Monday, April 22, 2019

The Good News According to Joyous

I grew up a PK.  That’s Preacher’s Kid and being one in small town Michigan in the 1950s was something that was noted by all around you. (Yes, that’s how old I am.)  It was quite clear that there were expectations, though those expectations varied somewhat.  Most assumed that the PK acted properly at all times, but there were always those who assumed that PKs would go wild and crazy.  I was pretty much the properly behaving sort.   My dad was a Methodist minister, and in those days that meant being moved every few years to a new church in a new town.  When I was in high school, Dad got assigned to an administrative job not part of a local church in a larger urban area, so I spent high no longer identified as the preacher’s kid, but I still kept up my Methodism by belonging to youth group and such.  In college at Michigan State I was active in the Wesley Foundation, the Methodist program for college students.

A couple years after college I went back to school for a Master's degree in Library Science at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and then got a job as a librarian at the university.  I continued as a librarian there, in several different positions, until my retirement a few years back.  I didn’t actually live in Ann Arbor for those first years but rather in a place out in the country with a friend from my undergrad days.  Her dad owned a construction company but chose to live in the country.  We rented a place on their property so that Diane could be near her horses.

I did some church shopping in those early days of living there.  Diane and her family were Catholic, so their church wasn’t an option.  I went to various places and somehow just didn’t feel comfortable.  I imagine that a single woman in her twenties finds that to be the case now, and that’s probably something we should work on.  I’d heard about Canterbury House --  basically the Episcopal student fellowship -- and decided to give it a try.  It was, at that point, a trendy place to be. They had a largish room with tables where folk singers would perform to mixed crowds on Saturday nights, and that same space had Sunday services also with folk singing on Sunday.  I found a home there and remained part of Canterbury House as it went through several changes, until it went through a change that essentially phased my friends and me out.

I considered taking a break from church, but one of my friends located a church that he liked, St. Clare’s Episcopal Church.  I went a few times and liked it.  Now, decades later, it’s still my church and my home.  I asked my Methodist preacher dad once how he felt about his daughter having switched denominations, and his reply was that he was just very happy I had found a church I liked.

The years since have mostly been good although there have been some down times.  The hardest time was when my friend Diane became ill with what turned out to be a fatal disease, one that slowly took her strength and then her life.  I remained with her, doing what I could to be of support, until the end.  After that I slowly moved into alcoholism and depression.   I was one of the fortunate ones for whom depression meds worked and continue to work.  The alcoholism took longer to rectify, but it was friends from church who confronted me with the need to stop drinking and supported me as I took necessary steps. I regularly attend AA meetings.

St. Clare’s is a good church for me to be part of.  It has the religious and social views that match mine.  I’ve attended more than one gay wedding there, the first one before such marriage was even legal in Michigan.  (The couple did the legal stuff across the river in Ontario and the wedding at St. Clare’s with approval by the bishop.)   Our building is shared and co-owned with a Jewish congregation, Temple Beth Emeth, so the place I worship on Sunday morning has held Jewish services on Friday night and Saturday morning.  More recently, our social hall has provided space on Sunday mornings for a congregation, now called Blue Ocean, that was tossed out of the evangelical Vineyard fellowship because they were affirming of LBGT individuals.

It’s no surprise that when I first came to Second Life one of the first things I looked for was a church.  I found the Anglican Cathedral and have been a member there ever since.  I still co-lead a Sunday Bible study there and attend the Sunday service. Because the membership, like the Anglican Communion, stretches around the world, the midweek services led by an Australian friend come at a time when I’m asleep.  I also attend compline (evening) services held twice a week by a little group that got its start when gays were not feeling welcome at Epiphany and First UCC offered up its chapel.   At one point I decided to give the First UCC services a try and found I liked them very much.  Now I regularly attend and am very happy to be part of the community.

Joyous Schism / Judy Avery

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Gospel According to Us



You probably know all the Big Names.  Origen.  Augustine.  Luther.  Calvin.  That Billy Graham guy.

But you don't know Vee or Kris or Doug or Marie or Jerry or Sally or Josh or the rest of us.  That's because we aren't Big Names.  We're just small voices, nearly inaudible murmurs amid the noise of seven billion humans.  The planet's big. There's no way you could know us.

You're on this page, though, so that's about to change.

There's no denying that the Big Names above shaped the infrastructure of Christendom.  We owe them a lot.  However, the daily presence of Christ on Earth is made real today through the individual journeys of the little people.

Every single person you meet on this page over the coming months is a living, breathing Gospel.  We're carriers of a story of Good News -- how God is in our lives, and how God has made those lives better. Easier?  Maybe not.  More peaceful?  Perhaps on the inside more than the out.  Perfect in every way, with stellar health, boundless wealth, model families, and effortless charm?

Yeah.  Right.

The contributors here are members of the First United Church of Christ SL, a church that exists only within the boundaries of the virtual world known as Second Life.  Please don't let that fool you into thinking we're a "pretend" church.  We have full standing in our mainline Protestant denomination, as the About Us info on this page explains.  We have our own ordained clergy who minister to us from thousands of miles away from each other.  We're close friends and prayer partners, even though many of us have never met in person.  We help grow the Kingdom of God here on Earth, even though we'll never own property on the planet.

We'll never be Big Names.  We won't change the ebb and flow of religion.  But maybe our stories, told in our smaller voices, will be able to reach your heart.  For us, that would be still more Good News to light the world.

~ Yoli Ramirez, page editor

P.S.: If you are unfamiliar with the United Church of Christ, here's one of my favorite commercials put out by the denomination, "The Language of God":

The Good News According to Daisy

When I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10, my grandmother from out of town came to visit us.  She had told my sister and I that if we prayed then God would give us what we asked for.  So my sister and I went under a table and prayed for a lot of toys.  God never answered that prayer, so he obviously didn’t exist.  Of course, I know now why he didn’t answer that prayer; it was because we didn’t really want toys.  But it is a funny story.

I was raised atheist and believing in God.  My mother believed in God, but not Jesus.  She wasn’t a practicing anything, but her family was Catholic.  My father had been raised as a heavy Christian.  Nuns with rulers, people going to Hell, that kind of thing.  I never gave religion or spirituality a thought, other than the time my grandmother visited.  We never practiced religion or spirituality.  Maybe we practiced pragmatism?  We were taught to work hard.  The same mentality of go to school, go to college, get a good job, get married, have kids.

My father’s mother (my other grandmother, not the one who lived out of town) was heavy religious.  She would pray every night.  Her apartment was filled with all these religious artifacts.  She was crazy!  At least that was my thought.  Didn’t do grace before meals though, so that was kind of odd.  Did I mention she also believed in a cult leader?

With all this, I was still indifferent about religion.  My father said there was no God, and I thought the same until one day my mother said, “Okay, you don’t believe in God, but if you were down to your dying breath, what then?”  I realized she was right.  If I was dying, I would ask God to save me.  From then on, I realized I had always believed in God, or a God.  My sister said I was a deist.  I’m not really big on labels.  All I knew was, I wasn’t bat crazy like that grandmother, but I thought there was something out there.

Across the street, we had Christian neighbours.  Think of the Flanders family from The Simpsons and that’s them.  We all played together in their sandbox, and by the time I was twelve, we still all played together, though they were 3 years younger than me.  So one day their mother invites us to go to this Christian thing.  My father was against it and my mother was for it.  My father wasn’t the type to stop us from doing anything.  He encouraged us to try things.  He had grown up in the '60s, so his mantra was “If you want to try it, go ahead.”  So marijuana was in!   (Never smoked that stuff, ever).

We went to this thing and my sister and I got separated because I was too old to do the arts and crafty things, so I had to go to this other room with the older kids.  Picture a room with a hard floor, a rectangular table with chairs around it and at the head of the table a big lady.  Her first statement set the tone for me:  “What was your favourite part about the children’s group?”  I had never attended that, so I had to make up something.  I thought games maybe?  Instead I said singing.  She smiled and said “That’s good, we’ll be doing a lot of singing here!”  Great.  Can’t wait.  Get me out of here.  Another guy said games, and there was laughter in the group, and the lady said sorry we won’t be doing those.  So everyone pulled out their bibles and we got to go through some bible scripture, I forget which one.  I didn’t have a bible, but I got to share with a nice guy who sat beside me.  After that was done, the lady said next week we’d all get to bring in some music and she will tell us what God thinks of it.  I wish I had listened to the music I do now back then.  Because then I could’ve brought in some Alice Cooper or Metallica.

When we get home, my parents asked how it was, and I said I didn’t like it, and my sister thought it was okay, but she wasn’t into it.  She got to play games and do crafts, though!  My mother was happy that we at least tried to learn about God, and my father was happy that we proved his atheist religion right.

Even though I had that experience, I still believed in God, and that was frustrating, because I knew I wasn’t like those crazy people in that group.  I didn’t think people should go to Hell.  This got worse as time went on.  Another person I met, when I was in my early twenties, was an ex-coworker.  I happened to be in a mall writing in my diary and she sat down with me.  I was having something to eat before going to a poetry reading.  We talked and she had some kind of problem so she was talking to me, and then brought up something about her being a virgin, and then had to explain she was Christian.  That’s when I pulled out the book I was reading from my backpack:  Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  It is strange how God brings people together.  She was happy because she didn’t have anyone to go to Youth Group with her, so I went with her instead of the poetry reading.  She mentioned I might not like the music because it’s rock music, but they have a good sermon.  It was nice, lots of teens, she was probably 18 or 19.  I fit in, sort of.  I was always the older person, but it was fine.  She was right.  My induction into the world of Christian Rock was frightening, but it was about trying something new.  After the musical worship part, we got separated, boys with boys, girls with girls, but at least it was more decent than that other experience.  Then the next few weeks I had to work and then one day I had that day off, so I went to this place, but there were adults there, and instead of the youth pastor, there was this old Reverend and he handed me this worksheet.  Some bible study thing.  So I sat in the pew while we all did bible study and some lady raised her hand and wanted to know about some geography thing, and these people were so serious, like University students, that I wanted to get the heck out of there.  Never went back.  I forgot to mention that that girl I met was against abortion and could not understand why I was for it, because “abortion is against God’s Law.”


Years before this, our family was in a car and it skidded and I prayed to God and we landed in a snow patch all safe.  Another incident was late at night, my sister got a call from my mother saying our father, who was divorced from my mother, was swearing and not in the right state of mind, so not to let him in.  So I went to bed and then I heard this pounding on the door.  I thought, God, please don’t let him in tonight because I don’t have the strength to do anything.  I really prayed hard.  My dad left.  The next morning he came and punched my mother in the head, and the next day would be Thanksgiving.  Even though that happened, God answered my prayer and I was sold.

But I would always get these crazy crackpots that would invite me to church, and I would go and then somehow I had to change who I was because I would go to Hell if I didn’t.  I read through the bible and got to the part in Sodom and Gomorrah, that famous passage about man shall not lie with man.  It really bothered me because I believed in Gay rights, but here God was saying you can’t be gay.  So I respected God, he was cool for saving me, but I kept my distance, too.

Then I found First UCC SL.  By accident really.  My friend Leelee and I worked together in a club in Second Life.  She was hosting at another club, so I went there too because she’s a great host.  She said right after she’s going to church, so that got me curious.  I mean, I already attended a church in SL, but they weren’t big on abortion or gay people.  Didn’t really understand what UCC was, but another church in SL couldn’t hurt.  The experience I had in that church that day was amazing.  Not just the sermon.  They believe in an extravagant welcoming and they’re not kidding.  In this church were gay people, transgender, and I don’t know what else, but I didn’t even care, and neither did they.  Even better, I did some research on these guys and found an interview with Pastor Jer and he talks about that passage that bothered me for years.  When he got to that part, I was practically talking at the screen saying, “Yeah, explain that!” and he did.  Yes, that passage says what it says, but there are other passages that say things about women, and we don’t follow those.  I was sold then.  I finally accepted God fully.  It was like, "I knew it, I knew you were kind and loving and thought the LGBTQ community was great."

The bible studies at UCC are great as well.  There’s none of that "you’re going to hell" feeling.  Rev. Jerome wears shorts, sandals, and a shirt and when he goes over a passage, he talks about archaic words and the time of the passage.  He never says how this applies to our life though.  Because that’s our job.  That’s what I love.

I usually work on Sunday mornings in real life but this one day I had it off recently, so I went to a RL church ... or I should say, offline church maybe, because the UCC in SL is now considered a real life church.  This offline church welcomed me and I sat in a chair, listened to really loud music which made me cringe a bit, and then a sermon which was nice, but which I couldn’t really relate to.  Had a hug from a nice kid, and a lady asked me how my family was, thinking I had a wife and kids, so I said they were fine.  But in my heart, I knew.  I knew if I were to say, “Hey, this was great, but now I’m going to go home and relax, dress up in some women’s clothing, though I haven’t got the makeup thing down yet,” they would freak out.  They wouldn’t kick me out, but they would keep their distance.  And of course pray for me.

UCC is different.  They wouldn’t really care.  Not because they were uncaring, but it’s something they see every day.  I’d probably get cheers, or even makeup tips.  I feel I can be myself in this place, without judgement.  Even better, their Sunday service is in the evening so I can always attend, and if I can’t there’s always a Psalter I can attend or a morning meditation.

My name is Daisy, and I am happy to be a member of the UCC!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Gospel According to Doug

I grew up in the Congregational church, in an IBM (aka I Been Moved) and alcoholic family.  I was born in Cheyenne, Wy, the oldest of five, but we moved a lot and I would remember where we lived by where my siblings were born: LaGrange Park, Il; Kingston, NY; Kansas City, MO; Madison, WI.  We stayed a year or so in each place, as far as I remember.  After my baby sis was born, we moved to Bethesda, MD and stayed there for about seven years.  Then we moved to NY and I started high school.  The song playing on the radio was “People Are Strange”, by The Doors.

I have friends who grew up in the military, moving a lot also, but they expressed positive experiences.  I suspect they had a strong family to get the kids through the upheaval.

With an alcoholic father and an enabling mother, I had very little in the way of positive role models.  People Are Strange was the way I felt entering high school.  Disconnected, I knew no one, and most of my schoolmates had been through the school system together.

I just existed.  I had no feeling that I had any control over my life.  I saw my brother and sisters fighting with Dad when he was drunk; I did a few times also, and all I saw was the futility of it.  Nothing ever changed.

I went to school because that is what kids did.  When I could work, I worked as a custodian at our church.  I often stayed overnight there, sleeping on the sofa in the library.  It was nicer than going home.

I was president of the church youth group, but don’t ask me how I got there.  It was not a goal I had, and I was anything but a leader.

I drifted into atheism, where I stayed for 18 years.  I was a devout atheist, funny as that sounds.

I attended college for a year and a third, and then took a year off, never went back.

I progressed through a series of jobs, learning more about computers and programming.  Each new position fell in my lap, it seems.  (Now I can see it was God leading me.)

I loved programming, it was something I could get my arms around.

I wrote code.  If it broke, I could figure out where it was broken, and I fixed it.  It was wonderful to turn specs into working lines of code.

I married a woman I met in high school during an exchange concert with another high school.  When my wife wanted to have our first child baptized, I was adamant against it.  (Later, I found out she did it anyway.)  I do not remember resisting baptizing the other two.

I existed.  We existed.  We moved from an apartment, bought a house, then built a larger house. We didn’t talk about plans or goals or anything.  After all, it was all I knew growing up.  Her parents were divorced.  I figured two people coming from dysfunctional, broken homes would be able to cope.  Wrong.

After about 12 years of marriage, my wife told me she wanted a divorce.  She was seeing her boss, and they had a baby before we were divorced.  Somehow around that time I also got into an ACOA group (Adult Children of Alcoholics).  I think it was there that I started daring to think that there might be a God.

I went on a Tres Dias Weekend and for the first time in my life I felt love and acceptance.  I met a God who didn’t seem to be part of my life up to then.  (But again, looking back, I can see times that He had to have been there with me.)

But it was hard to hold onto.  I dropped away again for about 4 years.

Then I was invited to church, an ELCA Lutheran church, by the same friend who got me on that Tres Dias Weekend years before.  I immediately felt accepted.

Singing hymns brought back my love of singing from high school.

I didn’t take Communion right away, as I didn’t understand it, but Pastor told me not to worry about that, I was welcome to anyway.

So I “faked it till I made it.”  By going to the table week after week, I was able to not worry about understanding it and just enjoy it.  (I believe it was John Calvin who described Communion as something that he would rather experience than understand.)

I started reading the Bible, and I enjoyed it. I decided to read it through in a year.  Took me three years.  The next time it was about a year and seven months.  Then about seven months for the next one.  To date, I have read it through about a dozen times.

But the old tapes kept playing.  All my proofs that God didn’t exist were difficult to get away from.  Like a reflex, when I thought about God, I remembered how He could not exist.  But I was on the path, and though I might stray from it and not walk too quickly along it, I was on it.

It was a slow process.  Not only was I realizing and accepting that there was indeed a God, and that He was with me, cared for me, cried with me, I was understanding that I had some control over my life.  I could make decisions about my future, and not just exist.  I got more and more involved with my church.

I remarried, this time to an enabling woman with a son with anger issues and later drug addiction.  His father left them when he was two months old.  I was trying to be a father to my three children, while married to a woman who really did not care about anyone but her son.  I did push back enough on his behavior and her enabling that he finally entered a rehab program and got scared by some stories he heard from other residents.  I truly feel that he would have been dead without my pushing.

I kept going to church.  Taught Sunday School, attended Bible Studies, got involved with the youth group, read scripture during services, became a communion assistant.

I served on Team on many Tres Dias Weekends, and the Holy Spirit beat me upside the head numerous times, showing me something more to learn, places to grow.

My wife and I divorced after about 12 years, and I went through a real “dark night of the soul.”  That is truly how I felt.  It was a real dry time, I felt lost.

But what I found remarkable was that I never left God, never left the Church.

I was tempted, but hard as things were, how dark it all felt, I held onto my faith, and the assurance that God was there with me.  I didn’t understand why things were happening, but my faith told me it was okay if I didn’t know right now.  1 Corinthians 13 says that “we see through a glass darkly, later we will fully understand.”

God never promised a rose garden, never said life would be easy.  He just said He would stay by my side.  And more and more I saw that was true.

I lost my brother when he was a month past 21, camping accident.  This was in the early part of my atheism period.  I struggled for years whether it was truly an accident.  What happened to the plans he had for the days and weeks ahead?  It didn’t make sense.  I don’t think I truly came to terms with not knowing until after I had come back to the church and struggled with it some more.  I was able to let it go, knowing that at some point I would understand.

As hard as that was, and it was horrible, after coming back to the church, I lost three mothers-in-law, a sister-in-law to ovarian cancer, my baby sister to brain cancer, my mother to a car accident, my father to a heart attack.  And somehow it was not as horrible as dealing with my brother’s death.  I had a loving God, and the support of my ecumenical church community.  Without that, I would never have been able to deal it.

A little over four years ago I found First UCCSL.  I had been in SL since 2006.  I had attended a few churches, but never found any satisfying.  They seemed inconsistent and were usually very conservative.  Then one day I happened to see a notice in one of the Christian groups for a Psalter service at First UCC SL and started attending regularly.

I found a second home there, and find it remarkable that it was a UCC church like what I grew up in.

And as pastors are wont to do, I was asked to lead Psalters, later to be a Guide, then lead and preach occasionally in the traditional services.  I became a staff member and began to manage attendance, lector scheduling, our email and inworld notecard prayer list, etc.

I love my ELCA Lutheran church as well and have been doing more and more there.  Eucharistic ministry, our church email prayer list, Assisting Minister.  I have been assisting in a twice-a-month Christian service at a local nursing home, and often lead it when our deacon could not make it.

After I retired I had the opportunity to attend Diakonia, a two-year course of study, a pre-req for anyone interested in becoming a deacon.  I had no desire to become a deacon, I was just interested in the study.

Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans…

On the first night of the last unit of the two years of study, Visitation, I was overwhelmed with a sense of call.  I never experienced that before, but it was unmistakable.  I wanted to continue the process and become a deacon.  I had to wait a year or so before I could continue, as our pastor retired and we had an interim pastor, but that time of waiting was good for me.  It allowed my desire to ebb and flow, so that I could discern that I did want to continue.  As of January 1, I am in the internship program to be a Synodical Deacon, serving in my church, focusing on Visitation, and Technology.  Visitation was what moved me to continue the journey to become a Deacon, and my new Pastor asked me as well to pursue the use of technology to bring the church to those who cannot make it to church due to vacation, sickness, etc.  It is going to be, and already is, fun.  I have changed our email process and am in the process of rebuilding our website.  Looking into live-streaming, smartphone apps, etc., is coming as well.

At First UCC SL, I was recently elected to the position of President of our Board.  We are planning for a presence again at General Synod this coming summer, as well as looking into webinars, classes, etc., as ways of spreading the word about our church and our ministry.

At Grace Lutheran, I am going to be a delegate at our annual Synod Convention this Spring as well as manning a table for the Diakonia program.

I have come a long way from that kid who grew up not thinking he could be an influence for anybody or control any aspect of his life, huh?

This is not any false modesty, proud humility, quiet horn-tooting, no, none of that.

I truly know that none of this would have happened if I had not come back to the Church.  I cannot point to any epiphany, any “aha!” moment when I changed from that devout atheist to who I am now.  I have heard of people who can state the date and situation when they gave their heart to God.  Not me.  My faith journey has been slow, ebb and flow, digressions and returns, sometimes speeding along, sometimes shuffling.

It has been a long journey, a wonderful journey, a hard journey, and a journey I joyfully look forward to continuing.

I am surrounded by wonderful folks, some flesh-and-blood, some avatars in the virtual space.  There have also been some not-so-wonderful folks in both realms, and I am grateful for them as well.  I am constantly amazed at how God brought them into my life, and the lessons I learned from them.  And I am more and more amazed that I am amazed.

I am grateful for real life friends who brought me back to God and to a wonderful church.  I am grateful for my “virtual” friends, for the friendships that are as strong.  And I have been blessed to meet several of them in real life and look forward to meeting more as time goes on.

I do not know when it was I saw God as an integral part of my life, but I suspect that is simply because he has been there the whole time anyway.

Grace and Peace,

Doug Bagration

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Gospel According to Veronica

I grew up in Massachusetts, about 40 miles southeast of Plymouth.  My ancestors arrived in New England from Scotland in the 1640s and for generations were members of the Congregational Church, the forerunner of the UCC.  It is not surprising that I first encountered Jesus in a little, white Congregational Church built in the mid-1800s that my family had been members of for one hundred years.  I also met the Lord in the pages of the Revised Standard Version Bible that I was given at my confirmation.  I was fascinated and enthralled by the Jesus of the New Testament.  I knew from an early age that I wanted to follow Him and to know Him.  I was a sensitive, quiet, introspective, and very religious little boy.

And yet there was something very different about me.  When I was 10, on a particularly cold and rainy day, my sister and I had nothing better to do than play dress up.  For reasons that escape me now, we decided that I would put on a dress and a pair of Mother’s high heels.  What started as a simple game turned into something so very much more.  I felt my heart racing.  I felt butterflies in my stomach.  I began to tremble.  Women’s clothing ... wearing women’s clothing struck a deep primal chord in my soul.

As I grew older, I became more immersed in Scripture.  The idea of the just God who wanted to set the world right became my worldview.  I read Dickens in high school.  The Social Gospel of Jesus appealed to me.  An influential teacher and my family doctor were both Quakers, and I began to attend Quaker meetings regularly.  Contemplative prayer and social action became the focus of my religious faith.  I wanted to do great things for God and the world.  I read everything I could get by C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and a variety of Quaker authors including Douglas Steere and Thomas Kelly.

By high school, my cross-dressing was a regular occurrence.  I would wear my mother’s clothing every chance I could.  When my parents were gone for the weekend, I would dress from head to toe as a woman.  It felt natural, relaxing, and intensely sexual.  I watched girls closely, but not so much with a desire to be with them as to be one of them.  Yet, as wonderful as the cross-dressing sessions felt, after they were over I was filled with shame.  I felt isolated and alone.  I believed I was sinful and broken.  I believed that I was the only person in the world who had this “problem.”  I believed I was a bad and deficient person because of my cross-dressing and inner desire to be female.

Finishing college with a major in political science and a minor in education, I served for three years as a ministry volunteer with an Appalachian Christian service group in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky  an area of extreme beauty, but also an area scarred with the ravages of poverty and  environmental exploitation.  After my time of voluntary service ended, I stayed in Eastern Kentucky working as a paralegal in a local legal aid office.  Throughout the period, I remained a closeted cross-dresser.

I returned to New England, attended law school in Boston, graduated, passed the bar, and headed south again to the Carolinas, where I have lived ever since.  I became a specialist in consumer law and bankruptcy law.  By the mid-1990s, however, I was worn down by the demands of my job, my uncontrollable need to cross-dress, and the shame that I felt over it.  I began attending a 12-step group to “cure” myself of cross-dressing.  Needless to say, I failed terribly in my efforts to stifle my gender expression.  I was anxious and terribly depressed.  I became suicidal and seriously contemplated taking my own life.

God’s love came to me in the form of a compassionate supervisor who allowed me to go on an extended sabbatical.  I learned to practice breath prayer, particularly the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” during this period and to disconnect my mind from the tyranny of self-destructive, judgmental thinking.  I found a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham that changed my life.  I learned that I could be imperfect and even fail often and still be loved and used by God.  I also read extensively on gender dysphoria.  I realized that I was not alone and was not defective or a bad person because of my discomfort with the gender I was born in.

Over time I found new ways to be true to myself.  By the turn of the century, I had changed jobs, still practicing law but in a way that was more comfortable for me and less stressful.  I changed denominations, finding in the Episcopal Church a church that practiced the ancient traditions of liturgical worship while striving to confront the social problems of our time.  Through the Episcopal Church, I have a formal ministry of Pastoral Care serving as a volunteer chaplain at three local nursing homes.

I also discovered Second Life.  Second Life provided me an outlet to live full time in the avatar of a woman.  This was emotionally and spiritually satisfying for me and mended a piece of my heart and soul that felt torn over the years.  I cross-dress regularly in real life and venture into public when I feel the need.  I have decided not to explore a change of genders, given my age and out of respect for family and colleagues that such a transition would be hard on.  I have found peace in my gender identity and how I personally have chosen to express it through the grace of God.

I have come full circle returning to the United Church of Christ, becoming a Member, Guide, and Board Member of First UCC Second Life.  I cherish my online church family.  We have grown together as a loving expression of the Body of Christ, sharing our concerns for one another in prayer, worship, study, and communion.  We have also become a beacon of Christ’s light in Second Life, reaching out in Love to the people behind the avatars that populate the reality that is this virtual world.

I am grateful to God for His protection, guidance, and grace.  I am grateful for the many ways First UCC SL has touched my heart and helped me to grow as a Christian.  I am grateful for my brothers and sisters in First UCC SL.  I am grateful for their love and how their acceptance of me “just as I am” has lifted me up in the faith.  They have inspired me and helped sustain my ministry in real life and Second Life.  I am truly blessed to be part of the ministry of this real church in a virtual world ... a ministry that is nothing less than spreading the Good News about how deeply and totally we are all  loved by the God who chose to die that we might live.

Grace and Peace,

Veronica Johhannsen

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Good News According to Marie

I’m XMarieX Fairport (Marie), and I’m a “born & bred” Christian, meaning my Dad attended seminary and became a pastor before I was born. I grew up with Christ in my life, every day. I was expected to attend Sunday School, all church services, Vacation Bible School, all youth programs, church camp, etc. I didn’t mind too much. It was just how my life was. Although I did attempt to play the “sick card” one Sunday morning and, wouldn’t you know it, just as I settled in to watch a cartoon on TV, there was a knock on the door of our church-owned house. My entire Sunday School class came into our house and had Sunday School right in the middle of our family room! No “Underdog” for me.

I grew up seeing how important God was, by listening to my Grandpa pray before and after meals for five to seven minutes (I might have been watching the clock), by seeing my Dad fall to his knees and start to sob after hearing of the death of a church youth that Dad felt hadn’t let Christ into his heart. This continued through adulthood when my Dad’s last words in this life were, “The Light! The Light! Beautiful! Wonderful! The Light! …. JESUS!!!!”. More recently, the last year of my Mom’s life, she’d tell me, “We will ALL be all right!” You need faith to believe you’re going to be all right, but when your Dad SEES Jesus welcoming him into Heaven, we all have to be all right, right?

When hearing the Psalms, I thought some of the verses were so whiney. Then I fell down a flight of stairs and injured my back and have been living with severe chronic pain for over a decade. I often am heard crying out, “Oh God, PLEASE! Please take it away! Please, just a little bit?! Please make this stop!” I’ve come to realize that God listens, and soon after I beg, I drift off to sleep where the pain goes away for two to three hours. Thank you, God!

I went from being super active by ice skating in the Winter, flying kite in the Spring, tent camping in the Summer, and hiking in the Fall, and running around working at a job I loved, to just sitting with DISABLED “tattooed” to my forehead. I felt worthless. I was working on getting my service dog when I was introduced to First UCC SL. I started offering to do Psalter, to help with social events, to lead a program about grief, and fill in behind the pulpit. I was able to DO things and be “normal-ish”. No one was able to hear me cry out in pain or see me wiping my tears due to the pain I was dealing with in real life. No one was seeing how my body changed because I was no longer active. No one saw my cane or my walker and how unsteady I was on my feet. I was no longer worthless! You don’t realize what it’s like to miss something, until it’s taken away. Then to have it handed back to you via Second Life is a dream come true!

Having Christ at my side every moment of every day can get routine if I allow it. That’s why church camp was so special to me as a child. It was like getting a “Christ Booster Shot.” You have all of these high energy youth and adults showing you exciting ways to experience God along with upbeat songs and POW, you’ve received a Christ Booster Shot. Unfortunately, it’s been a lot of years since I’ve had one of those boosters and I am eagerly awaiting UCC General Synod where I am certain to get up to date with a Christ Booster Shot. Any time I’m blessed with the opportunity to be a lay pastor at First UCC SL, my goal is to give a booster shot of Christ to others. I want to give others the warm feeling of knowing God isn’t far away. God isn’t always walking beside you. More often than not, God is holding you, carrying you, lifting you up, and oftentimes, we don’t even realize it. Any time we have a reason to celebrate, God is with us, celebrating more than anyone else! Any time we’re heartbroken, God is holding us close to His heart. Any time we’re suffering, God reminds us how His Son suffered, but suffers no more. Any time we feel alone, God *IS* with us. Always.

I’m a born & bred Christian and always will be. I’m thinking I’m one of the extremely fortunate ones! I’ve been blessed with having Christ in my life and having a family who lived their lives with Christ. I’m truly blessed.