Encountering God in the Dust

“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.

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

One 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

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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A Tiny Revolution: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

Just before attending the Gay Christian Network conference this past week, my interview with Kevin Garcia in his podcast entitled, A Tiny Revolution was aired. I’m so honored to not only be interviewed by Kevin, but also to have the opportunity to lead worship with him at GCN this past weekend. More on that to come later this week! But for now, enjoy the podcast. My interview starts at Minute 26:00. 🙂

A Tiny Revolution Podcast: We Don’t Know What We Are Doing with Amber Cantorna

Is Everyone Agnostic?

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by the Everyone’s Agnostic podcast. This was definitely not on the list of opportunities I foresaw for myself when going public with my story almost exactly one year ago. But doing this interview turned out to be an honor. In reality, I think there needs to be a little agnosticism inside each of us-the space of wonder and mystery where we are free and humble enough to say, “I don’t know.” Certainty leads to arrogance; a willingness to learn and grow, comes from humility.

I had a great conversation with these two men, and though there are things we disagree on, there are also things with which we share a very common belief and view. Doing this interview gave me the unique opportunity to talk to a group of people about the evolution of my faith, and why I’m still a Christian. The full interview just released this morning, and you can listen to it here.

Everyone’s Agnostic Podcast: Episode 131 with Amber Cantorna

 

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When You Lose It All- The CanCast

I was honored to be featured on this episode of The CanCast podcast with Candice Czubernat. We had fun recording this session a few weeks ago and it just released today. Audio on my mic isn’t the best, so turn it up and then enjoy the ride we take together! It’s a fun one 🙂

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“Mom, Dad, I’m Gay”

Last night, I was honored to hear I was the inspiration for this wonderfully written article by Peter Thurley, entitled “Mom, Day, I’m Gay”. I encourage you to give it a read. It is well done indeed.

“Mom, Dad, I’m Gay” by Peter Thurley

Big things are on the horizon and I covet your prayers as I walk through the process. When things are solidified, I will fill you in on all the details. Until then, stay strong in the faith.

God is good and faithful,

Amber