down are all part of the journey. This is a must read if you had a rough 2016. Start 2017 with Pema Chodron!
Interfaith Leadership: A Primer | by Eboo Patel
I first heard Patel on an episode of my favorite podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett. I’m very interested in being involved in interfaith work and Patel, who is Muslim, gives an honest blueprint for how an interfaith leader can approach such work. My hope is to use some of his insights to get to know people of other faiths more deeply in 2017 and beyond.
The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist | by Dorothy Day
I love hearing directly from strong women. Dorothy Day was one of the final women I read in 2016. While I knew a bit about her, her autobiography gave so much more insight into how the Catholic Worker Movement started and how their philosophy and works spread across the nation and world. She was another person who spent a lot of time in New York City — on the Lower East Side. This book gave me hope and motivation to make a difference…especially in the midst of Donald Trump winning the presidency.
Go Tell It On the Mountain | by James Baldwin
This was one of the few pieces of fiction I read the entire year. I was drawn to this book because James Baldwin was born in Harlem (where I now live) in 1924. This was my first experience of his writing and I was touched by his poetic and powerful narrative. The characters were complex and the way we weaved together themes of race and religion was super interesting.
Giovanni’s Room | by James Baldwin
This is probably the most well known book written by Baldwin, who himself was gay. Reading this brought back memories of when I first fell in love with a guy and all of the emotions that came with it. I saw many of the guys I’ve loved in the character of Giovanni and saw myself in David, the main character. Love, shame, loss, connection, and heartache are all weaved together in this beautiful novel.
The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times | by Pema Chodron
When confronted with a fearful or tough situation, do you clench, tighten up, and retract or open up, soften, and relax? If your reaction is usually the former (which is the case for me), Chodron’s wisdom in this book will be a lifesaver. Connecting with ourselves and others leads to a more peaceful and gentle world. It ain’t easy, but it’s worth trying.
Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent | by Richard Rohr
What I love about Advent is that it creates space to intentionally slow down, even while the hectic rush and bustle is happening throughout society. This was the second year I read through this small book. Rohr presents the reader with really important and challenging questions about faith, self, and the season we find ourselves in.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide | by Carol Anderson
When it comes to race in America, how did we get to where we are today? Anderson’s thoroughly researched book is a must-read if, like me, your knowledge of systemic racism in America is not what it should be. From the deconstruction of Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, to today’s intense voter suppression efforts led by the Republican Party, this should be required for anyone who is interested in fighting for a racially just nation.
What did you read in 2016? Write in the comments, so I can start compiling a list for 2017!
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There’s one reality that Americans of all political persuasions seem to forget about during an election season.
After we go to the polls. After the votes are counted. After concessions speeches are (hopefully) made, we all still have to live together, in one nation.
Sure, a tiny minority will threaten to move and maybe some even will. But the majority of us will continue to live where we’re living, with the job we have, and the friends we surround ourselves with.
Like it or not, we’re stuck together.
At the same time, even though we find ourselves in a nation, couched between spacious skies and purple mountain majesties, it doesn’t mean we have to agree or even like one another.
We will disagree. We need to disagree.
But I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Eboo Patel, who recently relayed some much needed words of wisdom during his interview on my favorite podcast, On Being.
Patel is an American Muslim, who founded Interfaith Youth Core, an interfaith organization that trains college student, centered on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
…healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things.This can, of course, apply to people within any religion or outside.
Even though you may have a fundamental disagreement with someone on a specific issue, there is likely an issue that you both agree with, that you can work on together for the common good.
Patel also warned of a trend that is easy to spot on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter:
…The most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing — and I’m going to recognize that these things are fundamental — matters of the Middle East, same sex marriage, abortion — they are fundamental — let’s not say that they’re marginal at all — but if you disagree with me on that, I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them.
These words honestly hit me at a gut level, because it raises the disgust and anger I have toward the conservative fringes of the Christian faith that I profess.
When I see Christians treat the LGBT community so poorly, my blood boils and the last thing I want to do is work with those people on any issue, because they fundamentally want to deny me and my friends our rights and even think we’re an abomination. And that pisses me off!
At the same time, I do believe those same Christians who I disagree with about LGBT rights also do good in their own communities. Whether it’s feeding the hungry, providing clean water for communities who don’t have it, or assisting the elderly in their time of need.
Heck, there are even churches in New York City whom I disagree with about LGBT rights. But would I refuse to work with them to alleviate hunger, combat homelessness, or any number of problems that face a city as large and diverse as NYC? The reactionary, ego-driven part of me says, “Yeah, I’ll pass.” But the compassionate, loving part of me says, where do I sign up?
The truth is that it is easy to create monsters of people whom I disagree with and who disagree with me. And it’s likely just as easy for them to see me as a monster, out to destroy their ideal of X, Y, or Z.
When I actually take a breath and step back, I’m able to see the complexity of the other. The same complexity and nuance that I want others to see in me. I’m not only a gay man. I’m not only a Christian. I’m not only a son and brother. I’m not only an American citizen. I also get angry and say things I regret. I pretend my opinions are untouchable, even though deep down I can see the other side. I have moments when I hate the person in front of me for walking so slow. I’m imperfect, wrong at times, and incredibly fallible.
Within me are so many contradictions and inconsistencies. When I really get to a place of honesty with myself, I begin to unearth my own prejudices and biases. I am able to see where I may be wrong about this or that. Or, at the very least, I’m able to see why someone has formed the opinion that they have.
Patel also raised a point I haven’t ever considered, revealing what he shares with college students across the nation:
Justice is another term that we assume everybody has the same definition of. My new line to 20-year-olds who look very chastised when I say this on campuses is, “If everybody in the room that you’re in has the same definition of ‘justice’ that you do — I don’t care how many colors, or genders, or sexual preferences, or religions are in that room — it’s not a diverse room.” Part of the definition of “diversity” is the recognition there are diverse understandings of justice.I won’t dive into this idea about different ideas of justice, since that would require its own article!
But I agree with Patel that a civil society must include citizens who are willing to go toe to toe, in a fierce battle of ideas. To do everything possible to defeat the other person’s candidate at the ballot box.
All the while, we need citizens who are able to agree to disagree on some fundamental things, but then work together on other issues where there is agreement, in the interest of the common good.
This isn’t always easy to wrap my head around, especially in the heat of reading a Facebook post of a person who supports a candidate I can’t stand.
But it is our duty as citizens to get offline and work alongside people, even when we don’t see eye to eye. There is so much suffering and injustice in the world that requires all hands on deck. Hopefully we can keep this in mind after November 8th.
Be sure to listen to On Being’s latest episode, “How to Live Beyond This Election” with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and interfaith visionary Eboo Patel. Hosted by Krista Tippett.
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I never thought I’d say this. But it’s been a strange experience, since same-sex-marriage was legalized in all 50 states in the United States.
Don’t get me wrong. I fully supported the Supreme Court decision to make marriage available to same-sex couples. To me, it was a sweet, hard-fought victory. I also know there are plenty of LGBT people who weren’t very enthused about it. While I’m usually always for rights being expanded and granted to more people, marriage was never, personally, on my radar.
Thinking way back, even before I realized I was gay, there was never a vision for my life of getting married, buying a house, and having kids. The desire was never there. For any of it.
Having recently ended a relationship of 4 1/2 years, this experience is causing me to really dig in to what it is I want. Especially as the older, er, wiser, I become.
In my mind, the ideal relationship is simple, yet rich companionship between two people. Yes, there’s commitment. Yes, there’s love. Yet, it’s the daily interactions: the banter; the rooting for one another; where one is weak, the other is strong; the daily acts of kindness. Those acts are the foundation that makes everything tick.
I realize all of these acts can and do happen within the context of a marriage, but all of this can also be present outside the context of marriage.
At times, I’ve thought that maybe I’m afraid of commitment. Yes, I’m sure a life-long commitment is a bit scary to most people, who enter into a long term commitment — whether it be marriage or a career. Maybe a little (or a lot) of hesitancy is normal.
The truth is, I want that long-term commitment, but I don’t know if one life-long-term commitment is going to happen for me. In fact, that already hasn’t been the case.
Since college, I’ve been in two significant relationships with guys I adored. I don’t see the end of those relationships as a failure or less than. They both added so much joy to my life and taught me a lot.
There are so many ways to measure what a successful or fulfilling life looks like. Maybe one life-long commitment isn’t a measurement that’s super important or vital for my own life. That’s something we each need to decide for ourselves.
When I’m old and gray and look back on my life, would I be satisfied remembering the “loves” of my life? Would I be grateful for the men who came in and out of my life? Who were there for a season and then weren’t.
Also, can I be as open to learning and growing and thriving while I’m single as I did while I was in a relationship? Being recently single, it really hit me how much I hate being on my own! Cue: Here’s a moment for growth. Perhaps it’s the newness of being single. Or the uncertainty and downright scary nature of being “alone” after having that companionship for 4 1/2 years.
I value companionship. I love having that go-to person and I love being that go-to person for someone else.
There are so many things that get me excited about life. “Marriage” is not one of them. It feels so old and clunky. A little suffocating, dull, and unimaginative. As exciting as stale bread.
How I feel about “marriage” is similar to when people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. Meaning, I am seeking something, but not that particular something. Or it at least looks and feels a bit different than what is traditionally thought of.
How do you communicate this to a potential companion? “You know, I want to be in a committed relationship, but can we skip all of the other crap?” For many, it seems like one extreme or another: marriage and all the frills or an anything goes, open relationship. I’d rather plop down somewhere the middle.
I’ll pass on the cake tasting (that’s a normal Saturday for me). Please let me skip the marriage ceremony and all of the bells and whistles that go along with that. The picking of the bridesmaids or groomsmen — you can have it. Suits? Oh so uncomfortable. Engagement photo session? Please no.
I’m fine with skipping all that. Instead, let’s head straight to the honeymoon, vacation, companionship paradise reward trip. Whatever you want to call it.
Let’s make all of it our own and invite other friends and family into recognizing our companionship, in whatever quirky or creative way we imagine. Or not at all. Maybe we just send a nice card to everyone to give them a heads up: “Hey, we’re together. Wanted to let you know. — Love, Josh & ______.”
I am happy for my gay (and straight) friends who are heading toward the big wedding cake or who are already hitched. I want them to find happiness, love, and fulfillment, however that looks for them. But there’s also a part of me that cringes when I see posts on Facebook about step 23 in “here we go toward marriage”. Honestly, it’s probably part post-break up jealousy. Part, I can’t imagine myself doing all of that.
There are times I see those photos and want to throw my laptop out the window. Seeing other people happy while I’m hurting isn’t fun. Jealousy isan ugly thing. But it’s there, mixed with a touch of bitterness. But I’m human. So I’m not going to beat myself up over it.
At the end of the day, I wonder if not wanting all of the “marriage” stuff is somewhat of a red flag to other guys. How do I communicate that? Should it be communicated sooner than later?
Does it, on some level, imply I don’t want a commitment? Because that’s not the case. Is it sending mixed messages? Or are there other guys out there who feel the same way about marriage? Who get where I’m coming from?
And then there’s this: I’ve been known to change my mind.
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As with so many moments of carnage in the real world, there’s a lot to learn while skimming through your own Facebook feed.
In the days since the horrific violence in Orlando, I’ve seen people on the fundamentalist side of the Christian theological spectrum scramble for cover.
“Look,” they say. “Look at what those Islamic radicals did! They are the ones to blame. It’s as plain as day.”
The implicit statement they make is this: Don’t look at me. The way I talk about LGBT people and the positions I take on policy issues that effect LGBT people has nothing to do with this act of violence.
Sadly, they miss the point completely. The actions and positions of fundamemtalists has, for far too long, led to the daily suffering of LGBT people.
A Christian fundamentalist didn’t pull the trigger on that night, in that gay club, filled with people, like myself, who go out with friends to dance, laugh, and let loose on the weekend.
But that’s not where the story ends. It’s certainly not where the demonization of LGBT people begins.
The truth is you don’t have to put a bullet in my head in order to wreck havoc on my life. You can infect my psyche with insidious beliefs about myself. You can tear down my spirit by declaring that my love for another man is fictitious. You can dish out seemingly harmless rants, which viciously fan the flames of self-hatred.
It’s not easy, especially as a teen, sitting in a church and hearing that “those gay people” are out to destroy culture itself. It’s not easy when you’re listening to the news and hear a politician refer to LGBT people as being incapable of real love. It’s not easy when people you trust growing up, tell you that if you become gay, you’ll likely become a drug addict or ultimately end up alone.
In all of those settings, until you actually meet other gay people, everything is abstract, except for the feeling that all of those nasty comments are targeted directly at an important aspect of who you are as a person.
I’ve had gay friends who took their own life, largely because of the messages they received from fundamentalist Christian culture, pastors, and communities.
None of my friends, and none of the teenagers who have taken their lives in America, did so because Islamic radicals were threatening their life. None of them decided not living was preferable to living because an Islamic cleric was preaching from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
No, the demonization, the fear mongering, the denigrating was much closer to home. It was, in fact, in their own back yards. In the church down the street. In the words of the politician from their hometown.
Now, imagine hearing these messages over and over again, which induces self-hatred and seemingly inescapable feelings of worthlessness. First, you hear it from the pulpit. Then you hear it from a bully on the playground. Then you witness it when a teacher doesn’t stand up for you. When all of this adds up, it can become unbearable for anyone to handle.
What’s sad about Christian fundamentalists is they don’t understand the power of words and they only see LGBT people as “issues”. An issue doesn’t stretch when it gets out of bed in the morning. An issue doesn’t inhale and exhale in order to stay alive. An issue doesn’t cry alone in the bedroom at night after a rough day at school. An issue doesn’t experience fear, loneliness, or sadness.
When you keep a whole group of people, mentally in your mind, as nothing more than a set of issues, empathy is sucked out of the picture and it’s easy to say whatever you want, without remorse.
I don’t deny that Islamic fundamentalists truly hate LGBT people. We’ve seen the videos of them throwing gay men off the tops of buildings and mercilessly beheading gay men in the streets.
Fundamentalists of all stripes are so wrapped up in theology, that they are incapable of seeing humanness in front of them. That’s how they can say whatever they want and do whatever they want and never consider that their words or actions might somehow be incredibly damaging. Just because you aren’t physically attacking the LGBT community, doesn’t mean you’re not doing harm.
Fundamentalist Christians will continue to deflect, point to Islamic radicals, and bury the past because deep down they know they’ve spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars, hell-bent on making the lives of LGBT more difficult. Yet, they will not repent. They won’t even attempt an apology.
This group of Christians will try to deny having any responsibility for violence toward LGBT people. Yet, they are participants in a conga line of animosity toward LGBT people everywhere. They may not be throwing us off buildings or putting bullets in our heads, but they’ve certainly laid the groundwork and started exporting anti-LGBT sentiment across the globe (familiar with “Kill the Gays bill” abroad?).
I am angry. I am sad. I want to love and forgive my own brothers and sisters in Christ, but this forgiveness thing is hard when those you love are continuously wounded by so-called people of faith. Lord, give me strength.