The last question we asked Timothy on the day he came out to us (you can read about that day HERE) was, “So how would you like to process this going forward, and how can we come along side you?”
He thought about that a bit and said that he really wanted to be out – to be congruent in his life, to have his personal world and his public world aligned. So that meant telling people. “So who do you want to tell first?” was the natural follow up question.
Without hesitation, he said, “I want to tell my sister.” I admit, I teared up a bit at that. “Let’s have a family meeting and I can tell her there. Then I’ll start telling my friends one on one.” Somewhere in there it struck me as so odd that someone gay would tell his parents first, then his sister, and then his friends. In all my encounters with gay people, the order had always been reversed.
The next weekend we called a family meeting and Timothy shared with his sister – who was completely unfazed. There just wasn’t much to debrief after that conversation, or after the coffee dates he had with friends. We’d do a little prep beforehand each time to think through how a particular friend might respond and what might be helpful ways to approach them, but those conversations universally ended up positive (save one one problematic letter from a friend’s family member). We did a bit more prep work ahead of telling the grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, but again, those conversations were low drama, with tons of love and support forthcoming.
From my perspective the most significant of those conversations was with my brother Porter – who had completely befuddled me when came out to me in 1990 (HERE is that story). On his journey away from faith, Porter had some pretty poor experiences with evangelical Christians. He’d always been kind and generous to me, but I suspected that being an evangelical pastor didn’t score me any bonus points over the years.
I talked to Porter a day or two after Timothy had called him to share his news. Porter could not have been more gracious to me. Of course he was delighted to have another gay person in the family – just to not feel so alone in some ways, I suppose. And he said kind words to me about our parenting of Timothy. But mostly I was struck by these words:
When I hung up the phone with Timothy, I cried and cried because I can hardly believe that someone’s coming out experience could go so well. It was such a different experience he was having – and would continue to have – than me. It was one of those moments in life, few and far between, where there is a clean, clear marker of the triumph of what is right, and in this case a very personal one.”
Something told me that wasn’t exactly how all of my evangelical friends would respond, but I was grateful for it and for such a good connection with my brother, whom I love.
At the end of our phone call, Porter said that as he’d been processing how stunning Timothy’s coming out process was, his friend Cary made an astute observation: “Porter, knowing you and your family, I can’t imagine a single other thing that could simultaneously both push you closer to God and your brother Bill farther away.” There’s a Greek word used in the Gospels to describe Jesus a couple of times – esplagesthai – whose meaning and sound capture that mix of happy and sad, anger and compassion, all intensely churning on the inside. When Porter shared that, I was esplagesthai.
Telling the Church
One of the groups of people Timothy told was his discipleship group, which went really well. We were debriefing later over coffee when he said, “So Dad, now that my friends are starting to know, it won’t be long before people in church start to hear that I’m gay. That’s going to be hard for you, isn’t it?” At times like that it was hard to remember he was just 15 years old.
So we did some strategizing about timing and who from church he wanted to tell face to face and who I would tell. His list wasn’t too long, but I ended up making a spreadsheet with 115 names on it, grouping them in concentric circles starting with who I would tell first. In the Christian world where homosexuality is such a hot topic, I figured that while most people would prefer not to have a pastor with a gay son, they would at least appreciate finding out that information first hand.
Besides being ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, City Church of Long Beach is also politically and ideologically diverse – people were and still are all over the map in terms of their thoughts and feelings about homosexuality. I had no idea how some of those conversations would go, but from conservatives to liberals, people really embraced me and our family as we shared that news. Mostly people expressed feeling privileged to be let in on our family life more deeply and honored to go on the journey with us.
There were a few bumps, of course. A few families left, and it was hard not to make the connection to Timothy being gay. Over teriyaki chicken, one family told me directly that they were leaving because they didn’t want Timothy to make their sons gay. Another family left because they didn’t want to be part of a church that was going to have conversations about homosexuality – they felt like the immorality of it was so evident that even engaging in dialogue about it was a break from following Christ. And I suspect a number of families felt/feel a bit anxious about our church because of Timothy being gay. Shoot, I get it – it wasn’t so long ago that I would have been very upset if my pastor’s son came out.
Looking through my journal from that season, I came across this line about how mentally draining it was to go into each conversation without knowing how people would react:
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Last week, when I had dozens of conversations with people, I had one long massive headache for six days straight. Definitely a picture of the strain on me.
But I also received some shockingly gracious words, like those from our friends Vlad and Flor. I will close with their kindness.
Monday, June 8, 2015
Flor and I both appreciate you telling us. We want to make sure you know that we love Timothy very much. The fact that he is gay doesn’t change that. It never will.
We are encouraged to see his continued desire to follow Jesus. I know the church can be a very hurtful place for gay people but it sounds like the people surrounding your family are responding well to this news.
I know God wants to say something to us (Vlad, Flor, His Church, Timothy’s Mom and Dad, and Timothy) and I’m really curious about what that might be.
As you continue to process and hear God’s voice please feel free to bring us with you into those places as there might be a learning in this for all of us.
Flor and I will be processing some of the questions and thoughts we have with our pastor and community but at some point we would love to sit, talk and pray with you.
Also, let us know what we can do to serve and love your family well.
Please send our love to Timothy.
Vlad and Flor
The other parts of Timothy’s coming out story are here: