Today I Choose to Die

ONFHf1491347112During this Lenten season, our church has talked a lot about suffering. Normally no one rejoices over studying such topics, any more than I’ve rejoiced over studying my history with shame while reading Brené Brown. It’s not easy and it often makes us uncomfortable. But for some reason I haven’t found this topic of suffering depressing the way I thought I would. Instead, I’ve found it refreshing and enlightening. The ability to talk about difficult topics such as suffering has added a dimension of rawness and richness to the community of people at our church that have been open to receiving it. It’s allowed space for authenticity where so many other churches practice facades.

This past week, our co-pastor Jenny Morgan spoke about the importance of dying before you die, as in the need to let go of certain things in our lives so that when we physically pass away, we are able to do so in peace rather than fighting our physical death out of fear.

So as we approach Good Friday and draw near to Easter, I’ve been thinking about the things in my life that I need to put to death in order to make space for fresh new things to take root in my spirit and grow.

Here’s what I’ve decided to start with…

I choose to put to death perfectionism. The need to perform and put on a good appearance in front of others doesn’t cultivate authentic connection. By letting go of perfectionism, I make room to be gentle with myself and transparent with others.

I choose to put to death prejudice. No matter how much I think I’ve learned to accept and embrace all the vast diversity in the world, I am not exempt from the subtle prejudices and judgment that so easily creep into the human heart. By intentionally letting go of prejudice, I make room to continue to learn about people who are different from me and embrace all the beautiful diversity that the world has to offer.

I choose to put to death hate, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Boy, it’s hard to let go of my desire for justice for those who have wronged me or those I love. But holding on to hate and bitterness only eats away at my soul and unforgiveness festers like a wound that refuses to heal. By letting go of these things, I am entrusting my need for justice to God and freeing up room in my soul to love more people better and deeper.

I choose to kill my need for other people’s approval. Seeking approval often causes me to put on a front and show people what I want them to see in order to fit in. I am learning that is not authentic connection. Authentic connection comes when I bring all of myself to the relationship without filtering what people see and am embraced and loved for all of me. By letting go of my need for other people’s approval, I make space for relationships that are real and connections that are built to last.

I choose to put to death my need for certainty. Clinging tightly to what I think I know has not worked out well for me in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I love the assurance of certainty. I am detail-oriented and a meticulous planner. I like to know things in advance and be able to prepare ahead of time. But the black and white/right and wrong religion I grew up in mandated certainty but provided a false sense of peace. Since then I’ve learned that there are so many things I was wrong about. By letting go of my need for certainty, I open up myself to learn and grow in the (many) things I do not know, and make space for wonder, mystery, and awe. Those three things have brought me more peace in recent years than any amount of certainty and I’ve learned to be okay with and even embrace the things that I don’t know.

Finally, I choose to put to death my need for busyness. Thanks to Brené Brown (again!) I’m learning that exhaustion does not need to be my status symbol that I’ve accomplished enough and my level of productivity does not need to define my self-worth. I need to rest in the fact that I am enough regardless of what I accomplish in a given day and be content with myself even when things still remain on my “To-Do” list when I crawl into bed. By letting go of these things, I allow space for rest, for creativity, for joy and for contentment and the belief that I am enough.

There’s more, like putting to death fear, putting to death my expectations, putting to death my need for comparison and competition, and putting to death my numbing behaviors. With the help of Brené Brown and my Deepen group at church, I am learning that a wholehearted and fulfilled life comes from believing I am enough and allowing others to see the real me. Embracing my vulnerability allows others to embrace theirs and together we build authentic community.

So parts of me have died today. But in all honesty, they are parts that never brought life to begin with. Letting go of them feels a little uncertain, but is also freeing.

This is by far not an overnight transformation. This is something I will have to work at every day. But today I choose to die to these things, so that more life and more joy and more authentic connection can be cultivated inside me giving life not only to my own soul but hopefully to those around me as well.

Because LOVE makes all the difference,
Amber

Own Your Story: Taking Power Back Over the Things that Shame You

 

OwnStoryQuoteThis past year, I spent a huge portion of my time each week writing my first memoir. That meant that I looked at and examined my own life from all angles and perspectives for hours each day. It was like immersing myself in intensive therapy. I learned a lot about myself and I uncovered truths about my childhood that were both tough to acknowledge and hard to sit with. While some of those realizations were difficult for me to accept as truth, they were equally helpful at helping me understand my own story. It was both healing and heart-wrenching, both eye-opening and painful to see.

I’ll admit there are things in this book that I wish weren’t about to be made public to the entire world. It’s not easy to expose your most painful moments to anyone and everyone that wants to read them. But I am also aware that had I chosen not to include some of those vulnerable details, the story would not be as relatable, nor as powerful. I believe that it is when we are vulnerable, raw, and open about who we are, the mistakes that we’ve made, and the pain we’ve experienced that we not only find our own freedom, but we liberate others to find theirs as well.

This belief was ignited from a defining moment I had as I neared the end of writing my manuscript. I was reading through a particular section and thinking to myself, “Gee, I sure wish I didn’t have to include this in the book.” Then it dawned on me: I didn’t want to include this in the book because I still felt as an adult the same shame it caused me to feel as a young child. And there I was, back at the issue of shame. Again.

But then I realized, I had a choice: I could move forward and continue to feel shame over this piece of my story or I could own it. So I said to myself, “Heck, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all the way.” Scavenging through old photo albums, I chose several pictures that illustrated this piece of my story, and copy and pasted them into the folder of photos to be included in the manuscript.

Over the following weeks as I thought about the situation, the idea of owning my story began to resonate deeper and deeper inside me. Those pictures I chose to include are ones that I’ve always hated to look at myself, much less show to another person. But now, choosing to include them in the book as evidence of my story made me feel a sense of power and authority over a part of my life that previously, had always made me feel weak. It was my way of looking it in the face and deciding that it wasn’t going to own me or cause me to feel shame any longer. Instead, I was going to own it.

I’ll be the first to admit this transformation doesn’t happen overnight. In moments of uncertainty I’d find myself in a state of panic, wanting to delete entire sections of the manuscript to hide away all my weaknesses and failures where no one could see. “Surely the whole world doesn’t really need to know about all this, right?” I’d try to convince myself.

Wrong. Deep inside I knew that people needed to see all sides of me in order to both know that I am human and to raise awareness for issues that people may not otherwise confront or understand. But vulnerability is hard. When the years you’ve felt shame over something far surpass the number of years that you have not felt shame over it, admittedly, it’s going to take some time and practice to fully let go. But once I decided to take that plunge into the sea of vulnerability, a sense of pride rose up alongside my fear, and gave me the confidence I needed in the road that lies ahead as I intentionally own my own story a little more each day.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I continue to marinate over this idea at the same time that my book group and I press on in our study of Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. So much of her work focuses on discovering our own worthiness through owning our stories and letting go of shame. So it was no surprise when I typed “own your story” into my Google search engine, that a list of quotes by Brené Brown came up. Here are a few I’d like to share with you. Perhaps you will join me in meditating on them throughout the week:
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-“When we own our own stories, we avoid being trapped as characters in the stories someone else is telling.” -Brené Brown, Rising Strong

 

 

155516-Bren-Brown-Quote-You-either-walk-inside-your-story-and-own-it-or

 

-“You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” -Brené Brown

 

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-“When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” -Brené Brown

 

 

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hustling for my worthiness. I’m tired of trying to convince myself that I belong. I want to be brave in owning my story, I want know deep in my being that I belong, I want to choose what defines me, and I want to love myself for all the beautiful and unique imperfections I possess. I hope you will join me in this journey.

Because we are all beautifully imperfect,
Amber

 

My Power Struggle with Vulnerability

imagesI’ve been reading Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection and it is undoing me. People warned me this would happen, which in all honesty, is why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. I knew it was going to require some energy. But when a group of women from my church decided to embark on this journey together, hungry for community, I enlisted. Four weeks in, Brené’s concepts surrounding shame, vulnerability, courage, compassion, and connection are already challenging the way I both think and live.

One morning last week, I woke up feeling unusually homesick and, oddly enough, craving a road trip. This was strange to me because with the chronic pain I battle, road trips have become a much bigger challenge for me than they used to be.

Then I realized, March was the month I always used to hop in my car for spring break and drive to Montana to visit my favorite grandparents and other relatives. March is also the month that my grandpa unexpectedly passed away four years ago. And five years ago this April, I came out to my family and as a result, lost everything.

Suddenly, my feelings of homesickness and desire for familiarity and belonging made sense. This time of year holds a lot of pain for me. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, my soul remembers. Awareness of my triggers always helps me process them, but that doesn’t necessarily make the process any easier.

It was with that realization that I then realized something else: I suck at being vulnerable. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I woke up with tears in my eyes that morning, nor did I want to admit that I felt homesick. It felt weak, like I was somehow revealing my nakedness. But deep inside, I longed for the arms of a Mama Bear to wrap me up and let me cry on her shoulder. Yet I struggled all day to reach out.

Being guarded is ingrained in me. The evangelical church taught me to wear a façade and appear like I had it all together, even when I didn’t. My family stressed the importance of reputation and maintaining appearances, which gave me no place to talk about the real things of my heart. And life experience taught me to be careful who you trust, causing me to rarely expose my weaknesses, struggles, and shortcomings for fear of being disowned, betrayed, abandoned, or labeled a failure. So the reality is, I’ve learned to protect myself and my heart.

vulnerability-2But according to Brené Brown, that is not wholehearted living. Deep inside I know it. I’ve always longed for more and craved authentic connection with others–a place to belong and be fully myself. Granted, moving to Denver after coming out five years ago brought me closer to that than I’ve ever been, allowing me to finally feel at home in my own skin and belong in the community of my home church. But still, I long for more. I long for a deeper and more authentic connection with people.

So in attempt to become a little more human and a little less guarded and robotic, let me assemble some courage and risk being vulnerable by sharing the rawness of what really went on in my heart last week:

First, it was hard for me to admit that I still regularly dream about my family because when I do, my day often starts with tears.

It was hard for me to say that I’m homesick. I often default to saying I miss specific events rather than specific people because it’s easier, or at least, less painful. In all honesty, I wrestle with what it means to miss people who have hurt me so deeply, as if it were something I shouldn’t experience. I suppose you can both miss someone and not be sure you want them back at the same time. But regardless, it hurts and feels complicated.

It was hard for me to acknowledge that a dream I couldn’t remember affected me all day, not because of the dream itself, but because of the memories, loss, and sadness it caused to surface.

I did finally reach out to a Mama Bear…sort of. I sent a text at about 7pm that night after sadness accompanied me all day. Yes, I suck at being vulnerable. But I’m trying. I want to live wholeheartedly with enough courage to call a Mama Bear at 7am, not text her at 7pm. I want to be vulnerable and let people see all parts of me. I want to not be afraid to admit that I’m hurting. I want to live authentically, and hope that as a result, I find the true connection and belonging that my heart seeks.

If you need to be undone, join me in reading The Gifts of Imperfection. It will challenge your soul, and perhaps we can learn and grow in authenticity together.

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P.S. In effort to continue being vulnerable, I admit that I was horrified when I saw that my blog last week did not generate in “perfect” format. While it was formatted correctly on my website, the email that went out to my subscribers was not. The problem has since been resolved with my apologies. Alas, I am human after all.

4 Reasons Why Every Christian Should See “The Shack”

Last week, my wife and I went to see The Shack. Despite its controversy among many Christians, we were eager to view the film version of a book that had meant something personal to both of us.

The Shack is the story of a man named Mackenzie Allen Phillips (fondly called Mack) who is wrestling with guilt, shame, and grief over the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, while on a family camping trip. Evidence of his daughter’s murder was soon found in the Oregon wilderness at an abandoned shack. Mack is shell-shocked and devastated. Feeling responsible for her death, Mack beats himself up emotionally and struggles to move on from this place of utter pain, sadness, and despair.

When Mack received a letter signed by Papa (his wife, Nan’s, nickname for God) inviting him to that same shack for the weekend, Mack is all at once perplexed, outraged, and intrigued. Wondering if perhaps Missy’s killer is looking for a sick way to lure him back to that place, he is unable to get the mysterious note out of his mind. With the rest of his family away for the weekend, Mack sneaks away to the shack, expecting to face his biggest enemy.screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-12-38-10-pm

But instead of meeting his daughter’s killer, what Mack experiences upon arriving at the shack, is an encounter with God. The figure of God, who is portrayed as a black woman (Octavia Spencer) exudes nothing but warmth, love, and compassionate understanding. Jesus (portrayed as a Jewish man) and the Holy Spirit (portrayed by an Asian woman) are also of key importance, each of them playing a significant role in bringing healing to Mack’s festering heart.

The film’s 132 minute journey takes you through both grief and healing; through the pain of loss, and the hope of restoration. Despite the arguments some may pose about the underlying theology represented in The Shack, here are four reasons why I think every Christian should see this film.

1. We’ve all experienced a Great Sadness.

No matter where we’ve come from in life or what roads we’ve walked, the chances are, we’ve all experienced a Great Sadness in some form.  In the story, Mack’s Great Sadness was the loss of his daughter, Missy. It overshadowed his life, shackled him to pain, and colored the way he viewed both the world and God.

“We’ve lost so much already, I don’t want to lose you too,” Mack’s wife, Nan, says to him one day. Mack is slowly slipping away into his grief and she feels helpless to prevent it.

The Great Sadness is a universal theme we can all relate to: grief so strong that it threatens to suck us under into total darkness, pain from loss or despair so great that every day is a struggle. Our own encounter with the Great Sadness allows us to identify with and join Mack on his journey through pain and likewise, through healing.

2. We all have questions.

Once Mack starts to wrap his head around the fact that he is in the very presence of the Trinity, he begins firing off questions.

“Why did you bring me here?”
“Am I dead?”
“Does (Missy) forgive me?”
“Why would I (trust) you? My daughter is dead!”

His head spins as his mind struggles to comprehend what is happening–or why God would allow this to happen to his beloved daughter. Throughout Mack’s questioning, all three of the Trinity exude nothing but patience, kindness, and love as he processes the answers he is given. It’s quite comforting, actually, to see the grace with which God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit interact with Mack, despite all his doubts and obvious anger and pain. It portrays a safe space where we too can bring our own questions, feelings, and fears before God. It shows a dimension of God that loves our questions rather than despises them, because it creates an opportunity for us to know God better and draw closer in relationship with God.

3. We don’t know everything about God

The dialogue between Papa (God) and Mack reaches a convicting moment when Papa looks at Mack with complete love coupled with complete honesty and gently says,

“The real flaw in your life (Mack), is that you don’t think that I am good.”the-shack

Oh, how often I’ve been guilty of that. Raised with the misconception that God loves you if you are good, but is angry if you are bad, so often I’ve expected punishment from God rather than love, rejection rather than acceptance, and abandonment rather than embrace. That then poses the question, “How many other misconceptions about God do I have?”

This film challenges some of those misconceptions and paints a picture of a more understanding, loving, and embracing God. Who doesn’t need more of that?

4. We all long to encounter God.

It’s wired inside us. We look for God everywhere and when we can’t find evidence of God’s presence, we turn to other things: work, exercise, busyness, denial, suppressing our emotions–essentially, we become numb to our pain.

But what if we slowed down and sat quiet long enough to actually encounter God? What if we actually opened our minds to the possibility that some of the beliefs that we hold about God just might be wrong? What if we allow space for a God that heals, that loves, that restores, that accepts, and that embraces to come in and breathe life back into our souls?

I believe that we’d find peace beyond compare.

Maybe you’re not actually able to just stop your life and sit in complete silence until God shows up. I know when I try that I often end up just staring at the wall or obsessing over my “to-do” list. If you find yourself doing the same, let this movie guide you there. Allow yourself for 2 hours, to quietly sit beside others in a theatre and open your heart to encountering God.

This film is full of concepts that will make you think–about your own life, about your beliefs about God, and about your pain. When I sat in the theatre, tears and sniffles were heard all across the room as we sat in a space that felt full of the comforting presence of God. I could easily count on one hand the number of movies I’ve ever seen twice in the theatre. But after viewing The Shack this past week, I have found my heart longing for more, longing to return, longing to see it again and soak up the richness of God that is seen and felt throughout the film. There were so many concepts that I found so comforting that my heart is continuing to process them a full week later.

I urge you, let go of your need to be right, and open your mind to what God may teach you through this fresh perspective that just might bring healing to your wounded soul.

This Week I Encountered God in the Dust

 

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“DID YOU NOT KNOW WHAT THE HOLY ONE CAN DO WITH DUST?”

These words have been sitting on the ground of my soul for the past week. I can’t shake them or the power they hold to resonate so deeply within me.

It’s been 5 years since I’ve attended an Ash Wednesday service. Lent was frequently observed in our household growing up; but as an adult, there have been some years that I’ve chosen to observe Lent and others that I haven’t. Some years, because of my religious background, the pressure to conform to a custom simply for the sake of ritual (or to me, what feels like “measuring up”) has felt too cumbersome. Other years it has felt inviting, like an anchor that grounds me or gives me direction in life. Some years I have given something up, while other years I have added something to my life for that season.

This year was the first time that my wife and I attended an Ash Wednesday service together. At first I thought I was going more for her than for me. I had experienced this tradition before, she had not. But entering the silent sanctuary of our church, I realized I was wrong. I needed to be in this space. Sitting in quiet reflection in a room lit only with candles, those small flames felt like beacons of hope. There was a peace present that my heart had been craving. I tried hard to slow my breathing and ground myself in the silence and calm provided. We were led through a time of reflection, a time of reverent worship, and an explanation of the significance of this tradition before then receiving the ashes.

In years past, I’ve heard phrases like, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return” spoken as a solemn reminder of our humanity. But this year, I heard something different. This year, I heard a poem that was more than a depressing reminder of how mortal we are. Instead, it was a breath of life that reminded us what God can do with us mere mortals.

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners 

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial–

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust? 

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched. 

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning. 

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil
of this sacred earth. 

So let us be marked,
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are 

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear. 

-Jan Richardson (Author, Artist, Minister)

The phrase in bold struck me and my eyes welled with tears. It was like God breathing life into me, just like he did all those years ago when he created Adam, the very first man. Going forward to receive the ashes, a fellow congregant cupped my head in her hands, locked eyes with me, and said, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

I couldn’t contain my tears. So much of my life has felt marked by sorrow and shame and loss. So many hopes tainted by the dust of life, by common humanity, by mortality, by choices of selfish ambition, or even good intentions gone wrong. And yet…and yet, we forget what God, the Holy One, can do with dust. We underestimate his power to redeem and make beauty from the ashes. We forget that God is good and that he loves to meet us when we are at our lowest, and rescue and redeem and reclaim all that has been lost.

f6d6368c34c9846a1ebf39a3dc71269dOne of my favorite stories from the Bible is the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees, catching her in the act, took her and threw her down in the dirt in front of a crowd for public ridicule. Yet Jesus, instead of condemning her the way the Pharisees expected, got down next to her in the dirt and wrote something in the dust that remains a mystery to us, yet clearly brought life and healing to this embarrassed woman.

Sometimes sitting in the dust of our humanity is the best place to be. It is humbling. It is authentic. It is honest and God meets us there.

If I could see you face to face today, I would cup your face in my hands and gently ask you, “Did you not know what the Holy One could do with dust?”

Release Date and Book Tour Information!

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do. You must be fearless.”

This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, along with my addition at the end, has been both my challenge and my inspiration over the past year. I underestimated the task of writing a memoir. I didn’t receive the memo that informs writers that penning a memoir take every ounce of strength and determination you possess in order to thoroughly process through your past with a fine-toothed comb. Many memories I’d ignored for years because looking at them was just too painful. Many things I wanted to forget. But writing this book proved to be intense (free) therapy for me as I finally processed my life without fear and faced everything head on. Some of the realizations I came to were not easy, others helped me better understand where I came from, but all of it proved to be healthy and productive as I took back my power in ways I’d too long relinquished it, and compiled my life into a manuscript.

Now, one year later from when I stood at the starting gate of this crazy journey, I am approaching the finish line. I am excited to announce that release date for Refocusing My Family was set last week.

Coming October 1st, 2017!
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I am thrilled to finally be at this point and watch all the hard work come together into something that I can hold in my hands and share with you. That is the reason I continued to press forward. It was for you. On the days I experienced writer’s block or felt frustrated and completely discouraged, I reminded myself of the why behind this story. I reminded myself of those of you who were waiting to read it, and my resolve always returned to me because I believe so strongly in the mission behind this story. I’ll be honest, there are pieces of my life in this book that I’d rather keep private. There are parts of my heart on display that make me feel vulnerable. But if any part of my story makes another closeted LGBT person feel a little less isolated and alone, or grants them a candle of hope, or helps a family not reject their child the way my family rejected me, then not only my writing will be worth it, but the story I’ve lived through will as well.

With a release date set, a book tour is now in the planning stages. We already have almost 20 cities interested in hosting a book reading/signing event. The cities currently being considered are:

Chicago, IL                                          Albequerque, NM
Houghton, NY                                    Seattle, WA
Toronto, Ontario                              Portland, OR
Lincoln, NE                                         Austin, TX
Raleigh, NC                                         Dallas, TX
San Diego, CA                                     Nashville, TN
Claremont, CA                                    Minneapolis, MN
Whittier, CA                                        Ottawa, Ontario
Pheonix, AZ                                         Des Moines, IA

If you live in one of these cities and are interested in helping in some capacity OR if you live in a city that is not yet on the list but you would like it to be, please email me at Beyond.AmberCantorna@gmail.com. There are many ways in which you can volunteer to help as well, ranging from transportation, to being a host home, to helping organize/host the event in your area, to giving financially. We would so appreciate your help.

Further details about financial contributions will be coming in the weeks ahead. My ministry, which I’ve decided to call Beyond (Renew Your Faith, Restore Your Hope, Reclaim Your Love) is being established as a non-profit corporation and soon, all donations will be tax deductible. I encourage you to begin praying now about how you might be able to contribute. Funding this book tour is going to be our biggest challenge, but I believe with your prayer and support we will not only see it succeed, but flourish.

My new mailing address has just been established as well and I can now receive snail mail at THIS address. More on Beyond and giving opportunities will be announced in the coming weeks. For now, please continue to pray for us as we navigate the journey ahead. And celebrate with us all the good things that are to come!

Stop the Train!

 

For BlogLet’s face it–life is busy. It often feels like the 777 train in the Denzel Washington film, Unstoppable. We start off coasting for awhile, but soon, life picks up more speed than we know what to do with. Suddenly there’s this extra work assignment and that extra doctor’s appointment, and church gatherings, and connection groups, and the laundry that needs to be done, and the groceries we need from the store, and the dogs that need to be walked, and…well, before we know it, another week, another month, another year has flown by. Just like that 777 train, much of our everyday life feels like a blur because our lives are busy.

In fact, when asking someone how they are doing, two of the most common responses I hear are “Busy” and “Tired.” Unfortunately, American culture applauds busyness, cultivates exhaustion, and makes the next rung on the corporate and family ladder always more shiny and appealing than the one we’re on. We’re told to do more, be more, achieve more. We’re told that by Tweeting and using Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat that we’ll be more connected with the world. But let’s be honest–we’re not. Instead, we’re consumed with repeatedly scrolling through out news feed like robots, afraid to miss something that might have happened in the last hour, all the while, we’re ignoring the real people and relationships that are right around us.

How many times have you gone to dinner and sat with someone who is more engaged in texting the person on their phone than talking with you as you sit right across the table from them? Not only is that annoying, but it also communicates a lack of importance and value.

I’m convinced that if we’re not careful, these crazy, busy lives we lead can become more about existing than about actually living. Look at the Germans. Their average work week is 35 hours–not 40 hours, not 60 hours–35 HOURS. Checking Facebook or personal emails during work hours is strongly frowned upon, however, they are also not allowed to bring home work from the office. They work hard, but they also play hard. Getting 25-30 paid vacation days a year is the norm, and taking a month-long vacation is quite ordinary. This combination has made them more–not less–productive and happy. Can you imagine if our American society did that? Frankly, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.

This past weekend, my wife and I went away to the mountains for some time together. We rented an old train caboose that had been renovated into a beautiful bed and breakfast. It was stunning. Not only was it very romantic to sleep in a caboose and enjoy the claw-foot tub next to the bed and private hot tub on the deck, but it was also in a quiet spot on the river away from the hustle and bustle of life. And guess what? There was no cell phone reception. It was glorious.

I loved being able to unplug from life for a couple days and know that I couldn’t be bothered. Yet, in all honestly, I also caught myself (more than once) impulsively grabbing my phone to scroll through my feed. It’s ingrained in me and has become a habit-one I’m trying hard to break.

My wife and I talk often about finding a slower pace of life once she retires from the military. We dream of having a plot of land where houses aren’t lined up next to each other like sardines in a can. We dream of gardening and reading and yoga. But a slower pace of life doesn’t just happen.

It must be cultivated.
It must be intentional.
It must be on purpose.

If it’s not, then this fast-paced cycle of life will just continue to repeat itself until one day, we’ll wake up at the age of 80 and wondered where our lives have gone. That’s not how I want to live.

This year, I’m working hard on connecting more with real people–picking up the phone, making time for human interaction, finding ways to help others–and trying hard to minimize my time on social media. It’s a vacuum that, more often than not, leaves me feeling less connected with others and more drained of real energy.

During this season in our country where politics are inundating our news feeds, it’s easy to get depressed, frustrated, and angry. Limiting time on social media not only helps with our mood and sanity, it also creates space for the more valuable things in life like cuddling with your spouse by the fire, or reading a good book, or playing with your pups on the floor. These are the kind of things that create not only meaning, but memories.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live an unstoppable speed that causes my life to rush past me in a blur as I look out the train window. Rather, I want to sit on the deck of that caboose enjoying breakfast and coffee with my wife in stillness and calm, purposefully cultivating our life together and creating memories that will last.

At the start of this new week, I am challenged yet again to be intentional in my relationships, limit my time on social media, and deliberately live every day of my life to the fullest.

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Privilege and Perspective

 

For most of my growing up years, I was privileged. I didn’t know it at the time, but the privileged rarely do. I grew up a white, middle class female in a Christian home. I knew the label of “Christian” set me apart–my mom told me so often. But labels like cisgender/transgender or gay/straight were not yet part of my vocabulary or understanding.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I realized I was gay. That instantly separated me from the conservative, fundamental, Christian upbringing I’d been a part of. I was suddenly “less than” in their eyes. I quickly found out what it was like to live as part of a marginalized group when I lost everything–literally everything (my family, relatives, friends, church, hometown)–to live as my authentic self.

The rejection and exclusion I experienced after coming out heightened my awareness of other ostracized groups that previously I’d been oblivious to. Muslims, refugees, people of color, transgender people, immigrants, those in poverty…these are the people who are most often forgotten, overlooked, and ignored.

My wife is a first generation immigrant, a person of color, a gay woman, a Christian, and she’s served in the army for over 20 years. She checks a lot of boxes on the minorities list. My relationship with her has further risen my awareness of privilege (or lack thereof) and talk of minority groups is now a frequent conversation in our home.

Then, three and a half years ago, I unexpectedly joined another minority group: the disabled. During a routine adjustment, I was injured by a chiropractor and it has forever altered my life. For 18 months, I got passed from doctor to doctor, I was misdiagnosed, I had multiple MRIs and CAT scans, and I was told my pain was psychosomatic. All the while, my mobility consistently decreased.

At first I noticed it in my workouts, then I started walking with a limp, then I struggled to make it up stairs, and eventually, I couldn’t even get myself out of bed. My muscles and ligaments completely gave out and could no longer support the weight of my body .

After much searching, we finally found a phenomenal osteopathic/sports medicine doctor  who knew exactly what was wrong and helped me execute a plan to recovery. Though it’s taken much longer than I ever expected, he’s faithfully walked that road with me now for 2 years. With a treatment called prolotherapy, we’ve slowly re-grown new ligaments in my body that have given me much of my autonomy back.

But it’s still not easy. I’m still in treatment every 8 weeks, which is a big improvement from every 2 weeks, but still puts me in bed on ice for 3-4 days after every round of injections. I’m still limited in what I can do, and I’ll never be 100% again. Much of my functionality has returned, but many things I’ve had to learn how to do differently.

My functionality (and the visibility of my pain) vacillate from day to day. Some days I walk fine without pain, other days I use a cane, but every day I struggle to sit for any length of time. That means everything I do now has to pass through a filter that asks, “Can my body handle this?” I now have to think everything through in a way I never had to before. It’s made me realize how much I took my health for granted.

While this hasn’t been a secret, I haven’t talked about it publicly before now, mostly because I hate feeling limited. I hate that some days I feel almost normal and other days I’m in a wheelchair. I hate asking for help. I hate admitting I can’t do something. I hate the word “disabled.”

I want to be normal. I want to be free and unlimited. I want to be able to do whatever I please. But I’ve learned that my body now has limits I must follow, and that’s been hard to accept.

All these things have led me to a greater appreciation for the abilities I do have, and even the baby steps I make towards progress. It’s also made me more aware of privilege–the things I take for granted because I can. The things I forget to be grateful for. And the people around me who struggle because they don’t have them.

This short, 4-minute video on privilege is a powerful representation of this. It makes me more cognizant every time I watch it.

The Privilege Walk

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As we go about our week, let’s resolve to be more mindful of those around us who don’t have the same privileges that we do. Let’s work to not take our own for granted. Let’s challenge ourselves to think outside ourselves and make life a little better for just one person each day.

Let’s make eye contact.
Let’s smile.
Let’s say, “Hello.”
Let’s meet other people where they are, and truly love others the way Jesus did–and does–love us.

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Building Bridges

 

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In recent weeks, it’s been easy to feel discouraged and fearful about the current and future state of our country. So many unknowns lurk in what we can’t see. But in the midst of this uncertainty, I received a sign of hope–a letter from a friend and former co-worker of mine that I hadn’t spoken to in quite awhile.

She’s Mormon and though we’ve always differed in our religious views, we’ve also always been able to listen to one another and see past our differences. When I came out, she was supportive–at first, but over time, her support grew silent. This type of experience wasn’t new to me–I had many friends who initially said they supported me when I came out, but over time distanced from our friendship. Some of those relationships I fought hard to maintain, others I just had to let go.

There have been a handful of those people that I’ve felt safe enough to let observe my life from the sidelines. I knew they didn’t necessarily agree or understand how my faith and sexuality intertwined. I knew the fact that I am married to a woman made some of them uncomfortable. But they’ve been respectful toward me even when they haven’t understood, and because of that, I’ve felt secure enough to allow them to quietly watch and examine my life. My inner hope was that by keeping that door open, in time they would see that my life, my marriage, my values, my beliefs, and my love for God really aren’t that different from theirs. I hoped it would help normalize and humanize something that may have only been a political or religious issue to them prior to knowing me.

I haven’t seen much fruit come from this yet. I knew it may take time, or that nothing may ever come from it at all. But then last week, I got a letter in the mail–a three-page, hand-written letter from my Mormon friend, Emmalee. She’s allowed me to share some of it with you.

Dear Amber,

I have been thinking about what I have learned from our friendship. We’ve both faced uncharted waters together and I am incredibly grateful for the experience. I remember how honored I was when you opened up and told me you are gay. I was so sad for all the persecution you faced from family and friends.

But what really rocked my boat was when you told me you were getting married. I didn’t realize it up until that point, but somewhere in my mind I had formed this opinion that we could be friends, but if you decided to get married, that changed everything. I just didn’t know what to do. I’m sorry my decision to not attend your wedding hurt you.

Since then, I have thought a lot about my friends who are gay. Who am I to put conditions on friendship? The Savior never said, “I only love you if…” He showed the way of unconditional love. That’s the kind of love I want to have not only for my family, but my friends as well. Who am I to say, “I’ll love you only if you live within the boundaries I want?”

I want you to know how much I love you. Even if our religious and family beliefs differ, you are still Amber. To love you is to accept who you are and your family.

Seeing how divided our country has become, I feel an even more urgent need to make sure I’m building bridges. Together our differences can unite us if we will choose love–unconditional love. Better tomorrows start with building and maintaining friendships to last a lifetime.

Lots of love,

Emmalee

Receiving this letter definitely took me by surprise. It takes an incredible dose of courage and humility to write a letter like that–to admit you made a mistake and that you want to do better. I was honored, grateful, and so encouraged. By allowing her to observe my life through Facebook posts, updates, and Christmas newsletters, her definition of love has expanded. She still may not fully understand or agree, but she’s trying and that’s what matters in a relationship. That is how you build bridges.

In this season that seems so divisive in so many ways, Emmalee’s letter has challenged me to focus on building bridges rather than living in fear of what I don’t know. I challenge you to join me: walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, write a letter, have a conversation with someone you don’t see eye-to-eye with and genuinely try to understand them. Act out of courage and humility, rather than out of fear. Together, if we build bridges with those around us, rather than walls around our own hearts, we will become stronger and can indeed make this world better for one another.

With Courage towards Love,

Amber

P.S. As of 9:30pm last night, the final manuscript of my memoir, Refocusing My Family has been submitted and a release date will be announced soon! With that (almost) behind me, I plan to blog more regularly. If you have something specific you would like to see me write about, please drop me a note at: Beyond.AmberCantorna@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redeeming What’s Been Lost

Wow. What an incredible experience the Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference was for me this past weekend. Traveling to Pittsburgh, PA last Tues, my wife and I both went with anticipation in our hearts.  This was not my first time attending a GCN conference, so knowing what it was like from previous experiences, my expectations were high. Thankfully, I did not return disappointed.

But first, let me give you a little background. I grew up in a musical family that performed frequently together from the time I was young. It was not uncommon during my growing up years for people to comment to me about my natural stage presence, my warm smile, or the way they saw/felt God through me. I never took that for granted. I always considered it an honor that God would use me to reveal his nature and presence to others.

But when I came out, I feared that was lost. I feared that perhaps God couldn’t shine through me the way he once did–that the presence and spirit of God once evident in my demeanor was now made void in light of my sexuality.

It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve been involved in leading worship in any capacity. Even though I’ve only been out for the past five years, the five years previous to that, I was struggling. And I knew enough to know that if the church leaders knew I was “wrestling with same sex attraction” that my presence in leadership or on the worship team would no longer be welcome the way it was prior to that information. So I sat back…or shrank back. I put my talents on the back burner while the Enemy continually whispered into my ear that I was worthless and that God could never use me now. I was deemed untouchable, an abomination by these Christian standards.

I’ve been involved in music a small handful of times since coming out,  but they’ve all been in secular arenas. My deep heart for worship has continued to sit dormant–hoping and waiting that someday it would be invited back into the light.

And then that day came–the day that GCN began assembling the worship team for its 2017 conference. I was invited, along with a handful of other outcasts and misfits to pool our talents together and form a worship team for this year’s conference. To be honest, when I accepted the invitation, it was more out of recognition for the need of healing in my own heart than with a focus of ministering to others. Yet both those things took place in Pittsburgh this past weekend.

Gathering together with this incredibly talented group of musicians and artists who, like me, had been cast aside as something unusable in light of their sexual orientation or gender identity, we led over 1,400 people in worship throughout the weekend sessions. And it was powerful. Songs about redemption, songs about belonging, songs about the truly unconditional love of God drew us into a place many of us had not experienced in quite some time. I think it brought each of us on the worship team to tears at some point, if not multiple times during the weekend, to see God redeem something in us that we thought had long been lost.

We heard countless stories of the people in the audience that were touched as well. People that, for perhaps the first time were able to bring their whole selves before God in worship without the barrier of a message telling them they weren’t good enough or didn’t belong. One gentleman told me that, though he loved hearing the keynote speakers, the worship meant just as much if not more to him, because he hadn’t experienced a freedom like that in worship in such a long time.

Yes, God’s freedom and love were present and obvious.

And then came my own little miracle–my whisper from God to redeem an even deeper part of my soul.

Following one of our worship sets, a man came up to me and said, “I just want you to know how much I saw and felt God through you while you sang this morning. Your smile radiates the joy of the Lord and I could really sense God’s presence through your worship.”  Though I’m sure I’m paraphrasing his words, all I could hear was God whispering through him, “I’m still using you. Nothing that I’ve placed inside you has been lost. What you thought was nullified by coming out, will instead be the very thing that sets people free.”

And then I was reminded…that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and he chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and the lowly things of the world and the things which are despised those God has chosen, and things that are not–to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one can boast in his presence. (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

It is His nature. It doesn’t change. God redeems every time.

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