Bronco Beanies and Other Simple Joys

 

When my wife and I moved into our home this summer, we quickly had to come up with a new daily route to walk our pup. Walking for her is part of our daily routine so we promptly started roaming the neighborhood. As we tried several different routes and started getting one established, I frequently saw a young Hispanic man, approximately in his early 20’s walking what seems to be several miles. Often, we would pass him twice within our 1.5 mile route. He appeared to be out there for hours doing a slow steady walk with a 2 lb. weight in each hand. He was so quiet at first. Many times, we would pass one another on the sidewalk without even a hello, which was just…awkward. Other times, I would greet him but would only get an halfhearted “Hi” in response. Being new to the area, I’ll admit it wasn’t exactly the best first impression our neighborhood’s friendliness factor.

But then, within a few months time, something shifted. Fall time came and with it, football season. Suddenly this young man lit up like a light bulb inside. Clearly an avid Bronco’s fan, every time I would see him, he would have an enthusiastic comment ready. On the days following a win, I would get an excited, “Did you see the game? We won!” followed by statistics on where next week’s game would be held, who got injured or what his favorite play was. At times I couldn’t understand his broken English, but nonetheless, his excitement rang through loud and clear. Realizing over time that he seemed to have a bit of a intellectual disability, I worried what would happen when the (almost) inevitable moment would come that the Broncos would loose a game. But to my surprise, when that day did come, he simply said, “Oh well. We’ll win next week!” I smiled at his optimism.

Then after Christmas, I saw him proudly sporting a orange and blue set of Bronco mittens and a Bronco beanie. “Hey, I like your beanie!” I encouraged him. To which, he responded with his sweet child-likeness, “Yeah, I got them for Christmas!” Clear excitement was beaming on his face. It was in that moment that I was reminded of the simple joys and pleasures of life. How often in our ADD culture and success-driven society do we get wrapped up in our world of adult responsibility and forget to take time for those simple, quiet moments? So many opportunities for joy are missed merely because we are too busy to stop and acknowledge them. How much richer our lives could become if we would focus more on the “little thankfuls” in our life and less on the stress that comes from to-do lists.

My wife and I try to keep ourselves mindful of this in a practical way by using what we call our Blessings Jar. Each time something happens that feels like a little gift from God or we see an answer to prayer, we write it down, date it and put it in our Blessings Jar. Then, on Thanksgiving morning each year, we open it up and read through them to be reminded of all the times we’ve seen God’s presence evident throughout the year.

I’m saddened to say though, that the jar is often not near as full as I know it could be. So often I get so consumed in the mundane tasks of day to day life that I forget to pause and step away from them in order to notice the little things. But contentment doesn’t come in big, busy moments. When focused on success, we most likely we will always be chasing after the next big thing. Sadly, if that’s the case, no matter how much we achieve, I fear we’ll always come up feeling just a little empty, a little shy of goal and therefore will move on to chase after yet the next thing. Our life quickly then becomes like a merry-go-round, spinning in circles but never actually getting anywhere.

But, if we can find time for quiet moments, if we can find joy in the simple things, if we will take note of those “little thankfuls”, our lives will become so much richer, so much more fulfilling. In the little things of life is where true contentment lies.

And so I take a moment to quiet my soul and breathe this morning, reminding myself to find joy in the simple pleasures…like the beautiful blanket of snow currently keeping my whole family inside today, the comfort of a cup of hot tea next to the fireplace, the joy and contentment my puppies feel just to be near me, and yes, even a matching pair of mittens and a Bronco beanie.

Scandal, Mercy and Grace

Every once in awhile I enjoy using my creativity to imagine what some of the stories we read in the Bible must have really been like. For my blog this week, please enjoy my take on what this story of scandal and mercy must have been like for the adulterous woman who encountered Jesus…

The setting is ancient Israel…a riot takes over the crowd in the marketplace. Men in leadership, Pharisees, are leading in their pious way through the street, robes of dark crimson flowing as they make their way to the town square. Following quick behind them are more of the same, dragging a young, exposed woman for all to see. She was naked, her body completely bare, save for a thin sheet that was quickly thrust at her as they snatched her from her home. Taking the long way through town to the square, the Pharisees had it in their nature to publicly humiliate those “not as righteous as them” as much as they possibly could before reaching their destination. Doing so only exceeded the height of their status in other peoples eyes, or at least, so they thought. Arriving at the center of town, the girl was thrown to the gravel as those nearby began to make a mockery of the scene. All the woman could see were the dozens of sandaled feet covered in a reddish brown dirt several layers thick. She didn’t dare look up at the faces staring down at her. She didn’t want anyone to recognize her in this moment of such shear shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. Men threw jokes at her like dung in the face, as if to let her know that was all she was worth. Women looked on with compassion for the girl, while covering the virgin eyes of their young. Some of the voices she swore she recognized. Fighting back tears so as not to show weakness in the midst of an already unbearable moment, the woman kept her eyes unmoved on the ground before her.

Suddenly, a hush came over the crowd as a man walked through the mobs of people. Who he was, she did not know, only that his very presence held the power to silence a crowd. Using her long, dark brown hair to cover her face, she waited for what she knew could be the last few moments of her life. For at any moment, she knew she could be stoned for the accusations against her. Lying with a man other than your husband always carried a penalty of death. And now, she fear death awaited her.

The man that passed through the crowd seemed to be headed straight for her. Was he to be her first accuser? Stopping just short of her, he knelt to the ground and began to write in the dirt. Uneducated as she was, and unable to read or write, the woman could only wonder what it was that was being written. Her death sentence? A negotiation? A man in the crowd broke the silence with a rough tone and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law says we must stone such a woman. What do you say?” Teacher? This man was a teacher? The pieces slowly began to come together in her mind. Jesus! This is the man that so many had been speaking of! The one who made blind see and lame walk. Jesus. Could he help her? Would he help her? The moments that followed awaiting an answer were quiet enough to hear a piece of dirt scrape on the gravel as the man called Jesus knelt back down to write in the sand again. The few moments that followed felt like decades as the woman waited in anticipation for what was to come. Questions began to rise from the crowd, more vigorously now than before and Jesus answered them all with one convicting requirement… “Anyone who is without sin may cast the first stone at her.” All voices ceased. Without sin? Fists raised in anger began to drop to their sides, realizing they didn’t qualify. Stones ready for execution, held a moment longer as if some thought they might be exempt from the statement. Yet after a couple seconds, dropped one by one to the ground with a thud in the sand, breaking the heavy silence. Starting with the eldest of the group, wise enough to know their own sin, all the way down to the youngest standing, the crowd began to slowly disperse.

Still desperately afraid to raise her hazel eyes, the woman couldn’t help but feel relief as she heard each stone drop to the ground, each one releasing more of the breath she’d been holding. In just a few moments time, the accusers were gone, leaving only her and Jesus at the scene. He knelt to the ground once more, but this time not to write, but to gently lift her eyes to meet his. The moment they did, her heart was overcome. His eyes held such peace, such calm, such love. The tears she had earlier refused could no longer be held back, and she began to weep. With compassion Jesus asked, “They have all left, has no one condemned you?”

“No one sir” she replied with tears and disbelief.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said. “Now go, and leave your life of sin.”
Written by Amber Cantorna
Copyright 2016

Amazing Love, Amazing Grace: Reflective Thoughts from My GCN Experience

     This past weekend, I attended the Gay Christian Network Conference for the second time, this year hosted in Houston, Texas. As my wife as I flew from Denver to Houston last Thursday, I reflected on the first time that I went to the conference 3 years ago and all that has happened in my life since then. I was in a very different place then, I had just come out and 2012 was the most turbulent year my life had seen yet. Having just looked death in the face (in more ways than one), I was turning a corner but not yet out of the woods. I came to Phoenix with a heavy heart searching for some hope that my life would get better. Thankfully, I found it. In a workshop I attended, a comment I made apparently perked some ears as I was later approached by a man and his wife who simply said, “Hi, my wife and I wondered if we could take you to dinner.” To which I was a little dumbfounded but replied, “…Ok!”
     That was the beginning of a turning of tides for me, and 2 years later because of the bond that was formed with them at GCN that weekend, they ended up being the ones who stood in my parent’s place at my wedding in June 2014. They helped me get ready and they walked me down the aisle to give me away. Though I didn’t know it when I met them, it turned out to be a divine connection.
     Now attending the conference this past weekend for the first time with my wife, my life is in a completely different place. Not only have I fallen in love, gotten married and purchased our first home together, but my life is finally positioned where I feel like I can do what God is calling me to do, and that is to be a voice.
One of the biggest take-aways I had from this past weekend is that, as the daughter of a executive employee at Focus on the Family who has lost everything since coming out, embedded in my identity is a responsibility to be a voice for those who can not yet speak. God is now using my story to catapult me into ministry and what an incredible ride it is turning out to be!
     This past weekend, I was privileged to have meetings with a myriad of amazing people who are already doing incredible work on the front lines of changing our culture when it comes to these issues of faith and sexuality. There were so many people in attendance at the conference who were living proof of the capability for intersectionality on these issues. That was so needed because there were an equal number of people in attendance who were looking for that proof.
     As we listened to Justin Lee’s keynote on Sunday morning where he talked about privilege and our need to be empathetic rather than sympathetic, I was reminded once again how much the way we interact with one another matters. How much respect matters. How much dignity matters. And how incredibly vital spaces like GCN are, not only for LGBT people, but for parents of LGBT kids and our straight allies as well. GCN is one of the only spaces I know of where people can come from all over the world, from every denominational background imaginable and from differing views and beliefs when it comes to Side A/Side B theology and agree to disagree in a safe space where we can love one another well. That my friends, is true love; unconditional love; amazing love.
     At the end of Mary Lambert’s concert Friday night, she performed her Grammy-nominated song “Same Love” inviting all who wanted, to join her in dancing together in the empty space below the stage. As I slow danced with my wife, tears streamed down my face in a place where our love for one another was validated and we were safe to be our real selves among 1,450 likeminded people. It was one of my favorite moments of the weekend.
     Similarly in the worship sessions led before each keynote speech, I stood there and cried as well because for the first time in 8 years, I was able to stand before God with my worshipper’s heart freely before Him without feeling the stare of disapproving eyes around me or the lurking feeling in my heart of, “If they only knew…” as if being gay somehow disqualified me from standing in church. But here, I was able to unashamedly with a room full of other LGBT believers, parents and allies sing:
My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood, His mercy reigns
Unending Love, Amazing Grace
     Amazing Grace indeed. That is what this journey requires of us…amazing grace from God because of our humanity, amazing grace for each other especially when we have differing viewpoints and amazing grace for ourselves to see the beauty inside us and to celebrate that which makes us unique.
     It is that same amazing grace and love that will in turn change our church culture if we, like Jesus, can love our neighbor and let the light placed inside each of our hearts shine brightly for all to see.

Refocusing My Family: How the Daughter of a Focus on the Family Executive Came Out as Gay

     I was 27 when I had finally mustered every last bit of courage to have “the talk” with my family. I had been pondering, planning and praying for months. My heart weighed heavy and anxiety took my mind down every possible outcome. I knew, as the daughter of a Focus on the Family executive, the results of my truth could be devastating. But I had reached the point where living a lie was worse than whatever lay on the other side of truth. After much counsel, preparation and prayer, I felt the time had come to tell my truth. So on April 14th, 2012 I invited both my parents and brother over and we all took a seat in the living room of my split-level apartment. I told them the journey I had been on over the past several years and then, spoke the 3 short words that would forever alter my future…
     Though I was born in Kalispell, Montana, by my third birthday we had moved to Glendora, California where my dad had accepted a job offer at Focus on the Family. When the company then relocated to Colorado Springs in 1991, my family did as well and that is the town where I grew up.
     With the values and teachings of Dr. Dobson at the core of our family’s foundation, my parents decided to home-school both my brother and I from start to finish. They made daily devotions and cultivating a relationship with God a priority from a very young age. With programs like AWANA, we memorized Scripture frequently both in the program and as a family. A typical girl, I grew up playing with American Girl dolls and having frequent tea parties. I believed that my knight in shining armor would come for me, if only I would wait for him. At my thirteenth birthday, I even had a “Purity Ceremony” in which I signed a vow to stay chaste until marriage and was given a ring that was to be worn on my finger until it was someday replaced by a wedding band. I had been taught all these grandiose ideas of what love and traditional marriage were supposed to look like and innocently embraced them all as truths.
     My mom came from a musical family, so (almost from the womb) she trained us as well, investing a lot of time into fostering our musical talents. We frequently sang at retirement homes and for Christian schools; we did full concerts at smaller churches and were always ready to perform for visiting family and guests. I was very blessed to be given 13 years of classical piano training as well. By the time I was 14, I was touring Europe with a youth choir and soon after, with the Young Continentals. Performing was a huge part of my life, and I thrived on it. As a very high-achieving perfectionist, I constantly put pressure on myself to rise to the top.
However, not all of that pressure came from within. As I moved more into my teen years, I began to feel the outside pressure of upholding my family’s reputation as well. As the daughter of a man who held a high profile position at Focus and whose work was known and loved around the world, being his daughter caused me to feel the weight of maintaining the appearance of that “perfect Focus family.” Friends would often comment to me how lucky I was, but behind the mask of perfection, I found myself struggling with depression and anxiety coupled with a need to keep all those struggles hidden behind a facade.
     By the time I reached my early 20s, I still had never dated a guy. I admit at times I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, but mostly I just believed what I had been taught: if you prepared yourself spiritually and wait sexually, the right man will come along at the right time. The fact that I might be gay really never crossed my radar. I truly believed that God was just shielding me from the heartache of high school romances like the ones my friends were having, and that somehow the first man I would meet and seriously date would just magically be “the one.”
     But at the age of 23, things in my life took a drastic turn when I suddenly found myself falling in love with my roommate…who was a woman. What started as a simple friendship, over time morphed into what was clearly becoming more than friends. I was so aghast the first time we kissed, I wasn’t even sure what was happening. My head was spinning, in more ways than one as I tried to figure out this mysterious attraction. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that experience ended up being the beginning of a deeper wrestling, the beginning of searching and eventually, the beginning of coming out.
     I knew I couldn’t just sweep this “problem” under the rug, but I was terrified. I was terrified that in studying and digging deeper, I might find what I had been taught all my life to be true: God disapproved of homosexuality and, therefore, He disapproved of me. Focus on the Family teaches that marriage is strictly between one man and one woman and I was equally as terrified that in digging deeper I might find that belief to be false. Because if God did indeed make me this way, I would become part of a minority that is stigmatized, especially in Christian circles, and that too would be life-altering. So either way, my life would never be the same.
     But, as I sat one night with my journal in hand, heartbroken over the loss of my first love and all together confused as to how and why it all happened to begin with, I gathered my courage and told God I was ready to start walking the difficult road ahead. I prayed, studied and researched for months allowing everything I had believed up to that point to be re-examined. I talked to people on similar journeys and, in doing so, found those who were both completely in love with their same-sex spouse and also completely in love with God, without any conflict between the two. That was when I began to realize that there didn’t have to be a dichotomy between my faith and sexuality, as I had been led to believe. Finally, after a long and difficult climb, the Scriptures in question settled in my heart, I found the answers I needed and knew that in God’s eyes, I was not only accepted but also loved for exactly how He made me.
     The odds were high, however, that my family would not feel the same. Anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares swelled as I approached the day where telling them my truth would disappoint and break the illusion of that “perfect Focus family”. As I mustered every ounce of strength I had on that chilly April day, I looked my family in the eyes and said those three small, but life-altering words, “I am gay.” With my exposed heart hanging in the air, I awaited their response. To my deep dismay, the only response that came out of my dad’s mouth was, “I have nothing to say to you right now,” and he walked out the door.
     From that moment on, things went from bad to worse. In a follow up conversation we had at my parent’s house several weeks later, they compared me to murderers and pedophiles, told me I was selfish for doing this to the family without thinking about the impact it would have on them and asked me to turn in my keys to my childhood home. Over time, because of their unwavering belief in Focus on the Family’s teaching and interpretation of the Scriptures on this issue, I was quietly pushed aside and shunned from the family. Only in my worst nightmares were the consequences as drastic as what they proved to be in real life. I lost not only my immediate family, but also my relatives, my church, many of my friends, and essentially, even my hometown. Because of the toxicity I felt living in a city where it seemed my every move was being watched by some degrading eye, I ended up moving to Denver. Even though almost four years have passed, I still feel anxiety every time I drive to Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, though many of my loved ones claimed to have unconditional love, what I discovered is that their love actually came with strings attached.
     My world felt as though it were spiraling out of control. I’d never felt so lost or alone in all my life. Consistent nightmares and self injury reared its ugly head in my life once again and for the first time ever, I truly could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Suicide became a viable option in my mind.
Over the coming months, there were several key people who invested in me and added value to my life and in turn, rescued me from that dark place I was in. I don’t remember an exact turning point when I decided I wanted to live, but about 10 months after coming out, the tides had turned and I was sharing my life story at community hour at the Denver church I was attending. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that day was the day I met the woman who would one day become my wife.
      I didn’t pay her much attention at first, but she noticed me from the start. After several months of intentional pursuit on her part, we started dating. We both quickly knew that each other was “the one” and about a year and a half after we met, we were married.

 Amber and her wife, Clara on their wedding day.

      Somehow along the way as my relationship with her solidified, my relationship with my parents became even more bleak. When we got engaged, my parents realized this wasn’t just a phase that would pass and the gavel came down. We cut all ties.
     Not having any family at my wedding was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, and yet, it was still the best day of my life. In front of the people who stood by me when it mattered the most, I got to consecrate my love to my wife in a sacred covenant before God. In that moment, all the labels washed away and I was able to be fully myself, completely in love with my wife and also completely in love with God. It was the perfect day.
      We’ve been married a year and a half now and our journey continues forward. There are still bumps in the road and hard days where I miss my family. The truth is, I still cherish my family values just as much today as I did growing up, but I’ve just had to learn to re-focus my family. I truly have so much to be grateful for. God has given me beauty for ashes and is continuing to be true to His promise and make all things new and beautiful in His time.

    In their free time, Amber and her wife, Clara enjoy traveling as well as spending time in the Rocky Mountains with their two furry babies.

By Amber Cantorna
Speaker/Writer Beyond: Renew Your Faith, Restore Your Hope, Reclaim Your Love

More Than a Greeting

The question of “How are you?” has become a familiar one, hasn’t it? Maybe too familiar. How many times a day does somebody pass by you at work and say, “Hi, how are you?” continuing to walk without even waiting for a reply…as if the two statements were meant to be lumped together to create a cultured American greeting, rather than an actual question that awaits a response? How many times have you been guilty of doing the same? If you’re anything like me, the number is probably more than you’d like to count. Could it be that we don’t really want to know the answer? Could it be that to actually await a response might inconvenience our lives for more than the mere five seconds it takes us to ask it?

But what if “How are you?” was more than a greeting? What if when we asked the question, we actually made eye contact long enough to receive a reply? What if? Could it be that we might earn the opportunity to peer into the lives of those we pass by? That we might actually get to be Jesus to a person who’s dying for someone to stick around long enough to listen to the answer?

But that’s our fear, isn’t it? We’re not sure we want to know the answer. Doing that might require work, time, sacrifice. We’d rather live our cookie-cutter lives where everything flows smoothly and we don’t encounter any detours. But a fabricated life created from construction paper and glue is rarely as exciting as the real photograph containing vibrant color. The journey may be smoother, but the picture is quite dull.

Several years ago I found myself on the asking side of this scenario in the teacher’s lounge on a Professional Development Day in the elementary school in which I worked. As I sat down with two other co-workers, one of them began to describe the fear she was wrestling with as her daughter approached ever closer to the day in which she would undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor that was discovered during her recent pregnancy. The count was now down to less than 72 hours and I could tell each hour wore a little harder on the co-worker beside me, her daughter miles away in a hospital rather than by her side. I listened intently as she poured her heart out to the two of us and it suddenly occurred to me that before me lie a great opportunity. The question was, did I have the courage to take it? Wrestling with idea for a brief moment, the Spirit of the Lord prompted me and I found myself saying “Why don’t we just pray for your daughter right now,” spoken as more of a statement than a question. My friend seemed to appreciate the offer. So the three of us joined hands in a circle and I lead out in intercession for her daughter’s life. The power of God was evident among us as we prayed and a boldness was infused inside of me that melted away my fears of what other people were thinking as they walked in and out of the room. This was the common area for teachers after all, and this was a public school. I found myself not caring though and the situation almost comical as I heard people walk in, suddenly realize what was happening and, in embarrassment, turn around and walk back out, as if they had just walked in on someone in the bathroom stall.

When we were finished, the tears streaming down her face and the long embrace she gave told me I had done the right thing. And I was so glad that I listened to the Spirit’s urge within me rather than letting my fears of what other people would think override that still small Voice. Had I not offered, I would have been the one that missed a great opportunity. Yet how many other times have I done exactly that? How many other situations have I flippantly passed by hoping someone else would take care of it, letting my fear of people’s opinions win over the what I knew God was asking me to do? Or perhaps it was because my delayed response closed the door for me before I was able to act. My prayer is that my number of obedient actions will increase and tip the scale so that delayed or fearful responses won’t even be a considered option any more and serving will win every time.

And what about you? Are you willing to risk, even just a little, to invest in someone’s life? To see and experience the vibrant color rather than the cardboard cop-out? If so, what would you see? Reality? Yes. Pain? Probably. The brightness of the sun is often mixed with some stormy clouds. Yes…storms will come, I guarantee it. But I also know that the shadow proves the sunshine. And don’t we want it to? Isn’t that the way life was meant to be lived? God created our lives to be intricately woven together with the lives of those around us. Is it never easy and rarely convenient, but it’s the only way His perfect will can be complete. He chose us, simple human beings, to be His vessel. Let’s together resolve to ask more people “How are you?” more often, and echo the prayer of Thomas A. Kempis who asked, “Lord do what You will, as You will, when You will.” And as we look more to the needs of others and less to ourselves, maybe “How are you?” will become more than just a greeting.